Soundtrack Picks: ‘TED‘ IS ONE OF THE TOP SOUNDTRACKS TO OWN FOR JULY 2012
Also worth picking up ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, CRAZY EYES, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, MUSIC FROM THE EDGE, THE PACT, THE PHANTOM, RUBY SPARKS, SOUL OF THE ULTIMATE NATION and TOUCHBACK
To Purchase the soundtracks from this list, click on the CD cover
THE TOP PICKS
1) ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 / DARK STAR
What Is It?: Buysoundtrax has had varied luck when re-performing cult score favorites, especially ones done with then state-of-the-art keyboards like “The Bounty” and “Legend.” So if you’re attempting to replicate such a distinctive sound, who better to get then a composer who helped create that unrepeatable sound in the first place? That’s the reason why Alan Howarth, the musician best know for being “in association” with John Carpenter on such genre favorites as “Halloween 3” and “Prince of Darkness” (the real deals of which are on Howarth’s AHI label) has had the best success at Buysoundtrax with replicating Ennio Morricone’s Carpenter sound-alike score for “The Thing.” Now his playing of the Carpenter double bill of “Assault on Precinct 13” and “Dark Star” once again catches musical lightning in a retro bottle, achieving the near impossible of making it seem as if not much has musically advanced in the decades since.
Why You Should Buy It?: Originally electro-penned in 1974 and 1976, these scores are repeated pitch-perfect examples of the synth minimalism that Carpenter would turn into one of the most iconic horror themes of all time with 1978’s “Halloween.” But “Precinct 13”’ is just as memorable in its unpolished way, a lean, mean, percussively melodic machine that conveys a relentless attack from a near-invisible gang called Street Thunder. Yet Carpenter is never one-note about his approach, ingeniously varying his Big Theme so it takes on the quality of stealth drums and mean-ass guitars, coolly going from the energy of the stalk to bullet-piercing sustains and full-on rhythmic assaults. There’s also a memorably bluesy theme, conveying the feeling that all is lost, or the exasperation of just being damn tired from shooting the unceasing waves of “Indians” attacking the police fort for Carpenter’s re-imagining of “Rio Bravo.” While you can track down the original “13” tracks on Le Band Son, hardcore fans will likely be equally happy with the spot-on job that Howarth has done at recreating Carpenter’s vibe, getting every beat and held pause correct, right down to the ice cream truck jingle for “Precinct”’s infamous message about why it’s wise to never question your cone’s flavor.
Extra Special: While the raw quality of “Assault” is deadly serious, “Dark Star” is all about having fun with the cheesy sound of no-budget sci-fi music, given the advantage that there was no budget for the soundtrack of this student film-turned-feature to begin with. The one instrument that Carpenter is seemingly trying to embody here is the Theremin that accompanied any number of wire-hanging spaceships from the 1950’s, a shrill, cold quality that’s never seemed more eccentric than when embodied by bulky synth machines for “Dark Star.” Propelled with a deceptively menacing theme, Howarth again reveals Carpenter’s diversity, from the glass bottle sounds of “Doolittle’s Solo” to the buzzing of a playfully nasty beach ball. “Dark Star” still remains one of Carpenter’s starkest works, conveying the vast, creepy emptiness of space and the pointless loneliness of patrolling it for unstable planets, ennui that gives gravity to “Dark Star.” Though score purists might have preferred this totally sans sound effects, Howarth’s bits of spiffing up have a musical 2.0 vibrancy to it, while thankfully not attempting the musical equivalent of turning analog to CGI. It’s a low-tech charm that also includes Dominik Hauser’s nicely ironic country redo of Carpenter’s “Benson, Arizona.” Randall D. Larson’s informative liner notes helps continue on Howarth’s fine tradition of replaying the Carpenter classics without seeming to do new anything new with them at all.
2) THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
What is it?: The swelling, patriotic heroism that John Williams gave to “Superman” could just as well be a burst of crucifix-shaped sunlight in contrast to the thrumming, uber-dark approach that Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard gave to what’s arguably the most downbeat, if not utterly grim comic book saga in movie history. And now that Howard has left the bat cave with his more emotionally conventional orchestral touch, Zimmer’s wall of beat-sound is now truly ruling the belfry, taking this musical saga to new depths of intoxicating grimness for “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Why you should buy it?: Fans of old school superhero scoring might be missing the more clear-cut symphonic approach that could be taken for the material, let alone the eccentric Wagnerian edge that Danny Elfman gave to Tim Burton’s take on the material. But that’s never been the direction that Christopher Nolan wanted The Bat to go in for his theses in despair. And the result has always been akin to a percussively solemn tone poem to reflect the bleak prospect of fighting the good fight in a Gotham that fears you. But that being said, Zimmer’s approach has also always packed a toe-tapping catchiness to it, music that becomes a bit sleeker here for the relentless, time bomb called Bane. Varying between subtle melodic mournfulness as Bruce Wayne is thrown into the depths of despair to the more rhythmic bombast of a city going to explosive pieces, Zimmer more than ever shows that he knows how to build ominous excitement to a fever pitch like no mega-composer’s business, coming up with a truly great conflagration of suspense for the highlight cue “Imagine the Fire.”
Extra Special: Zimmer has effectively culled 50 or so minutes from a truly massive score for another ambitiously overlong Nolan epic that, like “Inception,” would’ve benefited from some non-music breaks. With his main themes making their reappearance from “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” (along with those distinctive bat flap effects) “Rises” is very much of a seamless piece for a musical saga that’s utterly distinctive for not following the rulebook of how to nobly embody a superhero. And while there’s nothing quite as memorable as the chalkboard-scratching dissonance of the Joker theme from “The Dark Knight,” Zimmer uses the chants of Bane and his terrorist groupies to far more sonically pleasing effect, a stadium-full of voices warped to become perhaps the most effective percussive instrument in Zimmer’s battery of them. Probably the “easiest” and most intoxicatingly pessimistic listen of the albums for the most fun Bat-picture of the bunch, Zimmer conveys the essence of heroism as the worst job in the world, but one that’s a thrillingly bold necessity nonetheless.
3) MUSIC FROM THE EDGE
What Is It?: Film music is full of great “shock of the new” moments, game-changing Avante-garde scores that could just as well have been created for the concert stage. So it’s no wonder that they were provided by some of the 20th century’s greatest purveyors of “modern” classical music, from the primitive thundering of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky” to the jazzy experimentalism of Alex North’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Leonard Rosenman’s “East of Eden.” In 1980, John Corigliano’s brilliantly blaring score to “Altered States” effectively opened the door to dissonance in Hollywood, racking up an Oscar nomination as his helter-skelter brass and percussion regressed a scientist to primitive barbarism and beyond. Given that, it seemed a shoe-in that Corigliano would be just the right guy to usher in the post-controversy return of Hollywood’s modern primitive Mel Gibson. But of course this being a far less risk-taking town when it comes to all things creative, Corigliano’s score for “Edge of Darkness” got tossed into rejected score oblivion in favor of a slightly more straightforwardly effective approach by Howard Shore, “Seven”‘s king of wrath. Now a score shrouded in mystery is brought to explosive light by Perseverance Records, their diligence finally allowing us to hear this glorious bastard stepchild to “Altered States.”
Why You Should Buy It?: Anger and lyrical anguish surge in equal parts for Corigliano, the score at once capturing a cop’s mourning for his mysteriously slain daughter, and the need to deliver payback. The result is a sense of beautiful melancholy asking us to move on, with a hero’s realization that he damn well can’t. Savage percussion rams into elegiac strings lines, haunted calliope music reminds us of an innocent past, and brass is bent into vocal growls. Though these sounds will remind many of Corigliano’s fans of his body-changing masterpiece, the composer is also smart enough to realize the demands of action scoring, his blasting instances of musical rage even more violently out there than what Shore ultimately delivered. Corigliano’s “Edge” is daring, confrontational stuff that makes bloody mincemeat out of traditionalism, even as his soaringly thematic, at-peace resolution for “Breathe in the Dawn” brings to mind no other melody than “Somewhere” from “West Side Story,” with the transcendent voice of Hila Plittman sending this far more volatile male hero to rest with the forgiving spirit of his daughter.
