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Review by Brad Green:
There’s a sparse, plaintive trumpet here that would be perfect in an old film noir. Of course then it would fill the entire soundtrack: inflecting its phrases as Sam or Phil investigate their thin leads; delivering a warning trill as they lock wits with femme fatales; and resolving back into a haunting, gentle cry as they return to their dimly lit, lonely rooms. 

But this is so-called neo-noir: a walk on the dark side of the violently sleazy rather than the romantically seedy. So we hear the trumpet only rarely and briefly, between gushes of sonic mayhem. 

Thomas Newman is at his most experimental on this score, deploying such instrumentation as “tube + amp + gain”, “resonating metals” and “layered drones”. There is very little in the way of thematic consistency, and cohesiveness relies on Newman-esq mannerisms and an unwaveringly uneasy mood. 

Aside from the trumpet and the odd snatch of lucid melody, there is no great grab for our emotions. Any entertainment value derives from the inventiveness. Each cue offers a new expression through its arrangement of timbres, usually featuring at least one tonality that is sculptured in particularly compelling fashion. 

On the first cue it is a heart-thumping bass, with a tone deeper than the Mariana Trench. Its pulse pins down the acoustic guitar runs and arpeggios that are also supported by a thin carpet of strings and sussurating percussion. Later in the score, we are assailed with short spurts of explosive guitars and backwards cymbals; and even a cliched rock riff, which has been put through the phaser-effect mill and elevated with bass and congas. 

On other occasions, moods segue rapidly. An effect that sounds like rolling mist beckons demonic voice samples and extended bursts of industrial-cum-jungle rhythms. 

Although the music consistently carries the Newman signature, on only one track do we hear his most distinctive trademark: an iterative riff of pitched percussion. In this instance, it incorporates an even more stringent dissonance and sharper edge than the American Beauty motifs. 

There is a constant shifting throughout the soundtrack between tension and relief, claustrophobia and spaciousness. Aggressive mechanical sounds are juxtaposed with a couple of laid-back cues of electric lounge jazz and noodling piano; and exotic adornments begin to emerge as the score develops. 

Wrapping over the variety is an ultra-clean guitar. We are consistently returned to its loose arpeggios, which seem played by some sad busker in a reverberant side-street. Of course there is always a surprise down the next lane. The very last cue is actually a tutorial on how to yodel! Yes, really.

All these sounds are enclosed in the demi-world of a repugnant yet strangely fascinating sub-culture. If you want to be immersed in an atmosphere of low-life, drugs and brutality then this is the score for you. Which is not quite the bad sell it might seem. It can be revealing to dive into a discomfort zone, especially when the ghost of humanity hovers over the mire; in this case embodied in that sporadic, haunting trumpet.

Published May 29, 2003

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TITLE: Salton Sea
ID: 302 065 351 2
Varese Sarabande
SCORE: Thomas Newman

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