* * 1/2 "FRANKS WILD YEARS." Tom Waits. Island. This music has to be seen to be believed.
Meaning that the songs on "Franks Wild Years" presumably have more impact when they're performed as part of Waits' stage production of the same name than they do in your living room. The musical (which he co-wrote with his wife Kathleen Brennan) reportedly played to sold-out houses for three months in Chicago, so you figure there was something going on there.
As an album, it doesn't quite add up. It's as if the music depends on the staging to fulfill its destiny. On record, the songs don't take on an independent life, and they seem more like guideposts to a theatrical piece that we can sort of--but not fully--imagine.
This development isn't really a surprise: In his regular concerts, Waits has been getting more and more theatrical, and some of the songs on his last few albums have taken a walk on the Weill side.
But now he's made his recordings more theatrical. Hardly anything "Years" is played and sung straight as Waits either sings through a bullhorn or uses studio techniques to modify his voice: compressing and miniaturizing it on "I'll Take New York," making it sound like a phone call from a distant decade or an old 78 record on "Innocent When You Dream (78)." Sometimes he just sings weird --impersonating an 80-year-old woman blues singer on the Apache-dance "Temptation," sounding like a derelict airing his opera fantasies on "Blow Wind Blow."
These stylistic devices make for some variety and interesting listening, but they also tend to distance Waits. Instead of the intriguing raconteur at the next bar stool or the wild-eyed hipster on the park bench, he's some kind of artist going through his formal paces up on the stage.
Stylistically, "Years" covers a wide range of familiar Waits territory, even recalling his old sentimental Americana ballads on "Train Song" and "Innocent When You Dream." The predominant sounds are the distinctive minimalist blues and organ-and-banjo Salvation-Army-band-plays-Weill that made "Rain Dogs" and "Swordfishtrombone," his two previous albums, so striking. Less so the third time around.
There are a few new turns though, and some work and some don't. One--the affirmation "Straight to the Top--does both , cooling out in a conga-driven Cuban groove in its first incarnation, then coming off as a gimmicky spoof when it returns on Side 2 in its Vegas lounge-singer duds. "Way Down in the Hole" delivers a sermon over a subdued, taut James Brown riff, and "I'll Be Gone" has the giddy, jumping exuberance of a '30s cartoon score.
"Telephone Call From Istanbul" is basically one of Waits' old tunes wearing a fez, and it has one of the album's funniest touches, when the ominous mood is suddenly washed away by a wheezing Farfisa organ, like a bad one-man band in an Middle Eastern restaurant.
The story obliquely follows a restless soul who blows his small town and follows his dreams. Ten of the 15 songs refer specifically to dreams, and the music does ultimately achieve a dreamlike quality with its subtly disquieting shadings. It can get nightmarish too: The rhythm sections sometimes feel like a churning stomach, and in "I'll Take New York" it's as if George Jessel came out of the grave to squawk away on a garish, warped Broadway salute.
And like a dream--and unlike Waits' previous albums--it tends to slip away when it's over. Waits works better when he comes from the streets instead of the stage.