Thursday, November 30, 2006

Digging Deep

When Tom Waits last released an album, 'Real Gone' in 2004, I commented that, for all its madcap cabaret and junkyard stomp, the most striking moment may have been the vulnerable anti-war ballad that concluded the proceedings. In light of this, I wondered whether it might not be more artistically interesting for Waits to backtrack a bit and release an entire album of sensitive ballads, rather than simply repeating his bizarre musical hybrids in slight variations. With one of the CDs in the 'Orphans' 3CD set, he appears to have fulfilled my wish. The second disc, 'Bawlers' is a collection of restrained, folk-tinged, and sensitive troubadour songs. It's also quite brilliant. Despite essentially being a ragbag odds-and-sods collection (one track 'Little Drop Of Poison' originally surfaced on the soundtrack to Wim Wenders' underrated movie 'The End of Violence' as far back as 1997), it coheres remarkably, and demonstrates Waits' adherance to traditional musical forms as well as his tendencies towards the theatrical. Many of the songs are in the same barfly jazz meets musical theatre style as 'The Briar and The Rose' from Waits' music for Robert Wilson's 'Black Rider'. There are some truly superb songs here, particularly the simple, direct and moving gospel song 'Down There By The Train', with its view of a compassionate, all-inclusive religion, so different from that so often propounded by evangelical spokespeople in the media. Waits originally wrote the track for Johnny Cash's first American Recordings album, but his own version is equally committed and convincing. 'Bend Down The Branches' and 'You Can Never Hold Back Spring' are concise and haunting, with Waits stretching the melodies to draw more emotion. Even better is 'The Fall Of Troy', a powerful tale of corrupted youth which shows Waits' continuing maturation as a lyricist, a development that also bears considerable fruit on the mysterious, allusive and poetic 'Widow's Grove'.

There's also a real element of the unexpected in the form of a number of covers and interpretations. There's a languid version of The Ramones' 'Danny Says' (one of two Ramones covers on the whole set) and a superbly bawdy take on Leadbelly's blues standard 'Goodnight Irene'. Absurdly, it all ends with a spectacularly cheesy take on Sinatra's 'Young At Heart', seemingly tapping into the same well that Bob Dylan has been mining in recent years for inspiration on tracks like 'Spirit On The Water' and 'When The Deal Goes Down'.

Of the other two discs, 'Brawlers' is arguably more predictable, the bulk of it seemingly constituting of out-takes from the 'Real Gone' sessions. Much of it is blisteringly entertaining, from the hilarious Elvis impersions that liberally pepper the opening 'Lie To Me' to what sounds like another classic Waitsian sea shanty singalong on the closing 'Rains On Me'. This is in the main the most humorous of the discs, and there's plenty of joy taken in wit, wonder and wordplay. The music is also scowling and primitive, with familiar clanking percussion and the highly syncopated, avant-garde guitar technique of the masterful Marc Ribot.

The most comment-worthy song may well be 'Road To Peace', which with its lengthy narrative lambasting all sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict, has been deemed Waits' most explicitly political song to date. It's not a million miles from Steve Earle's impassioned polemics on 'The Revolution Starts Now', but it certainly stops short of some of Earle's more daring statements. Whilst the lyrics might work as narrative, they feel slightly clunky and forced as poetry, and in the end the song probably isn't the major statement Waits wanted it to be.

Again, the reinterpretations are as significant as the originals, with a take on George Khoury and Philipe Batiste's 'Sea Of Love' which is awash with intriguing and atmospheric sound, as well as an inspired refashioning of the gospel standard 'Lord I've Been Changed'.

The final disc, entitled 'Bastards', is the most contrary and challenging of the three, indulging Waits' preference for peculiar readings, beat poetry and malevolent noise. It includes his excellent version of Daniel Johnston's 'King Kong', originally recorded for the Late Great Daniel Johnston tribute collection, and other highlights include some strange new settings for the vivid and energetic prose of beat writer Jack Kerouac. It's the hardest of the discs to listen to attentively, but it repays the effort with at least modest rewards.

