- November 26, 2019
- Kim Ruehl
- Album Reviews
by Kim Ruehl (@kimruehl), Folk Alley
Tom Waits has long been championed as one of the finest contemporary songwriters. And though some laud his raspy vocal delivery as something raw and honest, others find it challenging to enjoy. Lucky for those of us who fall into the latter camp, Dualtone Records has amassed a collection of singers to deliver Waits’ finest compositions in a more listenable manner.
Come On Up to the House: Women Sing Waits doesn’t follow a new concept, necessarily. Tori Amos went after something similar with her 2001 album Strange Little Girls, where she sang famous songs men had written about women. (Her version of Waits’ “Time” from that album was a highlight.) Shawn Colvin did something similar with her 1994 release, Cover Girl, though one got the impression she wasn’t specifically choosing songs by men as much as she was choosing songs she loved, which all (but one) happened to have been written and performed by men.
And of course there was the 2002 collection from Red House Records, Going Driftless, wherein a cast of women folk singers covered the exquisite creations of Greg Brown. As lovely as each individual track was on that one, missing was Brown’s colorful, charming basso profundo to tie it all together.
Women singers have frequently been lumped together on recordings and venue lineups, as though “female” were a category of artistic expression, so collections like this tend to make one feel a bit suspicious. Nonetheless, there’s something to be said for the way a woman might interpret a song written by a man as singular as Tom Waits.
Perhaps there are hard-core fans who will miss Waits’ sandpaper vocals on Come On Up to the House. But for this reviewer, the collection provides a rare opportunity to revel in the glorious beauty of Waits' poetics, without being distracted by the scratching against her eardrums.
Here, we hear Patty Griffin running with “Ruby’s Arms” like it was a horse she found in the woods and she just jumped on and rode. Her dynamic vocals are a gift to any melody, but they provide a service to this closing track from Heartattack and Vine. Next comes Rosanne Cash, with her turn on “Time.” If anyone other than Tori Amos knows best how to sing such poetry, it’s Cash, a poet herself who knows just what to do with each ascending—and ultimately falling—repetition of that one-word chorus.
Iris DeMent is another master of lyricism whose work has been clearly influenced by Waits. And though she comes armed with another one of those love-or-hate voices, her delivery of “House Where Nobody Lives” is like a washcloth full of pain that she’s just wringing out.
Other easy highlights come from Aimee Mann’s shadowy alto on “Hold On” and that of Shelby Lynne singing with Allison Moorer on “Ol’ 55.” Then toward the end, Courtney Marie Andrews’s powerful vibrato on “Downtown Train.” When Waits sings that one, it’s abundantly cavalier but Andrews brings a longing sadness into it, something unstoppable that’s pouring over.