When film and TV actors make records, the results can be pretty embarrassing. Just listen to the Golden Throats collection to hear some of the most misguided music ever recorded. It’s hilarious, but I doubt if any of the people involved intended it to be hilarious. In all fairness, though, some actors do have musical talent. It’s almost natural that people in the performing arts would cross over from one field of entertainment to another. Last year, Zooey Deschanel proved that she’s more than just a pretty face (and talented actress) when she teamed up with M. Ward as the musical duo She & Him, recording some delightful old-fashioned pop songs. I’m not yet convinced I should spend much time listening to music by Keanu Reeves, Russell Crowe, Billy Bob Thornton or Scarlett Johannson, but I’ll try not to be too dismissive about them just because they’re movie stars.
The latest film star to cross over into music is Ryan Gosling. OK, so he’s not really a huge star, but he is a fairly popular film actor who made his name with starring roles in indie films Half Nelson and Lars and the Real Girl and more mainstream movies including The Notebook. And now, he’s recording music with a group called Dead Man’s Bones, with another actor, Zach Shields, as his main collaborator. Their self-titled debut album is out now on the prestigious Anti label.
This is not your typical movie-star vanity recording project. This is one strange record. It sounds like something you might discover in a Salvation Army bin of used records, like some old recording project from a grade school that went awry when a couple of slightly demented musicians were put in charge of the choir. Is the lo-fi oddness of this whole thing a calculated move by Shield and Gosling? Sure, I suppose it might be, but so what? I don’t doubt that some people are going to hear this and say it’s yet another movie-star musical endeavor gone bad. But Shields and Gosling have come up with an oddball artifact that’s entertaining and frequently haunting.
Their signing sometimes resembles the howling of ghosts in a haunted house, while the guest vocalists from the Silverlake Conservatory of Music Children’s Choir make it all seem very naive and innocent. It helps that most of the songs are fairly catchy, like primitive rock, gospel and folk tunes being played late night in a basement with little more than acoustic guitar, piano and tambourine. The record meanders off a few too many times, but so do most dreams — and more than anything else, this record feels like a dream. At the end of it, you wake up, trying to remember what just happened. Did you really hear what you think you just heard?