This week's Listening Closely is a superb, Grammy award-winning album by Tom Waits, 'Mule Variations'. Released in 1999 this was a return to form in a big way. It was Tom Waits' 12th studio album his first since the 1993's 'The Black Rider', which was a much more difficult album to break the back of. This album has a real organic feel to it and the songs are some of my favourites that he's ever recorded. I recently got hold of the remastered version on heavyweight vinyl, the difference in audio quality is unreal, the double bass hums and vibrates beautifully.

"Big in Japan", opens the record and Tom Waits is literally smashing the crap out of a chest of draws and gutturally chanting, distortedly creating a crazy vocal beatbox which is looped throughout the track; the louder you play it, the better. Such an exciting way to start a record. Joined by Primus's bassist Les Claypool and guitarist Larry LaLonde, they create a world of angular guitar and melodically impressive double bass, this alongside some primal drumming by Brian Mantia and awesome soul horn parts by Ralph Carney. This track fits perfectly in the canon of the outstanding Tom Waits repertoire; it would fit very easily on the equally impressive 'Rain Dogs' album, well worth checking out if you've not heard it. Lyrically it superbly catches the musician that is all style and no substance, leaving Waits to brandish that it doesn’t matter because ‘I’m big in Japan’.

“Lowside of the road' is a dirty Texan blues, apparently based on a story involving Lead Belly in 1930, when a group of white men jumped him, he produced his guitar slide, which was a penknife, he ended up going to jail for attempted murder.

For me Tom Waits writes ballads best, ‘Soldier’s things’, ‘Time’, Kentucky Avenue’, to name a few. Waits can transport you on a heart-breaking journey, especially for the lost, drunk, hurt and the wandering aimless. Which moves us on to my favourite track on Mule Variations, ‘Hold On’. With the legend Mark Ribot on guitar, this track is sublime, the guitar sound, the double bass and the gravel drenched vocal. Lyrically this is a master class, so descriptive and unique. This is Tom Waits at his hopeful best, a song that feels like an imperative at the moment.

Well, you build it up, you wreck it down You burn your mansion to the ground When there's nothing left to keep you here, when You're falling behind in this Big blue world

Oh you got to Hold on, hold on You got to hold on Take my hand

I'm standing right here You got to hold on

I love the mood of the video for it too. The colour is perfect. “Hold On”

"Get Behind The Mule". It sounds like a Taj Mahal track, Has the wonderful double bass playing of Larry Taylor, who has been on so many great Tom Waits records. This track also features the Harp of Charlie Musselwhite. A lot of the tracks on this record are a collaboration between Tom Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan and they also produced this record.

'House Where Nobody Lives'. Waits is on piano, the first track on this record is very reminiscent of earlier Tom Waits. It's loving and poignant, the house feels like a metaphor for loneliness and abandonment “Without love, it ain’t nothing but a house”. Fans of Foy Vance may like this song; it reminds me of 'I was made' off Foy Vance's first and best record ‘Hope’.

“House where Nobody Lives”

'Cold Water'. We've all been there. For me, Mark Ribot’s Sexy distorted guitar riff makes this track.

"Pony". Pony is a well-lived life, far from home. There are definitely times I hope my pony knows the way back home. I relate to this, as a once road-weary double bass player, you get those long drives home after a terrible gig, paid poorly, you're full questions, reflections and not quite hope.

“What’s He Building In There”. Pure experimentation, I love it, I’ve definitely wanted to know what my neighbours are doing in their sheds. Brilliantly theatrical. Like a horrifically dark American movie. It’s what happens when you let your mind get the better of you.

"What's he building in there? We have a right to know".

“What’s He Building In There”

"Black Market Baby". Sleazy romance. “She’s a diamond who wants to stay coal".

"Eyeball Kid" Sounds like it should be on the album "Bone Machine" The hypnotic percussion and chanting alongside, the angular guitar and innovative use of turntables.

"Picture Is A Frame". This is classic barroom Tom Waits, "I'm gonna love you till the wheels come off". I love the double bass tone, played by Greg Cohen; nothing is overproduced here. Great piano sound too with all the creeks and rattles which bring out the character, so refreshing to hear. Baritone sax would be one of the instruments I would love to play if I wasn't already taken. This record is anything but sanitised and is therefore perfect for vinyl.

“Picture Is A Frame”

“Chocolate Jesus”. There's something very tongue n cheek about this, a sweet deity. Recorded outside with an actual crow, crowing in the background.