Extra Special: With its eye-catchingly abstract light-at-the-end of the tunnel cover painting by Melinda Surga on the cover, a person who picked this up because they thought this was some new Corigliano concert hall work could easily be fooled, as the liner notes by Georgely Hubai (author of the terrific new rejected score book “Torn Notes”) contractually does nothing to mention this music’s actual source material. I just hope that his precious few expeditions into the world of film scoring (with only “Revolution” and the Oscar-winning “The Red Violin” joining “States”) won’t discourage an artist whose trend-setting sound dared to challenge our perceptions of what film music could be. With “Music from the Edge,” we just have to use our mind’s ear to imagine the impact it would have had.
4) THE PHANTOM
What is it?: While he’s made his Hollywood mettle by scoring such screwball comedies as “The Nutty Professor” and “The Flintstones,” David Newman has also proven he’s just as capable with the heroic adventures of “Galaxy Quest” and “Serenity.” So it’s more than form-fitting that one of Newman’s best scores would be for “the ghost who walks,” i.e. Kit Walker, aka The Phantom, a jungle crime-fighter descended from a long line of purple-wearing white saviors. For this do-gooding composer’s musical bloodline runs back to Alfred Newman, a king of golden age scoring who specialized in such exotic action scores as “The Prisoner of Zenda,” “Gunga Din” and “The Mark of Zorro.” Just transfer that masked man’s Latin rhythms into jungle ones, and you’ll hear that the son’s apple didn’t fall very far from that tree.
Why you should buy it?: 1996’s “The Phantom” capped off an ersatz trilogy of retro superhero films that included “The Rocketeer” and “The Shadow,” none of whose powers could prevent them from getting crushed at the box office. Yet all remain far more enjoyable than many of today’s uber dark, screwed up crusaders who are barely better than the bad guys. It’s this kind of true blue innocence that infuses Newman’s work on the 1930’s-set “Phantom,” a boisterously exciting score that’s jam-packed with the orchestral thrills and spills of yesteryear. Always driven by lushly heroic themes as strong as a two-fisted punch, Newman is also sure to keeps the score contemporary with the use of electronic percussion. It’s also grounded in the sound of darkest Bangalla, with chanting voices, tribal drumming and ethnic flutes turning man into knowingly false myth. Newman’s music takes excitement to the point of exhaustion for any number of bravura chase sequences involving seaplanes, swinging from rope bridges or jumping atop NYC yellow cabs, always never failing to get across both our hero’s never-say-die spirit, along with a smiling sense of courtesy.
Extra special: Originally released at about 45 minutes by Milan Records, La La Land’s ultimate “Phantom” nearly doubles the length to 77 minutes, allowing more action sequences to shine, especially when Kit hits NYC’s concrete jungle, or ventures to the fearsome pirate island of the Sangh Brotherhood, sequences abetted by Conrad Pope and Randy Miller. A score with an exuberant amount of thematic notes,” The Phantom”‘s newfangled old-school approach continues to thrill with the adventurous music power that flows through the Newman bloodline.
What is it?: Nothing represents cuddly innocence like a child’s teddy bear, an image that brings to ear the honeyed sounds of orchestral happiness. And playing just that is the key to what might be the most brilliantly subversive talking “animal” score of all time, given the beautifully lush stylings of Seth McFarlane’s pet composer Walter Murphy. In “Ted,” he makes his master’s crude humor all the more hilarious, and emotionally affecting, as if this music was actually accompanying the real, non pot-smoking, slut-screwing deal.
