I had stopped writing in O_Song for three main reasons.
1) I got busy. There was a thesis to write, classes to teach, bands to play in, and writing about music fell by the wayside. But I guess I'm less busy now.
2) I became unable to use the hosting where I put my mp3s. But these days, I can probably get away with linking to an mp3 hosted on a record company website for most of the things I want to talk about.
3) I feel like I had become too detached. When I first started the blog I would post about what the songs made me feel, but as the arc of the story progressed, and I felt pressure to just post, I became more likely to discuss the song with more detachment - the chorus does this, the verse does that. And I didn't really like that. It felt like a lie. A pop lie?
So this Okkervil River song, from last year's album The Stand-Ins, is true. A lot of the songs we listen to are basically lies. Music is all about emotion, more or less. And, sometimes, it's pretty easy to pick a liar's song - obvious careerism, too much focus on style, and not enough on content, and sentiments that are too bland or too easy to be real. These are the songs "Pop Lie" presumably targets.
There's a certain kind of person who wants these easy, bland sentiments (a Celine Dion fan, for example, if you've read Carl Wilson's excellent book). I have a kind of intuition that people who fall for the easy sentiments aren't particularly self-reflective, and probably don't have very little idea why they do the things they do. But maybe that's just my prejudices.
The thing is, musicians are like everyone else. We often do not understand why we feel the emotions we feel, and indeed often do not realise we are feeling emotions. We lie to ourselves just as much as anybody else. The conscious act of editing a song into the dynamic catchy kind of thing that a bunch of people would want to listen to further distorts the emotions that got transmitted into the song when the initial inspiration struck. The upshot of this is that most of the songs out there are emotionally untrue, or at least emotionally misdirected, at some level.
This means that "Pop Lie", apart from being true, is a lie. The fact that the final verse in "Pop Lie" explicitly says the song is a lie ("the liar who lied in this song") is also itself an emotional lie, especially when set against the style of Will Sheff's singing, where his lack of vocal control comes across as emotion being portrayed, and the visceral immediacy of the song (which, of course, uses all the tricks of the catchy pop songs that Sheff knows). He sings that it's a lie, but he sings it and plays it like it's not.
The thing is, we need the lies. We need lies to live by. Otherwise, for most people, everyday life would be unbearable. This is why those songs with the bland, easy sentiments are so popular sometimes; the more unbearable life is, in fact, the more you want to believe the easy lies. So even if "you're lying when you're singing along", perhaps that's not a bad thing. Sometimes the truth isn't what we need to hear.
I think I lost interest in this blog because it used to be about songs that made me feel things, and what it was about the songs that made me feel things. But as the history of the blog progressed, the writing became less about what made me feel things and became more about things which interested me on an intellectual and rational level. Which is understandable in a way; I was doing a PhD where the intellectual and rational level of writing is paramount. And I had also considered this blog a sort of practice writing area - if I got lots of writing practice here, it might make it easier there. And, maybe it helped with the PhD because I've finished it (apart from some apparently minor changes).
(The Tallest Man On Earth's "I Won't Be Found", from the album "Shallow Graves" (2008))
Anyway, The Tallest Man On Earth's "I Won't Be Found" is fairly intensely traditional folk; the song is a reconstitution of sorts of the old folk tune "I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground", but I don't think it matters that it is. It's just a guitar and a voice and a song. Kristian Mattson (i.e., he who is The Tallest Man On Earth) furiously fingerpicks throughout the song, letting cascades of fingerpicked notes ring out, providing a countermelody to the (strong) sung melody line. His voice frequently sounds on the edge of falling apart, as if he's belting it out as hard as he can; there are rough edges in the voice every so often, as if certain tones make his voicebox rattle and his throat crack. With singing like that, you (well, I) believe every word he says.
The lyrics are elliptical, with mentions of freeways, the Serengeti, and lizards in the spring, but they seem to me to speak of a desire for hibernation away from prying eyes (like a mole deep in the ground); as if he's come to the end of something and has to lay low to regenerate himself. Hmm, now why would that appeal to me?
