An occasional column in which GARY STEEL reviews a bunch of recordings that escaped his attention at the time of release, and finds them to be of merit.
Richard Linklater’s film adaptation of Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly came out way back in 2006, but it’s only with the 2017 vinyl release of the album that the soundtrack album appears to be getting the attention it deserves.
The movie stars an animated Keanu Reeves, and at the time, divided critics. The album soundtrack of A Scanner Darkly (Fire/Southbound) being reissued in 2017 might have been a strategic move to separate the music from its original context. Composed by Graham Reynolds and performed in part by his Golden Arm Trio, the record is indeed capable of standing on its own two legs.
Standing up is about the last thing you’d want to do while taking an intravenous dose of this 22-track album of hallucinatory soundscapes, however. While it’s true that some might want the soundtrack to prompt lucid memories of the film itself, the fact is that the music is a strong aural hallucinogen in its own right, and most importantly, that it needs no reference whatsoever to do with its original usage to make it a voyage worth taking.
Film soundtracks are most often difficult beasts to love, because they’re generally so episodic that there’s little compositional development or time to build up genuine mood. Reynolds’ soundtrack bucks that tendency terrifically, with an entirely instrumental album that holds your attention from the first few notes, keeps it for the best part of an hour’s duration, and makes you want to come directly back for more.
It’s not exactly a typical audiophile’s delight, in that the recording is more matt than hi-gloss, but there’s a bounty of textural detail, deftly manipulated stereo imaging, and an aesthetic that’s broad enough to keep the musical surprises coming without killing the overall atmosphere.
The film is supposed to be about a future world of psychedelics, and the music beautifully captures the out-of-body drug experience by collaging a versatile palette of music styles, and exploiting their imagistic potential. Cheerfully upbeat numbers featuring surf guitars and blurting sax, weeping pedal steel guitars and vibraphone pulsing near-jazz make for light relief against the inevitably nightmarish catgut drones with electronic embellishments that follow.
When Reynolds uses strings, he draws out their tart tonalities rather than the overly sweet Hollywood sound that poisons so many film features, and several tracks are clearly influenced by the classical minimalism of Nyman or Glass. But he’s clearly more interested in tone and timbre – the real inner workings of sound – rather than predictable melodic cues, and that keeps the listener primed for more, as queasy strings suddenly get an injection of electronic drums and deep bass, and all the sounds melt together on a carefully manipulated stereophonic stage.
Perhaps sensing an interest from the electronic/sampling cognoscenti, Reynolds has ended the album with mixes by Jack Dangers (Meat Beat Manifesto) and DJ Spooky, neither of which detract from the compellingly queasy feel of the project.
I could listen to this all day, and aside from interruptions from a 3-year-old monster, have done so. Both intensely trippy at times and highly listenable, A Scanner Darkly is almost the perfect imaginary soundtrack, despite its official origins.
Note: I should point out that I was sent a promo CD of this album, but it appears to have only been officially re-released on vinyl. Rating = 8/10
It must take a really flinty character to step up alone with a high, tremulous voice, an acoustic guitar and a bunch of really ‘baring my soul’ songs. Full respect to Aucklander Simon Comber, who goes under the name Herriot Row on the album Lesser Stars (Southbound).
And while that paragraph might turn a few off, Lesser Stars is actually really good. Its aesthetic isn’t the same as Nadia Reid or Aldous Harding or any of the other ‘new folkies’ that have sprung up in the past few years, but the album is almost inconceivable without the market that those artists have fostered.
The worst thing you could say about the album is that its 11 songs sometimes risk sounding a bit uniform, but that’s simply because Comber sings in a specific style, and his backing is mostly a gently picked acoustic, or a gently stroked semi-acoustic, with extra ambience provided by piano and the odd synthesiser interjection. On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for maintaining an atmosphere all the way through, and that he does.
What distinguishes Comber’s work – and specifically this album – is that it can be listened to as a mood piece, not just a collection of songs, and it’s beautifully recorded/engineered/mastered, and that brings out every nuance. It would be presumptuous to guess his influences, but sometimes his voice echoes that of early Roy Harper, while the delivery occasionally sounds a bit like the Go-betweens with a slight jazz inflexion. In fact at times, his melodic cadence is pre-rock and roll, and his tendency to play guitar with open tunings inevitably reminds one of Joni Mitchell.
Comber is also an astute wordsmith – accurate, capable of imagery that matches songs that seem to enjoy dwelling in an awed stillness – and Lesser Stars is a most excellent debut. Rating = 7.5/10
Skedaeddle are a trio from Napier, and their Final Friend (independent) four-track EP is a real charmer. Unfortunately, the singing on the title track – which leads things off – is just a bit suspect of pitch, but it’s a sweet song with pleasantly finger picked acoustic guitar. Yep, more folkie stuff from NZ!
The remaining three songs are all oozing charm, and it’s hard to put your finger on what makes it so likable, but there’s something childlike about their approach that endears. In fact, I bet if they ever turned themselves towards singing and playing specifically for young children, they’d be a hit.
Of course, songs like ‘Episode 8 In The Continuing Saga Of Donna & Mark’ are about young adults, and singing about being a love-sick fool, and evokes a really old-fashioned balmy Sunday afternoon feeling.
Sweet, comforting, friendly as a fish and so courageous that there’s even a flute (or is it a recorder?) solo, the whole thing feels home-baked but not to its detriment. ‘Sleepy North’ is an instrumental featuring fiddle, guitar and organ and probably my favourite, while the last song, ‘Get To You’, goes a bit weird in the middle section, and while its attempt at collage is not entirely successful, they should be applauded for giving it a go. Hopefully, Final Friend won’t be their final outing. Rating = 6.5/10