When a musician releases three hours of music in one fell swoop, that musician is asking to be indulged. This is not an easy request to pull off. It takes a certain mad genius to be ambitious enough to release, as the liner notes to Orphans state, “56 songs, of which 30 are new,” and have faith that said release will be taken not as some emblem of a deep, unshakeable ego sure that every moment it feels fit to commit to tape is a moment inspired enough to be worthwhile to others, but as 3 hours of sparked, fuck-all, I don’t know where it came from either but here it is and I just don’t think I can whittle it down. It takes brass. It takes history. It takes loyalty. It takes a very specific kind of artist.
It takes Tom Waits.
And so there it is.
The masterminds of this messy*, fascinating thing called Sepiachord have this idea that Tom Waits, who is either the last of something (hell if I know what) or the first of something (again, hell if I know what) is Sepiachord’s grand uncle, that his presence looms over the “movement, ” that if all roads don’t lead directly from (or to) him, there’s always signs and exits that’ll get you damn near. No argument here.
Waits went truly, madly, and satisfyingly off his frickin’ rocker somewhere around Swordfishtrombones, and thank heaven for it. He’s music hall and country blues, Harry Partch and mad street preacher. He’s Olde Timey without seeming like it’s a pretense. As his voice has gone more and more gravelly, so has his sound, so have his recordings. His vocals chords are as rusted as the tin cans he seems to be singing into these days. And Orphans is a form apotheosis for it all.
Brawlers thrums and stutters through a set of percussive musical catcalls. It’s bluesy as hell, and includes the most overtly political tune of Waits’ career, the seven minute shudder about the Middle Eastern struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Waits covers Lead Belly and the Ramones on the disc, and brings out a duet with his friend Chuck E. Weiss called “Rains on Me.”
Bawlers follows, and is, as the name suggests, tugs a little harder at the heartstrings. The singing is a little more intimate on Bawlers, the music a little farther away, thicker with reverb. And the lyrics are a little more subtle. Brawlers hits harder, but Bawlers kills with—as one of the songs says—“a little drop of poison.” You can’t go wrong with a record that includes Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene.”
And then there are those weird, wonderful Bastards. Strange little stories (“Children’s Story”), odes to the family car (“The Pontiac”), beat writing set to music (“Nirvana,” a poem by Bukowski, and “Home I’ll Never Be,” a selection from Jack Kerouac), and covers. Daniel Johnston’s “King Kong” is given a Waits scrape and howl that push it right to the edge—adding the monster to the story of a monster with a broken heart. And then there’s “Books of Moses,” a song written by Moby Grape’s mental institution dwelling guitar player, Skip Spence. Johnston and Spence are eccentrics. Waits, too. He does them a justice no one else could.
Orphans asks for patience. It also rewards patience.
* Messy as in Sepiachord seems to me to be, like all good musical distinctions, a case of coloring outside the lines, of gathering by streams of consciousness, of “I don’t know what the hell Sepiachord is, precisely, but I know it when I see it.”