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by Bill Gibron

11 Nov 2008

A soundtrack, by its very definition, is a supplement. It’s not meant to overshadow the movie, or make a statement separate from the vision of the director, actors, producers, etc. At its best, it’s a seamless interpretation of the moments, a way to enhance the drama, amplify the comedy, misdirect the suspense, or rev up the action. It’s a cog in the machinery, a part leading up to a much bigger whole. But there are times when the creativity of a composer can be much, much more to a piece of media. It can be the missing element in an otherwise uninspired effort, the memorable bit out of 90 minutes (or more) or boredom. It can be the saving grace, the aural albatross, the defining facet, or the last straw on a cinematic camel’s already broken back. When it works, it works wonderfully. When it doesn’t, it draws far too much attention to itself.

In this edition of SE&L’s Surround Sound, we will look at four examples of scores as symbols, each one pointing to a problem or potential pitfall in their production. In each case, the sounds employed and the themes explored say more about the movie (or in a rare bit of diversity, the graphic novel) being supported than the entity had to offer itself. In fact, it’s safe to say that in the case of these soundtracks, the artists involved had an idea for what to say that differed somewhat from the initial intent of the project. Only in one case does it work out for all involved. In the rest of the situations, the sound flounders. By bucking the trends and pushing outside the boundaries, these collections also manage to patch holes that other aesthetic aspects (acting, cinematography, writing) couldn’t correct. Let’s b begin with the best:

Spooks - The Original Score [rating: 8]

It’s not everyday that a comic book gets its own soundtrack - but then again, not every pen and ink title is Spooks. Originally released in a four part series back in February of 2008, this past July saw all the material collected together to form a full blown graphic novel adaptation. With a new short story as a bonus and the reinsertion of some unnecessarily deleted material, this tale of a military-based ‘ghostbusters’ that “keeps humanity safe from things that go bump in the night” has oversized ambitions out the Fifth Dimension. While the book itself was unavailable for review, Adelph Records sent out copies of the limited edition score for critics to contemplate. One things for sure - composers Lalo Schifrin and Andy Garfield sure have their hookey homages down pat.

Sounding like what would result if Paul Verhoeven and Michael Bay got really really drunk, had the ability to procreate, and ended up doing the dirty deed, the Spooks soundtrack is a short but sweet loony lark. This overblown pomp and pseudo-epic circumstance is brilliantly cheesy and absolutely pitch perfect. One can easily imagine over-pumped future marines kicking werewolf butt while lost in the middle of a warlock’s coven. Granted, “Omega Team” sounds like a rejected theme song for the supernatural people’s court, and “Zach and Felicia” has the flavor of a ‘70s TV movie wrapped in a velvet David Lynch longing, and there are far too many nods to John Williams and his entire Star Worn-out space operatics. But for something meant to complement an already larger than life concept, Spooks is sensational.

Appaloosa - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 5]

Westerns used to be the bread and campfire butter of multiple old school mediums. Between radio and early television, film and comic tie-ins, Cowboys and Indians set the standard for many an entertainment ideal. That they dropped in popularity was not a question of quality. It was almost exclusively a matter of overkill. Now, almost five decades later, the genre is experiencing a kind of renaissance. Films like The Proposition, 3:10 to Yuma, and Ed Harris’ recent Appaloosa reintroduced the dynamic to a cynical and sheltered generation. In the case of the latter of these otherwise fine efforts, the story of a pair of lawmen trying to bring justice to a small settlement has its problems (namely, the casting of Renee Zellweger), but overall, it was a wonderful update on a stock cinematic style. Heck, Harris even crooned the movie’s “love theme”, just like days gone by.

Similarly to listening to a cowpoke concocting his own surreal take on New Orleans jazz, Jeff Beal’s oddball backdrop for Harris’ horse opera is endlessly fascinating. In the end, however, it’s also entirely flat. It’s the kind of soundtrack that needs the actual images to make a lick of sense. Take track four, for example. Entitled “Allison French”, we are supposed to get a real feeling for Zellweger’s coquettish character. There is even a hint of duplicity in the melody (which happens to be appropriate). Instead, it sounds like the opening to an episode of High Chaparral. Elsewhere, inadvertent moments of improvisation are probably meant to suggest the “American-ness” of the project, how its Western sensibility really matches with other ‘USA-A-OK’ elements. But it’s an uncomfortable match. Tracks like “Dawn in Appaloosa” have a loose, funky feel. Yet other material like “Cole and Hitch Stalk Bragg” sound like incomplete tone poems. For a thoroughly winning film, Beal’s score is only partially satisfying.

