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by Natasha Theobald

I'm not writing this on my own computer, so, if the column sucks this week, that is why. The keys feel funny to me. It is almost midnight, and I am trying to squeeze in time to write this. I only was able to listen to the soundtracks today as we drove from the house, which is still torn up from Christmas #2, to make it north in time to celebrate Christmas #3. I hope the holidays have left you still healthy and relatively unfazed. This week, we will be listening to a dramatic, Golden Globe nominated score, "The Last Samurai," and a more contemporary disc with music contributed by Stephin Merritt, the soundtrack for "Pieces of April."

The music for "The Last Samurai" was composed by Hans Zimmer, a name which should be familiar to those even casually interested in movies. The contrast between the subtle, soft sounds and the bolder and more booming ones is so great that it was necessary to continually adjust the volume to compete with the noise of highway travel. Among the listed acknowledgements are names credited for playing instruments including a koto, taiko drums, a shakuhachi, and the flute with "ethnic woodwinds." While there is nothing which distinctly sounded Japanese to me, while admitting I might not know it if I did hear it, I am almost certain those instruments differ slightly from the usual orchestral line-up. The flute and ethnic woodwinds are most apparent, adding to sounds recalling Native American music, which you will understand if you have seen the film.

On the whole, the score has a complex sound without ever seeming fussy or overdone. The effort is impressive for its confidence and courage. The choices are often bold, fearless, whether with the strength of combustive percussion, the light touch of a bittersweet melody, or the haunting echoes of a past too near in memory. The music is wholly evocative, particularly when the mood is ominous or the low rumblings of drums have started to beat out the march of battle. The strings tend to play a more traditional role, though I would note some lovely lines with sonorous cellos.

Highlights, for me, included the kind of percussion which makes your whole body vibrate with its power. I also was fond of the use of chanting voices in the piece entitled "Red Warrior." They had great energy and a pointed determination. The music which seems to have accompanied action or battle scenes, though, is truly amazing and utterly exhilarating. I remember feeling as much when I watched the film. I wasn't entirely aware of the music during action sequences, but I knew that the power and energy reflected was owed, at least in part, to the score. It is truly unforgettable and well worth the purchase of this CD.

The soundtrack ends on less of a high note, however, which, in part, has something to do with the resolution of the events of the film. Toward the end of the movie, some of the dialogue, in particular, seems a bit obvious, a sly attempt to manipulate the emotional reaction of the audience. For that reason, I am less satisfied with the Hollywood-style swelling music for the end. It pushes the audience to view things a certain way, lacking a complexity I think was earned. The poignancy of certain moments was delivered on a platter, when the audience could have been allowed to feel what they chose about events and their effects.

The songs listed on the soundtrack for "Pieces of April" are cited from more than source, including groups named The Magnetic Fields and The 6ths. It is important to note, however, that it is the name of Stephin Merritt which appears over the title for the music collection. All of the bands lead directly back to him. Five of the included tracks were previously unreleased, and five can be found on discs from the groups mentioned above. For more information, you can check out Stephin Merritt's website.

Although all of the music originates with one person, the collection is remarkable for its range and variety. The songs are short, and all are greatly different from one another in pleasantly unexpected ways. The lyrics are poetry, and the music has been made for the lyrics to be heard. The vocals, which include participation by others, notably Katharine Whalen on "You You You You You," are interesting, in a good way. One song reminded me of the Bodeans, while the next was reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel. The wildest combination in this vein, though, was a song which sounded like a country-fied, pickin' and grinnin' ditty which, vocally, reminded me of The Jesus and Mary Chain. Wrap your head around that one! From space effects to simple plucked strings and a tambourine, from electric to unplugged, with lovely harmonies and voices in rounds, this record runs the gamut with grace and aplomb.

The lyrics are of the 'will our love come back around' variety, with a sprinkling of bittersweet goodbyes. One favorite, "As You Turn to Go" states with simple honesty, "Well, if you ever loved me tell me so, as you turn to go." The songs speak of complex relationships and yearn for better timing or better times. They may remind you of a someone with whom you couldn't get it quite right, as much as you wanted to try. The tunes are catchy, but the lyrics may catch you up in something more, in remembering what it feels like to hope so hard for something, then have to let it go. The effect is, perhaps, a bit sad or cathartic or, at the very least, sigh-worthy. I liked it, but I would always rather hear a song from someone who has lost love than from someone who has found it. The emotions are much darker and more interesting, especially when they are as beautifully expressed as they are here.

That's it for another week. I haven't heard from Michael, yet, but he was hoping to have his computer ready to greet the new year with columns galore. Either way, one of us will have more for you in a few short days. Feel free to contact us with comments or requests. We want the column to be useful and readable, so if there is something you would like to see, let us know.

For more in the Sonic Death Monkey series, go to The Sonic Death Monkey archives!

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originally posted: 12/27/03 08:30:01
last updated: 12/29/03 19:54:37
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