By James Calemine
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Burnett grew up in Fort Worth, Texas. Burnett’s career continues gaining steam over the years. He’s worked with Bob Dylan, Delaney & Bonnie, Ry Cooder, Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello and the Coen Brothers (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to name a few.
Tooth of Crime is based on a play by Sam Shepard. Shepard and Burnett collaborated over the years on various projects. They first met in 1975 on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour. In Shepard’s book about that Dylan tour, The Rolling Thunder Logbook, he wrote this about Burnett: “T-Bone Burnett, a man not given to mincing words, is hovering behind me. He has a peculiar quality of craziness about him. He’s the only one on the tour I’m not sure has relative control over his violent dark side. He’s not scary, he’s just crazy.”
In the second act of the play Shepard’s opening scene description fulfills the sound of Burnett’s album: “The stage is the same. The lights come up on Crow. He looks just like Keith Richards. He wears high-heeled green rock and roll boots, tight greasy blue jeans, a tight yellow t-shirt, a green velvet coat, a shark tooth earring, a silver swastika hanging from his neck and a black eye patch covering his left eye. He holds a short piece of silver chain in his hand and twirls it constantly, tossing it from hand to hand. He chews a stick of gum with violent chomps. He exudes violent arrogance and cruises the stage with true contempt…”
“Anything I Say Can Be Used Against You” begins as a spoken word, spaghetti backstreet crawl cast in a black and white film of some opium induced dream. The lyrics carry the spooky tone of the collection: “People tell me I look like hell/I am hell/I got a torture chamber orchestra/At the delirium hotel.” An eerie undercurrent sets in from the opening seconds. “Dope Island” carries an echoing Marc Ribot (Tom Waits) guitar riff heard under lofty lyrics sung by Sam Phillips and Burnett behind Jim Keltner’s lazy beat.
“The Slowdown” sounds like some hazy afternoon in an urban apartment in the company of nodding junkies. “Blind Man” rises like some fever dream as it concludes after one minute and twenty seconds. “Kill Zone” contains a Beatle-esque orchestra movement that continues this moody, uneasy track list with a pedal steel and brass selection.
“The Rat Age” evokes another vignette of spoken word images projected by lush brass accentuation and Ribot’s low end guitar riffs. The lyrics paint a picture in a modern world: “I was conceived in Behavior Station/Light years from civilization/I was born in oblivion/Half Balinese half Libyan/My father was a vector/My mother was a spector/As earthmen battle for their skin/I come down with the aliens.”
A Twilight Zone eeriness permeates “Swizzle Stick” in a weird urban mojo that allows the lyrics to navigate the listener to the next destination. “Telepresence” contains an industrial template that sounds unearthly. The lyrics seem to epitomize people living in cities that make them crazy from proximity to one another, which nails modern day life. “Here Come the Philistines” stands as a mechanical war march that typifies war in the 21st century: “Velocity coverage at headquarters/Gone to Bug City with the activist reporters/It’s hot this close to the plutonium core/It’s the thing you face in never-ending war.”
“Sweet Lullaby” ranks as an industrial folk song with a native Indian ghost beat. T-Bone Burnett utilizes a sinister narrative that paints a cruel and impersonal existence in these modern times. For a gritty dose of eerie reality, seek out Tooth of Crime…