SoundTreks | Garden State
When Zach Braff’s Garden State was released in theaters back in 2004, many critics reacted very positively, citing Braff as a soulful filmmaker with a good deal of nascent indie cred. The film was called wistfully funny, and some praised its genuine emotions. It was something of an indie darling, and many still see it as the first in a wave of a new generation of filmmakers.
The backlash on Garden State, however, began incredibly early in its life cycle, and many critics began reviling the film for it’s mealy-mouthed, self-pitying hipster affect. Here was a film that was using a wistful, boo-hoo, over-dressed style in place of character.
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In many of the more venomous articles, the film’s Platinum-selling, Grammy-winning soundtrack was cited as the primary source of the film’s hipster-y awfulness. So many dull, throbbing hipster songs in one place? That can only effect the film for the negative…. right?
Well, seeing as it’s SoundTreks‘ job to evaluate film soundtracks, we will look back the 16 years of history to see if Garden State‘s soundtrack really was the heart and soul of its awfulness, or if it’s actually a good record that has stood the test of time. Strap on your hand-knit touques and skinny jeans. We’re getting wistful.
Track 1. “Don’t Panic” – Coldplay
In the early 2000s, the hip music listened to by suburban white youth took a turn for the moody (when it wasn’t shrieking out awful nu-metal), mostly thanks to the success of bands like Coldplay. I cannot comment on the movement in general (I was not emotionally or actively connected with this music at the time), but I can say that Coldplay is a pretty excellent band when it comes to this type of music. They read as far more musical, relying on their voices and instruments rather than production and sound effects (see the soundtrack to Paper Towns for an example of that). As a statement of purpose, one can do worse than “Don’t Panic.”
Track 2. “Caring is Creepy” – The Shins
In 2004, I was not fond of The Shins, another band that spearheaded this particular sound. Although I can point to no particular detail of their music that indicates anything repellent, there was just something about their sound I didn’t quite jibe with. It may be The Shins that critics were reacting to when they talked about “the hipster sound.” Slightly overproduced, not quite rock enough, soulful lyrics, kind of wimpy. Listening to The Shins in 2016 reveals how influential they were, as many new bands also sound like this. And, as the start of a musical trend, they actually play better now than they did in 2004. Still not a great sound, especially for a movie, but better than a lot of more recent pop.
Track 3. “In the Waiting Line” – Zero 7
The word “hipster” used to – back in the 1950s – refer to jazzbos and beatniks. As such, when it comes to “hipster” music, I feel jazz ought to be buried inside somewhere. Which is why I appreciate this track from Zero 7. It’s moody and electronic, but it’s a gentle soul riff that alters mood for the better. It’s relaxing without being somnambulent, and produced without burying the music. Songs selected for movies should either be declarative in the foreground, or unnoticed mood pieces in the background. This handily works perfectly as the latter.
Track 4. “New Slang” – The Shins
When making mixtapes, it’s typically considered bad form to repeat an artist at all. And if you must, you should separate the tracks by several artists. Don’t give us another Shins track so quickly.
Track 5. “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” – Colin Hay
The best soundtrack records modulate their moods in subtle ways. A good soundtrack record should, in the best of circumstances, walk you through the same emotions as its film, in the same order, telling the same story through emotions and moods. With this Colin Hay track, we may begin to learn that the Garden State soundtrack won’t be modulating too much. There won’t be a sudden blast of energy, or dark low point. These are all, so far, moody songs about longing. This tonal consistency makes for a good record, and something that is actually proving to be rather listenable, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a great soundtrack. It belies a movie that is too one-note.
Track 6. “Blue Eyes” – Cary Brothers
That’s his name. It’s not a pair of brothers.
Cary Brothers has appeared on numerous soundtrack records, and it’s easy to see why. His music is perfect for that near-the-end-of-the-movie moment when the camera is pulling back from a tearful young heroine, just after she’s made a hurtful decision to break up with her drug-addict boyfriend, even though they’re, like, just perfect together. I feel like I’ve heard 1,000 iterations of this song in 1,000 movies and TV shows. It’s the first track on the record to be pretty low on personality.
