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by Bill Gibron

17 Jun 2009

For many, music is about memory. It’s about connecting a specific sound, or a score, to the situations you treasure (or that torment you) most. But there is more to it than that. Melody and its many components create links, undeniable anchors to elements about our life that seem significant and yet could be as mundane as some vague time or place. This is one of the reasons a carefully considered soundtrack is so important for a film. Randomly toss in the greatest hits of an era and you wind up with something dated and derivative. But move beyond the Billboard notion of atmosphere and things get a pick trickier. A composer is commanded to draw out as much mood and ambience as they can from their film work, yet at the same time, they can often undo the narrative or completely change the intent or tone. The careful evocation of location and logistics is a rare skill amongst cinematic tunesmiths, one few can claim as their own.

For this edition of Surround Sound, SE&L will look at five recently released film scores, each one set up to support a specific pragmatic paradigm. One is a prequel to a famous sci-fi series, the standard future shock mixed with a frightening sense of foreboding. Another goes way back in the past - almost prehistoric - before completely forgetting its purpose and turning all Madagascar II on us. From an attempt to recreate the ‘80s without actually dipping into the abundant Time/Life hit tracks of the time to illustrating the journey of one Latin American family to the potential freedoms of America, the music here reminds us that not everything about a circumstance is successfully put across by visuals, dialogue, or directorial flair. Sometimes, the right aural cues can make all the difference, as we will discover with the recently released soundtrack for the Battlestar Galactica set-up:

Caprica: Original Soundtrack from the Sci Fi Channel Television Pilot Episode [rating: 9]

Bear McCreary is slowly becoming the Michael Kamen of giant genre efforts. As the late great composer did for such cinematic luminaries as Terry Gilliam (Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) and David Cronenberg (The Dead Zone), the man behind some of TV’s greatest speculative fiction understands how to make the epic understated - and understood. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that McCreary can create the broadest of sonic scopes with the smallest of auditory signatures. For this backstory on how the Cylons were created and the civil unrest on the title planet where it all happened, the man responsible for several stunning soundtracks outdoes himself here.  As a result, Capirca is as much a work of visual invention as it is a stunning ethereal experience.

Like the pilot film itself, McCreary’s score builds. It adds layers and textures, moving from the basics (“The Graystone Family”) to bombast (“Terrorism on the Lev”) with grace and style. Understanding that any good score is built on themes, he uses main characters (“Zoe’s Avatar”) and certain relationships (“Joseph and Daniel”) to set up unseen conflicts and concerns. For those who have had the pleasure of watching the sensational opening salvo in what will surely be another stellar Sci-Fi Channel series, there is a lot of exposition in Caprica, the necessary filler for what can eventually be an ongoing narrative arc. But thanks to McCreary’s routinely excellent work, we can easily ‘bear’ both the action (“Daniel Captures the Code”) and the philosophical underpinnings (“Monotheism at the Athena Academy”) involved.

Year One: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 4]

Someone needs to get Theodore Shapiro a map…and fast. From all sounds and sonic cues, he is dead convinced that almost all the action in this Harold Ramis comedy takes place in Morocco, or Lebanon, or some other part of the clichéd Middle East. Famed for his work in satires such as Tropic Thunder, Old School, and the recent I Love You, Man, the 38 year old composer is content to convince us of the logistical lunacy of his aural choices. Granted, this is supposedly a “Biblical” comedy, but that doesn’t mean that ever note has to resonate with Arab awkwardness. All throughout the rather derivative and dull soundtrack for the Jack Black/Michael Cera vehicle, Eastern rhythms make a sloppy and often unnecessary intrusion. Sure, the names of the individual tracks (“Meet the Hebrews”, “Welcome to Sodom”) suggest such an Old World way with the backdrop, but there is a big difference between Cecile B. DeMille and aural dullness.

Still, there is some fun to be found here. “The Jackal Dance” makes for a keen bit of mind’s eye merriment (this review is occurring before the film’s official opening), as does “Virgin Sacrifice” and “The Royal Orgy”. And because this is comedy, we can expect the occasional lapses into funny business formula (“Yak Attack”, “Sargon Attacks”). But the biggest problem here is the almost constant repetition of sounds, signatures, and symbolism. It’s almost as if director Ramis instructed Shapiro to watch his film and add aural rim shots to everything he is doing. Comedy scores frequently force the humor, hoping to make you giggle by giving away the jokes within the arrangement. Shapiro is not quite so obvious, but there is a blatant burlesque to his approach. We can easily visualize the half-baked History of the World Part I aspects of the movie from the music presented.

