This is a sublime recording.
When I first bought it on vinyl in my early twenties, I'd come to Waits via two rather odd poles of his output, namely Closing Time, his rather sweet and innocent sounding debut, and Big Time, a mostly live recording (there was also an oddball concert movie of the the same name, documenting his rather different post Swordfishtrombones sound). Around the same time I also bought Small Change, and these two records were on heavy rotation for years after that, and remain solid favourites to this day.
Having done several albums with the brilliant rhythm section team of Jim Hughart on bass, and Shelly Manne on drums, Waits decided to change up the groove, so to speak. Having worked, in the studio at least, with a fairly stable team of players for several years, he goes for more of a pick-up band vibe, using several combinations of players on the one album. Getting a bit more raw, bluesy and electric, he brings in electric bass and keys, the latter a real rarity in most of his recorded output (numerous exceptions to this general rule can be found, but it still remains true that he usually prefers an acoustic piano). Swapping his acoustic guitar for a hollow bodied jazz style electric guitar, and bringing in such sidemen as R&B scenesters guitarist Harold Bautista and bassist Scott Edwards, and funky jazzers like Charles Kynard on keys, and Chip White on drums - nearly all black guys incidentally - Waits thereby getting a much grittier urban sound than he'd previously gone for.
There's a great photo, taken by Michael Dobo in 1975, of Waits on a tour bus, reading Last Exit to Brooklyn, and, on recordings like Blue Valentine and Heartattack And Vine you can really hear that influence. Waits revels in stories of sleazy urban low-life (even West Side Story's 'Somewhere' is a brief romantic respite from an otherwise fairly bleak tale of gangland strife, famously reworking Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, then there's 'Red Shoes By The Drugstore' and 'Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis', in which he relates tales of minor hoodlum loserdom, whilst 'Wrong Side Of The road' and 'Whistlin' Past The Graveyard' approach the panegyric in celebrating the mythical delinquent outlaw outsider), and, both here and on Vine, the more sordid end of that world, with numerous songs dealing in violence and death ('Romeo Is Bleeding', '$29.00', and 'A Sweet Little Bullet From A Pretty Blue Gun').
The whole album is brilliant, but personal favourites include the sleazy groove of 'Romeo Is Bleeding', whose rhythm section benefits from congas, a sizzle ride cymbal, and one of the best reverb treated cross-stick snares I've ever heard recorded, not to mention Kynard's extremely funky keys work. In ways this harks back to Waits' raps of earlier years - in essence it's a recitation with a bit of a chorus - but it's reached a point where the musical backdrops have grown in sophistication. Then there's strings and vocal feature (and a rare instance of Waits recording someone else's composition), 'Somewhere', from West Side Story, with the ever reliable Bob Alcivar, who added so much to so many of Waits' best recordings, working his magic to stunning effect: it's just Waits gravelly voice and the phenomenally well arranged and recorded strings, and it packs a real punch, far better than any classical or stage recordings of Bernstein's music I've ever heard.
And then, leaving aside 'Somewhere', as it's not a Waits original, there are the two really beautiful emotionally wrought ballads: 'Kentucky Avenue', the only solo piano ballad (albeit there are some strings towards the end) which can reduce boulders to tears, and the fabulous title track, which Waits delivers more-or-less solo, except for a great bluesy electric guitar solo from Ray Crawford (Crawford was originally a reeds player, which explains why his phrasing as a guitar player is so exquisite and expressive). Tom Waits was, and no doubt still is, one unbelievably cool cat, and this music drips soul. Not bad for a white guy! When I first owned the album, I spent ages trying to learn and reproduce 'Blue Valentines': the guitar part is pretty simple in most respects, so copping the chords and arrangement wasn't hard, but what I could never nail satisfactorily was the nuanced rhythm Waits brings to it, and then there's that voice.
