The title of this thread is more specific than it needs to be, but in an All-Star Jam comment on the current SHOWDOWN poll (ie, SHOWDOWN: Tom Waits or Captain Beefheart?), Townsman geo began to get at some of the issues I’m hoping we can explore:
I voted Captain Beefheart in the current poll, but I also really like Waits. Despite their apparent surface similarities, big, deep hollering voices and a tendency toward the aggressively harsh sound, they really come from different places. Waits is much more of a traditionalist. He brings a junkyard’s worth of musical detritus to what is, at heart, a traditional approach to songcraft. Beefheart, at his best, almost completely obliterates the most basic conventions of the electric blues based music that he started out in.
I’ve been revisiting Tom Waits recently, through his new live album, Glitter and Doom. The song selection is pretty good, the band sounds great, the recording is nice and live sounding… There’s a lot to like about this as a live album, including a second CD entitled Tom’s Tales, which I’ve yet to spend time with and which I suspect may be the best part of the concert. However, I can’t help but thinking that, compared with Captain Beefheart, an artist I love and an artist who must have been influential in Waits’ early-80s refashioning of his musical arrangements along “junkyard” lines, I am lukewarm on Waits.
For me, as geo notes, Waits is still a traditionalist at heart. I find his vocal style and all the junkyard trimmings to be a little distracting. “You don’t have to work junkyard,” I want to tell him.
The funny thing is, before Waits ever “worked junkyard” I couldn’t stand his music. The percussive elements and seeming Beefheart influence drew me in and allowed me to enjoy him on any level. These days, when I go back and listen to the two pre-junkyard albums I own, even they sound pretty good. Nevertheless, in my book Waits will always be supermarket-bought Jarlsberg (ie, fancy Swiss cheese) to Beefheart’s Italian Market-bought Oro di Sardenia, my favorite aged sheep’s cheese. His voice, in particular, is so over the top on this live album and other more recent albums that I’ve heard. The songs, which could be great, sound like they’re coming through a veil. I’d rather just hear the songs.
“But Mod,” you might be thinking, “if anyone’s singing is over the top it’s Captain Beefheart’s voice!” That’s true, but to my ears his vocal approach is key to sound of the music – and his music is almost all about sound. There’s not really a veil over the arrangements of a Beefheart song; each song’s skeleton is essentially the artifice. Not even the most pipe-tamping, tweed jacket with courdoroy elbow patches-wearing Beefheart fan among us would clear his throat and say, “You know, the songwriting of the Captain is grossly overlooked.”