CD Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World – Original Soundtracks

By • August 9, 2010

Composer: Various Artists / Nigel Godrich
Label: ABKCO
Suggested Retail Price: $12.90 / $9.49
Grade: B+

Right from day in 1998 when TANK GIRL creator Jamie Hewlett teamed with Blur’s Damon Albarn to create a hugely popular, virtual cartoon band called The Gorrilaz, the idea of comic book geeks spinning their graphic novels into ironically fake groups seemed like a natural intersection of music and comic geek cultures. But where the next cinematic step of that fusion never ended up bearing fruit for The Gorillaz, Bryan Lee O’Malley has now truly leveled up the rock-comic-movie idea with the adaptation of his graphic novel SCOTT PILGRIM vs. THE WORLD, wherein the music/ kung-fu / dating exploits of a guitar dweeb have been turned from print into the grungy vocalizations of such once-imagined acts as Sex Bob-Omb, The Clash at Demonhead and The Boys and Crash. And playing their tunes with straight-faced humor that’s been turned to eleven are such Guitar Hero-friendly acts as Metric, Broken Social Scene and Beck- not to mention the crazily diverse instrumentals of Nigel Godrich.

There’s a fresh, overly frenetic energy to SCOTT PILGRIM and its soundtrack that will remind old fogies like me of THE MONKEES, that insane, corporate “youth” NBC show that constantly threw its made-up boy band into surreal situations. But if those Beatles wannabes couldn’t play, then the goof premise of THE MONKEES would have been funny for about three minutes of so-bad-it’s-good time. Ditto SCOTT PILGRIM, which makes constant jokes about who inept its main band Sex Bob-Omb might seem- until they actually start playing (ditto the sudden Neo-worthy martial arts moves of Scott himself). I might not be the biggest fan of the whole grunge thing (and am just about clueless about the Toronto music scene that SCOTT’s inspirations hail from), but the raw guitar vibe of several of PILGRIM’s tunes (let alone Bob-Omb’s) have just the right, catchily earnest energy of the real deal. So I don’t pity anyone picking this album up who isn’t wise to SCOTT’s humorous conceit.

A big credit for PILGRIM’s musical believability goes to the song album’s executive music producer (and composer) Nigel Godrich, whose resume includes work with Radiohead, Beck and Paul McCartney. He’s helped whip the movie band of Sex Bob-Omb (whose Beck-written songs are performed by stars Michael Cera on bass, Mark Webber on vocals and Alison Pill on drums). This is a slacker group that would survive a couple of rounds at a battle of the bands with the catchily, over-amped chords of their “Garbage Truck,” “Threshold” and “Summertime,” While Cera performs a fairly painful on-the-spot romantic ode to “Ramona” in the film, the album thankfully has Beck turning it into an acoustically tender ballad, re-playing it again in a gorgeously smooth version that would win any dream girl’s heart. Canadian band Metric transforms into the memorably sinister Clash at Demonhead, whose “Black Sheep” has the right, chart-topping stuff. Broken Social Scene is also on hand for a hilariously out-of-control thrash number “We Hate You, Please Die” as Crash and the Boys.

With so much vocal insanity constantly happening in SCOTT PILGRIM, it’s hard to know what tunes here actually ended up in the movie, and what go under the ominous file called “inspired by.” Thankfully, there’s a voice to SCOTT’s soundtrack that doesn’t pack the instantly disposable innocuousness of 90% of “rock soundtracks.” That’s because that in addition to its purposefully raw production values, most of SCOTT’s songs carry a retro vibe which gives the album a cool sense of all-things-to-all-listeners timelessness, from the 60’s guitar funk of Black Lips “O Katrina!” to T-Rex’s Bowie-like “Teenage Dream.” Even the real Rolling Stones are on hand here with “Under My Thumb.”

For all of the musical high spirits on display, there’s some unexpectedly pleasant romantic melody to The Bluetones’ “Sleazy Bed Track,” while Beachwood Sparks’ “By Your Side” has a lovely, hallucinatory Bob Dylan harmonica vibe to it. And if you want to blame a band for creating the comic book, then you’ll find your villain in Plumtree’s “Scott Pilgrim,” whose overlapping lyrics of loving someone for a thousand years have the catchy, garage band sound you could imagine a hopeless romantic aspiring to play in the key of. But if there’s one tune I couldn’t stop listening to here, then it’s Brian LeBarton’s 8-bit interpretation of Beck’s “Threshold” as amalgamation of classic video game bleeps and bloops- a tune that you want to slam quarters into to keep going. About the only effect missing is the death squeal of Pac Man.

Alternative album producer and tech guru-turned-composer Nigel Godrich certainly gets to make beautiful music with the bleeps and bloops of a generation’s mis-spent youth in his underscore for SCOTT PILGRIM, which gets a simultaneous release with the rock album – although it’s into the ignoble digital ether (the place where score albums are treated as poor cousins). Yet Godrich’s 8-bit-centric stylings are as fun and inventive as the prospect sounds, beginning straight up with a hilarious Pong-style variation on Jerry Goldsmith’s famed Universal logo music (whose original symphonic version gets equally clever play for the skateboard entrance of uber-action star villain Lee Lucas).

Ostensibly given that thing with the title “youth comedy” to score, Godrich has come up with a surreal vibe approach that redefines the musical genre ghetto, in much the same way that John Murphy hipped-up zombie horror scoring for 28 DAYS LATER. Combine that with the purposefully funky Casio keyboard sound of John Swihart’s NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, and you get the tonal idea. Over much of this e-album’s 38 tracks, Godrich employs dreamy acid rock tones (“Love Me Some Walking”), eerie retro percussion (“Feel the Wrath”), sci-fi synth effects (Katayanagi Twins vs. Sex Bob-Omb”) Dance-Dance revolution hyper beats (“Round 2”) and voice sample overdubs (“Ramona”). The music’s roots in the dawning goodness of synth scoring particularly play out in “Rumble” and “The Vegan,” two cues that pay neat tribute to Barry DeVorzon’s THE WARRIORS and John Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s HALLOWEEN 2.

Like a lot of alt. rockers thrown into the scoring game without the old-school orchestral training of say a John Williams, Godrich’s music springs from the age when traditional composing took a beating on the order of Scott’s first encounter with Matthew Patel (itself given hilarious Bollywood song treatment). Subsequently, there doesn’t seem to be any rules to PILGRIM’s musical game other than to be as far out as possible. But that’s a good thing here, suffusing the often bizarre music with the feel of a young punk trying to understand what the hell he’s supposed to be doing. It’s a fresh beat indeed that will no doubt mystify, if not downright piss off those who’d prefer to be listening to THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. But for anyone who even grew up in the dawn of synth-rock scoring, SCOTT PILGRIM comes across as catchy weird coolness. Yet for all of its futurist electro-garage band fights, there does seem to be something of a traditional arch towards the end as symphonic strings overdub such cues as “The Ninth Circle” and “Fast Entrance Into Hell.” So by the time we hit the album’s best track “Boss Battle” for Scott’s face-off with arch-foe Gideon Graves, it’s a fully-formed orchestral action cue on the order of any HK-fu set piece in the MATRIX trilogy- music that more than shows Godrich has the chops to kick musically traditional ass if he’d so desire.

So buy the two tickets, and enter the musically inventive arcade / Thunderdome of the two SCOTT PILGRIM soundtracks. We might be talking audio here, but whether its song or score, PILGRIM’s musical match bursts with all of the colorful hipness that’s seen comic books level up into a new arena of tune energy that has hipster written all over it in the coolest way.

It’s SCOTT songs vs. score, here and here

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