Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Rag Waters and Bitters and Blue Ruin

Today’s formative-album replay: Tom Waits Rain Dogs. “Bangin’ on a table with an old tin cup” goes one barked lyric in the menacing murder blues “Gun Street Girl,” late on Side Two of this definitive 1985 collection by the Bard of Whittier. That simple image, of a racket made with available objects, is Waits’s second-phase sound in a cracked nutshell, and the key to its integrity and acquired-taste appeal: that his music sounds like it was literally formed from, and played on, pieces of the crumbling, tumbling world his lyrics describes: pawnshop radios and broken umbrellas, a shower of hammer and nails, shipwreck trains and wooden legs, canebrake and scattering crows. Very little of this booming, wheezing, twanging, crinkling record sounds either premeditated or post-produced; it is all happening now, with the immediacy and unpredictability of a field recording by Harry Smith.

This should come as no surprise from an artist whose best album, Nighthawks at the Diner, is essentially a live word-jazz show, though that hails from his earlier junkie-Hoagy-Carmichael dispensation. Here, as in the previous kaleidoscope jumble Swordfishtrombones, Waits (and his indispensable partner in crime, Kathleen Brennan) have made that paradoxical artifact, a la Harry Partch or Robert Rauschenberg: an original piece of folk art, a made/found object. Dylan did something analogous, steeping himself so deep in American folk and blues that his voice (both as a singer and a writer) fused with its sources. But Waits’s tricks of ventriloquism and reclamation are both more encompassing and more theatrical. There are songs here--some great ones--but there’s a jagged carnival frame around all of them that’s as compelling, in some cases moreso, than the music inside it.

The record’s opener, the stomping nautical polka “Singapore,” echoes the climb-aboard throwdown of Swordfishtrombones’s opener, “Underground,” but surpasses it in headlong bravado--and this time out there’s no respite from the high-wire phantasmagoria and minor-key gypsy atmospherics. We teeter from the seasick swirl of “Clap Hands” to the clamped-down fury of “Cemetery Polka,” from the lean slice of “Jockey Full of Bourbon” to the sodden staggering of “Tango Till They’re Sore” and the sawed-off shotgun boogie of “Big Black Mariah.” By the time “Diamonds and Gold” rolls around, the artifice is showing a few seams (there's even a quote from the melody of “Chim Chim Cheree”). But that only makes the no-frills, all-feeling punch of the forlorn “Hang Down Your Head” land all the harder, followed by the hymn-like sagacity of “Time,” with its layered signifiers (“It’s time that you love” reading in at least two distinct ways) and aphoristic equanimity suggesting a song Waits is half-remembering as much as writing.

Side Two starts strong with a satisfyingly goofy, angular title song (highlighted by the call and response of Marc Ribot’s tensile, reptilian guitar) and the palette-cleansing spy chase of “Midtown.” Then it’s the William Burroughs/Ken Nordine prose poetry of “9th and Hennepin,” which I have to believe has a faint wink of self-parody (“I’ve seen it all...”), a pair of mostly convincing tough-guy blues blowouts (“Gun Street Girl,” “Union Square”), and the album’s only outright failure, the wannabe Stones country ballad “Blind Love,” which never clicks into its groove, though not for lack of strenuous trying. Waits regains his strut with the suave “Walking Spanish” and the lovely, quietly passionate “Downtown Train,” a kind of spiritual sequel to “Jersey Girl.” The album closes with a spare-parts instrumental and the Salvation Army hymn “Anywhere I Hang My Head,” which is a tad self-conscious and over-sung but not out of place, fading out of sight not with Waits’s howling growl but with the rumpled dignity of a New Orleans funeral march.

Waits may have made better records--as I say, my favorite is Nighthawks, though I’d entertain an argument that Mule Variations is his true masterpiece--but few that hang together as brashly as the clatter and steam of “Rain Dogs.”

Another Tom Waits post here.

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