The Staples Singers - "The Weight"
Track 6, The Best of the Staples Singers, 1990.
I've been going through a massive phase of liking The Band recently. I even bought their mid-70s covers album, "Moondog Matinee" the other day. I don't really know what it is about The Band that makes me want to listen to them (beyond the obvious, like the beautiful singing, Garth Hudson's organ playing, great songs, and so forth). It's something ineffable, some feeling in the music, in the playing, which communicates a certain seductive attitude towards the world.
In the Scorcese-directed film, The Last Waltz, about the Band's final concert (complete with big name guests - Dylan, Neil Young, etc etc), the Staples Singers sing a few verses of perhaps the best-known song by the Band, "The Weight". I was curious about the Staples Singers based on this performance, and I downloaded their greatest hits from eMusic. And the music of the Staples Singers has a similar ineffable feeling to it. It's an audible warmth and joy; it feels calming even when its frenetic.
The lyrics of "The Weight", written by Robbie Robertson, are mysterious nonsense, in the tradition of Bob Dylan (in fact, the song would fit perfectly on Dylan's contemporaneous John Wesley Harding); there is an impression of narrative, and there's a feeling of deeper, more portentous symbolism that you're somehow missing (i.e., that Weird Old America stuff Greil Marcus goes on about). In the Band's version of the song, some of this deep portent is inherent in the performance. It's a little weird and mysterious, and should be. The song has a deceptive simplicity; it's easy enough to play, but you suspect it really only works if you have the musical groove and the complex interaction of personalities that the Band or the Staples Singers have.
The gospel-derived singing style of the Staples Singers, however, gives the song/lyrics a different feel; it draws attention to words like "Nazareth" and "Moses" in the lyrics, to the symbolism of people and places named after biblical references. But more than that, the performance is fundamentally about the audible warmth and joy in the family's voices. There's something moving in the way that they combine in gospel harmony on the line "put the line right on me", sounding slightly cacophonous and beautiful, and briefly rejecting the laidback rhythmic groove for a more rigid pulse. Of course, one shouldn't forget the Stax rhythm section, who have a certain lust for life and groove in their playing.
This is my first post for some time, largely because I had a PhD thesis to write. I guess it's ewritten. I'll try and be reasonably regular from now on.
Jamie Liddell - "Wait For Me"
Track 2, Jim, 2008.
I've decided recently that there is such a thing as good music and bad music. The difference between good and bad music, to me, doesn't have much to do with the genre of the music, the political overtones of the music, or the influences and musical references in the music (that's another story). For me, the difference lays within the ability of the musicians (and/or producer) to say, musically, whatever it is that they want to say (there is the question of whether to attribute the message to the author, or whether th message is simply the song, but that's another story too).
Most of the musicians who are typically discussed in discussions of taste (e.g., Vampire Weekend) are mostly pretty good in this sense. Musicians who don't make good music; you rarely hear about them, because the music they make is rarely worth discussing. I won't name names, but we're talking about the 75% of the other bands on the bill that never quite get a fanbase and make polite music which might appeal to fans of other bands but never quite has anything to say.
In this sense, Jamie Liddell's "Wait For Me" is undeniably good music. Lyrically, the lyrics are fairly straightforward. You don't need to get that far past the title to get the gist - e.g., that the singer is trying to convince a lover that, while he may be absent, he will be faithful, and that the lover should also be faithful. Musically, though, it's not the slow jam or acoustic folk that those lyrics suggest; instead, the song has a gleeful bounce. It's as if the singer knows that his lover will be faithful, and is, in singing about their absence from each other, celebrating the strength of their love.
Liddell's vocal performances have the kind of conviction and intensity that's typically missing from your Idol winners. And the piano playing on the track is pretty astonishing, especially the solo. But what really gets me about the song is its sheer effervescent joy for life. You can ascribe influences and sonic influences to the music (e.g., Motown, and in particular Stevie Wonder, who has a similar exuberance) and make your mind up about the politics of love described in the song, but my suspicion is that you'd be better off not worrying so much, and just listening to it as good music.
