Listen to this track by British pop chanteuse and peerless interpreter Dusty Springfield. It’s “Windmills Of Your Mind”, a shimmering pop gem as taken from her seminal 1969 album Dusty In Memphis.
That album was a strategic move on Springfield’s part to make a bona fide R&B album in the very heart of where some of the greatest soul albums were created during that era. The results of this and the story behind them is an epic tale with a who’s who of characters including Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd, Arif Mardin, and The Memphis Cats all in tow. But, all the while, Springfield proved above all that she was able to sing anything and in any style and make it all work on an LP that comes together in an extraordinary way. This tune isn’t strictly a soul song, for instance. But, it certainly has soul as Springfield sings it. So, it fits because of her voice.
Among other places, it was featured very prominently in the film The Thomas Crown Affair, starring Steve McQueen, and sung by Jose Feliciano at the 1968 Academy Awards, at which “Windmills Of Your Mind” won for best original song. Its place in the film is where a lot of casual music fans will recognize it the most. So, how did Dusty Springfield take this song, and make it the one by which all others must be judged? Read more
Listen to this track by former TV band turned actual real life band featured in their own movie, The Monkees. It’s “Porpoise Song”, a 1968 single also to be heard on the soundtrack to the movie Head. The film wasdirected by The Monkees TV series creator and director Bob Rafaelson who would go on to direct many films into the 1970s, including Five Easy Pieces with Jack Nicholson, who in turn would serve as a screeenwriter on Head. The Monkees TV producer Bert Schneider would also produce the feature. The gang was all here.
In addition to the filmmaking aspect of the project, The Monkees had other allies on this tune, with whom they had a healthy and fruitful relationship; Carole King and Gerry Goffin, who had written a number of other songs in their catalogue, including a hit song in “Pleasant Valley Sunday“. That was during the era in which the band were beamed into living rooms all over the nation. Since that period, they’d cut loose the bonds of their former personas as lovable TV goofs. They had established their own path as a real band without the fuel of a hit TV show to propel them onto the charts.
And yet, with “Porpoise Song” and with Head, that former life was still referenced, although in a more satirical light — or maybe as a way to decompress from it and make their escape once and for all. The results were, perhaps, not as they’d thought. Read more
Listen to this track by Gothenburg Sweden singer-songwriter and sublime soundtrack contributor José Gonzáles. It’s “Stay Alive” a song as featured in the 2013 film based on James Thurber’s story The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. The song appears on the soundtrack album as well, along with two other Gonzáles contributions.
At points, the film is set in Greenland, Iceland, and the Lower Himalayas as its main character, who is prone to daydreaming, lives out a fantasy in real life as he chases a photojournalist for a missing negative of an image meant to be the cover for the last issue of Life magazine. See the film, it’s good. But, for our purposes here, Gonzáles’ song sets a scene of desolate beauty, seeming to evoke the big questions of life; identity, meaning, and the sense of purpose that comes out of both of those.
Even without a cinematic narrative to frame it, the song itself evokes those very things on its own. Read more
Listen to this track by Jamaican soul singer, reggae innovator and sometime actor Jimmy Cliff. It’s “Many Rivers To Cross”, a song of hardship and burden in a true gospel style as featured prominently on 1972’s The Harder They Come soundtrack.
This record is perhaps one of the earliest that served as a collection of songs featured in a movie that also turned out to be an essential addition to any respectable record collection while it was at it. It also had the distinction of having the star of the movie as one of the contributors to it; Jimmy Cliff himself. Read more
Listen to this track by soundtracking blonde-headed trio The Police. It’s “I Burn For You”, a song as taken from the 1982 film soundtrack Brimstone & Treacle, a film with a very familiar presence on screen; bassist, singer, and head songwriter Sting.
The soundtrack featured a number of tracks from the band, most of which were instrumental. Other tracks were provided by The Go-Go’s, who were Police tour-mates around this time, and Squeeze. Otherwise, this soundtrack provided something of a stop-gap between major releases for the Police after Ghost In The Machine and before Synchronicity.
