April 24, 2002


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Tom Waits
Blood Money (Anti) Alice (Anti)

Tom Waits – part beat-generation folkie and part Pops Armstrong philosopher – has been the voice of professional bohemia for 30 years and has hardly made a misstep along the way. It's not because he doesn't take risks – in fact, his genius goes beyond the way he distills a dozen American musical styles to the originality and flair he adds along the way. He's tossed the results in the face of a recording industry where bean counters pull the strings and artists play it safe and live to tell. His work is immediately recognizable, and not just for his carcinomic gravel pit of a voice – although it is a one-of-a-kind instrument. He invests his work with an archaic rumble excavated in points as far flung as New Orleans and Berlin, in recordings that date back to the mid '50s and beyond. The unforgettable array of oddball characters and offbeat stories he adds to his indelible melodies and arrangements are simply unique – describing him as an enigma doesn't begin to get at it.

After a three-year sabbatical, Waits has delivered a pair of his knottiest, most personal ruminations to date. When he's on (as he is on almost all of these 27 tracks), he's a nearly cynical romantic (or maybe it's vice versa) living in a whacked-out, totally engaging world. He has always flirted with self-parody – a full-blown disorder on midperiod work like Heart Attack and Vine (1980) – although it's nearly missing on Blood Money and Alice, with the exception of the latter's too-easy tribute to circus geeks, "Table Top Joe."

The albums are stylistically similar but wildly divergent in feel. Blood Money is cranky and loaded with reflections on the sad state of man, especially the opener, "Misery Is the River of the World." There are quiet, touching numbers on this disc, especially the elegiac "Coney Island Baby" (not a cover of the Lou Reed song), but for the most part Waits observes the world from a distance and with an edge. Alice is tender and funny, clearly the work of an older gent getting fuzzy 'round the edges, without becoming soft or overly sentimental. "Kommienezupadt" is a hilarious goof on German cabaret, "Fish and Bird" sounds like it was lifted from West Side Story, and "Fawn," which closes the disc with screeching violins, could have been recorded in the early 20th century.

Waits's music is the kind of updated jazz-based stuff that aspiring dreamers with dead-end day jobs feel in their blood. It's the soundtrack to late nights and coffeehouses, with waddling bari saxes, twinkling pianos and vibes, lightly brushed traps, and rumbling stand-up basses. Waits has aged well – he has more to say at 50 than he had at 25 – and his work seems more necessary now than it was in the dreary and soulless mid '70s, when he first appeared as the bard of West Hollywood. This pair of aces is the proof. (Johnny Angel)

 

Helen Love
Radio Hits 3 (Damaged Goods)

Since releasing her first Ramones-ripped 7-inch in 1993, Wales's DIY diehard Helen Love has been waging war on the U.K.'s mainstream music scene. "Been under medication and heavy sedation since Kula Shaker came along," she nyah-nyahs on her tongue-in-cheeky Radio Hits 3. "Made a bouncing bomb ... left it in the hall at the band's sound check / Now things are better!" And while Love doesn't pose much of an actual threat to the status quo – her defiantly lo-fi, fun-punk singles are often limited to 750 copies each, hardly enough to storm the charts – that doesn't make her uproarious revenge fantasies any less scathing and spot-on.

In fact, it makes them more so. Knowing her music probably won't ever reach or appeal beyond the limited scope of a few thousand generally like-minded fans and John Peel disciples, Love revels in her cult status. So on 3, the charming and infectious third installment of collected singles (this time, 1997-2000), she fearlessly takes aim at her mainstream nemeses and name-drops indie and punk idols like Atari Teenage Riot and the late Joey Ramone – who featured Love on his solo album Don't Worry about Me – with a frequency that'll make even the most knowledgeable hipster's head spin.

Calling such a self-consciously underground album Radio Hits, then, is a joke. (Only two tracks, including the pep-pop call to arms "Long Live the UK Music Scene," made even the slightest radio waves across the pond.) Actually, her smarty-pants punk – which recalls a Manda Rin-fronted Ramones – is more infectiously singsongy than anything in today's Top 10. And while 3's odes to shifty disco girls and lame DJs may occasionally walk the line between twee novelty and indie snobbery, Love never takes herself so seriously as to be anything but entirely charming. Kula Shaker, if you're even still around, you've been warned. (Jimmy Draper)

 

Kaia
Oregon (Mr. Lady)

Dedicated to her parents and the prettiest place Kaia Wilson knows, Oregon is another "dyke album for the whole family," as Wilson advertised on her first, self-titled solo effort in 1996. That was just before the band (Team Dresch) broke up, before she moved away from the Northwest and found a new set of soulmates (her Butchies cohorts Alison Martlew and Melissa York). Here, after three Butchies albums, she makes a kind of return, looking over old photos and pasting them in for album art, writing lyrics like historical documents.

I'm always reading history into Wilson's songs, the ones she writes for herself and the ones she writes for the Butchies. They sound like excavations of women's lives, full of names and numbers and hidden information brought to light. Here I'm reading in an earlier perspective, as if these songs are thoughts she had and put aside and came back home to, after building her life in other towns, in cities thousands of miles from tiny Jasper, Ore., where she was raised. "World's Best Haircut" recounts the life and disappearance of a pilot, probably Amelia Earhart. It's bare bones and a few questions from the vantage point of a hero worshiper who wants to know where she went, who wants to be like her and look like her too. In "Jasper" she sings about "losing my fight for home"; she covers the Cure's "Catch," which probably caught Wilson just starting high school. A tender, stripped-down, slowed-down version, it gets across the sorrow but leaves out the mania that was part of the original's pleasure.

Wilson's vocals have an emotional fineness – in the bluntly stated disappointment of "You Stopped Talking," the lovely first line of "Jasper" – that turns around even songs (like "Make Me Please") I wouldn't expect to like, heard elsewhere, that overpowers the lyrical clichés on "Air," with its talk of eyes meeting and two people going separate ways. Everything is saved by the catch in Wilson's voice, the imperfections that tell the truth, the way you can hear what she's thinking.

Another history, "Mira" describes a life over soon. It's an address, an attempt to describe what nobody claims to have seen, a ghost story told for sympathy rather than thrills. At one point Wilson's voice soars upward in a promise of help, but the song trails off in a whistle, a lap steel, and a voice getting thinner. "Is anybody listening? Can anybody hear me?" she sings, fading out on a last repeated line, using a songwriter's device to get across what's really going on. (Lynn Rapoport)