“Foreign Affairs” by Tom Waits - album review

features in: Album Chart of 1977Album Chart of the Decade: 1970s

TJR says

The fifth album in five years from the bad-ass Frank Sinatra arrived in September, 1977, nicely produced and engineered by Bones Howe. Every performance was recorded live-in-the-studio; even the orchestration was recorded simultaneously. As many who read my reviews will know, jazz and I have a somewhat frosty relationship; there's a grudging respect but it's largely devoid of love and intimacy. If anyone's going to drag me in, then Tom's the man. He's not just selling a recording session, he's selling an image, a story and a song with a developed style which is wholly his, instantly recognisable, and highly compelling.

Speaking about the album's mood, tone and concept, Howe said: “Waits talked to me about doing this other material… He said, 'I'm going to do the demos first, and then I'm gonna let you listen to them. Then we should talk about what it should be.' I listened to the material and said, 'It's like a black-and-white movie.' That's where the cover came from. The whole idea that it was going to be a black-and-white movie. It's the way it seemed to me when we were putting it together. Whether or not it came out that way, I don't have any idea, because there's such metamorphosis when you're working on records. They change and change.

As biographer Barney Hoskyns noted, Waits was meticulous in conveying the theme through image: “For the album cover Waits wanted to convey the film-noir mood that coloured so many of the songs. Veteran Hollywood portraitist George Hurrell was hired to shoot Waits, both alone and in a clutch with a shadowy female whose ring-encrusted right hand clamped a passport to his chest. The back-cover shot of Tom was particularly good, casting him as a slicked-back hoodlum—half matinee idol, half hair-trigger psychopath. The inner sleeve depicted the soused singer clawing at the keys of his Tropicana upright.

Cinematic pieces open both sides of the LP, the instrumental “Cinny's Waltz” acting as the prelude, and the epic “Potter’s Field” serving at the heart of the record. There are “Potter’s Fields” all over the world, but this one specifically refers to the burials on Hart Island, north east of the Bronx where the lost, the forgotten, the homeless and the indigent are laid to rest. The narration is that of a blind alcoholic, but nonetheless vivid and lucid stool pigeon who will trade his gangland hit testimony to score his next whiskey hit. In between those, none other than Bette Midler (his on-off girlfriend of the time) appears at the singles bar to duet on “I Never Talk To Strangers”; Tom's winning charm turns the girl around in the end, but it was quite a battle. “Bette, you're absolutely colossal!” said he in the real-life credit notes. I'm rather taken with “A Sight For Sore Eyes”, a simple piano-led piece which recalls “Tom Traubert’s Blues” from the preceding LP. The quirky “Barber Shop”, top-heavy on the double bass, is another highlight of side two, recalling a 60-year-old ragtime tune, “Good Morning Mr. Zip-Zip-Zip” with some good old lively New York conversation. The movie ends poignantly with the title-track: “A foreign affair, juxtaposed with a stateside, and domestically approved romantic fancy, is mysteriously attractive due to circumstances, knowing it will only be parlayed into a memory”. He's an old romantic really.

The Jukebox Rebel

A1 [02:17] 4.9.png Tom Waits - Cinny’s Waltz (Tom Waits) Contemporary Classical
A2 [03:33] 4.9.png Tom Waits - Muriel (Tom Waits) Jazz
A3 [03:38] 5.4.png Tom Waits - I Never Talk To Strangers (Tom Waits) Jazz
A4 [05:01] 5.7.png Tom Waits - Medley: Jack And Neal / California, Here I Come (Tom Waits - Joseph Meyer, Al Jolson, Buddy De Sylva) Jazz
A5 [04:40] 6.2.png Tom Waits - A Sight For Sore Eyes (Tom Waits) Songwriter
B1 [08:40] 8.3.png Tom Waits - Potter’s Field (Tom Waits, Bob Alcivar) Jazz
B2 [06:34] 5.9.png Tom Waits - Burma-Shave (Tom Waits) Songwriter
B3 [03:54] 6.9.png Tom Waits - Barber Shop (Tom Waits) Jazz
B4 [03:46] 6.0.png Tom Waits - Foreign Affair (Tom Waits) Songwriter

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