Editor’s Note: This film is screening Saturday night at SXSW, and if you know someone down there, highly recommend it. The soundtrack is killer, as you’ll soon read.
Way back in the day, say 2000 years ago, our great storytellers strapped on the lyre, invoked the muses for inspiration, and sprang into the rigorous and sweat dropping task of presenting epic narratives. Days at a time were consumed with repetitive cadences and suspense-filled oration. A verbose man needs words to conquer an audience, and my wordiness is extremely harnessed here. Set up the fire, my brethren, and I’ll hearken back to the days of Homer in a flash, embracing the charge to convey to you the largeness of the peculiarly rare release that’s about to hit on March 24th.
A mysterious email popped into my inbox a few days ago with the heading “Free Download: a CD I paid $2000 for, including 106 to Brian Eno.” The back-story surrounding this monstrous 44 song soundtrack is worth at least one curious visit to their myspace page to download the 5-song teaser EP, Let’s Get Awesome. The Non-Commissioned Officers are made up of assembled parts, all coming together many years ago to create the soundtrack for a, then fledgling, indie film entitled Make-Out with Violence.
Apparently in 2006, a rare CDR containing 11 initial tracks had been popping up in various locations around Nashville and numerous attempts at locating, and eventually signing The Non-Commissioned Officers, inevitably failed. The off-and-on nature of the band, along with very few live appearances, forced many to simply abandon efforts to locate them; essentially, they didn’t really even exist.
The financier of the upcoming March 24th release went on to say that he, luckily, was able to see a rare show in NY, which ended appropriately with an Eno cover of “St. Elmo’s Fire” sung by none other than than composers Jordan and Eric Lehning’s mother. On the haunches of this one live performance, and the snaky score of the burned 11 song teaser CD, he was able to locate and maintain a fragmented contact with the band members throughout the lengthy process of putting both the album and film into place. After three years of jamming to those eleven tracks over and over again, and upon hearing the film had finally been completed, he chose to make an investment by dropping his hard earned cash to see this album released into the ether.
Fortunately for us, they really did and do exist, and the laborious endeavor surrounding the creation of this movie score has dropped a wonderfully epic and dreamy collection of anthemic tunes on us. The band lost a drummer during the course of its creation, drained their life savings to see it through, and no doubt meticulously drafted and redrafted this sweeping opus that, we believe, will only grow in relevance as time has its way.
The quintessential requirement when evaluating something of this volume is to hearken back to classic soundtrack albums to find the consistent well those compositions drew from. Two immediates come to mind in Rocky Horror and Pulp Fiction, and the easily discernible current that runs through those is the sonic attachment to American cinematic origins. Moviegoers easily connect to the conceptual images of drive-ins, Peggy Sue, and poodle skirts. One walk-through of the album roundly bursts this centrally important motif into listeners’ ears. The real gift in late March, however, is when the few in-the-know listeners will get to hear how this sucker transcends cliched and stereotypical soundtrack conventions to also create a completely viable and stand alone indie pop/rock album full of modern experimentation. This album reads more like a grand epic narrative; it’s warm yet extravagant, ambitious as hell. The tracks range from bouncy brit-pop to sludgy indie fuzz and back again numerous times, leaving very few genres under-explored and launching it way past traditional soundtrack ethos.
The first major stylistic wave that leaps from the speakers is how beautifully the Lehning brothers have blended those classic soundtrack staples with modern and exquisite instrumental experimentation. Tracks like “Sidewalk” and “Titles/Creekbed” begin Disk One with a dreary electronic sludge that separates this from a typical soundtrack vibe. The Lehning’s have many things going on here, dangling synthesizers underneath plucky riffs and delicate percussion. The opening five or six tracks are blanketed in mystery and darkness without sacrificing accessibility. Disk Two also rambles along on the same chord, with tracks like “Eat a Rat” spitting out dissonant orchestral haymakers and brilliant ambient sounds. The tone is set early and often; listeners will take Peggy Sue to the drive-in, but will be forced to make out in a titanium spaceship.
To expand into the second arena, I must preface that I love to hate the 80′s, as do many of us. Many, many musical standards still work from this awkward time period, but the overt embellishment of poppy nonsense just doesn’t sell records. Luckily, the Lehning brothers have harnessed all the good. In addition to the instrumental musical chairs embedded in the arrangements, there is also an undeniably consistent root in 1980′s pop coolness. This soundtrack makes it completely feasible to merge all of the dripping coolness of the early Cure records with the jumpy hooks of Sixteen Candles. “Frozen Tongue” begins with a minimalist percussion ensemble straight from The Head on the Door and the dreamy delivery in the vocals shoots listeners right back to 1985. Catchy anthems pepper this album everywhere from top to bottom, “You Don’t Even Know Her” being the most obvious drum machine and retro-synthesized blast from the past. Throughout this listening journey, it’s readily obvious the Lehning brothers have successfully blended multiple genres together into something that’s identifiable and rich; without even seeing the film, it’s probably safe to assume it plays like one big music video.
To place this into its proper modern context, there are some amazing rock songs in true indie fashion. “Cinderella” and “Gentleman of Fortune” are fuzzy and stomping songs that pound in the same vein that many “blast from the past” indie darlings do. Acid-folk, jazz, and even brushes with country are present. “Bury That” is a heartwarming folk arrangement nestled nicely in between several more experimental tunes. It’s extremely difficult to locate a direct angle to review such a large and aurally pleasing canvas The Non-Commissioned Officers have in store for you. Nearly every genre is melted together here, but not one song feels ripped off. References and track-by-track explanations are futile with this, although I’m trying my best. What’s crucial to understand is that the cathartic aura is created by 44 absolutely catchy and kick-ass tracks. Each song, despite genre or influence, bleeds into the next, making this more of a large-scale composition than a mixtape. The best way to fully grasp this is to listen to it individually without visual stimuli attached. If it hits you like it does us, the film will absolutely be on your shelves this Spring, even if you have to get it bootlegged.
As this movie screens this week at SXSW, we’re certain that hipster movie geeks will walk out of the theater scratching their heads and humming songs from a band they’ve never heard of. If only they could avert their attention up here to our humble music blog, they’d see where it all originated and understand those songs don’t have to die after the film’s zombie-kissing plot-lines are long forgotten. The Non-Commissioned Officers have a real masterpiece here. I’d have imagined that our friend that sent the initial email would have had enough of the record already, spinning those initial eleven tracks over and over for three straight years; something must have jarred something loose in order for him to drop the 2K to see this thing into production. We’re certainly in agreement, and hopefully lots of folks will hear it soon, too. The five-track teaser EP is available for free download by clicking below. Also, enjoy the two we’ve put up. There will only be a few of these physical copies floating around at the end of the month, so get on this one early.