Music Reviews By Mike White. Various Artists – Pi Soundtrack (Thrive Records, 7750 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90046) It’s a rare soundtrack nowadays that features modern music from various artists that doesn’t come off sounding like an "MTV Party To Go" or "Big ’80s" compilation...

Various ArtistsPi Soundtrack (Thrive Records, 7750 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90046)
It’s a rare soundtrack nowadays that features modern music from various artists that doesn’t come off sounding like an "MTV Party To Go" or "Big ’80s" compilation. The music of Pi is quite an exceptional exception to that rule. Though eleven different artists are included on the album’s thirteen tracks, the songs share a tonality that is similar enough to give the impression that the film was scored by a single artist. The artists and their work may be diverse but the songs selected from their oeuvre all lend themselves to providing the perfect music for director Darren Aronofsky’s striking visuals.

At the center of the film is protagonist Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), a genius convinced that mathematics is the language of nature. He is a proponent of "Chaos Theory," holding that by discovering patterns where none are apparent one can unlock the secrets of the universe. Max isn’t an altruist motivated by humanitarian goodwill; instead he desires to unlock the patterns within the stock market as he views it as an organism which exhibits numerical life-signs.

At the heart of Max’s quest is the constant π which has been used for centuries to calculate the area of a circle with the equation A = πr². Pi is an transcendental number, continuing into infinity without periodicity unlike Pi, the movie, which is a film of patterns; Max is a creature of habit—his daily log, his regiment of drugs, and even his personal stories are repeated throughout the film.

Through an apparent glitch in Max’s computer, Euclid, he discovers a string of 216 numbers setting him on a path that pits him against corporate grease-balls, (un)orthodox Jews, and himself.

The driving beat of the music acts as an audible pulse to the film, echoing the pounding in Max’s head and quickening as the narrative (Archimedean) spirals towards its conclusion. The IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) songs are appropriate aural accompaniment for they imitate the film’s theme in the paradoxes they present. At once, they appear chaotic and tightly structured recalling Max’s quest to discover a pattern within the apparent randomness of pi. The songs simultaneously sound starkly electronic and organic, acting to propel the notion of life within mathematics which is demonstrated throughout Pi as with the inexplicable ants and ectoplasm inside of Max’s overwhelming, anthropomorphic computer system.

Sonically, these ideas are expressed in the ringing bell David Holmes’ "No Man’s Land" and the use of dripping water to set a rhythm in Banco De Gaya’s "Drippy." The latter tune’s inclusion of the strains of a female singer wailing a Middle Eastern tune tends to recall the multi-cultural setting of Max’s Chinatown abode and his Arabic neighbors like the lovely Devi (Samia Shoaib).

The use of natural sound is best encapsulated in the Aphex Twin song "Bucephalus Bouncing Ball" which, ironically, is on the soundtrack album but not heard in the film. By far my favorite song on the CD, it often moves at a breakneck pace, unwavering, driving forward even when beats are played backwards. Much of the track lacks a melody and, instead, seems more content being a study in rhythm. The title of the tune comes in part from Aphex Twin’s use of the sound of a ball bouncing against a hard surface, its pace increasing as it loses inertia. Soon this natural sound is mimicked with manmade gear as if this natural system is being graphed to discover the pattern within.

The contrast of the film’s themes is echoed not only in its music and narrative but also in the stark, high contrast black and/or white cinematography. Being shot on 16mm reversal film, cinematographer Matty Libatique implemented yellow filters to reduce greys and widen the gap between black and white. This left no room for shades of grey between the two extremes, just as there is no space between binary digits 0 and 1.

In the mind of Max Cohen, there need not be shading. There is reality and there is fantasy and Aronofsky unflinchingly presents both with equal conviction, tossing aside the typical cinematic devices that typically denote a shift between these realms. Even in Eraserhead (to which I’ve seen Pi compared on numerous occasions), when director David Lynch manipulates the tone of the film, delving into dreams within dreams, he does so by punctuating these moments with language of cinema; fades to white, dissolves, etc.

This lack of "clues" to the legitimacy of what members of the audience witness allows the viewer to sympathize with the obsessive Max Cohen. The film is narrated from a first person point of view and we strive along with Max to discover the truth among the dark visions. Unlike the more typical "omniscient third person" narrative, we are not given an opportunity to feel superior to Max because we are only allowed to doubt the veracity of his world to the extent that he might.

Identifying with Max Cohen can be an unsettling experience. Personally, I was engrossed in the film and felt exhilarated as Max doggedly pursued his quest. After the lights came up in the theater, I proceeded to walk down to my favorite Royal Oak haunt (where I wrote the majority of this issue) and write an extensive, albeit odd, letter to Rich Osmond that touched on just about every aspect of my life. I wrote of friendship, films, and family with an unfamiliar clarity of thought. I could only hope to have that on more frequent occasions.

