Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Album Review: T-Bone Burnett - "The True False Identity"

It has been 14 years since T-Bone Burnett's last album, The Criminal Under My Own Hat, a collection of songs I haven't been able to get out of my head since discovering it ten years ago. Despite immense critical acclaim, Burnett has never had a hit single or a video on MTV. If his name sounds familiar, it's because he's responsible for the scoring, music direction, and/or production of soundtracks for Walk the Line, The Big Lebowski, Cold Mountain, and the award-winning O Brother, Where Art Thou.

Yes, it's been 14 years since Burnett's last album, years in which he has eschewed songwriting in favor of film work and producing such obscure little acts as Couting Crows, Elvis Costello, Roy Orbison, Bruce Cockburn, Sam Phillips, the Wallflowers, Gillian Welch, Jackopierce, Jackson Browne, Freedy Johnson, Marshall Crenshaw, Los Lobos, Natalie Merchant, the BoDeans, Tony Bennett, k.d.lang, and, well, you get the idea. He's been keeping busy. And while it can be argued that no album is good enough to be worth waiting a decade and more for (except perhaps Peter Gabriel's Up), The True False Identity is a fairly good payoff.

This is Burnett in classic spooky distorted poetic so-ugly-it's-beautiful form, and in many ways it is as if he didn't miss a beat. The opening track, "Zombieland" meanders for a bit too long, but "Palestine, Texas" is vintage talking-song Burnett, complete with Criminal-style command for the guitar solo to "Go!" Burnett's respect and love for the history of uniquely American music forms is on display in "Seven Times Hotter than Fire," "There Would Be Hell to Pay," and "Baby Don't You Say You Love Me," songs that look completely standard on paper but which Burnett somehow manages to make fresh. The album is split into two "sides," the first six tracks under the heading "Art of the State," and the last six "Poems of the Evening." No explanation is forthcoming in the liner notes. Yeah, it's a T-Bone Burnett record all right.

Burnett's lyrics shine as usual, particularly in overkill-repeating mode: "Palestine, Texas" is punctuated by repetitions of "This version of the world will not be here long / It is already gone, it is already gone," and "Every Time I Feel the Shift" concludes with Blind Boys of Alabama-style harmonies sorrowfully proclaiming that "We're marching up to Zion / The beautiful city of God." He's covering familiar ground here in typically ambiguous fashion; we've heard many of the ideas in "Hollywood Mecca of the Movies" and "Fear Country" before. Burnett's genius as a lyricist is that you're not sure whether to agree with him or bristle: Is he talking about me? I think he's talking about me. If some of his targets (media culture, hypocrisy, personal guilt, broken romance, ambivalence) seem like old material re-cycled, we can forgive him after a 14-year hiatus, right?

What isn't forgivable are the number of songs that no longer interest me, just a week after getting this disc. "Zombieland" has become an automatic "skip-forward" track already, which is odd for Burnett. "Seven Times Hotter than Fire" and "I'm Going on a Long Journey" also have far less interesting melodies, structures, and lyrics than I'm accustomed to. There are some amazing songs on this album, particularly "Hollywood Mecca of the Movies," "There Would be Hell to Pay," "Earlier Baghdad (The Bounce)," and the concluding "Shaken Rattled and Rolled;" Burnett always knows how to end an album on an unsettling-yet-hopeful note. But the songwriting is more uneven than we've seen in the past. I'm not accustomed to hearing T-Bone Burnett songs that I don't love. "Long Journey," in particular, makes me feel a little embarrassed to be listening.

It is perhaps a direct result of Burnett's recent body of work that the star of the album is the way it sounds. The aural soundscape is ancient and timeless; the sounds seeming to seep sticky from the floor of a filthy East Texas nightclub. Marc Ribot's guitar work is familiar to Sam Phillips fans, and this is only the first of many similarities between Identity and Phillips' last two (Burnett-produced) albums, Fan Dance and A Boot and a Shoe. All three albums are fearlessly ugly-sounding in places, perfectly and carefully unpolished and scorning to be categorized, low on effects and high on character. The arrangements on Identity are fairly simple: one or two guitars, double bass (from Dennis Crouch) and drums. Burnett's and Ribot's guitars are ugly America, ranging from simple acoustic chords to distorted noise. Crouch's bass is classic; if you're listening to him it's a feast, but if you're not it simply propels you through the music.

The drums are what make this album worth listening to more than any other. No fewer than three drummers, Carla Azar, Jay Bellerose (also confusingly spelled Belarose in some places), and Jim Keltner, are listed, and all three seem to be playing at once. It is this trio who provide the punctuation marks for Burnett's musical sentences, in similar fashion to their contributions to Fan Dance and A Boot and a Shoe. There's precious little "one-TWO-three-FOUR" drumming here; instead there are levels of hand percussion, odd sounds (Bellerose was once credited with playing "drums, percussion, and found items"), and non-traditional beats and emphases. Bellerose is fast becoming one of my favorite drummers (along with Phil Collins, Mike Portnoy, Sue Hadjopoulos, and Manu Katche), and his fingerprints are everywhere. Some very conventional, even somewhat uninteresting songs (such as "Zombieland") are rescued by this trio's constant innovation and unpredictability. Perhaps it's the sheer number of drummers that give the album its slightly claustrophobic feel; it's as if the band is all in the room with you, and the room is just a little too small, hot, and smoky for the bunch of you.

The irony of The True False Identity is this: After reading that it was coming out, I dove back into Burnett's previous work, especially 1992's The Criminal Under My Own Hat, to prepare. After a couple listens to Identity, I am finding myself returning to Criminal over and over, and learning songs from that album on guitar. I'm also inspired to listen to Sam Phillips' Fan Dance and A Boot and a Shoe, (heavily Burnett-influenced due to Phillips' status as his wife, then ex-wife) which explore a similar sonic canvas with much more compelling melodies and structures. I guess what it comes down to is that The True False Identity is revisiting familiar ground a bit too much, ground that was walked much more gracefully by these other three albums. But the problem isn't so much that Identity is lackluster; it's that Criminal, Fan Dance, and A Boot are just really remarkable works, and Identity's resemblance to them creates comparisons which few albums could win.

The bottom line is that The True False Identity is in every way a T-Bone Burnett album, very much written by Burnett and very much produced by Burnett, and if you're a fan of Burnett the musician or of Burnett the producer, you need to have it. It's been a long time coming.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Massive Marvel Madness!

This post is for comic geeks only.

Matt Ellis came to visit today, and we naturally reverted to full-on geek form at once. We talked about theatre, then comics, then HeroClix, with my poor brother John just looking on, bemused. I love talking about this stuff; that's part of why I started this blarg. And I don't get to do it much, so I gleefully showed Matt my Veteran Iron Man and Unique Kingdom Come Green Lantern. I may have hopped up and down.

I really need to find someone to play HeroClix with again.

One of the side benefits of contributing to a HeroClix message board ( is that there is often a spirited debate about the comics our game is based on. There's nothing like a comic book gaming message board to prove the adage that the Internet was invented for nerds to complain about Star Wars and share porn. There's no porn on HCRealms, but there's plenty of complaining. Mostly, if someone has something to say about comics, it's negative:

"Why is Ultimates late AGAIN?"

"Joe Quesada SUCKS!"

"The end of Identity Crisis SUCKED!"

"Scott Kolins SUCKS!"

"The Authority SUCKS!"

And so on. Well, I've been reading comics for a long time, and I think I'm enjoying them more than ever right now. With the first issue of Marvel's Civil War coming out the same day as DC's Infinite Crisis, it seemed an interesting time to look at Marvel madness--especially since DC's recent big events have left me quite cold.

Everyone seems to hate Brian Michael Bendis but me. I love his writing; I love the dialogue, I love the scarcity and extremity of actual deadly violence, and I absolutely love the combination of Bendis and Ultimate Spider-Man penciler Mark Bagley (another guy everyone seems to hate). It's been very interesting watching Bendis re-organize the Marvel universe over the past two summers, and it's just paying off now.

In 2004, Bendis took over Marvel's flagship series Avengers just in time to write the book into oblivion--literally. The cross-publisher Avengers Disassembled event told the story of the reality-warping Scarlet Witch's losing battle with sanity, resulting in the deaths of three Avengers, the destruction of their headquarters, and the dismantling of the team. Looking at the previous few year's affected titles, Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, a re-boot was much needed. (In reality, a post-Authority and Ultimates comics world has little room for the nostalgic organization of the Avengers.) So Bendis gleefully blew up 40 years of history, retconning the entire mentality of the Scarlet Witch, a much-beloved character, and killing off much-beloved Hawkeye and the Vision at the same time. Bendis took a ton of criticism in 2004 for the seemingly-meaningless death and destruction, much of it focused on his lack of respect for tradition and continuity.

But what some call respect for tradition I call stuck in a rut. And slavish adherence to continuity hasn't been a comics hallmark since the early '90s. Bendis blew up something that needed to be blown up, and I challenge anyone to say that Avengers #499 is in any way superior to the last 18 issues of New Avengers, which has become one of Marvel's most consistenyly good books of the past two years. Designed as an all-star team after the original Avengers model, NA features Captain America, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Spider-Woman, Luke Cage, and newcomers Echo and Sentry as a must-have list of Marvel's Most Hip. Disassembled also spawned the magnificent New Thunderbolts and Young Avengers, as well as giving Spider-Man new life as a team player (and employee of Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man). So Avengers has new life.

