Surround Sound #9: Hodgepodge

Kevin Jagernauth
The Gothic Archies, The Tragic Treasury: Songs from a Series of Unfortunate Events

The latest Surround Sound installment tackles a hodgepodge of kids movies, TV shows, indie flicks, and more.

I'm going to begin this edition of Surround Sound at the very end. To celebrate the finale of Lemony Snicket's (aka Daniel Handler) long running and extraordinarily popular kids' book series A Series of Unfortunate Events, Nonesuch has compiled all of the Gothic Archies' songs that found their way on to each of the audio books as The Tragic Treasury: Songs from a Series of Unfortunate Events [rating: 9]. There really was no better choice than Stephin Merritt, who is the Gothic Archies, to write songs for each of the books in the series. Blessed with a gloriously sonorous voice and deadpan delivery, he brings the proper gravitas, imagery, and humor to songs like "Freakshow", "Smile! No One Cares How You Feel", and "The World is a Very Scary Place". Merritt hasn't dragged out his Gothic Archies moniker, used for songs written in which "any glimmer of hope is absolutely extinguished," since the very brief and very excellent 1997 EP The New Despair. It's been a decade, but the wait has been worth it. Songs from a Series of Unfortunate Events is the darkly funny, theatrically dour, bubblegum pop album Merritt enthusiasts have been waiting for. Perhaps best of all, you don't have to be familiar with the books to enjoy the songs --- but it will definitely make you want to read them.

On the other end of the spectrum of children's books is the wholesome Curious George. I'm surprised it took as long as it did for Hollywood to turn it into a movie, but though I haven't seen it, judging by the soundtrack, it would appear that some effort was made to keep the warm feeling the classic books continue to evoke. One step in the right direction was signing on harmless, fuzzy, surfer dude guitar slinger Jack Johnson to write and perform songs for the soundtrack. Thankfully devoid of the amped-up sugar rush that is most children's movie soundtracks these days, Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies for the film Curious George [rating: 7] is a nicely paced, relaxed collection of songs in which the lyrics are sung not yelled, and that even manages to pass along a few messages without being preachy. Johnson's songs float by effortlessly, driven mostly by guitar and voice, while gently rounded out with some light percussion. While Johnson brings Matt Costa, G. Love, and Ben Harper to help out a few tracks, their performances are muted to fit in with the disc's overall genteel vibe. Though most of the album leans heavily on the lullaby side of things, the two obvious sing-a-longs "The Sharing Song" and "The 3 R's" (about recycling) are catchy and effective without hitting you over the head. The disc earns further points by including a full, beautifully illustrated lyric booklet that is perfect for kids' learning to read. It's another simple yet elegant touch in an album full of them.

The producers of Open Season [rating: 5], yet another animated film with plucky talking animals trying understand the human world they've been thrown into, also enlisted a single artist to write the bulk of the film's songs. That the final choice is former Replacements lead man Paul Westerberg is certainly adventurous, yet somehow, it works. Fans worried he may have dialed it down to Jack Johnson levels to please family audiences needn't be concerned. Westerberg's distinctive howl and box full of hooks are on full display. Actually, lead track "Meet Me in the Meadow" could be taken off the soundtrack and put on the next Westerberg record and none would be the wiser. Buoyant, jubilant with a catchy, soaring chorus, it sets the bar high, and Westerberg manages to nail it for most of the rest of the disc. Oh sure, there are some stumbles, like the soppy "I Belong" and the corny "Right to Arm Bears" (ha ha), but for the most part Westerberg is up to the challenge. And heck, any kid's movie that finds room for the Talking Heads' "Wild Wild Life" must have something going for it.

Animals of a very real sort are found in the IMAX feature Deep Sea 3D, and to match its visual audacity, the producers licensed the music of frequent Tim Burton collaborator, Danny Elfman to help take viewers into the mysterious ocean world of the film. The composition, Serenada Schizophrana [rating: 7], was originally commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra and debuted at Carnegie Hall on February 23, 2005. The beauty of Elfman's work is its distinctive voice managing flights of fantasy, whimsy, and wonder while staying dramatically grounded when necessary. It would seem that freed from the narrative and visual constrictions of a film soundtrack that Serenada Schizophrana would be more daring than it is. But, for better or worse, it's trademark Elfman through and through. The abrupt shifts in tempo, bright brass, steady percussion and almost self-aware oddness is pretty much tailor-made for a feature production. That it appears in an IMAX film is a bit surprising as one would think it's more suited to something a bit more fanciful, but these are minor quibbles. The fact of the matter is, Elfman is one of the most fascinating film scorers working today. Thankfully leagues more adventurous than the rarified air of the John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith composing machines, Elfman still remains a breath of fresh air to the ears of filmgoers everywhere. It speaks volumes about the creativity of Elfman's work that the one complaint I have against Serenada Schizophrana is that it's not weird enough. Even Elfman at his most ordinary is not using the right colors to paint by numbers properly, and that's what makes his work so compelling.

