It might be too much to ask Tom Waits to surprise us anymore. Since he traded his old Beat-poet persona for that of a demented Vaudevillian in the early '80s, he's pretty much stuck to refining his mix of sepia-toned balladry and circus-band madness. Keeping that in mind, Alice sees Waits primarily indulging his quiet side: gently plucked requiems, rainy noir themes and damp-eyed lullabies for lost children. Thankfully, the moody arrangements--heavy on strings and woodwinds--provide some of the quaint, antiqued atmosphere Waits' lukewarm last effort, Mule Variations, often lacked. Although it's no radical reinvention, it's evocative enough to pass inspection.
Where Alice plays the restraint game, Blood Money gets leathery and tough. This is Waits at his most acrid, sinister and cynical. Songs have titles like "Misery Is the River of the World," "Everything Goes to Hell," "God's Away on Business," "Starving in the Belly of a Whale" and "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." His Doberman voice, as raw-throated and jagged-fanged as ever, barks, "All the good in the world you can put inside a thimble/ And still have room for you and me," and "I'd sell your heart to the junkman, baby, for a buck/ If you're looking for someone to pull you out of that ditch, you're out of luck."
With the exception of some vintage Waitsian heartbreak ballads, much of the music on Blood Money waltzes in the darkest heart of the Dada cabaret. Rusty rattlecan drums and marimbas, rude belching tubas, slurring clarinets and bent calliopes spin around Waits' words in a besotted pas-de-deux. It's not as surreal as the bastardized Weill-isms and Burroughsian poetry of Waits' 1993 The Black Rider. But Blood Money still shows Waits commanding a creative force of frightening power. Consider that a commendation--and a warning. John Graham
Boards of Canada
This second eerie electronic outing from the Scottish duo is worth the four-year wait. Like Music Has the Right to Children, Geogaddi alternates strange vignettes and longer, more elaborate compositions, yet somehow attains a cohesive, uniformly melancholy feel. Scratchy digital noises, warbling analog synths and hazy, atmospheric samples surround spare beats and wistful, simple melodies. A few parts are the sonic equivalent of a badly threaded film projector, and the warbling, out-of-key pitch shifting isn't good for headaches. But that's half the fun of a challenging and rewarding record. Ben Munat
While You Weren't Looking (Yep Roc)
Given that singer-songwriter-violinist Caitlin Cary's a Whiskeytown vet, it's no surprise the words "empty bottle" show up less than a minute into her solo debut. But the songs--sad tales of suicidal boys, absent faith and lost love--are heavier on heartache than hangover. "Sorry" is something of a darker, alternative version of "The Wind Beneath My Wings": "You are a bitter brother in the shadow of a twin/ Strangled in her warm embrace/ You have grown up savage, mean and thin." The weirdest track is "Pony," whose deadpan tone barely saves it from being a rather jarring dirty joke ("My baby is a pony...he won't prance for other girls"). Though Cary's voice sounds a bit hazy without ex-bandmate Ryan Adams' to intertwine with, the odd poetry of her lyrics lifts the record out of the slush pile. Becky Ohlsen
Jason and the Scorchers
Wildfires and Misfires: Two Decades of Outtakes and Rarities
A crazy chase down the backroads of the Scorchers' long, improbable career, from their unsuccessful '80s shot at stardom to their mid-'90s encore as elder statesmen of alt-country. The collection kicks off with the original demo of the searing cover of Dylan's "Absolutely Sweet Marie" that first put them on the map. Assorted demos for lost songs jostle with live rarities like an over-the-top jam with Link Wray. A rewrite transforms "If Money Talks," a barn-burner from the debut album, into a George Jones-style tearjerker, making the band's loyalty to its country roots more clear. Homey reminiscences in the liner notes contribute to the feeling of flipping through the scrapbook of a great American rock band that always deserved better than it got. Jeff Rosenberg
Shine On is five straight-ahead rock-and-roll tracks full of swagger, jangle and fun--nothing shocking, but definitely and thoroughly pleasing. Dripping with R&B's sexy, hip-shaking flavor and driven by spiraling guitar that scratches, clicks and grinds, the New York City foursome's EP lures listeners to dock at its port and--with songs like "Boys In Heat" and "Spring Is in the Air"--begs the ladies to stay awhile. With an air of magnetic confidence and playful demeanor, Girl Harbor makes '70s-tinged, garage-inspired rock that avoids slipping into the vast mire of unexciting and undifferentiated sameness. Jenny Tatone