Few releases this year have me as divided in my opinion as does Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits. The tribute album to Tom Waits has been garnering rapturous reviews, and on the one hand I can hear why. Waits is a consummate songwriter, and hearing some of my favorite artists – like Aimee Mann, Roseanne Cash, and a blessedly revived Corinne Bailey Rae – perform his songs is nice indeed.
At the same time, I cannot help but feel that while this album hits the marks for Waits the songwriter, it misses the point where Waits the artist is concerned. And it’s not the gender thing that’s throwing me off, not at all. The disconnection has gone on for a long time, as far back as 1974 when Eagles included “Ol’ 55” on their album On The Border. (It originally appeared on Waits’ 1973 debut Closing Time.)
Similarly, big Waits tracks like “Jersey Girl” and “Downtown Train” have become synonymous with the figures who covered the tunes (Bruce Springsteen and Rod Stewart, respectively), and still, once you’ve heard Waits do the tracks, you realize what you’re missing. Incidentally, these three tracks which are better-known from the covers than the originals are all covered again here, which I’ll get to in a moment.
This collection’s executive producer, Warren Zanes, said in a recent interview:
“I think over the years, Waits got more and more involved in the grit and the growl. He went deeper into the back of the cave, and sometimes I think people fail to see the very classic nature of the songs because of that ‘trash can’ aesthetic. We viewed it as ‘His 70th birthday is coming, and it’s a feast day, and we’re gonna take these songs and we’re gonna give them all the sweetness that we can.'”
Here’s the thing: that “trash can aesthetic” is not by happenstance, not merely the way Waits delivers the songs because he can’t do it any other way. The grit and the growl are an intrinsic part of the narrative. Take his version of “Downtown Train” from 1985’s Rain Dogs. It is, for Waits, a fairly subdued delivery but there is something extra in how he’s putting the words across. He is reaching for someone who is floating above the skyline, someone he’ll never touch from down here in the gutter. When you put those words in Rod Stewart’s mouth with all the polish and shine of the backing instrumental, the longing for attainment is gone. Of course he’ll get the girl. Just listen to him.
So too is it here. If anyone can do detached heartache and emotional distance, it is Aimee Mann, and on that one hand her version of “Hold On” does not disappoint. On the other, I don’t know. It is missing that misfit’s voice, that necessary imperfection that, when juxtaposed against the song itself, imbues it with a different quality.
Similarly, Alison Moorer and Shelby Lynne’s take on “Ol’ 55” does more to honor Eagles than Waits. That’s fine, too, but it means this heartfelt rendition would be at home more on an Eagles tribute collection.
I give Warren Zanes a lot of credit. He’s a smart guy – probably one of the smartest still kicking around the music industry. I believe he’s trying to thread a needle here which has a very tiny, narrow hole, at every turn trying to get you to recognize Waits as the songwriter, continually putting up songs the audience knows but didn’t know he wrote. Zanes is trying to bring you a revelation, and by turning up “the sweetness,” he’s making this delivery more than palatable. It is an entertaining collection of songs from a songwriter of merit.
Yet it doesn’t say much about Waits in specific. I really wish there had been a couple of extra tracks here where music’s more dangerous acts would have had a chance at the trash can aesthetic. I know for a fact that there are plenty of female artists who would have absolutely burned the barn to the ground, given the opportunity. If the binding principle of this collection was women interpreting Waits, then the artists should have had access to the entire catalog, not just the prettier parts.
As it stands presently, Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits is a well-done, if sanitized, snapshot of Tom Waits: songwriter. It could have been so much more than easy listening, but at least it is worthwhile on that surface level.