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Old Trees, New Branches

This week: Revisiting American roots, listening in on young kind-of-hopefuls

Various Artists
Soundtrack: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Mercury)

For all the hype this accompaniment to the new Coen Brothers movie has gotten, you'd think someone had reinvented American music. The sticker on the packaging calls it "the ultimate roots collection" or something, which is nonsense. There's no such critter, first of all, and secondly, nothing's ever going to get closer than Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music.

Bollocks aside, what we have with this T Bone Burnett-produced compilation is a damn fine set of songs. It combines three genuine artifacts (including the Stanley Brothers' transcendent recording of "Angel Band") with 16 faithful renditions of Depression-era folk and blues standards by an assortment of modern all-stars. Alison Krauss leads the pack with three appearances, including sing-alongs with Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris. Also on hand are the Fairfield Four, the Cox Family, and Norman Blake.

In a way, the project is a no-brainer. It's hard to go wrong with material like "Keep on the Sunny Side" and "I'll Fly Away," and even if (respectively) the Whites and a Krauss/Welch duet can't quite match the soaring spirit of the original recordings, they're an unqualified pleasure. I'm afraid of sounding purist if I carp about the sleekness of the modern production—it's easy to forget the Carter Family and their peers seem primitivist only in retrospect. Still, the reverence that permeates the new efforts has an undeniably muting effect. These songs sounded more alive before anyone decided they were classics.

The stand-outs, then: Ralph Stanley, strong as ever at 75, singing a bone-weary a cappella version of "O Death"; the button-cute Peasall Sisters (ages 12, 8, and 6) getting religion on "In the Highways"; and everything featuring Krauss because, well, she could sing a Hallmark greeting card and make it sound authentic. Basically, O Brother Where Art Thou? does for American folk music what the Buena Vista Social Club did for Cuban son. You'll be hearing it at a lot of cocktail parties this year.

—Jesse Fox Mayshark

Bright Eyes & Son, Ambulance
Oh Holy Fools (Saddle Creek)

Rock music has always attracted mopey types, the guys and gals who never felt comfortable with their peers and didn't feel girls or boys would ever much go for them.

So, it's no surprise that so much of pop music is about misery. One of the best new chroniclers of existential grief is Conor Oberst, who records with various musicians under the name Bright Eyes. He splits this 8-song EP evenly with newcomers Son, Ambulance.

Oberst's voice reeks of vulnerability; it quivers, always on the verge of weeping or a screaming bloody rage—often both in the breath of a single word. Whether you see him as a whiny kid or a tormented realist depends on how much you relate to him. On four songs, Oberst continues documenting his pain, but there are glimmers of hope. "No lies, just love," is the recounting of a near suicide attempt—remembering the note written and the reasons to let go. The connection to others drags him back, and a soon-to-be-born nephew makes him want to change: "My brother's first child, I hope that womb is not too warm/ Because it is cold out here and it would be quite a shock to breathe this air/ To discover loss..."

Oberst knows what he's doing—detests it, even—but can't seem to stop himself because he thrives on feeling, feeling anything, even if it's pain, which it most always is.

The exploitation works both ways, of course: if Oberst is hawking his pain and the pain of others as art, as a living, we're paying him to do our crying. The deeper you get into the misery, the more you wonder if this pain is real (did he really come that close to offing himself?). Then you wonder, would it make the music better or worse if it was imagined or genuine?

Son, Ambulance—the project of another sensitive singer-songwriter, Joe Knapp—also finds a lot of pain in the world, but there is more hope in his voice and lyrics. Knapp is easily saddened, but like Oberst finds hope in children. "Brown Park" is a sweet elegy about watching kids play in the park: "They never taught us how to breathe/ We learned to listen to the wind outside."

All in all, Oh Holy Fools is a nice introduction to what could be two of the best songwriters of the future.

—Joe Tarr

January 11, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 2
© 2001 Metro Pulse