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Building the Perfect Soundtrack (and Selling It)

Dave Heaton

There's a soundtrack for every season, every purpose, every target audience. The second installment of Surround Sound takes a look at how well the latest soundtracks stand up as albums.

PopMatters Associate Music Editor


James Horner
The Legend of Zorro (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

US: 25 October 2005
UK: 21 November 2005

Howard Shore
A History of Violence (Original Score)

(New Line)
US: 11 October 2005
UK: 3 October 2005

John McDowell
Music from the Film Born into Brothels

US: 13 December 2005
UK: Import

Various Artists
The Squid and the Whale

US: 18 October 2005
UK: Import

Diane Reeves
Music from and Inspired by Good Night, and Good Luck

US: 27 September 2005
UK: Import


Various Artists
Music from the O.C. Mix 5

(Warner Bros.)
US: 8 November 2005
UK: 14 November 2005

Various Artists
Stubbs the Zombie: The Soundtrack

(Shout! Factory)
US: 18 October 2005
UK: Import

Various Artists
Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Lockdown (Soundtrack)

US: 15 November 2005
UK: Import

Various Artists
2K6: The Tracks

US: 4 October 2005
UK: 17 October 2005


Various Artists
Rent (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

(Warner Bros.)
US: 27 September 2005
UK: Import

Soundtrack albums make up an unusual category. They're representations of something else, music put together for one medium but now presented in another. And the reasons behind their existence change depending on the album. A soundtrack might exist so consumers can "own" the atmosphere of a film they enjoyed, or as a piggy-back marketing attempt to capitalize on a film's success by selling music that's only vaguely related to the film ("inspired by" is the usual code word for music that didn't actually appear in the film). Sometimes it is a genuine attempt to preserve the work of art created by the film's composer, to show that the score can stand alone. It can be a showcase for rare tracks by an assortment of bands, barely heard in the film but planned all along as an album. Television series soundtrack albums work almost entirely in this way -- outside of the theme song, it's rare for a musician to play an important creative role in a TV series. Complicating things even further is the increasing presence in music stores of soundtracks for video games. These are often a case of like-minded musicians, those likely to appeal to the expected players of the game, being gathered together to create music around a theme that fits with the game.

In all of these cases, the soundtrack album stands apart from the actual soundtrack, to be judged as a separate entity. On its own, it can't be analyzed for how well it fits the art it was created for; doing that would require relying on memories or vague ideas about what the original film/show/game was like. It's no longer a soundtrack, but now an album, orphaned from its original purpose, standing on its own legs, ready to be judged on its own merits.

Tapping Into History

The history of recorded film scores has given us a host of scores that so encapsulate the mood of the film that listening to the music sparks your imagination and transports you to another place and time, even if you never saw the film it was written for. This level of transportation doesn't only come from the skill of the composer, though. It's also about the familiar tropes of music for particular film genres, the way you instinctively know that a score is for a Western, for example, based just on what it's evoking from film scores of the past. James Horner's The Legend of Zorro (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) lies firmly in this arena. It sounds exactly like what you'd expect from a Zorro film score: a big, sweeping, majestic work from a full orchestra. It falls without question into the "adventure film score" genre. Those similarities evoke images of so many pirate films, Robin Hood films, Indiana Jones films, and so on, while a casually Spanish air appears intermittently throughout the score to give it the mark of Zorro.

The score at times adopts the pace of a galloping horse, other times falling into a slower, suspense-filled space only to explode back into action like the masked hero jumping out of the shadows at a villain. It's very familiar-feeling music, but Horner is skilled at filling the music with life. Epic scoring in the grand Hollywood tradition is his forte, after all. He scored not only the previous Zorro film, The Mask of Zorro, but also Braveheart, Glory, Apollo 13, Titanic, Troy, Legends of the Fall, and others. Though at times the Legend of Zorro score gets rather indistinct, wearing us down through too much repetition of the same mood, for the most part it's a vivid and vibrant attempt to capture the same giddy feeling of excitement that an adventure film tries to generate in viewers.

