Album Review: Escape to Witch Mountain (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) by Johnny Mandel

Last week, I was witness to some small magic. Or perhaps it was a minor kind of miracle. Let me explain…

Some of us at Murfie HQ were sitting around one afternoon, discussing the music of old movies we loved as kids. Films like Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang were brought up, of course. I immediately thought of Escape to Witch Mountain, and we started reminiscing about the utterly creepy theme by Johnny Mandel that opens the film, with protagonists Tia and Tony running in silhouette from viciously barking dogs.

Escape to Witch Mountain

That opening scene scared me when I was younger, so I’d hit fast forward on our VHS player. I always thought it was an odd contrast to the whimsical scenes of Tia communicating telepathically with cats, or Tony using his harmonica to telekinetically control marionettes. But that’s what Escape to Witch Mountain is; it’s what you get when you put Hammer horror director John Hough at the helm of a novel adaptation for Disney. Kid’s movies in the ’70s weren’t afraid of scaring you (e.g. How creepy was almost everything in Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory?).

While we chatted, I did what I always do in these situations—I looked for the soundtrack. Much to my dismay, I couldn’t find it. Nor could I find very many releases of Johnny Mandel’s work in general. Digging deeper, I was saddened to learn that the only released version of any music from Escape to Witch Mountain was on an obscure Disneyland Records illustrated storybook LP narrated by Eddie Albert (who plays Jason O’Day). This news was particularly shocking since Escape to Witch Mountain was—at the time—one of Disney’s most successful live action films.

Escape to Witch Mountain Disneyland
Not quite what I was looking for…

I was beginning to lose hope that I could show my colleagues this wonderful music from my childhood without lugging in my parents’ VCR. I loved Escape to Witch Mountain so much that I learned Tony’s melodic riffs by ear during my brief stint taking harmonica lessons. It is, to this day, some of my favorite movie music.

But then the magic happened. A bit further down the search results, I stumbled upon a recent post on the INTRADA forums. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because they’ve released literally hundreds of film and video game soundtracks, both new and old. Imagine my surprise when, upon reading the post, I learned that not only was INTRADA releasing the Escape to Witch Mountain soundtrack, but it was out that very day! That’s right—40 years after the film’s release, on a day that I just happened to be wishing for a soundtrack, INTRADA was delivering with their full, limited edition Special Collection Volume 309 release.

Johnny Mandel—who is perhaps best known for “Suicide Is Painless” from M*A*S*H—was absolutely ahead of his time with Escape to Witch Mountain. Mandel’s deceptively simple themes were performed with a massive 50-odd-member orchestra, but with the addition of harmonica and eerie drones from the Moog synthesizer. The outcome feels like an alien adaptation of 1970s Disney fanfares. Playful tunes like “The Flying Camper” would be equally at home in any Disney film from the era, but Mandel’s biggest successes come when he subverts those expectations. There are ideas continually introduced throughout the film’s score which are later echoed via synthesizers that sound equally otherworldly 40 years later.

Not only has INTRADA teamed up with Disney to make this soundtrack finally available, but they’ve done so with more detail than could have been anticipated. The main themes are here, but so are all of the film’s musical cues and then some. For their limited CD release of the soundtrack, INTRADA (with producer Douglass Fake) have put together just about everything they could salvage from Disney’s long-term storage tapes ca. 1975.

Escape to Witch Mountain (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
That’s more like it!

The main score itself clocks in at just over 36 minutes, cues included. INTRADA has done a nice job of weaving together the more traditional soundtrack-type pieces and cues in a way that makes narrative sense within the context of the movie. The CD starts with Mandel’s “Main Title”—creepy dogs and all—and continues from there. While it may sound like overkill on paper, the cues are unique enough that they make sense tagging along. As mentioned in the liner notes (which are extensive and appreciated), many of these cues introduce motifs that reappear in future scored pieces.

