Monday, April 21, 2014

The Great Albums: Rain Dogs by Tom Waits

Slowly but steadily, through his first five or six albums, Tom Waits progressed from the piano bar melodies of his early days into the musical creature that gave the world his eighth record, Rain Dogs in 1985. Actually the middle piece of a trilogy (1983's Swordfishtrumbone and Frank's Wild Years in 1987, being the bookends of said trilogy), that sort of reinvented this unique beast of a singer/songwriter, Rain Dogs is often considered Waits' greatest album - his seminal work even. An eclectic monster of an album that leapfrogs from blues to ballads to country to roadhouse to rockabilly/hillbilly swing to poetic pop to 'Nawlins-influenced bangers to instrumentals to spoken word poetry to polka even, Waits proves himself the experimental musical genius that many claim him to be. Yes, the album may very be an uneven mess of musical tricks and tropes, but where such a thing would destroy another, less fulfilling artist's album, when Waits does such a thing, it all comes together in ways no one would have ever expected from anyone else.  Is this really Waits' best work? I must admit to not having heard all of the musician's oeuvre as of yet (a void that will soon be filled as I dig into more and more music over the next few months of my self-styled musicology crash course), so perhaps I am not the one to make that call quite yet. But, then again, this is a goddamn fine album, full of pretty much any and all important musical influences spewing all over it like a drunken sailor on his last night of leave, and would be my favourite if forced to give my answer right here and now. But I digress.

The album, dense and layered, with 19 tracks in less than 54 minutes, opens with a crusty sea shanty-esque number about sailing off to Singapore (a scary-ass, nightmarish song that sounds like something one would maybe hear in a port town bar run by Kurt Weill), then is followed up by the chillingly mountainesque Clap Hands, full of Waits' guttural, angry vocals, and backed by the surprisingly placed marimba (two of 'em actually), and then it goes just batshitcrazy after that. From an actual goddamn polka number, replete with organ and accordion, through a series of this and that, all of which makes the album seem as if it is a lost, tortured soul, screaming to be put out of its own misery, even though it is this very tortured soul that makes us want to listen and live through its screaming throes of pain, breathing it all in with steely determination. Really, I do mean all this as genuinely and completely complimentary. There is some awesomely diverse stuff in Rain Dogs, from a James Bond-esque instrumental number (Midtown) to a dramatic, Beat reading of Waits' poetry (9th & Hennepin) to a folksy hillbilly number that sounds as if it should be played while running moonshine through the backwoods of Kentucky or Tennessee (Gun Street Girl) to a raspy-tinged, Mambo-infused pop song that feels as if it is running from the law (Jockey Full of Bourbon) to a broken down, smoke-filled jazzy piano roadhouse number (Tango Till They're Sore) to the closing track, a mournful, gospel piece that seems to die out just as Waits' strained voice does after all the obvious pain of the album, before suddenly turning itself into a Bourbon Street, Dixieland rag (Anywhere I Lay My Head). And that ain't even half of it.

If pressed to pick a favourite track here, it would probably be something like the Clap Hands or Jockey Full of Burbon, but really, it is hard to choose just one or two songs from the thick array of greatness on this album. But still, as musically diverse and esoterically resonating as Rain Dogs sound may very well be - and it is just that, and more - there is something at the core of all that, and that is what Waits puts down on paper. Hitchcock once said the three most important things when making a movie are screenplay, screenplay, and screenplay. One can easily amend that when talking about recording an album, by saying lyrics, lyrics, lyrics, and Tom Waits' has those in motherfucking spades. Yes, the musical innovations here (using pretty much anything and everything to create his sounds) are beyond reproach, but when one sifts through all that, and actually listens to the words, and I mean really listen, then the album, and in turn Waits himself, takes on a whole other essence of its own. I came to Tom Waits rather late in life, having only really taken a deep notice of him over the past few years or so (mainly thanx to a friend called Max), and I must slap myself up the back of the head for taking so fucking long to get where I am now. Stupid fuck that I am. But let's just let Tom Waits himself do the talking here, and go out and get this album (preferably on vinyl, of course) and listen listen listen. If you are disappointed, don't blame me. You obviously have no taste in music and should be pointed at and laughed about. So there. 'll be back in a few weeks with another installment of The Great Albums Series. This particular installment has been part of the Blogging From A to Z April Challenge. That's it gang. See ya 'round the web.


  1. I always liked Tom Waits even though I do not know much about his music except that he liked to experiment in everything.....well in his life too. Good luck in listening to more of his music. My brother has many of his albums...and I do mean albums:)

  2. A one-of-a-kind artist if there ever was one!

  3. Thanx for stopping by guys. One-of-a-kind, indeed.

    I have now listened to Rain Dogs enough times that I know many of the songs by heart. I'm going to move on and do some in depth listening on some of his other albums.

    See ya 'round the web.

  4. I am partial to Bone Machine myself.

  5. I'm partial to his earlier Jazzier works like Small Change. I'm probably in the minority there, but I just don't fuckin' care.

  6. I love this guy. I would seriously let him touch me in all the right places.