Music Discoveries: Tom Waits


Tom Waits is a veteran singer-songwriter whose voice is a combination of sidewalk preacher, carnival barker, beat poet, and barstool philosopher. I first heard of Waits in the 80s when he was known as the guy with the crazy, gravely voice.  But then I heard the track “Innocent When You Dream” on a compilation album and fell in love with the heartfelt beauty underneath what sounded like a drunk guy crooning at a bar.  I got the album Franks Wild Years and it remains one of my all time favorites, and I’ve checked in and out on Waits’ career over the years.  This is the first time I’ve listened to all of Waits’ catalog from beginning to most current, and let me tell you it’s not easy to listen to all that Waits’ music back-to-back-to-back, although it is a worthwhile exercise.

Tom Waits’ career can be summed up into three basic eras:

  • 1970s – Waits was a little more eccentric than his contemporaries, but listening to his early recordings and he seems to fit in with the singer-songwriters of the era. You might even imagine an alternate universe where his career followed the paths of the likes of James Taylor, Elton John, or Randy Newman.  His trademark gravely voice didn’t even make its debut until the third album, and in the seventies it was more of an homage to Louis Armstrong or Doctor John as Waits recorded jazz and blues tinged tunes.
  • 1980s – This decade marked the emergence of the iconic Waits’ style, verging between lost recordings of American and avant guarde music with unusual instrumentation and tunings.  The decade is marked by the trilogy of albums he’s most remembered for: Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985), and Franks Wild Years (1987).
  • 1992 to present – While Waits’ music in this period remains experimental by the standards of contemporary popular music, and inspiration for “alternative music,”  it doesn’t vary much from the template he established in the 1980s.  Similarly, while 1990s and 2000s recordings include numerous gems and good albums overall, Waits is own worst enemy as a producer in that he allows the albums to be bloated with excess tracks that should be judiciously trimmed.  In short, don’t do what I did and listen to everything, but definitely seek out the good stuff.

Tom Waits hasn’t released anything new since 2011 or toured since 2008, but hopefully he has some songs left in him and there will be another Tom Waits era to look back on in the future.

Five Favorite Albums

  • Closing Time (1973) – definitely one of the great all-time debut albums, and the first three tracks are a strong start to any album.
  • Rain Dogs (1985) – Waits’ masterpiece and one of the great albums of the 1980s.
  • Franks Wild Years (1987) – the soundtrack to a play I’ve never seen, it remains a sentimental favorite
  • Bone Machine (1992) – Waits charges into the 1990s showing the alt-rockers how things are done with haunting lyrics and aural soundscape
  • Blood Money (2002) – these are songs from another play, but also reflect the misanthropy and pessimism of the post-Sept. 11th world under George W. Bush

Twenty-Five Favorite Songs

 

1. “Ol’ 55”

2. “I Hope I Don’t Fall in Love With You”

3. “Virginia Avenue”

4. “The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) (An Evening with Pete King)”

5. “Jersey Girl”

6. “16 Shells from A Thirty-Ought-Six”

7. “In the Neighbourhood”

8. “Jockey Full of Bourbon”

9. “Hang Down Your Head”

10. “Downtown Train”

11. “Hang on St. Christopher”

12. “Innocent When You Dream (Barroom)”

13. “Yesterday is Here”

14. “Way Down in the Hole”

15. “Cold Cold Ground”

16. “Jesus Gonna Be Here”

17. “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”

18. “T’ Ain’t No Sin”

19. “Hold On”

20. “House Where Nobody Lives”

21. “Misery is the River of the World”

22. “God’s Away on Business”

23. “Flowers Grave”

24. “Hoist That Rag”

25. “Chicago”