Where Horner skillfully reproduces tried-and-true themes for effect, Howard Shore's A History of Violence (Original Score) takes a more abstract approach, touching on genre-score elements in only the lightest of ways. It's a subtle orchestral work which maintains a dominant atmosphere of suspense without falling back on the conventions of any one film score genre. There are vague connections to typical musical styles associated with horror, mysteries, and even Westerns, yet all are turned inside-out a bit, stretched and inverted so that they become not replications but nuanced invocations, used to provoke thought as much as feeling. In its initial moments, "Tom" sounds like a classic Western hero's theme, yet as it continues it becomes more inward-focused, with the mood gently shifting from confidence to sadness to some in-between state of confusion. Couple that with "Hero", which takes the same basic melody and presents it in a bolder arrangement, yet with a grim, serious tone, and you see that Shore is playing around with expectations and pulling up the darker shadows of ideas and themes, much as A History of Violence director David Cronenberg likes to do in his films.

While suspense films and swashbucklers come ready-made with their own music-genre molds to dabble in or subvert, the documentary film stands separate from such expectations, and often from the field of film-scoring altogether, relying instead on previously released music, if music is much of a factor at all. But John McDowell's Music from the Film Born into Brothels stands as an exception. And if it doesn't have the cohesion or narrative quality of most scores for fiction films, it still represents one musician being commissioned to score the film, then gathering up other musicians to help him achieve a certain feeling and sound. Director of the AfroBeat group Mamma Tongue, McDowell is a seasoned musician whose specialty is studying and working with the musical styles of a variety of genres across the globe, particularly African and Native American music. To score Born into Brothels, a documentary about the children of Calcuttan prostitutes, he gathered together musicians with a tilt towards Indian music, including flutist Steve Gorn, vocalists Krishna Das and Sabina Sciubba, tabla drummers Ty Burhoe and Shivalik Ghoshal, and ten others. The resulting score has some evocative and skillful playing, but ends up fitting firmly into a genre after all: world music, that vague conflation of distinct cultures and styles from across the globe which often ends up erasing those same styles of their uniqueness. Much of the musicianship is excellent, but there's little about Music from the Film Born into Brothels that's unique or attention-holding. In a blindfold test it'd fall all too easily in with so many other albums of the "world music" section at a record store, a victim of its own conventions.

Setting the Mood

Composers often give their film scores one overarching mood, one which resonates with the content of the film itself. The same is true when it's a director or producer choosing songs, regardless of whether the songs are previously released or written specifically for the film. A consistent musical mood within a film can translate well to an album that's enjoyable in that same way, diving headlong into one feeling or mood.

The perfect example is the soundtrack to Noah Baumbach's film The Squid and the Whale. The key adjectives here are bittersweet, wistful, melancholic. To capture these feelings -- the sounds of love falling apart, youthful innocence being erased, people discovering terrible things about themselves and others -- Baumbauch and expert film-music coordinator Randall Poster chose the perfect mix of songs. At the album's forefront is an array of smart and emotional '70s folk songs, striking a fall/spring musical tone that's at once carefree and full of hurt. Underappreciated songwriters Bert Jansch and Loudon Wainwright III are featured, with three songs from the former and two from the latter. Then there's the heart wrenching "Heart Like a Wheel", by Kate and Anna McGarrigle (Kate is Wainwright's ex-wife) and John Phillips' lovely "Holland Tunnel". Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips contribute two gentle instrumentals that fall much in the same vein. The Cars' "Drive" might come from a different place stylistically, but it fits somehow with the tone. That's also true of The Feelies' "Let's Go", Lou Reed's exquisite, complicated "Street Hassle", and even a number from Schoolhouse Rock.

