Thomas Newman almost always scores good films, not a bad typecast. However, not all of them are American Beauty famous and for every Finding Nemo or Scent of a Woman, there are a handful of The Salton Sea's which garner great reviews, but pass under the popularity radar. Val Kilmer stars as a drug dealer and jazz trumpeter, giving an impressive performance in a disturbing, but fascinating look at the seedier side of society. Sort of Trainspotting, but with meth instead of heroin. The lead character's legitimate job obviously makes an ideal case for a jazz based score, but this is a Thomas Newman score and not a languid Mark Isham effort. So, while there are a smattering of jazz trumpet based cues, performed by the renowned Terence Blanchard, much of the score is full of disturbing sonorities and weird instrumentation that only a Newman effort can provide.
To be honest, The Salton Sea is the kind of score where picking highlights or even picking out recurring motifs is tricky. There are a number of cues with angry synthetic bass lines, notably the opening Perpetual Night Party. These often include various electric guitars, either George Doering's Vox or Rick Cox's processed electric guitar, as well as Chas Smith's prepared pedal steel guitar. The processed electric guitar produces a particularly grungy atmosphere, making the film's atmosphere tangible through music. Some reviews have commented on the score having a far eastern feel, due to the sitar and mandolin, but these are used in such a manner that they don't really strongly suggest a location and are just used for their particular and distinctive sound. Even the quieter cues are a little difficult to take with strange mixtures of instruments (an extensive selection is listed on the packaging) and the most normal are often despairing in tone. The highlight of these is undoubtedly One Red Hair, which has a slightly oriental and dreamlike quality that is as fetching as the score gets.
The CD finishes with a 41 second clip from a CD on How to Yodel. I've no idea why, but with Thomas Newman, it's often best not to know. The other non Newman cue is Saeta, a downbeat, but sublime trumpet solo, again performed by Blanchard. While I expected something quite downbeat, I did expect a little more jazz and a little less grunge, but The Salton Sea is generally the right side of listenable. It certainly isn't the kind of score that's easy to enjoy, as such, but neither is it as impenetrable as In the Bedroom, for example. There are moments that are undeniably powerful, but I fear some may find the journey through the difficult material too much to take.