As for a little background, the album is called Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards, referring to the title of the three CD's. The songs are a mixed bag, some outtakes, some previously released on soundtracks and such, and some written just for the occassion. The cover says that 30 of the tracks are new, though I don't know whether that means recorded recently, or just released officially for the first time. The tracks, however, have been organized with great care into three discs. Brawlers features roadhouse stomps and dirty blues, Bawlers features slow tear-jerkers, and Bastard features more experimental stuff, included quite a bit of spoken word pieces. While dividing them up like this is an innovative way to approach it, I find it creates a certain lack of variety from one song to the next, and the discs are best shuffled together on an iPod or something. That being said, I love the idea behind it, and luckily the music lives up to its intricate planning.
Brawlers1. The first track, Lie To Me, is what I guess would be considered the single, given that there's a quasi-music video floating around online, and this was the track he chose to perform on Letterman. If it is the single, it's a good choice, being classic Waits. It's got a stomping beat, a chorus that just repeats one line over and over without ever sounding repetetive, and the instruments muddied enough to let Tom's bark take center stage. The highlight of the song, however, is the stop-start arrangement that comes at the end of each verse. With a drum flourish, the instruments all cut out, letting Tom finish the line, before resting a beat, then blasting back in. This is what really differentiates the song from many of Tom's other bluesy rockers, and he underscored it with an arms-spread move in the Letterman performance.
2. The intro to LowDown comes in sounding like vintage ZZ Top, and rocks with the same bluesy swagger and a driving bass thump. Tom's voice is distorted and gravelly as hell, just clear enough to let you discern the lyrics. And the lyrics are dynamite, such lines as "she's a rebel, she's a yell" showing what a killer songwriter he is. I'd hate to be the girl described as "a cheap motel with a burned out sign".
3. I've heard people list 2:19 as their favorite track on Brawlers and, while I wouldn't go that far, you can see why. It comes in with a harmonica wailing, which floats in and out throughout the song. The lyrics to the verses are great, even if the tune (or lack thereof) isn't hugely memorable, but was does stand out are the low "hey hey"s of the chorus, not shouted by growled. It sounds like a song about two lovers being parted, but the last verse changes everything. Only one of them is sad about it.
4. One of my favorite aspects of Tom's songwriting is his ability to come up with character names. And if you don't know what I mean, listen to these: Peoria Johnson, Little Son Jackson, the 44 Kid. They're all in Fish in the Jailhouse, and tell you everything you could want to know about them in their names alone. Other than that, the best part of this song is the instrumentation, starting as just banging and getting more and more industrial-sounding, complete with siren. If the jailhouse made music, this is what it would sound like.
5. Anti, Tom's record company, released a few songs to promote this release, and Bottom of the World was the first one. And it's a great choice, toeing the line between this and the Bawlers disc. It has a tune you can't forget, the verses as memorable as the chorus. Tom's voice doesn't sound better anywhere, as he twists each phrase to make you cringe. The chorus is very simple, which would be an obstacle to most musicians, but Tom nails it. The verses, on the other hand, aren't simple at all. Every line is a classic, but I especially like "That fresh egg yeller is too damn rare / But the white part is perfect for slickin down your hair" and "The moon's the color of a coffee stain". Not only that, but this song has got great characters up the wazoo. How would you like to meet Satchel Puddin', Lord God Mose, Blackjack Ruby, Nimrod Cain, Jesse Frank, Birdy Joe Hoaks, or Scarface Ron? How about eating Telapia fish cakes, fried black swan, razorweed onion, or peacock squirell? Yum.
6. Waits songs aren't generally straightforward or narrative, but Lucinda is about as close as it gets. It's the story of William the Pleaser following Lucinda and finding her outside the Whitehorse. He gets there a little too late though, and suddenly when the opening lines "I'll never see heaven or home" are repeated at the end they have a totally different meaning.
7. The first cover so far is one of Leadbelly's Ain't Going Down to the Well, but it's nothing like the original. Tom repeats "mama to the well" over and over, then changes tones comepletely when he sings "I'm a true believer", all instrumentation stopping except for a banjo and some ambient noise. Tom has said, "I was born the day after Leadbelly died. I’d like to think we passed in the hall. When I hear his voice, I feel I know him. Maybe I was a rock on a road he walked on or a dish in his cupboard, because when I heard him first I recognized him." It makes sense. Here's a video of him singing it, playing just a banjo and tambourine, and it's even cooler than the album version: Ain't Going Down to the Well.
