Tom Waits - Orphans

2007-01-16 10:06
Tom Waits stopped writing comfortingly glamorous music for drunks a long time ago, but his latest 3CD set is the most desirable thing he's done for years. There are echoes of everything he and his collaborators created in here, all the love and all the weird madness and humour and despair, and euphoria.

This pricey but beautifully packaged and fascinating 3CD foldout cardboard box set has it all, including the obscurity value of the songs literally being orphans of many other projects.

The contribution of Tom's long-term creative partner (and lover/wife) Kathleen cannot be discounted. Her work with him has revitalised his music, and made it odder and richer. He says: "Kathleen and I wanted the record to be like emptying our pockets on the table after an evening of gambling, burglary and cow tipping. We enjoy strange couplings, that's how we got together." So if you want our review...

Aptly named, this disc sees Waits channeling Elvis and Stones on the first couple of tracks. Luckily track three has all the guts of Zulu traditional meets air-guitar. Like the other discs, it needs its own context. Play it loud in a car - there is no other way to like the beginning but loud. "Army Ants" is the roughest version of his roughest, most rousing song, with its "Fish in the jailhouse tonight" refrain. The people speaking in these songs are the grown up orphans - the rowdy guys in the pool bar and the angry crying drunk at the end of the night. They're also the people who say "God is great and God is good" while blowing a busload of people up on "The Road to Peace". Is there a serious album released this year in America that doesn't have a song condemning war? Waits goes a lot further than most, and a lot more elegantly than Neil Young knows how to: "Maybe God himself is lost and needs all of our help / 'cause he's lost upon the road to peace".

Sadder but more socially acceptable than CD one (a fact established through extensive lounge-testing) this is the bluesier side, with a few songs that may cause relaxed snapping of fingers. Take "Long Road Home": it's a simple song that with Wait's touch is special in a way it wouldn't ever have been sung any other. Romance, missed opportunities, lies we'd love to believe, longing - and all the folk qualities that made albums like Blue Valentine so arresting - permeate every track. And always in folk music, the stories flow and flow and never run out, while always sounding like they could be yours. These stories say more than intellectual tracts or first person lines about feelings ever can. Bawlers is full of gentle but bitter words of wisdom, like "A rat always knows when he's in with weasel", or dialogue like "I'll feel much cleaner after it rains" that whets your appetite for more and keeps you up at night, continuing the story of the people who uttered them. Some words of warning: Though the most accessible of the three, this CD is still far too good to be seduction music if you're trying to shag a James Blunt groupie.

The first track may be called "Lie to Me" but the second ("LowDown") is one of those growly stories Waits always tells so well, in which a child searching for love finds only greater loneliness in the universe. So a word or 10 warning: Don't try listening to this without listening completely, without distractions. The emotional impact, not properly digested, leads to a confusing kind of depression. Listened to properly you understand that those of us who are happy and lucky, are lucky to be so. Also that some people never really are, like that feral kid at your window on the streets who's down there too long and whose eyes are more frightening than any cockroach. But if you're listening, this music is bitterly, and genuinely, funny - when it's not pure poetry, and sometimes when it is too. It doesn't answer the question: "why would anyone want to live like that?" But it asks it better and more bravely than most of us know how to. That said, how you read it might not be the same at all.

This was a difficult compilation to make, just apart from finding the tapes which, according to liner notes, involved "paying ransom" to a plumber in Russia. That's before you begin deciding where each orphan song would be most at home. In the end, each disc could easily be an album its own right, yet each disc makes more sense as part of this compilation. If greed were a real ingredient in the urge to release this stuff, you'd get in dribs and drabs, in the awful crackable CD casing that has helped make downloading illegally the preferred means of hearing music. This carboard box is as satisfying as an LP. Long may it play.

You may only listen to Orphans once a year, but you won't want to let it out of your sight. If your lover or a really good friend is a Tom Waits fan, this is what to buy them, anytime. But you'll have to do it via an overseas website - this collection is not available online in SA - or find one of those few cool local stores you get in Cape Town and Jozi. It's also available at $29 (24 page booklet) or in a deluxe $89 (90 page booklet) version online on import.

- Jean Barker
For once it's worth quoting liner notes: "I think you will find more singing and dancing here than usual. But I hope fans of more growling, more warbling, more barking, more screeching won't be disappointed either."

Tenille 2007/01/03 8:15 AM
Get the CD it is available from local online site for R344. I just ordered my copy!
Jean Barker 2007/01/03 10:25 AM
Buy it online Thanks Tenille! I googled but no luck so that's great news. When you get it, let us know what's in the booklet. The media sample doesn't come with that bit and I'm hellava curious.
Inge L 2007/01/03 3:07 PM
It's not available I tried search, found loot, but it's listed at R448 and is unavailable. I suppose this being the web, things can change very fast.
Tenille 2007/01/16 9:31 PM
CD arrived my copy arrived today, but it's a pressie for my man, once he's opened it, I'll let you know about the sleeve notes.
Tenille 2007/01/23 3:26 PM
got mine Wow, the cd is amazing. my favourite Tom Waits by far. and my man is over the moon!
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