Die Hard (Limited Edition) – music by Michael Kamen

Die HardAction films rarely age like fine wine. Most are so rooted in the time period they were released, it’s hard to look past the menagerie of dated cinematic conventions and appreciate them for the fun fluff that they are designed to be. Personally, it’s hard to separate Dirty Harry’s vigilante ambitions from all the sideburns, deliberate camera zooms and funky background music that so characterized ’70s action flicks. Despite their greater leap toward modernization, ’80s films don’t fare much better in the rear-view. The desperate, tortured hero of the ’70s action film was replaced by larger-than-life supermen capable of escaping any trap they were up against. Explosions were bigger, special effects were grander, and if your first name was Arnold, Sylvester, or Harrison you were guaranteed a very secure future in Hollywood. It was a refreshing change from the dreary nihilism that characterized the ’70s, but by the end of the ’80s, the new action formula was itself beginning to grow tired and predictable and not even Steven Spielberg could enliven a genre of action films that he himself helped to inaugurate with Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

Then came a little movie called Die Hard in 1988.

Okay, it wasn’t exactly a little movie. Bruce Willis was already an established star and the movie had some of the best production minds in Hollywood working on it. But nothing about the movie conformed to the established ’80s action-movie style. Deliberately stylized with a wry, tongue-in-check tone, Die Hard banished the superman lead in favor of an anti-hero – an everyday guy caught up in extraordinary circumstances who prevails against the villains – in this case, a group of German “terrorists”. It’s worth buying a special edition DVD just for director John McTiernan’s commentary, who talks at length about the initial resistance he faced for his unconventional, European style of directing and editing. Die Hard ultimately won over just about everyone, becoming a monstrous success and spinning off a new genre of action movies. It also further catapulted McTiernan and cinematographer Jan De Bont into stardom (De Bont would turn in equally impressive DP work on The Hunt For Red October and Basic Instinct before getting his first crack at directing with Speed in 1994).

Critical to Die Hard‘s success was its score by Michael Kamen. Embracing the movie’s dark sense of humor, Kamen loaded the score with sleigh bells and melodic nods to famous classical musical compositions and holiday tunes to give his driving, rhythmic assault a subversive sense of whimsy. As good as the score sounds when viewing the movie, it is even more astonishing in its intricacy and creativity when listening to it by itself. La-La Land’s newly remastered, two-CD set of the Die Hard score spoils you with nearly every note Kamen threw at this movie, and then some. With over 107 minutes of total music included, it’s easy to see just how musically dense Die Hard was. Today, Kamen’s Die Hard score remains a celebrated achievement in action movie scoring.

It would be easy to say the best tracks in the set are the ones where Kamen truly cuts loose, and “Assault on the Tower” is unquestionably his most thrilling composition. The music is both playful and relentless as it unscores the SWAT team’s ill-fated attack on the terrorists in the Nakatomi building. But Kamen’s real genius is how he perverts the innocent spirit of songs such as “Ode To Joy” by Beethoven and “Winter Wonderland” and “Singing In The Rain” by using them as motifs for the German terrorists (Listen: “Terrorist Entrance”). Elsewhere, there’s certainly enough pounding hyperbole to justify the more bombastic action sequences in the movie, but its Kamen’s subtlety and ability to validate some deliberately cartoonish arrangements that make the score so shockingly good. One of McClane’s early motifs is a corny steel guitar arrangement that is nonetheless highly effective in identifying him as the “cowboy” Hans sees him as (“John’s Escape/You Want Money”). Later, Kamen crafts a more fatalistic four-note motif that grounds the character more and suggests his survival is much more tenuous then we at first believed (“And If He Alters It”). In the overall, however, Kamen stays loyal to the movie’s playful spirit, using tip-toeing pizzicato and other strange electronic effects to highlight the fun cat-and-mouse movie moments.

Film score critic Jeff Bond provides an exhaustive, yet illuminating, track-by-track analysis of the score in the CD set’s liner notes. The set naturally includes tracks that weren’t included in the movie or were heavily piped down in the final mix. An example of an omission that actually benefitted the movie was an arrangement Kamen crafted for the exploding office chair McClane’s throws down the elevator shaft to thwart the terrorists. Stopping the music just as the chair begins its descent, as it does in the movie, heightens the feeling of anticipation; this effect would have been lost had the producers decided to score this section (“Assault On The Tower”).

