Friday, April 25, 2008

Lb4Lb #1: Swordfishtrombones & Rain Dogs

I started using the  tag a while back, and mentioned somewhere that it refers to whole albums that are, "pound for pound," the best possible investment of your time. Here's why I think these albums merit so much love:
The first song I ever heard by Tom Waits - at least, the first song I heard that I knew was by Tom waits - was Singapore. That was 18 years ago, and it still ranks as one of the most unusual songs I know. The words veer between nursery silliness and opium madness, coming out of a throat so whiskey-soaked and menthol-smoked, it's a wonder that the singer is still alive.

And he might not be:

We sail tonight for Singapore
We're all as mad as hatters here
I've fallen for tawny moor
Took off to the land of Nod
Drank with all the Chinamen
Walked the sewers of Paris
I danced along a colored wind
Dangled from a rope of sand
You must say goodbye to me
That song hooked something deep in my psyche; I couldn't say that I liked it, but I kept listening to it. I kept needing to hear it, the way you need to have that nightmare again just so you can prove to yourself that it really was a nightmare. And after a while, I knew every song on that album.

I could dance the Cemetery Polka, and I would Tango 'til I was sore. Time made me weep at an age where I didn't know enough to be weeping about time.

The album, Rain Dogs was named on Rolling Stone magazine's Top 100 albums of the 1980s, coming in at a respectable #21. I remember seeing that, and marvelling at such an unlikely entry on a list like that.

Turns out, it had an actual hit on it: Downtown Train, which was successfully covered byRod StewartG.E. Smith of Saturday Night Live fame played guitar on the Waits version. By the time you get that far in, though, you'll either be running for the hills, or you'll be deep in Blind Love.

Rain Dogs was the second album in a sort of trilogy, though. Waits followed it up withFrank's Wild Years, an "operetta in one act", which was actually produced for the stage. The first album of the trilogy, though, was Swordfishtrombones, and this was by far my favorite of the three.

This isn't a "concept album", but it is very much the story of a soldier, or sailor, far away from home, and both marvelling at and wallowing in the seedier corners of the world. This album is an old homeless man that just needs a buck so he can catch a bus to Des Moines, and if you follow him through the alley, he can get you something you'd really like...

It begins with the creepy shenanigans of Underground, where you can feel the hammer blows of dwarves tunneling their way out of the city; there's the false respite of Shore Leave (do you ever really get any rest on your vacation?), and an instrumental that makes you wonder just what Dave the Butcher has been up to.

Then you are treated to one of the most beautiful songs you can imagine: Johnsburg, Illinois - a minute and a half of sweetness before the bombast of 16 Shells From A 30.6 tries to "whittle you into kindlin'!"

The second half of the album is where it Tom really shines, though. A tall tale (Swordfishtrombone), a shaggy dog story (Frank's Wild Years) and a dance with the devil (Down, Down, Down) bundle you up and set you out on a blanket next to an old lady selling her Soldiers Things.

a tinker, a tailor
a soldier's things
his rifle, his boots full of rocks
and this one is for bravery
and this one is for me
and everything's a dollar
in this box
You don't know if you should buy them or not, but you know whatever you choose, you'll regret it.

And you'll regret it if you don't give these albums at least one listen; it's like a trip on a Greyhound bus - no one wants to travel that way, but there's a mundane danger to it that you have to experience at least once in your life. If nothing else, just to see how far down you can go without actually meeting the Devil.

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