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CD Review

Neither comedies nor tragedies

Star power -- and some talent -- drives actors' new releases

Billy Bob Thornton learned to drum when he was 9 and played in a ZZ Top tribute band. Juliette Lewis discovered Black Flag and Iron Maiden when she was a teenager, and nothing was the same after that. Minnie Driver sang in a U K jazz band called Puff, Rocks and Brown , which was briefly signed to a development deal with a label.

Lest they be accused of using their celebrity as launch pads for musical vanity projects, actors who make albums are compelled to wear their musical resumes like badges of honor. And that prompts us to point out that a lot of 9-year-old boys who take drum lessons don't grow up to release country-rock records. Nor should they.

Thornton's fourth album, "Beautiful Door," comes out today, and let's just say it's all relative. Compared to Kevin Bacon and Russell Crowe's catalogs, Thornton's rootsy meditations on life and death are genius. Judged next to his hero , Johnny Cash, Thornton sounds like Monday night at a B-list bar. The only really reliable standard for judging actors-turned-musicians is to ask whether or not the artist would have had a chance in hell of recruiting a marketing and promotion team (anyone can make a record these days) without the built-in star power.

The answer for Lewis -- whose band Juliette and the Licks releases its hard-rocking sophomore effort, "Four on the Floor," today and opens for Chris Cornell at Bank of America Pavilion tonight -- is an unqualified yes. Driver's second album, an Americana collection called "Seastories," was released last week on the local Zoe/Rounder label, and while the disc is a thoroughly inoffensive listen, odds are slim she'd be headlining at the Paradise on Aug. 23 if she weren't a well-known actress.

All three have one thing in common: Being famous means being able to afford good help. Thornton has always surrounded himself with fine collaborators like Marty Stuart, Daniel Lanois, and Dwight Yoakam . "Beautiful Door" isn't a high-wattage affair; veteran session bassist Lee Sklar and singer Graham Nash make signature contributions, but Thornton's trad country tunes are given the sturdy, low-key treatments they deserve. This is humble music -- tough-and-tender, meat-and-potatoes twang. The spoken-word passages that peppered Thornton's previous albums are gone, and it's a shame: Thornton's a better speaker than singer (hence the acting gig). His good-old-boy drawl of a singing voice includes an annoying slide down to a low note at the close of nearly every phrase, and those phrases veer dangerously close to high school poetry.

"I sit here in my lonely room/ Sunshine breaks the dusty gloom/ And spots the magazine on the table/ Your cover girl eyes burn right through me," Thornton sings on "Hearts Like Mine." Maybe it's about his ex-wife, Angelina Jolie, which would make the song vaguely interesting. Elsewhere Thornton turns his attention to religious fanaticism ("Beautiful Door"), the ravages of war ("Hope For Glory" and "Restin' Your Soul" ), visitations from the spirit world ("It's Just Me"), and his own OCD ("Always Countin' " ).

Lewis is no Shakespeare either, but literary depth isn't what she was going for with titles like "Hot Kiss" and "Sticky Honey ." Lewis rocks. She rocks like the scrawny, unhinged spawn of Iggy Pop and PJ Harvey -- borrowing liberally but also putting it over with the sort of raw feel that simply can't be cultivated. Lewis's big-name collaborator is Foo Fighters frontman (and former Nirvana drummer) Dave Grohl, who dusted off his kit to play on some demos when the Licks' drummer departed suddenly, and stayed on to record the album tracks. His punishing rhythms are the backbone of bluesy speedballs like "Smash and Grab" and "Killer," coiled, creepy "Inside the Cage," and swaggering "Death of a Whore.' '

Lewis stumbles on "Get Up," a toothless homage to the Who, although it's fun to hear Grohl bust out his best Keith Moon. The album wraps with a tender ballad, "Are You Happy," and a hidden track, a grungy lounge tune called "Lucky For You." They arrive like parents at the door of an unchaperoned party -- a wet-blanket finish for a joyride of a record.

Driver surrounded herself on all sides with music pros, which was a good idea. Ryan Adams, Liz Phair, Pete Yorn (who produced the album under his nom de plume, Marc "Doc" Dauer ), Adams' band the Cardinals, and Wallflowers keyboardist Rami Jaffe lend glowing layers to the mild-mannered alt-country and lilting ballads that pile up like so many pleasantries on "Seastories." Driver's singing voice is as pretty and unremarkable as her songwriting; both are solid enough to move easily from a folk waltz ("Stars & Satellites" ) to ethereal blues ("Cold Dark River" ) to earthy rock ("Mary" ) without seeming burdened.

In fact a little more affliction would have served this dispassionate set, which reaches its lyrical nadir on the closing track. "You are something/ And we are nothing/ But love is good," Driver sings, gently. If you crave something more soulful, look no further than the FX television series "The Riches" -- starring Minnie Driver, the actress.

Joan Anderman can be reached at For more on music visit music/blog.