Monday, October 10, 2011

I'd Love to Turn You On #41 - Tom Waits – Mule Variations

In 1999, Tom Waits changed record labels for the second time in his career.  This time, he was jumping from Island, the once innovative label founded by Chris Blackwell that had since become just another major label imprint, to Anti-, a fledgling offshoot of legendary punk label Epitaph.  Anti- has since gone on to become one of the most respected and successful indie labels around and much of that success can be attributed to the work of Tom Waits, starting with what just might be his best album, Mule Variations.
The album seems to encapsulate Waits' entire career up to that point, from the experimental to the sentimental.  In fact, it plays almost like a greatest hits album comprised entirely of new material, similar in scope to the compilation Beautiful Maladies released the year before.  The variety of Mule Variations is noticeable right in the first four songs.  "Big In Japan" starts things off with funk-rock backing from Primus and sax squonks from long time collaborator Ralph Carney.  Next comes one of the album's more experimental tracks, "Lowside of the Road."  This song recalls the primitive percussion of the Bone Machine album.  It makes perfect sense, in the Tom Waits world, that the next track would be the most commercial sounding, the beautiful "Hold On."  This song also marks the first appearance of guitarist Marc Ribot, a frequent Waits collaborator and a brilliant artist in his own right.  "Get Behind the Mule" is the album's almost title track and provides the album with its heart and center.  It's a chugging bluesy number accentuated by the harmonica of the legendary Charlie Musselwhite.  Musselwhite pops up on several songs as does his blues harp contemporary John Hammond.
Throughout the album's 70 minutes and 16 songs we are introduced to the usual Waits assortment of oddball characters and the stylistic jumps continue.  Several gorgeous ballads are included and range from the elegant ("Picture in a Frame") to the heartbreaking ("Georgia Lee").  Waits employs a turntablist on a number of tracks bringing a contemporary angle to his usual rustic sensibilities.  "Filipino Box Spring Hog" has a particular hip-hop feel to it, yet is still firmly a Waits creation.  And then there's "What's He Building?," a mix of spoken word and sound effects that could well be Waits' own interpretation of how others see him.  "Come on Up to the House" is a most appropriate closer, both joyous and iconoclastic, a great sing-a-long for all the lovable freaks of the Tom Waits universe.  
Mule Variations is a wonderful creation that sums up everything great about Tom Waits.  It almost seems like putting a cap on a long and distinguished career, but fortunately Waits has continued to make the great music (he's got a new album coming out in the fall) that only he can make.
- Adam Reshotko

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