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Various Artists, ‘Ghost Brothers of Darkland County’ – Album Review

Ghost Brothers of Darkland County
Hear Music / Concord Music Group

John Mellencamp and Stephen King may receive higher billing on ‘Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,’ but the album really belongs to T Bone Burnett.

This collaboration between the singer-songwriter and horror novelist stemmed from a story Mellencamp told King about a pair of Indiana brothers whose tragic fates were tied to a girl. King in turn relocated the action to Mississippi, made the brothers ghosts and, with Mellencamp’s help, wrote a musical about them.

The play debuted in Atlanta last year, and like many of King’s tales, it winds for a while until stopping at its inevitable supernatural conclusion. Mellencamp’s songs – some hauntingly familiar in tone, some just plain haunting – fit the story so far as keeping the narrative flowing. But the project’s strongest ties come from musical director Burnett’s ghostly production, which says more about the nature of the evocative songs than anything Mellencamp and King can conjure up.

Mellencamp himself shows up only once on the soundtrack, on the last track, ‘Truth,’ the show’s redemptive epilogue. The other performances are handled by a mix of veteran heartland rockers and singer-songwriters from Burnett’s stable, including Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Kris Kristofferson and Rosanne Cash.

The best songs on ‘Ghost Brothers’ strike a balance among the misty musings of spirits, plot line progressions and bluesy numbers that come with a side of front-porch country: Costello’s sinister ‘Wrong, Wrong, Wrong About Me,’ Ryan Bingham’s gently piercing ‘You Are Blind’ and a handful of cuts performed by Crow and Dave and Phil Alvin. But the best track belongs to Neko Case, who injects the playfully confessional ‘That’s Who I Am’ with a sensual torchy twang.

But like so much of Burnett’s work – especially his celebrated ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ soundtrack and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ ‘Raising Sand’ album — he buries ‘Ghost Brothers of Darkland County’ in thick, hazy production that dusts up the songs with a bit too much grit and fog at times. And there they settle, at the center of the project. It might be Mellencamp and King’s words, but it’s Burnett’s music.

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