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Mule Variations
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Performer Notes
  • Personnel: Tom Waits (vocals, guitar, piano, organ, pump organ, Chamberlain, optigon, percussion); Smokey Hormel (guitar, dobro); Larry Taylor (guitar, bass); Larry LaLonde, Marc Ribot, Joe Gore (guitar); Linda Delucia-Gbidossi (violin); Charlie Musselwhite, John Hammond (harmonica); Larry Rhodes (bassoon); Ralph Carney (bass clarinet, reeds, alto saxophone, saxophone, trumpet); Nik Phelps (baritone saxophone); Chris Grady (trumpet); Greg Cohen (bass, percussion); Les Claypool, Dalton Dilligham III (bass); Andrew Borger (drums, percussion); Brain Mantia, Christopher Marvin (drums); Stephen Hodges, Jeff Sloan (percussion); Jacquire King (programming); DJ M. Mark Reitman (turntable); Kathleen Brennan.
  • Engineers: Oz Fritz, Jacquire King, Gene Cornelius.
  • MULE VARIATIONS won the 2000 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. "Hold On" was nominated for the 2000 Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance.
  • Since 1993's BLACK RIDER album consisted of music written by Waits and William Burroughs to accompany a Robert Wilson play, hard-liners consider '92's BONE MACHINE to be the last "official" Waits album before the seven-year wait that ended with the release of MULE VARIATIONS. Unsurprisingly, Waits lives up to the expectations engendered by that lengthy wait. In fact, there are more stylistic threads connecting MULE VARIATIONS to BONE MACHINE than to BLACK RIDER.
  • The chugging rock drive of the opener "Big in Japan" (featuring Primus) recalls "Goin' Out West." "What's He Building?" is a wonderfully devilish spoken word piece a la Ken Nordine (one of Waits' heroes) much akin to BONE MACHINE's "The Ocean Doesn't Want Me Today." Waits also continues BONE MACHINE's exploration/deconstruction of traditional blues and gospel, making for some of MULE VARIATIONS strongest tracks (the bluesy "Get Behind the Mule" and "Chocolate Jesus"). Ultimately, with a few exceptions, this is Waits' most low-key, ballad-heavy album in some time, and he's at his simplest and most affecting on tunes like "Take It With Me," which represent an unprecedented level of emotional nakedness in his writing.
Professional Reviews
Rolling Stone (5/13/99, p.94) - 3 Stars (out of 5) - "If you're a fan...you'll get your long-awaited fix....Continuing BONE MACHINE's experiments in artfully scuffed sound...with scratches, hisses and gabbling field recordings..."

Spin (5/99, p.147) - "...MULE VARIATIONS is named for a hybrid animal--the offspring of a male ass and a female horse. It's a pretty good description of Waits's aesthetic: Always messing with at least two genres per song, he sticks things together and makes them breed..."

Entertainment Weekly (4/30/99, p.93) - "...the album restores the wizened humanity--and a more traditional sense of songcraft--to his music....At a time when rhythmic soundscapes have become as important in pop as melody, MULE VARIATIONS presents Waits as the biggest freak of all: the last of the classic American tunesmiths." - Rating: B+

Q (1/00, p.86) - Included in Q Magazine's "50 Best Albums of 1999."

Q (5/99, p.112) - 4 Stars (out of 5) - "...the warmth and humor of MULE VARIATIONS' songs are allowed to shine through their lo-fi, bucolic blues skeletons. It's varied fare, the mood swinging beatifully between the charmingly cranky and clattering...and the lusciously sentimental..."

Alternative Press (6/99, p.81) - 5 (out of 5) - "...His marvelously expressive voice sounds richer than ever....And as always, his instrumental foundation is impeccable - spare, understated and true. But Waits' greatest strength is in his interpretive skills. He simply writes great lyrics..."

The Wire (1/00, p.67) - Included in Wire Magazine's "50 Records Of The Year ['99]"

The Wire (4/99, pp.73-4) - "...Each [song] simmers with in a carefully constructed atmosphere, like a dark goulash concocted with patience but no recipie book. The soundscapes are extraordinary, as is the tension between precisely judged production and passionately spontaneous performance..."

CMJ (1/10/00, p.3) - Ranked #1 in CMJ's "Top 30 Editorial Picks [for 1999]."

CMJ (4/26/99, p.3) - "...one of his finest efforts yet....Tom refuses to soften with age..."

Melody Maker (5/1/99, p.38) - 4 1/2 stars (out of 5) - "...True to form, MULE VARIATIONS clanks, rattles, hammers, squawks, crackles and frequently swoons throughits generous 70 minutes. Nobody else makes music quite like this..."

Mojo (Publisher) (p.65) - Ranked #21 in Mojo's "100 Modern Classics" -- "[I]t's a veritable Jimmy Stewart of an album -- by turns irascible, sentimental and life-affirming."

Mojo (Publisher) (1/00, p.30) - Ranked #1 in Mojo Magazine's "Best of 1999"

Mojo (Publisher) (5/99, pp.92-94) - "...Waits has written and sung about the weird, sweet, tortured lives of real people. MULE VARIATIONS is more of the queer, wonderful same..."

NME (Magazine) (4/24/99, p.40) - 7 (out of 10) - "...quite batty, often fabulously so....mutating jazz, blues, parade music, show tunes, fairground banter, immigrant songs and beatnik spiel into a classy vernacular..."
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