90s Pop Songs Tom Waits Should Cover

November 25, 2017

Tom Waits is a gravel-voiced, porkpie-hatted muppet who appears to have shuffled out of the pages of a Raymond Chandler novel — a carny trickster god full of spiders and strange chemicals who writes lyrics like “There’s a moon in the window and a bird on the pole/We can always find a millionaire to shovel all the coal.” As unpredictable as a drunk cat covered in flypaper, his career has run the gamut from boho jazz piano to Death Farm Polka, and if you’re like me, you’re wondering: When does he turn his off-putting gaze to 90s pop standards? A few we’d respectfully like him to cover:

1. Barbie Girl by Aqua

A piece of rebar thunks on a car’s brake drum, pounding out a rhythm that sounds like a clothes dryer beating itself to death, and your toes start tapping before you’re able to stop them. A spidery guitar line sneaks in when you’re not looking. Once the groove really gets going, Tom Waits rasps out those first lines: “I’m a barbie girl/In a barbie world.” You realize that the song is about isolation and despair, that when he says “Dress me up/Make it tight/I’m your dolly,” he aches for the little plastic outfit to strangle him and free him from the Malibu Barbie playset. He wants a little plastic coffin so that he doesn’t have to feel his limbs being manipulated by unseen forces. When the calliope organ plays the mournful coda, you realize that five dollars are missing from your wallet.

2. Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm by Crash Test Dummies

Sixteen bagpipes, all out of tune, play every note on the musical scale, permutated into an alien honk that fills your ears and nose and mouth. Is that a choir of frightened children? Is it a bag of insects being slowly filled with honey and we’re hearing their tiny death song as they drown? Both, and neither. Tom sings the verse in a scratchy falsetto, and it’s a mercy not to be able to decipher the lyrics about lonely children and strict parents. The chorus comes around, the one with the humming, and Tom sounds like the engine of a ’72 Cadillac Coup de Ville, only it won’t turn over and is filled with rodents.

3. Semi-Charmed Life by Third Eye Blind

[an accordion plays one long droning note]

[an octopus plays a drumset made of naugahyde luncheonette booths]

[how did Tom Waits work in these lyrics about a Waffle House waitress playing God in her basement, building a lover out of hash brown scrapings and old coffee grounds]

[a theremin that deteriorates the more you play it dies softly in his arms]

“DOO-DOO-DOO, DOO-DOO-DOOOO-DOO, DOO-DOO-DOO, DOO-DOO-DOOOO-DOO, DOO-DOO-DOO, DOO-DOO-DOOOO-DOO, DOO-DOO-DOO, DOO-DOO-DOOOO-DOO”

4. I Wanna Sex You Up by Color Me Badd

A smoky bass guitar intro gives way to a time signature understood only by truck drivers who’ve been in at least three wars. A barnyard shout breaks out: “Come inside, take off your coat/I’ll make you feel at home.” By “home,” he means an enormous warehouse full of mannequins, and he’s not actually Sexing Anybody Up — he wants to sex somebody up, but his body is rapidly falling apart due to toxic radiation. He’s had to nail his limbs back on with shoe tacks and hope, and his fingers are not his own anymore. You see parts of the mannequins missing, and you notice the way the light glints off the gloss on his fingers and face and neck and, my God, he’s more mannequin than man now. All of this information is strongly implied by a kazoo made out of human bones that comes in after the second chorus.

5. No Scrubs – TLC

“Henh, uh, this cover is kind of a, kind of a Brecht-goes-to-brunch kinda thing, there. It…it’s like when your wife wants you to tell her that you love her, but all you can do is look at the engine grease caking your fingers and you can smell the exhaust fumes coming from somewhere like the whole apartment is idling on the side of the road in St. Louis. And your, uh, your wife is telling you that you can do it, you know, you can clean it offa your fingers with some sponges that your mother-in-law gave you for Christmas back in 1983, that’s why you keep ‘em around, for chrissakes. And then you look underneath the sink, but the sponges got replaced with more engine grease, bottles and bottles of it. You’re never gonna get your fingers clean now. And you gotta tell her…you don’t want no scrubs.”

Tom Waits wants you to own more hats, and that’s the truth. You need a jaunty porkpie hat to wear until it’s frayed around the edges and smells like the bottom of a mine shaft. Head over to Lids’ page on Ultimate Coupons and find the perfect companion piece for your headparts.

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