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Real Good

Tom Waits
Real Gone (Anti-Epitaph)

Tom Waits’ first record since spring 2002, when the double-whammy Alice and Blood Money reaffirmed his artful side, clanks and wheezes and wails and pontificates, alternating cacophonous, uptempo tunes with dirges, theatrical narratives and Quaalude reggae. Real Gone is a great Tom Waits record, populated, as always, with the loners, losers and outsiders Waits and wife Kathleen Brennan depict so empathetically and sharply.

Recorded real loud, Real Gone starts with the aggressive “Top of the Hill,” a nasty take on hobo jungles. Like many other tunes here, it is a cry about how hard it is to make it. Waits uses his voice like an instrument throughout this album, spanning the guttural rasp of “Hill,” the sepulchral blues of the brilliant downer reggae “Sins of the Father,” the curdled Hollywood barker of “Circus” (too bad Tod Browning couldn’t have used Waits to write the soundtrack for Freaks) and the croon of “Dead and Lovely.” If, at first, Real Gone seems to lack reason, if not rhyme, it ultimately holds together. And if, at first, it seems chilly—“Circus” and “Don’t Go Into the Barn” are creepy and unforgiving, to put it mildly—it’s ultimately gentle.

The textures are remarkable, encompassing what Waits calls the “cubist funk” of “Barn,” the cranky, crackling soulfulness of “Metropolitan Glide,” the brooding balladry of “Dead and Lovely” (which seems lifted straight out of James Ellroy), and the somber pop of “Make It Rain.” His is a dream band, with garish Marc Ribot guitar, stinger drums by Brain Mantia, and the high-impact lines of Larry Taylor, the bassist who drove Canned Heat.

Thirty years ago, Waits seemed little more than caricature and caricaturist. As his voice and songcraft have matured, his vocal style has acquired astonishing dimension and his social visions have come into ever-sharper focus. That many of the latter have come true—it really is hard out there, so poor prison feels like home—tells us a great deal about our social pain. What makes Waits so striking and singular is that his expressiveness makes for art that is sad and joyous at the same time.

—Carlo Wolff

Dinah Washington
Queen: The Music of Dinah

Released in conjunction with the biography of Dinah Washington by Nadine Cohodas, this matching-titled set offers a dozen tracks, most recorded around the midpoint of her career, 1950-1956. She recorded a wealth of material in barely two decades before her untimely death in 1963 at age 39. Washington claimed she could sing anything at all, and these 11 songs bear that out (the 12th selection is Dinah telling a joke, something she was known for, though they often were much saucier than the family-friendly entry here). From quintessential rhythm & blues (“I Don’t Hurt Anymore,” “Please Send Me Someone to Love”) to jazz-inflected pop (“A Foggy Day,” “Cry Me a River”), she brought commitment, confidence, and stylistic invention to everything she did. The earliest number included is “A Slick Chick (On the Mellow Side)” from 1946, a song she sang with Tab Smith’s orchestra. It’s a fine example of the swinging style that made her a star before she’d even turned 20. Dinah Washington’s influence cannot be understated; much of the soul music of the ’60s would be unimaginable without her.

—David Greenberger

John Fogerty
Déjà Vu All Over Again (Geffen)

John Fogerty’s first album in seven years is a decidedly mixed bag, even though it’s always listenable. Déjà Vu is best at its simplest. Tunes like the semi-country “Rhubarb Pie” and “I Will Walk With You” have a captivating lilt, and the pop tune, “Sugar Sugar (In My Life),” all slouchy and sweet, is one of Fogerty’s catchiest. The CD rocks from the start, its Iraq-referenced title track evoking the anti-Vietnam War anthem, “Fortunate Son,” that Fogerty wrote as the head of the beloved Creedence Clearwater Revival.

The reminiscence deepens with “Wicked Old Witch,” a hard-rocking update of Creedence’s “Born on the Bayou,” and takes a weird, unsuccessful turn with “Nobody’s Here Anymore,” Fogerty’s clumsily Luddite attack on the isolation that can accompany computer addiction. Mark Knopfler’s trademark tangy guitar flavors the track but doesn’t particularly distinguish it from Dire Straits’ far better “Sultans of Swing.”

Other associations, like the Ramones-styled choruses on “She’s Got Baggage,” the overwrought hard rocker “In the Garden,” and the Doobie Brothers reggae of “Radar,” don’t work either. All too often, Déjà Vu sounds as if Fogerty has something new to say but hasn’t found his own vocabulary for it. Wearing the stylistic clothes of other, equally distinctive musicians only dilutes Fogerty’s own style. Perched uncomfortably between the landmark and the transitional, Déjà Vu lives up to its title. Fogerty didn’t let this marinate long enough.

—Carlo Wolff

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