Monday, September 9, 2013

"Conan the Barbarian on a loop": Which film or TV score albums have helped us to get our work done?

Conan the Barbarian is shocked to discover that a Latina maid of his bore him a love child.
Film score music-wise, novelist Junot Díaz is all about Team Coco--the barbarian Coco, not the string-dancing Coco.

In a recent interview, Junot Díaz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and This Is How You Lose Her, was asked by The Daily Beast if his writing process entails any rituals, and he replied that he puts on movie soundtrack albums. "I can't listen to any music that has words in it, so soundtracks are good for this," said Díaz. "I wrote my first book listening to the soundtrack to the movie Conan the Barbarian on a loop. That's how I ride."

That must be how Ed Brubaker rides as well. A few days after The Daily Beast posted the Díaz Q&A, the creator and author of the Criminal and Fatale comics tweeted that the minimalist and moody score albums for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Brick are good soundtracks to write to, while Jerry Goldsmith's score from Planet of the Apes--a film Díaz has cited as an influence on his work, by the way--isn't such a good one to write to. Brubaker added, "It's a fantastic soundtrack, but it's like trying to write to Ornette Coleman."

True. I can understand why when you need to concentrate on writing something, ram's horn calls, cuíca riffs and dissonant chords aren't exactly helpful when you need to concentrate, and neither is avant-garde saxophone noodling.

Shit, I can't even remember the title of that Revenge clone Meagan Good starred in on NBC last season. NBC is so fucking creatively bankrupt they called her show Vengeance or some shit.
Brick (Photo source: DVD Beaver)

I wouldn't be surprised if "Emily's Theme" or some other Nathan Johnson score cue from Brick provided Brubaker with inspiration for how to pace a moment of tension or mayhem in Criminal or if he scripted dialogue between two Criminal characters while the Brick score played in his earbuds. These recent comments about film score albums from two respected authors have got me thinking about score albums I used as study music or term paper writing music when I was a university student (I also started wondering about what one of my listeners from AFOS' earlier years, Ginger Ludden, co-creator of the Brothers Grant webcomic, listens to when she draws; she simply told me, "Seeds in Pandora based upon fantasy and video game soundtracks" and "Jeremy Soule").

Back then, I lived in an apartment building on a busy downtown city street, so to block the outside noise when I needed to concentrate and finish typing up a term paper or a newspaper article, I'd bump either one of my hip-hop CDs, some local R&B or alt-rock station or a score album. As study music, score albums were especially effective because like Díaz said, they often don't contain words, so they don't distract you too much from whatever you're reading (the amount of soundtracks I used as study music led to me launch an early incarnation of AFOS at the local campus station). While Díaz prefers the orchestral bombast of the late Basil Poledouris, I preferred score music that's not too bombastic or dissonant, but not too dull either. I guess that would make me more like Brubaker.

But ever since the emergence of SoundCloud, Mixcloud and Mixcrate, which are sites where DJs post one-to-two-hour-long hip-hop, soul or house mixtapes that can be streamed or sometimes downloaded for free, those lengthy mixes have supplanted score music as my writing-time music of choice. Score albums just don't do it for me anymore as writing-time music. I play them only when I'm picking out selections to add to AFOS playlists. The following are the score albums I used to study to or finish assignments to when I was a student.

Blade Runner (Vangelis)
Below Brubaker's tweet about score albums, Abhimanyu Das of Slant Magazine tweeted that "the Blade Runner soundtrack fires my imagination like nothing else." I hope he's not referring to the Blade Runner "New American Orchestra" re-recording that Full Moon Records tried to trick moviegoers into thinking was the film's official soundtrack back in 1982. That re-recording is, as Edward James Olmos would put it, lófaszt.

Desperado (Los Lobos and Tito & Tarantula)
Los Lobos won a Best Pop Instrumental Grammy for "Mariachi Suite," the Desperado album's closing track. The East L.A. quintet's musical contributions to Desperado were solid (their score music for the 1993 Showtime movie The Wrong Man is pretty enjoyable too). But Tito & Tarantula's contributions (Tito's "White Train [Showdown]" is what's featured in the Desperado clip below) and existing songs like Dire Straits' "Six Blade Knife" and Roger and the Gypsies' "Pass the Hatchet" stole both the film and the album, which I remember playing a lot during the first semester of my first year as a university student. That album and the Pharcyde's Labcabincalifornia dominated my headphones that semester, and so did the next soundtrack.

Get Shorty (John Lurie)
Featured during the cameo-laden final scene of Get Shorty that's below, the easygoing original score Lurie wrote for the 1995 screen adaptation of the late Elmore Leonard's 1990 potshot at Hollywood holds up pretty well outside the context of the movie. The existing songs in the movie are even better. Booker T. & the M.G.'s "Can't Be Still" is the track John Travolta punches the late Dennis Farina in the nose to. Greyboy's "Panacea"--the main reason why I bought the Get Shorty cassette in the first place and the Get Shorty track I remember studying to the most--is what Travolta struts to when he tosses the late James Gandolfini down the stairs. ("Jimmy, what's a cassette? Daddy, what's Vietnam?")

Malcolm X (Terence Blanchard)
If you needed music while typing up a paper about racist moments in history for a class like an Asian American Experience course and you were feeling especially militant and pissed off about white people that day, you'd put on an album by either KRS-One, Paris, the Coup or Grand Puba, who frequently refers to white men as the Devil in his verses. If you were feeling militant but you wanted Blanchard's trumpet to inspire you, then you opted for Blanchard's Malcolm X score CD to set the mood.

