T Bone BURNETT The True False Identity (DMZ/Sony BMG) Rating: NNNN ; Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett (DMZ/Sony BMG) Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
When an artist like T Bone Burnett produces a soundtrack album for pocket change that sells over 7 million copies, there's no great urgency to record another solo album.
And it must've seemed an even less pressing concern for Burnett when his soundtrack jobs which followed Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? turned out to be the celebrated Cold Mountain set with Jack White and the Walk The Line project (for which he deserved a special Oscar for coaxing decent Johnny and June Carter Cash facsimile performances out of non-singing actors Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon).
No wonder it's taken him 14 years to follow up The Criminal Under My Own Hat with The True False Identity.
But there was never really any doubt that he'd be back in the studio recording his own version of the musical truth. Burnett is one of those rare musicians who's just as effective in the recording studio on either side of the glass.
That goes back to the time the teen-aged Burnett thrashed out a frantically flailing drum solo on the Legendary Stardust Cowboy's psychobilly classic Paralyzed in 68.
There's nothing near as brashly confrontational on Burnett's subtly pro-active new work, The True False Identity, but it does come with an intriguingly off-kilter clank that has more in common with pre-war blues or some Harry Partch experiments than with anything you might encounter on commercial radio.
Burnett's proven himself better at starting trends than following them.
"After releasing The Criminal Under My Own Hat, I felt like I'd come to the end of something," he explains from an airport phone. "I wasn't hearing music as a sequence of notes any longer; it was just sounds you know, booms, gongs, rings which I took as a sign I needed some time off to relearn music.
"I started listening to Arvo Prt, John Adams and, yes, a lot of Harry Partch, too, along with some old Skip James and Howlin' Wolf stuff, and I began hearing similar things in all of that music. There was a common drone that led me to this new path."
Around that time, Burnett got a call from Sam Shepard, who asked him to write some music for a play he was working on.
"I went to New York and began writing for these characters, which put me in touch with other modes of thinking about music and expressing it.
"For four or five hours each day I practising guitar, just trying to unlearn everything I knew. The way I see it, when you're starting from scratch, 14 or 15 years isn't such a long time to come up with a new album."
Even before you hear the foreboding tone of The True False Identity, song titles like Zombieland, Palestine Texas, There Would Be Hell To Pay and Blinded By The Darkness suggest a topical bent.
"The current climate in the U.S. is a concern for me, so it's bound to show up in my songs. But I don't really follow politics and I sure don't listen to what politicians might be saying.
"I've actually been reading a lot of Sophocles and Shakespeare, and the whole majesty of the fall of their tragic heroes was very inspiring. It all relates to the situations we get ourselves into and how we end up de-stroying ourselves, which seems quite relevant to what's happening in the world at the moment."
The good thing about Burnett having his own Sony-BMG-distributed DMZ boutique label is that he doesn't need to convince any label executives that his apparent anti-Bush tirades were really inspired by Sophocles to get his album released.
And if he wants to release Twenty Twenty, a double-disc set of great songs from albums that didn't sell squat when they were initially released, it's all good. The only major oversight in the well-chosen and informatively annotated retrospective is that the set doesn't include his explosive drumming debut with the Legendary Stardust Cowboy on Paralyzed.
"I should've had that on there," roars Burnett. "NRBQ drummer Tom Ardolino once told me he thought my drum solo on Paralyzed was the greatest ever in history. Heh heh... after all these years, the world may finally be ready for it.
"That's one of those things that might be good to post on my website. One of the great things about this new form of distribution is that everything you've got stockpiled can now be heard."