On his last two albums, Tom Waits created a junkyard-rock sound of ragged guitars, cheesy keyboards, rattling percussion and hoarse shouts. Pursuing this dubious strategy at the Warner Theatre last night, he only forced his voice into a raspy screech that obscured his lyrics -- and lyrics are almost the sole reason for attending a Tom Waits concert. Fortunately, for more than half the show, he resorted to his understated old cabaret arrangements, which make the most of his inspired song writing.

In fact, Waits rescued several recent songs from their studio versions with new, restrained arrangements. With the band lying back and Waits doing his tender "character" singing, songs such as "Innocent When You Dream" and "More Than Rain" took on a renewed, fuller life. The evening's highlight, though, came when he sat down at a piano with little or no accompaniment and did four old songs, including a riveting version of "Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis."

He also displayed his maturing acting skills with hilarious parodies of a preacher and a lounge singer and with a new extended variation on his set piece, "Frank's Wild Years."

His superb five-piece band, which alternated among 19 different instruments, handled everything from junkyard rock and country-folk to circus music and Brechtian cabaret.

Waits' efforts to inject more rhythm into his music are commendable, but so far his tactics have subtracted more from his strengths than they've added.

Waits returns to the Warner Theatre tonight.