A new all-women tribute album offers a unique lens honoring songwriting legend Tom Waits
In late November, Dualtone Music Group released Come on Up to the House: Women Sing Waits, a Tom Waits tribute album that was at least 15 years in the making.
Across the album’s 12 tracks, women musicians pay homage to decades of material created by one of music’s true originals, a man who carved a niche for himself early in the 1970s folk scene and has stayed true to his creative vision seemingly from day one.
The release came in late November, not long before Tom Waits celebrated his 70th birthday on December 7. Quiet and calm on the surface with Waits’ lyrics serving as the album’s expected (but somehow still surprising) gut punch, Women Sing Waits comes across as an honest tribute from musicians who were influenced and inspired by Waits’ songwriting—the biggest difference is the gravelly voice it’s missing.
The influences Waits culled from his childhood years growing up in Southern California are evident throughout the nearly five decades of albums he’s released since his Closing Time debut in 1973. Waits is a storyteller above all else: He brings his delicate care for sharing stories to each of the creative outlets in which he remains engaged, from inside the recording studio to on theatrical stages and movie lots. His interest in the Beat writers paired with his passion for jazz make an enticing cocktail for other folk artists, and it’s easy to understand why. In songs like “Georgia Lee” and “Tom Traubert’s Blues,” Waits breathes life into the stories of everyday people whose paths are anything but glamorized. Waits’ characters are brutally honest, and he holds no bars in telling their stories. The main comfort listeners derive from the stories is the steady way he shares them: through dependable rhythms, baritone vocal work and steady narration dependable enough to guide any lost ship into safe harbor.
These are the stories that inspired musicians like Rosanne Cash, Aimee Mann, Patty Griffin and several others to contribute to Dualtone’s tribute project. Sampling works by Waits from across his career, the album showcases true Waits classics like “Time,” “Ol’ 55” and the title track “Come on Up to the House.” “Jersey Girl” from Waits’ 1980 Heartattack and Vine appears as sung by Corinne Bailey Rae, “Downtown Train” pulls back into the station with help from Courtney Marie Andrews and several numbers from the 1999 fan favorite Mule Variations are sprinkled throughout the collection.
Produced by Warren Zanes, Come on Up to the House delivers a set of Waits covers that’s starkly different from those recorded previously by The Eagles or Bruce Springsteen, giving women the power to put their own spin on Waits’ heartbreak ballads and, in doing so, give them new meaning. While Glenn Frey and Don Henley of The Eagles popularized “Ol’ 55” from Closing Time by giving it a new tempo and greater vocal range, sisters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer bring their version closer to Waits’ original, steadying the tempo and putting the emphasis back on the lyrics. Similarly, Springsteen’s identity as a musician from New Jersey made it easy for listeners to forget that his Springsteen-ified cover of “Jersey Girl” was exactly that: a cover. Bailey Rae’s version of the 1980 song works like many other covers on this tribute, peeling back the layers of history that have evolved around Waits’ songbook and more closely aligning each track with how it was originally imagined.
Come on Up to the House has its weak moments, but the collection is strongest when its featured artists seem to confidently embrace the challenge of reinventing a Waits song. From that perspective, the songs that truly stand out are those by Cash (“Time”), Mann (“Hold On”) and Griffin (“Ruby’s Arms”), all of which channel Waits without coming too close to copycatting his originals. Even when the collection does dive directly into Waits’ realm of pacing and vocal range, the result isn’t negative—instead, it’s an appropriate fit for those who know Waits as a musician, songwriter and character.
As with any tribute album, this one progressed with a fairly specific audience in mind. Those who enjoy music by any of the artists who appear on this collection will likely give it a listen, but the real target demographic is diehard Waits fans. It’s hard to imagine any of them will be disappointed. Waits’ music is intended for layered reveals, with listeners picking up on new details or perspectives over time. Bringing together this group of women passionate about Waits’ lyrics and composition style offers a new lens through which to interpret Waits’ work. If you’re not a Waits fan, this collection most likely isn’t for you. But for those who do love Waits, look out: There now exists a new spin on his work to ponder.
AUDIO: Various Artists Come On Up To The House: Women Sing Waits (full album)