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CD Reviews: The Cooler and Fog of War

The Cooler ** 1/2


Commotion/Koch KOC CD 5707

14 tracks - 50:01

The good news is that Mark Isham has a new score out -- the bad news is it only makes up half of this CD release. While it's hard to completely dismiss The Cooler, the half that Isham isn't responsible for has some major disasters.

The Cooler is set in Las Vegas at an old-school casino called the Shangri-La, and most of the album reflects that setting. Jazz-influenced instrumentals from Isham set the mood, but lousy covers of pop standards try their best to destroy it.

Isham's "Better Life Motel/Tables on Fire" starts with a mellow sax and trumpet duet that evokes a kind of Chinatown vibe. That cool moodiness unfortunately vanishes two-thirds through the track as an up-tempo drum beat kicks in and reminds us that old Las Vegas is gone and that phony glitz rules the strip today.

Also from Isham is "Look in my Eyes," a wonderful track that features piano floating beautifully above a mellow synth and string backing. It's a well written tune and works just as well outside of the film. It wouldn't surprise me to hear this one on one of those "Smooth Jazz" radio stations.

It's actually hard to find any fault with Isham's portion of the CD, but then it's all too easy when it comes to the other tracks. How about actor Paul Sorvino singing "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me"? It has its place in the film (in which he plays an aging lounge singer with a heroin habit), but do you really want to hear his warbling vibrato more than once, if at all? Sorry, Mr. Sorvino, but keep it in the karaoke lounge.

N'Sync's Joey Fatone drops a bomb with a horrible cover of "Can I Steal a Little Love?" When you've heard real singers like Dean Martin or Sinatra croon this standard, it's really hard to take Fatone's cheesy mouseketeer version. It's about as rockin' as Britney Spears singing "Hound Dog."

Of the covers, the only one I actually enjoyed was Nick D'Egidilo's version of "Almost Like Being in Love." It's got a great band arrangement and his singing style is so wonderfully smarmy that you'll probably think back to Bill Murray's lounge singer act from Saturday Night Live. The trumpet solo is nicely played, but the track is marred from some audible distortion on peaks.

It could be argued that it's impossible to create an old Vegas mood without relying on the old standards of the day, but that just isn't true. Daniel Licht's score to The Winner evokes all the images of old Las Vegas without a single cover tune in sight.

Unfortunately, the bad tracks are evenly distributed throughout the disc, which means you'll have to remember how to program your CD player. And once you drop the misses, you're only left with about 30 minutes of listenable music. So, if you looking for the sound of old Las Vegas, you're better off tracking down a copy of The Winner -- it's a sure bet!     -- Ian D. Thomas

The Fog of War *** 1/2


Orange Mountain Music 0010

34 tracks - 73:22

Philip Glass is on a roll these days. It used to be that any new Glass score aroused great fan interest, as he composed so few. In the past two years, however, he seems to be trying to match his prodigious concert output with film scores. This may turn out to be too much of a good thing.

The Fog of War finds Glass reunited with documentarian Errol Morris for the first time since 1991's A Brief History of Time. In the liner notes Morris notes that Glass "creates a feeling of existential dread better than anyone else I know of." Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's life certainly demands such a feeling as the man was responsible for policies that resulted in the firebombing of Tokyo and 67 other cities, the Vietnam War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. This is a documentary about the horrors of war, the ethics of power, and the right and rule of government. Glass' trademark sound usually generates the oppressive weight this film deserves, but here he has allowed harmony to undercut minimalism's linear propulsion. The result works, but lacks some needed tension.

The main theme, presented in "100,000 People," and as a piano solo in the best cue, "The Fog of War," shows this shift in focus. Halfway through the melodic line, the harmonies unexpectedly move up, in something akin to a deceptive cadence. It sounds suspiciously like a modulation, a tenet of Western music Glass normally rejects. There is also the strange matter of quotation. In "Target Destruction," the opening of Mozart's 25th Symphony in G minor appears in the original instrumentation but with slightly altered pitches. It is endlessly repeated, of course, but the last time transformed into major. It is an interesting moment of postmodern pastiche from Glass, a composer who seems to have finally divorced himself from most of the trappings of minimalism (but certainly not the most important -- its repetition). Part of the reason for this must be the unique demands of film scoring. Minimalist works need significant time to develop in order to achieve their full impact; film scores often require shorter cues to fit specific moments. Glass has compromised, placing war movie tropes such as snare drum rolls over pulsing strings in intricate textures.

There are many aspects to commend The Fog of War. "The War to End All Wars" has beautiful, delicate scoring and nimbly shifting meters. "The Light That Failed" is full of competing cross rhythms that work well against the steady snare drums. And the recording itself is well produced with a clarity and richness to the sound. In deciding whether or not to add it to your collection, I would return to Morris' liner notes: "the apocalypse is not so much the end of the world but just more of what we've seen before, more of the same." The Fog of War is not groundbreaking like Glass' Koyaanisqatsi, nor is it something new and passionate like Kundun. A solid work, it basically comes down to more of the same from Philip Glass.     -- Andrew Granade

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