Music Review: Cold In July – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Cold in July: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Music by Jeff Grace
Milan Records
Release Date: May 19, 2014

A truly great filmmaker is smart enough early in their career to establish strong working relationships with the best actors and behind-the-scenes crew they are willing to employ on more than one occasion. There are few creative bonds more crucial in the making of a memorable feature film than the one that exists between the director and their music composer of choice. Cinema history has given us such powerhouse teams as Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann, Steven Spielberg and John Williams, Tim Burton and Danny Elfman, Spike Lee and Terence Blanchard, Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer, and Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone to name but a few. Then of course there’s John Carpenter and the best composer he ever worked with….himself.

Speaking of Carpenter, his distinctive, brooding soundtracks are one of the driving influences powering the latest collaboration between filmmaker Jim Mickle and composer Jeff Grace, titled Cold In July.

Fans of the best independent horror cinema to emerge in the past decade will recognize Grace as the man responsible for the haunting scores to films such as Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter, Ti West’s The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, and J.T. Petty’s blasphemous 3D comedy Hellbenders. He has worked with Kelly Reichardt creating the original music for her dramas Meek’s Cutoff and Night Moves and his partnership with Mickle – one of the finest filmmakers working in horror today – has so far included the 2010 post-apocalyptic vampire thriller Stake Land and last year’s understated remake We Are What We Are.

When I reviewed Stake Land‘s Blu-ray release two years ago I said of Grace’s score, “Grace has crafted a stirring and haunting score that gives voice to even the film’s quieter moments. Lush with the sounds of mournful pianos and sad violins the music of Stake Land recalls the cinematic efforts of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. After I finished watching the movie I immediately went to Amazon and purchased the soundtrack.”

I have not yet seen Mickle’s latest film, an adaptation of the 1989 novel by Joe R. Lansdale that debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to overwhelmingly positive reviews, but when I learned that the soundtrack composed by Grace was available to buy my lack of familiarity with the feature it accompanies didn’t prevent me from purchasing it and cuing it up to my laptop’s MP3 player immediately. Mickle and Grace are a team I will follow into Hell if need be, and the Cold in July score is the latest justification.

The story of a small-time businessman whose killing in self-defense of a home intruder ensnares him and his family in a world of retribution and betrayal, Cold in July was greatly influenced by the action and crime films of the 1970s and ’80s, right down to its synth-heavy throwback score by Grace. The brooding, propulsive rhythms utilized by the composer recall similar works by Carpenter (a trademark of nearly every soundtrack he personally created) and European crossover bands like Germany’s Tangerine Dream (Sorcerer, The Keep) and Italy’s Goblin (Suspiria, Dawn of the Dead). Grace isn’t the first composer to pay homage to the scores by those acclaimed artists on the big screen; Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror soundtrack was an unabashed love letter to Carpenter’s work, while French composer Robin Coudert’s score for the recent remake of the slasher horror classic Maniac was also indebted to those precursors of the modern electronic music movement.

Grace balances out the harder driving beats of his Cold in July score with the more delicate compositions he has proven to be the best at creating in his past works. The track “Dane’s Cabin” is an ideal example of vintage Grace standing out among the hard-driving pieces. Most of the best selections on this album demonstrate the composer’s gift for allowing the music to act as an enhancement for the film by starting at a low-key place and carefully building to an masterfully atmospheric finish.

Grace’s score is supplemented by the welcome inclusion of the hair rock band White Lion‘s 1987 hit “Wait,” contemporary songs from the ’80s electronic-style group Dynatron (“Cosmo Black”), and author Lansdale’s daughter Kasey Lansdale (“Back of My Smile”). The Dynatron track makes perfect listening for when you’re behind the wheel of a fast sports car barreling at top speed down the interstate in the middle of the night, but I wouldn’t recommend putting it on if you happen to be driving down Pacific Coast Highway. Don’t wear those stylish sunglasses you just bought from Lookmatic either.

I can’t tell you what I think of the film Cold in July as it won’t open theatrically until late next month, but I do know that the soundtrack composed by Jeff Grace is one of my favorites of 2014. It accomplishes with stylistic flair what made all great film scores of the past memorable by evoking the right mood and atmosphere for the story and characters and being a geeky joy of a listening pleasure independent of the movie.

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