Howard Louis – Waits. – EP Review
Well now…here’s a fun little oddity you might not have expected from singer/songwriter Howard Louis. We’ve talked a lot about artists branching-out this year…especially in this past week alone – and you can definitely tack Louis onto the list we’ve been working on with this latest EP, where all six tunes are cover songs of your beloved music-hero & mine, obviously Howard’s as well – none other than Mr. Tom Waits. For what we know of Howard’s past penchant for melody and heartfelt music – take a moment to appreciate that for a second if you’re one of those people out there that have never been able to get past Waits’ gravel-filled vocals – game recognize game y’all – if you’re a real songwriter, you get Tom. Still, it takes a special artist to realize just how to adapt his material in a way that honors the originals – Waits has left us the blueprint of how to create exceptionally beautiful melodies, but always buried six-feet beneath what anyone out there would consider typical vocals and some pretty damn wild compositions, making those melodies more than a challenge for the average set of ears to get to quite often. But for those that have always been paying close attention…those that ‘get it’ – you know there’s a wealth of material that’s just waiting to be covered in an all-new way that sheds a different light on these songs that will reveal the stellar beauty of Tom’s writing to the world in ways listeners wouldn’t even think possible, based on the originals & how different Waits is as an artist. Howard’s a perfect example of what it can be like when these songs transition to another artist that truly respects the work.
Covering a Tom Waits song would be one thing…as to HOW you would choose WHAT…good lord, that’s gotta be a completely different story altogether – my brain basically breaks just trying to figure out how I’d ever even pare it down to six choices like Howard has…but I take some comfort in the fact that, as an obvious fan in making such a tributary record, it must have taken a toll on Louis as well to make his choices. I do however, have a bit of personal experience that has led me to realize that we all find Waits in our own time…and given the length of his career, you can find all kinds of fans & listeners that have their own niche-era of expertise in his material…I’m no exception to that rule. We can all essentially claim the same thing – we climbed aboard Tom’s bandwagon when we finally got some musical taste. As to when that was, the stories will vary based on age & experience…for me, it was Mule Variations that broke through finally, after years of already wondering what in the hell my father was playing with the noise of Bone Machine thumping from the stereo-system of our household for years straight. I went backwards from there, eventually learned to love Bone Machine as much as the rest, and continued all the way back to his earliest material. Likely because of jumping into his music past its mid-way point (Maybe? Presumably?) – I’d end up liking what I’d heard in the past, but it’s always been everything from Mule Variations on-forward that has had me ranting & raving about music’s favorite madman the most. Anyhow…this ain’t a review on my childhood – the point is that, it would be extremely tough to choose six tunes from a catalog as extensive and amazing as Tom’s is…and while I don’t know quite how ANYONE out there could do it – I do think that the songs Howard ended up with suit him extremely well.
What you’ll notice right away from the gnarly sounds of “Goin’ Out West” right away, is that this first cover ends up being quite faithful to the original…and you’ll find that’s the angle & approach that Howard’s taken to the majority of this EP, handling these songs with genuine respect and care. Even in the wildest of situations like “Goin’ Out West,” which works such an incredibly deadly groove – you can still hear the respect at the roots at all. Howard’s added some additional flash, swagger, & style of his own without question – no one’s ever going to SOUND like Tom Waits on the microphone, no matter how close the music surrounding anyone’s vocals could ever be. But keep in mind – that’s not the point – that’s not what Howard was going for…and to even attempt to gravel it up like Tom with the amount of sweetness Louis typically has in his own voice, could have been a true disaster – and it’s not what covering a song is really all about ANYWAY. You want to put your stamp on it…however that may be; it just so happens that any/all that would ever cover a Waits tune would have that same thing going for them the most when it comes to their own individual variations on the originals – no one sounds like Tom, ever. Howard’s an intelligent musician and enough of a fan to know that the best way to honor these songs is by playing them as best he can and allowing himself the freedom to bring what HE brings to these tunes, with his voice, loud’n’proudly singing material he loves through his own authentic style. Stoked on how this turned out for Louis – “Goin’ Out West” kicks out the jams you want through the meatiness in that riff, works stylistic cleverness in the vocals throughout the verse – and he finds that zany Alt-Country vibe in the chorus that gets to the fun to be found within this first impression as well. Solid character & charisma on the mic – it ain’t the gravel-voice you know, or that I once rebelled against as a youth then came to know & love once I finally grew up & appreciated Waits – but I think people will dig how Howard sings this. And I literally cannot express just how deadly & completely badass he’s got the guitars sounding on “Goin’ Out West” – Louis taps right into the oddly-bizarre-but-danceable groove this tune supplies, bang-on – check it out for yourself below!
