Surround Sound: The Big Bang, Part 1

Twenty-eight. That’s how many soundtracks have shuffled through the always open transom of Short Ends and Leader Central in the last couple of months. As usual, the extra workload makes it almost impossible to keep up, especially when dealing with the demands of Award Season and the upcoming Oscars. So like our lifetime, the scores have been piling up, begging us to address them with the usual critical aplomb. So, as part of a February special, every Wednesday will feature a Special Surround Sound column covering this glut of motion picture music. Hopefully, over the course of the next four weeks, we’ll be able to access the value in these often overlooked cinematic souvenirs. If the first batch is any indication, there are quite a few gems to be unearthed within this stack.

So let’s begin the stereophonic slog with these seven:

Blue Valentine: Music from the Movie [rating: 6]

Twee and a bit fey, the otherwise ethereal work of Grizzly Bear (with help from Department of Eagles and Penny & the Quarters) reeks of an odd Americana that the urban relationships drama seems to circumvent at every move. The Brooklyn based folk rock combo is often so busy incorporating odd instrumentation (banjo, xylophone) into the mix that they spark more ennui than emotion. Still, the acoustic based strumming of such songs as “Dory” or “Lullaby” and piano passivity of “Foregrond” contrast nicely with the more dark and foreboding pieces like “I Live With You”. We are even treated to star Ryan Gosling warbling through an ukulele version of “You Always Hurt the One You Love”. The gem here is a forgotten soul song, “You and Me” by lost band Penny & the Quarters. Unearthed from a collector’s estate, the tune supplies the kind of heartfelt feeling the rest of the soundtrack seems to avoid.

Countdown to Zero: Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 7]

Sounding like a lost collection of Laurie Anderson outtakes, the score for this documentary on the lingering nuclear threat worldwide offers the same kind of passive-aggressive ambience that both the renowned performance artist and agent provocateurs like Tom Waits strive for. It’s a kind of quirky backhanded industrialism that suggest society run amok with strangled psychosis and too much technology. Sure, there are still symphonic slips like “Splitting the Atom”, “Algeria”, and “Kitty Litter”, but for the most part, composer Peter Golub jumps genres, employing hip-hop beats, electronica, keyboard flourishes, and the kind of contemporary cross cultural beats that make the soundtrack so “of its time.” Yet there’s no denying the depressive sway of cuts like “Reykjavik” and “Ways” or the dimmed disco tension of something like “Launch Time Line”.

The Bird Can’t Fly: Music from the Movie [rating: 8]

A startling combination of ambience soundscapes and fragile, lilting songs, the collaboration between Paul Hepker and Mark Kilian grounds what many critics have called a surrealistic hodgepodge of disconnected eco-symbols. All arguments about the worth of the film aside, the musical work here is indeed stunning. Replicating the feel of its South African setting without going overboard with the aboriginal tricks, Hepker and Kilian create terrific tone poems, pieces that successfully meld atmosphere with meaning. Interspersed are actual songs – “Mine” and “Twilight” – that work well as accents to the otherwise instrumental experience. Some may sense a real disconnect between the score and the cinema it’s supposed to be supplementing, but in a weird way, Hepker and Kilian’s efforts make The Bird Can’t Fly lucid. Without them, it’s lost.

Welcome to the Rileys: Music from the Movie [rating: 4]

Like a traveling troubadour overstaying his welcome, the mostly mandolin finger picking of Marc Streitenfeld’s score (accented by six songs by various artists at the end) leaves little lasting impression. Aside from a signature riff that’s repeated once too often, the rest of the musical backdrop sounds like failed experiments by The Magnetic Fields Stephen Marriot – and not in a good way. We are supposed to feel the smallness of the story in pieces like “Rebirth”, “Walking in New Orleans”, and “Private Parts.”. Instead, with many tracks lasting less than two minutes, experience is more akin to hearing an unfinished demo. Moments like “Time” and “Nobody’s Little Girl” do have impact, but when combined with tunes from Odetta (“Go Down, Sunshine”) and Shiny Toy Guns (“Le Disko”), the overall soundtrack just implodes.

The Town: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]

With its sinister, slow burn qualities and almost ambient like approach, composers Harry Gregson-Williams and David Buckley give Ben Affleck second stint behind the camera the kind of ethereal backdrop the thoughtful thriller deserves. Instead of slamming us over the head with sledgehammer obviousness, the duo dive deep into heartbeats and stasis, minor moments of rhythm and symphonic sketches strung together to give their music passion and balance. Sure, there is still a bitter energy in cuts like “Bank Heist”, “Nuns with Guns”, and “Who Called 911?”, but for the most part, the pair understate their case, causing the listener to fall deeper into their deceptive ends. There are moments here of amazing beauty. There are also times when the quiet hush hides something far more ferocious and fascinating.

The Wicker Man: The Original Soundtrack Album [rating: 7]

Now here’s an oddity for you. Half freak folk art balladry and ballsy bawdy cockney songs and half standard horror movie score, the work of Paul Giovanni on the memorable movie from 1973 (not the noxious Nic Cage update) has to be heard to be believed. Tracks like “Corn Rigs”, “The Landlord’s Daughter”, and “The Tinker of Rye” work a kind of musical magic on the listener, transporting them to a place that’s both silly and evil, stunted by their heritage and, for all to hear, damn proud of it. Elsewhere, Giovanni drops the gimmick to give us solid sequences like “The Ruined Church” and “Searching for Rowan”. While the level of obvious cheek is above and beyond what you expect from the fright flick. The Wicker Man has never been a normal horror show. It’s no surprise then that the composer’s crackerbox collection of material would be as unique as well.

Unstoppable: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 5]

Strange. When discussing his work in The Town, it was clear that composer Harry Gregson-Williams was someone who understood the value in remaining understated and suggestive. Sadly, without David Buckley as a buffer, our intrepid musician can’t avoid the trappings of the high octane thriller. Everything you expect from a runaway train film is encapsulated in this exaggerated score, from the locomotive suggestions to the occasional jolts signify shocks and scares. Even more modulated moments like “Frank Barnes” and “Dewey” are defeated once piledrivers like “Not a Coaster” and “Realign the Switch” start up. Collaboration often complicates things. In the case of Unstoppable Gregson-Williams definitely needed someone to slow down the rampant sonic stereotypes employed. Without a partner, it’s the same old aural assault.