It is worth noting that the thoroughness of this CD means you will likely hear many repeated themes throughout its duration, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In many cases, a score is not put together with the intention that you listen to it apart from the film, but to Mandel’s credit, the included cues combine their own voices to tell the story. While Tony’s telekinesis may be signaled by a theme for harmonica (in reality, master Tommy Morgan), Tia’s telepathy is portrayed by an accompanying swell of Moog synthesizers (played by jazz musician Paul Beaver). Furthermore, the emotional state of the characters changes how the themes are executed.

The aforementioned soundtrack and cues would be enough to satisfy a fan of the film, right? Not for INTRADA. When I said they released every piece of material they could find, I wasn’t exaggerating. After the main score, they’ve included ten extra tracks. Thanks to the diligence of some forward-thinking folks at Disney, the recording sessions were stored in a way that allowed INTRADA to re-assemble orchestral pieces without harmonica or synthesizer cues. The result is seven previously unheard arrangements of more traditional orchestration.

Continue reading Album Review: Escape to Witch Mountain (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) by Johnny Mandel

Album Review: “Broke with Expensive Taste” by Azealia Banks

It’s finally here! After the surprise success of her 2011 single “212 (feat. Lazy Jay)”—which currently sits at 86M+ views on YouTubeAzealia Banks has finally released her debut album Broke with Expensive Taste.

Azealia Banks - Broke with Expensive TasteIf you’ve followed Azealia Banks in any capacity, you’ll know that the beginning of her career has its share of misfortunes. Beyond being a bit of a trouble maker on Twitter (a search for “Azealia banks twitter” currently brings up more results about her beefs than her actual account), Banks has been completely public about disagreements with her ex-label management at Interscope.

Shortly after dropping the video for “212,” Banks announced she was working on Broke with Expensive Taste and signing to Interscope. Things didn’t work out, and fans were left waiting. In the meantime, Azealia Banks did manage to put out her 1991 EP with Interscope and the self-released Fantasea mixtape. This past November, without notice, Broke with Expensive Taste was released by Prospect Park (Universal), and after another 4-month wait, the CD version is finally here.

That’s the lead-up, so how is the album itself? In short, Broke with Expensive Taste is a mixed bag. As someone who has waited for the album since its announcement, it’s great to finally have it in my hands. I can’t imagine the trouble Azealia Banks had to go through to get the rights to this album from Interscope and work out a new release plan, and the delays certainly did not help.

Broke with Expensive Taste is all over the place as far as production and style go. In a way, it feels a lot like her Fantasea mixtape; a combination of great house-influenced tracks and sometimes-odd experiments that don’t always hit. Banks’ verses are generally on-point, and her singing is mostly good—even if the results aren’t as consistent.

Album singles “Heavy Metal and Reflective” and “Yung Rapunxel”—both of which were produced by Lil Internet—were released quite a while before the album, and they’re both still enjoyable. Other album highlights include “BBD,” “Luxury” and “Miss Camaraderie”. My personal favorite has to be “Chasing Time”, which highlights the type of production and songwriting I enjoyed most on 1991 and Fantasea.

1991A few tracks like “Idle Delilah” have questionable production, and they’re just a bit of a mess. In the aforementioned track, Banks’ vocals (and much of the overall track) sound like they’re being pushed to distortion. It’s not necessary, and doesn’t fit well with the rest of the album. “Desperado” is similarly messy. “Gimme a Chance” somehow starts out as an indie-rock-sampling hip-hop track that morphs into a Latin dance. It doesn’t really work for me, but at it’s great to see this kind of experimentation early in the album.

Unfortunately, the Ariel Pink -produced piece “Nude Beach a-Go-Go” is an experiment that doesn’t fair as well as some of the others. While I do appreciate unabashed silliness, Banks’ decision to include a lo-fi beach party surf song on the album is iffy at best. Azealia Banks is known for writing some dirty, dirty verses, and she really missed an opportunity to work her magic on the happy-go-lucky surf tune. It sounds like she tried to go that route, but the result wasn’t as clever as Banks has shown she can be.

