ANNIVERSARIES: Tom Waits Released Rain Dogs 25 Years Ago

Tom_Waits_Rain_DogsTom Waits: Rain Dogs (Island)

When Tom Waits changed from Elektra/Asylum Records to the Island label, he changed his music too. His first Island release, 1983's Swordfishtrombones, ditched the over-obvious boozy humor and winking lounge music in favor of more alienated, bluesy, percussive production full of unexpected angles. (This direction had been foreshadowed on a few tracks on his 1980 LP Heartattack and Vine).

On the follow-up, Rain Dogs, Waits allowed more of the sentimentality of his earlier work back in. Nonetheless, over the course of 19 tracks and 54 minutes (which, still in the LP era in 1985, was more music than usually got onto a single rock LP), there were still more than enough sonic surprises to keep it -- like all his albums -- out of the U.S. Top 40, although it surprisingly hit No. 29 in the U.K.

While the music often sounds ramshackle, it's a deliberate effect that emphasizes Waits's roots in older, looser styles; many of the musicians were (and are) regulars on New York's downtown avant-garde scene (and the Uptown Horns loosen up and fit in just fine). A lot of the credit for the album's sound goes to guitarist Marc Ribot, equally comfortable playing avant-garde or gutbucket blues. He's on most of the album's tracks; on the few where he doesn't play but Waits has somebody besides himself on guitar, the guests include Keith Richards (Rolling Stones) and Robert Quine (Richard Hell & the Voidoids). Equally important is drummer Michael Blair; the percussion on many tracks, the bluesy "Gun Street Girl" (on which the dominant instrument is Waits's banjo) being just one prominent example, suggests a work crew driving spikes more than a drummer behind a kit.

But ultimately, the sound is that of Waits -- who achieved something similar with different musicians on his previous LP, after all. The variety of vocal timbres he utilizes, from Howlin' Wolf gruffness to throwback crooning, gives each baroquely fantastical lyric additional personality, and the vintage organ and harmonium parts he contribute also add color. He switches to reciting poetry on "9th and Hennepin," which contains such bon mots as "All the donuts have names that sound like prostitutes" and "nobody brings anything small into a bar around here." The album title, by the way, comes from a metaphor for those lost and wandering: dogs that, after rain has washed away familiar scents, walk confusedly through the streets.

Of course, for some people, this album is most famous for containing the original version of "Downtown Train." Patty Smyth and Rod Stewart had success with it later by smoothing off its rough edges (especially Stewart, who took it to No. 3 on the pop singles chart in 1989). It sounds better in the rough.

Since Rain Dogs, Waits has tended to take more time off between albums and retreat even farther from the mainstream -- and the mainstream, in turn, has become more homogenized and slick. But here he was just close enough, after his musical left turn and a cultural zig-zag coincided, that Rain Dogs became an alternative classic just as the idea of "alternative music" was achieving currency. - Steve Holtje

Rain

steve-holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who splits his time between editing Culturecatch.com, working at the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix, and editing cognitive neuroscience books for Oxford University Press. No prizes for guessing which pays best.

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