Friday, October 16, 2009

"Already Classics" Presents: Tom Waits' Orphans

Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards
Artist: Tom Waits
Release year: 2006
Recordings 1984-2004

Tom Waits became a renowned cult figure in the 1980s and for the last 25+ years has continued his streak of indomitable bizarreness and wild diversity, within adapting strange personas in his own self-authored macabre, mythical, oddball sort of theatre. Never one to be influenced by trends in rock, Waits, along with Van Morrison, is probably the only celebrated, major artist of the post-Woodstock era who, for the majority of his influences, draws from eras before his time and before rock became the dominant form of musical expression in the mid-50s. Waits' music has evel less to do with rock than Morrison though, because Van's favourite music is the material that rock formuated out of old honky-tonk C&W, jazz, post-war R&B and pre-50s pop standards (only his Celtic folk leanings were independent strains from rock n' roll). Frankly, Waits has not displayed the acumen of a rock star nearly as often as his contemporaries and there are only brief glimpses from him into traditional pentatonic blues based rock- though moreso since 1983 than before. It's like hearing Randy Newman if he chose to abandon his composer roots and become a shameless vagabond. There have been some mixed results but, generally, Waits since 1983 and since his marriage to collaborator Kathleen Brennan even before that, has been a real treat to follow. His 70s work found him immersed in the "Beat" poetry, late-night cool jazz sand Bukowski scenes, singing of wasted existence while singing the wasted blues. Depending on how you see it, Waits finally moved on from his at times overwrought Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael, Charles Mingus and Louis Armstrong aspirations to soak in Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins, etc. as well as, more surprisingly to critics, Kurt Weil/Bertolt Brecht and Captain Beefheart. 

The uglier and more revolting the art, the more intriguing to Tom. The old influences can still be found but it's all become immersed into the one-man musicology encyclopedia that is Tom Waits. Waits' songs have grown to take on character and the man himself is a character, or a character actor if you will. The real guy keeps himself shrouded by his recorded and onstage personas. He's a "love 'em or hate 'em" kind of artist and one can come away from a Waits concert either feeling like they saw a genius stylistic master or a medicine-show huckster, faux-evangelist preacher. When he arrived in 1973 he was considered a singer-songwriter, even by his own label Asylum- a record company catered to such mavericks. That is, until he felt comfy enough to break off into some sort of nostalgic, bohemian revivalist act that lived for the worlds of Frank Sinatra, Jack Kerouac and Cole Porter all at once. Waits wrote like a broken, aimless man on skid row, but he never tried to become the stereotypical junkie who burns out before ever getting the chance to fade away, preferring to make these types of folks his study pieces and the ones to rub shoulders with. When he got tired of that journey through the dives and clubs of L.A., his music actually improved and became more clear-sighted in spite of its eccentricity. To anyone who didn't really get the joke, he had fashioned himself into the worst, most grunty singer imaginable by the mid-70s- mind you, that's a blind ignorance of the fact he actually tried to carry a tune in a humble troubadour's voice on his first two records. Still, while this period could often be very interesting it often came off as quite pretentious, stylized and, most important of all, one-note. Before 1983, he had made a slew of good albums, some average ones and an outright clunker. Nothing great though. Waits learned from the experience to become the bold artist we know and love today. 

In 2006, two years after another, at the very least, chin-stroking studio album with Real Gone, Waits collected lost tracks from the vaunted second phase of his career, dating back as far as 1984. This was a hodgepodge on paper but when sequenced together, the music is a remarkable trip through the lexicon of Tom. The listener is allowed to hear everything from contributions to "Various artist" tributes, friends' albums, soundtracks, documentaries, stage performances and studio outtakes. Plus a generous heaping of covers sometimes transformed by Waits into his very own creations. It's an expansive triple-disc masterwork that is also chock full of new compositions for those who crave productivity, so it reflects the breadth of his quarter century of screwball, madcap glory. And yes, it actually holds up and that's because Waits compartmentalizes the 56 tracks, so as not to muddle up the continuity. Disc 1, "Brawlers," is the side of Waits that pumps out the boozy, crunchy blues rockers where his smoke-burnished- though he has been off and on cigarettes for over 25 years- voice is at its most coarse, like how a smokestack made of sandpaper might sound. Someone once described it as- and I am editorializing here- "a ravaged, alcohol and nicotine soaked howl that got thrown out the car window, run over and then backed over again." If that wasn't what someone once said, I just said it. Disc 2, "Bawlers," shows his talent for torch songs and ballads, his most clear harkening back to the Tin Pan Alley days where pop and jazz standards were churned out damn near every week. Finally, Disc 3, "Bastards," is Waits the experimenter, who crafts songs straight out of his garage, basement and/or boiler room. This is the latest incarnation of his songwriting we have received, with him giving cerebral, spoken word performances that outdo many of the jazzbo "raps" of yesteryear. 