Why you should buy it?: As a vet TV composer with such credits as “Wiseguy,” “Buffy” and “Profit,” Murphy’s most prolific, and popular work on the boob tube has been his Emmy-winning collaboration on such seditious McFarlane toons as “Family Guy,” “American Dad” and “The Cleveland Show,” an opportunity that allowed Murphy to dive into a diverse array of scoring styles, any number of which pay off handsomely here for McFarlane’s live action directing debut. And he’s certainly got a great theme that’s derived from the Oscar-worthy title track “Everybody Needs A Best Friend,” whose jazzier stylings capture a swinging 60’s cocktail hour vibe worthy of Neil Hefti. Sparkling, tender strings capture all of the cuddly warmth, and humorous hijinks of this Teddy Bear, thankfully minus the kind of goofy orchestral pratfalls that often accompany this type of music when it’s played as kid stuff. As “Ted” goes beyond its brilliant sex and drugs jokes to actually inject some jeopardy, Murphy effortlessly segues into John Williams land with bright and big suspenseful chases, with even a nod to the maestro’s Indy hat save to complement “Ted”’s geek street cred. But perhaps the best props to be given to Murphy’s breakout movie score is that the thrills, and real magical emotion he provides for the climax makes you forget you’re hearing music for a stuffed animal at all, but instead a pugnacious human being you care about, a wisenheimer with a heart of melodic gold.
Extra Special: While Ted’s true foul-mouthed nature was no surprise, the insane amount of deep-geek references in the film certainly is, especially as to how the whole movie ends up being a love letter to 1980’s “Flash Gordon.” That of course means the Queen song’s second highlighting after “Blades of Glory.” And the kitsch tunes keep coming, from Rita Coolidge’s “Octopussy” theme “All Time High” (made even more memorable by Mark Wahlberg’s wonderfully terrible performance- unfortunately not included here), Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” and “Hootie & The Blowfish’s equally overused “Only Wanna Be With You.” Norah Jones is also on hand for the acoustically soulful love song “Come Away With Me,” though it’s her big band rendition of “Everybody Needs A Friend” that I’d love to deservedly see on the Oscars- though I somehow think the F bomb-filled “Thunder Buddies” is a little too on the felt-nose for the Academy.
ALSO FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION:
. ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER
Thankfully, the only outrightly goofy thing about this film, and score, is the title. Other than that, Abe honestly turns out to be one of this summer’s most pleasantly sanguine surprises in terms of its visual and sonic impact. Have last turned back the clock to give The Cuban Missile Crisis a musically anachronistic, mutant-powered punch in “X-Men: First Class,” Henry Jackman applies a similar, coolly out-of-date spin to turn our nation’s 16th leader into a Civil War era supernatural avenger, with rocking southern guitar thrash, rhythmic samples and orchestral suspense embodying the lawyer-cum-emancipator and his trusty axe. It’s a cool action sound that gives “Abraham Lincoln” the multiplex swagger of The Rock instead of coming across as being remotely “presidential.” Yet there’s still the stuff of heroic legend about it, playing its chases via horse stampede, carriage, and train with the adrenalin of a Nox’d car race. And it’s all done with complete, serious conviction, with the huge added bonus of some truly frightening heartbeat-pounding horror music that helps “Abraham Lincoln” bring the scary back to Twilighted vampires, as well as some real romantic passion, and tragic loss to the first couple. While Jackman’s music mix got a bit submerged amidst the vampire hunting action in the film, this impactful score album really lets one appreciate his fairly epic accomplishment, one that the film’s title couldn’t have made very easy.
