Album of the Week, June 14: Rain Dogs by Tom Waits

WaitsDogsTrainThe music of Tom Waits largely defies categorization, and on his finest album he raises that approach to its own art form. Born and raised in southern California, he discovered a love of music during youthful trips to Mexico with his father. He taught himself piano and began developing his own style. Disenchanted with the heavy rock on the radio, he sought out his own eclectic inspirations — including Bob Dylan, Lord Buckley, Jack Kerouac, Louis Armstrong, Howlin’ Wolf, and Charles Bukowski — recording many songs with a blues base that sat unreleased for decades. Signing to Asylum, he released his first album, the lovely, late-night jazz/folk Closing Time. Over the next dozen years he honed his amazing story-telling skills, releasing eight albums. He developed his own sound, merging his diverse interests over a base of folk-blues, his vocals moving from throaty balladry to a range of growls, howls, sneers, and tender aches. In 1985 he brought it all together in a massive opus, the peerless, powerful Rain Dogs.

Title Rain Dogs
Act Tom Waits
Label Island Release Date September 30, 1985
Producer Tom Waits
U.S. Chart  181 U.K. Chart  n/c
  1. Singapore
  2. Clap Hands
  3. Cemetery Polka
  4. Jockey Full of Bourbon
  5. Tango Till They’re Sore
  6. Big Black Mariah
  7. Diamonds & Gold
  8. Hang Down Your Head
  9. Time
  10. Rain Dogs
  11. Midtown (instrumental)
  12. 9th & Hennepin
  13. Gun Street Girl
  14. Union Square
  15. Blind Love
  16. Walking Spanish
  17. Downtown Train
  18. Bride of Rain Dog (instrumental)
  19. Anywhere I Lay My Head

Each song on Rain Dogs is very much its own moment — hopping from jazz to blues to folk to something otherworldly — but they flow together to form a tight musical fabric. Singapore is a flawless start, a curious story song that’s long on atmosphere and vague on specifics. With razor-sharp images and fascinating characters, he warns the listener to strap in for the journey. The tracks fit loosely into four categories, with this first track nicely representing the story songs.

These five tell fairly clear narratives. They may be mysterious, but they feature identifiable characters whose fates are detailed in a relatively linear way. Cemetery Polka is a catalog of deceased family members related with sepulchral glee, one of the strongest moments on the disc. 9th & Hennepin is a bit of spoken noir, almost a throwaway but sequenced perfectly to keep the album’s energy moving. Gun Street Girl could have served as the plot of a Coen brothers film, a dark epic of losers and petty crime. The finest story moment is the glorious bravado of Walking Spanish, a declaration of personal pride at the grim end of things.

That track also fits in with the Glimpses, a set of songs that lack the coherent narrative but present curious characters at well-crafted moments of crisis. They also cluster together near the opening of the album, setting the stage. Clap Hands hints at dark doings and wraps up with a vague warning; it’s a nice bit of menace. Jockey Full of Bourbon is another standout, an eerie, almost whispered piece anchored by the children’s poem “Ladybird Ladybird”. Tango Till Their Sore is a surge of New Orleans jazz marching its way into the darkness. Big Black Mariah features a blustery vocal and a clear consequence for the dark dealings that proliferate among the Rain Dogs. Union Square looks at the bar dwellers, gamblers, and outcasts, using a nice musical nod to Sam Cooke’s Chain Gang to demonstrate the strength of even virtual shackles.

Less specific — and frequently shorter — than the Glimpses are the Tones, four songs that drop a mood on the listener and move away, darting or staggering off. Diamonds and Gold bridges the two, a parable of greed with uncertain outcomes. The album’s two instrumentals fit this category: Midtown opens the second half with a brief, evocative fragment of traffic-inspired noisy jazz; Bride of Rain Dog nearly wraps up the proceedings in a confused, lusty stroll. The Rain Dogs themselves arrive at the end of the first half. Waits coined the term, referring to animals who have lost their markers once the rain has washed the city clean. You and I, he clarifies, might as well be Rain Dogs on any given day.

Mixed in among the various vignettes are five very different meditations. Hang Down Your Head is a bluesy number that shows off Waits’ vocals in a remarkably straightforward lament. Blind Love is similar, but has a core of optimism deep in the sense of loss. In this case Waits lets the energy build, nearly barking the closing lines with his passionate delivery. Two of these songs are among his finest and most famous. Time is a beautiful song about inevitability. It’s dark but not hopeless and touching in its quiet delivery. Downtown Train has become a modern jazz-pop standard, a wonderful story song with a perfectly crafted central image. These two show a deeper side of Tom Waits that helps give the album weight. The disc ends with the anguished Anywhere I Lay My Head, a sort of blues coda. It wraps up the tales and let’s the troubadour bring things to a close, ending an amazing, idiosyncratic, compelling musical journey.

FURTHER LISTENING: Tom Waits is fascinating, following his own distinctive vision and mixing styles and sounds liberally on each album. Many find his complex musical variations and rough vocals challenging, but his finest work is truly amazing and every album has moments of genius. Besides Rain Dogs, four stand out:

  • Closing Time, his bittersweet debut, gives little hint about the career to come. It’s also an amazing set of songs: charming, cohesive, seductive, and perfectly realized.
  • Swordfishtrombones preceded Rain Dogs and served as a test bed for the experimentation and fractured storytelling Waits was about to perfect.
  • Bone Machine is uneven but often brilliant, a difficult set of songs about a variety of apocalypses ranging from the personal to the global, from the tragic to the absurd.
  • Mule Variations won a Grammy for best Contemporary Folk album. That may seem odd, but Waits’ story-driven approach has deep folk roots and he lets them shine on this quirky set, arguably his most consistent other than his debut and Rain Dogs.

About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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