Step Right Up
Both Sides of Mad Ringmaster Tom Waits

I am officially in full geek Star Wars mode.

I’m typing this while watching The Phantom Menace on Fox, and I have my ticket to go see Attack of the Clones in less than a week. I even bought a box of Star Wars – Episode II cereal, which contains marshmallows in shapes that, I guess, are vaguely reminiscent of Yoda, R2-D2 and a Stormtrooper, and also contains absolutely no nutritional value. But I ate it anyway, which is kind of a metaphor for my entire Star Wars experience. Despite all my ramblings about character, motivation, symbolism and whatnot in the movies I enjoy, I am so fucking psyched right now to see this big-budget, swashbuckling eye candy adventure flick.

Review forthcoming next week.

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The appeal of Tom Waits is difficult, if not impossible, to explain if you’ve never immersed yourself in his work, but I thought of an illustration that might work.

You know that scene in the movie musicals that happens after the two leads have each had a number of solos, and have done the love duet, and they walk off the frame and the camera slowly pans down to a dirty, disheveled, lovesick drunk who begins to croak a sad, heartbreaking waltz under a grimy streetlight? Well, that guy is Tom Waits. He has a knack for those broken-souled numbers that creep under your skin, and he has a voice that makes your skin creep.

That voice is perhaps the element of Waits’ work that takes the most getting used to. Calling it gravelly would be putting it charitably – Waits sounds like he’s been gargling battery acid for 40 years, and he makes Joe Cocker sound like Sarah McLachlan. But even more than Bob Dylan, who has a similar tone, Waits infuses his sandpaper baritone with palpable emotion, making the listener feel more than you’d think possible. He’s like a Broadway virtuoso from Bizarro World.

A good primer for the odd sensibility of Waits would be his two new albums, Alice and Blood Money, out this week. One is a lovely, orchestrated affair, the other a bitter, dark and jazzy missive from the seedy side of town. Together they offer a nice overview of the different styles Waits has been proffering for 30 years or so.

Alice opens with the title track, which tells you all you need to know about Alice and her effect on Waits’ character. (I should, of course, mention that Waits albums are often little plays, and that’s especially true here, because both albums were composed to accompany stage shows.) Over a slow, shimmering jazz background, Waits asks, “How does the ocean rock the boat? How did the razor find my throat?” At the song’s conclusion, he sinks into blissful futility: “But I must be insane, to go skating on your name, and by tracing it twice, I fell through the ice…”

The album continues in a heartsick vein, Waits’ glowering voice contrasted with glorious string arrangements and gentle harmony. “Flower’s Grave” twists cliches on their ears: “As one rose dies, another blooms, it’s always been that way…but no one puts flowers on a flower’s grave.” “Watch Her Disappear” begins with the line, “Last night I dreamed that I was dreaming of you…,” and it weaves a hallucinogenic tale of desperation. “Poor Edward” introduces us to a man who kills himself to escape the voice of the other face on the back of his head (really), and “Table Top Joe” spins a yarn about a torso-less piano player (again, really).

Lest you start thinking that Alice is loopy and strange, it’s actually quite traditionally beautiful. Unlikely as it may seem, Waits’ voice delivers on the beauty of the songs by dredging up their inner pain. The album is a slice of off-kilter, soul-stirring melancholy, and the odder it is, the more touching it becomes. Alice is sorrow-drowning music set to moonlit walks along grimy streets.

Should you take a detour down one of the alleys on those grimy streets, you might end up in the part of town described on Blood Money, which by its nature is a less enjoyable album, but a more fascinating one. The titles tell the tale: “Misery is the River of the World,” “Everything Goes to Hell,” “God’s Away on Business,” “The Part You Throw Away,” and on and on. Blood Money is harsh, jagged and raw.

It’s also one of Waits’ most jazz-oriented recordings, and it finds him in full growl mode more often than not. He sounds here like a deranged carnival barker, welcoming you to the freak show outside your window. “All the good in the world you can put inside a thimble, and still have room for you and me,” he spits on “Misery is the River of the World,” over a propulsive bass and clarinet backing. Later he opines, “If there’s one thing you can say about mankind, it’s that there’s nothing kind about man,” which sort of sums up the 12 tales of venom and vice that follow.

And as such, it’s a less affecting work than Alice. Where that album couched its misery in equal amounts of sweetness, Blood Money goes for the jugular, and after a while the gloomy jazz stylings start to blend together. There are some standouts here, especially “Lullaby” and infidelity tale “Another Man’s Vine,” but overall Blood Money takes a few more listens to sort out in your mind. Both of these albums are worth the time they take, however, because you’ll never find another singer-songwriter as idiosyncratic, yet emotionally resonant, as Tom Waits.

Next week, probably Moby, though the single hasn’t grown on me. It’s got a cool video, though…

Oh, and Star Wars. Whoo-hoo!

See you in line Tuesday morning.