Equally and consistently compelling is Philip Glass, who scored this year's other magician movie, The Illusionist [rating: 8]. Restraint is the key here, as Glass forgoes the usually bombastic, cut-and-dried methods of his film scoring contemporaries. Curiously, this allows for a greater breadth of emotions to cut through the work. To be sure, there are transition pieces suitably made for dramatic elements in the film, but it's the quieter moments that are the most striking here. "Meeting in the Carriage" hints at both the said and unsaid while "Life in the Mountains" is romantic with a strong hint of mystery hiding behind its idyllic proposal. Even something with an ostentatious title like "The Secret Plot" is remarkably minimal, keeping its cards close to the vest. The Illusionist is another strong entry in Glass' already formidable catalog of award winning soundtracks.

Yet despite the composer, there are often films whose very nature pushes the attention of the soundtrack to the background. Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep [rating: 7] follows in a long line of visually alluring films. Cutting his teeth in advertising and with music videos, Gondry's original concepts have often outshined the products or artists they were supposed to be promoting. However, his cinematic works have been a wonderful cohesion of completely original stories combined with an audacious and arresting manner behind the camera. The Science of Sleep, a fantastical tale that weaves romance, reality, and dreams into one heady trip is not your ordinary film. Longtime Gondry collaborator Jean-Michel Bernard steps up to the challenge of scoring a film that is, from beginning to end, a flight of imagination. Much like the film, which abruptly shifts between reality and dreams, the compositions are kept relatively brief. There is a certain Jon Brion-esque quality at work here (no surprise as he scored Gondry's directorial debut, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Bernard's beautiful score is by turns whimsical and dour, sensitive and shattering, perfectly matching the galloping emotions and fanciful diversions facing the characters. And to put icing on the cake, we're treated a cute version of Lou Reed's "If You Rescue Me" as sung by the cast.

In the absence of a complete original score, some films will opt for a historically accurate arrangement of pop songs. For Hollywoodland [rating: 7], Ben Affleck's underrated neo-noir comeback vehicle, we are treated to a fine selection of songs from the era. While the film concerns the death and downfall of a Hollywood has been, the soundtrack emanates the glamour of the 1950s instead. Classic cuts like "The Great Pretender" or Frankie Lane's smooth as velvet "On the Sunny Side of the Street" sit comfortably alongside the emerging talents of John Coltrane ("Theme for Eddie") and Quincy Jones ("Elephant Walk"). It's nice to see African-American musicians represented well, even if they weren't on radio at the time. Bo Diddley's self-titled cut is magic, while Buster Brown's "Fannie Mae" vamp is a hidden gem. Hollywoodland succeeds not only in effectively capturing the mood and celebrity of a long gone version of Hollywood, it may just be the perfect score to your next classy dinner party.

But let's face it, the majority of what passes for soundtracks these days are poorly compiled pop collections. Ever since the success of Garden State and The O.C., every movie studio and television series has tried their hand at creating another indie-centric-yet-mainstream-friendly soundtrack. The producer's over at the surprise hit show Grey's Anatomy [rating: 3] are certainly trying to reach out to as many people as possible and the season two soundtrack features a healthy mix of blasé alternative rock combined with sensitive singers emoting over generically ear-pleasing tracks. There is frankly very little difference between The Fray and Gran Bel Fisher, or Anya Marina and KT Tunstall, and the countless other discs by barely-knowns crowding the desks of television producers hoping to achieve ten seconds of fame during a sensitive moment on a hit show. It's too bad that Jamie Lidell's excellent soul jam, "Multiply", will be lost among the remaining dreck.

Perhaps dreck is too strong a word, as most of these kinds of soundtracks are merely mediocre. For My Name is Earl [rating: 4], the hit show about trailer trash with a heart of gold, the soundtrack plays directly to the program's clichés. Mixing classic artists and contemporary reworkings, My Name is Earl practically smells of barbeque sauce and hay. Los Lobos, Jerry Reed, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and John Hiatt all contribute original songs that will be sure to sate country and western fans not even familiar with the show. Unfortunately, it's the covers that are downright embarrassing. Third-rate Kid Rock wannabe Uncle Kracker, delivers a terrible version of The Band's "The Weight", while Van Nuys (dubbed a mystery all-star band in the press release) sour the already barely tolerable "99 Red Balloons". But how Young M.C.'s "Bust a Move" and the hip hop classic "It Takes Two" by Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock found their way on here is a little baffling. I doubt the show's fans are particularly concerned about finding the songs they heard during the broadcast on CD, but if they do, they may find the mix completely middling at best and downright bizarre at worst.