The Informers: Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 7]

Christopher Young is one clever composer. Whether its genre junk (The Grudge, The Uninvited), stellar spook shows (Hellraiser, Drag Me to Hell), or middling mainstream fare (The Country Bears, Swordfish, Beauty Shop), he always seems to find the appropriate dramatics to underscore his cinematic themes. Instead of going for the easy approach, he cleverly compensates for an idea’s inherent flaws by locating the areas where he can provide support and sonically shores up the situation. This is clearly the case in Gregor Jordan’s mishmash mauling of Bret Easton Ellis’ popular novel. The film itself is a dull, loping drive through a Greed decade dimension bereft of anything remotely challenging or cheerful. To his credit, Young avoids all the synth beat silliness of the era and, instead, interjects electronics into his subtle yet stunning score.

From the fascinating title track to amazing moments like “No Wicked Way” and “A Rose is All Things Beautiful”, Young weaves an engaging and elegant aural tapestry. He dots his designs with little nods to the New Wave wonders of the ‘80s, but also recognizes that the film is not built on nostalgia. Indeed, like a sloppier Short Cuts, Gregor is attempting to mix several divergent yet slightly interconnected storylines together. It’s Young’s job to keep the tone in check, to recall the Reagan years without channeling Starship or The Human League. In fact, his score is perhaps the best and most consistent element of the entire motion picture experience, tracks like “Is She Really?” and “Dysfunctional Everything” displaying a convincing complexity the movie itself lacks. While The Informers itself as an exercise in unfulfilled possibilities, Christopher Young’s work in support definitely stands out.

While She Was Out: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]

Flying under the radar when it hit theaters a few months back, this curious crime thriller starring none other than Oscar winning actress Kim Basinger has one of those hoary old exploitation premises (abused woman is confronted and chased into the woods by a gang of gratuitous criminals - on Christmas Eve, no less. She seeks revenge.) and this gives Paul Haslinger some significant compositional fits. Peppering the soundtrack with creepy versions of holiday standards (“First Day of Christmas”, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”) as well as a few choice poptones (Joy Division’s “Day of the Lords”, “In Every Dream a Heartache” by Roxy Music), the motive here is menace. Like any good ‘woman in danger’ title, the former Tangerine Dream member (from ‘86 to ‘90) takes the concept and attempts to bring his own sense of the sinister to the mix - and for the most part, he succeeds. While perhaps not as potent as his work for Turistas or Vacancy, Haslinger can deliver good shivers.

Much of the material here consists of slowburn suspense, mood music in advance of mayhem. This is especially true of the ominous “Main Titles” and the equally effective “Car Chase”. Later on, Haslinger plays with the parameters of such a story set-up by giving us plotpoints (“Looking for Pictures”, “Thomas is Gone”) painted in odd orchestral strokes. As with most of the music made by his former band, the sounds here are spacey and quite otherworldly. Haslinger is going for an undercurrent of evil, not some outright illustration of terror. This is especially true of Basinger’s take on the old holiday chestnut. Given the narrative situation, there is something quite haunting about having a victim (and eventual perpetrator) of violent crime intone such sentiments. As he has shown time and time again, Haslinger is quite capable of creating music that is both meaningful and menacing. That is especially true with While She Was Out.

Sin Nombre: Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 6]

Looks, and listening, can be deceiving when it comes to Marcelo Zarvos backing for this unique immigrant tale. A relative newcomer to the composer game (his first score came for A Soccer Story back in 1999), his choices are usually quirky (Strangers with Candy, You Kill Me) or solidly centered just outside the Hollywood mainstream (The Good Shepherd, What Just Happened). With Cary Fukunaga’s critically acclaimed thriller, however, expectations can be the listeners undoing. When we hear the set-up in the storyline as well as the Latino location where most of the action will occur, we expect a score with lots of Hispanic flavor. Oddly enough, however, Zarvos undermines those stayed stereotypes by delivering a backdrop that’s part local color, party heavenly helpings of Hitckcock.