Brian Wilson - "Midnight's Another Day"
That Lucky Old Sun, 2007.
mp3 available from brianwilson.com (or usually is - when I just checked it the site seemed to be down).
This blog has been a bit quiet recently because I've got a PhD thesis to write. I still have a thousand songs I want to tell the world about. Anyway, my girlfriend, Jadey of pet_studies fame, this year started doing a PhD thesis on the Beach Boys, and this means that I will have to overhear/listen to the Beach Boys incessantly for another 2 and a half years at the least. It's a good thing that a lot of the tasty delights of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys are subtle, and only enfold after a few listens. This song appears to contain several of those tasty delights.
"Midnight's Another Day" is easily the best thing Brian Wilson has written for at least 20 years. Apparently from some song cycle called That Lucky Old Sun, the song has a sparse, dignified sadness to it, the song of a man who's been to some dark places but somehow survived. The song has a strange restlessness to it, a sense of having lived through it, which prevents it from being saccharine despite the 'love conquers all' theme of the lyrics, and there's enough of those unexpected Brian Wilson Chords. Brian sounds there on the vocal take, avoiding that odd nasal barking he's had a habit of falling into at times.
You get the impression that That Lucky Old Sun, when and if it gets released (the amount of unreleased Brian Wilson solo work out there), might be an old's man wrinkly SMiLE, what with Van Dyke Parks helping out with the lyrics like he did on SMiLE, and what sounds like the SMiLE backing band playing in a subtle and suitable style.
Okkervil River - "Plus Ones"
Track 5, The Stage Names, 2007.
You probably all know this by now, seeing as they mention it in every review of the album, but the general conceit of the song "Plus Ones" is that the lyrics use clever references to pop songs with numbers in the title. Plus one. We're talking about the 100th Luftballoon, talking about the 51st way to leave your lover, shooting up 9 miles high, and being in Cell 45. It's the kind of songwriting lyrical virtuosity that you can't help but admire. The thing that makes the lyrics, and the song good, though, isn't this lyrical conceit, but the way it is used to suggest the theme of things just being around for a bit too long, of not having anything left; the song, at heart, is about a relationship that's just faded away slowly until there's nothing left. Considering that The Stage Names, if anything, is a concept album about what it's really like to be in Okkervil River, the girl the song was written for was probably a 'plus one' on a guestlist somewhere, somewhen - one of the few perks of being the partner of a musician. So there's some sort of resonance with the wider themes of the album, too.
What's interesting to me about this song, beyond its fantastic lyrics, lovely melody, and interesting instrumentation (not to mention the way the guitar meanders for a couple of seconds before the song starts for real, which for some reason catches me), is this: Will Scheff stole my idea. Couple of years ago, I wrote a song where the lyrics were largely based clever inversions of commercial pop songs - sample line: "you wanted a river, but I could only cry you a creek". I think I was trying to make some point about what someone's music taste suggested about them. My song also had the same, well, end-of-relationship theme as well (though Sheff's song is considerably more charitable in tone than mine). It's a strange feeling to hear a song that's doing many of the same things that a song you've written does, except that it does it better; Sheff's song is more elegant, flows better and has more poetry in the lyrics. Maybe this is what it's like to be Noel Gallagher or the guy from Jet. In the end, though, his song is his and mine is mine; we're expressing different feelings in different ways, despite some family resemblance.
I never really got into their last album, Black Sheep Boy, beyond the sheer Bluebottle Kiss-esque emotional intensity of "For Real". Maybe I should go back and listen again; The Stage Names is an incredibly strong album, full of interesting ideas and hooks and sounds. Maybe it would have been better to write a post about "John Allyn Smith Sails" instead. "John Allyn Smith Sails" is not only equally as impressive as "Plus Ones", but it also manages to reinterpret "Sloop John B" (made famous by the Beach Boys) as an ironic metaphor for death and suicide. There would have been a certain elegant poetry to the post, it would have flowed better.
