From Roller Disco to Dope Smokers: Settling the Scores
, by Adam Besenyodi - PopMatters explores a dozen current soundtracks in our newest feature to determine what's worthy of the marquee and what bombs.
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
| FROM THE BIG SCREEN |
FROM THE SMALL SCREEN
FROM THE RADIO AND STAGE
Whether it's with a full blown score or songs culled from the depths of the most obscure pop artist's catalog, a successful modern movie or television soundtrack complements without overshadowing the images. Movie soundtracks range from full orchestral scores to original songs by underground artists to first tier collections of well-known songs. Television soundtracks are generally more hit-or-miss affairs, lately taken to mining semi-obscure wannabe alterna-pop bands for theme songs, bar scene background atmosphere, and faux hipster cachet.
In an effort to find out what's worthy of the marquee and what bombs, here's a closer look at a variety of recent soundtracks that cover everything from the mainstream to the extreme, mixed with a little bit of the unexpected
From the Big Screen
The guiding elements behind a winning movie soundtrack evoke the images of the movie itself -- Danny Elfman's dark and brooding "Batman Theme" for Tim Burton's Batman, John Williams' scene-stealing "Imperial March" for Darth Vader, Cameron Crowe's iconic placement of Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" in Say Anything, the polarizing but incredibly inventive "Elephant Love Medley" from Moulin Rouge. These are all pieces of music that enhance the images on the screen and, subsequently, in our minds.
If ever there was a pairing of talents that flawlessly compliment each other but are still able to retain their own identity, it's the marriage between Burton's vision and Elfman's composition. Elfman has always been able to capture the aural essence of Burton's visuals with perfection, and it continues with Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack). There is enough variation here to set this moody and playful collection a part from what might have amounted to The Nightmare Before Christmas Redux. With only four new songs (three co-written with John August), Tim Burton's Corpse Bride (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) is more score than song, but the style is all Elfman.
The chamber music-inspired pieces Elfman has composed for the living are somber and stoic, where the music of the dead is infused with a lively playfulness -- underscoring themes that are ironic and appropriate when considering the inspiration material. Soft and beautiful but weighed down, "The Piano Duet" is followed by the upbeat and wicked "New Arrival". "According to Plan", "Tears to Shed", and "The Wedding Song" are typical Elfman soundtrack compositions (and that's not a bad thing) -- ensemble pieces that propel the story and jump from style to style with ease. The only other song on the soundtrack, "Remains of the Day", is performed by Elfman and drenched in 1930's jazz with a rollicking piano and wide open feel. The original Mystic Knight of the Oingo Boingo proves once again that he is a worthy heir to Bernard Herrmann's mantle, producing music that is instantly recognizable but completely unique.
Interesting as much for the story behind the music as the music itself, the soundtrack for the indie film Thumbsucker is a morbid curiosity. Writer and director Mike Mills originally had shared his screenplay for Thumbsucker with singer/songwriter Elliott Smith back when Mills was making graphics for Smith's "Happiness" single. Years later, when Thumbsucker was actually set to become a reality, Mills, as he states in his liner notes, went back to Smith because he thought Smith "was the voice inside the lead character's head, and he could create an amazing soundtrack out of covers." However, in 2003 Smith took his own life before the movie and soundtrack were complete. Left with only a handful of finished Smith tunes, Mills was forced to find another collaborator. That partnership was found in The Polyphonic Spree's Tim DeLaughter.
The result is a morose but redeeming soundtrack that ultimately inspires. The three surviving Smith tracks are heartbreakingly affecting. Smith's original track, "Let's Get Lost" and his cover of Cat Stevens' "Trouble" are quality songs, but it's Smith's cover of Big Star's "Thirteen" the steals the emotional show. Close enough to Alex Chilton's original vocals to show homage, but unique enough to wring a new dimension from the lyrics, Smith is able to take the voice of the song's original 13-year-old's perspective and successfully apply it here. DeLaughter and the Spree's "Move Away and Shine" is another exceptional track (so good, in fact, it shows up twice on the soundtrack: once in its original form and again in the more radio-friendly "In a Dream Version" -- stick with the original, though). The drums, horns, piano, and uplifting rose-colored chorus' treacle is forgiven because you need the boost after having so much stripped bare in the preceding 20 tracks.
Location, location, location. The whiskey-soaked music from Forty Shades of Blue benefits from its Memphis setting. The soundtrack contains a wealth of music worth exploring, covering everything from soul (Reba Russell's lively version of "A Little Bit of Soap") to Cajun swing (The Red Stick Ramblers' "What Do I Do") to gospel (Tracy Nelson's "Quicksand") to Memphis blues (Elvin Bishop and Smokey Smothers' live throw-down of "Annie Mae"), with bits of Dickon Hinchcliffe's original score excerpted and interspersed between.
