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"WILD YEARS-THE MUSIC & MYTH OF TOM WAITS" BY JAY S. JACOBS

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PopEntertainment.com > Reviews > Record Reviews > Tom Waits

MUSIC REVIEWS

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Tom Waits-Alice (Anti/Epitaph)

Tom Waits had wanted to record the music from his musical Alice since it was originally staged in 1992.  However, problems with his old record label Island slowed down the process, undoubtedly stemming back to the fact a similar project for The Black Rider had led to one of Waits’ more impenetrable and slowest selling albums.  So, even though the music from Alice was a lot more digestible, it was unavailable to Waits' fans, except through low-quality bootlegs of the songs. 

Finally, Waits is releasing official disks of not only this show, but also his musical Woyzeck (renamed on album Blood Money.)  Of the two albums, Alice is the more immediately accessible… if any album with the quirky, thorny likes of “Kommienezuspadt,” “Table Top Joe,” and “We’re All Mad Here” could be labeled accessible.  However, Alice has a gentleness, a poetic sense of woe and a throbbing, beautiful suffering that is almost mournful.  For the most part, the album eschews the carnival-like musical atmosphere that Waits has been experimenting with since Swordfishtrombones for a more classical feel.  Alice is a mix of Brechtian balladry, Dixieland jazz, and chamber music. 

The song cycle starts in with the delicate, jazzy title track.  “Alice” is a quiet, sax-laden ballad that would feel at home on one of Waits’ Elektra albums.  However, despite the refined musical backing, the lyrics catalogue a feeling of obsession.  The words work in the framework of the musical about writer Lewis Carroll’s strange relationship with young Alice.  It also resonates outside the structure of the story, showing how people can become fixated on another person, even when they know that it is not what is best for them.

There are other unbearably fragile songs like “Flower’s Grave,” “Lost in the Harbour,” and “No One Knows I’m Gone,” which bleed like an open wound.  Ghosts of lost opportunities and squelched desires disappear into the quickly receding fog of life.  Which is not to say that Alice is just a long group of lamentful ballads.  “Kommeniezuspät” has Waits spouting guttural foreign-sounding words (and some occasional English ones) over a racing horn-laced calliope tune.  

Alice continues Waits’ musical fascination with the deformed.  “Table Top Joe” is an old-fashioned ragtime workout about a man who is born with just a head, no body.  However, instead of letting his deformity destroy him, Joe uses it to his advantage, putting together an act and becoming a vaudeville star.  Not all of Waits’ freaks are so lucky, though.  “Poor Edward” tells the tragic story of a man who was literally “two-faced”; he had the full face of a woman on the back of his head.  She was Edward’s doppelganger, constantly belittling him and tempting him with evil thoughts.  Eventually the face drives Edward to madness and suicide.  These two songs are the opposite sides of a fever dream.  

This dichotomy of joy and pain comes naturally to Waits as a songwriter.  It's why thirty years into his career, he has yet to make a bad album.  Alice is probably the better of the two new albums for the uninitiated.  However, it is still starkly, beautifully Waits' offbeat view of life and music.  You won't be the same after you've experienced it.  (5/02)

Jay S. Jacobs

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Tom Waits-The Black Rider (Island)

This is not really what you might call the new album by the eccentric Tom Waits. It's more of a side project, the soundtrack of a musical Waits put together with William S. Burroughs that played in Hamburg last year and New York City this fall. Based on an old German legend, The Black Rider is actually Waits' attempt to construct a German dance hall musical in the vein of Kurt Weill and Bertol Brecht. 

As such, the music has more of a central theme and theatrical feel than Waits' more experimental works of the past decade.  Many of the songs have the feeling of a haunted carnival, from the barker-from-Hell lyrics of "Lucky Day Overture" and swirling calliope of the title track to the sudden interludes of what seems to be the theme of a cowboy movie that spice up "Just the Right Bullets."   The problem is the music probably works better in its intended theatrical context: off the stage it loses the coherence of the central idea.  Also, while cool in theory, it was a bad idea to let Burroughs do the vocals on "T'ain't No Sin."  

While The Black Rider isn't essential Waits, it's still interesting.   This is just a weird pit-stop along the road of a fascinating career.  (1/94) 

Jay S. Jacobs

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Tom Waits-Blood Money (Anti/Epitaph)

Of the two concurrently released theatrical albums, Blood Money tends to be a darker, more acidic, yet less emotionally draining, listen.  It also delves more into the tonal experimentation of Waits’ later music.  This probably stems from the bleak storyline of the source material, the musical Woyzeck. 

