Waits - Foreign Affairs (1977)
Betty, Mister D
great raggedy duet with Miss M and Mister Waits...
Stone Magazine, FRED SCHRUERS (RS 252)
admiring audience that Tom Waits built up with his early work now worries about
him in a way that does his derelict's persona proud: when is that old boy gonna
straighten up? Closing Time was a quiet classic in 1973, but with The Heart of
Saturday Night, Small Change and Nighthawks at the Diner, the singer songwriter's
beaten raps, overflowing with pathos and Americana, had turned self-indulgent.
Affairs, fortunately, shows a resuscitation of Waits' voice and ability to write
moving lyrics. "A Sight for Sore Eyes," like his earlier "Tom Traubert's
Blues." reaches through its borrowed melody to grasp you by the shoulder;
the speaker is a still-sharp, piano-playing rummy, desperately lonely and trying
to sound offhand.
"Burma Shave" cannot be ignored. As elsewhere on this spare, unsweetened
album (no overdubs or multitracking). Waits plays his own trailing piano accompaniment
as he stacks up fresh, filmic images that make you care about this cowboy punk
and the small-town girl who hopped into his wreck. His gruff, stolid singing gives
us too little, and a bright trumpet coda gives us too much, but the song's integrity
does repeat some mistakes from his last two albums: the chief sin he can't shake
is an overabundance of the facile, researched-and-rehearsed jive talk that is
meant to dazzle but in fact fatigues the listener. "Foreign Affair,"
a song of no musical distinction, piles up smart-guy words just coy enough to
fall short of a Cole Porter parody. A second puzzling number is "Barber Shop,"
which portrays some insufferable Penrod (who talks like
Satchmo) bugging two
at least Waits is, aside from the lengthy "Potter's Field," no longer
the rag picker of mission-house cliches that we heard on the four live sides of
Nighthanks. His fascination with what Allen Ginsberg called the "spontaneous
bop prosody" of Jack Kerouac is hammered into a deft road rap called "Jack
& Neal." If "a redhead in a uniform will always get you horny"
is not a quote from Dean Moriarty, it deserves to be. The song works as a Keystone
Kops montage stitched together with a tenor sax.
seems that Waits has gotten out from under the seedy scatman's persona that marred
his recent work. His singing again shows traces of that gritty but well-modulated,
Fred Neil-like style that made Closing Time so insistent; his duet with Bette
Midler on "I Never Talk to Strangers" is ragged but right.
Waits is never less than intent and honest he pushes to his own slow, heartfelt
beat. Uneven though Foreign Affairs may be, it shows that Waits is still the kind
of performer who can make us say. "You must be reading my mail." (RS
to the hipster blues. By the time of this 1977 recording, Tom Waits had fully
transformed himself into a musical character actor from another era, caught somewhere
between Raymond Chandler and the Beat Generation. His vocals here are some of
the most mannered performances this side of Bukowski (and probably had something
to do with the movie roles he won in the coming years). His use of strings on
some of these tracks can occasionally drift dangerously close to schmaltz, but
that's easily compensated by such highlights as his duet with Bette Midler on
"I Never Talk to Strangers" and the breathless melodrama of "Burma-Shave."