Round 17 - vote for your LEAST favorites

  • Underground

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Singapore

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Clap Hands

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Cemetery Polka

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Jockey Full of Bourbon

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Time

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Hang on St. Christopher

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Temptation

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Innocent When You Dream

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • I'll Be Gone

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Yesterday Is Here

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Franks Theme

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • More Than Rain

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Way Down in the Hole

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Telephone Call from Istanbul

    Votes: 0 0.0%
  • Cold Cold Ground

    Votes: 0 0.0%

  • Total voters
    2
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Shadow

Deluxe Edition
Staff member
So I go away for a little while - talking to God on the mountain, swimming in the Irish sea, eating fire, drinking from the Ganges, that sort of thing - and when I return you're already at Heartattack and Vine. And you've voted out so many cool numbers from Small Change...

Anyway, I'm voting for "San Diego Serenade", "Shiver Me Timbers", "The Heart of Saturday Night", "Romeo Is Bleeding, "Wrong Side of the Road" and "In Shades".

Just listened to Heartattack and Vine again. I don't know what it is with Tom, but he can sing those teary-eyed Hollywood strings ballads like nobody else. I always get a lump of my throat when he whispers "... and I thought I heard a mockingbird..."
 

Mosh

Winner of the 2020 Dumbest Comment Ever Award
Staff member
Kind lost track of this but I'm really enjoying Heart Attack and Vine. May rise to be one of my favorite Tom Waits albums. The run from Downtown really to the end is awesome. I also much prefer his version of Jersy Girl to Bruce's (didn't even know it was his song originally).

In revisiting Blue Valentine I was significantly less impressed than before. Lots of samey sounding songs and some of the slower material really plods along.
 

MrKnickerbocker

clap hands
So I go away for a little while - talking to God on the mountain, swimming in the Irish sea, eating fire, drinking from the Ganges, that sort of thing - and when I return you're already at Heartattack and Vine. And you've voted out so many cool numbers from Small Change...

Anyway, I'm voting for "San Diego Serenade", "Shiver Me Timbers", "The Heart of Saturday Night", "Romeo Is Bleeding, "Wrong Side of the Road" and "In Shades".

Just listened to Heartattack and Vine again. I don't know what it is with Tom, but he can sing those teary-eyed Hollywood strings ballads like nobody else. I always get a lump of my throat when he whispers "... and I thought I heard a mockingbird..."

Glad to have you back! Yeah, we've definitely gone through some good stuff already and said goodbye to some of my favorites, but that's the unfortunate nature of the game.

Kind lost track of this but I'm really enjoying Heart Attack and Vine. May rise to be one of my favorite Tom Waits albums. The run from Downtown really to the end is awesome. I also much prefer his version of Jersy Girl to Bruce's (didn't even know it was his song originally).

In revisiting Blue Valentine I was significantly less impressed than before. Lots of samey sounding songs and some of the slower material really plods along.

I had the opposite reaction, but I used to be a lot more familiar with H&V than BV.
 

Shadow

Deluxe Edition
Staff member
3 songs from Small Change were already promoted
I know, but then why are four songs from the much weaker The Heart of Saturday Night still in the game? I am clearly need here to provide some taste to the proceedings. ;)
 

MrKnickerbocker

clap hands
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ELIMINATED after Round 11:
Shiver Me Timbers
Romeo is Bleeding
$29.00
Wrong Side of the Road
In Shades
Ruby's Arms

Promoted:
New Coat of Paint
San Diego Serenade
(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night
Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis
Whistlin' Past the Graveyard
Blue Valentines

The Heart of Saturday Night finally leaves the board for now, along with Blue Valentine, and we move into the peak Waits era!

Swordfishtrombones (1983)

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The early 80s were monumental for Tom, even if it wasn't evident on the previous album. During the writing and recording of both Heartattack & Vine and the film score One From the Heart Tom met Kathleen Brennan - an Illinois-bred, Jersey-raised, Hollywood professional. They married within weeks and remain married to this day. She changed his life, she changed his music. From here on out Kathleen will be a massive songwriting influence and will soon be credited on almost every album.