Indeed, the late great Master of Suspense gets a far number of sonic shout outs all through Sin Nombre‘s crucial musical cues. Zarvos channels such past luminaries as Bernard Herrmann and Franz Waxman with his efforts here, enlivening basic backings like “Ride into the Storm” and “The Attack” with a solid sense of the cinematically sinister. Equally adept at bringing some native flair to the mix, tracks like “The Journey” give us the rhythmic routines such a South of the Border scenario typically provides. But Zarvos never overplays his hand, relying instead on true compositional clarity to make his many points. As we move through “Sayra”, “Guatemala Crossing” and “She Is Gone”, we hear a craftsman completely in tune with his subject’s strengths (and potential weaknesses). Though it grows a bit derivative toward the end, the score for Sin Nombre is solid.

by Kirstie Shanley

17 Jun 2009

At their best, Pink Mountaintops is reminiscent of a more feminine Jesus and Mary Chain with a distorted sense of psych rock in songs like “The Gayest of Sunbeams”, which sounded increasingly raw and energetic live in comparison to the album recording. There was a rougher rasp to Stephen McBean’s vocals tonight, with less added reverb, and backing vocals that complimented him each step of the way. The evening often returned to a distorted melancholic folk style, though, with “Closer to Heaven”, a song full of bittersweet romantic lyrics and a building instrumental part, intensifying as it progressed.

Vancouver’s Stephen McBean is no stranger to the Canadian psychedelic rock scene. He’s a pivotal member of the awe inspiring Black Mountain and, as a special treat, this tour finds him playing with vocalist/violinist Sophie Trudeau, who also plays with Montreal’s Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra La La Band. While McBean is certainly productive—he has put out three full-length albums with Pink Mountaintops and released two full lengths and 3 EPs with Black Mountain—it’s interesting to see how both bands have developed separately with only some similarities. This can be partially attributed to the involvement of different band members in both groups, though Pink Mountaintops’ members seem to differ more. One key element is Amber Webber, who doesn’t join McBean on stage as she does in Black Mountain, allowing her to pursue her own side project, the more feminine and abstract sounding Lightning Dust.

Though it contained moments of catchy rock, the set seemed full of the band’s more sentimental folk songs, with the violin heightening the sentiment in the title track “Outside Love”, for example. They ended the main set appropriately with “And I Thank You”, and during the encore McBean brought out perhaps their most engaging rocker of the night, “Single Life” from the out of print seven inch bearing the same name. “Tourist in Your Town”, an old crowd favorite from their first 2004 self-titled release, did not serve up the same high as “Single Life”, but provided a great ending nonetheless.

by Sarah Zupko

16 Jun 2009

As most of you know, Blur is reuniting and they dropped by Rough Trade Records yesterday in London to play two songs. The sound quality is pretty awful on the fan video, but you can clearly get a sense of the energy from the band and audience.

by Joe Tacopino

16 Jun 2009

If you missed the band Woods at Brooklyn’s first Northside Festival this past weekend, you can check out their video here where guys play with food and instruments, semi-animated style.

by L.B. Jeffries

16 Jun 2009

From videogame2play.com

From videogame2play.com

Burn out in video games is something you learn to expect because most games require a greater time investment than the average book or film. As Jason Rohrer pointed out in his talk “Game and Other Four Letter Words,” many people actually consider a game’s lasting appeal to be founded on how many hours of your life you can dump into it. Yet if someone handed you a DVD and told you that it would take 20 hours to finish, to some it could be considered a threat. People who play games professionally, as a hobby, or for work, all have to balance their love of the medium with the fact that sometimes it can be too much. An essay on how to overcome burn-out breaks the process down in several steps. First, figure out what’s making you upset. Then, get some sleep, take time to reflect on the issue, and maximize your free time by relaxing. Eat healthy foods and listen to soothing music. The article makes a point of saying that video games or surfing the net are NOT relaxing because you’re still mentally working and stressing yourself out. Which leads to an interesting problem for people who rely on games as a form of relaxation: when does the game stop being fun and start to feel like work?

From Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2

From Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2

I bounced an e-mail off several people from various parts of the industry concerning this issue. Chris Dahlen is a freelance journalist who does a lot of work outside of video games. For him, burn-out only comes when he has to work with a game that he doesn’t really care for. He comments, “I’ve never spent so much time with games that I got truly, gutwrenchingly sick of ‘em.  Family stuff and other hassles get in the way first.  But when I’m reviewing a game I can’t stand, it definitely feels like work.  I get impatient.  I stop hanging around and checking out the nuances.  I keep jumping online to figure out how much longer I have left, how many missions I went through, how many hours it takes to finish.” That’s a sentiment that Michael Abbott echoes, who is a full time professor at Wabash College in addition to writing for PopMatters and running a video game blog. He writes, “Burnout rarely occurs because I usually play games as a respite from other hard, time-consuming things like teaching, parenting, and making theater. When I pick up a game to play, I’m nearly always looking forward to that activity well in advance of doing it, and carving out dedicated time to play probably makes me treasure that time even more. The only exceptions are the few times I’ve had to review games I don’t enjoy.” The mark of burnout in two people who don’t work with video games fulltime is when they’re forced to work with a game they don’t like. Whereas a bad movie is over in an hour or two, a game requires a real investment. When that falls apart, everything else goes with it for the player.

From Lumines

From Lumines

Yet for some people it’s going to be games, games, and again games so that playing things that are appealing is not always an option. Kieron Gillen is a game journalist and comic book author who has worked with numerous publications for years. The tedium of games comes from an entirely different source for him. He explains, “I went well out of my way to avoid getting stuck as a specialist in any bloody genre as a reviewer. So for the job, stuff gets mixed up and I’m not stuck playing virtually identical RTS for weeks of my life. When I don’t want to play, it’s because of the culture around it. Nothing takes the fun out of a game than a thousand people calling you corrupt for liking it. That’s the danger in being a games journalist.” Leigh Alexander is the news director for Gamasutra and also runs her own private blog on video games. For her, it’s the sheer volume of material that’s constantly outside her own preferences that she’s obliged to work with. A game critic has to stay informed in every genre and that includes titles that are often long epics. She writes, “How I cure burnout is I allow myself to do only what I want to for a bit. I might have this huge stack of brand new this and that, but I let it sit and play Lumines every night until the urge to do something else comes back. I have to take personal ownership of video games back away from my job before I can enjoy them again.”

From Cliffy B.

From Cliffy B.

Yet another totally different take on burning out comes from Steve Gaynor who is a video game designer and is working on Bioshock 2 at the moment. As someone who plays, works on, and constantly reads about video games, the issue is one of quality instead of quantity. He writes, “As far as burnout goes, I honestly more often run into the opposite problem, wherein I wish I had an awesome game to be jamming on and there’s just nothing exciting that’s come out lately…I avoid burnout by having other compelling things going on most of the time, while also keeping up with plenty of game stuff in the background so I always have something to play when there’s nothing else happening. I think it also helps that I don’t have any kind of formal obligations compelling me to play anything, except my own desire to do so.” Such a comment brings the discussion back to that curious desire to not feel like one is being forced to play a video game. Tom Endo, an editor at The Escapist, makes himself read a book every night. He comments, “The thing that helps me is that I’m a videogame tourist. I’m really interested in all genres—for at least an hour or two. Burnout is when I have to play some JRPG for 20+ hours.”  Iroquis Pliskin also suggests engaging with a different form of media or finding a game that is critically praised by everyone. If you’re not working with a game that entices you to keep playing, try one that a lot of people did find engaging.

From Bejeweled 2

From Bejeweled 2

It’s interesting that in each of those explanations is the fear that when a game starts to feel like work it will cease to be fun. You could almost say that that is the difference between any person’s feelings towards a game, the perception of the activity defines what we get out of the experience. For those who get burned out playing games with a lot of grinding and development, the activity might be a little bit too close to what their day jobs are like. Having played games all my life, I think that most of the titles that I stuck with were a counter-point to my routine. When I worked in a hectic kitchen as a line cook, I mostly played slower games that were low on adrenaline and hand-eye coordination. When I was in college it was more cartoony and engaging games that were exciting escapes from the academic routine. Now with the dull monotony of school back I find myself drawn to action, competition, and the other things that I find myself missing in life. Perhaps the real key to preventing burning out on video games is to avoid the ones that you feel like you should be playing and try to stick with the ones that you need.

//Mixed media