Notable in 2011: Tom Waits (CD Review)

Tom Waits

Bad as Me

Anti Records CD

Bad as Me, his first studio album in over seven years (the last was 2004′s Real Gone), is a musical homecoming of sorts for Tom Waits. While there are certainly plenty of songs that share affinity with various releases from throughout his body of work, from Frank’s Wild Years to Mule Variations to Alice, there’s also a conscious embrace of what one of my friends called “Hollywood Tom Waits.” By that, he meant the early years of Waits’s career, when he was both a Beatnik bard and aspiring film composer (and actor); one who’d duet with Crystal Gayle and collaborate with Bette Midler. The years before Waits’s persona became  larger than life. And before he began to work with longtime partner and collaborator Kathleen Brennan. Brennan, a playwright, would urge and enable Waits to plumb the dramatic depths of his songwriting craft. So, pre-1983; pre-Swordfishtrombones. Brennan is still listed as coauthor on all the songs on Bad as Me, and the lyric narratives remain taut and clever. But she seems willing to take this stroll down memory lane with her partner.

And while calling Bad as Me “Hollywood Tom Waits” could have been leveled as a criticism, connoting a step backwards or a more superficial creative process, one needn’t – indeed shouldn’t – take it that way. Instead, it can be reckoned as a rapprochement between Waits’s latter day experimentation and some of the features of his earlier work: supple melodic writing, a penchant for good hooks and compact structures, and an ambiguous approach toward emoting: one that often leaves the audience unsure of whether he’s being satirical or on the level.

Thus it often is on Bad as Me as well. Waits can sing the refrain from Auld Lang Syne on “New Year’s Eve,” the album closer, without it seeming bathetic or mawkish. He can croon an ostensibly sentimental ballad like “Last Leaf” in a duet with Keith Richards (a longtime collaborator if a larger than life legend in his own right). But the sandpaper swoops of their combined voices make the performance’s bald emoting seem earnest, hardworn, andearned; a careworn moment of vulnerability rather than two old hands blubbering into their beers.

There’s plenty of edge and ebullient polystylistic experimentation on the CD too. While Waits recruits  new band members to the fold – his son Casey Waits plays drums and Red Hot Chili Peppers’s bassist Flea plays bass on couple of tracks, a number of others are longtime collaborators. Marc Ribot and Larry Taylor create an angular backdrop for the barnstorming blues of “Raised Right Man.” David Hidalgo joins Ribot, Taylor, the younger Waits, and a horn section in the rollicking rockabilly of “Get Lost.” The title cut finds Waits channeling Screaming Jay Hawkins, abetted by saucy baritone sax and Ribot outlining an off kilter yet catchy tango rhythm. Things get stranger still on “Face to the Highway, ” a song that recreates the blurred edges of many a cut on 2002′s beguiling Waits record Alice. And “Hell Broke Luce” is a Harry Partch percussion-enabled howling and rap with motoric pulsations that ultimately devolves into skronk cum circus music. It’s easily the track on Bad as Me that displays the most avant attitude.

One is not only impressed with the suavely chameleon character of the CD’s supporting cast, but with a similar vocal suppleness from Waits himself. Not only can he still inhabit all sorts of characters, but the dynamic range he brings to bear, from delicate falsetto and hushed whispers to infernal rasping, bellowed sprechstimme and screams that, for less durable singers, would likely be polyp inducing. All in the service of a baker’s dozen of songs of equally durable quality; ones that can stand beside some of the best material in his catalog to date. Long live Tom Waits.