The soundtrack for the new Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis is chock full of wonderful renditions of folk songs by both new and old musicians. The movie tells the tale of a struggling folk musician in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, and its soundtrack is a real treat to listen to, with a few hard-hitting surprises along the way. The first five songs on this album are the standouts without a doubt. “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” is a moving melancholic song with actor and singer Oscar Isaac at his heart-wrenching best. It’s just a man and his guitar, but that’s what makes the best folk music really stand out. It’s honest, pure and tells a memorable story.
The next track “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” appears twice on the album. The first time it features both Isaac and Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons and is catchy that it could very well have been on a Mumford record. The second time, at the end of the album, features Isaac in a solo, for what I think is a more honest, performance. The track as a whole is a must-listen in either case, with sweet harmonies and some great guitar nuances.
“The Last Thing On My Mind” is a sweet love song from Broadway star Stark Sands, and though his voice is polished and very clean, it certainly doesn’t diminish the power of the words – if anything, it makes it more pleasing to the ear.
Justin Timberlake sings “Five Hundred Miles,” made popular by Peter, Paul and Mary. Yes, you have to hear this one to believe it. Timberlake does a great job on this track, as do Sands and actress Carey Mulligan. Somehow, the combination works, as does the strange combination of Isaac, Timberlake and “Girls” star Adam Driver on “Please Mr. Kennedy.” This one is a kooky, fun track that simply needs to be heard to understand.
The next part of the album takes a bit of a turn but still holds its own with melancholic and darker tracks like “The Death of Queen Jane,” sung beautifully by Isaac with an absolutely haunting melody. For a cappella Irish folk fans out there, “The Auld Triangle” is a great little piece sung by half of the band Punch Brothers with help from Mumford and Timberlake – none of whom are Irish. It’s really something to hear the harmony during the chorus in this one.
“The Storms are On the Ocean” is a song filled with wonderful layers of guitar, auto harp and many other folk instruments, sung very sweetly by Nancy Blake. This was the biggest surprise of the album for me without a doubt. It will catch you off guard with how good it is.
The album ends with “Farewell,” an early cut from Bob Dylan. It’s a nice track, and really shows how most folk singers of the time really sounded: raw and unpolished, but perhaps more honest than many singers are capable of today. This and the final Dave Van Ronk track “Green, Green Rocky Road” bring the album full circle and really convey its message as a whole.
This soundtrack is a great collection of folk songs put into a more modern perspective. The songs are timeless and really explore the notions of storytelling. It’s up to us to give these songs of the past another listen and to explore and find meaning in them for ourselves. Sometimes we need to re-explore the past and bathe it in a new light to understand it, and this is exactly what this album has done – and quite successfully at that.