Monday, April 20, 2009
JG Thirlwell - The Venture Bros.: The Music of JG Thirlwell Vol. 1 (Williams Street CD)
Another one in from Brainwashed. Not really sure if this fits the bill here but it's a killer album so I thought I'd throw it up anyway:
Soundtrack music has always held its own odd space in the music world. Living in constant relation to the images it is meant to accompany, soundtrack music can (and has) made movies as well as destroyed them, as any Ennio Morricone fan can attest to. Yet the best soundtrack music has always been able to positively shape a film while still standing on its own as strictly a musical work removed from its image-based companion. It is, it seems, this trait alone that separates the comparatively schlocky Hollywood mood-manipulations of a John Williams score from the intrinsic depth and subtlety of form found in an Anton Karas, Carl Stalling, Nino Rota, or Bernard Hermann piece. JG Thirlwell (most know him as the man behind Foetus, Wiseblood, Steroid Maximus, etc.) proves himself more than an adept contributor to the genre.
Part of the difficulty inherent in the form is, of course, working within the relatively narrow confines afforded by accompaniment of an image. Not only must a work set the mood of the image, it also (if it's good, anyway) must remark on and strengthen the pictorial element. If it's truly great it can do all this while still maintaining its musical dignity. Take, for example, Stalling's incredible arrangement of Michael Maltese's writing in Chuck Jones' "Rabbit of Seville." Working within Rossini's "Barber of Seville" melodies Bugs Bunny, beckoning Elmer Fudd to get his haircut, punctuates along to Rossini's famous melodic line: "Don't look so perplexed / Why must you be vexed? / Can't you see you're next? / Yes, you're next. / You're so next." Even given the restraints, Stalling and co. manage to sum up Bugs' entire modus operandi in three simple syllables that say more than most dissertations could: "You're so next."
While Thirlwell does not have quite the options presented to Stalling in terms of character development (there is no lyrical content on the album) he still manages to say plenty. Thirlwell's score, like the cartoon it soundtracks, is exciting to its core, bouncing ideas around one another with hectic abandon that simultaneously pays loving homage to and caricatures the work of the greats. The opening "Brock Graveside" is as honest a Morricone rip as you could ask for, complete with lone whistling and muted trumpet. Following it up with the spy-thriller antics of "Tuff" gets the disc rolling quickly, immersing you in its over-the-top production and go-for-broke approach.
What makes the album remarkable however isn't that Thirlwell pulls out all the stops, but that he does so in such a focused and articulate manner. More than any one track being a highlight, the entire work flows smoothly from traditional soundtrack styles through to psychotic electro-funk without ever losing sight of its identity.
What's further, it's masterfully produced and every sound, whether it be the consistently pummeling drum work or the brass band backing, is treated with precise and orchestrated detail. Clearly no band effort, each track presents new sounds, new approaches, and new modes of the same singular sound that Thirlwell's mind hatches throughout. "Mississippi Noir" is, as it sounds, an odd and lilting banjo number whose sloppy, backroom bar piano only solidifies the unavoidable images of some bayou swamp. While the trance of a trumpet may be as rough and guttural as one would hope for from this far south of the Mason-Dixon, the entrance of deep bass drums and a psychedelically inclined chorus of chanting vocals gives it another dimension which inevitably strengthens its ties to the cartoon medium.
By the end Thirlwell's controlled production, fun arrangements and near limitless scope will have anyone firmly in its grasp. It is—and I use this term cautiously—a brilliant work that could well place Thirlwell as the next in line to the pantheon of soundtracking greats. Stalling, Morricone and now, Thirlwell, the cartoon soundtracker for the 21st century. As Bugs might say, "he's so next."