8. Another cover up next, with Lord I've Been Changed. It's more distinctive that Ain't Going Down, with Tom using his voice to full effect (but then again, when doesn't he?). Once again, however, there's a video online that may be even better: Lord I've Been Changed.
9. Puttin' On the Dog, to be perfectly honest, isn't that memorable. Just standard blues-influenced Waits with not particularly great lyrics. The line "You gotta wake right up in your dreams" reflects, of course, Tom's song Please Wake Me Up off of Frank's Wild Years.
10. Road to Peace is quite jarring the first time you hear it, but incredible as a result. The tale of a Palestinian suicide bomber is direct, painful, and captures precisely of the Middle East conflict without taking sides. What grabs your attention is that the last line doesn't rhyme right when you expect it to, ending instead with the phrase "road to peace" (most of the time). I don't know if Tom Waits has ever written a song this direct and topical, but it sure outside his normal spectrum of outlandish characters in unbelievable situations. About the suicide bomber Tom sings, "He was an excellent student, he studied so hard it was as if he had a future." The delivery, moreover, brings out all the horror and confusion of the lyrics. Another one that was released early, hearing it more often hasn't lessened its power.
11. From the moment All the Time begins, you know it's gonna be good. Instead of a standard instrumental backing, it features rhythmic barking by Waits which he then sings over. A bass is the only recognizable instrument until the thudding drums crash in later. No other musician could pull this off, but as more and more instruments layer on top of the barking and yelling, you can see why Waits is as famous as he is.
12. Tom's cover of The Return of Jackie and Judy shows its origins, the crunchy guitar adding some Dee Dee and Joey to the pounding Waits song. One of the least musically adventurous songs on this album, but that's exactly why it works so well. It's nice to hear something a little more familiar and easy to latch onto. There are few things as cliche in rock as yelling "oh yeah" a bunch of times, but Tom makes the phrase his own. It ends with a sonic drum meltdown.
13. A great beat helps Walk Away bop along pleasantly. Nothing revolutionary, but a very well-crafted and unusual tune that is pushed along by an unexpected rhyhmic change in the chorus. The lyrics are classic Waits, about people killing each other and carving theirs names into trees. Check out a live version from '98 here.
14. Sea of Love, a cover of a #1 single by John Phillip Baptiste, is one of the most melodic songs on the Brawlers disc, and the chorus is absolutely gorgeous. The way Tom sings it at least, there's only one verse and one chorus, repeated over and over again. But it doesn't matter; the tune and instrumentation is the star here, not the words. The song has also been covered by Cat Power and Iggy Pop.
15. Easily the best-titled song on the album, I had high hopes for Buzz Fledderjohn. Lyrically, it definitely delivered, painting a picture of a guy not unlike the guy from What's He Building? The irony is that the story, here, seems to be told by a kid, as he "ain't allowed in Buzz Fledderjohn's yard", which makes it even creepier.
16. Longtime colaborater Chuck E. Weiss co-wrote this song with Waits (subbing in for his usual wife co-writing credit). It is a nice tune, featuring a duet between Tom and...someone else. Chuck's not listed as a vocal contrubuter on the album, so it may just be two tracks of Tom, but it makes a very cool effect, and a perfect transition into Bawlers.
Bawlers1. Bend Down the Branches, this little 66-second intro to the slow, sad disc, is a gorgeous piece that could have easily worked as a full-fledged song. Tom Waits’ roadhouse stomps and experimental squalls are great, but there is something to be said for tunes, and this guy can write ‘em in spades. Just as you’re getting into this song it leads right to…
2. You Can Never Hold Back Spring was the third song I heard before the album was released, and the tune hasn’t left my head since. It’s so simple, but somehow it haunts you from the first time you hear. Somehow Tom’s voice and the sparse piano/horn instrumentals come together in a word that can only be described as two minutes and twenty-six seconds of perfection. Check out this guy’s classical guitar version at youtube.
