I just finished writing my review of the soundtrack for You’re Gonna Miss Me, a reverent, unabashed look at the glorious and tragic life of Roky Erickson from Austin, Texas. Now it’s on to a film project from another native of Austin, Ethan Hawke. Back in 1996, Hawke took a break from acting and wrote his debut novel, The Hottest State. Thousands of teens, in love with his chiseled cheekbones and wispy moustache, bought the book about a not so simple story of boy meets girl, boy loves girl, boy loses girl. Over ten years later, Hawke finally capitalized on his chance to bring the story to the big screen. Unfortunately for Hawke, the film wasn’t as well received as You’re Gonna Miss Me. A 36% (rotten) score on RottenTomatoes.com and an `F’ rating from Entertainment Weekly are not exactly the kind of thing you want to write home about. It’s even worse than telling your strict father that you’re going to play Puck in the school rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (and yes, I realize that was Robert Sean Leonard’s character and not Hawke’s). Where Hawke did succeed in putting this film together is in executive producing the soundtrack.
Hiring friend Jesse Harris, the New York born songwriter / guitarist behind Norah Jones’ Grammy-winning debut, Come Away With Me, was the first step. The second part was most likely considerably tougher, that being recruiting a lineup of musical talent to play Harris’ lovelorn tunes. And what a lineup it turned out to be! The incomparable Willie Nelson lends his voice talent to the heartbreaking “Always Seem to Get Things Wrong.” The exquisitely stripped down song is like an updated version of “You Belong to Me,” a real testament to Harris’ songwriting ability. Feist, who is certainly one of the candidates for having one of the best albums of the year, appears with “Somewhere Down the Road,” with Harris taking advantage of her jazz crooner style. If anyone can capture the `urban cowboy / I’m so lonely in a sea of people / indie-folk-country’ vibe, it’s Conor Oberst, and he knocks “Big Old House” out of the park. Props have to be given to Rilo Kiley’s Jason Boesel on drums as he has been moonlighting with Bright Eyes for the past few years. Where Conor Oberst goes these days, it seems that Emmylou Harris is not far behind. His one time collaborator appears singing “The Speed of Sound.”
One of the standout tracks on The Hottest State soundtrack is “If You Ever Slip,” performed by the Black Keys. Their `even-bluesier than the White Stripes’ sound can’t help but stand out amongst all of the sad-sack country-folk, but there seemed to be a need for a Jon Spencer fronting Zeppelin interruption. M. Ward brings the tone back down again with “Crooked Lines,” squeezing every ounce of pathos and emotion from Harris’ lyrics. The song is given even more gravitas by the piano and backing vocal presence of Norah Jones (who coincidentally also gave one of the other standout vocalists on this album, Willie Nelson, piano accompaniment). Jones gives her own solo performance quickly after for “World of Trouble.” It’s easy to hear why her first collaboration with Harris sold 20 million copies and won five Grammys. There’s just something undeniable about their musical chemistry. Über-cool jazz pianist Brad Mehldau takes on the central theme of the album, “Never See You,” which is also performed twice vocally by Rocha, the musical stand-in for actress Catalina Sandino Moreno, once in Spanish and once in English. As if all of these heavyweight performers weren’t enough, the guest appearances close out with Cat Power, whose voice is like seasoned cast iron, hard and heavy, yet cool and smooth.
The songwriter himself plays two instrumental tracks and sings three, rounding out the rest of the soundtrack. Harris was seemingly the perfect choice for this gig. His songs are simple and beautiful without being pedantic, while also deep and meaningful without being obtuse. An even better idea was to have the cavalcade of performers present take on these songs. While the movie may be getting roundly panned, there is no doubt that this is a powerful soundtrack. In fact, in most of the few positive movie reviews, the soundtrack is mentioned as a highlight. I’ve written before on the phenomena of a soundtrack being better than the actual film and mentioned Hackers as an example. Garden State might be another one, but I go back and forth on whether I like the movie or not. The problem with that one is, Zach Braff made the soundtrack so much of a character that it detracted from the story. Maybe that’s the same problem that Ethan Hawke had with The Hottest State. At least the soundtrack can stand on its own.
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