Bad As Me

Posted: 14th November 2011 by Dion in Music Review
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He has been called ‘America’s best kept secret’.  The man, the myth, the legend; Tom Waits. Over the past two weeks, a lot of people have asked me how I like the new Tom Waits album- so I figured being such a fan- I should finally sit down and officially talk about it.

Bad as Me, marks Waits’ 23nd official studio album release, not counting one-off’s he’s done for films, compilations, benefits, and whatever else tickles his fancy. One can write an entire book (and people have!) on how this man has influenced the last 5 decades of music. People who haven’t heard of him don’t even realize they know him by way of his acting, or by the huge volume of his catalog that has been covered by artists such as Los Lobos, Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, The Eagles, Primus, The Ramones, Diana Krall, Bon Jovi, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Charlie Musselwhite, Madeleine Peyroux and Scarlet Johansson, just to name a few.

Those who do know him, annoyingly describe him as the man with the raspy, gravelly voice. But his fans know better; for a man who has such a low register, he can certainly alter his voice to make this his most important instrument, having the range to be able to sound like a modern day Howlin Wolf- to an amazing ghostly falsetto- and everything in between. As for style, Waits has done it all: blues, rock, country, R&B, hip hop, folk, ethnic- you name it, Waits has dabbled with it.

All these influences, styles and experimentation are brought to  Bad as Me. With co-creator, co-writer, co-producer and wife of almost 30 years, Kathleen Brennan, they have constructed a slick, tight knit album, with most of the 12 songs (15 if you got the deluxe edition) no more than 3 and a half minutes in length. The variety of the song selection almost reads as a ‘best of’ for Waits, with each cut echoing a particular style he has inhabited over the years, while some even make the listener recollect a prior album. This may sound like a complaint, but it isn’t; not one of the tracks is filler, and I will be as bold as to predict that every one of these songs will be covered in the future, from a huge canon of artists.

Speaking of artists, Waits has alot of his friends sitting in with him on this LP: Les Claypool, Flea, Marc Ribot, Keith Richards, Charlie Musselwhite, David Hidalgo and even his son, Casey, (who has been playing along side dad on percussion for almost a decade now) who all stop by to play on a tune or two- or three.

The album starts out with the rocking tune called “Chicago”, a 21st century blues and R&B floor stomping,  traveling song, about the migration of the African American community in the early to mid 40’s from the South when the farming industry started to dry up, to the urban, industrial, factory bergs up north such as Detroit, Pittsburgh, or, Chicago. This is one of the songs motifs Waits is brilliant with, as if you are waiting on the corner and he speeds by in his ’49 chopped-top Merc and without even stopping, grabs you by the arm and takes you along for the ride.  Much like “Hang on St. Christopher” from his 1987’s Frank’s Wild Years, are great examples of road songs where the audience is propelled into motion and before you know it, some part of your body is moving and keeping rhythm. The 2nd romp is “Raised Right Man”, a 12 bar tune that sports the only other time I’ve heard the phrase ” Heavens to murkatroid” used aside from the cartoon character Snagglepuss. This song introduces us to new characters in the Waits psyche, “Mackey Debiasi”, “Gunplay Maxwell”, Flat Nose George” and “Ice Pick Ed Newcomb”, and gives us brilliant words of wisdom that fans have come to know for years: “There ain’t enough raised right men; it takes a raised right man to keep a happy hen.”

We get a slow melodic venture for our next cut, “Talking At the Sametime”, with Waits employing his falsetto over the spooky journey into darkness. Waits comments on what’s going on right now: “The war drags on; We bailed out the millionaires; It’s hard times for some and for others it’s sweet” and he also reminds us to save our money because  remember, “umbrellas always cost more in the rain”.

Waits does a little rock-a-billy number called “Get Lost”, a great tune about breaking away and escaping everything, getting away from it all and just getting lost. This is something you could hear Elvis doing in his prime with it’s pace and beat. He even references this in the song, “Roll up all the windows, turn up the Wolfman Jack/Please, please love me tender, ain’t nothing wrong with that…”Next up is another eerie travel song, “Face to the Highway”, another example of Waits’ use of word play that ends up being so much more thought provoking. “Ocean wants a sailor/Gun wants a hand/Devil wants a sinner/Table wants a dinner”. ”

Pay Me”, the next track on the album, is sung (in my opinion) closest to Waits’ natural speaking voice. Very haunting, he sings about how they pay him not to come home and keep him stoned- here, he is a female entertainer who is stuck at the same flophouse or cabaret- saying “I’ll kick my foot at the lights; All the roads lead to the end of the world, I sewed a little luck in the hem of my gown/ The only way down from the gallows is to swing.” The songs end with an absolutely haunting staccato piano part, which almost makes the educated listener think that this poor girl is stuck living upstairs in that B&B on the border that Marlene Dietrich runs in Touch of Evil. “Back in the Crowd” is a lovely mariachi number that almost seems like Roy Orbinson himself could have penned and sang. Asking a lover to reassure them of their love or to put them ‘back in the crowd’, as if to give them that sweet ultimatum.

