Sunday, December 3, 2017

A Review of Varese Sarabande's "Stephen King Soundtrack Collection"

As you might know if you've followed my blog for a while, I'm a film-music enthusiast.  Not at the level I once was; it's an expensive habit, and there's simply too much material out there for me to find the time.  So I mostly don't buy soundtracks anymore.
  
I do make occasional exceptions, of course.  If John Williams -- profiled extensively here (and for no reason other than me feeling like doing it) in 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 parts almost two years ago -- put out something new, I'm on that like stink on rotten grapes.  And by "new" I mean reissues of old stuff, too.  Same goes for James Bond music, and sometimes Star Trek music.
  
And, naturally, Stephen King music.  
  
So when the record label Varese Sarabande announced that they were issuing an eight-disc Stephen King Soundtrack Collection, I knew I'd better set some money aside.  As it turned out, that only amounted to $90, which isn't bad for eight discs; not bad at all.
  
  
  
Me being who I am, I was likely to buy this no matter what was inside it.  Even if it had been a set collecting mere reissues of existing soundtracks with no unreleased music, I'd have considered it.  But as it turned out, it was mostly stuff that I didn't have.
 
Score!  Eh ... no pun intended.  So what's on it?  Have a look:
  
  
  
  
I don't have a whole lot of time to write this review, so I'm not going to actually talk about the music in any depth.  I'm blaming it on not having time, but it's mostly because I always struggle to coherently talk about music.
  
I wanted to put out some sort of review, though, if only to let people know the set exists.  So we'll take it movie by movie.
  
  
discs 1-2:
Dreamcatcher
(score by James Newton Howard)
  
  
  
  
In May of 2014, I wrote a post wherein I ranked the scores to King movies; not every single one of them, just the ones whose scores were available to be listened to.
  
Here's what I said about the #27th-ranked Dreamcatcher:
  
Dreamcatcher came out when Howard was arguably at the height of his powers: he'd been composing highly successful scores for both M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs) and Disney animation (Dinosaur, Atlantis, Treasure Planet), and I'd become a fan thanks to those titles.  So when I read that he was scoring Dreamcatcher, I was excited; if he could do something comparable for that movie, then that would potentially be something to be excited about.

Unfortunately, his music for Dreamcatcher is nowhere near as good as those other scores I just mentioned.  No surprise; the movie itself is a piece of crap, so if Howard had managed to turn in a brilliant score, he'd have really been doing something special.

As is, the score is probably one of the film's more successful elements.  Not so much so that I actually listen to the CD very often, because the music is a bit on the bland and uninvolving side.  But the movie is aggressively stupid, and compared to "aggressively stupid," "bland and uninvolving" seems just fine to me.

Not Howard's finest hour, alas, but better than its source film.
  
Well, here's a thing one must eventually discuss when discussing film music: the uncertainty over what one is judging when one judges it.  In the case of that post I just quoted, what I was judging was a 39-minute soundtrack album.  Here's the thing about that: a soundtrack album and a film score are NOT the same thing.  
  
Are we talking about only the soundtrack album?  If so, bear in mind that it may not contain the entire score as heard in the film.  Many cues from the film may not be included on the album; and, though this may seem strange, some cues on the album may never have appeared in the movie.  the former happens almost every time; the latter is more common than you might think.
  
Are we talking only about the score as heard in the movie?  If so, bear in mind that it may be distorted by sound effects, or by a low sound mix.  You may not even hear the entirety of the score in the movie!  Composers often write cues that the director or editor end up deciding not to use.  Whole themes might be omitted.  Probably not fair to hold that against the composer.
  
As you can tell, we are rapidly descending into a realm of nerdiness that most people would want to avoid as if it were those CHUD-infested caverns in The Descent.  Most of you don't care about the 39-minute soundtrack album of Dreamcatcher, so why would you care about the fact that the two discs of this box set expand that to 96 minutes?
  
