The ”O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack posed that age-old question ”O death, where is thy sting?” We now have an answer: right here, on Cold Mountain – Music From the Motion Picture, the companion album to the Civil War-themed ”Cold Mountain.” With producer T Bone Burnett again leading the charge and old-fashioned string bands filling the ranks, you could forgive a soul for considering this new disc a sequel to Burnett’s earlier blockbuster. You could also forgive some of ”O Brother”’s 6 million buyers if they blurt a Pooh-like ”Oh, bother” when they discover just how miserable the country music of the late 19th century could be, with the sad songs tending to revolve around murder while the peppy ones positively exult in the hope of a peaceful demise. ”Am I Born to Die?” sings indie rocker-turned-Appalachian fetishist Tim Eriksen; much of the rest of the album could be thought of as a series of very affirming answer songs.
But hey, banjos and mortality aren’t such a deadly combo. Having the White Stripes’ Jack White (who also appears in the film) sing four of the dozen 1800s-era numbers here in a reasonable proto-hillbilly whine provides a solid point of entry for nonfolkies. Even better proof of White’s breadth comes in his self-penned ”Never Fly Away,” the rare movie-inspired tune that works as a plot summary and a song. It’s not in the film, so ”Fly” can’t contend for a Best Song Oscar, but the other two modern contributions might, if they don’t cancel each other out. The Sting-written ”You Will Be My Ain True Love” and the Burnett/Elvis Costello-penned ”The Scarlet Tide” are both sung by Alison Krauss in drop-dead-dulcet tones that might be compared to the white light that makes near-death-experience patients want to fly into the ether. Amid all the war woes and sheep-gut fiddle strings, she’s the angel of mercy who makes everything suddenly stingless, if not quite Sting-less.