"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

In your ear
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
Real Gone
Sony Music Japan, 2,520 yen

He's been a beatnik piano balladeer, a channeler of Kurt Weill, a Dadaist antirock star and now a human beatbox and protest singer. Tom Waits has never been content to sit still creatively, and the latest effort in his 30-year career, Real Gone, continues to push the artistic envelope.
Waits barks, grunts, sputters, hisses and growls out a backbeat that clangs and booms like a trash can hurled down a fire escape on the abrasive, but compelling opening track "Top of the Hill." Just try to get it out of your head.

In many ways Real Gone picks up where 1999's Mule Variations left off, with Waits eschewing the piano for sparse blues and R&B guitar riffs, sheet metal percussion and sinister, often apocalyptic images to accompany his vocal rhythms.

Waits refers to his most recent work as "cubist funk" and songs like "Metropolitan Glide" and "Shake It" have a raw groove that gets into your bones. Others, like the quasi Afrobeat of "Sins of the Father" haunt the mind.

"Grim reapers or grand weepers" is how collaborator Kathleen Brennan classifies her husband's songs and Real Gone has plenty of both. "Green Grass"--a love song from a dead man urging his lover, "Lay your head where my heart used to be. Hold the earth above me. Lay down in the green grass. Remember when you loved me."--may be one of the saddest songs Waits has ever written, and they don't get any more grim-reaperish than "Dead and Lovely"

A spoken-word piece, "Circus," mines the familiar Waits enthusiasm for colorfully named dead-enders like "Horse Face Ethel" and "Poodle Murphy," who would "like to hammer this ring into a bullet."

But there's a new sort of song for Waits on Real Gone. "Day After Tomorrow" is a letter from a soldier who is coming home from war and Waits' first clearly political song, reportedly inspired by fears of a draft.

Waits is still the best lyricist this side of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, reeling off lines like "Night is falling like a bloody axe" and "Black cellophane sky at midnight" that paint a dark, gritty vision of a broken-down world. Real Gone is a shattered stained-glass window in a burned-out church.

His rusty-barbed-wire-and-whisky voice was never made for radio, but anyone who doesn't appreciate Waits as one of the most emotional, evocative singers around may as well stay in the shallows with the boy bands and Britney Spears. Real Gone is way out there in the deep water, where you can't see the bottom.

Universal Music, 2,600 yen

Mark Knopfler continues making movies with his fourth post-Dire Straits solo album, Shangri-La, his most narrative yet.

There are biographical tales about McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, boxer Sonny Liston, skiffle king Lonnie Donegan and Elvis Presley, a murder mystery, a look inside a strip club, a fisherman's lament and even a fugitive's "Postcards from Paraguay"

It wouldn't be a Knopfler album without some love songs, and we get two here, the simple waltz-time "All that Matters" and the downcast "Whoop De Doo" ("If I'm over the moon, it's because I'm over you").

While Knopfler's extended staccato guitar solos used to be one of the highlights of any Dire Straits album, he is considerably more restrained these days, opting for a warm, layered sound, while still providing some great chunky country-blues rhythms and jazzy riffs

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