Bringin’ in a bit of the ol’ soul & jazz into the record with his take on “Raised Right Men” from Bad As Me – solid & smooth bass-lines lead the way to victory alongside Howard’s noticeable swagger oozing through the mic. Timely tune to have chosen…hell, it was timely when it was written too – I suppose that likely says a bit about us men, don’t it? “Raised Right Men” was a great choice to include and a track that wouldn’t have immediately occurred to me to go after; Louis has made spectacular choices throughout this set of six, beating the odds for sure by even narrowing down a list enough to get a record like this recorded to begin with. You’ll hear he’s found tunes that Howard clearly loves, just like “Raised Right Men” – you can tell he’s spent time with this tune and really having fun with the stylized vocals he puts into the microphone for this performance. You can hear the enthusiasm & the passion he has for Tom’s music all throughout the Waits. EP…tunes like “Raised Right Men” that have Louis perfectly loosened up & feelin’ the vibe come out sounding fantastic…the sound of a mission accomplished. According to Howard directly, “His songs are so much fun to sing. Eventually I’ll get around to writing my own songs again, but for now…just having fun!” As I’ve pointed out multiple times throughout the years here on these pages, we all make music for a plethora of valid reasons – having FUN is one of the best. Artists/Bands…indie or mainstream…tend to take themselves all-too-seriously about 95% of the time – and music doesn’t have to be about that. There’s no question about the fact that when it comes to quality, composition, and performance – Howard’s certainly taking this as serious as he has with any original tune he’s written and taken great care to keep these covers loaded with genuine respect for Tom’s music…and in doing so, you gotta get to the heart of what Waits. is all about! It’s that looseness inside of such an incredible idea…that shrug of the shoulders & a wink of the eye before going out on stage with a threadbare tune and delivering pure gold that seems to come out of nowhere…the spirit of a musician that’s just ready to make music at all times, no matter what the circumstances or results may be – that’s what Howard’s tapped into so well on this record. The courage to just freakin’ DO IT.
So here we are…my era of Tom Waits…a song from Mule Variations, known as “Chocolate Jesus.” It’s always been a song that’s certainly stuck out to me…I’ve always been a fan of talking about religion & music when they’re combined, and there’s almost no better example of a song that enjoys the same things I do than this one does. Waits crafted a genius tune that addresses the commercialization of religion and the need to satiate the masses somehow…or more specifically perhaps, how we all crave, desire, and want that sweet-soul-satisfaction as much as we can get it – just like candy. What might have been the MOST genius aspect of the entire song, was just how much wisdom it puts across while retaining such an innocent point of view & perspective on what’s actually being said – and Howard nails that through the way he’s played this cut. Bonus thumbs-up to the organ-solo, which I loved SO MUCH – but to be fair to Howard, the entire effort he’s put in to shrink the sound down here perfectly creates the captivating moment that “Chocolate Jesus” and its immaculate words deserve. He’s still got a couple tunes to come that could potential rival this cut for my favorite vocal performance from Louis on this record…but there’s not a doubt in my mind that “Chocolate Jesus” is right up there with the best you’ll find on the Waits. EP in that department. Or…any for that matter really…tunes like “Chocolate Jesus” also reveal just how right the dude gets the percussion and mix of subtle-strength every element surrounding the vocals required to make a recording like this work. Brilliantly covered, straight up.
Howard does an excellent job of drawing out the theatrical & playful vibes you’ll find in the thick of the groove that rocks through “Walk Away” – and he puts an additional brightness into this tune that I felt really made this cover version stand out vibrantly compared to the more dank sound of the original. I think this tune also reveals just how much thought Louis really has put into the selection of songs for this record…I know “Walk Away” from Orphans, Bawlers, and Brawlers…a three-disc extravaganza full of incredible tunes and wild ideas from Tom Waits…but I’ll admit, it probably wouldn’t have been one that would have ever occurred to me to take on as a cover. That’s where the advantage of knowing what works for you really plays to Louis’ favor – he knew what he could bring to “Walk Away” and went after it with confidence. If you’re listening closely – and ya should be – it sounds like Howard’s added in all the instruments you could possibly want in the mix and the kitchen sink as well…all showing up at appropriate times and still leaving plenty of space still for incredible clarity – the point is, LISTEN to all the things that stack up into this quaint & inviting, quirky melody & music. A track like “Walk Away” is a song where personality reigns supreme – Howard Louis embraces the theatrical aspect of this tune with full confidence; again, it’s about knowing what you can bring to another artist or band’s material – it’s performances like this that confirm a process like that starts long, long before anyone hits record or sits down to play. He’s thought these songs through…and the results prove it…tunes like “Walk Away” come out incredibly fun, vibrant, and stocked full of ear-catching moments, movements, stops, starts, and sounds that’ll grab ya.