3. Less syrupy and sweet than the previous two, Long Way Home was more of an instrumental bounce to it. It’s a songs that, sung faster and with heavier instrumentation, could be a Brawlers rocker. But it comes across much better in this slow version, lines like “Money’s just something you throw off the back of a train” somehow making sense. More than the song-writing though is Tom’s inspired singing (and humming) which takes the song to a whole other level.
4. The intro to Widow’s Grove makes it sound like a song you’ve known you’re whole life, and maybe it is a familiar tune, but I can place it. And the slow waltz of a melody is equally gorgeous, as cellos mix with flamenco guitar and brushed drums. Tom Waits has the ability to write music that will move one to tears better than any songwriter alive today, and couples it perfectly with lines about how “near the breath of a swallow the petals dropped as you fell / and you grabbed, and shyly held me by the stone cold well.” The end, however, has a twist directly from classic film noir.
5. Is Little Drop of Poison an outtake from an Adams Family movie? And who knew Waits was so good at writing dance music, following a stately waltz with a sensual tango. The high female wailing in the background give it a ghostly feel. The sound and lyrics give you a very clear picture of the narrator, and old man left alone by a cruel woman he pines for any way, realizing that all his past dealings are about to catch up with him.
6. Shiny Things is a duet between Tom and…a banjo, both singing the exact same tune. Though this song is less memorable than the previous ones, it is already clear that, while the jumping and swinging on Brawlers was great, Waits is at his absolute best with the slow piano-bar ballads.
7. There’s not too much I can think of to say about World Keeps Turning. It’s nice to listen to, and creates its own mood like everything else on this disc, but is not particularly unique.
8. Tell It to Me is the classic story of rumors leading a former lover to be far more jealous as he lets on. However, it was never so heartbreakingly summed up as, “I know you have a daughter and I hear she has my eyes. They say she calls him father and I hear he’s proud of her.” Ouch. The pedal steel has a solo just in time to make the story of Louise’s “faithless beauty” all the more poignant, winding in and out of Tom’s own humming.
9. The piano intro to Never Let Go makes it sound like Bottom of the Well part two, but the lyrics are in another world. Instead of saying any more, I’m just going to quote the whole first verse:
Well ring the bell backwards and bury the axe
Fall down on your knees in the dirt
I’m tied to the mast between water and wind
Believe me, you’ll never get hurt
Now the ring’s in the pawn shop
The rain’s in the hole
Down at the five points I stand
I’ll lose everything, but I won’t let go of your hand
The other lines are all just as good. Best lyrics so far, reminiscent of Springsteen’s If I Should Fall Behind.
10. Fannin Street seems to be inspired by an old Leadbelly song of the same name. It is by far the least memorable song on Bawlers thus far. Not particularly interesting lyrics, not a very memorable tune. The only thing that saves it is, naturally, Tom’s voice.
11. Teddy Edwards was a West coast jazz saxophonist in the middle of the century. He wrote Little Man, and Tom keeps it to jazz-swing form, starting with just Tom on piano, then adding in some sax fills and light drumming. He conjures up the sound of a New York jazz club at three am, only a few night-owls hanging around, half asleep, as the performer gets ready to pack up.
12. The evidence that this hodge-podge set is meticulously organized can be seen in the transition to It’s Over, another jazzy number by Waits himself, which just sounds as the second part of Little Man. It’s still piano-based, but there are a few more instruments in the background there, including some broom-like swishing noise. Where the former track was good in setting a mood, the lyrics or melody were not hugely memorable, and Tom picks up the slack here, cramming about a dozen tunes into one song in classic jazz fashion.
13. With If I Have to Go, Tom brings it all down to just the piano tinkling behind a gorgeous ballad. The lyrics are simple and basic, a story sung a million times that never gets less painful. “If I have to go, will you remember me, or find someone else while I’m away?”
14. It’s dangerous to try to say which is the best track in such an incredible set, but Tom’s cover of the folk staple Goodnight Irene is sure up there. The instrumentation is perfect, filling in the background with a sonic wall that is still quiet and unintrusive. Tom’s voice is as loud and powerful as it gets on this disc, and the chorus seems to have a chorus of raspy singers joining him (and hearing him bark “everybody!” before the last chorus is memorable). While a far cry from the Weaver’s version of the song, the two seem to be coming from the same place.
