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Review by Brad Green:
Ninety Six years from now the pundits will churn out the centenary lists. You know, the best and worst and loudest and proudest of the twenty-first century. Well, hereís a little prognostication given with a great deal of confidence. You donít need to be Nostradamus to realise that when it comes to the biggest shock of the century, nothing in the next nine decades is going to top the moment, when at the 2002 Grammy Awards, the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack was announced as album of the year. Sure it was expected to pick up a few gongs in the country music categories, but ďalbum of the yearĒ? It would have been easier to pluck a bluegrass thumb plectrum from a haystack than pick that one. The music was fabulous, but it was also old, raw, rustic and authentic, which in Grammy-world usually means assigned to the periphery.

Anyway, the recognition was thoroughly deserved, and when another movie rolled around with some parallels to O Brother -- set in the Appalachians, and featuring an Odyssey peopled by Homeric characters and temptresses -- it was hardly surprising that T Bone Burnett the producer who put the Grammy-winning soundtrack together (and picked up producer of the year himself) would be called upon to deliver another winner. Well, he got the call. But in my opinion, he failed to deliver.†

He made a slight tweak to the formula here, choosing the same style of roots music but handing over a number of the performances to mainstream artists and studio panache. However, that isnít the reason the album disappoints. There is charm in authenticity, and there is also value in rejuvenating old songs with new polish. The problem here is the songs themselves. The selection provides the right milieu, and in the context of an epic narrative itís easy to feel the genuine spirit in which they were originally composed. For me thatís not enough. Itís not just whether a tune sounds like it was conceived during a session of uncontrived picking and warbling on the back porch, itís whether that uncontrived picking and warbling is going to draw a crowd or simply drift over the mountainside and annoy the distant neighbours. There are some pleasing moments in the heart of the record, where the jangling mandolins and guitars intertwine in the best traditions of bluegrass, but the fundamentally irresistible folk melodies I was anticipating: O brother where are they? Theyíre folksy alright. Irresistible they ainít.

To further my disappointment, two contemporary songs by superior talents yield mediocre results. I rank Sting and Elvis Costello among the finest pop music composers since The Beatles, but theyíre both in cruise control here, offering no more than mildly pleasant melodies. Alison Krauss performs both songs sweetly without sounding like she found any deep emotion in them either. A couple of tracks by the Sacred Harp Singers At Liberty Church do have plenty of soul, although the most moving vocal performance is Cassie Franklinís solo, a cappella Lady Margaret. It never made it to the screen, but Burnett thought it too good to leave off the record. At least he got that right. A few cues from Gabriel Yaredís score are also included, and the understated lyricism makes plenty of appeal, to the point in fact, where I decided to leave this CD alone in order to fish out a full Yared soundtrack.†

Yes, the album has its moments, and Iíll admit that high expectations exaggerated the disappointment. Nevertheless, the fact remains that many of the principal folk tunes left me as cold as a confederate deserter trekking through the mountains.†

Published April 15, 2004

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TITLE: Cold Mountain
ID: 514919200
SCORE: Gabriel Yared
ARTISTS: Jack White; Reeltime Travelers; Tim Erikson, Riley Baugus & Tim OíBrien; Alison Krauss; Sacred Harp Singers At Liberty Church; Stuart Duncan & Dirk Powell; Cassie Franklin
[producer]: T Bone Burnett

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