Music : All Ears

Movies with no picture

What do they mean when they call pop music “cinematic?” Like that old label “psychedelic,” it’s one of those “I know it when I hear it” things. Chances are, even if you’ve never heard the adjective applied to music, you’ll agree that the pedal steel and parched mariachi trumpets of Calexico coax visions of Spaghetti Western horizons. The band’s recent Garden Ruin (Quarterstick) isn’t as Morricone-ish as usual, but tracks like the showdowny “Roka” are nothing if not scene-setting. At the other end of the tech spectrum, Massive Attack invented a synths-strings-and-samples sound that is somehow genetically engineered to evoke rain falling on sketchy nighttime alleyways. The CD/Dual Disc package Collected (EMI) pairs their most memorable songs (and one tantalizing new one) and assorted rarities with a disc of the videos that cemented the songs’ narrative associations.

Björk: one of the many artists that create soundtracks for the films in your head.

Also employing the Dual Disc format is Surrounded (Rhino), a seven-disc set by Björk — who not only makes movie-like music, but gets involved in cinema itself, commissioning videos that are as experimental as they get. Those videos are here, alongside remixed 5.1 surround-sound versions of each of her albums. (The original mixes are on each disc’s CD side.)

Artists who write soundtracks don’t necessarily fall into the cinematic category. Mark Knopfler, for instance, has a lovely sound that goes down nicely with, say, The Princess Bride - and he even named one of Dire Straits’ albums Making Movies - but as he proves again on his Emmylou Harris collaboration All the Roadrunning (Nonesuch), his songs fit perfectly into a record’s grooves. (An anachronistic image, I know.) Nick Cave ventures more closely into Calexico-ville on The Proposition (Mute), the moody, often entirely instrumental music he made to accompany the recent film, which he wrote. Cave’s old bandmate Barry Adamson jumps right past the celluloid on Stranger on the Sofa (Central Control), a mysterious little record whose disembodied dialogues reference film moods (noir, particularly) more often than they evoke them.

Telling a big, album-length story doesn’t make you cinematic, either. The third disc by The Streets, The Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living (Vice/Atlantic), has, like its predecessor, a narrative arc that digs all through Mike Skinner’s current psychological state. It also has some great tracks, though a few get irritating after a while. But the storytelling here is verbal, not visual.

Which brings us to The Drift (4AD), the long-awaited release by reclusive cult genius Scott Walker. 4AD has often been home to artists who used sound to brew up atmospheres you could almost touch, and here they are again: Within minutes of hitting Play, receptive listeners are drawn into a murky, threatening space. Synthesizers buzz tensely; strings hold a note forever, as if caught in pre-shriek; guitars strum not for melody, but just to keep a cloud of reverb hanging around. And Walker sings, with a melodramatic anguish that would be laughable if there wasn’t such obvious conviction behind it. Late in the record, he even pulls out a satanic-sounding Donald-Duck squawk. (If Walker defines “cinematic,” he also defines “not for everyone.”) The sounds are nebulous, but the words are bafflingly specific, with phrases like “I’ll punch a donkey in the streets of Galway” leaping out. Like difficult poetry, the lyrics demand some outside help. Whether you ever “get” them or not, the experience of the record is singular.

What got me on this “cinematic” kick in the first place, though, was seeing the word a few times in reference to my favorite current album, St. Elsewhere (Downtown), by Gnarls Barkley. The group is hard to miss at the moment (what with MTV award-show appearances and NY Times Magazine profiles), but, for the unintroduced: The group pairs vocalist Cee-Lo with producer Danger Mouse, and although both artists are associated with hip-hop, it sounds pretty uncategorizable. St. Elsewhere is the kind of epic, heartfelt, wildly ambitious music that, unlike much of what’s called Soul now, fits that lineage. Cee-Lo’s singing calls to mind another decade’s self-anointed Soul Savior, Terence Trent D’Arby, but this disc is more esoteric than D’Arby’s star-making debut. It has killer radio tracks like “Crazy,” bizarro self-psychoanalysis like “Boogie Monster,” and even one (so-so) cover, of the Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone.” Danger Mouse has said he wants to be a musical auteur, collaborating with different artists (like MF Doom) on projects he originates; I can’t wait to see who he meets up with next.

Whoa! As I’m typing this column’s last paragraph, a CD drops through my mail slot: The Return of Dr. Octagon (OCD International). Like Danger Mouse, Dr. O is an alias — for Kool Keith, the rap psychotic whose first Octagon disc was an X-rated journey through the world of B-Movie horror and science fiction. Will this one live up to the naughty brilliance of the first, or be as uninspired as some of the stuff Keith has released lately? Why don’t you readers move on to the next article while I find out?


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