The idea of a surrealistic film with math as a core theme might sound incredibly odd and dry. In this way, it catches the viewer off guard in its unrelenting narrative pace and extraordinary images.

The RondellesFiction Romance, Fast Machines (Smells Like Records, PO Box 6179, Hoboken, NJ 07030)
The DonnasAmerican Teenage Rock ‘N’ Roll Machine (Lookout! Records, PO Box 11374, Berkeley, CA 94712-2374)
One night as I was making the long trek home from work, I happened to tune my radio into a great show coming in out of Canada. I heard a couple of rockin’ tunes and was so impressed by two of them that I vowed to find the records they were on.

As I drove, I frantically searched the dark interior of my car for any sort of writing implement. I grabbed a pen just in time for the DJ to back-announce his last set of songs. Without being able to see what I was writing, I scrawled the names of two groups.

Neither of them was at all legible. Ironically, though, I happened to receive albums by both The Donnas and The Rondelles within two weeks of that fateful night!

Both bands feature female vocalists: the terse vocals of The Donnas a stark contrast of the pithy Rondelles. Likewise, lyrically the Donnas sound like the tough, rebellious older siblings singing tune about "getting some" while the Rondelles’s selections include lyrics of fancy, roller rinks, and holding hands.

That’s not to say that the two represent the Madonna/Whore dichotomy—the titles of their albums are just the beginning of their similarities. Both groups kick ass with their raw, major chord driven rock; The Donnas heavier on a four-piece pure rock sound while The Rondelles employ an impish organ. The Donnas’ sound is a bit more "polished" but neither band’s production are far from their garage practice spaces. Good stuff!

Various ArtistsThe Adventures of El Frenetico and Go-Girl (Amusement Films, PO Box 26, New York City, NY 10028)
I really admire the drive and marketing skill of Pat Bishow. I’ve spotted his El Frenetico and Go-Girl films at some of the cooler video stores in Michigan bearing a sweet full-cover illustrated cover. And now even a soundtrack CD is available!

Featuring music from the first three EF&GG episodes, "The Wax Terror" "Crimes of Fashion" and "Shades of Crime," the album spotlights the tunes that accompany the videos’ action, displaying a wide variety of styles and instrumentation. In keeping with the "south of the border" origins of El Frenetico, a few songs have a Latin flavor ("Frenetico Come Back," "La Batalla de los Campeons," "A Very Shady Lady") while battle tunes range in sound from Surf ("Daytime Fight") to Garage ("Ninja Break-in!!!") to (I hesitate to say it) Go-Go ("Always Have a Backup Plan"). A few of the songs have a primitive, albeit appealing, sound reminiscent of early Space Negroes.

Various ArtistsMack Daddies, Mean Muthas, Foxy Mommas (Fifth Planet Records)
Being the reluctant Grand Poobah of the Anti-Tarantino camp is a pretty funky role. I get a lot of flack from rabid fanboys and girls ("You’re an asshole. Don’t be a spazz just because Quentin Tarantino is a god among men and you are an idiot. You said yourself that Reservoir (sic) Dogs is a kick ass movie. Don’t be such a hypocrite that is probably one of the reasons why nobody likes you. Your mom probably do sen’t (sic) even want to speak to you. She’s ashamed."), you get some hushed confessions ("I thought that the switcheroo scene repetition in Jackie Brown could have been edited into one scene." "I think the Bruce Willis part of Pulp Fiction drags."), and you also get clued into the whereabouts and goings on of Tarantino at all times. It’s a strange life I lead.

A few years back I got word of Quentin Tarantino’s pitch meeting for Jackie Brown. The rumor was that QT had been given a cassette of blaxploitation radio trailers that he listened to on his way to his meeting and once he got in he threw out his straight-forward adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch and went for a noveau-blaxploitation flick.

I didn’t know how much stock to put in that story after I saw Jackie Brown and realized that it failed miserably as a blaxploitation film—or as any kind of film, for that matter. It was dull, dull, deathly dull. It took finding Mack Daddies, Mean Muthas, Foxy Mommas to loan some credibility to that tale.

MDMMFM is a killer compilation of commercials for well-known (Cleopatra Jones) and more obscure (Black Rodeo) blaxploitation films—fifty-four phat cuts in all—each a fantastic mix of music, soundbytes, and groovy narration.

It’d be easy to say that MDMMFM is the audio equivalent of Something Weird Video’s Rudy Ray Moore-hosted Afros, Macks & Zodiacs theatrical preview collection. However, while the disc occasionally suffers from a lack of visuals (The clothes! The cars! The action!), it’s redeemed by being tightly edited and skillfully narrated. There’s not a word out of place. The descriptive hyperbole and snippets of dialogue often border on poetry—and I don’t mean the rappin’ and tappin’ of the Rudy Ray Moore’s narrated Human Tornado ("Winnin’, Grinnin’, and Sinnin’!") or rhymed couplets of Dr. Black & Mr. Hyde ("Shot full of lead and he still ain’t dead!"). Plus, MDMMFM features some one-liners that demand being repeated: "Children under 17 not admitted so bring your Momma, she’ll like it too!" "Under 17 not admitted without a parent—or a note from your jailer!"

