Take the songs Tom Waits was writing for albums like Rain Dogs and Frank’s Wild Years strip them of their darkly exuberant carnivalia–the raggedy clankings and tootings and snarlings–and you’re left with something slinky and creaky like “How’s It Gonna End.” The song is a fascinating study in minimalist production; driven by little more than a plucked bass, intermittent tom-tom, and what sounds like a small section of staccato, barely-blown horns, Waits delivers a grumbly series of bleak, vaguely surreal scenarios, tied together by the repetition of the title phrase. Every now and then something else happens musically–a tuba plays one note; ghostly background singers emerge for a few lines; fingers screech on metal guitar strings–but the song plunks along all but unaware. It’s almost as if he’s playing in a room full of musicians, most of whom are simply listening. The effect is at once comic and tragic, bolstered by the lyrics’ characteristic mix of skeletal storytelling and cryptic pronouncements (“The reptiles blend in with the color of the street/Life is sweet at the edge of a razor”). If you don’t love Tom Waits you might consider learning to love him. The song is found on Real Gone, to be released tomorrow on Anti Records. The MP3 is available on Indie Workshop.
Vast, cascading beauty, as sparkling-sounding today as when it was released 14 years ago. Guitarist Robin Guthrie has an unearthly ability to make a droning guitar shimmer with joy, and singer Elizabeth Fraser’s fetching incomprehensibility works its usual magic, even as you can in this case actually understand words here and there. The Cocteau Twins weren’t always as accessible as this, but surely this illustrates that accessible is not always a bad thing. The song (in a longer version) was the title track of the group’s 1990 release, on 4AD Records. The MP3 is on the band’s site.
In the spirit of debate week, here is without a doubt the goofiest angry protest song I’ve ever heard. Talk about “on message”: Dan Bern does not relent, but even as I’m positive that I do not need to hear him sing the refrain any longer (alright already! I get it!), it begins to sink in that the wacky rhymes that spill from his mouth (“Bush must be defeated/His goodbye coffee heated/His inaugural spats uncleated/His White House bed short-sheeted”) work doubly well because of the inevitability of the refrain. This is not a subtle song, but there are only a few weeks left; those inclined to agree with the message need it in the air. “Bush Must Be Defeated” comes from an EP released last month entitled My Country II (Messenger Records); the MP3 is on the Messenger Records site. For those unfamiliar with his work, Bern is worthwhile getting to know. He’s a bit erratic, but indomitable, fearless, and more than a little gifted as a Dylan-infused singer/songwriter.