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Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards
Tom Waits
Review by David Atkinson. 8.12.06

I felt inclined to leave out Bone Machine from my Top Five Blues Records but it very nearly made it. Why? Well, there's one track on it, Let Me Get Up On It, that clocks in at 57 seconds - a wordless, nasty sounding collection of metallic clanks and shrieking over an irresistible rhythm - which for a period I just couldn't stop listening to. It seemed to be the very essence of what I liked about music, particularly blues. Luckily for me, Tom Waits has just released Orphans and it's full of tunes just like it.
 
Out of the 58 tracks on Orphan's three discs, half of them should be of interest to any self-respecting blues fan.  The influence of Leadbelly, Howlin' Wolf and Charlie Patton is writ large, the intentionally distorted instruments, songs of ribaldry and heartbreak... they are familiar to us all. And surely no one alive possesses such a voice - as scary as it gets. Whether or not you buy into the outsider imagery or theatrical weirdness, the quality of the songs and feel of the music stand on their own and are worthy of your attention. If you care, there's a photo in the book of Waits with John Lee Hooker - talk about credentials...
 
Some of the tracks here appeared on Wicked Grin, the Waits-produced album by John Hammond, but these versions have been rerecorded and are more, well, rough. Charlie Musselwhite appears on quite few tracks too, doing exactly what he does best, and the list of contributing musicians is long and impressive.
 
Disc 1, Brawlers, contains the blusier/rockier numbers but Bawlers and Bastards each have tracks that pluck the heart strings or rattle the teeth. Whatever, the gospel-based tunes like, Walk Away, I know I've Been Changed, Ain't Goin' Down To The Well sit alongside broken blues like On The Road, 2:19, and Lowdown and rumbling rumbas such as Sea Of Love. Nods to Leadbelly are present on Fannin' Street and Goodnight Irene. If you aren't singing along to Rains On Me the first time you hear it then you are beyond help. Plus you get awkward funk like Putting On The Dog, the mental roadrunner riff of All The Time, murder ballads, country laments, and things hit very hard in time.
 
You could argue that realeasing almost sixty songs at once is self-indulgent but I would just put on Bottom Of The World and turn up the stereo. There is a lot here and it is hard to take in all at once but so is a three disc set of Charlie Patton, isn't it? If you aren't a card-carrying fan but you do have iTunes then you can pick your favourites; then you'll be in possession of your own personalised Tom Waits album, a fantastic contemporary blues record and one of the finest things you'll hear all year. A rare and copacetic gift.

 
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