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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Tom Waits, "Rain Dogs"

Tom Waits
"Rain Dogs"
Island (1985)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die + 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

Some performers are cursed by a compliment. It's an unusual condition where a musician is given the same praise so often that it prevents other features from being praised. Critics focus so strongly on the one facet that they fail to give attention to other worthwhile tendencies. Tom Waits struggles with this, in my opinion. I've seen the term "whiskey-soaked vocals" or some other play off of the liquor variety used just a little too often.

I'll address this overused endorsement first just to clarify my own complaints. I understand what people are saying when they compare Waits's voice to the drink. Whiskey is a beverage that's rougher than, say, gin. But many, including myself, still enjoy whiskey as their first choice of hard alcohol. The point is that Waits's vocals are rough, but artfully crafted and pleasurable nonetheless. I agree with this sentiment, but let's move past this already.

The best part about the 19 tracks on "Rain Dogs" is that Waits shifts his tone dramatically throughout. His signature, asperous delivery remains, but the vocalist adjusts it to fit the mood. I broke his voice into three general categories based on this album: 1) Quiet. The rarest of the three, but proves that Waits can be subtle on tracks such as "Jockey Full of Bourbon." 2) Comical. Most common, and suits the needs of the dark-humored narratives that make up the majority of Waits work here. See the title track. 3) Full-on drunken wobble. You can hear Waits bringing his voice from the back of his throat, imaginary jowls wobbling. Waits certainly sings about whiskey and other alcohol plenty, and often his characters sound full of it, by design of his delivery. A good example of this is the Keith Richards-assisted "Big Black Mariah."

Waits's best aspect as a vocalist is his ability to imitate tones. He never changes the "whiskey" voice (that's what fans love after all). He can get weird, he can get poppy (see "Hang Down Your Head"), he can be country ("Gun Street Girl") with minor tweaks. Waits does whiskey vocals, sure. But he also does bourbon and scotch pretty well.

Even if you don't spend hours fretting and studying vocal styles (as you shouldn't), Waits's songs will still entertain. His characters are somewhat real, somewhat fictional, but they're all "rain dogs," a term Waits uses to describe people lost in the world, the downtrodden. There are tales of sailors off of Singapore, criminals in Minnesota and gangsters in Cuba. The narratives are different, but nearly every track happens on the tough side of town.

So give Waits a new compliment. He knows that his voice is unique and certainly a gift to fans of eccentric music the world across. Let's praise him not for his talent, but instead for skillfully using that talent to make any mood and tone operate effectively.

INTERESTING FACT: The layout of the typography on the front of "Rain Dogs" is exactly the same, by design, as Elvis Presley's debut album and The Clash's "London Calling." However, Waits opted to make the text blue, instead of red as featured on the other two albums.

Rain Dogs by Tom Waits on Grooveshark

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