Tom Waits is an incredibly gifted and misunderstood artist. Many people have found him later in his career when his voice is gravely and his arrangements are weird but if you start in the early days of his catalog and work your way up to the modern releases, Tom Waits is a totally accessible, enjoyable and rewarding listening experience.
Small Change (1976), the fourth album released by Tom Waits, opens with one of my favorite Waits songs, Tom Traubert’s Blues. If you aren’t immediately in love with the power of Waits’ writing, performance, and production by the end of this song, you may never be. Like I wrote about Bob Dylan so long ago, the quality of the voice is less important than the honesty of the voice and there’s no denying that Waits feels every word he sings. Personally, I enjoy the gravel in his voice, especially in his recordings of the 1970’s.
Track two is a coffee shop jazz combo underscoring a speak/sing/scat by Waits. These types of songs became staples of Waits albums and are a lot of fun to witness live. Having followed such a beautiful ballad, the listener is now pretty steeped in an album that is simultaneously traditional and avant garde. With a stand up bass, brush drum set, and random horns, there is a lot of this album that draws from the jazz combos of the 40’s but the song forms, chord progressions and subject matter are far from standard. I don’t know how he manages to be old and progressive at the same time but he does it with seeming effortlessness.
Every vocal performance on this album feels sad and heartfelt, regardless of the subject matter of the lyric or tone of the song and if you just close your eyes and listen to his voice as another instrument it can bring a tear to your eye. Every bit as emotional and moving as Ray Charles but with the tonal accuracy of Louis Armstrong, I wish I could do anything as well as he emotes through music.
This album is a very mellow one, to say the least. Waits hadn’t recorded with pots, pans and vibraphones just yet and his voice was still accessible to the novice listener at this point. There are few albums that demand to be listened to while drinking cognac on a rainy night next to a dying fire in a dimly lit room on vinyl, actually, it’s probably only Tom Waits albums that make that demand but upon first listen you’ll know exactly what I mean. This album, for me today, was the perfect listen.