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Cover Art Tom Waits
Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years
[Island]
Rating: 8.6

My mom once told me that the reason she liked Janis Joplin so much was because you could hear a painful life when she sang. Tom Waits has had the same effect on two generations. But it's more than just pain you hear when Tom Waits sings-- it's happiness, drunkenness, drama, anger and truth. Brutal truth. For Waits, there's nothing shocking; no killer behind the door or bogeyman under the bed. You hear it in his voice: he's been through too much to be surprised. That's why his deadpan reading of the psycho- homicidal "Frank's Wild Years" never rises above a humph, or why the rhyming non- sequiturs of "Singapore" seem so orderly and precise. "The Black Rider" would qualify as macabre under most circumstances, but with Waits singing, it's macabaret. With a knack for being both self- assured and extremely fragile, this man is the most unstable rock to ever play a piano.

For ten years it was the lounge bar at Island Records where Waits played. Some might say that it was his early jazz- beat years that gave Waits his identity, but maturity suits him fine, and it's his Island years chronicled on Beautiful Maladies which see him narrating with the cynical wisdom of someone who's been there, wherever "there" may be.

There's no attempt at chronologically recapping the seven albums Waits recorded for Island, which makes sense since his musical growth looks more like a used dartboard than a graph. He never hit the same mark twice, and he didn't score higher with each additional shot because you never knew if he was seriously aiming or just making a drunken toss.

For all of Waits' high points, he's highest when he fits what he's singing. The cracked childhood of "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" couldn't ask for better vocals than Waits' bourbon wheeze, and "Time" finds optimism in despair.

That's what makes Waits unique. Not only can he sing with wisdom (whether real or invented), but he can sing about loss without falling into heartache and he can sing about hope without letting go of pain. Even though half of his tales are stranger than fiction and none of them give explicit insight into Waits himself, you get the feeling that you know all about this guy. Because no matter what the song, it's being sung in a way only Tom Waits could sing it.

-Shan Fowler







10.0: Essential
9.5-9.9: Spectacular
9.0-9.4: Amazing
8.5-8.9: Exceptional; will likely rank among writer's top ten albums of the year
8.0-8.4: Very good
7.5-7.9: Above average; enjoyable
7.0-7.4: Not brilliant, but nice enough
6.0-6.9: Has its moments, but isn't strong
5.0-5.9: Mediocre; not good, but not awful
4.0-4.9: Just below average; bad outweighs good by just a little bit
3.0-3.9: Definitely below average, but a few redeeming qualities
2.0-2.9: Heard worse, but still pretty bad
1.0-1.9: Awful; not a single pleasant track
0.0-0.9: Breaks new ground for terrible