Heartattack & Vine was an angry not-so-love letter to the drunken wino, Hollywood-era of Tom's music. Moving forward, Tom embraces the theatricality he had always flirted with in his persona and applies it to his music. The instrumentation and experimentation on Swordfishtrombones reaches outside of any box in which Waits had previously lived. Tom still focuses on characters familiar to his fans, but he dips into magical realism to portray these small human vignettes.

Tom is in full control here. He produced the album by himself and mostly abandoned the previous tendencies towards piano and string-based songwriting. The music is abstract, raw, worldly, and unflinchingly compelling. A sonic obsession begins here, with Tom hunting for sounds from international instruments to things he may have built out of spare car parts. Larry Taylor and Greg Cohen return on bass guitar duties, Ronnie Barron for a couple organ tracks, and a slew of other musicians fill out the musical palette.

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Down in the Hole podcast, Swordfishtrombones

Song by Song podcast, Swordfishtrombones playlist
 

Mosh

Winner of the 2020 Dumbest Comment Ever Award
Staff member
This album is awesome. Prior to the survivor I was only familiar with Closing Time and Rain Dogs. I was looking forward to seeing how he went from one extreme to another and I guess we’re here. Swordfishtrombones is such an abrupt change that I don’t think there was anything hinting to the new direction on previous albums. But I definitely welcome this change as it’s far more musically unique and interesting than anything he’s done up to this point (although I still quite liked most of what I’ve heard).
 

MrKnickerbocker

clap hands
This album is awesome. Prior to the survivor I was only familiar with Closing Time and Rain Dogs. I was looking forward to seeing how he went from one extreme to another and I guess we’re here. Swordfishtrombones is such an abrupt change that I don’t think there was anything hinting to the new direction on previous albums. But I definitely welcome this change as it’s far more musically unique and interesting than anything he’s done up to this point (although I still quite liked most of what I’ve heard).

The blues from the last couple records is still heavy here (16 Shells, Gin Soaked Boy, Down), but the offbeat instrumentation and production is just straight out of left field. Both a culmination of Tom's dissatisfaction with his sound and subject matter as well as Kathleen's influence for him to push his limits further.

I think there's hints of some of these things much earlier (Shore Leave feels like a carnival mashup of Potter's Field/Burma Shave), Frank's Wild Years is the "natural" evolution of Tom's boho spoken word pieces (all of Nighthawks), and the ballads still remain, they're just far more inventive. I definitely agree that the soundscape of this album was a game-changer.
 

Stardust

A Blue Sector Mirage
I've been watching this survivor a bit, and while I'm not planning to join it anytime soon, I was wondering...is it weird saying Mule Variations is your favourite Tom Waits album? Because it's mine and I was curious if it was a really unpopular opinion or something.
 

Shadow

Deluxe Edition
Staff member
I've been watching this survivor a bit, and while I'm not planning to join it anytime soon, I was wondering...is it weird saying Mule Variations is your favourite Tom Waits album? Because it's mine and I was curious if it was a really unpopular opinion or something.
It's not a weird or unpopular opinion.
 

MrKnickerbocker

clap hands
I've been watching this survivor a bit, and while I'm not planning to join it anytime soon, I was wondering...is it weird saying Mule Variations is your favourite Tom Waits album? Because it's mine and I was curious if it was a really unpopular opinion or something.

If you know enough Tom Waits to have a favorite Tom Waits album...why are you not playing?!

And no, that's totally valid. Mule Variations is probably my favorite Waits record, as well, perhaps only tied with Rain Dogs.
 

Shadow

Deluxe Edition
Staff member
Swordfishtrombones sounds experimental in the most literal sense, it's like you're there in the laboratory with Tom, trying out all these new ideas for the first time. Sometimes it doesn't quite work - "Shore Leave", for instance, has a very cool arrangement but the half-spoken vocals don't seem to go anywhere in particular, and even more fully developed tunes like "Underground" sound rather tentative. An unusually large amount of instrumentals as well. Still, this is obviously a classic album (although I wouldn't say it's clearly better than Heartattack and Vine, which I think tends to be underrated in relation to the other eighties albums).

I'll take this opportunity to highlight one of the most important influences on the new sound. This is from all the way back in 1970:

 

MrKnickerbocker

clap hands
Nothing can prepare a Tom Waits fan for this album. From the opening notes to the closing flourish, the music is simply revelatory in terms of Tom’s artistic vision. The following album, Rain Dogs, gets a lot of accolades and is admittedly great, but Swordfishtrombones is the watershed moment.

