The Best of The Waitresses
1990: Polydor 847 249-2
And to think I only learned about how wonderful The Waitresses were because I decided one winter to get something with “Christmas Wrapping” on it so I could see whether the song still sounded so kicky after all those years. This is really a wonderful CD, and the lyrics are on the whole superb. In fact the only thing wrong with most Waitresses songs is that Patty Donahue seems to be completely clueless about what the lyrics she’s singing mean or even how they’re to be delivered (in terms of sentence flow and emphasis).
The greatest surprise in discovering The Waitresses, for me, has been the introduction to Chris Butler’s songwriting: that man had (has? I’m not up to speed on his career) an exceptionally fine knack for song structure, lyrical twists, tempo shifts, and harmonic power. His lyrics are sharp and clever on their own, but when they’re part of the composition, even when just sprinkled negligently over the music as Donahue delivers them, they astound me. My favorite track in this regard is “The Smartest Person I Know,” which has as part of its chorus the excellently profound triple line combination “big wheels turn real slow. When you finally get a bone to throw, there’s no dog around to catch it. The trouble with you is you’re right.” Listen to it in context to appreciate it, and then marvel at how much more he embroidered into so many of these songs that initially come across as throwaway tracks because of the offhand delivery with which the vocalist spun them.
“Bread and Butter” is an outstanding piece of work…I even hunted down a 12" vinyl single of it for the long mix because its various musical elements were individually compelling (those dirty sax clusters!! the deep electric guitar statement of the melody!! that sneaky electric-organ work!!) regardless of the overall message, which itself is all too near at hand, all those Reagan-era lies we’re going to see reprised under Bush II Part II…. And MERCY is this track a knockdown when played at seriously high volume! When you can feel the attitude thump right on through your angled shoulders…lovely, just stellar….
I must note, bitterly, that “Bread and Butter” is getting new relevance in November 2016 because of Donald Trump’s horrendous win in the US presidential election. Even before Trump’s holding the reins of government, things are already running amok and demonstrating that far worse is to come—no surprise to me or to anyone else with a non-bigoted brain, but here it comes. And those who voted for Trump thinking that they would have better economic prospects, have a little ponder on this song’s retrospection: “Held back, biting my tongue, with great expectations I learned your language. Now I know how to curse. Threats that keep me in line—lie, or lose my bread and butter.”
“How do you like your new house? How do you like your new job?”
“You say you never got them? No kidding…me neither!”
“Doped on illusion and myth”… welcome to Trumpland USA 2017…and Chris Butler thought Reagan was the worst of such horrors back in the 1980s. No one could have foreseen what we got, even after those horrendous days.
Biting my tongue
With great expectations
I learned your language
Know how to curse
Threats that keep me in line
Lie, or lose my bread and butter
And then there’s “Go Make The Weather,” a track that really did suffer from being put through the sneering-girl-singer formula of The Waitresses when it was a fine song on its own merits. What resulted was a mishmash of melody and anarchy that simply collapsed under its inherent contradictions. You can hear the validity of the piece under the performances, but the vocal smacks it flat left and right and never imbues the actual lyric with the essence it carried in its original composition.
Incidentally, if anyone ever gets around to making a film about The Waitresses, Sigourney Weaver is exactly who must play Patty. Chris, do you agree?
And yes, to address the original question that got me introduced to all this, “Christmas Wrapping” still is kicky…even 10 years after I wrote all of the above and 34 years after it was released. It’s not a “great” song or recording, but it’s fun, it’s a cultural snapshot (“most of ’81 passed along those lines” dates it numerically, but the Spartan remark “most interesting” reeeeeally locates its cultural moment in the US), it tells a cute story in the voice of a realistically jaded Average Jane (“Evergreens, sparkling snow…get this winter over with!” is possibly my favorite line), and it manages to provide this via the combination of fairly conventional melodic/structural vehicle and edgy elements of the changing musical landscape of the time (whiffs of Punk and New Wave), all trimmed by a jingling effect that surprisingly is not the seasonally-required sleighbells my memory had assumed it was.
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Comments © 2005/2015/2016 Mark Ellis Walker, except as noted, and no claim is made to the images and quoted lyrics.