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Small Change
Tom Waits

Asylum 1078
Released: October 1976
Chart Peak: #89
Weeks Charted: 5

Tom WaitsThe people who populate Tom Waits' songs are deeply rooted in 20th-century American mythology. They come from tough-guy novels, pulp magazines, radio serials and film noir. Waits isn't interested in the heroes of this fiction, but with the people who exist on its fringes: cabbies, newsstand dealers, shoeshine boys and all-night waitresses. In the perverted language of American politics, they are known as "the little people," but Waits would agree with writer Joseph Mitchell that "they are as big as you are, whoever you are."

With his cigarette dangling from his mouth, his cap slapped over his forehead, Waits slouches through these streets presenting himself not as a detached observer but as a full-fledged native. He is, of course, an avowed sentimentalist in love with a place and an era that no longer exist -- a time when people ate mulligan stew and called a five-dollar bill a "fin." Playing rudimentary jazz piano and singing in a strangled cigarette-and-whiskey voice, Waits is at once an extremely affected anachronism and a brilliant chronicler of our past.

That duality persists on Small Change. While he has all but abandoned the Kerouac-like raps which crippled his last album (Nighthawks at the Diner) and has returned to the melodic style which highlighted his first two LPs, Waits has broken no new ground. His songs focus on mood rather than narrative. And the mood of Small Change is the same as his previous albums: the late-night blues where fatigue and romance mingle. The piano and occasional strings and saxophone relentlessly reinforce this atmosphere. His language still sparkles, the one-liners still dazzle, but his purview remains stringently narrow. Though he continues to write superb songs (particularly "Tom Traubert's Blues" and "Invitation to the Blues"), Waits is now repeating himself. Unless he expands his musical foundations and investigates the themes of his world, Waits will remain an appealing, but limited, artist.

- Kit Rachlis, Rolling Stone, 12/30/76.

Bonus Reviews!

Tom Waits looks, on the cover of this album, as if he's on the near side of thirty and caucasian, but he contrives, on the recording, to sound on the far side of sixty and black. His songs are uniformly designed to depress, something they succeed at completely. He's dreary all right: "Bad Liver and a Broken Heart," "Pasties and a G-String," and the title song ("Small change got rained on with his own .38") all have the joie de vivre of a tango with a corpse and the overpowering bad breath of a wino.

Waits' delivery, unfortunately, is so crisply clear that he makes sure you don't miss one obscenity or one belching groan of disgust about all this Nelson Algrenish squalor. He recites in a deep, gravelly voice that sounds so artificially produced that all he needs to do is throw in a few "ho-ho's" to be mistaken for a scatological Santa Claus. After about twenty minutes of wallowing around in all of this back-alley-derelict chit-chat, I realized that I was listening to a very silly album by a very untalented actor.

- Peter Reilly, Stereo Review, 2/77.

Waits continues to write wonderfully offbeat lyrics and large-scale ballad melodies, and to sing in a voice of such croaking eloquence that he makes the likes of Captain Beefheart sound like Caruso. The artist's eccentrically beguiling nightclub and college appearances have won him a solid cult following, and the excellence of what Waits provides here in his unique style can only add more fans. Best cuts: "Invitation To The Blues," "I Wish I Was In New Orleans," "The One That Got Away."

- Billboard, 1976.

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Waits has developed into such a horrible singer that sometimes I think his stentorian emotionalism is deliberate, like the clinkers he hits in "The Piano Has Been Drinking." This doesn't affect his monologue songs one way or another, but it tends to detract from those with melodies. B-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

On Small Change, Waits alternates between playing the sleazoid barker with "Step Right Up" and the sentimental bum on tracks like "Tom Traubert's Blues" and "I Wish I Was in New Orleans." This might not be one of Waits's best efforts, but fans of his drunken croak of a voice will find this enjoyable. Like many of his recordings from his Asylum period, Small Change was recorded live to two-track and produced by Bones Howe. Sonically, these albums are quite impressive. * * * *

- Rick Clark, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Small Change kicks off with the syrupy yet effective "Tom Traubert's Blues," but things pick up fast with "Step Right Up," which finds Waits improvising a huckster's jive at a mile a minute. * * * 1/2

- Daniel Durchholz, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

This devastatingly lovely album offers the straight-no-chaser, wrong-side-of-the-tracks, sandpaper-voiced Waits before he got arty and experimental. Raw, emotional and powerful, the unsung troubadour of a Beat generation gone bad blows through the songs like a traveling medicine man (he really Damons the Runyon), each character springing to life to become your friend -- so pour yourself a gin and tonic and let the words envelope you. * * * * *

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

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