Then we get to the real bread and butter: the title track. This is one of the examples that show how much of a genius Waits and Brennan can be when writing lyrics. At first, the  little-off phases come off as nothing more than a play on words. But after some thought, they become amazing little vignettes- almost stills on flash cards being flipped through, for the listener to do want they want with them- to invent whatever story you will with these little ‘starting points’. “I’m the hat on the bed, the coffee instead/the fish or cut bait, the detective of late/the blood on the floor, the thunder and the roar/the boat that won’t sing, I just won’t sleep a wink”, -all trying to explain to a lover that “you are the same kind of Bad as Me“. It really is a brilliant piece of writing and performance. This is a good place to highlight the fact that Waits varies the tone, pitch and delivery of his lyrics in every song. His delivery for this track is panicked, frantic, almost cracking at times. He also adds in the little “Huhh!” ‘s that James Brown famously invented for his songs to add emphasise in certain places.

“Kiss Me” is a slow ballad which will undoubtedly become a jazz standard, a ghostly tune much like his “Blue Valentines” of three decades ago. It’s sound is crackled and muffled, as if transferred off an old 78, and it tells the tale of the lover wanting their partner to “Kiss me like a stranger once again”. He wants to feel like his loves a “mystery” or a “sin”, it is a beautiful piece of songwriting. “Satisfied” is a foot stomping cut that seems to answer the Rolling Stone’s statement, “I can’t get no Satisfaction”, stating boldly: “I will have satisfaction, I will be satisfied, before I’m gone.” Keith Richards guests on guitar as he rattles out the accompaniment, with Waits even calling out him and his bandmate: “Now Mr. Jagger, Mr. Richards, I will scratch what I’ve been itching”.

“Last Leaf” is a beautiful, tender ballad that Richards also guests on, but this time only for the purpose of backup vocals and harmony. It is told from the point of view of the last leaf on a tree, after autumn took the rest. Amazing, poetic and thoughtful, it speaks of aging and getting older, and still being able to stick it out no matter what is put against you.

Now one of the highlights of  Bad as Me is the anti-war tour-de-force “Hell Broke Luce”. An entire essay could be written on this cut alone, it really is the only track Waits lets himself loose on, making toward the loud, avante garde style that his hardcore fans (I included), absolutely love. Done in an army-style march, it tells the story heard countless times, in countless wars:  a soldier goes away, experiences the horrors of war, being almost unable to cope or comprehend it all, then is brought back home, wounded and maimed, and left with no job and no future and no guidance. Very disturbing, it also may be one of the only times I’ve heard Mr. Waits drop the F-bomb; not once but twice- but in his defense, it is completely warranted within the context of the song.

The last cut on the regular album is “New Years Eve”, a warm nostalgic tune about a family coping with the troubles of addiction and the like, while still trying to enjoy the holidays  for what they are, and the fond memories they bring. In it’s conclusion, he seamlessly interjects “Auld Lang Syne”, much like he did over 30 years earlier with “Waltzing Matilda” in “Tom Traubert’s Blues”.  The deluxe edition gives you three extra songs packaged in a nice, small, hardcovered book, which is a real treat.

This album flows effortlessly along without any speed bumps and before the listener realizes, it is over, leaving us wanting more.  Though it is not personally my favorite Waits album, it definitely proves a number of points: It definitely is the most accessible album in his catalog in years; there is no filler on here, every track is great, which is extremely rare nowadays; Mrs. Brennan was spot on with keeping the tracks around 3 minutes each for the sake of flow, it definitely helps the album keep moving (which is not at all a dig at his other albums which have longer tunes; I think this just works here with what they were working toward); and most importantly, Bad as Me solidifies the idea that Mr. Waits is still exploring new ground and evolving.

At 61 years young, I dare everyone to cite a contemporary who increasingly breaks new ground with each new release, and still has the quality that his work holds. While people his age, tour huge arenas, playing ‘best of’ shows, Mr. Waits continues to challenge himself and the music community and defies logic by being able to produce such an amazing product, that evolves with the times. (Hell, he beat-boxes for Christ’s sake on tunes and it works- Brilliantly at times!) Earlier this year Mr. Waits was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in his acceptice speech, he said: “They say I have no hits and that I’m difficult to work with- and they say it like that’s a bad thing.”

I couldn’t agree more.  Tom Waits is an acquired taste; much like jazz, wine or bourbon and other fine things. Consider yourself part of the ‘in’ crowd – now you know America’s best kept secret…

  1. […] Hell Broke Luce, the stomping march off his latest album, Bad as Me, which the Podwits reviewed here, directed by Santa Cruz-based photographer Matt Mahurin, and featured Keith Richards on guitar and […]