Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Artist: TOM WAITS
Album: FOREIGN AFFAIRS
[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]
I spent two incredible months in 2012 revisiting & writing about the seemingly impenetrable yet immensely rewarding discography of Tom Waits. Over the course of that 7-part series I became intimately acquainted with a series of albums that I had only begun to explore over the preceding couple of decades. An artist of whom I once asked, “Does anybody actually like Tom Waits, or are they just pretending to enjoy his music to seem cool?,” had now become one of my favorites. I’m sure there are plenty of people who still feel the way I did, and hopefully my posts encouraged a few of them to give his music a shot. From his more accessible early material to the more challenging sounds of…well, pretty much everything he’s recorded since he moved from Asylum Records to Island Records in the early-‘80s, he carved out a niche that was distinctly his own. In 1977 he released his fourth album, which was included in Part 3 of the series. Here’s what I wrote about it at the time and, after playing it again last week for the first time in 5 years, my feelings about it haven’t changed at all. I rate it slightly lower than my favorite Tom Waits albums but I still love it and consider it one of my favorite releases of 1977.
By the time we get to Tom Waits’ final three albums for Asylum Records, he’s not introducing many new sounds or themes into his music & lyrics, still focusing on the underbelly of society in the guise of blues and light jazz. His voice continues to be gruff and often gravelly, yet there’s beauty and power in the majority of his performances. I don’t think any of these albums has the top-to-bottom consistency of his debut, Closing Time, which I posted about here, but there are plenty of songs in this batch of records that rank among his best. One of the biggest surprises on Foreign Affairs is the appearance of Bette Midler on the conversational duet, “I Never Talk To Strangers.” Many people only know her as an actress and TV personality, but she was a singer first, and a damn good one (even though I’ve never been much of a fan). Similar to The Pogues’ Christmas classic “Fairytale Of New York” (a duet between Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl), Waits & Midler engage in a humorous back-and-forth barroom chat, with Waits in full Louis Armstrong mode trying to hit on a sweet-voiced Midler. I really like this song, especially the unique harmonies when they finally sing together (“Well only suckers fall in love with perfect strangers”). It’s not a Disney duet, that’s for sure. “A Sight For Sore Eyes” is another favorite, opening with “Auld Lang Syne” on piano and hints of “The First Noël” in the melody. It’s one of his best late night drunk-at-the-bar songs, with some classic lyrics (“For all these palookas, hey you know what I thinks”; “Half drunk all the time and I’m all drunk the rest”).
I love “Burma-Shave,” a sad story song with just voice & piano (until the trumpet solo at the end) about two people on the road trying to leave their sad lives behind. He uses the titular shaving product as the name of some mythical place they’re trying to get to, but their car crashes and they never make it. This one features more fantastic imagery (“She took out her barrette and her hair spilled out like root beer”; “Drill me a hole with a barber pole, I’m jumpin’ my parole just like a fugitive tonight”). “Medley: Jack & Neal/California, Here I Come” is like a run-on sentence of beat poetry (in tribute to two Beat Generation icons, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady) set to a slow, jazzy shuffle and typical Waits themes. It’s a cool tune, mostly due to the great snare drum brush work by Shelly Manne, and the cool bass and sax throughout. Back to the beginning of the album, “Cinny’s Waltz” is a brief instrumental with piano and sweeping strings. It’s cinematic and stately, and has a gorgeous Chet Baker-esque trumpet solo at the end. “Muriel” is a pretty and simple piano ballad with a sincere vocal performance (“Muriel, how many times I’ve left this town to hide from your memory”). “Potter’s Field” is an extended piece (over 8-1/2 minutes) with a big orchestral production. It sounds like the soundtrack to an old b-movie with Waits narrating the hipster dialogue. This one didn’t really win me over. “Barber Shop” is like a sister song to the previous album’s “Pasties And A G-String,” with lots of semi-coherent stream-of-consciousness lyrical ideas set to a finger-snapping shuffle. His voice teeters between smooth and scratchy on album closer “Foreign Affair.” I really like the melody and the accordion near the end. It’s not a perfect album, as he seemed to be rehashing ideas he had previously executed more successfully, but there are enough instant classics that make this an album I will continue to visit in the future.