September 21, 2007 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The notorious American outlaw Jesse James was a living legend by the time he was 30, famous for his exploits as a civil war hero, and later as a train robber and a bank robber. James, while still on the run from the law, was killed by Robert Ford, a member of his own gang, at the age of 34 in 1882, thereby cementing his place in the folk history of the American west. James’s life, and death, is examined in director Andrew Dominik’s dark, contemplative film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which stars Brad Pitt as James, Casey Affleck as Ford, and has a sterling supporting cast comprising the likes of Mary-Louise Parker, Sam Shepard and Zooey Deschanel.

To compliment the film’s dramatic, landscape-heavy visuals and introspective tone, Dominik turned to singer-songwriter Nick Cave and violinist Warren Ellis for the score. Cave, of course, is the highly idiosyncratic Australian front man of the rock band The Bad Seeds, but who has in recent years begun to explore the world of film music more closely. Cave’s work has always been inherently filmic, with a taste for the dramatic, so it is perhaps no surprise that his thoughts have turned in this direction. Cave and Ellis won an Australian Oscar for their score for The Proposition in 2004, and have received a great deal of critical acclaim for their work here too.

As one might expect, given Ellis’s background, much of the score is string-based; similarly, given Cave’s background, the tone is generally downbeat and melancholy throughout. Like the film, Cave’s score is in many ways the flip side to the romantic notions of the American west; it has all the familiar western touches – banjos, fiddles, keyboards, percussion, but instead of acknowledging the perceived heroism these iconic western figures inspired, it instead scores the reality: that the old west was dangerous, confusing, sometimes desolate place where the biggest achievement was to simply survive.

The opening “Rather Lovely Thing”, is a moody piece for solo piano and bank of fiddles, performing a plaintive, dark Americana theme – the first of many pieces which hint at the legend’s troubled side. Several of the subsequent pieces are typified by particular instrumental aspects: “Song for Jesse” is a hypnotic piece for chimes and celeste which at times is reminiscent of Philip Glass or Michael Nyman – think of Nyman’s score for The Claim, but without the thematic drive.

“Cowgirl” features a mesmerizing duet between a fiddle and an electric guitar, “Last Ride to KC” is a solemn duet between violin and cello with an incessant, buzzing pedal point… and so it goes on. Probably the most conventional cue is the dramatic “So What Happens Next”, which features a churning string fugue underpinned by the strong percussion hits, and is the closest the score gets to having an action cue. The hypnotic, see-saw nature of the rhythms Cage employs throughout the score lulls the listener into a near-trance, which I’m sure was the desired effect. It’s not a typical score by any stretch, but worth investigating for the fearless.

Rating: ***

Track Listing:

  • Rather Lovely Thing (3:13)
  • Moving On (2:32)
  • Song for Jesse (2:35)
  • Falling (2:54)
  • Cowgirl (4:05)
  • The Money Train (2:38)
  • What Must Be Done (1:57)
  • Another Rather Lovely Thing (3:28)
  • Carnival (2:52)
  • Last Ride Back to KC (5:24)
  • What Happens Next (2:08)
  • Destined for Great Things (2:26)
  • Counting the Stars (1:19)
  • Song for Bob (6:03)

Running Time: 43 minutes 31 seconds

Mute Records CDSTUMM294 (2007)

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