Thursday, April 22, 2010

Nick Cave & Warren Ellis—White Lunar (Mute)

Spooky music by spooky guys with spooky facial hair. You all know Nick Cave. Warren Ellis is one of the Bad Seeds and 1/3 of the Dirty Three. They recorded some of this music for movies; the rest came from their own vaults. Disc one presents selections from the soundtracks for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Proposition, and The Road. The liner notes claim that the disc has “the big themes, the orchestra and the songs,” yet what I hear on instrumentals like “What Must Be Done” is intimate and delicate. When the orchestra is employed, as on “Song for Bob,” it provides shadings rather than bombast; a backdrop for Cave’s or Ellis’s sparse melodies. The resulting music is restrained yet powerful. Some pieces are built from loops or drones, like “Martha’s Dream.” The songs from The Proposition get increasingly listener friendly, progressing from the pulsing, scraping “The Rider No. 2” to “Gun Thing,” a malevolent ballad, and concluding with “The Rider Song,” which resembles a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds track. After the set from The Proposition, the selections from The Road feel like an extended orchestral piece. They almost sound hopeful, except when the “The Journey” blackens the skies for a few minutes.

Disc two, described as “fractured, haunting and sometimes badly behaved,” is still of a piece with disc one. The overall feel is more ethereal and exotic, and yes, haunting. These are fairly friendly ghosts, though. “Halo” is based on a soothing three-note loop. “Magma” consists of voices joining in a wordless mantra, like Gregorian monks brought in for a Beach Boys session. The selections from The English Surgeon soundtrack are at times similar to the music on disc one, gently orchestrated with piano and violin conversing overtop. Glimpses of menace come through “Window” (from The Girls of Phnom Penh) and “Zanstra,” a tense interlude powered by Ellis’s jagged bowing. And for bad behaviour, stick around for the coda to “Sorya Market” if you don’t mind getting your mellow harshed. Throughout, Cave and Ellis sound like equal partners, staying out of each other’s way, yet unafraid to assert their voice/instrument when it serves the music’s mood. White Lunar is a rich compilation that shows that Cave, a devastating lyricist, can be equally effective letting the music speak for itself.

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