By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
The Hollywood Sound
Williams/London Symphony Orchestra
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been awarding Oscars for best original score since 1934, but do its voting members know what they're doing? Not always. Case in point: Alan Menken has won five Oscars in the past ten years for his soupy scores to Disney features such as Aladdin and Pocahontas. (If anyone can tell me why his "Colors of the Wind" from the latter won, please write to me in care of this paper.) Bernard Herrmann, who literally put the thrill in Hitchcock's Vertigo and Psycho, won only one during the course of a long career. Ennio Morricone, reigning king of the spaghetti Western, has won none.
Nevertheless, the Academy has managed to select memorable scores over the years. On this CD, John Williams conducts sixteen winners; three -- Jaws, Star Wars, and E.T. -- are his own, and nobody conducts Williams as well as Williams. You might be sick of Star Wars (as I am), but it's hard to overestimate the influence that Williams's music had in stimulating new interest in large-scale orchestral scores (and film scores in general).
As a conductor, Williams also excels in the music of his predecessors, who include Herrmann (The Devil and Daniel Webster), Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Adventures of Robin Hood), Hugo Friedhofer (The Best Years of Our Lives), and Franz Waxman (A Place in the Sun). Grover Washington, Jr., joins Williams and the orchestra for the anguished saxophone solos in the Waxman piece. More recent scores also get plush treatment, notably John Barry's Dances with Wolves and Maurice Jarre's Lawrence of Arabia. All, however, are overshadowed by Williams's haunting performance of Miklós Rózsa's Spellbound. Annotations by Sneak Preview's Michael Medved add the final touch to this CD, which is more treasure than Tinseltown.
On their debut album, Exit Planet Dust, the Chemical Brothers -- Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons -- seemed most interested in adding element after element to their beats, then pulling them unexpectedly out of the mix and letting the tension build relentlessly, anxiously, as we tried to anticipate just when the other beat would drop, when everything would come crashing back in. But on Dig Your Own Hole the Brothers have so many ideas to make us move, so many beats they want to throw down, that they don't have time for such old dance floor tricks. Instead of dulling the musical momentum only to restore it, these new tracks simply and suddenly divert the momentum into some new, unanticipated direction. In "Piku," for example, a loping, loud, hip-hop groove suddenly steals the steering wheel away from the intense whirring that had been driving us forward just a breath before; the challenge is to keep up and hang on as more and more noises scream by and as the rhythms pile up. Throughout Dig, the Chemical Brothers have cranked the BPMs and made the samples even more dense, the rhythms even more complex. The wonder of it all is that, like the Bomb Squad before them, they've created music that sounds more powerful and focused the more crazed and seemingly out of control it becomes.
Possibly in an attempt to make techno more understandable to the rhythmless masses, the duo has added voices on a few cuts here, but it's unlikely that the results will get them over. In fact, the least interesting moment on the album is the most conventionally song-based composition, "Where Do I Begin," in which vocalist Beth Orton crawls through a meandering, indolent melody that never catches hold. At least so far, voices work best in the Brothers' world when they serve as just another rhythmic element, or as pure atmosphere. For about the first minute of the psychedelic "Setting Sun" right up until this piercing, trumpety synth blast comes firing in (only to be almost immediately replaced by some spy-flick sitar riffs), you almost expect the Brothers to break out singing "Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream" from the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows." But then guest Noel Gallagher appears, shouting and echoing along in a sing-song melody; the main effect is to make the beats slam all the harder when they quickly yank back the song. Like the album's great first single, the thundering "Block Rockin' Beats," the music on Dig Your Own Hole is about sound and rhythm most of all and the inchoate meaning that can be expressed only by a joyous, rocking noise -- and reflected in the way it makes us want to move.
Praxis: Transmutation Live
When white musicians took up the blues in the 1960s, they focused on the guitar, not on the singing that was the heart of both Delta and Chicago blues. Thus emerged a previously unknown phenomenon: the guitar hero, part musical guru and part gymnast. I well remember people elbowing me in the head to get a look at the fingers of Eric Clapton or Carlos Santana.
Today guitar heroes are, give or take an Eddie Van Halen, out of the spotlight, shunted to the subgenre status of Steve Vai or Joe Satriani. But musicians still have a need to show off, and music fans still need to be dazzled by technique. This helps to explain the resurgence of hip-hop DJs, whose fingers fly as fast as any guitarist's as they coax a universe of sounds out of two turntables and a mixer. DJs now operate mostly in groups, like these guys from the Invisible Scratch Pickles of the San Francisco Bay area.
On Praxis, DJs Q-Bert, Mixmaster Mike, Shortkut, and Disk joined Bill Laswell's noise-rock band Praxis for a 1996 live show that's a dazzling exhibition of turntable skill. On top of and alongside basic scratching (the hip-hop equivalent of a guitarist's power chord), they spew forth a torrent of sounds, everything from movie bad-guy lines to slices of jazz to bleeps and blats created by manipulation of turntable and mixer.
Technically it's as impressive as hearing Clapton at maximum riffage. It flows like water, is musical as hell, and at times achieves a Hendrixian intensity. Praxis is a match for the DJs, with Bill Laswell's swooping bass lines flying in and around the Scratch Pickles, while guitarist Buckethead ups the ante with monstrous chords and frenzied leads.
The proof that DJs like the Invisible Scratch Pickles are the new guitar heroes can be found at the shows, where everyone crams toward the front for a better view of their fingers. Watch out for those elbows!
Standing in My Shoes
In the wake of Beck, even old-schoolers like Leo Kottke are getting hip-hop hip. On his umpteenth album, Kottke teams with producer and former Prince cohort David Z for an intriguing, occasionally convincing synthesis of the guitarist's left-field visions and drum loops that suggest exposure to Mellow Gold and Odelay.
Some of Standing in My Shoes, especially instrumentals like "Realm" and the snoozily atmospheric "Across the Street," is barely a step up from tasteful background music. Other cuts, though, such as a beat-smart re-recording of "Vaseline Machine Gun" from his legendary first album 6- and 12-String Guitar and the Delta-flamenco fusion of "Dead End," demonstrate the wisdom of the Kottke/Z pairing. Kottke's take on Fleetwood Mac's "World Turning" doesn't stray far from the original's arrangement, but his addition of a droning sitar illuminates the tune's gutter-blues roots. The title track, another revival of early Kottke, also effectively mates groove and stoic soulfulness. His collaboration with Z doesn't mark a great leap forward, but Standing is a modestly brave move.