Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Montage Loves... Jon Brion - by Emma J. Lennox

The name Jon Brion may not be well known, but his music will certainly strike a familiar chord. Anyone who's enjoyed the snow scattered beach scenes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind will have heard 'Strings That Tie to You' perfectly intone the film's conundrum of love and loss. There is also the sublimely comic I Heart Huckabees, where Brion's 'Knock Yourself Out' accompanies Mark Wahlberg and Jason Schwartzman's attempts at existential bliss. But most notable is the collaboration with acclaimed Indie director Paul Thomas Anderson. Brion and PTA's shared affinity for the offbeat and the unusual puts emphasis on the experimental, has taken soundtracks to a new level. The two started working together on Hard Eight in 1996, continuing with Boogie Nights, 1997, Magnolia, 1999 and Punch Drunk Love, 2002. Latest project There Will Be Blood is due for release in November this year. With PTA, Brion is given freedom rarely allotted to other composers. An entity in its own right, Brion's sound is as integral to the film as its script.

A musical chameleon, Brion is a multi-skilled one man industry; a composer, a producer, and a performer, it's no surprise that Brion's formative years were surrounded by musical talent. His father directed marching bands at Yale and his mother sang in various jazz groups. Brion's siblings are also successful in their fields as a conductor and a violinist. Despite initially rebelling against a formal music education, Brion's background has given him base knowledge he's been able to riff off ever since. His natural ability to play by ear allows him to pick up any instrument which has developed a fun, improvisational style. In effect Brion is a one man jazz band with a heavy pop influence. Jazz impresario, Brad Mehldau, names him as his favourite pianist, and as a producer he is in high demand from artists working the fringes of the music industry including Aimee Mann, Rufus Wainwright, The Eels and former partner, Fiona Apple. His shy exterior and boyish looks make him an unlikely cult hero yet regular sets at Hollywood club, Largo, has 'musos' queuing round the block every Friday night. The gigs showcase Brion at his most playful; he banters with the small crowd, sometimes employing them in back up duties and interweaves musical 'in jokes' into his melodies. Demand is so strong, bootlegs have been unofficially posted online for those too far away to enjoy. However it was the chance to compose orchestral arrangements which sparked Brion's creative interest in PTA's films.

Using an eclectic palette of instruments Brion's scores transcend the boundaries of the cinema screen. Instead of fading into the background in quiet sympathy like most string variety soundtracks, Brion's resonating melodies implore the viewers' attention. It's unusual to have such an intrusive sound but it succeeds in enveloping the audience into emotions of the characters. Punch Drunk Love, where Brion's compositions is mixed with inventive design, has a vivid soundtrack to match the mesmeric visuals. The signature theme 'Here We Go' propels the narrative in a swirling, merry go round ¾ beat and identifies Barry Egan, the peculiar oddball as central to the story. “Each one of us feels a little stranded, you can't explain or understand it,” Brion sings with empathy “...amidst all the to and fro, someone can say hello, here we go.” The music's significance is used as a plot device when Egan finds an abandoned harmonium on the street. The poor, dishevelled object becomes his refuge against an intimidating world and has the magical ability to soothe the unstable Egan. Egan isn't a musician, in fact he is a lonely business man with several overbearing sisters and anger issues, but Brion's warm and inclusive melodies gives the character universal, heart felt appeal.

Another heart stopper is Eternal Sunshine's Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometime, which everyone will remember as Beck's cover of a Korgi's original. Whilst Beck performed the vocals, the eclectic chimes and strings, and mind twisting reverbs are identifiably Brion who played all the instruments and produced the track. It highlights what makes him so interesting; a gifted multi instrumentalist, with a mind for unconventional arrangements who is able to completely fade into the background. Despite the high profile Hollywood projects, Brion has remained decidedly out of focus, preferring the relative anonymity of a 'jobbing musician.' One suspects a more business savvy brain would have afforded him larger credit alongside the creative forces of Gondry and Kaufman. Yet Brion is an enabler rather than a personality and he has built his reputation on collaborations. It's meant his own projects have suffered including his only solo album to date; an independent effort with the self effacing title 'Meaningless'. There was also a pilot for TV, The Jon Brion Show, which attempted to recreate the creative chaos of the Largo gigs, but failed to get aired.

Yet Brion seems content with the versatility of a career in a distinctly Jon Brion shaped niche. As a pop artist it's hard not to fall in love with his deceptively simple melodies and passing resemblance to George Harrison in his quiet but soulful vocals. As a producer there are multi-layered depths to the idiosyncrasies he develops in a track. And as a film composer his ability to harmonise with the human condition makes him the perfect accompaniment to a quirky director's take on life. It is perhaps best that Brion stays the unseen maestro, plucking the heart strings from afar instead of imposing his ego. For Brion's compositions have a 'music box' quality; it's mysterious on the outside but delightful and surprising once opened up. Every Friday night in L.A. a small crowd cheers as Brion gently begins “You've gotta hope that's there's someone for you, as strange as you are.” Fortunately for Brion, he's not the only strange one out there.

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