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CD Reviews: Focus and Project X

Focus ****


Milan 73138-35972-2

29 tracks - 45:35

Mark Adler has been busy over the last decade or so providing scores for TV films like HBO's The Rat Pack, for which he received an Emmy. He's also done the occasional film score, and he's also written a new theme for the PBS series, American Experience, which recently premiered. Adler's latest project is Focus, a new film adaptation of the 1945 Arthur Miller novel set in 1940s New York. At its core is an exploration of anti-Semitism. The film, directed by Neal Slavin, stars William H. Macy and Laura Dern and was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The album's first cue, "Carousel Dream," begins with strings and piano before merging into the main theme played on a calliope and what sounds like a glass harmonica. This is an excellent theme that recalls John Morris' work on The Elephant Man. As the theme recurs in the film it is no doubt an important reference point.

The body of the score is comprised of dramatic writing that falls along the lines of what's becoming common for serious dramas or intellectual thrillers these days. Adler's score is, however, set apart by its rich harmony, good thematic material and interesting orchestrational choices. The majority of the score is string driven with piano, woodwinds and percussion effects.

While Adler has a distinct musical voice and style, a quick runthrough of a few cues should help place their musical richness in context with some recent scores. "Morning" recalls some of Thomas Newman's lighter music for urban dramas, along the lines of Pay It Forward filtered through The Green Mile. This material is developed and orchestrationally varied in other cues. "Outrage" is similar to James Newton Howard's The Sixth Sense. There's also time for americana reflections in cues like "Courtship" (at 5:13, the longest track on the CD) which, along with the main theme, is a highlight of the score.

The one real problem plaguing this release is the brevity of the cues. This makes it more difficult to develop material within any given cue. Despite this hinderance (standard in most tele-scoring), there is a sense of overall development as the music unfolds over the course of the CD. Extended tracks still provide the most interest, but the shorter cues are self-contained enough to provide a kind of arching connection for the album. The disc closes with a statement of the "Theme," oddly minus the calliope, helping to bring the disc to a melancholy and satisfying summation.

Focus is the kind of score that suffers (popularity-wise) without the backing of the film. If the movie receives any kind of wide release and resonates with audiences it could very well land Adler an Oscar nomination in what will soon become a crowded field.  -- S.A.K.

Project X ***


Varèse Sarabande CD Club VCL-1101-1002

16 tracks - 75:06

The first third of Project X contains some of the most varied and interesting writing in James Horner's canon. On a first listen, it might occur to you that this might be a long-unheard of Horner gem, one that bucks his own notoriously consistent "re-use" of the same orchestral motifs and textures. And for the first seven tracks of the Varèse Sarabande CD Club's pristine-sounding new release, that theory bears out. But then the ceiling, unfortunately, comes crashing down.

The "Main Title" cue starts things off beautifully, with a dizzying mixture of synthesized rhythm and counterpoint woodwind patterns; it sets a terrific, edgily mystical tone for the album, and somehow manages to escape becoming a slice of '80s-era technopop cheese. "First Lesson" extends and expands on the mysticism, introducing a gentle, flute-based primary theme that gives the score a surprisingly touching and delicate feel. "Losing Virgil" changes the tone a little; at first it's overly reminiscent of his "stalking" cues from the 48 Hours scores. The tone abruptly shifts mid-cue into an engaging section for swirling string patches, spiced by offbeat percussion and funny, quasi-Stalling orchestral mickey-mousing. "Learning to Fly" continues the comic effects, with the flute motif dancing in and out, leading towards a shimmering semi-climax that summons not-unwelcome memories of Cocoon. And "New Friends" and "Student Pilots" propel the score into exultant heights, with woodwind figures and light string patterns dancing over African percussion effects, building to moments of exhilarating and surprisingly emotional sections for full orchestra. So far, so good, and you're thinking...this could be a really great find, right? Bravo, Varese?

Alas, it all goes to hell. "Bluebeard's Flight" starts off well and then slides inexplicably into the umpteenth "quote" from Khachaturian's "Gayane Suite." The score, from then on, degenerates into yet another grab-bag of Horner's greatest "hits," which practically negate the impact of the album's wonderful first 30 minutes. "Ghost Call" is a minor-gem track buried underneath an increasingly familiar slew of action/chase/stalking cues that feature any number of oh-so-familiar effects from Horner's canon: the aforementioned "Gayane Suite" quote; the four-note "danger" motif stolen note-for-note from Rachmaninov's First Symphony; the ever-present sakauhachi flourishes; and so on and so forth. And then there's "Chimp Rumble," which features a note-for-note early appearance of what would later become the main-title cue for Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. (One wonders, did they license Nino Rota's Amarcord for Project X as well?) By the time "Flying" and "End Credits" bring the score back to its original, more interesting grounds, all those neat effects and textures seem like mere gimmickry.

One can understand the difficulty of reviewing this kind of material, because it's already been reviewed, many times. Horner cultists will undoubtedly snap this up; others that see his musical repetition as laziness will undoubtedly be disappointed by the album's sharp turn into been-there-done-that territory. Ah, well, que sera, sera.  -- Jason Comerford

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