Album Review: Prophets of Rage


AlbumProphets of Rage
Artist: Prophets of Rage
Release Date: September 15, 2017
Favorite Tracks: “Unfuck the World”
Thoughts: Back in the 80s, Public Enemy’s Chuck D said “rap is CNN for black people,” reflecting on the urgency of rap music to spread the word through the community.  The idea of message spreading is central to the new album from Prophets of Rage, the rock rap supergroup Chuck D formed with Rage Against the Machine’s Tim Commerford, Tom Morello, and Brad Wilk, Cypress Hill’s B-Real, and DJ Lord of Public Enemy. And yet message seems to be all they’ve got, while the nearly 30-year-old It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back still stands up musically.  At it’s best, Prophets of Rage reminds me of great collaborations of rap and hard rock like Public Enemy with Anthrax or Rage Against the Machine at their best, but unfortunately most of the album reminds me of the dreck that was late-90s rap-metal, and not worthy of the talent involved in its creation.
Rating: **

Music Discoveries P-Funk, part 3 (1978-1982)


Here is my third and final post for my “discovery” series on the P-Funk collective of musicians in the 1970s and early 1980s.  In the first post I found myself impressed by the freshness and innovation of the music even though it was more than 40 years old.  The second post featured the familiar hit songs of P-Funk’s prolific peak.  This final post sadly marks the decline of P-Funk, and while there are some standout tracks and albums, I’m disappointed at how dated and tired much of the music from this period sounds.

Band: Funkadelic
Album: One Nation Under a Groove
Date: 4 September 1978
Favorite Tracks: “One Nation Under a Groove,” “Who Says a Funk Band Can’t Play Rock?,” and “Cholly”
Lyrics of Note:

Who says a jazz band can’t play dance music?
Who says a rock band can’t play funk?
Who says a funk band can’t play rock?
Ok. We’re gonna play some funk so loud
We’re gonna rock and roll the crowd
Just watch them dance, watch them dance – from “Who says a funk band can’t play rock?”

Thoughts: The title track has more of dance/disco sound than one is accustomed to hearing from Funkadelic.  That’s followed by the relaxed, smooth calypso sound of “Groovallegiance.” And if the genre shifts are not enough on the first two songs, on track three they gleefully declare “Who says a funk band can’t play rock?” All right I won’t go track by track, but the album’s theme of the power of funk is emphasized by making every genre funky.  It’s a great album, that loses a half-point for the the tedious track about poop.
Rating: ***1/2


Band: Parliament
AlbumMotor Booty Affair
Date: 28 November 1978
Favorite Tracks: “Aqua Boogie (A Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop),”
Lyrics of Note:

You can dance underwater and not get wet – from “Aqua Boogie (A Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop)”

Thoughts: Another themed album, this one goes under the sea for the aquaboogie. Parliament can never be accused of not dedicating themselves to a theme and there are references to fish, water, swimming and Atlantis throughout as well as new characters like “Mr. Wiggles.” And Sir Nose finally gets dunked in  the funk.  It’s a fun and cohesive album but nothing about it really excites me much.
Rating: ***


Band: Funkadelic
AlbumUncle Jam Wants You
Date: 21 September 1979
Favorite Tracks: “(Not Just) Knee Deep,”  “Field Maneuvers,” and “Holly Wants to Go to California ”
Lyrics of Note:
Thoughts: Following on “One Nation Under a Groove,” Funkadelic plays with patriotic/militaristic phrases to promote the funk and “save dance music from the blahs.”  The epic jam “(Not Just) Knee Deep” defines the album and since it’s been sampled so many times that it sounds like a compilation of r&b and hip hop all by itself. The instrumental guitar jam “Field Maneuvers” and the melancholy ballad “Holly Wants to Go to California” are also standouts.  Despite drill instructors barking out dance moves, this album feels less gimmicky than its predecessors.
Rating: ****


Band: Bootsy’s Rubber Band
Album: This Boot Is Made for Fonk-N
Date: 1 June 1979
Favorite Tracks: “Bootsy (Get Live)”
Thoughts: Eschewing the slow jams of earlier Rubber Band albums, this is a non-stop party funk album. It coasts a lot on Bootsy Collins’ charma and charisma but it can coast a long way on that.
Rating: ***


Band: Parliament
Album: Gloryhallastoopid (or Pin the Tail on the Funky)
Date: 20 November 1979
Favorite Tracks: “Theme from the Black Hole”
Thoughts: Another concept album that attempts to explain the science behind the creation of the universe by way of funk.  It recycles a lot of ideas, lyrics, and grooves from previous albums and is awfully redundant in doing so.  And for all the criticism of disco this is is a disco-heavy album at the time of peak disco.  But it’s bland overall and doesn’t offer much.
Rating: *1/2


