David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 356: These Immortal Souls (You Can't Unring A Bell)

May 30, 2024

As I reach the end of this series, I realize I have yet to write about a song as it comes from a compilation tribute album (the closest is using Holly Cole's cover of Tom Waits' "I Don't Wanna Grow Up," but which came from her CD completely devoted to Waits' songs, not a compilation of different artists covering different Waits' songs).

A good tribute album of that sort should introduce fans of the original artist to musicians perhaps not normally within that musical orbit. And given that opportunity, those lesser-known artists should provide unique interpretations of the song covered, otherwise they are too easily forgotten.

Take These Immortal Souls who seem to seize their opportunity on the Tom Waits' Tribute, Step Right Up, a compilation with both relatively well-known artists (10,000 Maniacs, Violent Femmes, Frente!, Alex Chilton) and unknown artists (Tindersticks, Archers of Loaf, and the aforementioned These Immortal Souls). Only the Souls seem to really take to heart the idea of completely re-interpreting the source material.

When I picked up Step Right Up, I knew neither the Souls nor "You Can't Unring A Bell," the Waits' song they cover. The latter wasn't too surprising, as Waits' eccentric recording history left gaps in the Fleming collection. My wife turned me onto Waits, based upon the early barroom blues he created; she got very turned off when he went more experimental. I still wanted to listen but it would be in an empty room.

"You Can't Unring A Bell" was from the One From The Heart soundtrack. Yeah, you remember that classic Coppola movie, that musical romantic drama from the guy that gave us The Godfather? Give Coppola credit, half of the musical talent hired for the soundtrack, Crystal Gayle, makes a little sense. Tom Waits as the second half? Not so much. (Or, reverse those; it's the combination that mostly clashes.) I suspect Coppola was trying to channel his inner Jim Jarmusch.

Waits' "You Can't Unring A Bell" seems an unfinished song as typical of Waits in the early 1980s. With the heavy reliance on drum (note the singular) and overall percussion, Waits foreshadows the extreme change in his musical style that will come most to fruition with the brilliant "Rain Dogs." However, "You Can't Unring A Bell" ain't there, yet.

Enter These Immortal Souls to reinvent the song and elevate it to a level worthy of its title. Part of what disappoints me for Waits' original version is that the title's conceit, one of the best figures of speech for the impossibility of reversing a previous decision, is not fleshed out through a chaotic lyric: "you can't unring a bell, junior/it'll cost you to get out of this one, junior/he's got big plans that don't include you/take it like a man." Maybe the line "you're a little man in a great big town/perhaps you were a little hasty" has more meaning within the context of Coppola's {cough} masterpiece, but I ain't going to sit through it to find out.

I wanna see someone do more with that "little man," to capture what decision or action was done in inappropriate haste? Is that asking so much, Tom? Sheesh, the song isn't even 2 minutes and 20 seconds, certainly you could have supplemented this narrative out a little more.

These Immortal Souls somehow are able to make about 6 minutes out of this song. And they do this without adding obvious solos, or elongating a coda, or bringing on additional lyrics. No, they do it by just allowing each instrument in their more traditional band set-up reverberate around the song like pinballs. Guitars and keyboards compete with that drumming and percussion to create a creepy atmosphere where bells no longer can't be unrung, but are broken, as are perhaps most of the guitar strings. Every once in awhile, the music seems ready to ascend into some kind of more melodic sort of chords, only to be cut off dramatically. I could see Jim Jarmusch salivating over These Immortal Souls' version of this song, probably having to fight off David Lynch.

I hope Tom Waits heard this version and went, "oh, yeah, I should've done it that way."

These Immortal Souls were an Australian band who formed around the last time I was in Australia, 1987, albeit forming apparently in London. I could have sworn they were on a cassette I bought there but long since lost to a car thief in Bloomington (see Day 89, The Replacements, for more if you care). I don't know how much I would have liked them if I had bought them or seen them. They clearly reveled in the world of punk, including the fabulously named Epic Soundtracks as drummer.  All I know is that they took Tom Waits' anything-can-be-an- instrument approach to music-making (this is a guy who famously played barstools, 2 X 4s, and dressers on Rain Dogs), and elevate an obscure song to new levels of unfair obscurity. The immortal soul of a vampire would love their version of "You Can't Unring A Bell."

These Immortal Souls. "You Can't Unring A Bell." Step Right Up: The Songs Of Tom Waits. Manifesto, 1995. Link here.

Day 355: James Brown "I Got You (I Feel Good)"

Day 357: Tommy Tutone "Cheap Date"

See complete list here.