Max Payne - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 2]

Marco Beltrami has quite an impressive resume. A partial list of the films he’s scored includes Mimic, Resident Evil, Hellboy, Terminator III: Rise of the Machines, and last year’s winning Western 3:10 to Yuma (for which he received a well deserved Oscar nom). The winner of numerous ASCAP awards, as well as the holder of a formidable geek fanbase, you’d swear he was a true genre genius. Yet in collaboration with longtime production partner Buck Sanders, his work on the videogame turned big screen snoozefest Max Payne argues against both his talent and timelessness. For a movie already confused about its tone, and totally schizophrenic in its storytelling, this is one soundtrack that does little to help in our understanding. In some ways, Beltrami’s blasts of insignificant sound only add to our befuddlement. 

Truth be told, the score for Payne is a series of orchestral farts followed up by unnecessary techno lifts from The Matrix and any other implausible predictable post-modern thriller. Instead of setting a mood and atmosphere, Beltrami gets in, passes a little symphonic gas, and then disappears into the filmmaking firmament. None of the tracks are memorable here. Interchangeable titles like “Deathlab”, “Storming the Office” and “Factoring Max” are like blank canvases occasionally blotted with uninspired sonics. There is no tension or style, no real feeling for the movie’s mindless addiction to slo-motion chaos. Instead, we get a purposeful placing of notes, followed by a close facsimile to something resembling a soundtrack. It’s instantly forgettable - which in many ways reflects the feature film experience flawlessly.

The Express - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 4]

Ernie Davis’s story is inspirational. It’s also perplexing. As an icon, he holds a singular place in sports memory - college or otherwise. He’s the first African American ever to win the Heisman Trophy. It was an achievement his predecessor at Syracuse, the legendary running back Jim Brown, never managed to achieve. He also helped his team win a National Championship, a high tension game played against the backdrop of a racially charged Cotton Bowl deep in the heart of a segregated Texas. But for some reason, his myth has been marginalized, forgotten and faded from the memory of all but the most dedicated football fan. He deserves better. That being said, the cinematic interpretation of his life was supposed to jumpstart his reconsideration. Instead, it ended up flopping, playing like Brian’s Song without the sentimentality or staying power. 

Oddly enough, the soundtrack is even more disconcerting. If you didn’t know that The Express was just your standard feel-good five hankey sports film with the horrendous cloud of racism hanging over its collection of formulaic clichés, you’d swear it was the most dour and disturbing drama this side of Grave of the Fireflies. Mark Isham may have a long history as both a recording artist and helmer of major motion pictures (Quiz Show, Crash, Lions for Lambs, to name just a few) but he completely misses the point here. Instead of being uplifting and generous of spirit, tracks like “A Meeting” and “Don’t Lose Yourselves” sound like funeral dirges retrofitted for a pragmatic purpose. Even events which call out for celebration, like “Heisman” or “Draft”, are unexpectedly downbeat. Isham may have been trying to underscore Davis’ meteoric rise with his doomed date with destiny, but The Express needed more heart to battle the history. This soundtrack offers neither.

by Sean Murphy

10 Nov 2008

When Obama takes office in January of 2009, it will be a half-century since Free Jazz forefather Ornette Coleman dropped the provocatively titled “The Shape of Jazz to Come”. 1959 was a watershed year for jazz music (arguably the greatest single year for jazz in all history–which is saying a LOT). Here’s a taste: Miles Davis “Kind of Blue”, John Coltrane “Giant Steps”, Charles Mingus “Ah Um”. That is like the holy trinity of jazz music; all from the same year. But in the not-so-silent shadows a young, relatively unknown alto saxophonist was poised to fire the musical shot heard ’round the world–a shot that still reverberates today. “Kind of Blue” is correctly celebrated for establishing modal music, and a genuine evolution from bop and post-bop; “Giant Steps” is the apotheosis of the “sheets of sound” that John Coltrane had been practicing and perfecting for a decade; “Ah Um” is an enyclopedic history of jazz music, covering everyone and everything from Jelly Roll Morton to Duke Ellington. And each of those albums were immediately embraced, and remain recognized as genuine milestones today.

