This three-disc collection of b-sides (“orphans”) captures Tom Waits’s three-pronged approach to songwriting. As a result, each disc is appropriately listed under its own subheading: there’s the 16-track “Brawlers” (rock/blues songs), the 20-track “Bawlers” (softer ballads), and the 18-track “Bastards” (varied Waitsology). The first disc erupts with searing beats from “Lie To Me” and “Low Down” and reveals just how Waits has earned his gravelly timbre over the years. Songs like “Ain’t Goin’ Down To The Well” (a Leadbelly cover) and “Lord I’ve Been Changed” proffer the singer’s own take on the Mississippi Delta blues, while a bare-knuckled “Sea Of Love” cover bares little resemblance to the Phil Phillips original. “Road To Peace,” a song sung from the perspective of a suicide bomber, is easily the most moving track in the entire collection and ranks up with his most impressive work since Rain Dogs.
“Bawlers” offers the gruff-and-humble side to the Waits’s persona with songs that ruminate on spring and taking “the long way home.” These barroom ballads find the singer at his most masterly, tweaking sounds from 60 years ago with a modern stylishness we’ve all come to know. Also assembled for the first time are his soundtrack contributions to films like Pollock and Big Bad Love. “Never Let Go” and “Danny Says,” a Ramones cover posited in classic Waits style, are two other highlights. The sound quality varies a bit on this disc, with some ever-present hiss on a few of the recordings and vocal levels a bit uneven from track-to-track; still, for an album of songs admittedly tossed aside and with no place on another album, it’s a forgivable offense. (Waits says, “Some of the songs were written in turmoil and recorded at night in a moving car, others were written in hotel rooms and recorded in Hollywood during big conflamas…[t]hese are the ones that survived.”) “Bawlers” ends with a wonderfully homemade cover—complete with whistling solo—of the Sinatra classic “Young At Heart.”
The third disc, “Bastards,” brings us Waits at his bizarre best. The experimental numbers here sound like part of a Faust musical written by the likes of William S. Burroughs or Charles Bukowski (one track, “Nirvana,” was actually written by Bukowski). It’s no surprise, then, that several tracks on the disc are not songs at all but spoken-word pieces put to some bare jazz. One reading, “Children’s Story” is likely an outtake from Waits’s Blood Money project, while two others were originally written by Jack Kerouac (“Home I’ll Never Be” and “On The Road”). The album closes with two hidden tracks culled from Waits’s great live show monologues. The successes on this disc can certainly be debated (such as Waits’s beatbox vocalizations on “Spidey’s Wild Ride” and “King Kong”) but as an auditory peek into the songwriter’s creative processes, “Bastards” takes us leaps closer than any Waits release to date.
Being a collection of odds and ends, Orphans isn’t as cohesive a release as Waits’s albums usually are. Arriving complete with a 94-page scrapbook of trashed images and co-opted newspaper articles and stories, don’t expect this collection to lead the way or provide an even narrative. Each orphan stands proudly on its own as the vestige of an old idea or a forgotten path—proving that even Waits’s missteps still manage to point in the right direction.