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Mule Variations

4.6 out of 5 stars 276 customer reviews

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Mule Variations

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Seven years passed between the release of Bone Machine and Mule Variations. During that time Tom Waits eschewed cutting another "conventional" (the term used loosely here) song collection, occupying his time with acting projects, a soundtrack (Night on Earth), a stage project (The Black Rider), and sundry smaller diversions. What's surprising about Mule Variations is how little he's strayed from the old Bone yard through the years. As with his Grammy-winning 1992 outing, Waits intersperses the tough and the tender, mixing exercises in creative noisemaking with tunes that fall on just the right side of maudlin. As with Bone Machine's "The Ocean Doesn't Want Me," "What's He Building?" is an experiment in word jazz that owes a debt to its creator, Ken Nordine. Waits has again assembled a crew of attuned sidemen (including Primus and steadfast backers Ralph Carney, Larry Taylor, and Joe Gore). And, as always, Waits and his wife-cosongwriter-coproducer Kathleen Brennan exhibit an uncanny ear for the arcane. In the end, Mule Variations is the aural equivalent of a salvage shop that, while largely familiar, still has a few secluded chambers and trap doors. --Steven Stolder
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Product Details

  • Audio CD (April 27, 1999)
  • Original Release Date: April 27, 1999
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Label: Anti
  • ASIN: B00000IGGA
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (276 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,753 in Music (See Top 100 in Music)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Audio CD
"Mule Variations" is, simply, the most solid piece of work Tom Waits has released since "Rain Dogs". That's not to say I didn't enjoy "Frank's Wild Years" and "Bone Machine"; they both, however, only serve as sketches of the fleshed-out world Waits presents us with here.
From the opening track 'Big in Japan' (a track quite reminiscent of "Bone Machine's" 'Goin' Out West')to the closing 'Come On Up to the House,' Waits is in rare form lyrically and vocally. And he's even added a new twist to his repetoire on this album: a DJ scratching in the background on several tracks, most notably the beefed-up and funkified remix of 'Filipino Boxspring Hog.'
Waits covers all of the various styles and influences that inform his music with deftness on this album. He moves from the guitar-driven ballad ('Hold On') through Blues-based quirkiness ('Cold Water' and 'Chocolate Jesus') to quiet (?) piano crooning ('Picture in a Frame' and 'Take it with me when I go')and never misses a beat or sings a line that seems untrue to what we've come to love about Waits's gruff persona over the years.
His unique view of the world and relationships is intact, and rings as true as ever on this album. These lines, from 'Black Market Baby,' pretty much sum it all up: "My eyes say their prayers to her, sailors ring her bell / Like a moth mistakes a lightbulb for the moon and goes to hell. . ."
This album is a "must-buy" for any Waits fan, and would make an excellent introduction to his music for anybody still on your shopping list.
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Format: Audio CD
If there's anyone in the music business who's managed to fend off the over-the-hill label, it's Tom Waits, and 1999's Mule Variations is one of the most compelling documents of his staying power. Even in his forties, with a huge body of work already behind him, Tom Waits was putting out the kind of seminal albums that most acts are lucky to put out once in the prime of their careers. I wouldn't say this album is guite as great as Rain Dogs, Bone Machine, or Real Gone, but it still sits comfortably right below them, which is saying something. For a contemporary comparison, even the vaunted current runs of the White Stripes and Wilco aren't in the same category as the string of classics Waits has reeled off since Rain Dogs. Most of his songs aren't particularly complex, but (at least from Swordfishtrombones on) Waits has proven to be a master at crafting distinctive, memorable music with nothing more than his gravelly baritone and some rock-meets-blues-meets-folk-meets-country backing sounds. And of course, there's his vocal range, which covers everything from atonal rasps to achy crooning.

Waits's notorious drunken-werewolf howl actually doesn't make too many appearances here, although it is on fine form on the evil mutant blues of Big in Japan, Eyeball Kid, and Filipino Box Spring Hog. These three songs nicely showcase the noisy, cantankerous arrangements that have made Waits such a renowned experimentalist, but overall this album is more notable for its eclecticism and inspired vocalizations than for its sonic adventurism. Even more than with Bone Machine and Real Gone, you get to hear Waits from pretty much every conceivable angle here.
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By A Customer on October 5, 1999
Format: Audio CD
Mule Variations is perhaps one of Tom Waits best albums in many years. The songs "Hold On" "Cold Water" and "House Where nobody Lives" suggest a blend of two earlier CDs, "Closing Time" and "Rain Dogs". This CD contains Buzz Fletterjohn, as well as Big Face Money (co written by Tom's son Casey, and Casey plays drums on it). This CD is perhaps my favorite of Tom Waits works, challenged only by Rain Dogs. The music is beautiful, and the lyrics moving. Tom at his best!! The only thing better was seeing him live in Minneapolis, at 9th and Hennepin!!
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Format: Audio CD
This great album opens with Big In Japan, a humorous number in bluesy style with brilliant guitar and innovative arrangement, which is followed by the slow, eerie Lowside Of The Road, a real hangover song with striking imagery.
Hold On is a typical sad Waits ballad, which means it's beautiful, tuneful and moving. It has an unusually light rhythm and melody though, unlike some of his other masterpiece ballads like for example In The Neighbourhood or Saving All My Love For You. House Where Nobody Lives is unique too, another gripping ballad with moving words and images. It makes me think of both Mansion On The Hill by Springsteen and the old classic Satisfied Mind.
All Waits' styles are in glorious display including the talking blues of Get Behind The Mule and the deep bluesrock of ballads like Come On Up To The House and Cold Water. For someone who prefers his ballads and his singing voice, I find both quite appealing. The next track, Pony, is another one of my favorite slow melodic numbers embellished with exquisite pump organ, dobro and harp.
This album certainly lives up to its name with its astonishing variety, like the spooky spoken track What's He Building and the story songs Black Market Baby and Eyeball Kid with its innovative samples and percussion. Waits even explores his Beefheartian side on Filipino Box Spring Hog. There's also the gentle love song Picture In A Frame with its elegant piano and the sorrowful country song Georgia Lee.
Mule Variations is a masterpiece of an album that contains impressive, timeless songs of great lyrical depth, melodic beauty and stylistic variety. Whether you like Waits as a phenomenon by himself or whether you like only certain of his styles, this album will not disappoint as it offers enough brilliance for everybody.
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