Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Some CD reviews of mine in this week's Free Times. Scroll down or read them here:

Tom Waits, Real Gone. (Anti) Four stars

If Death sings, he probably sounds a lot like Tom Waits: deep and brooding in his quieter moments, a wild throaty howl when the devil's on his tail. Certainly Death -- if he keeps up with music -- would appreciate both the seriousness and wit of Waits' latest disc; it's his "Thanatopsis," and you can't swing a cat without hitting a dead body.

"Stop and get me on the ride up," Waits rasps on the opening cut, "Top of the Hill," and there's little question which way he's going: "The birds keep singing baby after you're dead/I'm gonna miss you plenty big old world." In the 10-minute masterpiece "Sins of the Father," a man on the run from the law wants to break a family curse of bad luck, but his pleas cut no ice with the Almighty; "God says don't give me your tinhorn prayers" goes the first line. There's a different kind of pursuit a-foot in "Don't Go Into that Barn," a great bluesy ghost story with a spooky chain-gang harmony from straight out of the Mississippi Delta. Both hunters and hunted tell these stories, where the night falls like a bloody axe and more than one woman meets a watery end.

There's even a song from the next world in "Green Grass," where a husband's ghost torments his faithless wife as she visits his grave. Even the somewhat hopeful final cut, "Day After Tomorrow," is permeated by impending loss, as a young soldier -- apparently in Iraq -- ponders both whether he'll see his wife again, and if his life is any more precious than the people he's fighting. ("Don't they pray to the same God we do?/Tell me, how does God choose?/ Whose prayers does he refuse?")

For the last few years, Waits has been pushing his great barbaric yawp as far as he can take it; he doesn't want to just get back to the blues, he wants to go past them, and the result here more than lives up to the title. Hitch this ride.

Paul Westerberg, Folker. (Vagrant) Three stars.

From his days fronting the late great Replacements through his solo career, Paul Westerberg has never had much use for tough-guy poses. Instead, he blasts away at them. When you hear Smashing Pumpkins sing "Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage," you know it's just a load of rock star shit; when Westerberg sings "Facing middle age, and I'm pacing in my cage tonight," you don't question him for a second. Like Warren Zevon -- whom he's beginning to resemble -- Westerberg's songs have an acidic, bracing directness. Here, as always, he's the doleful romantic, whether he's losing the love of his life to another guy ("How Can You Like Him?) or another girl ("Anyway's All Right"), pursuing some dream girl who doesn't exist ("As Far As I Know"), someone who used to exist ("Lookin' up in Heaven"), or -- hilariously -- offering to marry someone he can't stand ("$100 Groom"). Westerberg is always at his best when things are at their worst, and although Folker doesn't pack quite the one-two punch of Stereo/Mono from 2002, this latest batch of songs are reliably funny, sad, intimate and smart.

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