Waits used Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs to build percussive pieces off of "instruments" like water drums, circular fiddle, bicycle spokes, anvils, garbage cans, bullhorns and so on and so forth (think Fat Albert and the Gang's Junkyard combo, only way less cheery). Thanks to picking up on the tastes of his eldest son Casey, Tom has added hip-hop beat boxing, vinyl hiss and turntable scratching to his arsenal over the last decade. Representative of his quest for vintage audio quality, Tom's produced his albums of late as if he was saddled with 1940s technology. So know that, before you squawk about how grainy some of his recordings are. Tom is a purveyor of the twisted, demented and hellish aspects of music so what better way to present that than with scratchy sound quality? "Bastards" also gives us the more recent incarnation of Waits as a loony, hat-tipping yukster; a deranged storyteller that uses spoken-word to creep the bejesus out of you, yet also pulls out hearty amounts of humour both homey and ribald. Waits has always had his sense of humour but it takes on much less of a hipster mode as he ages, which isn't such a bad thing. Brennan and Waits are responsible for the majority of tracks on Orphans but indeed Waits' hook-ups with other musicians do result in occasional gold as well. "Lie to Me" is an immediate standout for the album, all jittery and hopped-up like a guy singing and playing after several pots of coffee. It's a nervy, hand-clapped and aggressively drummed piece using stop time and Waits is totally jumped up on it, way more so than usual in fact. To me, "Lie to Me" sounds like what blues could be if merged with the surreal environment of a carnival. 

The first disc comes with plenty of nuance on the theme of "Brawlers." He replicates the chugging blues of the Rolling Stones with "Lowdown," coincidentally a song title of theirs as well, as he channels the growl of his blues heroes vocally. "2:19" combines the polyrhythms and Gumbo of New Orleans with Waits' usual blues vamping and it probably takes on this difference because it was produced by Waits for John P. Hammond's 2001 album Wicked Grin. The same goes for the intense, biblical declamatory blues "Lord I've Been Changed," though on Hammond's album it was titled "I Know I've Been Changed." "Fish in the Jailhouse" is not quite as spiritual but it definitely matches and perhaps surpasses the blues chomp of the previous few tracks, with anvils chiming in. "Bottom of the World," which first appeared in the 2003 documentary Long Gone, is his take on the weary country blues but he adds enough of his over-the-top vocalizing to it to distinguish it from anything rootsy and bluegrass. He even finds the common ground between hip-hop beatboxing and field hollers with "Lucinda," one of his more original, groundbreaking pieces of recent years. He brings in the blues harp of Charlie Musslewhite to tackle "Ain't Going Down to the Well," a Leadbelly staple co-written by Huddie with archivists John Lomax and his son Alan. "Puttin' on the Dog," one of dozens of Waits songs with the animal dog or fish in the title, takes on the same sound and it was lifted from a little-known 1999 comedy called Liberty Heights. Waits uses his higher range more than expected as he goes for political commentary on the shuffling "Road to Peace," a strangely literate observance of the Middle East conflicts. It tends to wander and meander at 7:17, but it's a neat departure for Waits, who usually steers clear of any politics or controversy. "All the Time" is a drum-heavy piece that features the distinct vocal distortion effect Waits has been using for years to make him sound like Howlin' Wolf... if the Wolf lost his voice to cancer and sang with a voicebox. 

