Tom Waits, Rain Dogs
A touchstone with unceasingly inventive arrangements and more awareness of his voice
The touchstone for Tom Waits’s second act, Rain Dogs consolidates the gains of Swordfishtrombones and extends them with the help of an all-star cast. The key addition is guitarist Marc Ribot, whose spindly leads yank the songs in unexpected directions. On “Singapore,” his percussive plucking sets up a conflicting rhythm that bleeds into the mix like a drunk seeing double. It’s saying something that Ribot makes the biggest impression on an album that also features guest spots by Keith Richards (“Big Black Mariah”) and Robert Quine (“Blind Love”). Waits’s arrangements are unceasingly inventive — check the combination of banjo, upright bass and hand drums on “Gun Street Girl” — and he’s increasingly aware of his voice as an instrument. On “Cemetery Polka,” he sounds as if his throat is clogged with graveyard dirt, while on “Hang Down Your Head” it’s heavy with more sorrow than his words can bear. It’s telling that “Downtown Train,” subsequently travestied by Rod Stewart, is left until nearly last, despite being the album’s most obvious commercial prospect. Waits starts off by breathing fire in the listener’s face; refreshments will be served, but only for those who stay ’til the end.