REVIEW: O Brother, Where Art Thou? – Soundtrack (2000)

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O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? – Music from a film by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (2000 Universal)

Hot damn!  It’s the Soggy Bottom Boys!

Even if you hated the film (have a doctor check to see if you still have taste left), you can’t deny the fun and authentic roots music on its soundtrack.

A bizarre re-telling of Homer’s The Odyssey set in the 1930’s depression-era south, O Brother was nothing if not unique.  It mixes a liberal interpretation of Greek mythology, with Americana and the mythology of the blues era.  Some people don’t get it, some people do but don’t like it, and others have long been swept away by its charms.  Those with an allergy to George Clooney, fear not:  he does not actually sing on this soundtrack, although his co-star Tim Blake Nelson certainly does (on “I’m in the Jailhouse Now”). Dan Tyminski from Alison Krauss & Union Station sings for Clooney’s character Ulysses Everett McGill on the signature hit, “Man of Constant Sorrow” though many people assume it’s George.

The soundtrack CD is a mixture of light and dark.  The first two songs  are the perfect example:  “Po Lazarus” is a chain-gang work song, just before Ulysses Everett McGill and his two companions break free and embark on their Odyssey.  It’s followed by a 1928 recording by Harry McClintock, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain”, a joyful nonsense song about a hobo finding paradise on the rails.

“Where the boxcars all are empty,
And the sun shines every day,
On the birds and the bees,
And the cigarette trees,
The lemonade springs,
Where the bluebird sings,
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.”

The composite of light and dark reflects the movie itself, but makes for a fairly inconsistent listen.  The soundtrack follows the progress of the film, but without the story backing it up, it’s harder to go with the flow from song to song.  The a capella “O Death” (Ralph Stanley) for example is squeezed between the popular songs “Man of Constant Sorrow” and “I’m in the Jailhouse Now”, so most people will typically skip it.

I look at this soundtrack CD as a great “starter kit” for exploring more genres of music.  The dominant ones are folk and bluegrass, but there are also blues tracks and hymns.  Norman Blake’s “You Are My Sunshine” sounds wonderful sitting in the shade on a summer day.  Immediately after that, you get the velvet tones of Alison Krauss, from the baptism scene with “Down to the River to Pray”.  You have never heard a more perfect version, serene, still and deep as the water.  And, yes, the Soggy Bottom Boys!  In the film, Ulysses Everett McGill and his companions Pete, Delmar and Tommy Johnson (loosely based on Robert) wind up cutting a record.  There are four versions of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” on the album.  The first is the acoustic track shown being recorded in the film.  The version that became a hit single in the real world is from the climax, a fully augmented mix with fiddles and slides.  That is included closer to the end of the disc. There is an instrumental version on acoustic guitar by Norman Blake, a fine take indeed.  The fourth is an instrumental version on fiddle by John Hartford, barely recognisable.  All four are quite different but valuable.

Blues singer and guitarist Chris Thomas King was cast in the film as Tommy Johnson, and his solo track “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” is a fine example of acoustic blues.  There is plenty of sunny and gleeful folk, such as “Keep on the Sunny Side”, “I’ll Fly Away”, “In the Highways” and of course “In the Jailhouse Now”.  Tim Blake Nelson is certainly a multi-talented guy, but the yodelling part is not performed by John Turturro as it appears in the film.  Still Pat Enright’s yodel part is one of the highlights of the entire album.  It’s important to note that producer T Bone Burnett captured authetic sounding performances here.  Close your eyes, mix some scratchy vinyl sounds over it, and you can imagine these are vintage recordings from the 1930’s.

Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, the Fairfield Four, the Cox Family and more…this CD is a great way to both enjoy an hour of music from the film, and kickstart a collection of folk, bluegrass and more.  Dig in!

4.5/5 stars

Final bonus:  Sh*t LeBrain’s Grandma Says!

I love my grandma with all my heart, but sometimes she gets the names of movies wrong.  We took her to the theater to see “There’s Mail Waiting for You” (You’ve Got Mail), and she also really enjoyed this movie, which she calls “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”

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35 comments

  1. Dude, this is fantastic. If I was gonna write up a review of this soundtrack, it would be what you wrote in my head, and something gibbering and tossable on the page! You nailed it!

