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Miscellaneous - O Brother, Where Art Thou?

  by Richard Lewis

published: 28 / 8 / 2011

Miscellaneous - O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Label: Select Label
Format: N/A


In our Re: View section, in which our writers look back at albums from the past, Richard Lewsis reflects on the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers' film, 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which has just been released in a deluxe double CD tenth anniversary edition

The soundtrack to arguably the Coen Brothers’ greatest film ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’ almost became as famous as its parent movie in its own right. A Billboard number one album that shifted eight million copies in the United States alone, the record is credited with single-handedly reviving the bluegrass genre, turning many people onto the form who had never heard it before. The album took on a life of its own, with many of the luminaries who appeared on the disc recreating the music within for a one-off live concert. In addition to introducing the form to an audience that had never been exposed to it, it would not be too much of a stretch to suggest that the film and the album went some way to further popularising alt. country singers such as Ryan Adams and Jesse Malin, then much in vogue. Helmed by country legend T. Bone Burnett, the credit list reads as a veritable cast list of American Roots music luminaries, with Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris and folk legend Norman Blake all present. Proof of the record’s impeccable credentials is the presence of Alan Lomax as an arranger. The legendary folk music archivist’s recordings for posterity of hundreds of folk, country and blues gems in the wilds of the United States saved from virtual extinction many songs that were unlikely to make their way into recording studios. The album opens with ‘Po’ Lazarus’ by James Carter and The Prisoners, a chain gang song that Alan Lomax saw the gang perform. The track is composed entirely of the singer’s harmonies and the percussive slam of logs being chopped in time. The hissing, crackling recording of ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ from Harry McClintock’s ‘1939’ is the only vintage recording on the album, its tale of ne’er do-wells heading for a land where “all the jails are made of tin” imminently well-suited for the movie’s opening. The film’s most famous song, extracted as a single and music video, ‘I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow’, covered on Bob Dylan’s debut album, performed by the Soggy Bottom Boys appears in three widely contrasting versions. The haunting ‘Hard Time Killing Floor Blues’ by Chris Thomas King, powered only by acoustic guitar and low, mournful vocal, is possibly the highpoint of the set, its compelling, downbeat atmosphere staying with the listener long after the song has finished. The emotional breadth of country and bluegrass, shifting from simple, spiritual numbers to upbeat descriptions of country life onto harrowing bare bones tales of poverty and crime are all represented here. The short, spare almost nursery rhyme ‘In the Highways’ by Sarah, Hannah and Leah Peasall contrasts sharply with the harrowing ‘O Death’ by Ralph Stanley. Tracing the roots of the music that informed two of the best albums in the rock canon, the Byrds’ country rock hybrid ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ and The Rolling Stones’ ‘Beggar’s Banquet’ (both 1968), shows how much country and bluegrass influenced the musicians of the sixties. The bonus disc is comparably valuable, including tracks from artists who appear on the first covering different songs. Brian Wilson’s lyricist Van Dyke Parks puts in an appearance, turning in his own version of ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain.’ This album is a landmark release, both in the quality of the music within, the film it is attached to and all the more impressive in reviving a musical form that had largely been neglected, catapulting it to the top of the American charts. A stunning set.

Track Listing:-

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