The general derision and skepticism that come with each release of a new CD by a movie star is about as commonplace and expected as liner notes. That built-in dismissal would seem unfair until, say, you sit down and listen to Scarlett Johansson try to sing Tom Waits songs. Then it just makes sense.
Billy Bob Thornton is not only a movie star; he's an Oscar-winning hyphenate — actor-director-writer-musician. As a musician, Thornton isn't a gadfly. In his pre-celebrity years, he was part of numerous bands, including a ZZ Top cover act. Since he's become part of the Hollywood establishment, he's released four solo albums — the last, Beautiful Door, came out last year.
Those albums are generally forgettable when they aren't achingly awful. Thornton's scratchy, twangy baritone might make him stand out in films, but on record it comes across as smug. That his backing band is playing unfocused, warmed-over '70s arena rock doesn't help matters either.
All of that makes The Boxmasters a doubly sweet surprise. Thornton teams up with J.D. Andrew and Michael Butler (and a lot of others on record and in the live show) for music that's a mixture of straight-ahead rock and country touchstones such as Johnny Cash and Buck Owens. As part of the concept, the band wears striking black and white suits and has short-cropped hair. Thornton says in the liner notes, "I finally figured out what my style is — and it's this."
He's right. The Boxmasters is a double-CD set (neatly packaged in a box, of course) with one disc of originals ("Ours") and one of covers ("Theirs"). Thornton's songs fit squarely in the country tradition in that they are packed with sharply observed details and are often funny. "Watching the Game," where a poor husband just wants some peace while the Cardinals are on, is too true. The cover of "House at Pooh Corner" — yes, the Winnie the Pooh song — will not only make you laugh, but it's also sweet and endearing.
Somehow the band's chug-chug rhythm and frequent use of pedal steel frame Thornton's voice in a way that greatly cuts the smugness. Also, Thornton steps aside here and there to let his crack band play. (It should be noted that on the record Thornton plays drums and tambourine.)
The Boxmasters is in no way perfect, but it's so far ahead of Thornton's past work and other movie-star records, it deserves honest and heartfelt accolades — not to mention an audience. — Werner Trieschmann
Billy Bob Thornton and the Boxmasters play the Hi-Tone Café Wednesday, August 6th. Doors open at 9 p.m. Admission is $20.