Eban & Charley Soundtrack
By: Eric Greenwood
Traditional soundtrack albums are always hit or miss, and Eban & Charley is a little bit of both, as it finds Stephin Merritt just outside his natural element. It's odd that Merritt would choose to use his birth name for the first time on such a strange and somewhat inconsistent release. Eban & Charley, a film by James Bolton, is the story of a questionable relationship between a 29-year-old ex-soccer coach and a fifteen-year-old slacker. It's no surprise that Merritt would jump on board a film with such a polarizing subject matter, but his musical choices are somewhat disappointing in light of his recently lauded output. It must be said, however, that Merritt – even on an off day – still outshines the majority of composers today.
The soundtrack is cluttered with plonky instrumentals sandwiched between a few of the type of ironic/romantic ballads you've come to expect from Merritt's world-weary pen. The ostentatiously avant-garde instrumentals are incidental, and it's a shame that they make up the preponderance of the album. You won't listen to them for musical pleasure. They're clearly designed to be mood pieces set to compliment scenes from the film, which makes listening to them out of context somewhat difficult. The childlike instrumentation twinkles and twitches with samples of nature and wildlife, and they contrast sharply with the six remaining folk pieces, perhaps, to signify the corruption of innocence inherent to the film.
The meat of the soundtrack is not very filling, but it's enough to tide over those longing for new music from Merritt before his next "proper" album with The Magnetic Fields (who, incidentally, just signed to the very eclectic Nonesuch label). The reverb-drenched "Some Summer Day" sways gently in resignation. Merritt's voice is double-tracked, adding to the ephemeral feel of the all-too-brief tune. "Poppyland" is the standout song here. Merritt's lovelorn baritone is in full swing amidst a programmed low-end undercurrent and a primitive beat. Twinkling pianos playfully support Merritt's typically sedate melody in the verse: "when black waves break/on the world you make/the pieces go to Poppyland."
Some may wonder why the downtrodden ode, "Maria Maria Maria", is included, as it explores the anguish of a marriage, but its poignant sense of longing suits the film's theme aptly. It's gorgeously sparse with a melancholic, folksy edge. "This Little Ukulele" would easily have fit in with Merritt's 1999 masterpiece, 69 Love Songs, as it showcases Merritt's sublime lyrical genius: "I wish I had an orchestra behind me/when you lose in faith, an orchestra gives proof/well, an orchestra can tell you pretty stories/but this little ukulele tells the truth." The minute-long "Tiny Flying Player Pianos" seems inconsequential at first, but the effect of its subtle cadence is arresting, if only momentarily.
The dirty, reverb-heavy guitar in the final vocal track, "Water Torture", sets an ominous mood until Merritt's hilarious rhyming alliteration kicks in, proving, once again, that he is the craftiest wordsmith working today: "’Teasing bees is easy,’ wheezed Louise. ‘These bees are teased.’ Tease these, Louise.” Ha. Eban & Charley may feel like it only flirts with greatness because of its thirty-minute, or so, length, but if you are a die-hard Stephin Merritt fan, then this is an indispensable album. For the casual observer, however, you may want to be introduced another way. May I suggest 69 Love Songs or The Charm Of The Highway Strip, instead?