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Tom Waits: Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards

Anti-, 2006

Rating: 5.0

 

Posted: December 5, 2006

By Laurence Station

Orphans is to Tom Waits’ catalog what Biograph is to Bob Dylan’s: a career-spanning compilation that emphasizes the character and scope of the artist’s work as opposed to simply trotting out the most familiar or widely covered tunes. Like Biograph, Orphans spans three discs and fifty-plus tracks. Also, as with Biograph, there’s a plethora of rare and unreleased material for diehard fans to savor in one convenient package and a treasure trove for newcomers to plunder without having to wade through an extensive (and intimidating) discography.

The primary difference between the two sets is the amount of active participation that went into their creation. Whereas Dylan’s Biograph culled from his seemingly bottomless cache of stray and classic album pieces, Waits revisited and rerecorded/finished the bulk of the music appearing on Orphans, taking what he’s self-deprecatingly referred to as “songs that fell behind the stove while making dinner" and fashioning a five course meal that will stand as a definitive testament to the depth and breadth of the stylistically restive troubadour’s nearly four-decade long career.

Orphans is subdivided by mood and style, with bluesy rockers (“Brawlers”), dark-tinged ballads (“Bawlers”) and oddball/experimental pieces (“Bastards”) each getting their own disc. Roughly a third of the songs are covers or literary adaptations; the balance of the material sprang from the creative partnership of Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan. The fact that none of these songs have appeared on Waits’ studio albums is truly remarkable. Granted, not every recording fits the mold of a particular release, but it’s still hard to imagine how such potent stuff got excised, regardless of the circumstances.

Equally impressive is how well this formidable, three-hours-and-change listening experience flows. The sequencing is as logically considered as it is thematically rewarding. Case in point: On the Bawlers set there’s "World Keeps Turning" (which originally appeared on the Pollock soundtrack), in which Waits croons, “who knows where the sidewalk ends”; he solves the mystery a few cuts later on the world-weary cautionary tale "Fannin Street," ruefully claiming, “this is where the sidewalk ends.” Comparatively, there are clever dichotomies, as with the back-to-back pairing of Waits’ inimitable recitation of scientific facts (complete with humorous observations) on "Army Ants," followed by Skip Spence’s "Books of Moses," delivered in a full-throated, swamp-bottomed Biblical howl.

If nothing else, Orphans is a bravura showcase for the instrument of Tom Waits’ voice. Be it his moody and disturbing take on "Sea of Love" (which unnervingly taps into the underlying darkness of the tune), the anthemic "Never Let Go" -- a swelling paean to hope no matter how hopeless the odds -- or a furiously impassioned rendering of Daniel Johnston’s "King Kong," Waits exhibits the astonishing range and emotive depth of his vocal prowess. Those convinced Waits’ pipes are nothing more than bourbon-rusted relics from the ’70s will find ample examples to both validate and disprove those perceptions here.

Particularly noteworthy tracks include "Road to Peace," a bluntly direct indictment of the tit-for-tat insanity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (“They fill their children full of hate to fight an old man’s war”) that features some fierce guitar work; the deceptively lovely, string-laden "Widow's Grove," essentially a murder ballad in waltz time; and the delightful spoken-word gothic "First Kiss," in which Waits recounts just that with a woman who “smelled like gasoline and root beer fizz.”

Orphans could have been just another grab-bag rarities compilation; Tom Waits didn’t have to do much more than a few promotional spots and maybe pose for a fresh cover shot. The fact that he saw fit to revisit songs that could have easily remained in the same condition they were before being lost “behind the stove” is a testament to his artistic integrity and willingness to finish what he started. These Orphans are imminently worthy of being found.

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