From the screen to the studio: Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins, Hugh Laurie’s albums

August 12, 2011

Actors Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins and Hugh Laurie have a passel of Oscars and Golden Globes. Could they be competing for a Grammy next?

These men of a certain age, all of whom have quietly made music behind the scenes for decades, are releasing albums this summer.

While none is looking to give up his day job, each has surrounded himself with top-tier musical talent on his album, which helps evaporate the invisible “vanity project” stamp usually emblazoned across such releases.

Coming off his 2010 Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of “Crazy Heart’s” grizzled, troubled troubadour Bad Blake, Bridges reunites with the movie’s music producer, 12-time Grammy winner T Bone Burnett, for a collection of alternative country, swampy, atmospheric tunes that feature backing vocals by Roseanne Cash. “Jeff Bridges” will be released Aug. 16 by Blue Note Records.

Burnett envelops Bridges’s low, raspy singing voice with many of the same stellar musicians he used on Alison Krauss and Robert Plant’s “Raising Sand” and Elton John and Leon Russell’s “The Union.” Though some of the songs on Bridges’s album would fit perfectly on Bad Blake’s set list — jaunty album opener “What a Little Love Can Do” was written for the movie — Bridges takes on bigger questions in many of the lyrics, including the meaning of life in “The Quest” and his “Buddhist bent” in self-penned “Tumbling Vine.”


Jeff Bridges performs during the Bridge School Benefit concert in Mountain View, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 24, 2010. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

His guitar and vocal training to play Blake held Bridges in good stead to make the album. “You gotta get as good as you can to play a country legend,” says Bridges, who took a year off from filming to devote himself to the album and his philanthropy.

Robbins, 52, wrote the songs for “Bob Roberts,” his 1992 mockumentary about a folk-singing politician, as well as contributed music to 1995’s “Dead Man Walking.” But he waited until he felt he had something to say to release his first collection. “Tim Robbins and the Rogues Gallery Band” is a Dylan-esque, largely acoustic, rootsy set produced by former “Saturday Night Live” music director Hal Willner.

“I’d been offered an opportunity to do it in 1992,” says Robbins, who wrote nine of songs on his July 19 release. “It felt disingenuous and exploitative. Having been raised by two musicians, I have a real respect for the process that goes into the creation of a piece of music.” Robbins’s father, Gil, joined the Highwaymen, the ’60s folk group, shortly after their No. 1 hit, “Michael.”

Like Bridges, Robbins, who played a 30-date international tour last year and is on a North American club tour now, surrounded himself with an elite cadre of musicians whose abilities lift his sometimes rough, ungainly vocals. He tackles big topics like love, life and death, and even the Gnostic text in “Book of Josie,” but can turn lushly romantic, such as on “Moment in the Sun” when he sings, “Hold you in my arms, I’ll carry the dreams of two.” The longtime activist gets political on “Time to Kill,” a song based on a bar conversation he had with a soldier, who confessed to Robbins that his tour of duty deeply haunted him.

Unlike Bridges and Robbins, Laurie, 52, started with time-tested material for “Let Them Talk,” coming out Sept. 6 in the States from Warner Bros. The album is a homage to New Orleans blues, a music he’s adored since childhood. But like the other two, the piano-playing and singing star of “House, M.D.” bolsters himself with talent that exceeds his own: He is joined by Crescent City soul queen Irma Thomas, Dr. John and Allen Toussaint on the largely up-tempo Joe Henry-produced set.

“Let Them Talk” has been certified gold in Laurie’s native U.K. and reached No. 1 on the Austrian album charts. A PBS “Great Performances” episode documenting Laurie’s musical journey airs in September.

The stretch from acting to singing is not great, Robbins says. “It’s storytelling,” he says. “It’s a different discipline [from acting] in that it’s more personal . . . but the central core is the same. You owe the audience an emotional honesty.”

Can the albums stand on their own musical merit? EMI Music senior VP Zach Hochkeppel, who is marketing Bridges’s album, thinks so.

“There’s a lot of actors who have taken a swing at the music thing with obviously very mixed results,” he says. “It really helps if it’s an organic outreach of what you’ve already done.”

Plus, there’s no denying that a superstar name helps when it comes to getting television exposure for an artist’s new album; each of these artists is making the talk show rounds around release time. But there are hazards, Hochkeppel says: “Picking the right shows and making sure it’s about the music and not the celebrity . . . that’s the challenge.”

Newman is a freelance writer.

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