There aren’t many artists fortunate enough to maintain a career lasting 40 years or more. Many that do are long past their prime, releasing mediocre albums, recording collections of standards or re-recording their old hits, sometimes to general ambivalence but often with commercial (if not critical or artistic) success. Tom Waits, however, is one of those rare artists who, deep into his career, has continued releasing vital music that often outshines the work of his younger self. What a pleasure it’s been this past week to spend time with his two most recent studio releases. They were both as enjoyable as anything he’s ever released, and they’ve allowed me to conclude his catalog on a high note. Two years after the strikingly modern yet still typically Waits-ian Real Gone, he released a 3-CD compilation of rarities, soundtrack recordings, cover tunes and songs that didn’t fit on prior releases, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers And Bastards (2006). Collections like these are often hit-and-miss affairs, but this one has an unusually high success rate. Each disc has a theme, giving them a more cohesive feel than many of his studio albums. I will discuss each disc as a separate album, since they can easily be listened to individually.
Brawlers covers a lot of musical ground, but it’s basically a collection of blues, rock and heavier percussive tunes. It begins with “Lie To Me,” an echo-y ‘50s-sounding rockabilly song with amusing lyrics about a man who knows his woman is cheating but doesn’t seem to mind (“Whip me baby, lie like a dog, I really don’t care if you do”). “Low Down” is an old sounding blues song with muted but yelled vocals. His yelps in the bridge (“White heat in a cold rain”) recall Bruce Springsteen (on songs like “Adam Raised A Cain”). I love the last line of the chorus (“Oh yeah…my baby’s lowdown”). “2:19” is both bluesy and clangy, with a muted production and vocal (“my baby’s leaving on the 2:19”). Tribal drums and barked vocals introduce “Fish In The Jailhouse,” which gives way to sparse instrumentation and humorous lyrics about an inmate planning to break out of prison using fish bones (“I’m gonna fashion me a fishbone skeleton key”). “Bottom Of The World” is a folk/country ballad with a great mandolin (or is that guitar?) melody and a sad lyric slightly hidden by the sweet musical accompaniment (“And I’m lost…at the bottom of the world”). That’s the first five songs without a clunker among them, and there are many more good ones on this disc. “Road To Peace” is a long (7+ minutes) straightforward blues song with a biting guitar lead, a subtle groove and sharp & dark lyrical imagery about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I especially love the slow climbing melody in each verse. He sounds despondent about the situation there, even suggesting that “maybe God himself is lost and needs help.” It’s one of his most powerful songs.
[Tom Waits - "Low Down"]
His version of The Ramones song “The Return Of Jackie And Judy” sounds like something from Real Gone, with loud, oversaturated vocals and instrumentation. I like how he turns the “Oh yeah, ohh yeaaaaahhh” refrain into a blues growl. “Walk Away” is an excellent midtempo, finger-snapping swamp blues (“I wanna walk away and start over again”), originally from the Dead Man Walking soundtrack. He offers a darker and tom-tom heavy version of Phil Phillips’ 1959 hit “Sea Of Love” (which many people from my generation will know via Robert Plant’s 1984 version with The Honeydrippers). It’s a unique take on this song, and I love his harmonies during the chorus. “Buzz Fledderjohn” was originally the b-side of the Mule Variations track “Hold On.” It sounds like a field recording, with dogs barking in the background. Although I’m not sure who or what this song is about, it’s an excellent slow folky shuffle with a memorable refrain of “I ain’t allowed…in Buzz Fledderjohn’s yard.” “Rains On Me” is a slow, deliberately paced blues with another memorable refrain (“Everywhere I go…it rains on me”). There are a handful of songs on this disc that I haven’t mentioned. All of them are enjoyable, but they seem like retreads of songs and performances I’ve heard before. Still, Brawlers would work well as a stand-alone record, and it’s my favorite of the three Orphans discs.
Bawlers consists mostly of slower-paced ballads, but it’s not simply a collection of melancholy piano songs. “Widow’s Grove” is a little country (with accordion, mandolin & fiddle) and a little folk (with the shuffle beat and rhythmic guitar). Initially sounding like a melancholy romantic ballad (“I’d follow you to the river that washes out to the sea”), it eventually turns dark & disturbing (“I chased you and I drowned you there, deep in the lake”). “Shiny Things” is very simple, with slow plucked banjo and a vocal melody mirroring the music, and romantic lyrics (“the only thing I want that shines is to be king here in your eyes; to be your only shiny thing”). “World Keeps Turning,” originally from the soundtrack to 2001’s Pollack, is a very slow ballad, like the last song of the night before the bar closes, and it finds him lamenting a failed relationship (“I know I’m the only one for me”). “Never Let Go” is an arm-in-arm waltz from 1992. Although he’s done this type of song before, it quickly grew on me.
