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The Finest Hours (Carter Burwell)

May 22, 2016

Cover_TheFinestHoursTHE FINEST HOURS

Carter Burwell, 2016, Walt Disney Records
18 tracks, 47:44

It was a bit of a troubled production, but “The Finest Hours” turned out to be one of Carter Burwell finer moments.

Review by Pete Simons

What is it?

The Coast Guard makes a daring rescue attempt off the coast of Cape Cod after a pair of oil tankers are destroyed during a blizzard in 1952.Directed by Craig Gillespie (“Fright Night”, 2011) the film stars Chris Pine and Casey Affleck. The original score is by Carter Burwell, with additional music by Philip Klein.

What does it sound like?

The album opens with a cute little melody for “Meeting Miriam”, so let’s call it Miriam’s theme. It’s really lovely and it has grown on me over time. The first time I heard it, I thought it was a bit simplistic, and perhaps leaning too much towards the Shire theme from “Lord of the Rings”, but I’ve gotten over that. It is a simple melody (arranged for piano and soft strings, with accents from the harp, glockenspiel and woodwinds)  but it’ll prove quite versatile throughout the score. It returns prominently in “Lost Our Lights” (beautifully arranged for harp and strings), “The 36500” and “Four Men Lost”.

There’s an equally beautiful, slightly Americana-ish theme that can be heard in “It’s Starting to Snow”, “Volunteers”, “That Man Shouldn’t Have Sent Them” (much slower and more mournful).

“Pendleton Jump” and “Pendleton Push” offer aleatoric string- and brass-writing against thunderous percussion and snares; but not in a typical blockbuster way. Burwell is not your typical Hollywood composer, so he uses those familiar ingredients in a rather different way. “Bucket Line” also relies on snares and a light string ostinato; it somehow reminds me a little of Randy Edelman’s action material.

On his website, Burwell writes: “Still, right from the start there was the question of how we would approach the “action” parts of the score. The director and I chose to keep the instrumentation acoustic, rather than digital, which is the norm in 2016, and I amped it up with large drums like taikos and a brass section almost as large as our string section. Examples of this approach are the tracks “Pendleton Jump” and “Bucket Line”.

And then there are a few cues that feature additional music by Philip Klein: “Crossing the bar” and “Rescue”. You can tell these cues conform more with current trends in Hollywood, i.e. he percussion is beefed up. Still though, I find “Rescue” hugely entertaining. The chord changes towards the end really feel like the ante is being upped. It’s not what Burwell himself really wanted to do, as he explains honestly and respectfully on his website: “After I left to work on [“Hail Ceasar!”], Craig Gillespie, the director, started dropping more and more of my score and in the end most of the action sequences were re-written by Phil Klein. So the final score is two thirds my original composition and one third something else, an amalgam of my themes with the tropes of contemporary action films such as sampled drums, electronic drones, and string ostinati, all bringing it closer to the temp score and to the action clichés I was hoping to avoid.” Klein does make a great effort to incorporate Burwell’s themes and harmonies, and that is what ultimately differentiates these action cues from the usual blockbuster fare.

Some of the dropped cues have made it onto the album, such as “I Hope You Didn’t Kill Us”, “Pendleton Push”, “We’re All Alone”, “Big Man, Big Sea” and “The Going Down”.

The album concludes with the lengthy “Safe Harbor”, a gorgeous and poignant cue that relies heavily on the main theme, which receives variation upon variation throughout its 10 minutes running time.

Is it any good?

Carter Burwell’s “The Finest Hours” is, first and foremost, a lovely score in a way that only Burwell can write them; there’s often a sense of understatement or restraint to his music. There are a couple of beautiful themes for strings, piano, winds and harp; and it’s Miriam’s theme that stands out the most. It’s taken a little time to grow on me, but it’s turning out to be one of my most played albums this year so far. It’s fairly easy listening, though Burwell does challenge the listener occasionally with some aleatoric action writing. As I said earlier, Burwell is not your typical Hollywood action man, so his action material here is a-typical, though it does rely on familiar ingredients such as string ostinatos, snares and taikos. The composer tried to avoid the usual cliches, yet when he left the project, a number of his cues were dropped or reworked in favour of something a bit more ‘modern’. Philip Klein came in to beef up the action cues with drones and sampled percussion. Klein manages to retain much of Burwell melodies and harmonies, so Burwell’s musical DNA still runs strongly through those cues. All in all it’s a fabulous score; a pleasure to revisit time and again.

Rating [4/5]


01. Meeting Miriam
02. It’s Starting to Snow
03. Pendleton Jump
04. Split +
05. Lost Our Lights
06. You Don’t Have to Come Back
07. I Hope You Didn’t Kill Us
08. Volunteers
09. The 36500
10. The Bucket Line
11. The Man Shouldn’t Have Sent Them
12. Crossing the Bar *
13. Pendleton Push +
14. We’re All Alone +
15. Four Men Lost
16. Rescue *
17. Big Man, Big Sea +
18. The Going Down +
19. Safe Harbor
20. Haul Away Joe – Kodalin

+ Unused
* With Philip Klein

Review (C) 2016 Synchrotones

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