Disorder Reviews: Cowboy Bebop TV Soundtracks (1998-1999)

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Martintox

Mister Disorder
Legacy
Apr 3, 2020
15,971
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COWBOY BEBOP TV SOUNDTRACKS

Artist: The Seatbelts
Genre: TV soundtrack, jazz (hard bop, big band, swing), blues, folk, lounge, drum & bass, choral, jazz pop, pop rock
Label: Victor Entertainment
Producer: Yoko Kanno


COWBOY BEBOP

Released:
21 May 1998
Length: 53:27
Best Track: Space Lion

TRACKS: 1) Tank!; 2) Rush; 3) Spokey Dokey; 4) Bad Dog No Biscuits; 5) Cat Blues; 6) Cosmos; 7) Space Lion; 8) Waltz for Zizi; 9) Piano Black; 10) Pot City; 11) Too Good Too Bad; 12) Car 24; 13) The Egg and I; 14) Felt Tip Pen; 15) Rain; 16) Digging My Potato; 17) Memory


COWBOY BEBOP: NO DISC

Released:
21 October 1998
Length: 53:43
Best Track: Green Bird

TRACKS: 1) American Money; 2) Fantasie Sign; 3) Don't Bother None; 4) Vitamin A; 5) Live in Baghdad; 6) Cats on Mars; 7) Want It All Back; 8) Bindy; 9) You Make Me Cool; 10) Vitamin B; 11) Green Bird; 12) Elm; 13) Vitamin C; 14) Gateway; 15) The Singing Sea; 16) The Egg and You; 17) Forever Broke; 18) Power of Kung Food Remix


COWBOY BEBOP: BLUE

Released:
1 May 1999
Length: 1:10:54
Best Track: Blue

TRACKS: 1) Blue; 2) Words That We Couldn't Say; 3) Autumn in Ganymede; 4) Mushroom Hunting; 5) Go Go Cactus Man; 6) Chicken Bone; 7) The Real Man; 8) NY Rush; 9) Adieu; 10) Call Me Call Me; 11) Ave Maria; 12) Stella by Moor; 13) Flying Teapot; 14) Wo Qui Non Coin; 15) Road to the West; 16) Farewell Blues; 17) See You Space Cowboy

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Since the term "anime" merely refers to animated shows and movies from Japan, it's hard to pretend that such works are beholden to a particular genre or style simply as a result of this distinction. Even so, they often stand out from your average Western material due to the many cultural differences behind their creation; a fair amount of viewers develop a distaste for anime precisely because they have difficulty bridging this divide. It may well be for this reason, then, that Cowboy Bebop has enjoyed so much success overseas, particularly in America: not only is it devoid of Japan's cultural quirks, it almost entirely takes root in the conventions of Western media. The premise of spacefaring bounty hunters is textbook space western, and the show's emphasis on character-specific arcs takes heavy influence from film noir -- no wonder it's considered a prime gateway into anime. Mind you, it wouldn't be a classic if it wasn't genuinely very good in its own right: its greatest achievement may be its excellent use of a mostly episodic format, covering a wide range of locations and characters that add prodigious depth to the futuristic setting, even when they have little relation to the main cast. Furthermore, these disconnected stories (in addition to an overarching plot involving main protagonist Spike Spiegel) sum up to a fascinating study of the effect of the past on people's lives: some are able to move on from their prior mistakes, but those who cannot will lose everything to try and correct them -- assuming these mistakes don't catch up to them first.

Equally as iconic as the show itself is its soundtrack, arguably the lynchpin of its genre-blending aesthetic. Its lead composer, Yoko Kanno, has kept herself very busy over the years by providing music for anime such as Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Space Dandy, not to mention video games, movies, and live-action shows; nonetheless, her work for Cowboy Bebop is easily the most acclaimed part of her pedigree. She is the mastermind behind The Seatbelts -- not so much a band, I'd say, as it is a revolving cast of instrumentalists and vocalists just as diverse as the material they've performed for the show and its associated movie. Having not yet watched the latter, I'll stick to the music from the anime itself, or more precisely the three soundtrack albums released between 1998 and 1999, as they already give an adequate idea of Kanno's versatility as a composer. (I'll also overlook the 5-disc compilation Cowboy Bebop CD Box; while a fair share of its songs are unavailable elsewhere, many others have appeared on prior releases.)

Two issues are prevalent across many soundtrack albums: first, unlike studio records, the point is generally to be an exhaustive archive of all the material used in the work of origin, meaning that songs will often also be sequenced by order of appearance. Second, the compositions therein don't always function on their own: it's not unlikely for a soundtrack to contain short incidental cuts or variations of its main themes, either of which can greatly vary in quality. A best-case example is Blade Runner: seeing as there is so much music in the film itself, the 1-CD version of the soundtrack is hardly exhaustive, but it contains most of the essential songs and then some, and its one variation, "Tears in Rain", reprises the melody of "Main Titles" in a radical enough way so as to be seen as a composition of its own as opposed to an alternate version. For a worst-case example, Undertale may have some genuinely very good cuts, but the OST is an awfully tiring experience, since much of its 2-hour length is a result of endless incidental stings that last under a minute, to say nothing of its endless reuse of the same 20 melodies or so; the music works just fine in the game, but the redundancy of the material is hard to tolerate outside of that context. With this in mind, the Cowboy Bebop soundtracks stand out because of their unique packaging of the show's music: instead of a big box set, the songs are spread out non-chronologically across three different discs, each of which has a specific theme. While a lot of cuts were consequently left out for other releases, the end result is that these albums flow rather well, offering appropriate emotional ups and downs while generally avoiding too much repetition in terms of melody or style.

