There’s very little gray area when it comes to how film music fans feel about the PIRATES OF THE CARIBEEAN music. But to complain about the scores at this stage of the game is superfluous. You either like them or you don’t. As I wrote in my “Avast, Ye Matey!” post, I’ve been on a real POTC kick these past few weeks in preparation for the fourth installment of the popular franchise, ON STRANGER TIDES. So what do you get with P4? More of the same…but less of it.
Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow is back for a fourth trip aboard the high seas and all of Hans Zimmer‘s familiar themes are along for the ride. But with Spanish star Penelope Cruz along as the female lead and Ian McShane as Blackbeard, Zimmer has incorporated some new themes and new sounds.
McShane contributes some of the malicious glee that Geoffrey Rush has so successfully brought to the franchise as Barbossa. Zimmer’s descending minor-key theme lets us know in no uncertain terms as to his intentions in pursuit of the Fountain of Youth.
POTC has always stretch the limits of reality and believability, as befitting films originally based on a theme park ride. So the inclusion of mermaids just seems one more hurdle for Sparrow & Co. But these gals are no animated Ariel water sprites. From the bottomless depths rises haunting female vocals intoning one of Zimmer’s finest themes, based on three-note motifs that cry with loneliness, even if they are crocodile tears. The celeste and atmospheric electronics give the melody a further other-worldly quality, while the forceful French horn response to the siren’s call gives hints of the danger to come in the impressive action sequence that follows.
What distinguishes ON STRANGER TIDES from the earlier POTC scores is the use of Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela to provide a little Spanish flavor to the music. Their distinctive fret work gives the tango of “Angelica” and “South of Heaven’s Chanting Mermaids” an irresistible sexuality. The duo’s trademark blend of melodic and percussive elements (all done on the guitar) lend energy and a distinctive flare to tracks like “The Pirate That Should Not Be” and “Angry and Dead Again.”
As in the past, Zimmer’s action cues are produced to the hilt to compete with the sound design of the film. “Mutiny” contains Zimmer’s trademark (yet still effective) blend of chorus, belching brass, string ostinati and percussion overlays. The triplet subdivision gives “Palm Tree Escape” a frenetic energy, but poor Rodrigo y Gabriela’s stunning guitar lines have to be boosted to the nth degree to even be heard.
The second half of the album is devoted to electronic dance mixes of many of the score’s main themes and cues. The soundtrack for DEAD MAN’S CHEST featured one remix and the box set of the first three scores included an extra disc of unreleased suites and remixes, so there is precedent for their inclusion. But to fill in the album with this many remixes smacks of a marketing gimmick more than anything else. So who does this particular gimmick appeal to? Certainly not to film music fans who have chided Disney on numerous message boards for the inclusion of the remixes. And I can’t imagine club kids pumping their arms in the air to “South of Heaven’s Chanting Mermaids.” To be fair, the remixes by high-profile electronica names such as DJ Earworm and Photek feature a lot of creativity and stellar production values. The thump thump thump of the bass mixes with snippets of the orchestral score in intriguing, if oddly unsettling, ways.
So how does ON STRANGER TIDES ultimately stack up against earlier POTC incarnations? It’s very much more of the same, as to be expected. If you hate the first three scores, it’s doubtful you’ll find anything of value in the fourth. But the inclusion of Rodrigo y Gabriela, especially as heard on the album, gives the score real flare, and that mermaids theme is a winner. The CD is a missed opportunity to properly represent the score, but it’s still fun nonetheless.