T-Bone Burnett: “Tooth of Crime”

Really, at this point, T-Bone Burnett fans should simply be glad to have any new music at all, and leave it at that. After all, Burnett’s last album as a performer, The True False Identity, arrived after a fourteen-year silence, which Burnett spent honing his skills and developing his reputation as one of the best producers in the biz. Now, two years after that album, Burnett breaks his own record for productivity, releasing Tooth of Crime with what is, for him, an unprecedented quick turnaround. (Now if only we could coax Peter Gabriel into this kind of prolificacy!) Of course, the quick turnaround is less impressive when you consider that Tooth of Crime is over a decade in the making. The oldest song here dates back to 1988; the album is based on a Sam Shepard play; and Burnett has been talking about this recording since at least the early 90s. So naturally, his fans-many of whom had come to doubt the very existence of this material-will simply be happy to have a new batch of music.

And the music? Well, in many ways, it’s exactly what one would expect. For a song cycle based on a play, it’s appropriately theatrical; it bears the same kind of fussiness and attention to detail that one would expect for an album that was left simmering in the studio for so long; and sonically, it wouldn’t be unfair to call it a sequel to The True False Identity, as it’s every bit as dour and cantankerous as that album, even borrowing some of its sinister, Bone Machine-style percussion. Like the play on which its based, the album is essentially noir-Burnett, his acerbic wit as sharp as ever, rattles off colorful campy threats (“I can stir you like a Bloody Mary”) and innuendos, all the while weaving social commentary with vaguely-futuristic, dystopian imagery. Ex-wife Sam Phillips shows up to sing on a few songs-the mysterious woman with a troubled past-and a horn section adds just the right spy-movie flair.

His hard work to set the mood pays off, but generally at the expense of the songs-if you can even call them that. Burnett’s last album marked a shift in focus away from songcraft and toward an emphasis on Burnett’s studio magic; it’s as if all those years spent producing and not singing has made him forget what made his older material as a singer/songwriter so special. And that’s certainly true here, as Burnett focuses almost entirely on creating creepy, ominous soundscapes and sustaining the same dour mood throughout the whole record, to the point that actual melodies only make occasional appearances, most noticeably on horn-drenched “The Slowdown” and album highlight “Kill Zone,” which Burnett wrote with Roy Orbison shortly before the man died in 1988. The rest of the album is all clattering percussion and angry guitars, weird studio effects and a few horns, wrapped in a druggy sheen of studio haze, all of which sounds great, but little of which is particularly memorable, and almost never enjoyable. It’s almost as if Burnett views this project too literally as a soundtrack, and, without the accompanying play to provide some context and some much-needed energy, this mood-setting music has too few rewards at too high a cost. It may be true that Burnett has never sounded as good as a studio craftsman, but he’s also never made such a dark and difficult album.

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