Sunday, January 20, 2008

"Come at the king, you best not miss."

I"ve been watching, at long last, Season 4 of The Wire for the last week or so. One episode a night, in a state of sheer bliss. I know I'm a little late to the party, since Season 5 is a few episodes into its run on HBO in the US, but I'll have to wait for that on DVD too, which is fine. All good things....

Anyway, obviously its the greatest television show ever made. Everybody knows this by now, surely? I think its also the greatest work of art, in any medium, of the last decade. That I've encountered, at any rate. So, apart from watching Season 4, I've been reading Rafael Alvarez's "The Wire: Truth Be Told", a companion to the show, which contains some nice insights from David Simon and others involved in the production. And today I bought the long-awaited (by me, at any rate) Soundtrack cd, "The Wire: ...and all the pieces matter..." which contains a stonking 35 tracks of Wire-related stuff.

Some of those tracks are dialogue snippets - "Omar comin, man!" - but there are also tracks by the Pogues, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Lafayette Gilchrist and Bossman. Anybody who watches the Wire will know that there is no score. All the music in the show - and there is a lot of it in the background, on radios, jukeboxes, boomboxes, television sets - is organic, is heard by the characters in the scene. Except for the song which plays over the montage at the end of the final episode of each Season, all five of which are included. Also here is the closing theme, which I've been trying to download for an age, "The Fall" by Blake Leyh.
And four versions of the show's Opening theme, "Way Down In the Hole", written by Tom Waits.

A tiny glimpse of the genius of The Wire is evident in the treatment of this song, and how the different versions from each Season reflects the tone and content of that Season. Season One is The Blind Boys of Alabama's version, a gritty gospel, establishing the shows identity and hinting at the thematic centrality of race. Season Two switches to Waits' original version, much older-sounding, muddier, and more baroque, echoing the switch of focus to the white working class of Baltimore's harbour area. Season Three sees a greater emphasis on the politicians responsible for the policies causing so much damage to the characters from the first two seasons while also returning the focus to the drug war on the corners of the city, so The Neville Brothers version (commissioned specially for the show) is a slick New Orleans funk, which could possibly reflect either side of the flip-sided story. And Season Four's tracing of the lives of four young boys from the corners is perfectly reflected by Domaje's version, a modern R&B take, and easily the most contemporary-sounding version used (Domaje being a teen R&B collective). Season Five's version (which is mysteriously absent from the cd) is performed by Steve Earle, and is a spare acoustic-country take on the song with electric edges. Season Five focuses on the media, and even without seeing it, I can understand the fit.

Then there is the song itself, a twisted little faux-blues gospel. As discussed in one of the three essays included in a nice little booklet that comes with the cd, David Simon refused the opportunity to use Randy Newman's lovely "Baltimore" (and the many cover versions of it) as the opening theme, and instead went for Waits' far more difficult song. How right he was, because its a strangely perfect choice, its mysterious allusions to angels, mighty swords, and its instantly paranoid first line somehow evocative of the show's dangerous streetscapes: "When you walk in the garden/You gotta watch your back."

My favourite version? I really can't decide. No, really. Oh, ok. Season One, I think. It just sets the mood so brilliantly, yo.


Anonymous Becca said...

Season 3 has by far the worst version of the theme tune, it's just really the least enjoyable of the bunch.

I agree that season 1's version is the best.

Saying that, the Season 4 box set hasn't arrived yet...

11:22 pm  
Blogger Beezer B said...

I'm going for season 1 version as well but it's all about the closing music.

I actually like the Tom Waits version despite pretty much hating the dude's music in general. I think it's cos that particular track was sampled by 3rd Bass back when I was a wee walkman.

Did you know there are also a couple of semi-official "mixtape" soundtracks which mix music from the show with major Baltimore-club artists and some B-More rappers? Odd business, Baltimore music. One of my favourite scenes in the whole show is where String is meeting the dude from NY and his small talk is all about how shit B-More music is. Funny.

Better get the soundtrack I spose since they've spent years not putting it out cos there wasn't enough demand. I'm sure it will be a lot better than the Oz soundtrack.

12:56 am  
Blogger Ross said...

Tenth of March is when it hits the UK? I might even be in the States myself at that point.

God damn crappy crap, if I was sure it would fit through the letterbox I'd import it - at least I can be half sure that the CD would arrive. Thanks for the Wire merch tips, I will have to seek out the soundtrack and book now, of course. Damn your eyes.
I think I go for the first version too, as it set the whole thing off, though I've only heard the first three thus far.

7:28 pm  
Blogger David N said...

Oh the closing music is lovely indeed. Nearly every description I've read of it calls it "haunting". Which it is.

Theres some funny Baltimore scene dialogue in S4. You'll love it, Oz.

Ross, you going to NY? You're actually leaving the country?

12:04 am  
Blogger Ross said...

Shit I done left this country before, bitch! I jess had no reason to, lately. Now I got my peeps over in NYC I'm a go celebrate with a birthday weekend, hope we don't get our Cloverfield on, yo.

7:20 pm  

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