15. The Fall of Troy is about, not a wooden horse or people whose names end in “us”, but the death of an 18-year old boy named Troy and the toll it takes on his family. It’s heart-breaking and, in a song with very literal lyrics, the line “the well is full of pennies” gives it the perfect end. This song didn’t strike me as too much initially, but it gets better with every listen.
16. Tom takes a very familiar melody (though I can’t quite place it) as the basis for the gospel number Take Care of All of My Children and sings it with gusto. The lyrics sound almost like something you might hear in a Baptist church, with a few exceptions (I’m not sure they’d be singing about “ending up in a frying pan”). The rolling drums, crashing cymbals, and blaring horns send the song straight up to heaven along with its singer.
17. Down By the Train was originally written for Johnny Cash, who released it on his first American album in the early 90’s. Where Cash’s version, backed only by an intermittently-strummed acoustic guitar, tended to drag, Waits’ version is much fuller and, as a result, more commanding. Ringing piano chords lend an echoey background to Tom’s vocals that helps the song’s length (5:39) not pull it down. The religious theme carries over from the previous song, but trades spirituality for topicality, with such lines as “I saw Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth.”
18. Whereas Brawler’s Ramones cover sounded reasonably similar to the original, the brash New York foursome would be last group you’d expect to have written Danny Says based on Tom’s version. Featuring slow slide guitar and even perhaps a Theremin, it totally changes the poppy melody of the original to a somber dirge.
19. The lyrics to Jayne’s Blue Wish serve only as the intro to the far-more-memorable horn solo backed by a solo guitar. An incidental song more than anything, but nice nevertheless.
20. Frank Sinatra’s Young at Heart has been covered by artist’s from Tony Bennett to The Cure, but Waits’ countrified version sticks to the pace and melody of the original, replacing violins with steel guitar and rounding out the second disc perfectly, taking the tempo up a bit to lead into Bastards.
Bastards1. The first song, What Keeps Mankind Alive, belongs on Bastards probably more because of its source material than the performance itself. From Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera (also the source, of course, for Mack the Knife), it is a look at the sordid nature of mankind that Waits gives a waltz/tango feel with a thumping bass beat.
2. Now we’re into the weird stuff. Children’s Story is the first spoken-word piece on Orphans, taken from a play by Büchner. Tom speaks it with resign, his voice distorted and backed with a floating horn as he speaks about a post-Apocalyptic loneliness and the Earth as an “overturned piss-pot”. The best part is the end, though, where he tells the child to whom this horrid tale is presumably being told, “There’s your story, now go to sleep” before hacking out a laugh. There's also a very nice video inspired by the reading here.
3. Ever since I first read about Tom covering Heigh Ho (the dwarves’ song from Snow White), it was the thing I was most anticipating on Orphans. His version, not surprisingly, is about as different from the original as it could be, but not in a good way. It has the sound of a mine, but loses the fun or the original, only replacing it repetitiveness. Listening to the lyrics, you can’t even recognize what dong it is until halfway through. Pretty monotonous, though the harp solo at the end redeems it a bit.
4. What other musician could make a recitation of random insects facts seem so cool? In Army Ants, this plucked bassline bounces up and down as Tom recites things about insects straight out of an encyclopedia, overly enunciating in a way that replicates every bad middle school science movie you ever saw. Everything I love about Tom’s voice is at its best here (listen to how he pronounces “menial tasks). Absolutely genius, and the facts are quite cool themselves. I’ve never put liquor on a scorpion, but I kind of want to try now.
5. Books of Moses ia a solo song by Jefferson Airplane’s mentally unstable drummer Alexander “Skip” Spence. Under Waits direction, it gains a strong foot-tapping beat with xylophone fills in the background. The meter and tune are pretty traditional but, as is generally the case with Waits, sound far from usual.
6. I can’t figure out much to say about Bone Chain. It’s pretty non-descript, and I have no idea why its sixty-three seconds were included on the album.
7. Two Sisters is about as pared-down as Orphans gets, with only a fiddle behind Waits as he sings this traditional ballad. The simple melody is arresting in Tom’s presentation of it, telling the story about sibling rivalry taken to its deadly extreme. Closes with a lovely fiddle solo that you wish were longer.
