Firefly – music by Greg Edmonson

Firefly soundtrackAnyone seeking to understand how much music contributes to the tone and identity of a show need look no further than Greg Edmonson’s scores for Firefly. It may be hard to find words that express “Western in space with a society that’s a fusion of America and China, but Edmonson’s music mixes those elements together into an organic whole.

The album is made up of relatively short tracks many of which appear to have been formed by connecting shorter cues from different episodes. The editing works surprisingly well, although I can’t help but wish that some of these pieces could have been reworked into extended suites of some kind. The opening minute of “Big Bar Fight” a wonderfully energetic bluegrass tune, and I would love to hear how Edmonson would have developed the theme over a longer period of time. The acoustic instrumentation is something I can’t recall being used so heavily in a science fiction show. Some of the most emotionally-stirring music on the album heavily features Edmonson and Alan Steinberger on piano. “The Funeral”, which I am reasonably sure was composed for the final episode produced for the series, is as heartbreaking as the title suggests. Cues from Out Of Gas, which featured an almost-abandoned Serenity, are just as strong. The latter half of the album’s closing track, “Dying Ship/Naked Mal”, shows off how the music contributed to the show’s occasional sense of whimsy.

The Eastern feel comes through very strongly in the darker, tension-building cues. I especially like how these elements are combined with traditional Western genre elements in the “Heart of Gold Montage” to give a unique feel to traditional waiting-for-the-big-shootout music. I admit that this sort of reaction raises the possibility that I’m treating the Eastern elements as a piece of alien-ness thrown onto familiar sounds, which rating: 3 out of 4has certain unpleasant implications for how I view a culture that, while foreign to me, is clearly human. But I think that what’s important is that the combination produces something that is unique and distinctive. Someone with more expertise in Eastern music could tell you how well Edmonson truly integrated these disparate influences, but to my ears it sounds good.

Order this CD

  1. Firefly – Main Title (written by Joss Whedon, performed by Sonny Rhodes) (0:51)
  2. Big Bar Fight (1:54)
  3. Heart of Gold Montage (2:09)
  4. Whitefall/Book (2:16)
  5. Early Takes Serenity (2:34)
  6. The Funeral (2:33)
  7. River’s Perception/Saffron (2:14)
  8. Mal Fights Niska/Back Home (1:52)
  9. River Tricks Early (3:28)
  10. River Understands Simon (2:03)
  11. Leaving/Caper/Spaceball (2:37)
  12. River’s Afriad/Niska/Torture (3:19)
  13. In My Bunk/Jayne’s Statue/Boom (2:26)
  14. Inara’s Suite (3:27)
  15. Out of Gas/Empty Derelict (1:48)
  16. Book’s Hair/Ready for Battle (1:57)
  17. Tears/River’s Eyes (1:56)
  18. Cows/New Dress/My Crew (2:10)
  19. Boarding the Serenity/Derelict (2:00)
  20. Burgess Kills/Captain & Ship (comp. by G. Edmonson & Alan Steinberger) (3:24)
  21. Saved/Isn’t Home/Reavers (2:53)
  22. Reavers Chase Serenity (3:20)
  23. River’s Dance (1:48)
  24. Inside the Tam House (composed by G. Edmonson & Alan Steinberger) (2:19)
  25. Dying Ship/Naked Mal (2:10)

Released by: Varese Sarabande
Release date: 2005
Total running time: 60:28

Stargate – music by David Arnold

Stargate soundtrackAs a part of the movie, I’m very happy with David Arnold’s score for Stargate. It reflects the film’s blend of historical epic, contemporary military action, and futuristic SF adventure. It’s appropriately rousing during the battle scenes and it sets the mood for quieter moments. There is a fanfare here or a moment there that makes me think of John Williams, but that say more about how much I’ve internalized that work than anything else. The main themes are certainly distinct and memorable enough to stand the test of time, as their continued use in Stargate SG-1 would indicate.