“Fannin Street” is a stark acoustic ballad about a lost soul who regrets going to the wrong part of town (“Now there’s ruin in my name”). The simple chorus (“Don’t go down to Fannin Street”) was constantly playing in my head all week. “If I Have To Go” was originally from the Franks Wild Years theater play, but not included on the album of the same name. It’s a gorgeous piano ballad with sad lyrics (“There’s nothing for me”; “I don’t belong here”). It would’ve easily fit on that album.
This collection features excellent interpretations of two standards: “Goodnight Irene” and “Young At Heart.” The former was written by blues great Leadbelly and has been recorded numerous time, but here it sounds like a drunken barroom sing-along mostly because of the backing vocals during the chorus. The latter is best known for the Frank Sinatra version, but Waits puts his own stamp on it. The pedal steel guitar is a nice feature, giving it a country/Hawaiian flair, and I like his gruff, heartfelt vocals. This is simply a wonderful version that even features a nice whistling solo. That covers the songs that made the biggest impact on me, but there are a handful of other songs I want to address. “Bend Down The Branches” is a string-laden lullaby from a 2002 kids’ album, but at just over 1-minute is barely a teaser. “Little Man,” originally by jazz saxophonist Teddy Edwards, is a slow, sparse jazz piano/vocal tune with jazzy sax and brushes on a snare, and features insightful lyrics sung from a father to his young son (“Don’t look back, there are things that might distract; Move ahead towards your goal and the answers will unfold”). “Take Care Of All My Children” is a midtempo folk/gospel song with a small horn section and spiritual lyrics, as he’s ready to go to heaven (“You can put all of my possessions here in Jesus’ name”). He covers another Ramones song, this time “Danny Says,” as a sad acoustic guitar ballad with longing in his voice (“I can’t wait to be with you…tomorrow). If you didn’t know the original, you would never guess this was originally by those punk legends. There’s a lot to like on Bawlers, even if the mood is generally subdued and melancholy, but I don’t think it’s quite as consistent as Brawlers.
Bastards is an acquired taste, and recommended for fans of Waits’ more strange and offbeat material, with numerous spoken-word pieces, various sound effects, and music set to the works of Beat writers Bukowski and Kerouac. It’s not a disc I’ll need to revisit often, but as someone who has enjoyed much of his more experimental work, I found several tracks here that made lasting impressions. “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” is an operatic German oompah tune (from Brecht & Weill’s The Threepenny Opera) that has a similar feel to “The Grinch” song from Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas. His version of the Snow White & The Seven Dwarves song “Heigh Ho” is barely recognizable until 2 minutes in, sounding more like a nightmare train ride than classic Disney movie music. “Books Of Moses” was originally by Alexander “Skip” Spence from his harrowing classic album, Oar. Waits’ version is less unhinged, sticking with the original’s rootsy acoustic arrangement while adding a gospel feel to the vocals. “Two Sisters” is a combination of old-time folk song and murder ballad, with a dark tale of one sister who attempts to kill the other, but the second sister is saved by a miller who is then paid five gold rings to push her back in the water…and then he’s hanged for murder. It has a great refrain of “I’ll be true to my love if my love will be true to me,” and it’s one of the best songs here.
[Tom Waits - "Two Sisters"]
“Dog Door,” recorded with the band Sparklehorse in 2001, has a hypnotic slow trip-hop groove with distorted vocals and a simple chorus of “She got me coming through the dog door.” “Redrum” is a cool brief instrumental with a guitar tone reminiscent of King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. “King Kong” is a cover of a Daniel Johnston song (I don’t know the original), and sounds like a Real Gone outtake (with those loud boom-chuck-da-boom vocals). I enjoyed the lyrics, which are a simplified, almost childlike telling of the movie King Kong. Too many songs on this disc, including the two spoken word/comedy hidden tracks, are not worth repeated listening, but it’s a good thing he kept these discs separated by themes so the listener can usually avoid the skip button.
