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Tuesday, Aug 21, 2007

We tend to forget how lonely and narrow the craft of songwriting can be, especially in these days of sour re-sampled ‘hits’ and hooks-by-committee creativity. To channel the melodic meaning of the universe through your insights and instruments remains an almost indecipherable creative pursuit. How a single human being can summarize the wealth of individual experience into a three minute collection of chords, words, and aural abstracts often seems like a challenge to cheat God. Only someone with powers as omniscient could forge such a solid sonic pact with both music and meaning. It’s rare, but some of that talent tends to trickle down to people on our planet, giving them inspiration to attempt the evocative expression. It’s these dedicated artists that we find as the focus of this month’s Surround Sound, an installment supporting such a harmonious hypothesis. Whether they’re fictional, factual, or fractured, we are given a privileged glimpse into their way of working, such a snapshot providing proof that, even on Earth, there are definite deities amongst us mere mortals.


Once [rating: 9]


Music is often referred to as the soundtrack to our lives, and for many, it’s a sentiment to be taken literally. We fall in love to a certain song, break up over a privately held tune, and treat all celebrations, losses, and interpersonal struggles as objects for underscoring. It’s a proposal that propels the critically acclaimed “indie musical” Once, a film forged out of the former working relationship between John Carney and Glen Hansard (who were in the Irish rock band The Frames together). Centering on the burgeoning relationship between a street performer and a Czech immigrant flower girl, the celebrated outsider triumph took a non traditional route toward its aural accompaniment. Pre-production found non-actors Hansard and Markéta Irglová (noted professionals in the industry) writing the highly personal soundtrack, both separate and in collaboration. The results ended up reaching across the typical music and lyrics to evoke strong, substantive emotion while also providing the kind of minor key mood that prepares us for all the emotional upheaval that the narrative promises. As is the case with releases like this, context is crucial to gaining the full impact of these songs. But once you’ve heard them, they’re hard to forget – with or without the movie to illuminate them.


A perfect example is the opening track, “Falling Slowly”. Beginning with a graceful guitar signature, and building to a crescendo of expressive singing and intricate piano and string driven instrumentation, the song suggests the start of something doomed, as if fate has already stepped in and clarified the possibilities. It’s a feeling only amplified by the duets, where simple aural implications like “If You Want Me” or “When Your Minds Made Up” say more about Hansard and Irglová than any dialogue could deliver. Toward the middle, our male lead has a pair of palpable high points. “Leave” is the most undemanding break up song ever (even the title suggestion sounds more like a pledge than a plea) while “Trying to Pull Myself Away” is an uptempo effort to convince himself that life post-affair can return to normal. Of course, the lyrics suggest something far more complicated. There are also hints of the long lost troubadours here, the sonic semblance of “All The Way Down” to “Pink Moon” era Nick Drake being rather obvious. By the time we reach the title track, we’re hoping for the kind of clear cut catharsis that such a storyline seems to suggest. Instead, we become lost in the apparent ennui, freed only by Hansard’s fabulous finale “Say It To Me Now”. From a whisper to a scream it sells Once as a fabulous and fresh reinvention of a typically tired genre.


You’re Gonna Miss Me [rating: 8]


As an audience member, we rarely get to witness a musician’s mental breakdown through their songs. Instead, the manipulative minds behind the performer’s career tend to tweak out the bad stuff, leaving behind an incomplete portrait without all the sonic shadings. In the case of psychedelic bluesman Roky Erickson, however, the shift was sudden, severe, and very, very public. Before anyone could get him the help he needed, he lost both his audience and his mind. It wasn’t until he hit that most horrible of clichés –rock bottom – that he could pull himself out of his psychotic stresses. In his prime, however, he was like a combination of Syd Barrett and Daniel Johnston with a persona heavy on the weird acid casualty side of ideas. The change manifested itself aurally, as Erickson went from writing normal tunes about love and loss with the seminal 13th Floor Elevators to converting the voices in his head into epic audio tirades against unseen demons, goblins, and ghosts. It’s a path that we can follow, thanks to Kevin McAlester and his in depth documentary, as well as this stellar soundtrack album accompanying it. Covering Erickson’s entire career (including some heretofore unheard demos), we see how a damaged brain can become an even more messed up muse.


