Surround Sound: The Big Bang, Part 5

Nine new soundtracks to discuss, including combo collections from No Strings Attached, Beastly, and The Lincoln Lawyer...

When you consider the inherent novelty of releasing soundtracks in 2011, in a media world inundated with options and audio alternatives, doubling up on the strategy seems almost surreal. After all, are there really aficionados out their clamoring for both the wordless score and the selection of pop/rock songs that make up the average movie's mixtape? It's an intriguing question, one made even more interesting by the selections presented in this fifth week of our continuing Surround Sound overview. Setting a record of sorts, we are going to delve into nine different offerings, three of which represent the very sonic yin and yang we were referencing a moment ago. Clearly, in at least one case, the desire is to tap into a teen marketplace marred by such limited talent chart toppers. But in at least one instance, the combination of composer and contemporary acts works. Elsewhere, we see the same old single disc depictions of the aural emotions behind the movies.

So, in week five, we will look at an (pointless) update of a timeless fairy tale, a legal thriller, a supposed comedy, a crime drama, a sci-fi spectacle, and a super hero spoof. Oddly enough, some of the combos are more winning that the solo shout-outs:

Beastly: Songs from the Motion Picture/Music by Marcelo Zarvos [rating: 5]

There is a real divide between the fey pop song longings of the soundtrack and the otherwise nominal but effective score by Marcelo Zarvos. The composer can, on occasional, go a little overboard (the weird bombast of "Jujyfruits", the childish chug-chug of "Building the Greenhouse") but other selections like the piano-based "The Poem" and slyly effective "Hunter Rescues Lindy" make the overall approach work. The reliance on Bizet's Carmen for some of the signature themes (intentional or unintentional) can be a bit irritating, however. On the other hand, the shoe-gazing selection of songs is so twee and trembling that it threatens to implode on its own preciousness. Opening track "On the Radio" is a perfect example of this kind of wistful whine. Things do turn upbeat - if not better - with tracks like The Vine's "Get Free" and Raney Shockne's "Boys and Girls", while Army Navy's "The Long Goodbye" is as close as this collection comes to anything anthemic.

The Lincoln Lawyer: Original Motion Picture Score/ Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 7]

Take about your diametrically opposed ideals. For the soundtrack portion of this pairing, we get an odds/sods assortment of blues, hip hop, and R&B, terrific tracks like "Ain't No Love in the Heart of the City" by Bobby "Blue" Bland, "Don't Sweat the Technique" by Erik B. and Rakim, and "Moment of Truth" by Gang Starr. The result is like a contemporary block party where a bit of old school swagger is thrown in for good measure. As for the score, Cliff Martinez (whose known for this work with Steven Soderbergh on such films as Traffic and sex, lies, and videotape) mimics much of the mid '80s electronica design, adding dashes of Harold Faltermeyer and James Horner to the mix. Selections like "Looks a Little Short to Me", "I Can Kick Your Ass", and "About Those Razors" are rather retro with a slightly modern edge. Elsewhere, the ambient style of "Woodsman" and "I Got This" add a nice under-layer of lushness.

No Strings Attached: Music from the Motion Picture/Score from the Motion Picture [rating: 7]

In the last of our prearranged pairings, Ivan Reitman's attempted return for comedy form finds gold in the most unusual of places. First up, John Debney's poppy/rocky/quasi-quietLOUD compositions keep one on their toes, selections like "Golf Date", "You Wanna Do This?" and "Don't Listen to Me" coming across with expert appeal. Similarly, "Hailing a Cab" and "Drive to the Biltmore" mix the symphonic with the contemporary in engaging, elegant ways. As for the various tracks listed as part of the soundtrack, we get such classic sonic cheese as "I Wanna Sex You Up" by Color Me Badd, "Bossa Nova Baby" from Elvis Presley and D'Angelo's "Untitled (How Does It Feel)". Counterbalancing the aural approach are oddities like Hugo's cover of Jay-Z's seminal "99 Problems", Leona Lewis' Pink-ish "Bleeding Love", and Little Red's "Rock It." Together, they provide a genial, jovial backdrop to something that critics agreed was lightweight if likeable.

Brotherhood: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]

After years of working in television (Rubicon, Say Yes to the Dress), composer Dan Marocco delivers an interesting score to this low budget crime thriller. While falling into some of the traps contemporary writers make (the overuse of percussive elements, the constant drone of a synth in the background), the actual musical beats here are quite interesting. We enjoy the calm before the storm approach of "$19.10", the sinister appeal of "Roslyn" and the slow, subtle "Lights Out." Then some musical guests step in and shake things up a bit - and not always in a good way. Taxi Taxi's "+1" is intriguing in its sonic boom blasts of noise, while People in Plane's "Moths" sounds like someone ran over the entire emo movement with a copy of Franz Ferdinand's latest. Only Aushua's "Sister Saves" sounds right here, the ethereal moan of the guitar matching the high tension aspects of the track perfectly. Luckily, Marocco returns intermittently, reminding us of how to make this all gel.

Source Code: Music by Chris Bacon [rating: 6]

For his follow-up to the indie cult hit Moon, David Bowie's son Duncan Jones is going high concept, if not necessarily more high tech. This time travel thriller bears more than a fleeting resemblance to past efforts like 12 Monkeys and Deja Vu with splashes of Unbreakable thrown in for oddity, but we have to give the fledgling filmmaker some leeway. He's already proven he can handle such speculative material. The score by Chris Bacon doesn't inspire a lot of confidence, however. The opening theme sounds like a Lost in Space retread (Irwin Allen would be so proud) while, elsewhere, selections like "You Don't Know Me" and "Racial Profiling" are a tad underwhelming. Things do pick up later on, tracks like "Am I Dead?" and "Frozen Moment" finding the proper combination of emotion and the ethereal to get us in the mood. Overall, the score is stylized if a tad stilted, specializing in the kind of scattered piece-mealing that many musical backdrops utilize - and suffer from - in today's Hollywood.

Super:Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]

Currently making the rounds at festivals throughout the world (and earning excellent reviews in the process), James Gunn's take on the comic book hero movie has one of the best soundtracks of any contemporary music mixtape approach. Beginning with Tsar's sensational "Calling All Destroyers" and moving through minor masterworks like Eric Carmen's "It Hurts Too Much" and Moneybrother's Clash-like "God Knows My Name '11" , it's just one terrific track after another. Along the way, composer Tyler Bates does his best Pray for Rain impression, adding tiny tone poems like "The Prayer" and "LIbby Goes Down" to the proceedings. Still, it's songs like "Nobody Knows Anymore" by Terra Naomi and the Standell's cover "Sometimes, Good Guys Don't Wear White" by The Nomads that leave a lasting impression. If the movie is half as good as this clever compilation, we're in for some fun this spring.

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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