Sunday, June 4, 2017

I Believe That You Believe


Today’s formative-album replay: T-Bone Burnett. Long before he became Hollywood’s chief prospector of musical Americana and some time after he was Dylan’s Bible buddy--but the same year he produced Elvis Costello’s breakthrough first record minus the Attractions, King of America--Joseph Henry Burnett released this unassuming collection of gentlemanly acoustic country, steeped in a sort of stoical anguish but seasoned with smiling warmth. Though the covers here are stronger than Burnett’s originals, apart from his oracular opener, “River of Love,” the whole thing is knit together by strings--fiddle, guitar, Jerry Douglas’s singing dobro--into a sturdy cushion for Burnett’s modestly soulful vocals (with harmonies from David Hidalgo and Billy Swan). And the whole effort, recorded without overdubs directly to two-track in a four-day stretch, feels inspired and overseen by the same ageless muse behind such perfect snapshots as Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, Roberta Flack’s First Take, or John Hiatt’s Bring the Family.

The key songs here take love as a title subject, and they all crop up early on the record's first side, with an opening contrast that struck me anew on this listen: The stark, saturnine “River of Love” makes divine love sound like a hard lesson, followed by a buoyant cover of Elmer Laird’s “Poison Love” that makes the earthly kind sound like an irresistible, almost redemptive vice. It’s the old Hank Williams Saturday-night-and-Sunday-morning routine in reverse, while the other “love” song on Side 1, “No Love at All” is straight-up country heartbreak distilled to a bittersweet syrup.

Other songs range within this continuum, from wistful Gram Parsons-esque laments (“Shake Yourself Loose,” “I Remember”) to a Buddy Hollyish ode (“Oh No”) and another severe prayer (“Little Darling”). Off this grid are Bob Neuwirth’s Gothic norteña “Annabelle Lee,” in which Poe waltzes with Faulkner in an ether dream, and an indifferent cover of Tom Waits’s elusive “Time.” The closer is also a waltz, co-written by Burnett, Swan, and Neuwirth: “You were the bird that I held in my hand/Till I learned to fly on my own,” they sing, fusing the spiritual and the personal as the key ascends aspirationally from verse to chorus and the album takes wing into a high lonesome sunset. As much as I admire T-Bone’s work with soul brother Elvis Costello and one-time wife Leslie/Sam Phillips, this eponymous record looms quietly as a kind of ur-text of neo-folk authenticity.

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