Tag Archives: Elvis Costello

Mose Allison: Straight, No Chaser

Everybody quiet down for a second please. Turn off your cell phones and your BlackBerrys, logoff your Facebook and Twitter pages, hold that blog post, fold that laptop, stop and listen: The great Mose Allison has a new album out. Coaxed back into the studio by producer Joe Henry, the 82-year-old jazz pianist songwriting legend has recorded his first collection in ten years. Ten years! In this insufferably long moment of constant communication—all of us in love with the sound of our own digital voices, blathering our status every ten seconds—a stretch of silence like that is positively heroic. What could be a more appropriate response to a babbling world than keeping quiet, and who better than Mose Allison to deliver it? This is after all the man who wrote the 1976 classic “Your Mind is on Vacation”: “If silence was golden, you couldn’t raise a dime / Cause your mind is on vacation and your mouth is working overtime.”

It’s great to have Allison back, though, no matter how hard Henry had to drag him. Especially since The Way of the World, the sparse and spacious gem of a record, released March 23 on ANTI-, sounds just like a Mose Allison record. And bless Allison, Henry and ANTI- alike for resisting the pressure or temptation to have it any other way. The result is an album that, song after song, makes you shake your head and think, “Remember when music sounded like this?”

Allison surely does. In fact, he is one of the reasons it did. Since his first record in 1957, Allison has drawn from the music that surrounded him growing up in Tippo, Mississippi to weave a thread that connects American music from Delta blues through bebop to rock and roll. A widely and wildly influential songwriter, Allison has been covered and cited by everyone from the Who to the Yardbirds to Blue Cheer to the Clash to Eric Clapton to Bonnie Raitt to Elvis Costello to Ray Davies to the Pixies. There is something astounding about Allison’s ability to make plain the absurdity, frailty and insanity often referred to as being human in just a few lines of blues.

The Way of the World is no exception. If anything, time has sharpened Allison’s fascination and bemusement. He gives it to you straight, no chaser. With that great laconic deadpan, Allison effortlessly drawls lines like, “I know you didn’t mean it when you stole my coat / It just happened to be the logical one / I know you didn’t mean it when you slit my throat / You was just out with the fellas trying to have some fun.” He then mumbles and hums along just off mic as he delivers a swinging, delicate, improvised solo that recalls Thelonius Monk and Charles Brown. He follows it with the lines, “I know you didn’t mean it when you blew us up / You just happened to think it was a good idea / Ungrateful people tried to interrupt when you were just trying to make your viewpoint clear.”

Now that is something you don’t hear every day. Allison gives it to mankind right in the kisser like nobody else. But on a song like “I’m All Right,” he turns his attention closer to home with an intimacy carried by the kind of mundane, specific details most songwriters overlook. Did he just say “tube socks”? Was that “dental floss”? Right and real and strange, Allison’s heartbreak doesn’t traffic in clichés, instead chronicling the small things it actually takes to get through a day. The songs on The Way of the World are so efficiently and precisely written and produced, and so sympathetically accompanied by the musicians Henry has assembled, that it all seems to work. As the time between records, his vocal delivery and his playing show, Mose Allison is no hurry. It’s beautiful. Listening to him helps you slow down a little too. Like all of Mose Allison’s brilliant records, The Way of the World is the sound of a truly great artist coolly wrestling some semblance of sense into the world around him. Allison is so good he makes it sound like it’s no big deal. Just an old genius breaking the silence with music.

–Ari Surdoval

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T-Bone Burnett: True Believer

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In the digitized computerized compressed treble-drenched fluorescent 99-cent disposable downloadable candy-coated cookie cutter MSGed MP3ed airtight televised stifling stalled casino elevator that is generously referred to these days as modern music, it can get a little hard to breathe. Somebody needs to open the window—preferably with a well-thrown brick—and let a little sun and wind in. Luckily, every once in a while, somebody does. More often than not lately, that somebody is T-Bone Burnett.

A truly brilliant producer, and a gifted musician and songwriter, he was born Joseph Henry Burnett in St. Louis in 1948 and raised in Forth Worth, Texas. At just 14, he started wandering out on to the Jacksboro Highway, headed for the dilapidated Skyliner Ballroom to catch performances by the likes of Junior Parker and Bobby “Blue” Bland.

“The way that room sounded is the sound I’ve been going for on every record I’ve ever done,” Burnett told Mix Magazine in 2006. “I’ve just learned more and more about how to do it. It’s been a long time of figuring out how to make it sound as exciting on a record.”

Burnett put together his own recording studio while still in high school and spent his free time recording his friends, and occasionally himself. He stops far short of calling himself a prodigy, though. “I was really bad. That’s what would distinguish me from a prodigy.”

In the early ‘70s, Burnett left Texas for Los Angeles. By 1975, he had landed a spot playing piano and guitar in Bob Dylan’s legendary Rolling Thunder Revue. At the tour’s end, Burnett formed the Alpha Band with fellow Rolling Thunder veterans David Mansfield and Steven Soles and released three critically acclaimed albums before calling it quits.

After a solo career that found Burnett creating albums that generated universal critical praise but modest sales, he dedicated himself to producing. From the crisp roots rock of Los Lobos’ How Will the Wolf Survive? to the gorgeous, fragile acoustic ballads of Elvis Costello’s King of America, Burnett brought a deep breadth and a refreshing sense of space, tone and timing to his production.

Eschewing the heavily synthesized, compressed production process so popular and prevalent in the 1980s and ‘90s, Burnett helped create music that now seems timeless. He did it with young artists inspired by heroes Burnett shared—the Wallflowers, Counting Crows, the BoDeans, Sam Phillips, Gillian Welch—and he also did it with the true heroes themselves. Burnett is responsible for the Roy Orbison concert film masterpiece A Black & White Night and Orbison’s Grammy-winning last album Mystery Girl, and also later albums by legends like Ralph Stanley and Tony Bennett.

It is Burnett’s ability to make music resonate with tradition, without using that tradition as a gimmick or some kind of shtick, that led to two of the most artistic and commercial pleasant surprises of the past 20 years.

In 2000, Burnett composed the score and produced the soundtrack for the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou? Featuring such artists as Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Ralph Stanly and Gillian Welch delivering stunning interpretations of traditional American folk, blues and bluegrass songs, the album was a massive, grassroots-driven smash hit. It sold more than 7 million copies, earning a Grammy and awards from the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music, introducing a new generation of music lovers to the rich hidden history of American music.

Just as surprising is the oddball pairing of Alison Krauss with Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant on last year’s terrific Raising Sand. Burnett produced and plays guitar on the album as Krauss and Plant weave incredible harmonies through songs by Townes Van Zandt, Mel Tillis, Tom Waits, Gene Clark, the Everly Brothers and Doc Watson. Even after going platinum, being heralded as one of the best albums of the year and winning the 2009 Grammy for Album of the Year, it still seems like a weird idea. Who would ever think to pair one of rock’s grittiest and most legendary lead singers with one of the most beautiful voices in bluegrass, much less propel them with slapback echo, reverb and swaying vibrato through a set of obscure songs written by some of music’s greatest unsung heroes? You’d have to be a genius to pull that off. Luckily, there was one on hand.

“What I am shooting for is to make music that is as good as music gets,” Burnett told Charlie Rose last year. “Why not?”

–Ari Surdoval

Alison Krauss and Robert Plant doing the Everly Brothers’ “Gone Gone Gone” from the Burnett-produced Grammy winner Raising Sand.