40 Days of Rewind: Tom Waits – Rain Dogs (1985)

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Rain Dogs is a uniquely absurd album. In parts, Waits produces his typical, jazzy, ¬†scratchy-voiced blues. However, sprinkled in there amongst the more orthodox tracks exist songs like ‘Cemetery Polka’ and ‘Singapore’ which are purely unique in there instrumentals, lyricism and construction. These tracks appear disjointed and random, but they maintain that bluesy undertone, and almost always convey an organic sound. This derives from the way in which this album was recorded. Waits incorporated a wide range of instruments in order to achieve this sound. These include marimba, accordion, double bass, trombone and banjo.

‘Singapore’ is particularly strange in both its musical composition and lyricism. The combination of upbeat brass and horns plays off the guitar – which oddly sounds like it isn’t even in tune. The lyrics combine with these strange instrumentals to convey the madness of Waits. Lyrics like “The Captain is a one armed dwarf, He’s Throwing dice along the wharf” are evidence of this. However, they appear oddly poetic when sang in the infamous Tom Waits tone.

Marc Ribot, who was playing guitar on the album for the first time, recalled his instructions for his work in the studio were to ‘Play it like a midget’s bar mitzvah’. Waits would often prefer creating his own organic sounds or beats through natural means as opposed to using a synthesiser or a drum machine. Which was departed from the musical consensus of the mid 1980’s. The unique way in which this album was recorded certainly surfaces through the music.

For instance, the track ‘Rain Dogs’ is introduced with a long winded, sloppily organised organ solo that sounds like the entrance music for a Disney villain; but it works perfectly within the song, which follows the topic of street life in New York. Lyrics like “Inside a broken clock, Splashing the wine, With all the Rain Dogs” emphasise this. The instrumentals are particularly harsh and abrupt and almost follow a 2 tone format throughout the track.

‘9th and Hennepin’ is the most intriguing song on the album. It has a far more subdued instrumental with a bleak and minimalist piano tune in the background. The lyrics take the form of a spoken word poem in Waits harsh voice and several samples of street life like the sound of breaking glass and train tracks play throughout. Waits’ lyrics are particularly absurd with lines like “And all the donuts have names that sounds like prostitutes” and “She has that razor sadness that only gets worse with the clang and thunder of the southern pacific going by” but in this organisation they sound strangely poetic.

Rain Dogs is one of the most unique albums ever made. With each listen you discover something new within the songs that you haven’t heard previously. The way in which it was conceived and recorded is a admirable in that it places emphasis on the importance of instrumental production and the idea of organic creation. Waits would often create the percussion sounds he needed by hitting a ‘door with a piece of two-by-four very hard’. This albums delivers on many levels. It is a masterpiece in an instrumental and lyrical manner and is a truly significant album.

Rain Dogs was released on the 30th of September 1985 via Island Records.

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  1. avatar

    You do such justice to this album! You’re right, it is bizarrely disjointed and all the more creepy for it. I’ve always found Singapore otherworldly as anything. It’s dark and clattery and seedy, all intimidating twists and turns that mean you feel like you almost shouldn’t be listening to it. Fab song, fab album!

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