As an album in its own right, however, I’m not sure how well the soundtrack works. This isn’t a reorganized concert suite, but a collection of 30 music cues from throughout the movie. Many of them are very short, about a minute or so in length. They just don’t have the chance to build up much momentum of their own or stand out as distinct pieces, especially since Arnold continually goes back to variations of the main themes. The longer pieces that do exist, like “The Stargate Opens”, are rather good at telling the story musically; I rating: 3 out of 4particularly like the loud build-up to the actual opening and then the quiet choral voices that reflect the shimmering open gate. The longest cue, “Battle At The Pyramid”, also flows very well and suggests the urgency and chaos of combat. But for the most part, this album tends to fade into background music for me, albeit very good background music.

Order this CD

  1. Stargate Overture (3:01)
  2. Giza, 1928 (2:10)
  3. Unstable (2:07)
  4. The Coverstones (0:58)
  5. Orion (1:29)
  6. The Stargate Opens (3:58)
  7. You’re on the Team (1:55)
  8. Entering the Stargate (2:57)
  9. The Other Side (1:44)
  10. Mastadge Drag (0:56)
  11. The Mining Pit (1:34)
  12. King of the Slaves (1:15)
  13. Caravan to Nagada (2:16)
  14. Daniel and Shauri (1:53)
  15. Symbol Discovery (1:15)
  16. Sarcophagus Opens (0:55)
  17. Daniel’s Mastadge (0:49)
  18. Leaving Nagada (4:09)
  19. Ra – The Sun God (3:22)
  20. The Destruction of Nagada (2:08)
  21. Myth, Faith, Belief (2:18)
  22. Procession (1:43)
  23. Slave Rebellion (1:00)
  24. The Seventh Symbol (0:57)
  25. Quartz Shipment (1:27)
  26. Battle at the Pyramid (5:02)
  27. We Don’t Want to Die (1:57)
  28. The Surrender (1:44)
  29. Kasuf Returns (3:06)
  30. Going Home (3:09)

Released by: Milan/BMG
Release date: 1994
Total running time: 64:46

Man On The Moon – music by R.E.M.

Man On The Moon soundtrackThis soundtrack is an odd bird. There’s a smattering of clips from R.E.M.’s film score, a few songs from the band, a couple of performances by Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman/Tony Clifton, a handful of pieces of source music from significant Kaufman appearances, and one song that doesn’t fit any of these categories but does show up briefly in the movie. I’m sure there’s an audience for each category, but I have to think their intersection is a very small group.

I remember thinking the score did a good job fitting the movie when I saw it, but it’s hard to get much sense of it from any of these clips. Most of them are about two minutes long, so there’s no time for them to really build a mood. I do particularly like “Miracle” and “Milk And Cookies”, which come from the tail end of the film as Kaufman deals with his impending death and his performance at Carnegie Hall – there’s a bittersweet resignation to the music that conveys the sentiment of the plot quite well. An orchestral version of “Man On The Moon” is good, but almost unrecognizable – it was only when I got the DVD-Audio version of Automatic For The People that I recognized a few elements from the song that had made the transition.

The original “Man On The Moon” is one of three R.E.M. performances on the album. Of those, “The Great Beyond” is the only new composition. It’s one of my favorite songs of the band’s three-piece period, thoughtful and mellow but still up-tempo enough to have some energy to it. The guitar-bass-keyboard combo provides an atmospheric backdrop to Michael Stipe’s verses and then kicks into gear with a fuller sound, including some strings, in the choruses. Unfortunately, like almost every other track on this album, it’s marred by the inclusion of dialogue clips from the movie. The third performance, “This Friendly World”, features Carrey singing along with Stipe as both Kaufman and Clifton. It’s amusing, especially when Carrey/Kaufman demands that he and Stipe sing every other word of one verse.

Carrey/Clifton also absolutely butchers “I Will Survive”. Since that’s what he’s setting out to do, I’ll call this one a highly successful failure. “Rose Marie” and “One More Song for You” are original Kaufman performances from the archives, and the man could carry a tune quite well, but they’re probably more memorable for novelty value – “Hey, Latka can sing!” Bob James’ theme from Taxi, “Angela”, fits in rather well with the other instrumental pieces. It’s understated but I think it holds up rather well as one of TV’s most memorable instrumental themes. The Sandpipers’ “Mighty Mouse Theme” is another fun and obvious piece of source music.

