Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Turning Music On Its Head: Tom Waits's Bad As Me

You can always count on Tom Waits to turn music on its head. On Bad As Me (ANTI, 2011), which was released back in October, he once again creates sonic pictures that are bizarre, funny, shocking, yet still remarkably accessible. But like most performers who can't be categorized in the commercial sense of the word, Tom Waits has fully developed a signature sound. As a result, Bad As Me is one of his strongest records.

Like much of his recent work, especially Mule Variations, Bad As Me is a further exploration of the blues. The genre's straight-ahead chord changes though are given the typical Waits song styling. And styling is always a major aspect of Waits’s work. Everything has a theatrical spin, or a performance art aspect, that transforms our way of hearing the blues. His husky vocals on the up-tempo tracks beginning with “Chicago” are balanced, too, by his heart-wrenching ballads, like “Last Leaf.” I’ve never felt that Waits’s intends to seduce a listener, but I can’t help but be swayed by his rhythms that grab you by the waist. With Waits, as will many blues stylists, it’s a dance with the Devil. So these songs cultivate the blues and produce a whole new crop of songs.

Nevertheless, Bad As Me isn't limited by a blues-format. It’s filled with Parisian accordion ("Pay Me") and Spanish guitars ("Back in the Crowd"); barroom laments ("Kiss Me") and bawlers ("New Years Eve"). Waits is one of the few songwriters who can successfully juxtapose different expressions of feelings in a single song. "Last Leaf," for example, features Keith Richards singing together on the chorus. They sound like a couple of lovable drunks:

“I’m the last leaf on the tree/The autumn took the rest but they won’t take me/I’m the last leaf on the tree.”

The title track features a caustic Waits comparing his miserable life with a dangerous lover who’s “the same kind of bad as me.” It’s a song boosted by some driving drums played by his son Casey; and aided by the wailing harmonica of Charlie Musselwhite. It’s one killer track; and one of the best in the Waits songbook.

On Bad As Me, Waits has surrounded himself with musicians whose particular sound compliments his own. Keith Richards, in fact, plays on four of the 13 tracks. Ben Jaffe of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is on five. Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers is on a couple of tracks complimented by Marc Ribot, a guitarist long associated with Waits’s recordings over the years. But it’s the work of Charlie Musselwhite’s harmonica playing that adds the musical colour and texture of the blues.As usual, Waits and Kathleen Brennan produced and co-wrote all of the songs on this album. Once again, their music maps out new territory with familiar forms. Here’s Waits so-called listening party.

John Corcelli is a musician, writer and broadcaster. He’s a member of the Festival Wind Orchestra. Corcelli is also currently working on another radio documentary, with Kevin Courrier, for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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