I mostly only review stuff I really like, so I often give five stars. This album tho', if I could only give it ten, it really is that good!
on 11 July 2000
Blue Valentine is one of those rare albums which can move you through the complete range of emotions. From the cautious optimism of 'Somewhere', through the desperately sad 'Postcard from a hooker in Minneapolis', to the sparkling genius of 'Red Shoes', this album is quite brilliant. 'Romeo is bleeding' tells the tale of a gang leader dying after a confrontation with the police; '29 dollars' tells the story of a new girl in town being picked up by the wrong sort of guy, and Mr. Waits has truly saved the best till last: The title track is the last cut, and I defy you not to be truly moved by the intensity of Tom Waits' singing and the sparse guitar playing. Every track tells a story - each worthy of it's own attention - this is one of those must-haves.
on 12 February 2011
I never thought I would be writing a Tom Waits review but here I am. A very good friend of mine, (thank you so very much, Mr. Robertson...) actually bought this album for me and had it sent to my home. Well, many months later, I now own nearly all of Tom Waits albums. I am now of course, a hopeless Mr. Waits addict, even more surprising is that I normally listen to bands such as Tool, Rush and Black Sabbath. However, Mr. Waits simply transcends musical genres and I love him for it, he is an absolute genius who writes, sings and plays, from the heart.
The album is just so atmospheric, dense and evocative, that I never tire of listening to it. It is the kind of album into which the listener simply disappears and what a dark honour it is to inhabit this blue, smoky world. From the other worldly opening of 'Somewhere' with its bold, redemptive optimism, "We'll find a new way of living, a new way, of forgiving..." to the desolate, heartbreaking portrait of dark love on album closer, 'Blue Valentines' you know you are in the prescence of greatness. This is still my favourite Tom Waits album and is now one of my favourite albums of all time.
These are the songs of the lost and the lonely and tracks like 'Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis' feature some of the best lyrics I have ever heard, "I'd buy me a used car lot and I wouldn't sell any of 'em, I'd just drive a different car each day, dependin' on how I feel...' Beautiful.
Other highlights are 'Red Shoes By The Drugstore' with brilliant lines like, "As the rain splashed the nickel and spilled like Chablis all along the midway..." and "There's a dark huddle at the bus stop, umbrellas arranged in a sad bouquet..." There are a book full of ideas in one song.
'Kentucky Avenue' is pure heartbreak, with such an unusual angle on a relationship that I would defy anyone not to be moved by it. The closing lines, "Put a church key in your pocket, we'll hop that freight train in the hall, we'll slide all the way down the drain, to New Orleans, in the fall...' are simply wonderful.
Blue Valentine really does approach perfection and cannot be recommended too highly. My love affair with Mr. Waits continues with every album, each one evokes its own character, its own world and to inhabit these worlds is just such sweet, sweet surrender.
on 18 August 2004
This is the second Tom Waits album I bought, the first being 'Raindogs', and it firmly established him as my favourite lyricist ever.
The music is dark and sometimes sleazy but also has a great romantic feel to it, couple this with superb lyrics and you have a gem of an album.
Buy this and enlighten yourself!!
on 15 September 2008
I hope that when people refer to 'Blue Valentine' as Waits' most accessible album it is not in any way to invalidate the poetry and majesty of this great, great record. Personally, I wish latterly that he would try to be a little more accessible: I've read rave reviews of everything post 'Frank's Wild Years,' through 'Bone Machine,' 'Mule Variations,' 'Alice,' 'Blood Money' to 'Real Gone,' etc., but none of these can possibly touch the heart in the way of 'Blue Valentine' or 'The Heart Of Saturday Night,' the latter, along with 'One From The Heart' and 'Closing Time' (which started it all) for me being by far his most accessible and radio-friendly work. 'Blue Valentine,' though patently melodic through-and-through, is the album where Tom makes the leap from the beat poetry, sub-Bukowski personae of albums like 'Small Change' (though a classic of its genre) and 'Nighthawks At The Diner' etc., to a fully-fledged cinematic painter-with-words. The poetry of 'Red Shoes By The Drugstore,' 'Romeo Is Bleeding,' 'Kentucky Avenue' and the brilliant title track itself cannot be denied. They are almost too perfect. No songwriter alive pays greater attention to the minutest details of life lived in the raw, and none can romanticise the seedier side better than the master. Buy this album, because it pays back in buckets.
I have only recently replaced my vinyl copy of this 1978 Tom Waits classic with a CD version, and, following a number of recent listens, felt compelled to put to pen to paper in acknowledgement of what is an outstanding album. It was on Blue Valentine (his 5th studio album release) that Waits' voice really reached its most gravelliest (following its gradual transition through his preceding records), and where (coincidentally or not) Waits wrote a set of predominantly blues-based songs which are, for me, unsurpassed in his body of work.
