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Rock 'N' Reel: A New Tack On Sound Tracks

January 12, 1986|ROBERT HILBURN

I enjoy putting together Top 10 album lists so much that I've found a way to stretch it into a yearlong process. Every time an album arrives that I like, I place it on an office shelf in order of preference, so that I can see my current Top 10 at any given moment during the 12 months.

In view of all this time devoted to a Top 10, I was surprised to see Ry Cooder's "Alamo Bay" sound track on Time magazine's Top 10 albums of 1985.

The reason for the surprise: I had played "Alamo Bay" often during the year and enjoyed it, but never even thought about putting it on my shelf. The same with a second Cooder sound track from 1985: "Paris, Texas." I've generally thought of sound tracks as a breed apart--albums whose primary intent was to serve the film, not the pop audience.

Playing the albums again, I realized, however, there is a whole history of worthy sound-track recordings that deserve to be considered in a wider pop context--albums by Cooder (including "The Long Riders" and "The Border") and other pop/rock figures--notably Randy Newman, Jack Nitzsche, Mark Knopfler and Tangerine Dream.

Together, they compose what we might describe as the hidden jewels in the rock 'n' reel connection.

In the '50s and '60s, rock fans learned to pretty much stay clear of sound-track recordings. They'd buy them to get a particular theme song or hit single, and find the rest of the LP to be simply background orchestral music without pop-rock sensibilities. The rule became: Just buy the single.

Even when pop and rock artists began contributing heavily to movie scores, the LPs didn't usually reflect the consistency and punch of the same artists' regular collections. Examples: Simon & Garfunkel's "The Graduate" and Bob Dylan's "Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid."

Today, this process has been reversed.

The aim with a high percentage of sound-track records today is almost solely to fuel the pop-rock sensibilities that these albums once ignored. This trend, which just packs tunes by various artists together in hopes of getting some hit singles, has been bad for movies (the music does little to enhance the dramatic purpose of the film) and for the pop audience (so many of these collections are middle-brow in tone).

Between the extremes, however, some pop artists have given us sound-track albums that both meet the needs of the film and stand up outside of it as valid music.

Among the many sound-track recordings that worked well beyond the films and enjoyed considerable commercial success are such varied projects as Curtis Mayfield's powerful and dark "Superfly," "Saturday Night Fever" (an ambitious blend of original Bee Gees tunes, previously released tracks by other artists and additional music and adaptations by David Shire), Giorgio Moroder's tense, synthesizer-accented "Midnight Express" and Stevie Wonder's inspiring "Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants." (Many sound-track albums, purists will note, contain additional music that didn't actually appear in the film.)

There is an equally valuable group of sound-track albums that failed to capture the attention of the mass pop audience. The best moments of these LPs reflect the character and special vision that is the hallmark of all prized pop works.

Cooder, a Los Angeles guitarist who has been affiliated with such diverse rock forces as Captain Beefheart and the Rolling Stones, has such a solid feel for basic American musical forms--including gospel--that he even sat in as guest soloist when the widely praised "The Gospel at Colonus" production opened last month at the James A. Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood.

In his movie scores, Cooder mixes country, blues, soul and rock styles into a rich blend of grass-roots Americana. The moody, chiefly instrumental approach is flexible enough in most of the film to convey both the romanticism of people who cling to the nation's independent spirit and the darker, violent side of that same frontier instinct.

Because Louis Malle's film "Alamo Bay" deals with exactly that conflict, it's easy to see why Cooder was chosen to do the music. The album (on Slash Records) opens with a wistful, guitar-honed suggestion of the lingering potential of the American Dream, but gives way rapidly to the explosive frustration of Texas fishermen who resent the economic competition of Vietnamese refugees. Elsewhere, the LP moves from a wary, country-flavored love song (sung by John Hiatt and actress Amy Madigan) to the combative "The Last Stand" (featuring an appropriately agitated vocal by Fear's Lee Ving).

"Paris, Texas" (Warner Bros.) is an even moodier expression of the psychological dislocation that is at the heart of Wim Wenders' film. Though further from pop accessibility than "Alamo Bay," the score may be an even more affecting work because so much of it is told simply through guitar-shaped portraits that are as softly searching and gently probing as the film itself.

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