Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Soundtrack Review: Appaloosa


Although westerns have been increasing in popularity over the past few years with The Proposition, 3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, and others-- in a crowded year of releases and a lackluster fall box office, sadly director Ed Harris's underrated classically styled western Appaloosa was overlooked in its initial release.

One of those movies that seems to have been made to become a bigger hit with time and on DVD and Blu-ray-- it's nonetheless one that had people talking and recommending it to others. Additionally, one of the most recurring conversations about the film seemed to be in regards to its terrific score by Jeff Beal. Beal, who had previously collaborated with Harris before on his triumphant Oscar winning biopic Pollack had to draw upon his rich musical background for the project that's so steeped in audience expectation for a genre we've seen a million times.

"Fluent in the diverse languages of jazz, classical, contemporary, electronic and world music," as his bio notes, Beal's diversity is evident in his wide-ranging list of credits including Showtime's The Passion of Ayn Rand, episode 9 of HBO's documentary From the Earth to the Moon as well as composing the "theme and underscore" for USA Network's notorious obsessive compulsive detective, Monk.

Although Harris seemed to be crafting his film in the same vein of the John Ford and John Wayne westerns of yesteryear, Beal's richly textured and unusual score manages to blend instruments and sounds one normally associates with the genre but punches it up with a more sophisticated almost jazz approach at times.

While its main opening title track introduces the themes and motifs that will be expanded upon throughout the score and is so powerful you can nearly see the two men in the saddle-- Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen-- riding in the desert landscape, his range as a composer is on display with the successive tracks which introduce every main character.

Taking on a heavier bass and cello sound in "New City Marshall" which is punctuated by surprisingly quirky bursts of humor with a pluck of a string here or there to depict the men as outsiders who aren't accustomed to their surroundings, he moves into more feminine territory with actress Renee Zellweger's theme "Allison French," which begins with a violin introduction but grows more mysterious as it continues and she captures Harris's attention.

"French" and a few of the other eclectic tracks feel a bit reminiscent of the techniques employed in Thomas Newman's scores for American Beauty and Road to Perdition. And while musically a few of the tracks manage to lose their footing, most likely due to a poor sound quality transfer which has listeners cranking up one track several notches to make out the faintest string before being blasted by a masculine bass on another one, it surprises us with some beautifully unique numbers.

Typically for soundtrack, Beal does some terrific work that soon picks up the pace and then ends just as it's going somewhere-- teasing listeners like an incorrigible flirt as two nice and pretty (yet super quiet) compositions "Dawn in Appaloosa" and "Cole and Hitch Stalk Bragg" lead into the far superior, action packed track "Bragg is Captured," which is fittingly paced for its matching visual scene and is an album highlight.

With nice gentle romantic strings mixed in, the score moves from masculine to feminine throughout but it really grabs hold of listeners with its title repetition in "Hitch Rides" before the chaotic, steely drum sounds of "The Indian Attack" is juxtaposed a few tracks later with the romantic Spanish guitar piece "Riding Into Rio Seco" (another download-worthy tune along with its continuation number "Ballad of Rio Seco").

Ending the instrumental pieces with two vocal inclusions-- Ed Harris stunned audiences over the film's final credits by performing "You'll Never Leave My Heart," which is a modest Johnny Cash tinged track that is improved upon. by the truthfulness in his voice as he sings like he means it. However, ultimately it switches to Donald Rubenstein as he caps off the album with the Bob Dylan styled story-song "Ain't Nothing Like a Friend" that reinforces the film's central relationship between the two men (including Mortensen in another Oscar worthy performance).

Available from Lakeshore Records-- Appaloosa is no doubt currently making the rounds of Academy voters right now and while its parent company New Line Cinema has been absorbed by Warner Brothers, leaving the marketing push uncertain, Beal's unique music speaks for itself and when the transfer and quality of the tracks is good, he manages to captivate the audience with his surprisingly non-cliched and impressive nontraditional western score.

Album Track Listing

1. Main Title
2. New City Marshall
3. Bragg's Theme
4. Allison French
5. Allie Teases Virgil
6. Dawn in Appaloosa
7. Cole and Hitch Stalk Bragg
8. Bragg is Captured
9. Apology Accepted
10. The Kiss
11. Readin' and Writin'
12. Allie is Kidnapped
13. Cole Ponders
14. Hitch Rides
15. Finding Allie
16. The Indian Attack
17. The Horse Trade
18. Riding Into Rio Seco
19. Ballad of Rio Seco
20. Shootout at Rio Seco
21. Allie Goes Upstairs
22. Hitch Settles a Score
23. Riding Off/End Title
24. You'll Never Leave My Heart - Ed Harris
25. Ain't Nothin' Like a Friend - Donald Rubenstein

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The Best of the Western Genre