9:00am

Wed August 17, 2011
Music Reviews

Jeff Bridges: An Actor Who Can Actually Sing

Originally published on Wed August 17, 2011 10:05 am

In the movie Crazy Heart, Bad Blake was an alcoholic former star who'd slid to the bottom of the country-music industry. For his musical performances, Jeff Bridges affected a shrewd mixture of Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver and a breezy boozer. This approach was good enough to win an Oscar, but upon receiving a collection of songs called Jeff Bridges, I thought, would it be good enough to result in a decent album? The good news is that Jeff Bridges is not Bad Blake, in more ways than one.

The album's terrific opening track, "Oh What a Little Bit of Love Can Do," was co-written by the late Stephen Bruton, a friend of both Bridges and album producer T-Bone Burnett. The song leads off the album for a good reason: Bridges and Burnett knew it was the performance that would immediately prove to any listener that Bridges' own singing voice was not that of his movie characters. There's no Bad Blake or Rooster Cogburn growl in Bridges' vocals. He sings naturally in a slightly higher register, and phrases with an insinuating slipperiness, frequently letting one word slide into the next. This Los Angeles-born actor rarely affects a Southern accent in the country- or blues-influenced songs here. Instead, he croons in the manner of the L.A. singer-songwriters he undoubtedly grew up listening to, if not hanging out with.

In "Everything but Love," one might be tempted to poke fun of a rich movie star recording a song with the tired old sentiment that money can't buy you love. But as a singer, Bridges burrows so comfortably into the lyric that it doesn't come off as foolish or arch. Bridges didn't write "Everything but Love," but he did write or co-write three songs here, the best of which takes another old saw, about exceeding one's reach and ruing the failure, and renders it an artistic success. It's called "Falling Short," with some subtle back-up vocals by Sam Phillips.

Perhaps the most problematic song on Jeff Bridges is what's conceived as its magnum opus, a six-minutes-plus effort called "Slow Boat." It's co-written by Bridges, Burnett and Thomas Cobb, and it heaves into our ears with the deliberate pace of an ocean liner whose motor has been shut down. There is, to be sure, dark and mysterious beauty to much of this song about fog and confusion, and Rosanne Cash contributes a gorgeous background vocal. But, like another T-Bone Burnett production, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' Raising Sand, there are moments here when the slowness of "Slow Boat" is a strain toward the profound. Still, I like a song with the courage of its own pretensions.

After "Slow Boat," the album does a slow crawl for its two remaining songs, "Either Way" and "The Quest" — really, no one should ever tackle a song called "The Quest." But before that, this collection is pretty spiffy. The odds are against Jeff Bridges becoming a big hit; people tend to think of these items as vanity projects. Among actors who sing, a diverse list that ranges from Tony Danza to Eddie Murphy to Zooey Deschanel, Jeff Bridges can be placed among those for whom talent is equal to the ambition he's set for himself. In that sense, this one isn't a vanity project; it's a modesty project.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Jeff Bridges won an Oscar in 2009 for his performance as a broken-down country music singer in the film "Crazy Heart." He did his own vocals and sang as his character Bad Blake in the movie and on the soundtrack album, which was produced by T-Bone Burnett. Now a Bridges has a new album singing as himself, again produced by Burnett.

Rock critic Ken Tucker says the album goes well beyond proving Bridges is not the character he plays.

(Soundbite of song, "Down from the Mountain")

Mr. JEFF BRIDGES (Actor, singer): (Singing) I'm driving my blue car, baby, down from the mountain so high. I'm driving my blue car, baby, down from the mountain so high. I'm driving my blue car, baby, coming down, gonna say goodbye.

KEN TUCKER: In the movie "Crazy Heart," Bad Blake was an alcoholic former star who'd slid to the bottom of the country industry. For his musical performances, Jeff Bridges affected a shrewd mixture of Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver and a breezy boozer. This approach was good enough to win an Oscar, but upon receiving the collection of songs called "Jeff Bridges," I thought: Would it be good enough to result in a decent album? Well, the good news is that Jeff Bridges is not Bad Blake, in more ways than one.