But fuck that.
PS. Note to Will Sheff: what about not needing your loving on the ninth day of the week, not being fucked trying to walk the five hundred and first mile, the leaky boat sinking in the seventh month, the 20th nervous breakdown, 12:01am in a perfect world, or the forgotten eighth nation in the army, or the 36th rainy day woman? and of course there's the one after 909.
The Silversun Pickups - "Little Lover's So Polite"
Track 4, Carnavas, 2006.
Carnavas absolutely stinks of the Smashing Pumpkins. Sure, the band probably mentions influences like My Bloody Valentine in interviews, denying that they've ever heard of the Pumpkins, but the music just stinks of the Pumpkins. And the teenage Smashing Pumpkins obsessive hidden deep in my musical bones finds Carnavas pretty irresistable. Warm, fuzzy guitars? Check. Warm fuzzy guitars playing pretty awesome riffs? Check. Hypnotic bass riffs? Check. Oddly feminine lead vocals sung by a man, who gets a bit screechy every so often? Check.
If I'm going to go down the "they sound like Smashing Pumpkins" road, I should point out that the Smashing Pumpkins-ness is the Smashing Pumpkins of 1992 or so - the sound isn't quite as huge as Siamese Dream, and certainly isn't quite as gothic and angsty as they got later on. "Drown", the Pumpkins track from the Singles soundtrack, is probably the closest reference.
It's unfair to compare them to the Pumpkins with this much detail, of course; if you listen to "Little Lover's So Polite" based on my recommendation, you're going to see them in the light of the Smashing Pumpkins reference, and while it's interesting that a band sounds like they're from 1992 rather than 1982 in the current post-punk/dance-punk obsessed musical climate, the Silversun Pickups do have their own sound, and obviously have a different aesthetic to the Smashing Pumpkins. It's not quite as ambitious a sound as the Smashing Pumpkins, the drummer is no Jimmy Chamberlin, there's atmospheric keyboards down the back of the mix. The lead singer doesn't really sound as much like Billy Corgan as I'm making out. They seem a little more interested in sound than the Smashing Pumpkins, and there's something of the aesthetic of indie rock of this century there.
But still, maybe it's because I was nuts about the Pumpkins in 1997, but I can't listen to the Pickups without thinking of the Pumpkins. It feels like a new Smashing Pumpkins album, one I haven't listened to hundreds of times. And maybe that ain't bad.
The Free Design - "Never Tell The World"
Track 10, Kites Are Fun: The Best Of The Free Design, 1967/1998.
I discovered The Free Design listed under the "Sunshine Pop" genre on allmusicguide, and they're certainly sunny. They were sibling harmonisers from 1967/1968 (and sound like it), and they had a small hit with a song called "Kites Are Fun" and that was about it. But, as they usually say, this band should have been bigger than they were. They seem to be besotted by odd, jazzy chords in their harmonies. Their harmonies interweave, in counterpoint, in a way that almost sounds like a Renaissance madrigal. They have cultured, sophisticated Latin rhythms chugging along in the background, and the overall effect is somewhat like the Mamas and the Papas singing over music written and orchestrated by Burt Bacharach. The lead singer of the Free Design has a pure, gentle and perhaps motherly voice, reminiscent of Vashti Bunyan, or perhaps a more tuneful Nico.
"Never Tell The World", a song about keeping mum about one's love, musically is largely interesting because of the effective call and response between the bass and organ in the verses. But the Free Design are all about the vocal harmonies. Bacharachian music has a tendency to be a bit too clever clever - all those sophisticated rhythms and harmonies and playing - and thus lack real emotion. It tends to take distinctive and very talented vocalists to pull the style off (e.g., Dionne and Dusty). The Free Design, however, have such a purity of spirit in their vocals that the Bacharachian tendency is negated, and it simply comes across as heartbreakingly beautiful.
