ABC’s Nashville and NBC’s Smash are both soapy and occasionally ridiculous shows that employ some surprisingly serious music. Nashville is in the middle of its debut season and Smash’s second season starts yesterday (February 5), so now’s the perfect time to size up their musical output. After all, it’s the songs that provide the emotion and power for these two series — partly because Broadway and country have crossed over from sizable niche markets into the mass pop arena (we see you, Tay-Tay!), and partly because the storylines alone are thin and, sometimes, downright silly.
Since the Smash album from last May primarily consisted of weak covers of hits by the likes of Christina Aguilera and Florence + the Machine, we’re going to focus on the original stuff found on the soundtrack for Bombshell — the musical within the show — and pit that against Nashville‘s compilation.
First, a quick refresher: Smash depicts the production of a Broadway show based on Marilyn Monroe. Iconic composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Littman wrote the entire fictional musical, Bombshell, and its real soundtrack is out February 12. Nashville, on the other hand, sheds light on the drama that goes on backstage in the Music City. Prolific producer T-Bone Burnett compiled an incredible roster of songwriters for that series, including Elvis Costello and The Civil Wars‘ John Paul White, and the soundtrack dropped December 11.
Smash holds your attention because of all the Broadway hook-ups and backstabbing, but the musical itself can be stale. Shaiman and Littman clearly know what they’re doing and the references to Monroe’s life are amusing, but as a story told through music, Bombshell simply doesn’t stand up on its own.
Main theme “Let Me Be Your Star” is the album’s highlight. Megan Hilty has a killer soprano lending just the right amounts of desperation and raw talent to the tune, while co-star Katharine McPhee provides, well, the face. Based on the disembodied vocals of the album, there’s no contest as to who should play Marilyn; Hilty is a stage star with the chops to prove it. She’s primarily responsible for the pieces sung in the “Marilyn voice,” and while not poorly composed, those are annoying in that Lana Del Rey baby-talk way. That said, “The National Pastime” is a playful and clever baseball-as-sex metaphor.
There’s also a nice duet by Broadway legend Bernadette Peters and Sophia Caruso. Peters can still wail with the best of them, and she links up with Hilty on “Hang the Moon,” which showcases both actresses’ vocal power. But despite all that firepower, Bombshell just isn’t a quality musical. The album has a few fun tracks and is better than the watered-down covers on the initial Smash release, but it’s not worth owning. Real talk.
Nashville‘s soundtrack is the opposite of Bombshell, in that, when the songs are stripped of the show’s ridiculousness, they often shine brighter. “If I Didn’t Know Better” is a torch song that moves like honey thanks to the electricity between Clare Bowen and Sam Palladio. The pair puts that chemistry to use again for some beautiful harmonies on “When The Right One Comes Along.”
Another star of the soundtrack is Charles Esten, who plays recovering alcoholic Deacon. “Sideshow” is classic country, as Esten sings of unrequited love for Connie Britton‘s character Reina James. He also brings necessary grit to Hayden Pannettiere’s poppy vocals on “Undermine.” Pannettiere plays Juliet Barnes, a Carrie Underwood-meets-Taylor Swift bad girl, and her songs comfortably straddle the line between pop and country, leading to magnetic sing-alongs such as “Love Like Mine.”
As for Britton, she doesn’t have the power sonically that she has visually, so well-composed songs suffer from her thin voice. Esten helps out vocally on the lovely ballad “No One Will Ever Love You,” but “Buried Under” is forgettable. Another weak spot is the country-rock “Twist of Barbwire,” sung in a faux rasp by Jonathan Jackson. Jackson has great charisma, but falters when it comes to his musical ability, which is a shame because this track could’ve injected some edginess into the soundtrack.
“Telescope” is a real treat, which comes from Lennon and Maisy Stella (on repeat!!!)— yes, the two adorable girls whose Robyn cover went viral. The real-life sisters play Britton’s daughters on the show and give the compilation a shot of folksiness, which is a big part of the title city’s mystique.
Overall, Nashville is a solid album with fewer clunkers than Smash. Both shows are frothy diversions, but the country jams on the Nashville soundtrack transcend the soapiness and cohere into a truly enjoyable album. With Smash, the campiness makes the generic melodies actually sing, but the flipside is that Bombshell doesn’t have legs when, well, you’re not staring at a great pair of legs.