Tuesday, April 5, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 852: Tom Waits

Because the human mind loves pattern recognition, here are a couple of interesting facts. This is the third straight review of an artist where I’m into double digits for reviews. Also of interest, of the past 10 reviews, eight of them were released post-2000.

What conclusions do I draw from this data? First, when I like an artist, I tend to really like them. Second, I continue to find new music to listen to…kind of. Four of those eight recent albums are just artists I’ve liked forever that are still releasing new music.

This next album is an example of the latter.

Disc 852 is….Real Gone
Artist: Tom Waits

Year of Release: 2004

What’s up with the Cover? Artist name and album title. It doesn’t get much simpler. Tom has chosen a font that says “I love spray paint, but also murder.”

How I Came To Know It: Once again, this was just me drilling through the collection of an artist I already loved.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 19 Tom Waits albums but one of them (“Big Time”) is a best of so really, there are 18. Of those 18, I put “Real Gone” near the bottom of the pack at number 15. Tom Waits is very solid over his career though, so there is no great shame here.

Ratings: 3 stars

“Real Gone” is Tom Waits at his brave and craziest. It isn’t my favourite album of his, but I admire it for its pure uncut chutzpah.

Waits has been experimenting with his ‘weird circus’ sound dating back to 1983’s “Swordfishtrombones” (reviewed way back at Disc 149). However, from 2002 through 2004 he took all that clanging percussion and vaudevillian oddity to a whole new level. “Real Gone” is the third album released in that period (the other two being “Blood Money” (reviewed at Disc 235) and “Alice.” Unfortunately it isn’t as good as either.

All the ingredients are there. Tom’s voice has its usual style, ranging from ‘40-grit whiskey throat’ through ‘strangled homeless man’ (both are surprisingly enjoyable). The arrangements are still as innovative as anything I’ve ever heard in music and the underlying melodies are still strong and thoughtful.

This last item is the most surprising. The songs are packed with strange plunking of guitar notes, and the whacking of various unknown objects. These objects (usually actual drums, but who knows?) make sounds that go clang, boom or hiss (one song is actually called “Clang Boom Steam” and those are the three noises that establish the repeating riff). It would be easy to lose the melody amid all this. If you cut through all that, you realize these are traditional folk and blues chord progressions, repurposed to serve whatever bizarre carnival plays through Tom’s mind.

“Real Gone” is as crazy as they come. It isn’t for everyone, but I appreciate it. Unfortunately, the songs didn’t appeal to me as much as those on the two similarly styled records that precede it. I can’t put my finger on why, and I think it is just a matter of taste. Maybe Tom finally lost me in his quest to construct meaningful songs out of seemingly random percussion. With Tom it is never random, but at some point it can be clever to the point of losing the narrative.

While the music doesn’t grab me as much as a lot of other records, the lyrics remain strong. “Circus” is a spoken word track that isn’t at the same 5 star level of “9th and Hennepin” off of “Rain Dogs”, but is still solid. Instead of telling the stories of a street corner, “Circus” introduces us to a variety of circus performers including Molly Hooey described in the following scene:

“And me and Molley Hoey drank
Pruno and Koolaid and she had a
Tattoo gun made out of a cassette
Motor and a guitar string and
She soaked a hanky in 3 Roses
And rubbed it on the spot
And drew a rickety heart and
A bent arrow and it hurt like hell”

Another reason I get my ink done by professionals, not carnies, but you can’t deny Tom paints a pretty picture of a lady who probably gives ugly tattoos. On a related note, what the hell is Pruno?

On “Baby Gonna Leave Me” Tom sings “If I was a tree, I’d be a cut down tree/If I was a bed, I’d be an unmade bed.” No one paints the disheveled down- and-out like Tom.

The best song on the record is “Make It Rain” which is dirty like a mud pit and energized like a poorly grounded electrical panel with one of those “Danger: High Voltage” signs on it. You shouldn’t touch either, but the riff is so infectious you do anyway. This song is a blues track about lost love that’s as down and low as they get. As Tom sings it:

“Since you're gone
Deep inside it hurts
I'm just another sad guest
On this dark earth”

Unfortunately, while “Real Gone” is good, it doesn’t consistently manage the level of tracks like “Make It Rain.” “Real Gone” is also ‘real long,’ clocking in at 16 tracks and 71 minutes. I think the album would be a lot tighter with about four fewer songs and 20 minutes less playing time.

Fortunately, even a weak Tom Waits album is still pretty good, and there is enough on here to warrant a solid three stars.

Best tracks:  Don’t Go Into That Barn, Circus, Make It Rain

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