It's not exactly The Battle of the Network Stars, what with one of the participants' being more famous as a film star than a TV star, but the new albums by the actors Jeff Bridges (Jeff Bridges [Blue Note]) and Hugh Laurie (Let Them Talk [Warner Bros.]) bear being pitted against each other if only because together (and at loggerheads) they say more about ambition, its attendant pitfalls, and how to avoid some of them than they would alone.
One statement they make is that ambition and pride need not be synonymous. Neither Laurie nor Bridges comes off the way Bruce Willis did, for instance, when at the height of his Moonlighting career in 1987 he released The Return of Bruno-i.e., like a celebrity cashing in on his renown while the cashing in is good.
Rather, both Laurie and Bridges have approached their latest projects with a seriousness that's obvious just from a perusal of the credits. Both have enlisted first-rate producers (T Bone Burnett in Bridges' case, Joe Henry in Laurie's) who have in turn enlisted first-rate supporting casts, and neither has insisted on "expressing" himself by hogging the songwriting.
Quite the opposite, in fact. Bridges' name appears on only four of his 11 tracks (and two of those as a co-writer), while Laurie sticks strictly to a setlist of blues and jazz classics (15 on the basic edition, 18 on the deluxe), leading off, appropriately enough given the character he plays on House, with "St. James Infirmary."
But, if his intention was to submerge his ego or to make his affection for blues and jazz unmistakable, his settling for many of the most overperformed songs in those genres will have people who love jazz and the blues as much as Laurie does comparing his renditions of songs like "Buddy Bolden's Blues," "John Henry," and "It Ain't Necessarily So" to those of other performers and-well, it will have such listeners concluding that perhaps those for whom singing the blues is a calling rather than an avocation do it better.
Not that Laurie sings or plays the piano badly. He does both adequately at least when not doing both adequately at best. Perhaps next time he'll find 15 or 18 old blues and jazz songs that haven't been over-recorded and thereby not only avoid the problem of unflattering comparisons but also introduce his audience to music they might not otherwise discover.
Bridges' album doesn't contain any blues or jazz (although it's easy to imagine the chord changes of "Tumbling Vine" surviving and maybe flourishing under jazz treatment), no doubt because it's an outgrowth of his Academy Award-winning performance as the deliquescent country singer "Bad" Blake in the 2009 film Crazy Heart.
It is not, however, a direct outgrowth so much as a fruition, a reaping of what was sown during the recording of the Crazy Heart soundtrack on which Bridges sang five songs and held his own amid performances by the likes of Buck Owens, Waylon Jennings, and the Louvin Brothers.
Although a steel guitar occasionally weeps in the background, Jeff Bridges is less a country album than a soul-searching folk-rock album with country echoes. Frankly, it might not even sound all that country to anyone who doesn't associate it with Bridges' portrayal of Bad Blake. But whatever it is, Bridges' sandpaper-tenor voice suits it well.
Now for the irony: By at least partially inhabiting a character-a fiction-Bridges has made a more believable and individualistic human statement than Hugh Laurie has by completely shedding the character of Dr. Gregory House.