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Waits' Most Underrated Album
on 11 January 2010
Foreign Affairs was one of the first albums by Tom Waits I'd bought, adding to Rain Dogs, Swordfishtrombones and Small Change in my fledgling Waits collection. As my love, and somewhat obsession, of his music grew, and every album of his hefty back catalogue sits proudly in my CD rack, Foreign Affairs always stuck out in my mind, in my opinion, the finest of all his works.
The black and white cover of Waits and his then girlfriend Rickie Lee Jones sets an appropriate mood for the whole album, a real sense of noir and night that accompanies the songs. Cinny's Waltz kicks off the proceedings with its lush strings, a beautiful instrumental with a jazzy melancholy and wonder, and heart-melting horns. The lonely deadbeat lament of Muriel follows, a song that befits the persona that Waits had created, a drunk's outpouring for an old flame in a track peppered with regret and remorse. I Never Talk To Strangers is arguably the album's most famous track, a sparring duet with Bette Midler in a barroom arena, as Waits' attempted smooth talkin' of his target leads to a trade of insults between the two, tho the ballad ends with the singers in harmony with each other. The Jack and Neal Medley is a brilliant piece of beat spoken word against a double bass and horns backdrop, a great homage to Kerouac and Cassidy and their boisterous behaviour on the road, before the reflective side of Waits appears again with A Sight For Sore Eyes, originally an outtake from Small Change which slots in nicely, as the song's narrator catches up on the lives and loves of his hometown compadres over a few drinks. The stunning Potter's Field is pure cinematic wonder, an epic track which chronicles the death of the character nightsticks from the point of view of the sleazy criminal narrator, backed by a full orchestra and a majestic score which clocks nearly nine minutes of drama. The stories continue with Burma Shave, as Waits and a sole piano tell the tale of a juvenile delinquent jumping his parole, who is joined by a young beauty wishing to escape her mundane small town. The track is beautiful and emotive, just Tom and the ivories for over six minutes before the horn kicks in to herald the songs devastating end. Barber Shop is a cheeky little ditty with overtones of Step Right Up, a smirking exchange between a barber and his young customer, before the album concludes with one of Waits' most underrated works. The not quite title track Foreign Affair is a beautiful piece of poetry concerning the romance of travel, the words are exquisite, as is the lush backing music of strings and eventual accordion, the track is the perfect end to an absolutely stunning album.
Foreign Affairs is probably Waits' most underrated album, Small Change always takes centre stage of his Asylum years, and his 80s trilogy of Swordfishtrombones, Rain Dogs, and Frank's Wild Years are arguably the three jewels in his crown. Tho in my opinion, Foreign Affairs is his finest work, it conveys a mood that fits Waits' boho-beat persona better than any other album, and is incredibly dramatic and noir, songs like Potter's Field and Burma Shave reminiscent of old movies from times past. No Waits' collection is complete without it, and for newcomers, is a pretty good starting point, although Rain Dogs is probably a more rounded collection to begin a love affair with an artist that is truly unique, one that I doubt will ever be comparable to any other, the prince of melancholy. :-)