958 - Tom Waits 'Small Change' (1976)

My Rating: 3.00 out of 5
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die: X
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums: X
The Mojo Collection:

Chart Peak (UK/US): --/89

Favourite Tracks: Step Right Up, Invitation To The Blues, Can't Wait To Get Off Work
Least-Favourite Tracks: I Wish I Was In New Orleans, Pasties & A G-String

Like a butterfly that transforms into a caterpillar, Tom Waits has undergone a peculiarly topsy-turvy musical career. Back in the early 70s, he fluttered onto the scene all gentle, jazzy melodies & lightly-rasping voice but over the decades metamorphosed into a guttural, growling maniac, crawling ever-deeper into his own shadowy, discordant world.

To stretch my flimsy (and grossly over-written) metaphor to breaking point, this album then represents his 'pupal' stage; a kind of halfway point still rooted in jazz, yet edging ever-closer towards the experimental (a transition evidenced on The Piano Has Been Drinking). And that can be a bit of a problem - fans of early-era Waits often bemoan the overbearing gruffness of his vocals, fans of the later years run screaming from the room at the merest hint of jazz. I have some sympathy with both viewpoints. Listening to a tender ballad like I Wish I Was In New Orleans, part of me yearns for the older, softer vocals, rather than the Louis Armstrong-through-a-cracked-megaphone style we get here. On the other hand uptempo numbers like Step Right Up really come alive as he roars out emotive lines like "Christ, you don't know the meaning of heartbreak buddy!"

Ah yes, the words. Let's face it, if we were rating these albums solely on lyrics, this would be a perfect '5'. Like all of Tom Waits' albums, it's the lyrics here that stand towering over everything else. The music, good as it is, is often little more than a conduit for those astonishing words. In fact, Pasties & A G-String dispenses with the music altogether, its sole instrumental backing being a cheesy stripclub-style drumbeat while Waits rattles off gems like "I'm gettin' harder than chinese algebra-ssieres". Or on the title-track Small Change, where he abandons singing in favour of a spoken novelistic monologue over a lone 'Sam Spade' saxophone. And I'm not sure that anyone but Waits could get away with that 1950's Ellroy'esque hipster-speak either; tracks like The One That Got Away & Jitterbug Boy are crammed with outmoded phrases like 'deep six holiday', 'easy street' & countless nostalgic American references. (Visit the excellent Tom Waits Library for comprehensive annotations). Of course, purists might argue that the art of songwriting, like poetry, is condensing a great deal of meaning into very few words and in that sense, Waits is sometimes less a lyricist & more akin to an author who sets his stories to music. A kind of 'Charles Bukowski - The Musical' if you like.

As far as influences go, Waits has cited performers like Mose Allison & Ken Nordine & you can certainly hear that here in the wry humour, the clever puns & the whole hepcat word-jazz style. Where Waits elevates himself above those influences however is his ability to pen such poignant love songs. There's not many who could deliver a cliche-free ballad of such yearning emotion as Invitation To The Blues. I must have heard it a hundred times yet I still find myself wistfully wondering about the waitress who "looks like Rita Hayworth" & the "broken down jalopy of a man" she left behind.

It was an odd experience returning to this album because back in my younger days I played all my Tom Waits LP's to death (literally, in the case of The Heart Of Saturday Night, which is one of the few vinyl albums I did actually wear out). Small Change was never one of my favourites, not that it's a poor album, just that musically it's not as consistently good as many of his others. Quite why this one made it onto the Top 1000 ahead of those is a bit of a mystery (though perhaps the popularity of its opening track Tom Traubert's Blues has something to do with it). By Tom Waits standards then it's not a great album, but that still trumps the best that most have to offer.


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