"I still know what I was talking about in 'Hefner & Disney.' None of that has changed. Same with 'Pressure' -- only the pressure has gotten worse. And 'Hula Hoop,' the slide has continued. The fabrication of celebrity. The girls going wild. The insane war. It has all gotten increasingly and ceaselessly worse." -- T Bone Burnett
I can't remember how I stumbled across it, but my discovery of Rhino Records' reissue of Proof Through The Night & The Complete Trap Door by T Bone Burnett was purely accidental. I was at Amazon, who informed me they had only one copy left. I quickly dropped plastic; two days later the discs were at my doorstep.
Ah, T Bone: American Protestantism's very own Grocer of Gloom! If the above quote from the liner notes doesn't give the reader some insight into Burnett's uneasy relationship with this archival material from his creative past, he spells it out: "I was beginning to go through a rough personal time, as were a lot of people around me"; "It was such a difficult process for me. I made so many mistakes making it"; "I was just starting to come out of a dark personal time ... My original title was Beneath The Trap Door. That's how it felt."
The artist's relationship to his material doesn't often mirror his audience's relationship to it, and that's certainly the case with Proof Through The Night. Unlike some T Bone fans, I'm split on Proof -- at the time of its release I thought the album was uneven, and my opinion hasn't shifted very far in the intervening years. When listened to sequentially (Trap Door, Proof, Behind The Trap Door) the albums give testimony to an artist finding his sound (curious: I originally typed "wound," which might not be too far from the truth, either). In Trap Door Burnett plays with rockabilly and experiments further with the bass drum and two-string guitar set-up that worked so spectacularly for him in "House Of Mirrors." And if he introduces Devo to The Beatles ("A Ridiculous Man"), it's nothing the song can't handle, because Burnett is confident of who will come out on top. The EP was recorded in a buddy's garage, and has a loose playfulness that invites the neighbors to come join the fun.
Cut to Proof, and suddenly we're in the world of Big Studios, Huge Talent, Big Money ... Big People who like to meddle. If the album doesn't quite work as a whole, there's no denying each song its individual power. And some of those have a grasp that far exceeds the album's own reach. In concert Burnett won't hesitate to perform "After All These Years" or "Hula Hoop" -- just two of six Proof songs he went back into the studio to re-record for his "Best Of" collection Twenty Twenty.
When it comes to production, there are moments on Proof when the studio seems intent on throwing in the kitchen sink, and some songs veer off in directions that suggest a mule-team Burnett is struggling to control. So it's no wonder that Behind The Trap Door is more than just a return to the EP format, the roots music and the garage that kicked out Trap Door. Burnett takes the body of Trap Door, strips off the flesh and polishes the bones and marrow. This time when he digs his pick into the heavy strings, it's with an angry, dogged intensity. He closed Proof with the declaration, "I ain't gonna quit until they lay me in my tomb/And even then they'd better shut it tight." Behind is the sound of a man clearing his way from the detritus of his own grave.
A quick word on the re-issue production: terrific. Music to my ears. Rhino brings forward some of the bass, but keeps the overall sound balanced and bright -- the way music in the 80s tended to sound. I don't quite "get" the current penchant for muffled production. When I first spun Nick Lowe's At This Time, I wondered if my hearing wasn't going on me; I had a similar reaction to John Hiatt's Beneath This Gruff Exterior. My hearing ain't what it used to be, but neither are the current production values. Very strange.
Nuffadat. Get your numbered limited (5000) edition of these discs here. And yeah, it comes in cardboard chintz that no-one seems to like, but it's still worth the bucks.