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Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
Lawless (Soundtrack) Maria Schurr , September 21st, 2012 03:41

That Nick Cave is master of all things is pretty general knowledge these days. True, we have never seen Cave try his hand at any of  the sciences, but if the Krent Able's Stool Pigeon comic 'Doctor Cave, M.D.' is to be believed, the man can amputate like no other. Musically, Cave is known for nailing endeavors that lesser musicians could only dream of accomplishing. Take, for example, the The Bad Seeds mini-offshoot Grinderman producing two albums of material stronger than recent Bad Seeds releases. Now, along with his MVP Warren Ellis, Cave has upped the ante on the pair's soundtrack work with Lawless, the latest release from director John Hillcoat.

Unlike Cave and Ellis' scores for Hillcoat's The Proposition, The Road, and Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Lawless – about a trio of brothers embroiled in the bootlegging business – consists primarily of covers sung by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Mark Lanegan, and bluegrass great Ralph Stanley. Although the Stanley inclusion may be lost on a lot of moviegoers and even Cave fans, coercing this living legend – who rarely performs songs outside of his chosen genre – to cover such anachronistic choices as Captain Beefheart and The Velvet Underground was a major coup.

A number of films have gone for integrating contemporary tunes into period pieces, but few do it in a way that makes adequate sense. This, though, is a triumph. Grandaddy's 'So You'll Aim For the Sky' (delivered beautifully by Emmylou Harris) becomes a gauzy elegy and The Velvet Underground's 'White Light/White Heat' morphs into an ode to moonshine. The latter song gets interpreted twice, once by Stanley accompanied by acoustic guitar, then again by Lanegan and The Bootleggers, a makeshift band comprised of Cave, Ellis, Bad Seeds and Grinderman bassist Martyn P. Casey, composer David Sardy, and Groove Armada's George Vjestica. Although Stanley's turn is a novel one, the Lanegan et. al. version is a triumph by achieving the incalculable coolness factor promised just by learning of its inclusion on the album's tracklisting.

As with song selections, the voices called upon for Lawless were picked with care. When Lanegan sings Captain Beefheart's 'Sure 'Nuff  'N Yes I Do', he sounds like Beezlebub luring innocent girls into his tricked out Cadillac; Harris' lovesickness on the Cave and Ellis original, 'Cosmonaut' is almost palpable; and Stanley's turns are authentically weathered enough to keep this soundtrack from venturing into O Brother, Where Art Thou? territory. Cave assumes vocal duties once, on a scungy version of John Lee Hooker's 'Burnin' Hell', and Willie Nelson gets the last word with the heretofore unreleased 'Midnight Run'.

Although this critic has yet to see Lawless, mixed reviews have painted it as another step towards Hollywood. Having Cave and Ellis to ground the soundtrack remains a good thing; the marriage of big names and unexpected interpretations perfectly hitches the the Hollywood movie score to something far cooler. If and when Mr. Cave opens his optometry practice, I’ll be first in line.