In Tom Waits' vast cast of musical personalities, three familiar ones dominate: the swamp-stomping bluesman, the world-weary romantic, and the Carney barker from hell's carnival.
Those voices are the loose organizing principle behind Waits' Orphans, a must-own three-disc set comprised of 24 rarities and 30 never-before-released songs. The collection is culled mostly from the 1990s but spans Waits' mid-80s years at Island Records to the present. The discs are split into three categories, roughly corresponding to blues wails ("Brawlers"), sad-eyed ballads and lullabies ("Bawlers"), and Waits' hair-raising experiments and spoken-word pieces ("Bastards").
Most leftovers packages are weighed down by throwaway demos and gratuitous alternate takes, but not Orphans. In addition to the unreleased material, this set assembles soundtrack songs; tribute-record covers of the Ramones, Daniel Johnston, Kurt Weill, Jack Kerouac, Leadbelly and Skip Spence; outtakes from Bone Machine, Mule Variations and Alice; music from the plays Frank's Wild Years, Woyzeck and Alice; and various other oddities. (The accompanying 94-page booklet does not include the songs' origins, so completists will need considerable sleuthing skills.)
Waits is notoriously promiscuous with the world's songbook, a good chunk of it represented by Orphans' rhumbas, tarantellas, waltzes, polkas, Celtic laments, sea shanties, blues, rock, folk, country, jazz, and gospel. The range is imposing, still more how all these styles become Waits' through his sandpaper growl, off-kilter arrangements and narrative peculiarities. And the pawn shop instrumentation -- marimbas, pump organs, saws, optigons, trombones, accordions, junkyard percussion, etc. -- only adds to the carnival ride.
But Waits is first and foremost a student of human frailty, with enough fodder from his own life to make his cock-eyed aphorisms and Hieronymus Bosch imagery truly unsettling. "Give a man gin, give a man cards/Give him an inch, he takes a yard," Waits sings on "Fannin Street," neatly summing up the general outlook. Even his children's songs read like the Grimm Brothers translating Burroughs' Naked Lunch. But it's that unpredictable mix of the playful and the profane, the adventurous and the familiar, that makes Orphans another essential component in this American music giant's catalog.