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CD Review: Tom Waits' Bad As Me 

Anti-; Release date: Oct. 25, 2011

By now, we're all familiar with Tom Waits' characters — the wild-eyed Carney barker, the devil's bluesman, the cabaret trickster, the barstool balladeer. The entire cast shows up for Waits' first record of freshly penned music since 2004's Real Gone, and they suggest the 61-year-old hasn't lost a thing in the interim. If there's a winner in Bad As Me's cage-match, though, it's probably the bluesman. OG rock 'n' roller and honorary bluesman Keith Richards' presence on four cuts — the Exile-like stomper "Satisfied" even addresses the Glimmer Twins directly — suggests as much, but Waits has sung with the life-grit of an ancient bluesman since he was, like, 30. Hence his comfort with the Muddy Waters tumble-and-roll of "Chicago," which features the brilliant Marc Ribot and Richards trading righteous licks; the Farfisa carnival horror-track of "Raised Right Men"; or the dirty-trombone border-rockabilly of "Get Lost."

As usual the bluster and low-down filthy blues benefit from the contrast with Waits' heart-wrecking ballads. The slow bolero "Back In the Crowd" chronicles a love affair's slow fade into memory while Waits channels his inner Orbison. The regret of "Kiss Me" captures a couple's failing grip on love. And the surprisingly not-shitty duet with Richards "Last Leaf" is another fist-shaking confrontation with mortality. Familiarity with the great breadth of human frailty is what makes Waits' lyrics so rich, and when you attract Ribot, Richards, Charlie Musslewhite, David Hidalgo and others to translate that into music — well, we all may be as bad as Waits, but it's near-impossible to be as good.

RIYL: Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. The Rolling Stones circa Exile on Main Street. Speaking in tongues.

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