Tom Waits



by Zebra USER (177 Reviews)
April 2nd, 2006 | 133 replies

Release Date: 1983 | Tracklist

I bet if I gave twenty people a copy of Swordfishtrombones just about all of them would hand it right back to me without ever going near it again. Maybe one brave soul would be willing to give this another chance, but itís highly unlikely given the circumstances. After the first few notes of the opening track you know that youíre in for a strange adventure. When you listen to Tom Waits for the first time itís like nothing that youíve ever heard before, hell the music might even make you cringe. What Iím getting at is that Tom Waits is not for everyone, in fact the music probably wonít appeal to very many people at all. The thing is that if strange music is what you are looking for then Swordfishtrombones delivers.

Swordfishtrombones has a certain atmosphere that is difficult to pick out. Tom creates a gloomy and eerie feel but the music isnít overly depressing. I suppose that most of these songs sound dreary and have sort of a creepy crawly feel to them. The thing that makes this album so inaccessible is how Waits goes from track to track without hardly any consistency or direction. He can go from a soft piano driven ballad to a loud, crunchy rock song. This was a big issue at first, but after multiple listens you sort of adapt to the way that Waits arranges the songs. To me Swordfishtrombones sounds like it was recorded at an old steeple and Tom found the instruments from an old garbage disposal. Everything sounds a bit sloppy, brass instruments will jump out at you and a lot of arrangements will sound odd but thatís why I like it so much. The music is so strange and spontaneous.

The main distraction from the instruments would have to be Tomís vocal delivery. He goes from abrasive growls to a more soft and charming approach. On most of these tracks Tom sounds an old war veteran shouting out the words but something seems to be holding him back. He has a low, booming voice and he tends to scowl and cough up most of the lyrics. He sounds sort of like an old blues singer, only his voice is much more abrasive. This is a major turnoff at first and it doesnít help that Tom decides to put the least appealing track to kick the album off with. All in all Waitsís voice mixes in well with the gloominess of the music and adds a heavy influence of blues onto his already non-classifiable music.

Swordfishtrombones doesnít really have an overall sound and cannot be filed under a certain genre. Waits does an excellent job at blending in two to three genres into one song, and this throws the listener off quite a bit. The opening track Underground is a good example of this. A laid back guitar riff plays while some trombones quietly play in random spots. The song makes you feel like youíre in a dark tavern and Tom adds in some blues influence with his harsh and deep voice. Shore Leave is probably the most snake like and eerie song off the album. It is comprised of Tom whispering the lyrics over some scratchy sounds, guitar licks, and gentle drum beats. I really enjoy this even though itís difficult to hear the instruments. Itís basically just an all out vocal effort. Next up is Dave the Butcher and it sounds like a song playing at a pitched black circus. It is propelled by a simple drum beat, and straight up circus music. While this is an entertaining and strange instrumental tune I donít know why it is lumped in after such a great ballad. Johnsburg, Illinois is almost a straight up jazz tune. Itís just Tom playing a simple, jazz piano line and he sings in a high pitched, and soothing voice. This song changes the pace of the album quickly, the elements of jazz and blues are easily detected and itís the most beautiful song off of the album. After a gentle piano driven song Tom oddly places the upbeat 16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought Six right after it. The songs main power is the hard hitting drum beat along with a soft, bluesy guitar riff. Toms voice actually mixes along with the song and it is very upbeat. Damn, for once I can actually say that this song could have gotten some airplay because everything fits together quite well. I believe that the first five songs will leave you confused just because the music is all over the place and strange.

The middle of Swordfishtrombones is more consistent and Tom doesnít get to experimental. Town With no Cheer features an irish/celtic bagpipe solo and it really has a St.Patrick Days feel to it. Finally Tom comes in singing in a rather deep yet sophisticated voice over some more bagpipes. I think this is one of the most well done tracks off the album, it incorporates bagpipes into the music and is basically a straight up Irish influenced song. In the Neighborhood sounds like something that would be playing a wedding, if you take out Toms scratchy voice. Trumpets play in the background and frequent drum rolls come in and out of the music. This trend stays still for the whole song and I really enjoy it because it is accessible yet unique as it has some excellent sing-a-long qualities and is quite jazzy. Just Another Sucker on the Vine is the albums second instrumental. It blends together elements of pop and jazz, which I find is what Waits does best. The main focus of the song is on the trumpets, which are softly played and sound very delicate. What makes this instrumental so interesting is how Tom plays the accordian and gives the music a more pop/swing feel. Franks Wild Years is another track where Tom speaks the lyrics over various instruments. The production is brilliant and it really shows because the song sounds like it was recorded in an old casino. The only instrument that is playing is a guitar and it does itís job at creating a late night chill out feel song. While everything is simple it is still effective and makes Franks Wild Years a stand out track. Next up is the title track and it is probably my favorite track off the album. Strangly enough, the standout instrument is a xylophone and it creates an eerie and twinkly effect. Some deep pitched french horns also add some spice into the song and create an old psychadelic blues-esque song. Toms voice is deep and you can actually tell what he is saying as he half speaks half sings the lyrics. While all of this is going on Swordsfishtrombone is easily the grooviest and most entertaining track off of the album.