“Georgia Lee” Written about a 12-year-old girl Georgia Lee Moses, who in 1997 disappeared and then was found nine days later murdered in ‘a small grove of trees’. No one was ever convicted of this horrific crime. It's a plea for answers to God asking "Why wasn't God watching? Why wasn't God there for Georgia Lee?" It reminds me of Stephen Fry's comments about why he doesn't believe in a God. The family couldn't even afford a funeral, and the community rallied to pay for it.

‘Georgia Lee’

"Filipino Box Spring Hog". After the previous track, this feels so full-on, muddy blues, great horns and turntables alongside, raw guitar and raucous percussion, there's so much space on this track. It's like beat poetry, mud wrestling blues music. The song contains so many cool characters.

"Take It With Me". I totally love the way this is recorded and played. Reminds me of my first Tom Waits album "Heart Of Saturday Night". I learnt so many things about playing double bass just from listening to that record. This track feels unlearnt and definitely not practised, but that's it's charm to me. I love the idea that you can take all the things that you love with you when you go, I hope for my mum’s sake that is true.

“Take It With Me”

“Come On Up To The House”. What a way to end this album, drenched in gospel music, that bass drum and snare are so loose, and more the wonderful for it. The best line ever “come down off the cross/we could use the wood”, “come on up to the house”, offering a piece of redemption at the end of this must-have record.

“Come On Up To The House” Sarah Jarosz cover...

My listening closely No2, is Max Richter’s, The Blue Notebooks.

Most people, if they’ve not heard this record, will have heard his music on countless films, especially the second track ‘On the nature of daylight’.

Two tracks from this album were also used in the mesmerising Israeli animated war documentary ‘Waltz for Bashir’.

‘The Blue Notebooks’ record is stunning, it’s meditation in musical form. Max Richter composed this record in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Richter described this as his ‘protest album about Iraq’ against ‘the utter futility of such armed conflict’.

The record’s power comes from the reflectiveness and melancholy he imbues this record with. Many of the pieces are sparse, with minimal accompaniment and written in minor keys, the tracks are often short in length and highly emotive.

Tilda Swinton narrates both of the readings on this record, Franz Kafka’s ‘The Blue Octavo Notebooks’, which were blue notebooks Kafka wrote aphorisms in, often short and on the important themes of the human condition, very much like this record. And Polish Poet Czeslaw Milosz’s ‘Hymn of the pearl and unobtainable earth’.

This record is classed as contemporary Classical or ambient, a similar artist would Olafur Arnalds, especially his ‘Re:member record, which I will no doubt include in my ‘listening Closely’ at some point.

Whilst doing research for my review, I discovered that the album had it’s own website you can contribute thoughts and feelings to, you can actually write in a virtual blue note book, I love this interactivity and attention to depth and meaning, making this more than about music, this record is literature, politics, culture, creativity, and the sharing of ideas. Here is the link.

Stand out tracks for me.

I love the introduction to this record. The title track ‘The blue notebooks’, has this beautiful, slightly roomy sounding piano, gradually increasing and positioning the piano somewhere off in the distance. The soft, intimately spoken vocal, is accompanied by the clanging of the keys of a typewriter and all the way through, in the background, is the ticking of a clock.

‘On the nature of daylight’, is haunting and hauntingly played, there’s something about the long repetitive notes and phrases that transports the listener. This track is predominately a string quartet piece, with the added electronic deep bass line coming in with the top line melody, which opens the whole piece up. A piece which is perfectly crafted for film too.

The album contains different instrumentation ‘Iconography’ is composed for organ and vocals and ‘Organum’ is composed for solo organ. The organ invokes something very dark sounding, brooding almost, it’s hard to separate any subjective bias I have for the Organ, as you generally only hear this in a church setting, funerals etc.. and I’m guessing this is why he used this instrumentation.

One of my favourite pieces is ‘Vladimir’s Blues’. Written for solo piano. It’s a piece about butterflies. Vladimir in the title, was a novelist and an expert in a family of butterflies called ‘The Blues’. The piano’s right hand has a repetitive oscillating theme, like the flapping of wings. There is something ephemeral about this piece, it’s 90 seconds long and butterflies have a short life span, a month, but I feel there is a deeper point being made, that humans have not been here long, a blink of the evolutionary eye, perhaps another comment on the meaninglessness of war and the devastation we wreak in such a short period of time.

The album ends with a peaceful, ruminative, solo piano piece called ‘Written on the sky’. A perfect and beautiful way to end this record of protest, anti-violence, showcasing music’s ability to comment on society.

Here’s a link to his tiny desk concert.

Hope you enjoy, stay well. JP X

Me and Cliff have been struggling to regularly meet up to play music together, mainly because of my care responsibilities and how difficult it is to travel and stay away from home.

