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Nick Cave & Warren Ellis - White Lunar

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Artist: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis

Album: White Lunar

Label: Mute

Review date: Sep. 21, 2009

Two-disc set White Lunar collects Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s recent film scores, as well as a handful of stand-alone tracks. Disc one features their work from 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James, 2005’s Aussie Western The Proposition (from which Cave also wrote the screenplay), and the forthcoming The Road, an adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy (No Country For Old Men) novel. Disc two, meanwhile, focuses on the pair’s scores for documentaries The Girls of Phnom Penh and The English Surgeon.

As a soundtrack album, White Lunar confronts the listener with one primary problem: half of the equation is missing. Without hearing it in alongside the images that accompany it, it’s hard to pass judgment on Cave and Ellis’s music. Furthermore, the material collected here comes not from one film, but from many, further complicating the listening experience by making it difficult to take White Lunar as a unified album. The fractured feel of the album is further exacerbated by the fact that Cave and Ellis excerpt only portions of their film scores, leaving us with a dollop of Jesse James and a hint of The Proposition. The overall effect is that of a sampler, a compilation that exists primarily to direct the listener to other albums.

The music itself, meanwhile, is hit-or-miss as stand-alone material. The excerpts from Jesse James and The Road are weakest in this respect: simple, repetitive, and rather unmemorable, they might succeed as background music for films, but are hardly compelling in their own right. Neither case finds the two musicians developing the kind of memorable themes or motifs that would render the scores of interest as much more than mood music. The documentary scores are moderately more successful, as they manage to create and sustain distinctive tone, something that might be taken as the musical evocation of the world the films present: The Girls of Phnom Penh tracks are bleak and funereal, and generally opt for ominous drones (as on “Srey Leak” and “Window”) rather than any discernable melody or theme. The English Surgeon tracks are equally melancholy, but stand closer, both texturally and melodically, to Cave’s mellower work with the Bad Seeds.

The clear standouts here are the excerpts from The Proposition. One imagines that since Cave served as screenwriter for the film, he was at greater liberty to shape its soundtrack. Here we find shades of the death-laden blues of vintage Cave, both in brooding, ominous form (“The Proposition 1”) and the more manic, possessed version typical of the early Bad Seeds (the second half of “The Rider 1”). Ellis throws in a dissonant Dirty Three-ish jam (“The Road to Banyon”) and a beautiful multi-tracked violin performance on “Martha’s Dream.” The sequence ends with White Lunar’s only real Cave song (at least in the sense that it wouldn’t be out of place on a Bad Seeds album), the country-tinged “The Rider Song.”

Everything else on White Lunar pales in comparison to these tracks. They hold up nicely outside of their filmic context, and are the fullest manifestations of Cave and Ellis’s ability to create truly compelling musical worlds. Only here do we get the sense that the duo is able to operate at full liberty, able to pursue their own aesthetic vision without considering the demands of the other artists (or filmmakers) with whom they are collaborating.

By Michael Cramer

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