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As Dark as a Death Row Drama

January 07, 1996|Robert Hilburn and New albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

*** 1/2


"Dead Man Walking"



Add good musical taste to the list of attributes already demonstrated by actor-director-writer Tim Robbins.

Seeking contributions for a musical companion piece to "Dead Man Walking," his striking new film about a nun's soul-searching role as spiritual advisor to a convicted killer, Robbins sent a rough cut of the movie to some pop-rock figures he admires. They responded with some frequently gripping and inspired music, most of it understandably dark and troubled.

Anyone who has heard Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison" album or Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska" album knows that those artists can deliver songs befitting the mood of a story about a death row inmate. And both are in solid form--Springsteen with the solemn resolve of the title track and Cash with the brighter, gospel-edged "In Your Mind." The latter, produced by Ry Cooder, has so much guitar-driven character that it makes you long for a Cash-Cooder album project.

Other members of the stellar album cast have also written in the past about hard times and troubled souls: Steve Earle, Michelle Shocked, Patti Smith, Tom Waits and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder (teaming nicely on two tracks with Pakistan's Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the master of Qawwali music). Of this group, Earle's biting "Ellis Unit One" and Vedder's desolate "The Long Road" (a different version from the recent Pearl Jam single) are the most evocative.

The surprise is the effectiveness of Lyle Lovett and Suzanne Vega, artists not normally associated with such stark subject matter. There's little of the uptown sophistication associated with Vega's "Luka" period in "Woman on the Tier (I'll See You Through)," and Lovett's despairing "Promises" is not cushioned by the humor that frequently accompanies his sometimes bittersweet reflections.

The artists' intensity sometimes outdistances their revelation, but mostly "Dead Man Walking" is a remarkable musical response to Robbins' challenge of finding musical ways to express the complexity and passion of his film.

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