Pop/Rock/World CD Reviews

Mercy And Grand – The Music Of Tom Waits And Kathleen Brennan – GB Records

An unusual gypsy take on Tom Waits.

Published on October 8, 2012

Mercy And Grand – The Music Of Tom Waits And Kathleen Brennan – GB Records BCGBCD18, 73:48 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:

(Jess Walker – voice; Joe Townsend – violin, trumpetviolin; Dan Pritchard – tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute; Karen Street – accordion; James Woodrow – electric guitar; Jim Holmes – piano, harmonium, harmonica; Gavin Bryars – double bass; harmonium; Simon Allen – percussion)

It seems that Tom Waits and Gavin Bryars are mutual fans. So it was not surprising that Bryars   has assembled a self-described “circus band” to interpret Waits (and his songwriting partner/wife Kathleen Brennan) songs, as well as Kurt Weill and some traditional music. Waits’ music has evolved from saloon balladry and gritty street narratives to unconventional instrumentation (including off-key tunings, marimbas and hybrid reeds). What has never changed is the pathos and emotional depth of the narratives. Many artists (including Bette Midler, James Taylor and Steve Earle) have chosen to resurrect this material. There was an indie project (New Coat Of Paint: The Songs Of Tom Waits), demonstrating the wide appeal of this music.

On Mercy And Grand, these stories are interpreted through exotic European-influenced arrangements in a live setting.  Opening with Gypsy Tango, the band shows off their off-beat instrumental prowess with violin and clarinet accents. The carnival vibe morphs into the first Waits/Brennan song (“A Little Drop Of Poison”), that introduces the mezzo-soprano of Jess Walker. As described by Waits in the liner notes, his music gets taken out to an elegant night on the town. A sharp guitar edge and backup vocals keep the idiosyncratic resonance. With ease, the transition to a Kurt Weill number (“Ballad of Sexual Dependency”) is ethereal with harmonium and violin (There has always been an undercurrent of operatic nuance in the Waits catalogue.)  On “Poor Edward”, Walker’s emotional singing is enhanced by a musical saw to inject the right touch of weirdness.

The amalgam of elegant vocals and exotic music is very effective. “Alice” has a dreamy resonance, while “Innocent When You Dream” is reminiscent of the vintage sentiment of earlier compositions like “Tom Traubert’s Blues” or “Ruby’s Arms”. The ballad arrangement of “Johnsburg, Illinois” represents a rare faithful adaptation. When Bryars veers from the template, the results are more interesting. “Pony” cooks up a Western romance with harmonica and slide guitar. Even spruced up the inherent angst and flawed humanity are never overshadowed. “Georgia Lee” in waltz time maintains its lyrical beauty. Bryars develops a jaunty blues motif to “Train Song” with a tenor saxophone and electric guitar solos. However on this cover, the seedy Waits vocal is sorely missed.

Mercy And Grand takes on a difficult task, reinterpreting a highly-stylized artist like Tom Waits in global, traditional folk structures. For the most part, it works.

TrackList: Gypsy Tango; A Little Drop Of Poison; Ballad Of Sexual Dependency; Poor Edward; Alice; Whistle Down The Wind; A Little Rain; Innocent When You Dream; Johnsburg Illinois; La Partida; What Keeps Mankind Alive; Pony; Georgia Lee; Broken Bicycles; Train Song; Pull Down Lads; Barbara Allen; The Briar And The Rose; Lullaby

—Robbie Gerson

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