Chances are you’ve read some TV writer or another analyzing just how different this time of year is than it used to be. April used to be when everything was winding down, and now you have heavy-hitters returning and newcomers popping up alongside each other, accompanied by previews for what’s yet to come in the summer. (All of those categories are represented below.) With that system breakdown, it means it’s a bit of a free-for-all and, yeah, there’s too much TV for everyone to keep up with now. So much so, that, even with sidelining some of the lower-profile movies I wanted to check out this month, I still couldn’t keep up with all the TV I wanted to. That being said, the stuff I did watch had some great moments these past few weeks — the kind that will likely still be on my mind when I’m looking back at the best soundtrack moments of the year, not the month.
Let us know what we missed in the comments. Trust me, I’m already trying to catch up on Orphan Black.
5. The Leftovers, Promo – James Blake, “Retrograde”
A few nights ago, HBO released the first extensive trailer for their new show The Leftovers. More or less another post-apocalyptic tale, The Leftovers is set to outline the societal fallout after 2% of the world’s population suddenly vanish. Aided by James Blake’s “Retrograde,” the trailer steadily ratchets up the tension while giving us glimpses of how different kinds of people have reacted to the fact that they’re the ones who didn’t make the cut for a Rapture-like event. One would imagine that doesn’t sit well on your conscience, and one would imagine “Retrograde” was chosen not just for its spooky slow-build but also, you know, for its name. The whole thing seems like an intriguing premise, so hopefully the show delivers. That last exchange of “We’re still here,” “We sure are” set to “Retrograde” dying back down feels like a great way of establishing a tone and lead-in for the series, as well.
4. Dom Hemingway – Big Country, and a nod to the Waterboys
One of the hooks with Dom Hemingway was the counter-intuitive casting of Jude Law as the loutish titular character, and the movie doesn’t stop short of being every bit as loutish and ridiculous as Law allows himself to be here. Where Hemingway the character wouldn’t be considered a paragon of taste, however, Dom Hemingway has its fair share of solid music choices. True to its nature, there are direct and brash but gratifying music cues here: the party scene in the car as it careens towards an inevitable and sudden halt set to Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades,” the way Dom walks away in the film’s final moments as brazen as ever but somehow still redeemed set to the Pixies’ “Debaser.” It has two great songs used in the backgrounds of bar scenes, with Primal Scream’s “Rocks” soundtracking Dom’s night out upon leaving jail, and Big Country’s “In A Big Country” — which is one of the best five songs from the ’80s that you’ve probably forgotten — plays (albeit, not prominently) in the same bar after Dom’s ill-fated trip to France.
The thing that hit me, though, was “Fisherman’s Blues.” Somehow, I’d ignored the Waterboys for a while; I remembered them, but I never made time to listen to their music in the last five years or so. In the movie, Emilia Clarke (playing Dom’s estranged daughter) sings a cover of the Waterboys’ “Fisherman’s Blues” in a pub, and even with the sort of overly cutesy band behind her, it’s a heavily emotive sequence if you’ve bought into Dom’s story at all. Naturally, the film’s version can’t match that ancient folk grit of the Waterboys’ original, but Clarke’s voice gives the song a different color — more an acute pang of longing finding some sense of resolution than the ragged seaside bar song that opened the Waterboys’ 1988 album of the same name. The Waterboys’ “Fisherman’s Blues” is soul-crushing, but Clarke’s holds up and is plenty moving on its own. It’s one of the better executed and most crucial moments in the redemption arc part of Dom Hemingway, and it lead me back to a stunning song I’d temporarily forgotten.
3. Game Of Thrones, S04E02 (“The Lion And The Rose”) – Sigur Ros, “The Rains Of Castamere”
I discussed this last month when singling out London Grammar’s cover of “Devil Inside” for the trailer for Game Of Thrones’ fourth season, but in light of recent events, it bears repeating — Game Of Thrones knows how to end a dramatic and sometimes course-altering episode with attention-grabbing musical choices. (Or, in the case of the Red Wedding, the gaping absence of no music whatsoever.) Back in the second season, the National’s reading of “Castamere” added weary gravity and a real sense of consequence after the massive battle depicted in “Blackwater,” and the Hold Steady’s “The Bear And The Maiden Fair” charged in like a cruel joke when Season 3’s “Walk Of Punishment” abruptly cuts to black after you watch Locke sever Jaime’s hand.
