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Tom Waits | Alice | review | alternative | rock | Lollipop
by Brian Varney
Considering Mr. Waits' increasingly sporadic output in the last decade or two, the simultaneous release of two new full-lengths is something of a blessing for the Waits fanatic (and considering the sales figures for his last full-length, 1999's Mule Variations, it seems there are quite a few of 'em out there). OK, technically, neither of them is "new" since the songs on Alice were actually composed in 1992 as the score for a Robert Wilson opera of the same name and those on Blood Money were written for Wilson's 2000 production of the play Woyzeck. Of course, I wouldn't have known any of that if it weren't for the handy-dandy (and beautifully produced) press kit that came with the discs. But don't worry if you aren't lucky to get such a wonderfully printed and informative source; it's not a problem. I know dick about theater (modern or otherwise) and these albums stand alone just fine.
Those familiar with Waits' impressive discography will know that he's dabbled in theater a couple of times before, the most notable recorded results being Frank's Wild Years and The Black Rider. And if you're familiar with these two (and the rest of his increasingly experimental Island albums), you've got an idea what Blood Money sounds like. For the newcomers, try and imagine a drunk, homeless guy with a voicebox shouting demented songs about dwarfs and roosters being accompanied by other drunk homeless guys banging on street signs, manhole covers, sewer grates, and anything else they can get their hands on.
Sounds like a real racket, right? Well, it sorta is, but unlike a lotta hacks making noise just so's they can call themselves "avant-garde," Waits can actually put a song together. And while it's very rarely your standard pop fare, his songs have a way of burrowing into the deepest, darkest chasms of your brain. He has the power to polarize listeners like few others, which I suppose is a sign of a true original. There's no question that his voice and his music take some getting used to, but once the hooks are in, they're in to stay. Before you know it, you'll be one of those annoying, sweaty geeks trying to slyly peek behind used record store counters while asking the equally annoying, sweaty clerk, "Got any Tom Waits vinyl?"
Alice, on the other hand, is a bit of a pleasant surprise. While Blood Money is the record you'd expect to follow Bone Machine and Mule Variations, Alice is actually a bit of a throwback, a re-visitation of the more overtly sentimental work of his heavily orchestrated, faux-beatnik early period. For fans of Tom's tender side (i.e. weepers like "Jersey Girl," "Kentucky Avenue," and "Broken Bicycles"), Alice is nearly an entire album of his unique brand of stumbling, staggering poignance. I say "nearly" because there are a couple of noisy clangers that sound like they belong on Blood Money (and, conversely, there are a couple of ballads on Blood Money), but I suppose that's to be expected since this was made in 2002, not 1974 (for a sample of "new" vintage Waits, check out the recently released 1974 live album, The Dime Store Novels).
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