[cut-off due to 10,000 character limit]​
 

Martintox

Mister Disorder
Legacy
Apr 3, 2020
15,971
55
53
The first record is predominantly jazz, by far the genre most frequent in all three releases, and thus contains some of the anime's most iconic material. The opening theme "Tank!" is already a thrilling piece of hard bop with many structural twists and turns in its 90-second form, but it's in its full version that you can truly appreciate the ease with which the band snap into a variety of segments at the drop of a hat -- in addition, you get to enjoy an excellent saxophone solo that is absent from the shorter edit. Other cuts such as "Rush" and "Bad Dog No Biscuits" are worthwhile as well, demonstrating a similar level of intensity and complexity. In truth, my favorite songs are mainly those that fall outside the banner of jazz: "Spokey Dokey" and "Digging My Potato" are two very good blues numbers that focus on a harmonica line with very minimal backing; their laid-back atmosphere encapsulates the spirit of the show to a near T. Also noteworthy are "Rain" (what an idea to make a rock song where the rhythm section consists solely of an organ) and the new age masterpiece "Space Lion", where an extended sax solo makes way for a slowly intensifying percussion ensemble, all set to a soft synthesizer backdrop. These diversions are more than welcome too, as the jazz tracks become somewhat repetitious in the second half: the likes of "Pot City" and "Car 24" lack the energy from the earlier cuts and bog down the album's momentum after a very good first half, though the record still closes out on a solid note overall.

The second release, No Disc, is a much more scattershot affair, with some of Cowboy Bebop's most unusual tracks. Incidentally, those happen to be the best cuts on there: "Fantaisie Sign" is a drum & bass lounge track with French vocals, "Live in Baghdad" is a surprisingly intense heavy metal song, "Want It All Back" is an energetic jazz-funk-rock hybrid, "Elm" is a guitar-based folk workout, and the soft choral number "Green Bird" is short but exceedingly sweet, though part of its value may come from its use in one of the show's most memorable episodes. The rest is very hit-or-miss, with most of the jazz numbers coming off as very lacking: "You Make Me Cool" and "Gateway" are non-descript, "The Singing Sea" is a solid but overly drawn out ballad (interestingly, it uses the melody from "Cosmos"), and "The Egg and You" is an alternate take on "The Egg and I" that replaces its fun percussion/flute interplay with a much less interesting piano arrangement. The closing "Power of Kung Food Remix" is a remix of "Tank!" that emphasizes the drumming and includes a plethora of samples, but it's more of a curiosity than a genuine reinvention of the original. While the diversity gives some appeal to No Disc as a listening experience, it suffers greatly from sub-par material, especially in the second half.

Although the final album, Blue, is the longest of the three by a good margin, it's by far its most enjoyable and consistent. It mostly contains vocal songs (though it's ultimately even more diverse than No Disc), many of which are among the show's most memorable. The most obvious of these is the title track, both the series finale's credits theme and an extremely climactic rock anthem augmented by a choir (bearing in mind that "Space Lion" is the mid-series finale's closing song, I notice that the show saves its best tunes for its best episodes); there is also the variation on Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria", the dense and frantic drum & bass track "The Real Man", the Joni Mitchell-esque piano jazz ditty "Flying Teapot", the orchestral rock number "Call Me Call Me" that's not far off from something Toto would make, and many others. "Rush" and "Cosmos" also reappear with superior arrangements as "N.Y. Rush" and "Farewell Blues" respectively. Finally, "See You Space Cowboy" is the series finale version of the credits theme "The Real Folk Blues"; both are just as good, though it's quite funny that the latter is only available on the EP Vitaminless, given its prominence in the anime proper. Taken together, these three soundtracks are neither exhaustive nor perfect, but the sheer amount of quality material spanning so many styles is already a worthy testament to Yoko Kanno's capabilities and Cowboy Bebop's unique place in the anime canon. While I especially recommend these albums to fans of the show, those unfamiliar with it may find them worthwhile also, as most of these songs work just fine as independent compositions.

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COWBOY BEBOP:

PERSONAL RATING: ***½
RECOMMENDATION RATING: ***½
LETTERED RATING: ALPHA

COWBOY BEBOP NO DISC:

PERSONAL RATING: ***½
RECOMMENDATION RATING: ***
LETTERED RATING: A-

COWBOY BEBOP BLUE:

PERSONAL RATING: ****
RECOMMENDATION RATING: ***½
LETTERED RATING: BETA

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