Crystal Skulls - "Hussy"
Track 2, Blocked Numbers, 2005.
While the music of "Hussy" sonically resembles Spoon in its musical economy and attention to the groove in service of the song, and while lead singer Christian Wargo vaguely resembles the lead singer of the Walkmen in that there's a similar amount of gravel in his voice, they're something different than the comparisons suggest. The Crystal Skulls have a certain cold, measured feel to them. It's not that they're unemotional, but its more than they're not giving it away just yet.
The lyrics are full of ambiguous sexual politics - the chorus goes "you took the hand of an honest man/ you tried to make him understand you're not a hussy anymore", but the lack works entirely because of this detached approach, though. In the hands of other singers, the lyrics could take on a smirk (e.g., "you're still the same hussy you were when you were with me, you're just in denial"), or an overly moralistic tone (e.g., "hussies are bad! i'm glad you're not bad anymore"), but Wargo's singing seems curiously unemotional, as if he's not making any judgements about hussies one way or another, but is instead just describing.
Kenny Loggins - "I'm Alright"
Caddyshack Original Soundtrack, 1980.
"I'm Alright" appears as an important plot point in the video podcast mockumentary series Yacht Rock, which documented the genesis of the smoothest tunes in the period from 1976 to 1983. As a genre, yacht rock is Hall and Oates, Michael McDonald and the Doobie Brothers, Christopher Cross, Steely Dan, and Toto. And Loggins. "I'm Alright", though, doesn't quite fit in the genre; the producers of Yacht Rock use it to show that Kenny Loggins has tossed aside the raw power of smooth music, and embraced the heady embrace of rocking out.
Rocking out is relative. It's not Slayer by any stretch of the imagination. "I'm Alright" is nonetheless fascinating. While its prominence as a theme song to a popular comedy and its radio-ready sheen made it one of the biggest hits of Loggins' career, it's quite a bizarre song, schizophrenic, and oddly structured. It sounds more like 5 songs in a megamix than one song, rapidly cycling through different sections. The jerky drum rhythms and even the tone of Loggins' voice suggest Lindsey Buckingham's off-kilter work on Fleetwood Mac's Tusk. Elsewhere there's a Beach Boys-styled a capella breakdown, new wavey rhythms, Mellencamp-esque stadium rocker rootsy rockabilly rhythms, and odd "dub dub dub dub" vocals. Lyrically it's the kind of libertarian defiance 80s stadium rockers could toss off in their sleep - "I'm alright/ Don't nobody worry 'bout me/ You got to gimme a fight/ Why don't you just let me be".
The schizophrenia of the song can be read, it occurs to me, as either Loggins asserting his alrightness - I'm gonna do what I want, and if that includes random Beach Boys a capella breakdowns, then dammit, I'm doing that - or Loggins negating the lyrics with off-kilter, non-alright music. Maybe it's both.
The best bit in the song, though, comes just as the song is about to settle back into the catchy section I'd call the chorus. Loggins sings "I'm..." as if he's about to start the chorus ("I'm alright/ Don't nobody worry 'bout me"), and then waits for the rest of the bar, as a noticeably droll bass vocal sings "boom boom boom", before continuing. He's a trixy hobbit, isn't he, precious?
Richard In Your Mind - "Boat Is Rocking"
myspace/triple J unearthed tracks, 2007.
Richard In Your Mind have left me with a smile on my face when I've seen them live. There's something infectious about their woozy brand of whimsical psychedelic pop explorations. Frontman Richard, in particular, has a nerdy charisma, willing you to join his world. They're the kind of band that would proclaim on their myspace that "If you look at your watch during a Richard In Your Mind show, you will notice that the numbers have disappeared leaving only the word NOW in their place". Which in a way, is true enough.
As far as I know, they unfortunately haven't properly released any CDs yet, but their songs are downloadable from the Triple J Unearthed pages, which they incidentally won the NSW heat of (or something like that). I'm sure it's only a matter of time before they rise up and become critical darlings of the blogosphere.
