on 14 July 2010
"I was sick through that whole period. It was starting to wear on me, all the touring. I'd been traveling quite a bit, living in hotels, eating bad food, drinking a lot - too much. There's a lifestyle that's there before you arrive and you're introduced to it. It's unavoidable."
Tom Waits said this about the time the album was recorded, and these are exactly the feelings reflected on the album. Inebriated tales of drunks and hard-luck people trying to to cope with life. Disillusionment with the commercial and success. All wrapped up in drunken piano ballads and voice weary with extensive cigarette smoking and too much whiskey.
So, the atmosphere and themes are great; it's really what makes this album. But Waits doesn't just settle with this, no, he goes on to write some of the greatest tunes of his career, the most wonderful lyrics he ever wrote and delivers some of his finest vocals ever.
From the very moment the string section of "Tom Traubert's Blues" fades in, the album grips you by the heart. It gives you everything; grand weepers such as "Tom Traubert's Blues", up-beat, jazzy and groovy pieces such as "Step Right Up", bittersweet ballads like "I Wish I Was In New Orleans", funny drunk ramblings in "The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) and some darker material such as "The One That Got Away" and "Invitation To The Blues".
Every song on here has its own life, and stirs your emotions in different ways. The album is an amazing listen from both a musical and emotional point of view. Do yourself a favor and don't miss out on this one.
on 6 February 2003
I have listened to tom waits since I was a kid, (which I have my dad to thank for), and only really recently bought some of his stuff my self. However I believe that it is not too naïve of me to say that this really is one of the finest albums there is. From the opening tracks of “Tom Traubert’s Blues” and “Step Right Up” (my dads favourite), the album is decorated with melody and blues. However my favourites are the slightly insane: “The piano has been drinking (not me)” and “Pasties and a G-String” where I think his genius is most evident. Now don’t get me wrong I am by no means of the imagination any “Tom Waits” expert (hey I am only 20), though I do know great music when I hear it, and there are very, very few albums that I would give 5 stars in any kind or rating. However this has always been one of my favourites and is easily worthy of a 5 star rating. There isn’t really a great deal else that can be said without listening to the album for your self, but worth mentioning is that Waits is one of the few artist out there who has been (and still is) recognised for his talent rather than his “commercial appeal”, and for which reason, in my mind, has never sold out.
on 31 July 2001
"Small Change", in my opinion, is the finest addition to the Tom Waits cannon, and the best example I can think of of an album that consistently showcases brilliant songwriting. The quality never wavers, and the tone is more personal than on many other Waits albums. The result is a bar-stool confessional, life as seen through the whisky glass; hard luck stories told for anybody who cares to listen...all to a soundtrack that is both bluesy, jazzy, and beatnik-funky. Wait's pre-eminence as a writer has long earned him kudos from more prominent artists, and the classic opener on this album ("Tom Traubert's Blues") gave Rod Stewart (a confirmed Waits fan) an unlikely chart hit a few years back. This is a sorry, booze-soaked tale of unrequited love, underpinned by a lush, stringed arrangement that lends it a festive air, which wouldn't seem out of place on Heart Attack and Vine. Next up is the beat-poet satire on the mania of commerce that is "Step Right Up"...here Waits adopts the voice of a "closing down, everything must go" salesperson of irrelevant specificity - the song's all-embracing intentions are brilliantly inscribed with a wonderfully timed bit of scat singing as Waits recites "that's right you too can be the proud owner of this quality hoosay boosing boosong..!!" Classic. Waits wouldn't look out of place in the company of the contemporary literati. "Jitterbug Boy" is another boozy confessional, with Waits's down-on-his-luck narrator sounding as though he'd had a few too many before collaring a bar neighbour to spew out some unlikely stories to ("once upon a time I was in showbiz too..")...a similar tone but possibly even more pathetic (and beautiful sounding) lament arrives later with "Bad liver and a broken heart". In this, another alcoholic, sorry tale of unrequited love, Waits muses on the girl who "tore him apart", and in just a couple of pointed metaphors conveys a girl to die for: "she was sharp as a razor, and soft as a prayer." All the songs on this album are worth a mention. "The piano has been drinking" (not me!) is an hilarious description of a shabby late night boozer in a series of compressed metaphors ("the spotlight looks like a prizon break") in which the singer subtly suggests that maybe he is as lurid as everything else about the place; and yet comes out of it engagingly qualified in a turn of phrase as comic as it is acerbic ("the owner is a mental midget with the IQ of a fencepost".) This is a truly great album, at turns moving, funny, voyeuristic (witness the leering narrator of the album's second beat poem, "Pasties and a G-String", in which he confesses "I'm getting harder than Chinese Algebra" whilst ogling over strippers in a - you've guessed it - late night joint.) Overall, "Small Change" is an ingeniously written, booze-soaked love-poem to the late night wino life of the big American cities - by the unlikeliest crooner of them all.
