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This review is from: Swordfishtrombones (Audio CD)
Few artists ever seek to completely re-invent themselves on record, and fewer still make the transformation as completely successfully as did Tom Waits. His 70's albums are revered for their delicate, string-landen piano work with Waits croaking out lyrical strands of barstool philosophizing in a pseudo-Louis Armstrong growl. These albums are good, strong efforts, but they had become somewhat predictable by the time of 1980's Heart Attack & Vine (although that album, and it's predecessor, Blue Valentine, had started to introduce new elements into Waits's music.) Swordfishtrombones, then, was a complete re-invention. Out go the strings and piano work (almost entirely in the case of the former, much less overt in the case of the latter), out go to late night bar-obsessed Beat poetry of the lyrics, out goes the Louis Armstrong growl. This album, instead, featured light, sparse, percussion-driven arrangements, with chugging basslines and occasional freakish burts of kaleidoscopic guitar. Lyrically, it was still drenched in weirdness, but moreso than ever - Waits's tales range from the insane poetry that would come to dominate his next album, Rain Dogs (Underground, Shore Leave), to his other typical 80's style song that he still leans on heavily in concert when he plays (16 Shells, Down, Down, Down), to the outright bizzarre and hilarous (Frank's Wild Years, In The Neighborhood.) We also see his vocals take on a more Howlin' Wolf-esque leaning - one critic described the album as sounding like "The Three Penny Opera as sung by Howlin' Wolf." Although this was the prototype for all the rest of his albums since it, it can be a bit hard to get used to (not that all of his albums aren't), if you are used to his earlier efforts. But, like any great album, it takes some time to grow on you. After several listens, you will come to appreciate that this is an album of unique genius. Rain Dogs would be the apex of this era of Tom's songwriting, and his masterpiece may indeed have come in 1992 with Bone Machine, but Swordfishtrombones is a brave, admirable total re-invention the likes of which we almost never see. It's an essential Waits album.
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Initial post: May 7, 2011 6:29:04 PM PDT
Lynn Morooney says:
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