Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tom Waits - Swordfishtrombones

★★★★★ Tracks:
Johnsburg, Illinois
16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six
Frank’s Wild Years
Soldier’s Things
Gin Soaked Boy

Swordfishtrombones didn’t grab my attention as quickly as Rain Dogs did. The problem resided in its slow build; with its best songs nested in the latter half of the record, I’d turn it off after the first couple of tracks and go back to Rain Dogs for my Tom Waits fix. But patience this time around has led me to two bluesy gems in “16 Shells From a Thirty Ought Six” and “Gin Soaked Boy.” From there the rest of the album grabbed a hold of me. “Underground” starts us off encompassing that new Tom Waits sound; natural, eclectic instrumentation, chaotic but sparse percussion, slinky electric guitars, and fiction-oriented storytelling. “Johnsburg, Illinois” is reminiscent of his earlier piano-driven songs, but more interestingly layered with his newly acquired smoke and booze destructed voice. There are a few spoken-word tracks that add more tonal variety in “Trouble’s Braids,” “Shore Leave” and “Frank’s Wild Years,” the latter of which shows off Waits’ dark sense of humor. And the few instrumentals demonstrate the vaudeville and carnival themes he would further develop on his next record.

There isn’t a decade in pop history more defined by a single style of music than the 80’s, but Tom Waits’ music transcends it. Show someone a New Order single or a Huey Lewis record, they most likely will be able to pinpoint the 80’s as its place of residence. Show them Swordfishtrombones or Rain Dogs and they could easily assume it's some songwriter influenced by blues and rock with a minor obsession for crime noir, or they might just as easily presume it's a record your grandfather gave you from his childhood. That it came from '83 would surprise most I imagine, and it's one of the more enjoyable aspects of Tom Waits’s music thus far -- it isn’t trapped in some nostalgic time frame. That abrasive voice and those vast influences touched upon in these two records might turn off the masses, but they've established that you aren't going to find many songwriters as unique and entertaining as Waits.

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