The two 13th Floor tracks – the recognizable hit that gives the work its title, and “Fire Engine” - argue that our hero wasn’t functioning on all six cylinders to begin with. The later track specifically sounds like a failed Brian Wilson SMiLE cut crammed into The Beatles “Revolution #9”. It definitely prepares us for the worst yet to come. What’s surprising, though, are the pre-problematic cuts where Erickson comes off like a solid Me Decade arena rocker. In fact, his new band (the Aliens) could easily be called Blue Oyster Occult. Genius works like “Bloody Hammer” and “Two Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer)” appear cogent at first. But then the increasingly surreal lyrics start creeping in, and before we know it, efforts like “Mine, Mine, Mind” and “It’s a Good Night for Alligators” lose us. Thankfully, the compilation compensates for these obviously arcane riffs, referencing Erickson in his more introspective period (the poignant “You Don’t Love Me Yet”) and insightful (the calm, acoustic protest “Unforced Peace”). By the end of the album, our troubled soul has more or less returned to his senses, singing the heartbreaking and brittle “Goodbye Sweet Dreams”. Unlike other musicians whose minds snapped, time and treatment appear to have brought him back – at least, part way. With a collection of creative shout outs like this, it’s a well earned return.


Kurt Cobain About a Son [rating: 7]


Sometimes, it’s easier to look outside, to an artist’s sphere of influences, rather than reflect on the same three album canon over and over again – especially when financial issues like copyright and residuals conspire to mess with your options. For his documentary about the Nirvana icon, filmmaker AJ Schnack (creator of the brilliant They Might Be Giants deconstruction, Gigantic) drew on the numerous sonic references the troubled artist relied on to create his inappropriately labeled ‘grunge” dynamic. In fact, aside from Steve Albini’s overriding desire to distort all guitars, Cobain was a pop songwriter forced to conform to the needs of the scene (Seattle in the ‘90s) and the rock merchandisers (who rightly saw punk’s potential rebirth). He was also indebted to standard ‘70s cockrock, as well as the harsh hardcore subgenre that swept the West Coast of his adolescence. Without using a single note of the man’s amazing oeuvre, and avoiding the more obvious bands (The Pixies) namechecked in interviews, the slightly off center portrait painted is one of a DIY devotee who also enjoyed reflecting on the medium’s previous dinosaur stance. Together, with minor snippets from the audio interviews with Kobain that form the basis for the film, the imagination that drove this determined musician slowly comes into view.


The soundtrack begins on an ephemeral note, where one of the few original pieces – an ambient like drone by Steve Fisk and Benjamin Gibbard – sets the melancholy mood. It prepares us for something more introspective than extroverted. Oddly, this isn’t supported by the next track, the weird inclusion of the Arlo Guthrie novelty “The Motorcycle Song”. Perhaps within the context of the film it works. Here, it’s a glaring sonic stunt. More in tune with our expectations is “Eye Flys” from Cobain faves Melvins. As a simple bass line loops and lunges, fuzzy guitars ‘buzz’ in the background. After almost five minutes, a groove is set and the singer steps in. The lyrics suggest the sort of mental fever dreams the late poet played with. In quick succession, the brilliant Bad Brains prove why they were “Banned in DC”, while the usually atonal Half Japanese go bubblegum with their jaunty “Pour Some Sugar On It”. By the time The Vaselines arrive to offer up their cryptic ear candy (“Son of a Gun”, a great track), the image of Cobain as a craftsman is clear. He channeled all his loves – Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Leadbelly, all present – into an intriguing amalgamation of personal primal scream and amiable AM radio. He had as much in common with the Butthole Surfers (represented by “Graveyard”) as he did with fellow scene stealers Mudhoney (“Touch Me, I’m Sick”). Even highly specialized tastes like Scratch Acid (represented by the arcane “Owner’s Lament”) make perfect sense within this decibel dynamic.



