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Music reviews: Jeff Bridges, Hugh Laurie, Tim Robbins

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Hollywood has a poor track record when it comes to turning movie stars into musicians. Steven Seagal's country career, Keanu Reeves' alt-rock band, the actual radio hits from Don Johnson and Eddie Murphy, even the baffling current success of Jared Leto's 30 Seconds to Mars -- these flirtations are usually bad and thankfully brief.

The latest thespian to enter a recording studio, however, comes armed with plenty of cred. "Jeff Bridges" (Blue Note) [2 and a half stars] is the self-titled major-label debut from the veteran actor who came to the project fresh from his Oscar-winning performance as a washed-up country music star in "Crazy Heart." Like the music for that movie, Bridges here is collaborating with an old friend, iconic music and soundtrack producer T Bone Burnett ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?"), who he's known for 30 years and, for some reason, is just now getting around to working with. (It's not Bridges' first album, either. In 2000, he recorded an independent album, assisted by Michael McDonald, called "Be Here Soon.")

The wait is mostly worth it, as the easygoing country-folk of "Jeff Bridges" quickly proves it's not a vanity project. Bridges and Burnett met on the set of 1980's "Heaven's Gate"; they were introduced to each other by Kris Kristopherson -- a fitting detail, given how much of this record exudes his same weary sense of coming down on a Sunday morning. Backed by crack session players, including guitarist Marc Ribot, and guest singers such as Roseanne Cash and Ryan Bingham, Bridges lopes between some well-chosen covers -- a couple of John Goodwin tunes, including a perfectly cast reading of "Maybe I Missed the Point" that really ties the disc together -- and his own whimsical compositions ("Tumbling Vine" finds him toying with words in an actorly fashion: "Here is my seat / I do not pay rent / I'm delighted, I'm Buddhistly bent"). Sometimes, as on "Everything but Love," he leans into the aw-shucks bit a little hard, still playing Bad Blake more than being himself. But much of the record, particularly the opening "What a Little Bit of Love Can Do" and Greg Brown's wry "Blue Car," is blissfully if not cosmically laid-back. It's as if the Dude had been recast for J.J. Cale. It's got true grit. It's bona fide.

Another actor with an album out soon doesn't fare quite as well. Hugh Laurie's debut, "Let Them Talk" (Warner Bros.) [1 and a halfstars], out Sept. 6, features the British TV star singing and playing piano through a sizable set of New Orleans blues classics. At least Bridges is as American actor working in Americana; Laurie, versatile star of wacky BBC comedies like "Black Adder" and "Fry & Laurie" and now Fox's medical drama "House," is very much playing a part here and keeping on his American accent, which he occasionally chews too thoroughly. A labor of love -- Laurie claims to have been a die-hard fan of this music since his youth -- the results here are too often stiff, detached, professorial. The selections are smart, opening with "St. James Infirmary" and including classics and rarities (including "Baby, Please Make a Change," recorded with the unlikely pair of Tom Jones and Irma Thomas), but the music is frequently soulless. Nothing related to New Orleans should ever be described that way.

Hugh Laurie | Guess I'm a fool by Daniela Montoya

A couple of weeks ago, another actor also debuted his musical side with the album "Tim Robbins & the Rogues Gallery Band" (429) [2 stars]. Robbins, another Oscar winner, at least grew up in a musical family; both parents were folk musicians, and his dad Gil (who died last spring) was a part of the Highwaymen in the early 1960s. We've heard some of Robbins' songs before -- he and his brother wrote the folk songs for Robbins' 1992 political satire "Bob Roberts" -- and he knows his way around a decent tune, clearly inspired by folk originators and possibly Steve Earle. Most of them here aren't stunners, by any means, and Robbins' voice is not at all strong, but the Celtic undertones to the waltz of "You're My Dare" and the car-crash love metaphors of "Toledo Girl" raise this album well above hobby status.

In other movies-meet-music news: Prepare for total Muppet saturation this fall ahead of "The Muppets," a movie reboot arriving in theaters over Thanksgiving. One of the first salvos in that barrage is "The Green Album" (Walt Disney) [2 stars], out Tuesday, a high-gloss compilation of contemporary musicians cutting songs from Kermit & Co.'s movie and TV misadventures. It mostly follows the template of such collections -- ironic match-ups (Weezer doing "The Rainbow Connection"), tender singer-songwriter translations (Matt Nathanson's "I Hope That Something Better Comes Along") and the occasional magical moment (My Morning Jacket trembles beautifully through "Our World," from "Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas"!). Chicago is well-represented on this record, and on some of the choicest selections: the suburban Alkaline Trio applies its slick pop-rock to "Movin' Right Along," Andrew Bird is pitch-perfect for his loungey take on "Bein' Green" and OK Go opens the disc with a romp through "The Muppet Show Theme." What I'd most like to see out of a reconsideration of the Muppets: a revival of songwriter Paul Williams!

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on August 22, 2011 7:00 AM.

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