Blue Valentine kicks off with an astonishing version of Bernstein's Somewhere, the climactic (and sad) love song from West Side Story. With a great orchestral (and jazz trumpet) backing, Waits' vocal rendition is an amazing mix of typical growls and soaring crooned phrases ('some day, somewhere'). Thereafter, the album contains a series of mainly hard-driving blues-inspired songs (Red Shoes By The Drugstore, Romeo Is Bleeding, Wrong Side Of The Road, A Sweet Little Bullet From A Pretty Blue Gun, and the slightly overlong $29.00 - my only minor gripe with the album), displaying, with more skill and dexterity than any previous Waits album, this songwriter's total command of urban (albeit, perhaps small-town urban) poetry, with his tales of love, sex, violence and low-life in downtown America. This style of Waits (lyrical) writing is (for me) at its most compelling and poignant on the beautifully heartfelt Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis - really, there are no further words necessary to describe a song with such a perfectly judged title ('Hey Charlie I think about you every time I pass a filling station, on account of all the grease you used to wear in your hair').
The remaining songs on the album include the (unusually) up-tempo Whistlin' Past The Graveyard, which is another brilliant lyrical tour-de-force ('My eyes have seen the glory of the draining of the ditch') and whose rhythm is generated by the legendary Scott Edwards (of Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and even T.Rex fame) on bass and the equally notable Earl Palmer on drums (Palmer having played on early Little Richard and Fats Domino records). The (near-) title song Blue Valentines features another impassioned Waits' vocal and tells a story of down-and-out fugitive (possibly from a crime scene, but more likely from an abandoned lover) who won't return Valentine's Day greetings to an erstwhile sweetheart. For me, however, the album's highpoint is the ballad masterpiece that is Kentucky Avenue. This is one of those rare pieces of music that fuses melody, lyrics and underlying narrative (meaning) to perfection, and (for me) Waits delivers his most outstanding vocal rendition here (surpassing other classic Waits' ballads such as Grapefruit Moon, Martha, Burma Shave, On The Nickel, etc) as he tells his simple, childhood story of friendship with a Mark Twain-like rustic poignancy ('I'll take a rusty nail and scratch your initials on my arm'). I regard Kentucky Avenue up there with the likes of other such rare examples as Thunder Road, Sunday Morning, Life On Mars, Black Honey, Like A Rolling Stone, Every Time We Say Goodbye, Sea Diver, Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want, etc. For me it really is that good.
Yes - definitely one of my wisest recent CD purchases.
Following on from the excellent, if patchier, Foreign Affairs, this album is Waits at his least compromising, most musically and lyrically assured, which is more than can be said for its follow-up, Heartattack & Vine - but that`s another story.
Unusually for a TW record, this features electric piano on many tracks, courtesy of a guy sporting the unlikely moniker of Da Willie Gonga (he`s actually well-known funk keyboardist George Duke, moonlighting away from his normal habitat).
Tom Waits singing Somewhere sounds like something rare and risky, until one remembers - and I do remember - PJ Proby`s not entirely dissimilar 60s hit with this
dramatic West Side Story standout. Waits sings it straight, and makes it his own, backed by the most opulent strings you ever did hear.
After being lulled by such a lush opener, things get down to business with Red Shoes By The Drugstore, a jumpy, percussive sung-spoken number that is vintage 70s Waits.
Christmas Card From A Hooker...is a wonderfully jaded, drained song with a welcome
dose of Tom`s piano duetting eloquently with Duke`s electric keys, Waits sounding a lot like he used to on his earlier albums. It`s a perfect example of Waits the romantic chronicler of down-and-out, downtown backstreet America...
"I`ll be eligible for parole, come Valentine`s Day"
It`s one of Waits` most heartfelt vocals. A great song.
Romeo Is Bleeding is another half-spoken number, with a suitably jazzy backing, a snazzy organ in there too this time, not to mention a fine tenor sax solo by Frank Vicari.