But “The Shape of Jazz to Come” was incendiary and complicated: it inspired as much resistance as it did inspiration. Some folks (Mingus included) bristled that it was all so much sound and fury, signifying…little. But what Coleman (along with trumpet player Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins–representing as solid a quartet as any that have made music, ever) achieved was, arguably, the most significant advancement since Charlie Parker hit the scene. Of course, Parker was also misunderstood and dismissed when his frenetic, almost incomprehensibly advanced alto saxophone assault began to cause scales to drop from audiences’ eyes–if not their ears. Like any genuine iconoclast of the avant garde, Parker and Coleman were not being new for newness sake; they had to fully grasp and master the idiom before they could transcend it. Tellingly, what was revolutionary and almost confrontational, then, seems rather tame and entirely sensible, now. Of course, it didn’t take 50 years for Coleman to resonate: he not only found his audience, John Coltrane–the all-time heavyweight champion–embraced his compatriot. He endorsed, and, crucially, he imitated. The Book of Revelation that Coltrane’s mid-’60s Impulse recordings comprise did, in many respects, grow directly out of the opening salvo fired by Coleman in ‘59.

Coleman’s compositions are nakedy emotional, unabashedly intense, totally human. Like the best jazz music, all of the instruments are communicating. What they are saying are different things, at different times, to different people. That is the power of this music. It was the soundtrack for a truly unique and momentous time in American history. It remains, more so than ever, the soundtrack of now.

by Bill Gibron

10 Nov 2008

Right now, it’s only a rumor, and if the gods of film are paying attention, here’s hoping it stays that way. Granted, Variety is not some nerd dominated rag given over to the spurious reporting of half truths, but when one reads an item like this, it naturally leads to questions of journalistic integrity. Can it really be true? Can the king of the blockbuster, Steven Spielberg, really be considering a remake of Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy with none other than the Prince of July 4th, Will Smith, in the lead? Somewhere, in his isolated basement bedroom, a film geek is quietly weeping.

For those totally unfamiliar with Park’s disturbing effort, the pairing of Smith and Spielberg may seem like a natural. After all, both men excel at bringing larger than life entertainments to the big screen, and yet each one is quite capable of the smaller, and yet still mainstream friendly film. That the two haven’t hooked up before is one of those Tinsel Town truths that just seems false. After all, they represent the reach of the artform, both commercially and culturally. But those who know Oldboy understand what a major miscalculation this is. The disturbing, violent revenge flick is about as far outside each artist’s comfort zone as creatively possible.

Oldboy centers on the story of unimportant businessman Dae-su Oh and wealthy playboy Woo-jin Lee. The former has been ‘wrongfully’ imprisoned for 15 years. The latter apparently has the means - and more importantly, the motive - to affect such a severe personal punishment. Within such a set up, we are treated to a brutal, sometimes beautiful narrative, Park exploring the nature of retribution and past mistakes as part of a three film trilogy on the subject. Oldboy falls in the middle, between Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance. It’s also the film critic turned director’s most recognizable and acclaimed international hit.

Now, no one is saying that Spielberg and Smith can’t handle the action. Both men have made movies where edge of your seat thrills is one of the picture’s main purposes. And the nasty nature of some of the sequences could be toned down for Western tastes without losing much of their blood-drenched import or dynamic. Even issues of age, cultural philosophy, and narrative ambiguity could be handled by these Hollywood heavyweights. No, where the main issue with Oldboy comes is in the translation department, and the subject matter requiring adaptation. In this manner, it seems surreal that two superstars not known for controversy would court same in such a blatant, box office unfriendly manner.

For those who have not see Oldboy, the next few paragraphs are going to be loaded with SPOILERS, so perhaps it’s better to stop reading now. For those who love Park’s original, the material mentioned here is the 800lb gorilla in the screening room. You see, the main subtext in the conflict between Dae-su and Woo-jin is incest. One blames the other for starting a vicious rumor that lead his sister to suicide. As a result, Dae-su is kidnapped on his daughter’s birthday, hidden away for 15 years, and then when released, given a limited time frame to find out why. So Dae-su spends most of the movie playing pissed off detective, destroying those who stole his life from him.

Naturally, there’s a love interest. But leave it to Park to play perverted and disturbing with the genre formulas. When Dae-su meets the lovely Mi-Do, he doesn’t realize that they are related. Indeed, all throughout Oldboy, Park slowly peels back the narrative layers to reveal that Woo-jin, angry that his former classmate may have driven his sibling to her death, plots a sickeningly savage payback. Just as the rumor of incest (and the truth, perhaps) led to one tragedy, Woo-jin orchestrates Dae-su’s capture and torture to lure his victim into the arms of a woman - his own daughter. It’s a disturbed little denouement, and one that offers up Oldboy‘s final act of personal attrition.

