Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2015 August 31 • Monday

Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter's music for Virgin Sacrifice is the 386th Soundtrack of the Week!

This is apparently a jungle movie and Sawtell and Shefter really go the distance in creating a lush and mysterious sonic world, especially in the opening prelude and main title music.

It's hard to listen to this without thinking of some of Les Baxter's exotica records. While those are actually quite different, there are bits and pieces in each that might remind you of the other.

This is just one of many amazing releases from Monstrous Movie Music, a label that excels in putting together astounding soundtrack packages for obscure titles.

2015 August 28 • Friday

For the first time in over thirty years I read an Agatha Christie novel. I found it on the street and thought, what the hell. It was the first Miss Marple mystery, The Murder at the Vicarage.

Somewhat to my surprise, I loved it! You could make a case that it anticipates the work of Barbara Pym. It's also influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle and G. K. Chesterton and even drops the names of Sherlock Holmes and Chesterton. (There is a direct reference to the famous Father Brown story "The Invisible Man".)

P. G. Wodehouse came to mind as well. Wodehouse admired Christie and I would bet the feeling was mutual.

This kind of book was famously trashed by Raymond Chandler and Edmund Wilson but I suspect they were missing the point and perhaps irritated by Christie's unprecedented and still unsurpassed popularity.

The plot is neatly summed up in the title. Somebody is murdered at the vicarage. Pretty much everybody could have done it and nobody is sad that the victim has been killed. Complications and red herrings abound.

The story is told in the first person by the vicar himself while Miss Marple, his neighbor, is mostly off stage, popping up from time to time to offer her take on events. Like Father Brown, her innocence is contrasted with a brutal kind of wisdom, a knowledge of human nature that's based on unblinkered observations and experiences.

The first line is "It is difficult to know quite where to begin this story, but I have fixed my choice on a certain Wednesday at luncheon at the Vicarage".

The back cover of the edition I read makes several (minor) mistakes in its description of the book and features a blurb from Charles Todd that reflects more poorly on Todd than it does favorably on the book in question.

2015 August 26 • Wednesday

Stranger in a Strange Land is the first Robert Heinlein book I've read and it was a disappointment.

This is the original version, not the edited one that was published in 1961. About 60,000 words were cut out of it and it became a best-seller, apparently the first science-fiction novel to make the New York Times best-seller list.

The book begins strongly, beginning with an expedition to Mars that results in a human baby being born on Mars and raised by Martians. Apparently Heinlein's wife suggested that he do something along the lines of The Jungle Book but with Martians instead of wolves raising a child. The novel's first sentence nods to the children's tale element inherent in this idea: "Once upon a time when the world was young there was a Martian named Smith".

When Smith travels to Earth and has to navigate the completely alien world that is our own recognizable human world, projected into a fairly easy to imagine near future, the book is at its most satisfying.

Trouble begins with the appearance of Jubal, a character who appears to be Heinlein's fantasy alter ego, a rich and famous writer who, in addition to knowing everything and everybody and always being right about everything, is also a doctor and a lawyer and lives in stately splendor in a luxurious compound where he is the ultimate authority.

Heinlein insists that he wasn't trying to give answers to questions but there must be a hundred pages of Jubal monologues as he holds forth on art, religion, finance, politics, human nature, sex and whatever else. No other point of view is ever shown and everybody agrees with everything Jubal says.

Some of this is pretty entertaining though too often plodding and facile, not to mention sexist and homophobic.

Other characters are only slightly less garrulous. In fact this might be the talkiest book I've ever read. line.

Where does it all go? Into a dead end of neo-Christian/pagan/free-love/mind-expansion mumbo jumbo, and a dismayingly obvious climax.

2015 August 24 • Monday

It's my birthday month and the 385th Soundtrack of the Week is something I might have wished for as a present: a collection of music from the television show Mission: Impossible!

This is really amazing. It's also brand new. My copy, which I ordered the day it went on sale, arrived sometime last week when we were out of town. I've been listening to it off and on all day and haven't made it halfway through the six discs.

It comes with three booklets and while complete personnel isn't included, certain musicians are mentioned as making significant contributions (Larry Bunker, Plas Johnson, Al Hendrickson, etc.).

The composers who worked on the show were Lalo Shifrin (obviously), who wrote the famous theme and established the overall concept for scoring the series, Walter Scharf, Gerald Fried, Jack Urbont, Don Ellis, Robert Drasnin, Jerry Fielding, Richard Markowitz, Richard Hazard, Herschel Burke Gilbert, Rudy Schrager, Robert Prince, Hugo Montenegro, Benny Golson, Harry Geller, Kenyon Hopkins, George Romanis and Duane Tatro.