Band:Parliament
Album: Trombipulation
Date: 5 December 1980
Thoughts: OK, I’m officially sick of the Vocoder voice of D’Nose.  It’s a tired act and shows just how out of ideas Clinton & Co. were by 1980.  Kind of disappointing that Parliament goes out on such a bland album
Rating: **


Artist: Bootsy Collins
Album: Ultra Wave
Date: October 1980
Thoughts: Bootsy’s first album with a solo credit is fun and dance-able, but nothing that leaves an impression. From the r&b styles on display, one can tell that the 80s are here!
Rating: **1/2


Band: Funkadelic
Album: Connections & Disconnections
Date: 1980
Thoughts: Original P-Funk members Fuzzy Haskins, Calvin Simon and Grady Thomas split off to form their own band under the Funkadelic name as the demise of George Clinton’s P-Funk stable of musicians descended into acrimonious lawsuits and in-fighting. Many of the lyrics are critical of Clinton, and musically it makes an attempt to recapture the early Funkadelic sound, but only achieves greatness in fits and starts.
Rating: **


Band: Funkadelic
Album: The Electric Spanking of War Babies
Date: 14 April 1981
Favorite Tracks: “Funk Gets Stronger” and “Shockwaves”
Lyrics of Note:

You can walk a mile in my shoes
But you can’t dance a step in my feet – from “Electric Spanking of War Babies”

Thoughts:  The official Funkadelic offers a better farewell album with a sound that played off the soul, funk, and R&B of the early 80s with P-Funk innovation. The lyrics are strongly political on many tracks, something that had been missing in latter day P-Funk. As an added bonus,Sly Stone is featured on this album and there’s a great funky reggae track “Shockwave.”
Rating: ***1/2


Band: George Clinton
Album: Computer Games
Date: 5 November 1982
Favorite Tracks: “Man’s Best Friend/Loopzilla” and “Atomic Dog”
Thoughts: Although credited to Clinton, many P-Funk musicians appear on this album much like on Parliament, Funkadelic, and side projects in previous years.  I arbitrarily chose to end this series on this album as it seems to mark the end of the P-Funk era although there more Clinton solo albums, P-Funk All-Stars recordings, and other projects in the ensuing years.  It’s a good album to go out on as it is reliant more on synths and has an electro sound that ties in well with the rise of hip hop in this era.
Rating: ***

Okay, so that’s it for P-Funk.  Whew!


Music Discoveries P-Funk, part 2 (1975-1978)


This second post in the series covers a period where Parliament-Funkadelic is exploding, releasing some of the bands’ most popular albums and singles, touring with an increasingly elaborate stage show, and branching off to form new bands and solo projects (although those bands and artists were frequently backed up by the same stable of P-Funk musicians).  Unlike part 1 where I was in awe of the music produced by Parliament and Funkadelic, I’m finding myself with mixed feelings about the music from this period.  The highs are higher but the lows are lower, and I think they may have spread themselves thin with the sheer prolificness of their output.  Nevertheless, there is a lot of fantastic music to feast your ears upon here.

Band: Parliament
AlbumMothership Connection
Date: 15 December 1975
Favorite Tracks: “P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up),” “Mothership Connection (Star Child),” and “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)”
Lyrics of Note:

You’ve got all that is really needed
To save a dying world from its funkless hell – from “Unfunky UFO”

Gaga googa ga ga googa
Ga ga goo ga ga
(x33) – from “Night of the Thumpasorus Peoples”

Thoughts: This brilliant concept album establishes the Mothership and the Afro-Futurist themes of black people in space.  The songs are party anthems and protest songs against radio’s refusal to play funk and discrimination against the black community in general.  Pretty much a must-have of the P-Funk catalog with three of the collective’s most important tracks, although you’ll probably want to skip over the misogynist “Handcuffs.”
Rating: ****


Band: Bootsy’s Rubber Band
AlbumStretchin’ Out in Bootsy’s Rubber Band
Date: 30 January 1976
Favorite Tracks: “Stretchin’ Out (In a Rubber Band),” “Psychoticbumpschool,” and  “Another Point of View”
Thoughts: Bootsy Collins, the break out start of Parliament-Funkadelic, gets his own band and album although Clinton and a lot of the P-Funk lineup are involved so it really sounds like a continuation of Mothership Connection musically.  Lyrically, the album is more focused on romance and sexy times, and with the troubled sexual politics it can be hit or miss.

