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CD Reviews: Team America and Polar Express

Team America: World Police ****



16 tracks - 67:09

After the profanity-laced extremes of former big-screen adventure South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, it can hardly be a surprise that Trey Parker and Matt Stone's puppet comedy features offensive, politically incorrect and hilarious songs. But more than that, it features an incidental pastiche score by Harry Gregson-Williams which is so good that it's better than most earnest scores produced in Hollywood at the moment.

Kicking off with faux Broadway show song "Everyone Has AIDS," the tempo slows down for "Freedom isn't Free," a cliché-ridden composition set to a Country and Western accompaniment. "America, F**k yeah!" is the testosterone-fueled standard that accompanies the puppet heroes as they blast their craft out from their Mount Rushmore secret base. A rally for all that's great about America, the lyrics praise everything from Disneyworld and sushi to Band Aids and waxed lips, with each successive protestation more banal than the previous. The "Bummer Remix" of this song is hilariously angst-ridden, with every last syllable snarled out (think Frank Stallone's Rambo songs!).

The ballad "Only a Woman" boasts huge production values, straying from Bohemian Rhapsody's guitar jamming to Aerosmith's "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing." Like the other songs on the album, this song is so damn catchy, and so close to the material that it is lampooning, that it stops being a mere comedic impression, and can sit proudly alongside the original composition it so mercilessly ridicules. "The End Of The Act" gets top marks for its hilarious lyrics ("I miss you more than Michael Bay missed the mark when he made Pearl Harbor," followed by the savaging of other elements of that box office flop) all to the strains of cheesy '80s rock. But for this reviewer, it's "Montage" that sneaks ahead as the best song. For everyone who has grown up with Rocky, The Karate Kid, or even Mulan (!), this track deconstructs the montage cliché by splitting the technique up into obvious components and then reducing them to bizarre observations. Hilarious.

The final six tracks of the disc represent Harry Gregson-Williams' score. Blasting off with "Team America March," the composer immediately informs us that while this is a fun movie, this is no time for pratfalling or easy musical jibes. Replete with horns and synths, this is alternately The Rock and Crimson Tide, to Armageddon and Dynasty. And while it might be a magpie track, lifting phrases and expressions from a rich Hollywood legacy, the track has a cohesive brassy anthem that wouldn't sit out of place in a Bond movie. "Lisa and Gary" is a sincere love theme, with swelling strings and delicate woodwind refrains against the gentle plucking of a guitar, before swelling into Trevor Rabin's Armageddon. As good (or bad, depending on your outlook) as any Media Ventures score, Gregson-Williams' soundtrack is a perfect accompaniment to a movie that exists purely to show that it's not enough to laugh at your victim when you can exaggerate it and take it to the next level.

With utmost respect to Barry Gray, no puppet movie has had a better underscore than Team America. And while Thunderbirds fans might be taking offense at the inappropriate use of marionettes, film score fans can rejoice at the bombastic fun soundtrack that exceeds expectations on multiple levels. A must-have? F**k yeah!         -- Nick Joy

Polar Express ** 1/2


Warner Sunset/Reprise 9362-48897-2

14 tracks - 46:14

Diabetics beware, there's sugar a plenty in Robert Zemeckis' animated take on Chris Van Allsburg's popular Christmas fable. Inevitably using long-term musical collaborator Alan Silvestri, the director has teased a sentimental old-fashioned score from his composer of choice, while also relying on some old Christmas favorites.

As a big fan of Silvestri's music for the Tomb Raider sequel and The Mummy Returns, The Polar Express ultimately disappointed this reviewer in its single-minded determination to be too cute and appealing. While Silvestri might only be able to claim sole credit for under 10 minutes of score on this disc, he is co-composer on six other tracks, co-written by Glen Ballard, who worked as music producer on movies like The Mummy Returns and Bridget Jones's Diary.

The two score cues are "Seeing is Believing" (3:43) and "Suite for The Polar Express" (6:02). The former is laden with festive essentials like sleigh bells and chimes, sweet chorals and a segue into "Jingle Bells," whereas the suite is more of the same, a medley of songs and score, and only serves to highlight the Danny Elfman/Edward Scissorhands sound that permeates this light confection. Elsewhere, Tom Hanks' gruff vocals on "The Polar Express," a jaunty little intro to the titular locomotive, is tiring on repeated listens, as is the cutesy yet annoying "Hot Chocolate." "Stop bitching," I hear you cry. "It's a kids' Christmas album -- were you expecting industrial thrash metal?" Actually, I'm a sucker for all things Christmas, with many holiday albums in my collection, but this one plays it too safe and too predictable.

For example, six cuts on the album are the sort of tracks you find bundled onto any one of countless Christmas compilations, including Frank Sinatra's "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," and "Winter Wonderland" by The Andrew Sisters. Every one is a classic, but it's doubtful that these Christmas standards don't already appear elsewhere in most people's record collections. Perhaps one or two of these Christmas songs could have been substituted with underscore. In fact, while we're jettisoning material, let's lose Steven Tyler's sappy "Rockin' on top of the World" and Josh Groban's "Believe."

Best approached with an open-mind, festive spirit and extreme tolerance of all things Christmassy, it makes John William's Home Alone songs look edgy and Horner's Grinch songs decidedly mean-spirited. Christmas? Bah, humbug!     -- Nick Joy

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