In the world of soundtrack albums, overused stylistic tropes and marketing plans are everywhere, making the search for something truly special feel like a laborious treasure hunt.
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
"Soundtracks" might be the most musically inclusive of industry-defined genres, even more so than the catch-all "rock/pop" category. There's little that's strictly defined about a soundtrack album, especially these days when it could be a soundtrack to almost anything. Walk down the soundtracks aisle of a music store blind-folded and grab CDs at random. Listen to them, and you might hear hip-hop, you might hear opera, you might hear music from Brazil or Japan. Skipping through a batch of soundtracks is like jumping from galaxy to galaxy. You land in one alternate universe and you're surrounded by zombie metalheads trying to scare you to death; jump to another and you're in a generic, theme park sort of jazz club. Some of these worlds are exciting and some are unbearably dull, but more often than not, the setting seems really familiar, and you're sure you've been there before. Welcome to the world of soundtracks, where no stylistic trope is too well-worn, few genres are free from old habits, and sometimes the whole purpose is hard to fathom, yet there are always a few diamonds glistening through the dust.
Hans Zimmer's score for The Da Vinci Code sounds exactly as you imagine it would. Moody strings evoke dark corridors and secrets. Church choir voices weave their way in, and everything is as solemn as can be. Even just one read through the musician credits reveals few surprises. There's harp, a soprano, and a credit for "historic stringed instruments." Perhaps the biggest surprise of the score is how silent it seems. That's mostly so the dramatic surges seem even louder when they barge in. But in any case, it's odd how much of the 68 minutes of score is so quiet you barely notice it.
One look at the expression on Tom Hanks' face in the trailer told me the film would be dull, but I didn't expect the music to be quite so much so. Zimmer is an accomplished film composer, and on one level everything here is as polished and technically sharp as could be. Yet it's a meandering score, with very little about it that's memorable. What you mostly get is mood -- overbearing in its silence and in its sweeping ambushes, of the type that wave an enormous sign in your face, screaming, "Something evil is going on!"
No less dramatic, and no more interesting, is Dario Marianelli's bombastic score for the sci-fi thriller V for Vendetta. In the soundtrack's liner notes, the film's director, James McTeigue, cites musicians as accomplished and varied as The Stooges, Arvo Part, Nina Simone, and Brian Eno as inspiration. It's hard to hear any of that in Marianelli's score, which mostly contains dramatic build-up that never leads anywhere compelling. Always aiming to build a larger-than-life mood of suspense, it resembles a narrative which is all exposition. The musicians' energy seems directed entirely at building tension, but they do so in a familiar and unexciting way. It resembles a perpetual march, the mood of a thousand military scenes where the soldiers are lining up for battle... but we never quite get to the battle.
When the final moments of the score turn into Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, it's not really a surprise, but it's also kind of refreshing. As familiar as that piece of music is, it still sounds naturally bold and dynamic, not manufactured and forced like the rest of the score. This is the release the score has been looking for, though it's borrowed. Another release built into the soundtrack is the mix of three songs into the score. Julie London's "Cry Me a River", Cat Power's cover of Lou Reed's "I Found a Reason" and Anthony & the Johnson's "Bird Gurhl" are each compelling on their own, but in between such an over-the-top score the songs just feel lost, like they've stumbled onto a battlefield and are stuck standing still, wondering why they're there.
Chen Kaige's martial arts epic The Promise is no doubt just as over-dramatic a film as V for Vendetta, yet Klaus Badelt's score for it is so much richer. The 72 minutes of music on the soundtrack album are completely epic in scope, with heroism and tragedy, victory and loss serving as obvious emotional touch points for a score that seeks to be majestic and stirring at every step. But instead of just sounding like it's seeking those qualities, the music attains them, embodying grandeur.
Performed by the Chinese Symphony Orchestra, with occasional vocals by Hang Yue, Badelt's score is big and grand, like a large-scale historical drama should be. It's familiar in mood, but never in sound or melody. Instead it's distinct and satisfying, filled with both sweeping melodies and quieter moments. And there's sensitivity here as well -- the tone is often soft, tender, and sad even, while still resembling the hero's themes of yesteryear. It's classic film music: purposely oversized, but also filled with emotion.
Another composer/musician attempting to write music that captures the mood of the classic film scores is Don Bodin, who has certainly listened to his share of scores. At least that's how it appears, based on Greed Lust and Cloning, which isn't a soundtrack to anything in particular, except to the films Bodin has dreamed up in his head. Greed Lust and Cloning is an imaginary spy movie which Bodin has written a score for. On the album it's performed mostly by one guitarist/bassist, a drummer, a viola player, a cellist, and one singer, who mostly contribute faux-opera vocal sounds to add to the drama.