"The Return of Jackie and Judy" follows a similar setup, though with harder electric guitar. On this song, Waits reminds me of latter day Dylan, raspy voice and all. To show Tom is full of surprises, this is a Ramones cover, culled from a 2003 tribute album to them called We're a Happy Family. And believe it or not, it's not his only Ramones cover on Orphans. Quite interesting coming from a guy who discarded punk rock in its 70s prime as uncouth no-talents making useless noise. "Walk Away" is a nice little spiritual-styled composition and Waits uses his deepest bellow possible and yet it had sat for 10 years unavailable outside of the soundtrack to the Tim Robbins directed anti-capital punishment film Dead Man Walking. Waits possesses the proper amount of chutzpah to manage a wonderful cover of "Sea of Love," a throwback compared to what comes before it on disc 1 because it dates back to the soundtrack for 1989's Al Pacino film of the same name. He grunts it out as only Tom Waits can, but gives his gutbucket blues arrangement of it some soul and flair. The acoustic-based, sneakiness of "Buzz Fledderjohn" is a welcome change of gears but superior is the hollering "Rains on Me," a soulfully chanted near-classic that previously had been first available on Chuck E. Weiss's 1999 album Extremely Cool. Weiss co-wrote the tune and had been a hip songwriter on the L.A. rock scene in the 70s when he became good pals with Waits. Of note, Weiss was the "Chuck E." of Rickie Lee Jones's 1979 signature hit "Chuck E's in Love" but he should also be respected for his writing work and "Rains on Me" is a real winning combination. 

It's the sixteenth and last "Brawler" from Orphans and one of the most satisfying too. "Bawlers" is perhaps the best disc on the album, portraying the Waits who writes forlorn, melancholy ballads that you could picture hearing in many different time periods. Some of his ballads feel just as home in a coffeehouse today or in the 70s, as they would in a German beer hall at the turn of the century. Other, more folk-oriented ballads of his put modern day singer-songwriters to shame. The disc kicks off with a minute-long version of the children's song "Bend Down the Branches," first included on the 2002 all-star compilation For the Kids. It's got the hallmarks of Waits' semi-maudlin, semi-sardonic pieces, with flugelhorn and string accompaniment behind Waits weezing along in his distinct 70s croon. The doctored home recording "You Can't Hold Back Spring" is a beautiful little melody that benefits from the lo-fi touch. "Long Way Home" is a world-beaten, rustic acoustic highlight, a tremendously wise and weary song that initially saw release on the soundtrack to the 2001 film Big Bad Love and received a cover from Norah Jones on her 2004 sophomore effort. The old world, Mediterranean-styled waltz "Widow's Grove" finds Waits in his sentimental gravelly voice rasping under a studio effect that make him sound like he's projecting through an oxygen mask (or it's just a bullhorn, a favourite musical tool of his). It shows how Waits, since his very American-rooted 70s "beatnik wino" days, has turned himself into an internationally flavoured artist who wasn't just defined by his Americana so much as world musicology. The Halloween-ish, crawly Germanesque tune "Little Drop of Poison" hits an atmospheric note and one can see its "boo" appeal to children in context with its inclusion on the soundtrack to Shrek 2 (an alternate version also appeared on the soundtrack to The End of Violence). 

Why doesn't Waits try a children album or compose the full soundtrack to a kid's film? I'm not sure, but I think it would be a fiendish, ghoulish affair and Waits' demeanour can be softened up for younger audiences. I suppose some kids could find him the reincarnation of the Bogeyman but Tom would likely find that amusing as hell. Or at least just a scary uncle figure, which Tom would also enjoy since he bases some of his own vocal and physical traits off his own uncle, Vernon. The next track, the simple-mindedly titled "Shiny Things," is sort of a "bright and early in the morning" bluegrass picker with banjo clashing with clarinet as Waits again mixes different musical styles to great results. All that's missing is the rooster. In his bass rumble vocal, Waits sings a slightly maudlin piano ballad called "World Keeps Turning," written for the appropriately downcast 2001 film Pollock. "Tell it to Me" is one of the more ordinary cuts, as it finds Tom warbling over fingerpicked guitars, backed by upright bass not unlike his early 70s settings although less jazzy. "Never Let Go" is a superb way to follow, a sweeping epic not unlike his "In the Neighbourhood" that recalls street marching bands with its thumping drum snare, crash cymbals and glockenspiel. I like to call it Springsteen meets Little Italy/French Quarter. It's an impassioned, oddly moving performance. Only Waits can make the most alien and foreign musical concepts sound so authentic and real, all without actually sounding like he's claiming to know the music intricately. Instead, he just strikes me as someone who knows he loves the music's intricacies. Another track derived from John Hammond's Wicked Grin is the sparse, folky "Fannin Street." It's an honest, minor delight, owning a lot in common with his Closing Time-era tracks, only he's breathily crooning the song instead of giving it the old, conservative college try vocally, a la 1973. 

