Album Review: Johnny Jewel - Lost River Original Soundtrack

Local Music, Album Reviews
Gerrit Feenstra

Here's a counterintuitive factoid: Lost River is Johnny Jewel's first fully commissioned film soundtrack. Any fan of Johnny Jewel or his multifaceted Italians Do It Better disco dynasty knows that every record the man has ever produced is a soundtrack. There is a film playing with a story that only exists in Jewel's mind, and as you listen to the pulsating melancholy of Chromatics, Glass Candy, Desire, and Symmetry, you are left to guess at what dark secrets the characters at hand are uncovering. Chromatics are maybe most famous at this point for their feature in the opening scene of 2011 Ryan Gosling film, Drive. In its original form, "Tick of the Clock" is an almost sixteen minute burner, making the third quarter of 2007 Chromatics breakthrough album, Night Drive, an anxious, atmospheric monster. In Drive, our introduction to The Driver feels the same - anxiety, darkness, and a sensual mystery that sucks you into the high tension grime of the character at hand. In a last minute switchup, the original score work for Drive was given to Cliff Martinez rather than Jewel, and Jewel reworked one of his ideas for the Drive score on the Symmetry record Themes For An Imaginary Film, a title that could fit any and every one of his works. But after forming a relationship with Gosling around the filming and production of Drive, this year, Jewel finally gets to see his music give mood and atmosphere to a full length film. Ryan Gosling makes his directorial debut with Lost River, a moody, impressionistic dreamscape of a film, starring Christina Hendricks, Eva Mendez, and Matt Smith. Johnny Jewel is no doubt the perfect candidate to provide music for this arthouse undertaking. This week, we get to hear Lost River a full two weeks before we see it, and in it, Johnny Jewel and the Italians Do It Better regulars make some of the best haunting, atmospheric work they've done yet.

The Lost River soundtrack is given a beginning, middle, and end by the brand new Chromatics track "Yes". The song is given under the Chromatics moniker, but in reality, the track features shared vocals from all three of Johnny's muses: Ruth Radelet (Chromatics), Ida No (Glass Candy), and Megan Louise (Desire). This, in and of itself, makes this one of the most haunting Italians tracks made to date. The "Love Theme" version is a driving bout of determination. There is struggle present, but there is also the desire to surpass it. "Yes" is wordless, but the descending vocal and bells seem to whisper compassion and encouragement to those who need it. The "Lullaby" version, ending the soundtrack, has most of the drums stripped away, and additional strings and synthesizer giving a thousand layers to this endlessly echoing masterwork. But the real winner of the three - the piece that gives the high point of the action of the whole album - is the Symmetry remix. This track feels like it could have soundtracked a piece of Drive, with its cold, massive drum machines beating forward in perfect syncopation. The vocals are backed off and overshadowed by a new synthesizer lead that puts some fire under the skeleton built out by the other two versions. Doubling the length of the track and fleshing it out to a massive amount of energy, it's here that "Yes" is felt most vibrantly. But in tandem, the three versions give us the widest, most complete picture of Johnny's theme for Gosling's film. It's in these three combined that we get the best picture of their collaboration's full scope.

Elsewhere, Johnny intersperses film dialogue and works with the movie's cast to make some very bizarre, dreamlike work that feels incredibly disorienting and trippy without its film context. The soundtrack opens with Saoirse Ronan singing "Tell Me", a starry eyed love song that sounds a bit like what we imagine a Johnny Jewel collaboration with Lana Del Rey would look like. This track is later given a the Twin Peaks treatment on a "Jukebox version", this time without Ronan, but with Ruth Radelet. Both versions capture an innocence that isn't matched elsewhere on the record. Ben Mendelsohn lends wonderfully weird vocals to a xylophone heavy rendition of country classic "Cool Water", introducing the listener (with the help of the Rob Zabrecky dialogue introduction) to a sort of carnival cabaret. The theme here isn't "Blue Velvet" - rather, it's "Deep Purple", here presented by Jewel in three classic renditions, one by Billy Ward & His Dominoes, and two by Larry Clinton. One other classic shows up here: Lucho Gatica's "Moliendo Café", complete with "goddess of gore" dialogue to introduce it (given that Ryan Gosling worked with Nicolas Winding Refn for both Drive and Only God Forgives, I for one am both intrigued and terrified to know what or who the goddess of gore is).

The Italians team shows up a few other places on Lost River, mostly in forms we've heard shadows of in the past. "Shell Game", attributed to Glass Candy, is an Ida-less rework of the After Dark 2 cut "Redheads Feel More Pain". The rework here makes the track much more of a Symmetry type cut, all forward energy and high tension. It will no doubt soundtrack one of the more high stakes portions of the film, and will do it marvelously. Chromatics cover of classic "Blue Moon" is present here, previously released on the Running From The Sun album of Kill For Love B-sides and reworks. It fits into the Lost River mix perfectly against other doo-wop covers and vibes throughout the cabaret portion of the music. Finally, Desire is credited one track, "Behind The Mask", in which Megan Louise sings a wordless vocal melody over swirling organ and bass guitar. The track is all atmosphere, but somehow fits the context of the film and the context of the stage setup of Desire's 2009 LP, II. All these just go to show how perfect the tandem effort between Italians and Ryan Gosling is for Lost River. The mixture of dreamlike beauty, brutal human nature, and endless love seem to be common threads between the works of the two. Thus, Lost River gives perfect opportunity to both players to show off their best tendencies here. Johnny Jewel and the Italians Do It Better team have flawlessly risen to the occasion.

The remaining half of the soundtrack sees Johnny Jewel playing it solo. Here on the Lost River soundtrack, we have 94 minutes of music, just 2 minutes shy of the 96 minute length of the film it accompanies. Johnny isn't meek about giving us everything he's written for the film. That being said, we get absolutely all of it, from the most action packed "Shell Game" moments to the sleepy, ambient dreamscapes of "Spellbound". Always nodding to John Carpenter in one way or another, Jewel finally gives us a fully formed vision of his own direct take on Carpenter with "Echoes" and "Carousel". Both split into two renditions for full effect, these chimes could have fit in perfectly on Carpenter's recent Sacred Bones record Lost Themes. But mostly, as mentioned above with "Yes" and "Tell Me", Jewel plays to the characters. "Yes" seems to guide Billy (Christina Hendricks) through her journey to save her home and protect her children. "Tell Me" guides Rat (Saoirse Ronan) journey through discovering Lost River and its wonders and dangers. The Bully (Matt Smith) tracks on Lost River are among the most experimental and terrifying. Both "The Dead Zone" and "Fossil Fuels" make you feel like you are in the wrong part of town, wherever you are. Jewel is a master of atmosphere, and no part of Lost River plays to the contrary. From beginning to end, the Lost River soundtrack is a weird, wonderful, and vibrant mixture, from innocent bliss to crimelord hell, Lost River isn't afraid to brave the peaks and valleys of its accompanying film, and with Johnny Jewel and Italians Do It Better at the helm, things go off without a hitch. This soundtrack is a roller coaster ride unlike any cult movie soundtrack reissue you'll pick up anywhere.

The soundtrack to Lost River is out digitally through Italians Do It Better. You can purchase the record on iTunes. A physical release of the record will presumably follow later this year. Catch the Ryan Gosling directed film debut in theaters and in digital HD on April 10 (watch a featurette for the film here). For more Johnny Jewel ear candy, watch for the new Chromatics record, dropping later this year on Italians Do It Better.

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