Thursday, June 17, 2010

album of the day: Rain Dogs

Tom Waits is my hero. This album is one reason why.

I don't think any of his work tops this 1985 album. It follows the pattern of his records starting in the 70s and continuing basically through Mule Variations in 1999, with a couple exceptions along the way. The songs alternate between gut-bucket blues played on all kinds of weird instruments, and heart-wrenching ballads of remorse, lost love, and desperate loneliness. Waits' genius is that he writes and performs both astoundingly well.

I think Waits is underappreciated as a musician and singer, largely because of the voice he trained to sound ruined, and in the process, ruined, and because of the affected drunken style of his playing (especially on piano), which eventually led him to be a drunk. It's a strange story. Mainly to set himself apart, and to embody and act out the songs he was writing about the citizen-detritus he encountered as a down-and-out musician, he staged a persona. By the 80s, Tom Waits' performance persona and his actual life and consciousness were hard to distinguish.

That's not why he's my hero. In fact, it would be tragic, if he hadn't eventually gotten his head straight and figured out how to live with himself and with the world, more or less. Actually, I think most observers agree that the secret to Tom Waits' being alive, if not also of his success, is his wife Kathleen Brennan. (Rain Dogs marks their first collaboration as songwriters - which continues until now.)

He's my hero because he lays bare wounded souls he has seen, without exploiting them, and without really approving of their desperation, bad judgment, ill temper, what have you. He romanticizes them, for sure, but this only serves to humanize them, I feel; plus the surrealist streak in his music, lyrics, and performance keep you off-kilter, keep judgment in suspense, and this makes the work have power, and have you face some very deeply sad, troubling, beautiful, and absurd aspects of life that most of us prefer to ignore.

This album features mad French guitarist Marc Ribot, who plays angular, tangential solos that make very little sense whatsoever (he's sort of the album's resident Eric Dolphy), and Keith Richards plays on a couple numbers as well. There's a horn section on one track, a trombone on another, bass sax on yet another, marimba, accordion, bowed saw, and bangy-rattly things of various kinds. This is another reason I love Tom Waits - I call it the "fuckitity" of his music: "Bowed saw? Sure - fuck it!"

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