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Orphans - Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards
Tom Waits's new album is a sprawling, all-encompassing collection of politics, history and cultural tidbits. Brilliant.
Peter Murphy, 23 Nov 2006
Welcome to Uncle Tom’s cabin, a slant-walled hut stacked with cannibalised parts, oxidised reels and basement tapes containing some 54 tunes, a rough 30 of ’em never heard before. Here’s a buried body of music whose corpus is comprised of barmy covers (The Ramones, Kurt Weill, Daniel Johnston… and The Seven Dwarves) out-takes, botched operations and brilliant experiments dating from 1985 to the present day. In other words, Waits’s wild years, when his wife Kathleen Brennan’s influence held sway, and kneeling drunkard’s prayers and down-at-heel piano ballads made way for Harry Partch hobo scores, Beefheart abstractions and speculative inventories of every strain of 20th-century American music, including tributes and tributaries from the old weird Hibernia, Fellini’s Rome, Mexican Day Of The Dead festivals, Weimar Republic agit-prop and creepy Black Forest ghettos.
The assembled material is divided into three acts. The first, Brawlers, is as gratuitous and gratifying as a mouthful of bloody steak, with the Crampsy shlockabilly of ‘Lie To Me’ incarcerated next to the politically explicit New York Times headlines of ‘Road To Peace’ next to the jailhouse rock of ‘2.19’, all which are characterised by chain-gang clang and deep throat vocals and Marc Ribot’s garrotting-wire guitar. Bawlers, by contrast, is laden with the kind of Wallace Beery movie laments that fall out of Tom’s pockets like beer change. You could keep going back to this stuff for years and still find new treasures, such as the malt liquor schmaltz of ‘You Can Never Hold Back Spring’ or Leadbelly’s ‘Goodnight Irene’ or the nasty jazz of ‘Little Drop Of Poison’ from the barroom scene in Shrek.
The last act, Bastards, is the most uneven and yet the most intriguing. A reading of Bukowski’s ‘Nirvana’ bypasses the old goat’s dirty alco uncle routines for a rather lovely tale of roadside diner satori. Similarly, Jack Kerouac’s ‘Home I’ll Never Be’ and ‘On The Road’ prove that Waits’s Beats fetish tends to favour Hopper melancholia over boozed-up hophead speed-rap dispatches. Then there are characteristically macabre monologues like ‘First Kiss’ and the hilariously grim Tim Burton-ish bedtime tale ‘Children’s Story’.
It’s no mere grab-bag. Orphans, in its expansive and untidy way, is as complete a Tom Waits album as Swordfishtrombones, Bone Machine or Mule Variations, one which gives the old prospector room to don every last one of his various Hallowe’en hats and Ed Gein masks. There are mouth-teeth-and-tongue beatbox routines, plucked National Guitar Ironweed laments, insane come-all-yez, mad bastardisations of the ballad form and bad-minded gospel tunes.
In other words, all the food groups are represented. Rare meat indeed.