The Bob Dylan syndrome continues to plague pop music. Because Dylan is such an unorthodox singer, people mistakenly assume that he's a bad singer and thus wrongly conclude that one can make great records without bothering to sing well. It's just not true, and songwriters from Kris Kristofferson and John Prine to Eric Clapton and Jerry Garcia have paid the price for this delusion.
Dylan doesn't have much of a natural instrument, but he has learned to compensate with an actor's delivery, emphasizing phrasing and inflection rather than tone and pitch. Only a few other songwriters have grasped this point and become good singers despite a bad voice -- most notably Lou Reed, Donald Fagen and August Darnell.
Tom Waits: 'Frank's Wild Years' Tom Waits' voice is a monstrous instrument, pitted and scarred by too many cigarettes and cheap drinks; he makes Dylan sound like Sam Cooke by comparison. Waits (who performs at the Warner Theatre Oct. 21-22) is one of the best lyricists of the past 15 years, however, and whenever he has harnessed his rebellious voice to an actor's half-spoken, half-sung jive delivery, his albums have been quite effective.
Unfortunately, Waits tries to really sing on his new album, "Frank's Wild Years" (Island, 7 90572-1), and the results are disastrous. His voice has never sounded worse; it wheezes and croaks more than it sings. To exacerbate the problem, Waits has abandoned the jazz settings of his early work and the rock arrangements of his recent records for an eccentric sound best described as the slightly inebriated pit band for a flea-bitten gypsy circus.
The single-disc album offers a generous helping of 17 songs and 56 minutes of music, all of it from the stage play of the same title that Waits wrote with his wife, Kathleen Brennan. The Steppenwolf Theatre Company premiered the play in Chicago last year with Waits in the starring role. Like most stage musicals, this one contains some songs that make sense only within the context of the show and others that can stand on their own.
Some of the latter rank with Waits' best writing. "Innocent When You Dream" is a tender confession; the singer admits that dreams are all he has left -- and even his memories are stolen. "More Than Rain" is a bracing admission that the singer's troubles are more than a temporary setback; they have become a way of life. "Yesterday Is Here" is a similar acknowledgment that the singer's dreams aren't likely to come true as long as time keeps moving forward rather than backward.
Yet these songs are undermined by Waits' decisions as his own producer. They often sound as if they were coming from a back bedroom at the end of a long hallway. Waits' new fascination with circuslike organs only further blurs the definition of his songs. And time after time, he reaches for a note, only to stumble and bang himself up.
The album redeems itself a bit with the two final and best songs, which feature the plaintive accordion of Los Lobos' David Hidalgo. The simple arrangements encourage Waits to understate his delivery on "Cold Cold Ground," a country two-step about death, and "Train Song," a bluesy homesick ballad.
Marianne Faithfull: 'Strange Weather' Marianne Faithfull sings songs by both Waits and Dylan on her new album, "Strange Weather" (Island, 7 90613-1), but her vocal instrument is every bit as limited as either of theirs and her delivery just as idiosyncratic. With her flat, nasal voice, Faithfull is an odd choice for an album of songs by everyone from Leadbelly to Jerome Kern, from Dr. John to Harry Warren.
Hal Willner, best known for producing albums of music by Thelonious Monk and Kurt Weill interpreted by a strange range of artists, has now produced an album by one artist interpreting a strange range of songwriters. It almost works, because the songs and the musicians are so good. To hear New York jazz stars Bill Frisell, Lew Soloff and Sharon Freeman work with the Lou Reed Band's Robert Quine, J.T. Lewis and Fernando Saunders is a boundary-crossing treat.
Faithfull's voice has a beguiling, world-weary tone that suits many of these songs, but she offers little else. Her phrasing and inflection are more often arch than revealing. She transforms Dylan's "I'll Keep It With Mine" from a love song into a cabaret exercise; her transparent imitation of Billie Holiday on "Yesterdays" is self-indicting. She redoes the Rolling Stones' "As Tears Go By," the hit that launched her career in 1964, but slows it down to a dirge. She has more luck with Waits' title track, which she gives just enough bounce to make it sound like a long-lost Brecht-Weill tune.
Tom Verlaine: 'Flash Light' Tom Verlaine, the former Thomas Miller, who adopted a poet's name much as Robert Zimmerman once became Bob Dylan, is the best guitarist to emerge from the New York punk movement of the mid-'70s. Unfortunately, he's a terrible singer, and that has undermined all his solo albums, including his latest, "Flash Light" (I.R.S., 42050). It's full of brilliant guitar playing, both subtle fills and majestic solos, not only from Verlaine himself but also from his guitar peer Jimmy Ripp. Verlaine's lyrics, once his strong point, have succumbed to that notion popular in modern poetry that eccentric details are somehow significant in themselves. And no matter how exciting the guitar breaks are, the drama goes out of the songs as soon as Verlaine opens his mouth.