Last month, I lead into this saying how January has a bad reputation for new movies. But it’s really February that’s the wasteland, where we’re expected to survive on the fumes of the last glut of strong Oscar contenders that saw limited release in December and trickled out in January, and the consistent buzz burbling up as the ceremony itself approaches. Personally, I can’t wait to have Oscar season be done and gone just so we can get to the business of finally seeing some new material. It feels like 2014 will be getting started properly in the weeks following the Academy Awards, with two auteur offerings in the form of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. That’s a promising way to get back to business. Until then, all the good stuff’s on the small screen, and thankfully there’s been quite a bit of that, particularly in the form of some new faces. This month’s best soundtrack moments mostly come from those. Let us know if we missed anything.
5. Looking, Season 1
The earnest use of ’80s synth-pop and/or New Wave is a surefire way to make me like a soundtrack. In fact, the whole reason I started watching Looking — HBO’s new show about gay men living in San Francisco — was that I’d heard they were going to use an Erasure song in the second episode. The moment didn’t disappoint, as Patrick and Richie danced to “A Little Respect” on their first date, and later — after that same date ends abruptly and awkwardly — the song returns. Both are pronounced cues. The latter occurs right as the credits cut in from a shot of Patrick sitting alone in his kitchen eating mac and cheese while on the phone with Gus, lying to his former roommate and claiming to be indulging in an unrealistically healthy brand of drunk food: “Salad. Kale salad. With chicken.” It’s not my favorite Erasure single, but the duality of how it’s used anchors two separate but related scenes, conveying drama and humor equally.
Technically, that Erasure bit is from late January. I include it here, though, not just because it was my entry point into Looking , but also because it’s indicative of how the whole season has successfully employed its music cues. There’s an unfussy intimacy that dominates the visual aesthetics of Looking . Much has been made of its naturalism, which is accurate, but the realism of many sequences is also shot and composed with an artfully conscious eye. The prevalence of house beats and glistening synths throughout the six episodes that have aired thus far are a perfect accompaniment — there’s a blend of heartbroken romanticism and pop polish in the Erasure moment, or when Goldroom and Chela’s “Adalita” plays moments before Dom meets Lynn at the steam room, or Sylvester’s “I Need Somebody To Love Tonight” as the credits roll following the Episode 4 club scene in which Richie and Patrick rekindle their temporarily-stillborn courtship. Much like the rest of the show, the music cues are skillfully deployed without having to make a big deal about it. Sometimes that’s a little bit of a letdown, like when Lower Dens’ gorgeous “I Get Nervous” plays barely audibly while Patrick works at home in the second episode. (It’s a song that deserves to dominate a scene.) Other times, like when Morrissey’s “Everyday Is Like Sunday” closes the episode that focuses entirely on Richie and Patrick and their nascent relationship, it’s part of the show’s quiet confidence of execution.
4. Guardians Of The Galaxy, Trailer
In the past year or two, I’ve noticed friends and critics alike beginning to express fatigue with the ever-growing Marvel film empire/global domination extravaganza, and with superhero films in general. Personally, I’m still a fan of the interconnectedness the studio is fostering between its different franchises, the way The Avengers and various character-specific sequels all started speaking to one another, even if this quality is rooted in a canny and extensive business plan as much as in a creative vision. And, I don’t know, superhero movies that blend self-awareness and sardonic humor and real spectacle make for good mainstream filmmaking, in my estimation. Even with all that goodwill/childhood nostalgia that allowed Marvel to have its super-successful talons firmly implanted in me, though, I was amongst those that were plenty skeptical when the studio announced plans for the Guardians Of The Galaxy movie, which is exactly like The Avengers except it takes place in outer space, and features a bunch of characters nobody’s ever heard of, including a raccoon with a machine gun voiced by Bradley Cooper and a tree creature voiced by Vin Diesel.
