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.

Pat Metheny: What’s it All About (CD Review)

Pat Metheny - Nonesuch

Pat Metheny

What’s it All About

Nonesuch CD

Using a specially strung baritone guitar (with both the lower strings common to the instrument and some higher strings replacing octaves to give things a special shimmer), What’s it All About, Pat Metheny’s latest solo outing for the Nonesuch, imprint inhabits an unusual and evocative sound world.

The material presented is something of a departure as well: for the first time in his recording career, Metheny doesn’t include one of his own compositions on a release. Instead, he explores ten “new standards:” songs from the popular canon, many from the sixties and seventies. Some are iconic, like “The Girl from Ipanema,” which is given an ambling, gauzily ruminative rendition. Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” receives a beautifully hued, impeccably voiced, and eloquently  paced performance. Others like, “Betcha’ By Golly Wow” might not be as familiar to listeners, but they make for equally compelling listening.

In today’s record business, glitz and glamor and high volume too often rule the roost. By contrast, this is a gentle and unassuming CD, which reveals its riches with successive hearings.

Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 2 (CD Review)

Randy Newman

The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 2

Nonesuch CD

Randy Newman has gained acclaim for his Hollywood film scores, which deploy full orchestrations alongside his singing and piano-playing. His studio albums have featured similar instrumental line-ups, something that’s given his pop a classy sheen that’s served as something of an ironic foil for the ofttimes biting satire of his lyrics. It’s refreshing to hear the songs from Newman’s pop canon in a stripped down setting: you’ll hardly miss the strings!

In this, the second Nonesuch release on which Newman performs his best known songs solo, with only a grand piano for company, one learns or is reminded of, several things about the artist at this stage of his career. First, he’s still a mighty fine piano player, shuffling through mid tempo rags and drawing forth imaginative voicings in a style that may at times sound deceptively simple, but is anything but simplistic. A supple sense of timing is omnipresent, and Newman’s use of articulation and a wide dynamic range help to remind one of the instruments featured in the original recordings of these songs. Newman’s voice has always been a distinctive one; expressive rather than “pretty.” And if it’s lost a fair amount of the limited lilt it had when he was younger, and if a few high notes strain more than they used to, it’s still remarkable to hear the characters his singing calls forth, and the way that he can inhabit a song.

This CD’s been in the stereo quite a bit this summer. And one of the marks of its durability is the amount of times tracks have been repeated to get a second listen to a particularly fetching rendition. Those who suggest that Newman’s songbook has too many similar-sounding entries need to listen more carefully; there’s a lot going on above those shuffles; both musical and lyrical nuances. Hearing him perform the songs in this intimate setting underscores their vitality.

Fifty years' worth of field recordings

Various Artists, recorded by Art Rosenbaum

Art of Field Recording, Volume II

Dust to Digital DTD 12 boxed set (4xCD)

In the spirit of Harry Smith’s anthologizing of American roots repertory, Art Rosenbaum has spent over fifty years making field recordings of traditional music-making. In this, the second boxed-set installment of his work from Dust to Digital, lavish care is paid to Rosenbaum’s half-century long labors of love. An LP-sized box, it includes a large booklet with copious liner notes, reproductions of Rosenbaum’s paintings, and many photographs (by Art and his wife Margo). These provide historical, often indeed musicological, details about the recordings.

Four CDs of music are included here: a Survey disc, Unaccompanied Ballads, Accompanied Ballads, and Religious music. There are so many gems contained herein that it’s difficult to choose favorites among them. AoFR II instead invites a smorgasbord approach to listening – wading in, indeed basking in, a wealth of Americana. The participants range in age from seven to ninety-four. There’s an authenticity here – these are not polished studio renderings but recordings caught in the midst of the participants’ daily lives; this is attested to by the ambient noises of work, conversation, et cetera, that ‘antique’ the sonic experience.

The offerings often begin with brief interviews, in which the participant(s) discuss the history of the song or piece at hand. Many of these are fascinating aural postcards from another place, time, and way of life. The performances themselves, unadorned by studio trickery, are an unvarnished look at the music-making of dedicated amateurs. Sure, there is the occasional wonky harmony or bum note; but the considerable beauty of the performers’ ardent commitment and performance energy proves ample compensation for any such ‘imperfections.’

Composers ranging from Ross Lee Finney and Ruth Crawford Seeger to Gavin Bryars and Steve Reich have drawn significant inspiration from field recordings. One imagines that  Rosenbaum’s collection will prove similarly influential for many burgeoning artists today. Dust to Digital projects a third installment in the Art of Field Recording series: fingers crossed!

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