The big question here is can a soundtrack stand on its own as a work of art, as a thing to be enjoyed apart from the film it's meant to go with?
I'd say that the answer to that question is "Yes".
In 1987, I found the cassette of Ryuichi Sakamoto's soundtrack to Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) in a Dupont Circle record store. I drove around the city with that tape playing in my car with little knowledge of the film it was meant to go with; I had purchased the tape mainly due to the vocals of David Sylvian on "Forbidden Colours".
I felt like I had already seen and been moved by the film way before I actually saw it.
One can also point to the scores by John Barry and Bernard Herrmann for King Kong (1976) and Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), respectively, as examples of two great soundtracks to two rather terrible -- or at least mediocre -- films.
Okay, so even though I've seen a few Claire Denis films, I'm going to approach this monstrous and magnificent 5-CD box set as a work of art unto itself.
Released on Canada's Constellation Records, Claire Denis Film Scores 1996 - 2009 by Tindersticks contains 78 tracks -- more than 3 hours of music -- spread across 5 CDs (or LPs, if you can get your hands on that edition of this release) and it's easily one of the most important musical events of 2011.
I've been listening to Tindersticks -- got to always resist that urge to add the "the" there -- since about 1993 and I'm pretty sure that I got hipped to them thanks to the late great George Gelestino at Vinyl Ink records (it wasn't always shoegaze stuff with that guy!).
Tindersticks certainly never sounded like any other band of that era. One could pick out elements and influences from other bands when listening to Tindersticks -- like one could do a decade later with The Delgados -- but the entire presentation was unique and of itself in a way that made the band stand outside of any easy, obvious category, and certainly outside the mainstream.
Interestingly, the Claire Denis Film Scores 1996 - 2009 box set is sequenced in reverse chronological order.
Let's dig in.
Disc 1, White Material (2009)
Apart from some flashes of guitar squall from David Boulter and Neil Fraser, the music here from White Material (2009) is largely meditative. There are guitar noises that cut through the light percussive elements like foghorns in a seaside port. Amid the sound of chimes, bells, or wood blocks, the guitars will expel long lines of simple notes or short, staccato bursts of ambient blues.
On the track "Yellow Dog", the lead violin of Lucy Wilkins stretches into a mild screech as the music seems to be coiling up in the anticipation of some outburst that never arrives.
"Andre's Death" features the tapping of a glockenspiel leading into the returning squalls, the order of the countdown on the first instrument shattered by Thomas Belhom's crashing drums. This is the emotional center of the record.
Disc 2, 35 Rhums (2008)
This disc starts off and it somehow immediately sounds French!
(I say that because of the overwhelming sense of melody here compared to Disc 1.)
The Fender Rhodes piano from David Boulter vies with the melodica (also played by Mr. Boulter) to create a certain whimsical and lyrical sense. There's a more urgent melody at work in track 2, "Train Montage 1", but the strong melody is still there.
The addition of Christine Ott on the ondes martenot on "The Necklace" brings a lovely and almost -- dare I say it? -- fairy tale-like quality to the track as the album ends amid piano and melodica bits repeating the earlier melodies.
Disc 3, L'Intrus (2004) and Vendredi Soir (2002)
The disc starts off with vaguely metallic noises, and track "Night Drive" brings a slightly jazzy feel with the ricocheting drums.
The score feels like a jazz album also because it's just a trio here: Stuart A. Staples on guitars and keyboards, Thomas Belhom on drums, and Terry Edwards on trumpet. As the fury releases only to be pulled back again, the 3 players trade moments in the spotlight.
Despite that, there's some ambient noise on "Pursan Snow" that is not the result of drums, guitar, keyboard, or trumpet. What sounds like dogs barking in the distance adds to the sense of being pursued, of fleeing nameless phantoms.
"Closing" is less jazz and more the sound of industry, the drums and keyboard (?) sounding like the precision of a factory as things rumble out and fade away.
Interestingly, the score to Vendredi Soir (2002) was composed by Dickon Hinchliffe and doesn't feature Stuart A. Staples. This soundtrack feels the most like a soundtrack as the strings pour out and the proceedings sound downright lush.
"Le Rallye" -- a free download below! -- is positively beautiful, plucking strings and soaring strings sketching out a lullaby as a trumpet enters the tune.
On "Footsteps" that lullaby vibe takes an eerie turn as the music sounds suddenly ominous and suspenseful.
A sense of calm and peace is restored with closer "Sunrise", the warm strings and xylophone (?) carrying the listener home after the slight tension of earlier tracks.
Disc 4, Trouble Every Day (2001)
This is the disc in this set that sounds most like the Tindersticks that most fans already know and love.
I say that because of the presence of vocals on opener "Opening Track" and because this album was released successfully on its own.
This soundtrack is mournful and sounds, at times, elegiac, especially on a harp-driven track like "Maid Theme (End)".
The vocals on "Closing Titles" are similarly heavy with a sense of weariness as the piano melody -- a set of spare notes -- propels the song forward as a muted trumpet and strings circle and dart around the main tune.
Disc 5, Nenette et Boni (1996)
The lightness of this score is noticeable, especially in sharp contrast to the previous disc in the box. "Camions" is positively George Shearing-like, while "Ma Soeur" recalls a lighter, jazzier Harold Budd with its piano line.
David Boulter's subtle touch on the vibes on "La passerelle" is another blessing; the song unfolds its simple set of notes with a nice sort of quiet grace.
The lovely "Petite chiennes" has the sound of brushes on drums far in the distance, as a keyboard sound percolates in the foreground like something out of a Stereolab track. If a listener can't quite tell whether it's a keyboard or an organ, it doesn't really matter.
Vocals are back on "Petites gouttes d'eau" as Stuart A. Staples slowly sings as the organ starts the track before the lush strings kick in and the song gains steam. Equal parts Waits and Gainsbourg, the track and vocal line are beautiful and downright chill-inducing. There's more a sense of vulnerability here than the mournfulness one might find on other Tinderstricks tracks of this era or earlier.
"Tiny tears make up an ocean..." is what we hear in the lyrics and then it's off to another track that tentatively echoes Jobim.
Album closer "Rumba" disarms with the lead piano melody and then the faintest whistling sounds from the background, like a happy Glenn Gould full of the joy of the bossa nova.
I think it's significant -- at least to me as a near 20-year fan of the band -- that the material here that I enjoyed the least was the one disc that sounded most like the Tindersticks of old.
That's not to slight the band but, rather, to highlight the band's strength at creating art beyond those styles that people normally associate with the band.
As de facto head Tinderstick Stuart A. Staples explains in the press materials for this record:
"Approaching each film has always asked us to step into an unknown, stretch ourselves and do things we did not think we were able. At the end we always feel changed in some way. This has fed into all our other music and is a contributing factor to why we're still struggling to catch our ideas after all these years, still frustrated and fascinated in equal measure."
Hearing Claire Denis Film Scores 1996 - 2009 is like hearing Tindersticks for the first time and that's a wonderful feeling.
This is soundtrack music for the moments of sadness and fragile joy in this life, as well as a set of familiar and lovely film scores.
Like The High Llamas and The Delgados, Tindersticks are sometimes more loved by critics than the public but that's not a problem.
Claire Denis Film Scores 1996 - 2009 rewards a patient listener like all the best work from Tindersticks.
The release of this box set is one of the musical events of 2011. Get your copy now.
You can order Claire Denis Film Scores 1996 - 2009 from Tindersticks on CD from Constellation Records directly here or from Amazon in the US here.
Be sure to check-in with Constellation Records as well.
Check out the band's new official website for Tindersticks news here.
Download "Children's Theme" from White Material here.
Download "Le Rallye" from Vendredi Soir here.
Download "The Black Mountain" from L'Intrus here.
Download "Opening" from 35 Rhums here.
TINDERSTICKS - Claire Denis Film Scores BOX SET PREVIEW by Constellation Records