Art of Craft
Blood Money (Epitaph)
Phantasmagorical jazzbo Tom Waits hits pay dirt with
this pair of disks, mining Alice in Wonderland for
the first, Robert Wilson’s play, Woyzeck, for the second.
Although both share many instrumentalists and are loosely
thematic, Alice sounds softer, while Woyzeck
is more angular. Waits, as usual, deploys a battery of voices,
from the crooner of “Poor Edward” (Alice) and the lovely
“All the World Is Green” (Blood Money) to the gruff,
disappointed god of “Misery Is the River of the World” (Blood
Money). You can’t apprehend these disks in one listening;
they continue to yield more metaphorical richness, more insight
into the interface of dreaming and wakefulness. Like the rest
of Waits’ work of the past 10 years, they’re rife with metaphor
and allusion, steeped in surrealism, wildly ambitious and
highly finished. They’re also both tender and terrifying:
“God’s Away on Business” (Blood Money) is one of the
darker visions of modern pop, and “Kommienezuspadt,” a mock-German
rant from Alice, is mad and grating and punk as punk
can be, even as it evokes the mordant between-war German satire
of cartoonist Georg Grosz and of Bertholt Brecht and Kurt
Weill of Three Penny Opera.
The music is all over the place, from the wistful sweetness
of “Green” to the weird carny of “Table Top Joe” (an Alice
tune on which boho guru Waits sounds like the forgotten brother
of Louis Armstrong) and the plummy tones of “Lost in the Harbor.”
It’s difficult to compress Waits’ fevered imagination, hard
to compact his provocative eccentricities. One could call
him the bridge between Leonard Cohen and Captain Beefheart.
One also could say he’s even more unique: a wayward, artfully
woozy tonic for these frighteningly conformist times. Waits
is profoundly off-kilter, which is part of the reason to listen
to him—and hope he performs this material, and more, live.
There are also several instrumentals: “Barcarolle,” from Blood
and Money, is courtly and sweet. But the killer is “Knife
Chase,” a pachuco bopper from Blood Money. As usual,
these recordings were produced and cowritten by Waits and
his wife, Kathleen Brennan. They feature oddball instrumentation
and the caliber of guest appearance one associates with a
craftsman as singular as the worldly, otherworldly Waits.
Bounce between these for one of the top aural (and musical
and philosophical) experiences of 2002. Hell, sequence them
any way you like; their wonder doesn’t succumb to analysis.
This set is largely a collaboration between two mainstays
of the Portland, Ore., jazz scene, keyboardist Dave Leslie
and percussionist Dave Storrs. Leslie has played with a healthy
range of artists, from Woody Shaw to the Mike Curtis Klezmer
Quartet. The Brim is his third album as a leader, his
first for this label started in 1995 by Storrs (who’s also
the resident engineer and producer, all in his own Califas
The 13 pieces on this set are at once dazzlingly varied and
confidently unified. The music moves easily from accordion-based
cabaret to ’70s-style fusion-esque numbers (evoking the power
and invention and, thankfully, none of the high-volume noodling
and strutting). While anchored by a duo, this is not a duo
album. The pair are joined variously by a couple of reed players,
trombone, electric bass and guitar. On “In the Now,” the keyboard
sounds draw from Zawinul in the early Weather Report days
(before he got too interested in hooks and anthems). In fact,
that band is brought to mind more than once—even with an accordion
taking center stage, as on “Fall 92” with its wash of keyboard
atmospherics and a soprano saxophone taking turns on the melody.
Just Do Me Right
A hardworking 60-year-old farmer who also played edgy blues
on Saturday nights, Asie Payton died a couple years before
his first album was released in 1999. Worried only
came about after much coaxing. Payton recorded two sessions,
which became that album only after being finished with additional
players after his untimely demise (he suffered a fatal heart
attack while driving his tractor on the same fields he’d worked
most of his life).
The title song of Just Do Me Right has its origins
in a 1980 recording made in Payton’s north Mississippi home.
The added bass, drums and electric piano merge naturally with
the man and his guitar. Another track from that same session,
“I Got a Friend,” features the additive accompaniment of Giant
Sand. Elsewhere, there’s a modernist edge to some of the tracks,
similar to what the same label also successfully did with
the music of R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. “Need My
Help” could kick down a front door from a hundred miles away.
Lonesome Bob is a Nashville-via-New Jersey songwriter with
a bruised rumble of a voice and a beat-up psyche to match.
The effect is somewhat like Waylon Jennings in a profound
existential funk. (Consider: “Forever is an abstract painted
on a lie/We say it when we marry; we say it when we die.”)
Perhaps it’s also important to note that the death of Bob’s
teenage son, who died of a hepatitis-infected liver (the result
of a dirty drug needle), is painted all over this album. You
can spot the arc of Bob’s pain from his son’s picture inside
the CD to several tracks that explore the singer’s pain in
an uncomfortably direct fashion.
Nevertheless, Things Change, striking as it is in its
explorations of loss, is far from an extended eulogy. Bob
pulls together various emotional shards from the damage incurred
on his spirit, and the result is a textured, nomadic approach
to Americana. The album rocks hard and straight on “Got Away
With It,” roves through country soul on “In the Time I Have
Left,” and throws back the doors of the honky-tonk on “I Get
Smarter Every Drink.” Most striking, however, is the morphine
bluegrass of “Dying Breed,” on which he receives vocal assistance
from his friend (and coauthor of that track) Allison Moorer.
Career-wise, Lonesome Bob has had a tough time of it: Things
Fall Apart, from 1997, sold less than a thousand
copies, even after receiving accolades in major publications
such as Playboy. The thorny, hard to categorize
Things Change certainly risks plowing the same furrow—but
with an album such as this, which has as much humor and balls
as it does pathos, one hopes otherwise.