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Spins: Tom Waits • Island ’83-’93 LP reissues

| October 24, 2023

Tom Waits

Island ’83-’93 LP reissues


Ten years into his recording career, Tom Waits began a significant stretch of work and creative reboot that continued for another decade and helped cement his reputation as a singularly unclassifiable and consistently engaging artist. This key middle-period run of Waits’ eighth through twelfth albums for Island Records is newly remastered and reissued on heavyweight vinyl, CD, and digital formats. Titles include the trilogy of 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, 1985’s Rain Dogs, and 1987’s tragicomic stage musical Frank’s Wild Years. Five years later, Waits returned with 1992’s Bone Machine and 1993’s dark musical fable The Black Rider.

Arriving for its 40th anniversary, Swordfishtrombones represents a particular breakthrough and development of Waits’ character as an unhinged sage and sonic cubist, with ample credit going to partner Kathleen Brennan. Gone were the boozy piano balladry of Waits’ nonetheless excellent prior work, now favoring abstract expression, skewed moods, and found sounds. Waits drew upon delta blues, Captain Beefheart’s outsider art, and early 20th-century composer Kurt Weill. The sound was such a departure that Waits’ former label rejected the album. Elektra-Asylum’s loss became Island’s gain as the album racked up accolades.

Waits referred to his new sound as a “junkyard orchestral deviation,” evident in the clanking percussion, drawling guitar, and disquieted drone of the lurching “16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six.” The ramshackle “In the Neighborhood” describes everyday chaos around the hometown streets, set to pre-war brass and field snare. Accompanied by marching boots, marimba, trombone, and twisted guitar, “Underground” imagines a bustling and industrious unseen world below our feet. “Johnsburg, Illinois” is a comparably gentle ode to Brennan. As alien as the musical landscape often is, nearly everything is rooted at home in a pastiche of American styles and immigrant folk. The results reveal Waits as a PhD-level musicologist.

Rain Dogs pushed the sound even further afield while also capturing lasting and memorable songs. Rendered here in Waits’ rasping, exaggerated growl, the moving “Downtown Train” is co-written with Brennan and eventually hit the pop charts in tuneful cover versions by Scandal singer Patty Smyth and Rod Stewart. It’s something of an outlier with its nearly straightforward arrangement and accompaniment by studio aces G.E. Smith on guitar, drummer Mickey Curry, and bassist Tony Levin. “Singapore” sounds like a pirate’s final shore leave, preparing to leave port with a madman captain and sailing into turbulent waters. “Cemetery Polka” may have been influential on Oingo Boingo’s Danny Elfman when approaching the grim-grinning soundtracks for films like The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride. Marc Ribot’s guitar dances to Michael Blair’s calypso percussion during “Jockey Full of Bourbon.” “I’ve been stepping on the devil’s tail,” whispers Waits.

The album’s first half leans on guitarist Ribot with guest spots by compatriots, including Bob Dylan double bassist Tony Garnier on “Clap Hands.” Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards slots right into bluesy tracks like “Big Black Mariah,” painting the scene of a hard-bitten felon who’s finally been caught by the law. William Schimmel’s accordion lends pathos to the wistful “Time,” as Waits sings about downtrodden characters and the most precious commodity of all. “Hang Down Your Head” is mournful but propulsive, carried by Blair’s drums and Wait’s reedy harmonium as Waits sings about a once true love torn asunder when a beloved bride finds another lover. Wild brass fills the cinematic instrumental “Midtown.” The album was primarily written in a two-month blast in 1984 after Waits and Brennan moved to lower Manhattan, and the songs became a collection of observations on “the urban dispossessed” drifting near the couple’s basement apartment. “Give my umbrella to the rain dogs, for I am a rain dog, too,” sings Waits in the title cut, comparing hapless souls to dogs who lose the scents to carry them home due to a storm.

