Two current soundtracks contribute more than just music

CD REVIEWS

April 06, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

High Fidelity

Original Soundtrack (Hollywood 62188)

Wonder Boys

Music From the Motion Picture (Sony Music Soundtrax/Columbia 63849)

Like the costumes and the setting, the music in a movie plays an important role in evoking the world its characters inhabit. It can offer clues about the protagonists' age and attitude, and can help us understand what they're feeling at a particular point in the action.

But there are times when the soundtrack goes beyond that supporting role and actually helps to define the characters. That's certainly the case with the snobby, vinyl-obsessed record-store clerks of John Cusack's "High Fidelity," for whom music is not entertainment but an indicator of character and taste. It's also true -- though to a less obvious degree -- of the clever, narcissistic writer-turned-college professor Michael Douglas plays in "Wonder Boys."

In each case, the music in the film works almost as an identifier, telling us about what these characters value and where they fit in society. Douglas' character, for instance, is an aging baby boomer, so naturally "Wonder Boys: Music From the Motion Picture" relies heavily on the sound of the '60s.

But these aren't just any oldies. Because the hero of "Wonder Boys" is an intellectual, the music has to convey intelligence -- or, at least, intellectual pretension. That translates as classic folk-rock, the sound of the college coffee house. Thus, the album offers a lot of Bob Dylan, along with bits of Tom Rush, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young in his soft-country mode.

Douglas' character doesn't live in the past, so the Dylan we get is of fairly recent vintage (the single "Things Have Changed" comes from the 1997 album "Time out of Mind"). But the professor is still old enough that his notion of soul hasn't changed in decades, which is why the soundtrack's groove tunes are all oldies (Clarence Carter's "Slip Away," for instance). After a while, spinning the album is almost like spending time with the character.

There's also a lot of '60s music on "High Fidelity: Original Soundtrack," but its oldies express a different sort of pretension from those of "Wonder Boys." Where that soundtrack relies most heavily on Dylan to define its lead character, "High Fidelity" uses the underground avant-garde rock of the Velvet Underground to define its aesthetic. And not the semi-familiar stuff, either; instead of obvious choices like "Sweet Jane" or "Heroin," the "High Fidelity" soundtrack opts for choice obscurities like "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'."

If such a choice seems almost willfully inaccessible, that's the point. As a film, "High Fidelity" is about music fans who despise the obvious and accessible, choosing instead to cherish the little-known and hard-to-like, and the album is chockablock with such singles.

In that sense, "High Fidelity" is the polar opposite of the feel-good soundtracks usually found on the pop charts. Instead of Aerosmith or Eric Clapton, what it offers is "feel-smug" music, selections by such anti-mainstream faves as Smog and Stereolab, John Wesley Harding and Royal Trux. It's hardly the stuff of which hits are made, but let's face it -- if it were, the guys in "High Fidelity" would have turned the stereo off long ago.

"Wonder Boys": * * *

"High Fidelity": * * *

Michael McDonald

Blue Obsession (Ramp 1001)

As a stylist, Michael McDonald has always drawn from the sound of soul singing, wisely applying the grainy edge of his expressively hoarse voice to bent notes and bluesy exhortations. "Blue Obsession" takes full advantage of those instincts, but does so in a way that's more retro than modern. Although the arrangements avoid the vintage trappings of his work with the New York Rock & Soul Revue, tracks like "All I Need" and "Open the Door" clearly take their cues from old soul, thanks to a preponderance of horns, funky organ and braying horns. That's not to say the whole album goes that way -- "Build Upon It" plays off the sophisticated cool of Steely Dan's sound, while the title track is a bluesy burner in the Eric Clapton mode -- but at its best, the music here allows McDonald to play off his strengths without sounding like an oldie.

* * *

Luke

Luke's Freak Fest 2000 (Loud 1876)

Mention Luther "Luke" Campbell, and two things come to mind: A relentless, Southern bass beat, and lewd, lascivious lyrics. Mention events like the annual Freaknik (spring-break partying by black college students), and the same things come to mind. So it seems almost inevitable that Luke would be involved in a project like "Luke's Freak Fest 2000," the semi-official soundtrack to the rapper's coming movie.

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