Odds are, you don't.  Guys like me, though, we care.  And what I'd say is that while the expansion still doesn't turn Howard's Dreamcatcher into a masterpiece, or into something I'm going to want to listen to more than once  a year or so, it does undoubtedly improve my opinion of the score.
  
Since I don't speak music, here is an observation from the liner notes by Randall D. Larson:
  
Characteristically tonal even in the midst of its more aggressive measures, Howard's DREAMCATCHER score maintains an apprehensive and frightening intensity throughout most of its length.  It richly proffers reflective tonalities, mysterious cello threads, a recurring cyclical keyboard motif, and eruptive sustained discordances that evoke the ongoing onslaught of the alien biology.
  
Sure, okay!  That sounds plausible.
  
Here are a few observations I jotted down to myself when I listened to these discs:
  
  • Right off the bat, the "Main Titles" sounds different to me.  Truth or falsehood?  (Faleshood, as it turns out.)
  • Much of the score is in a piano-heavy vein of mournfulness and regret, reminiscent of Thomas Newman's Darabont work.  This sort of emotion in the scores is ... I wouldn't call it a King-movie cliche, exactly, but it's a recurring theme (so to speak).
  • Solid action-music writing that sounds almost like a prototype for the Pirates of the Caribbean theme is about to break out from it.
  • "I'm That Monster" sells the intense villainy of Curtis better than Morgan Freeman does.  Good stuff; I'm surprised it wasn't used in a gajillion trailers.
  • Just as the movie -- and the book, arguably -- does, the score sort of runs out of steam maybe halfway through.  
  • The "End Credits" hangs kind of a smelly odor on the score; it's almost like a club remix or something, not particularly consistent with the rest of the score at all.

All in all, I still don't love this; but I've got a newfound respect for it, and definitely like it.
  
Oh, and I should mention: there was some controversy over this set from fans of James Newton Howard, who felt as if Dreamcatcher -- which they've apparently wanted in expanded format for years -- should have been sold separately.  I feel their pain!  If I had to spend $90 for a box set that contained only one score I wanted, I'd be pissed, too.

disc 3: 
Firestarter
(music by Tangerine Dream)


 

Firestarter ranked #17 in the score-a-palooza post a few years back, in which I said:

Another one that is super-duper out of print and gettable only for the sort of folks who don't mind spending quite a bit of money.  Technically, I own a copy.  On LP!  A friend found it at a thrift store and hooked me up.  He knows me well.

Urban legend has it that Tangerine Dream composed the score to Firestarter without having even seen the movie.  It isn't hard to believe that that might be the case; the music does not exactly cry "government agents pursue pyrokinetic child and her father," does it?

It's been a few years since I watched the movie, but from what I remember, the score is not used particularly well.  But listening to it on its own, I like it just fine.  It's like the eighties are being beamed directly into my ears, and pard, that's just fine by me.  If you are less enamored of synth scores from that era than I am, you will probably think I ought to have placed this one considerably lower on the list.
  
Assuming you believe that notion about Tangerine Dream never seeing the movie -- and this comes from director Mark L. Lester, so he'd know -- then you suddenly have a great bulletpoint to use in arguing that this is not really a score at all, but an album of music Tangerine Dream wrote that then got used over the top of the images in Firestarter.

Semantics.  Semantics that interest me, sure; but semantics.  Bottom line is, this is an album of music by Tangerine Dream, and it was released under the title Firestarter, and was (to some degree) included in the movie Firestarter.  Beyond that...?  Semantics.

This third disc of the Soundtrack Collection is a replica of the original album, with no new music.  I did not own the music on CD, so I'm happy to have it physically in my collection at last.  (That LP -- which I love -- doesn't fully count in my mind since I don't own a turntable.  Someday!)

Here are more notes from my listenthrough.  I just went track by track on this one.
  
