Mark Orton’s Nebraska Soundtrack Illuminates Big-Sky Sounds

by delarue

Tin Hat guitarist Mark Orton‘s richly rustic instrumental soundtrack to the recently released Alexander Payne road movie Nebraska works clever, sometimes wry, often haunting varations on two main themes. The first is a gorgeous Old West big-sky waltz straight out of the Bill Frisell book; the second is more Lynchian. Blending deadpan wit (which sometimes veers thisclose to cornball) with a persistent unease, Orton creates a suspenseful narrative that stands on its own as an integral work, apart from the visuals. Auspiciously, this recording marks the first time the Tin Hat Trio, with Carla Kihlstedt on violin and Rob Burger on accordion – who sprang to fame with Orton for their soundtrack to Everything Is Illuminated – have appeared together in the studio since 2005. Mickey Raphael, of Willie Nelson’s band, joins them on harmonica here.

If the film, which only recently hit the theatres, is anything like the soundtrack, it’s down-home and bittersweet, with plenty of unexpected twists and turns. Alcohol seems to be involved from time to time. Orton doesn’t waste time turning the main theme into spaghetti western, Kihlstedt gamely voicing a trumpet. They take a detour into a skeletally syncopated stroll and then hit the waltz again with a lush, soaring Frisellian grandeur. Shifting strings introduce an expectant ambience and then Orton leads the band deep into the country, adding banjo and dobro against the plaintive wash of the accordion and soaring strings.

The Lynchian nocturne comes alive most ominously in an interlude with the piano and dobro; the group slowly weave and interweave their way back. Kihlstedt’s shivery whispers contrast with droll jawharp and sotto vocce dobro, leading to the score’s most wistful, epically sweeping interlude. Orton introduces a bit of Romany jazz on the pensively dancing Night of the Skeptic, which quickly diverges into ghostly, swirling noir terrain. Tragicomic accents from the guitars give way to disquiet and then a rich confluence of the two themes. The score recedes with a sepulchral, hauntedly spacious piano miniature before it comes full circle and concludes with a dobro-driven version of Green Green Grass of Home (which is not on the album but available as a single at itunes).