Track Listing
1. Alice
2. Everything You Can Think
3. Flower's Grave
4. No One Knows I'm Gone
5. Kommienezuspadt
6. Poor Edward
7. Table Top Joe
8. Lost in the Harbour
9. We're All Mad Here
10. Watch Her Disappear
11. Reeperbahn
12. I'm Still Here
13. Fish & Bird
14. Barcarolle
15. Fawn

Anti/Epitaph 2002

alice.jpg (39012 bytes)


Essential Waits:
Blood Money [2002]
The Black Rider [1993]
Bone Machine [1992]
Rain Dogs [1985]
Swordfishtrombones [1983]
Even more Waits:
Mule Variations [1999]
Frank's Wild Years [1987]
Heartattack And Vine [1980]
Blue Valentine [1978]
Foreign Affairs [1977]


Alice is a sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter, but mostly just sad affair; a meditation on such always entertaining themes as love, life, loss, and death. The message, or at least one of the messages seems to be that love is there, it's painful, and most of the time it's totally hopeless, and yet on and on we toil in our quest to attain it, which invariably leads to more pain and hopelessness et al. Of course love can also be a splendid, heavenly thing - something has to fuel our struggle, after all - and while Waits does acknowledge that sunnier side to it, he doesn't dwell on it all that much. But then it's probably for the best - maybe it's just me, but for the man who once sang of one armed dwarves and "tumors as big as egg"s and of the earth dying screaming to be espousing on the joys of romance might be a bit too unsettling for its own good. Alice is also a collection of songs for a theatrical production of the same name, based not on Lewis Carrol's fantasy story of Alice in Wonderland so much as Lewis Carrol's unfortunate obsession with the very much real life nine year old Alice. But hey, if the thought of a middle aged minister lusting after a pre-pubescent girl doesn't fall under your idea of entertainment, there's always Blood Money, the other theater based album Waits released simulataneously with this one, which features among other fun things a deranged soldier who butchers his lover and then commits suicide. Yep. While not exactly coming up with the most life affirming fare in the world, Waits nonetheless clearly has what so few in his profession do - true magic in his songwriting that allows the material to soar above and transcend its more plot-specific origins. Alice or not, most of this stuff is as universal as it gets.

And while many songs do certainly fit the context of a love that's never to be, others broach more distant themes, some more hopeful than others; and some much much less. The drunken ragtime of Table Top Joe, for instance, features a rather twisted parable of a young lad taking a nasty little defect of his - in this case, being born as a pair of hands - discovering that he has some mad piano playing skillz, and voila - a weakness made into a strength. On the other hand you have the wretched torch songery of Reeperbahn, one of the album's two big highlights. This "upbeat" little number tells a couple of stories that lament just what a sad state of affairs it is when you have to make do with your hopes and dreams having been completely fucked over. And leave it up to Tom Waits of course to turn this miserable tale of woe into a catchy sing along. And then there is the title track, a beautiful sort of laid back lounge thing with a skater tracing the name of his love into the ice over and over until the ice breaks and, well... Oh, and that other highlight? That would be the ballad-esque Poor Edward, a tale so bleak and hopeless I can't even stand to write it out here lest my computer spontaneously combusts or my fingers shrivel up while I'm typing it out.

Now then, if you've made it this far down the review, chances are you may be wondering a very simple, very basic little question - what in the hell does this album sound like? And all I can say to that is that it sounds like...Tom Waits. A grotesque cabaret of freakish sounds and even freakier emotions where the emcee is a bigger freak than all the other characters combined. And if you're still clueless - tsk, tsk - under what have you been hiding for the past thirty years that you have no idea what Tom Waits sounds like? But I kid of course. I think. So observe, if you will, my attempts at a semi coherent description. I mentioned ragtime and lounge. Those certainly figure well into the "sound" at one point or another. So does the occasional bit of blues - the really dirty and grimy kind; some dark jazz balladry too; oh, and some carnival sounds; definitely the carnival sounds. And at other times? Think maybe 19th century saloon music with a modern sensibility. Or maybe modern music with a 19th century saloon sensibility. With a strong penchant for all things theatrical. Or, then again maybe I just don't have it in me to put it all into words. And maybe that's a good thing. To describe what the man has done with the medium of music is like describing what Herzog has done with the medium of film. You either know it and are most likely in awe of it or you're missing out on something truly incredible and need to get off, or I guess on your ass and experience it first hand pronto. What matters anyway is not what bits and pieces the sound consists but how it all comes together. And come together it does - like buttah. It would seem almost second nature for music this eclectic to assemble itself into a blaring, atonal mess that would test even the most uber-sophisticated listeners' ears such as mine (ok, some of that was a joke), but it doesn't - Waits' sound is as strange as it is strangely accessible. Most of the time in fact the songs border on what is essentially some very catchy music that just happens to be, to put it simply, weird as hell. With that in mind, Alice has the distinction of being his most haunting and mysterious work to date.

