Thoughts On Soundtracks.

Today, as our office stereo blasted the Garden State soundtrack (a pleasant surprise selection by my coworker) I got to thinking about how amazing it is as a compilation. It may well be the best top to bottom soundtrack of the last 10 years, or dare I say, ever. You have a solid opener in one of Coldplay's best songs "Don't Panic" and Colin Hay's "I Just Don't Think I'll Ever Get Over You" is one of those songs that makes me think of every relationship I've ever via mental film-flashback-montage. And then there's Iron & Wine's "Such Great Heights," Nick Drake's "One of These Things First" and "The Only Living Boy in New York" by Paul Simon. Really an amazing set that covers the idea of the film, but is authentically stand-alone, especially since time has removed the context from my memory. There are movies in which the soundtrack is a crutch, padding the story and generating the emotions through nostalgia, tone, etc (see my Words On Film: Watchmen), but Garden State never seemed quite as reliant on its music. Perhaps it's due to the awareness Zach Braff gives his characters about the music... that makes it almost diegetic for being non-diegetic.

My only reservation here is that there's another soundtrack that is near and dear to me from around the same time from a better movie. The 1980s compilation from Donnie Darko is poppy, energetic, fun, disillusioned and haunting. It makes you feel. And very nearly cry, with the ending cover of "Mad World". This has Echo & the Bunnymen, Tears For Fears, INXS, Joy Division and Duran Duran! All in one place, blending from front to back as perfectly as anyone could ask for. This music is a bit more evocative, and darker, and feels more contained in the film as it all functioned initially to create the '80s time-space as a setting. I tend to remember the film more often than not when I listen to it, maybe due to recency, maybe just because the cinematography is so expressive and dramatic, and I'll fall back on that crap descriptor "artsy". All in all, it's just mind-bogglingly good.

So, what I'm wondering is can we have a vote? Which of these two soundtracks is the best of the last 9 years? Is either actually strong enough to snatch that incredible "EVER" label? Thoughts. Comments. Please, and thank you.
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Jenny Lewis Live at the Boulder Theater

Last night, by virtue of word of mouth, by virtue of Twitter, I was fortunate enough to attend a secret, special and extremely intimate Jenny Lewis performance. As part of the Target/Converse Onestar video challenge (which seemed to be a series of short films promoting social action, green living, charity, etc.) Lewis headlined after opener Kaki King. Before I get to the music, I want to address this trend of YouTube video meets corporate promotion of civic duty. Target and Converse clearly got more promo goodwill out the idea that they care about these things, racism, community, etc. And as a result I got a ton of Target/Converse guitar picks, and poly-foam coasters (which likely aren't very Earth friendly). The issue with the YouTube videos is that they selected some relatively uninspired stuff, but boy howdy did most of it have a shot of a kid in Converse shoes. That's the kind of socially responsible advertising you can take the corporate "feel better about ourselves" convention no matter how many people you may eventually layoff or out-source.

But, that's as ranty as I feel like getting on this topic. If you have comments, please don't hesitate to pop in on the discussion and give me your thoughts too. Thoughts like, "at least they're doing something to improve community", or "it's better to advertise with a message than to do it entirely self-servingly" will be accepted, but please do elaborate on the greater issue beyond just placating corporate giants for their meager bouts of sincerity.

On to the music. Kaki King might really have been good, but after a broken low E string early in the set altered the course of the performance it devolved into an open-mic-style sing-a-long... but we didn't get to sing too. So, it was good, like the way camp songs are good when there's little to no alternative. King is definitely talented and got me onto to Blip.fm today to hear more. This was just a sort of unfortunate circumstance that she recovered from with grace and humor. For that, despite the music being less than spectacular at times, she was very successful. And truly, I have to applaud her for coming to the Boulder Theater for a corporate charity-bene-awareness concert event and playing with the spirit she did. The place was nearly empty when she took the stage, and while the Boulder Theater is not a big venue, it's not a small one either, larger than the Bluebird, smaller than the Ogden... she really deserved more people interested and supportive of her.

Jenny Lewis came out and blew the place apart. With Jonathan Rice as accompaniment, and a traveling boyfriend, Lewis played "Silver Lining" and "Handle With Care" (the Traveling Wilburys cover from Rabbit Fur Coat) and a handful of other hits before closing with a new song. She was pitch perfect throughout the performance and played well to the intimate setting; just herself, Rice two stools and two guitars. We were fortunate enough to stand just to the left of her along the wooden runner edging the stage.

