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Album reviews: 'Slumdog,' 'Yes Man' and other recent soundtrack releases

December 22, 2008 |  5:24 pm

Exposure in movie soundtracks is a boon for artists.

What's a bust for some is a boon for others. The music industry might be fragmenting to bits, but other media are picking up the pieces. Movies, television and YouTube are increasingly proving to be the way to find out about a great song or artist. Witness the ascension of M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" -- an underground sleeper one minute, the next a Grammy-nominated hit, thanks to exposure in the trailer for "Pineapple Express" and more recently, the critically adored "Slumdog Millionaire."

For the final record rack of 2008, we take a look at some of the latter half of the year's most prominent soundtracks and scores.

Big_love_140 David Byrne
"Big Love: Hymnal"
Todo Mundo
* * * (three stars)

With "Big Love: Hymnal," David Byrne pens a batch of clean but knowing paeans to the polygamist lifestyle featured on the HBO show starting its third season in January. The compositions conjure images of Byrne performing — his silver hair, an owlish expression, upright and robed — in front of a congregation. But this is Byrne we’re talking about, so most of these pieces, with their teasing, witty titles (“Exquisite Whiteness,” “The Breastplate of Righteousness”) and mannered precision would be better performed under gallery lights than stained glass.

Many of Byrne's short but articulated songs grapple with the mysterious, confounding nature of faith and the suspicion that underlies the Henrickson household at the center of the series.

"Great Desolations" is a sliver of unease with suspended reefs of guitar and xylophone that folds into the tight-lipped Christian cha cha of "A House on Sand." Salvation Army marching band instrumentation (baritone horn, fluegelhorn) lines a handful of tracks with solemn or joyful reserve.

Nothing on the album applies to the outer edges of religious experience, no loss of faith or nirvana or shivering redemption.

Instead, Byrne concerns himself with austere, private expressions of pride or wonder, feelings a religious person frequently might have -- but not share. “Big Love: Hymnal” is made of these small moments, but collectively they have the crisp, eye-catching shine of a gold crucifix tucked into a modest blouse. (MW)

Jnh_140 James Newton Howard
Sony Classics
* * * (three stars)

James Newton Howard already has had a hand in one of the most acclaimed scores of the year, providing the softer moments of "The Dark Knight," a collaboration with Hans Zimmer. On "Defiance," the score for director Ed Zwick's World War II drama, Howard has another star artistic partner: acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell, who contributed to the Oscar-winning score for "The Red Violin."

What the two create here is a quiet, often minimalist piece. It flirts with classical stylings -- the violin is a standard yet admirable accompaniment for almost any film dealing with the Holocaust -- but Howard's score drifts into more atmospheric terrain. The best tracks are a showcase for Bell's unassuming but respectful performance. See "Exodus," in which Bell's elegance is surrounded by only the barest of notes.

There are few recurring themes, but there are rhythmic bursts that give way to a romantic swing in "Police Station," and some mournfully lovely counter melodies in "Tuvia Kisses Lilka." There's also a fair amount of ambience, most notably in "Make Them Count." It's brief but striking, with a stalking bass drum erupting into an anxious violin frenzy. Perhaps Howard's experiences on "The Dark Knight" stuck with him. (TM)

Rgm140 "Rachel Getting Married" soundtrack
Various Artists
Lakeshore Records
* * * (three stars)

Director Jonathan Demme populates the background of many scenes in "Rachel Getting Married" with musicians rehearsing for the film's emotional climax, in which a troubled woman (Anne Hathaway) confronts a long-held trauma.

The same sense of loose improvisation that Demme creates on-screen pervades the soundtrack, a collection that includes dreamy pop, Brazilian dance and mini, jazz-leaning orchestrations yet still sounds like a unified whole. The standout cut here is "Up to Our Nex" from singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock. It's a buoyant little ditty -- a tale of stubborn absolution with a minor horn section and just a dash of spacey electric guitar notes.

But the acoustic compositions from New York-based Palestinian composer Zafer Tawil are more than set dressing. His three pieces capture a chamber orchestra caught in improvisation, their seemingly random plucked strings and violin notes slowly building into sparse, moody melodies. (TM)

Slumdog140 "Slumdog Millionaire" soundtrack
Various Artists
* * * 1/2

The love that game show hero Jamal nurses for fellow orphan Latika is at the center of Danny Boyle's fairy tale set in Mumbai, but the soundtrack for “Slumdog Millionaire” is smitten with a different woman: M.I.A., the daughter of a Tamil Tiger insurgent and the London-raised poster child for East meets West club cool.

Bollywood composer A.R. Rahman wrote most of the soundtrack, but this first release on M.I.A.'s Interscope label N.E.E.T. coalesces around her sensibilities.

Most tracks stir the pulse; a few evoke the film’s overarching tenderness. Rahman’s trademark sound is polyrhythmic, nuanced and utterly polished but without sacrificing an edgy contradiction that keeps all the songs spinning on their heads.

On "Ringa Ringa," featuring playback singer Alka Yagnik and Indian actress-singer Ila Arun, Rahman updates a classic Bollywood song. "O . . . Saya," the collaboration between M.I.A. and Rahman, opens the film with subcontinental tension cut with fantasy. "Mausam & Escape" pins classic guitar and sitar against racing tablas and muscular synths.

For many ears, M.I.A.'s single is the choice cut. "Paper Planes," and especially the bombastic DFA remix that exchanges the gunshot-cash register motif for a funk bass line and choppy disco synths, are indeed standouts but the treasures of “Slumdog Millionaire” only spread out from there. (MW)

Yes_man140__2 "Yes Man" soundtrack
Various Artists
Lakeshore Records
* * (two stars)

Los Angeles' Mark Everett, the singer-songwriter behind Eels, has become a staple in Hollywood. Leisurely and wry, Everett's pop lives just to the left of the mainstream, but its melodic eccentricities fit comfortably on film. From "American Beauty" to "Shrek," Everett's become a reliable source when a script calls for quirky.

His one original here, "Man Up," is a delight. It's a scruffy piece of folk-rock, and it breaks out of an opening hangover daze with a foot-stomping rhythm. Each verse layers on another hook -- chimes, background "woo-woo's" and then a plucky little guitar solo.

There are eight more previously released Eels cuts on the soundtrack for the Jim Carrey comedy. They're nice, especially the creepy-crawling xylophone melody of "Flyswatter," but a sampling of Everett's score (recorded with composer Lyle Workman) would have been better.

The rest of the soundtrack is filled with the Zooey Deschanel-led fictional synth-rock band Munchausen by Proxy. Deschanel has an understated way of singing, and it works wonders with the vintage pop of her band She & Him. Here, backed by San Francisco's dance rockers Von Iva, her gracefulness feels a bit out of place. But considering the songs are played for laughs, Deschanel brings enough charm for the songs to rise above standard novelty fare.

--Todd Martens and Margaret Wappler