Maybe because the Christopher Nolan-ification of superhero movies has been so prevalent in recent years, but a lot of the misgivings (I’d assume, at least) regarding Guardians Of The Galaxy feel rooted in an anxiety that Marvel would try to pass off an inherently absurd premise with too much gravity. (Which doesn’t make total sense, in hindsight, given the biting sense of humor that runs through their more established, recognizable, and inherently sellable properties, as well.) At any rate, I’m back onboard after the recent debut of the Guardians first trailer, which immediately announces itself as being a pretty thoroughly satirical take on both the superhero and sci-fi genres. The linchpin, the thing that solidifies this tone in one trailer that’s also tasked with introducing these bizarre characters, is the use of Blue Swede’s “Hooked On a Feeling.” You know, that ’70s song that opens with the ridiculous “Ooga-chaka, ooga-chaka, ooga-ooga-ooga-chaka” chant. An alien hears it through Chris Pratt’s headphones about halfway through the trailer, and then that chant gets reformatted into intense action scene music, before the whole thing winds down to a deflated punchline, and the logo accompanied by the song’s ’70s pop chorus. It’s unapologetically goofy, but it’s also endearing and amusing enough to convince me to stick along for the ride with Guardians Of The Galaxy.
3. Girls, S03E08 (“Incidentals”)
Lily Allen became the butt of a music writer’s Twitter feed worth of jokes when she recently announced that her new album would be called Sheezus. (Seriously.) Aside from that, though, she did contribute a song to this season of Girls called “L8 CMMR” that’s actually pretty great. Hannah walks down the street after getting her first paycheck for her advertorial job at GQ; she sees a dress she likes in a shop window and doubles back for it. They cut to the song’s chorus to show Hannah walking down the street in that new dress, and there’s a certain sweetness to the whole sequence that feels deserved, at least for us viewers. After spending much of the season pushing its central female characters into ever more dislikable territory, Girls for a moment seems to be trying to let their characters grow. Hannah has displayed some modicum of maturity with her GQ job, and this scene plays as one of the season’s only small triumphs. The song continues on over scenes of Jessa bored and goofing around at her own job at the baby shop, which for a moment continues the light-heartedness of the sequence. Then as the song ends Jasper—the middle-aged English speedfreak she met in rehab—shows up and spurs on Jessa’s relapse later in the episode. Girls can’t ever quite shy away from its penchant for grim punchlines.
Speaking of grim punchlines, you could make a whole countdown of music moments solely revolving around Marnie making you cringe. After Ray breaks up with her, she shows up at the Gramercy Hotel evidently a mess, and of course winds up inserting herself into Desi’s performance of Bob Dylan’s “Roll On, John.” Hannah looks on incredulously, but where Marnie starting to sing is fairly awkward, the worse moments come afterwards when she and Desi talk about the song—she thinks it’s originally by Michelle Branch, where Desi’s faux-hemian ’60s Village folk vibes obviously mean he only knows of the Dylan version. She continues to put her foot in her mouth when she thinks Desi’s comment about having to go home to eat paella is some sort of folk lyric. For once, Hannah’s furrowed brow is relatable, rather than a signal that she’s about to say something cringe-worthy herself. Bonus points for the put-on drawl Elijah adopts when he, too, is smitten by Desi’s performance.
2. The Americans, Season 2 Promos
Americans had some of the best uses of music in 2013, using its early ’80s setting to delve into the sort of material that you don’t necessarily hear in cheaper evocations of that decade, but also wound up fitting the show’s scenes in smart and exhilarating ways (Pete Townshend’s “Rough Boys”; Peter Gabriel’s “Games Without Frontiers”; Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk”). As it turns out, even the promos for the show are incredibly stylish. Many of the commercials in the lead-up to The Americans returning for its second season this week were chilly and mysterious things, little thirty second spots that were abstract and visually commanding, but gave you more dread than actual plot points. The cold opacity was fitting for the Cold War drama, as were the musical choices that accompanied them.
