We gave it a B+
He’s toured with Dylan, sat behind the console for everyone from Los Lobos to Counting Crows, and intermittently made his own albums, on which his pinched voice and off-center songwriting forever doomed him to cult status. But after three decades in the business, T Bone Burnett has finally found his calling: master of the mix tape for alienated adults. ”O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” which earned him a Grammy for Producer of the Year a few months back, was his first contribution to this category. Still lurking in the top 20 a year and a half after its release, it’s become the audio companion for anyone who thinks music began deteriorating after, oh, 1975.
Thanks to that phenomenon, Burnett was awarded his own, Sony-distributed label, DMZ, and its inaugural release is yet another soundtrack that does double duty as movie souvenir and roots-music compilation; like its predecessor, it also intertwines new and vintage recordings. But Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood has a spunkier, feistier spirit that feels more ”Pulp Fiction” soundtrack than ”O Brother.” It’s like taking a drive along Route 66 and stopping into every roadhouse along the way to sample its music.
Like the best-selling 1996 novel on which it’s based, the movie is set partly in Louisiana, and that region is the source of some of the album’s most indelible moments: a scratchy old recording of early Cajun singer Blind Uncle Gaspard, some foot-stomping blues from the late Slim Harpo, and new contributions by Ann Savoy. A singer, guitarist, and folklorist (and wife of accordionist Marc Savoy), Savoy has a plaintive, unvarnished delivery that conjures images of clothing hung to dry in a backwoods backyard. Her three Burnett-produced tracks are charmers, especially a French version of ”It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie,” done up here as a waltz. She’s the Ralph Stanley of the project, the last of a dying breed of performers.
In an atmosphere in which the general public seems more accepting of rawer sounds than it’s been in a decade, ”Divine Secrets” serves as a miniprimer on the roots of some current music. White Stripes fans will hear echoes of that duo in the lo-fi blues of Harpo and Jimmy Reed; Alicia Keys devotees should be able to connect to the far funkier pop-gospel of Mahalia Jackson’s ”Walk in Jerusalem.” Bob Dylan, who is suddenly as ubiquitous on soundtracks as George Thorogood, contributes a new song, ”Waitin’ for You,” a swirly amble with as many banal lines as good ones (”Happiness is but a state of mind/Anytime you want, you can cross the state line”). Bringing it all back home, Dylan’s slippery growl recalls that of Harpo on his ”I Got Love if You Want It.”
Of the freshly cut tracks, Lauryn Hill’s ”Selah,” a thankfully nondogmatic love song that’s a touch more polished than anything on her ”Unplugged” disc, and Alison Krauss’ teardrop-voiced ”Sitting at the Window of My Room,” done as sort of folk chamber music, are both effective. But Macy Gray’s cover of ”I Want to Be Your Mother’s Son-in-Law,” one of Billie Holiday’s first recordings, is pointless mimicry. It’s such a note-for-note remake that one wonders why Burnett bothered to spend the money recording it when he could have used the original.
Then again, Burnett is nothing if not tasteful; it appears that his Christian views don’t allow for good old-fangled rock & roll vulgarity, and such gentility can get the best of him. (Richard and Linda Thompson’s 1975 ”Dimming of the Day,” a song of deep need and heart-stopping stillness, didn’t need to be adorned with a new string arrangement, which simply makes it maudlin.) In some ways, the real antecedent for this collection isn’t ”O Brother” but those CDs of refined jazz, folk, and lounge-pop oldies sold at the counter at Starbucks and Pottery Barn stores. Intentionally or not, they come across as retreats for those who disdain the vast chunk of modern pop — See how good music used to be!, they practically whine. The ”Ya-Ya Sisterhood” soundtrack contains a whiff of that irritating attitude. Yes, the archives are filled with fantastic music, but albums like these make you want to say ”Oh, brother,” even as you revel in their art.