'Titanic' soundtrack sings as ship sinks, while 'Kundun' has more Glass than grace

CD REVIEWS

January 22, 1998|By J.D. Considine JAZZ Marcus Roberts J.D. Considine

Titanic; Music from the Motion Picture (Sony Classical 0) 63213)

Kundun; Music from the Original Soundtrack (Nonesuch 79460)

In the stores, soundtracks tend to be pop-oriented affairs, star-laden packages that sound more like rock or R&B compilation albums than film scores. In the theaters, though, most of the music heard behind the actors still tends to be orchestral in nature -- the better to convey drama, tension or pathos. As a result, films from "Batman" to "Men in Black" end up spawning two separate soundtrack albums: A pop collection for the mass audience, and an orchestral album for film score collectors.

James Cameron's "Titanic" is the first album in ages to successfully bridge that gap. Apart from its Celine Dion-sung love theme, "Titanic: Music from the Motion Picture" is given over entirely to James Horner's score. Even so, the largely orchestral album has been enjoying pop-hit sales -- and not just because the movie itself has been a box-office smash.

No, what makes "Titanic" so much fun to hear is the way Horner has co-opted the sound and melodic sensibility of Celtic-oriented New Age artists like Clannad and Enya. By adding traditional Irish instruments and lush, electronic textures, Horner is able to make these pieces tuneful and atmospheric, while keeping the bulk of his score suitably symphonic.

The album's Irish flavor is stressed early on, as Horner introduces "Never an Absolution" with a wan melody played on uillean pipes, and uses tin whistle heavily through the romantic sketch, "Rose." While these pieces establish themes that are repeated later in the album, the most telling flavor is the synthesized chorale that gives voice to the much-repeated theme from "Southampton," because it's this device that most clearly evokes the sound of Clannad hits like "Harry's Game."

In that sense, the inclusion of Dion might seem a misstep. After all, the full-throttle delivery she usually applies to power ballads hardly seems suited to a sound as mannered as the one Horner attempts. But Dion handles "My Heart Will Go On" beautifully, building slowly enough that even the delicate Celtic harp lines Horner uses to ornament the verse are never overshadowed.

Adding traditional instruments to a score in order to enhance the musical atmosphere may be an obvious idea, but it's not one that is managed easily. Just look at the mixed results Philip Glass gets when he tries to fold ancient Tibetan elements into his score for "Kundun."

Given the gruff sonorities of traditional Tibetan Buddhist chants, it's easy to understand why Glass would want to soften and adapt his source music. "Sand Mandala," in fact, does an excellent job at conveying the clanging gongs and guttural drones of Tibetan monastery music while keeping enough of his own sound in there to make sure we know this is a Hollywood film score.

Trouble is, Glass' percolating arpeggios are themselves such a specific and identifiable device that much of the score seems set not in Tibet but in Glass' own soundscape. There are some stunning moments, make no mistake. But on the whole, the album will be of greater interest to Philip Glass fans interested in hearing how he has expanded his palette than to movie fans looking for a taste of Tibet.

blues for the new millennium (Columbia 68637)

Today's young jazz talents are often dismissed as stuffy neo-conservatives who prize reverence over daring. In "blues for the new millennium," pianist Marcus Roberts threatens to fit the bill with stilted covers of Robert Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton that make one yearn for the originals. But the remaining 12 tracks, all written by Roberts, are thoroughly modern creations that mine a boatload of musical sources from New Orleans dirges to Afro-Cuban jazz and whale sounds. Fifteen musicians swing and scream their way through these, sometimes verging on a free-jazz cacophony. The result is delightful and challenging, and it only gets better with each listening.

Jonathan Bor

POP/ROCK

Lisa Loeb

Firecracker (Geffen 51412)

Because singer/songwriters are often perceived to be more about words than music, most are judged more on their material than their delivery. Lisa Loeb, though, is the sort of singer/songwriter for whom the singing is more important than the songwriting. That's not to suggest that the tunes on "Firecracker" are duds; between the sly, literate wordplay of "Furious Rose" and the vividly articulated ambivalence of

"Truthfully," Loeb certainly knows how to turn a phrase, whether verbally or musically. But the most memorable moments here, whether the studied fatalism of "Falling In Love" or the breathless determination of "Wishing Heart," owe their power to the way her voice lends her words an urgency mere language could not imbue.

J.D. Considine

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