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Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

Music from the Motion Picture The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

(Mute; US: 5 Feb 2008; UK: 5 Nov 2007)

Nick Cave, a favourite contender for the spookiest-man-in-music award, has recently made a successful jump to spooky screen musician. And while his work here (just as it was on his triumphant soundtrack for 2005’s The Proposition) doesn’t sound much like the growling post-folk of his non-movie music, his longtime fans might still hear some delightful variations on themes he’s been developing for decades. At the very least, this entire film is a Murder Ballad.


These fourteen compositions, which Cave wrote and performed with longtime musical collaborator (and Bad Seed) Warren Ellis, are deeply, and darkly, evocative. By turns dreamy, obsessive, and suffocating, the record is all minor chord tension, offering scant release. Like the film that illustrates these little tone poems, Cave and Ellis’ music pushes the edges of western genre expectations. Minimalist, repetitive, and mournful by any analysis, the music strikes a sweet chord between the dusty soundscapes of Calexico, and the cold austerity of Philip Glass.


Very often, film soundtracks suffer when removed from their complimentary movies (just as most flicks would lose a great deal without their scores). Yet, it is to the credit of these composers that as we listen to this all-instrumental record we actually feel that it is cinematic. All scratchy strings and soft pianos, glockenspiels and field drums, this is cowboy chamber music. There is a quality to this stuff that pushes us to imagine, to conjure up images of dust, of sweat, and of fear. This is no mean feat. Just try driving along a dirt road in mid-summer as the cornfields fly by, your arm perched sun-burning and dust-swept on the window ledge, and NOT hear this music as your soundtrack.


Or, perhaps more fittingly, just try getting assassinated by a bitterly envious Casey Affleck and not hear this music as your soundtrack.


Apart from a few unfortunate (and quite glaring) moments when the melodies veer painfully close to familiar tunes – “Carnival”, for example, borrows from both the “Godfather Theme” AND “My Favourite Things”! – for the most part the record is alive, fresh, and worthy of repeated listens. And, unlike most soundtrack recordings where the film’s themes are repeated in a series of variations over the course of the disc, there is only one repeated tune on the record – the first track “Rather Lovely Thing” is reprised later as “Another Rather Lovely Thing”, both of which sound like they could be outtakes from an Alejandro Escovedo record. 


Recommended especially for fans of the Tin Hat Trio, and Calexico’s early instrumental work.

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Stuart Henderson is a culture critic and historian. He is the author of Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (University of Toronto Press, 2011). All of this is fun, but he'd rather be camping. Twitter: @henderstu


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