Mail-order firm Rhino Handmade collects T-Bone Burnett's 1982-1984 recordings for Warner Bros. Records on this limited-edition, two-CD set, which contains Burnett's six-song EP, Trap Door (originally released in August 1982); his third full-length solo LP, Proof Through the Night (August 1983); and a second six-song EP, Behind the Trap Door (released by the U.K.'s Demon Records in 1984 and making its first U.S. appearance here). Burnett quickly betrays the influence of Bob Dylan, with whom he toured in the Rolling Thunder Revue, both in his nasal tenor (which is distinguishable from Dylan's in that Burnett employs far more conventional phrasing) and in his lyrics, which often take the form of story-songs written in a seemingly free-associative manner, such that, while they seem like sardonic parables, their actual meanings are murky if not non-existent. Burnett is fond of writing in the third person, peopling his songs with nameless characters referred as "he" and "she." Sometimes, the identity of these people seems apparent; both "Fatally Beautiful" and "After All These Years," successive songs on Proof Through the Night, sound like they could be about Marilyn Monroe, and annotator Ben Edmonds confirms this impression, after a fashion, at least in the case of the latter, writing that "it was inspired by the L.A. coroner's third exhumation of Marilyn Monroe's body." In other cases, named characters may not be who they appear. As described, the people in "Hefner and Disney" do not seem to be Hugh Hefner and Walt Disney, as might be supposed. Nevertheless, the Los Angeles-based Burnett takes the tarnishing of Tinseltown as at least the backdrop of many of his surreal stories, and the names contribute to that. An accomplished guitarist, he demonstrates a mastery of forms on the instrument dating back 25 years and beyond, his arrangements making sly reference to a variety of styles including acoustic folk ("After All These Years"), Merseybeat ("Stunned"), rockabilly ("Pressure"), early-'60s pop/rock ("Hula Hoop"), Buddy Holly-style '50s pop/rock ("The Law of Average"), and even bluegrass ("Shut It Tight"). This proficiency in what became known as roots rock in the '80s looks forward to his production work for such similar-sounding clients as the BoDeans, Marshall Crenshaw, and Los Lobos. But he also enjoys reciting his words on occasion in a style that recalls similar work by Pete Townshend on his solo album All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, released in 1982, and Townshend extends that influence by actually playing guitar on a couple of tracks on Proof Through the Night, joining a small army of guest guitarists that also includes Mick Ronson, Ry Cooder, and Richard Thompson. All of this, and Burnett's later renown as a soundtrack producer, seems enough to recommend the collection to fans of folk-rock and singer/songwriters, who will have to move fast to secure one of the 5,000 copies of the album before it hits the secondary market at considerably higher cost.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2