I think the history of this album’s release is important context, because it certainly feels like more of a baseline for what Banks can do, rather than a perfection of any one thing. Like her Fantasea mixtape, Broke with Expensive Taste really does have some excellent tracks, but it just feels bloated. There is a lot of stuff that doesn’t need to be here; besides the questionable tracks, “212” makes an unnecessary return, and it could have been cut after its release on 1991. Either way, this doesn’t need to be a 16-track album. Some of the tracks that were written back in 2011 and 2012 while Banks struggled with her label could have been cut.

That said, is it worth getting? Yes! Even though I will skip “Nude Beach a-Go-Go” 100% of the time, there is a lot to love about this album. I will certainly be excited to hear whatever Azealia Banks cooks up next, and I’m willing to bet we won’t be waiting another four years for it.


John Kruse
@johnkruse

John Praw Kruse is an Operations Manager, and Product Manager for the Murfie Vinyl Service. In his free time, John makes music, including scores for indie films and various shorts. He is the founder of Mine All Mine Records and the Lost City Music Festival. John devours new music.


Album Review: “Song One (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)” by Various Artists

I’m not the kind of person that listens to a lot of movie soundtracks. When I do pick one up, it’s usually because of its use in the film itself (see for example Hans Zimmer’s recent Interstellar score, or the excellent Clint Mansell collaboration with Kronos Quartet and Mogwai for The Fountain).

Song One (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

As I write this, however, Song One‘s full theatrical / on-demand release is still a week or so away. While Interstellar‘s music blew me away in the theater, I went into the Song One soundtrack with a completely different context. Song One (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) piqued my interest last November when it was announced that songwriting duo Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice were set to score the film and produce its soundtrack.

I’ve been a Jenny Lewis fan since the days of Rilo Kiley (side note: as a kid, I for sure had a crush on her in The Wizard, but that doesn’t count). Luckily, in the post-Rilo Kiley years, there has been no shortage of Jenny Lewis listening. From the b-sides Rkives album to her recent solo album The Voyager, Lewis has kept busy.

Jenny and Johnny debuted their collaborative efforts all the way back in 2010, which makes Song One an interesting place to reunite in a formal way. The pair serve as both writers for all but one of the soundtrack’s original songs and producers of the album and recordings. You’ll also find their talents in the form of occasional backing vocals.

Peppered among the soundtrack’s original tunes is a generally well-curated selection of other songs. Most of the songs fit really well, making Song One feel much closer to an album than a random selection of soundtrack-y hits. Standouts include the excellent “One Day” by Sharon Van Etten and America‘s “I Need You.”

While most of the soundtrack feels cohesive in tone, there are some questionable inclusions that may take the film’s context to appreciate. I’m a big Dan Deacon supporter, but in an album of folky, country-influenced rock songs, “The Crystal Cat” is a strange choice. And while Portuguese song “O Leaozinho” is interesting, I just didn’t enjoy this recording all that much.

Song One Still
Song One stars Johnny Flynn & Anne Hathaway

The meat of this soundtrack is clearly the original songs, which all—to my relief—feel like they could have been Jenny and Johnny canon. Nothing feels like a throwaway. In a world of cash-ins and sequels, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a film like Song One turn into a late-to-the-party Once ripoff, but it’s crystal clear that everyone involved with this soundtrack cared a lot.

My favorite originals have to be “Iris, Instilled” and the soundtrack’s single “In April.” It’s important to mention some excellent performances by one of the film’s stars, Johnny Flynn, the voice behind Song One’s originals. Beyond vocals, Flynn also contributes guitar, piano and violin throughout the soundtrack.

For a movie about music, it’s refreshing to see such obvious collaboration through and through. The songs that really work here are the ones where Johnny Flynn, Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice are all involved. If you’ve heard a lot of Jenny Lewis’ work, it’s easy to hear that Flynn’s delivery serves her style of phrasing well.

While not bad per se, the lone original not performed by Johnny Flynn, “Marble Song,” was probably the most forgettable. Likewise, “Afraid of Heights,” which seems to be taken directly from the film, was not written by Jenny and Johnny. The recording quality on that track is notably worse than the rest of the album. If it was indeed taken from the movie itself, the poor mixing is a concern.