  • "Crystal Voice" -- I really love this.  I couldn't tell you what scene of Firestarter it is in, or whether it is in the movie at all.  What the hell is a "crystal voice"?  Don't care.
  • "The Run" -- What's with those weird pinging sounds?  Again, don't care; love it.  Great rhythm, great mood; this is a standout.
  • "Testlab" -- This doesn't sound like it would fit with any of the testlab scenes in the movies, except maybe the moments in which Charlie's mother is blissed out in the Lot 6 experiment.  Probably my least favorite track on the album.
  • "Charly the Kid" -- Seems to be playing with the theme from "Crystal Voice" a bit, suggesting that that first track might be considered to be a theme for Charlie.
  • "Escaping Point" -- Hard not to think of John Carpenter -- who, you might recall, was originally supposed to direct this movie -- when hearing the bass line that opens this track.
  • "Rainbird's Move" -- A propulsive four-note motif that, presumably, represents the ill intentions of one John Rainbird, government janitor.
  • "Burning Force" -- I've only ever had the opportunity to listen to this score via dubiously-sourced bootlegs I found online.  It sounds SO much better via a good quality source.  The bass in this track is so much more resonant than I'd ever noticed before.
  • "Between Realities" -- The layered soundscape of the beginning of this track would not be at all out of place within James Newton Howard's Dreamcatcher score.  You could also argue that it prefigures the sort of thing Hans Zimmer, Trent Reznor, and other non-melodic composers would do in the '00s and '10s.  
  • "Shop Territory" -- My favorite track on the album.  Terrific beat, terrific bassline, terrific everything.  There's an awesome telegraph-sounding thing toward the end that I love.
  • "Flash Final" -- Should that read "Flash Finale," do you think?  Another vaguely Carpenter-esque bassline at the top of this one, although the track quickly begins supplementing it in non-Carpenter-esque ways.
  • "Out of the Heat" -- Set to a metronome-like beat, this track has weird bird-like noises, a gentle guitar riff, and an epic synth figure that threatens to break into a melody but never really does.  It kind of sounds like a culmination of something, though not necessarily anything to do with Firestarter.  I don't mind.
  
I can't say for certain, but I bet there are Tangerine Dream fans who were annoyed by this box set, too, since the soundtrack has been out of print for so long up until now.
  

discs 4-6: 
The Shining
(score by Nicholas Pike)


 

What, you were expecting the Stanley Kubrick movie?

Alas, no.  That soundtrack has never (to my knowledge) been issued on CD, and seems as if it may never come out.  Good luck finding a copy of the LP; you'll need it.

But this is not that; this is the Nicholas Pike score for the 1997 miniseries, generously presented across three discs, one for each night of the program.
  
Here is where the set will almost certainly fail for people who aren't eaten up with love for film (and television music).  There's just no reason for over a third of this box set's contents to be taken up by the Mick Garris version of The Shining.  Pike's score is okay -- it ranked #32 on my Worst To Best list (where I had too little to say about it to be worth repeating here) -- but I can't imagine there are more than a few dozen people in the entire world who truly feel as if they need 2.5 hours' worth of it.
  
I'm glad to have it, if only for archival purposes.  But do I need it?  No.  And if I'm judging this box set as a listening experience, these discs -- much though it pleases me to have them in my collection -- drag it to a grinding halt.
  
 
discs 7-8: 
The Stand
(score by W.G. "Snuffy" Walden)


 

My knee-jerk reaction is to say that if three discs were going to be expended upon the 1997 version of The Shining, then The Stand should have received a similar four-disc treatment, one for each night.  But after listening to the expansion that we do get here, I'm less certain.
  
Disc 7 is a replica of the original soundtrack album, which I've owned for twenty years plus and have listened to probably a hundred times at minimum.  It's a very solid score that I ranked at #12, and which I actually reviewed in its own post in 2013.

Disc 8 is a 42-minute selection of additional music from the miniseries.  It's ... okay.  Sadly, that's the best I'd say for it, at least for now.  Perhaps that's because I'm not as familiar with it as the original-soundtrack cues; perhaps it's because the out-of-order presentation robs it of context.  But it definitely makes me wonder if there was enough good music to make a one-disc-per-night presentation desirable.