    Always liked the soundtrack more than the movie. But it’s been ages since I last saw the film, so perhaps it needs another spin to change my mind on it – I fall into the camp of “get it, and appreciate it, but was ultimately ambivalent” last time through.

    But the soundtrack CD. YES!

    Final Bonus: Sh*t Aaron’s Dad Said:

    We went to see Forrest Gump in theaters, way back in the day, and we came out raving about the music, how perfectly it was chosen and applied. My Dad looks at us and says “There was music?”

    Liked by 1 person

        1. Yeah no kidding…I feel the same way!

          My lovely wife found a promo Whitesnake single for 99 cents today. Has a non-album version on it! SCORE! Cheers for junk stores.

          Like

        2. I was telling Deke, I could do an album a day for several years before getting even close to caught up on my stuff here. And that’s assuming I stop buying new things (haha like that’ll happen). I’m starting to think getting to the end of the collection is a pipe dream.

          Nice Whitesnake score! I love junk shops. I work for one!

          Liked by 1 person

        3. I saw that, yeah I will never catch up! If I could write every single day and not listen to the same albums twice…it would be a peace of cake. But I ain’t doing that!

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        4. I’ll bet I could do it, especially if one of the two was an album I’d heard before (which is lots of them, here). But I also recall burning out after doing 100 posts in a month. Remember that? That was AWESOME! I could do it long before you could, thoug. You actually put time and attention and real details into your posts. I yap off the top of my head!

          Liked by 1 person

        5. I remember that! Yeah and I’ve been burned out many times, so that’s one reason I like to keep a backlog going.

          Another reason is, sometimes I look at my backlog and say, “Oh look at that. Three reviews that kinda go together. Two more and I can call it the ‘week of’ something!”

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        6. I don’t usually have a backlog of posts, actually. I just do ’em as I go, and right now it’s adding up to once a day.

          If I want a Week Of Something, I just do one a day that week!

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        1. Here’s a fact — did you know at the time O Brother was one of the most computer-enhanced movies ever made? They wanted all the scenery to look very hot, drought-like, burned out. So they used computers to “brown” all the scenery. Pay attention and you’ll see. Now that would have been a hot summer!

          Liked by 1 person

        2. I just watched it again last night on Netflix. Man, I laughed SO HARD!

          How hard is it to find a decent hair jelly anyway? LOL Clooney, Nelson and Turturro knocked it out of the park but all the supporting cast was amazing too.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review. Immediately after seeing this movie my friend and I went out seeking this soundtracks. It’s an amazing listen from just a musical standpoint. I’m very much a fan of a cappella music and “O Death” is a macabre listen. Ralph Stanley (Rest In Peace – June 23, 2016) has a great voice for the song. It’s one of those songs that really grabs you. Despite the scene it was used in, it’s very effective song. Another a cappella favourite is Alison Krauss’ “Down To The River To Pray” I love the building layers of voice in the song. The Soggy Bottom Boys music is brilliant and fits perfectly. The entire album is awesome. T Bone Burnett got a lot of movie soundtrack production work after this. He worked on, among many others, the soundtrack to Cold Mountain, The Ladykillers (Another Cohen Bros. movie), The Hunger Games and his influence was felt in Mocking Jay part 1 with the cue “The Hanging Tree”.

    Several years ago I had the chance to obtain a “For Your Consideration” copy of Carter Burwell’s score to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” off of Ebay. I had the highest bid but I lost the auction by $1 because I had to go to work. I was so pissed off by that I never returned to Ebay again.

    O Brother came out at the perfect time for me. 2000 was the first year of my show (Visions In Sound) and the soundtrack featured prominently on my show at that time.

    It is definitely worth seeking out.

    Like

  3. Great write up. Guess I will have to check my taste, because I didn’t like this film when I watched it 15 years ago. The soundtrack, however was something special. K loves both the film and the music. Almost immediately after we watched the movie, he took to Napster (hah, 2000s) to get the soundtrack, and followed the Soggy Bottom Boys’ career for a while.

    Liked by 1 person

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