Friday, March 27, 2009

Various Artists. Judgment Night OST (Epic, 1993)

"All it takes is intelligence/ I'm great with embellishments."

The 1993 Emilio Estevez, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Jeremy Piven, and Stephen Dorff (remember him?) vehicle Judgment Night is a terrible, terrible movie. The aforementioned quartet -- playing domesticated suburban dudes -- head into downtown Chicago to see a boxing match, take the wrong exit, witness a murder, and spend the rest of the movie running from Denis Leary and the guy who played Redfoot in The Usual Suspects. It's utterly formulaic, surprise free, and forgettable.

But the soundtrack? The soundtrack kinda rules, and is likely the only reason anyone still remembers the film. Here's why: In an era mercifully free of rap-rock, someone got it into their head to pair up some really, really decent rock bands (folks like Sonic Youth, Teenage Fanclub, Dinosaur Jr., Faith No More, and Helmet) with some early '90s hip-hop heavy hitters (De La Soul, House of Pain, Cypress Hill, Del Tha Funky Homosapien, Run D.M.C.) and see what would happen. And what happened was pretty great, as each group clearly decided to have fun with it and managed to play to their styles and strengths in some surprising ways. The collection has its missteps -- we'll get to those -- but it also has some diamond-bright gems.

For starters, the pairings are clever and natural. "Fallin'," by Teenage Fanclub and De La Soul, is a perfect example. Teenage Fanclub's breezy, effortlessly sharp indie pop serves as the perfect complement to Daisy Age De La's philosophic, thoughtful meditations on stardom and the fickle tastes of the tastemakers (which also raises an important point about this soundtrack: few, if any, of the songs have anything to do with the movie, at all. While there are some thematic parallels -- I'm coming for you, I'm going to get you, run -- generally speaking the album is almost entirely disconnected from anything connected to the film). The groove -- cushions of reverbed guitar and plush drums, with a recurring Tom Petty sample as the hook -- is dreamlike, and De La Soul own it, crafting an endlessly listenable track and a clear album highlight.

Dinosaur Jr. and Del Tha Funky Homosapien combine monolithic shredding and an off-kilter vocal approach to bring us "Missing Link," a massive mid-tempo stomper awash in J. Mascis's endless acid funk soloing and slamming syncopated beats. In between six-string salvos, Del (a member of the West Coast Hieroglyphics collective and Ice Cube's cousin) flows like mercury, bouncing verses off walls of screaming distortion and Mascis's ghostlike, falsetto backing vocals.

Faith No More and Boo-Ya (Who?-Ya) T.R.I.B.E. tackle the majestically menacing "Another Body Murdered," marked by a terrifying piano echo, death from above power chords, hell's-chorus vocal motifs, and propulsively predatory rapping. The sample of a desperately screaming woman looped over Mike Bordin's giant drum patterns never fails to unsettle, in the best way. Similarly, on "Just Another Victim" Helmet's Page Hamilton cranks out mechanistic riffs over wickedly on-time beats as an air-raid siren wails and House of Pain emotes menacingly; shit gets real at the 2:35 mark when the band takes a back seat and Everlast commences to drop science about Sun Tzu while DJ Lethal attacks the ones and twos. Elsewhere, Sonic Youth detunes their guitars while Cypress Hill smokes up on "I Love You Mary Jane;" it's fun, but hearing Kim Gordon lifelessly murmur, "Sugar come by and get me high," is likely to make you put the weed away for a while.

Like I said before, there are some missteps. Biohazard and Onyx's "Judgement Night" is blustery and little else; on "Disorder," Slayer and Ice-T sound like Body Count, which no one needs more of; and Seattle team Mudhoney and Sir Mix-a-Lot sound like they're singing the theme song to some kind of wacky cross-cultural sitcom on "Freakmomma," Mix-a-Lot's rapping rubbing uncomfortably against Mudhoney's dirtbag surf grooves. But even these relative failures can't dampen the power of the collection's considerable triumphs.

When I was I was in high school, I had the Judgment Night soundtrack on tape; one summer I wore it out. Everything about it seemed unbelieveably cool at the time, incredibly forward thinking and daring. Rap? And rock? Together? And Aerosmith aren't involved? And Teenage Fanclub and Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth ARE? Awesome. And today, though my ears are far more jaded than they were back then, a lot of this collection still sounds pretty sweet. Nostalgia has something to do with it, sure, but that's not the whole story. The better part of two decades on, the best songs on here totally own.