Thursday, June 14, 2012


My friend and former colleague Greg Wacks and I occasionally host public chats on Spreecast, the very cool and forward thinking company that he co-founded. Tomorrow we're discussing the more recent works of the great Tom Waits.   Last time we chatted, Greg mentioned that he doesn't really keep up with Tom Waits' more recent works, which floored me.  To me, if there's any artist in their 50s and up who has never embarrassed themselves or their audience, it's Tom Waits.  If there's any artist who still deserves your attention and respect after decades of service, it's Tom Waits.

In fact, his most recent era -- by my definition, the albums he's done for Epitaph Records' Anti- label - is my favorite era. That's probably sacrilegious to many longtime fans.

But I got into Tom via his classic collaboration with Primus -- "Tommy The Cat." The first new album he did after that era was his Anti- debut, 1999's Mule Variations. I know that Tom is an acquired taste, but I got into that album pretty quickly.  I'll say it's my favorite of Tom's albums.  The sounds are weird, but the songs are classic. I think Primus prepared me for Tom. Mule Variations has a lot of great tunes: "Big In Japan" kicks the album off, and actually features Primus backing him. I think the album has everything you'd want from Tom: weird, clang-y blues stomps like "Cold Water." Some of his really, really weird stuff like "Eyeball Kid" ("he was born without a body, not even a brow!"). And it has two of his loveliest ballads, "Hold On" and "Picture In A Frame" (the latter was covered by Willie Nelson).  I remember this album really blowing me away.

In 2002, he released two albums on the same day: Blood Money and Alice.  Each of them was attached to a different play.  Honestly, I didn't love either album, but I did really dig "Table Top Joe" (from Alice) and "Misery Is The River Of The World" (from Blood Money).

2004's Real Gone was almost as good as Mule Variations, and just as weird (if not weirder). That album has a bit of a hip-hop influence, but it didn't pander.  It's just that it had a looped, sampled sound, and there was turntable scratching going on.  It contains one of my favorite Tom songs, "Hoist That Rag."

In 2006, he put out Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards, a three CD set of songs that hadn't come out on prior albums.  "Brawlers" were the more rocking/blues songs, "Bawlers" were the ballads and "Bastards" were his weirder stuff.  One of the "Bawlers," "Long Way Home" (which he initially gave to Norah Jones) is one of his finest moments.

His next release was Glitter and Doom Live, a great concert album. Disc 1 was songs, disc 2 were the stories that Tom told from the stage.  Who else could even put out a disc of non-musical stuff and make it interesting?

And finally, last year's Bad As Me, my third favorite album of the year. Hopefully tomorrow I will be able to make a case to Greg about the greatness of Tom's recent material... and hopefully I can turn some other people on to Tom also. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


If you've read No Expiration for a while, you know that I generally am suspicious of trends;  I don't buy into  indie-rock's generally sexless songwriting, or its amateur-sounding production. So, when I first listened to Jenn Grauer's A Million Fires, it was really a breath of fresh air. It's pretty clear from listening to this music that Grauer has some musical training: both as a piano player and as a singer.  And if she doesn't, well, she's practiced.  A lot.  She puts thought into every lyric, every note, and the production.  The album has a timeless sound: it could have been recorded in the '70s, but then, it could have been recorded in the '90s. It's a collection of heartfelt songs that is sure to connect with an audience.

But, you may ask, what does she sound like?  Laura Nyro would be an obvious reference: there's also a physical resemblance.  I'd also mention Joni Mitchell.  Like Joni, you get the impression that Grauer has blinders to whatever is going on in pop culture (this is a good thing), and that she is confident that she knows her own path.  But there's also some blues in there.  Not so much the Clapton guitar solo blues:  more of the dusty, old, Robert Johnson/Bessie Smith strain of blues.

The album kicks off with "Stay."  A sad song of someone grasping at a relationship as it is slipping away.  It's not weepy. It's sorrowful on an operatic level: "Did you see right through me," she asks.  "Won't you come back?" she wails.  Most breakup songs have a "depressed" sound, as if the singer has been medicated.1v Grauer really makes you feel the loss, and you know she's feeling it.

"Round & Round" has a bit more swagger.  She sings in a mocking tone, "Needed to be free, needed to be free." What hurts more than having the person you want to commit to decide that he or she needs to be "free?" This time, you get the sense that the narrator, singing "Round and round, come back to me/round and round but first be free," may not be there when the subject comes back.  She's getting over it.

"Soldier Song" might not be out of place on Occupy This Album, although it doesn't mention politics. It's not about the horror of war as much as it's about the sadness and confusion of a soldier.  The narrative isn't so much about "right" and "wrong."  It's more about someone who is tired -- exhausted -- and wants to go home. The piano rolls don't convey violence, just dread.  "Soldier Song Reprise" ends the album and picks up the pace of the original version; the slower take seems to be a better fit for the lyrics.

"A Million Fires," the title track and album's centerpiece is pretty intense.  See the video here.  To give it some context, it's Grauer at her most "Tori," which I mean as a compliment as I am a big fan of Tori Amos.  "Song Unsung" is the song that most closely resembles a "hit," albeit a hit from the '70s Laurel Canyon scene.  I mean that in a good way of course!   "The Gathering" has almost a cabaret feel. Cynics might read that statement and detect kitch, but Grauer sings as if it's a new style.

It's a solid collection of songs: that said, my favorite Jenn Grauer song is not from this album.  "Do You Call This Love?" is a great modern blues.   It sounds like something you might have heard in a smokey club with a dirt floor in the '40s or '50s.  She has a great video for that one also, watch it here.

I definitely look forward to what she'll do next.  I have to give the full disclosure here:  I know Jenn, we've chatted about music a few times. But I like to think that I've established a certain amount of trust on No Expiration, and you guys know that I wouldn't write about someone if I didn't actually like the music. In Jenn's case, I stand behind it.