Monday, October 18, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 78 - Tom Waits

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

I knew that Tom Waits was associated with some sort of blues-rock before this week, but I didn't necessarily know what I was getting myself into. So when I put on Rain Dogs for the first time last monday, and I was confronted with a singer on "Singapore" that sounded something like the Cookie Monster, I was a little bit befuddled, and I couldn't help but wonder what I had gotten myself into. 

But then "Clap Hands" followed, a slower, simmering track where Waits uses more restrained vocals to make his statement. It was more of what I expected, and I realized that this wasn't going to be Cookie Monster Week after all...until "Cemetery Polka" came on, and Waits was back with that loud, guttural, demented roar. 

For the rest of the week, I wasn't quite sure which Tom Waits I was going to get on any given song. There's the softer, quieter bluesy stuff, the loud, raucous bluesy stuff, and the downright weird stuff that doesn't fit into either of the previous categories  - the stuff that sounds more like polkas, ballads, and brassy military marches. 

A lot of music can be theatrical. But Waits really relies on this sense of drama to lift up a lot of his work - and as he sings songs of the downtrodden and forgotten dregs of society, he crafts his voice as another tool in the show. He's a good songwriter, but more often than not he's an even better story teller. Waits is able to fit his voice - iconic in its own right - into a dozen different categories to express different perspectives and add a sense of ambience to his work. 

It can be a little disorienting at times, and few of his albums have any sense of unity or coherent style. But, more often than not, this sort of disparate repertoire makes for a lot of fun - a sort of raspy, modern bard for the people of the 20th century. 



WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: I knew that Tom Waits wrote the theme song for The Wire, and performed it in the show's second season. That's really it. His name gets tossed around a lot, but I feel that his actual music comes up very little. 

MY LISTENING: I listened to Rain Dogs (1985) every day this week. I also listened to Swordfishtrombones (1983) four times, Bone Machine (1992) three times, Mule Variations (1999) twice, and Frank's Wild Years (1987) once. 


Tom Waits' songs have a lot of character, and he manages to pack in a lot of that strange, not quite normal feeling both through how he uses his voice, and through his very strange orchestrations. Take "Shore Leave," a half-spoken monologue from the point of view of a sailor describing his brief time in the city. The gravelly voice adds enough to the story by itself, but there's a lot going on in the background as well - weird percussion sound effects, eerie marimbas, snippets of guitars. Waits utilizes some weird instruments in strange ways, especially on Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs, but I'd say 95% of the time it works out.

Then listen to "16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six" on the same album. It's louder, and more in-your-face, but it still has those same percussion effects - like people beating on pipes - and a drum beat that relentlessly pushes forward. I like that Waits can create both the eerie understated songs as well as the blow-your-face off loud blues. Bone Machine is an album with many of the latter kinds of tracks - the instrumentation is a little more traditional, but songs like "Goin' Out West" not only have a lot of energy, but also some killer guitar riffs. 

But I don't want to act like Waits relies on these weird accordion-and-marimba orchestrations, or strange seedy characters. His albums feature plenty of both, but there's also songs like "Jesus Gonna Be Here" or "Way Down in the Hole" that represent good old song writing with a great voice. Both are simple, minimal pieces, but neither of them suffer for it. 

All and all, Rain Dogs was probably my favorite Waits album, although it and Swordfishtrombones might be interchangeable. Both are solid collections of songs where you don't really know what might be coming next. Bone Machine is more one-note, but it's a really good note (loud religious blues rock). Mule Variations tried my patience a bit, even if I always did like "Come On Up To The House" as a closing track. 


Tom Waits is a great songwriter, but I don't know if I could ever go beyond the stage of really respecting and liking his stuff and actually loving it. As interesting as his narrative stories and cityscapes are, by the end of the week I found myself tired by the cinematic tricks. The stories are gripping, but there's nothing personal that seems to be behind any of it. Bone Machine seems to be the closest I could get to Tom Waits putting something of himself into his work; everything else seemed to be Waits hiding behind a curtain, painting a picture. It makes for good storytelling, and Waits is could at it, but you can only take it so far. Part of the reason Frank's Wild Years lagged for me when I listened to it at the end of the week is because it just felt like more of the same. 

Speaking of "Frank's Wild Years," that is also a song from Swordfishtrombones that represents the other thing that irked me about Waits - the spoken word monologues. Again, this sort of thing is what makes Waits a great storyteller who often lets the story get in the way of emoting anything. "The Ocean Doesn't Want Me" and the quite unsettling "What's He Building?" are two other "songs" from the nineties that just involve Waits utilizing what is admittedly a great voice to just sort of ramble over some drum beats. 

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: Waits has been around for a while and is pretty prolific, but I think the most important aspect of his career that I didn't get to this week is his early stuff from the seventies. Apparently these albums - Closing Time (1973), The Heart of Saturday Night (1974), Blue Valentine (1978) - drop the strange instruments and are more classic blues-rock over a piano. It would be interesting to check out the early Waits, though the recent Real Gone (2004) is also supposed to be pretty good.

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "Way Down in the Hole"

I'm going to assume, because it's the only song I'd heard, it's the only one you have. This track was the song over the opening credits for Season 2 of The Wire. I don't want to be one of those people who tells you to watch The Wire if you haven't seen it yet...but you probably should watch it. 


A great closing track, especially with the New Orleans brass band that comes in at the end.