Rating: **1/2


Band: Parliament
AlbumThe Clones of Dr. Funkenstein
Date: September 1976
Favorite Tracks: “Do That Stuff,” “Getten’ to Know You,” and “Funkin’ for Fun”
Lyrics of Note:

When you see my mother
Tell her I’m all right
I’m just funkin’ around
For fun – from “Funkin’ for Fun”

Thoughts: May I frighten you? The utterly weird Parliament album expands deeper into the P-Funk mythology and it’s fun if it doesn’t make much sense.  I kind of get the sense that the prolific nature of Parliament-Funkadelic caught up with them as there seems nothing new here.  It’s entertaining, but it’s also disposable.  By the way, am I the only one who hears “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” in “Do That Stuff”?
Rating:***


Band: Funkadelic
AlbumTales of Kidd Funkadelic
Date: 21 September 1976
Favorite Tracks:  “Undisco Kidd”
Thoughts: Learning that this was a “contractual obligation” album of outakes from recording a different album lowered my expectation, but this album is good enough if a bit generic.  Actually it sounds very familiar due to it being frequently sampled by other artists.  “Butt-to-Butt Resuscitation” may stand as the best song title in the P-Funk catalog.
Rating: **1/2


Band: Funkadelic
Album: Hardcore Jollies
Date: 29 October 1976
Favorite Tracks: “Comin’ Round the Mountain,” “Smokey,”  “Hardcore Jollies,” and “Cosmic Slop {Live],”
Lyrics of Note:

I thought I knew all there is to do
I stuck out my chest and dove into a love
With ego in charge, I charged into what seemed
To be the quickest way into manhood
You scared me, baby
You scared the love right outta me – from “You Scared the Lovin’ Outta Me”

Thoughts:  Holy crow, did they really funk up “She’ll Be Comin’ Around the Mountain”?!?!?  YES!!!  And it was better than most everything on Tales of Kidd Funkadelic.  And that’s just the start of a hard-rocking, emotionally raw yet joyously funky album with flashes of soul, gospel, and doo wop.  It feels like a return to form for Funkadelic, not that they’d been all that much out of shape.
Rating:****


Artist: Fuzzy Haskins
Album: A Whole Nother Thang
Date: 1976
Favorite Tracks:”Mr. Junk Man”
Thoughts: Haskins, one of the original five members of The Parliaments, and Funkadelic and Parliament, goes solo on this album with lots of support from the P-Funk stable of artists (but not George Clinton).  It’s entertaining and toe-tapping but ultimately bog standard funk and soul.
Rating:**


Band: Bootsy’s Rubber Band
Album: Ahh… The Name Is Bootsy, Baby!
Date: 14 January 1977
Favorite Tracks: “The Pinnochio Theory,” “Munchies for Your Love
Thoughts: Bootsy Collin’s second album is an interesting contrast to Fuzzy Haskins, loose with jazz-like improvisation compared to Haskins’ Motown-style tight pieces.  Just a theory, but Collins is a decade younger so maybe the age gap plays a part in the stylistic differences, and why I like the “full-band” sound of Parliament-Funkadelic albums better where the different styles can play off and complement one another.  This is a solid album though, with funk party anthems on side A and slow jams on the flip side.
Rating: ***1/2


Artist: Eddie Hazel
Album: Game, Dames and Guitar Thangs
Date: 1977
Favorite Tracks: “California Dreamin'” and “What About It?”
Thoughts: This is P-Funk’s guitar-virtuoso’s first and only album released during his lifetime, and what a treat it is to have it. Hazel interprets The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’,” The Beatles’ “She’s So Heavy” (an interestingly restrained performance), and Bootsy Collins’ “Phsyical Love” as well as an instrumental remake of Funkadelic’s “Wars of Armageddon” called “What About It?”. A great album for guitar buffs.
Rating: ***1/2


