Various Artists
Good Will Hunting
(Capitol Records)

Most movie soundtrack albums function more as marketing ploys than coherent musical statements. Songs are either tagged on as blatant record-company favors or used to sell a piece of Hollywood hackwork on VH1. Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting is a different story. This maddeningly erratic, maverick filmmaker obviously had some kind of vision when he attached music to this tale of a brilliant but unmotivated young rebel. Stealing a page from the two most culturally significant soundtracks ever released -- The Graduate and Saturday Night Fever -- this album uses one artist as its fulcrum, mixing new and old songs to indirectly narrate the film.

Where The Graduate leaned on Simon and Garfunkel and Saturday Night Fever boasted the Bee Gees, Good Will Hunting invokes Elliott Smith. Probably the most brilliant indie-folk songwriter of the moment, Smith donates six tracks to this project, and his fragile, melancholy, young Alex Chilton tenor establishes a mournful mood that the album rarely breaks.

Smith contributes only one new song to the album -- a typically fine, gently rocking electric tune called "Miss Misery" -- but the quietly desperate "Between the Bars" resurfaces here in truncated form with a new Danny Elfman orchestration that proves surprisingly effective. Smith so dominates the album that even Elfman's instrumental piece "Will Hunting (Main Titles)" sounds like a Smith ballad with the vocal tracks wiped off. In this context, even hoary chestnuts like Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street" and Al Green's version of "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" make sense emotionally, if not musically. As with any soundtrack, the collection has its flaws (did Jackson Browne's "Somebody's Baby" really deserve a cover by Andru Donalds?), but it's generally satisfying as both a soundscape of the film and a welcome showcase for Smith's artistry.

-- Gilbert Garcia

Elaine Summers

Pete Droge and his band the Sinners offered up one of the best releases of 1996 in Find a Door, an album of slightly skewed rock. Helping Droge's cause considerably was Elaine Summers, who lent her potent voice and deft fretwork to the effort. The tables are turned on Transplanting, with Summers slipping into the spotlight and Droge producing and playing backup. Summers doesn't disappoint: Transplanting is full of music that's too fresh to be Americana, yet too rooted in tradition to be considered modern rock. Full of oddly compelling arrangements and rhythms that are as emotional and expressive as Summers's voice, the music on Transplanting conjures up the intersections of modern America, where the strip mall runs into the desert. It's the spot that Sheryl Crow tries so hard to capture yet seems to miss every time: You just don't really believe that Crow loves that beer buzz early in the morning.

Put the same words across in Summers's girlish-but-grown voice, however, and you're there. Summers and Droge play almost all the instruments, but the album doesn't suffer from the stylistic straightjacket that such limited personnel can sometimes impose. Rather, there's an ebullience and enthusiasm behind the songs here that conjures up a block party (a swinging, bouncy remake of the Troggs's "Our Love Will Still Be There"), an evening cruise down life's main drag ("Tell Me About It"), or a bundle of best wishes to a former lover that reveals both damage and the ability to forgive ("Laugh"). The songs are full of electric guitars that know exactly when to growl in the background and when to roar to the fore, cushioned by acoustic and slide guitar, Hammond organ, harmonica, and just enough lo-fi to add grit without contrivance.

Summers's approach (the gospel chorus on "Real Low Down," the cascading intro to "Witness," the oily clockwork that paces "Ain't No Way") has that perfect amount of sonic overstatement that is the true spirit of rock and roll. Whether she's contemplating liberation or loss ("Fly" and "Gone to Stay") or telling a boy what it takes ("To Be Mine"), Summers captures not only the essence of a song, but the nut of its emotion. Transplanting is a most promising debut: a record that makes you itch to see the artist live.

-- Matt Weitz

Bobby Brown

Time hasn't been kind to Bobby Brown. The man who used to make women moist with his chiseled chest and flat-top Gumby hairdo now has to struggle to get whatever attention he can -- even if that involves getting drunk and pissing in the back seat of a police car. Playing cheerleader to wife Whitney Houston has only reduced his profile further.

It's been five years since Brown's last release, and his new CD, Forever, might well have you wishing that he'd stayed quiet longer. Let's face it: Brown was never the most diverse of contemporary R&B troubadours. But with the producers Babyface and Teddy Riley in his corner, Brown helped usher in a new trend in black music that combined the primal energy of hip-hop with the more refined passion of soul. On Forever, though, the singer is largely on his own, co-writing and co-producing most of the tracks. Somewhere in the process he lost the spring in his strut. On "Feeling Inside," he makes like a disturbing cross between Jimmy Durante and Ike Turner, leering like a lowbrow philanderer on the prowl and reducing his playboy luster to little more than a pervert's scheming dullness.

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