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Tuesday, Jul 24, 2007

After the big screen musical went the way of other motion picture dinosaurs (around the time of Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz), critics started complaining that the only viable source of cinematic song and dance left was animated kid films. With Disney inserting tunes into everything they could, and fiscally minded mimics (Fox, Warner Brothers) following suit, the only place to find legitimate Broadway style show biz was in the soundtrack of cartoon cavalcade. Of course, the House of Mouse saved face, bringing in real life tunesmiths like Howard Ashman, Alan Menken, and Tim Rice to reinvent the genre. But now, a few decades removed, it seems like the fantasy format of characters vocalizing their inner feelings has, again, gone the way of the do-do. In fact, Pixar (Mickey’s latest production partner) has consistently avoided the crooning creature ideal. So where does that leave the pen and ink production? By the look of the selections in this second installment of SE&L”s Surround Sound, it appears the genre is tired and treading water. Two of the three highlighted choices this time represent the most routine – and in one case, shameless – substitute for actual artistic accomplishment available. And then once again, it’s the stellar CGI of one company’s amiable aesthetic that wins out over everyone else.


The Simpsons Movie [rating: 6]


By now, most fans know the sad and confusing fact that neither Danny Elfman (who concocted the series’ signature theme) nor Alf Clausen (the man behind the music for 17 years) are involved with the sonic situation in the new Simpsons Movie. Instead, that Tinsel Town tunesmith Hans Zimmer was pegged to provide an aural backdrop to the big screen adventures of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. An Oscar winner (for The Lion King) and five time nominee, there is nothing inherently wrong with said choice. The German born composer has been on a summer blockbuster role as of late, having worked on the last two Pirates of the Caribbean films as well as Batman Begins and The Da Vinci Code. But like asking an outsider to partake in a massive and extremely insular family reunion, Zimmer arrives unfamiliar with the ways of America’s favorite family. As a result, he turns in a decent, if derivative score that owes as much to the men he replaces as it does anything remotely original. It’s tough to get a handle on just what doesn’t work – especially in light of the music’s inherent quality and sparkle. But it’s clear that, without the context of the film around it and the specific sequences illustrating its tone, the auditory concepts here just don’t gel. Instead, they end up resembling disconnected sketches, ideas never coming together under a common theme or mood.


It’s clear that Elfman and Clausen were Zimmer’s main inspiration. Several of the tracks here - “Trapped Like Carrots”, “What’s an Epiphany?”, “Thank You Boob Lady” – are nothing more than extended symphonic tweaks tagged to variations on the main Simpsons’ theme. While the notes aren’t always in the exact same place, you can instantly recognize the series sassy trademark each and every time. In other instances, elements that Clausen excels at (stylistic mimicry, sonic stereotyping) are also attempted by Zimmer. Yet the results, like the ersatz spy jazz of “Release the Hounds” or the Busby Berkley gone batty of “Bart’s Doodle” have a less pointed, satiric quality. Still, there are moments of ambient excellence throughout – “You Doomed Us All…Again” is a massive musical statement that goes from delicate to demonstrative with perfect action/adventure vibe, as do “…Lead, Not to Read” and “World’s Fattest Fertilizer Salesman”. We also experience a weird kind of Aaron Copeland hoedown déjà vu during “Why Does Everything I Whip Leave Me?”, the track resembling that famous beef council commercial rewritten and inverted. The score can get syrupy at times, and when Zimmer is stuck for inspiration, her reverts back to Elfman, or a joke from the film (in this case, the overblown choral version of “Spider Pig”) to save the day.  Like any new writer or artist coming to The Simpsons, fitting in is half the battle. Zimmer more or less succeeds, but not without an awkward adjustment period.


