Friday, August 09, 2013

Tom Waits - Foreign Affairs

This is another one of my favorite Waits' albums that I was surprised to discover I had never written about before. I think I must have composed entries in my mind that never got around to writing!

Still in his "Beat" phase, this record also has a lot of film noir influences - from the opening piano instrumental ballad of "Cinny's Waltz" right through the closing title song. Lots of string arrangements, but tastefully done to truly accent the songs and not just thrown on as after-thoughts - the mournful horn really adds a lot, as well. Continuing with piano and horn/cool jazz/lounge numbers is "Muriel", another low-key ballad with more terrific, atmospheric sax playing that is followed by a duet with Bette Midler (then just starting her career) in "I Never Talk to Strangers". This is some truly superior songwriting - a great singing conversation with superior, clever lines that truly captures the emotions of two lonely souls hanging out in a Hollywood dive bar.

I always thought that Waits was perfect background music while reading Kerouac, and he confirms it with his homage in "Medley: Jack & Neal/California, Here I Come", where he recreates the feel of On the Road in music. He takes the melody from a children's lullaby for "A Sight For Sore Eyes", which is good, though a bit inconsequential, but "Porter's Field" is the major centerpiece of the album in my eyes - truly a film noir set to music. Powerfully scored orchestration, lots of dynamics, fantastic sax, and dramatic lyrics - really an amazing piece.

Stripping it back down to just piano for "Burma-Shave" (is anyone else old enough to remember this roadside advertising campaign?), he uses this title as a mythical place, rather than a commodity, that the protagonist is striving for. Funnily enough, he follows this with "Barber Shop", a be-bop-ish tune with swingin' stand-up bass and stripper-esque drumming - you can practically hear the beatniks snapping their fingers to this one! He closes with the title track, another nice piano/strings ballad.

The trilogy of Small Change, Foreign Affairs and Blue Valentine are my absolute faves from Waits (though Heart Attack and Vine is right up there, as well) and while each is certainly done in his beat/jazzbo persona, they all have their unique differences, this one being predominately Tom and his piano. A great record!