Here’s a fun exercise. Track down a physical copy of the Palo Alto soundtrack. Now squeeze it. That pastel-colored, clean-scented substance you see oozing out? Pure indie hipness.
From its soft-focus, Warhol-esque cover photo to the sensitive synthpop within, Music From Palo Alto looks and sounds like a Coppola project—that’s because it is one. Palo Alto is the directorial debut of Gia Coppola, granddaughter of Frances and cousin of Sofia and Roman. The only element that looks out of place here is the phrase “James Franco Presents”. Palo Alto, however, is based on Franco’s 2010 short story collection of the same name; he stars in the film version as well.
Like many pop soundtracks featuring licensed songs, Palo Alto is heavy on previously-released material, though there’s a pretty good chance you’ve not heard much of it before. The featured artist is current hipster favorite Devonté Hynes, who most recently has released a pair of well-received, ’80s-inspired indie pop/R&B albums under the name Blood Orange. Here, you get a Blood Orange mini-primer consisting of one song from each album. Possibly for legal reasons, two additional, all-new tracks are credited under Hynes’ name.
The soundtrack also features tracks from a further two of Coppola’s cousins. Robert Schwartzman contributes two vocal tracks and two instrumentals, all of which are new (Hynes and Schwartzman also have separate score albums available as digital downloads). And there is a previously-issued track from Coconut Records, the recording alias of Schwartzman’s brother Jason.
The best movie soundtracks hold their own as worthwhile, coherent song cycles independent of their respective films. In that regard, Palo Alto is a modest success. The predominant mood is simultaneously hyper-romantic and melancholic. Hynes’ “solo” material can’t match the Blood Orange tracks. The tile track is an agreeable midtempo ballad that simply floats by, and “April’s Daydream” is a short piece of crooned yearning that only reminds you how Prince used to do that sort of thing more affectingly. Neither measures up to the evocative bedroom pop of “Champagne Coast”, originally from Blood Orange’s debut album. In terms of making acquaintances, the easygoing “You’re Not Good Enough” was not the best choice to represent 2013 follow-up Cupid Deluxe.
Like those of Hynes, Robert Schwartzman’s contributions are built on atmospheric synth pads and sensitive emotions. The gentle, calming wash of “So Bad” would be right at home in literally 90 percent of indie dramas released over the past 20 years; it’s just that quintessential. The baroque, music box melody of his “It’s You” is super-sweet. If there’s any revelation to this soundtrack, it’s Schwartzman, who seems primed to maintain a meaningful solo career outside his day job as frontman of Rooney.
As for the other third of Palo Alto, it’s a relatively incongruous hodgepodge that interrupts the relative flow of Haynes’ and Schwartzman’s work. There’s an icy-cold Brian Eno ripoff from unexpectedly American techno duo Tonstartssbandht and a throwaway from one-time Nickelodeon stars Nat & Alex Wolff, the former of whom stars in the film. There’s Coconut Records’ pleasingly Beatlesque, or is that Supergrass-ish, “Is This Sound Okay?”, and, in a final act of nepotism, a melodramatic piece from the Godfather trilogy.
Some folks may be put off by this soundtrack’s fey, brittle nature. But if you’re one of those folks, you probably didn’t see the film or seek out the album, either. If Palo Alto encourages you to track down Blood Orange’s two albums, consider that a win. If this is not the case, at the very least you’ll have some extra indie hipness to keep on the shelf for a rainy day.