What is “Cinematic”? The Wide-Screen Hook: Calexico, “Black Heart” (2003); Andrew Bird, “Opposite Day” (2005)

“Cinematic” has become a standard vocabulary item in music description, and I notice it’s attached almost without fail to Calexico, as in the “indie cinematic” or “cinematic Southwestern style” of Calexico.  What musical quality are we talking about, then?  Calexico are said to channel Enrico Morricone, who scored the famous spaghetti westerns, so maybe it’s a good, bad, and ugly sort of quality.  Maybe we like to imagine them roaming a landscape familiar from movies of that sort, since they live in the Southwest.  But I think there must be a deeper meaning of “cinematic” than “reminiscent of certain movies.”  What makes music suitable for movies in the first place?  And then suitable at the same time for an exercise in rock?

I feel moved to say “cinematic” when I hear the wonderful string-section melody hook of Calexico’s “Black Heart” on Feast of Wire, two sets of four long high notes that scrape over a sadly descending chord progression (C minor – B-flat – A-flat);[1] each starts with the super-achey, dissonant sharped fourth (F sharp in the key of C).

“Black Heart”

But wait:  “Black Heart’s” lyrics are like notes for a modern Western (“fangs are stuck inside my skin . . . watching unjust claims . . . one man’s close pursuit is another man’s last chance . . .”).  Is it the promise of a certain sort of narrative that I’m responding to as cinematic, after all?  No—I got the cinematic impression right at the start before any words had been heard.  There is something wide-screen about the melody and sound.  It sketches out a lot of space for feeling my way into  . . . something.  There are heavy nudges of conventional meaning, like the melancholy of going from C to B-flat to A-flat, yet a certain freedom is given the listener in the regular, fairly slow progression of notes (one note every two beats) without any particular melodic intrigue, in a high, thin voice.  The listener can look around, as it were—or through.  This hook would lend itself to a movie score because it’s not busy; it wouldn’t interfere with visual and narrative information but instead would frame that content and give it an overall emotional tilt, a gradient down which the audience can slide.  At the same time, the music itself gains weight by playing the role of soundtrack to something the listener feels is going on; it’s heavier in implication than a purely musical diversion.

Is this a rock move?  That’s debatable, but I think the Calexico hook has a distinguished rock ancestor in the swooping, biting melody for strings (and other things) that opens “I Am The Walrus.”

“I Am The Walrus”

In the “Walrus” hook there’s a tremendous sense of both invitation and summation.  It sounds like the main theme part of an overture, the part that makes the energy and point of the whole show run roaringly through one channel.  The Calexico hook is not so grand, and yet it isn’t just atmosphere either; it isn’t mere accompaniment; it’s a high point of a rock track.

I’m struck also by a similarity between the “Black Heart” hook and a gorgeous wide-screen melodic hook that could be considered a rock hook only by a long stretch, Andrew Bird’s whistling theme in the gentle “Opposite Day” (2005).[2]

“Opposite Day”

There’s something gentle too in Calexico’s hook.  A hard-charging melodic hook à la “Born To Run” would be too aggressive for the wide-screen feeling.  Contemplating the cinematic vistas in “Black Heart” and “Opposite Day” makes me wonder:  what sort of prison would we be in if we couldn’t access that feeling?


[1] The chords in live performances on YouTube appear to differ:  Cm –  Cm/Eb – Fm.

[2] Bird whistles it live; on the studio track it’s played by an organ, I think.  Bird’s affinity with Calexico and Morricone extends also to his joke of whistling with choral backing and Spanish guitar on “Tenuousness” (2009).

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Arrangements and Sounds, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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