4 out of 4As a longtime fan of the movie, I thought I knew just about everything there was to know about Die Hard. Eric Lichenfeld, in his liner notes, proved me wrong. For example, I did know Alan Rickman was attached to a quick-release harness and released to capture his shocked expression when he plummets from the tower at movie’s end, but I didn’t know the producers tricked Rickman as to when he’d fall in the 3-2-1 countdown (he was dropped on 1, rather than the expected zero!). La-La Land Records sold out their entire supply of the CD set within 72 hours of release – no doubt a testament to the enduring popularity of this groundbreaking score.

Out Of Print

    Disc One

  1. Main Title (0:38)
  2. Terrorist Entrance (4:05)
  3. The Phone Goes Dead / Party Crashers (1:51)
  4. John’s Escape / You Want Money? (6:00)
  5. Wiring the Roof (1:51)
  6. Fire Alarm (2:04)
  7. Tony Approaches (1:41)
  8. Tony and John Fight (1:11)
  9. Santa (0:56)
  10. He Won’t Be Joining Us (3:01)
  11. And If He Alters It (2:39)
  12. Going After John (4:29)
  13. Have a Few Laughs / Al Powell Approaches (3:31)
  14. Under the Table (1:55)
  15. Welcome to the Party (1:09)
  16. TV Station (2:47)
  17. Holly Meets Hans (1:19)
  18. Assault on the Tower (8:35)
    Disc Two

  1. John is Found Out (5:03)
  2. Attention Police (3:54)
  3. Bill Clay (4:09)
  4. Shooting the Glass (1:07)
  5. I Had an Accident (2:37)
  6. The Vault (3:07)
  7. Message for Holly (1:07)
  8. The Battle / Freeing the Hostages (6:53)
  9. Helicopter Explosion and Showdown (4:00)
  10. Happy Trails (1:12)
  11. We’ve Got Each Other (1:57)
  12. Let it Snow (1:43)
  13. Beethoven’s 9th (End Credits Excerpt) (4:00)
  14. The Nakatomi Plaza (1:47)
  15. Message for Holly (Film Version) (2:46)
  16. Gun in Cheek (1:03)
  17. Fire Hose (1:00)
  18. Ode to Joy (Alternate) (2:11)
  19. Let it Snow (Source) (1:58)
  20. Winter Wonderland (Source) (1:26)
  21. Christmas in Hollis performed by Run-DMC (3:00)
  22. Roy Rogers Meets Beethoven’s 9th (Muzak) (1:36)

Released by: La-La Land Records
Release date: 2011
Disc one total running time: 49:42
Disc two total running time: 57:36

Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Ron Jones Project

Due to the much-longer-than-usual nature of this in-depth review, and in an attempt to save everyone’s sanity who isn’t interested, you’ll have to click on “more” below to read the full text.

Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Ron Jones ProjectIn the summer and fall of 1990, fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation were in frothing-from-the-mouth overdrive: they were busily speculating about the conclusion of the best cliffhanger that TNG would ever produce, and obsessing over their freshly-recorded VHS tapes (remember those?) of the season finale. Repeated viewing of The Best Of Both Worlds Part I yielded numerous insights, namely that the show really had gotten that good, and that this Ron Jones guy who did the music for the episode was on fire. A year later – an agonizing lag compared to how quickly TV music seems to be released these days – GNP Crescendo gave the world the soundtrack to both parts of Best Of Both Worlds, landing themselves a legion of grateful fans and an award for the best indie label soundtrack release of the year.

Some of us, however, had been paying attention to the music credits for a long time, and Ron Jones had been on the radar of musically-aware fans since season one. The cruel irony, of course, is that 1991 also marked the end of Jones’ involvement with the Star Trek series, and the rest of the TNG music released by Crescendo was from composers Dennis McCarthy and Jones’ replacement, Jay Chattaway, both of whom remained with the franchise until Star Trek: Enterprise went off the air in 2005. Barring a short two-part suite of music from the season one Klingon episode Heart Of Glory on 1996’s Best Of Star Trek CD, and despite the fact that Jones had gone through his archives and presented Crescendo with enough material for Klingon and Romulan themed TNG soundtrack collections, nothing else was forthcoming from TNG’s musical golden boy.

