Tom Waits

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Bastards Review

by Thom Jurek

In 2017, Tom Waits announced remastered reissues of his entire Warner Bros. catalog as well as several recordings on Island and Anti. Among the latter are the three individually titled offerings packaged in a 2006 box entitled Orphans. When originally issued, the whopping 56-track collection proved the most unwieldy of his career. There were 30 new tunes -- a mere 14 could be found on other records -- and the rest were new and uncollected. Even the previously issued titles were newly recorded so the set would have a sonic cohesion despite its musical elasticity. What's more, Waits brought in a diverse and able studio cast to assist him in this endeavor, including the late Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse), Colin Stetson, Brett Gurewitz, Charlie Musselwhite, Leroy Vinnegar, Marc Ribot, Dave Alvin, Carla Kihlstedt, Guy Klucevsek, and Arno Hecht.

Bastards is the third and edgiest volume in the set. Think Bone Machine's wilder moments combined with Waits' loopy on-stage standup comedy in the form of the six spoken word pieces included here and the chaotic aesthetics of the rest of this 16-track lineup. The eerie, cabaret-inside-a-carnival music that is Weill and Brecht's "What Keeps Mankind Alive" enlists banjos, accordion, tuba, and big bass drum as the means to let these twisted words out of the box. A righteous, swamp & roll cover of "Books of Moses," by Moby Grape's Alexander "Skip" Spence, is beautifully performed here, as is an insane reading of Daniel Johnston's "King Kong." Neither cut resembles its original version as Waits exposes the dark underbelly in each. "Bedtime Story" is the first of Waits' monologues here. It is the repressed wish of every parent (with a sense of humor) to have the temerity to tell this kind of tale to their children when they retire. Others include a reading of Charles Bukowski's "Nirvana," the hilarious monologue "The Pontiac," and the live routine "Dog Door." The words of Jack Kerouac also appear in the dirty-assed roadhouse blues "On the Road." Also included is a redone version of "Heigh Ho," the Seven Dwarves song that Waits originally contributed to producer and conceptualist Hal Willner's Disney tribute project Stay Awake. Perhaps the most endearing cut here is the piano-and-horn ballad "Altar Boy," a postmodern saloon song that would make Bobby Short turn red with envy -- then rage. This disc is truly a mixed bag of Orphans in terms of its stylistic diversity: It's unruly, uneven, and full of feints and free-for-alls. Waits drags everything from his past to into the light be presented as something utterly new and succeeds in spades.

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