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The Art of Craft

Tom Waits
Alice (Epitaph)
Blood Money

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. Oh, yes.

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.

—Carlo Wolff

Dave Leslie
The Brim (Louie)

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 Studio).

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.

—David Greenberger

Asie Payton
Just Do Me Right (Fat Possum)

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
Things Change (Leap)

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.

—Erik Hage

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