So far just about everything I've heard has been great. Much of it is familiar from watching the show, especially the first season. I'm pretty sure I put music from "Odds on Evil"—my source being a VHS tape of a rerun—on a mix tape at some point in my life.

It's worth keeping in mind that a project like this takes a huge amount of work and a lot of money. If you'd like to see more things like it, the best thing you could do is buy this box set.

Special thanks to La-La Land Records, who had already blown minds by putting out the complete music from Star Trek (the original series)!

2015 August 19 • Wednesday

Out of the Past has been one of my favorite movies for a long time. The combination of Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Jacques Tourneur and Nicholas Musuraca, who head the list of talent involved in this movie, is unbeatable.

It wouldn't amount to as much without a great story and great characters, however, and these were supplied by screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, who attempted his own novel Build My Gallows High, which had been published under the pen name of Geoffrey Homes.

If a movie's really good and it's based on a book, I frequently seek out the book. While books usually deliver more than the movie version, or at least provide some nuances and depth that film adaptations have to shrug off, I've been surprised by the number of times a movie has improved on a book. Out of the Past is an example of this.

The biggest change is in the character played by Jane Greer. Named Kathy Moffett in the movie, in the book she's the ridiculous Mumsie McGonigle. She might as well just be named MacGuffin, for that's what she is, not so much a character as a device and a plot convenience.

The character names appear to have been picked with care and suggest archetypes: Guy, Kid, Red, Whit, Meta. This fits with the sense of fatalism or existentialism that runs through the pages. "What was going to happen would happen and that was that. When you came right down to it, it didn't matter much. It really didn't matter at all. Even if he was a worthy citizen full of good deeds and honors, it wouldn't matter."

The movie improves on the story's structure and transforms its slightly static nature into an inexorable magentic pull. There is much great atmospheric writing and attention to detail in the book, and these seem to have survived into the movie as well, such as "the sea an unruffled inland lake so smooth you could find stars in it" or "The shadows of her long lashes were like cob-webs on her pale skin".

Some characters are more memorable in the book than they are in the movie, such as Lloyd Eels. He's not important as a character. He's just there to be the main problem for the hero. The movie doesn't need him to do more than show up and speak his lines. The book can spend a little more time on him, though. "Lloyd Eels was a tall man who hadn't come off the assembly line. Somebody had found some spare parts lying around and had put them together carelessly, not bothering to get the bolts tight so that they seemed almost ready to come apart."

But Mainwaring (or somebody) came up with much snappier dialogue for the movie, and served the story well by streamlining the love triangle. While this is a more important aspect of the book, and brings with it considerable poignancy and complexity of character, it would have been less interesting in the movie, I think, and also a distraction. (In the book it also leads to a contrived and somewhat exasperating woman in jeopardy scene that feels patched in just to provide some titillation to sleazier-minded readers.)

Build My Gallows Highis a great read, no doubt about it, though the movie improves on it. You could think of the novel as a an earlier draft. While the way the movie ends the story is superior, the book does have a devastating last line. The first line is "Red Bailey didn't see her coming".

2015 August 17 • Monday

The 384th Soundtrack of the Week is a real classic, Miklós Rózsa's score for The Lost Weekend.

If you know Rózsa's work then you know what this sounds like for the most part. The score is well known for its use of the theremin, however, which Rózsa had just incorporated into his orchestra with his previous film score, for Hitchcock's Spellbound.

The music for Spellbound is quite famous on its own and while The Lost Weekend is similar in many ways, it's a stronger score which exploits the theremin's unique sound in a more effective way.

2015 August 14 • Friday

If you want to indulge in the more fantastical elements of The Beach Boys' story, if you want the dirt and the stardust and that well-worn tale of rise and fall and rise again, then by all means curl up with Peter Ames Carlin's Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall & Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson.

Carlin is good on the music and has a substantial collection of interviews at his disposal. Brian Wilson is the center of this story, as he tends to be, but I found myself becoming just as interested in Carl and Dennis as well as Mike Love, for whom I gained some sympathy. (I still regard him mostly with dislike snd suspicion, but I now have a few reservations about that, knowing a bit more about him and his life.)

Some of the staccato piano and snare drums work anticipates Goldsmith's First Blood score. Though this is a sci-fi movie, Goldsmith relies heavily on acoustic instruments, generating weird sounds through the use of unusual percussion and unusual writing for conventional instruments.