Also, it was a way to support a film project that involved Sting in his pursuit as an actor. He’d previously been featured as Ace Face in 1979’s Quadrophenia, a part that relied on his ability to scowl with maximum cheekbone exposure. With this new role, as a charming but bestial deviant named Martin, things were more involved when it came to the demands of the script, written by the renowned playwright and screenwriter Dennis Potter. The film is based on his play originally made for television in 1976, but not broadcast due to its disturbing subject matter. Plus, it was on this same soundtrack that would host Sting’s first solo single – “Spread A Little Happiness”. That song is a music hall-era tune written in 1929, and sung by Sting with a decided smirk. The song’s vintage didn’t stop it from reaching a top twenty showing on the British pop charts at the beginning of the 1980s.
Perhaps it stood to reason. By this time, The Police were the biggest band in the world, and still on their way up. Yet like that musical hall chestnut, “I Burn For You” had a lot more to do with the past, reaching back into a pre-fame era for Sting before The Police, number one records, or international fame were even thought about. Read more
Listen to this track by gravel-throated singer-songwriter and consummate storytelling force of nature Tom Waits. It’s “Alice”, as taken from the self-same 2002 album of the same name, Alice. The track is a wintry tale of love and obsession, and ultimately of destruction too, all set to the kind of late-night jazz sound for which Waits had become known many years before in the 1970s, and to which this track is arguably something of a return.
The record is the result of a theatrical production that Waits, and his wife and collaborator Kathleen Brennan, had worked on with playwright Robert Wilson. It was a stage production based on the supposed relationship between Alice Liddel and Lewis Carroll, who would eventually write Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass, with Liddel as his muse.
But, how does what Lewis Carroll’s muse inspired translate into Tom Waits’ song, and the album on which it’s the opening track?
Listen to this track by brotherly turntablists and pop culture mash-up men Phil and Paul Hartnoll, otherwise known as Orbital. It’s “Way Out →”, the epic lead track off of their 1999 album Middle of Nowhere.
Put all one-dimensional associations you may have of electronica, or worse “dance music” aside, and listen to the operatic glory of this track. Here, electronic samples and beats live quite happily along with warm, muted horns. This is music made for listeners, as well as dancers. In some ways, the Hartnolls were outside of the tecnhno scene, in that they never seemed to follow the trends. Trend-following is rife in techno. But, not so with Orbital and this track. Read more
Listen to this song by indie songwriter-turned-soundtrack composer Damon Gough, better known as Badly Drawn Boy. It’s “Something to Talk About” as taken from the 2002 soundtrack album from the film About A Boy, originally a novel by Nick Hornby about a guy living off the royalties of a children’s song his dad wrote, yet finds himself unable to connect with children himself, or in fact with anyone, until – well, see the movie, or read the book.
But, for our purposes here, Badly Drawn Boy’s tune is a recurring musical theme that runs along side of the action, sort of as a bird’s eye-view to what’s going on the lives of the characters, which is what songs in a movie should do.
What also makes a truly exceptional song that appears in a film is that it also takes on a life of its own outside of the context of the film. In this case, author Nick Hornby, clearly a music fan (see High Fidelity), was a fan of Gough from early on, making him a perfect choice to compose music and develop songs for the soundtrack. Luckily, filmmakers Chris and Paul Weitz agreed.
Listen to this piece by world music enthusiast, soundtrack composer, and sometime pop star Peter Gabriel. It’s his ‘The Feeling Begins”, the studio version of which appears on his soundtrack album Passion, which is comprised of the music featured as the soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s 1988 movie the Last Temptation of Christ.
The lead instrument here is a duduk, which is a double-reed wind instrument that is widely used in the Middle-East, as well as being related to a family of instruments that can be found in places as far flung as Armenia and Russia. Its use is said to predate the time of Jesus by a thousand years. And a more mournful use of it I can’t imagine. This piece is truly atmospheric, spooky even, and completely evocative of a stirring feeling that makes you think that there are forces in the world which have been deployed to challenge your mettle. In short, it’s perfect for the story behind which it sets the emotional stage.
