T Bone Burnett: Tooth of Crime (Nonesuch)

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T Bone Burnett: The Rat Age
T Bone Burnett: Tooth of Crime (Nonesuch)

Burnett might not be a household name but you can bet his name is in the small print in many households: among other albums he has produced are Los Lobos' How Will the Wolf Survive?, a couple for Elvis Costello in the mid-late 80s, two for Gillian Welch (Revival, Hell Among the Yearlings), various soundtracks and incidental music (Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, Down From the Mountain), the recent Robert Plant/Alison Krauss album Raising Sand . . .

And he's done so much more, including a few albums under his own name.

This is an odd one though and you don't come here if you really liked Oh Brother or Raising Sand.

Back in the mid 90s Burnett wrote the music for an off-Broadway production of a play by renegade writer Sam Shepherd (they had both been on Dylan's Rolling Thunder Tour incidentally) but was never entirely satisfied with the results.

And so a mere decade later (forgive him, he was busy) here is the album and it is in parts quite stunning: the eerie ballad Kill Zone was co-written with Roy Orbison (you'd love to have heard the Big O's version); there are weird spoken-word lyrics drawn from the theme of Shepherd's play about two musical rivals which seem to suggest some interplentary theme; hints of Tom Waits' clank'n'grind style; musical dislocations that can be unnerving if not irritating . . .

Even those who lined up for Burnett's previous, more conservative albums might find this a challenge. But the rewards and enticements are many: the odd production which has a mesmering, industrial quality; the John Zorn-like discomforts; the atmospheric guitar of Marc Ribot and angular drumming of Jim Keltner designed to keep you on edge, and the peculiarly menacing moody blues feel throughout. Not an easy prospect and perhaps even flawed, but my guess is that it will -- like some of Waits' albums -- grow in stature over time.

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