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T Bone Burnett - Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 October 2006
format:    16-bit CDs (2)
performance:    10
sound:    9
release year:    2006
label:    Sony Legacy
reviewed by:    K L Poore

ImageHere’s the deal. I’m laid up and I don’t know if I’m being hyper-emotional, or going through a trapped in the house thing, but I can’t make it past “When the Night Falls,” the 18th track on the first disc of Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett, before I start to weep big blue tears and wish I could stick my right foot right up America’s collective ass.

I can make a reasoned guess, though. When “Humans from Earth,” the cut that leads off this 40-song retrospective, appeared on Burnett’s The Criminal Under My Own Hat in 1992, America was thrilling to the sounds of Billy Ray Cyrus and “Achy Breaky Heart.”

And when the gorgeous “Power of Love” arrived on Truth Decay in 1980, the airwaves were ruled by Christopher Cross, Lipps, Inc. and Dr. Hook. Are you getting the picture?

In 1988, when T Bone released “Monkey Dance,” a song that evokes both Tom Waits and Crowded House, “Faith” by George Michael was everyone’s favorite song. Do you feel that twitch in your foot? Are you looking for your boot?

Twenty Twenty is a must-have retrospective that guides the listener through the restless beauty and fearless reinvention that marks Burnett’s 30-plus year career as a recording artist. The producer’s choices are truly representative of Burnett’s vision of the melting pot that is American music, by presenting him as an alchemist of history and culture, world culture actually. Backed by a who’s who of respected players, including members of Peter Gabriel’s band, Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Elvis Costello, among others, Burnett mixes the traditional and the modern into a singular and bracing elixir that is exhilarating. And yet in listening, I felt a mixture of anger and sadness creep in.
Maybe it’s silly to become emotional over society’s predilection for musical hokum, or angry about idols pumped out on glorified game shows, but when faced with music this beautiful I can’t for the life of me convince myself that everything’s okay. I find myself saddled with the mental image of kids sitting at home listening to “Sexyback” or digging the soundtrack of whatever video game they’re playing. The music of Twenty Twenty is so far above this commercial product that it will make you want to grab your handy megaphone, get on your soapbox and scream, “Music is more than prefabricated pseudo-sexy crapola!” to everyone who will listen.

The commercial release of Twenty Twenty can evoke sadness for other reasons. By its mere compiled existence, it reminds that almost all of T Bone’s releases are out of print. Or it maybe it’s the damn photo they chose for the front: a faceless and handcuffed man (T Bone himself), ribbons and medals pinned to his chest, who in moving has put himself out of focus. It seems to be saying that after all the beautiful music, all the praise and accolades, he’s still faceless and a prisoner to the general public. And that maybe that’s the way he wants it.

You may think I’m crazy, but all of these thoughts had occurred to me by the time the 13th cut, “Kill Zone,” played. So I jumped over to iTunes and checked out the Today’s Top Songs section.

It’s masochism, pure and simple: Fergie, the Pussycat Dolls, Nickelback. You can choose any cut from Twenty Twenty and it will make any song on the TTS list sound like your baby cousin pounding the out-of-tune piano in your grandmother’s den. And that even includes T Bone’s take on “Diamond’s Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”

So I ask, wouldn’t it be a good idea to just throw away the TTS songs? Trash the trash? It’s the songs of Twenty Twenty that are real, electric, organic and have emotional context, depth and feeling. These are our songs. They’re our collective story. And if they’re a bit twisted, or cloudy, or whatever, there’s a reason. That wild-eyed enthusiasm of invention, or reinvention, and that smiling irreverent respect for the creative past is what makes music-that-matters. It connects to our pasts and point towards our futures. This is our music.

“Tear This Building Down” isn’t just another take on Reverend Gary Davis’ “Samson and Delilah” -- Bo Diddley is bouncing around in there too. “River Of Love” resonates with the sounds of gospel, dobro and the belief that a better day is at hand. In listening to the waltzing “The Bird That I Held in My Hand,” you can hear the hope, sadness and longing that is in all of us. “You are the bird that I held in my hand/Until I learned to fly on my own.” Tell me with a straight face that it’s possible to feel the same kind of emotional connection to Fergie’s “London Bridge” and it’s “Wanna go down like London, London Bridge” refrain.

And in the end, the breadth of The Essential T Bone Burnett set (clocking in at more than three hours) is too vast to account for in a review of this sort. The scope of his recorded output is too powerful to do justice to with a few paragraphs of praise and awe.

So before “When the Night Falls” comes on again and flips my emotional switch, I should say, coolly and clearly… Twenty Twenty represents the best of what music can be without being dumbed down purely for mass consumption, and if you love real songs filled with invention, emotion, and tradition, the kind of songs that surprise you into a smile, then pick up Twenty Twenty: The Essential T Bone Burnett. You won’t be disappointed, and you’ll save me from having to look for my damn boot.

This is a great-sounding collection that I listened to in multiple formats and settings. I found headphone listening to be a lot of fun (although it did set off a couple of long reveries). Considering that the songs were recorded over a span of 27 years, it’s amazing that you can’t really hear major differences in sound quality. Production style may change from song to song, for example those produced with David Rhodes versus those with Bob Neuwirth, but they all sound dy-no-mite.

You might think that going through three hours of music five or six times in a short span could bring on Bone fatigue, but actually just the opposite occurred. I found myself even more focused on the details of the recordings, of which there are many, and overall it has been a very enjoyable listening experience. There seems to be a little more crispness in these recordings versus the original CDs, and as with his latest release The True False Identity, Burnett’s greatest strength as a producer lies in the instrument separation he allows in his arrangements.

I can only wish there were surround sound mixes of these songs.

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