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WINTER ALBUM ROUNDUP : What Makes T Bone Tick? : Check List * * * * Great Balls of Fire * * * Good Vibrations * * Maybe Baby * Running on Empty :

February 14, 1988|STEVE HOCHMAN

* * * T BONE BURNETT. "The Talking Animals." Columbia. T Bone Burnett used to be known for singing about life's mysteries. With his latest album, he has become something of a mystery himself.

Though he even interjects his own character by name into the odd narrative "The Strange Case of Frank Cash and the Morning Paper," little on this album reveals much of what makes T Bone tick. The sharply moralistic social and spiritual observations of his earlier work return in songs like "The Wild Truth" and "Euromad," as well as "Frank Cash," but they only tell what Burnett thinks without saying much about him . Only the spare, tender "Purple Heart" (featuring unmistakable background wails from U2's Bono Hewson) offers a glimpse through the artistic armor.

There's a thick musical shell erected here, too, in the form of the "Abbey Road"-like grandeur manufactured by Burnett and co-producer David Rhodes. "Monkey Dance" plainly echoes "Come Together," while the elegant "Killer Moon" (with lyrics by Burnett's 5-year-old daughter, Molly) builds to a "She's So Heavy"-like climax.

The ambitious tone is more reminiscent of Burnett's only partly successful star-studded 1983 "Proof Through the Night" LP than of such casual masterpieces as 1980's rockabilly update "Truth Decay" and last year's acoustic country "T Bone Burnett." The weight of many of the settings nearly buries top-drawer material ranging from the rockabilly bop of "Dance Dance Dance" to the grandly orchestrated tango of "The Image" (complete with verses sung in French by ex-Pogue Cait O'Riordan, in Spanish by Ruben Blades and in Russian by someone named Ludmilla).

Nonetheless, "The Talking Animals" succeeds despite--or perhaps because of--the nagging feeling that behind its intelligently crafted veneer lurks something even more impressive. That Burnett effectively and entertainingly covers such wide musical territory makes it clear that his ambitions are nearly equaled by his abilities. And in the end, it doesn't really matter that the record reflects more of T Bone the artist than T Bone the person, because the artist is one of unique and considerable talents.

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