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Notebook: Listening in to the Best Original Song nominees

By Gregory Hicks, Daily Arts Writer
Published February 26, 2013

From platinum-selling Bond themes to lyrical contributions of Seth MacFarlane, 2013’s Best Original Song nominees for the Academy Awards deserve a close look (or listen, rather), particularly the winning track “Skyfall.”

“Before My Time” from “Chasing Ice”

Simplicity breeds elegance, and this musical conclusion to 2013’s most chilling documentary is stripped down beyond all other nominations.

The track singles out both performers (Scarlett Johansson on vocals and Joshua Bell on violin) in J Ralph’s latest work. Johansson and Bell highlight the delicate nature of the song — a song that sounds so fragile, you might fear listening at the risk of breaking it.

“My Time” serves as a stark contrast to the loaded, serious documentary.

“Everybody Needs a Best Friend” from “Ted”

One thing to love about this sensational collection of nominations is that each track embodies its film to the fullest — and if this musical lovechild of Seth MacFarlane and Norah Jones doesn’t illustrate Ted and John Bennett’s companionship, then right must be wrong, happy must be sad and up must be down.

“Best Friend” is a triple threat for its melodic composition, lyrical composition and delivery. Walter Murphy (score composer) took the style in a jazzy direction — a direction that led to nine-time Grammy award-winning jazz-pop artist (there’s a mouthful) Norah Jones as its performer. MacFarlane cheerfully showcases another skill by shifting his knack for dialogue creation into a musical form as the song’s lyricist.

The song is undoubtedly a descendant of Sinatra’s “Somewhere Beyond the Sea,” or Hairspray’s “(You’re) Timeless to Me.” But then again, these charming, animated songs aren’t few and far between in the jazz realm.

“Pi’s Lullaby” from “Life of Pi”

It can be easy to overlook the most obvious characteristic of a song, even when it’s within the title. “Pi’s Lullaby” is a lullaby, and though it certainly defines the delicacies of a mother singing to her child, it doesn’t oversimplify itself.

The gentile bass beat that floats within the track illustrates the water ripple of Pi’s life, rather than being written off as a simple choice of foreign instrumentation.

An instrumental escalation progresses, but the escalation is small enough to avoid exceeding its lullaby qualities. One of these added instruments includes a brief appearance from an accordion soloist — bizarre, given the accordion’s European, South American nature — but this is one of many humble qualities that makes this Oscar nominee one lullaby that won’t put you to sleep.

“Suddenly” from “Les Misérables”

Though “Suddenly” is a leading song in this group of nominees, there’s relatively little to speak of. The mere fact that this original composition can seamlessly hold with the music of the unparalleled musical tragedy, Les Misérables, speaks to its quality.

Given its theatrical nature, however, it seems appropriate to focus on its inspirational aspects and narrative goals. In a sense, the song was actually inspired by director Tom Hooper, who sensed a gap in Jean Valjean’s emotional development — comparing the musical to the novel, that is — as he was “Suddenly” thrown into this colossal commitment of raising a child.

So here is the real question. Does “Suddenly” capture the missing element of spontaneity and anxiety in Jean Valjean’s life story? Most certainly it does — particularly rare, given that successful additions to classic work are few and far between.

“Skyfall” from “Skyfall”

It’s somber. It’s driven. It’s Adele. It’s “Skyfall.” The Epworth-Adkins tandem strolls in to claim another award, just to show that the songwriting team knows no bounds.

The composition alone is impressive, but Adele’s vocal dexterity produces performance perfection. The commanding vocal tone pressures the thrilling portions of the new Bond theme, while the echoed falsetto becomes mysterious, almost sinister.

The accompaniment builds flawlessly — introducing the piece with a burst of classic Bond brass which instantly vanishes, making room for an isolated piano theme. The string orchestra also bursts in as the chorus commences, remaining until the track’s finale, characterized by another sample of a former Bond composition.

Interestingly enough, negotiations for the writing and performance of 007’s new track were being discussed with Adele before the release of her worldwide bestselling album, 21. Fate must’ve also been collaborating with Sony Pictures and Columbia Records for this winning nominee.


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