Albums That Made Me - Swordfishtrombones
In this series of blogs, I will document a selection of albums that were pivotal in shaping my musical journey. I will focus on what made these albums special to me, as opposed to what makes them special in music, cultural or any other terms. Of course, every album I discuss can be considered as recommended listening, however, please keep in mind that whilst these albums are special to me, that doesn't mean they're particularly special and/or unique in their own right (although in most cases, I would argue that they are!).
Artist: Tom Waits
Genre: Experimental Rock (sort of...?)
Tom Waits – vocals (1:1–2, 1:4–7, 2:2–7), chair (1:2), Hammond B-3 organ (1:3), piano (1:4, 2:5, 2:8), harmonium (1:6, 2:1), synthesiser (1:6), freedom bell (1:6)
Victor Feldman – bass marimba (1:1–2), marimba (1:2, 2:3), shaker (1:2), bass drum with rice (1:2), bass boo bams (1:3), Brake drum (1:5), bell plate (1:5), snare (1:5, 2:4), Hammond B-3 organ (1:7), snare drum (1:7), bells (1:7), conga (2:3), bass drum (2:3), Dabuki drum (2:3), tambourine (2:4), African talking drum (2:7)
Larry Taylor – acoustic bass (1:1–2, 1:5, 1:7, 2:2, 2:4, 2:6–7), electric bass (2:3)
Randy Aldcroft – baritone horn (1:1, 1:7), trombone (1:2)
Stephen Taylor Arvizu Hodges – drums (1:1–2, 1:5, 2:4, 2:6), parade drum (1:7), cymbals (1:7), parade bass drum (2:7), glass harmonica (2:8)
Fred Tackett – electric guitar (1:1, 1:2, 1:5, 2:6), banjo (1:2)
Francis Thumm – metal aunglongs (1:2), glass harmonica (2:8)
Greg Cohen – bass (1:4), acoustic bass (2:3, 2:5, 2:8)
Joe Romano – trombone (1:5), trumpet (2:1)
Anthony Clark Stewart – bagpipes (1:6)
Clark Spangler – synthesiser program (1:6)
Bill Reichenbach Jr. – trombone (1:7)
Dick Hyde – trombone (1:7)
Ronnie Barron – Hammond organ (2:2)
Eric Bikales – organ (2:4)
Carlos Guitarlos – electric guitar (2:4)
Richard Gibbs – glass harmonica (2:8)
Frances Thumm - Arranger
Tim Boyle - Engineer
Biff Dawes - Engineer
I was introduced to the music of Tom Waits when I was 18. The first album I heard was his debut album Closing Time, and I was instantly hooked on his distinctive approach to the story-telling singer-songwriter genre. Over the next two years, I gradually worked my way through his catalogue in chronological order. Whilst I could sense he was heading in new directions at the end of the 1970s, nothing prepared me for what I was about to hear when I put my Swordfishtrombones CD into my hifi. It was like nothing I'd ever heard!
Creatively, Waits had somewhat painted himself into a corner throughout the 1970s. He'd become a pastiche of himself and was spiralling ever-deeper into a self-destructive lifestyle. In order to save himself and free himself from the Waits image, he moved in the most unforeseen direction.
He parted with everyone he had worked with in his career, including long time collaborator, producer Bones Howe and his label Asylum. He moved from the west coast to New York and began experimenting with producing his own music (something he did for the rest of his career).
Freed from record label expectations and the tried and tested working processes of former colleagues, he embarked on a body of work that explored texture, atmosphere, unfamiliar styles and musical traditions from non-American places. What resulted is dark, brooding, ominous, sometimes mercurial, with menacing moments thats starkly juxtapose sweet and loving passages, which themselves tail off into dissonance. There are moments on this album that even border on the avant-garde, such is its experimental nature.
It took me several listens to get this album. I was such a heavy fan of Tom Waits' earlier work that I afforded him the benefit of the doubt when I didn't understand this album (at first). I'm glad I did!
Up until hearing this album, I thought of music as a selection of instruments playing in harmonic and rhythmical synchronisation. I thought only of conventional instruments, conventional arrangements, conventional structures and so on.
After hearing this album (at the age of 20), I had an epiphany: music, sound, noise, sonic-texture, ambient sounds, etc, is all music! I realised there's a musicality to the sound of rain, traffic, machinery, and so on. In an instant, it no longer mattered to me whether music was played on a piano or a piece of scrap metal from a junkyard. What mattered was the intent of the sound; the emotion and story being told by the music.
Swordfishtrombones utilises an enormous selection of strange and unusual instruments, alongside more conventional instrumentation, giving it a distinctively unique sound palette. Stylistically it draws from Americana, central America, Eastern-Europe, Central-America, and much, much more.
Furthermore, the styles in which things are performed at first appears sloppy, loose or accidental at times. However, I believe this is all intended and expertly executed in the crafting of a mood and tension that keeps the attention and stirs the imagination.
Sonically, this album is one hell of a journey. It's unnerving and scary at times. Yet there's a beauty and yearning to many of the pieces that are all the more melancholically beautiful for their unusual and probing contrast of tonalities. It's a game of balance, in which tension, darkness and uncertainty are delicately offset by moments of incredible light and clarity, made all the more impactful by the darkness that preceded them. It's the old musical adage of tension and resolve executed to the highest order.
A perfect example of this is the disconcerting instrumental Dave The Butcher. Two minutes and twenty-one seconds of nerve-racking organ which culminates with the most serene, gentle and beautiful opening piano arpeggio of Johnsburg, Illinois (a tender love letter to Waits' wife), which itself juxtaposes harmony and dissonance in equal measure through its use of carefully placed dissonance. By stretching the tension to its limits, Waits makes the resolve payoff to degrees he never managed in his music prior to this release. It's something else entirely.
Naturally, being a Waits album, the lyricism is of the highest quality with Kerouac-esque poetry which conjures imagery of everyday, small, mid-western towns that time forgot. He tackles the everyday struggles of society's underbelly, such as unwitting soldiers who just signed up to make a buck, and Frank (a recurring protagonist in Waits' work, further developed in 1987's concept album Frank's Wild Years). Frank embodies the antithesis of the American Dream, steeped in ambitions which are all undone by the trappings of an exuberant lifestyle (the epitome of many characters and themes touched upon throughout Wait's work).
As mentioned above, this album genuinely changed the way I viewed music. It changed my whole philosophy towards sound and the art of crafting sound to tell stories. Despite having listened to it more times than I could hope to remember, I often still spot new things nested within the arrangements that pique my interest; such is the level of detail in this album.
Of all the albums I've ever heard, this one always ranks in the top 3, such is its deep significance and long-lasting impact on my musical development.
I don't believe Tom Waits has ever made a bad album. Sure, some are stronger than others, but even some of his less-well-received albums still contain some absolute gems. If you're unfamiliar with his work, I strongly recommend you start at the beginning (1973's Closing Time) and work your way through his albums chronologically. Don't rush though. Give each album a few listens, as there's so much to unpack in each album. Spend a week with an album before moving on to the next one. This is probably the best way to prepare (or not prepare!) for the shifts in artistic direction that he undertakes throughout the 80s, 90s and 00s.