Song One (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) is not perfect, but it is certainly a treat for fans of Jenny Lewis, Johnathan Rice or their combined efforts. The worst thing about Song One is that you might want to skip a track here or there, but that’s hardly a problem when the soundtrack is so generous with good, original music. Here’s hoping we get more Jenny and Johnny sooner rather than later!

Jenny and Johnny
Jenny and Johnny


John Kruse
@johnkruse

John Praw Kruse is an Operations Manager, and Product Manager for the Murfie Vinyl Service. In his free time, John makes music, including scores for indie films and various shorts. He is the founder of Mine All Mine Records and the Lost City Music Festival. John devours new music.


Album Review: “Interstellar (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)” by Hans Zimmer

Hans Zimmer has written a lot of music. With over 150 films under his belt, you have heard his work—whether you can name a movie he’s done off the top of your head, or spot a tune when you hear it.

While Zimmer began his music career playing synth for new wave and punk bands (see The Buggles‘ classic “Video Killed the Radio Star“), he’s perhaps best known for his marrying of electronic and orchestral sounds. If you’ve seen Rain Man, The Lion King, The Dark Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc, etc, etc, etc, Hans Zimmer has wormed his way into your ears.

Hans Zimmer - InterstellarBeyond a doubt, Hans Zimmer’s work on Interstellar is singular in his career. The true magic of Interstellar is that Zimmer did not compose this music as a background to the film. Rather, he worked hand in hand with Christopher Nolan to create the score in tandem with production. While I highly recommend the film (particularly in IMAX, for which it was specifically tailored), Hans Zimmer’s score absolutely holds its ground as a stand-alone album.

If you’re at all interested in the music of Interstellar, you should definitely get your hands on a CD copy of the album. Not only does it feature essays about the scoring process by both Zimmer and Nolan, but the CD and packaging serves as a working star wheel (or planisphere) itself. If you’re an astronomy junkie like me, the functional design is an added bonus.

The packaging and liner notes included with the Interstellar soundtrack drive home the fact that Zimmer—along with Nolan, who serves as executive producer on the recording—wanted this music to exude the themes of the movie. The accompanying materials reveal that Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan met before filming began, at which point Nolan gave Zimmer one day to create some piece of music based on the main themes, with specific instructions to throw away past motifs common to Zimmer’s work. With no corresponding footage or plot points, Zimmer created “Day One,” which—even as an early track—serves as an emotional backbone of sorts.

Interstellar Star Wheel
This is how you do CD packaging right.

As the recording process continued, Zimmer and Nolan worked closely to integrate film and music, and it really shows. If you’ve seen the movie (again, it’s plainly worth your time), hearing Zimmer’s score will pull you back to the core moment these pieces represent.

Interstellar was almost an electronic score, but on a hunch, Christopher Nolan convinced Hans Zimmer to record an orchestra, and most notably, a full 2500-pipe organ. The real innovation in Zimmer’s score is a masterful implementation of the pipe organ. It is unequivocally and decidedly massive. Zimmer’s essay in the liner notes indicates that this was a stressful gamble, but it clearly paid off.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the Interstellar score is that Hans Zimmer proves he is unafraid of dynamic range. Unlike many modern scores (and almost all modern albums), Interstellar takes full advantage of subtle lows and impressive intricacies at volume. Pulsing synthesizers and gentle strings provide an effortless floating sensation. Tense or exciting moments are driven through with blasts of energy. Tracks like “Stay” and “Detach” are unabashedly epic.

Alright, I think I’ve satisfied whatever gland in my body has been gushing praises for the Interstellar score by now. Unlike any other work (or almost any other album of 2014), I have listened to Interstellar many times since its release. If you’ve read this far, however, I guess I can share with you the parts of which I’m not a huge fan. In all honesty, there are only two gripes, and as minor as they may be, they will likely be turnoffs for less patient listeners.

