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CD Reviews: Pay It Forward, Austin Powers

Pay It Forward ****


Varese Sarabande 302 066 195 2

27 tracks - 45:44

In the recent past, if Thomas Newman scored a given film, we'd be in for some level of surprise at the theater. Would the music be the Americana Newman of Little Women and The Horse Whisperer; the reverent and magical Newman of The Shawshank Redemption and Oscar and Lucinda; or the quirky experimental Newman of The Player and The People vs. Larry Flynt? Nowadays, however, it seems that producers want only one Newman sound -- and that's the experimental Newman which found its ultimate popularity in his American Beauty, a score (like Chariots of Fire) which will forever be linked to the film and its main title. Non-score fans who went to see Erin Brockovich earlier this year were probably able to say: "I bet the guy who did this did American Beauty too."

My hopes that Newman would break out of this pattern with his second score for 2000 (the hopelessly earnest Pay It Forward) were dashed when I looked at the instruments listed in on the back of the CD: Song bells? Freeze 3? Processed glass? I knew exactly what this score was going to sound like.

"Possibility," the very first cue on the CD, did in fact disappoint me with its familiar sounds. Newman should have convinced director Mimi Leder to try something new [in order to get fired]. Don't get me wrong: composers have particular styles and Newman succeeds in this genre -- but it's annoying to see him pigeonholed, even if it's in a style he virtually invented. One has to wonder why Robert Redford didn't think to use Newman for The Legend of Bagger Vance, a metaphysical fairy tale that would have been a natural (excuse the pun) for the composer who scored Redford's The Horse Whisperer. (For the record, Rachel Portman did a fabulous job on Bagger Vance.) Still, as the Pay it Forward CD went on, I found myself becoming more engaged. At first, I thought any of this music could have been dropped into any scene from American Beauty and still work (I'm sure the presence of Kevin Spacy added to this strong connection), but I soon realized there was something more interesting happening. Newman's schizophrenic use of the piano to convey both a sense of melancholy and a sense of hope is well in keeping with the sad but optimistic message of the film. This contrast is first hinted at in "Come Out Jerry;" it's heartbreaking in "One Kiss" (on the CD and in the movie); and it reaches full maturity in the longest cue, the brilliant "Sleepover." It didn't surprise me that Newman himself played the piano on this score.

From the beginning of this review you probably thought I was pissed off and that I would hate this score (unless you happened to catch the 4-star rating). But while I'd like to see him get back to his diverse catalogue, Newman is at his best with the moody, modern and utterly listenable Pay it Forward. Even the inclusion of an old Jane Siberry song fits the flow of the CD. Ultimately, this score is superior to American Beauty and Erin Brockovich and should be a must-have for all score fans. If three of you read this review, buy the Pay it Forward album and love it, I suggest you pay it forward to your friends as well.  -- Cary Wong

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery/Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me ***


RCA Victor 63735-2

17 tracks - 39:18

The success of the Austin Powers movies -- or rather their longevity -- depends on one's love (or tolerance) of the genres that actor/writer Mike Myers so lovingly parodies. The same is true for George S. Clinton's scores; while they work better in the films than they do on albums, they still have enough freshness and energy to make them a worthwhile listen. With the score for the first Austin Powers film, Clinton clearly relishes the opportunity to write in the '60s Bacharach-Barry-Jones mold -- it's obvious from the get-go, with the goofy pomposity of his Dr. Evil theme ("Cartage/Following/Virtucon"), a nice yin to Austin's slyly over-the-top yang (best personified by Clinton's clever arrangement of Quincy Jones' maniacal "Soul Bossa Nova"). Clinton's more straightforward lyric writing gets a good workout with "Vanessa's Theme," a casual affair with lounge rhythms and guitar stylings. And who can resist the bonkers "Danger March," a wild blast of brass and woodwind effects set to a driving drumbeat straight out of the '70s?

Unfortunately, as the album rolls into the second half (devoted to cues from The Spy Who Shagged Me), it becomes apparent that Clinton is rehashing the first score's licks, to little avail. "Chess," for example, features the same kind of pseudo-serious writing that Clinton used to score the "saki" scene in the first film: straightforward lounge rhythms with the occasional odd-metered piano pattern to keep the cue from being too authentic. There's very little thematic or orchestrational difference between the two scores (except for a bigger orchestra); all the great little moments don't usually add up to a coherent whole. Still, for fans of Clinton's approach, there is fun to be had, particularly in cues like "I'm Back/Mini-Me/Time Portal" and "Blast Off/Fat Bastard/Prisoners," where the composer fuses Herrmannesque effects atop Barryesque brass patterns. Clinton's scores in the films are piecemeal -- that's bits and pieces of instrumentals here and there used to juice up the jokes -- and while Clinton's done a good job of selecting the best bits from the score, they still fall short when fused together. The album represents 15 minutes of good material unduly stretched into a longer format -- proof positive that some film scores, particularly ones of this nature, work best in shorter formats.  -- Jason Comerford

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