Music

Various Artists: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2 CD Deluxe Edition)

The Coen Brothers' beloved soundtrack of '30s-era Americana gets an upgrade with unreleased tracks.


Various Artists

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2 CD-Deluxe Edition)

Extras: 7
Label: Lost Highway
US Release Date: 2011-08-23
UK Release Date: 2011-08-29
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The "back to basics" movement has been one of the most consistent cycles in popular music. The '70s spawned punk as a backlash against such massive, stadium-filling bands like Led Zeppelin and The Eagles. The late '80s and early '90s saw the rise of both grunge and the "Unplugged" movement as an answer to the cartoonish excesses of the MTV era. And to a lesser extent commercially (but not influentially), the late '90s saw the emergence of such No Depression-era favorites like Whiskeytown, Uncle Tupelo, and Lucinda Williams.

The late '90s version response to this "back to basics" movement resulted in a blurring of musical styles. Bluegrass wasn't entirely accurate. Neither was "roots rock". People finally had to settle for alt-country as a description, but even that term was no more effective than a term like "alternative" trying to describe both Nirvana and Morphine. Whatever the term, the inspiration behind the movement seemed to be a desire to revisit the ancestry of modern music. Before the Beatles. Before Elvis. Before Chuck Berry.

In 2000, after the techo-scare of Y2K became a blip on the pop culture radar, the Coen brothers released the Odyssey-inspired O Brother, Where Art Thou?.To this date, O Brother may not rank in the upper tier of Coen brother favorites, but its inspiration of early Americana music gave birth to one of the most unlikely soundtrack successes in rock. It sold more than seven million copies (an amazing feat given how little airplay it received) and proved the spoiler to the assumed Grammy Album of the Year showdown between Outkast's Stankonia and Bob Dylan's Love and Theft.

The financial success of the O Brother soundtrack would be an impressive enough feat, given how rare even a double-platinum album is nowadays. But the soundtrack deserves to be on the shortlist of "Best Soundtracks of All Time" because of how it both perfectly encapsulated its celluloid form, and was a near-perfect primer for an art form. Through the soundtrack, millions were introduced to pioneering legends Ralph Stanley and the Carter Family as well as new keepers of the bluegrass flame Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch. Strangely enough, the last soundtrack to accomplish such a feat would probably be the very un-bluegrassy Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, an album that even the most ardent of disco haters grudgingly respect.

O Brother leads off with a 1959 Alan Lomax recording of James Carter, then a prisoner at Mississippi State penitentiary. Carter was singing "Po' Lazarus" as prisoners around him were breaking rocks. It then leads into Harry McClintock's pre-Depression era "Big Rock Candy Mountain". Decades ago, "Big Rock Candy Mountain" was used in classrooms as an example of folk music. But in today's 50-plus hour work week type of economy, the dream of alcohol streams, stew-filled lakes, and "no axes, saws, or picks" seems to take on a greater deal of romantic resonance.

With the exception of "Po' Lazarus" and "Big Rock Candy Mountain", the majority of O Brother was recorded in the present. That remains one of the many miracles of the soundtrack as the recordings feel so in sound and spirit to the decades-old opening two tracks. Alison Krauss gives an angelic performance in "Down to the Rover to Pray", backed by the First Baptist Church Choir of White House, Tennessee. Ralph Stanley gives a harrowing version of "O Death". T Bone Burnett's production was a near perfect mix of meticulous attention to detail as well as a regard to the need create a warm, relaxed space for all the musicians to create a beautiful landscape of Americana.

O Brother's influence remains strong today. Though bluegrass and folk continue to only find a home either on NPR on Sundays or on genre-specific radio programs, O Brother still gets recognized, thanks both to the timelessness of the music, and the continued cable presence of the actual film. The album may not have spawned many platinum-selling bands, but its effortless marriage of new talent and revered source material can still be heard in bands like the Black Keys, the Avett Brothers, and Lydia Loveless.

The reissue of the O Brother soundtrack wisely adheres to the principles that made the original material such a success. The producers could have played up the nostalgia factor and brought in newer talent to re-record "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" or "In the Jailhouse Now." Instead, they wisely decided to just use several tracks that were included in the movie, but didn't land on the soundtrack. The result is just what you would imagine a 35-minute additional disc would sound. The material is very good (especially The Kossoy Sisters' and Erik Darling's "I'll Fly Away"), but falls just short of the original soundtrack's finished product.

In order to justify a repurchase of an album reissue (aside from the obvious "my original copy is scratched to hell" reason) a great set of liner notes can do as just much as additional tracks. The liner notes in this reissue do not disappoint. The bulk of the notes come from writer/editor David Wild's retelling of T. Bone Burnett's anecdotes of recording O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Burnett details how the producers researched '30s-era recording techniques, and their attempts to duplicate them. Burnett also talks about how despite George Clooney's efforts, the star's singing wasn't able to meet the authenticity requirements needed to duplicate the Depression-era source material. The decision wasn't a knock against Clooney, it was just that to rightly recreate the needed sound, months, if not years, of studio recording and touring were needed. All of this hand-wringing was for a genre that is routinely derided by some music elitists as unrefined and simplistic.

The additional tracks and insightful liner notes put the reissue of O Brother in the "must purchase if you don't have the original" category, but falls just short of a "must purchase" for those who already own the original. The main problem lies in the soundtrack itself. It was and remains a great, defining statement of a forgotten music era, fully justifying its Album of the Year Grammy title. Any additions just feel like an afterword. No matter how well they're sung.

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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