Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Soundtrack Review: Humboldt County

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iZLER - Humboldt County (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture)

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Having written about films exclusively for sixteen years-- over the past year, I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to start reviewing soundtracks. While my musical training was limited to roughly five years of piano and viola study as a child and nearly a lifetime of singing with little prompting-- I assumed that it wouldn't be that much different than talking about movies.

Namely: study up and do your homework, listen a few times and then lather, rinse and repeat but I was surprised to discover just how different soundtracks could be and yet how similar an awful lot of them are.

Yes, that's a vague over-simplification and complete contradiction, but-- to digress further-- take a walk with me for a moment. The works, as you know are essentially divided into scores and soundtracks. And overall, I've learned that most soundtracks which are filled with recognizable radio-friendly tracks are the bigger sellers (e.g. can anyone even count the number of times "Dreams" by The Cranberries was used in a film or soundtrack in the late '90s?). Yet, scores are essentially comprised of artier fare and filled with snippets of great motifs some lasting thirty seconds all the way through four minutes (at most) that are used over and over again for the length of the album in a number of ways usually by a single artist (again, can anyone count-- out of the same handful of men-- the number of familiar names nominated for Best Original Score every single year?).

While some have definitely broken the mold and I've been thrilled whenever I've had the chance to find a score that I've left in my car continuously (last year it was Wanted and Death Defying Acts), more often than not we're fed similar sounding work that-- despite certain killer tracks-- we may not want to play more than once.

However, independent film as a rule has always been forced into creativity because of the lack of budget. And ironically, it seems that the less money one has to play with, the more daring one becomes as evidenced in the must-own modern soundtrack classics of the past few years including the gorgeous Once (still a personal favorite), Garden State (which introduced everyone to The Shins), 2007's quirky Juno, and in 2008-- although it was backed by a major studio, the hip indie rock filled Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist.

Although notably, the difference is that these films all received much more publicity and access to the public and while everyone wants to call their film independent-- truly independent films are often barely able to secure theatrical distribution let alone a soundtrack produced to showcase the hard work of composers whose passion for the material shines through more than the idea of money since sometimes pay is either minimal or nonexistent.

As independent film continues to become more accessible thanks to online sources and as Los Angeles based veteran Soundtrack Producer and Music Supervisor Peymon Maskan cites-- that due to "the rise of Netflix, Sundance Channel, IFC, and countless other distribution channels, independent films are finding a larger audience than ever before."

Netflix, Inc.

And as more people begin catching these films, more begin wondering about the amount of work going into the productions especially for music devotees and in turn Maskan continues that, since the films in question "can be the greatest source of independent thinking and musical curation for any fan of film music," it's obviously important for the talented musicians to be exposed to an interested public as well.

Cue Maskan's bold creation of a brand new soundtrack label-- Summer Adventure Club-- which shockingly is the only label as of this review that singularly devotes itself to independent releases. Beginning with the soundtrack releases for now award-nominated Dance of the Dead, Maskan's Summer Adventure Club-- working in tandem with iTunes and to get their music to the fans-- also released the extraordinary soundtrack for the film festival hit Humboldt County. The film, which not only garnered critical acclaim, also played here in my neck of the woods at Amy Ettinger's Scottsdale International Film Festival (which I've been involved with for years).

Although swamped in other deadlines, I missed the Humboldt screening at the festival, but fortunately directors Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs' film has made its way onto DVD over the course of the past month courtesy of Magnolia Home Entertainment. And luckily, in the mean time, I was fortunate enough to check out the soundtrack (available exclusively on iTunes).

After exposing the disc to "the musical car test," I'm pleased to report that it has passed with flying colors, not leaving my vehicle's player for the past few weeks, accompanying me to press screenings of higher profile films that--with very few exceptions including the unexpectedly tremendous score of Taken-- musically always fail to meet up to the one waiting for me back in the parking lot.

Largely consisting of the creative work by iZLER and nearly recorded in its entirety in the musician's home studio-- the Prague born but London raised talent who has collaborated with Robbie Williams, Ryan Adams, Imogen Heap, Kylie Minogue and others-- was moved by Jabobs and Grodsky's script to write two tracks, including "Never Better," that ultimately was employed during the film's final credits. It was his dedication and instinct for the work which resulted in the composition on a few other pieces specifically with their screenplay in mind that eventually "persuaded Jacobs and Grodsky to hire him as their composer," as the press release reveals.

With the ultimate motto of the soundtrack to reflect the homey feel of the film's setting-- "Junk Made Beautiful"-- iZLER utilized "battered acoustic guitars, growling bass clarinets and home made percussion, surrounded by melodic string quartets" and of course lovely and sparse piano throughout. Additionally, iZLERs finished product was so impressive that "on the strength of the Humbolt County soundtrack," the musician "was invited in 2008 to become a Fellow at the Sundance Composers Lab in Utah, and is currently working on a variety of film and record projects," as the release continues.

