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Tom Waits; Scarlett Johansson; Bob Dylan

My first encounter with the music of Tom Waits happened while I was working at Boeing back in the early 90’s. I always claimed a fairly broad brush when it came to musical tastes, but I’d primarily been listening to Journey, David Sanborn (as well as other smooth jazz of the time), Jethro Tull and various other bits of rock, new age, punk and what have you. Tull was my new love, suggested by a coworker, and has, for the last 17 years, dominated my ‘go-to’ album collection.

Another co-worker at Boeing suggested Tom Waits. He (coworker, not Tom) was a diminutive, quirky little guy who had trouble catching on to simple concepts. He was eventually terminated for making, as well as carrying out, some physical threats against the rest of us. It’s sad I’ve completely blocked his name…

But before that whole ball of fun, he made me a mix tape — yes, that’s weird now that I think about it — of Tom Waits songs. I popped it into the tape deck exactly once and found it completely, utterly unlistenable. Of course at the time I didn’t have any inkling or clue to his influence, nor did I pay one bit of mind to the lyrics in a song (a trend that mostly continues to today, when, very recently, my wife told me that the lyrics of a particular song I rather enjoy were about suicide… I’d no idea). I found him unlistenable in the same way I like to hear other people play Dylan songs. Outside of the Travelling Wilburys, I’ve never been able to listen to a whole album (sincere apologies to both Bill and Paul on that, I know you’ll be disappointed in me!).

After that one listen I lost the tape. I’d not put my mind on Tom Waits for years.

So fast forward to many months ago when I read that Scarlett Johansson was releasing an album. This had to be at least entertaining, I thought to myself, knowing that many of the actors-turned-singers don’t do all that well. And then I read the news that it would be a cover of Tom Waits songs.

Oh, this will be rich. 

So on day 1 of availability, I purchased the tracks on iTunes. I read the reviews as I listened to them and tended to agree with the negative ones.

If you’re looking for an album where, by the end, you know how good a vocalist Scarlett Johansson is, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

Her vocals are mixed way down, they often seem just a tad beyond her range, high or low, and they’re delivered with an amount of energy that earns a “phoned-in” allegation for most performers. It’s soft, dreamy, padded with complex instrumentation. I kept thinking of it as “this would be really nice backings for a good Roger Waters” song. The mix has an overall Pink-Floyd-ish slant to it.

I played it a couple of times to give it its fair shake but it sat largely forgotten in the depths of my iPod.

One day on the way home from somewhere, Zoe was demanding music in the car and, frankly, I’d had enough of The Lion Sleeps Tonight and my aging collection of Smooth Jazz, so I rolled it over to the playlist I’d set up for the Scarlett Johansson album and hit play.

Three songs into it, Zoe was sound asleep.

I did this again and again. If she was even remotely tired, out she’d go. Bang! I’d found a purpose for this disc!

But this funny thing happened on the way to toddler dreamland — I started seriously listening to what was happening on the record. I started listening to the lyrics. The songs are miraculous. I see now why Tom Waits is so revered. His lyrics paint a picture, sometimes precise, sometimes abstract. There’s a sense of the way he sees the world.

And the CD brings all of that wide out in the open, sets a panoramic wall of sound to match the lyrical vision, and drives each and every song home.

I still don’t know what SJ sounds like. I don’t care. I love this album and not just for its mesmerizing effects on the under-4-foot crowd.

So now that I got Tom Waits, I was prepared to drop coin on iTunes and really check him out. I listened to 20 track samples.

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even spend 99 cents on the man. I find it, I find him still, un-listenable. It’s as though Cannibal Corpse went Folk Americana, combining the worst parts of the Death Growl and archaic country-western.

So I shall continue appreciating him from afar and vicariously through starlet’s vanity projects.

On the other hand, I took the change I was planning on spending on Waits and I cherry picked a few tracks from The Essential Bob Dylan. Time to give him another try. Maybe in time I’ll earn Paul and Bill’s forgiveness.

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