Monthly Archives: December 2012
Various Artists – Garden State [Motion Picture Soundtrack]
When Zach Braff handpicked the tracks for the soundtrack to his directorial debut, the 2004 dramedy Garden State, he said he simply made a mixtape of the songs he had on repeat as he wrote the screenplay. Little did he know how much impact his little mixtape would have, eventually picking up a Grammy and selling a half-million copies (effectively going gold) in the US. Of course, this isn’t a groundbreaking number, even by soundtrack standards. But unlike the multi-platinum soundtracks to, say, The Bodyguard, Purple Rain, or Saturday Night Fever, the Garden State soundtrack didn’t have a single major pop hit to buoy it. Rather, it’s a collection of gentle folk, indie pop and coffeehouse electro-pop, designed as moody background music for cloudy days and romantic longing. As a soundtrack, it works well within the context of the film, illuminating the waywardness, introspection and self-discovery of the characters; apart from the film, it’s cohesive yet slight, downcast and pretty without leaving much of a distinct impression. The album has the reputation for being a hipster-lite playlist, which, with its inclusion of the Shins, Iron & Wine and Thievery Corporation, seems like an apt judgment. But Braff was shrewd enough to add in Nick Drake and Simon & Garfunkel to give the record some historical depth as well as some more straight-ahead tracks like Colin Hay’s mournful “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” and Cary Brothers’ swaying ballad “Blue Eyes” for some much-needed diversity. What’s far more important than this soundtrack’s content, though, is its success. Braff’s years of starring in NBC’s quirky sitcom Scrubs gave Garden State more star power than the average debut independent comedy, which in turn pushed this soundtrack to its unlikely gold certification, thus giving this music a larger platform than it otherwise would have had. Plus, because his music choices leaned toward ruminating, lovelorn pop, the soundtrack helped open up indie music for a whole new audience that was able to suddenly connect the dots from mainstream acts like Snow Patrol and Vanessa Carlton to more underground fare. (Of course, leading off with a Coldplay tune helps that transition too.) Despite its flaws, the Garden State soundtrack’s success profoundly influenced the commercial prospects for indie music in the 2000s, for better and for worse.
Big Boi – Vicious Lies And Dangerous Rumors
From his years spent in OutKast to his rather nascent solo career, Big Boi has always been an adventurous artist, dressing his clever quips and winking innuendos in everything from futuristic funk to country to opera. More importantly, he and his collaborators made it look easy: The experiments were never forced and his music bristled with vitality and ingenuity. The issue with Vicious Lies And Dangerous Rumors, Big Boi’s second solo record (third if you count Speakerboxxx, which some do), is that his omnivorous taste finally gets the best of him, resulting in a messy, disjointed record, where awkward tonal and stylistic shifts are the norm rather than the exception. While he ordinarily joins up with musicians on the hip-hop and R&B sides of the divide, he takes a risk here, employing indie artists like the good-vibes punk outfit Wavves and the dreamy, largely electronic duo Phantogram (who show up on three tracks) instead. By itself, this is fine. Rappers, including Big Boi, have successfully incorporated these styles into their music in the past. (One of the great things about hip-hop is how malleable and receptive it is to other styles.) The difference is that here, he often tries to shove each band’s aesthetic into his own, rather than find a compromise. Phantogram’s cooing hooks on “Objectum Sexuality” and “Lines” feel out-of-sync with the verses (though the stylish “CPU” fares better), and when Wavves show up on “Shoes For Running,” Nathan Williams’ snotty vocals end up detracting from the track’s gravitas. Fortunately, his third collaborator, Little Dragon, with their electro-R&B inclinations, is a far more natural partner: The languid “Thom Pettie” and the narcotic closer “Descending” are two of the record’s highlights, feeling cohesive and inventive in the way the other tracks aren’t. But, guest spots aside, the major problem with Vicious Lies is that the songs simply aren’t that good. Sure, we have the smooth, triumphant “The Thickets,” the boastful “In The A” and the simple groove of “Mama Told Me” (tellingly co-written by Little Dragon), but even these lack the replayability of past Big Boi greats. There’s no club banger on the level of “Shutterbugg,” no song with the giddy energy of “Daddy Fat Sax,” no instant pop high like “The Way You Move.” The saving grace, as usual, is Big Boi himself, whose dexterous, rat-a-tat raps; goofy, ladies-man persona and wounded sincerity help elevate the album to something above its collected parts. Yet, as it stands, it’s not so much the songs on Vicious Lies And Dangerous Rumors miss the mark, it’s that they hit their target and hardly leave a dent.
Crystal Castles – (III)
Conflict forms the foundation of Crystal Castles’ music: conflict between production and songwriting, between noise and melody, or simply how their music seems fit to soundtrack a riot. At their best, the Canadian duo convey their chaos in an exhilarating way; at their worst, their songs feel like unfinished bits of studio business. That’s what’s made their first two records sporadically brilliant but frustratingly uneven, since Alice Glass and Ethan Kath don’t always seem to live up to their considerable potential. Luckily, on their third eponymous album (listed simply as (III)), Crystal Castles deliver their most focused and streamlined set yet. It’s also their most self-consciously serious.
Whereas most of their previous work fell neatly into the “abrasive” or “pretty” camps, (III) ‘s twelve tracks largely finds a happy medium between the two, where every poppy melody is undercut by a claustrophobic sense of dread. Of course, this is only fitting for an album that deals with themes of revolution and oppression, one whose cover features a famous portrait of a mother consoling her son during the Arab Spring protests. “Plague” and “Wrath Of God,” two of the record’s highlights, suggest looking down at a war-torn street, with Glass’ shouting buried in the din so it sounds like overhearing an argument from next door. And that might actually be the biggest shift from the Crystal Castles’ earlier records, too. While, on past albums, there have always been a couple of pop songs, like “Celestica,” that spotlight Glass’ alternately fierce and fragile vocals, here her yells and moans are always cloaked in cacophony, which adds intensity to the first half of the record but also sucks some of the momentum out of the atmospheric second half, since those songs generally lack a human ballast. Still, none of it sounds drab thanks to Kath, and, if anything, (III) ends up as a showcase for his developing talents as a producer. He’s always had a unique flair for making the familiar seem fresh, chopping up Atari bleeps and pitch-shifted vocals into jagged melodies and propulsive rhythms. He plays the same trick here—everything still sounds made up of ’90s club beats and ’80s sci-fi soundtracks, especially on “Sad Eyes”—but it’s with a greater understanding of dynamics, so the album as a whole feels more cohesive than their past work, even if it lacks some of the titillating extremes of (II). But if it doesn’t always reach the startling highs of their past work, (III) is unquestionably their most consistent record, and it hints that, as Crystal Castles begin to understand what works, their best music might still be on its way.