Getting Into: Tom Waits

With Scarlett Johansson's album of Tom Waits covers, Anywhere I Lay My Head hitting stores today, some folks may be wondering: Who's this Tom Waits character, and why would someone like ScarJo want to cover a bunch of his songs?

Waits is one of the great American songwriters, but several of his best-known songs became famous only once covered by someone else. He penned "Downtown Train," but that song will forever be associated with Rod Stewart; same goes for "Jersey Girl" and Bruce Springsteen. Yet Waits is a distinctive (if quirky) singer in his own right, performing some of his songs in little more than a growl but occasionally revealing a tender side to his voice as well. He's prolific, and his catalog of 20 albums might seem daunting, so in this edition of Getting Into, I wanted to suggest some ways to get acquainted with Waits without feeling overwhelmed. Here's my guide:


Beginner: Mule Variations and The Heart of Saturday Night
Mule Variations was the first Waits album I owned, so I can vouch for its effectiveness at getting a new listener intrigued in his music. What's great about this 1999 recording (which won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album) is that it contains within its 16 tracks a big portion of the Waits spectrum. There's the sweet and tender ("Hold On"), the rockin' ("Big in Japan"), the growly ("Filipino Box Spring Hog") and the goofy ("Chocolate Jesus"). If you can find even one song to like, chances are you'll like other Waits material, too. The Heart of Saturday Night feels very different (for one thing, it's from 25 years earlier, so Waits' voice sounds significantly smoother), but it's a great showcase for Waits' songwriting, perfectly capturing the emotion of a jazzy Saturday night out on the town . . . followed by several long, lonely hours at a dive bar and a sad breakfast at a local greasy spoon.

For my intermediate and advanced selections, just read more.


Intermediate: Rain Dogs, Small Change, and Bone Machine
Rain Dogs is one of the best-known Waits albums. Like Mule Variations, it covers a wide range of styles, from ballads to country music to straight-up pop — and there's even a polka! The 1985 album includes Waits' "Downtown Train," which Rod Stewart would later make into a top-10 hit; it also has "Anywhere I Lay My Head," the song from which Scarlett's album takes its name. Small Change again goes back to the jazzier feel of the early Waits era and has some of the funniest songs that may have ever been written about a drinking problem ("The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)"). And I recommend Bone Machine here largely because at this point, you'll be able to appreciate the hilarity of Waits' scratchy voice singing "I Don't Wanna Grow Up," which the Ramones later made famous.


Advanced: Waits' soundtrack albums, including One from the Heart, Night on Earth, and Alice; Orphans
One of the most intriguing things about Waits is his film work: He's appeared in several films by director Jim Jarmusch and written the soundtrack for another: Night on Earth. I've always been intrigued — and a little spooked — by Alice, a recording of songs Waits wrote as an opera inspired by Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. And Orphans, the newest release, is three discs of collected songs that never found a home on any of Waits' other projects.

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