. CRAZY EYES
There are indie-centric composers who impress with their quirkiness. Then there are others who come across like mad geniuses, creating a sound akin to outsider art. Bobby Johnston often falls into the latter camp with the kind of loopy creativity that might understandably get him confused with Daniel Johnston. For with such wackily intriguing efforts as “Wristcutters: A Love Story,” “King of the Ants,” “Spooner” and “Edmond,” Johnston has steadily risen in the indie scoring scene for his ability to deliver the unexpected through innovatively bizarre instrumental combos, and his ability to tune them towards eccentric mindsets- whether they be whimsical or psychotic. Now after Johnston’s hilariously deranged score for “Dead Doll,” the composer teams again with filmmaker Adam Sherman for the even more personal terror of a punishing girlfriend in “Crazy Eyes,” as filtered through an upscale Gen X take on “Barfly.” A loopy, Klezmer spirit infuses much of these psychological S & M mind games, accordions, female voices, and Stephane Grappelli-esque jazz creating the time-lost sense of sinking into drink in a Silverlake bar, or your sex-cluttered bedroom. Sad sack guitar rhythms and finger-snapping female vocalese strut in the spirit of film noir jazz, while gossamer bells compound the sense of an LA twilight zone. “Crazy Eyes” is indeed that description when it comes to the completely unique, and hallucinatory sound that Johnston delivers here, making you hear the intoxicating attraction of a mad relationship.
. THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE / THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR
As a composer who embodied hip crime-suspense jazz-pop in the 70’s, Dave Grusin was never livelier than strutting about the Boston’s underworld jungle in “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” or taking flight from the government in “Three Days of the Condor.” While that Sidney Pollack classic has gotten several editions, “Coyle” is the far less know soundtrack on this Film Score Monthly combo album, and gets its first release here. Though a far grittier underworld picture for director Peter Yates than “Bullitt,” Grusin gives a constant, at times frantically hallucinogenic energy to these Beantown mugs. It’s a full-on 70’s jazz funk that provides a fun, ironic contrast to Yates’ downbeat handling of the material, the music almost playing as wish fulfillment for low life criminals who want to be as swinging as the big guys, and fail miserably at it- a similar, swaggering musical metaphor he’d take for “The Pope of Greenwich Village” (now also out on Quartet). “Condor” is just as jazzily vibrant, but far more romantic in its approach, especially as it’s a young Robert Redford in the lead instead of a wizened Robert Mitchum. A sultry sax makes for his star filter chemistry with Faye Dunaway, a theme that has tenderness, sex appeal and vulnerability for a CIA employee whose life is upended by conspiracy. More breezy than darkly dangerous, two of “Condor’s” neatest tricks in Grusin’s fusion of keyboard and brass-driven progressive jazz and orchestral suspense is using Oriental rhythms and brass cries to emulate the sound of “international intrigue” and birds, a crafty musical encapsulation of a film’s title if there ever was one. FSM’s complete release of “Condor”’s score gives more funk tension to the chase (along with an ironically chirpy version of “Jingle Bells”), selections that show off Dave Grusin’s legacy as one of movie jazz’s hippest innovators.
. GREEN LANTERN: THE ANIMATED SERIES
After creatively conveying unholy sadism with such distinctly not-suitable-for-children movie scores like “Blood Farm,” “The Hills Run Red” and “Hostel: Part III,” Frederick Wiedmann shows he can be equally killer when given a shot on The Cartoon Network to embody the emerald purity of a comic book hero. But then, like such composers as Christopher Drake (“Batman: Gotham Knight”), Kevin Manthei (“Justice League: The New Frontier”) and Robert J. Kral (“Green Lantern: First Flight”), there’s something about joining the DC animated corps that imbues its composers with even greater musical powers- the ability to take limited means and give their scores the thundering presence of a live action Hollywood spectacle. That WB’s live action version of “Green Lantern” didn’t exactly take off gives extra onus for this cartoon version to succeed, which Weidmann has helped do with his scores’ conviction. Here the color from which Weidmann’s power flows is the convincing sound of some pretty great orchestral samples, and the ability to really make them take galaxy-spanning flight. Yet Weidmann is sure to keep Hal Jordan’s humanity front and center throughout as he combines the traditional thematic sound with a subtle sci-fi spin for voices, ethnic instruments and electric cellos. All make for a surprisingly involving listen that’s both cosmic and intimate. Just as they’ve released other worthwhile DC animated universe scores, La La Land gives Weidmann’s “Lantern” exceptional treatment, forging an emotional through line with 71 well-assembled minutes from the show’s first season. The cues within reveal that the ring has chosen very well with Weidman, especially as he gives this CGI toon a musical power worthy of any cinematic flesh and blood comic book icon, the real chance to which this album proves he’s more than worthy of taking.
