Gary Allan’s Old Hat … The Sounds of Malkovich

A quiet string of guitar eighth-notes rises and falls as drums brush along, and “Smoke Rings in the Dark,” a tune by Nashville singer Gary Allan, takes off in its starlit way. The guy’s romance-he understands it’s past denying-has collapsed. “Eye-ah-eye-ah-ah-eye,” as Mr. Allan phrases it, “know I must be going/ ‘Cause love’s already gone.” All he’s taking with him are the pieces of his broken heart. And all he’s leaving is the sad, stylish residue of tobacco product.

That’s Mr. Allan’s chorus, where the melody of songwriters Rivers Rutherford and Houston Robert’s well-written song stretches out and relaxes, vaguely but importantly like an old Roy Orbison tune. The narrative action occurs at night. In the first verse, Mr. Allan describes the “flame” of the relationship he once enjoyed as now reduced to so many smoke rings; in the second, he sits on the front steps of the house he’s now abandoning and blows them; at the end of the third, he tells the song’s addressee-a sleeping woman-that he won’t wake her, but will touch her face “and drift away/ Like …” You know.

After two albums, Mr. Allan is trying to be something more than a “hat act,” for over a decade a popular Nashville music-industry occupation. Strictly understood, the phrase denotes the wearing by a male country singer of a cowboy hat-even when the country singer does not perform cowboy music, exactly. Yet along the way, the musical achievements of famous hat-wearers like George Strait and Allan Jackson notwithstanding, “hat act” has come to connote a certain flimsiness of artistic intent, a settling for mere radio jingles, for example. And if, like Mr. Allan, you often apply your supple and alert tenor to songs written by others, then the long-term shortcomings of seeming to be a brand of behatted Nashville entertainment construct might seem obvious. Also: George Jones, universally regarded as the greatest living country singer, has shunned hats for over 40 years.

On Smoke Rings in the Dark , the solid album named for his current hit, Mr. Allan wears a hat and manages to emerge not in any way crass. From the sharp retro suit he dons for the cover of his CD to the unencumbered yet tradition-minded ministrations of A-list producers Tony Brown and Mark Wright, Mr. Allan’s album seems to care about what a Nashville singer might logically care about, which is country music. On “Don’t Tell Mama,” a honky-tonk ballad, Mr. Allan sings as someone who gets into an auto accident with the driver of a pickup. When he finds the guy “lying in the grass,” the dying driver, as Mr. Allan seems pained to recall, pleads with Mr. Allan’s character not to tell his mother that he was drinking. “The last thing on his mind,” Mr. Allan sings, “As he left this world behind/ Was knowing someone else’s heart would break.” No matter how moody, poppy or fancy Mr. Allan can be-and throughout Smoke Rings in the Dark he makes all of these moves well-that song could only have come from Nashville.

The Sounds of Malkovich

The soundtrack to Being John Malkovich is as strange and sensible as fans of director Spike Jonze’s recent film about actors and low office ceilings might expect. It begins with Björk, international pop’s Icelandic sorceress of emotional surprise and formal contradiction, in a suspended piece of non-English entitled “Amphibian.” The music prominently features a harp; it’s less beat-happy and liquid than the “Film Mix” of the same song, which provides the album’s finale. At the soundtrack’s beginning, after Björk, however, there’s “Malkovich Masterpiece Remix.” The collage, produced by Mr. Jonze and Mario C, snaps bits of dialogue from the film over street rhythms decorated with loungey piano stylings. The sung interjections consist of lingered-over mantra-like words “Malkovich, Malkovich,” intoned by the great man himself.

But then, after a passage of Bartok’s “Allegro” in the 1995 Cleveland Symphony recording, comes Carter Burwell’s score. It’s weird propriety in aces. Classical in design, romantic in tone, it’s half deliberate movie music rushing to push all the emotional buttons, half scientific inquiry keeping a lofty and disinterested distance. The string playing is super-engaged and gorgeous; the instrumental attacks are ultra-precise. The piano passages lull and sweep, always in fairly modest ways. At one point, Mr. Burwell-who produced and conducted his own score-briefly is heard clueing in his players in rehearsal. He mentions a “high point” at bar 42, explaining that in the scene at hand, the actress Cameron Diaz has just been spit out onto a ditch by the New Jersey Turnpike. One of his players, impulsively enough, hoots. But Mr. Burwell remains unflappable. Like his score.