Five Surprisingly Great Songs from Actors' Vanity Albums
We're not promising anything about James Franco's new EP, but we love us some Shatner.
James Franco's quest to become master of every art form has finally been extended to music — his new EP with Kalup Linzy comes out this week. This was probably inevitable, given Franco's history and the fact that albums like this are as common as celebrity fragrances. (Incidentally, it's only a matter of time before we're spritzing ourselves with Dilettante, by James Franco.) The ears of our collective unconscious are littered with the detritus of multiple vanity projects by actors who thought, perhaps because of the cocaine, that their talents could extend to music. The results are usually awful, sometimes okay, and occasionally so out-of-left awesome that they'd be worth listening to no matter who made them. Here are five musical vanity projects that turned out to be surprisingly listenable.
1. "Movin'" by Jeff Bridges, from Be Here Soon
Jeff Bridges's surprisingly authentic turn as "Bad Blake" in Crazy Heart was no surprise at all — if you were one of perhaps four people that heard his 2000 collaboration with Michael McDonald, Be Here Soon. Though the thought of two severely white men exploring typically black music might make you cringe, it's actually a relaxed, grooving affair, with a killer backing band and vocals that you could peg as The Dude's from a mile away. "Movin'" is a semi-ridiculous reggae-inflected affair, but loosen your skinny jeans, crack a Corona, and try not to tap your foot — Bridges' good nature is infectious. And if this is a warm-up for his next album, due in August, I foresee good things, particularly since he's working with T-Bone Burnett, who is best known for not being an ex-Doobie Brother.
2. "Gran Torino" by Clint Eastwood, from Gran Torino
Clint's been singing over his movies for a while (check out his sandpapery, swingin' take on "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), but "Gran Torino," from
Dirty Harry VI: Get Off My Lawn the film of the same name is a surprisingly emotional ballad that Eastwood composed himself. Though wispy Irish jazzbo Jamie Cullum takes over for most of the song, it's oddly affecting to hear The Man With No Name rasping his way through a ballad about a car. It's hard not to think of Tom Waits when you hear Eastwood's growl over the drifting chords, but the obvious debt doesn't take away from the fact that it's a tender song written by someone almost as devoted to music and jazz tradition as he is to cinema.
Listen: "Gran Torino"
3. "Has Been" by William Shatner, from Has Been
William Shatner's music has achieved cult status entirely separate from his acting status. Endlessly parodied and endlessly entertaining, the Shat is an easy target, to be sure. But his most recent album, Has Been, is a remarkably affecting collaboration with Ben Folds. Has Been featured, among other things, a profoundly rockin' cover of Pulp's "Common People," but I'm going to instead focus on the title track, a rollicking, Western-themed tune that ends up sounding like a lost Ween B-side. In between "Ghost Riders in the Sky"-esque backing vocals, Shatner takes on the haters in a way that's both poetic and cutting. "Has been…" he intones, "might again."
Listen: "Has Been"
4. "My Body's a Zombie for You," by Dead Man's Bones (Ryan Gosling), from Dead Man's Bones
Ryan Gosling seems like an odd choice for one half of an indie band, but his collaboration with Zach Shields is a rollicking venture that wouldn't sound out of place next to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, Arcade Fire, or any of their echo-drenched ilk. Perhaps because of his legion of swooning female fans, Gosling's still a little underrated as an actor — people know him for The Notebook, but he's made a number of more idiosyncratic choices in recent years. This project fits in well with more offbeat Gosling movies like Half Nelson and The Believer. The tinkly pianos, acoustic guitars, and children's choir add up to a surprisingly atmospheric, swooning track.
Listen: "My Body's a Zombie for You"
5. "Party All the Time" by Eddie Murphy, from How Could It Be
Long before Vampire in Brooklyn, before the whole transvestite hooker thing, and certainly long before the Scary Spice baby-daddy drama, there was a time when Eddie Murphy was simply untouchable. During this period, Murphy had a bit of a singing career going, the culmination of which was the Rick James collaboration "Party All the Time." The album it came from, How Could It Be, got horrendous reviews, but Robert Christgau rightfully identified the single as James' best song in years, and while Murphy never really sang anything else worth listening to, it remains an irresistible piece of pop-funk. It's definitely twice as good as Rockwell's "Somebody's Watching Me," and possibly as good as "Suddenly" by Bill Ocean.
Listen: "Party All the Time"