Saturday, August 6, 2011

Tom Waits Covers: Come On Up to the House

Sarah Jarosz: Come On Up to the House


God and heaven are never mentioned in the song, but Come On Up to the House has the fervent quality of a gospel prayer nonetheless. This is true in Tom Waits original version, but perhaps even more so in Sarah Jarosz’ cover. Jarosz uses bluegrass instrumentation, but also gives the song a jazzy feel. It all adds up to that rare cover that actually improves on the original. And I say that from the point of view of a Tom Waits fan who feels that covers rarely even do his songs justice. This one does.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Tom Waits Covers: Big Black Mariah

John Hammond: Big Black Mariah


I can understand why no one has posted Big Black Mariah this week. The song is one of Tom Waits’ most menacing works. The band on the original sounds like an ancient steam engine, threatening to shake itself apart at any moment. On top of that, Waits adds his signature growl. The song also has a mystifying lyric. Tom Waits can be coy about his song meanings, but “big black mariah” can be a slang term for either a paddy wagon or a hearse. So the song could be about a man being taken away by the police, who expects to wind up on death row. The ambiguity is deliberate on Waits’ part. You can find notes on the meaning of the song here.

But Big Black Mariah is an emotionally powerful song. Love it or hate it, you can not be unmoved. And that is probably what inspired John Hammond to include the song in his collection of Tom Waits covers, Wicked Grin. Hammond has remade the song as a Chicago blues number. Now it sounds like the original artist might have been Howlin’ Wolf, and it suits the song perfectly. Tom Waits apparently agreed; he produced Wicked Grin.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Tom Waits Covers: (Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night

Shawn Colvin: (Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night

Madeleine Peyroux: (Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night


Shawn Colvin's mostly-live 1994 covers album Cover Girl marked a key moment in my evolution as a cover fan; it also introduced me to one of Tom Waits' most hopeful, beautiful songs. It's not the strongest cut on the album - a privilege shared by songs originally by The Band, John Prine, Talking Heads and others - but I found Colvin's version of Looking For The Heart Of Saturday Night a gem nonetheless, with that little girl voice and a light acoustic swing offering a nuanced, wistful exploration of the eternal pursuit of the nirvana moment, the perfect meeting of place and time and company of which every barfly dreams.

Then, in 2006, Madeleine Peyroux released her own version - a slow, low cowboy ballad of a song, utterly gorgeous and dripping with late-night drowsiness - and my life was transformed again. And so we see through this, and a thousand other takes from a thousand other jazz-bent female vocalists, how Tom Waits compositions translate so well to the female chanteuse. Writ large, it is a near-universal truth of musical performance: the inevitable feminine counterpart to gruff and gravely was, is, and always has been sultry and smooth. But nowhere does this play out better than in Tom Waits coverage, in this coverblogger's opinion.

Tom Waits Covers: Downtown Train

Moneybrother: Tåget Som Går In Till Stan


After ska rockers Monster parted ways in 2000 frontman Anders Wendin started his solo project Moneybrother.

Everything he has even done under this name has gotten pretty much rave reviews in his native Sweden, but his biggest commercial success to date was the 2006 album Pengabrorsan, on which he covered songs by everyone from My Morning Jacket and Wire to Ron Sexsmith and Donna Summer, all translated into his native tongue.

The best of the bunch though was this one, Waits' Downtown Train.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tom Waits Covers: The Piano Has Been Drinking

Dan Hicks and The Hot Licks: The Piano Has Been Drinking


Dan Hicks' delightfully weary "cowboy jazz" take on this old Tom Waits tune lurches around like its unreliable narrator's attention span: it's a different bar, of a different type, than the woozy original - better populated, too - but it still spins like a wobbling top in its own way. It's also the cover which finally turned me on to the Tom Waits songbook in its entirety in the first place, way back at the turn of the century, despite a few others which had already come my way with their own power and potency, so I'm getting this one out of the way today, as our week begins.

Those unfamiliar with Dan Hicks should know he's a musician's musician, a critical success who never sold much in the way of albums even though he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone way back in - gulp - the year I was born. Beat The Heat, his 2000 comeback album as bandleader of the Hot Licks, features this and numerous other gleefully sly, silly tunes, and special guest spots from Bette Midler, Elvis Costello, Rickie Lee Jones, Tom Waits himself, and other well-known luminaries who came out of the woodwork for Hicks when he called, proving his continued relevance after a few decades piddling around off the charts entirely as an ensemble member and solo artist.

Circuses and Carnivals => Tom Waits Covers: Table Top Joe

Neptune Quartet: Table Top Joe


Tom Waits is an interesting subject for a week of covers, because his art is almost impossible to duplicate. Waits has a knack for portraying vagabonds, drunkards, and freaks in a way that is honest but sympathetic. Waits shows these characters with all of their warts, but he gives them their dignity. This delicate balance comes as much from Waits’ performance as his writing, so this quality is often lost in cover versions. But artists are drawn to his writing, so they must make these characters their own. Reinvention is almost always required, as we shall probably see for most of this week. But I keep hedging. That’s because I found this remarkable performance of Table Top Joe that largely preserves the feel of Waits original, while filling out the arrangement.

In fact, for all of the reasons I mentioned above, Table Top Joe is one of the most unlikely Waits songs for anyone to cover at all. The title character is based on the life of Johnny Eck, who was born with the lower half of his body missing. That’s a picture of Eck above. Even the thought of it is enough to make a person uncomfortable. Eck appeared in the notorious cult horror film Freaks, and he wanted to appear in another film as a mad scientist’s monster. Yet, Tom Waits focuses on Eck’s hopes and dreams, and finds his essential humanity The real life Eck accomplished many things that most people would have considered impossible for him, including conducting an orchestra. He also spent most of the Great Depression working in circus and carnival freak shows. By all accounts, Eck never lost his optimism until a robber took advantage of his physical limitations when Eck was in his seventies. He never seemed to accept the word impossible, and that is what Tom Waits sees in him.

Neptune Quartet is normally an instrumental group, but, for their version of Table Top Joe, they added singer Wes Ivankovich. Neptune Quartet arrange the song for guitars, mandolin, bass, and accordion, in a way that Tom Waits might have done if he thought of it. Ivankovich delivers a vocal that is somewhere between Tom Waits and Dr John, if you can imagine, and it all works beautifully.