Earlier this year, Scarlett Johansson released her album of Tom Waits covers, Anywhere I Lay My Head. It was awful – tuneless, emotionally one dimensional and utterly vacuous. Neither Johannsen’s vocals or Dave Sitek’s (of TV on the Radio) production penetrated Waits’s songs, and they added nothing to them. But given that it was coming from a famous actress, produced by a member of a hipster cred band, with contributions by the Godfather of Downtown Cool, David Bowie, the album garnered a ton of attention and press.
Last month, Southside Johnny Lyon (with LaBamba's Big Band) released his own album of Waits covers, Grapefruit Moon. It hasn’t received much, if any press, and what’s predictable is that like all of Johnny’s albums, it won’t do much commercially. This would be a shame - because Grapefruit Moon is one of the best albums of the year.
Wonderfully produced and arranged by Richie “La Bamba” Rosenberg (Johnny’s former trombonist with the Asbury Jukes and better known as a member of the Max Weinberg 7), Grapefruit Moon swaggers, swings and struts with a big band sound reminiscent of Nelson Riddle and Billy May’s great arrangements for Frank Sinatra during the 50’s. It’s part blues, part swing, part New Orleans, and it’s all fantastic.
Tom Waits gave his own blessing to the project, and his duet with Southside on “Walk Away” is one of the album’s numerous highlights. Other great moments include a stunning version of “Tango Till They’re Sore,” the almost “Peter Gunn”-esque “All The Time In The World,” and the album’s title track, “Grapefruit Moon,” where Johnny proves himself to be a sublime balladeer.
Like the protagonists of many Waits songs, there’s a loneliness and solitude that is all-pervasive; these songs are the wry observations of an eclectic soul, late at night and alone at the bar. But while Waits is an artist that has always fit into a great bohemian tradition, Southside Johnny is an artist that has never quite fit in anywhere (much like his other Asbury Park comrades) and in that, you can hear a loneliness that penetrates a bit deeper than Waits’s.
It’s doubtful that Grapefruit Moon will get much love from the denizens of cool – but that will be their loss. This is one of the best musical surprises of the year. Bravo!
*Southside Johnny and La Bamba's Big Band will be playing the Nokia Theater tonight. I will be conducting an interview with Southside and then posting early next week.
Southside Johnny on Waits and the genesis of the project (from SouthsideJohnny.com):
I first heard Tom Waits on the radio and was so intrigued I went out to search for the LP that very day. After a couple of weeks, I finally tracked down a copy of his first record in a little mom-and-pop store. It became one of my favorites on first hearing. He seemed to embody a number of elements I was already into: the Beats, jazz, rhythm and blues, romantic music like the Drifters and Billy Holiday, and a gruff, sarcastic, gimlet-eyed love for the down and outers who populated seedy places like Asbury Park, NJ. And he was funny. In the years that followed, I tried to keep up with his music while I was busy making my own. It was to my great delight that he came to a show we did at the Roxy in L.A. in the late 70's. He sat by himself at a table against the wall and nursed his drink and hid behind his be-bop hat. After the show he came backstage and we talked and hit it off pretty well. We stayed in touch in the random fashion that musicians do, and whenever I was searching for an idea for my next record, I would invariably think, "Damn! I'd love to do an album of Tom Waits tunes." But others had beaten me to the punch, and I didn't want to do another rehash of the same arrangements. When I first heard LaBamba's charts for his sporadic gigs with the Big Band he had put together, I knew I wanted to utilize his talents and eclectic taste in horn-driven music. He doesn't give a fig if something is cool or hip or any of that crap. If he hears something he likes, he absorbs it and it comes out in his work. I knew he would write a wide assortment of things for any project he got involved with, and I wanted to be a part of that. Then one day I had the long overdue idea of combining the two concepts: LaBamba arranging Tom Waits for me to sing. And it only took 2 1/2 years to bring it to fruition! I must say that it came out much better than I ever dreamed, and I'm very proud and a little stunned that we got it done. For all the time and effort and money and fist fights and broken microphones, it was worth it. Life is good.Buy Grapefruit Moon at Amazon