The 1992 opera for which Alice was originally written has yet to reach our shores, but it's hard to believe it could fulfill the promise of a playwright marrying a musician better than the album itself does. Kathleen Brennan has influenced Tom Waits's music ever since they met in 1980, and while only two of Waits's subsequent albums have been actual stage musicals, all of them have used skewed arrangements like impressionist backdrops and included a multiplicity of characters for Waits to stylize his vocals around. What's remarkable about Alice is how diverse it is in style even as it maintains a single, magically nocturnal mood. The title track and "Flower's Grave" are as jazzily sentimental as anything on Waits's 1973 debut, Closing Time; other tunes are as wild and woolly as his more recent work. "Everything You Can Think" is a dankly percussive skeleton march along the lines of "Singapore" (from Rain Dogs), and the convulsive cabaret jazz of "Kommienezuspadt" sounds like the Andrews Sisters' "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" with Tourette's.
But it's not only the arrangements that weave Alice together. The album, a loose tribute to Lewis Carroll, maintains a subtle storybook theme in the lyrics, from the allusive tall tales of "Everything..." ("We're fighting our way up dreamland's spine with red flamingos and expensive wine") to the pure storytelling -- over honeyed Dixieland jazz -- of "Table Top Joe," about a boy "born without a body" who's a dancin' fool nonetheless. Although the stories are sung in character -- the barfly crooner, the chanting underworld tour guide, the crazed cabaret emcee -- Waits's vocals never feel strained or affected. Alice adds up to a musical picture book so colorful, it seduces your imagination into creating scenarios to which no stage set could do justice.
On the other hand, a theatrical presentation might not hurt Blood Money, Waits's concurrent release based on the 1837 German play Woyzeck. For one thing, it contains not one but three "Singapore"-like cartoon death marches, with little musical or thematic difference among them. And while Lou Reed's "Coney Island Baby" deserves a song that lives up to the romance of its title, Waits's eponymous Tin Pan Alley ditty is a touch too cute: You want to hang it on the wall like an old piece of sheet music. That said, the song glimmers with romantic poetry worthy of "Downtown Train" ("All the stars make their wishes on her eyes"), and the circus-calliope-drenched "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" has some of the most elegant couplets created during this master coupleteer's career: "How far from the gutter, how far from the pew/I'll always remember to forget about you." In fact, the entire album -- musically more percussive and bold than its twin but shallower and less beguiling -- bears swatches of Waits's lyrical talent at its height. Despite its relative pallor in Alice's strange glow, Blood Money is good enough to make you wonder how Waits and Brennan, the purportedly happy couple, have thwarted the muse-stifling scourge of domesticity. Then again, they always were a little different.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.