Mar 312023

‘The Best Covers Ever’ series counts down our favorite covers of great artists.

Tom Waits covers

“Downtown Train.” “Ol ’55.” “Jersey Girl.” These are just three of the Tom Waits songs better known for their covers (respectively: Rod, Eagles, Bruce) than for Waits’ own performances.

It probably doesn’t need saying that Tom’s recordings are, in the best way possible, idiosyncratic. So it makes sense that, like Dylan, like Cohen, his songs often become more popular when more “traditional” voices sing them. Many of the best covers, though, keep some of that strangeness. No, they don’t do “the Tom Waits voice” – most people wouldn’t be able to talk for a week after attempting that. But they don’t sand off the strangeness.

Tom’s debut album Closing Time came out 50 years ago this month; he’s doing a reissue to celebrate. It, and its successor The Heart of Saturday Night, are in some ways his least representative albums, though. The songwriting is already strong on these, but it comes in – if you can believe it – a fairly conventional package. His voice hasn’t revealed its true character (to pick one among many memorable descriptions: “a voice like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car”), and he hadn’t discovered that hitting a dumpster with a two-by-four makes great percussion.

Some of those very early songs get covered in our list below. But his later, weirder, songs abound, too. Tom’s wife Kathleen Brennan, his musical co-conspirator for decades now, said her husband has two types of songs: “Grim Reapers” and “Grand Weepers”. On his Orphans box set, Tom divided them up another way: Brawlers, Ballers, and Bastards. You’ll find some of all flavors below. (And, if you want more new writing on Tom Waits music, subscribe to a newsletter called Every Tom Waits Song that – full disclosure – I also run).

– Ray Padgett

PS. Find Spotify and Apple Music playlists of this list, and all our other monthly Best Covers Ever lists, at Patreon.


Jul 012008

Readers of my other blog will know I traveled hundreds of miles to see Tom Waits last month (missed it? Read about night one and night two.) His tours are a rare event, but he’s a concert performer unlike any other, aggressive and wild, stomping and growling his way through songs both harsh and touching. So to celebrate the event, for this month’s album I’m doing a personal favorite, his ’99 comeback release Mule Variations that earned him his first Grammy for Best Alternative Album (in response he quipped: “Alternative to what?”) It’s one of my favorite sets this site has seen, and I hope you’ll agree. There’s nothing like a good Waits cover though, so if you know of others I missed, drop a comment!

Shane Nicholson – Big in Japan
Jazzy organ and a young vocalist make this a smooth cover you could take home to mom.

Viktor Lazlo – Lowside of the Road
The first few bars sound as down and dirty as the original, until the female soul singer begins dueting with the bourbon-soaked Lazlo. One drunkenly warbles, one beautifully soars, and it works perfectly.

The Cottars – Hold On
This bouncy bluegrass take on one of Tom’s signature tunes may seem a little upbeat from this number that’s not as inspirational as the title suggests, but they have such a beautiful sound all is forgiven.

New Monsoon – Get Behind the Mule
In a live take from ’05 (don’t worry, it’s soundboard) they jam-band this one all the way out, brining some much-needed energy to what I would consider one of the album’s only weak tracks.

Trey Anastasio and David Byrne – House Where Nobody Lives
Lots of accordion here by Byrne, but the highlight is the sensitive chorus harmonies from a singer more known for extended freak-outs than nuance.

Railroad Earth – Cold Water
Who knew Tom’s songs would work so well in bluegrass treatment? The closest you’ll hear to a Waits jig tune. Can Pickin’ On Tom Waits be far behind?

Ramblin’ Jack Elliot – Pony
Folk veteran and Bob Dylan compatriot is apparently still going on this banjo and mandolin take that combines Venice with Appalachia. Don’t know exactly what I mean by that, but it sounds right.

Hexnut – What’s He Building?
They combine free jazz and screamo metal in their stuff, but the most terrifying thing about this cover is that I think that lead singer’s a girl. Sounds like The Exorcist.

Night Call – Black Market Baby
A special surprise, right here is the first place you’ll hear this live take, generously provided by the band themselves (check out their website for more). Faithful to the original, with a jazz touch and a beautiful sway in the vocalist’s voice.

3 Green Windows – Eyeball Kid
Tom Waits as hair metal, huh? I dig it. My favorite part is how they substitute “chillun” for children. And if you like the sound, you can download their whole album for free at their site.

Pearl Jam – Picture in a Frame
Eddie Vedder’s voice is perfect for this one, rough but emotional with only Mike McCready’s acoustic behind him. Big Waits fans, they’ve covered quite a few songs, “Hold On” and “Rains on Me” among them. Listen to more here.

Ben Sollee – Chocolate Jesus
I was lucky enough to discover this gem in a four-volume compilation of live Waits covers I made a while back, it’s god a soaring vocal that turns into some excellent freestyle rap on the subject of candy idols. Download the first three volumes here and here.

Solas – Georgia Lee
Though a studio recording is readily available on The Edge of Silence, I prefer this live recording. The vocal highlight of this set, it’s a little less overwrought than the studio take.

The Cat Mary – Filipino Box-Spring Hog
An unexpected iTunes discovery, the instruments blend together smoothly with some subtle keyboard riffs. I just wish it wasn’t all so echoey though.

Pascal Fricke – Take It With Me
A youtube star in his own right, Pascal (otherwise known as waitswatcher) has covered half these songs, and many more, in his heartbreaking instrumental arrangements. Best of all, you can download two discs worth here. I recommend “Hoist That Rag,” “You Can Never Hold Back Spring” and “If I Have to Go” for starters.

Gurf Morlix – Come On Up to the House
Tom Waits seems the last person to do gospel, but this is the closest he gets since “Way Down in the Hole.” Gurf (heh heh) goes in a different direction in this rough recording, staticy and distorted in a way that only adds to the edge of the performance.