The songs on Music from and Inspired by Good Night, and Good Luck contain their share of melancholy as well, but the atmosphere the album is going for is much different. This is an attempt at the sound of a dark, smoke-filled nightclub, where a singer pours her heart into slow, bluesy renditions of jazz standards; songs that have articulated people's deepest feelings for ages. That singer is Dianne Reeves, and Music from and Inspired by Good Night, and Good Luck doubles as her latest album, one which follows in much the same vein as her last, 2003's standards collection A Little Moonlight. She's a capable vocalist, with a rich voice which she puts to good use on worthy, and occasionally spellbinding, renditions of classic songs like "Pretend", one of several songs here made famous by Nat King Cole, and Duke Ellington's "Solitude". The album falters at times, though, solely because the lite-jazz, pseudo-midnight atmosphere threatens to overwhelm the songs and the singer. It's often as if the album's producers were so intent on capturing a certain deep-blue mood that they weren't paying attention to anything else. The sax solos and twinkling piano sometimes seem in service of the mood more than the songs, like window dressing. On certain songs ("How High the Moon", for example), Reeves' vocal performance even suffers in this context, nowhere near as focused or dynamic as it could be. Overall, though, she shines, in superb performances of timeless songs.

One song-based soundtrack album that doesn't need help in setting a mood is Rent (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack). As the recording of the filmed version of a musical stage play, it has the film's plot and characters built into its songs, carrying with it also all of the baggage that musical theatre and over-the-top cult fandom will bring. Rent fans are devoted enough that they'll spot the differences between this movie version and the original cast recording right away. It's been rearranged and shortened a bit to fit the film format. Yet most of the original cast is still present, which seems remarkable considered it feels like forever ago that Rent was all the rage... and that was just shy of a decade ago. Even if elements of the original music seem a bit dated, particularly the attempts at a rock edge, the performances on this version of Rent are all lively, and the emotions and storyline of the original production are successfully re-presented.

Hitting the Target (Audience)

The tone set by a soundtrack album is inevitably tied to marketing, especially when it's a TV series or videogame, where the music selected as the original work's soundtrack is closely connected to the target audience, who is expected to buy the videogame or give the television series its much-wanted high Nielsen ratings. As the fifth soundtrack to the popular TV show, Music from the O.C. Mix 5 is one more collection of music from the sort of rock and pop bands that the show's characters, and now its fans, find cool. From a music business perspective, The O.C. soundtracks have been an oddly successful forum for showcasing the music of bands that are relatively unknown, at least to the average teenage TV-watcher. Mix 5 contains 12 songs, many of them previously released, from young "hot new bands," some younger or hotter than others.

Some of the less unique rock bands here sound rather interchangeable in this context; if my life depended on telling the difference between The Subways and Kasabian, or picking Youth Group out from their sensitive-rock peers, I don't think I'd be alive to witness the inevitable Mix 6. It's not that these groups sound exactly the same, just that their music isn't distinct enough to stand out from the crowd. But there is some diversity of style on the album. The Shout Out Louds' "Wish I Was Dead Pt. 2" has a great low-key pop hook infused with sincere yearning. LCD Soundsystem's "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House" is snappy and infectious, as is Of Montreal's "Requiem for O.M.M." The dramatic, nuanced ballad "Your Ex-Lover Is Dead" by Stars and Imogean Heap's dreamy "Hide and Seek" are also a welcome presence. All in all, it's a decent enough snapshot survey of bands on the rise, with some bright moments. There's a slick sort of innocuousness about the compilation as a whole that makes it sometimes easy to ignore that the quality of the songs themselves is decent.

