Various O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Any film aficionado knows the definitive visual stamp Joel and Ethan Coen put on each of their projects, but their soundtracks are increasingly becoming just as fascinating. They reach a new height with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, simply because the music is indispensable to the story for the first time. The innocent and fantastic world of early country and bluegrass turns out to be tailor-made for the Coens’ sensibilities and with the help of producer T-Bone Burnett, the album is a worthy introduction to this music. While most tracks are new performances from the likes of Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, the Whites and young blues-man Chris Thomas King, there’s a pervading air of the Harry Smith Anthologies throughout the album. Fans of those monumental collections might not feel the need to have this pale imitation as well, but it’s still great to think of songs like Skip James’s “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” and Jimmie Rodgers’s “In The Jailhouse Now” reaching ears that perhaps only wanted to hear the versions of “You Are My Sunshine” and “I’ll Fly Away,” included here. But the centrepiece is, of course, “Man Of Constant Sorrow,” which appears in four different versions. Few other songs could stand such repetition, but the emphasis is justified. The entire script could have sprung from the song’s endlessly compelling narrative and either of the two takes by Norman Blake’s Soggy Bottom Boys deserves to be hit singles, George Clooney’s fine lip-syncing notwithstanding. At the very least, O Brother, Where Art Thou? restores faith in the soundtrack album itself and should sit well with both fans of the film and casual fans of roots music alike. (Universal)