He still had fans, though, including yours truly, and including Film Score Monthly founder Lukas Kendall. As Film Score Monthly spawned a label and ultimately ceased to be a paper magazine, the idea of a Ron Jones TNG collection never went away. While even the most expectant fans might have bet on a CD here and there, nobody could’ve envisioned what Kendall had in mind: a 14 CD box set consisting of nearly every note Ron Jones composed and recorded for Star Trek: The Next Generation – in short, the full soundtrack for every episode Jones scored, not just the ones that everyone remembered well. With the possible exception of the (ultimately truncated) series of Babylon 5 episode scores on CD, nothing like this had been attempted for TV music. Read More

R.E.M. – Green

GreenWhen R.E.M. set out to record Green, they knew it would be their first album for their new label, Warner Bros. They also knew that it would be the foundation of a worldwide arena tour designed to boost their global profile. It’s not surprising, then, that they produced a number of songs that refined the political rock songs of Document into an even more radio- and arena-friendly form. But if for no other reason than to keep themselves interested, they began experimenting with switching instruments and acoustic arrangements. The mix of silly pop songs and political introspection makes Green sometimes seem out of sorts, but it’s also not hard to see how the album helped take the band to a new level of popularity.

The first two songs, “Pop Song 89” and “Get Up,” definitely seem made for an arena rock show, more power pop than jangle pop. The songs feature strong melodies with simple, repetitive choruses and the occasional instrumental quirk, such as the dozen music boxes chiming in the middle of “Get Up.” The band uses the formula to perfection on the fourth track, “Stand,” whose goofy lyrics, guitar solo, video and associated dance made for a memorable presence on Top 40 radio at the time. (In fact, I can still remember where I was the first time I heard “Stand” on the radio – also the first time I had ever heard of R.E.M.)

Tracks 3, 5 and 6 show that Green is not all about fun and games. “You Are the Everything” features Bill Berry on bass, Mike Mills on accordion, and one of Peter Buck’s first experiments with mandolin. It’s a very spare, quiet song, one that literally opens with the sound of crickets chirping. It’s one of the things I like most about the song; it feels like you’re hearing each note and lyric on its own, as Stipe’s protagonist unburdens himself of his fears and imaginings. “World Leader Pretend,” meanwhile, is more complex in its arrangements, but features the same kind of introspection and mustering of resolve. There’s no mumbling from Stipe here; in fact, he felt so strongly about the lyrics to this song that they were printed on the liner notes, the only time that would happen until Up. “The Wrong Child” has a similar simplicity to “You Are the Everything,” but whereas the latter evokes the quiet beauty of nature, the former is a little more grating and discordant, befitting its lyrics; the song’s protagonist is a child with some kind of illness or physical problem that cuts him off from other children. Once upon a time, it was my least favorite song on the album, but it’s really grown on me over the years.

rating: 4 out of 4 The album heads back into rock territory with “Orange Crush,” but there’s far more edge and intensity to this song than the shinier pop songs that opened the album. The band’s rhythm section does a nice job of giving this song, whose lyrics evoke the specter of Agent Orange and the psychological and environmental legacies of war, a sense of marching forward into whatever the fates have in store. Even fifteen years later, this song packs a heck of a punch in the band’s live show. The album slows down again for the final three listed tracks, although only “Hairshirt” has the same kind of acoustic sensibility as “You Are the Everything” and “The Wrong Child.”

There is also an eleventh untitled track, which features Buck on drums – Berry claimed the drum part Buck had written was so full of mistakes that he’d be unable to perfectly replicate them for an entire song. It’s a great closing track, and Berry’s fears notwithstanding, I even think the drum part’s kinda nifty.

Order this CD

  1. Pop Song 89 (3:03)
  2. Pop Song 89 (3:03)
  3. Get Up (2:35)
  4. You Are the Everything (3:45)
  5. Stand (3:10)
  6. World Leader Pretend (4:15)
  7. The Wrong Child (3:35)
  8. Orange Crush (3:50)
  9. Turn You Inside-Out (4:15)
  10. Hairshirt (3:55)
  11. I Remember California (5:05)
  12. Untitled (3:15)

Released by: Warner Bros.
Release date: 1988
Total running time: 41:00

They Might Be Giants – Lincoln

 Some would say that the genius of comedy is knowing when to milk a joke for all it’s worth, and knowing when to get off the stage while the crowd’s still laughing. And though I hesitate to stereotype They Might Be Giants as strictly a comedy act, they do have one part of the mastery of comedy down pat: they know when to stretch a song out or make it short.

