That American Pie directors Paul and Chris Weitz broke not only from the smug, hormone-charged mold of their first movie but also from the tyranny of the usual (and usually hot-selling) various-artists tie-in disc when making About a Boy is a bittersweet lesson in the second reason: Barring a seismic shift in the zeitgeist that levels the marketplace enough to let a Prince or Bee Gees take charge, there's nothing to gain from signing over a fresh batch of songs to a movie.
Twenty years ago, new wave Tin Pan Alley-wanna-be Joe Jackson demolished the momentum generated by his urbane hit "Steppin' Out" by following it with the Mike's Murder soundtrack. The director jettisoned his songs, which were eventually consigned to a poor-selling record that has never been issued on CD. No fool, Jackson has since contributed only scores to movies.
Damon Gough, who records under the name Badly Drawn Boy and provides the music for About a Boy, at least hitched his wagon to a good movie. In turn, the Weitzes make smart, sparing use of Gough's gently uptempo songs and sweet, meringue-covered orchestral cues. None of the insinuating piano-and-bell-and-acoustic-guitar melodies here sounds like background music. That the About a Boy disc plays like Elliott Smith after a shower and a series of B-12 injections isn't dim praise. Like Hugh Grant's character in the movie, the substance of Gough's superficially charming songs is revealed slowly and convincingly. Not that anyone saw About a Boy, which opened against Star Wars and succumbed quickly, taking Badly Drawn Boy with it.
Storytelling, the most recent movie from tiresome director Todd Solondz, proves that indecision (if not outright disdain) is the third reason for the dearth of single-artist soundtracks. Directors youthful or iconoclastic enough to commission a pop soundtrack, when they're trumped by studio bullies or stymied by fickleness or terror, are also the most likely to ditch the songs.
Scottish EP machines Belle and Sebastian, presumably hired to provide ironically effete musical counterpoint to Solondz's grim exploitation, found most of its contributions rejected -- the director used "about six minutes of music," according to the group's uncharacteristically straightforward liner notes. Fleshing out the remains, the band has released a lush, sighing mini-album as good as any of its recent singles. The disc has snippets of film dialogue (Paul Giamatti can now be heard on two unjustly ignored film-inspired sets: this and the mostly R.E.M. Man on the Moon). But, artwork and all, it's a Belle and Sebastian album, albeit one with only six vocal tracks. The Schroederlike bouncing piano lines, deceptively delicate singing and dry lyrics (I won't play another big John Shaft, Stuart Murdoch purrs in his lovably paper-thin voice) are immediately familiar on those numbers, but the instrumental interludes add a welcome new emphasis on autumnal woodwinds, and flourishes such as vibes and bossa nova rhythms are alluring rather than glib.
The two discs, warm summer whispers mostly unheard, share a musical sureness and visceral sweep only a small notch below the best work of their makers.