This review is from: Small Change (Audio CD)
This 1976 album was Tom Waits' third and it began to mark the real transition of the singer's voice into his now trademark 'gravelly' sound. Not coincidentally, this period also saw Waits' drinking habits representing an increasing problem for him, and many of Small Change's songs touch on the subject of alcohol addiction and other maudlin themes of depression and isolation. Despite the perhaps downbeat aura of the album though, it features some of the most sublime melodies that Waits' has been responsible for, as well as containing some of the most poetic and witty lyrics that this ace scribbler has ever produced. Sound-wise, the tenor saxophone of jazz player Lew Tabackin is also given prominence in the form of a number of featured solos.
The album kicks off with one of Waits' greatest (and most emotionally charged) songs, the exquisite Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets To The Wind In Copenhagen). This song, which is dedicated to a female Danish musician that Waits met whilst on tour in Denmark, features a heavenly Waits' trademark string arrangement and incorporates elements of the Australian song Waltzing Mathilda to Waits' own melody. Tom Traubert's Blues sets the pace for a series of beautiful ballads included on Small Change, most notably Invitation To The Blues, which has a strong blues feel including some haunting saxophone from Tabackin, Jitterbug Boy, where Waits reflects, via a brilliantly slurred vocal, on past imagined encounters with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Marilyn Monroe and Rocky Marciano, and Bad Liver And A Broken Heart, which opens (and ends) with the chords of As Time Goes By before Waits launches into a tragic tale of alcoholism but peppered with some superb lyrics ('And some guy's trying to sell me watch, and so I'll meet you at the bottom of a bottle of bargain Scotch').
In addition to Small Change's outstanding ballads, in Step Right Up the album also features one of Waits' greatest up-tempo songs featuring a brilliant set of lyrics, as, taking the role of a market stall trader, Waits embarks on a non-stop tirade of unmissable bargains in one of the most scathing parodies of consumerism ever written ('it entertains visiting relatives, it turns a sandwich into a banquet`), all accompanied by the vibrant playing of Jim Hughart's bass and Tabackin's sax. In fact, Small Change's lyrics are of such quality that even on the somewhat lesser songs here, for example The One That Got Away and the album's title track, these are transformed into a veritable poetry reading, all to the tune of Tabackin's haunting sax.
A musical and lyrical tour-de-force.