A few months ago I saw Knocked Up, and it was pretty good, but the reason I’m bringing it up now is because recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Tom Waits, and I just now remembered a scene in the movie where one of the stoners is wearing a Rain Dogs t-shirt, and I was probably the only person in the theater who noticed that, and laughed. Along those same lines, the album’s Wikipedia article tells me that one of the guitarists in Panic! at the Disco has Rain Dogs lyrics tattooed on his wrists. What?
Maybe it’s the indie elitist in me protecting hallowed artistic principles from being exposed to the unsophisticated bourgeois, because that could lead to ruin! Joking aside, despite all the bizarre attributes of Mr. Waits and his music, I think that I always realized that at its core, his music is really quite simple. His songs are pretty much all folk or blues melodies, but he mangles them with his trainwreck of a voice, the noisy avant-garde jazz instrumentation, and the sometimes disturbing lyrics. At its core, there shouldn’t be anything wrong with the uneducated masses having the ability to enjoy Rain Dogs, because it’s really no different in structure from what everyone’s heard before. Starostin noted this before, but Rain Dogs is a great album that can appeal to the common consumer with its traditional structures and melodies, but thrill the experimental connoisseur with its exhilarating voicings and backdrops, and finding that collision of accessibility and experimentation is really at the core of every music fan’s lifelong search.
photo by Anton Corbijn, from Anti Records
But one thing I’ve come to realize about Rain Dogs is that unlike the vast majority of albums out there, it is actually an album, not just a convenient collection of recently-written songs. On most artists’ albums, and even on most albums from Waits himself, it’s easy to find a few tracks that you think are great, listen to them over and over, maybe throw them on a mix or your radio show, that sort of thing. But not with Rain Dogs. I find it practically impossible to isolate any one track on this album, and still enjoy it. These songs sound very incomplete when on their own, but totally come to life in the context of the album.
There seems to be an emotional arc to Rain Dogs, and it reaches two peaks. In the first half, we get a lot of sinister quiet and some frustrated rage, and it builds and builds until we reach the gloriously cathartic ‘Hang Down Your Head’, before slowly unwinding with the wonderful ‘Time’. The second half seems to veer between sentimental introspection and chaotic, drunken ramblings, before finally our hero takes those internal emotions and pours out his heart to the world in the passionate ‘Downtown Train’, which Rod Stewart probably butchered but I haven’t actually got the interest in seeing how badly he did it. And finally, we’re left with ‘Anywhere I Hang My Head’, which as I’m typing this suddenly appears to be a reference to the earlier ‘Hang Down Your Head’, which would suddenly construct a brilliant structure to the album, but ignoring that for now, it’s musically a glorious close. It’s very, very interesting to me that despite the album’s noisiness, creepiness, and overall strangeness, the two emotional peaks are both very straightforward rock songs, and I think that works outstandingly well.
photo by flickr user _ken_
Because of its cohesiveness, listening to Rain Dogs the whole way through is akin to watching a good movie, it seems to me. And that made me start thinking about the scales on which popular creative output operates. The standard pop song is 3-4 minutes long, a music album is around 45 minutes, the typical movie is somewhere around 2 hours, and finally, we’ve got books, and depending on the reader’s dedication, those could take days, weeks, even months to finish. And I’m very curious as to how those scales of digestion affect the overall impact. Are books more powerful than songs, because they have more room to expand, and you’re immersed in them longer and deeper? Or should songs be lauded because they can pack so much into so little time?
For me personally, though I enjoy all of them, I’ve always gravitated towards the album, but unfortunately it also seems to be the hardest to pull off successfully. It’s relatively easy to craft a song, but crafting an entire album to bring the listener along on seems like a much more difficult task, and one that many artists seem to ignore completely. I think it’s almost analogous to a chaptered novel, or perhaps closer, a collection of short stories. There isn’t much of a cinematic equivalent, as collections of short films are rare, only Coffee and Cigarettes really comes to mind, and that wasn’t all that great. The very rarity of the cohesive and consistent album might actually be the reason that I enjoy them so much, as I appreciate the effort that the artist has made to ambitiously craft a work on that scale.
With all that said, I guess I haven’t really said much about how much I actually like Rain Dogs, eh? Well, you don’t need me to tell you that it’s really great. This is not an album you can knock. My only complaint is the aforementioned opinion that the songs feel really weak when stripped outside of the album. If this was an album filled with perfect singles somehow cohesively arranged into a brilliant whole, then well, I would probably stop listening to music. As it is, it’s got pretty good songs, but mostly it’s a brilliant album. One of the best ever, really.
photo by flickr user ferminet