After Greetings from Spring Break Tapes Vol. 1, it’s a surprise to hear Strange Creations, a composed work which in comparison is indeed strange. Ali Helnwein‘s strangeness is more that of a Danny Burton than an all-out oddity; the cassette is accessible, but creative and playful. Opener “Greed” shares a sonic similarity to Keith Keniff’s “Goldengrove”, featured in last year’s iPhone 4 commercial: what impresses is the artist’s ability to tell a story in a brief span of sonic time.
Helnwein already works in Hollywood; he was nominated for an Emmy earlier this year for his work on “Touch of Evil”, and has recently scored short pieces for ESPN and Wrangler Jeans. In one sense, this makes him perhaps the most “crossover” composer we’ve ever covered; in another, it demonstrates just how famous one needs to become in order to become a household name. Even though he wrote the orchestral arrangements for a Grammy-nominated album (Draco Rosa’s Amor Vincit Omnia) and was kissed by Muhammed Ali as a child, the Viennese artist has yet to break through to the big time – or at least, the big, big time. We’re a little backwards here at A Closer Listen; I’m now going to think of him as the guy who put together this cool little cassette, and also does those other things, instead of the other way around.
So for a moment, let’s leave behind all thoughts that Helnwein has made music for short films, as well as the idea that these pieces would work well in short films. As a collection of miniatures, the tape works well on its own. The aforementioned “Greed” is an early highlight, a Christmas-like combination of piano, glockenspiel and strings. The ivories sound as if they were recorded to vinyl, then played back, providing a gritty contrast. ”Faking It” adds handclaps and a Spanish feel (shades of Duo del Sol!). The handclaps reappear on the 55-second “Insect”, which pastes the tone of “Greed” onto a Pachelbel base – an approach that finds its fruition in the processional pace of “Gluttony”. But the strangest creation here is the bird, banjo-and-boot stomped “Whistling Past the Graveyard”, which alone justifies the EP’s title. A full album of such creations would be extremely welcome, but for now, this cassette is a lovely entry into Helnwein’s world. (Richard Allen)