The Words We Use When We Talk About Tom Waits


There’s no reason for me to review the new Tom Waits record. It would be like handing my 4-year-old son a crayon and asking him to explain photography. I’ve grappled in this space before about the futile pursuit of “writing about music,” but Waits is one of those masters who sucks people into writing diatribes about rock artistry, junkyard poetry, and the history of American music while at the same time inspiring scores of the rest of us to just put our pens down and listen.

Tom Waits, and attempting to pinpoint or even describe whatever “Tom Waits Music” might be, is a bit like that old quote about defining the legal threshold of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” And we all know Waits when we hear him. One of the better descriptions was when Elton John called Waits “the Jackson Pollock of song.” And I also agree with one reviewer’s assessment of Waits as “more of a mad mechanic than a painter to me: a man collecting rusty old wrecks of vintage American music and getting them to clatter-bang back to life — untaxed, uninsured and possibly with a corpse left rotting in the boot.”

As for my only stab at a description of Waits and his music. I think of him as the musical equivalent to the possibly crazy eccentric guy in the song “What’s He Building In There?” from 1999’s Mule Variations. All these years he’s been clanging around that house, banging on pianos and knocking over bottles while I’ve been busy listening to everyone else’s records but also wondering about that Tom Waits guy. What’s he building in there?

I’m not qualified to really break down Tom Waits and provide some semblance of an attempt at a professional critique, in the sense that I’ve only ever heard a few of his records. I’ve always known and respected Tom Waits, he was someone who I’ve always wanted to like. And somewhere I still have the cassette copy of swordfishtrombones that a friend made for me years ago. But beyond that I don’t own any of his records, I can’t honestly say that I’m at all familiar with his whole body of work but I certainly know what he sounds like.

That’s why, instead of “reviewing” his great new album, Bad As Me, and in the process banging out a mini-Wiki regurgitation of his career, I thought I’d throw a bunch of other proper reviews into a word cloud and see if all those Waitsian adjectives and imagery would come bursting out. You know, like “boozy” or “growl” and variations of carnival barkers and closing-time balladry. Possibly some smoke. I mean, those are the words we use when we talk about Tom Waits because his inimitable vocal stylings bring to life such a litany of real characters’ characters.

Interestingly enough, the word cloud (consisting of more than 10,000 words taken from recently published reviews) is a bit short on the old weird American saloon imagery I’d expected. But it turned out pretty cool. Words like new and Bad were prominent as every review of course mentioned that Bad As Me was the new record [we threw out the word “Waits”].

Pretty neat to look through the cloud, a bit like combing through one of Waits albums, where little vignettes are splattered across the page and phrases reveal themselves depending on how you look at them.

Prominent guests like Keith Richards and Waits’ wife/collaborator Kathleen Brennan show up. Funny that “Richards” appears near the words “time” and “years” and “guitars” (and Kathleen is near “love”). The word “great” is surrounded by “percussion,” “horns,” “writing,” “rock,” and “voice.” You see “record,” then “business” and “hell.” There’s “soldiers” next to “lost,” while “Chicago,” “blues,” and “sounds” anchor the middle.

After all these years of me wishing I was “into Tom Waits” for some reason, always wondering what he was building, but never taking the time to listen… he emerges with this fantastic new record that, to my novice ears, sounds like a great sampling of all the things he does best.

The Hunter Reels in a Mastodon Masterpiece

This is the best hard rock album of the year.

I wanna rock! Seriously, I really wanna rock, and I know you also enjoy rocking out. To rock, and rock music, is at the core of our being, as most music fanatics were turned on, raised, and possibly brainwashed by Satanic forces to feel the primal attraction of rock music.

This is often best expressed by hard rock and heavy metal. So it was written by Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, and so it has since been done. But most people, probably including you, are pansies like me. We don’t listen to all that crazy death metal and black metal and deathcore and goregrind and whatever other sub-core speed genres of anti-pop horror-metal madness exist out there.

I’ve got a couple of very close friends who are metal freaks. I’m sure you do too. But for pussies like us, we’re okay to just burn out on Them Crooked Vultures and maybe crank some old-school Van Halen in the car and be done with it. Some of you dig on the Foo Fighters cuz their CD’s are so much louder than most of your other ones. You like to name check Queens of the Stone Age, but “No One Knows” that you never actually heard Rated R. You probably dig on the Deftones and Disturbed and possibly some stuff that sounds like Slipknot, but System of a Down was a bit too intense and political. Hopefully you don’t rock out to Linkin Park at the gym. I don’t. But then again, I don’t go to the gym.

Well fear not, rock fans who crave something a little goddamn harder than fucking Wilco or My Morning Jacket but don’t want the bloodbath of Satanic butchery and mass-slaughter imagery infesting your precious earbuds.

Behold The Hunter, the new album from Mastodon.

Certainly not a household name, they’ve never been on Dancing With The Stars or served as guest judges or mentors on any of the other 14,682 talent-show style “reality” shows, Mastodon is one of those crazy talented bands of musicians with the kind of extreme chops that leave many jaws dropped. But, so far, their hard rock/metal has skewed a little proggy, so it was like some Rush-meets-Tool kinda thing with concept albums and 12-minute songs.

This is the deluxe version.

The Hunter is already being received as their “more accessible” album that pisses off the hardcore fan base but attracts the accolades of casual hard rock fans and possibly some non-metal bloggers working on their snarky reaction to the Lou Reed/Metallic collaboration. With apologies to any Mastodonians who feel like their favorite band is “selling out” (impossible these days anyway), The Hunter is perfect for fans of the band who’ve been waiting for them to make an Album Like This, and for people like me who need and want to rock the fuck out and turn it up to 11 but only sometimes.

This album is badass, and yet just catchy enough in its badassery to keep the festivities moving from one crunching riff and sick drum fill to the next. The vocals certainly sound like they hurt somebody’s throat, as well they should, but they are not so in your face or gory to turn off any casual listeners. It just kicks ass. But Mastadon is a different animal: among the mayhem it manages to mix in an obvious “The love I make is equal to the love I take” nod to the Beatles lyric, while “Creature Lives” features an intro that sounds like it’s covering two Pink Floyd intros at the same time.

Strongly rooted in the Black Sabbath basics, Mastodon’s technical proficiency allows them to elevate their stoner rock to high-grade medicinal levels. And it remains concise and hard hitting, certainly recommended if you lean a bit closer to Clutch than Slayer and prefer your Tool albums to have less hot-yoga droning interludes.

So if you crave that metallic taste in your ears without the messy dismemberments and commitments to spend eternity in damnation, pick up Mastodon’s The Hunter and crank that shit up.

The Whole Wilco: Tweedy Finds a Fix for the Fits

Just as their home base of Chicago sits between LA and New York, Wilco occupies a vast middle ground, having been dubbed with the seemingly opposite labels of “alt-country pioneers” and “the American Radiohead.” Somehow they both fit, as evidenced on their fine new LP The Whole Love. And all that ground between those two labels is the area that Wilco has been working in the decade since their consensus “best album,” 2001’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

Fans and detractors alike are tough on this band as far as expectations. Their albums are all “good” so we take them for granted (not unlike The Roots if you want a strange-but-fitting comparison). When they’re not great, we accuse them of phoning it in, but when they get too ambitious, we say they’re trying too hard. They can’t win. We find them either too boring or too weird.

“Found a fix for the fits/
Listen to this/
It’s buried under the hiss… and it glows”

Jeff Tweedy’s personal fits with addiction and depression are known and don’t need to be re-examined here. But on top of those, and even in his recent sober/happy days, he’s still battled fits of trying to live up to or match the masterful Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album without remaking it. Wilco has tried everything: the experimental, the poppy, the rootsy, the Dad rock; usually all within one album. Yet somehow there were enough near misses that most of us resigned ourselves to the idea that Wilco would never make another truly great album again, but they’d continuing making good ones and that was okay.

Until now. The Whole Love sounds to me a lot like Summerteeth, the underrated gem of a record that serves as the bridge between their two “best” albums, Being There and YHF, both chronologically and sonically. Just something about the way several of the tracks literally bounce along. The songwriting, and the performance and sound of it, it just feels effortless, though I admit that I have no idea what that means and it’s a ridiculous way to describe an album.

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