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Steve Vai The Elusive Light and Sound Vol. I

By Jeff Kerby, Contributor
Wednesday, June 26, 2002 @ 11:08 AM


(Favored Nations)

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What the hell ever happened to Ralph Macchio?

Sometimes when I think about all the people who made me the pathetic mess I am today, parents, teachers -- drug dealers, and I try to assess the impact they had on my life, their insignificance is invariably magnified when I compare it to the influence of this diminutive actor. Karate Kid inspired me to the point where I wanted to go out and take classes at the YMCA just so I could learn that “crane” stance of his which looked so damn stupid but was effective nevertheless. Besides the flicks with Mr. Miyagi, another movie Macchio made during the ‘80s was a film entitled Crossroads, which chronicled the story of a young classical guitar player and his search for Robert Johnson’s missing songs. If you’ve ever seen this movie, you’d know that all the drama culminates in a guitar duel between Ralph Macchio’s character and the devil’s guitar player -- Steve Vai. I can still remember renting this video multiple times and standing around the living room playing the showdown scene over and over while playing air guitar armed only with a broomstick and a rudimentary knowledge of how to use it. I did this each and every day for over a week -- at least until I realized that trying to mimic Steve Vai while assisted only with an elongated household utensil was an exercise in futility. “Fuck it,” I thought, so I gave up the guitar, er broomstick, and took up the harmonica instead. After playing “Mary Had A Little Lamb” at a couple of birthday parties, I realized that my career as a musician was over.

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While my aspirations to become a world-renowned axe man faded, Steve Vai’s continued. His solo work as well as his guitar playing on David Lee Roth’s Eat Em’ and Smile were supplemented by his presence on the soundtracks of various films. Vai’s new offering, The Elusive Light and Sound Vol. 1, previously available only as part of a box set, is primarily a collection of work that was specifically created for use on the silver screen. That being the case, as the guitarist says in the extensive liner notes, “When music that was specifically written for a visual stands on its own, it may not possess all the elements that a non-visual composition would normally have.” What does that mean exactly? Well, what it means that there are forty tracks here, but most of them are between 20-60 seconds in length. The compositions were not generally meant to be songs played extensively on the radio -- instead they were designed to accompany the characters’ movements as they took place on the screen. The two exceptions are the introductory tracks, “Celluloid Heroes” and “Love Blood.” The former is a remake of an old Kinks’ song and the latter was inspired by Anne Rice’s character – Lestat -- whom the axe man is said to have had an affinity for and fascination with. Even though Vai’s vocals on these two songs aren’t the most dynamic -- his voice doesn’t really possess any characteristics that would etch themselves on your memory -- it shouldn’t have to be pointed out that the man is primarily a guitar player, and in that arena, there are few who could have lent the atmospheric axe work necessary to make these tunes a success.

The heart of this collection includes the work Vai did on the aforementioned film Crossroads. The first offering, “Fried Chicken” never made the final cut of the film, but it includes dialogue and intricate solos designed for Vai’s work as the devil’s six-string specialist that was originally slated to precede the “cuttin’ heads” duel with Macchio’s character. The aforementioned axe battle is also presented in its entirety with Vai playing all parts, except for the slide work, which was performed by Ry Cooder. Can you believe that some people after the release of this flick actually thought Ralph Macchio really played the guitar during his portion of this musical extravaganza? Of course, those are probably the same people who thought Christopher Reeves actually flew in the Superman movies and that Chewbacca was really a contractually obligated Big Foot and that Pauly Shore really is a comedic genius.

Two other films in which Vai’s work can still be heard are Dudes and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. Vai contributed a stark version of “Amazing Grace” to Dudes -- which about eight people went to see. The other selection from this movie, “Louisiana Swamp Swank” is three minutes and fifteen seconds of guitar work guaranteed to leave you feeling as if your legs have just been immersed in some of the boggiest sludge known to man. If you ever wondered where the hell the solos came from when Bill and Ted would produce music whilst using only the skill of their nimble fingers and a little air, you need look no further -- it was Mr. Vai. The most notable moment of this portion of the disc is a bizarre melding together of dialogue from the film and guitar noodling entitled, “The Reaper Rap.”

The last two flicks which included Vai compositions that are included on this disc are Encino Man, which he states in the liner notes as having been “a very funny movie” -- uh, yeah… and PCU. His contributions to Encino Man here prove fairly minimal in comparison with his involvement with the others. This leads to the burning question: Why did he do this? Money? Fame? No, it was probably just to meet Pauly Shore -- the guy’s a comedic genius, remember? Anyway, the final twenty-one tracks on The Elusive Light and Sound represent the entire score for the film Comedy Central never grows tired of -- PCU. Titles like “Welcome to Pre-Frosh” and “Loose Keg Spottings” are the norm as Vai displays why his musical compositions proved to be a major cornerstone of the film. Hey, come to think of it, George Clinton was in that movie, too!! The two should have just got together and jammed, dammit. No, wait a minute, they could have dueled like the characters in Crossroads -- think about it -- Vai could have hammered home some fiery solos on his guitar while Mr. P-Funk countered by tossing his hair and shaking his ass. Now that would have definitely enhanced a plot which was already about as thin as the skin on an eighty year old woman’s hand.

This collection is basically for fans and showcases the unquestionable talents of one Steve Vai as a composer -- a person who, in this case, is quite adept at matching certain visual images with music that enhances the experience of what is being shown on the screen. Those who can utilize this tool realize that music is a visceral implement which movies have come to adopt throughout time in order to stir specific emotions in the viewer. Even with this being a work composed of music from different films, there is still some continuity here. The quality of some of the films Vai has contributed to may in question, but there is no doubt that each of these movies would have been much less than it was without the inclusion of his masterful guitar work. Hey, don’t laugh, anybody who can contribute to the legacy of superstar-actor Ralph Macchio, not only deserves extra thanks, but should also be treated to free karate lessons at the Y for life.

***


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