His most recent album, released just last year, is Bad As Me (2011), and it’s a great way to close out my appraisal of his catalog. With nothing longer than 4-1/2 minutes, and most songs well under 4:00, it’s a streamlined collection of songs that accentuates the most accessible aspects of his work and is as good an introduction to his music as anything he’s ever released. Nearly every song is instantly memorable, and many continue to improve with each successive listen. The album opens with “Chicago,” a manic-sounding tune with an insistent rhythm. It’s densely packed, instrumentally speaking, with a refrain of “Everything will be better in Chicago.” I love his screams of “All aboooaaard!!!!” His hyper over-the-top vocals on “Raised Right Men” remind me of Nick Cave (specifically his recent Grinderman project), and I especially enjoyed the syncopated rhythm and organ stabs, as well as the killer lyrics (“There ain’t enough raised right men. It takes a raised right man to keep a happy hen”). “Talking At The Same Time” is an atmospheric slow shuffle with nice tinkling piano. It’s a social commentary about how, in today’s society, everyone’s talking and nobody’s listening or offering solutions (“All the news is bad, is there any other kind?”). It’s an instant classic, subtle & understated. “Get Lost” is a rockabilly tune with a great retro guitar solo. “Face To The Highway” is haunting and atmospheric, sung from the perspective of a trucker who “turned my face to the highway and turned my back on you.” It’s a quiet masterpiece, with either the guitar or keyboard creating a dreamlike backdrop.
The second half of the album is chock full of new Waits classics. “Bad As Me” is an angular, percussive song with a bluesy feel and a syncopated groove. I love the way he yelps “You’re the same kind of bad as me” and his deep vocals at “No good you say? Well that’s good enough for me.” He returns to the sound of his mid-to-late-70s barroom ballads on “Kiss Me,” sung by a man whose relationship has lost its spark (“I want you to kiss me…like a stranger once again”). “Satisfied” is a bluesy answer to The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” and even features Keith Richards on guitar (not his only appearance on the album). The lyrics are good if a little bizarre, but it comes down to “I will have satisfaction, I will be satisfied before I’m gone.” Richards adds his distinctive harmony vocals to “Last Leaf,” a tender acoustic folk ballad (“I’m the last leaf on the tree”) that’s a metaphor for his golden years (“the autumn took the rest but they won’t take me”). “Hell Broke Luce” is a howling, barking rocker from Hell (of course); an anti-war song with some harrowing lyrics (“How is it that the only ones responsible for this mess, got their sorry asses stapled to a goddamn desk?”). It’s dark, sinister stuff, but musically captivating. The album ends with “New Year’s Eve,” a slow, accordion-laced tune with a waltz feel and aching vocals, which also incorporates “Auld Lang Syne.” It sounds like a romantic song, but the lyrics are about criminals, drunks, drug addicts, etc. Still, it’s simply gorgeous. The deluxe edition of this CD comes with three extra songs, and I definitely recommend getting this version. Of these bonus tracks, “Tell Me” is a gruff folky Springsteen-esque tune with a great twangy guitar hook, while “After You Die” offers various possible answers to the question, “What is it like after we die?” set to a slow atmospheric shuffle. Once again, this bears a resemblance to the music of Nick Cave. I can’t say enough good things about this album. For some longtime Waits fans, it might be a little too straightforward, but for me it combines all of the elements I love about his music while keeping some eccentricities to a minimum. Needless to say, it’s quickly become one of my favorites.
That wraps up the Tom Waits catalog, and it was an immensely enjoyable journey these past couple of months. Some albums that I already liked (Heartattack And Vine, Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, Mule Variations, Bad As Me) lived up to my existing expectations, while others that hadn’t previously made an impression (Closing Time, Blue Valentine, Bone Machine) are now essential albums that I look forward to listening to again. It’s hard to believe that less than 15 years ago I couldn’t imagine anyone actually liking his music, and now I consider myself a big fan. Hopefully other skeptics will stop by this blog and take the time to re-assess his music. If I could inspire even one person to become a Tom Waits fan, I will be extremely proud. For anyone who’s already a fan and decided to check out my impressions on all of these albums, I hope you enjoyed it. Feel free to share your thoughts in the Comments sections, and let me know where you might agree or disagree with me. Thanks for reading.