For yet another game-changer, this season’s second episode called upon Sigur Ros for not only a song, but also a cameo (as the show has for members of Coldplay and Snow Patrol as well). There was a recurring joke made by the slew of music writers and editors in my Twitter feed, and the collective assumption seems to be Joffrey was asking for it after impatiently throwing a bunch of coins at Sigur Ros-as-minstrels during his wedding feast. Unlike the other indie artists Game Of Thrones has commissioned for covers, Sigur Ros is otherworldly enough that they can actually fit into the show’s universe and pretty much make sense. Unless I missed something in the preceding three seasons, this is the only time the show has hosted a cameo where the musicians are actually playing the song they’ve recorded for the soundtrack. (Though when Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol showed up, he was leading a singalong to “The Bear And The Maiden Fair,” the same song the Hold Steady would later cover.) Anyway, when the show ends on that image of Joffrey’s face, blood- and vomit-streaked, its fixation does become haunting — even if the people you’re watching it with clapped at the little tyrant’s death. Sigur Ros’ elegiac version of “The Rains Of Castamere” may be more poetic an epitaph than Joffrey deserves, but it plays out more as an unsettling revery for the things that have transpired and the things yet to come in Westeros. After all, Game Of Thrones just lost its easiest and most central villain. I can’t imagine that vacuum will persist for long.
2. Fargo, S01E02 (“The Rooster Prince”) – Eden Ahbez, “Full Moon”
For much of the first two episodes of FX’s new Fargo, you mainly heard score. It’s well done, with different motifs or instruments assigned to different characters. For Lester Nygaard it’s that nearly-whimsical main theme. For the drifter Lorne Malvo it’s sleigh bell chimes that represent his animalistic nature coming out (or his force-of-nature sway over others, such as when the mere mention of him and his actions causes the bells to chime over Lester). For the introduction of the new hitmen from Fargo in the beginning of “The Rooster Prince,” it was a steady, unaccompanied drumbeat as they slid down the highway. This was all well-plotted and -executed, and it meant that when the show had its first big pop cue (save a brief hint of Crystal Method in the first episode), you noticed.
This came at the close of the second episode, “The Rooster Prince,” when those same new hitmen drive out onto a frozen lake to drop an unlucky man underneath the ice. As they approach, the vibes and and brushed drums of Eden Ahbez’s “Full Moon” play. Ahbez is an interesting character — born in 1908, he wrote songs like “Nature Boy” for Nat King Cole in the ’40s, but he himself was something of a proto-hippie, famous for camping out in the Hollywood sign and holding all the Beat/mystic views on life you’d expect from that. The song “Full Moon” is taken from his unsuccessful 1960 solo effort, and it’s basically spoken word over, I don’t know, exotic-sounding lounge music. The episode’s final moments are timed with a wicked smile: fade to white as the hitmen walk back towards their car after dropping the man down into the water below, Ahbez saying: “Heaven and Earth become my great cathedral/Where all men are brothers/Where all things are bound by love.” It’s a deep find, and the way it’s deployed in such a ruthless scene is reminiscent of how Breaking Bad would use similarly forgotten songs from bygone eras to make a scene a little more sinister or a little more acerbic. With closing “The Rooster Prince” with “Full Moon,” Fargo is evidently already establishing its own brand of dark absurdism.
1. Mad Men, S07E01 (“Time Zones”) – The Spencer Davis Group, “I’m A Man”
The seventh season of Mad Men opened with a projection of Don Draper: Freddy Rumsen, speaking directly into the camera, delivering Don’s copy to sell a watch. Business about “This is the beginning of something. Do you have time to improve your life?” — the sort of stuff Mad Men always sprinkles in as its own thesis statements about itself. The first time we see Don himself, it’s several minutes into the episode. He’s accompanied, brilliantly, by the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m A Man.” It was immediately reminiscent of the end of Season 4’s premiere, where Don goes in for his second attempt at talking to the press and buys into his own mythology, telling the reporter everything he wants to hear about the legend of Don Draper and the then-SCDP. The two-note verse of the Nashville Teen’s “Tobacco Road” banged in, and the whole moment allowed you to revel in the badass glamor of Mad Men hitting the mid-’60s.
A few weeks ago, “I’m A Man” played out similarly but also entirely differently. Three years on, we’re dealing with a severely altered Don Draper and a severely altered world. The ’60s are, and have been, in full bloom — they’re actually about to sputter out into the first few years of the ’70s. The show’s always walked a line between showing the allure of that decade in America and the darker social currents that defined the times, but as it settles in 1969 it becomes harder to get nostalgic about the garish outfits and impending ’70s hangover. And, of course, Don’s fortunes have paralleled that process. He’s still on leave, but lying to his wife. He shaves in an airplane bathroom and enters California looking not movie star-esque like in Season 2’s west coast escape, but stiff and uncomfortable.
This is a perfect song to introduce us to the Don Draper we now see. All the signifiers of what it meant to him to be a man, to be the man and/or The Man, are not only non-applicable to him at this moment but also illegible to the culture around him. Much has been made about Megan’s dominance in this first episode — she’s the one who has the truly glamorous entrance as “I’m A Man” still plays, a mesmerizing slow-motion, normal motion, back to slow-motion walk out of her convertible, which she promptly tells Don she has to drive . It’s up there amongst Mad Men’s best uses of music, and opens this season in strong form. This is the beginning of something — the end of some version of Don Draper and his world, whatever that will entail.