Monday, February 28, 2011

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers - Greatest Hits

★★★★★ Tracks:
American Girl
Don't Do Me Like That
I Won't back Down
Free Fallin
Mary Jane's Last Dance

My mom used to listen to some great music. Sure, for every Beach Boys, Beatles or Michael Jackson record sitting atop her shelf there were an equal number of Bette Midlers, Reba McEntires and Dirty Dancing soundtracks to muddle the good and the bad. Overall though she introduced me to a lot of good pop, and chances are about 50/50 you could walk in to the house I grew up in and not hear something that totally sucked playing over the stereo. If you walked in on a good day sometime after the fall of 1993, probably a Saturday morning as my mother rigorously vacuumed and dusted every nook and cranny in the house, you might hear Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits. Tom Petty won’t win you many hip points, but damn if he doesn’t write some of the catchiest pop-rock tracks you’ve ever heard. With its great nostalgic familiarity, deceptive craftiness, undeniable cheesiness, but overall enjoyability, the song that perfectly encapsulates Petty's music is “Free Fallin.” I imagine it as one of those epic road trip songs everyone sings along to; Jerry Maguire knows exactly what I'm talking about.

I don’t know Tom Petty album for album all that well, but his Greatest Hits collection is brilliant. You’d be surprised how much of these songs you know and like. The album starts off with the quick-tempoed “American Girl” before quickly and quietly settling in to Tom Petty’s first ever single and my personal favorite of his in “Breakdown.” It’s a gorgeous piece of rock and soul that carries a tinge of 70’s glam you won’t hear in his later work. Output from ‘78-’85 follows (another great aspect to this record is its chronological order), with highlights including “Refugee” and “Don’t Do Me Like That,” both coming from what most critics agree is his best album in Damn the Torpedoes. “Free Fallin,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Into the Great Wide Open,” and “Learning to Fly” were all originally included on two records, Full Moon Fever, which is his first without the Heartbreakers, and Into the Great Wide Open, and they are his most recognizable tracks to the late 80’s/early 90’s MTV generation like myself. Of the last two songs is another personal favorite, one made exclusively available on the Greatest Hits album but becoming immensely popular in its own right. "Mary Jane's Last Dance” would climb to #1 on the Rock Charts and leave us with a great, memorable, and morbid music video starring Kim Basinger.

Unfortunately my mom’s music tastes have diminished with her age. I don’t get to see her often now that we live on opposite ends of the eastern seaboard, but I know you will no longer find Tom Petty adorning her music shelf, and you won’t find Abbey Road sitting in her mini-SUV. What you will find is more Clay Aiken CDs than I ever knew existed, something by KT Tunstall, more of the same shitty country-pop she listened to, and I’m betting her newest addition is something like Lady Antebellum or Streisand’s Greatest Hits. She should enjoy whatever it is she enjoys but it’s sad to see this age old tale of growing up and tuning out. I never want to be a part of the crowd that finds it fashionable to be ignorant of new music. Aren’t most of us disturbed by the Arcade Fire/Grammy debacle? Do we want to become the next generation of old and out of touch music listeners who know nothing about one of the great rock bands of our time? I don’t. And it’s why I still love the quest to find new music. Going backwards is just as much fun as going forwards though, and if you haven’t done so yet you should take a trip with Tom Petty; I can't think of a singular artist that captures Americana as perfectly as he does.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tom Waits - Swordfishtrombones

★★★★★ Tracks:
Johnsburg, Illinois
16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six
Frank’s Wild Years
Soldier’s Things
Gin Soaked Boy

Swordfishtrombones didn’t grab my attention as quickly as Rain Dogs did. The problem resided in its slow build; with its best songs nested in the latter half of the record, I’d turn it off after the first couple of tracks and go back to Rain Dogs for my Tom Waits fix. But patience this time around has led me to two bluesy gems in “16 Shells From a Thirty Ought Six” and “Gin Soaked Boy.” From there the rest of the album grabbed a hold of me. “Underground” starts us off encompassing that new Tom Waits sound; natural, eclectic instrumentation, chaotic but sparse percussion, slinky electric guitars, and fiction-oriented storytelling. “Johnsburg, Illinois” is reminiscent of his earlier piano-driven songs, but more interestingly layered with his newly acquired smoke and booze destructed voice. There are a few spoken-word tracks that add more tonal variety in “Trouble’s Braids,” “Shore Leave” and “Frank’s Wild Years,” the latter of which shows off Waits’ dark sense of humor. And the few instrumentals demonstrate the vaudeville and carnival themes he would further develop on his next record.

