ALBUM REVIEW by Victor Stranges
Those familiar with Jim Jarmusch’s 1986 black-and-white independent movie, “Down By Law”, will recall the disjointed music from the opening scene. The camera initially focuses on a black hearse at a cemetery as it begins its travels through the architecture of New Orleans and the Louisiana bayou.
The song is “Jockey Full Of Bourbon” by Tom Waits and it was lifted from his album from the previous year, Rain Dogs. Such an inspirational fit for a movie that Waits also starred in alongside jazz musician, John Lurie and Italian acting legend, Roberto Benigni.
Rain Dogs is the ninth studio album by Waits and is the second album in a trilogy that is bookended by Swordfishtrombones (1983) and Frank’s Wild Years (1986). The themes centre around fringe personalities that are down and out in New York. There are countless characters described throughout which are often borderline comical, borderline tragic, or both. Such examples exist in “Cemetery Polka,” which resembles a potential list of prospects for a funeral home or an estate planner.
“Uncle Bill will never leave a will
And the tumor is as big as an egg
He has a mistress, she’s Puerto Rican
And I heard she has a wooden leg.”
– Cemetery Polka
Lyrically dense, Rain Dogs is a delight if you enjoy great storytelling. It is accompanied by a mid-career junkyard musical style Waits had only just adopted for his previous album, Swordfishtrombones. An eight-album career up until that point saw him occupy the territory of folk rock balladeer, blues, and jazz meanderer that peppered his songs with beat poetry and Leonard Bernstein-inspired orchestrations. On his debut album, Closing Time (1973), we hear a definite country tinge to his voice without the growl but with a slight raspiness. His songwriting was heartfelt and he was musically interesting.
Songs from his debut were covered by other artists such as “Martha”, recorded by the late Tim Buckley, and “Ol’ 55” covered by label mates, The Eagles. This is a significant point as many Waits songs would later be covered by such diverse artists as Bruce Springsteen, Jane Birkin, Johnny Cash, Ramones, Queens Of The Stone Age, Tori Amos, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Marianne Faithfull, and 10,000 Maniacs. Waits is first and foremost an inspirational songwriter. We hear throughout his albums that his voice gets progressively more growly. Either you like it or you don’t.
Back to Rain Dogs. Waits’ growly voice sits perfectly alongside Marc Ribot’s oddball guitar, some whacked-out jazz horns, and some strange percussion choices. It’s almost like Waits instructed his percussionist to buy whatever instruments he could find at a pawn shop or local rubbish tip with a budget of $50.
There are nineteen songs over 54 minutes and just fitting onto a single vinyl LP. Waits was the producer and we hear a diverse range of musical styles. From the melancholy ballad “Time” to the hypnotically rhythmic, “Clap Hands”, Waits covers some pretty big ground. One could argue that another producer may have had less patience for the contradictory song style choices he made, but his lack of restraint as a self-producer is its strength.
In 1985, Rolling Stone’s Anthony Decurtis wrote that …
”Waits’ biggest problem has always been a tendency to romanticize the abyss. His claustrophobic night world — peopled with crusty old salts, whores with hearts of gold and three-time losers — is all margins and no center, a sentimental never land where grotesqueness isn’t merely accepted — it’s a badge of authenticity and hipness.”
He goes on to argue that singing about marginal characters will mean that he won’t achieve mainstream success. I doubt that Waits would really care about this. His songs are all the better for it.
A surprise guest background vocal wailing from Keith Richards on “Blind Love” gave an authentic Americana country feel as he played alongside other guest guitarists, Robert Quine (Richard Hell & The Voidoids, Matthew Sweet, Lou Reed). Other standout tracks included “Hang Down Your Head” (co-written by Waits’ wife and musical partner, Kathleen Brennan), “Big Black Mariah”, “Gun Street Girl” and the future Rod Stewart cover, “Downtown Train.”
There are moments of musical drunkenness (“Walking Spanish”), New Orleans funeral music (“Bride Of Rain Dog”) and Jack Kerouac/Neal Cassady-inspired beat poetry (“9th & Hennepin”).
“And no one brings anything Small into a bar around here
They all started out with bad directions
And the girl behind the counter has a tattooed tear “
One for every year he’s away”, she said
Such a crumbling beauty
Awe, there’s Nothing wrong with her that $100 won’t fix.”
– 9th & Hennepin
Probably the most lasting musical legacy of Rain Dogs is the album’s sonic nature and experimentation with unusual instruments such as marimba. The notable absence of where cymbals normally sit in a rock combo makes this a victorious album in that it sounds like nothing else. Various percussive sounds make you think… ”what was that?” It makes it a fresh and joyous listening experience.
Waits recalls his approach to getting sounds...
“…my engineer would say… why are we wasting our time? Let’s just hit this little cup with a stick here, sample something, take a drum sound from another record and make it bigger in the mix, don’t worry about it.’ I’d say, ‘No, I would rather go in the bathroom and hit the door with a piece of two-by-four very hard.”
There is no doubt that Rain Dogs is a masterpiece. The album’s soul can be summed up in the track, “Anywhere I Lay My Head” which has an almost gospel vocal styling from the depths of The Bowery via New Orleans. This is a musical triumph that solidified Tom Waits as the songwriter’s songwriter.