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Monday, April 27, 2015

Michael Giacchino -- Alias [Original Television Soundtrack]

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In hindsight, it was a bad idea. A rebellious 19-year old punk rocker should most likely not move in with a structure-loving 26-year old war veteran, no matter how close of friends they are. Derek and I both needed a place to stay, couldn't afford our own place, and...the rest is history. That we are still friends now is a testament to the core strength of our friendship...that we are still alive is a testament to the fact that we didn't keep a gun or large knives within easy reach.
But hey! you might be yelling at your sexy computer screen. I thought this was a review of Michael Giacchino's soundtrack for the first season of Alias?
Well, person I just imagined with a sexy computer screen (because that screen is currently displaying The Nicsperiment), this is The Nicsperiment, and this is how we do things.
Divergence aside, my first couple of months at Plantation Trace apartments on Highland Road, August and September of the year 2001, were not the brightest of my life. Beside the simple fact that living away from home for the fist time can be difficult, I was flat broke, struggling with my stupid Spanish class (and really, most of the classes in that one ill-chosen Mass Communications semester (I've now officially majored in everything, for at least a couple of days)), subsisting entirely on wheat bread, water, and Swiss Cake Rolls, and a crew of jackasses commandeered some planes into some buildings (I did not subsist on them). The only activity I had to escape it all was reading Lord of the Rings, but the lighting in that apartment was really bad, and I was really malnourished, and I always passed out after a couple of pages.
Enter Alias. I had seen promos for the show in the weeks leading up to its premiere. It looked cool, and it looked like an escape from my dreary world. I bookmarked September 30 on my mental calendar. That ended up being a magical night.
Turns out I just needed some new place of mental escape where I could somewhat reforge myself. While Derek and I never really found a great way to co-exist, with the sole exception of staying out of each other's way, from September 30, 2001 onward, I enjoyed living on my own (all the sympathy food my parents started sending when they discovered how broke I was helped as well...and by "on my own," I of course mean living without my parents and paying my own rent).
The Girl of a Thousand Wigs and even more problems pulled me out of miserable reality and into the wonderful world of imagination we could all exist in harmony in together if not for jackasses who like to do things like commandeer planes into buildings. But enough about jackasses. It's time to look at the nearly forgotten Alias, and its excellent soundtrack.
I'm of course joking about living in a world of imagination. I think the positive of visiting an imaginary world is that it can help you better deal with the real one. If you just stay in an imaginary world and never leave...well, that's your choice I guess, but not one I'd advise. But what do I know, I just lied to you and said "enough about jackasses," but just kept on rambling about myself. Okay, for real, here is the jumping off point to finally talk about, for real this time.
If not for the fact that almost everyone involved with the show went on to have a wildly successful career, I'd feel sorry for Alias. Many may have forgotten about the program, or never even gave it the time of day, but at this point in history, everyone knows who showrunner and creator, JJ Abrams (uh...he's making the new Star Wars movie that's going to make a billion dollars this December), actress, Jennifer Garner (major movie star, famous baby maker), and actor, Bradley Cooper (up to four Oscar nominations now, three for acting) are. All three owe their fame and success to Alias, but they aren't the only ones in debt. The entire last decade of television owes a great debt to this underrated little show.
You know how people complain about shows being "episodic" or "procedural," and bemoan a lack of "ongoing storyline?" That's because Alias popularized those things.
Sure, The X-Files (my favorite show of all time) utilized those kinds of tools, but outside of four or five "mythology" episodes a season, the rest of the show's episodes stood alone. One can go back as far as The Fugitive in the 1960's--it took Dr. Richard Kimble 120 episodes to find justice, but he spent most of those helping out people with small town problems, instead of chasing after the one-armed man. Buffy may fight a new big bad every season, but episode to episode, she's generally dealing with something else entirely (Angel's evil!...but Xander's on the swim team now...let's do an episode about that! (Don't worry, Buffy, I've got the love for you, too)). With Alias, the entire show was the "mythology."
Double-agent Sydney Bristow's attempt to take down CIA competitor and enemy, SD-6, and the repercussions of her actions, occupy the entire first two seasons of the show. While this mission contains several threads, and the show is able to weave many characters and story-lines within, these episodes are always about Sydney attempting to take down SD-6. Almost every episode ends with a cliffhanger, sometimes in mid-scene, only to pick up exactly where the show left off the next week. In season three (and admittedly, halfway through season two, as well), the plot morphed, but the show's structure did not, nor did the momentum stop. The first three seasons of Alias are essentially one enormous, 50-hour episode.
While no following show has adopted this format with the blistering intensity of Alias, expectations for many in the viewing public subtly shifted. What happened in the previous episode has to inform the following episode. Nine years later, Justified premiered on FX. While during a certain era of television, there would be no complaints, contemporary viewers criticized the first few episodes for their lack of serialization. Justified then attempted to create an ongoing plot. It became a much better show. The serialization was expected, and when those expectations created it, it improved.  Think of a Breaking Bad that doesn't flow smoothly from episode to episode....JJ Abrams' own Lost...thanks Alias!
ABC should also thank Alias. When Alias premiered, that network was in the gutter. QVC was pulling in better ratings. Alias challenged ABC to think big. Now they're at the top of  the network heap...excluding that channel that only people over the age of 55 back to the perptually young and hip Alias.
On a micro level, Alias generally consisted of Agent Bristow (Garner) going on various missions for SD-6, generally completing those missions successfully, but in a way that would instead benefit the CIA. Her partner, the patriotic Dixon (Carl Lumbly), as well as most SD-6 employees, believe they are actually working for the CIA. The evil SD-6 manipulates these agents into working against the very organization they believe they are working for. Bristow also works with her father, Jack (played by Victor Garber, possibly the best actor in the ensemble), also a double agent, and a high-ranking officer in both the CIA and SD-6. Sydney somehow also finds time to hang out with her friends, the oblivious Will (Cooper) and Francie (the underrated Merrin Dungey), in a desperate attempt to maintain a social life. While Sydey's time relaxing with Will and Francie is often soundtracked by the contemporary pop hits of 2001, Agent Bristow's time infiltrating a cool international party, sneaking downstairs in disguise, creeping down a garishly lit hallway, doing techie spy stuff, and running back down that same hallway while dodging bullets and beating men twice her size senseless is soundtracked by Michael Giacchino.
Man, this review just rules!
The first season soundtrack, vaguely titled,  Alias [Original Television Soundtrack], features music entirely composed by Giacchino...except for the first track, "Main Title," a quick electronic ditty by JJ Abrams. I've heard other reviewers complain that this :27 of music is slight and unsophisticated, but the fact of the matter is, it's a fun little blast of sound, and it works perfectly as both an intro for this album, and as a sudden shock to the system after one has been watching an Alias episode for 20-minutes, only to suddenly have the main titles and this music pop up and out from the screen. Abrams loved to do that during the first season--begin an episode so breathlessly and quick of pace that an intro after so much action was a welcome respite. The next twenty-five tracks are all Giacchino, with an employed host of excellent Hollywood Studio Symphony musicians at his disposal.
Giacchino creates a definite style and soundscape for Alias' first season of television: electronic beats and sounds, sometimes augmented by a full orchestra, even more rarely augmented by guitar and indigenous instrumentation. Sometimes, the electronic beat is switched out for organic percussion: check track two, "Dissolved," where Giacchino immediately gives the lay of the land: fast, energetic beats, sweeping strings, and a showy, definitive announcement of Sydney's four-note adventure theme by the brass, before the whole thing dissolves into a burble of electronics, fading strings, and a sudden gentle piano introduction of Sydney's "emotion theme" in the track's closing seconds (this sentence was a shameless aping of Clemmensen's style...thanks, Clemmensen). "Dissolved" is a whirlwind of sound, finely representative of the show it was created to service.

