The Hottest State
The year's most interesting soundtrack might just go to a little art-house film titled The Hottest State, which opens in limited release Aug. 24 (no dates confirmed yet for Tampa Bay). Ethan Hawke directs and co-stars, and he scripted the picture based on his novel of the same name. Another fellow listed in the acting credits is Hawke's pal, Jesse Harris. The co-executive producer of the soundtrack, Harris penned all 18 of its tracks written specifically for the film. But the singer/songwriter performs only three of the tunes. The rest are interpreted by a remarkable Americana-leaning lineup that ranges from country (Willie Nelson) to garage-blues (The Black Keys) and indie soul (Cat Power).
Jesse Harris isn't a household name. But it's fair to say his song "Don't Know Why" is known widely, thanks to it being the big single off Norah Jones' 2002 blockbuster Come Away with Me. Whereas Jones, who also contributes to the soundtrack, is often loathed by music snobs, Harris remains immune to the backlash. Having released his first album in 1999, he has quietly toiled away, earning hipster cred touring with folks like Ani DiFranco.
If The Hottest State yields even a minor hit, Harris seems poised to be hailed as the next Jimmy Webb. Like the man behind such chestnuts as "By the Time I Get To Phoenix," "Wichita Lineman" and "MacArthur Park," Harris is a mediocre performer with a knack for penning sturdy, sad love songs that lend themselves to broad interpretation.
Nelson makes "Always Seem to Get Things Wrong" sound as natural and nearly as poignant as "Always on My Mind." The Black Keys imbue "If You Ever Slip" with sufficient desperation to make it believable as a modernized Delta blues number. Connor Oberst warbles over a spellbinding soundscape on "Big Old House," resulting in what could be an outtake from the latest Bright Eyes release Cassadaga.
Harris' narratives aren't as gripping as Webb's. And he doesn't write memorable, poetic lines that recall those of songwriting legends like Leonard Cohen. But there is a pleasing consistency to Harris' work — no clunky phrases, no tone-deaf melodies — that make him an ideal choice for writing songs to be covered by diverse stylists such as Nelson, Black Keys and Bright Eyes. 3.5 stars —Wade Tatangelo
(Martha's Music/Reprise )
It's understandable that people are excited at the mere mention of a new Smashing Pumpkins release. For many Gen-Xers, new music hasn't mattered much since the early '90s. Regardless of whether there is any merit to that assertion, the alternative rock movement was inarguably a major event that, for a time at least, reverberated throughout popular culture. What we heard on the radio and watched on MTV was musicians updating and personalizing the rock records on which they were raised. Bands were still comfortable with making music that rocked. The common thread running through it all was a righteous sense of rebellion. Nirvana brought the punk ethos whereas Pearl Jam had its heart in classic rock. The Red Hot Chili Peppers stood out as the funkiest of the bunch while Smashing Pumpkins staked its claim as the artiest band on the scene. Billy Corgan, who always has been the Smashing Pumpkins (with various side musicians serving as his minions), proved adept at fusing heavy metal and '70s prog-rock to create a sound as distinct as his pinched-whine vocals. That unmistakable voice is still intact on Zeitgeist, the first album to bear the Pumpkins name in seven years, but Corgan sounds unconvincing here. The album rocks — the listener is confronted with piles of processed guitar parts — but the music fails to connect on either a gut or intellectual level. The disc's nearly 10-minute centerpiece, "United States," is a tired look at the "revolution blues." The final track, "Pomp and Circumstances," is a failed attempt at dreamy pop, which makes one simply want to punch up "1979." The opener, "Doomsday Clock," is the only track that makes a significant impression, thanks to its sheer power and a swooping hook that sticks. 2.5 stars —WT