More Mondo Morricone: More Mindblowing Film Themes by Ennio Morricone from Italian Cult Movies
While on a trip in Italy, my big sister copped the 1996 German compilation More Mondo Morricone. She gave it to me as a gift, and it's been an inseparable part of my AFOS playlists ever since. More Mondo Morricone got me to notice that there's more to Morricone than just the spaghetti western genre, and I've ended up digging the lesser-known scores that are represented on More Mondo Morricone slightly more than his spaghetti western material. I wouldn't be surprised if Adrian Younge possesses all the soundtrack LPs that are excerpted on the Mondo Morricone CDs, which work great as study music if you prefer it to be on the loungey tip.

Out of Sight (David Holmes)
The Out of Sight album was another Elmore Leonard film soundtrack that made for terrific study music, particularly because of Holmes' breakthrough score. The Irish DJ/composer's grooves still sound as fresh and badass as they did in 1998, just like how the film itself still holds up as adult summer entertainment that's not related to some sort of tentpole.

If I still did listen to score albums while writing, the following much more recent releases are other score albums that would probably be effective in helping me write. They might even be effective in helping you creatively. These scores are either really propulsive or their sound is all about "these characters have a goal and they're going to accomplish it" or "these characters have an obstacle and they're going to overcome it," which makes them the perfect musical accompaniment for when you yourself is also trying to get something done ("Today, I am cancelling this writer's block-alypse!").

Attack the Block (Steven Price and Basement Jaxx)
Like Talib Kweli once said, Attack the Block, Attack the Block!

Bullitt (Lalo Schifrin)
Schifrin's 1968 and 2000 re-recordings of his Bullitt score are alright, but I always preferred the way the score originally sounded in the film (the main title theme was played a couple of beats too fast in the re-recordings), so I was glad when the Film Score Monthly label finally issued the actual score cues in 2009. The Bullitt score is my second favorite Schifrin film score after Enter the Dragon. That groovetastic main title theme--in its original form and with that ill Latin drum beat from 1:50 to 2:09 and again from 2:45 to 2:53--makes me want to slip on a Frank Bullitt turtleneck and get shit done even though I'm not really a fan of turtlenecks. Why is Star Trek so mad into turtlenecks? No wonder everyone aboard Kirk's Enterprise perspired so much.

Da Vinci's Demons (Bear McCreary)
This Starz costume drama received mixed reviews during its first season, but everyone can agree that McCreary's work on this show is sublime, especially during premiere episode score cues like "The Glider" or "Flight of the Columbina" (those two cues come from scenes where young Leonardo Da Vinci is seen attempting to get some invention of his off the ground) and Da Vinci's theme. McCreary structured Da Vinci's theme as a palindrome--the theme is the same when played forwards or backwards--in order to mirror how Da Vinci was able to write forwards and backwards. The season 1 album is great "man unleashing his creative side" music, so it's ideal for when you're motivating yourself to be as prolific as Da Vinci or you're motivating yourself to be, oh, I don't know, the Da Vinci of carpet vacuuming or the Da Vinci of grout cleaning.

Hanna (The Chemical Brothers)
Not bad for a couple of guys who never scored a feature film before.

Ocean's Eleven / Ocean's Twelve / Ocean's Thirteen (David Holmes)
Ask a film score music head what his or her favorite trilogy is, film music-wise, and he or she will probably say either "classic Star Wars," "the Howard Shore/Peter Jackson Lord of the Ringses" or "the Hans Zimmer/Christopher Nolan Batmans." As for myself, I prefer the Ocean's trilogy. There's something about Holmes caper genre score albums that just motivates me to get things done if I play them. With each passing sequel, the Ocean's soundtracks got weirder and better. My favorite Ocean's album is the third and final one, because of how much Holmes' score music had evolved since Eleven, as well as how the existing songs grew increasingly obscure (Holmes doubled as music supervisor on all three films). Thirteen concludes not with a Rat Pack standard--a music supervisor with musical tastes as hackneyed as Zack Snyder's would have chosen that to close the final film--but with a funky and really tight Krautrock instrumental, 1969's "Soul Town" by the Motherhood.

Pacific Rim (Ramin Djawadi)
Out of all the scores from returning or potential tentpole franchises that were in theaters from May to August, the Pacific Rim score by Djawadi of Game of Thrones (and ex-Rage Against the Machiner Tom Morello) has been my favorite and most replayed. Plus it features a RZA cameo during "Drift," the end credits song by Blake Perlman, daughter of Pacific Rim supporting player and Guillermo Del Toro muse Ron Perlman. What other summer 2013 score album features the RZA? In the Pacific Rim end credits, the Perlman/RZA track is preceded by an anthemic and propulsive instrumental end title theme that's similar in tone (if not rhythm) to Hawaii Five-0 composer Brian Tyler's Five-0-esque Iron Man Three end title theme, which is Tyler's best cue during that Iron Man Three score. I guess I have a thing for end title themes that sound like the HBO 24/7 theme and the Keith Olbermann/Dan Patrick-era SportsCenter theme.

The Raid: Redemption (Mike Shinoda and Joseph Trapanese)
If you're really serious about pulverizing your writer's block, put on the hard-boiled Raid score album.

Selections from all of the above score albums (except Conan the Barbarian, The Assassination of Jesse James, Brick, Blade Runner and Get Shorty) can currently be heard on AFOS.



These are just some of the 1,000-something DJ mixes I referred to earlier and have been bumping lately.

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