Featuring three tracks from Ethiopian groove innovator Mulatu Astatke, and three tracks from a combination of The Greenhorns and singer Holly Golightly, there is coherence to the eclectic collection of music Jim Jarmusch has delivered in support of his latest film. Music from Broken Flowers is a well-sequenced affair that moves effortlessly between Astatke's "Gubelye", Sleep's menacing "Dopesmoker" instrumental, Oxford Camerata's somber take on Gabriel Fauré's "Requiem, Op. 48 (Pie Jesu)", and the soundtrack's standout track: Dengue Fever's jazz-out-of-time "Ethanopium". The only complaint here is that the 40-minute collection whizzes by a little too quickly, leaving you wanting more.
Music from the Motion Picture The Baxter comes off a lot like the bland Elliot W. Sherman character Michael Showalter created for the movie -- an indistinguishable sort who fades into the drab wallpaper, never to be heard from again. And that is how this collection of songs plays. Amid the overuse of dialog snippets tracked as a part of the songs themselves, the quirky pop isn't quirky enough to set itself apart. The movie claims that "the baxter" is someone who never gets the girl, and that seems a fitting description of this milquetoast soundtrack as well.
Combining classics, new originals, and covers, Roll Bounce takes a revisionist approach to the sins of roller disco with fun, funky grooves that make you move. The strength of the collection rests on the well chosen genre definers and the new originals. Interspersing Brooke Valentine's incredibly catchy "Boogie Oogie Oogie" (with Fabolous & YoYo) with a classic cut like Vaughn Mason and Crew's "Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll" leads to inspired listening. And Ray J's "Quit Actin'" (featuring R. Kelly and Shorty Mack) plays perfectly against Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "Superman Lover". Other period pieces like Bill Withers' "Lovely Day", Foxy's "Get Off", and Chic's "Le Freak" serve as a mini refresher course on what playful, quality dance music can be. Earth, Wind & Fire, currently residing on the Sanctuary label which produced this compilation, make the most of the opportunity by contributing "Pure Gold", a new track on par with anything the group made in their '70s heyday.
Taking the opposite approach to Earth, Wind & Fire's supreme Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis produced track, Kool & the Gang attempt to reimagine their own "Hollywood Swingin'" in an unappealing bid to secure long-gone relevance by enlisting the help of urban dance hipster du jour, Jamiroquai. But, the weakest tracks are clearly the cover ballads. While Beyonce's work on Rose Royce's "Wishing on a Star" is well-crafted and passable, it is Keith Sweat's embarrassing cover of The Intruders' "I Wanna Know Your Name" that really holds this collection back. The most worthy cover finds Michelle Williams overcoming the laughable intro and grooving on Al Green's "Let's Stay Together".
From the Small Screen
Since Buffy the Vampire Slayer made its final bow in May 2003, my wife, like many Buffy fans, has been searching for a show to redirect her willing devotion. Enter Veronica Mars. By all accounts a smart, funny, and outsider hip hour of escapism, Veronica Mars seems to have stepped up and filled the void that the Scoobies left. And, like Joss Whedon before him, Veronica Mars' mastermind Rob Thomas has used his influence to put together a collection of songs for the devotees to devour. Unfortunately, television soundtracks often come off as completely unessential, recklessly thrown together in an effort to cash in on the latest hot property. And Veronica Mars (Original Television Soundtrack) is another throwaway affair, but given the consumer history of this kind of show's fan base, the soundtrack will most certainly hit its target audience.
From shoegazer revivalists The Dandy Warhols, "We Used to be Friends" serves as both the show's theme song and the lead off track in this collection. And the disposable, entertaining sounds of 46Bliss are noteworthy on "The Way You Are". The highlight of the disc, however, is The Faders' "No Sleep Tonight", which began receiving deserved generous airplay on XM's UPOP satellite radio station months ago. Reminiscent of The 126.96.36.199's, The Faders are an all-girl garage rock band with a surf-guitar influence. But, where The 188.8.131.52's went for humor, The Faders go for straight-up punky rock and roll. On the other hand, Spoon's "I Turn My Camera On" apes the disco trash beats of Scissor Sisters, right down to Britt Daniel's grating falsetto vocal impression of Scissor Sister's Jake Shears. And tripe like Adrienne Pierce's "Lost & Found" and Soul Coughing's Mike Doughty's "I Hear the Bells" tend to wear thin for all but the most dedicated.
