Still seeking innovation: ‘House of Lies’ soundtrack leaves a lot to be desired

By KAT MALLARY ’17

Assistant Arts Editor

“House of Lies,” based on the book by Martin Kihn, is a drama-comedy series about a group of high-rolling, low-ethics financial management consultants. Although the show performs well in the ratings and was recently renewed for a fourth season, its soundtrack needs improvement. The “House of Lies” soundtrack features Grammy winner Gary Clark Jr., “Wake Me Up” vocalist Aloe Blacc and 10 other artists, all of whom contributed original songs to the album. The album was compiled by DJ Chris Douridas of Los Angeles’ KCRW radio station.

 The soundtrack’s biggest problem is that it’s top-heavy. The first three songs on the album are, without a doubt, the most compelling. The remaining tracks amount to little more than moderately interesting and inoffensive background music. The first track is Gary Clark Jr.’s “Bright Lights,” which Capitol Records should be using as its blurb on the album cover. “Bright Lights,” the unabashed heavy hitter, will make people who don’t watch “House of Lies” listen to the rest of the album, and is certain to be a favorite among Gary Clark Jr.’s own fanbase as well as among “House of Lies” viewers. Unfortunately, if listeners came for his brand of old-school, stripped down, genuinely enthralling blues-rock, they probably won’t stay for the half-hearted synth-blues that comprise the remaining three-quarters of the soundtrack.

I’d heard of Gary Clark Jr. before, but the other two success stories on this album, Isaac Delusion and Kim Iscarion, were new to me. Isaac Delusion’s song, “Midnight Sun,” is the second track on the album, and definitely a winner. Though the song is not very complicated on the surface, the vocals, synth, backup vocals and backbeat are all perfectly arranged. “Midnight Sun” thus draws an implicit comparison to songs by  Coldplay. This song may be just a little too polished, but it provides enough surprises to keep the whole track interesting.

 “Brains Out” by Kim Iscarion is the other surprise winner, and without a doubt the most fun track on the album. I’m waiting for it to hit Top 40, get revamped with a heavier and faster beat and be put into rotation on party playlists. The differences between the bridge, hook and chorus are stark enough to make the track sound like a mash-up, but the patchiness of “Brains Out” is a price I’m willing to pay for its exuberance. Let’s all take a deep breath during midterms and dance to this song.

Unfortunately, the rest of the “House of Lies” soundtrack is a long slide into mediocrity. You’ll find plenty of reasons to justify not buying movie and TV soundtracks. That’s the problem: Songs that work in TV shows and films often don’t work as stand-alone tracks. You don’t want a flashy song that detracts from an exciting visual moment or intense dialog, but the music that does the best job of playing second fiddle to such moments often isn’t very interesting.

The worst offenders on the House of Lies soundtrack are “This Love is Here to Stay” by Thomas Dybdahl, “Take Me Back” by Aloe Blacc and “Smoke Filled Lungs” by Basecamp. All three are perfectly acceptable as TV show background music. They may have even been the best choices for the scenes they’re featured in, but this doesn’t mean there’s anything even vaguely alluring about these tracks when they’re heard on their own. “This Love” is sleepy and bluesy, “Take Me Back” is halfheartedly cool but lacks energy and “Smoke Filled Lungs” is quietly ethereal at best and massively uninteresting at worst. “Take Me Back” was uniquely disappointing considering Aloe Blacc’s engaging, fun energy in his Avicii collaboration, “Wake Me Up.”

 There are some songs that blur the line between what works on TV and what’s worth listening to in real life. “Clean the House” by Fat Freddy’s Drop is a better version of the Aloe Blacc track. Both have the same smokey, bluesy vibe, but “Clean the House” has an added few layers of interest. “Belly Roll” by Count Basie is a straight-up brass-band jazz number, evocative of Wall Street, big cities and Art Deco skyscrapers. These songs won’t convert someone who doesn’t already like jazz, but they add a fun, almost anachronistic flourish to an album that’s very much a product of overstyled, post-Maroon 5 soft blues.

 “It Always Comes Back Around” by Michael Kiwanuka is that obligatory, Colin Hay-esque soft-spoken acoustic track that’s been on every good movie and TV soundtrack. It’s hard to avoid the comparison of “It Always Comes Back Around” with a less vibrant “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” by Colin Hay, as made popular by the hit soundtrack to Zach Braff’s movie “Garden State.”

 Finally, “Illusions of Time” by Kiko King & creativemaze is the album’s most innovative track, and therefore one of the most exciting. Though not an aggressive song, it makes itself known with its striking opening: a chant of “Time, air, illusion, fear, who dares? Love, hate, passion, faith.” It’s got a spooky, industrial-pop sound with haunting cello strains and a solid beat, like a darker version of Thievery Corporation. The song is good on its own, and exciting for what it represents. The soundtrack genre is only going to make a name for itself if it takes more risks and isn’t afraid to innovate. While “Illusions of Time” lacks the same potential to be a takeoff hit that “Midnight Sun” or “Brains Out” have, it’s even more exciting.

 The “House of Lies” soundtrack is available for purchase from Capitol Records and free to stream on Spotify.

 

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