- - Monday, August 22, 2011

LISTENING STATION: ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (10th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)

Various Artists

Lost Highway


Before the Coen brothers released “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” in late 2000, nostalgia for old-timey music was at an all-time low. Country artists were skewing closer to pop territory than ever before, leaving a wide gap between the Southern music of the new millennium and the rustic, authentic stuff of an earlier generation. If listeners wanted twangy music, they went for Shania Twain, not Ralph Stanley.

“O Brother” helped turned the tide. Set in rural Mississippi during the Great Depression, the film portrayed the South as a mythical, musical place teeming with troubadours, sirens and bluesmen. Gospel, folk, a cappella and Appalachian music filled every reel, and the accompanying soundtrack outshone the movie itself, selling 8 million copies and spawning a revival of bygone sounds.

More than a decade later, the revival is still in full swing, prompting music supervisor T-Bone Burnett to expand the soundtrack into this broad, two-disc set. The original track list, which includes Depression-era folk songs and modern recordings of old standards, is left intact. Fourteen new additions fill the bonus disc, most of which were recorded for the film but didn’t make the final cut.

Colin Linden’s “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” originally heard during one of the movie’s campfire scenes, is presented here as a short instrumental number. “I’ll Fly Away,” which graced the film in the form of Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss’ breezy duet, receives a more period-appropriate treatment by the Kossoy Sisters. “Big Rock Candy Mountain” is reprised, as well, first in a sparse piano arrangement courtesy of Van Dyke Parks and later in a traditional acoustic setting.

Perhaps the most interesting addition is “Tom Devil,” an a cappella work song recorded by Alan Lomax on the same day as “Po’ Lazarus,” the lead track on the original “O Brother” soundtrack. Credited to the inmates of the Mississippi State Penitentiary, it’s an authentic piece of midcentury Americana, filled with bluesy, imperfect harmonies and the percussive sound of the prisoners’ ax strokes.

In a year in which Mumford & Sons are platinum-selling artists, the Avett Brothers perform at the Grammys and Alison Krauss lands one of the headlining spots at Bonnaroo, roots music holds an obvious spot in the mainstream. This two-disc anthology of folk music helps trace those roots back a few decades, taking them closer to their sources without losing track of the soundtrack’s 21st-century audience.


Stephin Merritt



Also combing through the archives is songwriter Stephin Merritt, who cleans house with this collection of B-sides, covers and other rarities.

Mr. Merritt has a seemingly infinite supply of music, which he has released over the years under a seemingly infinite supply of aliases. Magnetic Fields may be his most famous outlet, but such pseudonyms as Buffalo Rome, the 6ths and the Gothic Archies also provide material for “Obscurities,” which mops up the electro-folk songs that Mr. Merritt left on the cutting-room floor during the first decade of his career.

Three of these cuts are from “The Song of Venus,” his unfinished science fiction musical. They’re the most interesting of the bunch, sounding less like rightfully discarded demos and more like the dry, hook-filled tunes that fill some of his better albums. Other songs don’t fare as well, though, making “Obscurities” the sort of odds-and-sods collection that appeals only to the most fanatical members of an artist’s fan base.

Katy Perry: Queen of Pop?

With “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” sitting at the top of Billboard’s singles chart this week, Katy Perry has become the second artist in history to produce five No. 1 hits from the same album. The other? Michael Jackson, who dominated the charts with “Bad” in 1987.

Take a look at actual sales, though, and the King of Pop still reigns supreme. “Bad” has sold more than 30 million copies, making it one of the highest-grossing albums ever released. Miss Perry’s individual singles may be multiplatinum hits, but the “Teenage Dream” album has yet to sell more than 5 million copies worldwide.

Musicologists may want to file this one alongside the record number of Hot 100 singles released by “Glee.” The TV show has technically charted more hits than the Beatles, even though the Fab Four sold approximately 25 million records in 1964 alone, more than double “Glee’s” total since 2009.

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