The other week we did manage to get together and record in Cliff’s new home studio, it was such a pleasure. Cliff has put a considerable amount of time and effort into mixing the many double bass and beat box ideas we in fact both came up with. With the way things are in the world I feel this is the way we shall be working for a while, it’s wonderfully creative, like your first full band rehearsal when you’re a teenager, where everything feels possible.

Social media is a real dilemma for everyone and especially musicians. How do you stay visible if you don’t have a social media presence? There are countless ethical questions and moral dilemmas too. Musician’s surely should be just doing the music and shouldn’t have to post everything up online, my fear is that quality is slipping. How many live music videos have you seen that you’ve actually thought were any good for instance? I think social media is just another distraction in an already crazily distracting world. That said, if we need to be building our online presence to survive, then I only want to make it useful. I’m currently studying, and this has highlighted how little I actually know, how ropey my writing is and how infrequently I’ve been closely listening to music. So, I thought every week, I’ll pick an album and point people towards it. I’m hoping that it’ll open a creative and musical dialogue between us all and with a bit of luck improve, my writing, my attention and actually force me to listen to the albums I own.

My first album review is Red Hot Chili Peppers: Californication.

I picked this record because while recording in Eastbourne recently, it’s all I could listen to, the bass playing is wonderful and very melodic. The intro to this record is so exciting ‘Around the World’ has so many great textures, the start is like a Rage Against the Machine album, so full, followed by a stripped-down funk bass driven verse. The return of super innovative guitarist, John Frusciante is so apparent on this record, his unique approach, his guitar lines, his solos alongside his wonderful backing vocals, vocals which are such fun to belt along to whilst driving. He has been missed since he left.

I won’t go through all the tracks, as there are 16 of them, but the intro and verse riff on both guitar and bass is lush on the next track ‘Parallel Universe’, this track truly rocks and is the heaviest track on the album, makes me feel all young again, it’s hard to believe this album came out in 1999, over 20 years ago.

‘Scar Tissue’ was a huge single for this band, it’s in a similar vain to their biggest single to date ‘Under The Bridge’. Lyrically to me this song must be about using heroin, addiction and loneliness. The chorus indicates what it must be like to always being on the outside looking in. This song is a fantastic use of bass and guitar melody, so much space. Flea and Frusciante know how to complement each other and not get in each other’s way.

In a similar vain to ‘Scar Tissue’ is the track ‘Otherside’, this album delves emotionally deeper than previous records, commenting on subjects as broad ranging as mortality, drugs, consumerism, escapism and the breakdown of society.

I’m less of a fan of tracks like ‘Get On Top’ they’re fun but definitely of the old school RHCP and lack depth for me, my 18-year-old self wouldn’t have cared, especially if the electric bass uses a Wah-wah on it.

The album title track ‘Californication’ was ground breaking for RHCP, a song that rallies against how the world is being treated, a cry for change and for us to step away from all that has become plastic and meaningless, I remember this video was all over MTV at the time and was highly innovative.

‘Porcelain’ Is a beautiful and short song, Anthony Kiedis’s singing on the whole of this record is great and in collaboration with Frusciante’s backing vocals, it’s especially moving.

I love the bass and drums on ‘Emit Remmus’, filthy sounding, soo much space again with no one playing chords till the chorus, just that single distorted, almost feedback guitar line, really cool. In the bridge you have this double tracked electric bass, one playing punky chords and the other with a cool groove, the whole track has a real edge to it.

I’m not a fan of ‘I like Dirt’ Feels very much like an unfinished Jam, bass line is cool, but it lacks any kind of depth, the bridge guitar riff is mental sounding though. The whole track has a feel of not being finished.

‘This Velvet Glove’ is different again, reminiscent of a track from ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magic’, with the backing acoustic guitar. I do like the vocal melody and the contrast between the verses and chorus’s, the track builds really well.

I do remember ‘working out the disco octave bass line from the track ‘Right On Time’.

The album ends with the beautiful summery ‘Road Trippin’ So nice to hear a Chamberlin organ instead of the strings, it adds a Beatles era sound to it, one of the rare tracks without drums on it. I often long for the days of travelling around with my friends again, there is a melancholic layer to this record, which perhaps comes from misspent youth and time passing by too quickly.

In conclusion this band, and in particularly this album are massively influential to musicians everywhere, so many bands that practice in schools, garage’s and family’s spare rooms, can relate to the jamming feel they capture, even though they are massively successful. Their musicianship is exemplary and their creativity as songwriters is wonderful to hear, nothing feels sanitised. Credit also has to be pointed in the direction of master producer Rick Rubin, he seems to be able to inspire great records, from what I’ve heard he is pretty hands off with RHCP, but he definitely brings out the best in them.

That's it for today. Stay well and safe. JP X

©2018 by Ward & Parker