Saturday, June 03, 2006

T Bone redux and reviewed

Music Review
At Town Hall, T Bone Burnett Explores the Raw and the Slick

Published: June 3, 2006

T Bone Burnett's new album, "The True False Identity" (Sony), appears to be the kind of record that clears the decks: it's a midlife poetic exorcism of his feelings about cultural amnesia, religious extremism and love in a time of evil.
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Nan Melville for The New York Times

It is not a clean catharsis. Mr. Burnett, as a certain type of middle-aged NPR listener may know, is a Los Angeles-based, auteurish record producer fascinated by Americana, someone who has for a long time been working the duality of raw and slick. The new record is not a howl from the subconscious, despite apocalyptic lyrics, unruly guitar sounds, drums like a thumb in your eye. It is an incredibly stylized, oppressively hip piece of work. The same could be said of his show at Town Hall, where he played on Thursday backed by a four-man core from the band heard on the album.

Encased in a sharp suit tailored short at the wrists, which accentuated his big body, boyish face and Fauntleroy haircut, Mr. Burnett sang rather pretentious lyrics in a weak voice and played minimally on beautiful electric guitars. The songs, most of them from the new album, were simple, repetitive structures, a mixture of New Orleans rhythm and Link Wray's "Rumble" and slow 1950's electric blues.

They were often vamps based in a single chord, much like background music for an independent movie about, say, a sexy, sweltering place in the American South where chrome rims glint in the noonday sun and bad things are transpiring near the tattoo parlor. They were powered by what have become two musicians' signature sounds: the drummer Jim Keltner's clomping, sensuous midtempo grooves, and Marc Ribot's loud, staccato guitar gestures with shards of dissonance.

The band had nothing to do with the show's problems. Mr. Ribot tirelessly mutated his sound with effects boxes, and put a violent energy into the more aggressive songs. He went beyond clankiness, too, playing nylon-string guitar with classical technique during "Hollywood Mecca of the Movies," an excruciating poem about identity theft and the manufacture of false personalities, read from a notebook by Mr. Burnett.

Mr. Keltner was just as unusual: incredibly precise within his loose rhythm, he kept a shaker in one of his stick-gripping hands at all times, got a big, plump tone from his kick drum, and never bothered to mark time on a high-hat. (There was some echo on the drum microphones, and Mr. Keltner's spacious sound let his beats ring out; there was the illusion of another drummer somewhere.)

Dennis Crouch played long, resonant notes on stand-up acoustic bass, and Keefus Ciancia massaged and hammered sounds out of his old keyboards; at points, his and Mr. Ribot's heavy manipulations merged and sounded alike. The music was beautifully mixed, too; Town Hall has rarely sounded so good.

But the post-beatnik ponderousness of the project made it hard to endure. At all times, Mr. Burnett played the poor soul who must face the contemporary problem of existence and bear witness with vintage analog equipment. It's hard to imagine someone in his audience who hasn't already arrived at similar conclusions about the world, and at times the show felt like preaching to the choir in a boutique.