The tone of Greed Lust and Cloning's music is some kind of chic urban after-hours mystery. It's all shadows, eeriness, midnight jazz, and near-funk, with a heavy dose of Morricone to boot. Ultimately it sounds like a mish-mash of a hundred scores you've heard before: not exactly special, but competent enough. It's at least fresher sounding than some of what Hollywood's composers are coming up with these days; Zimmer could learn something from Bodin's spunk.
Lighter Than Air
The Shaggy Dog remake, starring Tim Allen as the man-dog, isn't exactly where I'd expect to find an enjoyable film score. But Alan Menken's score, as heard on the album Music from and Inspired by The Shaggy Dog, is quite good. It's a breezy orchestral score, as you'd expect, and has a dominant, recurring melodic theme that's a lot of fun. But the score never feels like a trifle, and also has a fair amount of suspense and drama built into its mood. It's a visual score in a way; as the music lightly swoops and rises, you can imagine the hijinks ensuing on-screen. It sounds like a delightful movie, though I know better. Or at least, the rest of the soundtrack album indicates otherwise.
On the album Menken's score comes after six pop songs obviously aimed at the film's target audience: children. Akon's "Big Dog" is first, and the only one actually in the film. It's a dumb song that I can easily imagine little kids loving, singing along to its incessant "feeling like a big dog" hook. And I imagine parents hating it, cursing the day that it entered the house. Most of the "inspired by" songs are even worse. Buy this album for your kids, and expect constant barking sounds and refrains of "Woof! There it is!" for months to come. Which is likely Disney's purpose behind the soundtrack anyway, to keep the franchise near the top of kids' minds, to keep that Shaggy Dog money rolling in. And how many of those barking music consumers will keep the CD playing when the instrumental score comes on? Next to none, which is why the album is ultimately such an unfortunate one. This is a case of marketing machinations burying music that's actually worth hearing.
The Wild soundtrack is another Disney production, and another song/score hybrid. In this case, the songs are a little better, or at least three of the four are. I can't find any kind words for Lifehouse's over-earnest Hallmark ballad "Good Enough", but Everlife's cover of the old rockabilly song "Real Wild Child" is at least spunky (though she's no Iggy Pop), and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy's dumbed-down swing music actually works better when it's explicitly presented as the children's party music that it is. Eric Idle and John Du Prez's "Really Nice Day" also makes for fun, if very Lion King-esque, children's music, and no doubt features prominently in the film. Alan Silvestri's score is less distinct, though pleasant enough. He goes for an Indiana Jones-style adventure tone, but the compositions aren't memorable enough to carry that ambition through.
Breezy and fun is also the mood on the Take the Lead soundtrack album, though the audience is at least a few years older. An urban ballroom dancing film needs a soundtrack that's dance-oriented but hip, timeless but fresh, and that's what this album shoots for. "Sexy salsa / what's that all about?", Q-Tip raps on the opening track, an awkward remix of Lena Horne singing Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm". That's the basic story here: jazz, salsa, hip-hop, and soul are all brewed together, and the results are more often awkward than not. The less the musicians try to force genres together, the better the album gets. Rhymefest's "These Days" is the standout track, and even the middling pop-rap of Black Eyed Peas' "Feel It" sounds somehow pure compared to that Q-Tip track and the mash-up wanna-be "I Like That You Can't Take That Away From Me", which cuts between Jae Millz's "I Like That" and June Christy singing Gershwin's "They Can't Take That Away From Me", with portions of Eric B. and Rakim's "Follow the Leader" thrown in for extra hipness.
Trying against the odds to engineer a soundtrack album for a target audience is one approach producers take; another involves putting together a bunch of songs by already-established musicians who can lure in their fan base. So much of what's in the Soundtracks section is a result of movie/TV show/video game creators bringing together musicians who fit the right image and getting them to a contribute a song, one that will appear in second-long snippets in the actual show, if at all. How much music can you work into a 30-minute sitcom, anyway, and how artistically important can that music really be to the show?
Music is certainly a component of Scrubs, at least as the soundtrack to the "deep thoughts" of JD that end each episode. Still, I would associate few of the songs on the iTunes-only Scrubs Original Soundtrack Volume 2 with the show per se, as all of them are previously released. Instead of anything with a distinct perspective to it, it resembles a typical hour spent listening to an adult-alternative format radio station. It's filled with decent enough music from Joseph Arthur, the Mavericks, Rhett Miller, the Polyphonic Spree, and others, but it doesn't add up to anything more than a relatively enjoyable batch of songs, with little to recommend it as an album. Perhaps that's the reason for its download-only status; viewers that remember liking one particular song on an episode can go get it, their lives otherwise unchanged.
