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Old 12-14-2021, 10:29 AM   #31 (permalink)
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Would anyone else title an album after a track from a previous one, and not include that track, or any reference back to it? Well, probably not. But then, this is just another example of Waits not so much breaking the rules as gleefully pounding them with a sledgehammer, in the process taping the sound to be used as another effect on his album. Two years after the herculean Rain Dogs completed, he was back in the studio and this time he had help. New wife Kathleen Brennan was beginning to have a little more of an input on her maverick husband's music now, arranging all the vocals on the new album and also helping to write three of the songs.

Originally conceived as a play, and premiered in Chicago more than a year before the release of the album, this next recording would continue Waits's foray into the world of experimental music, and lead to him playing even stranger instruments, such as the Optigan, Farfisa and, um, rooster? It would also feature the only collaborations in songwriting he had allowed since Bob Alcivar wrote the music for “Potter's Field” back in '77 on Foreign Affairs, and though he would count the co-writers he worked with on the fingers of one hand, Kathleen would become more and more involved in writing songs with him, until with 1992's Bone Machine they would share equal songwriting credits; Waits would finally have someone who knew his music as well as he did, and who could be his muse, and perhaps vice versa.

Franks Wild Years (1987)

If you've been following my writings on his discography, you'll remember that the title of this album, as mentioned above, comes from a song off Swordfishtrombones, about a guy who finally snaps under the pressure of suburban living, burns down his house and drives off in the direction of Hollywood (Frank Goes To Hollywood?) in search of a new life. Although the album is subtitled “Un operachi romantico in two acts”, and was, as mentioned, based on the play of the same name, oddly enough it does not appear to be a concept album. At the same time, there does appear to be a general thread of motifs running through the songs: themes like loneliness, depression, failure, regret all crop up and the songs could to a degree be said to be linked to form a loose story.

“Hang on St. Christopher”, which kicks the album off, can certainly be seen as following on directly from the song on the '83 album, as Frank, driving north on the Hollywood Freeway, goes over in his mind the actions of the last few hours. Whether he regrets them or not is unknown, but it seems he is determined to put his past life behind him as he joins the great swell of humanity heading down the highway. With a down-and-dirty brass section backing him, Waits sings the vocal in a sort of mechanised style, as if he were talking on a really old radio or microphone. There's something of a shuffle in the rhythm and again it's a song with no real verse or chorus, just all the lines sung in the same melody. “Straight to the Top (Rhumba)” is indeed just that, backed by brass and double bass with congas going and Waits with another strained, hoarse vocal which seems somehow divorced from the melody and yet works well. Glockenspiel on “Blow Wind Blow” and pump organ recalls “Tango Till They're Sore” in a slower, moodier vein, with some lonely horn blowing. Waits changes his vocal style halfway through here, affecting a kind of operatic tenor, while ”Dancing at the slaughterhouse” recalls a line from “Gun Street Girl”.

I have to admit, this is not one of my favourite Waits albums. After Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs I was pretty disappointed with this one, but that's just me. He changes his voice again for “Temptation”, a slowish, almost tango-like piece driven by bass, marracas and congas, with some freaky guitar from the returning Marc Ribot. We're back in familiar territory for a moment then as one of two versions of “Innocent When You Dream” takes us back to the bar, with Waits a slurring drunk singing ”The bats are in the belfry/ The dew is on the moor” and the song moves in a sort of slow waltz carnival rhythm, a real drinking song. Some nice violin from Ralph Carney and accordion maestro William Schimmel takes the seat behind the piano. One of the better songs on the album, certainly.

Schimmel straps back on his squeezebox for “I'll Be Gone”, and there's that rooster I spoke of, crowing at the very start. It's one of those madcap songs Waits loves so much, bopping along on a bouncy bassline as he sings gleefully ”I drink a thousand shipwrecks/ Tonight I steal your paycheques”. By contrast, “Yesterday is Here” plods along in a slow, measured western-style rhythm, bass and guitar driving the tune and Waits returning to what could be called a normal vocal for him, a lot of echo on it giving it a very sombre feel. A screechy baritone horn runs “Please Wake Me Up” in as the vocal comes through almost unnoticed, a slow, Beatley tune with elements of Sinatra and old twenties Vaudeville there too, with another carnival organ outro before a short accordion piece prefaces one of the better tracks on the album, one of my favourites. “More Than Rain” is like a Waits tune of old, and could have been on Blue Valentine or Heartattack and Vine.

