Saturday, 19 July 2014

Fargo Score Review

Check it out... if you're a fan of the 1996 score, which Russo very much takes inspiration from for this spin-off, or if you rather enjoy heavy-handed string work, paired with some of the more loud and impressive brass of the summer.

Skip it... if a loud, slow and often repetitive television score, from a composer who does not often delve into this genre of music, is the kind of thing that doesn't catch your attention.

"Dark and brooding, it's an impressive composition that isn't easy on the ears."

Despite my claims that I enjoy all mediums of entertainment equally, I must say that I don't really focus on television as much as I probably should. Despite any indications, I more often than not don't delve too far into major television series', part from Arrow, Game of Thrones and now Hannibal. The television series Fargo, a spin-off from the Coen Brothers 1996 film of the same name, is one of this year's major television titles that I'm yet to check out, despite all the good things I've heard about it. Set in the same universe as the previously mentioned Coen Brothers film, this adaption of Fargo stars Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo, a man who influences put-upon insurance salesman Lester Nygaard, Martin Freeman's character, as well as the rest of the population of Bemidji, Minnesota, with his malice and violence. The show has garnered a broad amount of acclaim, and has even been nominated for a great deal of Emmys this year.

Accompanying the show is the score to the series, composed by Jeff Russo, who has had very limited experience in the way of orchestral composition. Fargo is by far Russo's biggest project in his career so far, thanks to the show's title and reception. Though not only is the pressure being forced upon him by the fact that the show is a relatively major title: no doubt people will draw comparisons between Russo's efforts here and the fantastic 1996 composition by Carter Burwell. That's quite of lot of scrutiny to contend with. Fortunately, Russo's efforts are certainly adequate, if not the most enjoyable to listen to (at least in my experiences). In context, I have no doubt that this score would work wonders: it reflects the supposed dark nature of the series, and it is a constant thematic barrage. As a piece of entertainment on it's own, though, Fargo is an often beautifully executed crime drama score, as well as a rather challenging listening experience. It's no doubt that there is a lot of incredibly well composed material here; the main theme, somewhat reminiscent of the 1996 score's lead cue, is an utterly faultless piece of music, which allows us a solid 2 and a half minutes to properly establish the tone of the score. With it's slow violin and piano starting us off, we're immediately exposed to the sombre, depressing tone the score will take, though it's executed most enjoyably in this instance. The cue Malvo's Theme is another exceptional piece of music, that seems to combine the creeping sleuth style of old, best perfected with Henry Mancini's Pink Panther scores, with the slow violin, fiddle and clarinet main riffs that maintain the dark and depressing tone all throughout. Throughout, there are also wonderful percussion crescendos, light cymbal crashes, as well as what sound like Eastern influences: I would say a Duduk is used specifically, but I fear being wrong on that account. Nevertheless, a brilliant piece of music. 

Other highlights include the percussion-based Wrench and Numbers; the sinister Murderous Tundra; the wistful Dullard: I could go on. This score is full of incredibly notable pieces of dark and moody music: material which is far greater than what should've been expected of such a new and unknown composer. What's most incredible is the fact that Russo is in fact one of the founding members of an acoustic rock band, Low Stars, as well as a founding member of the rock band Tonic. Two rock bands. How many composers can say they're jumped from writing rock songs to composing notable television scores like Fargo and Hostages? Not a whole heap, I believe. The fact that this is an incredibly competent and well paced orchestral score astounds me, taking Russo's background in music into account. This rock influence does seep through, though, in a number of cues, such as Lester as Malvo and Wrench and Numbers, and it makes for some stunning and enjoyable highlights. Unfortunately, most of the score contains less of this rock influence, and more so deeply mournful music, composed of heavy-handed strings, as well as some incredibly forceful atmospheric music. For the majority of the 52 minute long running time, Russo's use of the strings is appropriate and good enough to warrant approval, though he can often go slightly overboard in terms of tone and volume. At points, you may just need to turn the sound down, just so you can gather your now startled senses. So whilst commendation must be afforded to Russo for this effort and everything that he achieves with it on a thematic principle, as the majority of the thematic material is impressive, this can become an often tedious and infuriatingly difficult listening experience to sit through, and I've sat through it quite a few times. As someone who enjoys pushing the volume to the max and enjoying the music at the loudest volume physically possible on my utterly atrocious sound system, I more often than not felt the need to turn the volume down, to allow my ears some sort of a break after such a hammering they've received from the ear-piercing synthetic material that sits in the forefront of many of the cues. 

If Russo could've taken a step back in regards to the ambient electronics, I may have enjoyed this score quite a bit more. It's disappointing, especially after such a great deal of good this score can boast. This could've reigned in as one of the better modern television drama scores I'd heard in a good while, if not for the consistently detrimental electronics. The clarinet and percussion use here is fantastic, far better than most television scores currently receiving notice, as is a good deal of the violin material. All the score needed was a little bit less electronic material, and more of the sleuth-styled music that proved to be such a fantastic component in the score. Instead, we get a thoroughly dark and somewhat repetitive effort from Russo, which isn't nearly as impressive as it could have and should have been. It's certainly worth a listen for the excellent use of the orchestra during the majority of it's running time, though I don't consider it anything more than reasonably good, due to my rather unpleasant experiences whilst listening. You can purchase Fargo on iTunes and Amazon here and here


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