Singer, songwriter, ace producer (Los Lobos, Marshall Crenshaw, etc.), Christian moralist and pal of Elvis Costello, T(-)Bone Burnett has wielded a steady and growing influence on the music scene since the late ’70s. Whether his inconsistent records leave any lasting mark or not, he’s likely to make his presence felt in some role for a long time to come.
Burnett debuted on disc as a member of the Alpha Band, part of the extended family surrounding Bob Dylan during his mid-’70s Rolling Thunder period. Following three Alpha Band LPs, he went solo on what remains his best full-length album, Truth Decay. The loose rockabilly and blues grooves offer a sympathetic backdrop for Burnett’s sweet (countryish)’n’sour (Dylanish) vocals, as he delivers romantic laments and scathing commentaries on the sorry state of contemporary life. His moral essays generally don’t grate (“Madison Avenue” being an exception), thanks to the sheer musicality of the sounds.
The Trap Door EP is even better, with the gleaming folk-rock of “Hold on Tight” and “I Wish You Could Have Seen Her Dance” making an exhilarating tonic for troubled souls. And the sly, sarcastic “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” gets his point across perfectly.
Guess the boy’s head got turned by too many good reviews and famous fans, ’cause things then got tainted with smug self-righteousness. Proof Through the Night boasts a stellar supporting cast that includes Ry Cooder, Richard Thompson and Pete Townshend. However, the big arrangements and epic pretensions grow tiresome, especially his attempts to encapsulate an era in “The Sixties,” “Hefner and Disney,” et al. Burnett’s got some valid points, but who made him judge and jury?
While Behind the Trap Door may be a sequel to his successful EP, it plays more like outtakes. A waste. Far better is T Bone Burnett, a sparse, largely acoustic country LP that marks his first outing without a hyphen. Songs tend to be more personal than preachy, with the standard “Poison Love” and “Oh No Darling” among the highlights. (The CD adds three bonus Burnetts.)
The Talking Animals is a return to the mainstream attempts of the Warner discs, and features creative input by such folks as Bono and Tonio K. Some of the songs rock tougher than anything he’s done before (see “Monkey Dance” and “You Could Look It Up”); others succeed only in scaling new heights of pretension. Sung in four languages, “Image” could be a Brecht castoff, while “The Strange Case of Frank Cash and the Morning Paper” is a tedious five-minute spoken-word tale. Skip instead to “The Killer Moon,” a mid-period Beatles soundalike, and the aptly titled “Relentless.” All in all, worth hearing, though one wishes this talented jerk weren’t so impressed with himself.
The Criminal Under My Own Hat largely abandons the slick pretensions of The Talking Animals and returns to the modest rootsiness of T Bone Burnett. It’s a huge improvement. Where The Talking Animals was a collection of overproduced and underwritten songs about god-only-knows what, Criminal features some of Burnett’s warmest and most straightforward songs, notably “Over You,” “Every Little Thing” and “The Long Time Now.” There are still a few missteps, including two versions of the album’s weakest song, “I Can Explain Everything,” one of which involves an awful falsetto that has thankfully never troubled mankind again, but, on the whole, Criminal is, Burnett’s best album, or at least his most underrated one.
Following that fine effort, Burnett basically stopped recording (himself) for 14 years. He’s claimed it was exhaustion with the whole songwriting process, but others — notably his now ex-wife Sam Phillips — cite a genuine puzzlement on his part as to how he could have such a keen ear for bringing out the best in others as a producer while his own work has a tendency toward the shrill, self-satisfied prick. In any event, he spent a decade producing albums that made stars of the Wallflowers and Counting Crows (oops) and didn’t do the same (but should have) for Phillips. He scored Sam Shepard’s play The Tooth of Crime, but the resulting album was never released.
In the late 1990s, Burnett formed a partnership that would have a massive impact on his career. He became music director on Joel and Ethan Coen’s film The Big Lebowski. Burnett and the Coens got on well, so they turned to him again when they began their next film, a retelling of The Odyssey set in Depression-era America. Burnett filled the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? with vintage recordings and new versions of old standards by the likes of Ralph Stanley, Allison Krauss and Emmylou Harris. The album was an unexpected chart hit and fomented a cultural revolution in 2001, catapulting bluegrass into unprecedented popularity. (The fact that there is nearly no bluegrass music on the album doesn’t seem to have entered that particular equation.) Burnett and the Coens started their own label, DMZ, and Burnett became the go-to music guy for movies, bringing his expertise to Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood and Cold Mountain, which attempted (but failed) to do for sacred harp singing and Jack White’s movie career what O Brother had done for old-timey music.
By 2006, either having gotten over his exhaustion or deciding that he’d figured out how to get his points across without being an ass, Burnett returned with The True False Identity. The music is excellent throughout: weird, atmospheric blues, heavily influenced by Tom Waits and Los Lobos (who were heavily influenced by Burnett in the first place) that feels like a male counterpoint to the late-night fever dream vibe Burnett created on Phillips’ Fan Dance. The lyrics, however, are a bit troubling, as Burnett abandons the plain language of The Criminal Under My Own Hat in favor of the obtuseness of The Talking Animals — if the Rat Pack namedropping nonsense rhymes of “Palestine, Texas” actually mean anything, Burnett appears content to keep that to himself. On the whole, it’s good to have him back — good Burnett is very good indeed and (mostly) makes up for irritating Burnett.
In an effort to make Burnett’s return to recording appear to be more of a landmark in western culture than it actually is, the two-disc best-of Twenty/Twenty was released on the same day as The True False Identity. An undeniably great compilation, it unerringly zeroes in on Burnett’s strengths and (almost) completely skirts his weaknesses. It’s not without controversy, though, as the material from Proof Through the Night has been either entirely re-recorded or reworked. In addition to Burnett solo work, Twenty/Twenty tosses in the Coward Brothers (his collaboration with Elvis Costello) and, best of all, the domestic CD debut of two of the Alpha Band’s best songs, “Born in Captivity” and “East of East,” the true tale of hiding in hotel shrubbery to catch a glimpse of the nubile Nastassja Kinski.
Burnett’s companion piece to Sam Shepard’s Tooth of Crime appeared on disc many years after initially promised but was worth the wait. The music is excellent throughout, staying firmly within the midnight-in-the-swamp style Burnett has been mining of late, and Phillips’ prominent vocal presence on several tracks is very welcome. “Kill Zone,” which had already been previewed on Twenty-Twenty, was co-written by Roy Orbison, who was gone nearly 20 years before the song ever saw the light of day, but his presence is so strong that one can easily imagine his voice singing it instead of Burnett’s. Most of the album’s lyrics are curmudgeonly, often quite funny, rhyming couplets which could have been strung together at random — nearly any two lines of any song here could be swapped with lines from other songs with no one the wiser — but Burnett’s grouchiness has a more playful than scolding tone, so the entire enterprise is an enjoyable one.