What are your criteria for a good album, a good record, a good song even? For me, the criteria are many; but there is one that really separates the great records from the good records and that is the ability of a piece of music to elicit a significant emotional response. That tiny requirement means a world of difference. It also is the most subjective criteria that I use; because, not everyone is going to have the same emotional response to something.
I ask this question because it is an important one especially considering the clout that Tom Waits' name and albums gain with each new one. His new album, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards is an ambitious three-CD 56 track collection of old, unreleased material mixed with new material mixed with reworked versions of never before heard music. One would tend to think that this collection would be just that, a non-cohesive batch of songs, which, God forbid might be left over material from previous sessions. But, after the first few tracks, any fears of this being substandard can be tossed out the window. After the first CD, Brawlers, you know that it is good, real good. As the second CD, entitled Bawlers progresses, you're asking yourself how is it that this all sounds like it fits together; and, by the end of that disc, your mouth is starting to fall because it does all fit. By the end of Bastards, the third CD in the Orphans collection, the emotional response is there, at least for me. It is a sense of awe and depression at the sheer willingness on the part of Waits to do whatever he wants (with the aid of his wife and writing partner Kathleen Brennan).
For a man fast approaching 57, an age that most men find themselves to be thinking about retirement if they are lucky, Tom Waits continues to defy convention by writing and recording challenging, poignant music. One listen to "Road to Peace" off of the Brawlers CD will put away any notions that he is getting soft. It is mind-boggling where this man and woman continue to find inspiration that more or less pushes the boundaries of what he does with the music. With Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards, Tom Waits effectively marries older sounding material with his newer sounding material into a cohesive unit that fully functions together.
Brawlers is the first up in the collection. It contains the requisite amount of stomp any juke joint would need. "Lie to Me" (a short burst) and "LowDown" (its dirty feel is perfect) are roiling rockers in the tradition of old blues bars and open the entire collection very well. "2:19" maintains this mood and flow but also brings to mind some of the sounds found on Real Gone. "Bottom of the World" sounds like the hopeless reverie of regret that the local bar's drunk reminisces to himself. The twisted style of the quasi-spiritual sounding "Lord I've Been Changed" acts like a jerk to the system. Probably the gem of the Brawlers CD is the song "Road to Peace." It is a story driven hyper-political song. It is extremely poignant song about the situation in the Middle East between Israel and their various detractors. My favorite line is "They fill the children full of hate to fight an old man's war." There is another equally poignant line that begs mentioning as well. "If God is great and God is good, why can't he change the hearts of men?" Waits' cover of the Ramones' "The Return of Jackie and Judy" is awesome. It has just the amount of rawness necessary, and his wailing "oh's" are great. By the time Waits returns to the drunken bar room drawl of "Rains on Me," Brawlers has come full circle and closes out where it begins, on a dirty stool in the middle of a barroom sing along.
The Bawlers disc begins with a ballad called "Bend Down the Branches" that would not be out of place on Waits' Alice album. The same can be said of "You Can Never Hold Back Spring," which is a pretty sounding song with a very simple piano driven melody. The violin and various other strings in "Widow's Grove" is a great counterpoint to the vocal performance that Waits gives. It makes for a nice song. "Tell it to Me" is privy to a pedal steel guitar part that again, plays a great counterpoint to Waits' vocal performance. The pace picks up a bit with "Never Let Go." It is a bit more upbeat and lively and comes at just the right time in the song sequence. The songs that occupy Bawlers seem to be shorter in average length than what are found on Brawlers. The disc goes by pretty quick for a record full of ballads. "Little Man" is a jazzy lounge type song that one might expect to hear in a smoke filled nightclub in the wee hours of the morning. The drunken caterwauling on "Goodnight Irene" strikes up quite a vivid image. The last song on the disc sounds like something out of a Hawaiian Elvis movie from back in the day.