The jazziest thing on Orphans is a 1991 selection written by Teddy Edwards, the tenor saxophonist throughout Tom's 70s and 80s tours and some of his albums too. Called "Little Man," it's a mellow number that may go by with the pace of a turtle but that's alright because it does a special job recalling the angelic, "aw-shucks" jazz Waits had tackled on his soundtrack to 1982's One from the Heart, a film he was personally asked to score by Francis Ford Coppola. It seems that since Waits' interest in jazz waned in the late 70s, he can be more on the mark when revisiting it than he was trying to conjure up such authenticity in the first place (witness this track and how remarkably pleasing One from the Heart is, despite not being one from the heart of Waits who was waving so long to that world by the time the soundtrack came out). "Little Man" first appeared on Edwards' 1991 album on the jazz label Verve, Mississippi Lad. Moving on, "It's Over" is a half-baked kind of cocktail piano and acoustic guitar piece with warbling trumpet in the background and "If I Have to Go" is an even more run-of-the-mill piano ballad that was included in the stage show of Waits' 1986 play Frank's Wild Years but left off the soundtrack LP, and for good reason since it's a legit throwaway. However, Waits redeems himself with a decidedly growled, howled rendition of another Leadbelly song, this time the 20th Century landmark "Goodnight Irene." Another selection from 1996's Dead Man Walking soundtrack arrives in the form of "The Fall of Troy," a weird sort of torch song that sounds half-pop standard, half-lounge lizard balladeer. But then again, if you throw in the slightly off-key guitars and trumpets Waits adores using so much, it begins to take on a distinct tone of its own separate from those you may think it emulates. 

The rough, lo-fi recording "Take Care of All My Children" has its homemade, workmanlike charm and it spent the longest time on the shelf of any of Orphans' tracks, being cut in 1984 for a documentary film called Streetwise. Despite its grainy quality, it's not a bad song but the equally rough demo-like "Down There by the Train" outclasses it, a sort of precursor to 1999's down-home romper "Come on Down to the House." Tom also somehow transforms the Ramones' 1980 bouncy Brit Invasion nod "Danny Says" into a meandering ballad that I think actually hits a bigger impact to the listener in this radical version than it did in the Ramones' hands. Also from 2002's Big Bad Love soundtrack is the grizzled, desolated "Jayne's Blue Wish," an okay tune but a novel production as one can practically hear the creaking of the chair/stool Waits sits on while performing. Though Waits sings it as if awaiting a lung transplant, his version of "Young at Heart" is both rewarding and comical and the addition of an old-fashioned country pedal steel guitar is a smart one. The recording is not much to write home about, with an underwater, hissy, distorted quality to it. But that only contributes to the homemade, cut-and-paste vibe to this triple album. It's also the twentieth and last of the "Bawlers," a disc that may not get you moving and shaking, but one that has its weight in richness at least equal to that of the "Brawlers" disc. To this point, the listener has been thoroughly dragged through the emotions of Waits' music, all except for the lighter, kookier side. Well that is supplied by the third disc, the "Bastards" themed one. 

The German oompah stage piece, Brecht-Weil's "What Keeps Mankind Alive" is sung tongue-in-cheek, as intended, by Waits with a coarse, shouting proclamation vocal line. This is taken from their Threepenny Opera but Waits' recording comes from a 1985 Weill tribute album called Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill. It's a tremendous inclusion and one wonders if Tom could do a whole album of Weil or Weillian music, and make it fantastic. "Children's Story" (aka "Pisspot") features Waits' sandpaper, weathered voice telling a demented tale through the telephone amidst a solitary harmonium (pump organ?) doodling. It is based on German playwright Georg Buchner's Woyzeck, a story that was adapted into a musical by Waits and Robert Wilson in the early 1990s, of which the songs showed up on Tom's 2002 album Blood MoneyA 1988 Disney tribute album entitled Stay Awake: Interpretations of Music from Various Vintage Disney Films yielded Tom Waits's amazingly cacophonous, bluesy wail cover of "Heigh Ho" from the 1937 animated classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It's a bit of a jarring listen, but a brave take on a rather gleaming film composition by comparison. The off-the-wall insect story, again bellowed in a deep cackle by Waits through what appears to be a phone, "Army Ants," is a unsettling listen with plucked string instruments to represent the crawling of ants. "Book of Moses" is one of the album's unforeseen high points, a low-tuned (full step down on guitars) blues shouter that could be a history lesson from Waits to junior stylists like Beck or the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Why it's not on "Brawlers" I'm not sure, but the noisy, sound effect-laden "Bone Chain" sure is a "Bastard" track, full of Waits' vocal percussion through various effects that replicate a beat boxing hip-hopster. 

