With the possible exception of Martin Scorsese, no movie director has been more closely identified with his soundtracks than Wes Anderson. He has consistently selected songs by well-known artists that, through no fault of their own, have become three-quarters forgotten over the years, and reintroduced them to the world as the classics they had always been. If someone calls a song a prime candidate for the next Wes Anderson soundtrack (Guilty!), an instant and accurate picture is created. The soundtracks show a cohesion that’s rare in these days of we-want-a-hit soundtracks, where the earmarked smash doesn’t play until the final credits have started rolling, and they have become high points in the experience of watching Anderson’s movies. Now the American Laundromat Records label has collected covers of some of those high points on I Saved Latin! A Tribute to Wes Anderson, resulting in the best tribute album of the year.
All but two of the songs here were originally recorded between 1965 and 1972, and they are all foregrounded in the scenes they appear in (Moonrise Kingdom is unrepresented in part because its few nonclassical tunes don’t get a similar spotlight). Consequently, some of the songs get their power from their associations with the scene from the movie – it’s impossible to hear Juliana Hatfield’s still, scary, dead-on cover of Elliott Smith’s “Needle in the Hay” without remembering the devastating corresponding moment from The Royal Tenenbaums.
One of Anderson’s great traits in choosing songs for his movies is that the lyrical commentary isn’t direct – that is, no “My Baby Left Me” to score a man’s baby leaving him – and in fact can run counter to the scene if the feel and the sound is right. Why else would Jason Schwarzmann’s and Bill Murray’s escalating payback scene in Rushmore be scored to the “You are forgiven” segment of the Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away”? Another example: as the Fox family exuberantly dances across the supermarket floor at the end of Fantastic Mr. Fox, “Let Her Dance” by the Bobby Fuller Four plays. It’s a great roll-the-credits moment, but don’t listen too close to the lyrics, or else you’ll discover a song about the sullen defiance of the just-abandoned.
Freelance Whales’ cover of “Let Her Dance” lets more of the song’s sadness in, using a slow-building chamber-pop approach to bring a whole different power to the song… until its fade, when it recalls the original’s opening guitar riff. Other songs that stray from their forbears include the Tea Cozies’ “Here Comes My Baby,” which sounds far more like the Yo La Tengo cover than the Cat Stevens original, and “Street Fighting Man” by Mike Watt and the Secondmen, who score the song to a Hammond and thundering drums, then slow it to a gelatinous ooze.
Some changes worked on the songs are marvels in their subtlety. Witness The Ghost In You’s cover of John Lennon’s “Oh Yoko.” Where the original has a jaunty piano right from the opening note, the cover has no piano until the second chorus, and then a very tentative one, playing notes that seem to want to be alone. As the song progresses, the piano gradually quickens to the pace of the original, thus giving the impression of the song opening up like a flower as it goes along. It’s a lovely touch, all the more so for not being showy.
It’s difficult to pick favorites on this album, as any listener could have any number of reasons for naming theirs (liked the original, like the covering band, like the part in the film, etc.), but in addition to those mentioned above, keep an ear out for Sara Lov’s indie-fied, textured take on Love’s “Alone Again Or,” Tele Novella taking a measure of whimsy away from the Velvet Underground’s “Stephanie Says,” and Saint Motel’s dynamic recreation of the Who’s “A Quick One.”
I Saved Latin! works on many levels – as a tribute to Wes Anderson, to his movies, to particular scenes in his movies, to the artists whose songs scored those scenes, to the artists who covered those songs, and to the label that brought those artists together. It will drive people to watch the films again, in whole or in part, and drive even more to Pandora, Spotify, and the like to learn more about the artists of today who are covering these songs of yesteryear. When the biggest complaint about a release is that it’s got 75 minutes of music spread out over two CDs (a moot point nowadays) and just isn’t long enough, you’ve know you’ve got a winner on your hands. Let’s be clear about this – I Saved Latin! is a hell of a damn tribute.