On Bastards, Tom Waits really spreads his wings. This disc is choc full of odd ditties, carnival barking, storytelling, and other various emanations from his subconscious. Look no further than "What Keeps Mankind Alive" for an example of how bizarre he can be. Its odd structures give off the impression of a twisted circus tune being played in a big top. Quick bursts of energy like "Bone Chain" gives small glimpses into different types of ideas Waits will pursue. The various stories are humorous and intriguing in an outlandish type of way. I could imagine them being stories told in the Tim Burton movie Big Fish. They are more than worth the time to listen. "Home I'll Never Be" is my favorite song on this disc. It is simple but the lyrics make the song more than its simplicity allows it to seem.
Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards is an excellent collection. Tom Waits actually exceeded my personal expectations. It spans almost the full breadth of human emotion and hits on several moments of profound insight. The whole collection takes quite sometime to digest and process, but it is well worth the time as it is a more than enjoyable listening experience.
I'm not going to lie to you. This review isn't going to be unbiased. It isn't going to be impartial. It isn't going to be neutral in any way, shape, or form in the way that all good reviews are supposed to be. I'm a big Tom Waits fan; so much so that in 1999, I spent over a thousand dollars on a credit card (already grossly in debt) to fly to Oakland to see him perform on the Mule Variations tour. It was well worth the cost despite a date in my hometown being announced a few weeks later. Did I go to that show too? The guy tours with about the same frequency as Haley's Comet appearances. You bet your ass I went.
There's really two types of Tom Waits fans - and don't let even the most hardcore of Waits fans tell you different - everyone has a Waits-era preference. Everyone.
There are those who prefer the old-school balladeer of the first few albums from '73 - '82. The voice was clean and non-threatening. A charmingly rumpled crooner behind a dusty piano, singing songs of loves lost and lives lived.
Then there are those who prefer the experimental side of Waits, beginning with the holy trilogy: Swordfishtrombones, Raindogs, and Frank's Wild Years. It was these three albums that began the collaboration between Waits and his new wife, Kathleen Brennan. Brennan clearly had a strong influence on Waits' creativity that continues to this day.
It's this latter group that I subscribe to wholeheartedly. Brennan's influence has been invaluable. Her input has always seemed to be a constant reassurance for Waits not to be afraid to push the envelope of his music.
Orphans is a very apt description of a collection of songs that had either no home at all or at most found the temporary solace of foster care on either a compilation or soundtrack. The album consists of 56 songs divided into three discs:
Brawlers - the most concise of the three. Lots of good ole' rumba stomps to be found here.
Bawlers - the quieter side, or the "ballads", if you will, and...
Bastards - the most eclectic of the bunch. Those fans of "What's He Building In There" will love this disc.
The songs come packaged with a beautifully bound hardcover book of lyrics and photos. The only thing that would have made it more appealing would be if Waits and Brennan had offered liner notes or brief histories of the tracks. Some of the songs have been re-recorded and some are in the form in which they first appeared. But make no mistake; this isn't some contractual obligation album of throwaways. There quite literally is not an expendable song in the bunch. There are some who may start to get weary after the first couple of discs (you little pussies), but the third disc is in many ways the liveliest. After hearing Waits' all-too-informative descriptions of the insect kingdom on "Army Ants", you'll wish every show on Animal Planet had the same narrative.
Most every b-sides album ever released makes a god awful stepping stone for the uninitiated, but for anyone out there that's been meaning to hear more for the man, Orphans is a great place to start as it covers pretty much every facet and style of music that Waits has been releasing for the last twenty years. Always surrounding himself with musicians that are sure to compliment the music rather than provide a "name," Waits has managed to create a growing society of mutual admirers from Marc Ribot, to Carla Kihlstedt, to Larry Taylor to Waits' own son Casey, now a frequent contributor as a percussionist and turntablist.
Nepotism has done Waits a good stead so far and I say if it isn't broken, for the love of god, don't fix it. Christmas is coming, folks. If you have a Waits-phile who - inconceivable, I know - actually doesn't have the album yet or even the most peripheral of fans, do them a favor and buy them this album. It's the gift that'll keep on giving for years to come.
9.05 / 10
Reviewed by 2 writers.
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