Steve Wilson. On music.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The 2011 Countdown Continues with No. 15, Tom Waits

Continuing today, and culminating with REVERBERATIONS number one album of the year on December 31st (if my math is right)*, we’ll be counting down the top twenty-five records of 2011. I’m referring to this countdown as Twenty-five Faves because I have no pretenses about telling you what’s “best.” Sure, I think my taste is better than yours. But nobody died and made me Lester Bangs. And Lester could be arrogant, but I kind of think he would come down on the favorite side of the fave/best dichotomy. His criticism was nothing if not personal.

I've reviewed the majority of these selections. In the event that I have I'll simply recycle the original reviews, sometimes with a little new commentary. If it's a selection I haven't reviewed previously, I will dash off a new, brief, introductory review just for perspective.

25. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring for my Halo (Matador)
24. Fountains of Wayne - Sky Full of Holes (Yep Roc)

23. Bass Drum of Death - GB City (Fat Possum)

22. Coathangers - Larceny and Old Lace (Suicide Squeeze)

21. Meg Baird - Seasons on Earth (Drag City)

Tom Waits. When he’s good, he’s very good. When he’s … well, he’s never really bad, but sometimes he relies on shtick. Let’s face it; when your vocal persona is distinctive enough that it’s imitated (ripped off) for a television commercial it’s either preternatural or affect. Okay, it’s a little of both, but nobody’s born with that voice. And sometimes it serves him brilliantly, other times it’s sui generis, but empty. On Bad as Me, Waits first studio album since 2004’s Real Gone, and the first entirely successful collection since the excellent Mule Variations in 1998, Waits engages the full range of his vocal personae, intuitively matching them to the individual songs.

Waits’ career has certainly gone through phases. In his early years he was a bedraggled, barfly balladeer, long on equal parts cynicism and sentiment. By the Eighties he’d engaged his inner Captain Beefheart and Howlin’ Wolf. Not a bad move, given that vocally he was never going to be Tim Buckley. With Swordfish Trombones he took cues from Harry Partsch’s school-of-the-home-made-instrument, and his lyrics dropped some sentimentality in favor of noir. Waits moved into territory that sounded like Lord Buckley narrating Jim Thompson. And it worked. Leavened with a dash of commercial sensibility for Rain Dogs, he made an album that combined the best of his worlds. The introduction of Marc Ribot on guitar was pivotal to this slight shift. Ribot has remained a consistent collaborator, who has helped shape Waits music since the early Eighties. He remains a vital contributor to Bad as Me.

Like Rain Dogs in its time, Bad as Me is something of a consolidation of approach for Waits. While it retains qualities that suggest his having swallowed Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, Bad As Me relies more on standard blues instrumentation and less on Partsch/Moondog methods.  Waits seems rejuvenated by this more orthodox, electric approach, maintaining intensity throughout, evoking the full range of American music (blues, rockabilly, and jazz) without ever sinking to the direr reaches of Americana. In addition to Ribot, Waits gets superb accompaniment from his son Casey on drums, and frequent contributions from Keith Richards, Flea, Augie Meyers  (reprising the spooky organ stuff from Dylan’s Time Out of Mind), and Charley Musselwhite, who blows bluesy harp on several cuts.

Partly due to his wife and co-writer/producer Kathleen Brennan’s insistence, these tracks are concise, punchy and to the point. Good call. Focus usually betters sprawl, as it does in this case, even if the brevity of the songs suggests an element of Tom Waits “For Dummies.” So be it. Hell, it works.

Bad as Me
blasts off with “Chicago,” a tale that could be contemporary, or could be set in the Fifties, as it chronicles the journey of thousands of African-Americans from Mississippi and other points south to the Hog Butcher City. Waits cries “All Aboard” as the song fades, connecting to Muddy Waters and the song of the same name, Marc Ribot and Keith Richards firing away like Muddy and Jimmy Rogers. Keith also contributes to “Satisfied” – fittingly the lyric makes consistent reference to, well, “Satisfaction.” He take a vocal turn, too, singing harmony on “Last Leaf” (“I’ve been here since Eisenhower”), a not so thinly disguised survivor metaphor that Waits and Richards , as they say, resemble. Richards and Ribot also riff away on the anti-war screed “Hell Broke Luce,” a field song with blistering guitars and sound effects that places the responsibility for the twin wars in the Middle East on guys with “their sorry ass stapled to a goddamn desk.”

The deplorable state of the union seems much on Tom’s mind. “Raised Right Men” is a twelve-bar tribute to a mythic (i.e. gone) America. “Talking at the Same Time” offers a concise, perceptive American economic history, concluding with commentary like “we bailed out the millionaires; they got the fruit, we got the rind,” all fine tuned to a melody that recalls the blues classic “St. James Infirmary,” sung in an unnerving falsetto.

Brennan and Waits celebrate mature love with “Kiss Me,” but the lyric (“like a stranger once again”) acknowledges the difficulty of keeping the old flames burning. If Sinatra was still alive this would be a dandy for him to interpret. “Back in the Crowd” has a Willy DeVille doing Doc Pomus vibe and features, as do several tracks here, Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo on guitar. Hidalgo powers the rockabilly rooted “Get Lost,” a song about romantic obsession and retreat.

Bad as Me winds down with “New Year’s Eve,” as Waits interpolation of “Auld Lang Syne” recalls his use of “Waltzing Matilda” in “Tom Traubert’s Blues” for Small Change, closing the curtain with a hymn to forgiveness that serenades drug addiction, alcoholism and romantic betrayal. Just another day at the office for the modern troubadour, I reckon. Albums as good as Bad as Me support the case for Waits, a commercial outsider, as Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee. But don’t get me started on that, huh – there are some glaring omissions in the admissions department. And some rancid, if inevitable, selections already stinking up the joint.

No comments: