After the relative success of Scarlet Johansson’s album of Tom Waits covers, another unlikely artist’s decided to tackle the same canon. Southside Johnny, a throaty soul singer who’s usually heard with the Asbury Jukes, has the smoke-stained baritone that occasionally does recall Waits himself.
The singer’s been around for 30 years, mostly in the shadow of Springsteen and Bon Jovi, putting out working-man rock albums on an almost yearly basis. Grapefruit Moon: the Songs of Tom Waits bucks this formula slightly, substituting conventional big band jazz for conventional radio rock; but the melodious horns and trumpets of LaBamba’s Big Band are arranged in such a predictable manner that the disc quickly becomes background-for-dinner-party fare.
The material, largely taken from Waits’ late-1980s oeuvre (with three tracks lifted from 1974’s The Heart of Saturday Night), accurately showcases Waits’ themes of dissolution and desolation, and the juxtaposition of slow horns with “I’m Leaving My Family” or “Soon Everyone You Know Will Be Gone” can be powerful. The most successful covers happen when Johnny appears to forget he’s doing a Tom Waits impression—1985’s “Tango Till They Are Sore” and the more recent “Dead and Lovely” both hum with a life of their own, independent of source material. But all these versions are neatly tied together; and isn’t the Carnivale battery a large part of Waits’ appeal in the first place?