Saturday, May 21, 2016

Star Wars - The Phantom Menace: Just This Once

Although I have been teasing a Star Wars soundtrack retrospective for several months now, it has actually been in the planning stages for even longer than that. I did a three-year musical experiment on my oldest daughter called the Superhero Theme Project, in which I appropriated orchestral themes to musically represent and enrich superhero characters that she was becoming familiar with through text and other media. In the initial parameters of the project, I stated that I was going to avoid using music that she might otherwise encounter in other franchises, and the astute follower will have noticed that I did not use any Star Wars music at all. This was totally intentional. It was my hope that when she got older, if was ever to get into Star Wars the soundtracks would carry as much weight with her as the movies themselves.

Little did I realize back then that a whole new chapter of the franchise would open at the end of 2015. The Force Awakens changed the whole timeline, as images of BB-8 started popping up and her older friends at school started talking about Star Wars. Then, in late November, my wife brought home a Little Golden Book called The Empire Strikes Back. That’s right – the classic children’s book series that brought you The Pokey Little Puppy now includes adaptations of all six episodes. These gave us the opportunity to get into the characters, understand the stories, and discuss the more mature topics in the Star Wars universe. Eventually, without my prompting, she figured out that there were movies connected to each book, and expressed a desire to see them.

But what order to show them in - prequels first, as Lucas intended, or in the order that I experienced them? Long story short, I decided that we should start with The Phantom Menace. There is some kid-level humor that she might only be able to appreciate as a 4 year old, and I thought that she might be able to relate more easily to young Anakin Skywalker than the teenaged Luke. At the very least, I figured that we would only ever watch it once and get it out of the way. If she hated it, we’d just try again later with A New Hope.

That being said, she liked it and I actually don’t think that it is the worst film of the prequels (not by a long shot). Jar-Jar and mitichloriates aside, The Phantom Menace does have some redeeming qualities, the first of which is its soundtrack. Although John Williams could never possibly recapture the sense of risk and adventure of the “first” film, The Phantom Menace soundtrack stands on its own while easily fitting within his already established body of work. The pod race is a uniquely intense and entertaining scene in the Star Wars universe, and Williams kicks it off with a fanfare that only he could compose (below at 1:55).

I also think that if you miss out on The Phantom Menace, you miss out on one of the best villains, that being Darth Maul. Ray Park totally steals the show in every scene that he is in, a fact made even more impressive considering he only says about twenty words in the entire movie. Despite his lack of dialogue, he brings a focused, transparent rage to the Sith persona. Additionally, his fight scenes are nothing short of amazing, and he brings emotion and character to his movements that reveal Maul’s unique motivations, which are, by extension, deepened by Williams’ masterful compositional skills.

So I will strongly advocate for The Phantom Menace soundtrack, and even go so far as to defend the movie to a point. Certainly, when the movie came out, there was a lot of promise attached to it. There was the hope that even though this movie might be flawed, it would open up to greater things. Unfortunately, this promise remained unfulfilled, at least until The Force Awakens came along and repaired some (but not all) of the disappointment of the prequels.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

May Roundup: The Battle Against Colic

I keep saying this: so much has happened and keeps happening that taking time to write meaningful posts devoted to singular albums takes time away from other important things.  My youngest daughter EJ, coming up on three months old, is one of those things.  She is doing well, although she has been much fussier than her older sister P was. She’s been struggling through tummy problems – reflux, gas, milk sensitivity, etc. Lots of lost sleep, however, and frustrations from us as to how to comfort her.  Overall, she is improving, but getting her through this has been very demanding. She’s cute and very sweet when she is feeling well, though, and my family has been INCREDIBLY helpful.

Aside from helping EJ grow out of her “colic,” as it is traditionally called, there are other major aspects of my life that are requiring a lot of attention.  I am not entirely at liberty to reveal the details just yet, but positive things are definitely afoot. This has caused the classic writer’s block situation: you sit down with a few minutes to write and have no idea where to begin. For now, the “roundup” format seems to be the solution for documenting my listening and, at the very least, bookmarking the events of 2016, so here is what has gone through the player since Spring Break.

Hans Zimmer & Junkie XL – Batman v Superman OST: I began following Hans Zimmer in 2013 when I discovered the Dark Knight soundtrack, and I have seen a logical progression of his work since then. I think, however, that after Zimmer invested so much in the Dark Knight soundtracks, it was a bit too much to ask for him to reinvent Batman for this entertaining but flawed version of the character (although the Wonder Woman theme you hear above is pretty great, and not too far off in tone from my own impressions).

The Antlers – Burst Apart: I put this on my wish list back when I was into Beach House, and I think that if I had listened to it then I would have connected with it more readily. To be frank, however, I’m kind of not in the mood right now.

Emerson, Lake, and Palmer – Tarkus: I have always been an advocate of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s musicianship, but in my opinion, their weird chemistry resulted in a somewhat uneven body of work. Tarkus, however, is one of their strongest, most cohesive efforts, and the one that I put in rotation in tribute to Emerson after the announcement of his tragic death.

Storm Corrosion: I got this dark, atmospheric collaboration between Steven Wilson and Mikael Ackerfeldt a couple of years ago and promptly lost the disc. I was pleased as punch to find it double-stacked inside my Tarkus case.

Prince – Purple Rain: Inexplicably, I was listening to Purple Rain almost the entire month of March before Prince also fell to the terrible string of losses we have recently suffered in the music world. Purple Rain was clearly his breakthrough - his Sgt. Pepper’s or Dark Side of the Moon, and is unquestionably a classic album in its own right.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – EARS: Without much more than a teaser clip I ran across online, I picked up EARS driven by my curiosity surrounding the Buchla Music Easel. The album blew me away – I listened to it endlessly for days on end and it still captures my attention every time it comes through the rotation.

Bobgoblin – Love Lost for Blood Lust: Erstwhile 90’s power pop group Bobgoblin have been teasing their potential return for several years now. This collection picks up seamlessly from where their localized classic The 12 Point Master Plan left off way back when.

Wild Ones – Keep it Safe: My initial impression was to focus my view of the Wild Ones through the lens of Chvrches' electro pop classic The Bones of What You Believe. While there is some overlap and the album is quite good, I still can’t say as I have connected with it in a way that feels like it will pay off.

Health – Death Magic: Although their approach to manipulating sound seems to have some common ground with Battles, the result seems to overlay the noisy approach of Ministry with the Europop of the Pet Shop Boys. I’m surprised that so few people are framing them in 90s industrial nostalgia.

Bombino – Azel: It had been quite awhile since I had listened for a guitar hero, and some of the press on North African guitarist Bombino might warrant this kind of attention. His style requires liberal use of open-string drones, which can wear thin after a full album, but his energy, melodic sense, and nimble fingers keep my attention.

Tim Heckler – Virgins: Inspired by EARS, I attempted to dive into Virgins, another ambient album that has been sitting on my wish list for a while. It is an entirely different experience than EARS – it certainly did not grab my attention in the same way, but it is a compelling album nonetheless.

O Brother – Endless Light: The description that piqued my interest in this album was that it sounded like “TOOL meets Muse.” I would say that is seems more like “Mastodon meets Ours,” which for some people might seem like splitting hairs – but not for me.

John Williams: The Return of the Jedi OST: In our house, Friday has evolved into “Pizza and Star Wars Night,” which means that P gets to watch her favorite, “The one where Darth Vader becomes good again.” As a result, despite my attempts to connect with The Force Awakens and Attack of the Clones as "new" soundtracks earlier this year, Return of the Jedi might end up being the Star Wars soundtrack representative by year’s end.