The Charmed: The Final Chapter soundtrack is an actual physical album, but otherwise falls in much the same boat. It collects songs you've likely heard before, even if you've never seen an episode of the show. It's the sound of a particularly unadventurous college radio station or corporate "alternative" station, circa 1998-2002: Barenaked Ladies, Sarah McLachlan, Rusted Root, Beth Orton, Natalie Imbruglia, Liz Phair (Whitechocolatespacegg-era), Collective Soul, and so on. The songs themselves are a decent enough representation of that period in music, some of them quite enjoyable, but the whole endeavor has "mediocrity is good enough" stamped across every surface in big block letters.
Celebrity name power certainly seems at play with South Pacific: In Concert from Carnegie Hall, as Reba McEntire, Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Alec Baldwin's names and faces are spotlighted on the cover. The difference here is that the stars are present for their talent, and it shows every step of the way. The album presents a 2005, one-night-only concert version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, and it's a delight from start to finish.
It's an exemplary rendition of the music from an old (and slightly old-fashioned) musical, one that showcases the strengths of the material and the performers. The vocal performances are so strong that they lift the affair to an entirely new level, and do it again and again. Mitchell has a rich, deep, very-Broadway voice that he puts to great effect each time. And all of the supporting singers and the orchestra, Orchestra of St. Luke's, are adept. But it's McEntire who steals the show, somehow still sounding like a humble country singer even while her voice is soaring to the rafters. Her exuberant and heart-wrenching performances of songs like "A Cockeyed Optimist" and "A Wonderful Guy" deliver so much real emotion, it should convince anyway who rejects musical theatre wholesale to reconsider.
Point of View
Even a project as specific and utilitarian as a soundtrack album can still display a unique perspective -- having one distinct, impressive mood is certainly one of the goals, and sometimes it takes an artist-driven approach to attain it. Over the years Superchunk/Merge Records co-founder Mac McCaughan has used the name Portastatic for a variety of projects, and here it serves as the name behind his second score, for the independent film Who Loves the Sun. This simply sounds like nothing he's done before -- not "rock" music in any way; it's a soft, bright score featuring violin, oboe, flute, and cello at its forefront, along with a variety of other instruments. It's lush, light, and lovely, conveying the mood of a childhood summer, with all the excitement, innocence, and loss which that implies. It's also a melodic, moving collection of music which has the potential to become a soundtrack for listeners' lives as well.
The Australian band Decoder Ring's score to the film Somersault is another example of musicians with creative control assembling a score which delivers an unmistakable mood. In this case the mood is that of sleepwalking. The six-piece uses a variety of instruments to create a sound that's spacey, a bit futuristic, and often haunting -- grounded in feelings of isolation, awe, sadness, and wonder. Lenka Kripac occasionally appears with gliding vocals, but mostly it's instrumental. Originally released in Australia in 2004, the album's reaching a wider audience through the Cocteau Twins-founded label Bella Union. And certainly Decoder Ring's music is rooted in the dream-pop style of the Cocteau Twins, as well as the ambient music of Brian Eno. There's times when the score falls into stasis, losing much of its spark, but it's mostly quite vivid, and generally enjoyable.
Piri Thomas is the main artist behind the soundtrack to Every Child is Born a Poet, and he's also the main subject of the film carrying the subtitle The Life & Work of Piri Thomas. Thomas is a writer, not a musician; he initially achieved fame for his 1967 memoir of growing up Puerto Rican in Harlem, Down These Mean Streets, and has parlayed that into a career as poet, thinker, truth-speaker. His line "Words can be bullets or butterflies / the truth uplifts while lies destroy" is given graphic prominence in the CD booklet, and it's a good example of where he's coming from, but his spoken-word pieces are often less lectures than vivid recollections of his rough past, and articulations of the wisdom he's gained from surviving tough times.
This soundtrack smoothly mixes his works -- themselves setting his voice over a cogent mix of street jazz and soulful jazz from Kip Hanrahan. Those instrumental pieces spiritually link to Thomas's stories, alluding to Latin-music jams, to doo-wop singers on stoops, to dreams, memories, and hardship. This album is filled with vision and feeling; it's an oasis in the soundtrack desert.