Track 7. “Fair” – Remy Zero
Oh yeah. If you hate the white-guys-with-acoustic-guitars-singing-about-their-feely-feelings, you will loathe this record with the fiery passion of a thousand exploding suns. This is not my genre, per se, but I’m trying to keep an open mind. Remy Zero’s track starts quiet, but it does grow musically into something more interesting. The tingling electric beat in the background does make it stand out. The below video, however (full of gentle landscapes and other postcard-ready imagery), reveals just how insufferably placid the song may be to some ears.
Track 8. “One of These Things First” – Nick Drake
Much of this record – and the musicians on it – are clearly inspired by 1970s folk traditions, and many were clearly influenced by people like Joni Mitchell, and another pair of artists who will appear shortly, but the infuse the folkiness with a twinge of jazz, blues, or electro-rock. I once heard it described as “vaguely folk-ish alterna-rock.” I love Nick Drake’s jazzy, folky music, although I’m not fond of his thin vocals. This type of music warrants more passionate, bigger vocals, not gentle whispers.
That may be the divide between the people who love this type of music, and the critics who lambaste it: How much demonstrative, energetic passion do you want in your music, and how much mere mood do you like?
Track 9. “Lebanese Blonde” – Thievery Corporation
Finally, some damn energy. Some drums. Some music. Running headlong into Thievery Corporation’s track comes almost like a salve, which is a strange thing to say about another track with whispery vocals and just as moody an ambiance as many of the other songs on the record. But it’s mot merely emotional clouds. There’s actual blood in this song’s veins. Thievery Corporation is an outspoken DJ collective who explores various sounds and moods, as well as political issues. This is the most passionate track on the record.
Track 10. “The Only Living Boy in New York” – Simon & Garfunkel
Why did it take so long to just get to Simon & Garfunkel? These two inspired filmmaker Zach Braff, as well as every artist on the record. I understand you want to be up to date and modern – plus an all-Simon & Garfunkel record would stand the risk of ripping off The Graduate – but it seems like this was what Garden State was getting at from the git-go. This is the heart of the record, and the heart of the movie.
Track 11. “Such Great Heights” – Iron & Wine
See above. Iron & Wine (a.k.a. Sam Beam) was the evolutionary origin of performers like Remy Zero and Cary Brothers. It’s nice to see that the classics are included alongside its children. In a small way, we’re getting a brief history of moody folk rock with the Garden State soundtrack.
Track 12. “Let Go” – Frou Frou
My eyes are glassing over.
Track 13. “Winding Road” – Bonnie Somerville
Although the lyrics are only blandly inspiring, the sound is a little more inspiring than a lot of the previous goopiness. I prefer the country western authenticity.
Which is Better: The Soundtrack or the Movie?
I’m ambivalent about this soundtrack. It’s sleepy and moody, as I have iterated endlessly, which doesn’t personally appeal to me, and I totally understand the people who want to smash this soundtrack to the ground. It’s not one of the worst things ever, as some would have you believe, but if you’re not a fan of this music, then the record will be insufferable from beginning to end.
But, and here’s the kicker: it’s actually rather musically solid, following a definite and carefully curated sound. This record coheres better than most soundtrack records I have heard, and functions amazingly well as a complete album. It’s not scattered or weird. It’s not tapping into any sort of top-40 mindset. It’s clearly the work of someone who knows the music well (Zach Braff), and knows how a good record ought to function.
Indeed, despite being declared the reason Garden State is bad, I would say that, as a standalone entity, the record is far better than the film. Ironically, the film is so twee and manipulative, it drags the soundtrack down by association. It’s not my music, and I wouldn’t choose to listen to it as a matter of course, but I have the open eyes to see it as something pretty good unto itself.
Top Image: Fox Searchlight/Miramax
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.