Thursday, June 26, 2008

T Bone Burnett -- Tooth Of The Crime (2008)

T Bone Burnett -- Tooth Of The Crime (Nonesuch)

This is somewhat of a stop gap album for Burnett, although it’s not like T Bone has been particularly prolific over the years. The songs here were written to accompany a 1996 production of the Sam Shepard play of the same name. Some songs may work better in the context of the work (seven of the ten songs actually appeared in the 1996 adaptation), but there’s a definite mood that permeates this album, giving it cohesiveness.

While not a great Burnett album, it is unmistakably his work. His style has become very defined and it really works well throughout the disc. If you’re not familiar with Burnett, he combines his distinctive Texas accent to an erudite Dylan-inspired talk-singing style. Musically, he now has created a sound that is part Tom Waits, part desert rock (think Calexico and Los Lobos’ “Kiko”). Odd percussion meets arid twanging guitars.

This style gives a cockeyed cocktail jazz feel to the opener “Anything I Say Can And Will Be Used Against You”, which seems like it could have been written after 9/11. The wobbling rhythm, reverberating guitars and the woozy horn section provide an unsettling background for T Bone to settle into a cynical declamation of the overreaction to terrorism: “Somebody has got to monitor all this/darkness darkness darkness/somebody’s got to locate the bomb dot com.”

Edgy blues and tough guy lyrics are the order of the day on “Swizzle Stick”. For a guy who used to be tied to Christian lyrical themes (though it was really moralism informed by his beliefs), this is bleak stuff. Burnett is the tough guy, explaining all the ways he can kill you with a cocktail stirrer and then going further to explain how powerful he really is: “I can infiltrate your pride...and lace your faith with cyanide.” Jim Keltner lays down a fat drum part, Marc Ribot adds rhythmic lead guitar ornamentation while a horn section syncopates to all of the surrounding parts. This is a hypnotic track.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around “Rat Age”, a previously released track that was co-written by Bob Neuwirth and Roy Orbison; it’s allegedly the last track ol’ Roy ever helped pen. And if you can find a speck of Orbison in the track, than please let me know where it is. This is simply another moody piece with odd impressionistic lyrics, where Ribot’s desert rock guitar and creative horn arrangements carry the day.

While most of this album is music for bleak times, moments of beauty shine through. “Dope Island” is a duet with T Bone’s ex, the always wonderful Sam Phillips. Now the beauty is in the lovely melody, as the lyrics are perhaps the most depressing of the set: “Where yellow orchids bloomed/the land is scorched and doomed.” This would be the perfect song to play to commemorate a divorce. Phillips takes the lead on the pithy “Blind Man”, a short torch song with laconic lyrics. It’s quite affecting for a such a brief number.

I think I’ve established that this is not a party album. But the songs are gripping and I think the production and arrangements are more effective than the similarly styled True False Identity (Burnett’s 2006 LP). Thus, this is yet another worthy addition to Burnett’s fine catalog.

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