PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


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

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.


15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.


'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.


The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.


Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.


Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.


Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.