T-Bone Burnett has recently catapulted into the peripheral public conscience thanks to his guru-like musical direction on Raising Sand, the brilliant collaboration of rock demigod Robert Plant and bluegrass siren Alison Krauss. That Burnett, as maestro, has deftly led an all-star ensemble accompanying Plant and Krauss on tour this summer only pads his already distinguished reputation. Yet somehow his latest release from Nonesuch, Tooth of Crime, seems to have gone largely unnoticed.
At first listen Burnett could strike one as suffering from what I call the Stevie Ray Paradox: talented and inventive musician struggling to find a vocal identity. (Only late in life was Vaughan able to reconcile the insecurities from inauthentically emulating the vocal styles of traditionally black singers that infamously plagued him as a white blues singer.) His vocals stylistically meander, at one point channeling cool Lou Reed banter while at another McCartney-esque harmonies.
Such a claim would not be entirely unfounded. In 2006 Burnett emerged from a 14-year self-induced recording hiatus. During that time he received mainstream attention and accolades as a soundtrack producer—namely the Grammy winning O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Across the Universe, and Walk the Line—while also producing critically acclaimed albums for the Counting Crows, Elvis Costello, Cassandra Wilson, Bruce Cockburn, and the Wallflowers. So to absorb, interpret, and adopt recording artists’ idiosyncrasies in that time is not unusual.
But a deeper examination of Tooth of Crime mitigates the above misgivings and, instead, yields a bounty of oxymoronic delineations and sonorously dark arrangements by the prolific producer.
The album was originally written and recorded as collaboration with playwright Sam Shepard for the musical staging of his noted play Tooth of Crime (Second Dance), a 1997 remake of his original Tooth of Crime. Burnett describes the somber setting for the struggle between the musical protagonist and his iconoclast as a chilling science-fiction future of rock music and violence in which “zones of fame flare up and people can become incredibly famous in their own zones and nobody outside that zone can know anything about it”. But when that “zone completely disappears, the famous person doesn’t realize it” he says.
Opening, “Anything I Say Can and Will be Used Against You” immediately establishes the dark conflict with a twangy high noon swagger and shuffling dust-covered spurs. The spoken vocals lack the beatnik tone of Reed and are too haunting for spoken word jazz. Instead they’re at once humorous and ruthless:
I will disengage your mastery
Until all you love is blasphemy
Then I’ll break in through your idiocy
And twist your desire hideously
The apocalyptic “Dope Island” maintains the unnerving tone, reminiscent of the Beatles’ “Blue Jay Way”. It paints a dreary tableau—not unlike Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—with an ominous baritone guitar that also doubles the vocals.
Much of the album features a heavily minor-saturated tone complimented by dissonant brass chords and harmonies that emphasize the play’s catastrophic surrealism. “The Slowdown” brings out this synthesis of alternative country and big band while vocal effects sustain an eerie isolation.
The album’s best track, “Kill Zone”, employs rich production under a soaring and twisting melody. Evoking the rhetorical melodies of Roy Orbison and Lennon/McCartney, the song drips with sentimentality but also guilefulness. (The former is unsurprising as Orbison co-wrote the song with Burnett and Bob Neuwirth before his death.) The track epitomizes the play’s contradictions of beauty and death in its beautiful chromatic minor-major resolutions. “Something will happen on stage and the person on your left will laugh and the person on your right will gasp in horror” is how Burnett summarizes this juxtaposition.
Other tracks are either a recapitulation of imminently cataclysmic thoughts paired with seminal dark humor (e.g. “The Rat Age”, “Swizzle Stick”, “Here Come the Philistines”) or simply doomsday incantations (“Sweet Lullaby”).
T-Bone Burnett possesses an inescapable ability to create cerebral concept albums within uniquely different settings and contexts. He has proven himself a master of production, film music, and now musical theatre. But regardless of the warm critical receptions, as a relevant solo artist and songwriter he remains an asterisk to the mainstream. Burnett, though, only grins at the dénouement manifested from Tooth of Crime: the fatal struggle for fame. He understands determination for the power of music, not because of it, and he’s comfortable doing just that.