"Boat Is Rocking" is one of a few standout tracks. Like much of their work, it is a grab bag of bits and pieces from disparate genres, improbably lashed together. It starts with a satisfyingly out of tune acoustic guitar plonk, as if they have the blues. Richard raps out the lyrics, with a rhythm and style not a million miles from Beck's kind of thing. Lashings of tremeloey spaghetti Western guitar coexist with what sound like otherworldly harmonicas and other random psychedelic noises, over what's simply an awesome groove from the rhythm section. "Well starlight hangs down right into your blender/ When the fire breaks down you'll bring the bowser in to mend her" - As you can see, the lyrics don't make sense. But in music like this, it makes sense that they don't.
Somehow all these elements coalesce into a coherent mix which is original, insistent, well-arranged and really fucking catchy. Musically, think Mollusk era Ween, Mellow Gold Beck. But NOW.
America - "Golden"
Track 4, Here And Now, 2007.
America - yes, they of the Horse With No Name - have just released a new album. It's produced by Adam Schlesinger of the Fountains of Wayne and James Iha (ex-Smashing Pumpkins, if you wondered what he was up to these days). A few entries ago, I talked about the current enthusiasm for bands (e.g., Josh Rouse, The Bees (U.S.), The Shins, Guster, Nada Surf) which resemble the soft rock of the 1970s. Appropriately, we now we have what may well be the ultimate purveyors 1970s soft rock deliberately trying to make this link explicit. America, on Here And Now, don't sound like a band that's been around for almost 40 years. It's partially the production, which is agreeable and shiny, but full of details (not that you'd expect anything different from Schlesinger). And it's partially their predilection on the album for covers of songs by modern songwriters; they do a version of "Always Love" by Nada Surf, and "Work To Do", written by Adam Schlesinger...it definitely sounds like its written by Schlesinger. But mostly, as the bonus disc of live versions of their classics makes very clear, it's just America being America.
"Golden", a cover of the My Morning Jacket song, is cleaner, more pristine than the original. More laidback, too; where My Morning Jacket's version sounds insistent and nervy, America have a lighter, more effortless touch. It's interesting to hear the song sung without the lashings of vocal reverb which My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James invariably smothers over his vocal parts on record. It loses a fair bit of the atmosphere without the vocal reverb, but it's clearer on America's version just how good a song it is.
Sean Lennon - Friendly Fire
This album got so-so reviews, mostly because people didn't dig much deeper than the surface. He's someone's son apparently. And as a result rich and famous. He looks a lot like both of his parents. Join dots. Dismiss.
The thing is, the deeps of "Friendly Fire" are where it hits. Lennon's singing initially seems kind of emotionally flat, but with repeated listens it becomes obvious that it's not emotional flatness, but, instead, understatement. The songs on Friendly Fire are full of very strong emotions - bitterness, anger, fear, dread, sadness, regret - but Lennon understates it all, lets the emotions show through the cracks in his voice. The songs aren't immediately catchy, but after a few listens they've dig in under your skin, and you can't get rid of them. It becomes clear that Lennon is a first class songwriter, along the lines of Aimee Mann, Elliott Smith, or Jon Brion.
As I said earlier:
When I first downloaded Friendly Fire, I immediately assumed that Jon Brion produced it. It has that Jon Brion sound; think of the lush orchestration and production style combined with the quirky carnivalesque instrumentation that you hear on records by Fiona Apple, Rufus Wainwright, Elliott Smith, Aimee Mann, and Brion himself, or the soundtracks to movies like Punch Drunk Love and Eternal Sunshine. The songs are the kind of thing you'd expect to hear on a record produced by Brion - it has the clever Beatlesque chord progressions, the surprising leaps in the melodies, the personal, confessional lyrics. It's actually not produced by Brion. He plays a couple of instruments here and there, though.
