I will start out by saying this: if you are not already a Tom Waits fan, this set will not make you one. Even the casual fan may be a bit overwhelmed with this entire set. This set was released with two people in mind: the rabid fan (the one who can’t get enough of Tom Waits), and Tom himself. It is, essentially, a cleaning out of the ol’ closet. Out of the 56 tracks found here, 30 of them are brand new, and have never been released elsewhere. The other 26 are taken from compilations, soundtracks, tributes, and the like…but not even all of those are readily available anymore. He has even gone back and rerecorded some of the older songs, so, even though you may have heard a song on here previously, there’s no guarantee that you’ve heard this version of it. It’s a massive collection of one of the great songwriter/performers of our time, and it’s amazing.
There are 3 discs included in this set, and each one of them has a theme. Because of this, we’ll tackle each disc individually. The theme of each disc is fairly obvious, based on the title alone, so I’ll try not to spend too much time on that. We’ll start with…
Brawlers – (AKA, the upbeat disc…for the most part). This album kicks off with “Lie to Me”, a bluesy, 50s sounding rockish song, complete with faux-Elvis hiccup singing, handclaps, boom-chikka-boom drumming, and the like. The entire album doesn’t fit that same exact mold, but it gives a great intro to the collection. The rest of the disc is filled with lots of dirty blues (“LowDown”, a T. Rex-esque rocker, “2:19”, a train song set to a slow blues groove, and “Puttin’ On the Dog”), songs driven by vocal percussion (the, no doubt, Real Gone outtake, “Lucinda”), political songs (“Road to Peace”, a more political, and shorter version, of “Sins of My Father” off Real Gone) and, of course, a wonderful spiritual (“Lord I’ve Been Changed”). As with the other discs, this one has a few covers, as well (“The Return of Jackie Judy” was originally heard on a Ramones tribute album). I absolutely love the howling dog on “Buzz Fledderjohn”, and, by the end of the closing song, “Rains on Me”, you can hardly help but sing along with him. Lots of blues, lots of dirt, lots of story-songs, and lots of fun.
Bawlers – (AKA, the downer album, or, the beautiful album.) I have long since been in awe of Tom Waits’ ability to create some of the most terrifying music ever heard, only to have, in the middle of it all, a song of infinite beauty (perfect example: pick up Bone Machine. Listen to the frightening “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me”, then listen to the gorgeous “Who Are You?”). There’s clutter, there’s clatter, there’s banging on stuff…then there’s the beautiful song. Think of this as the album full of those songs. The only problem with it is that it kind of drags by the end, which is a shame. It’s a great collection of beautiful songs, whether it’s his original versions of “Long Way Home” (covered by Norah Jones) or “Down There By the Train” (covered by Johnny Cash), “Little Drop of Poison” off the Shrek 2 soundtrack, or his covers of “Goodnight Irene”, “Young at Heart”, and “Danny Says”. If you’re not a Tom Waits fan already and you could pick only one disc from this collection to listen to, it would be this one.
Bastards – (AKA, the odd album) These are the songs that make you shake your head and wonder what the devil runs through his mind sometimes. In other words, this album is for the massive Tom Waits fan only. That being said, this album is a lot of fun. It’s a great collection of strange covers (“What Keeps Mankind Alive”, “King Kong”), captivating spoken word narrative, poetry, and stories (the disturbing “Children’s Story”, complete with his raspy laugh at the end, “Army Ants”, a collection of facts about ants read from The World Book Encyclopedia, “Nirvana”, a Bukowski poem set to a recorder, “The Pontiac”, which is just a recording of Tom talking to one of his kids about the cars that he and his wife owned, and “Dog Treat”, a story told while on tour), Waits gone hip-hop (“Dog Door”), and a demented Disney song thrown in for good measure (“Heigh Ho”). It’s a big, strange collection of various oddities. That seems like it would get old after a while, but it doesn’t really. Out of the 3 discs here, this one seems the loosest, like he was just messing around and happened to come up with some of this stuff. It’s strange and fun…and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
All in all, this is a great collection. And, surprisingly, there’s not really a bad song in the bunch. That’s pretty impressive, given the nature and scope of this collection. If you can release a 56 song set of b-sides, rarities, and oddities and not have a bad song included, I’d say you’ve done pretty well for yourself. Bravo Mr. Waits…bravo.
As I said at the beginning, this set is not for everyone. But, if you love Tom Waits, this is definitely something you’re going to want to pick up. Even if you’re just a casual fan, it’d be worth downloading some tracks from iTunes (or whatever you crazy kids are doing nowadays) and making a single-disc best of. There is some great stuff in this set.
In fact, I only have one major complaint. When I heard this was coming out, there was mention of including a 70 page book. In my mind, I was thinking it was going to be like Johnny Cash’s Unearthed set, in which every song in the collection was discussed by Johnny, Rick Rubin, and other people who had memories about the song and/or the recording process. This book doesn’t have any of that. The lyrics to every original song are included here, and there’s also some pretty cool pictures in the back of the book, but it doesn’t really say anything about the songs themselves. What were they recorded for originally? Where were they recorded? Why wasn’t it released on the album it was meant for? These are the questions that I would like to have answered. Oh well…I guess that’s why Gore invented the internet…
Essential Tracks: “Lie to Me”, “LowDown”, “You Can Never Hold Back Spring”, “Heigh Ho”, “Home I’ll Never Be”
Favorite Tracks: “Bottom of the World”, “Lord I’ve Been Changed”, “Rains on Me”, “Long Way Home”, “If I Have to Go”, “Army Ants”, “Missing My Son”
There’s not really an official Tom Waits website, but the best place to go for news is here