It's a blessing and a curse that one half of Dead Man's Bones is Academy Award-nominated actor Ryan Gosling. It's a blessing because Gosling and his partner, Zach Shields, undoubtedly got more attention for their self-titled debut album than they would have otherwise, and something of a curse because it may not be seen for as genuine a project as it is. Shields and Gosling originally conceived of Dead Man's Bones as a horror-themed musical, but kept the songs they had written when they realized putting on a stage production would be too expensive. Despite the high concept, Dead Man's Bones are pretty far from a vanity project -- if anything, they're the opposite, with Gosling and Shields stretching far from their comfort zones at almost every turn. They played instruments they'd never touched before making the album, and brought in the Silverlake Conservatory of Music Children's Choir to add young voices to their virtually untrained ones. They also set rules for themselves while recording: no electric guitars or click tracks were allowed, and they could only do three takes for any given part. All of this gives Dead Man's Bones the feeling -- in the best possible way -- of a bootleg recording of an elaborate grade-school Halloween pageant. By embracing their amateurism so completely, Gosling and Shields turn any weaknesses into strengths, and while influences ranging from the Arcade Fire and Beirut to Roy Orbison to the Langley Schools Music Project to Disneyland's Haunted Mansion ride can be heard, the way Dead Man's Bones combine them is unique. Over the course of the album, the duo covers an array of moods and sounds that more experienced musicians would be glad to express. These songs range from gentle ("Dead Hearts"' spectral folk) to dark and driving ("Lose Your Soul") to fiery (the Nick Cave-esque "Dead Man's Bones"), and sometimes all at once. Some of the most striking tracks mix jubilant music with images of death -- or undeath, in the case of "My Body's a Zombie for You," where the kids can't help but shout out the chorus as Gosling croons like a zombie-fied '50s teen idol. Dead Man's Bones also do a fine job of balancing the campy and spiritual aspects of a concept album about love, death, and undeath. "In the Room Where You Sleep" is gleefully terrifying; "Young & Tragic," the only song the Silverlake Conservatory kids sing on their own, uses their delicate, flawed voices to express something deeper. Throughout it all, there is a "hey, kids, let's put on a show!" exuberance that makes the album all the more winning. Dead Man's Bones isn't perfect, but it's often fascinating and nearly always charming -- and Shields and Gosling wouldn't have it any other way.
AllMusic Review by Heather Phares