Continue reading Album Review: “Interstellar (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)” by Hans Zimmer

Album Review: “A Miracle” by Groundation

A Miracle Groundation

In the opening lines of “Riddim Hold Dem,” the first track of Groundation‘s 11th studio album A Miracle, frontman Harrison Stafford sings:

“Without woman, what would man be?”

This question marks the beginning of an album centered around exploring and cherishing the role of women in life. Something I always loved about Groundation, a jazzy roots reggae band hailing from Northern California, is their inclusion of female vocalists in their recorded and live productions. Over the years, vocalists Kim Pommell and Sherida Sharpe have emerged as powerful forces in the band, and they play a strong part in this album. “They’re not backup singers by any stretch of the imagination,” said Harrison in a recent interview we had on my radio show. “Groundation is about a balance of sound—everybody really taking part, sharing the spotlight…this is a part of our one-ness.”

Joining forces with Groundation on this album are two mighty, mighty queens of reggae: Marcia Griffiths and Judy Mowatt. Marcia and Judy, along with Rita Marley, were the I Threes—the original backing trio of Bob Marley & the Wailers in their heyday. Marcia’s gorgeous, etheral voice is considered one of the best in reggae music, and she is featured on track two, “Defender of Beauty.” Judy is featured on track six—the title track—”A Miracle,” sounding enticingly bluesy and soulful, combining perfectly with the jazzy piano and brass which set Groundation apart from other roots reggae bands.

A Miracle is a solid continuation of Groundation’s other recorded works. You can expect the previously-mentioned jazzy keys and saxophone, and the heavy, heavy basslines that make you want to fall to the floor. Their live show is a must-see. It’s good for your soul!

Along with the woman-centric theme, Groundation covers familiar ground with their lyrics—the state of the world, a call for liberation, trust in Jah, and the power of music. Within the woman-centric theme itself lies the curveball—because very rarely, if at all, had Groundation sung about romantic love. But in this case, as you will hear on the last track “Cupid’s Arrow,” it’s far from wishy-washy. It’s about real respect and equality. “Respect me, do the right….oh love me absolutely, and you and I shall prosper.”

Track four, “Gone A Cemetery,” has made the list of my favorite Groundation songs. It’s about a freedom fighter who met a cruel end. I don’t know if it’s about a specific person—if it is, I’m curious to know. Besides the lyrics, the melody is great.

Groundation is an internationally-acclaimed band, and their message is spiritual and universal. I strongly recommend picking up this album, plus more from the Groundation discography, and anything created or produced by Harrison Stafford—someone who works tirelessly to preserve reggae history and spread positive music to the masses.

From the inner liner notes of A Miracle: “This album is livicated to the beautiful female spirit: The powerful empress who manifests creation.”

Big up Groundation!



Kayla Liederbach
@djkaylakush

Kayla manages social media and customer support at Murfie. You can hear her on the radio hosting U DUB, the reggae show, Wednesdays on WSUM. She enjoys hosting the Murfie podcast, cooking, traveling, going to concerts, and snuggling with kittycats.


Album Review: “Become Ocean” by John Luther Adams

Become Ocean is a moving work, to say the least. My first listen left me reeling in such a way that I immediately started over from the beginning. Mississippi-born and Alaska-based John Luther Adams won the 2014 Pulitzer for this piece, and it’s imminently clear he deserved the award.

John Luther Adams - Become OceanJohn Luther Adams (not to be confused with California’s John Adams, also nominated for a Pulitzer this year) has the heart of an ambient musician, the hands of a skilled composer and the spirit of the wild. If enjoyed without distraction, you can in fact, “become ocean.”

I first learned of Become Ocean (as many of my friends did) via this excellent episode of Radiolab, excerpting the equally impressive podcast Meet the Composer. Snippets featured in these shows drew me in, but none of that prepared me for how truly impressive as a whole Become Ocean is.

