Wire Cinesonic No.1

published in The Wire No. 226, London, December 2002

Various - East Tempo Vol.10 End Titles

Birthed during the mid-90s grooviness unleashed by Trip Hop revivalists who blurred jazz, cocktails and cravats, the Easy Tempo compilations of themes from Italian Soundtracks have stood a few tests of time. Produced and supervised by Rocco Pandiani, the Easy Tempo series now concludes with No.10, End Titles. For those who have not encountered the series, this ending could be the start of something truly enriching.

Italian movie scores are possibly the only modernist take on what in most other cultures has remained a turgid, high-art 19th Century affair. There are many reasons which separate Italy from this tradition. Key factors would include Italy's folk and oral tradition of song; Italy's thorough technological integration of its postwar film industry with its postwar recording industry; and Italy's sheer delight in the excessive, heightened, ornamental and pneumonic aspects of record production. One can hear all of this on just about any track in the Easy Tempo series, manifested as a stream of sono-musical documents which make one realize how inclusive and rich the Italian theme song tradition has been in its populist cinema from the 40s through to the 80s.

The opening track on End Titles functions as a signpost for those whose ears might get lost in the superficialities of these gaudy and glistening mini-musicales. Piero Umiliani's "Cinque Bambole Per Una Luna D'Agosto" (Five Dolls In The August Moon, directed by Mario Bava, 1971) is a 7'30" suite which shimmers with a series of wavering tunings between harps, sitars, saxes and upright pianos. Due to the privileging of sonic novelty in much Italian song production from the postwar period, "Cinque Bambola" perceptually flits between being a hyper-baroque effusion and an overwhelming schizophrenic exhibition. One main melody reappears in a number of tuned guises, generating a sequence of shifts controlled by a composer like Ulliami who understands the nuances of narrative twists and turns through which music can drive a film. The track - like so much of End Titles - is dynamic and active in its denouement; it is a world away from the tired notion of 'ambient scoring' which Italy has neither heard nor acknowledged.

Other standout tracks include the gorgeously unfolding drama of Armando Tovajoli's "Angola Adeus", plus an amazing live recording for Italian TV of Ennio Morricone's "Metti Una Sera Cena" conducted by fellow film composer Piero Piccioni and featuring the glacial voice of Edda Dell'Orso. The breathing quality of the latter's performance makes once realize the importance of live conduction in so much Italian film music, wherein composer, arranger and producer are more often integrated than they are segregated. One might hear nothing but 'retro' affectations in the surface trickery and musical mimicry of these tracks. But one could also hear this wealth of material from another era and conclude that in film music, the future never took place.

Various - Go! Cubemania Reel 1 - Punch The Guy
Various - Go! Cubemania Reel 2 - Young Turks
Various - Go! Cubemania Reel 3 - Take A Walk On The Psychedelic Side

If Italian film music is hard to contextualize beyond its cheesy charm, grounding Japanese film music from the late 50s through to the early 70s borders on the impossible. Fortunately, we have some listening guides: the Cinemania series of soundtrack compilations. Commenced in 1995, the series has recently reached No.9. All nine are still available and look like continuing still.

The result of producer Kyoko Kitahara from Toho Music and Atsushi Takaoka from Toho Music subsidiary label Polystar, the concept of the Cinemania series is to spotlight the film subgenera which make Japanese 60s cinema the most outrageous in the world. (And believe me: that's an understatement.) The otaku-style obssessiveness which characterizes the robust research behind much Japanese cultural investigation is evident in the Cinemania series. Each CD's selection is commissioned: Punch The Guy by K-Taro Takanami; Young Turks by Comoesta Yaegashi; and Take A Walk On The Psychedelic Side by Masayuki Kawakatsu and Fujiki TDC. All CDs are presented as mock orijinaru eru-pi covers and include a lift-out mini poster printed on 60s-era waxy newsprint. It's tactile and very Japanese. Let's touch the first three.

Punch The Guy is based on pulp yakuza films from the late 60s, the most famous being the Wolf series - Wolf Never Die, Wolf Should Die, Hunting Wolves, etc. The CD wonderfully captures the cinesonic feel of these films: roomy sounds of combos playing at 3am to a lone couple dancing. Easily misinterpreted as 'bad jazz', careful listening of Punch The Guy uncovers a musicological webbing which continually contradicts its stylistic appearance. Saxophones play lines normally articulated by a koto; female ballad-singing drips over enka rhythms; a burst of early Commodores low-slung funk erupts from nowhere; someone bursts through the subterranean doors and freak-out fuzz envelops the space. For those wanting a clearer reference, many of the tracks obliquely recall Henry Mancini's faux-mulatto Hollylatin 1958 score for Orson Welles' Touch Of Evil. Yet the mournful post-ronin collapse of the wandering yakuza dislocated in Japan's 60s electric boom reverberates through most of Punch's tracks: they sound Hollywood but taste Tokyo.

