CD Review: Where The Wild Things Are – Original Soundtrack

By • October 19, 2009

Composers: Karen O. and the Kids / Carter Burwell
Label: DGC / Interscope Records
Suggested Retail Price: $9.99
Grade: B+

When I was a kid, the wildest music I’d listen to repeatedly was Marlo Thomas’ “Free To Be You and Me,” a 1974 TV special whose lyrical songs really understood the fears, dreams and hopes of my inner adolescent beast. The genre of children’s music has certainly gotten a lot more sophisticated since then, especially in how its easy pop rhythms have become proto folk-punk tunes, none more so than on the song-driven soundtrack to WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. But no matter the tuneful childhood gestalt on hand here, Marlo Thomas’ innocent, exuberant spirit of is very much alive in Karen O’s tunes, while the movie’s darker beasts reside in Carter Burwell’s beautifully somber underscore. It’s a striking co-habitation of musical creatures that’s as eclectic, and innovative as you’d expect from the mind of MTV video director-turned-filmmaker Spike Jonze. And in this case, probably more fun as a listen than this more-than-respectable adaptation of the Maurice Sendak storybook is to watch.

Jonze couldn’t have picked a better singer and songwriter to jump into his existential playpen than the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s front woman Karen O, (i.e. Karen Lee Orzolek), a Grammy-nominated alt. darling who takes her group’s indie energy to a new realm here. Jonze effectively turns Karen O. and the Kids into Max’s primal howl, her voice and children’s chorus at first yelling with the joy of its young anti-hero’s rambunctious antics, then becoming the perilous cries of play for the awesome, Godzilla-sized Muppets who pile on top of the kid. It’s a wonderful use of song-structure in the service of a big romp, with Karen O. regressing herself to childhood wonder quicker than Benjamin Button ever could.

Kids like the simple, sweet stuff, from peanut butter to instantly catchy melodies, which WILD THINGS songs offer in abundance. There’s a beautiful, memorable simplicity to Karen O.’s songs like “All is Love,” where her voices spell out the lyrics with a big, shouted L-O-V-E that would be right at place at a playground jamboree. Her guitar work on “Capsize” brings on a raw, punk energy that could play just as well on the stage of the late CBGB’s. And once Max sails across the sea of his imagination, Karen O gets into even more primal antics with the shouts of “Rumpus” (whose delightful in-your-face lyrics are far easier to discern here than under the film’s booming bodies). “Animal” has an orgasmic build for percussion and ululating voices, ending in the track’s titular cries. If Alan Ginsburg’s famed poem were a kid’s song, this would be it.

Yet as wild as her work may be, Karen O. is just as effective at touching Max’s melancholy, and unspoken understanding of his bad behavior. The chords of “Worried Shoes” capture the shuffling of a dejected kid who just wants some company, let alone adventure. There’s a lovely, lyrical soulfulness to “Hideaway” as Max peers into his new best friend Carol’s model of a monster Shangri-La. And a back-to-nature, 60’s folk vibe becomes the humming, and strumming at the instrumental “Cliffs” and “Food is Still Hot”

Working with deceptively basic song structures, Karen O. really gets the kind of infectious, guitary / harmonica / percussion grooves that spell all that is alt. music. And here she socks the tunes across to both hipster fans and kids who are several years away from drinking coffee. For if Max gets a sense of belonging, and reflection from his time spent with the Wild Things, Karen O.’s sympathetic, and beautifully exuberant music is right there with him, not to mention our melodic memories of what it’s like to young and unleashed.

When you’ve got a “star” doing your songs, it’s always the composer who gets left in the dust, or in this case in the iTunes ether. But in his far less rambunctious way, frequent Jonze collaborator Carter Burwell (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION) does an equally fine job at playing the tender sadness at the heart of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. Burwell has always done a fine job at finding the reality in Jonze’s often outrageous visuals, whether they be the inside of a method actor’s brain, depicting the evolution of story structure or playing a behemoth free-for-all.

Once again again, Burwell’s talent for simple, rural-sounding melodies grounds Jonze’s striking visions. There’s beauty, and mystery to his work in WILD THINGS that’s far away from the land of movie-music fairy tales. These wild things live in an understandable world of forests, deserts and beaches- a land that hears Max’s imagination as the untamed wilderness. And Burwell responds with a rustic approach for simple guitar chords and strings that could just easily befit a story about the first explorers to America. Except here it’s monsters taking the melodically nervous place of the Indians.

Yet there’s plenty of mysterious magic to be found in Burwell’s score as it mixes bird-like cries, growling voices, ethnic winds and the hums of Karen O. While her songs are far more stuffed to the max with instrumentation, Burwell’s also lets loose with rock rhythms that make his score a side of the same stylistic realm that Karen O.’s working in, making this a rare case of composer and rock star being on the same wavelength- especially when they hurl thrash percussion at each other during a delightful dirt clod fight. Burwell’s also come up with a lovely theme for Max, with a solo flute, a drifting guitar and echoing piano becoming his sense of wonder, and sadness- an ennui that afflicts these eternally adolescent beasts. Yet it’s plaintive sound also tells us that Max will be the one to grow up.

While most of us grow up and leave our monster dolls behind, both Karen O. and Carter Burwell’s work on the WILD THINGS taps into the imagination that turns make-believe creatures into real, wonderful beasts. They’re just waiting for the wild rumpus, asking for us to join in a chorus of howls, sing in tandem to their catchily soulful lyrics, or to realize the melancholy in knowing that it’s one big fake. It’s music that takes us home to our youth again, in all of its delight, angst and hand-clapping melody.

Listen to Karen O. and Carter Burwell conjure the wild things here and here


By Cate Turner on October 19th, 2009 at 1:19 pm

The soundtrack is super good. This is possible my favourite movie now, but where did you find the lyrics?

By Sid Prince on October 20th, 2009 at 7:27 am

Wife Prince and I adored this soundtrack while watching this unbeleivable film. We both agree, if only on this point, that the music brought as much to the production as the visiual elements; which is only slighy less than what the script brings. This movie took me back to a challenging boyhood, and the music reminded me of the depths of the feelings during that glorious and troubling time.

I discuss a little more of Wife Prince and I disagree on in my film review if your interested. My name should be the link above.




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