Malevolent spirits stalked this land long before Columbus. The Algonquin Windigo, man-eating giants with paralyzing screams, wandered the Northeast, turning innocent people into cannibals while they slept. Dagwanoenyent, a living whirlwind, terrorized the Iroquois. The Yenaldlooshi, an immortal race of bloodthirsty nudist witches, tried regularly to relieve the Navajo of their skulls. Forbidden places—mountains, rivers, caves—abounded. It didn't matter whether the spirit of a given spot was intrinsically good or evil—set one foot in the wrong canyon, and you might be fucked for eternity. By the 20th century, nearly every town in America had a resident bogeyman and a well cursed by the stiffs who had been thrown into it.
This rich accumulation of resident evil is anything but lost on David Thomas and Tom Waits. Sure, people kill people in the lyrics of Waits' new Real Gone (Anti-/Epitaph) and 18 Monkeys on a Dead Man's Chest (Smog Veil), the new album by Thomas & Two Pale Boys. But places do a pretty good job of whacking folks, too. "Don't go into that barn!" Waits howls over Larry Taylor and Harry Cody's stealthy acoustic guitar shuffle on the song of the same name. His protagonist's concern is understandable, given the fact that the long-abandoned edifice is screaming his name at midnight under "a black cellophane sky" and a "big blue moon with three gold rings." Thomas has site-specific problems of his own. The very atmosphere provides an ever-present danger on "New Orleans Fuzz," 18 Monkeys' opening track. "In the Big Easy/All the bugs is crazy/And there are monsters in the rain," he wails like Howlin' Wolf in his prime, buttressed by Keith Moliné's monumental 12-string slide. "The river is in the air/And there's nothing else to breath."
A manifest interest in murderous locales isn't the only thing the pair have in common. Both Waits and Thomas have a capacity for coaxing alien sounds out of acoustic instruments. Like much of Real Gone, "Top of the Hill" finds the former expanding greatly on the junkyard percussion he first employed on 1983's Swordfishtrombones—with his voice. Waits' human beatboxing, his son Casey's turntables (!), and Primus drummer Brain's boxy bottom, along with the singer's lascivious growl, create what might be called acoustic crunk, were it not for the fact that the track lacks the genre's essential three Ws: women, weed, and wheels. The effect is anything but accidental. In pursuit of what he calls "cubist funk," Waits recorded hours of mouth percussion in preparation for the album.
Thomas shares his colleague's current disdain for the primitive mechanical drum machine (i.e., drum kit) invented by William F. Ludwig at the turn of the last century, as well as its electronic descendents. He deals with the matter by dispensing with drums altogether. Thanks to Pale Boys Moliné (guitar, synth) and Andy Diagram (trumpet), as well as himself on the accordion-like melodeon and the musette, a baroque woodwind with ancient origins, you never even feel the absence, even on rocker "Numbers Man."
Thomas seems simultaneously detached and gleeful, clucking, "I count 15 monkeys on a dead man's chest/Pour another drink and we'll discuss the rest/It never rains that it does not pour/So I bought you a ring at the Itchy Store," right out of a tempo-establishing intro that sounds like a Jew's harp. (As on Real Gone, it's often impossible to tell exactly what instrument is making what sound.) Moliné's grinding guitar provides the song's momentum, but Diagram's trumpet and Thomas's musette put the frosting on a vortex twice magnified by interludes of near-silent abstraction. For the most part, Waits is a bit tenderer instrumentally than Thomas, using old comrade Marc Ribot's guitar as a foil for his gruff voice and rough words on several tracks, notably the 10-minute "Sins of My Father"; Ribot skews delicate and bluesy on the sparsely decorated loper. Only "Baby Gonna Leave Me," Real Gone's fastest, most aggressive track, finds the guitarist venturing into anything even vaguely resembling rock's domain, as he chops off a refined approximation of Brian Jones, circa 1964.
Moliné takes exactly the opposite tack, providing the bulk of Monkeys' torque and thrust, as well as making the album's eerie songs (its only kind) all the stranger—no easy task, particularly on the disc's finale, "Prepare for the End." Easily the most sinister bad-place song on either album, the track begins with Thomas explaining his desire to acquaint himself with "Soda Mountain" over a bed of gossamer, delay-drenched trumpet and guitar. As the song progresses, we learn slowly that there's something dreadfully wrong about the place. After Thomas matter-of-factly sings, "When they found me in the wreck with my hand upon the throttle/I was scalded by the steam and I died inside the rain/All you ladies take a warning from Soda Mountain/And be good unto your man lest he's lost unto that mountain/Then he'll wave to you/From Soda Mountain/Then he'll wave to you," the guitarist fulminates with the sort of riff Robert Fripp might have employed before he got too fancy. Still, it's Thomas who has the last and biggest word, unleashing a writhing swarm of venomous serpents on his quaint little musette—after he waves from Soda Mountain, of course.
In the, um, end, what Waits and Thomas share most is a genius for assimilating traditional musical styles—various types of folk, gospel, country, rock, and especially blues, which both play without a shred of condescension or nostalgia, twisted this way and that, recombined, kicked into the future here, the antediluvian past there—and making it all come out as though they're simply being themselves, which they are. The most interesting thing about both of them is that they only get more radical about it with time—no small accomplishment for artists whose careers stretch back more than three decades, and who were both plenty weird to begin with. Neither is a stranger to fashion, and both do exactly as they please.
Tom Waits plays the Paramount Theater at 8 p.m. Mon., Oct. 18. Sold out. David Thomas & Two Pale Boys play Tractor Tavern with Steve Fisk at 9 p.m. Tue., Oct. 19. $12.