L.A. Noire Official Soundtrack
L.A. Noire Official Soundtrack
May 31, 2011
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If you happen to be Rockstar Games, you probably don’t have to advertise your games much anymore. After the success of the multi-million selling Grand Theft Auto franchise and 2010’s Red Dead Redemption, the prospect of another game from the New York City-based publisher was enough to set expectations very high for L.A. Noire. Adding to the excitement was the fact that the game had been in development for a staggering seven years, with reportedly revolutionary motion capture technology deployed to bring the game’s story to live and close the gap between games and movies a bit further. Tapping into the rich iconography of film noir movies of the 1940s and 1950s, L.A. Noire seemed to fulfil heightened expectations when it was selected to be the first video game screened in competition at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival. And finally, outstanding reviews and the strongest first week sales among early 2011 video game releases marked L.A. Noire as one of the year’s biggest titles.
Many of L.A. Noire‘s reviews pointed out the game’s outstanding art direction which successfully recreated that distinctive gritty film noir aesthetic. And of course, L.A. Noire‘s music would be a major part of that art direction, doing its best to take gamers back to 1940s LA. This being a Rockstar Game sandbox title, that job would mostly be handled by a swash of songs, on L. A. Noire by jazz greats like Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan. But there was also an original score to be created. The task of emulating the music of film noir composers like Max Steiner and Bernard Herrmann fell to Andrew Hale, songwriter and keyboardist for the band Sade, and composer of the scores of the movies The Getaway and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. His score for L.A. Noire was released as a digital-only release in May 2011.
Trying to mimic a particular musical style without coming off as uninspired and clichéd is always a challenge, particularly if the style in question is as iconic as that of film noir. But Hale manages to wring quite a bit of variation out of the template he’s working with and he mixes orchestral and Jazz elements into an effortlessly stylish cocktail. Firstly, there’s of course the slow Jazz songs that the album’s cover art promises. One of these songs, “Main Theme”, not only gets to open the album, but it also introduces L.A. Noire‘s main theme, a longing, lingering four-note motif on solo trumpet that evokes all the urban world-weariness any self-respecting film noir protagonist has to exhibit. Later, a saxophone joins the trumpet and both put the main theme through a number of variations while retaining the song’s warm, yet aching feeling. The band backing the solo instruments performs in that measured, luxurious groove that you would expect, but their contributions never descend into mere lounge atmospherics, due to Hale’s sense of style and some intricacies like the syncopated, brushed drum rhythms. Later, similar pieces like “Minor 9” and “Noire Clarinet” retain the “solo trumpet/saxophone backed by Jazz band”-formula, pulled off with just as much elegance as on “Main Theme”. The inclusion of a deep-throated clarinet solo on “Noire Clarinet” adds some variety and is equally evocative of a smoky bar in downtown LA circa 1947. “J.J. Bop” breaks the mould a bit and has the Jazz band get you on your dancing feet with an infectious double bass rhythm that injects a good amount of swinging energy into the music.
The soundtrack also closes with three Jazz songs, this time adorned by soulful vocals from Claudia Brücken of German synthpop groups Propaganda and Act. On first sight, such an artistic background might make Brücken an odd choice to perform these cues. But Brücken’s voice is suitably expressive, if a little bit light in its higher registers. And her emphatic, expert phrasing of her vocal lines easily carries the songs, milking them for every drop of emotion without going overboard. “(I Always Kill) The Things I Love” is slightly bland, but still atmospheric, while “Guilty” and “Torched Song” come off better. The first song is a fun attempt at retro sass, with some playful lyrics (“I don’t need no bail / if you’re the jail. / Just give me life / and grant me no relief.”) and Brücken’s flirtatious vocals that are supported by gently upbeat double bass and drums. Best and downright sexiest of all three cues is “Torched Song”, which most impressively shows off Brücken’s vocal chops. Relying more on the lower registers of Brücken’s voice here, her seductive delivery over a slowly shuffling instrumental backdrop imbues the song with all the smouldering heat it requires.
The sensuality permeating the songs on L.A. Noire is also evident in some of its orchestral material. And it’s this more overtly emotionally charged music that, to many listeners, will mark the most accessible cues on L.A. Noire. Lush string sounds form the most important component of these more romantically-inclined strains. In their chord progressions and harmonies deployed to be reminiscent of tastefully melodramatic 1940s’ movie scores, the string section’s rich notes are heard particularly during the beginning of the album, setting an inviting mood on all three parts of “New Beginning”. Hale showcases his compositional intelligence by never letting this self-consciously sentimental music descend into cheap theatrics. Even when the string section starts swooning on “Burglary – Temptation (Part 2)”, it’s all part of the hard-nosed film noir style. And a sense of alluring mystery that tempers the more emotional moments constantly prevails, due to the prominent role assigned to the lower woodwinds instruments. Their richly shaded tones make sure the music never loses its cool, just like the more agitated string staccato rhythms and piano ostinato on “New Beginning (Part 3)” ensure that an element of intrigue and tension is always palpable. Tellingly, it’s also these cues which feature the main theme, linking it closely to the elements of hope and aspiration present within the game’s story.
