CD Review: APPALOOSA

Composer: Jeff Beal
Label: Lakeshore
Suggested Retail Price: $14.99
Grade: B+

After seeing how writer-actor-director Ed Harris re-invigorated the artist biopic with POLLOCK, it was doubtful he’d be beating a dead western horse when it was announced his next film would be APPALOOSA, with Jeff Beal in the score saddle again after providing POLLOCK’s beautifully iconoclastic soundtrack. Now that APPALOOSA has ridden into the cinema, the results to see (and hear) are somewhere in the middle between indie spirit and old school. And that’s a very good thing in APPALOOSA’s case as it breathes new life into the nag, especially with Beal’s sweetly arch score helping to teach its horse some cool new tricks.

As opposed to westerns where guns are continuously blazing, APPALOOSA positively saunters about with its humorously low key take on gun slinging buds and simmering villainy. Even the good girl can’t help being very bad as she drives the heroes to distraction. Harris plays these relationships with affecting sincerity and no small amount of hipness, a tone that Jeff Beal’s score quickly establishes with his “Main Title”’s trot-paced horn theme and sinister string atmosphere. His command of “western” music continues to be as firm as he effectively travels the well-trodden ground of great genre scores past. “Dawn in Appaloosa” and “Ballad of Rio Seco” have the kind of Tex-Mex country twang that would be right at home in Ry Cooder’s score to THE LONG RIDERS, while you could imagine a more orchestrated version of the main theme in “Hitch Rides” making its home in Jerome Moross’ BIG COUNTRY. And when it comes to the “Indian” music, the proud symphonic statement of “The Horse Trade” is out of every score from Alex North’s PONY SOLDIER to Hugo Friedhofer’s BROKEN ARROW.

Yet Beal never engages in the kind of overt genre homage that Marco Beltrami terrifically did with the Spaghetti sound of 3:10 TO YUMA. This score’s more subtle by necessity in how it creates its iconic atmosphere.
But just when you think you know where this horse will take you, Beal does an about-turn with “Allison French,” his “heroine” theme playing a deliciously deviant woman with pizzicato and abstract strings, It’s an approach that would seem to have more of a place in POLLOCK than a APPALOOSA. Yet it’s the perfect way to represent this lovely outsider in a man’s world, an impressionistic approach that makes Allison as “modern” as a literally plucky heroine can get. The jazzy vibe continues as “Dawn in Appaloosa,” announces the sunrise with a nightclub-ready horn, while “Shootout At Rio Seco” has a surreal guitar and piano vibe that goes into a jazz horn and a military percussion face-off.

Throughout APPALOOSA, Jeff Beal takes such stalwart western instruments as the Banjo, Mandolin and Dulcimer and does interesting and beautiful thing with them. Much of Harris’ direction has characters staring intently at each other, speaking volumes with their icy or forlorn gaze. And Beal’s meditative, often eerie music is right in tune with the film’s use of silence and space. Even the final draw in “Hitch Settles A Score” plays the potential end of a friendship instead of the life-or-death stakes. But just when it appears APPALOOSA might end on a dour note, Beal uses a positively happy-go-lucky approach with fiddle and a harmonica as one lawman gallops off on his merry way, all with a bleating brass sound that’s halfway to BLAZING SADDLES loopiness.

It’s a neatly anachronistic, and endearing tip of the musical hat to the sly humor that makes APPALOOSA smarter, and more endearing than most post-modern oaters. And with more books in the series that Harris’ movie is based on, I can only hope that Beal returns to blow away even more of the wall between old-fashioned “western” music and his jazzy instincts, especially with Harris at the helm (who also isn’t a bad singer here either). It’s a partnership that’s more like the ease that two session players groove to than a director overseeing a composer unleash the bells and whistles for the big gundown- one reason their partnership, and APPALOOSA works so well.

In addition to Harris’ stand-by-your-screwed-up-woman tune “You’ll Never Leave My Heart,” special mention should be made of Donald Rubinstein’s song “Ain’t Nothin’ Like A Friend.” Though not in the film itself, this beautifully lyrical number is a true case of Harris standing by the talent of the composer/songwriter he first met onscreen in KNIGHTRIDERS (whose score is now finally out on Perseverance). Rubinstein’s folksy strumming has a Dylan-esque catchiness to it, making for a cool last bit of rural atmosphere to send APALOOSA off into the musical sunset with.

Give a tip of the ten-gallon hat to APPALOOSA here.

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