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Adam Wiltzie, "American Woman OST"

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cover imageFor someone who loves drone as much as I do, I have always had a curiously fragile and shifting relationship with Adam Wiltzie's work and it has only become more so since Stars of the Lid stopped releasing albums.  Consequently, Wiltzie's first soundtrack album (2016's Solero) slipped by me unheard, though my longstanding apathy towards film scores as albums may have been an even more significant contributing factor.  That is unfortunate, as it turns out that composing for film arguably brings out Wiltzie's best: if the understated radiant drones of late-period Stars of the Lid and the deep melancholia of Winged Victory for the Sullen represent the two poles of his artistry, the score for American Woman lies somewhere in the middle and I quite like it there.  Amusingly, that makes this album kind of an exasperating release, as the high points sound like the Stars of the Lid album that I have always wanted: bittersweetly lovely, melodic, and simmering with quiet emotional depth.  The catch, of course, is that the soundtrack nature of this album means that it is more of a series of brief vignettes rather than a fresh batch of fully formed compositions to get enveloped in.  I suspect that is why Wiltzie is only releasing this album digitally, but there are many appealing glimpses of something more substantial and satisfying flickering within this ostensibly minor release.

Self-Released

For the last couple decades, I have been both a passionate cinephile and an obsessive music fan, yet those two worlds perplexingly almost never overlap.  Every now and then, however, there is a wonderful exception in which a brilliant composer like Jóhann Jóhannsson, Mica Levi, or Michael Gordon connects with a cinematic auteur equal to their talents and iconic greatness ensues like Under The Skin or Decasia.  The majority of experimental/ambient composers who work in film are not nearly that lucky though and tend to wind up either working on obscure shorts and art films or compromising their vision to work on more lucrative projects.  With American Woman, Adam Wiltzie does not make the leap into that first pantheon, but he at least achieves the next best thing: getting a high-profile scoring gig in which he gets to sound almost exactly like himself.  Given the film's rather tense premise (a teenage girl goes missing and her mom struggles to raise her grandson alone), Wiltzie is not an intuitively obvious choice for the project and there is little about the film's dramatic trailer that suggests it will contain a surfeit of sublime or meditative scenes.  Nevertheless, trailers can give very deceptive impressions and Wiltzie's score is a largely a tender, quietly lush, and languorously billowing one.  Moreover, the varying tones of the film's scenes draw Wiltzie into a wider emotional palette than I normally expect from his work.  Obviously, Wiltzie is no dilettante at conveying the many shades of sadness and longing or conjuring up sun-dappled, beatific drones, but he unexpectedly proves himself to be equally adept at evoking yearning romanticism or bittersweet hopefulness, as well as elegantly amassing darkness and tension.

Unsurprisingly, getting tapped to do soundtrack work for a studio definitely has its perks and provides opportunities that are far outside the reach of most drone/experimental artists.  In the case of American Woman, for example, Wiltzie was able to work with an orchestra and a conductor.  While I know Wiltzie has done that before, it always seems amusingly excessive to me given how quiet, slow-moving, and understated his work tends to be.  It definitely matters in the details though, as there is richness, depth, and nuance to the swelling strings of these pieces that Wiltzie never could have gotten recording at home with a few friends.  The most lovely example of that enhanced richness is the almost rapturously gorgeous "Bridget’s Theme," as the warm, slow-moving chords almost feel like sensuous exhalations.  Lamentably, it is a very brief piece, but it is still my favorite of the album.  There are a handful of other highlights that are a bit more clouded by darkness though.  The crescendo of "Search Party," for example, achieves a similarly wonderful cloud-like/exhalation effect, but feels much more haunted and achingly melancholy.  Elsewhere, Wiltzie does fine work embellishing his drone-like, slow-motion swells with splashes of color in the form of groaning and churning strings ("The Passage of Time"), roiling noise ("Pre Crash-Post Crash"), and delicately chiming arpeggios ("Night Smoke").  I am especially fond of Wiltzie's textural flourishes like that brief eruption of noise in "Crash,” as it distances these compositions a bit from standard soundtrack fare, yet the only other significant foray is a quavering, washed-out-sounding interlude in "Scenes From A Daughter's Disappearance."  For the most part, American Woman's charm is mostly that it seamlessly approximates the traditional modern soundtrack aesthetic, but subtly slows it down to hint at a dreamlike sense of unreality.

While it undoubtedly bodes well for his career, being able to seamlessly slide into conventional soundtrack territory is not necessarily a winning recipe for crafting a memorable album.  If I had seen American Woman, I would not have immediately recognized the music as Wiltzie's nor would I have been sufficiently struck by its subtle differences to linger around to see the composer credit at the end.  The other caveat is similarly unavoidable and inherent with nearly all soundtrack albums: it was composed to be a part of someone else's larger work rather than something meant to stand alone, which can be a bit frustrating if I am an Adam Wiltzie fan excited to hear Adam Wiltzie rather than someone who just wants to see a solid movie with an effectively evocative score.  While there are a lot of wonderful and promising passages strewn throughout this release, they are teasingly brief, as Wiltzie's task was to concisely set a series of moods rather than flesh out all of his best ideas until they achieve an absorbing and satisfying arc.  At its best, American Woman sounds like a good SotL or Winged Victory album that has been smashed into fragments.  That certainly has its appeal, but it is not quite as appealing as a good SotL or Winged Victory album that has NOT been smashed into fragments.  As such, it is a likable yet modest release that is mostly just for Wiltzie's more devoted fans, though it will likely open some doors for more ambitious future projects down the line.

Samples can be found here.

Last Updated on Monday, 30 September 2019 11:50  


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