Glancing at the San Francisco Chronicle's entertainment section today, a picture of a record album got me pining. Not so much about vinyl per se, which is currently enjoying new found love, but about the album itself. In this case, a "record" is a format. An "album" is a concept. I pine for the latter.
In today's world of recorded music and how it's delivered, the album concept is pretty much absent. For typical listeners today it's the cloud, smartphones, MP3's, pick whatever you want, hit singles, personalized downloads and so forth. In our world of soundtracks, new ones are often just souvenirs of the accompanying movie, sometimes with stuff having nothing to do with the movie, other times playing for what seems like an eternity. The restoration and assemblies of older ones has reached a niche market thirsting for complete presentations of anything and everything the artist recorded, right down to aborted outtakes. But the concept of an album is now often nowhere to be heard.
In those "good ol' days", albums had a sense of direction. Artists picked and chose not only what would be on their albums but in what order it would appear, how record sides would end, other sides would begin and all that creative stuff. For some reason, the legendary Miles Davis immediately comes to mind. Anyway, there were other considerations, of course. Side length concerns, musician fees and the amount of material being presented were all factors. But creative design still seemed paramount.
Take soundtracks. For us fans of the beloved Jerry Goldsmith, many of his best albums remain those given this artistic approach. He cared in particular about how record sides would begin and end. His passion for climaxing side ones with stunning action cues makes a perfect example. The Wind And The Lion, Capricorn One, Outland, The Swarm, First Blood, In Harm's Way, Masada, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, all are classic albums with side ones wrapping in spectacular fashion. Other tracks were often sequenced around tempos, colors, intensity levels and contrasts in thematic ideas more than they were slaves to any film sequence. Goldsmith once remarked to me when we first introduced his classic 1967 Hour Of The Gun album to the CD marketplace that it was one he spent a considerable amount of time with. He spoke of how he wanted to open with a special arrangement of his main theme since the score itself really didn't present the theme in an accessible manner. It would thus give listeners a point of reference. In balance, he then opted to open his second side with a spectacular action piece. He also talked at length about the substantial time invested in working with editor Len Engel in the latter's living room with manuscripts spread out all across the floor, struggling to fashion some twenty minutes of individual cues from his The Boys From Brazil score into a single cohesive track for the first side of his 1978 album and then still create a full second side that played on its own. I also recall Laurence Rosenthal talking about how much time he spent on similar concepts when preparing his many albums from the sixties and seventies. His own personal such favorites remain The Comedians and The Return Of A Man Called Horse. Digging through my library of albums I spotlight such genuinely diverse and yet artistic soundtrack album presentations as Mutiny On The Bounty, Taras Bulba, Under Fire, Twilight Zone - The Movie, Born Free, El Cid, Duel At Diablo, Jaws, Heavy Metal and Hoosiers. They all come from a time when selecting cues and fashioning them into rewarding albums of music was an important creative process.
Today there are three composers I can think of off hand that show obvious efforts to creatively prepare their soundtrack albums - and one other composer who perhaps spends just as much time preparing his albums as he does composing the music itself.
The latter composer is Christopher Young, who nurtures every cue, edits portions, re-arranges their sequence and even re-composes and newly records bridge material to enable smooth assemblies of everything into his albums. The other three composers span nearly three generations: John Williams, James Horner and Hans Zimmer. Perhaps there's a direct connection between their incredible success and their interest in creative presentations of their music. In any case, one thing is for certain. Though diminished in today's world, it's a welcome thought that creative and artistic album concepts are still with us.