Musically as well as lyrically, Blood Money is more jagged, more screaming, more percussive.  It has a playful black sense of humor behind the apocalyptic yowls of anger.  “Misery Is the River of the World” contradicts an enraged howl at the moon on the human conditions with a carnival oom-pah band backing.  A subtle samba beat percolates underneath the resigned bitterness of “Everything Goes To Hell.”  More stomping, clanging instrumentation reminiscent of Bone Machine appears on “God’s Away on Business” as Waits spits out every word with poisonous bile only experienced by the betrayed.  A similar sense of mental instability crops up in the raging “Starving in the Belly of the Whale.”  The instrumental “Knife Chase” weds a martial backbeat to a spy film throb. 

Strangely, in the middle of all this dark experimentation, there are a couple of Waits' more touchingly romantic songs.  Over a soft old-fashioned bed of music, “Coney Island Baby” features a lead played on a chamberlain.  Waits reserves his simplest lyrics of straightforward devotion, calling his love a princess, a rose, a pearl.  Much like earlier songs like “Johnsburg, Illinois” and “Jersey Girl,” it celebrates the little, subtle moments in a relationship.  The song closes out with a piano quote from “Innocent When You Dream.”  The next song, “All the World Is Green” is a similarly lovely ballad about trying to remember the moments when romance is pure and possibilities are endless.  There is also a lovely sense of desperate romantic resignation on the charming tunes “Another Man’s Vine” and “The Part That You Throw Away.”  (5/02)

Jay S. Jacobs

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Tom Waits-Bone Machine (Island)

The spectre of death covers Tom Waits' new album Bone Machine like a pall.  Much like Lou Reed's Magic and Loss, the album is a full-length meditation on mortality.  Even the songs that don't deal directly with life or death issues carry the somber mood in their sparse arrangements and Waits' tortured vocals. 

As with all his work since signing with Island, Bone Machine sneaks up on you.  Many of the songs are not obviously musical, yet you keep coming back to them and are fascinated by some new aspect with each listening.  Waits really is one of today's most seductive songwriters.  His work has been covered -- Rod Stewart did "Downtown Train" and Springsteen did "Jersey Girl," -- but his best originals remain unfamiliar to most people. 

Some musicians make a career out of trying to clean up the rough edges in the studio.  Waits believes an album should be almost all rough edges.  Much of the music here is dauntingly minimalist.   This focuses attention on the basic song structures, which are quite simply fascinating.  "The Ocean Doesn't Want Me" is a musical suicide note with spooky instrumentation and a vocal that almost sounds like it was performed by someone drowning.  "The Earth Dies Screaming" has the resonance of an apocalypse, with tortured vocals and bizarre percussion.  "Black Wings" continues to solidify Waits' reputation as one of our greatest bohemian poets, backed by a tune that sounds like it's out of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. 

This is not to say that all the songs on Bone Machine are strange.  There is a lovely ballad called "Who Are You?" that will most likely become the next tune some adventurous artist covers.  The con man in "Jesus Gonna Be Here" is the same type of tortured dreamer that Waits has been drawing vividly for years.  "A Little Rain" feels like it comes from an old Kurt Weill theatrical score, and the disk closes out with the Keith Richards duet "That Feel." 

Waits' music may be difficult for some people, especially on first listen, but twenty years into his career he is still challenging himself and his audience, and not many artists can match that.  (12/92)

Jay S. Jacobs

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Various Artists-Step Right Up: The Songs of Tom Waits (Manifesto)

Tom Waits is the best songwriter of this generation, yet many people are scared away from his songs by his midnight, cigarettes and whiskey vocal style. You can just see a record company exec pondering how to sell Waits' music to the masses. Suddenly a lightbulb goes on over his head. Tribute album! Well, all tribute albums are a mixed bag, so I wasn't expecting too much, but I'm pleasantly surprised how little of a sell-out this is.  

The artists involved may change up Waits' music a bit, but they remain stubbornly true to his musical vision. For example, in its own way, the Violent Femmes' take on the title track is as disquieting as anything the master himself has done, and the Femmes strongest moment yet. Pete Shelley turns "Better Off Without A Wife" into a great punk anthem, Magnapop deconstructs "Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis" and The Tindersticks deceptively pretty musical yet vocally dead version of "Mockingbird" captures the songs' self-pity and loathing. Even the more straight forward songs work, 10,000 Maniacs version of "I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You," with it's minute story-telling detail, would have fit snuggly on any of the band's albums. Get this album, learn to love the songs, then seek out the sources.  (4/96)

Jay S. Jacobs

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