The True False Identity T Bone Burnett
The mighty shadow of Bob Dylan hovers over many widespread musical landscapes and none more recently subtle yet powerful than the cantankerous id of T Bone Burnett. Burnett was a fixture on his Holiness’s Rolling Thunder Revue back in the mid-'70s as Dylan reinvented the rock tour as traveling medicine show. Since then, good ole T.B. Henry Burnett has colonized the post-Tom Waits netherworld with travelogue songs and simultaneously staked out quite a career as a soundtrack music archivist with a long stint as the Coen Brothers' favorite audio collaborator. And deservedly so, as Burnett gathers slabs of perfectly ancient, ridiculous, sublime and arcane music to fill the cinema with extremely heady tunes that grace everything from The Big Lebowski’s genius opening credit slot with Dylan’s “The Man In Me” to the surreal bluegrass/Greil Marcus folk/ghost frog gems from O Brother Where Art Thou?
Burnett’s latest solo effort is a two-part, twelve song black-and-white play set on the outskirts of towns and cities, mini-adventures which produce slow-burning flames around the edge of the scenery. Sometimes, the burn reaches the middle and dissolves the paper, such as the wickedly cool punk guitar meets Ry Cooder snake rattler, “Palestine Texas,” and smooth stroll of “There Would Be Hell to Pay,” which seems like the flipside of the opening tale about Lebowski’s. Nary a note of laziness here, just cruel and slow fire rippling throughout as, a little later on, the first album "side" closes with “I’m Going on a Long Journey Never to Return,” which sounds like a beautiful leftover from the "Love and Theft" sessions with big T Bone guesting on vocals while Sir Bob takes a smoke break.
And sometimes, that match lights the edge and just goes out rather meekly. Hence, the overwrought opening track, “Zombieland,” and its cousin, “Every Time I Feel the Shift,” the latter an odd mixture of acid-drenched crickets and chirping ala Mike Myers' faux-Beatnik rhymes in SoI Married an Axe Murderer. “Hollywood Mecca of the Movies” is as obvious as its title and wanders aimlessly down Sunset before heading up to nowhere with a detour into a Kerouac dead end. “Baby Don’t You Say You Love Me” has a great ’50s garage band meets Cavern-era Beatles feel but distorts its quicksand eyeliner with way too many shades of techno wankery.
However, these short spark moments are few and Burnett engages best when he gets persnickety in his rhythmic choices and subversive lyric, like the haunting Daniel Lanois in a candlelit basement room take on “Fear Country,” which has appropriate Bush bashings and fellow Rolling Thunder traveler Bob Neuwirth credited as a co-lyricist. To continue with the Dylan connections: progeny Jesse Dylan shot the beautifully obscure photos that line the CD pages, and veteran session drummer Jim Keltner (who occasionally played with Dylan in the late '90s) plays blissful shuffle and loose jazz drums. Non-Bob-alum and universal hipster Marc Ribot, also delivers on acoustic and electric guitars.
T Bone Burnett has crafted an alternate universe cowboy album that makes you earn your dinner in ways that only he has imagined. The trick is trying to determine if, like Dylan, he predominately wears a mask or if, kike so many of the films he has helped score, this pose is the genuine article worth returning to again and again.