Tom Waits

You know things have gotten bad when Tom Waits is singing songs about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Waits, who earned his stripes in this world as the songwriter from another, will soon release a three-disc set called Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards. The music will be accompanied by a 94-page book — comprising antique library discards, odd news items, doodads, and snapshots — that is not yet ready for review.

In a way, the discs represent a rescue effort, songs that never made the cut. Some had been in the works for years and were never released; others were done for movies and plays here and there. Although he certainly misses here and there, Orphans is ambitious and eclectic. "Brawlers" rattles with gritty, jacked-up electric blues; "Bawlers" drips sweet melancholy; "Bastards" drags the listener, by one ankle, into Waits's twisted aural tool shed. The project, 56 songs in all, might have given him the room he needed to really go off the deep end: warbling hymnals, transcendent covers, and dark spoken-word tracks.

His sound also comes further in Orphans, as though the director in Waits's head threw down his bullhorn and demanded more. His use of looped vocal beats ("mouth rhythms," he calls them and claims to record the elements late at night in his bathroom) takes off, particularly in "Bastards."

Waits's old soul seems to have finally peaked in his now-vintage body. The religious tunes "Take Care of All My Children" and "Lord I've Been Changed" transcend a mere aesthetic fascination with Jesus or the Gospel. "Young at Heart" and "Goodnight Irene" sound like they might as well have been written yesterday.

In the finer moments, Orphans presents a Tom Waits who has finally grown into himself — like an arthritic foot into an old leather shoe. — Calvin Godfrey

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Calvin Godfrey