The advantage — or disadvantage, depending on your perspective — of a tribute album is that by glancing at the track listing you already have an idea in your head of how it will sound. Depending on your familiarity with the artists involved, that idea extends to how those artists will likely sound covering their particular song choice. Upon first glance, Come on Up to the House: Women Sing Waits may disappoint those who would love to hear a few of these artists tackle the likes of “16 Shells From a Thirty-ought Six,” “God’s Away On Business,” or even “Hell Broke Luce.” In fact, producer Warren Zanes suggested some of Waits’ more adventurous material during the making of the album. In the end both he, and us, are thankful it turned out this way.
Come on Up to the House: Women Sing Waits strips away Tom Waits the performer, the sideshow huckster, the sleight-of-hand ne’er do well, revealing underneath the empathetic late-night crooner at the piano who’s heard all your troubles before and wants you to know you’re not alone. To prove it, Zanes assembled a cast of sympathetic voices to help tell Waits’ stories: stories that are painful, beautiful, heartbreaking, and life-affirming, sometimes all in the span of a single song.
The highlights are numerous and the sequencing is immaculate. The album opens with a slowly building treatment of the title track by sister act Joseph. Unassuming at its beginning, it beckons until you’re inside the house with their rich call-and-response vocals reflecting the lyrics’ promise of understanding and acceptance. True spirituality.
Rosanne Cash delivers a deeply moving take on “Time,” her strong yet comforting, familiar voice wrapping around the painful beauty of the lyrics. Corinne Bailey Rae transforms “Jersey Girl” into a gentle girl-group sing-along that emphasizes the song’s joy and excitement of new love. Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne add some Alabama grit to the classic “Ol’ 55,” giving its pondering of freedom and longing the credibility The Eagles’ version could never quite achieve.
A large portion of the songs here were chosen from Waits’ 1999 masterpiece Mule Variations, including the title track, plus a devastating take on “The House Where Nobody Lives” by Iris DeMent; a knowing, reassuring “Hold On” from Aimee Mann; as well as Angie McMahon’s gentle reading of “Take It with Me.” The high number of tracks taken from that late-period album proves that even though Waits initially moved from the piano stool to a magical, musical junkyard to inspire his creations, his lyrics never lost their profound beauty or empathy. Come on Up to the House: Women Sing Waits reminds us of that throughout every gorgeous twist and turn.