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Thursday, Dec. 28, 2006 01:00 am

Well worth the wait

Scabrous boogies, sad-sack serenades, and weird-even-by-his-standards curios

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Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards, Tom Waits’ three-disc, 54-track tour de force, is more than a cleverly titled collection of outtakes, rarities, and oddball covers. It’s more than a grab bag of crap that didn’t make it into the official canon, more than a curated tour through the swollen archives of a three-decade career. Whereas lesser performers release every tedious scrap of their work product, pandering to fanatical completists and dredging dollars from the dregs, Waits has a loftier project in mind, nothing short of an artistic manifesto. By organizing choice bits of his oeuvre into an anthology (using a conceptual rather than chronological scheme), he not only introduces newcomers to his peculiar genius but also offers a trifocal lens through which hardcore fans can reexamine his catalog.

Being a greedy lot, hardcore fans might feel free to whine a little about what he left out, too: At 57, the prolific singer/songwriter has stockpiled enough great material that he might easily have tacked on a few more CDs and gone for the big box-set blowout. Instead, over a three-year period, he painstakingly selected the songs that best fit his purposes and surrounded them with 30 (!) brand-new tracks. Consequently, Orphans is at least as much prospectus as retrospective; despite the fact that some of its songs date to the mid-’80s, all of its contents seem contemporaneous, suspended in Central Tom Time — or, as Waits puts it in his self-penned press release, the album is “like a shortwave radio show where the past is sequenced into the future, consisting of things you find on the ground, in this world and no world, or maybe in the next world.”

Loosely corresponding with scabrous boogies, sad-sack serenades, and weird-even-by-Waits-standards curios, respectively, Brawlers, Bawlers, and Bastards are at once three discrete CDs and a single thesis. Each disc underscores a particular aspect of Waits’ style, but there’s considerable overlap. Take, for example, Brawlers’ “Road to Peace,” a devastating new original about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict that depicts grief-crazed suicide bombers, inexorable Israeli soldiers, war criminal Henry Kissinger, and our pig-headed president in the grim, clear-eyed cadences of Bertolt Brecht; Bastards, for its part, includes an actual Brecht/Kurt Weill cover, “What Keeps Mankind Alive,” culled from the 1985 Hal Willner compilation Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill. Packed with such weepy stunners as “You Can Never Hold Back Spring” and “World Keeps Turning,” Bawlers showcases Waits’ sentimental side, but this is a distinction with no real difference, because even his most cynical, sleazy, and bizarre offerings betray his oversized heart. Waits loves this fallen world, no matter how cruel and inexplicable, and finds salvation in its unexpected mercies. As his lost hobo sings on Brawlers’ “Bottom of the World,” “Well, God’s green hair is where I slept last night/He balanced a diamond on a blade of grass.”

Although the sonic trappings vary widely, from the loose-limbed simian soul of the first disc to the grimy opulence of the last, Orphans is remarkably consistent, unified by certain constants that pervade all of Waits’ work. Whether he’s singing jailhouse mambos, haunted parlor ballads, or chain-gang chants — even when he’s not singing at all, as on the CD’s several spoken-word pieces — Waits makes full use of his primary instrument, that beautifully unbeautiful bellow, a baleful wheeze that seems to suck up all the suffering in the world and expel it in one leather-lunged gasp. That voice can turn peppy Ramones songs into existential laments, obscene dog-treat anecdotes into humanist reveries, dry entomology lectures into mordant cautionary tales. It knows no orphans.

Contact René Spencer Saller at rssaller@core.com.

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