Friday, February 25, 2011

T-Bone Burnett

T-Bone Burnett finished off 2010 producing two well-received albums for aging rockers: Elvis Costello's sprawling but well-conceived National Ransom and John Mellencamp's surprising No Better Than This, an album that apparently gets so rootsy that its sound way predates the faux roots that Mellencamp was famous for in the 80s. Earlier that year he produced Jakob Dylan's Women and Country, also featuring Neko Case, which I listened to repeatedly after its release. Oh yes, and he won a Grammy for the soundtrack to the Jeff Bridges show that was called Crazy Heart .

No doubt Burnett is famous for the sound he has helped other artists achieve on some of their best albums. His name has become synonymous with a kind of country and folk-rock purity. Considering his most notable production credits, one thinks anything he touches will have a genuine, warm tone, from the Counting Crows' August and Everything After to Gillian Welch's Hell Among the Yearlings. The music Burnett helps create is often sparse, but the tone, even of just one or two acoustic instruments, is rich and inviting. These albums never feel shallow.

But growing up as a big Elvis Costello fan, I have always been uneasy with the tension that, while Burnett is famous for this warm traditional sound, he also produced Costello's Spike in 1989. No song sounds alike on this weird outing, and nothing save for "Tramp The Dirt Down" translates as even remotely traditional. There are reverberated pipes being banged on. Brash trumpets pop. Suddenly a tympani announces itself. Spike is a roller-coaster of eclectic pop songs, and an album I like to revisit from time to time for its sheer sense of adventure. But for all the timelessness in Burnett's sound, this album sounds like it came straight out of the 1980s. Especially that muffled snare drum!

I was expecting something similar from Burnett's 1986 self-titled release when I first saw the cover. Burnett wears a boxy tuxedo and stares off in an odd, stately manner. I was anticipating new wavey confusion and having visions of the big suit from Stop Making Sense. Turns out I was wrong. There's barely even a snare drum to fuck with! Just ten songs played by a bunch of excellent acoustic musicians and singers. Jerry Douglas's dobro work is, as always, extraordinary. (He's no stranger to Burnett, who produced the last two Costello records on which Douglas appears.) And the sound is, as I should have expected, rich with texture. I never thought I'd quote an review, but one phrase I read does seem fitting: the songs and the production "shine without showboating". I think that's a pretty good way to sum up how I feel about Burnett's qualities as a producer over the years.

Alright. I've held off writing about how strange T-Bone Burnett looks for this long, but now I can't help it. In that TNN video he looks exactly like the bully from The Karate Kid.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Circle Pines

I just got back from relaxing and playing old-time fiddle music at the Circle Pines Center, a summer camp and retreat center in Delton, MI. After listening to, playing, and writing about rock music for the past few months, it was a welcome treat to play acoustic music in the woods for much of Saturday. The place is nearly 75 years old. We played old-time music in the same room as Pete Seeger and Big Bill Broonzy once played in 1957. It was the last performance Broonzy gave before undergoing a throat cancer operation. I learned from a handwritten note from Seeger that was framed on the wall that Broonzy "never sang again" after that night. Broonzy died about a year later, in Chicago, in 1958. I thought this picture might be a nice tribute to share.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Over the summer I picked up Stevie Wonder's Innervisions but failed to write about it, instead focusing on the other Motown/Tamla recordings I bought in the same trip (an early Marvin Gaye compilation and, um, Thriller). Whenever I play Innervisions, I move right away to "Living for the City". This is a powerful, dramatic song. From a boy being "born in hard time Mississippi" but then not being about to find a job in the city because "they don't use colored people," Stevie is writing about the struggle and disappointment in Black urban life, and that reference to Mississippi brings to mind the change in experience from rural South to urban North that came about as a result of the Great Migration. Oh yeah, and that's Stevie's brother near the end of the track who finally makes it to New York City ("New York, just like I pictured it!") before promptly getting arrested for being Black.

Stevie played all the instruments on this song for the album, as well for "Higher Ground" and "Jesus Children of America". That's impressive, I know, but watching the performance below makes me kind of wish he had reconsidered and gone for a backing band as tight as this one.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman

As the Blizzard of 2011 was touching down here in Chicago, I was at Dusty Groove America on Ashland Ave, spending a warm hour listening to music, digging through the jazz bins, and generally not getting pelted with sleet to the face. It was wonderful. I listened to two Common albums and found my all-time favorite jazz ballad album, John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman, waiting in near-perfect condition for me. The album's warm tone was a perfect night-cap as fences were being blown over outside my window and a light, icy mist was spraying into my bathroom through a ceiling vent. I really hope those folks at Dusty Groove got home okay. They were open til 8.

Now, musically speaking, I generally favor consistency in tone over eclecticism; this album is an exemplar for how a group of artists can compliment each other in a fluid, balanced way. Hartman's voice is so warm and rich and it floats over McCoy Tyner's piano comps so unassumingly, just as Coltrane's horn does. From song to song, the musicians never waver in their uncanny pitch and melodic phrasing. Listening to Coltrane's ballad playing, you don't necessarily hear the "wall of sound" he was becoming known for after 1959's Giant Steps. There are very few complex harmonic structures. There is no playing "out". He riffs on the melody in short, effortless phrases, repeating powerful motifs that are short kernels of song in themselves.

Speaking of consistency, Coltrane's best ballad albums all appeared around when this one did, in 1962. As I learned from A.B. Spellman in the original liner notes, the albums that preceded John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman were Ballads and Duke Ellington & John Coltrane. To my mind, these three are companion pieces. Coltrane's career, like any great artist's, can be seen in movements, and this period in his evolution--after Giant Steps but before 1964's spiritual and harmonic behemoth A Love Supreme-- was devoted to melodic exploration within songs that gave him a lot of open space.

Pianist Tommy Flanagan once said, "Ballads are harder... because you've got so much more time." Countless other musicians have quipped a variant of the same message. Listening to John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman, it is staggering to hear how easy these guys make ballads feel.