Graded on a Curve:
John Parish, Screenplay

John Parish is known to many mainly through his long association with PJ Harvey. Indeed, Polly Jean not only got her start in Parish’s ‘80s band Automatic Dlamini, but her last album, the quite fine Let England Shake, featured him in the familiar role of producer and instrumental contributor. The straight scoop is that Parish is a busy guy, in demand not only as a producer (in addition to a handful of Harvey albums his credits include Giant Sand, Sparklehorse, and Eels) and soundtrack composer, but also as a recording artist under his own name. Screenplay finds portions of his movie scores comprising his third solo release for Thrill Jockey, and the results are an ambitious success.

Even though his activities as film composer have seen a substantial increase of late, John Parish is no novice to the form. His debut in the field spans back to 1998 with Rosie, the first feature of Belgian director Patrice Toye.

While he’s a stated admirer of such classic figures as Ennio Morricone, John Barry, and Nino Rota (along with the auteur-based individualism of John Carpenter), familiarity with Screenplay finds Parish to be very much his own man in the current soundtrack scene, his scores emanating a contemporary sensibility that’s in line with his background as a rock musician.

Some of Parish’s work has seen release as Original Soundtracks, two examples being Rosie and She, a Chinese, the latter accompanying a 2009 film from director Xiaolu Guo. However, a nagging issue with OST’s lies in their popularity being pretty limited to those folks that have actually sat down, either in a theatre or in their own comfortable abodes, and watched the films.

The distribution of lesser-known movies is fraught with all sorts of difficulties, and the reality is that a relatively small amount of viewers are conversant with the pictures that Parish’s compositions have scored. Naturally, the soundtracks from the films suffer accordingly; the number seen by the eyes of this writer (the eyes of a longtime cinephile) is an unfortunate zero.

Screenplay seeks to remedy this situation, culling portions from his recent compositions for Sebastien Lifshitz’ Plein Sud (original title: L’Enfant D’en Haut), Ursula Meier’s Sister (Switzerland’s Oscar entry for this year’s Best Foreign Film category), and Toye’s Nowhere Man and Little Black Spiders, in the attempt to release an album illuminating his film work that also stands up on its own. As the title indicates, he’s not downplaying the music’s origin, only molding it in an attempt to communicate with the listener regardless of their knowledge of the movies from which they derive.

The record opens with a voice speaking Dutch. This snippet of dialogue gives way to the theme for one of Little Black Spider’s characters, namely “Katharina.” The sounds capture the attention, but as the track progresses the guitar and vibes, melodious yet also meditative, lack the forcefulness that’s familiar to so much contemporary instrumental music.

“The Girls Rehearse” is closer in orientation to pop-rock, a feel that’s increased by the appearance of crisp drumming at around thirty seconds in, and further encouraged by the inclusion of a lilting female voice (Tammy Payne of Jukes), though the singing is as atmospheric as it is engagingly tuneful, made more so by the lack of expression through words. The brevity also serves to amplify its nature as something more than just a likeable piece of fairly conventional pop-rock.

“Katja Gives Birth”’s short passage of abstraction follows, and “The Minotaur Pt. 2” begins with another brief spoken interlude before erupting into some noisy rock. Once the heaviness is established, it’s enhanced (and counteracted a bit) with a forcefully delivered “la-la” chorus (courtesy of Spanish performer Maika Makovski.) From there the minimalism of “River” gradually and methodically builds, integrating symphonic shadings and the sustained textures of accordion before a quick fade out.

While the name of “Katja’s Death” tips off the listener to the subject matter it accompanies, the music is strengthened by its subtlety, being a contemplative piece for piano that’s aided with quiet accents of additional instrumentation. Removed from the insight of the title (and very possibly the fragment of Dutch dialogue at the start of the track) the sounds Parish creates don’t overtly suggest a loss of life; there’s nothing particularly mournful here, and its open-endedness liberates the music, allowing it to exist for its own sake.

“LBS/End Titles,” the final piece from Little Black Spiders, begins curiously, the sound of a turntable stylus revolving around an end-groove blending with a rising loop of electronic symphonics, then shifting into a variation upon “The Girls Rehearse.” If the credits are rolling it’s only because the title tells us so.

Certainly cinematic is “L’Enfant D’en Haut,” calling out to accompany a succession of unified (or perhaps fractured) imagery, and yet it stands up simultaneously as a fully-realized expression of Krautrock-like guitar bravado. It’s one of Screenplay’s finest moments. It contrasts sharply with “Dernière Monté”’s solo piano interlude, a motif that’s continued in “Girl Wurli,” though the piece is invested with a hushed tenderness, very reminiscent of a music-box. However, there is real human warmth in the playing.

That tenderness is extended in “Les Billets” even as the use of amplified guitar tones brings an added edge to the passage. The vibes return, delivered with a very restrained touch, mingling briefly with the hovering cloud of guitar on what’s ultimately a very contained and disciplined piece of music.

“The Island” steps forward as an ornate, popish instrumental theme for full band. It’s not a bit difficult to imagine it extended and provided with the talents of a vocalist, but here the track falls securely into Screenplay’s general strategy of quick, lean expressions that blend together with the other cuts, forming a larger sonic environment that’s quite appealing. As such, entries like “Katharina” and “L’Enfant D’en Haut” stand out a bit, and to a lesser extent so does “Sara and Tomas.”

It begins with another dialogue exchange, the recurring filmic elements by this point becoming an attractive and unique component in the record’s presentation, providing insight not only into the sound of the human voice but also the cadences of communication, though my perspective on the matter would obviously change if the words were delivered in English, unfortunately (but perhaps not in this specific instance) the only language in which I’m fluent.

Slowly the track unwinds, presenting a drifting, patiently rising organ-based ache with low-mixed vocal accents and a brief statement from Parish’s guitar. It’s a superb stretch of moodiness that feels much shorter than its four and a half minutes.

Following this is “The Spring Ritual,” as Screenplay deftly begins exploring longer and more songic modes, the atmosphere of the track given over to some ample strumming that mingles with the beauty of Parish’s lonely pedal steel, the cut methodically soaring into a small but substantial moment of regeneration that’s reflective of the piece’s title.

“Longfellow” is a short study in chamber strings that segues into the showcase for lonesome trumpet that is “Longfellow Forlorn.” The breadth of instrumentation on Screenplay is impressive, casually enhancing the record’s already considerable charms. To wit, “Plein Sud” finds the guitars interacting with the brittle timekeeping of a rhythm machine, though real live drums also enter into the equation, and as it develops it brings a layered flavor that’s very pleasing.

With its inclusion of a male voice singing actual lyrics, “A Glass of Wine” is something of an outlier on Screenplay, but it’s also not especially disruptive, the return of the trumpet helping to acclimate the track into the record’s sonic landscape. “Sam” closes the album with a generous helping of the guitarist’s assured tone.

Interestingly, the majority of Screenplay’s tracks don’t really work in isolation, only coming to full life in connection with those that surround them. That means the disc’s got flow. And the LP version holds six extra cuts, which makes picking up the vinyl even more sensible than usual. I can’t deny wishing that a few of the shorter tracks hung around for a little longer, but those pangs are largely resolved by the sounds that emerge after them.

Hopefully the opportunity will arise to experience the selections found here in union with the images that served as their inspiration, but until that time Screenplay stands as a fully realized achievement on its own merits.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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