Ratatouille [rating: 9]


Unlike the Simpons score, there is a solid synchronicity between Michael Giacchino and his remarkable work for Pixar’s latest animated pearl, Ratatouille. Almost every cue contained on this 24 track collection reminds one of the amazing adventures of the rat Remy and his desire to be a great Parisian chef. The composer – a long time JJ Abrams associate, having worked on Lost, Alias and Mission Impossible III – is no stranger to the animation/family film game. He helped Brad Bird’s other 3D masterwork, The Incredibles, roar to sonic life and put the aural polish to several Muppet titles. Here, Giacchino had quite a massive musical mountain to climb. Dealing with a modern France filtered through the city’s noted old world charm and aura, the score for Ratatouille needed to be instantly recognizable while incorporating as much of the cosmopolitan European flair the narrative needed as possible. It’s a balancing act that he manages brilliantly, turning this score into a reference heavy collection of waltzes, tangos, slow groove jazz, and ‘50s/’60s metropolitan cool motifs. When combined with the other odd inclusions – random Hawaiian guitar and harmonica –, the idiosyncratic ethnic choices (gypsy?), and the occasional callbacks to his own Mediterranean culture, Giancchino delivers a delightful aural stew, perfectly seasoned and ready to consume.


With some tracks lasting less than a minute, and others pushing close to ten, the Ratatouille score has a very traditional flavor and feel. There are snippets of big band swing and the typical sidetracks you’d find in a foreign set storyline. As this is France, wandering accordion and saccharine string trills are mandatory, and Giancchino doesn’t shy away from them. Yet he also tries to anthropomorphize the soundtrack, tossing in aural allusions to mice, a chaotic kitchen, or a robust city street. This is a composer who understands the inherent ingredient a good musical backdrop needs in order to stand on its own – a fully realized ‘personality’, one easily identifiable and separate from the movie itself. In addition, all throughout the collection of tracks – “Souped Up”, “Remy Drives a Linguini”, and “Kiss and Vinegar” for example – we find ourselves swept away into an ephemeral world where one’s imagination starts painting in the particulars.  Like the movie it supports, the Ratatouille soundtrack melds classic and contemporary ideas into something that should be routine and familiar – an animated movie – into a stunning work of art.


What’s Cooking? Songs Inspired by Disney’s/Pixar’s Ratatouille [rating: 4]


Leave it to the House of Mouse to find a way to dull this Pixar production’s decided twinkle. Presented as a collection of songs ‘inspired’ by the film, but really nothing more than an excuse to make more merchandising oriented cash, What’s Cooking? utilizes the theme of food as a way of tying together 12 mindlessly mundane tunes. Most are originals from composer/conductor Fred Mollin and his Blue Sea Band, while others are corny covers. Sounding like something you’d experience in one of Uncle Walt’s theme parks, the slick overproduced feel of this collection is kind of creepy. You can hear every over-earnest nod to minority music styles in this hodgepodge of jumping jive and swamp boogie slink. It’s supposed to be toe tapping and finger snapping, but it ends up soul sapping most of the time. Like the recipes included in the liner notes (for fabulously perfunctory dishes like “Oven-Baked French Fries” and “Eiffel Tower Cookie Sundaes”) this is broad, unimaginative pap barely capable of providing true aesthetic sustenance. While there may be a few fans out there who see this release as a way of extending their Ratatouille pleasure – or cynically, introducing their impressionable children to the world of musical diversity – there’s nothing here that demands attention or approval. This is the kind of listening experience available every morning as part of TLC’s family programming. All that’s missing are Raffi and someone dressed up like a monkey.


Complete with fake applause and crowd noise that will continue throughout the entire 36 minute running time, What’s Cooking? starts off with “Cheese Please”, a goofball jaunt that uses rhyming as its reason to exist. We are supposed to get a kick out of the various culinary quips, but the whole song smacks of a rejected Madison Avenue dairy jingle. Next is a classic track, “Saturday Night Fish Fry”, and with its blaring horns and thumping bass, it’s a perfect illustration of what this compendium strives to be. For a while, the call and response nature of the tune is infectious. But soon, all the goodwill garnered by this anthology is destroyed by a doping rap remix/remake of the Gerardo hit (huh???) “Rico Suave”. Entitled “Taco Grande”, this soggy sonic satire makes you want to grab something and destroy your CD player. Even when followed by the safe and superficial beats of “Pizza, Pizza, Pizza”, and “One Meatball”, the stench of such a sloppy selection lingers. Luckily, the classic clip of “Save the Bones for Henry Jones” (one of the oddest swing numbers ever) and the Louis Prima penned “Banana Split for My Baby” almost save the day. Without the original artists providing the performance however, the rescue is only half realized. Indeed, most of What’s Cooking? could be considered a semi-success. Of course, this also means that it’s mostly a failure as well.