Featuring an accordion intro that really recalls the album cover, it moves along on again a sort of slow carnival rhythm, with bells, bass and of course the accordion and horn. Great lines like ”None of our pockets are lined with gold/ There are no dead presidents we can fold” really make the song. Fans of The Wire will be familiar with “Way Down in the Hole”, which was the theme for that show all through its run, though performed by various different artists each season, Waits being one of them. Waits screeches the vocal in a sort of semi-gospel tone allied to a lowdown funk melody driven on Ralph Carney's soulful sax as well as Ribot's guitar. Echoes of the melody from “Hang on St. Christopher” coming through here, while a second version of “Straight to the Top”, subtitled “Vegas”, gives us a different interpretation of the second track, with a very Sinatraesque turn. Cocktail piano from Schimmel and super little bass lines from Greg Cohen as well as Carney's sax really put you in the front row of a Vegas nightclub as Waits sings, with obvious relish in the irony, ”I can't let Mister Sorrow/ Drag ol' Frankie down!”

It kind of ends on a bit of a confused mess though, like a reverse tune-up, and segues directly into the again Sinatra/Armstrong-like “I'll Take New York”, with some very dissonant organ and a melody that is cheekily very close to that of Frankie's classic, then a Rain Dogs style infuses “Telephone Call from Istanbul” with some picked guitar and banjo from Ribot. Good advice from Waits: ”Never trust a man in a blue trenchcoat/ Never drive a car when you're dead!” Vocally this is probably closest to “Heartattack and Vine” or maybe “Mister Siegal”, but musically I can hear the likes of “Big Black Mariah” and indeed “Rain Dogs” itself.

An almost fifties rock-and-roll fusing with Country/folk takes us into the “Cold Cold Ground”, with a fine performance by David Hidalgo on the accordion and some hypnotic bass from Larry Taylor, while there's a whole lot of slow gospel in “Train Song”, almost coming back to the Small Change era. That would have been a great ending, with the tagline ”It was a train that took me away from here/ But a train can't bring me home” but Waits decided to throw another version of a song that is already on the album into the mix, and for my money the alternative version of “Innocent When You Dream” (it's not a bonus track; this is part of the album) is completely superfluous. I liked the original but this is just silly. A sad end to an album that could be a lot better.


1. Hang on St. Christopher
2. Straight to the Top (Rhumba)
3. Blow Wind Blow
4. Temptation
5. Innocent When You Dream (Barroom)
6. I'll Be Gone
7. Yesterday is Here
8. Please Wake Me Up
9. Frank's Theme
10. More Than Rain
11. Way Down in the Hole
12. Straight to the Top (Vegas)
13. I'll Take New York
14. Telephone Call from Istanbul
15. Cold Cold Ground
16. Train Song
17. Innocent When You Dream (78)

There are a lot of things to recommend this album, but somehow it just doesn't do it for me. After colossi like Rain Dogs and Swordfishtrombones I was just expecting more, and whereas normally I might - might - point to one, maybe two tracks on a Waits album I'm not totally into, here I can easily count off at least six, and on an album with seventeen tracks overall that ain't good. I've listened to this a few times, not as many as other Waits albums, and when I make playlists it's one I take very few tracks from. It's not that I think it's a bad album, but it fails to give me the vibe I've got from every single one of his recordings prior, and to be completely honest, from here on in, with a few exceptions, I found much of his material quite inaccessible and disappointing. Not saying I hated every album from here, but it does make Rain Dogs for me a high watermark, leaving everything that came after - as I say, with a few notable exceptions - just slightly lacking.

Mind you, as I review them now I may start appreciating them more. Here's hoping. But for me anyway, Franks wild years just fails to reach the high standard Waits has set himself for, at this point, fourteen years, and the next twenty-plus would continue to test my faith in the man, occasionally proving it, more often than not though unfortunately straining it to often breaking point. I think the real problem with Waits, for me at any rate, is the expectation. Every album up to this has been top-drawer, and once you slip even slightly it really shows. This is a good album, even a very good album, but at this stage I'm a Waits purist and I want great, not good.

And this ain't great.

Rating: 7.2/10
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