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Tom Waits’s “Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards”

March 10, 2009
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Grim Reapers or grand weepers.

A Tom Waits song, as the musician’s wife and longtime collaborator Kathleen Brennan puts it, can sound like Death breathing dirges down your neck, or a sorrow-drunk codger crooning blues into his gin at closing time. Like broken glass in a gutter, Waits’ music can be fractured and serene, gleaming like a crystal shard in the sun, or cracked and edgy, cutting deep if held tightly.

Waits, who turned fifty-seven last December, defined his craggy musicianship with 1983’s marvelously scabrous Swordfishtrombones. In the years since, his infamous double edge has delt both bane and boon to scores of listeners. Fans of Dylan and Louis Armstrong usually dig Waits’ ragtime-infused, smoky-throated beatnik balladry. They spin “House Where Nobody Lives” to sweeten the backwash of a domestic dream gone sour, or curl up with “Hold On” to nurse a bad case of the blues. But when Waits turns the corner with a Mr. Hide grin and tosses “Dave the Butcher” on their lap– well, they look as if he’d stashed barbed wire in their comfort food, or dripped battery acid in their Earl Grey. Yet for those keen on a little spine tingle, “Dave the Butcher”‘s spooky, carousal-with-a-busted-crankshaft sound can seem a twisted gem.

I can only assume its with both camps in mind that Anti offers Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards. It’s a three-CD set of thirty new songs and twenty-six rarities. The first two discs cover Brennan’s dictum of division, while the third veers into territory you might call far left of center.

The tough/tender dichotomy that characterizes Waits’ catalog is thanks in no small part to the singer’s distinctive vocals. “I can sound like a girl, the boogieman, a Theremin, a cherry bomb, a clown, a doctor, a murderer,” Waits once said of his eccentric voice. “I can be tribal, ironic, or disturbed.” To be sure, a persual of any of his albums would privide abundant evidence to back this claim. Abrasive as grit on brick, graceful as steam off asphalt, Waits’ pipes ring like acid on a rusted tin roof, spewing hammer and drizzle, croak and croon in equal measure, depending on his urge. Add to these chops a grasp of modern song craft that spins through American roots music genres with the ease of a Tennessee roadhouse jukebox, and you’ve got a musician as well suited to soundtrack a rollicking Saturday night as the rueful morning after.

Itching to hear what a Sun Records-era Elvis might sound like if he traded his guitar for a stringed pitchfork and struck up a rockabilly number with a live coal in his throat? Spin Brawlers and witness the sweltered swagger of “Lie to Me.” Want The Cars slowed to the speed of a whiskey bender, then dipped in the Mississipi mud of Exile on Main Street? Skip ahead to “Low Down.” Feeling down and out, hoping to find that lucky dime in the curbside dust? Clutch the silver-rimmed Satchmo send up “You Can Never Hold Back Spring,” a Bawler that goes straight for the heart with a nine-pound hammer. If the vibe of Bawlers evokes images of down-and-out circus clowns swigging bourbon behind the big top, and homesick harlequins crying to the moon, then Brawlers might conjure maniacal rollercoaster operators with bloodshot eyes bossing children between pulls from a stale stogie.

But the Bastards, as their title suggests, defy easy categorization; they’re the misfits, oddities, and wierd anomalies that you’d find inside, say, the fun house– or perhaps the freak show. This set houses “Dog Door.” A track Waits cut for Sparklehorse, it features multi-tracked vocals that evoke Cookie Monster singing backup for Oscar the Grouch. “King Kong,” a Daniel Johnston cover, finds Waits using his voice to simulate the growl, breath, and ten-ton thump of the infamous ape, theatrics which volt the intensity of this harrowing, tragic narrative until you can almost make out the five-story antihero crashing throug the streets of Manhattan, flattening Buicks, and leveling street lights like they were blades of grass.

The exclusion of these screwballs onto a separate disc might be this package’s only downfall, or its main attraction, depending on how much of Waits’ multifarious oeuvre appeals to you. Those who crave the dizzy thrill of hitting every ride in Waits madcap carnival– head reeling, eyes rolled back, sloshing beer and popcorn all over themselves– are bound to feel a little shortchanged at the end of the night. But what this set lacks in jerky excitement, it makes up for in palatable variety. For those who’ve found Waits standard LPs a mixed bag they were hesitant to dig into, there has probably never been a better time to give him another chance. If you’re already among the converted, you have the folks at Anti to thank for making it easier than ever to enjoy the range and scope of a talent that, in its own zany way, remains pretty much untouchable in contemporary American music.

*First published in The Pulse on 1.10.07

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