Band: Fred Wesley And The Horny Horns
Album: A Blow for Me, A Toot for You
Date: 1977
Favorite Tracks: “A Blow for Me, A Toot for You” and “Four Play”
Thoughts: Another section of the P-Funk orchestra is split off for their own bit of prominence, this time the horn players: Fred Wesley (trombone), Maceo Parker (saxophone), Rick Gardner (trumpet), and Richard Griffith (trumpet). There’s heavy participation from the P-Funk stable of musicians so in many ways this sounds like a Parliament album with an emphasis on the horns, but the instrumental horn jams stand out as the best tracks. The string arrangements on some tracks remind me that this was recorded in the height of the disco era.
Rating: ***1/2


Band: Parliament
Album: Funkentelechy Vs. the Placebo Syndrome
Date: 28 November 1977
Favorite Tracks: “Bop Gun (Endangered Species),” “Wizard of Finance,” and “Flash Light”
Lyrics of Note:

To dance is a protection
Funk is your connection
All you got to do is
Funk and dance

Thoughts:And George Clinton had thoughts on Disco and commercialized music in general which he called “the Placebo Syndrome” and personified in the character of the obstinately unfunky Sir Nose d’Voidoffunk who goes head-to-head with Starchild on this album. Perhaps listening to too many P-Funk albums in a row makes me feel like the mythology and humor are laid on too thick, but there are some classic tracks on this album. There are also synth sounds and arrangements that seem to be laying the ground for New Wave and early hip hop to come in just a few years.
Rating:***


Band: Bootsy’s Rubber Band
Album: Bootsy? Player of the Year
Date: 27 January 1978
Favorite Tracks: “Bootzilla”
Thoughts: The third album from Bootsy & Co. doesn’t break new ground. Love songs are in demand here ranging from the romantic to the raunchy.
Rating: ***


Band: The Brides of Funkenstein
Album: Funk Or Walk
Date:  September 1978
Favorite Tracks: “Disco to Go”
Thoughts: P-Funk is rather dominated by male musicians, so it was interesting to see what  P-Funk band lead by two women – Dawn Silva and Lynn Mabry – would sound like.  It should not be a surprise or even a bad thing that they basically sound a lot like Parliament with female vocalists.  There are disco and even Broadway showtune influences well.  But it doesn’t sound like they brought out the best material for this project, which is a shame.
Rating: **


Band: Parlet
Album: Pleasure Principle
Date: 1978
Favorite Tracks:  “Pleasure Principle” and “Love Amnesia”
Thoughts:Never to do things in small measures, there were two female P-Funk groups releasing their debut albums in 1978, this one featuring the vocal talents of Mallia Franklin, Jeanette Washington and Debbie Wright. Parlet sounds “harder” than The Brides of Funkenstein, the female Funkadelic to their female Parliament.  This album is pretty strong but most of the tracks are overlong.
Rating: ***


Band: Bernie Worrell
AlbumAll the Woo in the World
Date: 1978
Favorite Tracks: “I’ll Be With You” and “Much Thrust”
Thoughts: The legendary P-Funk keyboardist gets his star turn on this solo debut, with lots of P-Funk friends on board for the recording.  Worrell’s keyboard wizadry is on display and the vibe of the album harkens back to the psychedelia of the early Funkadelic.
Rating: ***


Whew! That is a lot of funk.  But I’ll be back in a couple of weeks to finish this series on P-Funk.

 

Song of the Week: “America Says Hello” by The Chills


This week’s song “America Says Hello” is a caustic broadside fired at the hegemony and militarism of my native country by New Zealand’s The Chills.  I’d never heard of the band before this week, but they had much success in New Zealand in the 1980s and 1990s with their jangly-guitar rock style reminiscent of R.E.M.  Their new album Silver Bullets sounds musically like it could’ve been released 25 years ago, and sadly the political and environmental messages in the lyrics sound like not much has changed since 1990.  An excellent album, worth a listen.