This being a film noire-inspired soundtrack though, things inevitably take a turn for the more downbeat pretty soon. “Arson – Redemption (Part 1)”‘s initial trumpet and horn soli give way to sorrowful strings, and although “Arson – Redemption (Part 3)” again deploys the slow Jazz song format, the piece is now led by a resigned piano figure. And when the action then kicks in, L.A. Noire retains its period trappings and serves up some energising cues that may be less accessible than other parts of the soundtrack, but they also present the score at its most stylistically distinctive. True to its stylistic template, Hale relies less on melodic elements, but rather on a sometimes almost modernistic assemblage of conflicting instrumental motifs. “Bunco – Pride Of The Job (Part 1)” sees a violin drone introduce nervous woodwind and brass figures that flutter over disjointed piano and percussion motifs. This sense of disorientation is focused later in the piece when echoing snare drums lead into a menacing build-up that’s interrupted by imperious brass fanfares.
Later action pieces equally complement a stark, ominous atmosphere with fragmented rhythmic material full of anxious energy. Repeatedly, pieces escalate into frantic crescendi that find their end in brusque brass calls. As to be expected, Jazz elements are thrown into the mix as well, although less so as driving rhythms, but instead in the shape of an unnerving, bebop-inspired saxophone motif on “Burglary – Tempation (Part 1)” and “Burglary – Temptation (Part 3)”. Despite these cues’ disparate nature, Hale manages to give them a sense of direction and towards the album’s end he intensifies the sense of imminent danger. On “Homicide – Use and Abuse (Part 2)”, the musical material is purposefully even more disorganised than before, with various instrumental groups going into several direction all at once, while on “Vice – Fall From Grace (Part 1)”, harsh ostinato figures battle each other for supremacy. It’s to Hale’s credit that these compositions never sound merely chaotic, but simply intense and intriguing in their defiantly non-melodic nature.
What arguably does feel a bit odd is the fact that the main theme isn’t heard on these cues to stand up against the disorder surrounding it. After being almost omnipresent during the album’s first third, the theme nearly disappears from the rest of the album. Admittedly though, its late return on the closing “Main Theme – Piano & Trumpet” is all the the more effective and provides a fittingly reflective ending for such an emotionally ambivalent score, whose noir nature probably doesn’t allow complete and easy closure. In the main theme’s place are some secondary motifs that are particular to one track or section of the soundtrack. The aforementioned saxophone figure on two of the “Burglary” cues is one such example. The most important of these motifs though is a sequence of two two-note brass figures introduced on “Slow Brood” and appearing again on three of the four following “Homicide” pieces. Performed on rasping trumpets, the motif becomes an effective harbinger of unseen threat closing in. “Homicide – Use And Abuse (Part 4)” later then builds over interesting ostinato motifs in the snare drums, violins and brass, but the resulting climax fails to trade in on the energy proceeding it.
Indeed, the biggest issue with L.A. Noire‘s lies in its sometimes uneven flow. Most of the cues on the soundtrack are on the short side, rarely exceeding three minutes and getting even briefer towards the end of the album. Most of the time, this is not too much of a problem as the compositions flow into each other and thus create a suite-like presentation all by themselves. But then there’s also some tracks like “Homicide – Use And Abuse (Part 3)”, “Arson – Redemption (Part 1)” and “Burglary – Tempation (Part 3)” that are either just too short to make any impact or which make the listener wish that Hale had taken more time to develop the compositions’ material more satisfyingly. On “Homicide – Use And Abuse (Part 2)”, this anticlimatic outcome is felt even strongly felt when Hale finds no better way to cap off the proceeding bedlam than with an abrupt switch to a harp ostinato. And to make things worse, that harp’s plinking sounds aren’t even given enough time to fade out, just like the ending of “Burglary – Temptation (Part 2)”. Short track running times are not a problem in and of themselves, but if they’re accompanied by pieces being jarringly cut off, inevitably questions arise about the care – or the absence of such – that went into the album’s production.
L.A. Noire is an effortlessly stylish work of pastiche that successfully recreates several aspects of 1940s’ jazz and movie scores and combines them in one attractive package. At turns wearied, romantic and jittery, the soundtrack rarely fails to give its cues an alluring edge of mystery and seduction, as befitting the noir image Hale tries to emulate so persistently. And while some may complain that L.A. Noire only copies sounds dictated by an iconic template, there’s no denying that Hale shows a natural understanding of what made this template so intriguing in the first place. And so the slow jazz numbers are filled with aching, yet restrained longing, the romantic orchestral pieces are rich with full-bodied sentimentality, and the faster-paced cues vibrate with a fresh sense of energy — and manage to sound modernistic even though the models they’re based on are some 70 years old. True, there are some issues with L.A Noire‘s album presentation, as cues tend to be on the sometimes too short side of things and promise more than they can actually fulfil. And the score’s main theme, despite leaving a strong first impression, in the end goes somewhat underused. But these criticisms are ultimately quibbles that only briefly detract from L.A. Noire‘s particular charms that in 2011 are the exception rather than the rule, and thus all the more welcome.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on January 16, 2016.