Music

T-Bone Burnett: Tooth of Crime

The concept album -- music for the remake of a Sam Shepard play of the same name -- yields a bounty of oxymoronic delineations and sonorously dark arrangements by the prolific producer.


T-Bone Burnett

Tooth of Crime

Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2008-05-13
UK Release Date: 2008-05-05
Amazon
iTunes

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.

6

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less
Culture

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less
Books

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image