Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Hottest State

Jesse Harris is a talented songwriter and musician whose greatest claim to fame is writing and playing on Norah Jones’ breakthrough hit, “Don’t Know Why”. Called to provide songs for Ethan Hawke’s new movie, The Hottest State, Harris put out to call to some of his friends to provide vocals for those songs (drawn from the 50 or so tunes offered to Hawke). Among those who answered the call are Jones, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Cat Power, Bright Eyes, and Feist.

Harris’ songs here are, for the most part, soothingly languid, mid-tempo affairs but the singers inhabit them with their own unique voices and energies.

Harris steps into the spotlight for three vocals: the delicate “It Will Stay with Us” (backed only by his own guitar work), the rootsy countrypolitan groove of “One Day the Dam Will Break”, and the pure pop/jazz swing of the hopeful “Dear Dorothy”. Harris doesn’t have the greatest voice but his unabashed earnestness carries the day on all three cuts.

Harris also plays guitar on 2 of the 3 instrumental tracks: the lilting “Morning in a Strange City” (which includes some nice trumpet, accordion, and marimba playing) and the gentle dual guitar closer “There Are No Second Chances”, a duet with Tony Scherr (who also sings “You, the Queen”, a spare ballad that is the only track on the disc that doesn’t quite click.) The 3rd instrumental track is a lovely solo piano version of “Never See You” by Brad Mehldau.

In the movie, Sarah (played in the movie by Catalina Sandino Moreno), the female lead, is a singer and songwriter and on the soundtrack Rocha, a newcomer from Argentina, is her voice and she sings lead on 3 of the 18 tracks including two versions, one in Spanish (for which Rocha provided the lyrical translation) and one in English, of the bittersweet recurring theme “Never See You” and the gently-swinging “No More”. Rocha’s voice is sweetly vulnerable and, at the same time, plaintively engaging.

Willie Nelson, old pro that he is, slips comfortably into the amiable lilt of “Always Seem to Get Things Wrong” with tasty backing of his own signature guitar picking and the sweet piano work of Norah Jones (who also takes a typically fine lead vocal turn on the wry “World of Trouble” as well playing piano and singing backing vocals on M. Ward’s elegiac take on “Crooked Lines”.)

The ever-remarkable Emmylou Harris brings grace and understated intensity to the haunting ballad “The Speed of Sound” (accented with lovely, ethereal, harmonica playing by Mickey Raphael, a mainstay of Willie’s band, and equally lovely backing vocals.) Cat Power, backed only by Jesse Harris playing guitar and banjo, delivers a sweet and soulful vocal on “It’s All Right to Fail” and Feist is equally fine on the simply grand “Somewhere Down the Road” (which features horns, organ, and guitars blended to sublime effect.)

Bright Eyes offers up the atmospheric rocker “Big Old House” (complete with thick swirls of keyboards and horns) while the Black Keys plays a more straight ahead bluesy rocker with “If You Ever Slip”.

I have no idea how these songs fit into the movie (director and star Hawke says they fit perfectly) but as a CD they make up a delightfully coherent and entertaining collection indeed.

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