A year after Disassembled, Bendis struck again with the much-reviled House of M. HoM was a crossover between the New Avengers and the Joss Whedon-penned Astonishing X-Men team, and dealt directly with the fallout from Disassembled. The Scarlet Witch, still insane and still bearing her reality-changing powers, is coerced into changing the entire world into a mutant-dominated paradise. Spider-Man is famous, Wolverine is an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Charles Xavier is missing, and Magneto rules the world. While the tie-ins were annoying at best and poor at worst, the House of M mini-series stands up very well as an eight-chapter graphic novel, and reads much better as a unified piece than as eight issues separated by two weeks each. At the end of House of M, Wanda decides that mutants are to blame for all these troubles, and utters the fateful words "No more mutants." The world burns to white again, and reality is restored, with one exception: Where once mutants on earth numbered in the hundreds of thousands, they now number exactly one hundred ninety-eight.

So twenty years of X-Men schoolhouse soap opera are completely shattered. No more X-Force, no more Mutant Academy, no more X-Corps or X-Statix, or Xtreme X-Men. One hundred ninety-eight mutants; we're back in the area of Giant-Sized X-Men #1. As much as Disassembled forced the Avengers out of a rut, so did House of M re-focus the largely unreadable mutant books. Remember when being a mutant made you special, and not part of a massive class or subculture? Well, those days are back. Being a mutant means something again.

Now Mark Millar has the reins. As usual, help is coming one day late; the U.S. government, in lieu of being able to go back in time and fix anything, is using their 20/20 hindsight to force a Superhero Registration act. The result: Civil War. Only one issue so far, but Captain America is already a renegade being hunted by his old friend Iron Man. Wow.

And it's been three years coming. Part of what drove me nuts about DC's Infinite Crisis was that it was determined to re-write all of DC continuity in seven issues, largely through the influence of new characters or characters from alternate realities. Come on now. How am I supposed to have any kind of emotional investment in Superboy Prime or Alexander Luthor with only four or five issues to get to know them--especially when every other panel is a massive George Perez masterpiece featuring nineteen distinct characters we've never seen before? (For the record, I love Perez drawing team books. Love it.) With Marvel's universe-changing events, the groundwork was laid two years ago, not two issues ago, and the prime movers are existing Marvel characters. When it was revealed that the Scarlet Witch was causing the events of Disassembled, my heart skipped a beat. She's been one of my favorite characters for twenty years, and has been a Marvel mainstay for twice as long. Hawkeye's death was lame, but that made it so sad. Ditto for the Vision. (For the record, the Vision is back in the pages of Young Avengers. Hawkeye appeared in the House of M reality, and left evidence that he's somewhere in the current Marvel U, but we haven't seen hide nor hair of him in a year. He wasn't the mysterious Swordsman, as many suggested. I can't wait for him to come back; his devil-may-care attitude is much-missed in the pages of Avengers and Thunderbolts.)

So I'm getting pretty tired of people complaining about comics. Great, great stuff is happening right now in the Marvel Universe. And Bendis rules. And Quesada does not suck.


Saturday, May 20, 2006

Where's Ange Hamm? Random Thoughts...

Sorry it's been so long since I've posted, y'all. Here's what's been up in the Land o' Ange:
  • Cynde Liffick and I spent three weeks in Virginia Beach teaching Shakespeare workshops at the Kemp's Landing Magnet School. Great kids, a great facility, and agreat fun. They start Shakespeare in the sixth grade! Is that cool, or what? The sixth graders read Much Ado About Nothing, the seventh graders study As You Like It, and the eighth graders work on The Taming of the Shrew. Very ambitious. By the time we were done, we had seen every single student in the school. By the end of three weeks, we couldn't walk down the hall without kids calling out, "Thou knavish ill-nurtured hugger-mugger!" or "Thou reeky pox-marked rabbit-sucker!"
  • We spent the last week at Boushall Middle School in Richmond doing a combination Shakespeare and Conflict Resolution workshop using Romeo and Juliet. Mad props to our friends from the Richmond Peace Education Center for their help on Thursday and Friday.
  • We're three weeks into rehearsals for the Richmond Shakespeare Festival production of The Taming of the Shrew. I'm playing Hortensio and serving as Master of Music, which is a very tricky juggling act. But there are a bunch of actors in the show whom I've wanted to work with for a long ime, like Foster Solomon, Susan Sanford, Scott Wichmann, Liz Blake, Freddie Kaufmann, Matt Polson, and, well, everyone. Anthony Luciano is a very gifted director, and the show is going to be very special.
  • T-Bone Burnett has just released The True False Identity, his first new album in 18 years.
  • In a related note, I think Jay Belarose is my favorite drummer ever.
  • Speaking of my favorite drummers, the Genesis reunion may be on after all. According to Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel's commitments are keeping him unavailable through 2007, but scuttlebutt is that the classic five Genesis Members (Tony Banks, Collins, Gabriel, Steve Hackett, and Mike Rutherford) will be re-forming not for a new album but for a short series of performances of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, to be filmed and released on home video. I'll keep you posted.

That's it for now. I need to go to my neice Catherine's graduation from the VCU Theatre department. Congratulations to the class of '06!