Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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T-Bone Burnett

  • Truth Decay [Takoma, 1980] A-
  • Trap Door [Warner Bros. EP, 1982] A-
  • Proof Through the Night [Warner Bros., 1983] B+
  • T-Bone Burnett [Dot, 1986] B+
  • The Talking Animals [Columbia, 1988] B-
  • Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett [Columbia/DMZ/Legacy, 2006]  

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Truth Decay [Takoma, 1980]
Having put the omega on smarmy Alpha Bandmate Steve Soles (who does show up in the credits, but not--unlike the ever-adroit David Mansfield--as a band member), Burnett produces the best Christian record of 1980 for John Fahey's Buddhist blues label. Of course, you could also call it the best rockabilly record of 1980--something has happened to rockabilly since Sam Phillips talked Jerry Lee into defaming the Pentecost. And since Burnett is equally comfortable with the (divine) "power of love" and a (fleshly) "love that's hot," maybe something's happened to Christianity, too. A-

Trap Door [Warner Bros. EP, 1982]
Gosh, I guess he wasn't really rockabilly after all. "Hold On Tight" is El Lay at its best, and it's hard to imagine Jerry Lee himself covering "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" with more purpose or panache. Not that this is altogether unproblematic--as catchy and incisive as the originals are, as casually as they're delivered, not one jumps off the record with the unassuming confidence of the cover's pure pop. This is an artist who can't shake his own self-consciousness. That's why he came on rockabilly. A-

Proof Through the Night [Warner Bros., 1983]
Since I've never measured America's decline by the willingness of its female citizens to take their clothes off, some of Burnett's allegories fail to touch me as I know they should. But I'm a sucker for a humble man with a proud guitar. B+

T-Bone Burnett [Dot, 1986]
Burnett's foray into straight country is right purty, but it could stand to get a little bent. Abjuring strings, backup choruses, trap sets, puns, and sales potential, it takes the neo out of neotraditionalism, and though I smiled when T-Bone bought his baby "clothes of rayon," I was disturbed to realize that even his synthetics are ensconced in the past. B+

The Talking Animals [Columbia, 1988]
I hate to let the cat out of the bag, but this guy is pretentious. He's not dumb, not incapable, not even charmless (incredible shaggy dog story at the close). And country change-of-pace aside, his parables and exhortations have gotten more pointless with every record. Help him, Jesus. B-

Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett [Columbia/DMZ/Legacy, 2006]
This Texan prodigy has long enjoyed an impeccable reputation among his colleagues: Bob Dylan tourmate, productions for everyone from Elvis Costello to Counting Crows, close personal husband of singer-songwriter Sam Phillips, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Grammy mastermind. So why hasn't he developed any kind of audience, not even a true cult? Because for both a roots guy and a Christian guy (converted Dylan, some say), he seems like a cold son of a bitch. Burnett's disdain for commercial culture may emulate Jesus and the money changers, but it also flatters the folkie puritans who dig him. The intelligence of these 40 songs is manifest, and they do stick in the mind. But they're so short on signs of soul that their spiritual quest is unlikely to engage anyone new. [Blender: 3]  

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