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Eric Bachmann - Short Careers: Original Score for the Film Ball of Wax

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Artist: Eric Bachmann

Album: Short Careers: Original Score for the Film Ball of Wax

Label: Merge

Review date: Aug. 12, 2002

It is more than likely that most who hear Short Careers, Eric Bachman's score to the film Ball of Wax will do so having not seen the movie. This is unfortunate, since unlike Bachman's earlier instrumental work (under the Barry Black alias), this soundtrack, the first release under his real name, relies heavily on mood and atmosphere rather than the hooks and intricacies that made Barry Black's releases so impressive. While each song surely corresponds appropriately to a scene in the movie itself, no individual piece is able to stand out structurally or melodically as effectively as Bachman has successfully done for past ten years. This is, perhaps, an unfair criticism of a work that was never meant to be heard purely on its own. Indeed, in this case it is to Bachman's credit that his compositions are so restrained and that the album as a whole sounds less like an "album" and more like a soundtrack. Time and time again, Eric Bachman has proven himself as a versatile virtuoso, and while Short Careers may not be a 3rd Barry Black album, it certainly proves Bachman's worth in yet another musical field.

The filmmakers describe Ball of Wax as follows: "An evil baseball player turns the game into a blood sport by pitting his teammates against one other in violent competitions." Bachman's score eases along and sounds more appropriate for a movie with a little more intrigue and a little less "blood sport." He focuses the score around a single eerie minor melody, often delegating short tunes and arrangements for use as introductions to the focal melody. It presents itself in various tempos and arrangements, but is present on over half of the album's songs. These roundabout introductions tend to be far more effective as means of conveying the melody than when Bachman simply presents the melody, or a variation of it. This is contrasted nicely on the album's third and fourth songs. On the third, "A Diamond is the Devil's Eye," Bachman quickly plucks in the main melody on his acoustic guitar, which is followed shortly by an overbearing and overly dramatic stringed accompaniment. This trite arrangement shortchanges the melody's effectiveness and results in a rather forgettable manifestation. The fourth song, "Finding the Holes Filling the Gaps," begins with two full minutes of Bachman's guitar wanderings. Part-John Fahey and part-Dave Pajo, Bachman's solo plucking is quite haunting and lovely, and most importantly it makes for an exciting and refreshing introduction to the full orchestration that follows immediately. Many of the sensibilities that seem to go along with the "musical score" seem to run contrary to Bachman's Barry Black work, and he fares best when he is able to incorporate shades of his eccentric style into the otherwise fairly straightforward score.

This eccentricity pokes through occasionally on other parts of Short Careers—the staccato Mellotron played over violins on "Aspirin vs. Arsenic", the AM radio xylophone on "Jimmy the Enforcer", the roller coaster-climbing percussion on "Reach out and Touch Someone" the epic tonal build of "Ty Cobb" -- but although these incongruities are refreshing Bachman does himself (and seemingly the film) a service by keeping them at a minimum. Surely it was not his intent to write a score that would be obtrusive and dominant, and the restraint that he shows in not showing off is quite impressive.

Perhaps another unexpected benefit of this restraint is the realization that Bachman is quite adept at slow-moving and understated songs. While the clarinet played a large role with Barry Black, here strings are most prominent. They work both for and against Bachman, occasionally sounding overly dramatic and clunky, but often delicately nudging about or underneath Bachman's guitar. On the album's last song, "Ty Cobb," strings take the lead and gradually repeat and ascending melody, rarely changing but growing more powerful with each repetition. It is reminiscent of the Stars of the Lid and is executed with just as much power and effectiveness.

Still, it's tough to say who the truly satisfied audience for such an album will be. While Short Careers is certainly an impressive feat for the versatile Bachman, it's not something that is likely to make much of an impression on devotees of the Archers of Loaf, Crooked Fingers, or even Barry Black. Nonetheless, I'm certainly inclined to give Bachman the credit to assume that Short Careers is a fine complement to Ball of Wax as well as yet another benchmark on his career which has been anything but short.

By Sam Hunt

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