T Bone Burnett
Playlist: The Very Best of T Bone Burnett
[Rating: 4 stars]
T Bone Burnett doesn’t seem to talk a lot. The music of the people he produces – Robert Plant, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson and the list goes on – does plenty of talking for him. And millions of people had never even heard his name until he produced O Brother Where Art Thou? a decade ago. He does his job as a good producer, bringing attention to the music of his acts and not to himself.
So what a lot of people don’t know is that, for Burnett, there was life long before he was earning platinum for producing everyone else, beginning in the late 1960s, when he produced and played drums for pseudo-rockabilly novelty singer the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. Burnett was later a member of the Alpha Band, made up of veterans of Bob Dylan’s backing band for the legendary Rolling Thunder Revue in the mid-1970s. The Alpha Band was a highly musical, almost power-pop band with instrumental diversification that somehow never caught on but definitely should have. Burnett contributed songs and vocals to the group, with two of his co-writes, “Dark Eyes” and “Last Chance to Dance,” included on Playlist: The Very Best of T Bone Burnett.
The rest of this album follows Burnett’s development as a solo artist, with great songs like “Trap Door,” from the EP of the same name, and “Kill Switch,” from The Criminal Under My Own Hat, showing Burnett to have a true artist’s gift for wordplay. “Monkey Dance” from The Talking Animals demonstrates a decided Beatles influence, not surprising considering the era Burnett grew up in and the fact that Ringo Starr himself was temporarily a sideman with the Alpha Band.
By the early 1980s Burnett seems to have discovered – or at least become more interested in – rootsier music, which perhaps led to the types of artists he produces today, i.e., Ralph Stanley. A good example of this is on “Shut It Tight,” a minor-key bluegrassy number where Burnett sings “I don’t like to win but then again I hate to lose/and in between is something I can’t stand.” With that lyric, and several others on the album, Burnett pretty much sums up the artistic temperament, which is that most of those in the arts don’t know what the hell they want, but won’t give up looking for it.
Burnett’s voice calls John Lennon to mind, but he also is in the same vein as Peter Case and Marshall Crenshaw, both of whom he’s produced. Nearly all the tracks on this album were written by Burnett alone, although the albums they were culled from included co-writes with Bono, Elvis Costello and Bob Neuwirth, the guy who co-wrote “Mercedes Benz” for Janis Joplin. And the records these tracks were taken from included performances from Jerry Douglas, Mark O’Connor, Tony Levin, Pete Townshend and other notables. The lack of substantial liner notes on Playlist: The Very Best of T Bone Burnett makes it hard to figure out who’s playing what part without doing a lot of digging way into the past. But it doesn’t really matter, because these songs would stand up just fine if it were only Burnett singing them with an acoustic guitar. In fact, maybe he should consider an album like that for himself, one stripped down to almost nothing, the same way he produces so many people.