Lennon seemed like he had a surprisingly weak voice (especially considering that his father has one of the most powerful voices in Western music) on what I heard from his first album, Into The Sun - you heard him singing flat a little too often. He didn't have the confidence to sell the songs, to harness his voice to the emotions he was singing. His singing on Friendly Fire, in contrast, is affecting. It feels pure. Anyway, I downloaded it and listened a couple of times, and dismissed it mentally as "eh, heard it before". It crept back up on me, though. The melodies insinuated their ways into your life; at first they're unobtrusive, and then they hit you like a sack of bricks.
"Dead Meat" sounds like resignation. It's reminiscent of late-period Elliott Smith, a song like "Happiness" or "Fond Farewell", musically - luscious chords, sophisticated harmonies, complex but understated rhythms (drummer Matt Chamberlain's specialty - listen to the drumming on Fiona Apple's albums). It contrasts with the incredible violence of the lyrics, though, which promise furious vengeance in no uncertain terms. When Lennon sings "you're gonna get what you deserve", he means it. But, in the context of the music, the lyrics take on a different character; Lennon sounds resigned to having to carry out the vengeance. He doesn't really want to, but he knows he should.
"Parachute", on the other hand, is restless, with something underneath the surface that seems profoundly uneasy. A meditation on love, it speaks of the illogicality of emotions, that we have to blindly follow our feelings despite knowing where they might lead us. Lennon seems to believe that we're fated to follow the paths we follow, and can only blindly watch as the path goes in dangerous territory. So thus, "if life is just a stage, let's put on the best show." There's a name for this kind of philosophical viewpoint, but the point isn't really philosophical - the point is more to portray the feeling of knowing you're going to make a big mistake, but knowing you have no choice.
There's a deep core of emotionality on this album that I can hear, that I can't really hear on too many albums from 2006. Maybe other worthy albums were speaking deeper in languages I don't know or didn't hear, but this was the album that moved me the most.
Tom Waits - Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, & Bastards
"Long Way Home"
Disc 2, Track 3.
Disc 3, Track 4.
These days, Tom Waits can just be Tom Waits and get away with it. He's in the business of being Tom Waits. He could release an album of emo covers and it'd probably be good, as long as it was clear that he was just being Tom Waits. His voice is still wonderful; he has the conventional singing ability of a wet balloon, but somehow manages to pull out complicated emotions from his songs using what he has left of his voice. He has a surprisingly versatile voice, does Tom Waits - by turns he can sound like a beatnik, like Louis Armstrong, or like a death metal singer.
Tom Waits' ability to release a 3CD boxset of rarities and still have it at the top of a whole bunch of people's top 10 lists is evidence not only of his songwriting ability but of his ability to be Tom Waits. "Long Way Home" is a beautiful thing that deserves dozens of covers (it was written for Norah Jones, who covered it a few years back). It has a stately, pretty melody, and the song feels like it's going nowhere fast, and is all the better for it; after all, it's a song about not hurrying here or there, and a love song at that. An accordion or harmonium, double bass, and light brushes of drums do the minimum necessary in the background, and Waits' growls are at their sweetest - on this song he sounds like your grandfather's beard when you were 5.
And the great thing about Orphans is that, across the 3 CDs of music, you get the most authentic and varied portrait of Tom Waits being Tom Waits that he's ever released as an album. You get the bawlers, brawlers and bastards - Waits being by turns sentimental, experimental, and just plain mental. He covers the Ramones and Leadbelly, goes down to Fannin Street, and gets all Kerouac. In a way, the most affecting and most surprising song is "Road To Peace", a forceful 7 minute ramble through the war between Palestinians and Israelis, Waits' first real adventure into topical song.
And perhaps the strangest, and silliest, is "Army Ants", where Waits reads out of a kids book about strange insects, over his usual minimalist musical style, that distinctive cross between beatnik jazz and bluesy Captain Beefheartisms. It's strangely fascinating to hear Waits' voice; you can hear his wicked sense of humour and his impeccable comic timing even when he reads out of a kids' book, and you get a sense of his humanism out of it. Somehow.