As for Exile’s “Kiss You All Over” . . . I got nothin’.

rating: 2 out of 4The problem is that the album is both schizophrenic and short. There’s not enough orchestral music for this to appeal to fans of film scores, there’s not enough comedy for humor fans, and there’s not enough original Kaufman material to appeal to his fans. Once upon a time, the presence of “The Great Beyond” might have made this somewhat worthwhile for R.E.M. fans, but now you can get that song without the film dialogue on the band’s Warner Bros. best-of, and “Man On The Moon” is there as well. But if you’re looking for eclectic eccentricity, this might work for you.

Order this CD

  1. Mighty Mouse Theme (Here I Come to Save the Day) – The Sandpipers (song) (1:53)
  2. The Great Beyond – R.E.M. (song) (5:22)
  3. Kiss You All Over – Exile (song) (3:37)
  4. Angela (Theme from Taxi) – Bob James (instrumental song) (1:27)
  5. Tony Thrown Out – R.E.M. (score) (1:07)
  6. Man on the Moon – R.E.M. (song) (5:13)
  7. This Friendly World – R.E.M. and Jim Carrey (song) (3:03)
  8. Miracle – R.E.M. (score) (2:53)
  9. Lynne and Andy – R.E.M. (score) (1:46)
  10. Rose Marie – Andy Kaufman (song) (2:36)
  11. Andy Gets Fired – R.E.M. (score) (1:07)
  12. I Will Survive – Tony Clifton (song) (1:49)
  13. Milk & Cookies – R.E.M. (score) (1:59)
  14. Man on the Moon (Orchestral) – R.E.M. (score) (1:51)
  15. One More Song for You – Andy Kaufman (score) (1:16)

Released by: Warner Bros.
Release date: 1999
Total running time: 37:08

R.E.M. – Around the Sun

Around the SunI’ve listened to Around the Sun at least a couple of times a day since the week before it came out, thanks to an online preview stream provided by It’s lucky for you that I had that much lead time, or else you’d be reading one cranky review right now. This is a slow and subtle album, perhaps too much so for its own good, and there are a few songs that remain outright disappointments. But those repeated listenings have shown me that many of these songs are quite powerful in their simplicity and that Around the Sun is a worthwhile, although flawed, album.

The opening track and first single, “Leaving New York,” is a midtempo track that blends Mike Mills’ piano and Peter Buck’s acoustic guitar to create what at first listen sounds like a straightforward, almost bland melody. But starting with the second verse, Michael Stipe’s vocals begin to layer and overlap, with each layer following a slightly different melody. The result pulls your attention in a number of directions at once, adding emotional urgency and creating the kind of disorientation that appears to be at the heart of the song. It’s a rather impressive accomplishment.

Unfortunately the album goes off the rails with the next song, “Electron Blue,” a repetitive electronics-tinged song that just doesn’t feel like it goes anywhere. “The Outsiders” features a rap by Q-tip as its third verse and is more effective at establishing a mood, but still doesn’t stand out. “Make It All Okay” is another piano-heavy ballad that has some potential, but for the first time I can remember, Stipe’s lyrics just aren’t up to snuff. It sometimes feels like he’s struggling just to fill out the melody with a lot of repeated words and pauses, such as the frequently used “It’s a long . . . long, long road . . . and I don’t know . . . which way . . . to go.” Stipe is usually able to use his melody and inflection to create a feeling such that the words don’t matter as much, but his performance on this track and in a couple of other places on the album just drew my attention to lyrics that seemed banal to me. It’s really a shame because this album does feature very effective use of Mills’ background vocals to create some effective moods.

That said, there are many places where he’s up to his usual standard. “Final Straw” is where the album begins to reassert itself. Written and initially released on in March 2003 as the invasion of Iraq began, this song combines direct lyrics and a calm, determined performance by Stipe with acoustic guitar and very well done synth/electronic elements to powerful, even haunting effect. I originally preferred the rough studio mix from 2003, but I’ve come to appreciate the album version. Towards the end there’s a high keyboard note in the background that gives the whole thing an almost choral feel; that note has a greater emphasis on the album track and I think that works.

