Monday, May 07, 2007

2006 album of the year

tom waits - 'orphans - brawlers, bawlers and bastards''

The first thing that needs to be perfectly clear is that Tom Waits is the coolest man in the world. If you still need any evidence besides listening to his records, just go on youtube and look for a few live performances or interviews. Seriously, do. Few, if any, in the history of recorded music, have assumed so many roles and characters and musical personalities with the same elusive other-worldness, yet very deeply rooted to the world at the same time. Waits goes beyond the mere songwriter, or musician even. There is this aura about him that seemingly seems to turn every single artistic output from his part into something that truly matters. Whether he's the drunk loser singing his blues down at the local bar, the creepy carnival barker, the (anti-)religious prophet or the junkyard guy assembling new songs from discarded trash, or more yet, there is the unmistakable, unconventional, unique Tom Waits mark about it.

'Orphans' is where, for the first time, you can experience all of those in one thrilling, captivating sitting. The concept is perfect for Waits, and the title could not be more appropriate. From someone who has carved masterpieces out of little odds and ends of music, to have a collection of little musical orphans that have been almost lost along the way is incredibly fitting. Wipe from your mind any thought that these orphans are unwanted or inferior to the legitimate children, however. Throughout these 54 songs, 30 of them heard here for the first time, Waits performs some of his strongest material ever, both in terms of pure music worth and also emotionally speaking.

These orphans are divided into three discs, each of them with a theme. The first disc consists of the brawlers, ie, the most rocking, growling, bully-orhpans - closer to Waits' latest records, the period from 'Alice' and 'Blood Money' to his latest 'Real Gone'. While nothing is straightforward, the fat riffs on 'LowDown' or the oblique 'Rain On Me' will be instant favourites. It is typically hard to find highlights, but from this volume the unbelievable covers of the Ramones' 'The Return Of Jackie And Judy' and Leadbelly's 'Ain't Goin' Down To The Well', the dirty-souding Gospel of 'Lord I've Been Changed' and the rock-the-house-down of 'Fish In The Jailhouse' have to be mentioned. The most surprising moment, however, occurs with the 7-minute long 'Road To Peace'. The traditionally subtle Waits, politically speaking, delivers here a heart-breaking take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a profoundly human view of the daily horrors of war seen from both sides. It's not even a protest song, it's a sort of reality check that should make anyone with a heart sit up and think about things.

After the thrills of the brawlers, you can settle down a bit with the bawlers. The lame ballad disc in any other artist's collection, here you get Waits' bittersweetness in its full. He somehow manages to create rousing, soulful, emotional songs that never once even look in the direction of sap. Closer to what he has written in the 70s and early 80s but infused with his experimental tendencies of the last decade, the jazzy 'You Can Never Hold Back Spring', the pastoral feel of 'Widow's Grove' or the simply soaring full version of 'Down There By the Train' turn Waits back into the lonely troubadour whose piano has been drinking, not him.

The last set of orphans is the most opaque and also the most fascinating one. The bastards welcome into their fold everything that doesn't really fit anywhere else, the truer, purest odds and ends from the ultimate odds and ends man. Here you get Waits at his most innovative, and also at his most theatrical of moods. His totally inimitable storytelling actually makes a story feel like a song that you will listen to several times, from the spookiest, creepiest of stories like 'Army Ants' to the downright beautiful like 'Nirvana', he will make you wish that you could have him around to tell you a story every night, even if after a few of them you probably wouldn't sleep much. Some other noteworthy bastards are the apocalyptic 'Books of Moses', the insanity of his version of 'Heigh Ho' or 'Dog Door', a collaboration with Sparklehorse that sounds like a carousel ride gone very wrong.

All through this, nothing sounds out of place, or of less quality, or even like anyone else. Boxes like this are usually a summary of an artists' life, spanning entire careers of, more often than not, dead artists, physically or artistically speaking. Worse still, if they are outtakes or leftovers or b-sides, they're usually completist's material only, for people who simply must have everything a particular artist has put out. 'Orphans' is none of that. It can't begin to summarize Waits' career, if nothing else because his career is still expected to give us quite a lot, but also because that's not the point. What 'Orphans' does summarize is the immense genius and appeal of Waits' music. It takes the best elements of all he has done so far, with the ever-present dichotomy of classic-old and experimental-new in his songwriting, and creates another new, tremendously exciting step for the rest of us to admire.

More than the album of the year, 'Orphans' is three albums of the year rolled into one faultless, genius whole.

song of the day:
'Road to Peace'