Musician, March 1988

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Talking Animals

T Bone Burnett

Elvis Costello

T-Bone Burnett's last release was a modest, honest record using beautiful country instrumentation, and came as close as any known record titled after its author to living up to its name. On Talking Animals we learn more of what is on T-Bone's mind than what is in his heart But just because this set is often more light at heart doesn't mean it isn't straight from it. Understandably cynical critics, who have been exposed to too much "great rock genius," tend to point the moralist finger at T-Bone and accuse him of being a finger-pointing moralist. Talking Animals should not perplex these harassed souls, and normal people should really enjoy it.

The record opens with "The Wild Truth." To say that this one song has more going for it than most "great rock" of the last year ie to overlook that this is great rock 'n' roll. On its face a splendid mess of noisy drums and guitars, it also makes at least two observations which have a timely ring (or is it death-knell) with regard to some of the would-be or would-have-been contestants in your approaching presidential game-show. When T-Bone says that he has "the feeling that as soon as something appears in the paper it ceases to be true," you might be thinking of Hart, or maybe just Biden. When he continues that "mercy" is "the only thing worth taking seriously," it might put you in mind of Robertson, or maybe just Hart. There is a strange vision of some candidate adopting this as his campaign song, but you know that the Republicans would rather appropriate Tom Waits' "You're Innocent When You Dream," missing the point completely, and win by a landslide.

"The Monkey Dance" sounds like a seductive preface to "Come Together," which it resembles, and contains the funniest lines on the record:

She has a will of iron
He reads her Keats and Byron
'Til she can go no further
He starts to read her Thurber

Not a song for sissies, and it also has a chorus that the milkman can whistle. Musically the most original and unusual track is "Image." The Sextetto Mayor string quartet play Van Dyke Parks' gorgeous arrangement in a manner which should upset some of the sad prejudices against sounds found outside "rock." The song consists of one verse each sung in English, French, Spanish and Russian, by T-Bone and his guest vocalists Cait O'Riordan, Rubén Blades and Ludmila Spektor respectively; each sings with individual character and feeling. What might have been a clumsy art-song idea creates a most vivid mood of some dark cabaret, while making a quiet but dramatic request for understanding. It's a lot more interesting and lovable than some of the flag-waving and hand-holding that goes on in the name of social conscience.

Now there is a filthy rumor circulating in Washington and Hollywood that a certain former actor and part-time President is planning a twilight years career as the nominal head of a major movie studio. It follows that, far from being contemptible crooks and dupes, the protagonists in the Irangate hearings were nothing more sinister than suitably photogenic models for .a highly rated miniseries. One that might star, say, Charlie Sheen as "the boy North," his father Martin as "North the elder," John Candy as "General Secord" and, of course, Kim Basinger as the loyal and lovely "Fawn." If all this starts to sound like a T-Bone Burnett song, then that is because "Dance, Dance, Dance" would do very nicely as the title tune of such a science-fiction movie, maybe with William Hurt as this really crusading investigative, no, it'll never work. But it is the smartest song written about American foreign policy since Randy Newman's "Political Science," as it conjures up perfectly that "Freedom Fighters Go to the Planet of the Wild Astro-Turf Bikini," which I, for one, just can't resist.

"Killer Moon" provides the album's title in its lovely lyrics. If there is any justice at all it should also provide a hit single. At a time when the charts are filled with those trying vainly to squeeze the mind of a particularly dull 15-year-old into revolting, thrusting bodies that may never again see 35, let alone 25, Mr. Burnett has gone one better. He has employed an actual child to write with "childlike" candor and wisdom. The fact that the young lady is his daughter shows exceptional taste.

Turning over the platter you will find "Euromad," a series of slightly blurred snapshots of an American abroad, or was it "adrift." There is also an interesting collision between T-Bone's eye for small detail and that wizard of the larger gesture, Bono. The fiery tongue of the imagery is kept in careful check by a lovely melody entitled "Purple Heart." As the track closes you can hear T-Bone's incredibly accurate impersonation of Bono's full-throated roar. (Actually that's a lie, it's the man himself... or is it?)

Finally there is "The Strange Case of Frank Cash and the Morning Paper." I'm not about to reveal the ending, but I will say that it sounds like Prince meeting the Coasters in the Twilight Zone.

I'd like to close by saying of the playing and production that I never noticed it, and I mean that as the highest compliment. You never hear anything being "considered" on this record. I should add that the "other T-Bone," Mr. Wolk, almost steals the show with that great dumb riff on "Frank Cash," while guitarist David Rhodes never plays anything that I never want to hear again and plenty that I do and that's rare these days. Of course Mickey Curry could not fail to play well for a drummer's friend like Mr. Burnett, as he is known to kill them if they do otherwise.

Just a final note to those who may know of my connection with the artist in question as producer and "Coward Brother" and may be regarding this good notice as a piece of fawning nepotism. Well, consider the words of our father and mentor, Noel, when he said, "Hello Mother, what's for breakfast?" You can't be witty all the time. Remember life imitates truth, but blood is thicker. Buy this record. It's fab.

— Elvis Costello

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Musician, No. 113, March 1988

Elvis Costello reviews The Talking Animals by T Bone Burnett.


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Clipping composite.

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