Important note: Amazon groups both the CD AND vinyl reviews together. When reading a review take note of the format being reviewed. Now on with my review:
Though listed on the package as the "Soundtrack" for this new Coen brothers film (due 12/20/13), which was "inspired by" the life of folk music icon Dave Van Ronk, I'm virtually sure that these are not the the same recordings you will hear in the film. I did have a chance to see the film in a preview and a Q&A with the film's star Oscar Isaac (but reviews are embargoed until release date) and have read the press notes. The Coens wanted the actors, who do their own singing and playing in the film, to be used to the music, so Music Producer T-Bone Burnett made studio recordings first and then the actors performed live, again, during the filming. But that doesn't affect the review of the CD, it just clarifies some things.
Like their previous film "O Brother Where Art Thou", the Coens incorporate traditional music in the film, but this time there are more complete numbers. The opening cut on the CD "Hang Me, Hang Me" fills the first three minutes of the film, and most of the songs on the CD are performed complete. The next-to-the-last track - a previously unissued version of "Farewell" by Bob Dylan is only excerpted in the film and the closer, Van Ronk's version of "Green Green Rocky Road" is played over the closing credits.
The Coens state that they did not do research into Van Ronk's life and did not want Isaac to either look or sound like DVR. While the film will first attract those over 60 who remember the "folk revival", the CD is aimed at a younger audience with Justin Timberlake playing the role of "Jim", who has a singing partner Jean (Carey Mulligan). There was a real duo named Jim & Jean (Jim Glover, who was Phil Ochs' roommate, and his wife had hits with covers of Ochs' songs) but Ethan Coen says he knew their name but nothing about them. Mandolin prodigy Chris Thile, along with the rest of the Punch Brothers appear on many of the tracks as does Marcus Mumford, lead for Mumford & Son. The only NEW song here is the very forgettable "Please Mr. Kennedy" (about an astronaut) as sung by the Isaac, Timberlake and Mulligan in a nod to Peter Paul & Mary. And Tom Paxton's "The Last Thing On My Mind", sung by actor Stark Sands, is well-done, but certainly out of the chronological time frame of the film since it was recorded in 1964, while the film has him singing it in 1961.
By reading the credits for the performances included in the12-page booklet inside the digi-pak (which includes a fairly esoteric two-page essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan (I don't know who he is) and the lyrics (so you can sing along) I found some interesting surprises that will appeal mostly to those who were listening to folk music in the 1960s and 70s:
" Please Mr. President" Has two guitar players: Canadian Colin Linden and Nashville's Buddy Miller!
"The Roving Gambler" who Burnett says has "The Lost City Ramblers" (not the New Lost City Ramblers, with the late Mike Seeger, John Cohen and Tracy Schwarz) is actually a group called "The Downhill Strugglers" with addition of Cohen on Banjo.
And, the Carter Family song "The Storms Are On The Ocean" sung by Nancy Blake (the only real folk singer in the film) also features her husband Norman as well as Gillian Welch and David Rawlings!
I do like listening to the album and, hopefully, it will draw younger listeners to the original recordings. If you want to know more about Van Ronk, and hear the breadth of his work, check out my review of the wonderful new 3-CD set "Down In Washington Square" on Smithsonian Folkways
I hope you found this review both informative and helpful.