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Wednesday, Jul 4, 2007

Basically, movie soundtracks are divided into three generic types. The first is the most recognizable and familiar - the basic score release, a composer-created set of cues that illustrate the basic sonic signatures in the film. Sometimes, an original number of two can be added to amplify the mercantile possibilities, but for the most part, it’s all instrumentals and mood. The second kind of collection was forged most successfully in the ‘80s. Call it the K-Tel conceit, or the packaging of potential hits, but these pop song laden albums are meant as slyly subtle tie-ins to the motion picture proper. Sometimes, the tunes featured are merely “suggested” by the title they are connected to (meaning they don’t actually appear in the movie itself). The last soundtrack standard is the one based on the actual movie musical. Prior to its death as a cultural commodity around 1975, original cast recordings from the song and dance epics were chart topping smashes. They ruled Billboard before The Beatles came along and realigned the entire notion of popularity.


In this first edition of SE&L’s revamp of the PopMatters’ Surround Sound brand (it will be a blog feature from now on), we get an interesting overview of all three concepts. First up is a mostly wordless workout on a terribly tired A-list entity. While it hopes to hint at hep-ness, it’s more vague than Vegas. Second, there’s a CG cartoon companion piece that often feels like the bumper tunes played at the Caribbean version of the Super Bowl. One amazing moment of artistic clarity stands out, though. And finally, one of the most anticipated movies of Summer 2007 delivers its pre-release set of shifted over showtunes. Oddly enough, it appears that something incredibly campy and busy found its way from the boards of Broadway to the encoded information of the aluminum disc. While perhaps not the best examples of movie music’s power and potential, the trio of albums here do a bang up job of illustrating the kind of releases the studios depend upon to heighten overall awareness.


Ocean’s 13 [rating: 5]


There is something very cold and calculated about the oh so hip ‘coolness’ composer/DJ David Holmes is putting forth on this, his third dip into Danny’s Ocean. The latest aural investigation of the Stephen Soderbergh Rat Pack redux finds Holmes still generating that old fashioned space age bachelor pad Muzak via some decidedly high tech toys, lost in a natty nostalgia that seems geared to those who get their sonic memories supersized via Starbucks.  The results sound oddly familiar and yet almost antiseptic, reminiscent of what robotic lounge lizards would generate if they were in charge of the party. There’s no denying the initial allure – jazzy horns and tumbling vibes always bring out one’s inner jet setting bon vivant – but Holmes is merely the student hoping to imitate a far more formidable set of masters. And then, just to make things a little more complicated, the studio tosses in tracks from Frank Sinatra (“This Town”) and Puccio Roelens (a rather dry version of the standard “Caravan”) just to show how far off base he really is.

Still, there are elements here that really do set the proper playful tone for the film – which is all a score is supposed to do, at the end of the day. Indeed, the very first track, “Not Their Fight” will probably be absconded one day by Quentin Tarantino, so strong is it’s trippy throwback mentality. Driven by a particularly slinky bass, the kicky “Kensington Chump” is all burbles and undulating aural quirks. “Laptops”, only a minute long, sounds like the greatest unused opening riff in all of late ‘60s rock, while “Dice Men” could have been the backdrop to any number of Peace Generation acid casualty love ins – that is, until it breaks into a series of ‘70s cop show shout-outs, and more or less arrests itself. But the real standout inclusion is by another non-Holmes’ contributor. Motherhood, which can best be described as the real deal, delivers the dynamic “Soul Town”, a collection of concrete hooks and haunting female trills that literally sends the short hairs on the back of your neck craning upward for a listen. It has an electricity that Holmes himself and the rest of the Ocean 13 CD can barely muster.


