Various Artists: Inside Llewyn Davis

Oscar Isaac

The soundtrack to the Coen Brothers' film about Greenwich Village's folk scene is slick, polished, and reverent to a fault.

Various Artists

Inside Llewyn Davis

Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2013-11-11
UK Release Date: 2013-11-11

One could safely argue that the mainstream revival of Americana has its roots in the Coen Brothers. For decades, Americana remained a niche market until the Coens took The Anthology Of American Folk Music into the mainstream with their 2001 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?. The film's soundtrack, which featured the likes of Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, and Ralph Stanley, surprisingly became a mega-selling, Grammy-winning behemoth, and it's not difficult to see the connections between that album's cultural moment and the current Mumford-ization of the Top 40. Now, the Coens have another film that finds them examining the music of America's past, and they've assembled some of the same crew, O Brother producer T-Bone Burnett, in particular, to put together the soundtrack to Inside Llewyn Davis. Unfortunately, the end result is an album that doesn't quite click the way that one would hope.

Burnett and co-producer Marcus Mumford (surprise, surprise) have made a curious move in putting together Inside Llewyn Davis' soundtrack: Rather than follow O Brother's example of collecting a rotating series of bluegrass luminaries, the soundtrack relies on Inside Llewyn Davis star Oscar Isaac as its musical center. In the context of the film and its backstory (Inside Llewyn Davis is a loose adaptation of the life story of Greenwich Village folk singer Dave van Ronk), the move to place Isaac front and center makes sense, and Isaac is a capable enough singer to pull it off. However, his vocal performances never reach heights beyond "pleasant", and his constant presence on the album bores after a few songs. Thankfully, Isaac is backed up by crack musicians throughout Inside Llewyn Davis. Particularly, Isaac's tracks with the Punch Brothers are fine listens, reliant as they are on the band's intricate and subtle arrangements.

There are livelier moments on the soundtrack, many of which come when Isaac steps away from the microphone. John Cohen's grizzled take on "The Roving Gambler" is a delightfully shambolic take on the song, one that could have easily fit in with some of the field recordings on O Brother. The album shows an affection for Celtic folk, but while Isaac's studied rendition of Ewan MacColl's "The Shoals of Herring" falls, flat, the Chris Thile-led harmonies on "The Auld Triangle" give the song a haunting, unsettling feeling that's more than welcome on an album filled with straight-faced songs. Well, straight-faced aside from the humorous send-up "Please Mr. Kennedy". Written by Burnett and the Coens themselves, the song is a perfect send-up of the topical-yet-whimsical songs that were prevalent during the early '60s folk explosion. Parody is certainly the goal here (Adam Driver's baritone asides are played successfully for laughs), but it's also the one moment where Isaac loosens up, joining Justin Timberlake in an absolutely giddy performance. Some could argue that it's slight, but it has the sort of crackling energy that's all too lacking on the rest of the album.

There's a lot to cultivate from exploring the music of the early Greenwich Village folk scene, and Inside Llewyn Davis' soundtrack does its best to find a new way to examine it in 2013. Still, as pleasant of a listen as it is, one can't help but think that there was a better way to do this, one with more of a creative spark than what's on display here. As focused and professional as it is, the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack is everything you wouldn't expect from the Coen brothers: measured, serious, and kind of lifeless.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.