Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Tom Waits - Rain Dogs

★★★★★ Tracks:
Most of them.

That voice is insane. He sounds like a goddamned pirate; a mix of Howlin’ Wolf, Leonard Cohen and Isaac Brock at his most obnoxious, but still uniquely a sound all its own. Tom Waits is a relatively new discovery for me. My first exposure came from a somewhat generic piano ballad I stumbled upon in college called “San Diego Serenade.” An ex had just moved there which made it an easy choice to include on the next mixed tape I was making her. I didn’t actually think much of the song though, and it wasn’t until a few years later I heard the new and (un)improved Tom Waits. Season two to the greatest show ever made had my favorite version of its title track, a strange and bluesy little song containing one of the most abrasive and raspiest voices I have ever heard. It was Waits. How had I heard such a different version of the songwriter? As I dug through his history, I didn’t find it at all surprising to read that he spent the majority of the the 70’s boozing and smoking, and all that partying turned his voice to shit. “San Diego Serenade” was released in 1974, making my first sample of Tom Waits the much healthier, but also less experimental and interesting, version of the songwriter that evolved through the 80's. So the 80’s is where I would begin my journey through his discography, and having been picked as his landmark album by most critics, Rain Dogs was my first choice.

The opening track, “Singapore,” a song that invokes dark seas, old wooden caravels and shady characters, had me intrigued immediately. Each Tom Waits track is like its own little epic movie. I’ve never heard such captivating, fucked-up stories in the shape of songs; even the instrumentation on its own conjures cultures and eras. “Cemetery Polka” sounds like a song for the carny. “Tango ‘Til They’re Sore” updates that great Old West saloon sound with a tinge of blues and old, American theater, with Waits singing my favorite lines on the record:

"Turn the spit on that pig and kick the drum and let me down
Put my clarinet beneath your bed 'til I get back in town
Let me fall out of the window with confetti in my hair
Deal out Jacks or Better on a blanket by the stairs
I'll tell you all my secrets, but I lie about my past
So send me off to bed for evermore"

“Big Black Mariah” finds Waits adapting delta blues and the big, booming voice of the Howlin’ Wolf. He can take it down a notch too, and it’s almost comical when that destroyed voice of a lunger comes in to sing the more romantic songs like “Hang Down Your Head,” “Time,” and “Downtown Train,” but they’re all the more powerful and unique because of it.

The music had also become more distinguished than the rather straightforward “San Diego Serenade.” Waits attributes a lot of this new direction to his wife, whom he married in 1980. She was the one who introduced him to Captain Beefheart (who’s music I still have not explored myself), helped him to quit smoking and drinking, and co-wrote some of his songs from Swordfishtrombones onward. On Rain Dogs we get a little bit of everything, from rock’n’roll, to blues, to vaudeville, to R&B, to gospel. Having grown wary of the all the electronic trends in music (Tears for Fears and Madonna had some of the biggest singles of 1985), Tom Waits went out to record a completely natural sounding record. He would tape record rain, cars driving by, faucets running, pipes clanging, and he went about replicating them with instruments. There’s a hell of a lot of novel percussion, and Waits says, "if we couldn't get the right sound out of the drum set we'd get a chest of drawers in the bathroom and bang it real hard with a two-by-four," such that "the sounds become your own.” Most of Rain Dogs was written in a rough area of the West Village (hard to think of now but this was 1984-85), and he wanted the sound and the lyrics to revolve around the “urban dispossessed.” It’s a record for the lonely, the strange, the wicked; the outcasts of New York. For me, it’s a record of theatrics, as if each song could be set to a screenplay and put on camera. It's one of the most unique and artistic pieces of pop music I've ever heard.

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