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Cinematic Explorations

By David King

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

The Social Network

Trent Reznor and Jay-Z have a lot in common. No, Reznor didn’t run the dope game back in the day (as far as I know), and Jay-Z likely never has and never will end up in debauched backstage situations with Marilyn Manson. But both men are getting on in the years, putting them further and further from their original sources of inspiration. And both have done their best work in recent memory under the inspiration of cinema. Jay-Z found himself on American Gangster, an album with the same name as and tied into the release of Ridley Scott’s story about the rise and fall of real-life heroin kingpin Frank Lucas. And on The Social Network, Reznor channels the sinister, bleak, and vapid souls of the characters featured in David Fincher’s fast-twitch look at Harvard’s power circles and one man’s lust to be part of them.

It helps that Reznor doesn’t sing on these tracks—the rhyme schemes on his last few albums were Facebook poetry, beyond threadbare. But its not just what isn’t there that makes the soundtrack worth a download. Reznor and longtime collaborator Atticus Ross are on their collective game. Sure, there are some old ideas here, but they are put to good use. The noisy beats swell and purge, sci-fi synths sparkle on top of bloated, loping bass lines that cascade into soaring guitar lines that hurt in the nicest way possible. It seems every meticulous detail of Fincher’s film—the superb architecture of his shots; the immaculate, glowing colors; Aaron Sorkin’s rapid-fire yet profoundly dark script—has been condensed into this audio companion. From the lonely Harvard dorm room to the exclusive fraternity houses, the sleek dance clubs and the new-age boardrooms, this is an audio tour of one of Fincher’s finest works.

The competing themes come together on “Intriguing Possibilities,” where a sci-fi-movie bass line keeps sinister time as hopeful, twinkling keys pulse and flicker like lines of data on a screen, repeating robotic motion only broken as emotional feedback tears over everything, building into a fantastic apex of man, machine, and something intriguingly in between. Yes, bands like Mogwai have been releasing albums worth of this stuff for years, but Reznor’s tact as a soundtrack composer is dead-on. (Maybe that’s why he’s been looking to produce a television show based on his last semi-inspired album, Year Zero.)

It’s been a long time since Reznor has had this kind of creative clarity. Not since The Downward Spiral has he been so concise, so purposeful. Here’s to hoping he finds another muse, and quick. The Social Network shows that the hardware that allows Reznor to be a grand composer is still quite intact; it’s the inspiration software that needs some updating.

 

Fol Chen

Part II: The New December

Fol Chen’s second album continues the obscure song cycle commenced two years ago on their debut. While their modus operandi of aliases, masks, and fictitious bios brings to mind the masters of that realm, the Residents, Fol Chen’s utilization of this presentational layer seems distracting. Their vocals are warm and present, not disembodied and filtered like that infamous eyeball-headed combo. These 10 songs move back and forth between beautifully articulated pop and a handful of funk-based numbers. On the former they are lyrical, mysterious, inventive and completely convincing. The latter come off as posing; they sound like tourists in a foreign land. However, when they get it right, as they do on two-thirds of this disc, the unshakable musical smarts make the mystery of it all an alluring place to linger.

—David Greenberger

 

 

Interpol

Interpol

Interpol’s self-titled release is a cruel joke. Abandoning the death-disco drumming and pulsating bass lines for rhythm lines that sound like the rock setting on a Casio keyboard, Interpol replace their funk and sass with dreadful vocal experiments—and a sense of seriousness that chokes with pretension yet slumps forward like a bored, heroin-addled hipster. Try on pair of headphones to uncover loads of vocalist Paul Banks’ half-assed, croaking attempts to add complexity to his long-derided Ian Curtis impression. Banks also takes on a more nasal tone that fuzzes out the instruments under him like unintentional feedback. And a number of the vocal tracks are absolutely cringeworthy.

Opening track “Success” bops along like a good Interpol song should, with Banks pleading “Someone make me say no” until he finally answers himself, “Yes.” But things are downhill from there. “Memory Serves” is reminiscent of “NARC” (from Antics), but it gets overwhelmed by pretentious, out-of-key la-la-las and flat vocal harmonies that make what would have been an otherwise decent song flat-out terrible. “Summer Well” is half-interesting, until you realize it is a blatant ripoff of “Love My Way” by the Psychedelic Furs. The last four songs of the album don’t even bother with rhythm: They just float and moan and languish as you count the minutes left on the album.

The problem is all the band’s tart majesty falls apart without playful basslines and snappy but powerful drumming. Their arrogance needs an accessible, rock & roll counterpoint. Without it they just suck.

—David King

 

Wyatt, Atzmon, Stephen

For the Ghosts Within

This remarkable triumvirate had their origins four years ago when violinist Ros Stephen invited saxophonist Gilad Atzmon to join his jazz-infused tango group for an album and tour. This was followed by an octet project that combined Stephen’s string quartet with Atzmon’s jazz ensemble. Wanting to further explore string-based music, they decided to add a singer, which is where Robert Wyatt enters the picture.

The set focuses primarily on standards, as well as revisiting Wyatt’s back catalog (“Maryan” and again covering Chic’s “At Last I Am Free”), with a couple new numbers bearing Alfie Benge’s lyrics. Wyatt’s musical career has followed the path of an artist, always poking, prodding, wondering, and growing. He’s embraced a range of standards over the past decades, and hearing him in this setting is a showcase for the subtly nuanced control of his unique voice. This utterly confident disc shows both the fearless individuality that is his singing, as well as the roots of his own identity as a musician. You may think you’ve heard “What a Wonderful World” as many times as you need, but Robert Wyatt reminds us that it’s more than movie-soundtrack window dressing, as he inhabits it as comfortably and completely as his own home. For the Ghosts Within is a most beautiful hour of music.

—David Greenberger


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