Avant gardener

Three sides of the prolific Tom Waits
By TED DROZDOWSKI  |  January 28, 2010

SONG FARMER: Waits’s new 54-song collection embraces nearly every historic style of American and European popular music — and skronk.
When a musician starts using chests of drawers and two-by-fours for percussion, the highway to weird becomes wide open. Tom Waits has been burnin’ it up for 23 years — ever since Swordfishtrombones (Island) announced his departure from beat poetry and cabaret jazz for the wide open anywhere. And he’s never been more squarely there than with Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards (Anti-), a new 54-song collection that embraces almost every historic style of American and European popular music. Folk, blues, jazz, country, polka, cabaret, waltzes, skronk (okay, maybe skronk isn’t historic), and spoken word all get trotted out like shiny show pigs. And Waits is the proud farmer, penning his beauties into three CDs and complementing them with an artful 94-page book that incorporates found artifacts like yellowed almanac pages with his snapshot photos. The package has the look and feel of an exquisite small-press book with music.

A lot of music. At first the project was to be a collection of Waits’s rare and unreleased works, like “Fanin Street” and “Buzz Fledderjohn,” which bluesman John Hammond debuted on his 2001 Waits-produced Wicked Grin (Pointblank), or soundtrack leftovers. There are also covers, ranging from the damaged naïf Daniel Johnston’s “King Kong” to Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene” with songs by the Ramones and Sparklehorse somewhere between. Not only are Waits and his wife/writing partner, Kathleen Brennan, prolific and brilliant enough to earn fourth place in tunesmith-addicted Paste magazine’s list of 100 best living songwriters, they’ve inveterate listeners with broad taste.

As the pair combed their vaults, the process of finding “lost” music became so frustrating, they began writing and recording new songs. A lot of songs. Each disc gets its own category. “Brawlers” and “Bawlers” are especially good. Most of the 16 tunes on “Brawlers” display Waits’s talent for making the familiar seem alien. His lament “Bottom of the World” is a barroom sing-along with its feet in Memphis and Mali: part Washington Phillips, part Ali Farke Toure. And his brilliant staff of guitarists — madmen Smokey Hormel, Marc Ribot, and Joe Gore — take turns transforming his blues with knotty, swelling abscesses of unpredictable sound.

Even those who dislike Waits’s sometimes bitter pill of a voice, which can relate a decade of experiences in a single cough, can’t dispute his ability as a storyteller, which is this set’s connective tissue. “Lucinda” is a fascinating example of his yarn spinning. The only “music” is that chest of drawers beaten with a plank and Waits’s human-beatbox mouthing as he almost chants lyrics of spurned love from the perspective of a man swinging by a noose. And it’s riveting.

Waits sticks his neck out the farthest on “Bastards,” pushing into industrial-music territory and reciting Charles Bukowski’s saloon prose. If uptight friends come over, hide it and pull out “Bawlers,” whose ballads, lullabies, waltzes, and sweet reminiscences reach back to Waits’s earliest days as a Tin Pan Alley holdover in the ’70s hippie-rock mainstream.

Not that Waits has ever cared much about the mainstream. For him, creating is about the ability to swim in any waters the highway to weird might lead to. On Orphans he’s always neck-deep.

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