I don’t know whether to weep or cheer about the fact that I’d heard about his band long before they were “the band that does the theme song from Malcolm In The Middle,” before they were even those guys who did “Birdhouse In Your Soul”. In some respects, this stuff is superior to their later works, and it all goes back to that theory about the genius of comedy. Some of the songs, like “Cowtown”, “Mr. Me” and the uproarious “Kiss Me, Son Of God” say what they’re there to say and then get off the stage – or at least out of your ears. Others, like “Lie Still, Little Bottle” and “They’ll Need A Crane” (the funniest breakup song ever), stick around for a little while. And that’s not a bad thing in and of itself – as funny or irreverent as their lyrics may be, Linnell and Flansburgh are impeccable musicians.

4 out of 4That said, don’t underestimate their lyrics either. Where else will you hear something like “every jumbled pile of person has a thinking part that wonders what the part that isn’t thinking isn’t thinking of”? (Incidentally, that line’s from my favorite song off the album, “Where Your Eyes Don’t Go”.)

It’s hard to define exactly what They Might Be Giants is, but I’ll tell you what it isn’t: hard to enjoy. Very highly recommended.

Order this CD

  1. Ana Ng (3:23)
  2. Cowtown (2:21)
  3. Lie Still, Little Bottle (2:06)
  4. Purple Toupee (2:40)
  5. Cage & Aquarium (1:10)
  6. Where Your Eyes Don’t Go (3:06)
  7. Piece Of Dirt (2:01)
  8. Mr. Me (1:52)
  9. Pencil Rain (2:42)
  10. The World’s Address (2:24)
  11. I’ve Got A Match (2:37)
  12. Santa’s Beard (1:56)
  13. You’ll Miss Me (1:53)
  14. They’ll Need A Crane (2:34)
  15. Shoehorn With Teeth (1:13)
  16. Stand On Your Own Head (1:16)
  17. Snowball In Hell (2:32)
  18. Kiss Me, Son Of God (1:53)

Released by: Restless / Bar None
Release date: 1988
Total running time: 39:39

Y Kant Tori Read

Y Kant Tori ReadTruly a legendary album, Y Kant Tori Read’s debut (and thankfully only) album appeared and disappeared from the Billboard charts in the summer of 1988 within the space of a month – and no one heard from the band again until one of its members, pianist/vocalist Tori Amos, resurfaced as a solo artist at the forefront of a whole new movement of female artists in 1991.

Before the life-altering events that inspired Little Earthquakes, Amos’ first solo project, happened, she was fronting Y Kant Tori Read, essentially a typical late-80s rock group with a very typical late-80s sound. Those expecting to hear Tori’s trademark melancholy, introspective sound…won’t. But thanks to its abysmal chart performance and its small pressing, Y Kant Tori Read sank into oblivion – until Tori Amos became a household name in the early 90s, which sent the value of any original LP, CD or cassettes of Y Kant Tori Read skyrocketing into the $100 range and beyond. (This has also made it one of the single most bootlegged music releases ever – and even the bootlegs fetch ridiculous prices on eBay.) Legend has it that Tori’s solo contract with Atlantic Records prevents the label from reissuing the album in any form.

And that’s a good thing. Despite the fact that I haven’t been enthralled with everything Tori’s unleashed, Y Kant Tori Read is not a testament to her talents that I’d want released again were I her.

Well, it’s a good thing with the exception of one song.

3 out of 4“Etienne Trilogy” is a linked cycle of two instrumentals sandwiching an absolutely beautiful vocal/piano number which lives up to anything Tori has ever done since. In fact, I’d put “Etienne” up there with “Winter”, “Cloud On My Tongue” and “Sugar”, some of the best stuff she has ever done. You will not be disappointed.