The first line is "Brian Wilson is sitting in a little room somewhere deep in the recesses of the Austin Convention Center, staring intently at the green linoleum floor".

2015 August 12 • Wednesday

If you're interested in The Beach Boys but want to side-step the various mythologies and heroes-and-villaining that follow them everywhere, then Luis Sanchez's Smile, a volume in the 33 1/3 series, is the book for you.

It's not actually about the record Smile, though that's in there. It's a breathtakingly lucid, coherent and sober examination of The Beach Boys and their music and why you might want to listen to it.

Usually the story people like to tell about The Beach Boys is something akin to Oscar Wilde's "The Nightingale and the Rose" with Brian Wilson in the role of the nightingale. Without diminishing in any way what Wilson accomplished, Sanchez refuses to be seduced by the fairy tale elements of the story.

Slender though this book is, at just over a hundred pages, it gets incredible mileage. When you finish it you will, I hope, have a healthy skepticism of other tellings of the story as well as a revitalized appreciation for American pop music and pop culture.

The first line is "It was meant to be funny".

2015 August 10 • Monday

John Barry's music for Indecent Proposal is the 383nd Soundtrack of the Week.

This might be one for the die-hard Barry fans. It could be fairly described as languid, even sappy. For many it will be dull and perhaps even insipid.

But for those of us who love John Barry, it's perfect for a rainy morning such as this one. It's a romantic and lush score, driven by tender and sensitive writing for piano.

It's also classic John Barry, in that his signature phrasing and voicings are present throughout.

2015 August 07 • Friday

1914 by Jean Echenoz is the opposite of most war novels. At just over a hundred pages it's quite short. And much to its credit it's understated, matter of fact, unsentimental and delicately, precisely crafted.

The story focuses on Anthime, who is brought out of a lovely summer day and into a brutal conflict when he, along with his brother and a few friends is drafted. While these men experience life on the front lines, with its attendant miseries and horrors, the character of Blanche, pregnant with a child whose father appears to be Anthime's brother's, allows the home front to stay in the picture.

Everything that happens to these charcters simply happens because something else didn't happen. In this sense the novel is fatalistic and, I guess, existential. Birth, death, terror, boredom, injury and everything else are events of equal significance or insignificance.

This approach won't be to everybody's taste but I prefer it. I think Confucius said something about how the more horrible something is, the better it is to speak of it dispassionately. To dress up slaughter and torture for some kind of performance while putting your own bleeding heart on stage with the literally bleeding can too often be tacky and narcissistic.

The first line is "Since the weather was so inviting and it was Saturday, a half day, which allowed him to leave work early, Anthime set out on his bicycle after lunch".

2015 August 05 • Wednesday

With Invisible Green John Sladek gave the world a brilliant and dizzying parody of and tribute to a certain strain of golden age detective fiction, the old locked room, serial murders, English country house, brilliant amateur detective sort of thing.

What better setting than the reunion of a group called The Seven Unravellers, whose members are devotees of mystery fiction? Each one is a startling character of some sort, all have things to hide and motives for murder. And of course they're getting killed off one by one.

Our sleuth is named Thackeray Phin and it's a pleasure to follow him around as the story grows more baroque and improbable. I'm pretty sure that Sladek doesn't break any rules, though. We have access to all the information that Phin does and we have as much of a chance to solve any of the murders.

But of course you're dealing with the kind of suspects who, to take one example, can see a wasp land on a glass of beer and quickly come up with the palindrome "regal wasp saw lager". And of course red herrings abound.

The first line is "'Look pleased, everyone,' said the photographer".

2015 August 03 • Monday

The 382nd Soundtrack of the Week is Bernard Herrmann's music for 5 Fingers.

The movie is a spy story, I think, something about a traitor getting secret documents out of an embassy. James Mason is in it. I saw it on television many years ago and don't really remember it.

My first encounter with the score was the Stromberg/Morgan re-recording. That was a great CD, pairing 5 Fingers with Herrmann's The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

But now we have the original soundtrack recording conducted by the composer, thanks to the 100th Anniversary Herrmann box set that Varèse put out.

5 Fingers doesn't come up much in conversation about Herrmann, but it's one of his most satisfying scores. It has the obsessively brooding cues, the strong use of orchestral color, the unabashedly romantic lyricism and beauty, the mesmerizing ostinati, even some colorful exotica in "The Old Street".

Herrmann wrote this music at just around the same time that he composed the celebrated music for The Day the Earth Stood Still, and the two scores are similar in many ways. There are no prominent electric instruments or special effects in the 5 Fingers score, though, which might account for its being overlooked.