[30 November 2008]
Besides being the surprise hit of 2007-08, as well as a surprise Best Picture Oscar nominee, Juno also spawned a massive hit from its low-fi, indie-pop-dominated soundtrack. The soundtrack became the first number one album for nostalgia purveyor Rhino Records, and they followed it up in April with an online-only collection of “Juno b-sides”—15 songs that didn’t quite make the final cut of the film. Now the original soundtrack and b-side collection is being released as a 2-CD Deluxe package, just in time for the holidays.
Considering that the record label is Rhino, and that they have a sterling reputation for repackaging old material, I went into this review really hoping that my CD copy would include a booklet of liner notes from Juno director Jason Reitman and others involved in the soundtrack. These liner notes would explain why certain songs made the final cut and why others were ultimately rejected. Imagine my dismay when the promo copy included the 2 discs (on CD-R’s, no less), and a back cover with only basic credits and track listings. That was it. No copious liner notes, not even a piece of paper with a press release touting all the wonderful statistics and info about the Juno soundtrack. Hopefully, the folks in the record-buying general public will be treated better by Rhino than those of us in the press.
So we’re left to draw our own conclusions about these sorts of things. The original soundtrack is presented intact, just as it was a year ago. The mostly acoustic songs from Kimya Dawson and others (Barry Louis Polisar, Belle & Sebastian, Cat Power) fit nicely with the film, especially considering Juno’s (Ellen Page) sort-of-lazy, low-key personality. The contrasting songs, mostly from Jason Bateman’s aging, former music geek Mark, are more in the classic rock mode, with Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes”, the Kinks’ “A Well-Respected Man”, and the film’s much-referenced Sonic Youth version of the Carpenters’ “Superstar”. This contrast keeps the soundtrack from getting too bogged down in one style, although Dawson clearly dominates the proceedings. Over the course of seven of the 19 songs, one probably knows where they stand in regards to Dawson. Personally, I find a little of Kimya goes a long way, and the soundtrack ends just before her songs turn from “cute” to “grating”. Regardless, the soundtrack is an unusual collection, and probably one of the strangest albums to ever go to the top of the charts in the United States.
Which brings us to disc two and the “b-sides.” It opens with Kimya Dawson doing the 20th Century Fox Fanfare with only her voice. According to Wikipedia, the filmmakers had to drop this idea after The Simpsons Movie beat them to the punch with Ralph Wiggum doing the same thing. It was cute when Ralph did it—not so much from Ms. Dawson. If I was measuring the precise moment where Kimya went from “cute” to “grating”, this would be it. Things pick up right afterwards, though, with a second song from Barry Louis Polisar. “Me and You” is highly enjoyable and, not surprisingly, quite similar to the movie’s opening song “All I Want Is You”. But the latter is the better song, so it’s easy to tell why they went with it instead. Belle & Sebastian’s “My Wandering Days Are Over” is next, a great song to be sure, but at just over five minutes, maybe it was a touch too lengthy for the film.
“Go Fly a Kite” is the first of three instrumentals from Mateo Messina, who composed the incidental music to the film. Only one of his pieces made the original soundtrack, so it’s nice to see his music better-represented on the b-sides disc. His themes for Juno’s family, “Meet the MacGuffs”, and the baby’s adoptive parents, “The Lorings”, are interesting. The MacGuffs get a sweet, shuffling little tune, while “The Lorings” is a touch darker, with a smooth, Latin-lite lounge feel.
Besides her opening fanfare, Kimya Dawson only makes two appearances on the b-sides disc. The first is the excellent “Viva La Persistence”, a rambling song that starts with Kimya recounting a dream involving Scott Ian and the Anthrax album Persistence of Time. Maybe that ‘80s metal reference was a bit too specific for the film? Either way, it pretty much makes up for the fanfare debacle. There is also her cover of Polisar’s “All I Want Is You”, which was wisely shucked in favor of the original. Dawson’s version isn’t bad, but it may have gone over the line from “just the right amount of Kimya” to “too much Kimya” if it had been used in the film. Plus, the very audible sound of Dawson’s baby crying at the beginning of the recording may have been a little too on-the-nose for inclusion in the movie.
The rest of the b-sides are an eclectic mix, as you would expect. The Bristols’ “Little Baby” is a bouncy, ‘60s-style love song that also happens to be completely forgettable. Jr. James & the Late Guitar’s cover of the Herman’s Hermits’ song “I’m Into Something Good” is fuzzed-out and low-fi, but it isn’t really a very good version of the song. Astrud Gilberto’s “Once I Loved” sounds exactly like the slice of ‘60s bossa nova pop that it is—but the chorus “Love is the saddest thing / When it goes away” combined with the Latin flavor of “Meet the Lorings” provides a likely clue as to where it would’ve gone in the film. Buddy Holly’s “Learning the Game” is a good song, but not quite as good as “Dearest”, which made the final cut. Indie stalwarts Yo La Tengo make an appearance near the end of the disc with “You Can Have It All”, a peculiarly motionless song which nevertheless sounds like it would’ve been perfect for some sort of montage near the end of the film. And the silly “Zub Zub” closes the b-sides album, with Ellen Page singing a song that was in a deleted scene from the movie.
The deluxe version of the Juno soundtrack might be a good investment for anybody who didn’t get around to buying the album in the past year. But it seems like the passionate fans who already downloaded these tracks when they were released on iTunes are the target audience here. And I’m not sure why they would buy the whole thing again when they’ve already had the original soundtrack and the bonus tracks for months. On the other hand, the online release of the b-sides collection wasn’t well-publicized in the mainstream, so maybe there is an audience out there willing to purchase the first disc again in order to get the second. Regardless of sales concerns, as a collection, these two discs work well as a companion to the movie.