Order this CD

  1. The Big Picture (4:11)
  2. Cool On Your Island (4:50)
  3. Fayth (4:18)
  4. Fire On The Side (4:48)
  5. Pirates (4:15)
  6. Floating City (5:03)
  7. Heart Attack At 23 (5:10)
  8. On The Boundary (4:30)
  9. You Go To My Head (3:46)
  10. Etienne Trilogy (6:28)

    The Highlands / Etienne / Skyeboat Song

Released by: Atlantic
Release date: 1988
Total running time: 59:41

Traveling Wilburys – Volume One

Traveling Wilburys - Volume OneThis first outing by the collective of rock legends – Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne – has attained something of its own legendary status, and listening back to it, it’s not hard to see why.

The two group efforts, “Handle With Care” and “End Of The Line”, deservedly got a great deal of attention as singles, but there were plenty of other music treasures to be found. “Dirty World” and “Tweeter And The Monkey Man” are obviously Bob Dylan’s babies, while Lynne’s influence is obvious on the retro-rocker “Rattled”. But far and away, the prize on Volume One goes to “Not Alone Anymore”, which was the last thing any of us heard out of Roy Orbison before his death. It was a nice preview of the sound Orbison and Lynne would glean from their collaboration on Orbison’s final solo album Mystery Girl, and took on a bit of a haunting quality in hindsight.

Harrison’s “Heading For The Light” ain’t shabby either…and I think it’s the last song we’ve heard out of him that 4 out of 4really sounds like him, Beatles Anthology “new” songs notwithstanding.

It’s a bit of fun with a little touch of a country twang to it, and while the follow-up, Volume Three, had its own charms, Orbison’s presence – and, indeed, the presence of the other four rock legends working together for the first time – made Volume One a special outing for the Wilburys.

Order this CD

  1. Handle With Care (3:20)
  2. Dirty World (3:30)
  3. Rattled (3:00)
  4. Last Night (3:48)
  5. Not Alone Any More (3:24)
  6. Congratulations (3:30)
  7. Heading For The Light (3:37)
  8. Margarita (3:16)
  9. Tweeter And The Monkey Man (5:30)
  10. End Of The Line (3:30)

Released by: Wilbury Records
Release date: 1988
Total running time: 36:25

Schnell Fenster – The Sound Of Trees

Schnell Fenster - The Sound Of TreesThis little-known and distinctly 80’s entity consisted of Split Enz alumni Phil Judd, Noel Crombie, and Nigel Griggs (more or less the half of the band who didn’t go on to become regular members of Crowded House) along with Michael den Elzen, who later played guitar on at least one of ex-Enzer Tim Finn’s solo albums. At the same time that Crowded House was treading softer ground with Temple Of Low Men, these other former Enz members were trying to carve out a somewhat more quirky and dance-oriented niche for themselves, not unlike the territory Tim Finn had explored with his very pop-oriented early solo projects. But where Tim was upbeat, his former Enz cohorts were downright weird at times. Not that this is bad – at various times, Thomas Dolby and Howard Jones were also considered weird. Put simply, Schnell Fenster hauled the new-wave pop style out of the early 80’s, dragging it kicking and screaming (the style, not the band themselves) into the latter half of the decade, which was dominated by mechanical quasi-R&B dance grooves and rap. Sometimes, as with the catchy “Skin The Cat”, there’s even a hint of cool swing to the proceedings, and numerous other numbers play the new-wave game to the hilt, including “Whisper”, “Run-a-Mile” and “Never Stop”. I’ve found that there’s nothing on this album not to like, 3 out of 4but if you have never heard of Schnell Fenster, it’s because this is an example of a band and an album out of time. It could’ve gone over huge only four or five years earlier, but its somewhat dated sound, along with Phil Judd’s penchant for whimsy which characterized his reign in the early days of Split Enz, kept it from gaining anything more than cult recognition among Enz fans.

Order this CD

  1. Whisper (3:45)
  2. Love-Hate Relationship (3:59)
  3. Sleeping Mountain (3:44)
  4. That’s Impossible (3:26)
  5. This Illusion (3:42)
  6. Lamplight (3:35)
  7. The Sound of Trees (4:46)
  8. White Flag (3:36)
  9. Long Way Away (3:20)
  10. Skin the Cat (3:05)
  11. Run-a-Mile (3:02)
  12. Never Stop (4:12)

Released by: Atlantic
Release date: 1988
Total running time: 44:56