Listening closely. No 3 - Tom Waits Mule Variations.

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...



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