Tom’s life changes cannot be unexamined when diving into the tones and subjects of this record. He reached a point that could only be described as utter creative chaos - hitting the end of his barfly persona, moving to New York and using hard drugs, only to be called immediately back to LA to spend months writing music as a hired gun with zero perimeters and endlessly increasing dissatisfaction for a movie that ultimately flopped…Tom was potentially nearing the end of his career (or at least facing a burn out that would have lasted years). He meets Kathleen Brennan, has a whirlwind courtship, marries her, and the two honeymoon in Ireland to escape the writing of One From the Heart. Kathleen proves to be a harsh critic of Tom’s songwriting but also a fiercely loyal partner and strong collaborator. Tom writes this entire album while on vacation in Ireland, quits smoking, discovers new music thanks to Kathleen, and enters a new creative high.

All of these factors contribute to the sound of this album. There is world music everywhere, instrumentation that was completely alien to the pop music audience, and a shift in songwriting focus to more obscure, dark, and ultimately challenging material. And Waits was all the better for these changes.

Underground - If you were a Tom Waits fan in 1983 and put on this record, I can easily imagine double checking the vinyl to ensure that you hadn’t been given an incorrect album. The musicality on this opening track, the sheer bombast of insanity, is astounding and radically different from Tom’s previous songs. Underground sets a template for a new kind of Waits song that will reappear on almost every album from here on out: the stomp number. This track is unique, it’s ludicrous, and it’s fun as hell. 10/10

Shore Leave - As with the opener, Tom immediately sets the tone and the setting with only music. We’re in a far away land and we’re just a little off kilter. The words paint the scene of a sailor on holiday, far away from his lover and missing home. The music gives this simple story so much weight, it’s a masterpiece of tone painting. Percussion dominates the track, with pronounced marimba and even a snare drum covered in rice. When you break this song down to bare bones it’s just a blues tune and, had it been released on Blue Valentine or Heartattack & Vine, it would have sounded like one. Instead, Tom shoves the simplicity to the background and layers it with trombone, slinky western guitar, some banjo, and aunglongs (whatever the hell those are). Tom discovers a new aspect of his voice in a high falsetto shriek at the end, a tone we’ll definitely hear from again in the future. 10/10

Dave the Butcher - Madness potentially creeps in a bit too much here for my tastes. Supposedly this instrumental was Tom trying to musically create what he imagined to be the sounds inside the head of maniac butcher he met while in Ireland. This is what Dave hears while chopping up a pork loin. It’s delightfully creepy, but not incredibly listenable. 4/10 VOTE

Johnsburg, Illinois - A simple, short ode to Kathleen and her hometown. It might be a bit too concise, but it simply drips with legitimate sentiment. This isn’t Tom portraying a character’s grand love for a woman, it’s a real, brief moment of admiration for something he actually loves. If you’re obsessed with plot it could also be a return to the story of the sailor in “Shore Leave” who shows a picture of his lady to a stranger in a bar. 8/10

16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six - Another simple blues tune at heart that sounds all the more odd thanks to an African brake drum and some odd horn flutters. It’s a dadaist experiment with lyrics that may or may not actually make sense (Tom claims it’s about trapping a crow inside a guitar and making it go insane), but that’s part of the fun. Shouting “Whittle you into kindlin’!” along with Tom will always be a highlight of the discography for me. 10/10

Town With No Cheer - We’re given another scene painting right from the start here, with a freedom bell ringing like a call for the dead (or maybe dinner) and bagpipes. It’s a quiet dirge lead by a harmonium and a synthesizer and it’s altogether odd and challenging. Apparently, the story is of a small Australian community without a watering hole and the whole thing is peppered with Aussie references and slang. It’s also a riff on the popular folk tune “Pub With No Beer”. I wish there was more melody, though. Not a standout track for me. 6/10 VOTE