Alex Ross, a contributor to The New Yorker, shared this rough illustration of Adam’s form in an addendum to his review of the piece. The power behind Become Ocean emanates from the overlapping swells of an orchestra distinctly segmented. The result is an ever changing tide, the full ensemble hitting simultaneous crescendos thrice. Become Ocean strikes its most intense moments around the half-way mark; after that point, the piece is performed in reverse. Among many things, Become Ocean is a palindrome.

Alex Ross' diagram of Become Ocean.
Alex Ross’ rough diagram of Become Ocean.

In all honesty, Become Ocean feels like it shouldn’t be possible. At the very least, it’s hard to believe that it was not assembled in post production. Rather, John Luther Adams has created a solid 42-minute composition recorded with a real-life orchestra in full surround sound. Harps in the left ear swell into similar arpeggios on piano dead center, then strings in the right ear. At times, it’s easy to forget that the lulls in each wave are produced by real people, and not computer-built improvisations.

I can only imagine what it felt like to be John Luther Adams, experiencing his work in the flesh for the first time. After a year in composition, Adams did not hear Become Ocean until its third presentation: a packed house at Carnegie Hall. Become Ocean is a must-listen, if only to experience the subtlety and power a master of modern composition such as John Luther Adams can create.

In Adams’ own words:

Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.

Check out Become Ocean for yourself on Murfie. While you’re at it, make sure to hear the full story via Radiolab.


John Kruse
@mamtweet

John Praw Kruse is an Operations Manager, and Product Manager for the Murfie Vinyl Service. In his free time, John makes music, including scores for indie films and various shorts. He is the founder of Mine All Mine Records and the Lost City Music Festival. John devours new music.


Favorite New Releases of the Week!

Oh man, such great new music we’ve been listening to! Here’s what some of our staffers recommend for you…


Flying Lotus You're DeadFlying Lotus
You’re Dead!

(John’s Pick)

You’re Dead is the long-awaited follow-up to 2012’s Until the Quiet Comes by Flying Lotus. While the tracks often feel too short, FlyLo’s signature production style is in full force throughout the album’s 38-minute run time. Perhaps it’s best to view You’re Dead as one large piece, since many of the tracks bleed from one to another. In that case, it was maybe a mistake to separate them. The biggest departure for Flying Lotus on this album is the inclusion of several featured verses, including FlyLo’s alter ego, Captain Murphy. But it works out well. Overall, a great addition to the Flying Lotus discography.

Going Back Home Wilko Johnson and Roger Daltrey
Going Back Home

(Marc’s Pick)

Roger Daltrey sang with The Who that he hoped he’d die before he got old. At the age of 65, Wilko Johnson demonstrated he’d do just that. After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2012 Johnson, the original guitarist for British R&B/pub rock band Dr. Feelgood, but better known on this side of the pond as the mute executioner on Game of Thrones, opted to go down with his axe in hand. As part of his continual touring he cut this album in late 2013, planned with Daltrey a couple years prior. The pair roll through classic cuts from throughout Johnson’s career, with a Dylan number thrown in for good measure. For what may be Johnson’s final run, this is an excellent introduction and encapsulation of his career and influence. For bonus points, check out this video from his early days with Dr. Feelgood and see him float jaggedly around stage with the gaze that got him on Game of Thrones. And also check out the 4 disc set encapsulating his time with that band, which was released a couple years back. Finally, he announced just a few days back that after undergoing extension surgery to remove 3 kilograms of tumor he appears to be cancer free. Now if I can just convince him to make a victory lap through Madison, perhaps with Richard Hawley in tow…

77 Jefferson Let Me Know EP77 Jefferson
Let Me Know EP

(Kayla’s Pick)

Midwest reggae! These guys are from Missouri. I’d closely compare them to the rootsy lovers-rock-reggae singer Josh Heinrichs, who is also from the same state, and runs the record label they’re affiliated with. This EP came out in July of 2014, and it fits well on a summer playlist since their mood is super positive. I especially love the first song, “Rocksteady.”

More new releases are on the way! Go to murfie.com/preorder to see what’s coming, and pre-order your favorites.

Which albums are you excited to see? Tell us in the comments!