There isn’t a decade in pop history more defined by a single style of music than the 80’s, but Tom Waits’ music transcends it. Show someone a New Order single or a Huey Lewis record, they most likely will be able to pinpoint the 80’s as its place of residence. Show them Swordfishtrombones or Rain Dogs and they could easily assume it's some songwriter influenced by blues and rock with a minor obsession for crime noir, or they might just as easily presume it's a record your grandfather gave you from his childhood. That it came from '83 would surprise most I imagine, and it's one of the more enjoyable aspects of Tom Waits’s music thus far -- it isn’t trapped in some nostalgic time frame. That abrasive voice and those vast influences touched upon in these two records might turn off the masses, but they've established that you aren't going to find many songwriters as unique and entertaining as Waits.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Tom Waits - Rain Dogs

★★★★★ Tracks:
Most of them.

That voice is insane. He sounds like a goddamned pirate; a mix of Howlin’ Wolf, Leonard Cohen and Isaac Brock at his most obnoxious, but still uniquely a sound all its own. Tom Waits is a relatively new discovery for me. My first exposure came from a somewhat generic piano ballad I stumbled upon in college called “San Diego Serenade.” An ex had just moved there which made it an easy choice to include on the next mixed tape I was making her. I didn’t actually think much of the song though, and it wasn’t until a few years later I heard the new and (un)improved Tom Waits. Season two to the greatest show ever made had my favorite version of its title track, a strange and bluesy little song containing one of the most abrasive and raspiest voices I have ever heard. It was Waits. How had I heard such a different version of the songwriter? As I dug through his history, I didn’t find it at all surprising to read that he spent the majority of the the 70’s boozing and smoking, and all that partying turned his voice to shit. “San Diego Serenade” was released in 1974, making my first sample of Tom Waits the much healthier, but also less experimental and interesting, version of the songwriter that evolved through the 80's. So the 80’s is where I would begin my journey through his discography, and having been picked as his landmark album by most critics, Rain Dogs was my first choice.

The opening track, “Singapore,” a song that invokes dark seas, old wooden caravels and shady characters, had me intrigued immediately. Each Tom Waits track is like its own little epic movie. I’ve never heard such captivating, fucked-up stories in the shape of songs; even the instrumentation on its own conjures cultures and eras. “Cemetery Polka” sounds like a song for the carny. “Tango ‘Til They’re Sore” updates that great Old West saloon sound with a tinge of blues and old, American theater, with Waits singing my favorite lines on the record:

"Turn the spit on that pig and kick the drum and let me down
Put my clarinet beneath your bed 'til I get back in town
Let me fall out of the window with confetti in my hair
Deal out Jacks or Better on a blanket by the stairs
I'll tell you all my secrets, but I lie about my past
So send me off to bed for evermore"

“Big Black Mariah” finds Waits adapting delta blues and the big, booming voice of the Howlin’ Wolf. He can take it down a notch too, and it’s almost comical when that destroyed voice of a lunger comes in to sing the more romantic songs like “Hang Down Your Head,” “Time,” and “Downtown Train,” but they’re all the more powerful and unique because of it.

The music had also become more distinguished than the rather straightforward “San Diego Serenade.” Waits attributes a lot of this new direction to his wife, whom he married in 1980. She was the one who introduced him to Captain Beefheart (who’s music I still have not explored myself), helped him to quit smoking and drinking, and co-wrote some of his songs from Swordfishtrombones onward. On Rain Dogs we get a little bit of everything, from rock’n’roll, to blues, to vaudeville, to R&B, to gospel. Having grown wary of the all the electronic trends in music (Tears for Fears and Madonna had some of the biggest singles of 1985), Tom Waits went out to record a completely natural sounding record. He would tape record rain, cars driving by, faucets running, pipes clanging, and he went about replicating them with instruments. There’s a hell of a lot of novel percussion, and Waits says, "if we couldn't get the right sound out of the drum set we'd get a chest of drawers in the bathroom and bang it real hard with a two-by-four," such that "the sounds become your own.” Most of Rain Dogs was written in a rough area of the West Village (hard to think of now but this was 1984-85), and he wanted the sound and the lyrics to revolve around the “urban dispossessed.” It’s a record for the lonely, the strange, the wicked; the outcasts of New York. For me, it’s a record of theatrics, as if each song could be set to a screenplay and put on camera. It's one of the most unique and artistic pieces of pop music I've ever heard.