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More Voices from the Graveyard Shift

Tom Waits: Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards

On his new triple album, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards, Tom Waits has re-asserted his place among the vanguard of daring and fiercely independent American recording artists. He has given us more of what he’s conistently concocted in his four decades of iconoclastic work: a sprawling mélange of tarantellas, mambos, lounge numbers, show tunes, rockabilly ravers, garage-rockers, polkas, and experiments beyond categorization. More songs about women and trains.

Since 1999 Waits has released over a hundred songs, working from the mad laboratory he maintains on his property near Petaluma, California. There was nary a peep from him between 1993’s The Black Rider and 1999’s Mule Variations, but somehow since then the floodgates have opened. Perhaps it was the switch from Island Records to the more independently minded Anti- that stoked this output. In Orphans, one of his most ambitious projects to date, Waits has assembled fifty-four songs, including thirty brand-new tracks. It’s such a vast collection that it comes with a ninety-page book. Written and produced with his wife of twenty-six years, Kathleen Brennan, the record is proof that Waits can continue to operate on his own terms, outside the margins, and flourish.

Generalizing about any Tom Waits release is a dicey proposition—his art thrives on the fact that it defies expectations and easy pigeonholing—but the road map for Orphans goes something like this: On the first disc, Brawlers, up-tempo songs howl, stomp, enter the darkness, and disturb the peace. Bawlers, on the other hand, is laden with dilapidated ballads that prove that Waits’s brand of yearning love song can be as magical as it is tragic and solemn. The third disc, Bastards, contains spoken-word recitations and cover songs, as well as odds and ends from various theatrical projects.

Waits’s infamous voice evokes a longshoreman working the graveyard shift with a carton of Pall Malls and a flask of Cutty Sark. Yet he can soften its impact when the mood calls for it. Listening to the spoken-word tracks on the album, including a moving piece by Charles Bukowski (the travel poem “Nirvana”), gives you a sense of hearing the words of a wizened, gentle grifter, whose coat is lined with watches and advice for the dog track. Waits’s music has always started and ended with that voice. It is so distinctive that he’s had to file suit against large corporations that attempted to imitate it after being denied permission to use it to peddle their corn chips and station wagons.

Musically, Orphans is another showcase for his collection of old-school instruments (pump organ, waterphone, Chamberlin, Stroh violin) and household objects–cum–percussion instruments, and the eclectic band of players he brings on board for the occasion: Marc Ribot, Charlie Musselwhite, Les Claypool, Larry Taylor, Jimmy Cleveland, Mitchell Froom, and his sons Casey and Sullivan, to name just a few. Waits manages to forge a sound that is simultaneously vintage and contemporary. Songs rumble like they’re barreling down a highway or moan like they’re oozing out of an old gramophone. If you didn’t know better you might think some of these tracks were laid down in the ’40s.

Among the curiosities in this collection is the most pointed political statement of Waits’ career, “Road to Peace.” A mirror to the violence in the Middle East and the battle for land, it sheds blood and names names in a way that is almost shocking coming from an artist whose songs often elicit laughter. In this case, he brings down the heavy lumber for seven minutes, then moves on. There are gorgeous new songs like “Little Drop Of Poison,” “You Can Never Hold Back Spring,” and “Bottom of the World” that feel familiar yet fresh. There’s a love letter to old cars called “The Pontiac.” Waits breaks out his falsetto howl on “Lie To Me,” “Dog Door,” and “Spidey’s Wild Ride.” The spoken-word pieces range from eerie (“Army Ants”) to the downright comical (“Children’s Story” and “Dog Treat”). Waits also pays homage to Daniel Johnston, Jack Kerouac, Georg Büchner, and the Ramones in pieces that vary from the plaintive and melancholy to the absurd.

However diverse, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards is not a variety show. Waits describes the human condition, life, love, conflict, and death. His assembled rabble of sailors, gamblers, lion-tamers, loners, and other oddballs live in a realm of mishaps, scandals, and myth. Waits has created a rhythmic freak show where the lunatics have built the asylum with ramshackle tools from some outlandish hardware store. But all the peculiar characters and eclectic sounds would be orphans if Waits hadn’t gathered them all together in his barn and put them to work.


Todd Simmons

Todd Simmons is a writer/actor/improviser. He lives in the East Village.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2007

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