Monday, October 24, 2011

Tom Waits' "Bad As Me" (Part Two)

First Impressions

We pre-ordered the deluxe 2CD edition because my sweetie's preferred listening media are CDs and iTunes -- hopefully not because she fears that I'd transform into the Daniel Stern character from Diner if she touched my records. (I mean, I'm OK with Auggie the Russian Blue using the turntable as a springboard onto/off of the mantelpiece, which, thanks to the instability of the table it sits on, doesn't cause the record that's playing to skip. Seriously.) Plus, it comes with three extra songs that aren't on the digipak single CD, and it's bound in a hardback book with photos and lyrics in a typeface that's easily readable even by nearsighted old folks like us, unlike most CD slicks.

It arrived in the mail today (one day before the official release date) and we waited until she was done doing some school paperwork after dinner to sit down and give it our undivided attention.

The first time through, it sounds like a survey of the state o' the world today -- not as literally/topically as Ry Cooder's recent Pull Up Some Dust & Sit Down (although Tom can't resist a dig at the one percenters in "Talking At the Same Time"), but in a more experential sense. Because as great a journeyman muso as Cooder is, and obsessed with the Great Depression since the '70s to boot, he's not as adept at thinking his way into the inner worlds of his characters as Waits. From the Sun-Elvis-in-heat protagonist of "Get Lost" to the absent lover in "Face to the Highway," the anomic touring muso of "Pay Me" (sounding like Waits his own self before he dried out), the lonely aging narrator of "Last Leaf" or the shattered war-on-terror vet in "Hell Broke Luce" (maybe the same kid from Real Gone's "Day After Tomorrow," a few deployments later), these songs resonate with the complexity of real live humans with all their failings, missteps, and regrets.

While there are a lot of different sounds here, including a couple of beautiful ballads -- a great relief after Waits' last "regular" album, Real Gone, which was heavy on sound experiment, light on songs -- this is basically a blues album. The accompaniment is cinematic, dense, and rich, with solid, seamless support from Waits' usual suspects and a few surprising additions: Marc Ribot (whose cosmopolitan take on Hubert Sumlin, Pat Hare, and Otis Rush has been a highlight of Waits recordings since Rain Dogs), Los Lobos' David Hidalgo, and noted author Keith Richards on guitars; Canned Heat stalwart Larry Taylor, Flea, James Whiton (Eric McFadden Trio), and Les Claypool on bass; Texas Tornado Augie Meyers on organ, piano, and accordion; harmonica virtuoso Charlie Musselwhite; and Waits' son Casey on drums. Some of the most striking instrumental work here is by Tom himself: the tremolo guitar on "Kiss Me," f'rinstance, where you can almost feel the heat and see the blue fluorescent glow from the amp tubes.

The most astonishing thing about Waits, though, is how he's managed to avoid blowing out his voice with his highly idiosyncratic vocal approach. He still hits all the notes in that phlegmy roar that can be downright sinister and menacing when he's in his Weillian apocalyptic cabaret mode (notably absent here). On "Talking At the Same Time," I mistook his falsetto for another singer's until well into the second verse. So far, the faves at mi casa are the bittersweet Chicano rock slow jam "Back In the Crowd," the loose-limbed NOLA second line of "Satisfied," and the barfly's singalong "New Year's Eve" (replete with "Auld Lang Syne" snippet that reminds me more of the barroom scene in Kurosawa's Scandal than it does "Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis," for some reason). Not sure yet whether or not this is classic Waits, but it's sho' 'nuff a goodun.

More impressions when it's had a few more days to sink in.

To be continued...

(Read Part One here. Read Part Three here.)


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