The political tone carries through to the next song, “I Wanted to Be Wrong,” where Stipe says “I wanted to be wrong, but everyone was humming a song I don’t understand,” and “we can’t approach the Allies ’cause they seem a little peeved.” Outside of that last line, the political undercurrent that carries through the album is one you almost have to know to be looking for, because many of these songs could just as easily be about breakdowns in relationships or a more general feeling of social alienation. When you know the subtext, I do think it adds more power to the songs – but then I tend to agree with R.E.M.’s political stances more often than not, and your mileage may vary. Nowhere is this truer than the album’s final track, “Around the Sun” – the first R.E.M. song to be a title track. The song is used over the closing credits of Going Upriver, a movie about John Kerry’s experiences in Vietnam and as a protestor afterward. I don’t know whether or not the song was written about Kerry, but it’s hard for me not to think of him when I hear lines like “give me a voice so strong I can question what I have seen” and “hold on world ’cause you don’t know what’s coming, hold on world ’cause I’m not jumping off.”

rating: 3 out of 4Thematically speaking, the album is very consistent, almost too much so. In addition to the tracks I’ve mentioned, “Boy in the Well” and “High Speed Train” are particularly subdued and contemplative tracks. It’s only on the jaunty “Wanderlust” and the uptempo acoustic number Aftermath that the album brightens up at all, and even these aren’t much of a change of pace. In its melancholy approach, Around the Sun has drawn a number of comparisons to Fables of the Reconstruction and Automatic for the People. But there’s nothing here like the loud, goofy fun of Fables’ “Cant Get There from Here” or Automatic‘s Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite to act as an escape valve. R.E.M. spent a long time recording this album, starting in early 2003, then taking a break for the tour anticipating their best-of album In View, and then returning to the studio this year to finish. In the process, they held off on some of the rockier songs they had been working on because they didn’t fit the feel of the album. I can’t help but wonder if they’d have been better served to just assemble the best collection of songs they could.

Around the Sun is not an album that immediately grabs you, but there’s a lot of very good work here. Like a lot of fans, I’m waiting for R.E.M. to break out of the slower mood they’ve explored in their three post-Bill Berry albums. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to ignore the good work that’s right in front of me. Truth be told, there’s a good chance this album might improve with age; my initial reaction to 1998’s Up was rather subdued, but it’s now one of my favorite albums. It wouldn’t surprise me if songs like “Final Straw” and “I Wanted to Be Wrong” earn Around the Sun a similar status in the future.

Order this CD

  1. Leaving New York (4:49)
  2. Electron Blue (4:12)
  3. The Outsiders (4:14)
  4. Make It All Okay (3:44)
  5. Final Straw (4:07)
  6. I Wanted to Be Wrong (4:35)
  7. Wanderlust (3:03)
  8. Boy in the Well (5:22)
  9. Aftermath (3:53)
  10. High Speed Train (5:03)
  11. The Worst Joke Ever (3:38)
  12. The Ascent of Man (4:07)
  13. Around the Sun (4:28)

Released by: Warner Bros.
Release date: 2004
Total running time: 55:21

R.E.M. – Murmur

MurmurIt’s very easy for me to take Murmur for granted – I didn’t hear it until well after I had become a fan of the band’s later work, and I didn’t start paying attention to the world of college/alternative/modern rock until almost a decade after this album helped establish its importance. The folky influence, the gentle layered harmonies, and the cryptic, emotive lyrics were such a natural part of my musical world by that time that this album didn’t come across as the shock to the system that it did in 1983, inspiring Rolling Stone to name it the album of the year. But while I can only appreciate its innovations secondhand, I can still enjoy the songs – and they’re still great 20 years later.

