While some tributes work better than others, 'Til We Outnumber 'Em, the Woody Guthrie tribute recorded at a star-studded 1996 Severance Hall concert during the Rock Hall's first American Music Masters symposium, is something fans of Guthrie and the performers involved will appreciate -- though not listen to often. New Coat of Paint: The Songs of Tom Waits, on the other hand, merits repeated spins. It's so good, it outweighs some of Waits's own efforts.
Produced by Ani DiFranco for her indie Righteous Babe label (Guthrie would approve), 'Til We Outnumber 'Em features the late dust-bowl troubadour's odes rendered by Billy Bragg, Indigo Girls, Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner, DiFranco, Arlo Guthrie, and Bruce Springsteen, among others. While it's a little uneven, it does have its simple charms, in particular Bragg's "Against the Law" and Springsteen's "Riding in My Car." Bragg makes even the blues sound kind of cheery as he spouts a litany of social injustices ("It's against the law to read/It's against the law to write/It's against the law to be black or brown or white").Paint is filled with lesser-known artists from familiar bands, each delivering the Brechtian twists of Waits's world so convincingly, it's as if they tried on his worn porkpie hat before stepping into the studio. From Screamin' Jay Hawkins's opening growl on "Whistlin' Past the Graveyard" to Dexter Romweber's "Romeo Is Bleeding," Waits's downtrodden characters are wonderfully reincarnated in all their rumpled finery. Lee Rocker's cover of the title tune is a sultry slow dance; Lydia Lunch oozes cynicism in "Heartattack and Vine," and the Geraldine Fibbers' Carla Bozulich invokes Marlene Dietrich in "On the Nickel" -- all of which glow with the same tarnished brilliance as the originals.