Will Oldham, Ode Music, 2000

Ode Music is the soundtrack to a film called Ode by Kelly Reichardt released in 1999. It’s about two southern kids who meet at a bridge in order to consummate their forbidden love. At some point, the boy jumps off the bridge and dies. The movie asks why? Apparently, it has something to do with religious autocrats trying to prevent the couple’s relationship. Oldham worked on the music with his brother Paul, using looping techniques learned from Mick Turner, of the Dirty Three, presumably from when they recorded the Get On Jolly EP. It’s difficult to know how to write about instrumental music. I suppose one describes it briefly, offers some suggestions for what kind of emotions one hears in the melodies, and maybe even hints at possible narratives embedded in the music. Mostly these songs are all simple or not-so-simple guitar arpeggios with slightly melancholy tunes, repeating trancey-type stuff. It is quite nice to listen to. You hear certain motifs repeating, circulating through the music, and as the numerical song titles suggest, this is more like a suite of pieces that are all connected. The pieces aren’t played too smoothly; they tend to be a little stilted, sometimes to the point where you wonder, ‘was that a fumble I just heard?’ But even if they are fumbles, they seem to get built into the motif and start to sound natural. There are huge silent spaces between the tracks too.

Ode #1… is by far the longest piece here. A simple arpeggio on acoustic guitar, descending three chords and returning on the fourth, with a faint keyboard hum that starts up and gets loud enough to lie alongside the guitar. It’s a pretty melody, of even emotional keel, neither sad nor happy, though definitely thoughtful, pensive. It repeats, and repeats, until it sort of merges into quite a pleasant mood. The keyboard really helps keep the thing together, and there’s a single bass note plucked on every third beat. Another guitar part, just faint multi-string plucks, joins after about three minutes, and the keyboard hums include soft piano-like notes. It all suggests, in the context of the film, this couple walking, wandering somewhere, and maybe getting intimate. The main arpeggio eventually simplifies and the keyboard becomes fainter but more dissonant, inharmonious, but slowly drifting away until…silence.

Ode #2… also has a pretty melody, with a basic tune, and variations on that. This is one where it sounds like there’s a mistake being made, but the guitarist plays the same thing every time, so one assumes it’s deliberate. That little ‘mistake’ really affects how you perceive the tune. The main arpeggio plays a downward tune, and just when it sounds like it’s coming together, f’kumbl’elj, the fingers lose it, and the song ever so briefly falls apart. Once again, there’s a low shimmering keyboard-string sound hovering away in the background, rising and falling in volume. This piece has a real pastoral vibe, mostly cheerful sounding.

Ode #3…  is much less melodic, a couple of different arpeggios played on the lower strings with the thumb, or something like that. The keyboard is louder, hovering again, more of an organ tone. The mood is slightly more somber, and slower, and the guitar playing is far less regular or consistent. A short one.

Ode #4… by now all melody is pretty much gone. This time we’ve got a four-note arpeggio played in a minor key, repeated over and over, a tune that holds itself aloof, holds you in its grip, anticipating that it’s going to change but doesn’t. While that repeats, the keyboardist plays a series of descending softened piano notes. The mood here is one of tension, uncertainty, expectation. The piano notes die away, the guitar gets slightly rawer sounding as it fades out…

Ode #1… and a reprise of the main theme, exactly as it was heard on the first track, that descending arpeggio, with a little bit of audible fret-buzz, and that slightly ominous keyboard, slowly rising in from behind. This is also quite pastoral, although the keyboard suggests nature, sun rising over ice-sheets, vast vistas of snow capped mountains, careering silently over deserts, that sort of new age vibe. I can’t really tell what’s happening in the story from hearing this. It’s very much in the mode of mood music rather than dramatic or narrative allusion.

Ode #1b… starts in media res as if the record hadn’t actually stopped while you turned it over, and so it’s simply a continuation of the main “Ode #1” theme again. I guess this theme belongs to the couple, or the boy, or maybe the girl. You could imagine it being used in the film during a reverie, a non-dialogue segment of longing looks, holding hands, sunlight catching the camera lens and blurring the visuals. The second guitar joins the main one for some harsher plucking and for very brief moments the strings ring in unison with that sitar effect.

Ode #2a… is a reprise of “Ode #2” from Side One. This is the easily the most melodic one, with a jaunty little melody that gets played twice, crumbles and is followed by a two note motif before returning back up to its starting point. Again, you can imagine fields, haystacks, a tractor, back porch guitarist, summer et al. Fades out.

Ode #5… is the first strummed piece. The recording quality is crisp and raw enough to suggest the player, his hand, his fingernails or pick hitting the strings. It’s just two chords, being strummed in a regular pattern, mid-tempo. Kind of repetitive, and again, very even, such that I couldn’t really guess what might be happening with our star crossed lovers at this point. Perhaps the grumpy old minister and his incensed congregation are bearing down on them.

Ode #3a… reprises that much looser, slow, slightly more arbitrary sounding piece, not quite regular or symmetrical, with deeper notes, although this piece seems necessary in here to offset the sweetly repeating notes of the more upbeat tunes. This one gets cut off suddenly at about the two minute mark.

Ode #4a… and pretty much the exact same track as on Side One, those four slightly discordant notes being played in succession to give this a real shadowy feel, slightly sad, disconsolate, until the keyboard whines in ever so faintly from the background supplementing the guitar to give the piece a more consummated feel. It’s all tenuous sounding stuff though, as once again, the piece sort of weakens and as it fades, even sounds like it’s disintegrating, and stop. Another abrupt ending.

Probably not the most essential piece of Will Oldham vinyl out there, but it has its charms. If you can play by ear, it might be fun to learn these tunes I suppose. Oldham would revisit the same kind of style for his soundtrack to a documentary in 2004, Seafarers Music.

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About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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