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A Couple of Reviews:

Alex North and Alien Trilogy

Note from Lukas: One of the few criticisms of FSM (the magazine, not this site) this year is that we haven't had enough reviews. That's because we haven't had time to write them! Rest assured that, as you read this, Jeff Bond and I are sorting through piles of CDs to get everything covered.

In the meantime, there are a handful of CDs where we ended up with multiple reviews. Below are two duplicates which we did not have the chance to run in FSM:

Alex North: The Bad Seed, Spartacus, A Streetcar Named Desire ****

Eric Stern conducts the London Symphony Orchestra

Nonesuch Film Series 79446. 17 tracks - 51:59.

Review by Christopher Walsh

As part of Nonesuch Records' recent entry into film music rerecordings, this CD highlighting Alex North's inestimable career is not quite the sum of its parts, yet still is recommended for its many strong stretches of music. The disc ranges from the effectively jagged (The Bad Seed's dissonant yet jaunty main theme) to the glowingly direct (the love theme in Spartacus), spotlighting his famous use of jazz in the process.

The most interesting stretch is an 11-minute suite from The Bad Seed, musically depicting the overall mood ("Main Title"), the seeming innocence of Patty McCormack ("Our Baby"), the revelation of nastiness ("Confession/Details") and the finale ("At It Again"). The suite is both witty, in its use of "Au clair de la lune," and archival in that the score has never been properly presented on CD. Following a cue from The Misfits that is so quiet you have to listen carefully to hear its development ("Gay and Roselyn," for the blossoming relationship between Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe) is one of North's personal favorite cues, the rhythmic "Gathering of Forces" from Viva Zapata! The piece's appeal is obvious, and is the first big statement of pure, happy emotion on the disc; I also don't think this cue has made it onto a CD before, either. 13 minutes from A Streetcar Named Desire follow; I am not really qualified to evaluate this score or its various re-recordings, so I suggest referring to Ross Care's article (FSM 65/66/67, Winter 1996, see backissue information) for more details. Still, the performance is consistently strong, whether in the forceful "Main Title," the strutting cues "Four Deuces" and "New Orleans Street," the quieter pieces "Blanche" and "Belle Reve," and the unexpected twists of "Mania."

The problems with this disc are concentrated in the technically challenging score to Spartacus, represented with a 20-minute suite. This goes all over the map from the very start, with an uncertain flucuating tempo on the distinctive "Main Title." The brass, so strong in North's original recording, often disappears, especially the statement when the title "Spartacus" fades up. This is due to either a less forceful performance or, perhaps, the placement of the brass in the orchestral ensemble. (For another example of this problem, compare Elliot Goldenthal's Batman "Main Title and Fanfare" with Joel McNeely's re-recording on Hollywood 95 and The Batman Trilogy. The brass cluster when the word "Forever" appears is barely audible in McNeely's version.) A flat piano rendition of the middle section, the march associated with the gladiator army, doesn't help, and the percussion is overplayed in the "Main Title" to boot. Thankfully, however, the suite more successfully plays up the drums in "Draba Fight," which comes across as a more forceful interpretation, not an uncertain performance, of the original cue. (I should admit that I am a sucker for heavy, inventive percussion.) The gentler moments are consistently well-played, as is the two-minute "Vesuvius Camp," one of my personal favorite examples of a happy action rhythm. To sum up, Spartacus starts off a bit on the wrong foot, but recovers.

In the end, this CD is worth having for its Bad Seed suite, "Gathering of Forces," and the informative liner notes by Royal S. Brown, who introduces North to those ignorant of his contribution to film music while explaining the intended thrust of each featured score. Nonesuch is to be commended for tackling the often uncertain market of re-recording music, where fans are particularly ready to jump down throats if things go wrong. Here's to the best of luck in coming discs.

The Alien Trilogy ****

Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Elliot Goldenthal

Varese Sarabande VSD-5753, 13 tracks - 53:47

Review by Lukas Kendall

The Alien Trilogy features the best CD cover of recent memory: a still from the first Alien film of the astronauts approaching the space jockey, enveloped in H.R. Giger's horrifying, bones-and-machinery set. (It would have looked even cooler at 12" by 12".) The recording by Cliff Eidelman and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is A-OK. Most of the attention seems paid to the first score, one of Jerry Goldsmith's greatest; this technical masterpiece includes such outlandish instrumentation as a conch, didgeridoo, and serpent, as well as various avant garde bowing and performance techniques (quarter tones, players clicking valves while blowing through their instruments, etc.). The only thing Varese seems to have omitted is the echoplex, that little psychedelic gizmo, in-demand in the late '60s and '70s, used to create the echoing trumpet riffs in Patton, echoing piano in Coma, and echoing pizzicato strings in Planet of the Apes and Alien. (When you hear the trumpets in Patton go da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da, off into the distance, the players are only playing the first three notes--the rest is created by the echoplex.) The album is the premiere recording of Alien's "Main Title" (revised), "Hypersleep," and a short unused bit of vintage Goldsmith trombone violence at the end of "The Droid." This score must have been excruciatingly difficult to perform, but Eidelman pulls it out admirably--and mostly at tempo.

I always knew parts of Aliens, and James Horner's bag of tricks in general, were indebted to Jerry Goldsmith, but putting a 15-minute suite from Aliens after Goldsmith's effort shows just how much so. Horner especially picks up on Goldsmith's repeating two-note phrase used to introduce the ship in both films and his stalking bass-line Alien theme, and in general replicates certain aspects of the orchestration. Fans of Horner's score will be interested in this suite since, although this is undocumented in the liner notes, it features a slightly alternate version of the "Main Title," with a longer build-up and added percussion, and extends "Futile Escape" to include portions not heard on the original soundtrack album (or perhaps even in the movie). In one previously unheard refrain, it sounds like Khan has arrived on the scene. It was my understanding that the scoring process on Aliens got so rushed and out of control that eventually Horner was recording cues wild, for Cameron to paste in wherever he felt necessary. That might explain some of the slightly different music recorded on this album.

Lastly, Elliot Goldenthal's Alien3 represents two missed opportunities: one was to record the theme (not heard on the album) for the Company men who arrive at the end of the picture, and the other was to record the twisted version of the "Fox Fanfare" Goldenthal arranged for the film. However, Goldenthal reported in an FSM interview (#41-43) that he arranged this on the spot during recording, so it is possible a score and parts do not exist. (It can't be that difficult to replicate--just freeze the penultimate note!) The suite here is a good representation of the score--it reminded me how much I admire it--but it doesn't include anything new, and as it does not include most of Goldenthal's electronic overdubs either, is somewhat incomplete. It would be useful for budding musicians interested in hearing what was acoustic in the score--which seems to be most of it. Overall, The Alien Trilogy is a fine album for both archival and listening purposes, and is increasingly relevant as Alien Four-Hundred and Forty-Four arrives on the horizon. (She's back!)

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