While T Bone Burnett spent most of the '90s and the first years of the new millennium honing his craft as a producer, he cautiously re-emerged as a songwriter and recording artist with 2006's The True False Identity, which was his first new album in 14 years and prompted his first concert tour since 1986. A mere two years later, Burnett has returned with another new disc, Tooth of Crime, and while this project has long been in the works, it's still significant and welcome since it finally appeared at all. The ten songs on Tooth of Crime were originally created as accompaniment for a revised staging of Sam Shepard's play of the same name, which debuted in 1996 (one song, "Kill Zone," obviously dates back even farther, since the late Roy Orbison is credited as co-author), and while it's likely Burnett savored the opportunity to linger over this material before taking it into the studio, the performances here sound fresh and thoughtful -- like a good play -- while plenty of analysis and rehearsal went into refining Tooth of Crime's characters and narrative, there's still a vital humanity in the work that brings it all to life. The True False Identity was a poorly focused and lyrically scattershot work, but Tooth of Crime better captures Burnett's strongest suits as a songwriter, and if "The Rat Age," "Anything I Say Can and Will Be Used Against You," and "Here Come the Philistines" sound like broadsides, they're broadsides that communicate and express their rage and disgust with our culture's many wrong turns in an eloquent and bitterly witty fashion. Burnett is also able to find flashes of compassion in "Blind Man" and "Kill Zone," and as usual he's assembled an impressive team of collaborators who do superb work on this set. Burnett's former wife Sam Phillips brings her lovely, nuanced vocals to five songs and Marc Ribot's guitar work, at once melodic and sharply angled, is outstanding throughout, while fellow accompanists Jim Keltner, Greg Leisz, Jon Brion, and an imaginatively arranged horn section give this music a broad and atmospheric menace that well suits the songs. Tooth of Crime is a smart, absorbing, and beautifully disquieting collection of songs that could have come from no one else but T Bone Burnett, and it shows that one of America's best songwriters may be working at a very deliberate pace but he still has some remarkable things left to tell us.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming