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, on three individual, thematically titled volumes. Even the previously issued songs were newly recorded so this set would have a sonic cohesion despite its musical elasticity.
Disc one, "Brawlers," is Waits' rock & blues record, evoking everyone from T. Rex and Johnny Burnette to Sonny Curtis and Howlin' Wolf. Its 15 cuts are the closest thing to Heartattack and Vine on one side and Mule Variations on the other. Travel, regret, murder, salvation, guttersnipe meditations on sorrow, and broken-down, innocent -- and nefarious -- amorous intentions are a few of the themes that run through these tunes like oil and sand. Waits enlisted a killer cast from his past and present to assist him. The high-level players on each volume were mostly unique, and here, they include (but are not limited to) Guy Klucevsek, Marc Ribot, Greg Cohen, Michael Blair, Mark Linkous, Carla Kihlstedt, Mitchell Froom, Arno Hecht, and Colin Stetson, and all-star recording engineer Karl Derfler. Brawlers digs deep into the American roots music that has obsessed Waits since the beginning of his long, labyrinthine career trek. There's the frenetic, reverb-drenched psychobilly of opener "Lie to Me," that probably makes Carl Perkins and Gene Vincent shake and shimmy in their graves. "2:19" is a nightmarish choogling boogie that could have been recorded by Captain Beefheart. Waits delivers one of his more beautiful ballads in the leaving song "Bottom of the World" and a moaning, spooky read of the traditional gospel blues "Lord, I've Been Changed." A marimba, bass, and guitar cover of "Sea of Love" recalls the drama of the 1989 film for those who've seen it. If you haven't, it's a slanted, tarnished jewel freshly liberated from antiquity. "Lucinda" can only be described as a gallows dance tune. The slippery hoodoo blues "Road to Peace" is a timely and topical political song, while a cover of the Ramones' "The Return of Jackie and Judy" roughly stitches together distorted, raggedy garage rock, swamp blues, and early rock & roll in a take that Joey and co. would be proud of. Waits also evokes the spirit of Dr. John's Gris Gris and Sun Moon & Herbs albums on the sinister slide and slither of "Buzz Fledderjohn." As a jumping-off point to Orphans, Brawlers was a fitting first volume; its swagger, stomp, and abandon flavor the entire project with the kind of informality and canny sonic adventure Waits sought on the entire project. As an individual album, it stands completely on its own as one of Waits' better recordings.