Film

Surround Sound: Rom-Complacency

In this edition, we discuss The Time Traveler's Wife, The Ugly Truth, and the breezy (500) Days of Summer.

The current slump in RomCom success shouldn't be a surprise. Hollywood, hopeless for what to do with their latest up and coming starlets, seems sold on the notion of putting each and every one into as feeble a fake wish fulfillment fantasy as possible. It used to be, Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts got all the feel good guy/gal scripts. Now, Tinseltown churns them out with unconscionable regularity. In fact, the only thing that differentiates the multiple takes on this material is the artistic approach applied. Sometimes, the standard is used. In other instances, attempted invention leads to lameness. Look at the three soundtracks being discussed today as part of Short Ends and Leader's standard Surround Sound update. Each one proposes to be a witty, warm look at the neverending battle between the sexes. Instead, one is dull, another dumb, with only the third doing something both unique and novel.

It's a difference that's actually reflected in the musical accompaniments to each effort. When it comes to Mychael Danna's backdrop for the big screen adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger's celebrated sci-fi weeper, it's all clichés and sonic commonality. On the other hand, Aaron Zigman's work on the Gerard Butler/Katherine Heigl stereotype-a-thon reeks of the kind of onscreen schizophrenia the movie - and its mannered characters - seem to suffer from. Only the brilliant Marc Webb deconstruction of the entire genre gets it right. By relying on moan and groan gods like Morrissey and Regina Spektor to make its point, the sonic setting perfectly reflects the differing dynamics between each one of these 500 days - give or take a few.

Of course, it's all a matter of taste. Some may actually enjoy Danna's drippy, droning accompaniment, while there will surely be listeners who ingest one sample of Summer's syrupy alterna-pop and want to strangle the songwriters. Music is a difficult discussion point, since it's so personal to each individual. Still, when graded on a scale as to how successful it is as part of an overall motion picture package, the judgment becomes a little easier. What's clear is that, in the world of man/woman destiny, slow and stead is really just tedious and mindless, while up tempo and inventive translates into a far more intriguing aural experience. Of course, there is always one confusing case among the easily identified. In this situation, the "ugly" truth title may be more than applicable.

The Time Traveler's Wife: Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 3]

The notion of being "unstuck" in time, Billy Pilgrim in your personal, physical, and emotional well-being, may seem like an odd idea for a romance, but apparently, Audrey Niffenegger nailed it when she created her bestselling story of Henry and Claire. He's the man who can't stay settled in one era for very long. She's the young woman who has loved him ever since she was a child. Together, they learn that such a speculative fiction foundation can only lead to heartbreak, tragedy, and the soul-searching passion that comes with both. So now it's up to composer Mychael Danna to capture that ethereal element in his score for the film. Sadly, what he turns in is so rote and routine that it could be the backdrop for any motion picture experience, not just one dealing with mostly magical elements.

Let's get one thing out of the way right up front - Broken Social Scene should be embarrassed for their appalling cover of the Ian Curtis/Joy Division classic "Love Will Tear Us Apart". Rendered dirge-like by the multi-member collection, it's literally unrecognizable, only the identifiable lyrics in the chorus giving away the origins. By the way, it does nothing for the scene between actors Eric Bana and Rachael McAdams. Why director Robert Schwentke decided to include it is baffling. As for the rest of the soundtrack, it's equally weak. Danna delivers a lightweight set of cues, each one using the typical orchestral facet of symphonic seriousness to what is often confusing and quite boring as depicted. Tracks like "In the Meadow", "Do You Know When", and "How Does it Feel" are featureless, while additional moments like "Five Years", "Who Would Want That", and "I'm You Henry" lack legitimate spark. Indeed, the whole score feels limp and lifeless, adding nothing to the work it supposedly projects.

The Ugly Truth: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 5]

What do you do when you're an uptight TV producer who can't get laid? Why, you turn over your labored love life to a Neanderthal talk show host who believes keeping women barefoot and pregnant is actually way too good for the gender, that's what. Indeed, the entire set up of this underwhelming Katherine Heigl starring vehicle does a disservice to all women everywhere while championing the kind of crude, rude comedy that Judd Apatow and the gang have made profitable over the last few film seasons. That it was conceived by a group of gals is unconscionable - kind of like Arthur Zigman's way too zany sonic complements. This is a musician who has taken the notion of variety being the spice of life to unheard of, heartburn-inducing extremes. One moment, the soundscape feels like a frothy feel good romp. The next, it is diving into tunesmith territory better reserved for oddball BBC programming.

Like a series of bad speed dates, the score for The Ugly Truth indeed runs the gamut from space age bachelor padding to intentional sonic quirk - and then back again, just in case you didn't get the point the first few track times around. For Zigman, who has crafted the backdrop for films like The Notebook, Bridge to Terabithia, and the last four Tyler Perry films, really does throw everything he's got at the mixing board. There are moments of sly Euro-whodunit drowsiness ("Abby and Mike Rant"), unintentional indie navelgazing ("Who Would I Love"), pseudo sexual swagger ("Get the Stain Out") and a strange Footloose meet foot race accent ("Frowny McFlaccid"). Along the way, Motown gets referenced ("Right this Way"), we are treated to more introverted introspection ("Goodnight Then") and there are moments when the music is barely audible ("The Ugly Truth"). Such a scattered approach may seem sensible, considering how all over the map the movie is, but as a showcase for Zigman's skills, the results here are equally unnerving.

(500) Days of Summer: Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 8]

Some might call it a reinvention. Others will honor it with the tag "deconstruction". However you view it, commercial creator/music video man turned feature film director Marc Webb has taken an interesting script from Pink Panther 2 scribes Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber and turned it into the first RomCom to speak directly to the Twitter generation. Dealing with a failed architect who now writes greeting cards and the saucy secretary who has just moved to LA from Michigan, Webb works in short, sensational bursts, taking the title of the film literally. We spend individual moments with our wannabe lovers, seeing how passion grows, philosophies conflict, and when fate no longer fuels the flame. It's a realistic if highly stylized look at relationships, and it's all couched in a backdrop brimming with indie-rock resplendence.

This is indeed a definitive love/loss mixtape, from the sonic sensation of The Smiths ("There is a Light That Never Goes Out", "Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want") to amazing tracks from Regina Spektor ("Us", "Hero"), the Doves ("There Goes the Fear") and Mumm-ra ("She's Got You High"). Granted, Meaghan Smith's take on the Pixies playful "Here Comes Your Man" is rather dreary, though her performance definitely tries to elevate its effectiveness, and the inclusion of Simon and Garfunkel ("Bookends") argues against the collective's anti-folk sensibilities. Still, "Bad Kids" by the Black Lips and "Sweet Disposition" by the Temper Trap work well, and old school hits like "You Make My Dreams" by Hall and Oates match effortlessly with contemporary kitsch from France's First Lady, Carla Bruni ("Quelqu'un M'a Dit"). Sure, there are perhaps better songs to select, especially given the material's sense of individualized eccentricity. But like the movie it mimics, the (500) Days of Summer soundtrack proves that all Moon/June/Spoon romances don't have to be the same.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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