|by Natasha Theobald
As we have entered the holiday season, and because Michael is still having computer issues, Sonic Death Monkey has fallen hopelessly off schedule. For that, I apologize. What I can tell you, though, is that I intend to keep plugging along in his absence. I owe you three columns before the end of the year, and I'm almost willing to guarantee that you will get them. This week we will turn our ears to the sugar-laden oldies of "Mona Lisa Smile" and the sultry jazz sounds of "The Cooler."
There is a sticker on my copy of the CD for "Mona Lisa Smile" which promises a "defining collection" of great songs from the 40s and 50s, newly recorded, and a new track by Elton John. It is true that the songs are great. It is true they have been recorded by contemporary artists. It is true that there is a new tune by Elton John, though you will wish it weren't so. But, "defining collection" is a little much. The songs may be great, but the soundtrack is not.
The emphasis of "Mona Lisa Smile" is on vocals, so the producers have been able to gather the talents of artists including Macy Gray, Alison Krauss, Chris Isaak, Mandy Moore, Lisa Stansfield, etc. For the most part, the vocals are fine, if somewhat flat and humorless. Some, like those of Tori Amos, Seal, and Kelly Rowland, are quite good. Even Celine Dion is refreshingly restrained with her delivery of "Bewitched." The problem is that all of the vocals are added to a dizzyingly sweet orchestration reminiscent of the cotton candy sounds of an early Disney fairy tale. Most of the songs rely on this background, and it gets so saccharine that you will have a toothache, a headache, and an extended bout with nausea before the torture is complete. In fact, though I am a peace and love sort of person at heart, by the time Barbra Steisand was singing at me to "Smile" in track 14, my notes had started to look like the scratchings of a would-be serial killer. I was that agitated and distraught.
If you were making a list of the top ten reasons not to buy this soundtrack, number one would have to be the song by Elton John. The piano melody is lovely, if a little clunky and ill-placed with the other songs, but the cringe-worthy lyrics were almost more than I could stand. I pray that no one considers releasing this song as a single. A sampling of the lyrical content follows: In the heart of every girl, there's a woman waking up...a homespun family dream...from the curly head cutey to the teenage queen.... In the heart of every girl there's always room for Valentines...a rose for every spring.... She shines just like a wedding ring. The gift you give us all is the one you hold inside. We love what lives in the heart of every girl. I apologize if I have misquoted any portion, but I already listened to it twice for you. I could not hear it again. If any female is actually moved or inspired by this song, I would love to meet her. She might have much to teach me.
One high note comes too late to completely recapture the heart of the listener. Rachel Portman's "Suite" is subtle and light, even calming. And, as the last track, by the time you get to it - BELIEVE ME - you will need to be calmed.
And now for something completely different.... "The Cooler" soundtrack is filled with cool jazz, authentic emotion, and humanity. Hearing the soundtrack makes me even more desperate to see the movie, which, of course, is not yet in a theater near me. Wayne Kramer, co-writer and director of the film, listened to the film work of Mark Isham, from "Afterglow," "Gotti," and "Little Man Tate," to name a few, while he was working on the script. Serendipitously, Isham happened to be willing and available when the time came to score the film. Kramer got precisely what he wanted - "a thematic jazz score...lush, a little sleazy, and a whole lot sexy."
The opening song on the soundtrack, "The Cooler," starts with a late night horn, alone and a little desperate. The sound is the atmosphere of a smoky room at 4 a.m. Contrast is introduced with full horns, a flurry of energy surrounding the single sound, full of high kicks and high kitsch. This is Vegas, baby, where you can be utterly alone in a room full of activity.
Track five is "Shangri-La." It builds some tension with underlying sounds while an inquisitive, emotional, single horn reaches for something. The song is one of longing, but gradually it relaxes and opens, finding some tentative ground on which to stand.
My favorite score piece is "Amateurs," which, again, is filled with underlying tension. The listener gets the sense that something is going to happen. Hushed percussion is joined by long, single, drawn-out notes and a suggestive, perhaps ominous, piano. Layers of single instruments try, mostly unsuccessfully, to come together. They bounce off of each other in the attempt to continue the struggle of their particular sound alone. I loved it. I wish I knew the scene, but the music tells me a story anyway.
"Heartbroken" offers unsettled sounds of discord. Our single horn is slower, more weary, and only brightens when interaction with a second horn is introduced. Finally, "Leaving Las Vegas" offers some resolution. The single horn theme has brightened and lightened, has found some release.
There are several songs with vocals, as well. Rebecca Kyler Downs gives a loose and playful, slinky performance of "Candy." She is joined by a striptease beat, seductive horns, and high piano notes which seem to mirror her urgent quest for gratification. Paul Sorvino gives an earnest, worldly performance of "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me," and, of course, "Luck Be a Lady" is included, this version by Bobby Caldwell. Joey Fatone convincingly pulls off his tune, and Diana Krall brings her low, sultry voice to the mix. Even the familiar "My Funny Valentine" gets fresh treatment with great piano and a forlorn, salty vocal from Tierney Sutton.
There you have it. One soundtrack is ultra cool and the other is sticky-sweet. I'll be back in a few days with more new soundtracks. Thank you for your patience.
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originally posted: 12/17/03 22:33:57
last updated: 05/05/05 17:32:13