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Tom Waits – Glitter and Doom Live

on December 31, 2009, 9:05am

I vividly recall the first time I heard Tom Waits — it was one of those revelatory moments that leave your inner energy surging and your perspective violently driven askew. Tom Waits gave me permission to indulge my weirdest tendencies; he made it okay to let the freak flag fly. It was Rain Dogs, of course, and it set in motion an obsessive dig through his back catalog. Tom Waits soon became one of my heroes, and remains one to this day.

So, damn, what’s up with this record? And why is Tom Waits shouting at me?

Well, first, some back-story: It’s 2008, and Mr. Waits has announced that he will embark on a tour in support of…actually, that’s not clear. In keeping with his reputation as an iconoclast (or, as Senator McCain might say, a “maverick”), he will not be taking his band to the big spots like New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Instead they’ll hit up under-appreciated markets such as Mobile, Alabama and Tulsa, Oklahoma (and oddly not go further west than Phoenix, leaving the promise of the track “Goin’ Out West”, played at nearly every stop, unfulfilled). Waits dubs the outing “Glitter and Doom,” likely in reference to a 1919-1933 exhibit of Weimar Republic era German art at the Met in New York. Finally, he announces the tour in a bizarre “press conference.” (See the video below).

This album, Waits’ second live document (or third, if you want to count 1975’s Nighthawks at the Diner), is essentially a souvenir of that tour. Most of the tracks come from recent albums like 2004’s Real Gone, and although a few oldish tunes are scattered about, there’s nothing from further back than Rain Dogs’ classic opener “Singapore”. So it’s basically a survey of what Waits has been up to since 1992’s brilliant Bone Machine. Which isn’t bad in principle.

A few of the singer’s new found idiosyncrasies, however, derail the album. For one thing, Waits is in full-on Oscar the Grouch mode, although he does sometimes warble like Kermit the Frog, or maybe Big Bird — whatever, it’s some Sesame Street character, hardly a complimentary comparison. Even on the ballads (“Fannin Street”, “Lucky Day”) Waits sounds like a manic homeless person relishing the echo dumpsters produce when shouted into (maybe it was part of his prep for his upcoming role as the Devil in Terry Gilliam’s long-postponed The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). Anyway, it’s not a fun listen, and entirely inappropriate. Granted, Waits has had success with this vocal technique before (see Rain Dogs’ stunning closer “Anywhere I Lay My Head”), but here it just sounds unpleasant and unnecessarily gritty.

The songs that suit this vocal attack stand as the album’s highlights. Bone Machine’s “Such a Scream” is twisted into fantastic Screamin’ Jay Hawkins meets Talking Heads funk, while Mule Variations’ “Get Behind the Mule” digs deep into a dark blues groove. Glitter and Doom’s best tracks, I’d argue, are Bone Machine’s “Dirt In the Ground”, a creepy slow-churn that’s performed here with an eerie new electricity, and the driving blues rock tune “Goin’ Out West”, also from the 1992 Grammy Award winner. Waits’ band, by the way, is wonderfully sympathetic to their eccentric leader, and deserves lots of credit for their great performances. If forced to name their best performance on the album, I’d probably end up pointing to Blood Money’s perverse waltz “The Part You Throw Away,” which showcases tour guitarist Omar Torrez’s killer chops.

A key selling point of the album is the second disc, which is entirely based on one 35-minute track called “Tom’s Tales”. The track delivers exactly what it promises, as it features Waits spinning stories about his favorite subjects (particularly animals) with a nice little bit of occasionally atonal piano accompaniment. It’s certainly entertaining, but is it indispensable? Eh, no.

So, all in all, the album does indeed have its moments. The problem, however, is that in a massive catalog bursting with vital, beautifully aging albums, this one just isn’t up to snuff. It’s an okay listen (nothing Waits has done could be called a waste of time), but I can’t imagine myself a year from now going “oh man, where’s my copy of Glitter and Doom?”

Note: definitely check out the videos below, including one of a performance of Mule Variations’ “Chocolate Jesus”. It’ll give you an idea where Waits’ Imaginarium co-star Heath Ledger found inspiration for his Oscar-winning role as The Joker in The Dark Knight. Seriously, the mannerisms, the voice, the hunch–they’re all the same. WEIRD.

“Glitter and Doom” Press Conference

Trailer for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

“Chocolate Jesus” Live on Letterman

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