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Waits stays in step with “Bad As Me”

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Nearly 40 years after his debut album, Tom Waits has seemingly not lost a step. After seven years of not releasing any new material, Waits’ new album “Bad As Me” hit the music circuit in late October to solid acclaim. With a blend of jazz, blues and R&B, “Bad As Me” provides for an accessible album that also maintains Waits’ signature growl and experimental style that have made him a revered figure in the underground music scene.

The album opens with “Chicago,” a steady-paced song accompanied by a harmonica, which gives the song a blues-like feeling and still packs a punch. Chicago is the home to its own style of blues music that has seen such artists as Buddy Guy, Jimmy Rogers, and the father of Chicago blues, Muddy Waters. After five songs that grab the listener’s attention, Waits slows down the tempo with the somber “Pay Me,” a song that emits feelings of grief and loneliness. “Pay Me” is followed by arguably the best track on the album, “Back in the Crowd,” a slow tune accompanied by soft guitar playing. The rest of “Bad As Me” is characterized by slower tracks that give an emphasis to Tom Waits’ distinct singing style, displaying the emotion and energy that he puts into his albums. Only three songs go past four minutes, but that doesn’t indicate that the album lacks substance; many of the songs are ballad-like in structure and lyrics.

One of the best parts about this album is the different instruments that are included, and the guest musicians that are featured, notably bassist Les Claypool of Primus fame, bassist Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and guitar hero Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. Flea lends his talented bass playing skills on two tracks, “Raised Right Men” and “Hell Broke Luce,” giving both songs an added rock feeling. Keith Richards plays guitar with Waits on four tracks, and is an accompanying singer on “Last Leaf,” a track with excellent poetic lyrics. His backup vocals compliment the harsh growl that Waits is well known for. Waits included a variety of instruments on this album including the harmonica, the accordion, the sax and a number of percussion instruments that give “Bad As Me” a great sound.

Waits has always been known for his unique and indefinable style, and oddly enough has done very well in other countries; by comparison his albums have peaked higher on the UK’s Album Chart than the US Billboard 200. But this past year, he earned a spot in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, being inducted by legendary songwriter Neil Young. Even though he has not achieved the commercial success that many of his contemporaries have and receives less time on the airwaves and in the press, Waits has developed a devoted following due to his signature style, which is simply being who he is. One almost gets the feeling that Waits’ music gets around by word of mouth rather than mainstream advertisement.  In a way his outsider persona is not a negative; Waits only has to write and compose for his fans and doesn’t have to look for praise from mainstream critics. His lyrics are often subdued and are like a gothic novel condensed into a few short stanzas.

While he has blended different styles of music together, it is nearly impossible to box Waits into a specific genre, and perhaps that is his one of his goals when he is writing music. If Waits can’t be labeled into a specific genre, then people don’t have a reason to grumble when he doesn’t adhere to the rules. “Bad As Me” incorporates his own blend with somber ballads. The album is not overly produced, probably due the fact that Waits’ producer is his wife Kathleen Brennan. There is no filler on “Bad As Me” and every song fits perfectly in its spot.

Adam Colorado can be reached at gcolorad@student.umass.edu.

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