Tuesday, August 14, 2012

ParaNorman Soundtrack: Another side of Brion's Genius

Bare with me as I attempt something new on this blog: an album review. It's something I've been wanting to do for a while, so I figured why not try it on something I'm really passionate about. It probably won't be the most cohesive piece I've written, but I welcome any and all comments/suggestions you have. Let me know what you think.

One of my most anticipated albums of the year was released today: The soundtrack for the movie ParaNorman, by Jon Brion. The movie, which comes out Friday, is a stop motion animated adventure film by Laika, creators of Coraline. The plot line is as follows: "The small New England town of Blithe Hollow comes under siege by the undead. Only a misunderstood local boy named Norman Babcock, who has the ability to speak with the dead, is able to prevent the destruction of his town by a centuries-old witch's curse. He'll also have to take on ghosts, witches, zombies, and (worst of all) the moronic grown-ups. But this young ghoul whisperer may find his paranormal activities pushed to their otherworldly limits." It is a completely instrumental soundtrack; Brion usually has a handful of songs with lyrics on his film compositions. I was immediately struck by the power of the music. The brilliance of Jon Brion as performed by the London Symphony Orchestra is a thing of great beauty.

I encourage you to listen to the album, and thanks to AOL, you can stream it online for free here.

Earlier this year, Brion produced the sophomore album from Best Coast. He is also writing the music for director Judd Apatow on the follow up to Knocked Up, a movie called This Is 40, due out at the end of the Mayan calendar. Jon Brion has often times said that he enjoys mixing up the roles that he plays in the music world. He finds just as much enjoyment playing guitar on a track as he does composing as he does finding a new way to mic a musical instrument. The ParaNorman movie has been getting plenty of press, but there is little fanfare for Brion's soundtrack. Unassuming, Brion has delivered a sublime album that deserves recognition.

This is a great horror movie soundtrack. It is intense and emotional, yet it remains light enough for its intended purpose: a kid's movie. After listening to the music, I'm itching to see ParaNorman with my nephew! Brion eases those familiar with work in, sticking with his usual instrumentation. The opening track, Zombie Attack In The Eighties is classic Jon Brion, chock full of wonky synthesizers. It is followed by the song Norman At The Piano/Main Title. I could absolutely picture Brion himself at the piano, humming along to the tune he was creating, stomping his feet loudly in time to the music.

 Jon Brion at Le Poisson Rouge, 2011

He moves to the acoustic guitar in Norman's Walk and then adds more and more instruments. Oboes, bassoons, strings and eventually wonderfully eerie brass parts, with xylophones and other percussion instruments remaining as the backbone of the entire album; a tactic Brion employs on many of his other film scores. I was pleasantly surprised by his use of brass, which has been lacking in his other work. Being a trumpet player myself, I'm highly biased, but it adds a whole new layer to his music.

There is a plethora of clever percussion work throughout the album. Without even seeing the movie, I can imagine what is going on in the film. Tapping sounds on instruments I don't have the ability to identify, give the illusion of bones rattling, sneaking up on our protagonist. A scratching technique used on a snare drum and cymbals make my hair stand up on end. This is Jon Brion at his best. The man loves to make sounds and experiment and it's what I admire most about his style of music.

I can envision Brion at Abbey Road Studios, the London Symphony Orchestra in front of him, conducting vehemently, his wild curls falling into and out of his eyes. It blows my mind that people can walk around with music like this in their heads. Jon Brion is a forceful composer that can also rock out to a Prince medley on guitar, bass and drums then transition to a waltz version of the Ramones' I Wanna Be Sedated. I'd like to see John Williams or Howard Shore do that!

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