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Tom Waits: a voice for the new wilderness Add to ...

Bad as Me

  • Tom Waits
  • Anti-

“Maybe things will be better in Chicago,” Tom Waits suggests on his ruggedly thoughtful new album, his growl near esophageal. Chicago, a hustling shuffle with a bass clarinet undertow, tells a story of migration – leaving a poor place behind for the rainbow’s end up the road. These are blues, hopeful.

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The Chicago-by-way-of-Mississippi bluesman Howlin’ Wolf sang of spoonfuls – of diamonds, of gold, of precious love – and how some died over them, some cried over them, and everybody fought over them. Waits, 61, makes music about that fight; he’s the blues artist that so many rockers desire to be. With his first album of all-new material in seven years, he’s the man of this hard time, with humane, defiant observations on severe circumstances.

A ragman on a weird wagon, Waits with Bad as Me peddles some of the finest song-crafting of his long outlying career. The stoic Face to the Highway is the disc’s sparest track, with lyrics about the need to move on set to a boot-clomp rhythm.

Waits is no crooner, you know that. But his range of singing styles here is an absolute plus, even if he does sound like a garbage disposal unit occasionally. On Pay Me, a waltzed soliloquy from an unapologetic actress in her final act, his rough murmur affects.

He uses a rare falsetto in Talking at the Same Time. Ice-cube piano notes tinkle, a guitar twangs languidly and an acoustic bass slithers along. Everybody has an opinion on the today’s bad news, Waits included: “They’ve got the fruit, we’ve got the rind.”

We are deprived of never hearing Amy Winehouse cover Kiss Me, a jazz ballad in black and white. Waits does fine. As for the balmy lonesomeness of Back in the Crowd, Roy Orbison might have sung it differently, but not better.

Familiar friends are in tow. All songs are co-written with wife Kathleen Brennan, as usual. The guitar stylings of Marc Ribot are economical and wonderful all over. And that’s Keith Richards on the romping blues of Satisfied, which winks not only at Wolf’s Smokestack Lightning but the wailing guitar of the Beatles’ Yer Blues and the Rolling Stones too: “Now Mr. Jagger and Mr. Richards, I will scratch where I’ve been itching.” Richards, a past collaborator, harmonizes frailly on Last Leaf, a poignant take on being the final one to drop, melodically similar to a Doc Pomus pop hit for the Drifters.

It wouldn’t surprise me if some Waits enthusiasts found this album less than adventurous (by Waitsian standards anyway). I would offer them the rap-metal war-protest monstrosity of Hell Broke Luce, and tell them to keep it.

The finale New Year’s Eve, a border-town waltz with David Hidalgo on accordion, has a champagne chorale bit to it, Auld Lang Syne (sung, I swear, by Krusty the Klown).

New Year’s Eve, of course, is ambiguous – an end and a beginning. Waits starts his relevant album with Chicago, but that city is no longer a sweet home for fresh starts. That place doesn’t exist. Take haven instead in the blues of Bad As Me, a funky refuge in the age of apprehension.

OTHER NEW RELEASES

POP: Bright and Vivid

  • Kathryn Calder
  • File Under Music
  • 3.5 stars

“Coming down off a high, floating from a ceiling/ Suddenly on the ground, I don’t remember breathing.” Intimacy in music isn’t overrated, but neither is it essential. And so, Victoria’s Kathryn Calder, the keyboardist and bell-clear singer with the New Pornographers, is nothing less than charming as she sings from aloft, not into your ear. Her album is titled un-ironically: Beats are tight; sounds swirl, chime and shimmer. Who Are You? is vibrant indie pop. Walking in My Sleep plinks with vibraphones and Rhodes keyboards, reminding me of Montreal’s High Dials, who make bright and vivid music too. Calder, for her part, scrapes skies with ambience, yet always in reach of her tunes. Lovely stuff, really. Brad Wheeler

ROCK: The Darcys

  • The Darcys
  • Arts & Crafts
  • 4 stars

Between the assiduous detail of the instrumental arrangements and the nuanced emotive power of the melodies, the Darcys bring a level of vision and maturity to their sophomore effort that is breathtaking. That the Toronto quartet managed to deliver it despite the 11th-hour departure of singer Kirby Best (keyboardist Jason Couse assumed those duties and re-cut the vocal tracks) and more than 18 months of delay is impressive. And the almost symphonic grandeur the Toronto quartet and producer Murray Lightburn bring to the songs, from the dense skirl of guitars driving Edmonton to Purgatory to the solemn, multitracked chorale adorning When I am New Again, is downright stunning. J.D. Considine

The Darcys can be downloaded for free at www.thedarcys.ca.

POP: Stronger

  • Kelly Clarkson
  • RCA
  • 3.5 stars

Kelly Clarkson is well past proving that she won’t be pushed around by the music industry or her fans’ expectations, but the American Idol winner’s fifth solo album is defiant anyway. From moody single Mr. Know it All to Einstein with its acerbic chorus, “dumb plus dumb equals you,” relationship kiss-offs are as thick on the ground as you’d expect, but there are also plenty of eff-the-haters anthems like What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger) and You Can’t Win. The stance suits both her pipes and the brash, radio-ready sound of the record. Clarkson could have pulled an Adele and racked up authenticity points with a retro soul set. That she didn’t suggests she actually likes singing blistering soul over dance-pop beats and crunchy guitars. Imagine that! Dave Morris

CLASSICAL: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Dissonances

  • Quatuor Ebène
  • Virgin Classics
  • 4 stars

Quatuor Ebène’s unorthodox second recording – a follow-up to a debut disc of Debussy, Ravel and Fauré quartets that won Gramophone’s best recording for 2009 – was a crossover CD called Fiction that ranged from inventive arrangements of movie soundtracks to unexpectedly good jazz. In this disc, we get to hear what the ensemble brings to Mozart. That includes some unusual and delicate textures, a sense of active conversation between voices that suggests the volatility of the topics under discussion, and a subtle pushing of the envelope when it comes to the dissonances that give this disc its title. Elissa Poole

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