In this hodge-podge mix of soundtracks, we find some exceptional scoring, competent storytelling, tween packaging, and some poor reissues and television compilations.
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
While we normally talk about the soundtracks and how they compliment or work with the film or show they are designed for, in this installment of Surround Sound, we look at each and every soundtrack as a stand-alone album. And discover whether or not the music holds up on its own, either continuing to tell a story or simply as an enjoyable body of work.
Spaghetti Western Perfection
Perfect in concept and beautiful in execution, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Original Soundtrack) serves as an example of how score and song can be blended into a moving, emotional journey independent of the film itself. The soundtrack balances one song for every two to three tracks of Marco Beltrami's evocative score. This pattern is never distracting, keeping the listener fully invested in the emotion of the music and story, even if the film itself is unfamiliar. Beltrami's score is the star. Sometimes using snippets barely over a minute long and sometimes using pieces that stretch nearly four minutes (the brilliant "Mike Runs Off"), Beltrami breathes life into every note. "Mike Runs Off" is an appropriately disorienting piece that uses percussion and ethnic woodwinds to convey a sense of frantic confusion and near-terror. The track is followed by Bobby Flores "I Wonder Who'll Turn out the Light (in Your World Tonight)", a straight-ahead country tune with straining steel guitar passages that lead the listener to Beltrami's "Gift Horse". Probably the most beautiful piece on the disc, the latter gently winds and guides the listener for its two minutes of accordion, guitar, and other strings. Other contributors include movie co-star Dwight Yoakam ("Fair to Midland"), Hank Williams, Jr. ("The Cheatin' Hotel"), Merle Haggard ("Workin' Man Blues"), and Freddie Fender ("Before the Next Teardrop Falls"), all of which work well within the context of the soundtrack and Beltrami's score.
From the West End to Broadway
Director Stephen Daldry and writer Lee Hall adapt their movie Billy Elliot to the West End stage as a musical. With Hall providing the lyrics and Elton John penning the music, the soundtrack for Billy Elliot: The Musical (Original Cast Recording) amounts to an engaging listen. Hall's lyrics keep the story in tact on the disc, and John's score only occasionally wades into the treacle. Employing everything from protest songs to military cadence to electric rock to show-stoppers, John's work here is merely self-effacing at its best. (Although best overlooked is the three-song bonus disc of John singing "The Letter", "Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher", and "Electricity".)
There are some exceptionally strong numbers on Billy Elliot: The Musical. Of course, for every one that can stand alone there are countless others that lose their impact outside of the theater hall. The opening "The Stars Look Down" successfully pulls the listener into the story from the initial newsreel through the chorus of men pledging solidarity to Billy's echoing sentiment. Its seven and a half minutes move quickly, leaving the listener eager for the show to continue. The confusing sentimentality of "Grandma's Song" is strangely engaging. Grandma hated her wife-beating, drunkard husband, proclaiming "...if I went through my time again / Oh I'd do it without the help of men." But she turns sentimental about the "complete bastard" when remembering the nights they'd get drunk together and go dancing: "He was air / He was water / He was breath / He was light... And it was bliss for an hour or so."
"The Letter" is a gut-wrenching reading of the kind of letter every absent parent wishes to share with their child. The sentimentality of the subject, though, is perfectly balanced in the end, where Mrs. Wilkinson, who is reading the letter with Billy, comments that his mum "must have been a very special woman," to which Billy innocently replies, "No, she was just me mum." At the other end of the spectrum from the tenderness of "The Letter" stands "Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher". This rollicking number is a bastard child of the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen", boasting the refrain: "Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher / We all celebrate today / Cos it's one day closer to your death." The song is ultimately taken out with the Ballet Girls sweetly-delivered swipe at Thatcher's conservative cabinet member, Michael Heseltine, with "O my darling, O my darling / O my darling Heseltine / You're a tosser, you're a wanker / And you're just a Tory Swine."
Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street returns to Broadway after a 16 year absence, and a new revival cast album commemorates the event. Telling the story of a barber driven insane when a judge takes his wife and child from him, the new staging brings a new layer of conceit: The tale is being told by a group of inmates at an asylum. Actually drawing more heavily from suspense work of Bernard Hermann than from Broadway contemporaries like Chicago, Sondheim weaves a dark and macabre story into an operatic psychological thriller. Sondheim veteran Michael Cerveris inhabits the title character, conveying the tortured and crazed emotion with every note. It is engaging storytelling from any angle.
Iconic movies with iconic -- and incredibly dated -- songs at their centers, 1984's Ghostbusters (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) and 1985's Rocky IV (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) reappear in March 2006 with remastered editions that include a few bonus tracks to try and mask how out-of-time the music really is. Neither soundtrack has aged particularly well, making it hard to recommend either of them. Opening and closing with Ray Parker, Jr.'s maddening contribution to the cultural dialect, Ghostbusters now boasts three versions of the title track: the single we all know by heart, the instrumental version (the original soundtrack closer), and the 12" remix (the reissue album closer). Mixed up in this synthesizer orgy are the Bus Boy's "Cleanin' up the Town", Air Supply's "I Can't Wait Forever", and Laura Branigan's "Hot Nights". The most timeless and playful contributor is Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven, National Lampoon's Animal House), who is represented by a couple of memorable three minute passages: "Main Title" and "Dana's Theme".
Rocky IV gives the public yet another reprise of Survivor's sports anthem cliché, "Eye of the Tiger" -- which originally appeared on the Rocky III soundtrack, and found its way onto the Rocky IV collection with its successor, "Burning Heart". But the real highlight here is the James Brown classic, "Living in America". When the Godfather of Soul commands you to "Rock my soul!" and spits out a litany of cities, you can close your eyes and see the man as he took center stage and upstaged Apollo Creed in the movie. John Cafferty forsakes his Beaver Brown Band (of Eddie and the Cruisers fame) for the manic synthesizer of Vince DiCola on "Hearts on Fire". DiCola's dated score is represented later on the album by the six-minute "War" and nearly four-minute "Training Montage". Overstaying their welcome, Survivor makes their third appearance on the reissue with the "Man against the World" bonus track. In all, it's hard to look away from the synthesizer train wrecks that comprise these two soundtracks.
Mermaids, Transsexuals, and More
The movie based on the Alice Hoffman book Aquamarine has spawned a soundtrack appropriately aimed at the tween set. A pleasant enough album by some artists mostly unknown to anyone over the age of 12, Aquamarine (Music from the Motion Picture) actually boasts some quality tracks. While the lyrics of Cheyenne Kimball's "One Original Thing" are candy-coated, the obviously-borrowed muscular riff of Iggy Pop's "The Passenger" elevates the tune, carrying it to some winding piano work. Speaking of borrowing, Mandy Moore gives the Blondie classic "One Way or Another" a sped up, manic run-through, and movie co-star Emma Roberts brightens up Weezer's "Island in the Sun". Sara Paxton, who co-stars as the mermaid Aquamarine of the film, contributes the sickly sweet "Connected", sure to pull the emotional heart-strings of the age-appropriate audience. Of course, weak spots abound -- generally whenever the guys take over. Teddy Geiger's "Gentleman" and Teitur's "One and Only" are singer-songwriter come-downs that feel out of place despite their saccharine sentiment. Stellastarr* and Bodyrockers, while completely predictable, do finish off the disc with modern rock flair.
It's sort of ironic that the cross-country journey of a pre-operative transsexual and his/her son is set primarily to country and gospel music. But that's just what you get with Transamerica (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack). While Dolly Parton's Academy Award and Golden Globe nominated "Travelin' Thru" has received the lion's share of the press on this soundtrack (and not undeservedly so), there is plenty else here worthy of attention. The Old Crow Medicine Show quintet shines on both of their cuts -- "Take 'Em Away" and "We're All in this Together", both originally found on their self-titled 2004 debut. "Take 'Em Away" is a simple bluegrass plea for the Lord to "take away these chains from me / My heart is broken / 'Cause my spirit's not free." "We're All in this Together" is a lazy, slow-picked tune that tells the story of dead end roads, salty tears, faith, and fear. Ketch Secor, Willie Watson, and the band skillfully draw moving emotions from such a simple arrangement.
Multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield's score is sorely underrepresented on the Transamerica soundtrack, with only three tracks amounting to less than six minutes of music, but the pieces presents stand out. The former member of Bob Dylan's 1975 touring band (Rolling Thunder Revue), the Alpha Band (with T-Bone Burnett and Steven Soles), and Bruce Hornsby & the Range works wonders. While his arrangement of Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer" will catch your ear, it is Mansfield's two original compositions that most impress. "Headin' West" captures the ramblin', giddy excitement found at the start of a road trip with guitar and fiddle and some well-placed vocal sounds. "High Plains" has a nostalgic, emotional strain running though its brief minute and a half.
Although The Crystal Method gets top billing for London (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack), they only have eight tracks credited solely to them, along with a ninth piece with Hyper. And while Crystal Method is reliable as ever on this disc, it is Evil Nine's collaboration with reggae rapper Toastie Taylor on "Restless" that steals the show. This five-minute version expands on the original version (found on Evil Nine's 2004 You Can be Special Too) by three minutes, and it's worth every second. Circular guitar riffs, driving beats, and reggae rap combine in a beautiful, pillaging sonic collage. The other stand-out track is courtesy of Los Angeles' jazz/funk collective known as Connie Price and the Keystones. Bandleader and drummer Connie Price escorts the 30-member band through a funky reading of "Sucker Punch" full of muted horns and swinging drums. In all, a satisfying listen.
An internal conflict arises from the Music from the Television Series One Tree Hill Volume 2: Friends with Benefit album. The album dovetails with the show's storyline about breast cancer and devotes a portion of its proceeds to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc., both revealing commendable intentions. Unfortunately, any album featuring a criminally heinous version of John Lennon's "Jealous Guy" by Gavin DeGraw is unforgivable on any level. And when that crime is surrounded by the emo pop-punk of Fall Out Boy ("I've Got a Dark Alley and a Bad Idea that Says You Should Shut Your Mouth (Summer Song)"), the alterna-pop sameness of Nada Surf ("Always Love"), and the strangely restrained post-grunge of Audioslave ("Be Yourself"), there is no hope for redemption. One interesting curiosity is "Halo", a song delivered by actress Bethany Joy Lenz of the show, but credited to her character both on the disc and in the liner notes. Of course, that is the most remarkable thing about the song.
Threat is an ultra-violent indie movie made guerrilla-style by a New York collective calling themselves King's Mob. They refer to the movie as "a mash-up... made by punk rock kids working with hip-hop kids working with breakcore kids and everybody in between" and that has produced two soundtracks of hardcore heaven -- Threat (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) and Threat: Music that Inspired the Movie. Boasting nine tracks from hardcore techno scene-establishers Atari Teenage Riot, ATR's Alec Empire, and EC80R, the original soundtrack is a German digital hardcore primer. Tough to stomach by all but the most devoted, the 18 songs collected here are as challenging as the movie they represent. Song titles like "Night of Violence", "Start the Riot", "Into the Death", and "Rage" (and those are the first four songs out of the chute!) tell you just what you're in for when you press play. These are songs of anger and rage, built around hybrids of ska and speed metal and punk and scream-o and techno and more.
The "inspired" soundtrack is slightly more diverse and, therefore, slightly more interesting than the true soundtrack. While retaining the aggressive bent of the originals, these tracks are alarming mash-ups with sonic curiosity. Most Precious Blood vs. Alec Empire's "Oxygen Debt (Pandemic Remix)" is a three-minute journey to hell and back, opening with a demented gonging and segueing into rapid-fire guitars, punctuated with screams of "Don't follow me! / I'm going under!" Killswitch Engage vs. Edgey's "World Ablaze (Threat Mix)" is the most appealing track on the disc. Its six minutes wind and twist through multiple incarnations -- from industrial to jungle to metal to techno. Overall, these two discs are more than a casual listener will be looking for. The proper soundtrack is a nice introduction to the genre-bending hardcore scene, but the "inspired" soundtrack is a better overall listen.