In the Neighborhood - From an Australian town to what sounds like a decidedly American neighborhood, this song is another example of Tom simply painting a portrait rather than telling a specific story. As with the previous song, we hear Tom’s foot tapping leading the band and creating an auditory familiarity with the listener. These types of recordings make you feel like you’re physically part of the same space as the musicians, like they’re playing these tunes in your parlor. Anyway, it sounds a bit like a marching band and a bit like a gospel sing-a-long, which stands in nice contrast to the depressing and mundane lyrics. It’s a nice tune. 8/10

Just Another Sucker on the Vine - We take a little detour with the horn combo and an accordion into this little instrumental, which is far more enjoyable than Dave the Butcher. What I think this track accomplishes nicely is bridging the gap between the more worldly first half of the album and the more grounded, earthy, western-sounding second half of the album. This song is almost as if the soldier from “Shore Leave” is coming home. 6/10 VOTE

Frank’s Wild Years - The crowning achievement of Tom’s spoken word pieces. This song does what the entire Nighthawks album attempted to do, does it better, and does it in less than two minutes. It’s dark, funny, and not trying too hard; hell, Tom sounds pretty damn nonchalant about the whole thing. Just a hoot. 10/10

Swordfishtrombone - I just love this song. The bass and percussion groove is insatiable. It feels like a more upbeat, drunker sister-song to “Shore Leave” in both the musicality and the lyrics. In my opinion, this is the absolute masterpiece of this album. It makes perfect sense why this was used as the title track. Like many other songs on this record, the lyrics share multiple references (soldiers, a mad dog, destructive fire, naming the instruments currently being used, California, birds, etc.). It feels like Tom is weaving a concept album here and at the same time it pulls the rug out from under that theory during the final verse. There’s barely a string holding this plot together and the whole damn tale might be a lie. 10/10

Down, Down, Down - Tom dives into another barnburner blues number and it’s a lot of fun. This is the manic cousin to a lot of earlier and later blues romps. The lyrics only breathe for an organ solo. It’s a hell of a time, but feels a little insubstantial when paired with all of the other imaginative scenes from this album. 9/10

Soldier’s Things - Tom saves the true heartbreak for this track. The incredible melancholy of the music pairs strikingly with what first appears to be a simple list of items. It becomes apparent towards the end of the verses that we’re dealing with a very sad parting of belongings, either from the soldier himself giving up his old life for cash or a family member selling off the items posthumously. It’s pure sadness and simple, effective songwriting at its finest. Compare something like this to Tom’s earlier (pre-Kathleen) sentimental work and the youthful broad brush strokes become readily apparent. 10/10

Gin-Soaked Boy - Another foray into blues territory, and in my opinion, the least successful one on the album. It’s a fun tune, the rough and jumpy guitar playing is incredibly cool, but it lacks the sincerity and depth of the other songs. 7/10 VOTE

Trouble’s Braids - The experimentation pushes too far for me here. Honestly, the slamming percussion and incessant bass are actually annoying. Tom certainly achieves his goal of mania here, it just isn’t listenable. Probably my least favorite song on the album. 3/10 VOTE

Rainbirds - A sad, beautiful little instrumental. I don’t love it, but I think it brings the album to a nice close. Still, it’s a shame that the last few tracks take a dive in quality because I truly love the majority of this album. 6/10 VOTE

If I’m rating simply by score count Swordfishtrombones ends up lower than at least half of the albums we’ve listened to already, but I think it’s easily his most accomplished record yet and definitely the highlight of his first ten years of recording.

Swordfishtrombones sounds experimental in the most literal sense, it's like you're there in the laboratory with Tom, trying out all these new ideas for the first time. Sometimes it doesn't quite work - "Shore Leave", for instance, has a very cool arrangement but the half-spoken vocals don't seem to go anywhere in particular, and even more fully developed tunes like "Underground" sound rather tentative. An unusually large amount of instrumentals as well. Still, this is obviously a classic album (although I wouldn't say it's clearly better than Heartattack and Vine, which I think tends to be underrated in relation to the other eighties albums).

Definitely. I actually rank this album equally with Heart of Saturday Night and I think it's below the previous two (H&V and BV) because it's obviously experimentation for the sake of it. But that experimentation is so important to the future of his sound and, in my opinion, his best work. The album is a masterpiece because the good songs are astounding and because it holds an important historical context in his career. It is certainly not his most consistent.
 
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