Tom Waits Left Asylum Records With a Party In His Head
and corrected the spelling of "Ballantines" too!
Following a decade's worth of Asylum albums almost all of which were produced and engineered by the great Bones Howe, and none of which were originally commercially successful but they sure did sound good, and over time the audiences caught up with what he was doing, Tom Waits self-produced his Island debut Swordfishtrombones.
Waits traded in his bar fly hipster small jazz combo recorded live in the studio thing for a far more experimental, heavily produced and mightily percussive sound, musically more reminiscent of pre-war Weill/Brecht than post-war bebop, though the Swordfishtrombones subject matter abandons drunken bar loser fantasies for the real rough edged loser world of people and lives coming apart—to colorful small town shore leave seedy side diary entries where there's plenty of drinking but not in bars. The title tune deals with a PTSD victim who comes home from war "with a party in his head" and it's where the lyric sheet spells Ballantine as "Ballentine" and it always bugged me because Waits's lyrics are so often product specific it must have pissed him off too, I figured, whoever got the spelling wrong.
As with Waits' earlier records, the audience eventually caught up with Swordfishtrombones and it's now considered a classic and one of the best among those who trade in that sort of "best 100," "best ever," "best never liked by Dick Clark," or whatever-gets-my-site-clickbait crap that I hate. Let's just agree that it's a great record for every reason a record can be great—the poetry, the passion, the production, the concept, the little person (the incredible talent Angelo Rossitto, probably best known to Boomers for his appearance in Todd Browning's disturbing 1932 film Freaks [the film became a 'midnight special' at art houses in the late '60s/'70s] but whose film career was extensive and distinguished including making his screen debut with John Barrymore).
Interestingly, Waits presented Swordfishtrombones to Asylum, which rejected it! So he shopped it around and Island picked it up. Given how poorly it originally charted, the executives at the label David Geffen started probably thought they'd made the correct move. During that time he also changed the cover art. In Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe, however, Asylum "accidentally" released it with the original cover when Island had already taken it! Most of those Asylum copies were immediately taken back and destroyed, and thus are incredibly rare.
What pisses me off most here is that the original fun house of a pressing mastered at Kendun Recorders by Jeff Sanders sounds soooo outstanding! Open, three-dimensional, klangy as crap scary as you'd want a heavily percussive record filled with bizarre disturbing images to sound, and the vinyl reissue cut by Alex Abrash at AA Mastering from a 192kHz/24bit digital file prepared by Chris Bellman per Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan's direction sounds flat, midrange heavy, and pretty annoying if you try turning it up, which if you do that to the original just sounds more bitchin'!
I don't know what happened and why but the CD-resolution WAV files sent by UMe sound somewhat better and the 192/24 Qobuz stream sounds way better, far more three-dimensional and yes, with richer midrange, but percussion intact and you can and do want to turn it up. The hi-res stream or download is the way to go here.
After the debacle that occurred with Rhino's Asylum era reissues cut from digital files played back at an incorrect sampling rate so the records sounded underwater—they had to recall and they re-cut from tape and it sounded great as a Bones Howe production should—I don't understand why Tom or his team again went with files for LPs when CB had the tapes right there, unless they were in fragile condition. I don't know.
BUT! We will take these vital reissues one at a time so let's not draw any global conclusions. This one on vinyl though, is disappointing—nicely packaged and 180g pressed at Precision in Canada. The original US pressing (sorry but I don't use "OG" or the grammatically incorrect "vinyls") would get a 10 for sound. Here's hoping the others sound better.