Beyond Playlist: The All-Soundtrack Edition

Jonny Greenwood There Will Be Blood (Nonesuch)

Pop stars who try to establish themselves as serious composers are typically asking for trouble, embarrassment or some combination thereof. Think of Billy Joel: Even though he's spent much of the past decade focusing on classical music, fans who turn up at his concerts demand the same old Piano Man, and he's forced to comply. But Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood pulls off this transition with aplomb on his score for There Will Be Blood. Of course, it helps that he's no dilettante. Since 2004, he's worked as composer-in-residence for the BBC Concert Orchestra, which is featured on this disc, and throughout the material he assembled for this project, he displays not the slightest inclination toward rocking out. "Open Spaces," the initial track, starts things off quietly, but its unsettling, string-laced ebbs and flows subtly prefigure the more disturbing sounds that follow. The rapid pace of "Future Markets" is powered by head-spinning violin figures, "Eat By His Own Light" seesaws back and forth between romantic melodicism and jarring atonality, and "Henry Plainview" pivots on a droning arrangement that's simultaneously gorgeous and maddening. The results add immeasurably to the effectiveness of director Paul Thomas Anderson's mindblowing film even as they mark Greenwood as a force to be reckoned with whether he's wielding a guitar or a baton. -- Michael Roberts

Various artists Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story -- Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Columbia)

Coming after The 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Superbad, Walk Hard, the latest film from the Judd Apatow factory, seems pretty minor despite some genuinely amusing moments. That's pretty much the story with the flick's soundtrack, too. Star John C. Reilly, who proved his warbling ability on the Chicago showstopper "Mr. Cellophane," credibly surveys a slew of different styles here: country, rockabilly, R&B, psychedelia and more -- and since Marshall Crenshaw and Dan Bern are among the tunesmiths who lend a hand, the songs are generally solid. Still, the likes of "(Mama) You Got to Love Your Negro Man" and "Let Me Hold You (Little Man)" don't really transcend novelty status, and "Let's Duet," a much ballyhooed roster of double entendres, isn't either dirty enough or wacky enough to keep listeners coming back for more. Indeed, the most memorable number may be "A Life Without You (Is No Life at All)," a Roy Orbison nod that succeeds by playing it more or less straight. That's a funny turn of events. -- Roberts

Various artists The Wire: ...And All the Pieces That Matter -- Five Years of Music From the Wire (Nonesuch)

Much like the HBO opus from which it's drawn, Five Years of Music From the Wire is smart, challenging and not terribly interested in accessibility. The disc echoes the show's multiple storylines and parade of characters with a track selection that runs the stylstic gamut. Genres represented include hip-hop (Bossman's "Ayo," Masta Ace's "Unfriendly Game"), dance music (DJ Technics' "My Life Extra"), world music (Stelios Kazantzidis' "Efuge Efuge") and echoes of the no-longer-so new wave (The Pogues' "The Body of an American," Paul Weller's "I Walk on Gilded Splinters"). Even the series' theme song, Tom Waits' "Down in the Hole," is presented from multiple perspectives via versions by the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Neville Brothers and Waits himself. This mix, interspersed with dialogue snippets, doesn't really cohere, but neither does the world depicted in The Wire. Moreover, the quality of the artists on hand more than makes up for the bumps along the way. -- Roberts

Various artists Young Frankenstein: Original Broadway Cast Recording (Decca)

Broadway scores seldom become mainstream smashes these days, due in part to the fact that the majority of Americans haven't seen the plays from which they spring and often have only the vaguest notion about storyline and characters. In this respect, Young Frankenstein has a built-in advantage over typical fare on the Great White Way. Generations of movie-goers know the 1974 film by heart -- especially those, like yours truly, who owned and loved the accompanying soundtrack, which featured extended banter from the movie and, of course, the riotous Gene Wilder-Peter Boyle rendering of Irving Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz." As a result, the new version, featuring Roger Bart, Megan Mullally and Shuler Hensley, is consistently amusing in the cheesy/cheeky Mel Brooks manner. "The Happiest Town in Town" is an appropriately dopey opener, "Please Don't Touch Me," featuring the chant "Don't dare to touch our tits!," inspires chuckles on a regular basis, and if the new "Ritz" fails to top the old one (because Brooks draws out the joke rather than punching it up), "Deep Love" is an effective substitute for the late Madeline Kahn's paean to the "sweet mystery of life." -- Roberts

Various artists Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street -- The Motion Picture Soundtrack (Nonesuch)

Yes, Johnny Depp can sing well enough to handle the melodic swoops that distinguish Stephen Sondheim's score. But more important, his concentration on crooning doesn't supercede his ability to act. His characterization of Todd comes through clearly throughout the recording -- especially on the gorgeous "Johanna," during which he delivers the rich lyrics without succumbing to affectation. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of everyone else in the cast. Helena Bonham Carter's limited singing ability prevents her from bringing much to "The Worst Pies in London" beyond a barely adequate ability to hit the majority of notes, and Alan Rickman's rumbling tones are far more inspiring when he's speaking than when he's warbling in "Pretty Women." Yet these are minor flaws. Orchestrator Jonathan Tunick's and producer Mike Higham provide sumptuous settings, Sondheim's work retains its twisted fascination, and Depp, who lip-synched his way through his first musical, 1990's entertainingly campy Cry-Baby, shows that he's more than capable of singing for himself. -- Roberts

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts