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Soundtracking ‘12 Years a Slave’

You won’t hear these songs in the film
Chase Hoffberger, 11:00am, Thu. Nov. 14, 2013

I don’t really do soundtracks. Hell, I barely even do movies. And yet, I’ve spent a great deal of time with the 12 Years a Slave soundtrack this week. Here’s a few reasons why.

The first comes down to simple timing. Here at the Chronicle, we’re still in the relevant wake of Fun Fun Fun Fest. Monday morning, after weekend blasts of French art metal (Gojira) and good, old-fashioned belly rubs (King Khan & the Shrines), my body needed something settling.

Something like 27-year-old British soul star Laura Mvula doing her best Nina Simone impression on a piano-laced rendition of the standard “Little Girl Blue.” Or maybe it’s John Legend’s original spiritual “Roll Jordan Roll,” which finds the accomplished pianist eschewing his main instrument and going a cappella like a warm, tattered blanket for nearly three minutes.

Gary Clark Jr. appears twice on the 12 Years a Slave soundtrack, showcasing unreleased material. The pair of tunes, “Freight Train” and “(In the Evening) When the Sun Goes Down,” finds the local hero singing slow blues with nothing but the backdrop of his own guitar, evoking memories of those days before all the fame when he’d play solo at Lamberts for $3.

Another point of interest pertains to Alicia Keys, one of those artists I’d listen to a lot more if she wasn’t so famous. Commercial success – remember that “in New Yooooooork” hook from “Empire State of Mind?” – has led her into a strange, unattainable world wherein her concerts cost mad moolah. Still, another film, Muscle Shoals, a doc about the iconic Alabama studio, closed with her own “Pressing On,” which reminded me how, with some stars, there’s a serious abundance of talent underneath the polygloss sheen.

On 12 Years a Slave, she duets her piano with a mangy banjo on the über-slow “Queen of the Field (Patsey’s Song).” The tune allows Keys to stretch out and mess with vibrato voicings in some really welcome ways.

Cody Chesnutt’s joyous soundtrack closer, “What Does Freedom Mean (To a Free Man),” stands out amongst the rest, but there’s plenty more that’s worthy of attention. Storied German composer Hans Zimmer shows up twice, notably on “Solomon,” as do Alabama Shakes (“Driva Man”) and Chris Cornell, whose ballad-like “Misery Chain” serves as a dynamic departure from the hair-raising work he’s done with Soundgarden and Audioslave.

A friend of mine went to see the movie on Sunday and reported that there’s little utilization of anything on the soundtrack throughout the course of the film, which doesn’t bode well for getting me out to a Drafthouse. The soundtrack’s worth a listen, nonetheless. Folks stepping out of their comfort zones usually bears investigation.

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