Review Summary: Damn, we’re in a tight spot!
Movie soundtracks have had a tendency to feature a handful of good songs, a lot of mediocre or bad songs, many times by well known artists, and then some film-inspired compositions with varying results. Why do people still buy soundtracks when they know they probably won’t be great musical records? Usually it’s because they like the movie or the music in it of course; that goes without saying, but the point is that most soundtracks as musical pieces alone tend to be inconsistent and/or underwhelming. The soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ 2000 comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou?
proves to be an exception, and here’s why.
There are a few things that make this soundtrack unique. Firstly, it features artists such as Alison Krauss that play the music (American folk) that was popular during the setting of the film, the 1930s, and in particular, the Great Depression. That’s not to say it’s not popular today, but it is significant because most non-contemporary soundtracks don’t sell well, and not only did this one do that, but it was met with critical acclaim as well. Second, a few styles of folk are presented in the songs, namely, bluegrass, blues, gospel and country. Lastly, there are a few vintage tracks such as 1928's “Big Rock Candy Mountain” by Harry McClintock that make their appearance alongside modern songs, all on the same album.
As for the music itself, the aforementioned variety of styles of folk make for a relatively diverse album, also boosting replay value. There are plenty of highlights as well. Songs such as “You Are My Sunshine”, “Keep on the Sunny Side” and the gospel classic “I’ll Fly Away” are all memorable numbers, and good choices for the soundtrack. You’ll likely remember “Man of Constant Sorrow” from the film, and it serves as a highlight as well. The vocal performances of the three male leads in the song are all well done, and just might provide the album’s best sing-a-long moments. However, the best vocal performance on the album belongs to Alison Krauss in the a cappella “Down to the River to Pray”, a soothing lullaby that served as the music during the women bathing in the lake scene in the film. The instrumentation is generally well executed on the album as well, showcasing skill in many instruments from banjos to guitars to strings to harmonicas.
Many moods are explored over this collective effort, but it does tend to drag during some of them. Some of the slow songs in particular lose their appeal after becoming the point of repetitive. As good of a job the album does in being diverse, it is only diverse within folk, so unless you’re accustomed to the intricacies of the genre, you may become bored. This could be overlooked if it wasn’t for the fact that it happens frequently. There are 19 songs on this album, and despite the aforementioned highlights, the rest of the songs range from solid to (expected for a soundtrack) filler, and that’s a lot of songs to hinder album flow. I understand that since this is a soundtrack it’s more of a compilation than an album, but since the first portion of it is made up of great songs that flow well together, the negative effect of a non-flowing or filler track is that much more apparent. It was mentioned earlier how all the songs on this particular soundtrack are the style of music that was popular during the setting of the film, so naturally it’s going to have a cohesive feel to it, which is exactly why a filler track after cohesion has been established causes a disruption.
However, in the end, the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?
stands out as great in comparison with the majority of film soundtracks, and it’s not because of the highlights or the more often than not versatile and good instrumentation; it’s because it feels like an album. Several elements of folk, from bluegrass to gospel to blues to country are prominently utilized throughout 19 songs, yet it has a cohesive feel through the majority of it. There are a few duds and it does tend to drag and/or get boring at several points, but it’s a soundtrack (and an album) worth picking up for any folk or bluegrass fan.