Tooth of Crime

T Bone Burnett

Tooth of Crime

Nonesuch Records (www.nonesuch.com)

 

T Bone Burnett may be better known, especially lately, for his work as a producer (Elvis Costello, Alison Krauss, Los Lobos, etc.) and on film soundtracks (Cold Mountain, Ladykillers), but he’s also a formidable songwriter. Tooth of Crime is a set of songs Burnett contributed to a production of the eponymous Sam Shepard play back in 1996, revised and reworked into a studio album that’s impeccably arranged but packs a punch.

The recording features a number of ace session musicians, notably guitarist Marc Ribot, vocalist Sam Phillips, and drummer Jim Keltner. A crackerjack horn section tears into neo-noir charts with relish on the bluesy and evocative “Anything I say can and will be used against You” and “The Slowdown.”  Philips and Burnett supply a sultry duet on the darkly lyrical “Dope Island.” “Kill Zone,” co-authored by Burnett, Bob Neuwirth, and the late and legendary Roy Orbison, mixes a predictably soaring vocal with a hazy, dystopian arrangement, abetted by Greg Leisz’s steel guitar.

Burnett isn’t afraid to take risks. “Swizzle Stick” incorporates talky vocals over an approximation of hip hop rhythms, a chugging guitar ostinati, and cool horn stabs. On “Telepresence,” frail snippets of melody are cast adrift over an ametric, open-improv instrumental background.  ”Here come the Philistines” adopts instrumentation similar to latter day King Crimson, with two basses and two drummers; it maintains an appropriately heavy neo-prog ambience. “Blind Man” is a delicate miniature, a duet with Ribot somewhat reminiscent of a Satie Gymnopedie. Outside the context of the play, the ironically titled “Sweet Lullaby” may seem a jarringly bleak-toned valediction; but like the rest of Tooth of Crime, it is sumptuously produced and superbly rendered.

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