Sunday, November 19, 2006

Review: Tom Waits - Orphans

Once every few years, along comes an album that I rush out to buy, regardless of any current gambling or international-scale drug debts. I need to own the original packaging, hold the physical artwork in my hands, and if I'm lucky enough to have liner notes to read, I'll pore over them with a jeweler's eyepiece until I go blind in one eye.

This weekend, one of those albums came along.

At $AUD84.95, it's a hefty tug on the old purse strings, but it's worth every single cent. The deluxe edition of Tom Waits' Orphans comes in its own CD-sized hardcover book, with the pages consisting of lyrics on a ye-olde worlde background and a pseudo photo album. At the back are the three CDs. Yes, three.

They're called, in order, Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards. The Brawlers are junkhouse, roadhouse, bang-them-over-the-head-with-a-house raunchy blues and gospel numbers as only Tom Waits can do them. The Bawlers are yank on your heart strings ballads, and the Bastards are a psychotic menagerie of aural experiments and spoken word pieces whose parents were never fully legit.

Right off the bat, the first four songs on Brawlers are ones I've never heard before. They got me jumping up and standing on my chair, banging my head against the wall in glee. Tracks on this CD include a Ramones tribute, a song from the movie Dead Man Walking, and a new version of a track that Tom did with his old buddy, Chuck E. Weiss. Anyone remember the song Chuck E's In Love by Rickie Lee Jones?

When Tom does soppy, he can pull a tear from a gland-less eyeball with a single full-throated moan, and when he does it he'll call the song something like Little Drop Of Poison. Which came from the Shrek 2 soundtrack of all places. I vaguely remember a scene with a drunken horse on the piano in a bar. I'm guessing that was supposed to be Tom.

The last CD is Bastards, and this is where I've had a couple of disappointments. I know, someone's bound to hit me with a brick for saying that Tom is capable of wrong, but I'm not too happy about the overdubbed harmonica on a few of these, or the muffling of the banjo courtesy of Primus in On The Road, a song about Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. But the spoken word pieces over musical soundscapes are eery and effective, especially when mixed with older recordings of Tom, before he drank shoe polish strained through bread.

One last track I'll mention from Bastards is Dog Door, a wild, crunchy scratched-falsetto number that almost resembles the kind of R'n'B a zombified version of Tom would holler. I hesitate to use the words R'n'B and Tom in the same sentence, but the production values behind this track are firmly in the now. Sonically inspiring stuff.

Something that struck me about the album, and this is only after a full day of listening, is that Tom Waits won't be making music forever. I don't know if it was the lack of alcohol talking, but he ain't getting any younger, and this almost feels like a career retrospective.

But as Tom might say, there's nothing wrong with me that a hundred dollars won't fix.

For further illuminating reading, leg it on over to the Tom Waits Supplement, a very handy research tool for the history of all the tracks on Orphans.


Ray said...

Oh, it's something I intend to buy. The Mute recordings have always been things of beauty, so it's an essential purchase. I already had some of the tracks (including the Shrek 2 one, for my sins - yer piano player in the movie somehow manages to do both Waits and Cave impressions...), but the newer stuff is just mind-blowing: "What Keeps Mankind Alive", "Books Of Moses" and "Fish In The Jailhouse" are worthy of particular praise, but some of the spoken word stuff (which we all know he's excellent at: see the inter-song growling on the BIG TIME reissue) is just brilliant. "Dog Treat" and "Missing My Son", in particular.

And let's face it, where else are you going to find a Disney dwarf song turned into what sounds like a diamond mine in hell?

Christa M. Miller said...

Daniel, that's a great review. I wanted to buy it anyway for DH for Christmas, but now I really want to go buy it. Thanks for the ringing endorsement!

One question - do you think Bastards will grow on you? We've found sometimes that a first listen (like with Real Gone) gives us a "We could take it or leave it" kind of feel, but as time goes on we like it more or more. Have you ever found the same?

Daniel Hatadi said...

Ray, I also have an earlier version of Little Drop Of Poison on The End Of Violence soundtrack. I have this theory that the first version of a song you hear is the one that ends up being your favourite. "What Keeps Mankind Alive"--I've been breaking into that refrain for years now, at bustops, in the office...

Christa, it's not that I don't like the songs on Bastards, it's just that I have the original versions of some of them and I'm not happy with the studio work they've done on the new versions. If you've never heard them before, I'd say you're in for a treat. A Dog Treat. :)

Sandra Ruttan said...

I'll have to get this one! Thanks for spending more of my money.

Daniel Hatadi said...

Sandra, any time you need more of your money spent, I can easily come up with a list of things that you can ship to, for example, Australia.

Claudia said...

At last! Another Aussie who loves Tom!! Great review. I am really pissed, as I pre-ordered Orphans about 4 weeks ago, and it still hasn't rolled up at Sanity. I can't wait to turn up the CD player in the car and make my 1 hour journey each way to work feel a lot shorter. Have heard all the samples, and can already tell this is pure Waits. Like Ray, I have some of the tracks (including "Fall of Troy" on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack) and "little Drop of Poison" - yes I will admit I bought the Shrek 2 soundtrack - and it was only for that track

Daniel Hatadi said...

That sucks, Claudia. Especially since HMV was bought out by Sanity. if you can't wait longer and are in Sydney, I got mine at the Broadway HMV. Guess you could cancel the pre-order.

Good to meet another Aussie Waits fan! There are more of us than you might think. said...

dude man, i just spent like 14 hours straight listening to it. its fucking awesome! i woke up today feeling that order had been restored to the universe. my desire to make sweet sweet man-love to tom waits has increased exponentially. yes, i'm a guy. and no, i'm not gay. thats how much i love mr. waits.

Sista Spooky said...

Here in Israel I have looong time to wait till I catch this hot one in the stores. It's like the albuns I download and know all the words before they reach the stores and THEN I go out and BUY them even though I don't even have the money to pay my rent. Yeah, that's how much I love Wait's music.
I remember when I first heard his tracks I thought "Gee, I didn't know music could sound so good!" And THAT doesn't happen to me often.
Can't wait to lay my hands on this masterpiece.

Daniel Hatadi said...

Zach, we all love Tom. The whole world is an orgy with him, constantly. Whether they know it or not.

Sista Spooky, may winged angels bring you your copy of Orphans as soon as they can.

Anonymous said...

Tom Waits Supplement -> Tom Waits Library

Hey guys,

This is Pieter from Holland. I maintain the Tom Waits Supplement at

You have a link to this site in this review...

This is to inform you that the Tom Waits Supplement has been renamed Tom Waits Library and moved to a domain of its own at:

Would you please change the link(s) on your site(s)? Thanks!

Be cool, take it easy and don't die! :-)

Pieter from Holland
Tom Waits Library