1976 – Asylum
Blues/ Jazz/ Rock
Tom Waits’ record Small Change fits nicely in with the chronology of the Asylum years in its drunken wanderings through the darkened American streets of a fictional noir world created by Waits. This may sound predictable and cliché after so many albums, and in some ways it is, but there are actually quite a few really quite good tracks on this record.
Tom Traubert’s Blues, the opening track, for example is pretty standard for Tom Waits at this point in his career with its growling lamentations and hackneyed string section, but somehow it is really quite endearing and oddly catchy. I found myself singing along at points, which really is rather odd for me, as I’m not usually one to croon along with the ballads. I would say, however, that while Tom Traubert’s Blues is quite nice as a melancholic dirge, at nearly seven minutes it goes on for perhaps a little too long and begins to drag towards the end. The follow up track Step Right Up, however, really picks this record up from its dirty streetscape and really shows off Waits’ skill at performance artist cum carnie-barker. The music on this track is sparser too which, to my mind, is really a better sound than the lavish string sections accompanying Waits’ adequate piano playing. The bare bones jazz sound is really rather delicious.
Unfortunately, however, the ballads overcrowd this record with very little of Waits’ lively jazz to pick it up, which makes it all a little bit depressing and occasionally verging on boring. Jitterbug Boy and Bad Liver And A Broken Heart, for example, are just that little bit too much. They run on for too long and, while their lyrics are well crafted, they tend to let the flow of the record stagnate. Really I would just liked to have heard more upbeat or self-consciously humorous numbers like Step Right Up or Pasties And A G-String, but instead I was given such overly romantic pap as I Can’t Wait To Get Off Work.
Now, I’m not saying that all the ballads on Small Change are terrible. In fact, The Piano Has Been Drinking and I Wish I Was In New Orleans are really quite magnificent in their slurred delivery and uninhibited drunken construction. It’s just that I would have preferred slightly less of them, and after four of them in a row I just started getting a little tired of the oppressive sense of hopelessness that pervades Small Change.
I will say, though, that The One That Got Away and the title track Small Change are really something quite special with their Bukowski style poetry and delivery. It’s as if Tom Waits is just telling you a story to the sounds of smooth jazz, and this spoken word format is really very welcome after hearing his drunken inability to follow melody in Bad Liver And A Broken Heart. The music on these two tracks is also something quite brilliant with a throbbing double bass, finger clicks to keep time, and a howling saxophone that emphasizes every smoky metaphor and booze ridden shadow.
In conclusion I would say that Small Change is really not the best Tom Waits album, and I would doubt if it even comes close to being the best record of the Asylum years, but there are some very good tracks on it. It is predictable and cliché in many parts and that really is quite a large downside, but I think that the stand-out tracks are good enough that they make up for the inadequacies.
If I was going to recommend a Tom Waits album to buy, this would definitely not be it, but all the same it’s not one to actively avoid.
One of the wickedly hilarious tracks from Tom Waits’ 1976 record ‘Small Change’
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