Blue Note Records
Since landing his first gig as a 4-month-old infant in “The Company She Keeps,” Jeff Bridges has played some of the more memorable movie roles of our time, such as an aimless border town teen in “The Last Picture Show” and the easygoing Dude in “The Big Lebowski.” More recently, he has exchanged his clean-shaven good looks for a stubbled, aged exterior, putting the makeover to good use in “True Grit” and “Crazy Heart.”
It’s “Crazy Heart” - specifically the film’s down-and-out protagonist, Bad Blake, and his catalog of country songs - that springs to mind while listening to “Jeff Bridges,” Mr. Bridges‘ second album as a solo musician. The first arrived on the heels of “The Big Lebowski,” and it, too, seemed to model its songs after the character he played in the film. This time, he ditches the laid-back hippie persona and digs deep into country music.
Mr. Bridges isn’t the first thespian to pick up a guitar. Hollywood is littered with half-baked albums from people such as William Shatner, Bruce Willis and Don Johnson, all of whom have fared far, far better as actors. “Jeff Bridges” has a leg up on the competition, though, in the form of producer T-Bone Burnett, who plays a supporting role to Mr. Bridges‘ leading man.
With Mr. Burnett riding shotgun, “Jeff Bridges” charts a course similar to Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ “Raising Sand,” mixing cover songs and self-penned tunes with hazy swirls of sparse, atmospheric Americana. Everything is soft-spoken, covered with a sepia-toned glaze and performed at a slow, syrupy crawl. Mr. Bridges may be the lead actor, but he relies heavily on an ensemble cast, with Marc Ribot playing guitar and a handful of guest vocalists - including Roseanne Cash and “Crazy Heart” co-star Ryan Bingham - singing twangy harmonies.
If only life always imitated art. There is a part in “Crazy Heart” where Bad Blake and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Jean Craddock are lying on a bed. Blake strums his guitar, improvises a melody line and asks his girlfriend whether it reminds her of anything. When she nods her head, he explains that all great country songs sound like you’ve heard them before.
Bad Blake and Mr. Bridges don’t share the same approach to music, though, and the songs on “Jeff Bridges” aren’t nearly as familiar as those from “Crazy Heart.” Only the opening track, “What a Little Love Can Do,” sounds timeless, with its Everly Brothers harmonies and midcentury country shuffle. Elsewhere, the album focuses on mood over melody, creating a sort of foggy Southern ambience that is charming while it lasts but dissipates as soon as the album’s over.
Give “Jeff Bridges” a trial by the album’s peers - Russell Crowe’s “My Hand, My Heart,” for example, or Gwyneth Paltrow’s recent country releases - and it’s an easy home run. Widen the playing field, though, and it’s clear that Mr. Bridges isn’t ready to go pro … at least not in this game.