With an ambiguous ending that suggests Dae-su and Mi-Do may stay together after all, and an unhealthy kind of karmic realignment, Oldboy is indeed a masterpiece. It’s visually stunning, while announcing Park (and the entire South Korean film industry, for that matter) as a post-millennial foreign voice worth considering. When it was released in 2003, it caused a sensation. Festival audiences lucky enough to see it where left drained, while messageboards began the inevitable debates and deconstructions. Even as it was finding its niche on DVD, talks began about the almost automatic Hollywood remake. While such names as Harvey Keitel and Nicholas Cage were mentioned as potential stars, nothing really solid came out of such suggestions.

While no one is claiming that Smith and Spielberg can’t handle themselves professionally, one senses something wrong with either choice. Park’s problem in Oldboy was making his generally nasty anti-hero into something sympathetic, while the villain is veiled in the kind of upper class snobbery and personal charisma that makes him simultaneously easy and hard to hate. Mi-Do is neither victim nor vixen. Instead, she’s a sad girl, desperate to cling to something to make up for her vacant, painful past. So where, exactly, in either man’s creative canon does such subtle complexity lie. Spielberg’s most ambitious drama was also his most obvious - Schindler’s List. He didn’t have to do much to make the Holocaust horrific. Smith, on the other hand, has a couple of feel good dramas under his belt (The Pursuit of Happyness, the upcoming Six Pounds), but most everything else is tinged with humor.

The notion of Mr. Fresh Prince taking on Dae-su’s unfathomable ordeal, a journey which transports the character from nobody to prisoner to insanity to murder to sex to scandal to self-mutilation is one drenched in Eastern values and precepts. Smith may be able to battle angry extraterrestrials, light-sensitive zombies, and CG creations of all shapes and size, but we’ve never really seen him attack personal demons in a deliberate way. Indeed, much of what Smith does as an actor is outward. Even in this past Summer’s Hancock, when he had to play sullen and disconnected, his moroseness seemed to come from the exterior of his character. While he’s done good work in many films, Smith seems wrong for Dae-su’s complicated dimensions.

And since when has Spielberg shuttled his famous feel good framework to delve into the depraved. Oldboy would be a better challenge for Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky, or David Fincher than the man who made dinos and darling little aliens into cinematic stalwarts. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with mixing things up a bit, to fly outside your ‘worked before’ ways. Even something like Munich played indirectly into his larger than life, broader in scope designs. Perhaps if the right script came along, one anticipating the problems both men bring to the table, this version of Oldboy could work. But one senses that Smith, already betrothed to the terrible Akiva Goldsman (must be part of the Devil’s standard contractual lingo), will make sure things stay suspicious.

While one hopes that the story turns out to be a hoax, or better yet, a PR move to determine the industry reaction to such a pairing and project, fans should stop complaining and realize that an Americanized Oldboy was always part of the plan. The ‘who’ and ‘when’ were the only unsettled issues. If Smith and Spielberg pull it off - great. They will prove many a proposed pundit wrong. But if they take the material and turn it into something like City of Angels (the sappy, crappy Wings of Desire remake) or any number of cheap, charmless J-Horror revamps, everyone loses. Of course, Smith and Spielberg will retreat to their palatial positions as industry icons and go about their box office business. The fate of Park’s potent meditation on mankind and misery is another question entirely. 

by Roman Kuebler

10 Nov 2008

When Baltimore’s Oranges Band announced that they were headed into the studio to begin work on their new record, having soldiered through personnel changes and struggles at their label, Lookout Records, it seemed like an excellent time to catch up and to allow them to speak for themselves by cataloging the happenings.  Blog entries One through Five tracked them from the very beginning of pulling the band together for the first time in the studio, to laying the album down piece to piece, to looking into just why albums can sometimes take so incredibly long to finish.  In entry six, with the album largely tracked [Editor’s Note: It sounds incredible], Oranges Band frontman Roman Kuebler takes somewhat of a break from writing about the experience of recording to providing the photos that come along with it.—Jon Langmead


This is the all photo episode.  We had a few guests in while recording this album and I remembered to snap a few pictures here and there (and Dave took a few also).  Thanks to them for their contributions! Listed below the photos are links to their respective musical outputs so visit them and tell ‘em I sent ya. (I’ll get a cut of the profit if you do!)