(Soundbite of song, "Oh What a Little Bit of Love Can Do")

Mr. BRIDGES: (Singing) I heard that you've been feeling down and blue, but there ain't nothing really very wrong with you. You just need a little tending to. Let me show you what a little bit of love can do. It's amazing what a little bit of love can do.

I've been told someone needs a little help, having trouble getting on with someone else. I'm here to tell you that everything is gonna be fine. Yeah, I know you're hurting, 'cause your heart is breaking. I think that I can alleviate the situation. Look in my eyes and listen to me, baby, and put your little hand in mine.

I know that...

TUCKER: That's Jeff Bridges singing "What a Little Bit of Love Can Do," a terrific song co-written by the late Stephen Bruton, a friend of both Bridges and T-Bone Burnett, and who died of cancer in 2009.

The song leads off the album for a good reason: Bridges and Burnett knew that it was the performance that would immediately prove to any listener that Bridges' own singing voice was not that of his movie characters. There's no Bad Blake or Rooster Cogburn growl in Bridges' vocals. He sings naturally in a slightly higher register, and phrases with an insinuating slipperiness, frequently letting one word slide into the next.

This Los Angeles-born actor rarely affects a Southern accent in the country or blues-influenced songs here. Instead, he croons in the manner of the L.A. singer-songwriters he undoubtedly grew up listening to, if not hanging out with.

(Soundbite of song, "Everything but Love")

Mr. BRIDGES: (Singing) You can have a mansion. You can have $20 million in the bank. You can have a 12-car garage, golden fixtures and a marble sink. You can have everything. But it just won't be enough if you have everything but love.

TUCKER: One might be tempted to poke fun of a rich movie star recording a song with the tired, old sentiment that money can't buy you love. But as a singer, Bridges burrows so comfortably into the lyric, that it doesn't come off as foolish or arch. Bridges didn't write that one, but he did write or co-write three songs, here, the best of which takes another old saw - about exceeding one's reach and ruing the failure -and renders it an artistic success. It's called "Falling Short," with some subtle back-up vocals by Sam Phillips.

(Soundbite of song, "Falling Short")

Mr. BRIDGES: (Singing) Am I falling short, or do I fly? While I miss the mark, do I hit the sky? In my wondering, do I answer why I am alive?

TUCKER: Perhaps the most problematic song on "Jeff Bridges" is what's conceived as its magnum opus, the six-minutes-plus effort called "Slow Boat." It's co-written by Bridges, Burnett and Thomas Cobb, and it heaves into our ears with the deliberate pace of an ocean liner whose motor has been shut down.

There is, to be sure, a certain dark, mysterious beauty to much of this song about fog and confusion, and Rosanne Cash contributes a gorgeous background vocal. But like another T-Bone Burnett production - Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' "Raising Sand" - there are moments here when the slowness of "Slow Boat" is a strain toward the profound. Still, I like a song that has the courage of its own pretensions.

(Soundbite of song, ""Slow Boat")

Mr. BRIDGES: (Singing) The river is wide, deeper than deep. On one side, they're crying, on the other, they're asleep. It's all a dream.

TUCKER: After "Slow Boat," the album does a slow crawl for its two remaining songs, "Either Way" and "The Quest" - really, no one should ever tackle a song called "The Quest."

But before that, this collection is pretty spiffy. The odds are against this album becoming a big hit. People tend to think of these items as vanity projects. Among actors who sing - a diverse list that ranges from Tony Danza to Eddie Murphy to Zooey Deschanel - Jeff Bridges can be placed among those for whom talent is equal to the ambition he's set for himself. In that sense, this one isn't a vanity project. It's a modesty project.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Jeff Bridges' new self-titled album.

You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair. And you can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program