Yet, I think too that Gabriel designed this music to be listened to as well as to serve as a soundtrack to the story, so full of (here it comes) passion as it is. And when you really consider a lot of his post-Genesis material, it’s really not too far away from his usual modus operandi in any case.
For instance, the percussion is way up front in this, and on many of the other pieces on the album too. Even if this music is a bit of a departure in other ways, it’s still strongly flavoured with Gabriel’s unique taste for musical fusion cuisine, here throwing in some North African sounds in with those of the Middle East. Read more
Here’s a clip of Portishead frontwoman Beth Gibbons in her collaboration with former Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb (billed here as ‘Rustin Man’) performing a key track ‘Tom the Model’ from their one-off album together Out of Seasonfrom 2002.
Beth Gibbons and Paul Webb were friends before the former joined and began recording with Portishead. And in keeping in touch, it made sense for the two to collaborate, especially since Portishead aren’t known for a whirlwind schedule of recordings and tours. Besides that, it makes sense for the two of them to make a record together, since brittle, atmospheric music is an area of expertise they both share. And for Gibbons, it was a chance to explore the world of songwriting, as well as expanding on what she is able to accomplish as a vocalist.
Her voice has the description ‘evocative’ permanently attached to it, and here it does what you expect it to do. And similar to her work with Portishead, the evocation of the soundtracks of 60s cinema, with requisite John Barry and Lalo Schifrin influence, is well in place. But a good deal of the album shows that this is only one texture that she has at her disposal. Even though a lot of what she’s doing with her voice adds a lot of dark and spooky atmosphere to the material, on a couple of occasions it sounds downright innocent, as if she’s accessed a tonally emotive area that is more Sandy Denny than Eartha Kitt (see the opening track ‘Mysteries’), even ifKitt remains to be a vocal reference point (see the track “Romance” to see what I mean).
In Portishead, Gibbons’ voice is like a living sampler, able to reproduce the feel of a time gone by. But, here on this record and on this song, her voice is warmer, a bit less distant on most tracks, and is very much the instrument of a performer and songwriter who is very much in the present, even if the material has a certain retro feel. In many ways, it should be world’s apart from Portishead in many more respects. For instance, this is almost an exclusively acoustic record, as opposed to Portishead’s world of samples and technology. Yet, the effect here is similar. Maybe the moods, the melodies, the lyrical themes, are the things which make Gibbons’ work distinctive rather than the tools she and her collaborators have used to get the sound.
For me, this is a great track off of a very intense album, an album I can’t just put on casually. I think it’s possible for music to be beautiful and burdensome at the same time, and this record is a great example. There is something very heavy about it. It’s as if the pair had poured some of their suffering into it, as well as their enthusiasm. There are a lot of contrived albums based around this approach, with a lot of overemoting, and faux-angst sentiment. But, the songs and the overall feel on this record are so subtle, and there are so many little sonic details which demand a listener’s attention, that it’s sometimes pretty exhausting, just because it feels so real. Yet when you’re in it, it’s pretty awe inspiring too.
The skill that Gibbons’ seems to have is the ability to turn her voice into an instrument which goes beyond conveying lyrics and melody at face value. She somehow makes her performance into something more like a special effect in a movie. She creates an illusion, a real sense of location somehow, in a way that I’ve never experienced in the work of another singer. And the aural landscape she creates isn’t always safe, either. Sometimes, it’s downright threatening, but not in a crass or overt way. It’s the subtlety she’s able to employ that makes this track, and the other songs on the album, totally compelling and real – which is why it sometimes gives way to some beautifully chilling music. Perhaps tellingly, there hasn’t been a follow-up to this album.
Beth Gibbons recently released another album with Portishead, Third. Paul Webb continues to work as a producer, most recently on James Yorkston’s The Year of the Leopard.