Mick Harvey is the “quiet” Bad Seed. Blixa Bargeld is scarier looking, Warren Ellis fronts the consistently awesome Dirty Three, and Nick Cave is, more or less, the second coming of Leonard Cohen. But Harvey may very well be the soul of the Bad Seeds’ post-goth, post-folk, post-whatever sound. (Just where the fuck did you think all those glockenspiels and vibraphones came from?) Since Harvey is a master of atmospherics, but not a noteworthy songwriter (much of his solo catalog is made up of album-length homages to Serge Gainsbourg), it’s only natural he would gravitate toward film scoring.
Motion Picture Music ‘94-‘05 is a collection of odds n’ sods (his award-winning soundtrack to Australian Rules is already available in its entirety elsewhere), and though disjointed in its sequencing—that is, paying disregard to when these tracks were recorded or when the films were released—the record feels like a complete piece. Not having seen any of the films from which these tracks were drawn, Motion Picture Music strikes me as a kind of tone poem that flows between wraithlike ambience reminiscent of Brian Eno’s work to a clangy approximation of gypsy-punk that’s like a mellower rendition of Goran Bregovic’s soundtracks for Amir Kusturica’s films.
The self-explanatory tracks “Two Guitars” and “Three Guitars” from the film Lighting Fires frame the first half of Motion Picture Music. Most of Harvey’s compositions are simplistic in their execution and evocative in their end results and it’s this type of gentle creepiness that Eno had in mind when he said that some music should be as ignorable as it is interesting. Relying almost exclusively on harmonics, Harvey sets a remarkably moody scene. Other than “Noise/Fire,” a feedback freakout from Lighting Fires, the only signs of Harvey’s rock background come from the selections from the international production Go For Gold. The Eastern-European stomps are fleshed out with Warren Ellis’s accompaniment on fiddle and accordion and, on “The Farewell Song,” Nick Cave’s vocals. By closing the album with these tracks, perhaps the implication is that Harvey’s day job is an albatross he just can’t shake, but I’ll leave that query to other listeners. Regardless, “The Farewell Song” will rank low in the Cave canon—well below other soundtrack contributions like The Proposition‘s “Rider Song” or Cave’s collaboration with Shane Macgowan on “What A Wonderful World.”
But as with all film scores, the real question is whether or not the album works as “good background music” (code for “sucks”) or if it’s “nearly symphonic” (code for “occasionally makes me stop wishing there were vocals”). Motion Picture Music falls in between—it actually is good background music, like what you might hear riding an elevator if you lived inside a J.G. Ballard short story. Plus, it’s tough to critique an album for insignificance or even tedium when it is so self-consciously a minor curiosity, so even the way Motion Picture Music overstays its welcome is a kind of asset. The album is unlikely to attract viewers of the obscure documentary Lighting Fires or the film festival shorts and features Sparrow and Rosehill, or for that matter, anyone other than Bad Seeds fanatics. By a fanatic’s standards, Motion Picture Music is inessential; by anyone’s, it’s occasionally excellent.