Named after the lounge-y spoken interlude from Swordfishtrombones about Frank O’Brien, a man who’d had enough and snapped, Frank’s Wild Years contains songs written for a play that was performed in Chicago by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 1986. In “Hang On St. Christopher,” Waits beseeches the patron saint of travel to strap in while the driver puts the pedal to the floor. Waits’ sprachsang Beat Poet delivery is echoed in songs by compatriot Chuck E. Weiss, while trumpets and saxophones howl like the horns of narrowly missed cars. The wailing torch blues “Way Down in the Hole” became one of Waits’ signature songs, used as the theme song for The Wire with versions recorded by artists including The Blind Boys of Alabama and Steve Earle. The song’s subdued R&B pulse was recast for the gothic blues of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ favorite “Red Right Hand.” The folk-style repetition of “Cold, Cold Ground” is a musing on dreams gone to die. “The piano is firewood,” sings Waits. Waits croons like Nicotene Sinatra during “Straight to the Top (Vegas).” The yearning backward glance “Innocent When You Dream” reels like an Irish drinking song. Our Frank leaves his hometown for glory as an accordion player in New York and Las Vegas but eventually finds himself back in the dive bar where he started. Waits’ vocal changes to suit different characters in the play. The songs reflect chapters of dreams pursued, nightmares endured, and hopes dashed.

After five years spent on soundtracks, acting, and other projects, Bone Machine arrived in 1992. The album spills over with biblical imagery on songs like the wild-eyed Gospel of “Jesus Gonna Be Here Soon” and reflections on mortality like the funeral dirge “Dirt in the Ground.” “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me Today” is the heavy-hearted contemplation of a person who delays ending it all for one more day. In the darkly cinematic case of “Murder at the Red Barn,” some suspects, like farmer Cal, don’t get the same scrutiny for dirty deeds as other townsfolk despite incriminating signs. “There’s always some killin’ you got to do around the farm,” sings Waits. The album was recorded in a one-room basement studio with a concrete floor, lending the album its distinctive and stark resonance.

“All Stripped Down” and its vision of divine judgment has a minimalist arrangement leaning on acoustic upright bass and frenzied rattlesnake percussion. Waits, Brennan, and banjoist Joe Marquez create the substructure on the apocalyptic “Earth Died Screaming” by playing sticks, suggesting a chorus line of dancing skeletons. Primus frontman and fellow surrealist Les Claypool plays bass on the song while Old Scratch shovels coal into the fire that burns the world to ash.

The rebellious rejection of maturity “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” was adopted and reshaped by punk rock torchbearers the Ramones, providing the band with a rare hit single on its 1995 farewell album Adios Amigos. Pal Keith Richards returns on “That Feel,” sounding like a pair of woozy old mates holding up the bar at last call. David Phillips’s pedal steel cries and twists around muted parlor piano during “A Little Rain” with its sketches of characters who were dealt less than spectacular hands by fate. “A little rain never hurt no one,” sings Waits, but it’s cold comfort. “Whistle Down the Wind” hits the other end of the spectrum with the promise to look after a loved one, with stirring accordion and violin by Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo. It’s a reminder that when he’s not raving about the end of the world, Waits has a penchant for tender balladry.

The Black Rider completed Waits’ decade with Island. The album was developed to support an avant-garde musical fable and in partnership with maverick stage director Robert Wilson and influential Beat Generation author William S. Burroughs.  The song cycle aligns with Waits’ familiar preoccupations and is based on a German folktale, “Der Freischütz,” about a young file clerk who makes a doomed pact with the devil in return for the love of a huntsman’s daughter. Wilson’s production has been staged throughout Europe and has traveled to North America and Australia. Waits’ music draws on early 20th-century cabaret and his cluttered kitchen sink of twisted vaudeville and the occasional Cossack dance. The album evokes dilapidated carnival rides hawked by a relentless barker and eerie forest scenes at night. Halloweenish visions flow through songs like “Flash Pan Hunter” and “Tain’t No Sin.” “Tain’t no sin to take off your skin and dance around in your bones,” sings Burroughs in a deranged character. A bowed saw creates ghostly wails like wind through barren trees during “November.” You can hear the knowing sneer in Waits’ voice as the devil Pegleg offers charmed ammunition during “The Right Bullets,” seducing the young clerk and anticipating his downfall. “I’ll Shoot the Moon” is a love song from the young clerk with his deluded optimism. The shanty “The Briar and the Rose” is a touching reverie with visions of opposites that can never be unentwined. The Black Rider ends as the young clerk is driven mad by tragedy.

Across the board, the remastering is done with reverence for the source material. When compared to an older LP pressing, the refreshed audio of Swordfishtrombones is well-balanced with enhanced body and vivid detail. The LP pressings of Bone Machine and The Black Rider are the albums’ first vinyl pressings to be released outside of Europe.

– Jeff Elbel

Swordfishtrombones – 9 of 10

Rain Dogs – 10 of 10

Frank’s Wild Years – 8 of 10

Bone Machine – 8 of 10

The Black Rider – 6 of 10

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