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CD Reviews: The Life Aquatic and Alexander

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou * 1/2


Hollywood 2061-62494-2

25 tracks - 60:09

After thoroughly enjoying Wes Anderson's Rushmore (1998), and especially Bill Murray's superb performance in it, I was mildly looking forward to this awkwardly named film. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou features a list of famous comedy stars and familiar faces. That alone often spells disaster, and if the music on this disc is any indication, the film may very well sink. At the very least, we can expect something that's not like most Hollywood fare.

The soundtrack opens with a brief theme written by Norwegian composer Sven Libaek for a nature film called Inner Space. It's a quasi-jazz piece with a saxophone that harkens back to those Stan Getz albums in the 1960s. A second theme from Inner Space is also included on this disc. And these turn out to be far more impressive than anything else here. The CD prominently features a number of David Bowie songs performed by Seu Jorge in Portuguese. Bowie's versions of "Life on Mars?" and "Queen Bitch" bookend the film's underscore and additional song material. A recording of Devo's "Gut Feeling" and songs performed by Joan Baez, Iggy and the Stooges, Paco de Lucia, Scott Walker, and The Zombies round out the rest of the disc.

Mak Mothersbaugh's underscore (5 tracks - 17:21) generally has a '60s retro feel that's not all bad, but it sounds cheap to the point of distraction. Could this really be what Anderson wanted? It would seem so, given his little note in the accompanying booklet that has nothing at all to say about Mothersbaugh's score.

Mothersbaugh uses a semi-baroque sound for "Loquasto International Film Festival," which features a well-reproduced baroque string orchestra mixed in with a few key solo instruments and prominent guitar. The solo piano work here and in several other tracks is reminiscent of David Benoit and Vince Guaraldi.

In the split track, "Zissou Society Blue Star Cadets/Ned's Theme Take 1" the second half sounds like it was produced on a high end Casio keyboard. Perhaps this can be considered cute or even quaint, but the music sounds like nothing more than a child noodling at a keyboard in a music store. "We Call Them Pirates Out Here" and "Ping Island/Lightning Strike Rescue Op" provide action music that at least livens up the proceedings. But the former ends up being repetitive and over long by the time it reaches the two-minute mark.     -- Steven A. Kennedy

Alexander *


Sony Classical ASK 92942

18 tracks - 56:23
I grew up listening to and loving Vangelis' music. Something in his choice of synthesizer textures, combined with lush harmonic progressions, separated him from the fraternity of electronic musicians such as Tomita, Kitaro, Klaus Shultz, Tangerine Dream, to name a few. It was his application of a romantic styled ideology toward the new (for the time) music medium. That's partly why his score to Oliver Stone's epic film Alexander is so disappointing. Gone are those full and expansive harmonies. One has but to listen to "Titans" to understand what I mean; it is ostensibly the main theme from the film and the main harmonic body of this piece is a simple IV-I progression with little to no deviation in its melodic content from the basic triadic chords.

To make up for this musical shortcoming, Vangelis chooses to load up the music with his trademark synth sound, the Yamaha CS80. And therein lies the other major problem with not only Vangelis' score to this film, but the problem in general with an over reliance on synthesizers. Unlike instruments of the orchestra which reached the summit of their evolution over a hundred years ago thereby making their sound timeless (at least to us late 20th century folk), synthesizers are quickly evolving electronic instruments with specific sounds that are linked to a specific time period. Take the DX7 or LinnDrum drum machine. If you are hear them on a Goldsmith disc, you immediately know that it's got to be one of his '80's scores. Vangelis' palette of sounds has only marginally changed over the past 20 years, so when one hears a track such as "Titans" even the most casual listener will be able to make the association in the timbre of the ubiquitous CS80 string or brass sound and that of Vangelis' most popular score to Blade Runner. This of course creates a huge problem in that one is thrust out of the film with visions of a movie made 20 years ago about the future, not the past.

What new sounds Vangelis has acquired don't fair much better. Sampled horns on "Introduction" sound so obviously fake that they ruin whatever atmosphere the music tries to achieve. When there isn't some obvious sampled instrument playing a lead line, Vangelis reaches for Acid-styled audio loops with ethnic women's choirs as found on "The Drums of Gaugamela" or one of the worst tabla loops I've ever heard, featured on "Roxane's Dance." There is no variation of this rhythmic figure during the three-minute running time and after the first 30 seconds, it gets monotonous to the point where I found myself wishing I was listening to "Hispanol" from his superior 1492 score. At least with that track, the main rhythmic line was comprised of an odd meter giving that piece an unstable feeling, assisted by an ominous melody and real male chorus. Such is not the case with Alexander.

Things get a little more interesting on "Garden of Delight" where Vangelis incorporates a duduk. Problem is, like his choice of synthesizer patches, he's behind the times. This particular instrument was interesting when Peter Gabriel used it in The Last Temptation of Christ or when Mychael Danna employed it in his scores. But now it's common-place. It doesn't help that this track so closely resembles Gabriel's "The Feeling Begins" cue from the aforementioned score. Yep, Vangelis just cannot seem to get a break. There's even that whispy ol' Fairlight flute sound backing up a modern styled drum beat and solo violin on "Roxane's Veil".

Listening to this soundtrack, I cannot fathom what Oliver Stone was thinking when he went this route. Was it because Hans Zimmer's Gladiator set the trend for an ethnic synth-based scoring approach to epic films? Even if that is the case, Zimmer's music still had some contextual legitimacy in that his choice of electronics were mostly subtle, way-in-the-background pads or else doubling a conventional orchestra. It's been said that the score for Alexander is also fortified with a large orchestra. Unless this refers to the size of the groups used on the sample libraries, I cannot hear any evidence of this. And that can't be it either as the samples used on this score are so cheesy that a garden variety Yamaha Portatone that anyone can pick up at their local Best Buy would provide more accurate acoustic representations of the instruments featured on this disc.

As a longtime fan of Vangelis' music, I find Alexander bereft of anything worthwhile to recommend, something that is disheartening to me to say the least. But alas, there is not a single moment on this disc that is appealing. Vangelis' harmonic idiom has been stripped down to its barest. If there were some interesting textures that compensate for this shortcoming, then I could find some merit in his music. But the antiquated synthesizer sounds only make the listening experience all the worse. And if he had stuck with completely electronic tones, that too would have been somewhat visionary. But the bi-polarity of using old sounds with newer (where's Gigastudio when you need it?) result in a score that doesn't satisfy on any level. Ironically, Vangelis achieved a dated sound for his score to Alexander -- problem is that it missed the mark by about a thousand years. Can anyone say Ladyhawk?     -- David Coscina

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