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Bruce Langhorne - Soundtrack To The Hired Hand

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Artist: Bruce Langhorne

Album: Soundtrack To The Hired Hand

Label: Blast First Petite

Review date: Feb. 21, 2005

There aren’t many Westerns like Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand. His first project after the revolutionizing Easy Rider, it might be the strangest one I’ve come across in quite some time (at least since High Plains Drifter). It’s definitely the only Western I’ve seen that’s influenced by experimental filmmaker Bruce Conner, makes ritualistic gestures towards the four elements, has a character read from the ancient Gnostic text, the Gospel According to Thomas, about the kingdom of Heaven being within, and ends with some of the most anticlimactic gunplay I’ve seen, at least until Superfly. Did I mention it also features Warren Oates?

What ties the film together, maintains the dreamlike haze, the hidden parables, the things left unsaid by Fonda, by every character – the destabilizing movie as a whole – is the music by Bruce Langhorne. Known best as a session man for Dylan on Bringing It All Back Home and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (and apparently, he is “Mr. Tambourine Man” according to Dylan), Langhorne decided the best way to score it was not in the projection room, but by shooting the film onto a small black and white camera for later playback, allowing him to accompany the film from the comforts of home. Now fuzzy, black and white, and slightly out of sync, he played along as his girlfriend taped him, going back and layering Farfisa, piano, banjo, harmonica, fiddle, recorder, and Appalachian dulcimer, most run through a tube-based Echoplex over the 1920 Martin guitar. The results?

Maybe if Fahey hadn’t punched Antonioni, and had scored the desert porn scene in Zabriskie Point instead of Garcia, or if Sandy Bull had all of Ry Cooder’s soundtrack gigs, there’d be similar grounds for comparison. I think of Bull on the opening theme, plucking away at a banjo that echoes through the canyons from a Twin Reverb, suddenly meeting up with Henry Flynt’s fiddle for the tiniest of slowed-down hoedowns, a snare surfacing for four beats and then gone. Tracks seven and eight, with their haunting recorder melodies, animal calls, deliberate plucking, and invocation of lost American Indian sound rituals, find kin with the eloquent tribal sections of Jack Nitzsche’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

The urge to push it towards the fore of American cosmic folk (whatever that may mean) is strong, yet at 11 tracks in 23 minutes, a bit rash. Fahey, Bull, Cooder, Flynt, Nitzsche, they’re strong company to associate with Langhorne, considering the entire soundtrack is longer than Bull’s “Blend” by barely two minutes, and most pieces clock in well under a minute, scarcely settling before the dust stirs again. And yet time becomes irrelevant when considering the disc (aside from straight dollar-to-minute ratio). It’s already out of sync from the film, and is sourced from the original sound stripe, the masters (maybe even uncut and more expansive) long lost. A generation lost makes it only more ghostly. And Langhorne’s notes even mention that during the premiere, he was hearing sounds he’d never heard before, fearing them to be deal-breaking accidents. (Though it fit the movie perfectly.)

The ideal way to get at its gold, to have The Hired Hand hypnotize, is to switch the disc to repeat. Before you really realize it, you’re on the third spin, still adrift in that sparkling river that opens the film, immersed in layer upon layer of magic, ancient ritual, and American cosmic music, all these invisible forces at work on you. Like they've always been.

By Tad Abney

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