While rock fans know Ben Vaughn from the handful of witty but rockin' albums he cut in the '80s and '90s with his band the Ben Vaughn Combo, since the mid-'90s Vaughn has been making his bread and butter working as a composer for film and television, hitting pay dirt with his music for the shows Third Rock from the Sun, Grounded for Life and That 70s Show. For his first album since 1997, Vaughn has taken his inspiration from his current day job by composing and conducting 12 pieces for movies that exist only in his head. Recorded with a 16-piece studio band (complete with horns, strings, and a whistler), Designs in Music is a collection of instrumentals that harkens back to the era when film scores had personality and added atmosphere to a film rather than simply adding more rumble to the Dolby Surround mix. Vaughn appears to be having some fun with this stuff, and the shadows of such sonic eccentrics as Esquivel and Joe Meek can be heard throughout the album, but Designs in Music doesn't sound at all like a goof; there's far too much skill on display for this to be a joke, and Vaughn and his collaborators certainly do right by their influences; the spy flick ambiance of "The Stalker Pt. II," the western pastiche on "Smoketree Serenade," the European intrigue of "The Big Parade," and the uber-cheery "Avanti" wouldn't sound out of place in any number of late-show epics from the '60s, while the arrangements (by Vaughn and Ryan "Shmedly" Maynes) are superbly inventive (facing the rattley twang of the bass end of a clavinet against a banjo shouldn't work, but somehow they make it happen). Designs in Music is smart and engaging fun that honors pop music history while making just a little of its own.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming