T BONE BURNETT Proof Through The Night & The Complete Trap Door (Warner Bros./Rhino Handmade)

Joseph Henry Burnett is arguably more famous as a sideman (he toured as part of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue) and producer (he’s worked on albums by Counting Crows and Elvis Costello, and the soundtrack to the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) than for the music he made under his own(ish) name and as a member of The Alpha Band. This limited edition (of 5,000 numbered copies) collecting the album and two mini-albums Burnett recorded between 1982 and 1984 is perhaps too modest in scope to change that, but it makes for an educational first listen to the man’s music.

Burnett mixes the deep-rooted respect for the history and traditions of American music heard in Ry Cooder’s work with a very contemporary Richard Thompson-esque misanthropy. It’s a measure of Burnett’s standing amongst his peers that both men appear here, alongside Mick Ronson and Pete Townshend, while Bono scores a co-writing credit.

The first disc contains his 1983 album “Proof Through The Night”. There’s a profound sense of disappointment with humanity expressed on the starlet-gone-bad fairytale “Fatally Beautiful”, echoed in “After All These Years”, which considers the exhumation of Marilyn Monroe. (She’s never mentioned by name, but such is the thoroughness of Burnett’s description you’re left in no doubt.) “Baby Fall Down” is one of the collection’s lighter moments; it could almost be Crowded House. “The Sixties”, though, isn’t, and couldn’t: a bitter narrative denunciation of the corporate sublimation of the titular decade’s hippie idealism, it fades out to the chorus of The Kinks’ “Lola” as drums thunder out a terrible warning. “Stunned” demonstrates his delicious ability with a metaphor (“The sky was cold as fibreglass”), and there’s a vitriolic sneer in his voice during “Hefner And Disney”, with its dire proclamation of trouble in paradise. “Shut It Tight” perhaps captures T-Bone at his most remorseless, a statement of intent disguised as a swampy hoedown (“I ain’t gonna quit until I’m laid in my tomb/And even then they better shut it tight”).

Perhaps slighter in stature, the second disc includes the mini-albums “Trap Door” and “Behind The Trap Door”, from 1982 and 1984 respectively. The barroom encounter “I Wish You Could Have Seen Her Dance”, the stinging character study “A Ridiculous Man” and “Having A Wonderful Time, Wish You Were Here”’s serene ennui would sit seamlessly on a Richard Thompson album, while the instrumental “Welcome Home, Mr. Lewis” is distinctly Cooder-esque.

The difficulty with T-Bone Burnett’s work, and perhaps the reason why he hasn’t attained the (relative) household name status of Ry or Richard, is that his music is clearly well crafted but not especially ingratiating. You’ll admire the skill, but you’re unlikely to be whistling these tunes in the shower; it’s almost like how Steely Dan might sound if they were raised on country rather than jazz.

The whole is wrapped up in a rather fragile cardboard cover, with some insightful booklet notes, but due to Rhino Handmade’s rather lackadaisical approach to product promotion it might prove almost impossible to track this album down: the fact that Amazon is currently taking preorders for an 2010 release seems to accidentally provide a wry comment on Mr Burnett’s commercial appeal.