Taking its cues from its subject matter, Weeds: Music from the Original Series brings together an assorted collection of songs and score. With lyrical nods to both Inner Circle and The Carpenters, Michael Franti & Spearhead's "Ganja Babe" unfurls at an ideal pace, rolling across the room like a lazy haze of smoke. While The New Pornographers lend "The Laws have Changed" from their 2003 album, Electric Version, to mark the middle of the disc, the second half highlights are delivered in a back-to-back shot of quality soul and folk from Marion Black ("Who Knows") and Martin Creed ("I Can't Move"), respectively. The Pixies' Joey Santiago provides the show's score, represented here with a pair of under-two-minute tracks ("Fake Purse" and "Birthday Video") that waft by unassumingly. The album closes with the sarcastic folk menacing of Hill of Beans that demands "Satan Lend Me a Dollar". A soundtrack that starts off kind of slow, it doesn't slip once they bring out the good stuff.
An insulting collection of girl power nu-country and watered down adult contemporary crap, Music from and Inspired by Desperate Housewives plays like a sub-par extended version of the "She Said" side of the She's Having a Baby soundtrack. Song titles like "God Bless the American Housewife", "Damsel in Distress", and "Dreams of the Everyday Housewife" (most all of which were written by men) let you know what you're in for. Throw in some meant-to-be clever covers of the Stones ("Mother's Little Helper" by Liz Phair), and Simon and Garfunkle ("Mrs. Robinson" by Indigo Girls) and there is no doubt what lies ahead. The less said about the contributions of SHeDaisy, Macy Gray, and Idina Menzel, the better.
Jarring sequencing serves as a stark reminder that these songs were not chosen so much for their relevance to the show as they were for being Madison Avenue's idea of what an empowered soccer mom listens to. Annoying and unnecessary, snippets of dialog from each of the lead characters further condemn the disc. Elfman's sonic fingerprint is all over the "Desperate Housewives Theme" and, despite being completely misleading as to what the show and soundtrack are all about, it is the only thing to recommend the collection.
Sometimes when watching a show, the music stands out in such a way that you take notice and think, "Hey, that's interesting. I haven't heard anything like that before and should check it out." But when you finally do give the music a good, thoughtful listen outside of the context of its accompanying visuals, it doesn't quite stand on its own. The New Heroes, Christopher Hedge's soundtrack to the PBS series, falls into this category. While the music is compelling and the sampled dialog is smartly used, it isn't nearly as engaging outside of the framework of the show. Having said that, the disc is worth checking out for fans of the series or of world music explorations.
From the Radio and Stage
Al Franken has shared brilliantly funny moments with the world as an original writer on Saturday Night Live, as a best-selling author, and as the Right's Public Enemy #1. Franklin's "One-Man Mobile Uplink Unit" was one of the most brilliant comedic (and strangely prophetic) pieces ever to grace the small screen. The very public and very absurd war of words with Bill O'Reilly surrounding the release of Franken's book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, was public relations genius. Stuart Saves His Family... well, you can't hit all of them out of the park. The launch of The Al Franken Show on Air America seems to be mired somewhere between a self-important caricature and a lack of inspiration. The Al Franken Show Party Album unfortunately plays like sophomoric whining from the Left -- which is, I suppose, exactly what it is.
The radio skits come off like Franken raided Garrison Keillor's trash bin and then ran the bits through the Amateur Radio Leftist Extreme machine. Unfortunately, instead of relying on the strength of the Right's ability to damn itself, Franken, his co-host Katherine Lanpher, and a smattering of celebrity guests, try too hard to infuse the proceedings with over-the-top humor that undercuts the point. A perfect example of this is the "Bill O'Reilly's Tales of Combat" bit. After O'Reilly successfully makes himself look like a jackass with his own words, Franken takes things a step further by working up a fictional account of what O'Reilly's battle experience was like. There are a couple of almost understated clips that do hit the mark. "Do You Kiss Your Mother with That Mouth?" is an amusing manipulation of a Laura Bush library dedication speech, but nothing you haven't seen used to better effect on The Daily Show. "The Bush Twins Enlist" drives home Franken's point with uncharacteristic subtlety. It says something when the best bit on the whole disc is Don Novello's Father Guido Sarducci riffing on the selection of the new Pope from Rome. It turns out the '80s weren't the Al Franken Decade, the '90s weren't the Joe Franken Decade, and it looks like the 2000s might not be a Franken decade either.
The soundtrack to Cirque du Soleil's latest production combines a 57-piece symphonic orchestra and a 40 member chorus, and the result is overpowering in every sense. By sheer force of will, the innovative Canadian troupe has successfully molded itself into a high-end brand identity, and René Dupéré's KÀ soundtrack delivers exactly what you expect from such a company. "O Makunde" opens the set with an Enya-meets-Disney on Broadway feel and succeeds in transporting the listener to their theatre seat. The menacing "Storm" uses primitive percussion, soaring strings, and united voices that will have the listener pulling the shades. Tracks like "Forest" and "Threat" stand on their own, the latter infused with an ambient techno vibe. While this package is obviously designed as a souvenir for those who attend the Las Vegas show, it actually does have legs beyond that target audience. KÀ is background music for the most dramatic dinner party you've ever thrown.