Local Sounds Magazine has been following the music of T Burns for a decade or so now. The man’s been prolific, however and we missed getting his 2018 release on record. So here it is, a rare double review.
Both recordings can be found at the T Burns Music Store.
T Burns – Chicken Wings and Coffee
T Burns – The Other Way Around
T (Thomas) Burns is an interesting fellow to say the least. Nomadic adventurer, avid vinyl record collector and a talented fingerpicking singer/songwriter who incorporates pretty much all of roots and folk music from the turn of the century to the present day, just to name a few. Active for over twenty years now, Burns has a sturdy catalog with his former duo Calico Drifters (reviews here) and his solo recording from 2014, Taking Liberties (read a review here). The debut was sparse, like being-in-the-same-room-with-the-man sparse, which was just the way it was made. He since connected with local producer and label head Eric Hester, a singer/songwriter of no ill repute himself. Hester produced both of these followups to the debut and while the music doesn’t take a 180 it’s fair to say it took a 90, adding combinations of other players. Still intact are Burns’s charm, wit and clever lyrics with a knack for storytelling.
Almost jarring then to hear the opening measures of “I Refuse to Let it Go,” particularly the use of multi-tracked trumpet and locals Nate Russell on drums and Jim Klas on bass. You might laugh out loud at the opening lyrical stanza and chorus which are so good they won’t be given away here. Tarantino could make a film from this song.
“Whistle in the Breeze” is an observational piece with Burns channeling Dr. John and John Prine. A bit of an if-I had-a-car(job, money)-but I got-you song.
“Alone and Still in Love” demonstrates that Burns knows how to set a mood, writing the lyric like a novelette, the opening line being the perfect setup. A lovely guitar intro and smooth groove with a real tasty guitar solo echoed by the trumpet.
“Sawtooth Blues” is a rare political song inspired by unrelenting divisiveness with a possible hideout in Sawtooth, Idaho. At times Burns sounds like Zappa, spitting out uncanny observations with more than a little suspicion in his voice. The click track gets brought in on the verses because, why not? It works as a tension builder. And tension there is, of an ominous sort: “Take any road from Dixon down to Memphis / And meander south on Highway 61 / And it ain’t just the rhythm now that’s restless / and there’s lowly clouds to block the sun.”
The quartet stays ever-present until the final track, “I’m Still Waiting,” a solo piece that brings Taking Liberties back to mind with crystal clear, uncluttered production. It’s a beautiful, whimsical song of love lost and regret. Absolutely gorgeous. One of those perfect ditties that you can’t unhear and would never want to. Bravo. What a great closer.
The instrumental palette widens even further on The Other Way Round, another Hester production only this time Hester co-wrote five of the album’s seven tracks and adds additional guitar and backing vocals. The result is far more collaborative in nature and this comes through in the recordings.
Things get off to a tremendous start with “Indiana Alibi” a back-to-front story of Dylan-esque proportions. The ghostly pedal steel guitar brings back some of the more haunting elements of Calico Drifters but with a Class A rhythm section made up of drummer Michael Brenneis and bassist Daniel Tachon. The harmony vocals add another dimension to the trajectory of Burns’s music.
You have to love the way Burns is so willing to experiment with new sounds to communicate his stories. Organ makes an appearance on “Wrap You in My Arms,” as does electric twelve string. Ratch it up a few notches and you’d have Tom Petty. The lyrics here are pure poetry. The song approaches pop music but the voice and the intent of the lyric remain recognizably Burns’s.
“Angel’s Call” is decorated with National resonator guitar and a consistent cowbell sound that may or may not be the click track. The lyrics deal with a musician’s struggle with blues myths, seeking to break through them. Brenneis’s tom patterns add to the dark, desolate undercurrent.
“Blues Hotel” is a Burns-only tune and is surprisingly rocking in a bues vein. Seediness abounds in the lyric, naturally suited to the down-and-dirty feel. An uncredited harmonica drives this one home.
“Between the Ocean and the Sky” is another book-in-a-song, this one taking place seaside at Cape Cod with a plot motivated by revenge. The trumpet, so prevalent on Chicken Wings and Coffee, makes a return appearance here.
“Hoot Owls and Misfits” has a carnival feel reminiscent Tom Waits so accordion is appropriate and combines with trumpet and trombone to lend a distinct New Orleans flavor.
The album closes with “Anna Lee” a sad song from the perspective of a condemned prisoner’s final days. More resonator guitar and mandolin reinforce the melancholy. An uncredited female vocal harmony ices the cake.
T Burns is a local music treasure. The guy really deserves a lot more credit and notoriety for his work, particularly his lyric-writing. Perhaps a combo presentation will make his performances more amenable to music venues which are oft-times cluttered with background noise. But no matter what the configuration, the songwriting level makes Burns’s music well worth the price of admission. Songwriters like him don’t blow down with the breeze all that often.