by CJ Knowles
Every time I see a boxed set, I shudder. To me, a boxed set signals one of two things: dead career or crappy b-sides. I tend to detest both. Accordingly, when I saw that Tom Waits was releasing a collection of “B-sides, Rarities, & Outtakes,” I was a little worried. Three discs, 54 tracks. There’s a lot of room for filler there. However, in hindsight I suppose I should have had more faith.
Orphans is a career-spanning dustpan of unreleased material, rerecordings, covers, and a handful of new songs. However, rather than being a neatly swept pile of tangled hair and food remnants, it is actually pretty solid. Divided into three discs, Orphans hits on the three different sounds that have lifted Tom Waits to his perch as rock music’s creepy, alcoholic uncle. The first disc, Brawlers, is a collection of raucous rock and blues songs in the vein of Rain Dogs, Blue Valentine and Frank’s Wild Years—less marimbas, more guitar; less alcohol, more PCP. Here we find Tom Waits shredding his vocal cords, beating random metallic objects, and being the overall erratic and guttural musician that bothers your mother. Unless your mother is particularly violent, in which case you are in my prayers.
Bawlers is the Tom Waits your mother might actually enjoy—the smoky, stubbly, sorrowful Tom Waits that female country musicians like to cover. This is where we revisit Closing Time, Heart of Saturday Night and Nighthawks at the Diner, and get all teary-eyed and nostalgic and decide to take piano lessons again. Highlighting this album are the beautifully dirty “You Can Never Hold Back Spring,” another ballad about trains, and that song from Shrek 2. In short, this is probably the only disc that you will be able to play for your friends and coworkers without having them worry about you.
The third and final disc, Bastards, sort of sounds like Ed Gein stabbing a litter of puppies. And I mean that in the best way possible. Bastards is the recent Tom Waits – Bone Machine, Alice, Real Gone – complete with a bunch of creepy spoken word tracks about lonely children and cannibalistic insects, a Daniel Johnston cover, and other things you might wrap in a blanket and leave on someone’s doorstep. If we’re talking ease of listening, this might be the disc that you like the idea of more than the actual experience. However, the musicianship and originality will still dropkick you in the goddamn face, and that’s probably more important.
If Orphans tells us nothing else, it’s that Tom Waits is invincible. And that’s not bad, especially considering all he did was clean out his closet.