Classic Compilation: Various Artists – Step Right Up: The Songs of Tom Waits

The Tribute Album is a release which misfires more often than not, however every now and then, one is released which almost justifies the whole sub-genre.

1991’s I’m Your Fan: The Songs of Leonard Cohen is one, 1995’s A Testimonial Dinner: The Songs of XTC is another, and Step Right Up is another. Beyond these three, things get a hell of a lot more hit and miss.

Released in 1995, at a point where Tom Waits was uncharacteristically quiet by his standards, it being two years since the release of The Black Rider and four before his return with the beautiful Mule Variations, Step Right Up is seventy and a half minute monument to the enduring appeal of Waits, with artists as diverse as Drugstore, Tindersticks, Pete Shelley and The Wedding Present tipping their hats to the great man. And that’s just the first four tracks.

To be fair, the acts contributing to this collection are generally skewed towards alternative and indie rock, with only Tim Buckley being the only act that isn’t at least tangentially covered by these sub-genre’s. Mind you, in doing so, you’re still getting a diverse selection of big hitters, such as 10,000 maniacs, the aforementioned Tindertsicks and Violent Femmes, whose unhinged rendition of “Step Right Up” is a wonky highlight. There are a few legends in their own right who make significant contributions too, such as the previously mentioned Pete Shelley of Buzzcocks fame, and Alex Chilton of Big Star.

Inevitably, as is always the case with these tribute albums, some numbers hit the spot, and other’s don’t. As lauded as Tim Buckley is, his version of “Martha” will always pale in comparison to Waits’ heartbreaking original. Same goes for anyone attempting to cover “Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You”. Sorry 10,000 Maniacs.

As an example of the Tribute Album sub-genre, it’s fair to say that Step Right Up is easily one of the best. Not every track hits the mark, but you can tell that the appreciation of Waits’ output is genuine. Sure, it’s a shame there’s nothing here that covers material from Waits’ mind-bogglingly creative period on Island Records (the inclusion of Rod Stewart’s rendition of “Downtown Train” would have been a real stylistic curveball), but hell, Waits was no slouch in the period that pre-dates that, and really, room should have been found for Bruce Springsteen’s version of “Jersey Girl” (sorry Pale Saints), so to whinge about over sights such as these is really just looking for something to complain about (Springsteen though…). 

Step Right Up is a thoroughly entertaining listen, and really, what else could we ask for?

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