The answer may well be no.  But the answer was no for The Shining, too, I'd argue; so there we are.

And, in case you were wondering: no, "Baby, Can You Dig Your Man" is not presented (since Walden was not involved).  Fail.

Nevertheless, I'm glad to have a bit more music from this miniseries.  I may eventually compile my own playlist that mixes the original cues with these additional ones, and see how that flows.

*****

So there you have it.  The final tally:

  • Dreamcatcher -- glad to have it, pleasantly surprised by how good it actually is
  • Firestarter -- thrilled to (finally) have it
  • The Shining -- glad to have it from a completist standpoint, but not a great score
  • The Stand -- glad to have it, but not entirely persuaded by the new material

By my tally, that makes four discs in the "pro" column and four in the "con" column.  Not a great result for a box set.

I should probably spare a word for the packaging, which looks like this:




The interior box that houses the discs comes inside a slipcase that is designed to look a bit like a paperback book:




That's a cool idea, but...

Look, I hate to gripe about things, but what it means is that the box set is not in any way going to fit alongside my other King-music CDs.  This box set is nearly twice as tall as a CD, so I guess I'll put it at the end of them?  It's still going to look out of place.

All things considered, I'd have preferred a more standard set, preferably with individual cases for each movie.  (I'm guessing that might have upped the price, which might in turn have made the set seem economically unfeasible.  So if this packaging is what it took to get the set produced, I can live with it.)  The "book" design is cool, but why are you catering to book readers -- who are unlikely to buy this -- instead of CD collectors?

Final thoughts: I'm glad to have it, and I hope it does well so maybe there will be additional volumes.  But I'm not all that impressed by the set, sadly.  I wouldn't call it a failure, but it's not the resounding success I might have hoped for.

If you're interested, though, you can pick one up here.  Within an incredibly narrow niche, they make fine Christmas gifts!

5 comments:

  1. This is not directly pertinent to this post, but I thought I'd mention it anyways:

    The score by The Newton Brothers for "Gerald's Game" is currently available for free download via their site:

    http://www.thenewtonbrothers.com/geralds-game

    Very cool!

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  2. I sympathize with the shelf out-of-place-ness. This looks like a pretty sweet package, though - worth it for the Tangerine Dream alone!

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    1. The packaging has been controversial on the Film Score Monthly messageboards -- people mostly hate it because it doesn't fit and because the discs are slid inside cardboard pockets. I hate that last aspect too. The faux-book packaging is kind of neat, though. And my guess is that the lack of jewel cases was what made it possible to keep the set relatively affordable, so no complaints from me.

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  3. The good news is I don't recall much about "The Shining" score except the main piano theme, and while I recall bits and pieces of Walden's guitar soundtrack, I much more remember BOC and Crowded House more than anything else.

    That said, I have grown to a quiet appreciation of some things Tangerine synth.

    Speaking of Carpenter, I have heard he's come out with an actual music collection called "Anthology: 1974 - 1998". Rather than just a collection of soundtracks though, he seems to be reworking, and slightly tweaking his old material for a pop-chart oriented offering.

    It even includes some tracks which seem to belong to projects that were planned, yet just never got off the ground (fraking Hollywood!).

    Two of these unreleased project tracks are "Night":

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tyNuWCjc-bg

    And "Utopian Facade":

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oJeDQYlpBp0

    I find both track interesting in that it seems like he was working with a fully worked out plan. Granted, if it had ever been made, I don't know what it would have amounted to. Still, it's interesting to imagine what could have been.

    Oh yeah, and then Carpenter also has old standbys like "Christine":

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SH2f4A4SVNk

    ChrisC

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    1. I've got "Anthology: 1974-1998." It's in the vein of his two "Lost Scores" albums (which is where both "Night" and "Utopian Facade" come from, though neither -- confusingly -- are actually from lost movie scores). Good stuff. I'm glad he's had a sort of late-career reinvention. If he's not going to make movies, I'm happy for him to make just music.

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