Wednesday, November 29

Tom Waits For No Man

Welcome back, if I must say so myself. The title of this little tirade connects to two things: 1) I had a high-school English teacher who had a soft Virginian accent who happened to say "time" like "Tom", so we used to always ask, "Tom who?" whenever he dropped some platitude about time. 2) Tom Waits has released a highly anticipated odds 'n' sods mixed with new bits collection called Orphans, which I hate to say is more than disappointing.

I like Waits. Some might say I like him more than is healthy, as I've gone out of my way at various times to track down demos, b-sides and rarities (I mean, I bought Stay Awake, the Hal Wilner helmed Disney tribute, basically to get his version of "Heigh Ho." I'm glad I did, because Los Lobos contributed an amazing take on "I Wan'na Be Like You (The Monkey Song)" from The Jungle Book). I expected Orphans to be right up my alley, or at least the "rarities" portion, though I had some hope that delving in the archives might have been of benefit to the new recordings. Instead of outtakes from the past thirty years, Orphans seems primarily to be songs from the past thirty years recorded in the past five. There is no session information, and his vocals on most songs sound suspiciously like the Waits of Mule Variations and later. There is some precedent for this; 2002's Alice was new recordings and arrangements of tracks written and recorded nearly a decade earlier.

Take the aforementioned "Heigh Ho". I have the original to compare it to, and - lo and behold! - it isn't the same performance. The vocals are either new or remixed in such a way as to blend more smoothly with his present croak (the original, from 1989, has him forcing his voice to an extreme that now sounds like a premonition of his current state), and the arrangement has changed, with a fuller sound and added harmonica. Though still unsettling compared to the happy-go-lucky chaps in Snow White, it has lost some of the work-song-mixed-with-menace of the original. Another audible change has been applied to his contribution to the Skip Spence tribute More Oar from the hoary days of 1999. The song "Books of Moses" has had a new vocal treatment and has had drums slapped on top of the existing bongo rhythm.

Re-recording is frustrating and angering, but on top of that is the realization that there is a reason why most of this stuff has never seen the light of day; it just isn't very good. There aren't many real departures from the Waits formula of strangely named protagonists in mid-tempo tales of trouble and the devil, with a side dish of weepers and sad-sack tales of woe. Did you ever wonder what it might sound like if you mashed the rhythm of "Get Behind The Mule" with the orchestration and vocal style of "Big in Japan"? Well, today is your lucky day, for that very combination exits on the probably Mule Variations-era outtake "Fish In The Jailhouse." But did I forget to mention that it appears to have about six lines and thirty repetitions of the phrase "Fish In The Jailhouse"? I did? sorry, guess that's why it is an outtake, after all.

If you like the Tom Waits of the latest vintage, then I'm sure you will find plenty to like here - it all sounds familiar (or painful but easily dismissed, like his Bukowski poetry recitations). There are a few solid songs - I think the Bawlers disc (I guess I forgot to mention that he has thematically grouped these as Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards - rockers, ballads and oddballs, respectively) has maybe a half dozen. I think there are better ways to spend $40-50 on Tom Waits albums - get Nighthawks, Swordfishtrombones, Frank's Wild Years and The Black Rider. Or assuming you have all of those near essentials, go to and download this great radio performance from 1975 before it is gone.

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