For their latest pictures, independent-film mainstays the Coen Brothers and Sam Raimi have made an ulterior mission of resuscitating "real country music": that rustic species of popular creative expression indigenous to the southern United States. Both movies, the Coens' O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Raimi's The Gift, utilize their soundtracks as signifiers, establishing in a lucid shorthand their respective settings and offering the viewer/listener a portal into a world clearly relished by the filmmakers.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? does so with a sly grin on its face. Not surprisingly, if you consider Joel and Ethan Coen's canon, which serves as a neat portrait of an alternate America, one aware of, but not cowed by, its own hypocrisy and hilarity and humanity. Fargo, their successful 1996 film, employed Carter Burwell's minimalist facsimile of traditional Native American music to evoke the chilly desolation of snow-covered Minnesota and North Dakota. Earlier work, like their much-loved romp Raising Arizona, used familiar pop forms to fill in the blanks of their characters' lives and the particularly American foibles they faced. In scoring and assembling music for their Homeric adaptation O Brother, walking encyclopedia T Bone Burnett has curated a miniature Smithsonian Institute of early American music. To provide context, he's included valuable vault material such as Harry McClintock's hobo prayer "Big Rock Candy Mountain" and the chain-gang anthem "Po Lazarus," sung by James Carter & the Prisoners and put to tape in 1959 by legendary ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax (whose recordings of original southern folk and gospel tunes last year provided Moby with the source material for his celebrated Play). But the soundtrack's real riches are the renditions of traditional songs by contemporary artists such as Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, and Chris Thomas King. Krauss and Welch harmonize like they were born to do it on a pair of numbers, acting as both sirens and lotus eaters, and King delivers a bewitching take on "Hard Time Killing Floor Blues," which he sings in the film as a bowl-hatted approximation of Robert Johnson, the melancholy heart of the Coens' story.
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Like the brothers, Raimi's also not one to let sleeping dogs lie; his films have excavated another lost America, this one in denial of its own shadowy underbelly. Genre workouts such as The Evil Dead and Darkman dressed cutting critiques of bourgeois excess in the populist apparel of the slasher film, and 1998's sober A Simple Plan, like the Coens' Fargo, located the existential grief at the center of the American dream by freezing it in the blinding whiteness of winter. The Gift places that grief in the moss-carpeted Georgia of Gothic America, where dusty George Jones sides drift out of busted jukeboxes, and Loretta Lynn sings about dead dads to crying kids. Wisely, that's pretty much what Raimi includes on the film's soundtrack, plus a few new tunes by Canadian chanteuse Neko Case and roots-rockers the Souvenirs and a wonderful piece of haunting, ethereal acoustica by Willie Nelson called "Great Divide." The album isn't the museum piece the Coens' soundtrack is, but, as all of Raimi's work does, it gives shape to the uncomfortable dimension residing directly beneath ours--the one "real country music" tells us is indeed real.