For seemingly my entire lifetime, Tom Waits has been the beyond gravelly voiced, twisted carny of music. His songs are rarely easily digestible, formulaic or expected. But when I have heard the odd early, early Waits track, I’ve been surprised to hear a much smoother voice, and a much more standard approach to piano based, jazz infused singer, song writer stuff. When I decided to listen to a Tom Wait album for Bored and Dangerous, I originally thought about listening to one of those earlier, smoother more digestible records. But then I thought, bugger it, the Tom Waits of my lifetime is the beyond gravelly voiced, twisted carny of music. So that’s the Tom Waits I should embrace. Which is what I did with Rain Dogs.
Dark, threatening and disturbing, while somehow playful at the same time, Singapore might be the perfect, sub-three minute encapsulation of what I consider Tom Waits’ sound. The twisted sea shanty vibe is kind off putting, but I also never wanted it to end. Things get quieter and more mysterious on the spooky Clap Hands. Which may have been played by some sort of demonic band, summed up from the depths of hell. I’ll have to check the liner notes to see if that’s the case.
Has a song’s title ever evoked its sound as accurately as Cemetery Polka? I can’t think of anything else to rival it. The jaunty, polka beat is smothered in slightly atonal spookery that makes Rain Dog increasingly strange with each track. Until Jockey Full of Bourbon, which is almost a regular song compared to the rest of this album so far. Verses, choruses, bridges… Tom Waits actually wrote regular “song” song.
As Tango Til They’re Sore runs into Big Black Mariah runs into Diamonds and Gold, I realise something about Tom waits and Rain Dogs. For all his weirdness, his songs are kind of similar and samey. But I mean in that in a good way, it’s all about consistency.
Consistency, that is, until Hang Down Your Head and Time (and later, Downtown Train). These are so tight, so structured, so stock standard, they’re the kinds of songs I could imagine Bruce Springsteen making in his current, vintage years. In a world of weirdness, it’s the normalcy that stands out as the most weird. And something as usually-normal as the barroom blues rock of Union Square and country twang of Blind Love really stick out when sandwiched in between the nightmare western sound of Gun Street Girl and the demented, mosquito-like horn section under the spoken word jazz vocals of Walking Spanish.
For something so strange, Rain Dogs actually delivered pretty much exactly what I expected in broad strokes, even if I could never have expected some of the specific ways in which it produces those broad strokes. For all of his eccentricities, Tom Waits has built such a strong reputation, his odd ballness is no real surprise these days. And that might be for the best. Because if I had no idea who he was and what he was famous for before listing to Rain Dogs, it might have confused me too much to be able to appreciate it.