Jon Brion is a 21st century renaissance man. His work as a session musician in the '90s led to an impressive resume of work as a producer (working with artists such as Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Robyn Hitchcock and Kanye West, among many others), and it was his transition into the role of film composer that seemed to seal his status as one of music's most accomplished polymaths. Despite his voluminous output in this particular area – more than 20 film scores since 1996 – Brion doesn't necessarily have the film composer name recognition that's afforded people like Hans Zimmer, Thomas Newman, John Williams, or Alexandre Desplat. His recent score for the Greta Gerwig-directed Lady Bird may not change this, which is a shame because the music is uncanny and full of quiet, understated beauty.
The Lady Bird score – released last November but available on vinyl for the first time on 23 February - contains many of the sonic similarities of Brion's earlier film work, particularly in his scores for the first batch of Paul Thomas Anderson films (before Anderson decided to hire Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood and attach an atonal Messian-esque severity to films like There Will Be Blood and The Master). The score also recalls some of Brion's instrumental production work and is particularly reminiscent of his baroque reshaping of Brad Mehldau's Largo and Highway Rider albums.
Forgoing the large orchestral makeup of so many film scores, Brion instead works with a much smaller palette, reflecting the more modest scale of the film itself. His style is reminiscent of the scores Mark Mothersbaugh composed for Wes Anderson's early films, both in scope and execution: Quirky, ornate instrumental quasi-pop that never overpowers the scenes. On Lady Bird, the instrumentation is limited to piano, strings, wind ensemble and light percussion. There are no "big moments" or showstoppers. In fact, several of the songs are short enough to simply qualify as musical cues, such as the 19-second "LB/Danny" and the 28-second "Looking Forward".
The opening "Title Credits" track bounces along with a standard pop beat and melody, laying low at certain points to allow for plaintive, very Brion-esque wind melodies. The brief "Maybe" is heavy on the percussion, with guitar and piano creeping in towards the end, almost as an afterthought. There's an earnest folk atmosphere to tracks like "Sign Up", where acoustic guitar strumming combines with descending horn melodies. This type of arrangement is also put to good use on "Lady Bird Kiss", giving plenty of emotional heft to the film's unique coming-of-age story.
Full disclosure: I still haven't seen Lady Bird, so I can't comment on how the music works within the context of the film. I will say, however, that the music works very well on its own, particularly if you go into it with the realization that it was created for a film and don't expect long, extended suites or overly busy arrangements.
Perhaps like the film itself, there is a bit of a downbeat yin to the quirky yang that offers a moody counterpoint. Assisted by a loping, retro drum machine beat, "Packing Up" moves along at a deliberate pace, providing a melancholy vibe. The brief "Hope" is all muted woodwinds that - as the title implies – give off just a touch of light at the end of the tunnel. "Reconcile" follows with a similar mood, as solo piano takes the place of the horns.
There's ample variety within Lady Bird's 23 tracks, but in the world of Jon Brion, it all seems to lock into a particular sound that manages to combine the quirkiness that has populated much of his film work with a touching sense of melancholy. As a film's musical accompaniment, this kind of approach works beautifully. As a solitary listening experience, there may not be a ton of hooks that stick with you long after the music is over, but it still works as a rather sumptuous collection of melodies that give you a peek into the musical world of Jon Brion.