Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Death Valley Pizza, From the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Published in the San Diego Troubadour, June 2008)

Contrary to what you might think imaginary soundtracks can open the creative gates. Rather than restricting the musician to a particular story an imaginary soundtrack can serve as a catalyst for artistic innovation. By inventing a fictional narrative the artist can transgress musical boundaries they would otherwise be inhibited to explore as “themselves.”

This has been reinforced throughout rock history. Arguably the Flaming Lips’ best album is a faux-soundtrack. The hallmark of U2’s experimental era was Original Soundtracks 1. That album’s producer, Brian Eno, got into the act years earlier with his Music for Films series, a touchstone of his ambient work.

But their futuristic, grandiose textures are more cinematic in tone rather than theme. With Death Valley Pizza’s From the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack the theme is more important.

They do a good job with it. Themes of desperation and loneliness blanket Soundtrack, while buttressing the overarching narrative of a western. The music is distinct, meanwhile, and the instruments carry their own personality. The cry of the violin could be the anxieties of an unfaithful spouse. The light pedal steel guitar could be the unfulfilled dreams of a prospector.

But what about singer Ian Zalewski. What character is he? Maybe he’s a hardscrabble oilman or a misread, small-town pariah. Beneath his stoic vocals lies a resigned alienation that sounds pretty authentic.

You can only make guesses, however, because his lyrics are generally incoherent. Often vocals can be powerfully used as nothing more than an instrument. But in a concept album the narrative is huge and the lyrics are crucial. The better part of Zalewski’s vocals are suspended deep in his esophagus and come out in a colorless, muffled rasp.

There are some problems with the music too. The straightforward folk tunes are a little bland and a couple of the most conventional songs like “Last Laugh” approach John Mellencamp-style generica.

But even these are always saved by an inspiring guitar or mandolin lick out of nowhere. And not only do they save the songs, but they’re a testament to the band’s sheer musical skill. From the ringing harmonicas of “Yodi” to the slow-burn psychedelia of “I’m a Nut” Death Valley Pizza demonstrate that they can alternate genres seamlessly.

Predictably Soundtracks best moments are on tunes that sound like they’re from movies. The big-band weirdness of “I*T*Y*L*Y” has a mythical edge to it and the ethereal instrumental “If Wishes Were Horses” works well as an interlude.

But the best song is “Drama,” which sounds like a cue straight out of a film score. Its sweeping, symphonic melody is densely elegant, gently drifting like a lonely gust of wind over the band’s Desert Valley milieu.

None of the album is as transcendentally emotional as this piece. But despite the inconsistencies to their debut, Death Valley Pizza have to be applauded for their courage. From old-time hootenanny to space travel instrumentals, Soundtracks proves to be a thoroughly interesting, if uneven, affair.

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