"Two Sisters" is a bit silly, with Waits singing a sort of field holler death song with a mere fiddle playing melody alongside. It's a traditional arrangement but Waits takes away just a bit from it by singing in a Southern accent. He veers close to self-parody with efforts like this. "First Kiss" is the third whacko tale with the dissonant musical accompaniment to go with it. "Dog Door" finds Waits in his odd falsetto howl with whispered growls double-tracked alongside it. It's a hypnotic blues arrangement that's nothing to scoff at as it finds him collaborating with the group Sparklehouse from their 2001 album It's a Wonderful Life. "Redrum" is a neat instrumental that features some crazy pump organ/guitar keyboard contraption with a wail of distortion carrying the "melody." Again backed up by a harmonium, "Nirvana" is another campfire story from Waits that is sure to entertain, as he recites poetry from Charles Bukowski. He also pays tribute to another of his poet heroes with Kerouac's "Home I'll Never Be" given a musical structure, though it sounds like another low quality mobile tape recorder piano performance of it. It still works, as everything Waits tries to do unfashionably does. "Poor Little Lamb" is likely the dumbest thing you'll find on "Bastards," a Brecht-Weill styled toss-off with Tom through a phone caterwauling away. "Altar Boy" is almost the exact sort of track he'd cut in the late 70s, him hollering away (though this time trying to sound just a tad sober) amidst jazzy pianos and horns. It was originally written for 2000's Alice but got scrapped. "The Pontiac" is Waits telling a child the story of a Pontiac handed down upon generations and it's rescued from a long forgotten spoken-word compilation from 1989 called Smack My Crack. It was apparently inspired by how his father-in-law loved to fix old cars. 

"Spidey's Wild Ride" is a misbegotten attempt at a rap that's pretty immature and stupid, but Tom almost makes it worthwhile with his brazenness. The jungle stomp "King Kong" is pretty tone-deaf stuff but is noteworthy for all its Kong-like roars and guitar funk playing along Tom's grating vocals. The "final" track is Tom reciting Kerouac's "On the Road," re-modelled as a blues from the basement song. Two hidden tracks cap off Orphans brilliantly. A live monologue by Waits is the side-splitting "Dog Treat" where Tom acts puzzled- in his own comedic way- in questioning the purpose of a certain dog treat he discovered that was made from the 36-inch penis of a bull, much to the audience's delight. He theorizes on what the bull would think if he knew that's what would happen to his enormous member after death. Afterward is the har-har story "Missing My Son," in which Tom recounts a time when he was in line for groceries and a woman ahead of him said she reminded him of her son. Of course, the son resembles Tom in no way ("In fact, he's Chinese") but Tom placates the woman and grants her wish to hear him say "Bye, mom" to remind her of when her now deceased son was alive. This results in the woman charging her large purchase to Tom. Upset as expected when he finds out the truth, Tom talks of running out to the parking lot, catching her before she gets in her car and pulling on her leg. "Just the way I'm pulling on yours," Tom quips before cackling uproariously. So ends the biggest, bestest representation of Tom Waits' greatness in pure volume and though it may be incredibly sprawling, it's also incredibly deep and rich. He's got only one album I classify higher. A true Waits anthology, a career-spanning, in-depth collection, is badly in order, but Oprhans will do. It's a fitting name for these tracks that lay dormant without a home, some for the longest time, until 2006 brought them all together, 56 in all, for Waits' greatest self-styled anthology yet, and perhaps the only one we'll ever see, unless we do get a proper boxed set one day.

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