Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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By neither getting too famous nor giving up for a quarter century, bull-roaring low-life chronicler Tom Waits has evolved into a role model for young alt-rockers who hope some day to be old alt-rockers. So after checkered careers on two major labels, the second summed up nicely on last year's Beautiful Maladies: The Island Years (Island), Waits took the logical step: he signed to the punk-based L.A. indie Epitaph. Yet Mule Variations, his first new music in six years, is his least confrontational album since his 1973 debut--surprisingly tender, adding more blues to the clanging cabaret-rock he invented in the '80s. Waits is as sardonic as ever on Big in Japan, Eyeball Kid, and What's He Building?, but elsewhere it's as if his love for his wife and collaborator Kathleen Brennan has finally taken over his music. This emotionality adds welcome dimension to his ingrained weirdness, which can seem pretty smug on its own. Here's hoping old alt-rockers get the point.

Scratch a band slotted alt-country two years ago and you'll find a band that claims it's all about good songs today. Hear for instance Wilco's Summer Teeth (Reprise) and the Old 97's' Fight Songs (Elektra), both sure to elicit howls of outrage from steel-guitar loyalists, both long enough on tune to satisfy any rock and roller's hummability jones. Personally, I like the alt-country idea enough myself to believe the Old 97's' guitar-hooked lyrical specifics are a surer means to full-fledged good songs than the piano-dominated pop generalizations Wilco's Jeff Tweedy deploys so skillfully. Try Oppenheimer, the name of the street where the 97's' Rhett Miller falls in love, or 19, about being too young to know how good you're getting it.

Playboy, Apr. 1999

Mar. 1999 May 1999