Coming out with a double punch

Tom Waits releases two CDs that are distinctive in sound and instrument mix

May 03, 2002|By Greg Kot | Greg Kot,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Tom Waits' next pair of albums - the 18th and 19th of a career with more left hooks than Muhammad Ali's - won't be released until Tuesday. But the gravel-voiced singer is already pondering his next move.

"I'm going to tap into the kids market next," Waits vows in a phone interview from the Los Angeles home he shares with his wife and musical collaborator, Kathleen Brennan, and their three children. "I got a fan letter from a 9-year-old girl in Indiana. She wrote, `I love your voice, you sound like something between a cherry bomb and a clown. P.S. I got in trouble playing your records at school. Please call my teacher.'

"I called the teacher and left a message," Waits says, "but she didn't return my call."

Waits is getting most of his calls returned these days. After 29 years of profound, and sometimes profoundly disturbing, music-making, this bard of the misbegotten finds himself a platinum-selling artist for the first time. Not that success has dimmed his penchant for perversity.

On Tuesday, the albums Alice and Blood Money will be released. Originally conceived as the scores for a pair of Robert Wilson plays, staged in 1992 and 2000, respectively, the albums were recorded concurrently last summer with an assortment of oddball instruments and adventurous musicians. It's highly unusual for an artist to release a double CD, let alone two distinct albums, on the same day. But Waits has earned the chance to indulge himself.

His last album, Mule Variations (1999), sold a million copies, charted higher than any of his previous releases (No. 30 on the Billboard album chart) and snagged his second Grammy Award, for best contemporary folk album (which sounds like yet another failed attempt to categorize an essentially uncategorizable artist's music). But if this late-arriving commercial success gave Waits greater license to release two albums at once, he shrugs it off.

"If you're gonna heat up the stove, you might as well make more than one pancake," he says. "It's a lot of work to go into a studio, mobilize a lot of people and equipment. So I figured once we got in there ... let's do another one while the motor is running. Eventually, no one will care what day they came out on. If it's a good idea, I'll take credit for it. If it isn't, I'll blame it on somebody else."

Even as Waits shovels the sarcasm, he makes it clear that he was never completely satisfied with the way the songs written by him and Brennan were performed in stage productions.

"Writing songs for other people is just mortifying at times. You stand by and watch other people completely butcher them," he says. "Sometimes they're completely elevated. But I figured I could improve upon most of them."

Blood Money comes from Wilson's staging of the 19th-century play Woyzeck, about a German soldier driven to madness and murder. It premiered in Denmark in 2000. Alice is a lyrical meditation on the relationship between author Lewis Carroll and young Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. The play was first staged in Germany in 1992, with an orchestra assembled by Waits.

"The best part about it was that we had a woman from Moscow who played the theremin who was the granddaughter of Leon Theremin, the man who invented the instrument," Waits recalls of the original production. "She was like a little Russian doll, and she was just amazing. You'd think Leon Theremin's granddaughter would have a rosewood or ebony theremin with inlaid mother of pearl, but hers looked like a hot plate. It was painted in a drab color with somebody's initials carved into it, and a car aerial protruding from the box. Inside, all the electrical connections and circuitry were attached with cut-up pieces of a beer can, folded over the wires. She was a true Russian, the musical equivalent of the good butcher who uses every part of the cow."

Waits' obsession with misfit instruments began in the early '80s, soon after he met Brennan, who encouraged him to explore a wider spectrum of sounds. Thus were born the groundbreaking works swordfishtrombones (1983) and Rain Dogs (1985), which brought a new dimension to his singer-songwriter persona. Once a boozy balladeer who specialized in crafting two types of songs - "grim reapers and grand weepers" - Waits pioneered what could only be called "avant-cabaret" on those '80s albums.

To give Alice and Blood Money their distinctive characters, Waits introduced a few more oddities to his sound-making arsenal: a stroh violin (a violin crossed with a brass horn), a pod (a four-foot seed pod from Indonesia, used as a percussion instrument) and a 1929-vintage pneumatic calliope.

Where does one buy a pneumatic calliope, with 57 whistles?

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