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Waits' Adventures Take Bluesy Turn

**** TOM WAITS, "Mule Variations",ph

April 25, 1999|ROBERT HILBURN

Waits is a superb songwriter whose eccentric style as singer and record maker has caused his career to take as many strange turns as a crooked roulette wheel--an image this compulsive raconteur would surely appreciate.

Though he can be as inventive lyrically as Bob Dylan and as seductive musically as Randy Newman, Waits has devoted much of his career to testing the boundaries of pop in experimental steps, as if the straightforward approach were not challenging enough.

In the key tracks of "Mule" (due in stores Tuesday), Waits remains the musical adventurer. In the striking "Lowside of the Road" and "Get Behind the Mule" (both, like the majority of songs on the album, co-written by Kathleen Brennan), the longtime blues fan sets out to make music as raw and revealing as Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf--and he is up to the task.

A look at contemporary paranoia, "What's He Building?" is wonderfully witty storytelling, while "Georgia Lee" is a surprisingly tender reflection on society's inability to care for its own.

But the heart of "Mule" is a series of hauntingly evocative ballads, loosely in the grand tradition of such Waits songs as "The Heart of Saturday Night" and "Innocent When You Dream."

"Hold On" and "House Where Nobody Lives" are exquisite tales of reaching for or looking back on love, while "Picture in a Frame" is one of the most endearing and unguarded love songs Waits has ever written. "Come On Up to the House" is about comfort and salvation.

Though the album suffers from CD disease (in reaching for a 70-minute length, it includes a couple of uneventful tracks), the heart of "Mule" contains some of Waits' most personal and accessible music. Thanks to the level of songwriting and the imaginative coloring of the arrangements, the music sacrifices none of its craft and character for its disarming warmth.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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