Love Letter To A Record: Zeal & Ardor On Tom Waits’ ‘Rain Dogs’

Many of us can link a certain album to pivotal moments in our lives. Whether it’s the first record you bought with your own money, the chord you first learnt to play on guitar, the song that soundtracked your first kiss, the album that got you those awkward and painful pubescent years or the one that set off light bulbs in your brain and inspired you to take a big leap of faith into the unknown – music is often the catalyst for change in our lives and can even help shape who we become.

In this series, Music Feeds asks artists to reflect on their relationship with music and share with us stories about the effect music has had on their lives.

Here are their love letters to records that forever changed their lives.

Zeal & Ardor: Tom Waits – Rain Dogs

I guess the album that impacted me the most would be Rain Dogs by Tom Waits.

This is surprising to me, as I really didn’t like the sound of the record when I first heard it (it was the first Tom Waits album I came in contact  with.). What did strike a chord with me was the way the first strange pang of the very first song immediately transported me into the musician’s world. By the time the opening song, ‘Singapore’, came to a close I had this awfully detailed image of a 1940’s street in the evening after the rain littered with  all manners of rusty tins flanked by rickety houses. It’s in the lyrics and in the instrumentation of the record. Tom croons of halcyon days long passed and of mistakes probably best left unshared.

There isn’t as much storytelling as much as there is set dressing and that is something sorely rare in music I think. the second track, ‘Clap Hands’, features a short quote of Shirley Ellis’ ‘Clapping Song’ but is dissected in a way that it stands in an eerily uncomfortable light. Tom produced the record with an uncompromising dedication to his off kilter mood. Marc Ribot, who plays guitar, seems to have shared this vision as his guitar playing along with the marimba and percussion (played by Michael Blair and Bobby Previte) further paint the picture of an old broken house that is just short of being haunted. To me it’s best described as the a barely harmless prequel to a horror movie. The songs seem impossible to follow or sing, but after a couple of listens (and drinks) I found myself belting along with them loudly enough to embarrass my fellow patrons. There is also a heavy, and I mean heavy, connotation to alcohol on this record. Not only through titles like ‘Jockey Full of Bourbon’ but through the mere delivery of Tom Waits’ vocals. I’m still not sure if they come heavily intentionally or blissfully accidentally after a rough night of drinking, but they strike a strange chord with anyone listening to them.

It’s that the listener to some degree finds him- or herself in them. Most of us have been quite drunk and convinced of our vocal prowess at some point only to inspire furrowed brows and impatient shushes. Tom just went ahead and recorded it and bizarrely I really dig it. I haven’t read any interviews by Tom, or read too much about the album’s production because I think that would potentially destroy my impressions and by extension my relationship with the record. There is something to be said about the worlds we create when listening to music and how inherently unique they are to each and every one of us. It’s something I used to tend to want to clarify and made vanish by looking up details about how it was made and I kept being disillusioned.

But now, when I put on Rain Dogs I’m back in that dodgy alley only I have ever set foot in.

Thanks Tom.

Zeal & Ardor will release their new album ‘Stranger Fruit’ on Friday, June 8th.

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