It’s no secret that Tom Waits is a great songwriter. Other songwriters, like Rod Stewart (“Downtown Train”) and Bruce Springsteen (“Jersey Girl”), have paid tribute by covering his songs. But his trademark growl has put off many potential listeners, myself included, to his work.
Now, VickiKristinaBarcelona, a trio of multi-talented female singers/musicians, have released Pawn Shop Radio (StorySound Records), an album of songs by Waits. The group members are Rachelle Garniez, Amanda Homi, and Terry Radigan and their look of Lower East Side hipsters (just check out the album cover) are a perfect match for these songs. With their fine-tuned harmonies and sense of humor it’s hard not to compare these three with The Roches especially on albums like Nurds.
Although some of the arrangements on Pawn Shop Radio are similar to the Waits originals, none of them are rote covers. The voices of Garniez, Homi, and Radigan, and their combination of harmonies and lead vocals, replace Waits’ barks and snarls and open up and re-imagine these songs to bring them to a new audience.
VickiKristinaBarcelona play all of the instruments on the album which include banjos, bottles, and an accordion. Accordions were an integral part of Waits’ arrangements and Garnier, Homi, and Radigan make it one of the primary instruments on Pawn Shop Radio. And it never sounds cheesy. It shows up front and center on “Jersey Girl,” provides a Tex-Mex vibe for “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” and sounds like a pump organ on “Innocent When You Dream.”
All of these takes on the songs of Waits are terrific but it’s when the trio make the songs their own that the album soars. Waits‘ original “Jersey Girl” was a quiet, guitar-based recording (not unlike Springsteen's version) but Garniez, Homi, and Radigan crank up the NYC-in-the-70s feeling and turn it into “Spanish Harlem” as written by Laura Nyro. “Way Down In The Hole” is a doo wop delight. And on “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” Waits made it sound like a rant from a stubborn six-year-old but the ladies take ownership and it becomes a rallying cry for all of the lost girls who fought pirates and dodged crocodiles along with the lost boys in Peter Pan’s Never Land.
Next time: There's nothing wrong with Peter Hall