God Is In The Details

The Independent's guide to pop's fiddly bits
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16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six Tom Waits

16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six Tom Waits

Sometimes the main hook of a record can be a single noise ­ a brass lick, a high guitar chord, the catch in a vocalist's throat. Sometimes these sounds, like the parping oboe in Sonny & Cher's "I Got You Babe", or the mighty timpani in Caston & Majors' "Child of God", are the only thing the record has going for it. And omnivorous sampling means the best sound on a track can be a hook from another record (and another era) altogether.

In the case of "16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought-Six", the hooks that drill their way into your consciousness are two alternating percussion beats, the sour, anvil-like clang of a brake drum and the ding of a bell plate, higher pitched but still nicely off-key. Sitting squarely on the fourth beat of the bar, these are some of the dumbest parts you can imagine. Yet the exquisitely accurate percussionist is Victor Feldman (1934-87), the British prodigy who emigrated to the States in the Fifties, wrote "Seven Steps to Heaven" and ended up as a grandmaster of the LA studio scene.

"16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought-Six", possibly the catchiest number on Waits's Swordfishtrombones album (Island), is full of stripped-down detail: the growly trombones multitracked by Joe Romano; the bluesy, needling guitar part by Fred Tackett. And there's a stunning groove ­ a crazy, shuffling malarkey like Harry Partch playing for David Lynch's wedding. The relentless kit drum feel could be one of the production lines parodied by Chaplin in Modern Times.

Maybe the song works so well because the sound of the backing track matches Waits's lyrics. One verse begins "Well I slept in the holler of a dry creek bed/ and I tore out the buckets from a red Corvette", and the chorus runs: "I'm going to whittle you into kindlin'/ Black Crow 16 shells from a thirty-ought-six", repeated. What is he doing with that little red Corvette? I'm sure there's an interesting story there, but the opaque words do not bother me. I just like the way Waits sings and roars over all that strumming and drumming and clanging. I'm hooked.