Like Carl Stalling on steroids, John Powell has had a blast pounding out antic CGI toon scores from “Robots” to “Horton Hears A Who” and “The Lorax,” somehow keeping a crazy-quilt sense of melody going while speeding along at a rhythmic pace that would exhaust the Tasmanian Devil. Evolving with every “Ice Age” picture since the second one (while being sure to retain his main theme throughout the pictures), Powell’s inventiveness is particularly delicious for “Continental Drift” iceberg pirate story. Not only does he have herky-jerky fun with the traditional music that’s accompanied many a clichéd brigadier, but he’s just as busy pulling the frozen plank out from under it with out-of-tune accordions, Spanish flamencos and a “Deliverance” banjo to boot. There’s even a processed, sexy sax chorus of sirens singing about personal hygiene. Listeners up for this acorn nuttiness will both chuckle, and marvel out how quickly Powell turns his styles turn on a dime. It’s smartness, without being smarty pants, even if Ludwig Van Beethoven would be spinning like a top in his grave if he heard Powell’s evisceration of his glorious 9th with a “Scrat Fantasia” that turns his masterpiece to mix n’ match mincemeat, of course with that Looney Tunes guitar sound included.
Imitation has never been a more sincere form of musical flattery than Luis Bacalov’s riff on his friend Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western-isms, particularly as practiced in “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” But then when you’ve got Lee Van Cleef returning to unleash a squinty-eyed fusillade, what better ammo to have for “The Grand Duel” than a harmonica, the fateful female vocals or Edda Dell’Orso, doom-laden drumbeats or a guitar beating out the extreme close-up before the slow draw? Quentin Tarantino loved Bacalov’s main melody enough to use it for the sword-wielding match to the death of the first “Kill Bill,” which says something about how well Bacalov captured the iconic sound of il maestro. And knowing a great theme when he’s got one, Bacalov basically comprised his “Duel” with this one captivating dance-to-the-draw-death number, never letting it get tired through its numerous iterations. There’s more variety to be had, let alone far more of Bacalov’s own voice in the album’s addition of “The Man Called Noon.” This was a sort of pre-“Bourne Identity” spaghettier that has Richard Crenna’s amnesiac killer finding what side he wants to be on, allowing Bacalov’s music to take an emotive path- one more “Once Upon A Time in the West” than being “Ugly” about it. His music has a conflicted, sometimes wistfully melodic sense of a “Man” who’s violently discovering himself, as well as a composer showing his own passionate sense of self-worth when not brilliantly emulating Morricone’s footsteps in the genre.
. THE PACT
If ghosts are shadowy, forlorn figures creeping through the walls between your room and another, horrifying dimension, then composer Ronen Landa impressively captures that undead state, and its violent fits of pique against the living in “The Pact.” Graduating from supernatural short to feature along with filmmaker Nicholas McCarthy, Landa shows a real grasp of the psychological-spiritual musical realm in for his first big paranormal scoring venture. Though given a stripped down arsenal of the kind of jolt-inducing percussion that sends audiences out of their seats, Landa takes a chamber approach given this familial haunting, with ominous piano hits and the sad warmth of violins. His creative samples range from subsonic, chilly sounds to the approximation of rubbed glass, Landa’s “Pact” sends a chill up your spine with a tingle instead of a barrage of kitchen knives- even if that cutlery is also sampled into the score for Landa’s effectively creative approach, his fear made all the more personal by an unexpectedly beautiful theme for piano and violin, and a downright creepy children’s song that Freddy Krueger would love.
THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM
Not all John Barry 1960’s spy music was done for a debonaire agent who packed a license to kill with fantastical gadgets. In fact, the composer’s scores for far more down-to-earth spies were equally effective, whether it was for Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer in “The Ipcress File” or George Segal’s operative in “The Quiller Memorandum.” As opposed to SPECTRE, the villains here are an even more insidious Neo-Nazi organization in West Berlin, though Barry’s calliope-like use of the dulcimer and shivering, whistling percussion brings to mind no less a score than Anton Karras’ zither-filled “Third Man.” As always, Barry’s music is driven by a memorable theme in “Wednesday’s Child,” (given voice by “From Russia With Love” singer Matt Monroe), the melody prowling about with an almost whimsically atmospheric presence, the sound of Teutonic brass all the more effective when you’re dealing with smirking ex-Nazis. With their more ironically humorus music dedicated to a circus-like “Pipe Organ” and the oompah-band of “Autobahn March,” “Quiller” is mostly filled with the kind of slow, suspensefully measured passages that made Barry’s approach so memorable. And while there are bursts of paniced, high-pitched percussion, “Quiller” is catnip for 007 score fans who particularly dug the music of Bond prowling about the villains’ lair to figure out their explosive plans, a darkly, oft-romantic approach that builds to the tension of stopping the big bang at the last second. One of the more hard-to-get Barry CD’s since its release long ago on Varese, Intrada now releases this “Quiller” album for the original masters in a terrific sounding, straight-up reissue that proves John Barry as film scoring’s master spy, no more effective than when the snooping was down-to-earth.
The Spanish director-composer team of Rodrigo Cortes and Victor Reyes grow even more impressive with their grasp of the Hollywood filmmaking language, effectively moving from the entombed horror of “Buried” to the para-psychological suspense of “Red Lights.” Where Reyes’ impressive orchestral talents certainly helped bring in the emotional world outside to make “Buried” a bit less suspensefully suffocating, the “X-Files”-ish expanse of “Lights” gives the musician even more of an evocative playing ground. There’s a brooding impact to his impressive, alternately lurching and pounding use of the orchestra that brings to mind Howard Shore’s work on “Seven.” And given a field that many toss off as a pseudo-science, Reyes also cleverly uses contemporary rhythms to bring out the humor of disbelievers, while making extra-sensory perception and the world beyond into a dark thing of hope. There’s a relentless build toward the reveal of who’s a charlatan, and the real psychic deal, with the final, melodic payoff nicely turning out to be one of triumphant transcendence. “Red Lights”’ intriguing approach continues to reveal Victor Reyes as a composer to watch, especially when in the company of Cortes.
. A ROYAL AFFAIR
Francophile composers Gabriel Yared and Cyrille Aufort take a musically lavish, but not gauche look back at 17th century Danish royalty, and a love triangle between king, queen and commoner doctor that invariably leads to tragedy. It’s the stuff that great historical romantic scores are made from, a format Yared definitely knows a thing or two about after such “The English Patient” and “Cold Mountain.” Yared’s tellingly beautiful themes are fully turned into underscore via Aufort, who last impressed with humanizing the doomed sci-fi monster Dren in his excellent score to the underrated “Splice.” Together, his and Yared’s music is as seamless as a queen’s finest garments, flowing with elegant, and sometimes rippingly suspenseful melodic lines that give a sense of the time to this material, all without rounding up the usual costume drama music suspects. As elegant as it is poignant, the composers build the sad dread for the kind of executions that always seems to end these illicit romances, while conveying the unbridled passion that makes the forbidden, finery-filled trysts worth it for the characters, let alone the listener.