A splendidly-named movement teacher, Jo Jelly, had the honour of introducing me to the magisterial Tom Waits. At drama college in `76, the year of the release of Small Change, she would put on Tom Traubert`s Blues, the opener of this now-classic album, first thing every session while we did our warm-up exercises - unlikely as that sounds. I couldn`t believe my ears, and very soon asked Jo who the guy was with the improbable voice singing such a unique song, with its Walzing Matilda refrain. (What endeared me to her forever was that she would then play Bonnie Raitt, whom I hadn`t then heard either. I have a lot to thank Jo for.)
Those reviewers who complain that TW seemed to be creating a self-myth on the back of his influences - well of course he was, and to some extent still is. Let`s say it loud & clear: Tom is a Romantic, a dirt-literate roughhouse ring-master who wears his Howlin` Wolf/Cap`n Beefheart influences on his worn sleeve, a breath of unfresh air in the wonderful wacky world of pop back in the faraway 70s, and still going strong, having discovered sobriety, family life, more things to hit and bash on than a piano - a drinking one or not - and a way with words almost unequalled by any of his peers.
After the lush, exquisite Tom Traubert`s Blues comes a parodic cascade of ad-man exhortations in the form of Step Right Up, which tries to sell you the ultimate gizmo that`ll do it all & more:
"It makes excuses for unwanted lipstick on your collar
and it`s only a dollar..."
This is the wittiest, wildest rap you`ll ever hear:
"It entertains visiting relatives"
Not only that:
"It walks your dog, and it doubles on sax...
gives you an erection, wins the election"
The rest of this carefully-programmed set of songs (Waits has invariably taken care with all aspects of his records) is a mix of sensuous ballads and humorous `raps`, one of the funniest being Pasties & A G-String, with its sudden cry of: "Cleavage, cleavage!"
Some of the slow songs are too beautiful to be true, surely his raspy voice giving them a rough, roguish grandeur a smoother-voiced singer would miss - as indeed Rod Stewart did, for example, when he covered Waits` later Downtown Train.
Two standout tracks among the sumptuous ballads are the gorgeous I Wish I Was In New Orleans...
"Well I wish I was in New Orleans, I can see it in my dreams
Arm in arm down Burgundy, a bottle and my friends and me"
...and the closer I Can`t Wait To Get Off Work, a brief song that pretty much does what the title implies:
"I can`t wait to get off work and see my baby,
She said she`d leave the porch light on for me"
The whole album, from the seedy, oh-so-posed cover pic to the bleary-neon lyrics and faux-Sinatra sensiblities, is a masterpiece of swashbuckling mock-flamboyant 2am sleaze, wrapped up in the plushest of plush arrangements (courtesy of Jerry Yester) with the additional jazz-accented bounce of Lew Tabackin`s sax & none other than the great Shelley Manne on drums.
Then there`s the song that comes halfway through the set, the musically inebriated The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me) - whose lyrical & musical eccentric drollery I`ll happily leave you to discover for yourself.
This is one album that keeps on giving. I first heard it (can it be?) 35 years ago,
so one or two tracks I know almost too well, but it`s a wonderful disc to return to, at 2am or anytime.
Tom Waits - he stands `on the shoulders of giants` yet manages to be a complete original.
I love everything about this album, even the trashy cover. And on the back there's a fabulous black and white pic of Waits smoking Lucky Strikes, taken by Bruce Weber (director of the fabulous Chet Baker biopic Let's Get Lost), that's shameful in it's power to make impressionable youths want to take up smoking.
I'm quite proud to say I'm not amongst those whose favourite-ever Waits song is 'Tom Traubert's Blues'. Don't get me wrong, it's a good 'un. I mean, this is Tom Waits after all, and at the peak of his powers. But I've always found it slightly odd that so much hyperbole has been expended on this particular track. Personally I prefer the understated Tin Pan Alley melancholy sophistication of 'Invitation To The Blues', or 'Bad Liver And A Broken Heart'. And those are just tracks I prefer over TTB from this album, it certainly doesn't make my top ten Waits' tunes list, it's not even close.
'Step Right Up' and 'Pasties And A G-String' are from the more upbeat end of his spoken word raps, both highly entertaining. I love how, in the former, the band are so much into it that one of them lets out a howl at one point. I don't know this for sure, but I believe it's drummer Shelly Manne. Waits must've had some kind of mojo-inducing effect on drummers (he certainly does on me, and I'm a drummer!), as he elicited some rare vocal harmonies from John Seiter on Closing Time.
