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Thursday, Oct. 21, 2004 05:46 pm

sound patrol 10-21-04

CanÂ’t stand by as the world burns

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Tom Waits Real Gone (Anti)

Tom Waits
Real Gone
(Anti)

At 54, Tom Waits is weirder than he's ever been, which is quite an accomplishment when you consider that he's been weird -- deeply, uniquely, unrepentantly weird -- for at least 20 years now, when Swordfishtrombones erupted like a beautiful boil on the polite posterior of the singer/songwriter scene. Over the course of his long career, Waits has gone from piano-bar sentimentalist to junkyard provocateur, rearranging the bloody shards of his Edward Hopper elegies into a William Burroughs nightmare. Populated by harlots and hoboes, hookers and hoods, Waits' songs are paeans to society's rejects, a loving litany of grotesques. He calls his music "cubist funk," but his fans know that it's sui generis.

Real Gone follows 2002's slightly mannered diptych Alice and Blood Money with a distorted, disorienting blur of noise that approximates the sound of a rusty runaway lawnmower chewing up a gravel road. Gone are the pretty pianos and the romantic troubadour vibe; with its snaky guitar, grating fricatives, and clashing turntables, Real Gone is loud and mean and kerosene-caustic. "The world's on fire," he says in an interview in this month's Magnet, and Real Gone is conflagration made audible.

Although Waits is too elliptical to be called a protest singer, Real Gone is the most political album he's ever made. On the sepulchral tango "Hoist That Rag," longtime Waits sideman Marc Ribot coaxes spidery guitar hooks from a sinister thicket of percussion while Waits spits such postapocalyptic bulletins as "The sun is up, the world is flat/Damn good address for a rat/The smell of blood/The drone of flies/You know what to do if the baby cries." On the 10-minute "Sins of the Father," Waits weaves a sprawling, absurdist allegory in which God won't listen to our "tinhorn prayers" and inherited evil can't be washed away, only judged and punished. In one verse, he might even be talking about the last presidential election: "Smack-dab in the middle of a dirty lie/The star-spangled glitter of his one good eye/Everybody knows that the game was rigged/Justice wears suspenders and a powdered wig." But the most touching song is also the most straightforward one. "Day after Tomorrow" channels a confused and homesick young soldier: "You can't deny, the other side/Don't want to die any more/Than we do, what I'm/Trying to say is don't they pray/To the same God that we do?/And tell me how does God/Choose, whose prayers does he refuse?" It bears noting that Waits has an 18-year-old son, Casey, who plays turntables and percussion on this album. While boys Casey's age die by the dozen every day in Iraq, it's little wonder that the senior Waits can't stand by as the world burns.

Nora O'Connor
Til the Dawn
(Bloodshot)

Like her more celebrated labelmates Neko Case and Kelly Hogan, Nora O'Connor has a gorgeous voice, the sort that compels music writers to use the adjectives "smoky," "sultry," and "honeyed"; the verbs "croon," "belt," and "soar"; and the nouns "chanteuse" and "diva." The problem with pretty voices is that, like happy families, they're all the same. But Til the Dawn, O'Connor's first solo album, proves that the former member of the Blacks and Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire deserves more than the standard crit-geek clichés. Sweet and a little nasal, O'Connor's sturdy alto is blessedly free of the cutie-pie growls and yelps affected by too many modern-country drama mamas. Her taste in material, which ranges from Fleetwood Mac to Johnny Mathis, is exquisite, if idiosyncratic, and her collaborators -- including Hogan on background vocals and Bird on violin -- are first-rate. If there's a complaint to be lodged against this lovely slab of soulful country-rock, it's that, at 31 minutes long, it's too short.

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