Young Turks exudes a Cramps-esque trash cinephilia wherein the fake is glorified. 60s Japanese genre pictures revel in unabashed mimicry; the proliferation of 'beatnik' movies proves it. Often intended to evoke a free-beatnik spirit, movies like Let's Go! Thunders, Tornado Kid, Cutie-Dolls in Neon Town and (wait for it) Cutie-Dolls With Babygang bizarrely mix cool posturing and sultry intonations into mutated bongo burlesques whose excess defies purist categorization. Again, focussed listening through this maze of references and stylistic aberrations throws up some mutant gems, with suitably gratuitous sex-kitten teasing, Les Baxter ornamentation, scintillating electric organs and sporadic yelps of "Let's Go!".

Take A Walk On The Psychedelic Side clearly references the urban cine-grit conjured by Edward Dymytrk's 1962 film Walk On The Wild Side with its score by Elmer Bernstein. But the mutation into 'psychedelic' aptly orients the listener to the wholly psychotic bent of Japanese sex and violence movies at the end of the 60s. Fuzz-wah lines slice through otherwise conventional pulp crime-soaked arrangements. Track titles lifted from the original cues give a sense of what's going on: "Trip Rock", "Jet Screaming Machine", "Sympathy For The Rebel", "Dirty Girlie", "Last Tattoo". The back cover image of two Japanese guys conducting some bizarre mind-torture experiment on a middle-aged American adds to the sensationalism heard on all these tracks.

Angelo Badalamenti - The Straight Story
Various - Mulholland Drive

Walt Disney Pictures. David Lynch. Such a triumvirate could only be conjured in the mind of É well, David Lynch. The soundtrack to The Straight Story is one of the most unique scores to close the last century (coming in late 1999). The fact that it might sound like nothing but a wash of Twin Peaks synthetics belies both the irony and the seriousness connoted by the serendipitous alignment with Lynch and the word 'straight'.

The Straight Story was the first score to be majorly recorded and wholly post-produced in David Lynch's own studio - Asymmetrical. A world away from the suffocating black holes which constitute the Hollywood film sound-post studio world, Lynch literally knocked walls out off his own house in the Hollywood Hills - the same house featured in Lost Highway. One of extremely few directors who sound design their own films, Lynch's passion for sound grew to such a degree that his studio took over that house, in effect leading him to purchase the house next door in which to live and work. The Straight Story score, sound design and CD is thus an by-product of the 'home studio recording' revolution which has been responsible for infusing lateral technique and idiosyncratic strategies into record production for the last quarter century.

Can this be heard in The Straight Story? Yes. Badalamenti's string arrangements have been engineered by John Neff and mixed by Lynch with sonic sensitivity and psychological acumen. They have created a complex shimmering diffusion of orchestrality that replicates the wavering fidelity of sound that afflicts the aged. Are they real strings or fake strings? Raw or refined? Why sometimes one and not the other? Or am I loosing my hearing? The Straight Story sails one through these deep waters of doubt. Some tracks - like "Nostalgia" and "Montage" - transform one's listening environment into another dimension. A sonic penumbra wells up and coats one's speakers like a dense veil of palpable Otherness. It's a glorious nausea. The experience of floating through the tracks absolutely refutes notions of continuity, stability, causality. And as a David Lynch soundtrack, so it should.

Mulholland Drive takes these techniques and interlopes them with a song selection which allows psychology to thoroughly overwhelm narrative continuity. Lynch and Badalamenti's co-composing from the former's processing of the latter's recordings of the Prague Symphonic Orchestra (which they have been using on and off for many years); unlikely picks from Milt Buckner, Willie Dixon and Linda Scott; and tracks from Lynch's other collaborative project with John Neff (the Blue Bob CD) all strike a deft balance between uncontrolled eclecticism and deep-seated compulsion.

The juxtaposition between two key tracks exemplify this. Badalamenti's "Jitterbug" seems to be cast in the mold of a Hollywood-esque revamp of heady 40s big band brass. But strange overtones are rumbling just underneath key notes. The resonance of the room is not quite right. Even the arrangement is slightly askew. Nothing gives one cause to cite any so-called subversion of the music the track quotes - but, again, it creates doubt. The Badalamenti/Lynch track "Diner" strips everything away to reveal a morbid patina of clinging room tone and liquefied ambience into which one sinks. In accord with Mulholland Drive's moebius twist narrative, the CD twirls itself around one's head only to do the most scary thing: graciously let go.

Text © Philip Brophy.