Getting Killed in NYC: David Holmes and a Truly "Cinematic" Musical Journey
It becomes clear only moments into 1997's Let's Get Killed that David Holmes is painting an affectionate portrait of an environment. A field noise recording of a NYC denizen fades out with him proclaiming that "New York is the best…[it has] anything you want" and "My Mate Paul" begins its Latin-flavored shuffle of vibraphones and keys punctuated by several moments of psych-rock freakout. If you happen to have this in your headphones as you amble through the mean streets of New York, then you have the perfect aural companion for your day. If you are the kind of listener who engages with music by opening yourself up to the tone and flavor of it, then you have likewise hit the jackpot. Let's Get Killed is a perfect soundtrack for a great many activities and moods, and the reason it serves that purpose so well is that it achieves a quality usually described by critics as "cinematic".
Cinematic is an adjective that garnered new prominence in the late 90's and has only gained momentum since, as instrumental and/or sample-heavy music has become more than a mere novelty and made its way into peoples' listening habits with more frequency. But what does it really mean? Which is to say, what does that description impart to someone who may not be "in the know" or familiar with what's being described? Is it simply that the music would fit well into a film or alongside some other accompanying visual media? I think that kind of logic, while often true, has the side effect of diluting the potentially transcendental quality of the music if applied indiscriminately, making it seem as though the music's sole, or optimum, purpose is to provide sound for images - let's try a little harder.
I have always thought of LGK as a kind of love letter to New York City. Holmes traveled from Northern Ireland to New York and walked around documenting his experience of the city on a tape recorder - street noise, conversations, bucket drummers, freestyle rapping, and impromptu monologues were all fair game, and they all make appearances on the album. In Holmes' own words:
"I've always been into soundtracks…I decided to go down that path...I became addicted to the city. It became an addiction."
(quoted from Lizzy Goodman's oral history, Meet Me In The Bathroom)
As a known crate-digger and successful DJ in the UK, he used this inspiration to craft a mood album that succinctly captured the specific vibe of a time and place. Across the album these interludes play out during and in-between the songs, a collage of instrumentation and humanity that shows both Holmes' keen ear for musicality and his skill for connecting all these elements together thematically. In a very real way, the album is itself a "film" for the ears - without the need for imagery, it transports the listener to a city sidewalk as the streetlights flicker to life and the dusk turns to nighttime.
Holmes largely sidesteps the prevailing trends of the time on Let's Get Killed, specifically the "big beat" sounds that were bubbling up elsewhere in the UK. Fatboy Slim, The Propellerheads, Chemical Brothers, and others were all using DJ culture and sampling to construct floor-shaking anthems from the remnants of bygone eras, but where they tended to lean heavily on bass and percussion to create danceable breaks and repetitive phrases to engender earworms, Holmes provided a cabalistic sense of atmosphere instead - call it "dance music for the sitting room" - with the notable exception of the title track, which is stuffed full of drum hits even though its tempo is middling, the overall effect being one of claustrophobic tension that works deliciously well. "Freaknik" also gives in to the dance-friendly vibe of big beat, but it first gives the listener a great story about the Continental Club and a protagonist on a soapbox who doesn't mosh - file this dude under "Things We Didn't Realize We Needed And Could Never Have Truly Deserved", easily one of my favorite samples of all time.
Elsewhere, Holmes repurposes a motif lifted directly from James Bond himself: "Radio 7" gives a strutting, balls-to-the-wall rendition of 007's iconic theme song and offers a recontextualization in the process. Years before the Daniel Craig reimagining of an emotionally-stunted superspy in pain, Holmes gives us the James Bond theme and then asks, "But what if it weren't that?". Keys and brass swing in and out while lush strings and guitar keep everything anchored, but the drums go directly off the rails making for something altogether more off-kilter that equals much more than the sum of its parts.
Meanwhile "Slashers Revenge" unleashes a snarling bass-centered melody. Amidst Buena Vista Social Club-style guitar jabs and an accordion that wouldn't be out of place on Gorillaz first record (credit to the late Ibrahim Ferrer for his contributions to both groups), bass roars from the background to take center stage and give rise to the most foreboding song on the LP. The track is a nightmare: walking down an alley, smelling dumpsters, hearing clanging and train horns off in the distance, all underpinned by the growing feeling that the alley was a mistake - and just when the dread of an unseen threat seems inescapable, a car crash in the distance distracts your (imaginary?) pursuers and allows you to flee.
I originally bought this album because I loved the cover and the title, which is objectively a silly reason to buy a piece of music, but I stand by my younger self since he knew the value in taking a calculated risk (and since there was no Internet to scour back then). I knew nothing about it at the time except that it was filed in the "Electronica" section at a local music store - a section that was pretty small back then, especially in Kansas - and that the label was Go! Beat, which I was familiar with by name from other releases. Over the following months and years, I got very familiar with it and was transported every time I listened to a version of New York that only existed during the time between the pressing of the "Play" and "Stop" buttons on my CD player. I would argue that this is the definition of "cinematic" - when the music alone can give you an approximation of imagery without the need for it to fit in with some other visually-centered product.
My love for it opened me up to other acts. Label mates Portishead were already pretty famous in their own right, and they were also notable for reasons similar to Holmes: sampling, turntablism, dark subject matter, etc. Death In Vegas released Dead Elvis in the same year, which was in many ways cut from the same cloth as Let's Get Killed - where Holmes gravitated toward atmospheric tautness and eclecticism, DIV's Richard Fearless often featured prominent driving rock guitar, dub, and Eastern influences, creating a kind of big-tent revivalism out of the push-and-pull between those elements. And it goes without saying that DJ Shadow's 1996 debut, Endtroducing….., is arguably the godfather of this particular strain of music, indisputable proof of concept when it comes to spinning the straw of rescued vinyl into the gold of mesmerizing and mood-inducing instrumentals.
It's no surprise that David Holmes went on to partner with Steven Soderbergh for several films after LGK, listening to how a track like "Gritty Shaker" works so well both in the context of the album and that of Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven update, albeit in a slightly remixed version, proves that the collaboration between the two artists is a match made in silver screen heaven. By putting film work on his resumé, Holmes was able to make the lateral move from an artist creating "cinematic" music to an artist making music specifically for the cinema, and the film world has been all the better for it.
One thing that is clear is that the term "cinematic", as a descriptor, is not leaving our vocabulary anytime soon. It is an easy catch-all for describing something that can be, frankly, quite difficult to describe - even so, I tend to shudder when I see any music described that way. I would never say it doesn't have its purpose, just that it tends to be something we can say and then walk away from without having to put in too much more thought - in that sense there is a dismissive quality to it. So if you, like me, have found yourself dismayed by the overuse of this word in the music lexicon and are wondering what it even means anymore, I suggest a few spins of Let's Get Killed. Not only does David Holmes create a rich conceptual universe within it that fully lives up to the adjective, but he was making "cinematic" music before much of the world had picked up on what that could really mean - and he did it better than most.