Both “Radio Free Europe” and “Sitting Still,” the songs on the band’s first single, were re-recorded for this album. The former is a classic, but I admit that I first heard and came to love the original Hib-Tone mix that appeared on Eponymous. On the other hand, the latter song encapsulates R.E.M.’s early approach – drummer Bill Berry and bassist Mike Mills drive the song forward and provide the basic melody while guitarist Peter Buck’s arpeggios seem to surround the framework and carry it aloft. Berry and Mills’ backup vocal harmonies create an atmosphere from which Michael Stipe’s lead vocals barely emerge, making themselves felt more than heard. Do not, under any circumstances, ask me what Stipe means in any of these songs. I have no clue. But there’s a sense of vitality and reflection in his voice that’s no less meaningful for not making any literal statement.

rating: 4 out of 4 Murmur is generally a fast and energetic album, with songs like “Shaking Through,” “Catapult” and “Moral Kiosk” in the same spirit as “Sitting Still.” “Pilgrimage” has a pretty quick tempo if you listen to Berry’s drums, but the relative sparseness of the instruments on the verses makes it feel more sedate and provides a nice contrast with the verses. When the foursome does slow down, they prove that their knack for beautiful but melancholy songs was ever-present. The Berry-written “Perfect Circle” is built around his and Mills’ complementary piano work, but it’s the pair’s soaring background vocals combined with Stipe’s almost mournful lead that make the song overflow with emotion. “Talk About the Passion,” meanwhile, complements Buck’s guitar lines with some well-placed strings, one of the few embellishments on the album. It’s quite remarkable how much of a layered sound producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon were able to create with the band while still letting each musical voice be heard. But then, Murmur is quite a remarkable album.

After R.E.M. achieved international success with Warner Bros., IRS Records re-released the band’s early catalogue overseas with additional tracks, mostly live performances and remixes along with the occasional b-side. These additional tracks remain unavailable on U.S. versions of the album.

Order this CD

  1. Radio Free Europe (4:03)
  2. Pilgrimage (4:25)
  3. Laughing (3:52)
  4. Talk About the Passion (3:22)
  5. Moral Kiosk (3:32)
  6. Perfect Circle (3:23)
  7. Catapult (3:54)
  8. Sitting Still (3:07)
  9. 9-9 (3:02)
  10. Shaking Through (4:00)
  11. We Walk (3:04)
  12. West of the Fields (3:15)

(Track listing reflects original U.S. release; foreign re-releases contain additional tracks)

Released by: IRS Records/A&M
Release date: 1983
Total running time: 44:11

R.E.M. – Reckoning

ReckoningHaving reached a somewhat surprising level of critical acclaim with their first album, R.E.M. knew it had to thread the needle for their follow-up, living up the expectations without turning out a rehash of their full-length debut. They chose to take a simpler approach, recording the album quickly and putting a slightly greater emphasis on a guitar-rock sound. Armed with such soon to be classics as “So. Central Rain” and “(Don’t Go Back to) Rockville,” Reckoning avoided any hint of a sophomore jinx and served to further build R.E.M.’s reputation.

The rockers like “Harborcoat,” “Pretty Persuasion,” and “Rockville” are my favorites from the album. The latter, a country-tinged plea to a departing girl written by Mike Mills, has a nice veneer of “I don’t care that much” covering its “Oh yeah I really do care” core, and Michael Stipe does a fine job bringing both elements forth. The other two – well, I’m not sure what they’re about, per se, because this is Stipe at his least decipherable. But they’re fun songs, and the energy of Peter Buck’s guitars and Bill Berry’s drums shines through. Mills’ layered background vocals on “Harborcoat” really help carry that song along as well.

The slower songs are no slouches, either. I admit I can’t really listen to “Seven Chinese Brothers” without hearing “Voice of Harold” instead, but it’s still a fine song. (The two songs share the same backing track, but the latter has somewhat more unorthodox lyrics.) “Time After Time (Annelise)” is a rather somber song that demonstrates Buck’s chiming guitars at their most melancholy. Stipe shows off his voice’s emotional range in “So. Central Rain,” aiming for an air of detachment on the verses before delivering an almost pleading repeated “I’m sorry” for the chorus. First performed without a title on David Letterman’s show, “So. Central Rain” quickly became one of the band’s standout songs. In fact, it was the only track from Reckoning to receive its own video, in which Stipe sang the lyrics rather than lip sync. (The band also put together Left of Reckoning, a short film that used the LP’s first side as its soundtrack.)

rating: 3 out of 4 Reckoning is not an album I pull out of my CD collection for a full listen very often, but several of its tracks are standbys of my MP3 playlists. It’s a strong effort and a worthwhile milestone in R.E.M.’s development.

