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The Homesman (Marco Beltrami)

March 26, 2015

Cover_HomesmanTHE HOMESMAN

Marco Beltrami, 2014, Varese Sarabande
21 tracks, 45:34

I know I’m late to the game, as this score has been out for quite some time now. It has taken a while for it to grow on me.

Review by Pete Simons

What is it?

Directed by Tommy-Lee Jones, “The Homesman” tell the story of a frontier farm woman (Hilary Swank) who saves the life of a claim-jumper (Tommy Lee Jones) and persuades him to help her escort three insane women to a safe haven in Iowa. This is the third time Jones and Beltrami worked together, following “3.10 to Yuma” and “The Three Burials…”.

What does it sound like?

I know I’m late to the game, as this score has been out for quite some time. It has taken a while for it to grow on me. I have to admit to not liking this score at all when I first heard it. I found the ‘sound design’ element of it to be too inaccessible; and I thought the melodic parts weren’t strong enough. But I am a fan of Marco Beltrami’s and I didn’t want to give up too easily; and after gaining a better understanding of the film, I have come to appreciate this score quite a bit.

Cues like “On The Plain”, “Newborn”, “Sod Buster”, “Pawnee”, “Are You Crazy” or “I’ll Be Back Directly” are very sound driven; and these are amongst the ‘difficult’ tracks. The story how Beltrami (and frequent collaborator Buck Sanders) build a huge aeolian harp out of an upright piano and placed it on top of a hill is reasonably familiar by now. The sounds captured with this and other hand-made instruments is quite unique. It fits the picture in that it’s an airy, wide open (and somewhat eerie) sound. Perfect for the lonely plains depicted in the film (or equally perfect for the insane women). However, away from the movie it makes for an uncomfortable listen. It is interesting and perhaps mesmerising at best, but pleasant it is not. And this explains why I initially struggled with this album.

While most composers record their music inside a studio in pristine conditions, Beltrami went outdoors – recording the music on the mountains of Malibu, CA. “It was very air, thread bare existence. Musically I was discussing with Buck [Sanders] how we might achieve some of this,” said Beltrami. “We picked a day that the wind was fairly minimal in the morning and we just went right at it.” — From the Press Release

But the more I listened to it, the more details I started to pick up on. The more I started to appreciate the creative and technical process of hand-crafting and recording these instruments.

So let’s get back to the beginning. The opening of the score; the main theme. That is plain gorgeous, pun intended. It’s a simple theme, almost like a lullaby. The reverberating piano that first performs it, gives it an achingly lonely character; but as strings take over it becomes warmer, though remains melancholy. Yet somewhere in there, through its beauty and its simplicity it also feels a little epic. That strumming guitar that comes in next… yeah, I didn’t like that at first, but that too has grown on me. There’s a nice, hypnotic rhythm about it. What gets me is just how personal that theme sounds. So fragile, so intimate and yet determined and strong. Now can you imagine why I couldn’t review this any earlier?

The main theme returns many times throughout the album. In “Picking up Arrabella Sours” it is countered by a melancholy harmonium, whilst in “Bath Time” is performed by an old piano and strings. It’s only a small string section. Big enough to lend the score some gravitas, yet small enough to retain a feeling of intimacy. “Bury Doll” is virtually all sound design, but there is something addictive about the slowly evolving soundscape. It’s all the more mesmerising knowing it’s all acoustic.

“River Crossing” features the main theme for strings and strumming guitar, whilst “Leaving Home Flashback” offers a rather eerie variation, presumably on the aeolian harp accompanied by detuned string sounds. “Travel Montage” reprises the main theme in a more ‘ethereal’ sort of way, before “It’s Abandoned” presents the main theme so differently (the length of the notes have changed) that I initially didn’t even recognise it! “Cuddy Lost” is an eerie cue for long drawn-out sounds. It’s virtually horror music. Add to that a detuned version of the main theme… it’s scarier than any of Beltrami’s horror scores! “Where’s Cuddy?” continues some of the airy sounds, though is overall more tonal. “I’ll Be Back Directly” I mentioned earlier, but I want to re-address it. It’s made up from sounds and no melodies or harmonies (well, not until the very end of the cue) – but the sounds are very interesting and feel quite unique. There’s this little drum roll combined with what sounds like a tolling bell (but it’ll be a hit on the snares of the home-made aeolian harp) and it sounds really unique. I can’t help but think that the composing process here isn’t too different from Ennio Morricone’s when he created a unique sound-world for his ‘spaghetti’ Western.

Another wistful rendition of the main theme appears in “Entering Town”. The theme is performed on piano, whilst a guitar (probably a banjo) performs a ‘galloping’ arpeggio. In “Onto the Ferry” the theme is performed on a heavily reverberated piano, before solemn strings and harmonium take centre stage. Here (and throughout the score) you can really hear all the non-musical sounds that come with playing an instrument; all the creaks and ticks from operating the harmonium. It really brings the performance to live. The main theme is again transformed for the “End Credits”. This time, the notes are placed closer together giving it a more upbeat feel. Plucking guitar and warm strings accompany the piano. The album doesn’t end there (though it probably should have) and instead concludes with a performance of the main theme on the aeolian harp, with lots of air and reverb. You can feel the wind; and the deep metallic clangs are fantastic, but it’s a rather depressing coda, considering it follows a relatively upbeat “End Credits”.

Is it any good?

Music is a very personal thing. And whilst it’s my task as a reviewer to translate a listening experience into words, this isn’t always easy (or possible). Sometimes I dislike an album, despite plenty of decent cues. And sometimes I love a score, despite a number of uncomfortable cues. “The Homesman” is one of the latter. There are a number of sound-orientated cues here that are too unpleasant for me. Luckily, for each one of those there are two cues of utter beauty. Marco Beltrami’s main theme is so simple, yet so powerful. It’s fragile and intimate, yet with a few minor tweaks it comes quite strong and upbeat. The silly thing is, I’m not a fan of guitars, banjos and not even too keen on solo violins. These are the key ingredients for “The Homesman” and yet I can’t stop listening to it. The overall style and sound of “The Homesman” is really unique; it’s striking. Beltrami recorded portions of the score outside, and you can hear (and feel) the wind blowing through the instruments. He has certainly created a unique and mesmerising soundscape for this film, with a fantastic main theme. And whilst it’s taken a little while, and for reasons that make no sense whatsoever… I absolutely adore it.

Rating [4/5]

Tracklisting

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