ALBUM REVIEW: William Tyler – ‘Music From First Cow’: chiming soundtrackery from Tennessee gent

IT SHOULDN’T really come as a surprise to anyone who has followed William Tyler’s solo career, or heard him give the background to any of his seductive, chiming guitar odysseys, that the day would come when he moved into soundtrackery – and perhaps particularly, the soundtracks for a well-made film about the old Americas.

He has a self-confessed love of places with resonance, history, atmosphere. Over here in the UK, back in 2014, he played in Winchester Cathedral and I remember him telling me he was really looking forward to that one the night before; and take a look at his full Merge debut from 2010, The Impossible Truth.  

On that chiming, spell-casting album, you’ll find tracks such as “Oahspe”, which is named for an alternative Bible, supposedly automatically written in the early 1880s by Ohio dentist John Ballou Newbrough; and “Missionary Ridge”, composed about the Civil War battleground in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

There’s even his espousal of Heaven’s Gate, the once-infamous, United Artists-scuppering western epic from Deerhunter director Michael Cimino; so many millions over-budget, it now reads like a rapturous elegy for a golden-lit Old West. So a twinning of creative forces with director Kelly Reichardt for her new film, First Cow, seems an obvious marriage of talent.

The release schedules for both the audio and the visual components of this project, like so much this year, has been fractured into shards by the virus. The film is just receiving an American digital release; William’s soundtrack has been quietly available in the same format for a month or two (it’s now gaining its physical release on vinyl).  The film, as yet, carries no European release date, but its appearance on the festivals circuit is at least pencilled in. Should such conventions happen, of course.

Let’s synopsise the film quickly, given the synthesis of the album we’re concerned with: set in the Pacific Northwest in the early 19th century, a loner and skilled cook joins a group of fur trappers in Oregon, bonding with a Chinese immigrant; soon the two collaborate on a successful business, although its longevity is reliant upon the clandestine participation of a nearby wealthy landowner’s prized milking cow: the first cow.

For British cineastes, there’s roles for Ewen Bremner of Trainspotting and Naked fame, as well as the redoubtable Toby Jones, of Berberian Sound Studio and Detectorists.

‘K. So we’ve reached the ford where smoke curls lazily from the frontier trader’s store. We’ve exchanged furs for the essentials, and we’ve also picked up William Tyler’s latest. It’d be rude not to. So what did we get for our hard-won bounty?

The first thing to note is William, southern gent that he is, is entirely in service to the film. Opener “First Cow In The Territory” is a wonderfully raggedy-ass raw banjo sketch, skeletal, and like it’s been captured by Alan Lomax many long years back. It blends with dialogue and is gone.

It’s not until “An Opening” that the real shimmering majesty of William’s studied, evocative six-string warmth really lofts. It has all that meditative, receptive beauty that makes his music such a joy. 

The big centrepiece of the album is “The Separation”, all seven minutes of it; it evolves and creates itself in front of our eyes. A frail melody picks into being, hammers on, is joined on its journey by bass notes; gains strength. You know you are in the safest of hands on your journey with William, a man who knows the beauty of economy and then beauty of bounty. There’s a full few seconds of absolute silence near the middle, when the mood changes; hereon it’s all resonance, strings struck and humming and dying away, every last burr allowed its life. Strings rasp, soundboards click. You’re inside this one.

And then … it reprises, gains energy, the early melodic figure now vivacious and full. It’s segued into its second movement, “A Closing”. A resolution, upbeat, striding forward.

It’s not a full, if you will, William Tyler album; as I’ve said above, it is a step into another world. I’ve included the trailer for First Cow so you can see that marriage in action. But for all and any melodicism from his table we should be, and are, thankful. Your collection of his majesty would be naggingly incomplete without this. 

Willam Tyler’s Music From First Cow is available now for digital download, and will be available on vinyl from July 31st; order your copy here.

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