- The Washington Times - Monday, November 20, 2006

Tom Waits

Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards


You want a feast? Have a seat at the banquet table of Tom Waits, whose “Orphans” compilation clocks in at 56 songs, totaling more than three hours of music.

Really, though, it’s a misnomer to call this great stuffed bird a compilation. About half of it is brand-new, and much of the previously released material was culled from obscure soundtrack or tribute albums.

The set is parceled out in three digestible discs, each with its own tonal identity: “Brawlers,” uptempo and bluesy; “Bawlers,” sad-eyed and piano-dominant; and “Bastards,” an unruly, experimental brew of spoken-word monologues, musical poetry interpretations and other curiosities.

Mr. Waits, a few weeks shy of 57, is a maestro of discomfiture. Violently ragged and tender, his voice startles you like that of a raving street bum; it surprises you with its beauty and, always, compels you to listen. “I try my best to chug, stump, weep, whisper, moan, wheeze, scat, blurt, rage, whine and seduce,” he notes in the exhaustive, handsomely packaged lyric booklet for “Orphans.”

Over the past decade, Mr. Waits and his songwriting partner and wife, Kathleen Brennan, have created an incongruous musical vocabulary. It’s firmly rooted in American vernacular forms, including blues and country gospel, but it’s also insanely postmodern in its disintegration. Mr. Waits, the cabaret pianist, appreciates suavity, civility and urban jazz; he covers Frank Sinatra’s “Young at Heart” here, for example. But he values backwoods primal energy even more.

Mr. Waits, a devotee of Beat poetry (“Home I’ll Never Be,” credited to Jack Kerouac, was performed originally at a memorial to Allen Ginsberg ) and a great phrase-turner in his own right (grass as “God’s green hair” is just one of many luminous metaphors), also has a knack for wordless beatboxing. On songs such as “Lucinda” and “Bone Chain,” he sounds positively animalistic.

All these jostling ironies make “Orphans,” front to back, one of the most solid releases of Mr. Waits’ career. One day’s immersion will reveal the tip of the iceberg but still leave you on the tundra. Another day gives you heat. The third day, fire. From the first notes of the demented Elvis shuffle “Lie to Me” and the T. Rex strut “LowDown,” all the way through to the hidden last track that closes disc three (the hilarious supermarket-scam story “Missing Son”) “Orphans” never quits; it grabs your lapels and covers you in saliva.

Mr. Waits leans on traditional blues and folk melodies and chanteys, changing timbre to lend them originality. The gorgeous, mandolin-flecked “Bottom of the World” straight away feels familiar and timeless but is sung with such raw, untrammeled passion that it sounds new — Stephen Foster in loincloth. Likewise the pair of Ramones tributes that Mr. Waits includes here — “The Return of Jackie and Judy” and “Danny Says.” They’re not so much cover versions as reinventions.

For every odd or creepy moment on “Orphans”— and there are many, notably “Poor Little Man,” the scariest lullaby ever written, and the “Snow White” deconstruction “Heigh Ho” — there are flashes of unalloyed beauty. That untreated, faraway echo of Mr. Waits’ upright piano, as on the knockout ballads “World Keeps Turning” and “Down There by the Train,” is the sound of your favorite bar. And the plangent pedal-steel guitar notes heard on “Tell It to Me” and the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht cover “What Keeps Mankind Alive” will almost choke you with saloon sawdust.

One of the boldest cuts here is Mr. Waits’ take on cyclical Palestinian-Israeli violence, “Road to Peace,” but it’s a rare moment of topicality.

Mr. Waits seems far more interested in the unobserved margins, where Bob Dylan’s honest outlaws live and breathe. Though humans are capable of great evil, Mr. Waits finds humor, mitigation, even redemption in all the chaos and bizarreness of life. “It’s the same with men as with horses and dogs/Nothing wants to die,” he croons on “The Fall of Troy.” On “Down There by the Train,” he sees “Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth” toward some place of repose.

The delirious craft as well as the sensitivity of Mr. Waits’ artistry have never been on more brilliant display.

Give thanks to the parents of “Orphans.”



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