Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Seedy and seductive - Tom Waits "Rain Dogs"

When you start listening to this album you could be forgiven for thinking that you are in the 1930s Berlin cabarets of Kurt Weill. The rhythms are raucus, the instruments have the harsh sound of the underworld, and you are breathing in the dingy darkness of a smoke-soaked nightclub. But this is the mid 1980s, America, and it's not Kurt Weill, but the amazing gravel-rough voice of Tom Waits luring you, seducing you, one moment - accusing you, assaulting you, the next.

Rain Dogs is certainly a very theatrical album - you can't help but picture the stage when you listen to it. The music is sometimes incredibly harsh, almost deliberately alienating - beating out at you with a strange mix of pitched percussion, accordion, upright piano - almost warning you not to come too close to it. And yet, ironically, it has an incredible intimacy to it, too - you feel it is in the room with you, sharing a drink with you, telling you its seedy, sleazy tale.

The music has its more gentle moments, too - as in "Hang Down Your Head", "Time" and "Downtown Train" - but, even there, there is a roughness to its consolation and comfort. There is no time for sentimental self-indulgence here - you know that this music has a hard life, and it won't allow you to rest in one spot, wallowing, for too long.

I found Rain Dogs to be a superb example of how music can express itself, and particularly how it can express its musicality, in such diverse and unexpeced ways. There is nothing typically or traditonally "musical" about Rain Dogs - the instruments are harsh and uncompromising, hardly anything has a singable "tune" to it, and, of course, Tom Waits' voice must be, in the conventional sense, one of the most "unmusical" voices ever. And yet this album is just bursting, exploding, with music - it draws you into its grimy sound-world and, before long, you can't help but feel that this is music at its most honest, its most human, its most real.

A great album - and, needless to say, only the beginning for me of a growing collection of Tom Waits.

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