Celebrity bands — the good, the not-so bad and the awful

by Preston Jones

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

17 February 2009


Given the fleeting nature of fame, it would stand to reason that becoming a celebrity would itself be reward enough.

But for many high-profile public figures, that simply isn’t the case.

Every year, the list of artists, actors, authors and other celebrities dabbling in popular music grows. Keanu Reeves, of “The Matrix” and “Speed” fame, has long endured ribbing for his gigs with rock band Dogstar; “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer occasionally performs with country outfit Honky Tonk Confidential, while Oscar-winning actor/director Kevin Costner recently toured with his country-rock outfit Modern West (more on that shortly).

Even mercurial actor Joaquin Phoenix is getting into the act, recently announcing that he’s swearing off Hollywood and embarking on a career as a rapper, but it’s too early to tell if Phoenix is merely engaged in an elaborate prank.

We look at 15 celeb musicians and bands - the good, the middling and the awful.


Kevin Bacon
The surprisingly solid celebrity bands are often the ones you’ve heard about the least. Case in point - Bacon and his older brother, Michael, have been performing as folk-tinged, country-rock duo the Bacon Brothers since 1995, releasing five studio albums to date. Their straightforward sound is clean and pleasing, with a minimum of look-at-me rock star posturing. (www.baconbrothers.com)

Zooey Deschanel
The public first got a glimpse of Deschanel’s talent in 2003’s “Elf,” in which she crooned a few bars of “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Teamed with acclaimed indie rock singer/songwriter M. Ward to create the band She & Him, Deschanel wowed the critics on the pair’s debut album, “Volume One,” in 2008. Lilting vocals and shuffling, folk-flecked instrumentation didn’t just win fans - Deschanel is engaged to Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard. (www.sheandhim.com)

Minnie Driver
The star of FX’s “The Riches” and such films as “Good Will Hunting” and “Grosse Pointe Blank” was involved in music before her acting career took off. She returned to the world of roadies and recording studios with 2004’s “Everything I’ve Got in My Pocket,” a critically acclaimed disc; no less than Ryan Adams professed to be a fan, pitching in to help with her 2007 sophomore disc, “Seastories.” Driver’s got a fantastic voice and her moody, melodic tunes reward repeat listens. (www.minniedriver.com)

Daniel Handler
Best known by his pen name - Lemony Snicket - author Handler also has some indie-rock cred. While not officially a member of the Magnetic Fields (he’s contributed to a few of the group’s albums), Handler has collaborated with Fields mastermind Stephin Merritt on several projects, including Merritt’s “goth-bubblegum” band the Gothic Archies. (www.lemonysnicket.com)

Billy Bob Thornton
Don’t laugh (well, maybe at Thornton’s solo stuff), but the Arkansas native’s work with the Boxmasters is pretty spot-on. Thornton describes the Boxmasters sound as “electric hillbilly music,” which undersells the dryly funny, classically country colors evident on songs like “The Poor House” and “She’s Lookin’ Better By the Minute.” (www.theboxmasters.com)


Band From TV
Led by “Heroes’” Greg Grunberg, this motley collective of TV actors includes Hugh Laurie, James Denton, Teri Hatcher, Adrian Pasdar and Bob Guiney, to name a few. The group’s raison d’etre is benefiting charities, but their sound skews a bit too karaoke for comfort - it’s not for nothing their debut CD is called “Hoggin’ All the Covers.” (www.bandfromtv.org)

Kevin Costner
If you were surprised by the appearance of Modern West, the country-rock group fronted by Oscar winner Costner, you haven’t been paying close attention. Before he felt the urge to cut a record and tour the country, Costner had dabbled in the music biz with the Kevin Costner Band and even recorded a duet with Amy Grant, “You Didn’t Have to Be So Nice,” for his 1997 film “The Postman.” (www.kevincostnermodernwest.com)

Russell Crowe
Most folks probably wouldn’t immediately peg Aussie actor Crowe as the sensitive artistic sort, but that’s exactly the side of himself he revealed in 30 Odd Foot of Grunts (later renamed The Ordinary Fear of God), which has released four albums. Crowe’s voice is hit-and-miss, but the small success enjoyed by single “Sail Those Same Oceans” suggests he could make the music gig full-time if he’d like. (www.gruntland.com)

Scarlett Johansson
More at home in the tabloids and on the big screen, Johansson rankled a lot of hipster bloggers in 2008 by recording an album comprised largely of Tom Waits covers titled “Anywhere I Lay My Head.” Her gauzy, quirky treatment of the songs (coupled with an intriguing singing voice) proved divisive, but Johansson told MTV News that an album of original material may surface at some point. (www.scarlettalbum.com)

Jared Leto
Leto originally moved to Los Angeles to pursue a music career and fell into acting as a means of paying the bills. In 1998, he returned to his first love with the formation of 30 Seconds to Mars, an emo-ish alt-rock band that’s proven quite popular at home and abroad. The band is embroiled in a lawsuit with Virgin Records, but that’s OK - it’s just delaying more screamed, furiously strummed pap. (www.thirtysecondstomars.com)


Corey Feldman
His acting ability is just as questionable, so it should come as little surprise that his musical chops are suspect, too. With help from Corey Feldman’s Truth Movement (Feldman released a pair of solo albums in 1999 and 2002), the actor has made the world safe again for sub-par rock that is liable to leave your ears bleeding. (www.coreyfeldman.net)

Juliette Lewis
Formed in 2003, Juliette and the New Romantiques (formerly the Licks) are a showcase for actress Lewis’s punky proclivities, complete with lots of atonal sing-speaking, painfully amateurish lyrics and rote punk-inspired riffs. In 2009, Lewis is reportedly overhauling the band - hence the new name - but no word as to whether the music will be improved. (www.julietteandthelicks.com)

Dennis Quaid
There’s not a thing wrong with bar bands - acts that aspire to little more than providing the soundtrack to your next beer in a dimly lit dive - but when actors who can barely carry a tune, like Quaid, start playing with bar bands like the Sharks, things just go sideways. Seems like he plays decent-ish guitar though. (www.dqandthesharks.com)

Steven Seagal
What sounds like an amusing “Saturday Night Live” skit is, in fact, reality. The star of such classics as “Under Siege” and “Hard to Kill” has been quietly building a music career as - get this - a blues guitarist. He’s released two albums and somehow, reportedly, roped B.B. King into saying that he was “great at guitar.” Um, OK. (www.stevenseagal.com)

Jada Pinkett Smith
Her husband, Will Smith, has a popular, profitable rap career to go with his acting, but Pinkett Smith’s forays into the music world are ... how do we put this ... much less appealing. As the frontwoman for the head-banging Wicked Wisdom, a metal band formed in 2002, Pinkett Smith has, improbably, opened for Britney Spears and appeared at Ozzfest. (www.wickedwisdom.net)

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