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Once: The Soundtrack

Observer Scene | Friday, October 12, 2007

When was the last time you listened to a modern film soundtrack that didn’t have “Walt Disney’s” in the title?Film musicals aside, movie soundtracks, like badly-motivated compilation discs, are albums that tend to be little more than mediocre collections of barely-connected pop songs. The soundtrack from the Sundance Film Festival award-winner “Once” is changing that trend. “Once” is the tale of an Irish street musician (Glen Hansard) and his brief, emotionally-charged friendship with a young Czech woman (Markéta Irglová) in Dublin. The two meet by chance when Hansard’s unnamed character is performing on a street corner, and their mutual love of music propels their friendship into a near-romance. While the two eventually part ways, their powerful but fleeting bond encourages them both to create music – music that makes up the film’s soundtrack. Each track comes directly from the performances and moments in the film, giving the album a refreshing, deeper connection to its cinematic source than soundtracks often have.The album opens with “Falling Slowly,” a track that initiates the pair’s friendship in the film. The song, with its clear echoes of Damien Rice and male and female vocal harmony, is a slower-paced, bare-bones piece that grabs the listener with ease. With little instrumentation accompanying the simplicity of the vocals, “Falling Slowly” sets up a stripped down musicality that, though varying at times, carries through the rest of the album. Hansard, first and foremost a musician in real life, is the main vocalist in “Falling Slowly” – a role he fills in most of the album’s subsequent tracks. Irglová, who is also a professional musician, is the key vocalist on the soundtrack’s second track, “If You Want Me.” Her voice has a haunting quality to it that sticks with the listener, and, again, the general feel of simplicity is refreshing in a time of intense house beats and over-mixed top-40 countdowns. Irglová also leads in “The Hill,” a mournful ditty about lost love. “I’m on my knees in front of him / But he doesn’t seem to see me,” she croons, giving this simple little song a tragic touch.The album occasionally departs from its stripped-down sensibilities, but when it does, it is to the soundtrack’s benefit. Two of the album’s strongest tracks – “Gold” and “Fallen from the Sky” – have a more complex feel and, in the case of “Fallen,” an unobtrusive touch of the electronic. “Gold,” performed by Irish band Interference, is a guitar-centered track with a folk ballad feel. “Fallen” departs from the rest of the album with an almost whimsical feel to Hansard’s vocals and a sweetness in its harmonies and lyrics.Other notable tracks include “Lies,” a bitter reflection on the frustrations of love that calls to mind shades of both Rice and early David Gray; “Trying to Pull Myself Away,” a guitar-heavy track highlighting Hansard’s emotionally-strained vocals; and “Once,” the album’s title track that relishes in subtlety.The album isn’t entirely without weaknesses. At times, Hansard sounds almost distractingly Rice-like. Irglová, then, also must move beyond the comparison between her and Rice’s usual counterpart, Lisa Hannigan. In both of their cases, however, the strength of their individual performances and the development of the album prevent these comparisons from dominating the overall experience. The final track, “Say It to Me Now,” more than makes up for any faults with its juxtaposition of beauty and anger.In the case of this strong, understated album, listening “Once” is definitely not enough.