After R.E.M. achieved international success with Warner Bros., IRS Records re-released the band’s early catalogue overseas with additional tracks, mostly live performances and remixes along with the occasional b-side. These additional tracks remain unavailable on U.S. versions of the album.

Order this CD

  1. Harborcoat (3:51)
  2. Seven Chinese Brothers (4:15)
  3. So. Central Rain (3:11)
  4. Pretty Persuasion (3:53)
  5. Time After Time (Annelise) (3:59)
  6. Second Guessing (2:50)
  7. Letter Never Sent (2:57)
  8. Camera (5:21)
  9. (Don’t Go Back to) Rockville (4:34)
  10. Little America (2:56)

(Track listing reflects original U.S. release; foreign re-releases contain additional tracks)

Released by: IRS Records/A&M
Release date: 1984
Total running time: 38:11

R.E.M. – Fables of the Reconstruction

Fables of the ReconstructionR.E.M. ventured into uncertain territory for its third studio album; having done all its previous releases with producer Mitch Easter relatively close to the band’s Athens home base, this time around the band flew to England to work with Joe Boyd. While producer and band had a decent working relationship and a healthy respect for each other, the four members were clearly out of their comfort zone, in a country where their indie-rock reputation had not yet spread, suffering through a cold and dreary winter quite unlike their usual climate, and unsure of where to take the next record musically. The result is Fables of the Reconstruction (or possibly Reconstruction of the Fables, since the phrase ‘of the’ appears twice on the album’s cover art), a murky, often melancholy album that’s probably the least accessible of their early work. Years later, drummer Bill Berry would tell Rolling Stone that “Fables sucked,” but behind the murk is a rewarding depth and songs that have become essential parts of the R.E.M. canon.

Peter Buck’s familiar chiming guitars pervade the album, but are often sent to the background as a foreboding atmospheric element. He provides plenty of more assertive lead guitar lines throughout, and Mike Mills steps up on bass to drive many of the songs like Kohoutek and Old Man Kensey (the latter song sharing a writing credit with J. Ayers). Buck, Mills and Berry mesh exceptionally well on “Life and How to Live It,” one of the rare up-tempo tracks on the album. Another, “Cant Get There from Here,” actually boasts a horn section at the end, one which screams “four white guys bringing on a tiny amount of the funk” in a lightly self-deprecating way – it’s a fun song, and one of the bright moments of the album.

rating: 4 out of 4 More typical is “Driver 8,” the album’s best-known song and one which really represents the essence of R.E.M. at the time. The album maintains a consistent mood thanks to the relatively slow pace of the songs and Michael Stipe’s delivery of lyrics that are still often highly allegorical or close to incomprehensible, although he starts making forays into social commentary with “Green Grow the Rushes.” The band’s isolation and homesickness comes through strongly in his singing and in the stories often drawn from the more eccentric side of the South. While not necessarily telling complete narratives, Stipe takes on more of the role of the storyteller here – stories that I feel more than I comprehend. If you’re willing to give Fables time to wash over you, you might feel them too.

After R.E.M. achieved international success with Warner Bros., IRS Records re-released the band’s early catalogue overseas with additional tracks, mostly live performances and remixes along with the occasional b-side. These additional tracks remain unavailable on U.S. versions of the album.

Order this CD

  1. Feeling Gravitys Pull (4:48)
  2. Maps and Legends (3:01)
  3. Driver 8 (3:18)
  4. Life and How to Live It (4:20)
  5. Old Man Kensey (4:10)
  6. Cant Get There from Here (4:10)
  7. Green Grow the Rushes (3:42)
  8. Kohoutek (3:10)
  9. Auctioneer (Another Engine) (2:41)
  10. Good Advices (3:30)
  11. Wendell Gee (2:56)

(Track listing reflects original U.S. release; foreign re-releases contain additional tracks)

Released by: IRS Records/Capitol
Release date: 1985
Total running time: 39:43