CD Reviews: Focus and Project X
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
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
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