Old Tom's career has followed the rarest of trajectories: He started out pretty good, only to get better. But how is Mule Variations? Unfortunately, it's pretty good.
To understand why what would be a fine achievement for most artists is actually a mild disappointment for Waits, it helps to know the man's history. He's always had a wonderful growl of a voice, an eccentric sense of pace and way with words that drew from the beats without blatantly aping them (most of the time, anyhow). But too much of the material on Seventies-era albums such as Closing Time, The Heart of Saturday Night and Small Change was marked by quaint melodies, straight-from-the-cabaret arrangements and a knowing seediness that painted him into a corner. So it was thrilling when a succession of albums culminating with 1985's terrific Rain Dogs found him broadening his palette, dabbling in Beefheartian atonality and generally wreaking havoc. This period of his work offered proof that not every artist starts out hot, then slowly and steadily cools off.
Too bad the next one didn't. Since 1988's Frank's Wild Years, a worthy follow-up to Rain Dogs, Waits has spent most of his time acting, penning music for film soundtracks (1991's Night on Earth) and theatrical projects (1994's The Black Rider) and collecting money from Frito-Lay (after the chip-maker used a Waits impersonator in a 1988 ad, he sued and won $2.5 million). His only straight-up studio platter during that period--1992's Bone Machine--was an interesting sonic risk, but its clangingly metallic production made it difficult to figure out if the songs were any good or not. And while Mule Variations doesn't fall into that trap, it doesn't break any new ground, either. "Big in Japan," the opener, finds Waits on familiar turf, offering up processed vocals, a thumping beat, a smidgen of industrial racket, a noisy blues guitar courtesy of Larry LaLonde, and oddball wordplay ("I got the sizzle, but not the steak/I got the boat, but not the lake"). That's followed by an assortment of tunes that are more or less evenly split between the usual bluesy lopes ("Lowside of the Road," "Get Behind the Mule," "Chocolate Jesus") and typical narrative ballads ("Hold On," "House Where Nobody Lives," "Pony").
A handful of curveballs are tossed in for good measure, including "What's He Building?," a swell bit of spoken-word paranoia, "Cold Water," which sounds like it'd be perfect to sing while working on a chain gang, and "Eyeball Kid," a joyous excursion into surrealism ("He's just a little bitty thing/He's just a little guy/But women go crazy/For the big blue eye"). But even these songs recall past efforts, and that's a problem for a performer whose fans have grown to expect the shock of the new. None of the tunes on the CD are bad--and people who approach them with lowered expectations will probably enjoy them. In the end, though, the disc features too much mule and not enough variations.
Paintin' the Town Brown: Ween Live '90-'98
Ween's ability to ape genres is often as entertaining as it is musically sound. It's an oft-hilarious combination that made classics of records The Mollusk and Chocolate and Cheese and cemented the band's reputation as the symbiotic smart-ass leaders of the mock-and-roll revolution. This live two-disc release is a caustic cornucopia that quickly bludgeons notions that there are any sacred cows roaming the Ween universe. From traditional country on "Japanese Cowboy" and "Mister Richard Smoker" to pseudo-Santana on "Voodoo Lady" to the Sabbath-esque "Doctor Rock," the brothers Ween leave nary a rock-and-roll cliche unused and shove the envelope between playful tribute and unabashed ridicule.
The songs on disc one skip back and forth in time and include selections pulled from early Nineties European and American shows where the mighty Ween wreaked havoc on audiences of twelve or twenty with a cassette deck supplying bass and drum tracks. Live drums, keyboards and bass show up in cuts recorded after 1994, as does a polish lacking in the early years. Disc two, while only three songs long, features a 26-minute version of "Poopship Destroyer," as well as an epic "Vallejo," recorded in Las Vegas during a psilocybin-induced frenzy.
Ween works because the band is capable of putting its music where its mouth is; they're skilled players and songwriters, even if both attributes are cloaked behind an opaque irony. The band mocks C&W conventions on "Japanese Cowboy," but they also recognize the value of a well-placed fiddle solo and a pedal steel guitar. The curious Spanish/Middle Eastern mutation of "I Can't Put My Finger on It" (which poses the thoughtful question: "Are you surprised when I touch the dwarf inside?") is as tuneful as it is campy. Even the delicately titled "She Fucks Me," perhaps the closest Ween will ever come to a power ballad, has a certain twisted sweetness: "We're together she really digs me/she fucks me!" Gene sings with sheer wonder.
The Ween brothers may resemble the bratty little kids who used to live down the block from your childhood home. You know, the kids whose asses you always wanted to kick because they were constantly outsmarting you.
What the world needs now is...a band whose songs cross rap metal and funky Latin pop into the craziest fusion since beer and tomato juice. This Puerto Rican outfit (scheduled to perform at Fiddler's Green on Tuesday, July 27, with Iron Maiden) is so energetic that the first few tunes are both clumsy and exciting. Sometimes these songs make me laugh, mostly out of astonishment at Sergio Guzman's super-aggressive Hispanic bellowing and English rapping. Four songs in, the band reaches a nerve-racking apex on "Montret": a shrieking two-note guitar riff is pulled as tight as a marathon runner's hamstring, then breaks into Latin funk with a horn section, then snaps back to metal as that opening riff resurfaces to panic among the brass. Ramon Ortiz's guitar roars over the rhythm section just like Guzman's vocals, and like the horn players, Ortiz is tasteful enough to stop just short of piercing my ears from the inside out. But "Whatever" is generic low-ride funk with a nice wah-wah and an English lyric; as the fifth song, it's a tip-off that Puya's energy level is going to eventually straighten out along with the songwriting. The Puya fusion cools down into seven mere rap-metal tunes barely touched by funk, never again as quite relentless as "Montret" or even "Solo." This album essentially leaves the listener with a sensation similar to a hearty hangover pummeling, without the alcohol. Crazy as it sounds, that's a good thing. Thank goodness for "Trinidad," a final bruising reminder of the preceding melange.