These are a lot of songs that fell behind the stove while making dinner.Only Tom Waits would be so nonchalant about a brilliant collection of 26 rare and 30 new songs, especially when only 14 songs can be readily found on other albums. If you couldn't deduce from the title, Orphans is a three-disc set divided neatly into three parts: Brawlers, for the rough and tumble rocking tracks; Bawlers, for the relatively more humble love songs; and Bastards, for experimental tracks that would even make some Bone Machine owners raise their eyebrows. If you think this is just an odds and sods collection I would implore you to think again, as all songs are sonically cohesive and could pass as one very long recording session, laced over with the light coat of fuzz.
Starting off Brawlers with the raging single "Lie to Me," the heavy, loud pounding of the drums become a characteristic revisited through the rest of the set. This thread isn't connected to all tracks, however. Just a few songs later, "Lucinda," the beat (the most prevalent musical presence of the song) is the sound of Tom Waits going "Aah-Boom" looped, and somehow doesn't sound like shit. Just as you sheltered, closed-minded kids start thinking "Hey, this isn't punk at all, wtf," I mention a bluesed up cover of the Ramones' classic "The Return of Jackie and Judy" (which can also be found on the tribute album We're a Happy Family) tucked neatly into the middle of Brawlers, a fun rumbler yet not as good as the original. "Road to Peace," the most weighty song on the disc, is a seven-minute anti-war romp, exposing the extremism of both sides. As a side note, it ended up in Rolling Stone's Top 10 Protest Songs of 2006, which also included NOFX's "You're Wrong" -- if that's not punk, I don't know what is. Oh wait...
Bawlers, the best disc of the set focuses on the more introspective Tom Waits, a side that fans of his first few albums will be familiar with. "You Can Never Hold Back Spring" is a beautiful song, and truly heart-wrenching with unlimited replay-ability. This should be a signature ballad of his that ends up being a live standard, though God knows he never tours. The memorable "Long Way Home" trots in after with a bassline evoking a galloping horse. Uh oh, am I losing the punx again? OK, I'll glaze over the brilliant gospel song "Take Care of All My Children" -- and "Down There by the Train," a song he wrote for Johnny Cash which paints a man's last days as good as any song can -- and mention the second Ramones cover, "Danny Says." Turning the original on its head having just a double bass and lightly finger-picked clean electric guitar, it translates the love story better than the original. A whimsical quality of the song is brought out and shows a deepness underlying Joey Ramone-penned songs.
Now we step into some murky waters. "What Keeps Mankind Alive" starts off Bastards with a singing/shouting Tom Waits backed by a dominating accordion. The rest of the disc take numerous left turns. The eccentric "Army Ants" basically consists of Tom Waits sounding like he's narrating an ant documentary with quick bass and guitar plucking eliciting thousands of ants scurrying about. Story adaptations are also included, like the rollicking "On the Road" (Jack Kerouac) or "Nirvana," just a simple retelling of the stupendous Charles Bukowski poem with a light horn in the background. The set ends with "Missing My Son." What is it? A joke. No music. Just an amusing joke told in Tom Waits' scruffy yet attractive choice.
And you know what's frightening about all this? It works. His experimentation is artfully crafted and his success-to-failure rate is alarmingly high for such a freewheeling character. Yes, it runs long and there's no chance in hell you'll listen to it in one sitting. But just sit back and ponder how someone like Tom Waits does everything that comes to mind and remains critically lauded and loses zero fans...verses someone like Bob Dylan who is deemed flawless by the media yet releases mid-tempo songs based off old blues standards that can't compare to his 1960s output (and this is coming from a Bob Dylan fan). Yet Tom Waits never tries to double back over his career, always is searching to use an instrument no one's ever heard of, and doesn't limit himself to any one genre or prose. He's a national treasure. But go listen to Left Alone, whatever. Probably just as good.