Tom Waits - Bad As MeTom Waits - Bad As Me
(Fish of Milk/ReR)
The unclassifiable Australian improvising trio The Necks has a novel approach to music-making, where the length of the song is a key constraint. It’s sort of like a painter thinking, “I’m not sure what my next piece will look like, but it must be 20 by 30 feet in size.”
For more than two decades, the instrumental outfit has been crafting long, gradually unfurling pieces with nods to minimalism and modern jazz with a focused discipline and patience, and an average track for the band is about an hour long. The group’s superb new album, Mindset, is also its first to be released on vinyl in addition to CD; this is actually an insight, regarding the atypical song lengths on this release—both tracks are each 21 minutes long, which is the perfect length for a vinyl LP.
With the decreased song duration, the first track, “Rum Jungle,” is much more urgent than a regular Necks piece, establishing itself with a full sound almost immediately with a web of tension. Bassist Lloyd Swanton provides relentless plucking, drifting in and out of sync with percussionist and drummer Tony Buck’s insistent ride cymbal tapping, while pianist Chris Abrahams forcefully bangs out ringing low notes; it’s an uncommon mood for the band, sounding aggressive but still retaining a shimmering, graceful quality.
Toward the end of the piece, Buck unleashes a surprise by adding some frantic, sustained electric guitar strums, a la This Heat, and even at 21 minutes, “Rum Jungle” oddly feels like an invigorating sprint. The second number, “Daylights,” is equally mysterious but has a reserved manner, using glitchy electronic blips and questioning piano meanderings.
Unlike the trio’s live improvisations, this studio recording employs overdubbing, resulting in a layered, dense concoction with bass plucks and bowed notes and subtle, distinct elements that reveal themselves then gingerly step back; Mindset is the aural equivalent of a huge abstract painting with countless spots upon which to focus.
Bad As Me
Tom Waits has unveiled musical personas so distinctive over his career, coupled with his unique, world-weary, gravelly voice, that none would dare imitate him without facing his wrath, disdain, and possibly lawsuits—just ask Frito-Lay, which was sued after using a Waits sound-alike in a Doritos commercial.
In the ’70s, Waits proffered his down-and-out beatnik-born-too-late ballads, followed by his ’80s reboot—thanks to songwriting partner Kathleen Brennan—with Captain Beefheart-inspired, avant-hobo-cabaret stylings beginning with the 1983 masterpiece Swordfishtrombones. In 1992, Waits upped the ante with the skeletal sonic badlands of Bone Machine, a monumental, next-level album, and since then, he has more-or-less used the same blueprint, evident on his latest album, Bad As Me, his first album of new studio material in seven years. The phrase “Don’t fix what ain’t broke” comes to mind—Waits mines familiar moods, sure, but the song caliber is certainly up to snuff.
Waits has a pointed musical eccentricity, tossing in instruments like the banjo, accordion, or tabla as if it was the most natural thing to do, and Bad As Me launches with “Chicago,” a junkyard art-blues train song featuring Waits’s familiar growl and accented with Marc Ribot’s distinguished guitar licks. The songwriting team of Waits and Brennan, as expected, has come up with vivid lyrics in a storytelling vein, using phrases that each packs a wallop and twisted rhymes. Take “After You Die,” a list of afterlife metaphors which uses the couplet, “Like a back door squeaking / Like a crack whore tweaking.” Waits shifts gears frequently, going from the rockabilly swagger of “Get Lost” to the sentimental balladry of “Last Leaf” to the death-march war stomp “Hell Broke Luce.”
The album isn’t the reboot that some might be expecting, but Waits delivers the goods with his affected misanthropic style, filling Bad As Me with his own kind of badassery.