Unlike most bands, Tom saves his best songs for last and the ending of Swordsfishtrombones is excellent. Down, Down, Down sounds like an old 60's rockabilly song. It is a quick paced, and the guitar riff is fast and effective. Tom sounds sort of like Captain Beefheart and is can barely spit out of the words ďDown, Down, Down.Ē I love this tune because it takes you out of the eeriness of the album and shows that Waits is also successful at playing riff based rockers. Right when you think that Tom is bringing us out of the damp, dreary sound he throws in Soldiers Toy. The only instrument playing is a piano and it is another dinky line that my little brother can play. That being said you can actually decipher what Waits is saying and it is a very soothing, and depressing ballad, even though the piano line is incredibly dull. Gin Soaked Boy brings us right back to the poppiness of Swordsfishtrombones. Itís screaming, yet steady guitar riff plays along with another simple drum beat. I find this song kind of dull, while is catchy and the guitar line is pretty nifty it doesnít do much else but bring some more upbeat-ness to the album. Troubles Braids is the most intense and quick paced track off the album. It runs at a little over a minute, and sounds like something that would be played by an African tribe. Itís frantic drumbeats and Toms nervous, and rushed voice is all that it consists of. I find it strange why this actually made the cut, but it is entertaining to say the least. Finally Swordsfishtrombones ends with the instrumental. Raindbirds. Itís a soft and beautiful jazz song. The track is driven by a smooth piano line and some guitar licks here and there. Trumpets finally make their way into the music and the album closes on a soft, dreary jazz song. This is such a brilliant way to rap things up just because it captures the whole sound of the album and it is very laid back and groovy.

Swordfishtrombones is a strangely addicting album that has many dark, twisted moments. Waits can not be lumped together with any genres of music because his music is just to different in so many ways. Over the course of the album it feels like you are sitting in an old tavern, and the music is being played right in front of you. The old fashion jazz and blues influences mix in well with some of the dreary and detached parts of the album. Swordsfishtrombones receives four stars because at points the vocals can make you cringe and there are three instrumentals. Sometimes Waitsís compositions just donít work and they turn into an unmelodic piece of dog poo. That being said you should defiantly purchase this album is you want something new for a change, but beware because itís not everyday that you stumble upon an album like this.

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julien (4.5)
The intricate "Swordfishtrombones" is the record that catapulted Tom Waits into the realm of the leg...

Comments:Add a Comment 
April 2nd 2006


Album Rating: 4.0

I think I wrote a little bit to much and need to shorten this down.

April 2nd 2006



I find most people I show Tom Waits really like him.

Two-Headed Boy
April 2nd 2006


Change the album name and get rid of the "s" at the end of sword.

April 3rd 2006


Album Rating: 5.0

Great review man. I'm always glad when I see Waits get some more recognition, though he still doesn't get as much as he deserves.

Swordfishtrombones is an amazing album too. I'd probably say I like it more than Rain Dogs even.

April 17th 2006


Album Rating: 4.5

Tom Waits is fantastic. Rain Dogs is better and more coherent, but this album is still awesome. Johnsburg, Illinois is so beautiful.This Message Edited On 04.17.06

May 12th 2006


Album Rating: 5.0

Good review, just missed one of the major parts of Tom Waits songs, his lyrics! There is no other artist out there with such consistently entertaining and down right genious lyrics, the use of melancholy in some of the songs is so so effective, makes most other artists lyrics just seem boring to me, much rather hear Waits talking telling stories of old hobos and madmen not to mention of people with faces on the back of there heads rather than some rocker on about there drug problems. For example "Frank setteled down out in the valley, and he hung his wild years on a nail that he drove through his wifes forehead." such a good line, and one of my favorites "And I wondered how the same moon outside over this Chianatown fair, could look down on Illinoise and find you there."

And how is the piano in soldiers things dull, it's one of his most beautiful pieces.

Another point missed was the use of organs in this album they sound so good with Waits' voice or anyones for that matter, arguably the greatest instrument ever!

May 6th 2007


Album Rating: 4.5

I wish I had of seen his performance on Conan.This Message Edited On 10.05.07

July 21st 2009


Album Rating: 4.5

This is the best Tom Waits album IMO. Closely followed by Rain Dogs and Mule Variations

July 21st 2009


I struggled with liking this as a whole for a long time, last time I gave it a proper listen from start to finish was very special though. :]

As with most Waits albums I would tend to ignore the last few tracks, I really dig them now.

July 21st 2009


Album Rating: 4.5

I always ignore the last few songs, on every album.

October 28th 2009


I always ignore the last few songs, on every album.


Staff Reviewer
September 18th 2011


Album Rating: 4.0

This came out in 83

And what the fuck is up with the tracklisting?

Digging: Jetty Bones - Push Back

Staff Reviewer
September 18th 2011


damn trolls

fixed everything.

Staff Reviewer
September 18th 2011


Album Rating: 4.0

Good work

October 27th 2011


im having a hard time loving this like I do with Rain Dogs.. WHY!!

June 1st 2012


Bone Machine > Swordfishtrombones > Rain Dogs

July 19th 2012


Tom Waits is not that far out. Give them a copy of Trout Mask Replica instead.

October 14th 2012


Album Rating: 5.0


crazy old man.

March 1st 2013


Album Rating: 4.0


March 1st 2013


love this album

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