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T Bone Burnett


The saying goes that religion and politics should never be discussed in polite conversation. According to T Bone Burnett, the reason that we haven't had a recording from him in fourteen years--other than the fact that he has been busy producing things like the soundtrack to "O Brother Where Art Thou," Gillian Welch, Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, etc.--is that he lacked inspiration. Which brings us back to religion and politics--along with love, the greatest sources of inspiration to mankind throughout history. Apparently this triumvirate was enough to bring Burnett the artist back into the fray.

The True False identity abounds with political harangues and digs at religious hypocrisy; polite conversation be damned. From the opening strains of "Zombieland" with its reference to the "black mass media," you know that you are in for what Bette Davis once called a bumpy ride. I must confess that the thought of a recording full of rants against the church and state never sounded like my idea of fun, or of art for that matter, but Burnett pulls it off.

In part it is because his anger is genuine, but we know that sincerity is never enough. More, it is because he sprinkles his outrage among lines like, "Boy's been sniffing that frog powder / Drinking that genius juice / Shooting that monkey blood," or sets up "What is this faith that you profess / That led to this colossal mess," with a story about Phyllis, who "would thrill us then grill us then kill us with bacillus."

It is not just the joyful wordplay that provides the sugar to make the medicine go down. A master of all things roots, Burnett injects a distinct reggae element into more than a few of the tunes. Even if the riddims are not always strictly Rasta, the production retains a definite dub feel throughout. Reggae being a home to many a political and religious song, it helps make the record work as a whole. Of course reggae is no stranger to songs about love, and neither is T Bone. From the rockabilly dementia describing a love that is "Seven Times Hotter Than Fire" (that may or may not be about romantic love), to the groovalicious "Baby, Don't You Say You Love Me," he explores the darker side of the heart, much like the murder ballads of Appalachia.

Yes, T Bone is the titan of the traditional, but rather than revel in retro he serves up a magnificent meal of modern roots music that manages to be simultaneously moody, and edgy--not an easy task, but with the help of talents like Jim Keltner and Marc Ribot, one he is up to. If I must listen to a man's thoughts and feelings about the current state of affairs set to song, I can't imagine better music in which to couch them.
• Michael Ross

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[In other T Bone news, a two-disc, 40-song retrospective, Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett, has also just been released. Find out more about that at his site or here.]

the other release

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