Waits' purgative glory: Tom Waits' albums haven't always sounded as if they were recorded at the town dump. There was a time when the one-time piano bard's albums sounded like they were recorded at the neighbourhood bar. It's understandable, however, if that time seems like a distant memory to anyone who recalls the kind of booze-soaked, unsentimentally romantic tunes that characterized the growling singer's formative output back in the 1970s. The music in those days, while never pretty, was often quite lovely, with heartbreak enduring as the most persistent theme.
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.
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