Since then, Waits has worked his way through a Brechtian cabaret phase into what, most recently, might best be described as the cranky Californian's own clangy brand of industrial rock. Out with the piano. In with an array of percussive effects. A lot of fascinating music has been produced during this latter-day period, right up to and including 2004's Real Gone. But older fans can be excused for missing the bittersweetness of "Martha" from Waits' 1973 debut Closing Time or "Tom Traubert's Blues" from his indisputable 1976 masterpiece, Small Change.
Orphans — a 56-track CD of both new and previously unreleased material divided between three CDs headed "Brawlers," "Bawlers" and "Bastards" — reflects Waits' totality in all of its purgative glory. And the good news for early fans is that the romance — bitter, broken and unrequited though it often might be — is back. While "Brawlers" leans toward the more recent percussion-forged stage, with some ramshackle blues ("2:19") and gospel ("Lord I've Been Changed") worked into the mix, and "Bastards" sounds like music for an intermission at the "Threepenny Opera" (including a cover of Brech-Weill's "What Keeps Man Alive"), "Bawlers" channels classic early Waits, with the piano and upright bass restored to a rightful place of honour. The arrangements also feature horns and strings ("Bend Down the Branches"), mandolin (the Celtic-tinged "Widow's Grove"), banjo ("Shiny Things") and pedal steel ("Tell it to Me"), all ending with an endearing, if not exactly sprightly rendition of "Young at Heart." If you've loved his entire oeuvre, then you'll feel as if you've died and gone to heaven — or, at the very least, purgatory.
VIT WAGNER www.thestar.com