Carlton J. Smith - The Skinnybone Tree (2009)

Carlton J. Smith
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It's a good thing that Tom Waits is far more gracious to the artists who continually cover his songs than he is to the advertisers who try to put his tunes in commercials. Waits has continually refused to allow advertisers to use his songs to hock their wares. The few companies who tried using a Waits song in their commercials ended up getting sued, and that might explain why you haven't seen Waits' song "Temptation" turn up in a Victoria Secrets ad.

Waits has no problem with people covering his songs, and many artists have remade his work, including Diana Krall, Bruce Springsteen and Rod Stewart. Soultracks published the review that I wrote of Southside Johnny's Tom Waits tribute album, Grapefruit Moon.  There are at least three reasons that I can think of that makes these songs so attractive. The first is that Waits' lyrics are wonderful. His songs often tell stories about working class people trying to navigate their way through life - a fact that must have been very appealing people like Springsteen in Stewart. Throughout his career, Waits proved that he was unafraid to explore many different styles of music - including some long neglected styles such as tango. That probably made him attractive to someone such as Krall.

All that being said, I'm sure soul singer Carlton J. Smith's name doesn't come to mind when people list artists influenced by Waits. However, considering Smith's background, his attraction to the music of Tom Waits might not be too surprising. Smith has built a large following as a tribute artist who sings the music of soul legends like James Brown and Al Green. Smith said he is attracted to Waits music for the same reason as those other artists.

So, Smith wrote his latest CD, the SkinnyBone Tree, as a tribute to Waits. However, the tribute deviates from those done by other artists in one major way - Smith changed the lyrics and titles. Smith says his rationale is that he believes nobody should sing a Tom Waits song but Waits. Well, we know that nobody can sound like Tom Waits, but I thought Kralls' version of "Temptation" was pretty nice.

At that very least, Smith's decision makes this a different kind of tribute album - one that is both easier and more difficult to review. It's more difficult to review because I'm not just listening to Waits version of "Dead and Lovely," and comparing it to the cover (or vice versa). I have to take these new songs and determine how well Smith did in capturing Waits' insight, satire and hard-edged skepticism while molding these songs to make them recognizable as a Carlton J. Smith song. That judgment really depended on whether Smith's lyrics could stand up to Waits'.

Few lyricists are as capable as Waits, but Smith proves that he is a good songwriter.  Smith proves that he can be a good conversational storyteller on the blues infused "Momma's House," in which he tells his new girlfriend that their relationship has reached a new level - he's taking her to meet the parents.

Smith flips it on the next record, "I'll Be Gone." On this smooth funk tune, Smith sings about how he sensitive, loving and an intense lover between the sheets, but there's a caveat - he'll be gone in the morning.

Songs such as "All Night Long," have that folksy, acoustic groove that one might expect from a Waits song, while "Sins of My Father," definitely has the Waits attitude. Waits often commented on religion - just listen to his song "Chocolate Jesus." "Sins of My Father" is a funky head-nodder in which Smith and God have a quite earthy conversation as Smith tries to bargain with God for his family's redemption. Admittedly, the earthiness of this tune might turn some people off.

All told, the tunes on The SkinnyBone Tree are strong enough to stand up on their own. Many fans won't catch the connection to Waits, but it won't matter. Old Smith fans will enjoy hearing his raspy tenor work these tunes over, and if they are inspired to give Waits a listen, that's all the better. Recommended.

Howard Dukes

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