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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Whiskey and Tom Waits Go Together Like Puppets and Cardboard Castles

Have you ever ended a long-term relationship in order to give a great break-up album proper context? (Yeah, me, too.) Often in life, pairing certain items improves both. The same is true with music. Sometimes you just need to be in the right frame of mind in order to really “get” the intended effect of a record. Being heartbroken and alone helps, the perfect complement to a Tom Waits album is actually whiskey.

Neat or on the rocks, domestic, Canadian, Scotch or Irish, it doesn’t matter. Whiskey and Tom Waits go together like puppets and cardboard castles. If the said whiskey happens to be a half-drunk bottle of rotgut that you obtained by wagering your last buffalo nickel against a one-eyed gypsy in a flaming boxcar game of spades, even better.

All I had was Jameson. Jameson and I sat down to digest Waits’ newest release, Orphans, a sprawling, triple disc album subdivided into three categories: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards. Of the fifty-six, (yes, that’s 56) tracks on Orphans, thirty are brand-new recordings. However, Orphans is not a “best of” album. Insofar as Tom Waits can be said to have hits, you won’t find them on this one.

Brawlers features the ghost-ship blues and stomp-clank-hiss machinations that make it hard to enjoy Waits with your girlfriend. The rollicking, epileptic “Lie to Me” leads off the album and is the first single. The sublime “Bottom of the World” proves that a fight song can, in fact, be a mandolin-driven waltz. The disc manages to be both satisfying and surprising, like when Waits wanders away from the circus long enough to give us “Road to Peace”, a song that directly references the cycle of revenge and reprisals in Jerusalem. Upon the release of Tom Waits’ previous album, the static-ridden and piano-less Real Gone, a friend of mine remarked, “You know, I think it might be time for Waits to put the megaphone down”. On Brawlers, Waits makes a furious case for his ability to still wield the megaphone and an assortment of other noise-making apparatuses.

The more stripped down and sensitive Bawlers showcases Waits at his sad-bastard best. He croons and growls and whispers his tragedies and lullabies. The second track, “You Can Never Hold Back Spring”, is an older tune that has Waits deploying his best Louis Armstrong, like a crackling and comforting lo-fi analog memory. This disc is all piano ballads and eyes-closed acoustic guitar prayers. As usual, Waits pulls players from his ether to add whatever instrumentation he sees fit. This disc is Waits’ best set of kill-yourself tunes since his debut Closing Time.

If you are made uncomfortable by the descriptions of the first two discs, it is important to note that Brawlers and Bawlers contain Waits’ more accessible, pop-oriented songs. And while he alludes to his demons on those, it is not until Bastards that he truly strikes his listeners with the werewolf stick.

The set starts off with the death-shanty show tune “What Keeps Mankind Alive”. It continues through fractured spoken-word and painfully overloaded static soundscape polkas that sound as if they’re played by undead sailors. In the especially poignant “King Kong”, Waits relates the entire plot of the original 1933 epic over a chugging beat-box and one of the most brutally percussive growl samples ever put to tape. Toward the end he notes the tragic demise of Willis O’Brian, the animator for the film. He also quotes his successor, Ray Harryhausen, about the parallels between monkey and man. Plot Spoiler: “twas beauty that killed the beast.”

Sound varied and strange? It is and it can be a challenge at times. But Waits has done people a service by sorting through the mess for us. Another thing to keep in mind is although neatly sub-divided onto three discs there are many forms on display throughout the collection. Notably absent from the 26 older tracks is anything from Waits’ early, “not-crazy” period. However, this is still the most complete survey of Waits’ many styles, sounds and voices to date. This album is equally valuable as an introduction to the man or a capstone to an already extensive collection of his albums.