Lewis was goofy, fun and attentive to the audience and the only bad thing was that her time was so limited. She played for a quick 45 minutes and left the stage as the house lights flooded the theater. It would have been great to get an encore out of her as she was spot on, and our proximity made the whole performance seem exclusive, in that way that "special secret events" always do. She was even gracious enough, after asking for a suggestion for the final song, to acknowledge my screaming, "Paint's Peeling!" with a demure, "Oh I don't remember how to play Paint's Peeling." It was that kind of show. I really felt (and it might've been the beer/scotch talking at that point) like it would be a reasonable thing to try to strike up a conversation with her after the show. Ask her to sign my souvenir poster. Ask her to bless a guitar pick... Few shows go down with the fun, community vibe this one provided. Despite the corporate advertising stuff, it was a wonderful find and a brilliant evening.
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Words On Film: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

The new Harry Potter film (And yes, I'm a fan. I've read all the books. I've seen all the movies. And I'm unapologetic for these things) is the most solidly dramatic, mature, and cinematic installment yet. Half-Blood Prince takes a dour tone from the very beginning, focusing on Harry's sadness at the loss of his godfather Sirius, and then powers on, never handing out explanations or details that would damage the dramatic effect of the film. Every scene is dark, or at least emotionally-guarded. It's almost like watching the film through a mist. David Yates delivers another even darker film than 2007's Order of the Phoenix by staying true to the plight of his characters, rather than attempting delight the audience with special effects and nifty screen magic. A lot of people start dying in the 5th, 6th and 7th books, and Yates' films reflect this darkness, complexity and sadness.

The film is just plain excellent. There are a few genuinely creepy, J-Horror-style boos that will make you jump in your seat. And all the actors, those kids who are now grown up, are their most confident and real yet. The best bit of casting manifests in Jim Broadbent who plays a meek, self-serving, but ultimately kind Prof. Slughorn with incredible ease. Yates' and his actors greatest accomplishments in these last two films have been taking the whole franchise from one directed specifically at children, reveling in cute explosions and one-off sight gags, to a complex, grown-up, real world laden with troubles.

I won't go into detail because if you've read the book you already know about the big "surprises" and if not, you probably already heard. The film features great performances by Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson... but especially refreshing was the quiet, conflicted brooding of Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy. Gone are the sniveling brat days, and these actors have taken the mantles of their roles very seriously. And there's a lot of teen angst stuff peppered in there, but never over done without intention. Jessie Cave does a fantastic job as the over-the-top, head-over-heels Lavender Brown. Essentially, this is a movie in which a great story was directed with care and consideration. We can thank David Yates for taking this series where it needed to go to remain relevant, and for making it a lot of fun without compromising the heart at the center of J.K. Rowling's book.

Notable omissions: No Bill Weasley. No Fleur. No grand final battle. (Though, in the case of the final battle, Yates does something even more dark and depressingly satisfying to punctuate Snape's evil act.)

Notable addition: A cornfield scene that throws Harry and Ginny together, and provides a little spooky boost of action and fear.
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Words On Film: Away We Go

The "traveling and meeting quirky, over-the-top people through the eyes of an every-person/every-couple" genre has been a major trend in independent film. Concept films where "normal" people confront a nest of idiosyncratic token characters mark films like I Heart Huckabees and Garden State with solid success. The recent Sam Mendes release Away We Go has been marketed as a heartwarming, indie dramedy to be carried by a strong and diverse cast. The film features John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph in the lead roles, with Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeff Daniels and Jim Gaffigan (among others) bringing the support. Dave Eggers, of McSweeneys fame and his wife Vendela Vida penned the story. All of these parts should sum to an honest, thoughtful film experience, but Away We Go is littered with near misses.

Krasinski and Rudolph play a couple who introduce themselves via a moment of near cunnilingus that tips off Krasinski (by taste) that his longtime girlfriend is pregnant. The dialogue feels immediately too indie-hip to be accessible, and the pacing in the first scenes is clunky as if we were driving a bus around a sports car test track. The couple then goes to visit Krasinski's parents played by Daniels and Catherine O'Hara. O'Hara's character is obnoxiously step-mothery, but Daniels is genuinely delightful. A great nod to the writers and Mendes is a subtle moment where Daniels and Krasinski both rub the bridges of their nose when O'Hara begins ranting about Rudolph's pregnancy. It shows a clear familial connection and is one of the most honest moments in the film.

When the lead couple finds out that Daniels and O'Hara are moving away, and won't be around for the first years of the baby's life (a sad moment because Daniels will not be seen again) they set out on a short tour of the US and Canada to find the place where they want to raise their family. They hit points in Arizona, meeting an awful Allison Janney character (not her fault, she's just stuck playing an atrocious, mean beyond mean woman) and a beat-down completely leashed and unfunny Gaffigan (tragic!). Then to Rudolph's sister in Tucson, which has one of the few genuinely laugh-out-loud scenes in the film. The couple heads to Montreal, and Wisconsin and on to Florida before finally settling on a place to live that seems sudden, simple, and contrived (as if they needed an ending to a meandering road trip and the right destination dropped in their laps).