The tape machine. A Sony JH-24 if you are interested. Use tape y’all, it’s like someone is softly whispering your songs back in your ear as you fall asleep.

Producer/Engineer Adam Cooke through the glass.

Mandy Koch (Karmella’s Game), Shawna Potter (Avec), and kicked out the background vocals for our most wannabe dance-y, ESG, “Steam”-era Peter Gabriel track to date, “When Your Mask Is Your Revealing Feature”. 

Roman does the conducting!  (Really, I was just trying to stay out the way…)

Jim Glass (Impossible Hair) is a straight-up legend! If the Oranges Band album were a play, Jim would be playing the part of Peter Murphy from Bauhaus.

Jim Glass up close and personable. Jim also does an incredible Andy Partridge of XTC, but that would be a different play.

Pat Martin (Oranges Band bass playing dude) is the least intimidating security dude ever, according to his press release. I wish the rest of the staff at the Ottobar were Koala bears.

Pat Martin is ready to field your calls.

I was afraid that my recording blog was a little lacking in technical detail so I include, for those who care about these things, a picture of rack mounted objects with knobs and screens and needles that we probably used to make our album sound so much better.

I think what I really want to do is ONLY play tambourine in bands.  I guess I’ll need to go back in time and join the Shangri-Las… or the Feelies, they had a percussionist, right? Weirdos.

RATSIZE!  We needed gang vocals on one of our songs… so I found a gang called Ratsize. Noel Danger, Matt Gabs, Pat Martin (L-R).

Noel Danger does NOT fuck around when it comes to eating a sub.

I say, “Ok, so the part is ‘OH, YEAH’”. Ratsize says, “OH YEAH!” Easy enough…

Amplifiers for a more technically and electronically rounded experience.

This is how we mix the music in the new millennium.

Jim and Roman… corporate schills!

by Mike Schiller

9 Nov 2008

On Tuesday, November 11, many educational institutions and places of employment in the United States will give their students and employees a day off for Veterans Day, as the day is set aside for the recognizing of the contributions and sacrifices that our armed forces make for the sake of the rest of us.  A pair of releases this week will have an awful lot of people wishing they could take the entire week.

First up is the release most associated with Veterans Day, a game whose Tuesday release is obviously no accident: Call of Duty: World at War.  Honestly, I think it’s a risky move for Activision to be releasing a fifth Call of Duty game even as the fourth in the series remains the top Xbox Live draw.  The release of a new edition of the game, while it will undoubtedly sell gobs of copies based solely on the success of its predecessor, will likely split the Call of Duty online audience, which may well generate some confusion as to which game is the “must-have” of the online shooter group.  This isn’t even to mention that Activision has gone back to Treyarch—if you’ll remember, they developed the oft-maligned Call of Duty 3—for this one, and Treyarch has gone back to World War II for their source material.  Despite all of the caveats, however, there’s simply no way that any online shooter fan will be without this game come Tuesday.

Wait a couple of days, though, and you may notice that the streets will be a little quieter, the traffic a little lighter…as Wrath of the Lich King finally (finally!) arrives on Thursday.  The latest World of Warcraft expansion has been hyped and anticipated for so long, it’s actually something of a wonder it’s been able to maintain the sort of anticipation that’ll lead to the millions of sales come Thursday, but it has and then some.  I don’t need to sell this one—it’ll fly off the shelves no matter what I tell you.

Past those two utterly tremendous releases, the DS has a few releases that might just be enough to pique your interest.  Populous DS is probably something I’ll end up with, simply because the thought of randomly popping hills up underneath people I don’t like while on the subway is terribly appealing.  My Stop Smoking Coach with Allen Carr is an incredibly intriguing release, in that I’ll be curious to see a) whether it sells, and b) whether any testimonials start coming out saying that it actually works.  It sounds utterly ridiculous, but for a nicotine-addicted gamer, it may be the ticket to sticking to a plan.  And there’s Tecmo BowlTecmo Bowl!  It’s almost enough to make you forget that there’s another DS Guitar Hero on its way too.

Oh jeez, I just realized I went four paragraphs without mentioning Mirror’s Edge.  Good Lord.  This is truly a great year.

What are you playing this week?  Or are you just broke from buying all of the other stuff that’s come out?  Let us know, and while you’re thinking, check out the list of releases and the pair of trailers after the jump!

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