AT THE BOX OFFICE and in the zeitgeist, you'll be hard-pressed to find three more buzzed-about movies in the coming weeks than Steven Soderbergh's drug

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Soundtrack stomp

Three new films generate buzz, but do their musical companions match up?

AT THE BOX OFFICE and in the zeitgeist, you'll be hard-pressed to find three more buzzed-about movies in the coming weeks than Steven Soderbergh's drug war epic Traffic, Guy "Mr. Madonna" Ritchie's tough-guy heist romp Snatch, and Sam Raimi's thriller The Gift. Each has spawned the requisite soundtrack album, which involved parties hope will spur consumers to purchase and lavish with attention, thus creating a game-winning, ring-around-the-rosie, "I'd like to thank Jesus" synergy between the movie and its music.

Various Artists

Traffic—Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (TVT)

Snatch—Original Film Soundtrack (TVT)

The Gift—Music from the Motion Picture (Lakeshore/Will)

Traffic—Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is the anomaly of the bunch. Given the "best film of the year" raves that (rightfully) accompany mentions of Soderbergh's latest, somebody in the corporate chain could've insisted on a star-studded combination of songs from the film and songs by artists who the record label is really trying to break. Instead, the director's longtime music sidekick Cliff Martinez—who scored sex, lies and videotape and Out of Sight, among others—gets top billing. His 12 compositions from the film, as well as one that ended up on the cutting-room floor, open the CD, maneuvering the listener into a hazy, ethereal realm similar to the one Traffic occupies in its finest moments.

It's an oddly ambient bit of music, considering that the oft-unclothed bass-slapper Flea and funked-up jazz piano innovator Herbie Hancock are involved. Read closer, however, and a clue is revealed: Guitar and "textural constructions" were provided by anonymous electronic music egghead SPLaTTeRCeLL and worldly atmospheric guy Michael Brook (he of the Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn collaborations).

The excised track, "The Police Won't Find Your Car," turns out to be a sprightly instrumental that spotlights Hancock's talent for bending notes and lingering deliciously between the tonal and atonal. Too bad it gets lost here; in a poor sequencing choice, this tangent falls into a crack between Martinez's moody work and the first of five non-Martinez tracks, Wilhelm Kempff's no-nonsense recording of Beethoven's cascading Piano Sonata No. 1 in F Minor. Then again, that transition may seem inspired compared to the segue between Beethoven and Morcheeba, the trip-hop hangers-on whose skittering, seven-minute "On the Rhodes Again" drags perilously without the aid of Soderbergh's grainy imagery.

Still, the Traffic soundtrack closes with a flourish, jumping from Fatboy Slim's infectious big-beat workout "Give the Po' Man a Break" to a Kruder & Dorfmeister remix of Rockers Hi-Fi's creepy crawler "Going Under" to Brian Eno's stately deliverance, "An Ending (Ascent)."

ALL COOL AND ATTITUDINAL, Snatch—Original Film Soundtrack is a plain attempt to infiltrate the CD collection of every dorm-room dweller and urban condo owner—this year's Trainspotting or Pulp Fiction. It's a mix of forgotten gems (10CC's "Dreadlock Holiday"), dance floor classics (Mrs. Ritchie's "Lucky Star"), overexposed cult favorites (the Stranglers' "Golden Brown," the Specials' "Ghost Town"), modern benchmarks (Massive Attack's "Angel," Oasis' "F**kin' in the Bushes"), and a smattering of high-NRG cuts by semi- obscure Euro artistes (Mirwais, Klint, the Herbaliser). Oh yeah, and a few wink-and-a-nudge miscellaneous cuts ("Hava Nagila," "Hernando's Hideaway," and others). Throw in a smattering of the British film sensation's self-consciously witty dialogue—yes, including a sample of Brad Pitt's mumble-mouthed character, given the onomatopoeic track title "Kuasehfgaiurgh"—and you get the picture. It's satisfying in a guilty pleasure sort of way, a CD to throw on at a cocktail party to impress the guests and set the mood to "surge." (A warning: You may want to avoid answering the question "What are we listening to?" solely with the film's title.)

By contrast, you shouldn't rely on Music from the Motion Picture The Gift—why do all soundtracks carry these clunky titles?—to enliven guests. The darkly twangy disc derived from Raimi's Billy Bob Thornton-penned murder mystery features a first-rate collection of new songs by young artists, old songs by well-known mainstays, and new songs by old artists. But it's too morose to play at a gathering. Following a 45-second interlude from Christopher Young's original score, Neko Case's forlorn "Furnace Room Lullaby" establishes the tone; it's a haunting waltz with a mesmerizing, nearly bone-chilling vocal performance. Codgers like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson could fill several entire film soundtracks with overlooked songs from their hundred-plus collective albums, but producers chose songs from their 2000 discs; Nelson's "Great Divide" and Jennings' "Wastin' Time" are strangely subdued, barely effective offerings. Fortunately, two disturbing Loretta Lynn nuggets—a conversational freak-out between mother and child about daddy's untimely death called "Mama Why" and the brilliant swinger "Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven"—quickly right the course. Lee Hazlewood's equally sketchy "Trouble Is a Lonesome Town," another Case tune ("Pretty Girls"), and a handful of other countrified musings round out this mostly worthwhile disc.

Overall, The Gift soundtrack is more valuable than its Traffic and Snatch counterparts in that it attaches an underappreciated art form (the ominous country ballad) to a current film-audience favorite (the murderous thriller). In a rare twist for Hollywood, the musicians win even if the film doesn't.

 
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