There are several reasons why Come On up To The House: Women Sing Waits had to be more than good, not least the fact this is scarcely the first such project. Waits cover albums by individual female artists – Holly Cole and Scarlett Johansson, just as a couple f’rinstances – are already lining up in judgement and for comparison. Then there are the myriad individual covers songs scattered across the repertoire of innumerable women of note. Why, I can find ten quality female-sung versions of “The Heart of Saturday Night” at the drop of a pork pie hat.
So why should this be so? What’s the draw here? Firstly must be the innate quality of the songs, somehow inhabiting a timeless era unsullied by the insistent imprints of any one style or structure. Secondly – and I tread carefully here – Waits’ voice and arrangements aren’t overly, shall we say, to all tastes, the combination of corncrake and clatter sometimes masking the delicate beauty in some of his work, especially the later years. The female voice will often draw this closer into focus than ol’ ‘Frank’ at his wildest, silk purses from, well, you know. Finally, it is now so very long since any new, it seems timely to have a reminder of him. And maybe a prompt for his muse?
Thankfully, Come On Up is very good, very good indeed. And it doesn’t even have “The Heart of Saturday Night.” The minute it kicks off with the title track, performed by Portland’s sisterly trio Joseph, you know we’re on safe ground. This song, another so well covered so often that one might mistake it for a traditional country blues by this point, opens with funereal piano, ahead of a solitary vocal, the build then gradual, adding in gradual strings and an eventual harmony chorale.
Soothed thereby, Aimee Mann delivers the first killer stroke, singing in a lower register than usual, channeling Nebraska-era Bruce as she nails “Hold On,” a hint of Blind Boys of Alabama-style moaning in the distant background. Glorious. New psych-folk wondergirl Phoebe Bridgers then, impossibly, further lifts the mood with the maudlin heart lift of “Georgia Lee,” evoking a Midwestern dust-blown chapel, if strangely and wonderfully having the guitar playing through a leslie filter.
You would think the sisters Moorer, Allison and Shelby Lynne, could have added a little more than strings to “Ol’ 55.” It’s OK, and their torrid vocal combination is a treat, but it left me feeling that the Eagles had done it better. Which isn’t actually a put-down; I just wanted more.
Angie McMahon, another new name to me, is next. The Aussie singer’s accent makes for a much-needed change, saltier than the sugar of the preceding track, however slim her song, “Take It with Me,” might be. “Jersey Girl” is a lot sexier fare, the arrangement fittingly slow-dance sassy, the same-sex interpretation of Corinne Bailey Rae making no concession to the lyric as written, the album again on a lift to end, were it so, the end of side one. I say this as “Ruby’s Arms,” sung sumptuously by Patti Griffin, makes a fine side-two-track-one, mellowing again the mood.
Who’s left, I hear you thinking, and it’s only Rosanne Cash with a sparse take on “Time,” at a stroke staking her claim as one of the best interpreters of Waits since her daddy. Voice and a couple of guitars, making you wonder why any song needs anything more.
Sadly, the only sore thumb on the record follows. Kat Edmonson’s loungecore take on “You Can Never Hold Back Spring” is too knowingly jazz-lite for the more authentic country and gospel blues hues played out thus far. Possibly fine in different company, here it’s the nun in the brothel. This is further emphasized by the full-on country weeper of “House Where Nobody Lives,” filtered through the cracked vessel of Iris Dement, apparently the song and artist that kicked off the idea of this project. Of equivalently love ’em/hate ’em vocals to Waits himself, I guess you will either love this or not. Great steel, though.
I was nervous about “Downtown Train,” thinking of Rod Stewart giving perhaps his last decent interpretation, wondering how Courtney Marie Andrews would tackle it. The answer: by steering well clear of that version, the song barely recognizable until the chorus. It proves quite the grower of the disc, with Andrews singing her heart out, you can tell, from her anguished hope that he won’t ever be on that train.
Is album closer “Tom Traubert’s Blues” even a good song? Your opinion will decide whether the Wild Reeds give it any justice. Personally, I may just skip it; less sore thumb, more damp squib. I found myself wondering how Angie McMahon might have tackled it, guessing that may have pandered too much to cliche.
The record is produced by Warren Zanes, a name better known in writing circles, he having written biographies of Tom Petty and Dusty Springfield. But he was earlier a Del Fuego, an ’80s garage band out of Boston, possibly where he fell into Waits’ circle. Not that his production here offers any clue to his style back in the day; the arrangements cast a largely sepia-tinted and sepulchral tone of mournfulness, avoiding any overkill in that direction with a wood sprung floor of authenticity.
With nearly all killer and very little filler, Come On Up to the House is one of the albums not just of the year, but of this genre, the (nearly) all-star covers project, up there with Return of the Grievous Angel and Beat the Retreat. However, I’m left wondering where tribute regulars Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams were for this recording. Volume two, mebbe?
Come On Up to the House tracklist:
01. Joseph – “Come On Up To The House”
02. Aimee Mann – “Hold On”
03. Phoebe Bridgers – “Georgia Lee”
04. Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer – “Ol’ 55″
05. Angie McMahon – “Take It With Me”
06. Corinne Bailey Rae – “Jersey Girl”
07. Patty Griffin – “Ruby’s Arms”
08. Rosanne Cash – “Time”
09. Kat Edmonson – “You Can Never Hold Back Spring”
10. Iris Dement – “House Where Nobody Lives”
11. Courtney Marie Andrews – “Downtown Train”
12. The Wild Reeds – “Tom Traubert’s Blues”