Tom Waits


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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek

In 2017, Tom Waits announced remastered reissues of his entire Warner Bros. catalog, as well as several recordings on 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 -- while 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. The second volume, is the 20-track Bawlers, an appropriately titled set of ballads, raw love songs, weepy wine tunes, and even a murder ballad. Waits brought in a stellar cast to assist him, including Brett Gurewitz, Leroy Vinnegar, Carla Kihlstedt, Billy Higgins, and Teddy Edwards.

There are tunes that appeared in movies and TV shows including Pollock, Big Bad Love, and Shrek 2. A cover of "Goodnight Irene" recalls "Tom Traubert's Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen)" from 1976's Small Change, even though the protagonist is older and more desperate. The cover of the Ramones' "Danny Says" is completely reinvented; it's one of the loneliest, most sweetly desolate of Waits' many sides. It's not all darkness, however -- there are gorgeous songs here too, such as "Never Let Go" and "You Can Never Hold Back Spring," where the indomitable human spirit rings true; both songs might have been sung in a parlor room or on a front porch in the early to mid-20th century on a Sunday afternoon. "Widow's Grove" is a story of romantic homicide, while "Little Drop of Poison" is a tango from the dark night of the soul. "Little Man" was written by Edwards and originally appeared on the saxophonist's 1991 album Mississippi Lad; it was one of two sung by Waits. This version is smoky, simmering, and languid, an admonition to transcend difficult circumstances with Ralph Carney delivering his best Ben Webster. It is also a tribute to his old friend, who passed three years before Orphans was released. "Take Care of All of My Children" is a nearly drunken-sounding gospel ballad that sounds as if Waits were backed by a ragtag skid row mission band. Carolyn Leigh's and Johnny Richards' standard "Young at Heart" closes the record with Bobby Black's exotic pedal steel meeting Waits' vocal in a haunted waltz. Bawlers showcases his voice -- its roughshod croons and midnight whispers are nuanced, embodying the entire lineage of blues, jazz, show tunes, and cabaret. There is adventure, danger, and the sound of what has been forgotten from what was desired within it. "Bawlers" is the most accessible disc from Orphans, and more than the other two volumes stands alone as an impeccably curated Waits offering.

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