Surf’s Up! [rating: 4]


As with most varying artist outtakes, b-sides, and popular hits compilations, the mood of the movie moment is clearly and loudly signaled by each and every song. Indeed, all throughout Up’s amiable track list, we can experience the film’s two overriding levels of honest emotion – call them “Let’s Party!” and “Let’s Chill”. On the side of sun and fun are random auditory clichés like the Romantics thoroughly overplayed Kinks vamp “What I Like About You” as well as retakes on time tested tunes like “Wipe Out” (by Big Nose) and “Reggae Got Soul” (by 311). But when the narrative needs to turn all pensive or prophetic, it pulls out the slow, languid acoustics of Nine Black Alp’s “Pocket Full of Stars” or Incubus’ “Drive”. In fact, you can almost set your internal emotional clock by the way this CD unfolds. Happiness leads to heartbreak as histrionics meld into heroism. By the end – a rather routine “Hawaiian War Chant (Ta-Hu-Wa-Hu-Wai) by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – you can just visualize the 3D cartoon characters walking into the computer generated sunset, story told and overall entertainment value confirmed.

There are some surprises here. Pearl Jam, a band one wouldn’t normally associate with a family film soundtrack, pops up to provide its standard angst-propelled passion for the appropriately titled “Big Wave”, while those lost superstars the New Radicals are revisited with their signature anthem “You Get What You Give”. A big surprise here is the inclusion of a track by Ms. Lauryn Hill. Absent from the charts since 2002’s MTV Unplugged No. 2, her inclusion – a gorgeous ghetto groove called “Lose Myself” – maintains her continuing status as an artist of infinite possibilities. The scratchy funk backdrop, met almost instantly by some spacey, ethereal ‘80s new wave keyboards, leads to a melodic and lyrical intensity that causes one’s jaw to drop…into an easy smile. In some ways, this is the former Fugees’ rewrite of Outkast’s “Hey Ya” – there’s the same pure pop conceit, but an undercurrent that downplays the inherent effervescence. Unfortunately, it’s a level of musical mastery that makes even the classic tracks on this hit-oriented collection blush in aesthetic embarrassment.


Hairspray the Musical [rating: 5]


To the unfamiliar ear, the score for the hit Broadway extravaganza based on John Waters’ far wittier coming of age comedy was like Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s Little Shop of Horrors fused to a determined devotee’s idea of what a Great White Way show should sound like. It’s big! It’s brassy! It’s beaming with all kinds of gonzo gay pride! And yet for some reason, the fevered pitch via which composer Marc Shaiman vamps his vision of Baltimore circa 1962 is both sincere and kind of shallow. There’s a crowdpleaser desperation buried at the base of each number, a ‘sell it to the balcony’ sense of showmanship that can be both glorious and grating. Similar to how Mel Brooks managed a Tony out of what is basically a bunch of forgettable, half-formed songs, Hairspray tries to walk the walk, but ends up drowning in its own disposability. Fifty years from now, when directors are hungry for solid shows to revive, this is one that won’t be tallying up those longevity royalties.


Indeed, without someone like South Park’s Trey Parker alongside to balance out the kitsch factor (the two collaborated on the Oscar nominated songs for the cartoon’s big screen debut), Shaiman is shameless. He borrows so much from the aural clichés of the era that you find yourself playing an internal guessing game over who he’s stealing from/homaging next. “Good Morning Baltimore”, the show’s (and movie’s) opening number is like a gigantic girl group tribute taken to tacky extremes. Sadly, Rachel Sweet did it much better when she crafted the title track to Waters’ film. Even the new songs, specifically fashioned for this release (and added Academy attention come awards time), are almost too familiar to be considered original. Indeed, the first ‘single’ from the soundtrack, Zac Efrom’s “Ladies Choice” is just “Hand Jive” with tween appropriate sentiments. While it’s a kick to hear star John Travolta croon alongside screen ‘hubby’ Christopher Walken on the number “(You’re) Timeless to Me”, this is one CD that needs the musical from whence it came, and all the goodwill associated with same, to overcome its ditzy desperation.



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