They Might Be GiantsSevere Tire Damage (Restless Records, 1616 Vista Del Mar Ave, Hollywood, CA 90028
When I was in Junior High I got a typical middle-school crush on a lovely young gal, Stephanie Kaufman. I would pine idly, watching her from afar (our last names kept us apart—if only I had stayed Michael Kittle!), trying to pick up any tidbits about her that I could, hoping that she’d be called on in class so I could hear her gentle voice, all the while despising her obnoxious boyfriend, Steve Li.

Despite Kaufman being a nebbish, she had an "in" with the In-Crowd in her over-active boyfriend. Not that Li was the captain of the football team or anything. If anything, he was King of the Nerds—having the highest GPA in school—I know this fact because he was always quick to point it out. Between he and Pat Gilhool I could have always find out where I stood in the class rankings as they were both obsessive in keeping track of everyone’s grades.

Le roi du nerds or not, Li’s family was loaded and you were definitely down if you made the cut and got invited to one of his infamous shindigs. To clue you in, I never was.

I was one of the losers who got to school way too early to catch up on homework, hobnob in the hallways, and avoid taking the bus. One of my fellow losers was Dave Rygell, a real rebel without a cause who loved to sass his parents and watch Pink Floyd’s The Wall over and over again.

When I first met Dave, I thought he was pretty cool. We’d hang out, watch movies, and bullshit. He would listen as I obsessed about Stephanie Kaufman and even filled me in on what she did in classes that I didn’t have with her. Re-reading that last sentence I guess I should have seen it coming. A restraining order? No, read on.

After a few years of waiting, hoping, and befriending two of Stephanie’s best friends—trying to convince them that I was far better for her than Li. I finally confessed my feelings of affection to Kaufman—big mistake. It’s tough trying to convince a gal that you’re a better catch than her boyfriend is, especially when you’re me!

Shortly thereafter, however, Li broke up with Kaufman. He was moving on to bigger and better turf—living among the overprivileged in the ’burbs north of Detroit and attending the prestigious Cranbrook Institute.

I knew it wasn’t the time for me to try to pursue Kaufman again, especially after proving what a jerk I was. She didn’t remain single long, however. She was soon snatched up for another long-term relationship with none other than my good pal; you guessed it, Dave Rygell!

Amazingly enough, I remained friends with Rygell for a while thereafter—even double dated with he and Kaufman for a while after I finally found a girlfriend. Looking back, I realize that it was pretty pathetic. I imagine that’s some sort of masochistic thing I’ll have to discuss with my therapist.

It took a while for the sense of betrayal to really sink in, though. I think it was aided by my High School band teacher, Mrs. Vogie, who really took a shine to Stephanie and Dave and who had a strong disliking for me.

Mrs. Vogie thought that Dave had a real talent with his trumpet playing. However, she seemed to be the only one who could hear it. To the rest of the band, he was laughable. I remember him even being openly mocked by parents after one particularly stunning solo performance during a band concert.

Ever since then I’ve had a profound dislike of the sound of the trumpet. With that said, I can’t believe how close They Might Be Giants came to driving me away as a fan with the release of their sixth album, John Henry. Gone were the clever bare-boned orchestrations of the two-man group, replaced by an over-produced sound complete with blaring horn section. Yuck. It was Dave Rygell all over again.

Even being a long-time fan of the group I was still hesitant to buy their last studio album, Factory Showroom, for fear of more horns and flashy set pieces. However, Factory Showroom lacked those things that made John Henry so annoying. The Giants returned to the lowest of lo-fi with "I Can Hear You" recorded at the Edison Laboratories on a wax cartridge.

Sure, Factory Showroom had a few clunkers ("S-e-x-x-y" and "XTC vs. Adam Ant") and, unfortunately, those songs reappear on Severe Tire Damage, the Giants’ first official live recording. Yet, with TMBG quantity helps to ensure quality, so for every song I could do without, there are three or four that I enjoy hearing whether they’re live or studio.

There are also several bonus songs that haven’t been released before such as "They Got Lost" and the toe-tapping "Dr. Worm" (an early version of this song exists as a QuickTime Movie on their website). Severe Tire Damage even managed to help me enjoy a John Henry tune; "Meet James Ensor" as it was recorded on the floor of their Paramount Hotel room. No horn section there—just two Johns and an accordion!

The extra bonus tracks "The Planet of the Apes saga" don’t really do anything for me. I hear it’s something new they do in concert but I would have much rather have heard their rocking live version of Edgar Winter’s "Frankenstein"!

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