Whilst the quality of tunes isn't 100% even, as with most Waits albums from this period, it's nonetheless the combined package that makes the whole so effective. Sure there are standout tracks, but nothing here is mere filler (or, if some might think tracks like 'I Wish I Was In New Orleans', 'The Piano Has Been Drinking', or 'Pastries And A G-String', could be called filler, then I don't care, it's some pretty damn fine filler!), and with stories as compelling as 'The One that Got Away' and 'Small Change', and songs as enchanting as 'Jitterbug Boy'... It's just a magical slice of something that seems to exist both outside of time, and yet be elusively very much a vintage moment long gone by.
The quality of lost melancholy yearning that Waits captures so well was a speciality of his hero Kerouac, who was expert at it, right from his first novel, the brilliant The Town and the City, through to more mature and experimental books like the magnificent Doctor Sax. And indeed, Waits nods to his erstwhile mentor in the subtitle to the song 'Bad Liver And A Broken Heart (In Lowell)'. This is Waits in his quintessential beat mode, and he does it unbelievably well. People are divided about whether he was genuine, or putting it on. I don't think anyone can really act this well without becoming the character they inhabit.
on 5 September 2007
Small Change is where Tom Waits' sound changed for the first major time - but not musically, as it would drastically in the 80s. No, the big change here is VOCALLY - Waits' voice now a deep, drunken, often slurring croak. This not-so-small change takes some getting used to, but if you do you will enjoy one of Tom's best works, intelligent, emotional and beautiful.
1. Tom Traubert's Blues - Paraphrasing Waltzing Matilda, Waits' voice ( low, slow, and croaking ) is completely different to his first 3 albums. However, if this piano-led ballad is slightly overlong it's moving and defining, and went on to be covered by Rod Stewart.
2. Step Right Up - A jazzier, upbeat number, with a repetitive riff and a giddy Waits rapping over the top. Fun and a good example of the album's clever sequencing, stopping the mood from becoming monotone which was the only real flaw of Nighthawks At The Diner.
3. Jitterbug Boy. Slurring more than ever, Waits tells tall stories over his piano again. More lyrical genius, and worth sticking with.
4. I Wish I Was In New Orleans. Showing perhaps the biggest debt to Satchmo, this really is reminiscent of Louis Armstrong and again more ballad-like.
5. The Piano Has Been Drinking ( Not Me ). More cleverness here from Tom, check out the line about not being able to find the waitress with a geiger-counter. Like speaking to the piano player in the bar on Closing Time only to find he's inebriated, it's a highlight here, with much typical sly Tom humour.
6. Invitation To The Blues. One of the more accessible songs here, this is another story-song but not as eccentric as it would be on, say, Blue Valentine. More downbeat than the preceding number.
7. Pasties & a G-String. Tom's extremely risque lyrics ( harder than Chinese Algebra? Make a dead man come? ) fit over his deliberately goofy percussion and almost Jungle Book-style vocalisation. It's one of his first rhythm based songs & points to the future.
8. Bad Liver & A Broken Heart. Another high point, with the utterly desperate narrator's confusion spelt out over a beautiful piano melody ( with snippets of "As Time Goes By" to enhance the track.
9. The One That Got Away. A bluesier number pointing toward Blue Valentine, with Waits' merciless descriptions of urban crime and the selfishness of the people caught up in this.
10. Small Change. Only a lone wailing sax and Tom's sing-speak voice drive another lyrical song. Listen to the tale and be anything but bored.
11. I Can't Wait To Get Off Work. A more humorous and upbeat piano-led number again. A sweetening closer after the drama of the 2 previous, darker numbers.
on 3 February 2004
This is without a doubt one of the finest collections of music I have ever had the pleasure of owning and i feel it is the jewel in Waits' crown. A masterpiece of arrangements and lyrics which are undeniably Tom and which you will not find anywhere else. This album is an insightful and emotional journey through late night America where Waits is most at home. Slow, often painful melodies guide the listener through the sinews of the musicians mind where euphony and cacophony sit side by side surrounded my metaphors both obvious and obscure. If you are into good music, make that great music of any kind then you could not but appreciate this album. You will not be disappointed.
on 27 November 1999
I have been a Tom Waits fan for many years, and for me Small Change marks the peak of his talent. Despite being a gifted pianist and singer, Tom always says that words are his main instrument, and you have only to listen to "Tom Trauberts Blues" or "I Wish I was in New Orleans" to realise this is the case.
This album is a little known classic, and will wring every emotion from your heart as you listen to it.
on 12 November 2015
Small change is an immense album for a late night melancholic solo session. It isn’t for everyone but neither is Laphroaig or Yamasaki, either of which complements this Steppenwolfs soundtrack perfectly. Indulge yourself. Let small change fill your room and enter your consciousness. You will feel better for it.
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.