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Album Review: Inside Llewyn Davis – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

4 min read

I recently sat in a dimly lit sub-street level bar on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, New York City. I silently dedicated my drink to the late Dave Van Ronk, the man endowed with the colloquial title of Mayor of Macdougal Street, and whose memoirs of the same name provided much material for the Coen Brothers in piecing together their latest film Inside Llewyn Davis. I’d been wandering through the area looking for a taste of the folk scene that had in the late ‘50s to early ‘60s nurtured the likes of Van Ronk, Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, amongst many others, and the particular bar I entered had looked suitably weathered. However, the Village today is a very different place, a fact of which I was made quite aware by Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, which was being pumped through the pub’s speakers in the place of the earthy folk music I had been hoping for.

Inside Llewyn Davis SoundtrackInside Llewyn Davis, according to Elijah Wald, looks at the Greenwich Village folk scene ‘in the dark ages before the hit records and the big money arrived, when a small coterie of true believers traded old songs like a secret language’. It is a time, largely forgotten, which immediately preceded the arrival of singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell etc., who began to mix the neo-traditional tendencies of the Village folk crowd with the literary inclinations of beat poets. Fittingly, then, the soundtrack features arrangements of a number of traditional tunes – Hang Me, Oh Hang Me, Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song), The Death Of Queen Jane and The Roving Gambler – for which a careful effort has clearly been made in production to keep things authentic.

The calibre of the names behind Inside Llewyn Davis’s soundtrack is impressive in itself. Produced by T Bone Burnett – touring guitarist for Bob Dylan and winner of five Grammys – as well as the Coen Brothers and associate producer Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, the songs are sung almost entirely by members of the cast. Justin Timberlake is of course a name that will jump out to most listeners, but there are also impressive performances from Carey Mulligan, Stark Sands, Adam Driver and especially Oscar Isaac, who plays the central role of Llewyn Davis in the film and thus is most prominent on the soundtrack.

Isaac’s voice is real, but accessible; whilst it doesn’t have the grit that can sometimes be a barrier to listeners’ enjoyment of the music of Dylan or Van Ronk, neither does it have the artificial quality that such artists despised in the pop-folk music of the time. Isaac has me hooked the first verse of the mournful and minimalist opening track Hang Me, Oh Hang Me, and his singing remains strong throughout the record.

The artists/actors featured on each track vary so regularly that to record here who exactly is singing what and when would be impractical. Moreover, whilst every tune on the soundtrack is strong, and I’m sure each has its specific purpose within the film, I feel the need to make special mention of a few. Following the perfect aforementioned Hang Me, Oh Hang Me is one of the record’s renditions of Fare Thee Well, this one featuring Marcus Mumford, who brings a distinctive Mumford & Sons momentum to the traditional piece. Another key track for me is the movingly wistful Five Hundred Miles (which has nothing to do with The Proclaimers’ song of the same name), on which Justin Timberlake takes the lead. John Cohen features on The Roving Gambler, a Southern-sounding accent in partnership with the old-time string trio, The Downhill Strugglers, creating a faithful reproduction of the classic. Further particularly notable tracks are a powerful acapella version of the Irish ballad, The Auld Triangle, and an appearance from folk and country singer Nancy Blake with The Storms Are On The Ocean. Mention should also be made of The Punch Brothers who intermittently add some bluegrass energy to a number of the soundtrack’s arrangements.

The album is capped off by a previously unreleased recording of Bob Dylan’s Farewell and Dave Van Ronk’s Green Green Rocky Road. The former perhaps signifies the end of the small-scale communal folk scene that Greenwich Village had been and its subsequent development as ‘the centre of a folk music boom that would produce international superstars and change the course of popular music’. I’m guessing that the latter, for which there is an earlier rendition on the soundtrack from Oscar Isaac, features in the credits. It’s fitting that the record should end with input from an artist whose perspective provided so much material for Inside Llewyn Davis, and I hope that, in addition to providing the musical base for an excellent film, it inspires young musicians to dig into the past for inspiration, just as Van Ronk and his contemporaries did so religiously in the lead-up to the ‘60s.