Sunday, January 21, 2007

I've been on such a Tom Waits kick lately

-- and this is the reason. Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards is a broad three-disc carnival/fire sale, a collection of Waits' leftovers -- cover songs, rambles, false starts, wanna-bes, almosts, not quites and shoulda-beens -- all woven together into a very up-to-date, comprehensive work not of where Waits has been, but where he is now. It's not a career-spanning retrospective so much as a collection of scraps that have all been either recorded for the first time or re-recorded over the past three years, so it all sounds seamless. Rather an ambitious undertaking; Waits' way of saying, maybe, that he doesn't need to look back on his 30-plus years, because he has more than enough great ideas burning up inside him right now.

About 30 of these 54 songs are new, and they are very much in the keeping with the kind of wild stomping skronky sound you hear on Mule Variations and Real Gone -- and yet, you can't miss the mood, tone and texture of the Tom Waits we've always known and loved. The opening cut "Lie to Me" sets the tone: throbbing, mysterious, with that kind of dark-alley, down-and-out daring that characterized so much of Rain Dogs, and the gorgeous "Little Drop of Poison" recalls "Temptation" from Frank's Wild Years.

The others are covers ranging from "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" the Brecht-Weill showstopper from The Threepenny Opera to certifiable weirdo Daniel Johnston's "King Kong," to a couple of Ramones covers: "The Return of Jackie and Judy" and "Danny Says" to Leadbelly's wonderful old folkie warhorse "Goodnight Irene" -- which I think Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., once called "the greatest song ever written in 3/4 time," and a tight compact novel about the struggle betwen the security of marriage and the longing of desire. I'm still a sucker for Brian Wilson's version on the Leadbelly-Guthrie 1988 tribute A Vision Shared, but Waits growly mournful voice really gets to the guts of this classic.

Only complaint: where in the hell is "Take Me Home" from the soundtrack to One From the Heart? Beautiful song. I loved it so much that I actually taped it off the TV on a cassette player and listened to it for weeks.

Discs like this make you wonder: "Why don't I own every single thing Tom Waits has ever recorded?" Last weekend I set about fixing that by buying Small Change, Heart of Saturday Night, and a terrific, just barely dated live set called Nighthawks at the Diner.

More on this later as thoughts come to me, hopefully more generous and coherent than the ones above.

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