Lawless, the new movie from director John Hillcoat and Bad Seeds frontman/screenwriter/co-composer/all-around Renaissance man Nick Cave, concerns a family of bootlegging brothers in the backwoods of Virginia during the Prohibition. Given the setting and the appearance of Ralph Stanley and Emmylou Harris on the soundtrack album, one might load up the CD expecting to hear something in the vein of O Brother, Where Art Thou. But you’d be forgetting that this is still a Nick Cave and Warren Ellis album.

The music is performed, for the most part, by The Bootleggers, a band formed specifically for the soundtrack consisting of Cave, Ellis, fellow Bad Seed Martyn Casey, Groove Armada guitarist George Vjestica and composer/producer David Sardy with vocals by Harris, Stanley, Cave, and Mark Lanegan. The songs include two originals by Cave and Ellis, the haunting “Fire In The Blood” and the soaringly beautiful “Cosmonaut”, a perfect showcase for the gorgeous voice of Emmylou Harris.

The balance of the album is given over to an eclectic mix of cover songs. Rather than going the O Brother route and using music from the period, Cave and Ellis selected songs by the Velvet Underground, Captain Beefheart, Link Wray and Townes Van Zandt. It’s not entirely accurate to call these cover songs. These are full-on reinterpretations that don’t seem like they should work but do.

Octogenarian Ralph Stanley turns “White Light/White Heat” into a folk song. Mark Lanegan takes Link Wray’s “Fire And Brimstone” and transforms it into a barn-burning rave-up. The album concludes with Willie Nelson’s “Midnight Run”, probably the best song about bootleggers since Robert Mitchum cut “The Ballad Of Thunder Road”. That may sound like a joke but I mean it sincerely. I genuinely love Mitchum’s song.

Almost every song is given more than one rendition, yet the album never feels repetitive or dull. It comes as no surprise to see Hal Willner’s name among the producers. Willner is the master of producing off-beat, all-star concept albums like the Disney-inspired Stay Awake and Rogue’s Gallery, a collection of sea shanties and pirate songs. Like those earlier albums, Lawless is a high-concept, tightrope walk that could have easily been written off as a failed experiment. But Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have produced that rare soundtrack album that stands on its own as a thoroughly engaging record.

Release Date: August 28, 2012

–Adam Jahnke

By MARowe

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