Tom Waits – Bad As Me (2011)

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Back when Tom Waits released Real Gone, I used the concept of the essential nature of a pair of bluejeans to illustrate how that record could be used to get at what Waits’ music is all about — an introductory album of sorts, one with a high score on the “Waits-y Scale.”

Much of the idea of Waits’ essential nature revolves around the fact that there is nearly equal interest in his music and his persona. We don’t really know what Waits the man is like, but the image of a cranky guy in a garage full of calliope parts, bullhorn collection, and a rusted-out Nash Metropolitan? Well, it’s kind of compelling. Why, just yesterday me and TheWife™ were out walking the dog and we discovered that one of the neighbors’ goats had gotten loose and was wandering around their house. As we passed by their open barn, I half-expected to see ‘ole Tom in there, tinkering around amongst the rolls of fencing wire and farm implements.

Yes, Bad As Me has had that kind of effect on me. Waits and Brennan have put together a smart and eclectic collection of tunes employing a tremendous cast of guest musicians including: Marc Ribot on guitar, Keith Richards (guitar, vocals), and Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica. Together, the group delivers a set of short but focused songs that span a wide range of Waits-isms, both old and new.

The decision to keep the songs short (the longest coming in at only 4:30) makes the set play out like a series of stylistic vignettes. There are the barn-shaking rockers — “Satisfied,” the opening endorphin shuffle of “Chicago,” the R&B boogie of “Get Lost,” and the lopsided bump & grind of the title track — and the spooky film-noir escapades: “Face The Highway,” “Talking At The Same Time” (with delicious twangy guitar), and “Kiss Me,” with the line “Kiss me like a stranger once again” set off so perfectly against the bluesy piano and acoustic bass. Waits also adds a twist to his canon of romantic muses with the beautiful Latin-tinged “Back In The Crowd” as well as the touching “Last Leaf,” a duet with Keith Richards.

Bad As Me ends with a pair of contrasting songs. Both deal with situational breakdowns (the inherent mess of war and its aftermath vs. a relationship flying apart) but are presented in completely different musical contexts. “Hell Broke Luce” is all noisy clatter and boot-stomp while “New Year’s Eve” is a waltz that drapes romantic music (including a very affecting morph into “Auld Lang Syne”) over sad happenstances. Great stuff.

Looking back, I’m not sure that Real Gone would be a proper introduction to Tom Waits’ music. I might suggest a mashup of Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs. Or maybe you should just get a copy of Bad As Me…but give it a first listen in your garage.

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