Usually, when a musician ventures into the realm of Film Music, it seems like it's a one-way trip. You can go the Tom Petty and Badly Drawn Boy route and just write an album like normal and let it be the soundtrack, but even then, the albums never work - anyone ever hear She's the One or About a Boy? Nope, didn't think so. I'm not knocking film music as a whole, but the thing to remember is that it is fundamentally in service to something else. All those bugged out Morricone and Bollywood soundtracks that make the rounds, interesting and salient as they may be, are still essentially there to brighten up a car chase in a movie no one will remember. I'm sure it's lucrative gig for the film composer, since even the worst of movies gets millions upon millions poured into them. Credibility wise, film composers are more lauded than orchestral composers. Look at Danny Elfman. Well, maybe don't. You might catch a glimpse a strappy Cab Calloway obsessed Mystic Knight of the Oingo Boingo, banging on the glass wall behind the eyes of everyone's favorite Scientologist Schoenberg, howling to be released, and that sight will break your heart.
The best way, it seems, to scratch this itch is to engage in he dodgy art of the soundtrack-without-a-film. It's a touchy practice. Tom Waits is probably the king of this ex post genre, using the freedom of "film music" as a justification for not really writing songs anymore, but instead invoking mood upon mood, like a modern day Jackie Gleason. Here are three recent CD's that have flickered on my screen that demonstrate differencing, but appropriate methods for screening that inner masterpiece.
Norwegian film composer John Erik Kaada assembled a gaggle of 22 musicians, hauling their pump organs, fiddles, piano and musical saws into the kitchen to cook this elegant goose of a record. The songs flow all into each other in a Sundance Channel dream-sequence haze, swaying between easy listening swoons and tiny sounds plinking in the night. Overall, the record has a sweet calming effect as its hour's running time cycles on repeat. The standout moments are the acoustic guitar and piano "Julia Pastrana" and the slow tango into hell that is "The Small Stuff." Overall, though I can't tell where the songs on this narcotic fever dream begin and end, but I kinda keep waiting for cinema's favored nightmare little person Peter Dinklage to enter the office any second pushing a baby carriage full of worms and pictures from my mom's wedding, just to remind me I'm dreaming in a very obvious, OTT way. Now I'm not knocking it, it is flawless in its delivery and conception. I wish I had a surround sound version of this record to listen to. And a surround sound system on which to listen to it.
Stranger on the Sofa
Ever since parting ways with Nick cCve and his own movie-drenched rock in the late 80's, Barry Adamson had perfected the art of the indie soundtrack-without-a-movie, staring with his much celebrated noir-epic Moss Side Story in 1987 but might have lost his way on the recent night stalker Stranger on the Sofa. It comes packaged with a booklet of burred of neon saturated photos that I think accompany the hodge podge of songs and atmospherics. The opening track "here in the Hole" sounds like Dame Judy Dench is reading her own bad fortune off the cards. "Who Killed Big Bird" is one of the finest Jazz-techno hipster workouts Foetus never recorded (where is he in all this? You'd think if there was anyone who could make bank doing hip movie soundtracks, its JG Thirwell) and "The Sorrow and the Pity" is a grave, funeral march befitting of the movie from which it got its name. "Inside Your Head" is a particularly affecting piece - it lurches like Eric Satie wandering drunken though heavy traffic - until the vocals appear. The deal killer on this album is Adamson's overwrought singing. I mean, the music is impeccable, the production pristine, he even sings well, but somehow it doesn't add up. The songs sound like Movie Songs, ones that might work in the context of a moving image, but are a touch too maudlin for unaccompanied listening. But the French mumblings over a cascading flood of fluttering wings and dream bells makes up for it. Bjork should hook up with Adamson on record; he might just know what to do with her. And she, him.
The best one of the batch is Icelandic closet genius Mugison's epic Little Trip. I almost hesitated to include it, since it is an actual soundtrack to a relatively obscure Icelandinc film, but unless you jet off to Fairy Island for the art house movies with regularity, it fits in our category. I first heard this mad man on his lethal batshit ramshackle Mugimama? Is This Monkey Music last year. This album goes through the stylistic paces a great movie sound track goes through. The sleepwalk "Little Trip To heaven" is the best song at the 50's prom of the damned. Were I still in the position of wooing women with mix tapes, this number would go on every single one. His bugged out acid-rock-with-strings numbers are the best though, especially the extended striptease "Watchdog" and its reprise "Watchcat" and the opening bliss-out "P?©tur Gr?©tarsson." His disarming mood pieces are just as splendid. "Clip 10" is a slice of the paper-fragile blues he exhibited on his previous record, giving way into some of the dopest trip-hop loops I've witnessed. "P?©tur ?û??r Ben" is a resplendent peyote-sunset Ry Cooder workout, the horn laden "Alone in the Office" captures that mood perfectly and "Mugicone parts 1 and 2" twinkle and twirl in the haze like you were killed on a carousel, and you are slowly floating above your body observing all that motion and commotion but ever fading to white. It's not-quite-film music at its best, engaging enough to not be one long noodling mood jam, but still cinematic and glorious and manipulative and barely there.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com