8. A spoken piece as only Tom can do em, First Kiss describes a woman who “hated the mention of rain” and would sing about Elkheart, Indiana. She “had at least a hundred old baseballs she’d taken from kids” and “could fix anything with string”. Every line is brilliant, and you wish he’d keep describing her forever. The most surprising thing, though, is that at the end he sings that he’s “talking bout my little Kathleen,” which is the name of his wife. Interesting…
9. Wow, Dog Door is certainly the most surprising track so far. Tom Waits does industrial techno. A collaboration with the group Sparklehorse, it is incredibly cool to listen to. I can’t tell if the noises are being made with real instruments or computerized, and it’s next to impossible to make out some of the lyrics, but it doesn’t matter a bit. The biggest bastard of them all.
10. Redrum is an instrumental using God knows what strange instruments, flowing nicely from Dog Door, but giving the listener a chance to catch his breath. As brief interludes go, it’s a good one.
11. Another spoken-word piece, Nirvana was written by Los Angeles poet Charles Bukowski, and is a nice story about a brief moment of peace in a café by the side of the road. Waits tells is perfectly, taking the protagonist into himself by speaking in a weary and bored manner as he describes both the bus outside and the café itself. He says the man thinks the café is beautiful, but Waits’ voice keeps the monotone, insinuating that this beauty just isn’t quite enough to break through to the hum-drum of the man’s everyday life. And then it’s gone.
12. Waits takes Jack Kerouac’s Home I’ll Never Be and turns into a beautiful, sad story of a father and sun. It’s a little unclear why it’s on Bastards though, as the singing and piano make it clearly of Bawlers caliber.
13. Poor Little Lamb is a nice little number, featuring Tom in full cabaret mode backed by accordion. I’m not sure what it’s about, but a good tune.
14. Church bells are the obvious way to intro Alter Boy (and no, it’s not about what you’re thinking). In the story of an old alter boy, Waits takes a page out of Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue book, and switched between first and third person pronouns interchangeably.
15. I can’t imagine what made Tom think to write The Pontiac, which just sounds like a lengthy monologue from a movie, a father telling his son about all the car’s he’s owned, car’s driving by in the background. You wait for it to reach some conclusion at the end, some sort of meaning for the story’s existence, but it never does, and that’s the beauty of it.
16. From the moment Tom’s raspy, distorted beat-boxing starts up, you know Spidey’s Wild Ride is on Bastards for a reason. And that, punctuated periodically by shrill screams, serves as the background for a quasi-sung, quasi-recited piece about Bull Trometer, Big John Jizom from downtown Chizom, and Bird Lundy (like I said, I love the names). I’m not exactly sure what this song is about, but it reminds me of that Stephen King story about the woman who keeps finding back-roads short-cuts to her destination, over time cutting the travel time down from 45 minutes to 30, then 20, then 15, then 10, going along roads that aren’t on any map until one day she just disappears.
17. More beat-boxing is the basis for King Kong, a song by Daniel Johnson, a bipolar and psychotic songwriter in and out of institutions. Some Kong-esq screams come in soon, followed by instruments added one by one. The story is pretty much a straight-forward telling of the Kong story (including the great line “He climbed up the Empire State Building / It was like a phallic symbol”), but the repeated line “He was the King” gives it weird Elvis parallels.
18. Calling this song On the Road is misleading, because it’s exactly the same song as Home I’ll Never Be. The same lyrics that is; the style is totally different, changing it from a slow piano ballad to a banging steel-guitared yell. I guess that’s why the earlier one was on this disc; they both work equally well.
19. For whatever reason, the final two tracks aren’t listed on the album cover, but are rather bonus tracks. This first one, Dog Treat, is a between-song monologue from a live concert showing Tom’s wacky sense of humor in the ordinary, saying, among other things, that he can get you a whale’s pancreas if you want one.
20. Missing My Son closes the album out with another monologue, not live though, of an anecdote about an experience in the supermarket. What you don’t realize until right at the end is that it’s one big joke, but it’s a hilarious listen all the way until there, and ends with a great Waits laugh. A perfect closer to an amazing album.