The O.C.'s characters would no doubt get a kick out of Stubbs the Zombie: The Soundtrack, though it's a rather strange affair. College-radio bands, many of the same that have appeared on The O.C., play songs from the past for a video game about a brain-eating zombie who emerges from his grave in 1959. The "songs of the past" chosen range from doo-wop to early rock to '50s pop to Frank Sinatra and The Wizard of Oz, and the covers are generally so straightforward that it's hard to tell what the purpose is: if the musicians are sincerely trying to capture the essence of the original songs, or if they just find something "cool" about adopting a retro pose. It's hard to translate what listeners are supposed to gain from the Raveonettes playing "My Boyfriend's Back" without any fire or rock n' roll grit, Ben Kweller singing a completely everyday take on "Lollipop", or Cake doing a lounge-act version of "Strangers in the Night".

Still, there's something fun about hearing these groups channel the past, especially when they try to tap into the song's emotional side, like Death Cab for Cutie does with "Earth Angel", or when the original song is filtered successfully through the group's own musical style, like Rogue Wave's take on Buddy Holly's "Everyday" and Clem Snide's cover of Little Anthony and the Imperials' "Tears on My Pillow". More of the songs are interesting than not, and it's nice to hear groups casting aside their normal routines, though the ultimate purpose of it all outside of cross-marketing is a bit hard to determine.

Stubbs the Zombie's creators no doubt were going for a certain category of music listener when they decided who to have on the soundtrack. The soundtracks to two other video games take the same niche-marketing approach, though with different groups of music-buyers. Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Lockdown (Soundtrack) is clearly aimed at young, angry metalheads. That's clear from the first track: Killing Zone rapping horribly over aggressive, thick metal guitars. This is certainly a soundtrack with one cohesive mood. Aggression is the keyword here; this is for listeners who want to sink into the middle of one big scream. If you like your guitars loud, your singers angry (in a completely over-the-top, dramatic way, of course), and the mood dark as a haunted house, the best tracks on Rainbow Six will be right up your alley. Confession: I haven't spent much time with metal in a long time, though much of this is so firmly in the Slayer and early Metallica camp that it doesn't sound all that foreign to me. And even I can tell the difference between the groups here that successfully channel a dark, stormy mood - Fear Factory, Trivium - and those who would sound like Creed or someone even lamer if you just stripped away one level of anger (Not Forgotten, Last Armada). Too many of the latter group, and acts whose sound is so indistinct that they could have been around two decades ago, ultimately drain the CD of much of its power.

2K6: The Tracks, the soundtrack to an NBA basketball video game which incorporates hip-hop musicians into the game itself, is obviously going for a much different audience. What sets it apart from just an exercise in genre marketing, though, is the direction the musicians take with their songs. Each song, written specifically for the game, seems an attempt to capture the energy of a high-paced basketball game in its sound. Forward motion and upward motivation is the feeling of the album, though lyrically the tracks wisely don't dwell too much on the game itself. There are continuing themes of competition and inspiration, yet the platform is wide enough to incorporate all sorts of styles and sentiments.

RJD2 frames the album with two doses of "Schoolyard Scrimmage", funky pieces that integrate the sounds of childhood, briefly setting up a nostalgic but power-packed tone. Then a whole host of dynamite MCs comes in to take the mood up a notch. Lyrics Born and Redman, natural-born hype men, each ratchet up the energy nicely on their respective tracks, with the latter displaying his typically warped sense of humor. Aceyalone's "Doin' My Job" is especially electric, tapping into his gift at nimbly stepping up his words to fit the tempo. Skillz takes on the job of encapsulating the album's overall theme on the title track, and doesn't fail to impress. Common and Jean Grae also come through with tracks hot enough to easily slip onto their own albums un-noticed, while Zion I sound especially focused on their up-tempo track, "Ride". Aesop Rock's dark "Junkyard" seems a bit out of step with the album's mood, yet taken on its own it's a stellar example of his dense style. There are also enjoyable, if not explosive, contributions from Blackalicious, Little Brother, Hieroglyphics, and the Roots, which do nothing to diminish the album as a whole. We live in a brave new world I suppose, one where an album marketed for a basketball video game can stand as one of the strongest hip-hop compilations of the year.


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