It was probably only a matter of time until the show called upon Sting’s “Russians,” (Key line: “I hope the Russians love their children, too”). If the show had been less impressive in its first season, this likely would’ve felt on-the-nose. Instead, far from being glib, Sting’s line gets at the nuances of loyalty, nationality, and family that The Americans continually teases out. It helps that the song is perfectly calibrated to a visually arresting spot that is simply Philip and Elizabeth twisting and turning in their bed until their blurred forms form an impressionistic sickle & hammer symbol as Sting comes around to that line. Another spot, one of the more concrete ones, was the gratification necessary at the end of all the tension these more artistic promos ratcheted up: a more traditional commercial of what seems to be many of the new season’s most intense moments, effectively soundtracked by the Stooges’ “Gimme Danger” oddly echoing out over a throbbing orchestral/dance rhythm. (“Gimme Danger” is my dark horse contender for the best Stooges song, but maybe that means I don’t actually like the Stooges much.) If the second season’s promos are any indication, there seems to be plenty more great music for this show to use as it continues on its own path to greatness.
1. True Detective, Season 1
Maybe True Detective is currently dominating your Facebook and Twitter feeds; it certainly is mine. In the span of a few episodes, the conversation has bubbled up around this show to the point of inspiring feverish fan speculation and sub-reddits about where everything’s headed, who’s the Yellow King, all that. But even as gripping as the show’s been, the speed of these things these days dictates that, by the time the March installment of Trackspotting rolls around, True Detective‘s eight episode first season will have receded into the rearview. So it’s time to acknowledge this whole season for its expert use of music.
Up one position from last month’s column, it turns out that True Detective‘s first episode (refresher: “Then start asking the right fucking questions.” Cue foreboding Black Angels song) wasn’t a false promise; the show has gone on to impress on every level, whether in the density of its narrative, its lavishly rendered aesthetics of dread and dilapidation, or, of course, in its music curation. Like last month’s #1 (Inside Llewyn Davis), True Detective‘s music is overseen by T Bone Burnett, who brings a blend of roots, psychedelia, and horror movie ambience. Much of the show’s score has relied on eerie drones, pulling up the strains of psychological horror that became increasingly relevant as the season progressed. In the early episodes, gospel and blues drifted in and out. As a choir chants frantically over a wide shot of Rust and Marty’s car drifting through the wasteland of Louisiana’s swamps, it too feels like horror movie music. Burnett has littered little slices of Americana throughout that fit True Detective‘s setting perfectly: the Handsome Family’s “Far From Any Road” in the opening credits, the warped swamp music of Steve Earle’s “Meet Me In The Alleyway,” Waylon Jenning’s forlorn “Waymore’s Blues” playing when Marty finds himself back on a barstool in 2002.
The tour de force, though, was the show’s fourth episode. There’s the plaintive quality of Lucinda Williams’ “Are You Alright?” as Rust steals the coke from the evidence room during his preparation to lapse back into his undercover identity. There’s Boogie Down Productions’ “Illegal Business” when Marty’s at the strip club. There’s the apocalyptic sound of the Melvins’ very-fittingly-titled “A History Of Bad Men” when Rust walks through the biker club on his way to meet Ginger. And then, of course, there’s that already infamous, uninterrupted six minute tracking shot of the bikers’ ill-fated raid on a stash house in the projects, and of Rust taking Ginger hostage and trying to escape. In the beginning of that sequence, Wu-Tang Clan’s “Clan In Da Front” can be heard. At the end, as it cuts to credits after a zoom-out on the exploding violence Rust left in his wake, it’s Grinderman’s “Honey Bee.” The whole thing is a dizzyingly multi-faceted ride of an episode, but the music selection remains, as it has throughout the season, uniformly excellent and tonally on-point. The Grinderman bit comes as a gut-punch after one of the most intense TV sequences in recent memory, but it’s also one example in a succession of excellent episode-ending musical choices. Back in the second episode, the creepy psychedelia of 13th Floor Elevators’ “Kingdom of Heaven” accompanying Rust’s discovery in the ruined church announced the stranger borders this story was about to explore. More recently, in the fifth episode, the incredibly haunting Bosnian Rainbow’s “Eli” drifts in, seeming to actually bleed out of the score, as we start to arrive at the unsettling questions that propel the 2012 portion of the story. Who knows where this story’s headed in the next two weeks, but my guess is that along with a shocking conclusion, True Detective has one or two more stunning musical cues up its sleeve as well.