Friday, October 15, 2004

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: WORTH THE WAITS

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
October 15, 2004



Real Gone is Tom Waits’ roughest, most grating and most out-there albums since -- well, maybe this one is his roughest, most grating and most out-there album ever.

Starting out with a crazed, five-minute human beat-box, clunky, funky out-Becking Beck nonsense workout called “Top of the Hill”, which hands off the baton to a gritty Latin-flavored tune called “Hoist That Rag,” which sounds like he’s fronting Giant Sand trying to be Santana, Waits lets us listeners know that we’re in for a crazy ride.

The very title recalls Elvis’ challenge to his band after the false start of “Mystery Train”: “Hold it fellas, that don’t move. Let’s get real, real gone for a change.”

So Waits gets more gone than Elvis ever imagined.

But even though Real Gone may be something of an acquired taste for a casual Waits fan, and even takes a little time to warm up to for Waits zealots like myself, this album is definitely worth the time and effort. While its charms aren’t as obvious as those of Mule Variations or Frank’s Wild Years, Real Gone is an amazing piece of work.

Some of Waits’ best musical collaborators play here. Guitarist Marc Ribot, who helped Waits redefine his sound in the mid ‘80s, returns here. Les Claypool of Primus plays bass on a few cuts, though most of those duties are covered by Larry “The Mole” Taylor (a founding member of Canned Heat). Waits’ wife Kathleen Brennan co-wrote the songs (I still say she’s the anti-Yoko, because Waits’ work improved after she started collaborating with him) and their son Casey plays turntables and drums.

As for Waits, he sings (as well as, grumbling, mumbling, scatting and sometimes screaming,) he plays guitar, he creates percussion tracks with vocal loops, and on a spoken-word recitation called “Circus” he plays the chamberlain.

But he doesn’t play piano. In fact this is the first album he’s ever made where he doesn’t touch the piano. Back in the ‘70s he told us “The Piano Has Been Drinking." Maybe now the piano’s in rehab. At any rate, it’s a radical departure for a musician who first became famous playing piano with a beatniked-up cocktail jazz sound.

Real Gone, for the most part has two basic styles. There are noise songs like “Top of the Hill,” “Metropolitan Glide” and the 46-second post-modern chain chant “Clang Boom Steam”

And there’s songs that might be described as blues noir/grainy art-house torch tunes. These are my favorites.

They include the 10-minute “Sins of My Father.” Some complain it‘s too long, but the length just becomes part of its captivating hypnotic power.

There’s “Dead and Lovely,” a classic Waits cautionary tale of a good girl who falls in with a bad, bad dude. The title tells you it ends tragically.

“Make It Rain” starts out with a blues cliché, but Waits is well aware that this road has been traveled. “She took all my money and my best friend/You know the story/Here it comes again.”

One of the scariest tunes Waits has ever done is “Don’t Go Into That Barn.” Could this be a continuation of the story he first told more than a decade ago in “Murder in the Red Barn”?

In a chilling call and response between evil-doers, (with Waits calling as well as responding), the signer growls “Did you bury your fire? /Yes, sir!/ Did you cover your tracks?/ Yes, sir!/ Did you clean your knife?/ Yes, sir!/ Did they see your face?/ No sir!/ Did the moon see you?/ No sir!

Some tunes are an unholy cross between noise tracks and raunchy blues. Such is “Shake It,” in which both Ribot and Taylor play guitar while Claypool’s bass rumbles and Waits wails "like a preacher waving a gun around.”

Most of the album has an otherworldly feel about it. Te sound quality is almost tinny, as if it was the unearthed soundtrack from some long forgotten surrealist film.

But at the end of the album Waits brings us abruptly into the present with what turns out to be one of the strongest anti-war songs of the Operation Iraqi Freedom era.

The narrator of “The Day After Tomorrow” is a lonely soldier. With Waits’ raspy voice, you know it’s got to be a real dogface right out of a Bill Mauldin cartoon.

With Waits writing one of his saddest melodies in recent memory, this song is the “grand weeper” among all the “grim reapers.”

The singer, writing a letter to loved ones back home, is cold and “tired of taking orders.” He shudders at the bloodshed he’s seen, but doesn’t dwell on it. “I still don’t know how I’m supposed to feel at all the blood that has been spilled.” And he wonders about the enemy praying to God. “How does God chose? Whose prayers does he refuse?”

But mostly he’s having bittersweet nostalgia about home. “What I miss you won’t believe/ Shoveling snow and raking leaves.”

He’s coming home, he says, the day after tomorrow. But the listener can’t help but wonder. Is death waiting around the corner? Is this show going to drop? A lesser writer would have had the song end in a terrible tragedy. Waits, in his wisdom lets you wonder. Waits lets you hope.

Real Gone can be considered Waits’ first new album of the millennium. True, he released two albums, Blood Money and Alice in 2002. However both of those were from theater works and were composed years before. Real Gone is a sometimes difficult album for difficult times.

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