The film is not a total loss, of course. Krasinski is excellent, and effectively removes himself from his character on The Office. There is a great, hilarious scene when his character Burt takes a genuine jab at Gyllenhaal's hippie/new-ager stereotype. The problem for me is that the film seems to hate its female characters. Despite Rudolph being an intelligent artist, disinterested in marriage because "what's the point?" she is largely secondary and driven by fear about her attractiveness. She ultimately takes a back seat to Krasinski, waiting for him to act to drive the plot. The other women in the film, O'Hara, Janney, Gyllenhaal, Melanie Lynskey and Carmen Ejogo are either obnoxious, hateful, condescending or trapped. Women in Away We Go are a source of abuse or the abuser, and neither role shines a good light.

And it's not the acting. Janney is solid, though a far cry from her stern, but loving step-mom in Juno. And Gyllenhaal is a convincing self-righteous hippie. But we're never given the opportunity to know any of them on any deeper level. Each new personality gets around 15 minutes of screen time, give or take, and then they are left behind never to be seen again. We are left with character sketches, and were the film a straight comedy, this type of parody might have worked. Rudolph's Verona shows the most humanity of any of the female characters. And Lynskey's Munch Garnett, who has just miscarried and wants a child of her own gets no voice on her story. Instead, Chris Messina's Tom breaks the news to Krasinski while Lynskey does an amateur pole dance. It is an odd choice, if completely intentional (and with Eggers and Vida, I certainly believe it was) to have a film about family and pregnancy that throws its female characters so far under the bus.

All that said, Away We Go is not un-enjoyable. There are laughs and genuine emotion. Krasinski is solid. Rudolph is good, but occasionally wooden. The actors seem to chew on the dialogue at times, rather than speak it naturally. And much like real life, the characters we like the most are having the worst time of life, while those we dislike are hopelessly ignorant to their impacts and behaviors. Away We Go is a film loaded with hipster clothing, crafty (sometimes overwritten) dialogue and a decent concept. It just doesn't seem to know exactly where it's going. And that's life too. The journeys don't always make sense, but they happen anyway. Rent it if you want a hipster, artsy film experience.
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Indie-dance almost sounds like Independence.

Since writing the metal column last week, I've been hooked on genre talk. For a long time I was primarily a fan of "sad-guy rock" and classic rock. My high school musical experience was a healthy rotation of Beatles, Stones, and whatever top 40 rock was in the heaviest rotation (see: Third Eye Blind, Sublime, etc.). Pushing through indie rock, through all of the sad ballads and upbeat songs of resignation created by the likes of The Wrens, Sparklehorse, The Doves, Okkervil River, et al. was a personal mission of love, curiosity and critical interest. These bands, among others, writing these sad songs, write some of the most incredible lyrics available to the human ear. Sad or not, capturing the mid-twenties malaise and ebbs and flows of happiness is not easy to do. Try it. Try writing a non-saccharine ballad that tells an actual story and doesn't end include superfluous "you" or "I" statements about waning passions and lost love. It's not easy. Capturing an emotion must be done with the same care used in generating it.

Despite the virtues of "sad-guy rock," it can, at least slightly, impact the psyche of the listener. Like the famous quote from Nick Hornby's/John Cusack's High Fidelity:

"Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music"

So recently, I've taken to exploring the indie-dance/pop scene. Songs that have a great hook, a fun, speedy beat and a generally sunny disposition. The new Yeah Yeah Yeahs album, It's Blitz!, surely played an influence in seeking out similar artists because it teeters on the rock/dance ledge like an acoustically spectacular rocking chair. Bands like Junior Boys, Cut Copy, Thievery Corporation, and M83 (to a more electronica extent) all take the sentiments of love and loss (as all music, art, etc. tends to) and load them with poppy tones and a tendency toward albums that flow from track to track as if it were ultimately a suite rather than a collection of independent songs. And these are songs that give you the opportunity to move and feel energized. Most are laden with quality hooks and carry a delicious anthemic quality that sticks in your head and boosts your spirit. Essentially, it's nice to listen to music that makes you want to move, and has something to say, but doesn't put so much emphasis on the message. Lyrics are blended and complementary, but neither the focus, nor an afterthought. Indie-dance! Catch the fever!

Recommended albums:
  1. Junior Boys - So This Is Goodbye
  2. Junior Boys - Begone Dull Care
  3. Thievery Corporation - The Mirror Conspiracy
  4. M83 - Saturdays = Youth
  5. Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours
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