Sunday, July 4, 2010

397 Rain Dogs- "Play it like a midget's Bar Mitzvah"

Album: Rain Dogs
Artist: Tom Waits
Year: 1985
Genre: Tom Waits


  1. Singapore
  2. Clap Hands
  3. Cemetery Polka
  4. Jockey Full of Bourbon
  5. Tango Till They're Sore
  6. Big Black Mariah
  7. Diamonds & Gold
  8. Hang Down Your Head
  9. Time
  10. Rain Dogs
  11. Midtown
  12. 9th & Hennepin
  13. Gun Street Girl
  14. Union Square
  15. Blind Love
  16. Walking Spanish
  17. Downtown Train
  18. Bride of Rain Dog
  19. Anywhere I Lay My Head

It’s time for another trip into the head of Mr Tom Waits. The thinking person’s thinking person and a master story-teller of the quirkiest narratives ever captured in song. Tom Waits might be a real person but it's almost easier to think of him as a character created by a novelist. He's the guy who crops up around chapter four where he confuses the hero, scares the heroine, intrigues the reader and worries the author's agent who thinks he'll cause problems when they try and sell the film rights. Amazingly he did exist back in the eighties and continues to exist today in basically an unchanged form. He's aged a bit but since he was basically a fairly decrepit form of gentrification thirty years ago he hasn't aged visibly it's just the years have just caught up with his face. To be honest I should probably replace the text in this review with a bunch of photos of Waits who’s visage is so unique it describes his music better than I ever could.

Waits began his career as the sort of guy who'd play piano tunes in bars populated by seedy characters and those fallen from past glories. On Rain Dogs Tom decided his songs had moved away from the piano and towards... quirkier instrument and lots of other things besides. There are guitars and horns but there's also a range of percussion sounds that could just as easilly be neighbours thumping on the walls in an attempt to quieten Waits down than drums of any kind. I can’t help but wonder how he records his demos. John and Paul used to come to sessions with recordings they’d made at home on an acoustic guitar. I imagine Tom coming to sessions with tracks that he’d recorded using frying pans, building materials and foodstuffs. A collection of musicians were forced to try and interpret the weirdness in his head using instructions he gave them, including a famous command issued to guitarist Mark Ribot- "Play it like a midget's Bar Mitzvah". The final effect is strange, ethereal and ultimately timeless. Until I looked it up I hadn’t the faintest idea when this was recorded. If I had to guess I would have said the mid 2030’s during an ironic retro phase full for nostalgia for a time that never actually happened.

Over the top of this sonic weirdness is Tom's voice which growls like a catchy version of Captain Beefheart. The only person who could possibly describe Tom Waits voice is Tom Waits himself. Suffice it to say it can sound aggressive, terrifying and carnal but also beautiful, magical and surprisingly sweet. He can put more emotion in a single count in than a lot of people manage in an entire song. Lyrically he's on a different plane to anyone else writing songs. The best way to describe it is to recall those songs Dylan used to sing- Desolation Row, Visions of Johanna etc, songs that were a roll call of strange characters: Shakespeare in Alleys, Blind commissioners with hands tied to tight rope walkers, one-eyed midgets. Now imagine some of those characters wrote poetry. Tom's lyrics are even stranger still. You can see why Waits fans are so dedicated. There are enough strange ideas, quirky moments and quotable lines on this one album alone to sustain a hundred listens without wearing out its welcome.

So it's strange lyrics, sung by a strange man with a strange voice over a collection of strange sounds but is it any good? Hell yes. It's brilliant at every step and when it's not busy being fantastic it lurches into magnificent and stumbles through sensational into outstanding. I’m beginning to think Tom’s musical career isn’t enough for me. Even his acting roles aren’t giving me enough Waits. I want him to do traffic reports on my radio. I want him announcing the stations on my morning train, I’d go to church if he was preaching, I’d watch the news if he read it, I’d even enjoy tedious staff meetings if Waits were allowed to chair them. "The next item on the agenda is going to soak into your skin like a camel in a fedora and an alligator leaving town for a more tragic place".

The world isn’t ready for Waits to be a mainstream superstar and frankly I can’t imagine a time when it would be (and if I’d feel comfortable living there if it did). He’s definitely in the acquired taste basket and quite possibly in his own separate whicker container within that basket. But if you can aquire the taste he’s unbelievable fun. There’s a big part of me that wishes I could curtail this blog and instead spend a full month with every Waits album. If the rest of them are only half this good they're still a hell of a lot more fun that much of the rest of the countdown.

Influenced by: Other people have recorded music in the past. Listening to Rain Dog's it's possible Tom Waits has never heard any music before ever. Or else he's heard it all and regards it as just a tiny first step towards what he thinks music should be.
Influenced: Lots of people as inspiration but nobody on earth as a template to be copied.

Highlight: It's all pretty High. But Jockey Full of Bourbon is the song you'll be singing for ages afterwards.
Lowlight: The two instrumentals are a bit of a lowpoint.

Favourite Amazon Customer review Quote:
"This "Tom Waits" guy sucks. What a horrible voice! He sounds like a piece of raw meat ran over by a truck. Listen to REAL music like Nickelback or St. Anger by Metallica if you want a truly enjoyable listening experience."

-This is what we call "Trolling". This person has put this comment up in the hopes of generating angry comments. The 30 people who felt the need to comment are testament to how successful it was.

So is this album a lot of Diamonds and Gold for you or should Waits Hang His Head in Shame? Let me know below.

1 comment:

  1. It's one of my all time favourites!