$29 has always been a favourite of mine. This leisurely 8-minute track not only saunters along like the sleaziest of blues songs, it has a killer hook at the end of each verse built around the phrase "29 dollars and an alligator purse" (pronounced by Waits most of the time as "poisse"). Oh, and dig this canny couplet:
"you say your ex old man was a sax player,
he`ll say, Baby I used to play bass for Sly"
Other highlights for me are the two ballads Kentucky Avenue, which is as moving a song as Tom ever came up with, utterly beautiful, and the album`s closer, the brief Blue Valentines, both sung to a minimal backing of mainly his own piano.
Tom was still walking out with Rickie Lee Jones (the lucky devil) when he made this triumphant record, and it really is one of his very best. He rarely if ever seems to
be `doing a Tom Waits` or striking a pose, as even his biggest fans (me, for example) recognise he would do at times, for good or ill.
Blue Valentine is not only a confident improvement on Foreign Affairs, it was to be his finest studio effort until Swordfishtrombones signalled an irrevocable - and no
doubt much-needed - change of musical direction five years later.
Beguiling, captivating, marvellous.
on 26 January 2011
Tom Waits observes a twilight world of life where little happines is expected (or received) by its inhabitants.
If you come from a comfortable background, he whisks you back instantly to times when you've missed your train or bus home and there won't be another until morning and you don't have the money for a taxi and home's twenty miles away and it's bitterly cold. Your only choice is to walk! What you see and experience on those long journeys home are other people's everyday reality. There's no cosy home to end up at! There's no hole in the wall machine ever going to dispense anything to them. If they're hungry and cold, they're going to have to think of some way of solving their problems - they're unlikely to receive much kindness from anyone they meet (they may be lucky enough to know where the Salvation Army are handing out food) They're beneath contempt to anyone better-off than they are (and that's pretty much everyone!
It's against this backdrop that Tom brings characters to life. They may live this life, they may have escaped this life or they may be heading for this life. Tom can eerily lay their thoughts and actions and the actions of people they meet in front of you in vivid detail. There's a savage beauty to his writing that does mark him out as a genius. Oh! I know that term gets bandied about to anyone who comes up with something half decent or is currently fashionable. Jarvis Cocker made a pretty good attempt at describing this world in 'Common People', but Tom goes much, much further. One thing is certain, if you get into his music, you're unlikely to view those living rough in the same way ever again - you might just become a better person!
My advice would be to start with 'Blue Valentine', if you like it, follow it with 'Heartattack and Vine' and carry on from there - by now you will be ready to appreciate any of his albums! ONCE YOU APPRECIATE WHAT HE DOES, TRY TO SEE HIM LIVE!!!
on 26 January 2009
Tom Waits conjures up images of hoodlums, prostitutes, broken hearts, whisky and dope set against a backdrop of dark, rain-drenched American streets. Bluesy, slow, menacing, growling. His best album along side Swordfishtrombones. 'Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis' is a sad, brilliant song. It starts off telling the recipient of the Christmas card (Charley) that she's doing OK and thinks about him often. Towards the end of the song she comes clean and confesses that she doesn't have the life she began describing. In fact, she needs money for when she's eligable for parole on Valentines Day. No description can do it justice so just buy it and listen.
This album contains some beautiful lyrics. Red Shoes by the Drugstore contains my favourite ever lyric line. Just two lines. 'There's a dark huddle at the bus stop, Umbrellas arranged in a sad bouquet'. Such atmosphere! Such poetry! I'm getting carried away.
In short, a really good album and one of my all time favourites.
on 17 August 2012
In 1980 someone who's pants I desperately wanted visitation rights to gave me this instead. They were married. It would never have worked. I was very put out trying to make sense of the message, thinking I had been short changed. It was on tape to boot-you remember those things, cassettes..shudder. I know, I know-there are cassette fan clubs but really. So, when I had recovered, a pint of Guinness or two later and spent many a lonely hour in my single bed, singlely alone listening to this I came to accept the inevitable. Instead of being short changed, I had been given a treasure. It remains the only Tom Waits album i still listen to entirely. Tell a lie I loathe "Somewhere". But it has nine stand-up and salute tracks including "Red Shoes by the Drugstore" and of course "Blue Valentine". If you like smoky, torch ballad jazz with raspy vocals and piano soul then you just might like this. I did. I still do. And wherever you are today Missus-cheers.