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Middling Effort by Waits
on 23 October 2004
Tom Waits works diligently and seriously at creating aural atmospheres and settings for his music. While Waits deals in oft-mentioned skid row characters, freak shows, broken junkyard imagery, and although he's lived some of this, he's more the creator of artistic empathy through a definite, developed and at times experimental style, relaying feelings on fictional, but quite often real characters, towns, situations. Mule Variation's Georgia Lee was a real person (Georgia Lee Moses), Poor Edward, a real person (Edward Mordrake), the human oddities he barks out in Black Rider, real people; folks like Chuck E. Weiss, Uncle Vernon are real people, the town with no cheer is a real town in Australia, the Reperbahn is in Germany. Storyteller, conveyer, and very accomplished artistic musician, Waits is well-read and well traveled and has absorbed many different influences, musical, nonmusical, and extramusical.
In Real Gone, when Tom sings "Don't Go Into That Barn", it is a paraphrase from Isaac Lang Jr., a warning from his elders to the neighborhood kids. And this barn is in Kentucky, a hidden slave barn. Tom, very deftly, tells the story of this horrible place, and the aural settings and mood and voices he uses, there are two character voices in this song, are the means to the sentiment expressed.
Real Gone is the Gospel, Funk, Country/Blues Waits, with the exception of Circus, in the aesthetic of Bone Machine and Mule Variations. There's some funk elements, a lot of blues progressions, preacher-like spiritual versus, and features lots of lead guitar work of Marc Ribot. There's some distortion, but on many tracks, noisier than previous records. Yes, there is Waits using his voice as beatboxes and there are turntables, all adapted to a Waits mode, and more elements of means to his chosen atmospheres. There are political songs and sentiments expressed in Hoist That Rag, Sins of the Father, and especially Day after Tomorrow, that are more direct than previous songs. Religious questioning of whose side God really is on and if he intervenes or is indifferent in people's lives, and biblical references are throughout many lyrics. Songs from voices from the dead or about the dead are in the form of Green Grass and Dead and Lovely.
Too much is made of Tom's vocal characteristic (gruff voice) and not enough made of his accomplished style of singing. Tom is a superb singer. He has range that most singers don't have. And that range isn't low to high notes. It is a range of characters with their own personal inflections, pacing and phrasing, vocal qualities, involvement and detachment to their stories, that bring out his strong lyrics. And in this way, he's a very unique talent.
Musically, Shake It, with its shifting to double time is interesting. I like the tempo changes from 5/4 to 4/4 in Trampled Rose, one of the Latinish rhythmic numbers and that it often goes to 5/4 at the end of a phrase. Don't Go Into That Barn's evocation of slavery and plantation blues is effective, so these would be my standouts for this CD.
In terms of aural atmosphere, power of musical ballads, I feel Rain Gone falls short of previous Waits efforts. I miss the piano, I miss some timbres like the signature percussion sounds of previous recordings, I miss horns, I miss interweaving lines, and I miss a sense of aural ambiance that goes beyond distressed noise and overdubbed vocal tracks (in Shake It and Top of the Hill the lyrics are almost indecipherable--not a good thing for Waits). The album sounds conventional in some ways. I don't hear any ballads that have the same depth and impact of Mule's Georgia Lee, Picture in a Frame, no disturbing bell sounds that make Black Market Baby rather eerie, and I think the rawness of Filipino Box Spring Hog isn't matched on any cut of Real Gone. I also think Tom could have done more with the human beatbox or have added more and less predictable human outcries to add his usual poignancy to the musical content. There's a dimension missing here. An effective moment is when Tom whistles in Green Grass because it adds a sweet timbre and sensibility. It is just that sweet timbre that is juxtaposed to the spareness that makes the music more frightening and emotionally piercing and there aren't enough moments of this. With Tom going with rhythm and blues, and especially plantation Delta blues, I'd like a more acoustic biting sound, and the banjo more up front and maybe some accordion and especially harmonica. And why not a clanky keyboard of some sort? I'd like him to do more overdubbed background vocals (we only hear a little on How's It Gonna End in the bridge). Bone Machine also had more bite and drive to me, Earth Died Screaming, Such a Scream, lots of drive, and the tender ballads have more poignancy. For me, as nice a song as Dead and Lovely is, it doesn't touch Whistle Down the Wind, the voice is more detached, distorted. And why Circus? It doesn't belong on this album. The spoken Ocean Doesn't Want Me musically, "atmospherely" fit on Bone Machine. What's He Building fits in this way on Mule. But this recording isn't carnival, Weill-esque. This sounds like it belongs on Black Rider or Blood Money, but not this album. On many of the tracks it sounds like Tom is jamming as opposed to carefully crafting his music aesthetic.
I'll say, OK to good. No where near a masterpiece. The album exhibits well enough Tom's storytelling and strong lyric sense (although in the latter not his best lyrics), but falls short of his best songwriting abilities, effective use of contrasts, range of vocal characters, and creation of captivating, disquieting aural atmospheres.