Tuesday, August 25, 2015

CD Odyssey Disc 775: Tom Waits

I’m home from one of the most pleasant medical experiences I’ve ever had. I went to Therapeutic Edge physiotherapy for a shoulder injury I got playing Ultimate.

Not only did physiotherapist Ross McFayden diagnose the problem (a Type II separated shoulder) he gave me some acupuncture treatment to help speed the healing and some good advice besides. Thanks to Ross and the team at Therapeutic for getting me on the road to recovery!

The CD Odyssey is also on the road to recovery, after two full weeks of average to good CDs I finally rolled an album that truly inspired me.

Disc 775 is….Bad As Me
Artist: Tom Waits

Year of Release: 2011

What’s up with the Cover? Tom’s out of focus face, grinning like a hyena. I guess this qualifies as a Giant-Head cover like so many others, but since it is Tom Waits it also has an element of weirdness about it.

How I Came To Know It: I’m a long standing Tom Waits fan, so this was just me buying his latest album when it came out.  

How It Stacks Up: We have 19 Tom Waits albums. I’ve now reviewed all but five of them so I feel pretty confident in stating that “Bad as Me” is one of the better ones. I’ll put it sixth best, knocking “Bone Machine” down one spot in the process.

Ratings: 4 stars

“Bad as Me” is Tom Waits at his best, taking traditional sounds and seemingly archaic language and blending them perfectly with innovative musical decisions and insightful modern observations on human nature. It is a refreshing masterpiece.

These songs have a timeless quality that makes you feel like they could have been composed in the mid-twentieth century, rather than ten years into the twenty-first. Waits has always been an old soul, even when he was starting out. Now that he is actually getting old, the whole experience wears on him beautifully.

His voice is like an old overcoat with holes in it that let the breeze in on a hot day, or a pair of fingerless gloves that have been stretched perfectly to your hands over the years. It feels shabby at times, but always comfortable and full of love.

Wait’s was over 60 when he made “Bad as Me” and his voice is holding up nicely. It is one of the advantages of having a scratchy old man’s voice to start with; you don’t have far to fall. That said, this is some of Waits’ best vocal efforts. On “Talking at the Same Time” he climbs into falsetto with the ease of Bruce Springsteen. Sure there is a bit more torture choking out of those notes than Bruce would need, but it wouldn’t be Tom Waits without it.

Every song has a beautiful melody, whether he is playing it sad and slow like an old crooner like he does on “Back in the Crowd” or fast and furious a fast-paced shuffle on “Chicago.” This album just seems to effortlessly find the right voice for every song. I’m sure it took plenty of effort, but by the time Waits gives you the finished product, you can’t imagine the song any other way than he presents it, weird circus organ, bizarre percussion and all.

Lyrically, this album feels like a throwback to post-war America, reinterpreted through the voice of a modern world-weary skeptic.

On “Raised Right Men” Waits’ has a laundry list of characters so classic you feel you know them just by their names: Mackey Debiasi, Gunplay Maxwell, Flat Nose George and Ice Ed Newcomb. These guys are out there keeping their hens happy (when they aren’t getting their teeth knocked out by them) until they eventually end up “on a slab”. The whole thing is both comical and noble, like a film noir farce.

“Bad As Me” is filled with the tales of simple men with complicated problems. “Face to the Highway” has a series of images that reinforce how the main character needs to wander:

“Ocean wants a sailor
Gun wants a hand
Money wants a spender
And the road wants a man.
I turned my face to the highway
And I turned my back on you.”

Simple images, but combined this way and accompanied by Waits’ careworn and threat-laced delivery they become dark and dangerous. I could write an entire English paper about just this song or half a dozen others on the record just as good. Unfortunately, I can’t because the album is so full of other great moments

Like Waits being lascivious and sinful on the title track with lines like:

“You’re the letter from Jesus on the bathroom wall
You’re mother superior in only a bra
You’re the same kind of bad as me.”

Or intimate and sensual on “Kiss Me”:

“The fire’s dying out
All the embers have been spent
Outside on the street
Lovers hide in the shadows
You look at me
I look at you
There’s only one thing
I want you to do
Kiss me
I want you to kiss me
Like a stranger once again.”

Waits is angry and directionless as a soldier with PTSD in “Hell Broke Luce,” romantically resilient as the last leaf on a tree in “Last Leaf” and tear-stained and nostalgic as a man thinking back on lost friends in “New Year’s Eve.” In short, “Bad As Me” takes on every facet of the human condition – and once even the condition of a plant – and gives every one of them all the solemn dignity they deserve.

Before I close I’d like to give a shout out to Waits’ wife Kathleen Brennan, who co-wrote all these songs. I don’t think Brennan gets enough credit for pushing Waits’ creativity, so let’s give her some here. She’s definitely one of the reasons that 38 years after he released his first album, “Bad As Me” is as innovative, interesting and engaging as anything Waits has done.

Best tracks:  Raised Right Men, Talking at the Same Time, Face to the Highway, Bad As Me, Kiss Me, Satisfied, Last Leaf, Hell Broke Luce, New Year’s Eve

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