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A Serious Man by Carter Burwell

A Serious Man

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A Serious Man (Soundtrack) by Carter Burwell

A Serious Man
Composed by Carter Burwell
Lakeshore Records (2009)

Rating: 3/10

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“Sometimes, ... , the emotion is there, and just when you think it’s getting interesting, it vanishes."

A Seriously Reticent Score
Review by Helen San

A Harvard graduate who majored in computer animation, CARTER BURWELL stumbled into film composition by chance. The sound editor of BLOOD SIMPLE liked his piano playing in a club and asked him to write a few sketches for the Coen brothers’ first movie. Since then, BURWELL has loyally scored all Coen brothers features to date (except for O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? ), as well as countless other movies. The history of film music sometimes finds a few powerhouse director / composer partnerships that stand out: Alfred Hitchcock and BERNARD HERMANN, Steven Spielberg and JOHN WILLIAMS, and James Cameron and JAMES HORNER, for example. But it is rare for directors to find a lifelong partnership, a shared creative vision so seamless they always turn to the same composer.

A SERIOUS MAN is BURWELL’s latest Coen project, right on the heels of last year’s BURN AFTER READING. The serious man in question is Larry Gopnick, a Midwestern Jewish professor in the 60’s whose life unravels around him. To depict Gopnick’s helplessness and loss of control, BURWELL composed a darker and more dissonant score than usual: a gently cacophonous ambience with cowbells, harps, and strings, at times juxtaposed against electric bass and guitar. Now this is not the first time BURWELL has used unusual combinations of instruments. But unlike his other efforts, there is almost no melody in this one, so most of what you get is somber unease. This quiet sadness actually complements the folk-guitar 60’s style of the rock band Jefferson Airplane, which played a prominent role in the movie. Since I am not fond of Jefferson Airplane, the style is not particularly interesting to me.

BURWELL fans might be disappointed that this album has almost nothing of BURWELL’s usual ardent energy or romantic swells. His signature minor chords are there, just barely, but with no real melody and in very short tracks. When I say short, I mean seriously short. There are altogether little over 18 minutes of score, with half the 16 score tracks less than a minute long, and the rest averaging 2 minutes or so. In tracks such as Rabbi Sting (7) and Rabbi Sting 2 (12), you get an ominous utterance akin to one long sound effect that really should have been combined with another track; they offer nothing musically on their own, especially outside of the screen. There is a noteworthy rock melody in the last 30 seconds of Good Riddance/The Canal (4) that transitions nicely into Jefferson Airplane’s "Somebody to Love," though the rest of the track doesn’t offer much beyond mood music.

Sometimes, as in Thirst (8), and Uncertainty (9), the emotion is there, and just when you think it’s getting interesting, it vanishes . Those tracks sound like a man overwhelmed with unspeakable feelings who starts to express himself, but stops midstream and leaves you wondering what he was going to say. Maybe this was inspired by the hapless Mr. Gopnick and works well in the movie, but it provides no listening satisfaction.

Needless to say, the most highly rated tracks are those that are long enough to develop the main theme. It is a four note motif repeated in various chords that is best heard in Canada (16) and A Serious Man (19), where it moves past the usual reticence and resembles a completed thought and sentence. While this motif doesn’t represent recent BURWELL as smartly as WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE or even BURN AFTER READING, when completed, the forlorn and fragile theme is delicately beautiful, as beautiful as heartbreak can be.

The album includes three Jefferson Airplane songs and closes with a Yiddish folk song that reminds us that this is, after all, a Jewish black comedy, Coen style.

Rating: 3/10


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Track Title Track Time  Rating
1 A Marvel 1:16  **
2 Knock Knock 0:52  *
3 Green Lawns 0:51  *
4 Good Riddance/ The Canal 2:46  **
5 Somebody to Love (Jefferson Airplane) 2:58  **
6 Blue Skies 0:39  **
7 Rabbi Sting 1 0:24  
8 Thirst 0:48  **
9 Uncertainty 0:52  **
10 The Roof 1:42  ***
11 Comin' Back to Me (Jefferson Airplane) 5:16  *
12 Rabbi Sting 2 0:18  
13 Thinking 0:31  *
14 The Mentaculus 1:21  *
15 Seriously 0:20  **
16 Canada 2:05  ***
17 Today (Jefferson Airplane) 3:02  *
18 Sanctum 1:05  **
19 A Serious Man 2:45  ***
20 Dem Milner's Trern 3:45  *
  Total Running Time (approx) 34 minutes  




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