'Orphans' essentially does exactly what it says on the tin - as a whole, it's no masterpiece, but rather a consistently fascinating illumination of Waits' multi-faceted writing. The vocal performances are rich in variety, and Waits' delivery veers from savage guttural howl to sensitive croon. The three disc division works remarkably well, and ensures that this project comes across as something different from simply being 'another Tom Waits album'. The design and packaging of the set is also a real marvel, including the famous last words of legends as diverse as Oscar Wilde, Charles II and Haydn, historical facts and figures, and a section on 'the miseries of the great', detailing the nasty ailments afflicting various people of some stature in history. It also comes with a 94-page book detailing personnel, recording and production details, and a complete set of lyrics. Real attention and care has gone into the presentation of this set, so much so that it may even justify the expense of purchase. It's satisfying that in a stale time in the music market, where certain other groups are settling for simply repackaging their back catalogue in overpriced and uninspired 'best-ofs', Waits has rewarded his followers with an intelligently sequenced, beautifully packaged collection. We should be thankful that these orphans have now found their home.

One of the real word of mouth successes of 2006 has been 'The Trials Of Van Occupanther' by Bella Union signings Midlake. The group have been compared favourably with the likes of Flaming Lips, Grandaddy and Mercury Rev, but I detect rather more of a classic rock inspiration behind many of these songs. There are fluent but conservative guitar solos strongly reminscent of Fleetwood Mac, and the emphasis on gently plodding pianos recall early Elton John (not necessarily a bad thing). The luxurious harmonies also hint at the Crosby, Stills and Nash textbook. Much like The Decemerists, Midlake occupy their own peculiar fantasy historical universe of bandits, young brides and kings, and the listener must immerse themselves in this world to appreciate this carefully constructed record in full. It's very gentle, and rich in melody. A handful of the songs (the opening 'Roscoe', 'Van Occupanther', 'We Gathered In Spring' and 'It Covers The Hillside') do linger in the mind effectively, but overall it might just be that little bit too pleasant.

Interesting that the makers of this blog's album of the year for 2005 have now signed a major deal with the V2 label. 'Last Chance Disco' was a sustained triumph for Acoustic Ladyland because, not only did it completely reinvent their own sound, it also merged the technical and expressive world of jazz with the primitive and immediate blast of punk without resorting to contradictory impulses. Following it would inevitably be difficult. 'Skinny Grin', written and recorded it would seem with real haste, has some very impressive moments, but is a far less consistent record than its predecessor. It's impossible to know whether it is the impulse of band or label that has pushed them further in the punk/indie direction, but there is now little trace of real improvisation or spontaneous creative thinking, aside from the frequent thrashing that occasionally veers on the thoughtless. The number of vocal tracks has increased substantially, with a concurrent increase in the number of punk cliches encroaching into the music. Pete Wareham is a composer of genuine ability, but it's unlikely he'll ever be recognised as a significant lyricist.

The instrumental tracks undoubtedly fare much better, with opener 'Road Of Bones' harnessing the elemental distorted fury of classic heavy metal, and 'Your Shame' even borrowing from the Led Zeppelin book of hardened blues licks (albeit handled by Tom Herbert on fuzz bass rather than a guitarist). Best of all is 'Salt Water', featuring a guest appearance from revered punk saxophonist James Chance and included here in a version remixed by Scott Walker. It stands out because of its relentless energy and dynamism, as well as for some full blast blowing from Wareham. As always, the dependably inventive drummer Sebastian Rochford (also leader of Polar Bear and drummer for the excellent Oriole and Fulborn Teversham, amongst many other projects - where does he find the time?) manages to create the high drama dynamics of rock without compromising the sensitivity and creative thinking inherent to jazz playing. That he never resorts to blind technical virtuosity provides further evidence of his musical intelligence.

This band can certainly groove with real fire and fury, and there's no doubting their understanding of both musical traditions they draw from. This time round, however, the 'shock of the new' has dissipated and whilst they integrated their influences effectively on 'Last Chance Disco' there's an increasing sense that they are becoming a band of musicians with jazz chops playing punk rock. It's not clear how long that can remain a diverting prospect.

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