Like I’ve been explaining, the beauty in the writing has always been there…just takes the right artist to bring it out in the right way – Louis should be proud of the job he’s done with “Shiver Me Timbers.” The guitars come out sounding gorgeous, graceful, and sweet – and for many people listening out there, you’ll likely come away from this song feeling like you’ve gotten a real highlight of Howard’s vocals on this EP through this second-to-last tune on Waits.. And I’d be inclined to agree. Although “Shiver Me Timbers” wasn’t a song I recognized as quickly as some of the rest personally, I feel like the performance that Howard’s brought to it is what’s going to make this song really stick with me this time around – and chances are, I’m going to notice it a lot more the next time I revisit The Heart Of Saturday Night from Tom as a result too. It’s likely the most chilled-out tune you’ll find on the Waits. EP – and I think a ton of ears out there will really appreciate just how much Howard’s locked into the heart of this amazing tune. I’ll say this…I’ve found that through Louis’ relentless passion & enthusiasm for these songs of Tom, that each of these tunes has really brought out a fantastic performance from him…it’s a record to be proud of…I like or love each & every cover he’s created. That being said, I think there’s a huge chance that “Shiver Me Timbers” might come out sounding the most sweet, sincere, and connected to Howard. Beyond impressed with the way he sings this tune so beautifully…he really puts in a breathtaking turn on the mic here on a song that heads straight for the heart…and arguably, this entire cut is probably the most suited to what you’ve experienced from Louis in the past…this is him, right in the pocket here. For anyone out there familiar with Tom’s music, you know that this was for him too – he was born a crooner at the beginning of his career. It’s definitely one of the cuts, if not THE cut that gets to the heart of both the artist playing it, and the one that wrote it, in the most flawless of its combinations on the Waits. EP.
Can I be fully honest? I opened up my playlist both kind of hoping and somewhat expecting to hear “Come On Up To The House” – this to me…it’s not that it’s an obvious choice – it’s an ESSENTIAL one. If you’re taking six stabs at Tom’s music…there’s nearly no question at all that this would HAVE to be in the set…it should likely be in the top-six songs of Waits for any fan out there. How could it NOT be? It’s such an exceptional song from any possible angle you look at it, and the melody of “Come On Up To The House” is a master-class in itself on how to create music that speaks right to the soul. Howard doesn’t let you down whatsoever – I’d challenge that he completely rises to the occasion here in fact; it’s the perfect song to end this record and he’s nailed it with another outstanding & inspired performance. The sweet sway of this song is captured brilliantly by Louis…all he needed to do to make this cover a great one is exactly everything he’s done – there was no need to take this over the top or bring anything to it really other than what it already had…he’s controlled himself professionally and showed the restraint of an artist that truly respects the material, just like I mentioned from the get-go. With the warm harmonies filling your speakers as the song heads into the chorus hooks towards the end, “Come On Up To The House” reaches a spectacularly sweet & charming finale, perfect for the song, perfect to end the EP on an all-inclusive moment like this. It’s the cherry on top of what’s been an excellent experience from beginning to end, put together by a talented artist that definitely knows his Waits tunes – but also knew exactly what he could bring to each and every song he’s chosen. Howard’s got a beautiful take on these variations of Tom Waits classics and this record radiates the sincere celebratory spirit of one of our generation’s most legendary songwriters & immaculate innovators…he’s done a wonderful job on these covers, all-around.
Waits., the new EP from Howard Louis is out and available as of TODAY, June 14th – find it at his page at Bandcamp here: https://howardlouis.bandcamp.com
Find out more about Howard Louis from the official pages below!
Apple Music: https://music.apple.com/us/album/waits-ep/1467283143
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