Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Tom Waits for No Altman

Robert Altman dies;

Tom Waits releases an enormous new album.

One door closes; another one (a garage door with a holiday wreath made of a smoke ring, car parts, and shrunken heads) opens. I haven't checked on the time of Altman's death, but I think these two events took place within mere hours of each other.

Tom Waits and Robert Altman intersected on Short Cuts, an uneven riff on the stories of Raymond Carver. Tom and Lily Tomlin were splendid as a couple of co-dependents you just knew were stuck together "till the wheels come off," (a line from the movie reprised in the glorious "Picture In A Frame" on Tom's Mule Variations). If there's an afterlife, it'd be nice if Robert Altman and Raymond Carver were hanging out about now. Maybe listening to the new Tom Waits album.

It's a 3-CD set called "Orphans." I must add: the two songs Tom wrote for Big Bad Love are on the second CD. This blows my mind, just as it blew my mind when Norah Jones covered one of them on her second album. Here's what really gets me: The songs allude to images and themes in the movie. And some of those images are in our script, but not in the Larry Brown book it's based on. So if the movie had been written differently, the songs would be different? Or if the movie had never been made, Tom's new album wouldn't have these songs on it? And Norah Jones would've put something else on her album, too? It's so strange. This little movie, which did so little box office, made these marks on other things. What must it be like to create something that has a huge cultural ripple effect? My mind would be in a continual state of blown-ness.

Robert Christgau mentions the Big Bad Love connection in his review of "Orphans" in this week's Rolling Stone.

Excerpts from Tom Wait's notes about the new album (which comes with a 92-page booklet):

"If a record really works at all, it should be made like a homemade doll with tinsel for hair and seashells for ears stuffed with candy and money. Or like a good woman’s purse with a Swiss army knife and a snake bite kit."

"On Orphans there is a mambo about a convict who breaks out of jail with a fishbone, a gospel train song about Charlie Whitman and John Wilkes Boothe, a delta blues about a disturbing neighbor, a spoken word piece about a woman who was struck by lightning, an 18th century Scottish madrigal about murderous sibling rivalry, an American backwoods a cappella about a hanging. Even a song by Jack Kerouac and a spiritual with my own personal petition to the Lord with prayer…There’s even a show tune about an old altar boy and a rockabilly song about a young man who’s begging to be lied to."

"I think you will find more singing and dancing here than usual. But I hope fans of more growling, more warbling, more barking, more screeching won’t be disappointed either."

Like Robert Altman, Tom Waits is a true American original -- visionary, uncompromising, wacky, inconsistent, ragged around the edges. He's an urban shaman and a suburban dad and often records songs in his car. A lot of his music will outlive him, but we should dig him while he's still around.


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