. RUBY SPARKS
First impressing on the soundtrack scene with the joyful, sing-song Gypsy rhythms of his band Devotchka for “Little Miss Sunshine,” Nick Urata has done a good job with the indie-to-composer transition in such scores as “I Love You Phillip Morris,” “The Joneses” and “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” But if alt. score and Devotchka fans thought Urata would be content to continue on his wistful way, “Ruby Sparks” will surprise them with one of the most blindingly cool quantum leaps of a composer’s sound in quite a while. Suddenly, the unplugged quality of Urata’s music takes on a symphonic resonance worthy of Phillip Glass and Michael Nyman, his trumpeting theme here at first building for the arrival of a seemingly perfect girlfriend. But then again, thankfully nothing about “Ruby Sparks” quite comes off as the high concept writer-created-woman rom-com it promises to be. Reteamed with the “Sunshine” directing duo of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (with an excellent assist from writer-star Zoe Kazan), Urata matches the filmmakers’ goal of not going for studio-type laughs. Soothing female voices, Indian sitars and strings form the body of its theme to embody the off-kilter magic of a frustrated novelist’s wish fulfillment. Urata’s “Ruby” has a true sense of musical surprise while still being identifiably written in his voice, even when he appears to be doing a plucky spin on Tchaikovsky, But there’s darkness at play as well in “Ruby Sparks” as this writer with a desperate god complex ends up being anything but the guy you’d want to see end up with the girl- a creative psychosis that grows increasingly more troubled in Urata’s orchestrations with the arrival of manic percussion, before achieving a beautiful, secondary theme for his psychological breakthrough. “Ruby Sparks” ends up being one of those rare birds, a “serious” comedy score with ideas to spare, one that captures the same, classical-sounding idea of human puppeteering we got from Burkhard Dallwitz’s equally ingenious score for “The Truman Show.” With no put-down to Urata’s wonderfully lightweight Gypsy-esque sound, “Ruby Sparks” opens up a whole new world for the composer to explore.
When it comes to world building, few composers know how to immediately give resonance to sword and sorcery realms like Howard Shore, a man whose commitment to ethno-musicology had him composing a good portion of his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy in Elvish. So it’s no wonder that Korean videogame makers approached Shore back in 1994 to make their CGI land come to mythical life. Like some score equivalent to “The Silmarillion,” the unmistakable Tolkein sound that Shore brings to “Soul of the Ultimate Nation” (i.e. “Sun”) makes it play like a cool companion score to Middle Earth. Imposing walls of dense orchestral sound, choruses singing in a time-lost foreign language, and dangerous brass calls conjure impossibly armored heroes and villains, each backed up legendary resonance. While Shore’s passion is as mighty as ever for this kind of material, “Sun” is just a bit lighter in his approach, its major difference between his “Rings” scores being the use of Asian winds, an organ and the Theremin, an otherworldly electronic sound that also gives “Sun” a bit of unintentional recall to Shore’s satirically dark and stormy night score to “Ed Wood.” Previously only available as a Sony import for Korea, Shore’s HOWE label now releases “Sun” for audiences in the English-speaking Shire. It’s a powerful soundtrack that shows how a composer can cast a spell that bridges the cinematic and videogame worlds, while also more than whetting the appetite for what Shore’s currently cooking up for “The Hobbit.”
William Ross is often busy quarterbacking orchestration for such major Hollywood players as Alan Silvestri and James Newton Howard, or pinching in with additional music for movies like “The Hunger Games” when the deadline crunch is on. But in the league of much smaller films, Ross is a far bigger solo-composing player, especially when it comes to Americana scores like “My Dog Skip” and “Tuck Everlasting.” Few musicians are better at conveying amber waves of grain, rural nobility or fond nostalgia, abilities that make Ross ideal to suit up for “Touchback.” It’s a sort of “Peggy Sue Played Football,” where a high school footballer gets the chance to re-do the big game that got his dreams of glory stuck in Hometown U.S.A. Ross goes from the traditional sports score playbook, one whose winning maneuvers include heartfelt strings and piano, throttling percussion, the dread of a seeming loss, and the rousing strains of underdog victory. But if this kind of stuff worked for the likes of “The Natural,” “Remember the Titans” and “Rudy,” then why the heck not play by their rules? While not exactly new, Ross’ dexterous, thematic ability makes these moves play like stand-up-and-cheer gangbusters, a big fist pump to the kind of can-do spirit that’s sent many an athlete to make the final point, be it with the pigskin or a Catholic school’s women’s basketball team in Varese’s co-release of Ross’ “Mighty Macs.” Few soundtrack releases this year are so awash in the kind of winningly melodic spirit that “Touchback” brings home with the rousing sound of the small town red white and blue, a soaring victory lap for the power of old-school scoring that gets Ross big points in the contest for one of this year’s best soundtrack releases.
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