The next track, "Red Hair is Better" introduces rock guitar to the mix, along with a more ambient electronic palette, and a thicker beat, all building to a digital scream two-minutes in that just makes me want to throw back a bottle of Surge (NOTE: THEY ARE MAKING THAT GREEN ELIXIR ONCE AGAIN! 9/11 NEVER HAPPENED!!!*).
Selection four,"Spanish Heist," really heightens this soundtrack's international flavor, a fitting feel for such a globetrotting show. Spanish guitar, flamenco-style bass and singing, and percussion, give way to a pulsing beat and electronics, though the guitar sticks around and has a rowdy old time. This is probably the most fun piece Giacchino has written to date, and it works well coming so early in this album. Actually, the track order seems to follow chronologically with the season, which Giacchino has generally done from here on out with all his soundtrack albums.
"Double Life" begins with a somber woodwind pronouncement of Sydney's "emotion theme," before handing things over to the strings. This theme usually plays in some form when Sydney is looking at old pictures of her mother, experiencing a little romance, or feeling...emotional. "Tunisia" offers up another mix of electronics and orchestra, and by this point, the listener will know whether or not they want to continue. Giacchino has lain out the blueprint. Fast, fun pieces consisting of some combination of electronic beats and sounds, full orchestra, international-sounding additions, and at times a little electric spy guitar. These tracks are contrasted by moodier, often somber pieces for the strings and orchestra. Along the way, Giacchino introduces more themes, further elaborates ones already introduced, and creates a significantly darker, more epic aura in the album's final quarter, reflective of the show's rising stakes and bleaker tone.
Giacchino, along with his album co-producers, do a great job of pacing this album, building energy, giving a break with a more quiet piece, diving into the energetic pieces once more. This staves off listener restlessness over the course of Alias [Original Television Soundtrack], and ensures that even listeners not interested in Alias, the TV show, will enjoy this album. But really, you should go watch that show, it was awesome.

*I do not mean to belittle the loss of life that occurred on September 11th, 2001. I only mean that certain cultural elements that seemed to die out in conjunction with that horrible day seem to be returning. Unfortunately, a stupid soda that makes your teeth fall out rates negative infinity in comparison to just one of the lives lost that day, or in the wars that followed.

2003 Varèse Sarabande
1. Main Title (written by JJ Abrams) 0:27
2. Dissolved 2:07
3. Red Hair is Better 2:31
4. Spanish Heist 4:30
5. Double Life 1:53
6. Tunisia 4:12
7. In the Garden 2:29
8. Looking for a Man 3:53
9. Anna Shows Up 3:30
10. Home Movies 0:40
11. On to Paris 1:49
12. Page 47 1:54
13. The Prophecy 2:10
14. Badenweiler 5:11
15. Arvin at the Poles 1:36
16. Sleeping Beauty 3:08
17. Blow'd Up 2:26
18. It's Not the C.I.A. 1:38
19. Oh My God!!!! 3:18
20. The Tooth Doctor 2:00
21. It Was Anna 0:54
22. Wet Suits 2:39
23. Ball Buster 1:39
24. The End? 0:57
25. Bristow & Bristow 3:26
26. SD-6 Dance Party 3:18

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