Sunday, January 30, 2011

Old Guys Rule - Elton, Leon, Gregg, John, Robert...and T-Bone

I almost called this post “It’s T-Bone’s World, We Just Live In It,” so let’s start this discussion with T-Bone Burnett. In the last couple of years, Burnett has undertaken a work schedule that makes even the prolific Rick Rubin look like a slacker. In the last 9 months alone, Burnett-produced albums have been released by Jakob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Ryan Bingham, John Mellencamp, Sahara Smith, Elton John & Leon Russell, Elvis Costello, and Gregg Allman. There was also the “Crazy Heart” soundtrack, and if you turn the page on the calendar, you’ll find more work with Costello, the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss collaboration, the “Across the Universe” soundtrack, and B.B. King. The man is hot, and he’s obviously in demand.

So what do you get when you sign on with T-Bone? Based on the evidence at hand (which we’ll get to in a minute), I’d use two words: “roots,” and “authentic.” I’m not sure if there is one singular “T-Bone Burnett sound,” because some of these albums sound very different from each other. What they share is an approach that can best be described as “a roots-based wall of sound.” Unlike Rick Rubin’s approach with Johnny Cash in the “American” series, T-Bone doesn’t go for minimalism. On some of these records, there is a lot going on, with more instrumentation than you’d be likely to see when the artists are performing the songs live. But it doesn’t feel like over-production, perhaps because it is a sound that I’m predisposed to enjoy, and perhaps just because it works so well (and perhaps both).

So let’s move on to some of the works – three T-Bone productions, and one that is not but takes a similar approach in its sound.

“No Better Than This,” John Mellencamp. In recent years, Mellencamp had become what is probably the worst thing you can say about any artist – boring. Imagine if, after “Nebraska,” Bruce Springsteen had decided to do nothing but songs in that vein, and you kind of get the idea. Yes, there was a lot of integrity in the sounds coming from the grooves, and you could say that it was never less than honorable. But jeez, John – how about lightening up a bit?

I’m pleased to say, therefore, that “No Better Than This” is Mellencamp’s best album in years. It takes an anti-modernist approach; the thing is recorded in Mono, for crying out loud!” The goal, apparently, was to make the record sound as if it had been recorded in one day, in some small, out of the way studio, probably somewhere in the South. And, thanks to the strength of the songs, it works. On songs like “No Better Than This” and “Love At First Sight,” Mellencamp sounds fresher than he has in years, and sounds like he’s doing more than just entering a set of lyrics into the “Dark, Brooding Mellencamp Song With Integrity Song Generator.” Welcome back.

On “The Union,” the heralded Elton John – Leon Russell collaboration, Burnett’s approach is very different. I’ve heard some say that this record is overproduced, but I don’t agree. Yes, there is a lot going on here, but it’s all part of a plan, and that plan is probably best described as “boogie woogie pop gospel.” There’s no doubt that Elton hasn’t sounded this relevant in about 35 years; if this album had been released in the late 1970s, it would have been hailed as an artistic triumph on his part. And if you want to hear overproduction, go back and listen to those Gus Dudgeon-produced Elton albums, which – and don’t get me wrong, I loved them – had everything on them but the kitchen sink, and the mix was always turned up really, really high.

The story behind this album is almost as good as the album itself. Elton was making an appearance on Elvis Costello’s show, and when asked by Elvis what were his influences, talked about Leon Russell. I suspect that triggered something in Elton’s mind. No matter what one things about this music, no one can dispute that Elton John is one of the most commercially successful singers of our lifetime. I can imagine him sitting there, wondering to himself whether it was really fair that he should become a mega-star, while someone like Leon Russell would be left to the ash-heap of history – still singing, still touring, but just to survive.

And so Elton did something about it, and the results are uniformly terrific. My favorite songs at the moment are “Hey Ahab” and “Monkey Suit,” but the great thing (and a sign of it being a great album) is that my favorites change on a weekly basis.

The most recent T-Bone production is Gregg Allman’s “Low Country Blues,” and I think the best way to describe it is that it’s the album that Eric Clapton has been trying to make for the last 25 years. I can hardly call myself a blues expert, and I know that the very concept of “laid back blues” strikes many as a contradiction in terms. All I know is what I like, and this sounds just terrific, and authentic in a way that Eric has rarely approached on his recorded blues efforts (live is another matter entirely). On the album, Allman tackles songs by many of the all-time greats – Skip James, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Amos Milburn, Otis Rush – and sings them like he has earned the right to sing them. Allman’s signature B-3 is present on every track, but so far the real star for me is Mac Rebennack’s (Dr. John) piano, which is as bluesy and “New Orleansy” as you could imagine. This is really good stuff, and if it gets bumped out of my Top Ten for 2011, I’ll be surprised.

Last in the docket is a non T-Bone production, but an album that takes a similar approach – Robert Plant’s “Band of Joy.” The record was produced by Plant himself, along with Buddy Miller, who in recent years has worked with Patty Griffin, among others. In his old age, Plant has found himself quite a groove, mining the fertile territory of Americana. “Band of Joy” is mostly an album of covers – not all by Americans, but songs that he expertly converts to that idiom – by the likes of Los Lobos, Richard Thompson, Townes Van Zandt, Low, and a couple of traditional songs in the public domain. Patty Griffin plays the role that Alison Krauss played on “Raising Sand,” albeit in a less conspicuous way. The album may lack one single song as good as the highlights of his previous effort (although “Silver Rider” comes very, very close), but where it wins me over is with a better mix of song tempos – as good as it was, after a while the relentless “slowness” of “Raising Sand” left one wanting one, just one, fast song to liven up the proceedings. Here, that is not a problem. And from Robert’s recent interviews, it sounds as if Jimmy Page is going to have to keep waiting for that Led Zeppelin reunion that seems so important to him. And that’s a good thing – because it’s doubtful that any music coming from a Zep reunion in this day and age can match the music that Robert Plant is producing on his own.

So there you have it, folks – the “old white guys,” as I call them, doing just fine.

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