Opening with soft piano notes that eventually meet up with slightly melancholy use of string in the beginning track "The Exam," iZLER segues into a gorgeous musical raining rush of notes that flow together in ideal harmony with the "Humboldt County Theme" that uses the same mini-theme played in a different key during its catchy track that is surpassed yet again by the instantly download-worthy "Green Corridor (Main Title)." It's a more low-fi indie rock based composition that fits not only the laid back feel of the film about a medical student who ends up in the pot community of Humboldt County but also seems to reflect the age of its main character and target audience more than an over-produced score would.

In a modern and playful Henry Mancini sounding track that seems like it wouldn't be out of place in a Blake Edwards movie, iZLER returns later on with "The Party," that returns our attention once again to the main composer after two major distractions including the album's surprise vocal standout "I Want You To Be My Baby" performed by actress Fairuza Balk that grabs you and doesn't let go before slowing down our blood pressure with Earlimart's Aimee Mann-esque "Happy Alone."

Balk's number is a retro jazz club marvel-- seductive yet commanding and one that manages to squeeze in a ridiculous amount of words as she climbs up and down the musical scale to match the four-piece backing swing jazz players as if her voice were its own Janis Joplin styled take on Billie Holiday-like instrument all its own. Taken right from a memorable scene from the film, Balk's transformation into singing temptress is so convincing, it's surprising to me that she's never explored her musical side in film earlier... unless, most likely, she hasn't had the opportunity.

Following up her '50s like swing number, Earliment (pictured above) brings us back to contemporary California as the Los Angeles trio whose website accurately describes their sound as "wistful, buzzy rock" and their song "Happy Alone" feels like it wouldn't have been out of place on Paul Thomas Anderson's mostly Aimee Mann laced soundtrack to his trippy California epic Magnolia.

After a few more works by iZLER including the aforementioned "Party," that deserves a few repeat plays right off the bat (along with "Green Corridor"), Six Feet Under actress Frances Conroy becomes a subtle Nina Simone chanteuse in the soundtrack's other number taken directly from the film-- "No Other Love But You"-- as she performs a number in a classic jazzy low-key Diana Krall style accompanied only by a lovely and subtle piano that emphasizes the words and friendly approach.

With two other iZLER standouts including "Feds," which similar to its title evokes an immediate fast-tempo sense of danger despite minimal accompaniment as the music evokes the sound of helicopter blades with a driving beat and the musician's first composition, the vocal Elliott Smithmeets Badly Drawn Boy"Never Better" which follows his penultimate number "On the Bus" with the same sense of character transformation just musically by offering both the sense of a complicated past and hopeful future reminiscent of Cat Stevens in Harold and Maude, I was also taken in by two other artists' inclusions on the album.

Despite the intentional misspelling (which annoys the Type A wordsmith in me), Junip's terrifically beautiful "Turn to the Assasin," seems like it would be an instant hit among fans of both The Shinsand Snow Patrol looking for something a bit more experimental and Radical Face's Elliot Smith (again!) infused "Welcome Home" builds throughout with wondrous harmony in a way that seems like a natural counterpart to iZLER's low-key score with an emphasis on earthy loveliness and makes me want to seek out more from all artists involved... as well as wish that Ms. Balk would take a well-deserved rest from appearing in so many impressive independent films and make an album already.

And who knows, perhaps Peymon Maskan can produce since-- if Humboldt County is any indication-- we should come to expect more great things from Summer Adventure Club and I'm looking forward to the news that there will be three more soundtracks released midway through 2009 since it's an admirable company and one independent film fans may not have even known they were craving until you give this one a spin.


1. “The Exam” (iZLER)

iZLER - Humboldt County (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture) - The Exam

2. “Humboldt County Theme” (iZLER)

iZLER - Humboldt County (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture) - Humboldt County Theme

3. “Green Corridor (Main Title)” (iZLER)

iZLER - Humboldt County (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture) - Green Corridor (Main Title)

4. “I Want You To Be My Baby” (Fairuza Balk)

Fairuza Balk - Humboldt County (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture) - I Want You to Be My Baby

5. “Happy Alone” (Earlimart)

Earlimart - Humboldt County (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture) - Happy Alone

6. “Event Horizon” (iZLER)

iZLER - Humboldt County (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture) - Event Horizon

7. “The Party” (iZLER)

iZLER - Humboldt County (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture) - The Party

8. “The Woods” (iZLER)

iZLER - Humboldt County (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture) - The Woods

9. “No Other Love But You” (Frances Conroy)

Frances Conroy Feat. Madison Davenport - Humboldt County (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture) - No Other Love But You

10. “Welcome Home” (Radical Face)

Radical Face - Humboldt County (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture) - Welcome Home

11. Rosie's Speech” (iZLER)

iZLER - Humboldt County (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture) - Rosie's Speech

12. “Feds” (iZLER)

iZLER - Humboldt County (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture) - Feds

13. “Turn To The Assasin” (Junip)

Junip - Humboldt County (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture) - Turn to the Assasin

14. "The Funeral" (iZLER)

iZLER - Humboldt County (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture) - The Funeral

15. "On The Bus" (iZLER)

iZLER - Humboldt County (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture) - On the Bus

16. "Never Better" (iZLER)

iZLER - Humboldt County (Soundtrack from the Motion Picture) - Never Better