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Flashback Review: Rain Dogs by Tom Waits (1985)

Tom Waits never pulled any punches with his music.

s4vbqzt-jpgTom Waits is a multi-talent, to say the least. The American singer-songwriter, musician, composer and actor who has chased his music career from a young age, and continues to do so today,

His debut album, Closing Time, was released in March 1973, setting the wheels in motion for a legacy of greatness. His unique, gruff voice garnered him much attention, for better or for worse. Music critic Daniel Durchholz described it as if “it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.” While an interesting description that may leave those unfamiliar with his sound raising an eyebrow, one truly has to hear a song of his to truly grasp the artistry at work.

Waits always enjoyed experimenting with sound, a fact that is certainly represented in his 1985 release Rain Dogs. Moving away from the piano-driven tunes of his earlier work, Rain Dogs is 19 track experience. Not only did Rolling Stone rank the album at No. 21 on their list of the 100 greatest albums of the 1980’s, but they also included as No. 397 on their list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It’s undeniable that this album is a masterpiece in every sense of the word.

The album’s opening song, “Singapore,” grabs listeners attention immediately. The unexpected vaudeville-esque stylings and theatrical nature of the song is captivating and thought-provoking, while Waits gives the song so much life through his vocals He gets so into character, it’s hard not to appreciate this unique track.

“Jockey Full Of Bourbon” features a rhythmic beat that’s easy to sway to, and an interesting structure that has the song translate like poetry. Whisper-like vocals add an air of mystery to the already subdued intensity of this track.

The album’s title track, “Rain Dogs,” is as dramatic as it is enticing. Opening with a haunting accordion piece, the cinematic nature of the song almost throws listeners off guard when the lyrics kick in. Waits explained the phrase “rain dogs” in a 1985 interview with Nightlines.

“…It’s a kind of word I made up for people who sleep in doorways. I mean, New York when it rains, all the peelings and cigarette butts, float to the surface like in Taxi Driver when he says, “someday a real raid’s gonna come along and wash all the scum off the street”. Looks better in the rain, like it’s been lacquered.”

While the subject matter may seem sad, the song itself portrays the life of what society would classify as drunken bums to be liberating, as is made clear when he sings:

“Oh, how we danced and we swallowed the night
For it was all ripe for dreaming
Oh, how we danced away
All of the lights
We’ve always been out of our minds”

The guitar backing “Downtown Train” is absolutely lovely. There’s a warm feeling to this track, with Waits’s vocals carrying a sense of passion, eventuated with the uplifting melody that will definitely evoke some sort of emotion in anyone listening. There’s a lot of love being expressed here, which is sure to make it a fast favorite.

The album closes with a bang as the raw, emotional vocals of “Anywhere I Lay My Head” roll in. Slow and purposeful, the song is both a come-down from the trip that this eclectic album offers, and a gift for listeners to carry with them.

It’s really no wonder Rain Dogs had garnered such praises over the years. The talent, determination, and willingness to experiment with something new shine through each and every song, and that is no small feat. One truly has to give the album a listen to fully understand it, and they won’t be disappointed when they do.

Rating: 5/5

Stream: Rain Dogs by Tom Waits

1 Comment

  1. Steve Wagner

    August 9, 2018 at 8:36 pm

    An album very much its own world. Potent, original, and probably very much imitated (I’m not sure, but it’s sure with imitating).

    Very much worth revisiting; thank you for doing so!

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