Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Tom Waits - Swordfishtrombones

This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of Swordfishtrombones, the seventh studio album from American rocker Tom Waits. This September of 1983 release, the first album Waits produced himself, reached number 167 on the US Billboard Album chart, number 62 in the UK, number 48 in the Netherlands, number 45 in New Zealand and number 18 in Norway.

Spin magazine, in 1989, ranked it the second greatest album for all time. UK music magazine Q, in 2006, placed it at number 36 on its list of the 40 Best Albums of the 80’s. Pitchfork Media listed it as the 11th best album of the 1980’s while Slant Magazine listed it at number 26 on its Best Albums of the 1980’s list. Even Rolling Stone magazine’s reviewer Don Shewey gave it a four-star rating in the November 24th, 1983, issue of that periodical.

Given all off this high praise from a number of sources over the decades, I had a very curious anticipation for listening to this record for the very first time. Let’s see if it pays off.

Side one opens with the dark, dank and heavy “Underground”. The mix of the marimbas, the bass and the thumping bass drum really set the mood for this two minute piece.

“Shore Leave” has a quirky rhythm that accompanies Waits’ blend of poetry reading verses and the sung choruses. It sums up the feelings of loneliness and isolation.

An instrumental entitled “Dave the Butcher” is next. It has a twisted carnival sound due to Waits on the Hammond organ.

Waits takes to the piano for the heartfelt ballad “Johnsburg, Illinois”.

“16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought-Six” is another interesting sounding piece. I like the mix of the heavy drum with the metal bell (which sounds like someone driving railroad spikes).

“Town With No Cheer” opens with Anthony Clark Stewart on the bagpipes, and then it winds down into a melancholy piece. Waits’ gravely vocal style works well for this narrative about how a town has gone down hill over time.

Side two begins with “In the Neighborhood”. This urban commentary features the dual trombones of Bill Reichenbach and Dick “Slyde” Hyde; they really set up the somber tone of this one.

The instrumental “Just Another Sucker on the Vine” is next. Waits plays the harmonium (an organ with foot pedals) here and is joined by Joe Romano on trumpet.

Things take a jazz spin on “Frank’s Wild Years”, a short story about a guy who snaps one night.

“Swordfishtrombone” stays in that same genre, adding in an acoustic bass played by Greg Cohen and the marimba by Victor Feldman. The rhythm is rather catchy as I found my foot bouncing to the beat.

“Down, Down, Down” is a bouncy and blazing blues number about a man who makes a deal with the devil.

On “Soldier’s Things”, Waits tells of a mother going through the belongings of her son who died while serving his country.

“Gin Soaked Boy” slides into the down-and-dirty blues genre. It reminds me of a trip to Chicago in the late 80’s and going out to a blues club one night with a co-worker friend of mine.

“Trouble’s Braids”, another spoke word piece, comes with tribal percussion. It is raw and primal, and also very short.

Closing out the record is the instrumental “Rainbirds”.

I have to admit that I personally have zero Tom Waits tracks in my music library at this time; he was just one of those artists that never crossed into my radar. And from what I have heard from people over the years, he is one of those artists that bring extreme reactions - adoring love or cool indifference.

For me, Swordfishtrombones was an interesting listening experience. I know if I had heard it back in 1983 I would not have liked it as much as it was not what I was into at the time. Listening to it today though, at age 48, I can certainly appreciate what is presented. I like the variety of the music and the performances. Is it an album I would listen to a lot? Probably not as it has a really dark side to it kind of bums me out a bit. But, if the mood were right, I could see giving it another spin.


HERC said...

This one is definitely for those dark nights of despair. Here's hoping I'll never have to listen to it again.

Martin Maenza said...

Herc, glad you gave it a shot. That's kind of how I felt too listening to it for the first time for the review. Things are definitely coming up on this "detailed look at a target year" that I have never heard before. Not all click. But I am willing to give up an hour (average) each to say I tried them. Sometimes you find something new to love. This time, however, was not the case for me either.