Cameron Crowe’s 2005 film didn’t turn out to be for Americana what “Almost Famous” was for rock and roll. But the comparison should not be drawn that quickly. Look at it like this: just everybody knows what rock and roll music is all about, no matter where he lives. However, many people outside of the States haven’t got an idea what Americana actually is. I live in Uruguay, and few are acquainted with the concept. As a matter of fact, not even the people in charge of the two biggest import stores in the country knew that such a genre existed when I asked them. They had no idea My Morning Jacket was an Americana band, for example. They just associated the band with rock.
I think that such a fact showcases the main hurdle “Elizabethtown” faced, and I am talking about the music – the story was beautifully narrated and uplifting in every sense (look for the review of the movie in the next couple of days). But the music featured on the film lacked the general appeal that the songs on the soundtrack to “Almost Famous” and other films by Crowe like “Vanilla Sky” and “Jerry Maguire” had. The Elizabethtown soundtracks (there were two of them) were to be more specialized by definition. And that is always a barrier that repels a lot of people.
Anyway, those who are keen on the sounds hailing from the southern regions of the US couldn’t ask for a more enlightening album. Both discs are true mini-encyclopedias that touch upon artists both old and new – from Tom Petty and Lindsey Buckingham to Ryan Adams and My Morning Jacket, the old and the new mingle and swap places in a very supple way. Besides, the presence of songs by Patty Griffin only makes the link between past and present stand stronger – her career might have started in earnest in 1992, but she has been around since the late ‘70s, and she has associations with emblematic figures like Emmylou Harris and Ellis Paul.
In any case, many classic rock and pop performers are featured. As far as the first volume goes, these include The Hollies’ excellent “Jesus Was A Crossmaker” (the first song that is featured on the film, during the helicopter sequence) and Elton John. As you know, Elton stole the show on the “Almost Famous” soundtrack with the song “Tiny Dancer” (originally found on “Madman Across The Water”, one of his first truly necessary records from 1971). Suitably enough, the song of his featured on “Elizabethtown” was “My Father’s Gun”, from “Tumbleweed Connection” (his 1970 record devoted to Country and Western themes). In my humble opinion, Elton provided a movie by Cameron Crowe with its most memorable composition once again, although it can’t be negated that the song plays twice, and during key scenes at that (it is actually played during the journey at the end, in the most cathartic moment for Drew, the protagonist).
And Crowe also found room for some oddballs and left turns along the way. The most obvious example is “Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out)”, a one-off hit for a ‘60s band named The Hombres that was never heard about again. The song is disorienting at first (it is lodged between Buckingham’s unendurable “Shut Us Down” and Eastmountainsouth’s “Hard Times”), but it all eventually gels together.
Eastmountainsouth. That is another obscure band with a song in. They do Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More”. The song is engaging as long as you haven’t listened to Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers’ live version. If you did, I am afraid you will forcefully throw a shoe at the “Next” button on your CD player.
Another song that is not really that effective is “Don’t I Hold You” by Wheat. To be fair, Crowe chose to go for an alternate take – the sound is not as sharp as in the original recording. That’s fine for collectors – everybody cherished having an alternate take of Dylan’s “Shelter From The Storm” on the Jerry Maguire OST. But there is no use or sense comparing a song everybody loves from a seminal ‘70s album to a song by a band that still has to make a truly enduring artistic statement.
On the other hand, you have a true gem in the shape of Jeff Finlin’s “Sugar Blue”. I don’t care if the paradoxes are too elemental, the lyrics taken on the whole brilliantly paint the ever-permanent set of contradictions that for worse and for better define any true, lasting relationship.
The final songs on the disc are Petty’s conciliatory ballad “Square One” (which is also one of the last things you will listen to in the movie) and a song penned by Crowe himself, “Same In Any Language”. The song was to give the movie one of the few (if not the only) accolade it was to reap. It is not something to go out of your way for under any criteria – the best thing about it is the viola and the boundless feeling of the lyrics.
My take is that the first volume of Elizabethtown’s soundtrack has more than a significant number of enjoyable tunes (all the cuts that I did not pan above are cuts I find reasonably good). So does the second volume (issued in 2007, coinciding with the release of the DVD). But the absolute truth is that the two discs could (and should) have been merged into one. Check the review of the second volume when it is published later this week if you want to learn which songs I would choose, and which ones I would discard for the Elizabethtown OST.