Tom's voice is thankfully a bit less of a hurdle to put to words, though ironically it's even more out there than the music for the most part. The stock description relied upon by more ignorant wanna be journalists (ha!) is "gravelly," but I dunno - that's like saying that Strom Thurmond's bones are, quote unquote, "brittle" or that most power metal nowadays is, quote unquote, "laughable and hideously bad." Not only is it an understatement of the biggrEATHUGE variety that figures only marginally into the whole truth, but if you use it you end up missing out on all the fun of coming up with a more creative description, which is an absolute must in this case. So they're not just brittle, they', what I meant to say was that Tom's voice is the quintessence of hella cool. Provided you're the type who reads Faulkner for laughs or goes to freak shows to relax, that is. I suppose I could call him dynamic, were it not for the word's much too positive connotation, which tends to feel more than a wee bit out of place here. Rather, his is the very voice of hopeless yearning. He can go from the "don't mind me while I cough up this swell bucket of rancid bile" sickly and very possibly dying drunkard's rasp to a sort of manically depressed crooner's, um, croon which is actually a mere lifetime supply of antidepressants short of sounding pretty damn tender and romantic. Alice serves up mostly the latter. While the madcap Waits does pop up here and there, he saves the bulk of his "look Ma! I coughed up a lung" throat theater for Blood Money where they fit the ultra nihilistic vibe oh so much better.

Alice's not as ravaging vocal performance cranks the ol' accessibility meter up a notch, but also poses as one of the album's less than awe inspiring features. The original theatrical play was, to the best of my knowledge, intended for several vocal parts, whereas Waits handles all the singing, or - if you will - performing, here by himself. And while this is just fine when he's emceeing the story (which he does most of the time anyway) or singing about something really really really disturbing (ditto), at those other, more select instances when he's, like, reflecting on days gone by or whatnot, he tends to come across as horridly melodramatic. It's to the point where I'm thinking that there simply has be a catch to what sounds like a Disney voiceover gone awry...and finding not a one. Not the most minor quibble in the world, I suppose, but a significant flaw this is not. And when you have two albums of material and a teeny tiny bit of sentimental overkill constitutes as the only real problem, you'll need to clock in some serious effort to not enjoy the musical goodness on display.

All taken into account, I feel that this is an excellent Tom Waits disc that belongs in everyone's collection and ranks right alongside his...blah blah blah. Ok, so granted, he's somewhat new to me (and even if he wasn't, no way in hell would I end off with something so banal), but having been born in the year that he released his breakthrough Swordfishtrombones album, I feel that I am more than in a position to talk. And talk I shall. Fantabulousness of Alice aside, I should point out that the album is not merely a collection of excellent tunes, but a real tribute to Waits being one of contemporary music's greatest commodities - a grizzled chaunter with a bizarre and incredibly fertile imagination who is able to squeeze his gut wrenchingly beautiful poetry and his utterly one of a kind musical stylings into what is on some level...a pop song. In so doing he lends a dignified credibility both to his subject(s) by avoiding the more pompous, overly pretentious avant garde-isms that would have no doubt killed off whatever impact the material might have had, and to the very notion of what pop itself can be when there is talent at its reins. It is precisely artists like Waits who have to a very crucial degree altered the face of popular music; turned it into something capable of being deep, intelligent, meaningful, and unique that just happens to have enough musical and lyrical relevance to occupy a well deserved place in the more mainstream corners of the music world. Both Alice and its more malignant counterpart offer a terrific opportunity to discover, or after the so so Mule Variations, rediscover one of music's unsung greats and bask in the murky glow of his sad but ultimately rewarding stories. In a year when such pure, unadulterated melancholia has been woefully MIA, it's nice to see the opening track get it right immediately from the getgo with three simple words - "there's only Alice."


Review by ilya -

More Metal Reviews