by Jeff Fiedler
Common Thread is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which we offer up mini-reviews of a small (and often very diverse) assortment of albums that all have one specific shared trait; that "common thread" can vary from column to column.
The Futurist, Robert Downey, Jr. (2004, Sony Classical)
The versatile and wildly talented Downey, Jr. has long had a gift for re-inventing himself. Initially getting his start in such big-screen comedies as Weird Science, Back to School and Johnny Be Good while also doing a short-lived stint as a cast member on SNL (alongside Dennis Miller, Jon Lovitz, Joan Cusack, Randy Quaid, Damon Wayans and Anthony Michael Hall), Downey would eventually take on more serious and dramatic roles in films like Less Than Zero and Chaplin. In the early ‘00s, he’d take a crack at sitcoms with a much-lauded supporting role on Ally McBeal. After bravely overcoming his battle with drug addiction, he’d just as unexpectedly begin a new career as a crowd-pleasing action-hero star of such big-screen fare as the Iron Man, Avengers and Sherlock Holmes movies. Just as impressively, Downey briefly tried his hand as a recording artist with this moody, art-pop album (produced by Jonathan Elias and Mark Hudson) comprised mostly of originals like “Man Like Me” (and a pair of covers, one of Yes’ “Your Move,” featuring backing vocals from Yes frontman Jon Anderson himself, and the other a cover of, fittingly enough, the Charlie Chaplin-penned timeless standard “Smile.”) The album didn’t do much commercially, reaching only #121, but those who did hear the record were simply awed at just how beautiful the album is, and the disc, much like William Shatner’s Has-Been, has become something of a cult classic among hardcore music aficionados and acknowledged as one of the most surprisingly good albums ever released by a full-time actor. Sadly, Downey has gone on record as saying he’s not likely to ever make another record, but if that’s indeed the case, you certainly can’t ask for a much more beautiful one-and-done outing.
7 Days in Memphis, Peter Gallagher (2005, Epic)
Best known for his supporting roles in such films as While You Were Sleeping, the criminally underrated Bill Murray comedy The Man Who Knew Too Little, American Beauty, and Sex, Lies and Videotape and the small-screen teen drama The O.C. (and, of course, his famous ever-distinctive eyebrows), Gallagher unexpectedly took a crack in 2005 at making his own soul-pop album, heading down to the legendary Ardent Studios and even getting Steve Cropper to serve as leader of his backing band for the record. There is no original material here, but then, there’s no need for there to be – Gallagher turns out to be such a surprisingly strong, soulful, and nuanced singer and injects such freshness into these songs – including the Casinos’ “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye,” Solomon Burke’s “Don’t Give Up on Me” Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” Gary Moore’s “Still Got the Blues,” and Sam & Dave’s “When Something Is Wrong with My Baby” – that you nearly forget that some of these songs are covers and simply marvel at the passion Gallagher has brought to the table here.
Seastories, Minnie Driver (2007, Zoe/Rounder)
Unlike, say, Zooey Deschanel (star of The New Girl and one-half of the duo She & Him with M. Ward) and Scarlett Johansson (who stunned audiences everywhere by dropping a full-length of Tom Waits covers), Minnie Driver hasn’t received much in the way of critical respect or cult fandom as a recording artist, never mind commercial success. Nonetheless, she's arguably a more appealing vocalist than either, and the star of such delightful films as Good Will Hunting, Return to Me, and the offbeat comedy Grosse Pointe Blank has quietly released a tasteful trilogy of easygoing, dreamy alt-country discs that have found her collaborating with such respectable talents as Ryan Adams and Liz Phair. This is arguably the best of her three discs, sporting such appealing tunes as “Stars and Satellites” and “How to Be Good.”
Let Them Talk, Hugh Laurie (2011, Warner Bros.)
House viewers may have been shocked to see the British actor and the star of the Fox medical dramedy try his hand as a recording star, but it shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise to those who were familiar with Laurie’s prior screen credits – he’d performed many an original song during the four seasons of the side-splittingly funny British sketch-comedy series he had starred in with longtime friend Stephen Fry, A Bit of Fry and Laurie. (The two men had also co-starred together in the early-‘80s sketch-comedy series Alfresco, also featuring a young Emma Thompson, and the much-loved comedy/drama Jeeves and Wooster.) As it turns out, Laurie has a particular affinity for blues and New Orleans jazz, even opening with a cover of the blues standard “St. James Infirmary,” and this album boasts cameos from the likes of Irma Thomas and Dr. John. Laurie’s passion for this sort of music is obvious and helps mask what few shortcomings he might have as a vocalist. One would hope he wouldn’t give up acting to do music full-time – the man is simply far too funny to give up comedy entirely, and he’s long-overdue for another hosting stint on SNL, a show that’s made great use of his extensive history as a sketch-comedy performer – but this disc is nonetheless a fun one.
Love Has Come for You, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell (2013, Rounder)
The legendary stand-up comic and star of such classic big-screen films as Three Amigos, Parenthood, My Blue Heaven, The Jerk, and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, to name just a few (despite common misconception, he was never an SNL cast member, though he has hosted the show on fourteen different occasions), Martin released many a commercially successful album of stand-up routines between 1977 and 1981 (highlighted by 1978’s laugh-‘til-your-sides-hurt A Wild and Crazy Guy, which also yielded an unlikely Top 40 hit in the novelty number “King Tut.”) Martin wouldn’t release another album for several decades, but when he did (with 2009’s The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo), it was not as a comedian but as a bluegrass artist. (This wasn’t as left-field as it might seem, though, since Martin had frequently played the banjo onstage as part as of his stand-up act and was a surprisingly good picker.) Even more intriguing was this very-much-serious full-length bluegrass/folk collaboration with the former frontwoman for the late ‘80s alt-rock act the New Bohemians. (Again, this wasn’t nearly as unlikely a collaboration as you might think: Brickell was married to Martin’s longtime friend Paul Simon.) This delightful nostalgia-tinged affair (produced by the legendary Peter Asher, best known for his work with James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt) is both moving and playful and also features appearances from Esperanza Spalding and Nickel Creek’s Sean and Sara Watkins. Martin and Brickell have since gone to make a second, equally appealing bluegrass disc together, 2015’s So Familiar.
Down in a Hole, Kiefer Sutherland (2016, Warner Bros./Ironworks)
The star of the wildly successful action series 24 and Designated Survivor and countless films ranging from The Lost Boys, Stand By Me, and Young Guns to Phone Booth and The Sentinel may have seemed like an especially unlikely candidate on paper to moonlight as a recording star, but those more closely familiar with Sutherland’s background shouldn’t have been so surprised. Sutherland not only was a music buff, but he and longtime buddy Jude Cole – an alumnus of the much-beloved power-pop band The Records and a former solo star (“Baby, It’s Tonight,” “Time for Letting Go”) who’d gone on to be the producer and co-writer for Lifehouse – teamed up to buy and run their own recording studio, Ironworks,, eventually also starting a record label of the same name. Naturally, when Kiefer finally mustered up the courage to make his own album, he recruited Cole to write and produce with him, and the two men turn in a surprisingly convincing country album, one highlighted by the shockingly pretty ballad “Not Enough Whiskey.”