NBC's The Biggest Loser [rating: 4] at least tries very hard to hide their thoroughly run of the mill pop selections will good intentions. The reality show in which overweight contestants are pitted against each other in losing the most weight (talk about negative reinforcement) for the most part has grabbed a large collection of third-rate pop songs to drive their program. In order to give the selections some cohesion, they have supplied a surprisingly thick CD booklet which provides instructions and a complete workout to follow during the thirteen song track list. It's a nice idea, but it's too bad the songs are both not particularly motivating and largely stay at the same tempo. The artist selection is the safe and similar sounding FM office background music from the likes of Howie Day and Spin Doctors. Having seemingly blown their budget licensing Elvis Presley's "A Little Less Conversation (JXL Radio Edit Remix)", we're left with tracks like Jessica Simpson's brutally tepid "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)" and the theme song to MTV's "Cheyenne". With the combination of poor songs and a slapdash workout regime, everything about this release feels like an afterthought at best. I suppose if The Biggest Loser gets its viewers up off the couch and into a gym that's a good thing, but I certainly hope they choose a more fitting soundtrack.

Step Up [rating: 3], which probably should've been made for TV instead of released theatrically, follows in a similar pattern, but this time with an anemic listing of R&B and hip hop artists. The film, just one in an unending line of Fame and Flashdance pretenders, is aimed squarely at tweens, and the good people at Jive have thankfully delivered clean versions of any tracks featuring those awful curse words. Oh sure, there are some memorable names. Missy Elliot protégé Ciara seems to still be hanging around, but don't look for any fresh ideas as "Get Up" is cut from the identical cloth as "1, 2 Step" (since the ad for her new album in the back of the CD booklet directly rips off the artwork of Sin City, it would seem originality isn't something she's interested in). Sean Paul teams up with Keyshia Cole for another track that sounds like every other Sean Paul song, while Chris Brown's incredibly and obviously pitch-shifted voice will melt naive teen hearts with "Say Goodbye". The weakness of the overall selection of tracks only makes the highlights stand out that much stronger. Kelis walks in with having seemingly stole from Prince's discarded backing tracks and drops the absolutely solid "'80s Joint". The Neptunes prove they still have it, providing their trademark ear-glossed synth heavy production to Clipse's edgy "Ain't Cha". And a nod of the cap must go to Anthony Hamilton for continuing to offer something original to the standard "male R&B singer template" with his flamenco inflected "Dear Life".

From steppers to surfers, A Brokedown Melody [rating: 5], a breezy documentary about surfing, features an equally digestible soundtrack. Released on Jack Johnson's Brushfire Records, fans of his amiable pop will find much to like here. Culver City Dub Collective, Kings of Convenience, Johnny Osbourne, and Matt Costa all keep the vibe chummy and pleasant. Doug Martsch's excellent quasi-blues jam, "Heart (Things Never Shared)", from his criminally overlooked solo album ups the energy quotient, while the Beta Band's "Needles in My Eyes" brings some much needed emotional complexity to the proceedings. But overall it's harmless, and on a warm evening, with some friends and some beers, it might just be a good way to pass some time.

Featuring Arrested Development's Tony Hale and underrated character actor James Urbaniak, Fortunes [rating: 7] keeps in line with indie production values by enlisting the assistance of former Guided by Voices member Tobin Sprout. Sprout delivers a surprisingly complex yet unified work, mixing instrumental passages with new and old favorites. Sprout does a great job of juggling a few different styles while retaining a single fingerprint across the entire disc. "Martini" is suitably loungy, with a dangerous Dick Dale undertone keeping things moving along nicely. "Fortunes Theme" meets somewhere between Danny Elfman and Jon Brion and is completely outside of anything you might expect of Sprout. From the acoustic "Old Gray House" to the psychedelic "Within Us All", Sprout confounds expectations by delivering a solid soundtrack that I can only guess suits the wide ranging needs of the film and will delight longtime fans.

The last two discs are difficult to judge insofar as they fit the aesthetic of the films they represent, but as a listening experience left much to be desired. Larry Clark's Wassup Rockers [rating: 4], look at skate punks in South Central Los Angeles continues in his long line of films, bordering on a near obsession, with the youth element. The soundtrack is appropriately rugged. Featuring the cast band The Revolts, as well as authentic bands from the region, the songs pick up where Black Flag and Los Crudos left off -- but add much. With most of the tracks running under two or three minutes there is a ton of energy and anger to spare, but if you have the Minor Threat discography in your collection already, there isn't much reason to pick this up.

The Sadies suffer from too much of the same as well with their soundtrack to the documentary Tales of the Rat Fink [rating: 3] about hot rod and custom car designer Ed Roth. Whipping through 26 tracks in 31 minutes, this is just simply exhausting. The Sadies are an excellent band and all their strengths are here from the Morricone reverb, the Dick Dale energy, and the Hank Snow hooks. But with most of the tracks barely running a minute long, it's far too much to digest in one sitting and the portions are so small it's hardly worth going to the table. I'm sure for a film about hot rods it works, but there is no way you'd sit down to listen to this beginning to end. For Sadies completists only.





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