Film

Surround Sound: The Big Bang, Part 2

Seven out of the more than 28 soundtracks and scores SE&L will be covering in the next few weeks, including the latest offerings from Carter Burwell and Clint Mansell...

Seven down...21 more to go. That's right, we started with twenty-eight soundtracks when we began this look at the scores that have shuffled through the always open transom of Short Ends and Leader Central in the last couple of months (with more arriving every day). 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 CDs 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 second batch is like the first, there are quite a few gems to be unearthed within this stack.

So let's continue on the stereophonic slog with these seven:

Vampires Suck [rating: 4]

As with most things manufactured by, or in connection with, the unfunny spoof duo of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, the music for this tepid Twilight lampoon is underwhelming, to say the least. Oh sure, you can tell that composer Christopher Lennertz is looking to mimic the broad bombastic and faux epic emotions of Stephanie Meyer's mediocre GothRom, and for a while, we enjoy the goofball charms of "Something Strange...:, "Meet the Sullens", and "Edward Saves Becca." But at 24 tracks, and nearly an hour in length, the feeling of fun quickly dissipates. The patterns of paltriness echo through pieces like "Testing Edward", "Antoine Torn to Shreds", and "Race to Prom". In the end, a potentially viable idea and approach is undermined by a lack of novelty or assured sonic invention.

Faster: Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 7]

It's tough to make out where the Faster soundtrack album is going at first. The first six tracks here are songs from artists as diverse as Iggy Pop ("I Wanna Be Your Dog"), Kenny Rodgers and the First Edition ("Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)") and the superb sonic onslaught of Guido and Maurizio DeAngelis' "Goodbye My Friend." Once Pal of Aronofsky Mansell steps in for the final nine selections, things settle in nicely. Using a piercing electric guitar to accentuate the anxiety of the narrative, there are hints of Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain here. Elsewhere, tracks like "History Lesson" and "The Driver Drives" give the score a formidable blast of pure adrenalin. But it's the quieter moments like "Lovers" and "Family Matters" that really win us over.

Howl: Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 8]

Burwell, typically trading creative barbs with the Coen Brothers, branches out for this evocative low budget indie film. Focusing on the obscenity trial of poet Allen Ginsberg and the creation of his epic free verse masterwork, the award winning composer creates an atmosphere of melancholy, a perfect counterbalance to the confrontation happening onscreen. Softer tracks like "Supernatural Darkness" and "I Saw the Best Minds" are juxtaposed against more menacing bits like "Moloch!" and "Prophecy." There is an evocative, ambient quality to the work here. It is less symphonic than Burwell usually provides, and relies greatly on piano and plucked guitar to give the music weight and range. While it can't quite match the majesty of the work he's done on such Coen classics as Barton Fink or Miller's Crossing, Howl helps cement Burwell's status as one of the artform's best.

The Tillman Story [rating: 6]

You expect a certain amount of aural elegy from a score supporting the story of Pat Tillman, former NFL star and misconstrued casualty of the War in Afghanistan, and for the most part, composer Philip Sheppard delivers on that promise. Five tracks in, and we are dealing with the delicate grief of "Lux", "Background", and "Aria". Bu it's not until selection number eight, "Suspicion", where the score gives us something more than a mere sketch. Indeed, many of the pieces here are less than a minute in length. Some last barely 40 seconds. This doesn't distract from their power, but just as we are getting into the vibe created by "In the Dark" or "Jessica Lynch Waltz", the soundtrack pulls the plug. When it hangs around a while, Sheppard's work is wonderful. Otherwise, it's mere atmosphere.

Mirrors 2: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 3]

While not his best film, Alexandre Aja's Mirrors remains an evocative experiment in setting and structure. There are moments when the abandoned department store backdrop provides a nice level of impending dread. Sadly, nothing about this direct to DVD sequel - including the score - matches the menace of the original. Composer Frederik Wiedmann follows the familiar genre conventions - moments of slow symphonic dirge peppered with orchestral dissonance or routine rhythmic "boos". You can hear in selections like "Slice", "The Murder", and "A Corpse in the Basement." Even when he wants to try and twist convention (as with tracks like "Max's Theme" or "Reflection"), we still wind up with the same old sonic spook show. No matter how necessary it may seem for this particular kind of film, it's still not very compelling.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day: The Original Soundtrack Album [rating: 7]

Over the years, Brad Fiedel's score for the James Cameron action classic has, itself, become iconic. It's pulsating mechanical beats and strong orchestral blasts accented the high octane elements of the spectacle perfectly. Now, removed from both the film and the feeling, Terminator 2's soundtrack still succeeds. Fiedel avoids trying to give everything a melodic meaning. Something like "Escape from the Hospital" gets by on a single sustained riff and various atonal bleats. Elsewhere, tracks like "Sarah's Dream (Nuclear Nightmare)" and "Our Gang Goes to Cyberdyne" do a great job of mixing a little more music into the melee. Of course, Fiedel flies through aural no-brainers like "Helicopter Attack" and "Tanker Chase" with ease, the march like drum beat delivering the pulsating throb such stunt set pieces need.

The Bounty: Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 8]

Talk about your eccentric collections. Vangelis, perhaps best known for giving Chariots of Fire its electronic pulse and Blade Runner its future shock beauty does something really unusual with this backdrop for yet about look at the classic literary mutiny. Combining his love of synthesizers with several traditional sea shanties (performed by violinist Elizabeth Hedman), we get an evocative combination of the past with the present. As arranger and performer Dominik Hauser handles divergent pieces like "Bounty Leaving England", "Cape Horn" and "Blight to Boat." In between we get era specific selections like "Bonny Kate" and "Drowsy Maggie". There's even a song entitled "She Moved Through the Fair" performed with eloquent grace by singer Katie Campbell. As a way of combining the threat of the narrative with the inherent mystery of the sea, Vangelis' work on The Bounty is brave...and beautiful.

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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Music

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

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From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

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Professor Abbas Amanat shines the light of reason and rationality upon this greatly misunderstood nation.

For many, Iran's defining characteristics were forged in only a few short months between 1978 and 1979. It was at this time that the Pahlavi Dynasty was toppled, that a largely secular government was exchanged for one driven by Shi'a Islam, and that the Ayatollahs rose to their dominant position within the Iranian political landscape.

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9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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