“This is a story which is based on a true story which is based on a lie,” speaks T Bone Burnett at the onset of his new Tooth of Crime album. Under the chilly narrative, a sullen but soulful drum groove beats to a broken march while guitar twang flirts with the sorts of horn charts you would expect in a film noir classic where cars cruise and crash in the dead of night. The name of the tune: Anything I Say Can and Will Be Used Against You.
Yes, this is the same Burnett that became roots music ambassador to the world; the producer who spun platinum out of old timey country on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, took sacred harp singing to rock arenas with Cold Mountain and concocted an improbable hit by recording Robert Plant with Alison Krauss.
But on Tooth of Crime, Burnett muses more like the devil. “People tell me I look like hell,” he sing/speaks with a high, arid voice that stops just short of a whine during Anything I Say. “Well, I am hell.”
Wow. Guess that means we won’t be seeing Burnett on CMT Crossroads again anytime soon. But shock therapy Tooth of Crime isn’t. Most of the few albums Burnett has made under his own name since 1992’s The Criminal Under My Own Hat have been scrutinies – confessions, almost – of an unsettled conscience. Tooth of Crime simply ups the turmoil as both a literary and musical exercise.
Lyrically, Tooth of Crime began life as accompaniment for a Sam Shepard play of the same name. In Shepard’s story, fame and artistic survival, especially as they apply to rock ‘n roll, are played out on a very real and physical battlefront. But Burnett’s album evolved into a project of its own over the past decade. Some songs, like the gangland march Here Come the Philistines (“I hear your lies symphonically”) were pulled from the stage production. Others, including the darkly acoustic Blind Man (with Burnett’s ex-wife, Sam Phillips, at her Nico-ish best) are newer odysseys.
Musically, Tooth of Crime has wicked fangs in the rich, jagged distortions of guitarist Marc Ribot. Burnett is no slouch as a guitarist himself and nicely adds to the album’s twisted cool. Ribot, though, goes for the throat as much as this sometimes Brecht-ian carnival will allow. He provides short electric jabs that pepper Dope Island, a David Lynch-style duet between Burnett and Phillips set in a “scorched and doomed” land. On The Rat Age, Ribot offers a nocturnal twist that two-steps around twilight zone horns. Even in the face of Burnett’s doomsday narration (“I’m sober on the grapes of wrath while running down the psycho path”), the brass manages to sound quite funky.
Then we have the stylistic extremes. Tooth of Crime enters a dream state with Kill Zone, which was written nearly two decades ago with Bob Neuwirth and, shortly before his death, Roy Orbison. The pop sweep is huge, although it sounds more like Let It Be-era Beatles than an epic Orbison serenade. Tooth of Crime later artfully abscesses on Swizzle Stick, a tune punctuated by Ribot’s Mississippi-style guitar stutter and Burnett’s machismo-heavy meditations (“I can stir you like a bloody mary”).
The closing Sweet Lullaby, the only song where Shepard is given a writing credit, brings Burnett back to the salty earth where he is seemingly most at home. The wheezy vocals fade and warp like an escaping gust of wind while the guitars engage in rustic, wiry dialogue. Of course, the lullaby, like all of Tooth of Crime, isn’t sweet at all. It’s rather a document of deep, intoxicating and often indefinable mystery.
(above photo of T Bone Burnett by Jesse Dylan)