The veteran one-man-band-producer-composer-performer extraordinaire might be pushing sixty, but there's no way he's going down without a fight.
Basking in the success of Robert Plant & Alison Krauss's stellar debut duet album 'Raising Sand' on which he served as producer, the legendary T-Bone (or just plain ol' Henry) Burnett returns with a brand new album (kinda) of his own, 'Tooth of Crime', and put simply, it's one hell of a ride.
Burnett is one of those guys that you know of even if you think that you don't. He worked with River Phoenix on the movie 'The Thing Called Love'; he coached Phoenix's brother Joaquin and Reece Witherspoon for their singing parts on the Johnny Cash biopic 'Walk the Line', and compiled the soundtrack and wrote the score too. Of course he'd done the same five years previously for the Coen brothers on 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?', and he wrote songs for Anthony Minghella's 'Cold Mountain'. Then, obviously a little bored, he decided to help out Wim Wenders by composing the soundtrack for 'Don't Come Knocking'. He's a busy man all right.
And this represents only a tiny proportion of his most recent film output. Burnett has been recording his own material since the early Seventies. He's also produced Counting Crows, Elvis Costello, and Marshall Crenshaw to name but a few. He's played guitar for Roy Orbison, the aforementioned Plant / Krauss, and this year has teamed up with Neil Young and Trent Reznor amongst others to try to convince us (and other artists) that Code, (a project to promote hi-def audio) is music's saviour in this hellish era of MP3 compression. Burnett is a man on a mission. Only Peter Gabriel and Todd Rundgren are crazier bastards. Possibly.
After a relatively quiet few years busying himself behind the microphone, he decided to wander back through the glass and released 'The True False Identity' in 2006, a critical triumph. It was then that Burnett was given the opportunity to revisit more antiquated material - as odd parts of 'Tooth of Crime' can be dated back to the mid-eighties - and he grasped it with both hands.
The concept underpinning (indeed masterminding) Burnett's 'Tooth of Crime' is the 1972 Sam Shepard play of the same name. Although the drama was first performed with a musical score he wrote himself, Shepard was later dissatisfied with the arrangement, and twelve years ago enlisted Burnett to compose an alternative for a new production. This album is what Burnett came up with.
At a glance, Shepard's narrative sounds marginally worse than Ben Elton's storyline for the Queen musical 'We Will Rock You'. 'Tooth of Crime''s plot has got something to do with aging rock singers with names like Hoss and Crow duelling to the death in a near future science fiction-esque reality. This is pure dystopia to be sure. Is it likely that in a few years contemporary society will implode and the populace will be rocked (pun intended) by a Pop Idol / X-Factor face-off involving Steve Perry and W. Axl Rose? I think not, although any theatrical production that features a character called 'Mojo Root Force' can't be all bad.
According to Burnett though, Shepard's play ideologically concerns itself with the deconstruction of so-called "zones of fame"; seemingly transient and exclusory, nay, impenetrable pockets of infamy that, at least metaphorically serve to illustrate the fragmentation of society and the sense of a collective consciousness. And it is this conceptual framework that Burnett declares is "the initial inspiration for the album [but] I wish I'd made it ramshackle like that!" Thank God he didn't.
'Anything I Say Can And Will Be Used Against You' stamps its authority right on the first note. Burnett's gently distorted and rasped vocal of 'darkness' and 'bombs' echoes malignantly, while distressed guitars rattle against smooth horns and pounding percussion to create a quietly malicious sentiment that seduces as much as it scares.
The beautifully elegiac 'Dope Island' concerns itself with just such a concept (and bizarrely sounds a little like 'Cup of Coffee' and 'Drive You Home'; both Garbage album tracks), while the very sweet (and barely eighty seconds long) 'Blind Man' foregrounds long-time collaborator Sam Phillips's sultry timbre.
'The Slowdown' ricochets like James Newton Howard's freeform jazz score for the movie 'Glengarry Glen Ross', only it sounds like it's being played backwards at the wrong speed. Burnett's vocal tenderly disintegrates and he instead assumes the role of narrator, poet even, and his high tenor remains tender and calming.
'The Rat Age', defined as "the time with no rule" provides apt social commentary on genetic selection and social segregation, and musically too, it's a murky, ominous expedition. Metallic, industrial guitars foreground percussion that resonates and stomps like the deep clack of shoe leather on linoleum.
And that's no surprise, because owing to Burnett's past credentials, the production is uniformly excellent. His knack of creating an expansive yet multifaceted auditory space on each and every track is both beguiling and wondrous. In addition, his consummate and uncompromising attention to detail, especially with regard to managing the condensed artistic playground that standard definition two-channel stereophonic audio affords him is nothing short of mesmerising. Vocals, guitars and percussion are bled, rolled, shrieked and pitched into the ears with dizzying irregularity, yet effortlessly synthesise to form a rich and dense aural universe that can't fail to seduce and enthral.
Former collaborator Roy Orbison (Burnett once played guitar in Orbison's band) shares a writing credit on the album's love story of sorts 'Kill Zone', though it's a loaded gun to be sure: "For I'll steal your dreams while you are sleeping / And sell them for dust and cheap lust", and Burnett contributes a fine vocal that feels almost too close an approximation of what Orbison himself might have done with it had he been able.
The closer 'Sweet Lullaby' is a pounding country-jazz monolith that's as acoustically hypnotic as a summer thunderstorm and as rhythmically seductive as a ballet dancer performing 'Swan Lake' on the side of an erupting volcano. It's a fine statuesque ballad that recedes almost anti-climatically into a most desolate silence that screams in nothingness.
Burnett himself has likened the assemblage of 'Tooth of Crime' to a broken mirror: "you get lots of shards and start putting them together and create a lot of different angles...that's this group of songs, this process". This shows itself and it doesn't show itself. However schizophrenic the recording process might have been, 'Tooth of Crime' sounds, nay, feels like an organic, complete, and undeniably emotive work; it's effortless in its persuasion.
And whatever your feelings are towards Shepard's source material (sheer bloody bunkum or surrealist science fiction genius), Burnett's music has undeniably got a true heart and soul all its own and, to my mind triumphantly transcends its dramatic base.
Put simply, this is truly wonderful stuff.