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.