To say Nick Cave is an iconic figure would be like saying I have an unhealthy addiction to beer - both statements ring true in every sense of the word. With his distinguishable low warble of a voice, slicked back hair, pressed suit, and a facial hair arrangement I can only reference as a Cavestache, Nick Cave epitomizes a different way to make music.
He also paves a breakthrough in which to listen to it as well. On his latest endeavor, the soundtrack to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the Australian musician and friend Warren Ellis take us on a beautifully illustrated story told through strings and well-placed bass compositions. The duo, who also play together in Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds as well as Grinderman, use deep tonalities and the building of song progression to provide the audio for the great Wild West legend to live.
The story of James himself is also iconic. He was the leader for the James-Younger gang, a group famous and infamous for robbing banks across a wide scope. When James was killed by Robert Ford in 1882, James' mother had "In Loving Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is Not Worthy to Appear Here" engraved on his tombstone.
Rather than play into the cheesy and albeit stereotypical threads of a Western, the two composers of Jesse James choose to instead employ a more graceful and resilient approach, starting the opener "Rather Lovely Thing" with a stunning beginning. Ellis, a trained violinist, is front and center, with Cave's piano intertwining with the strings for a heartbreaking and chilling vibe that results in goose bumps. Slow is key, picking up pace in the chorus areas and then returning to a steady buildup.
Cave and Ellis, who also jointly composed 2005's The Proposition movie soundtrack and have each worked on their fair share of movie and other media scoring, bring in a variety of instruments to play with on each track, but no more than two or three at a time. Admittedly, I am used to listening to catchy, trendy, and/or 'of the moment' bands all the time; the Jesse James soundtrack made me sit down and think, needing time to soak in and revel in, something we don't do very often in music. The soundtrack is nearly void of percussion, and has absolutely no lyrics, which can be a drawback in many cases. But Cave and Ellis take the opportunity to use the slow, quiet spaces in between to do the talking (or lack thereof).
The duo does a great job audio illustrating lust, conflict, and regret; the soundtrack is a story in itself, painting the visual that the audio so well accompanies. In "Cowgirl," we get the first glimpse into the "cowboy"-like territory. It's the first track that's gritty, featuring a guitar paired with a slinky violin as the two instruments duet, "Carnival" features sultry bass dancing with the seduction of the strings. In songs like "What Happens Next," a glimpse into the high-drama and high-stakes game James has fallen into peeks out, with a glaring and ominous bass violin underlying the urgency of the other strings.
Two tracks that strike curiosity are "Song For Jesse" and "Song For Bob." In the former, the track opens with a xylophone silently but furiously playing, with tiny quips of the high end of the piano playing in the background. The latter finds a more somber tune for the assassin and is three times the length, perhaps taking the listener on a true mourning for all that the gang - and Ford - represented.
Needless to say, I am totally interested in seeing what this movie is about, and if my predictions were correct, you don't have to be a fan of the Wild West or Cave's specifically to like this record. Rather, be an appreciator of a good storyteller, or, in the case of this soundtrack, two.