Friday, September 19, 2008

Soundtrack Review: Mad Men-- Music From the Series, Vol. 1

This one belongs
"On the Street Where You Live."


Dear Blogcritics readers, I must begin with a confession. Aside from only catching a few impressive minutes here and there, I have never seen an entire episode of Mad Men. Just like as a film buff, I refuse to watch a movie if I’ve wandered in even a minute late, when it comes to television series — especially ones as highly acclaimed as creator Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men — I don’t want to try and just fill in the blanks by leaping in half-heartedly mid-season.

Obviously, needless to say, I’m incredibly thrilled that the first season has been released this summer on DVD. Now if only everyone would stop adding it to their Netflix queues, hopefully, I’ll become quickly initiated into the film’s early 1960s-era New York City setting surrounding successful ad man Don Draper who works for the fictitious Madison Avenue agency Sterling Cooper.

rightAfter its debut was met with sixteen Emmy nominations, two Golden Globe awards, and one prestigious Peabody, creator Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men quickly became the hippest topic around the water cooler. And given Weiner’s background working on David Chase’s The Sopranos which changed the way that music was woven into a storyline (just in that tremendous opening credit sequence alone) in a show that ultimately produced two soundtrack albums, it’s no wonder that Mad Men: Music From The Series, Vol. 1 is a proverbial knockout, especially when you factor in the era of its source material.

Additionally, much like The Sopranos, one is instantly aware given a first listen that this will be one of several volumes offered by Mad Men. In fact, my only complaint is that in less than forty minutes in length, it’s far too short and I realized at once that I wanted to hear more. For Mad, the music is so crucial to establishing not only a sense of time and place but mood that it serves as an incredibly vital, yet easy to overlook subtle extra character. In fact, as Matthew Weiner wrote in the liner notes, the show’s music “is never an accident,” with his pointed philosophy to “do as much to enhance the feeling of the period while offering an artistic commentary to the themes of each show.”

WeinerAnd indeed, being that one is so enraptured with the most prominent stimuli of the dialogue, set pieces, plot, and characters, it’s entirely beneficial to listen to the songs on compact disc as they stand on their own, similar to the way the selections have augmented other lauded series such as Grey’s Anatomy and Rescue Me, converting fans to those shows' “universes” via the music alone.

Ironically, it seems no accident that after writing these words, I did further research and discovered that Mad Men’s soundtrack utilized the outstanding veteran talents of Alexandra Patsavas, the Grammy nominated music supervisor who not only worked on Grey’s and Rescue, but on the music driven The OC and Gossip Girl as well.

With Weiner’s liner note admission that the “source music should be derived from popular music of the time, and more specifically music that the characters in this show would know” — and thus by extension the audience as well — the thirteen tremendously intoxicating tracks of the album sweep you up in the sounds of the early '60s.

Therefore, it’s only fitting that Vic Damone sings the lines “And oh! The towering feeling!” and “The overpowering feeling!” by kicking off Mad Men’s soundtrack on one of the album’s boldest and most romantic tracks, the classic Lerner and Loewe number “On the Street Where You Live,” from My Fair Lady. Simply put, Damone offers you a voice you can float away on with a far more breathtaking interpretation of the piece than Lerner and Loewe could have ever imagined.

While “Volare” by The McGuire Sisters and “Fly Me to the Moon (In Other Words)” by Julie London never top the versions recorded by Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra respectively, in such a male driven show, it’s a great way to — as former first lady Abigail Adams would say — “remember the ladies.”

Intriguingly by approaching these numbers with the sunny and relentlessly upbeat styling one would find in toothpaste ads or in the soundtrack of a Doris Day movie (“Volare”) or via London’s frothily flirtatious Bossa Nova like, “Fly Me,” it does make one imagine what life was actually like for the female gender before the sexual revolution. Thereby some of the deceptively carefree offerings pose interesting questions “without ever telling the audience what to feel,” as Weiner wrote in the album notes he’d advised the show’s composer David Carbonara to do with his own original scores.

And Carbonara’s numbers, especially “Lipstick” and “Mad Men Suite” are terrific and sound as reminiscent of the era as though they were pulled right out of the soundtrack for Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther films or Mike Nichols’ cocktail party themes from The Graduate by Simon and Garfunkel. Moreover, they feel right at home opposite Gordon Jenkin’s lively, animated “Caravan," which, given the playful orchestral and big band feel, makes the piece an ideal one to which directors can choreograph mischevious action.

Additionally, there are some gorgeous standards on the album like Bobby Vinton’s “P.S. I Love You,” which employs his voice as though it were its own instrument as it overpowers the strings in stunning remastered sound. Likewise, the romantically suggestive background sounds of Robert Maxwell’s sultry sax on the beach tune “Shangri-La,” and the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald performing “Manhattan" are honey to the ears. While at first, Mad Men seems like an ideal disc to play in the background of a cocktail party, the tone switches up throughout which is evidenced after Fitzgerald’s sung wish to “turn Manhattan into an isle of joy,” the song is followed up with the wistfully melancholic yet beautiful Andrews Sisters love-gone-wrong number, “I Can Dream, Can’t I?”

This emotionally abrupt transition also begs to mind the question that perhaps upon their initial release the tunes, which may have felt seemingly innocuous and thematically one-note, now suddenly have much more depth when listened to in this unique tapestry of moods illustrating the complexities of the not-so-innocent '60s.

Aside from Carbonara’s new works including the deceptively delicate and spiritually potent “Babylon” which plays better on a second run-through since it doesn’t quite mesh with the rest of the album’s tone, another modern track that scored even better with this reviewer due to my lack of familiarity with the series was the show’s theme song “A Beautiful Mine,” (not to be confused with “Mind”) by Aceyalone & RJD2. Their impressive composition, which manages to walk the fine line of echoing the period of the show along with making it resonant for today’s society by infusing it with techno qualities is sure to be one of the most replayed numbers on the entire album. Additionally, it makes me eager to explore more by RJD2, whose soundtrack favorite “Ghostwriter Remix” (played in Wimbledon and Prime) I’d found intriguing for years.

RightOther than Damone’s show-stopper, my other favorite classic track was Rosemary Clooney’s “Botch-A-Me” which is integrated just shy of midway through the album. Not only does the tune pick up the pace considerably by offering her trademark boisterous female Louis Prima-esque scat quality with that unstoppably powerful voice but far more impressive is, given her outstanding catalogue of hits — pop-culture wise — it’s a rarity. Thus by including it, Weiner and Patsavas make the soundtrack all the more unique and creative, instead of choosing her more frequently played selections like “Mambo Italiano” or “Come On-a My House,” much like digging deeper throughout Fitzgerald and Vinton’s libraries as well.

Similarly in constantly surprising listeners by refusing to take any shortcuts in their thoughtful musical decisions, Mad Men, Music From The Series, Vol. 1 refuses to fall through the cracks as yet another 60’s collection just like its companion television series manages to keep viewers hooked by not going through the typical, unimaginative motions of most tried and true popular paradigms. For soundtrack lovers, it’s a must-buy and as I can attest, the soundtrack will even manage to seduce those who have yet to join the Mad Men converts. Hmm, now if only, I could finally get my hands on those DVDs.

Best Buy Co, Inc.