CD: Young Riders, The (1989)

March 7, 2011 | By

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Rating: Very Good

Label: La-La Land Records/ Released: January 18, 2011

Tracks & Album Length: 19 tracks / (62:35)

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Special Notes: 16-page colour booklet with liner notes by composer Brian Satterwhite / Limited to 1200 copies.

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Composer: John Debney

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Review:

The success of the film Young Guns (1988) spawned not a knock-off TV series but a variation on the concept of fashionable young (male) actors playing noble, heroic, and rebellious brats in the old west, doing risky work with little financial remuneration.

John Debney’s music followed Alan Silvestri’s Young Guns combination of electronics, rock, and orchestra to bridge the gap for TV audiences wanting some old with a new, up-tempo sound, and while series fans will welcome this premiere release of music from three episodes, it’s also steeped in a pop-rock style whose age is readily evident.

Debney’s theme is catchy, but it’s also heavily used in the Pilot suite, most likely to re-emphasize various young men hungry for action coalescing into what became the Pony Express troupe. Musically, it’s the cement that bonds the men into a tough team: the sweeping melody (of which the second half owes a bit to Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire) is played on a twangy electric guitar, while acoustic guitar strumming provides a sense of excitement and urgency, and synth trumpets infer a quiet nobility to the thankless job.

In spite of the repetitious elements, the first suite does contain a few gems that made it obvious to producers why Debney was a natural fit for aggressive action and horror films. The second half of “First Ride/Apache Chase” is all thunder and rhythm, plus theme fragments traded between harmonica, electric guitar, and whistling. Being a western score, there’s a bit of dramatic exaggeration (and a mild salute to Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western music) in the form of male grunts, but the short cue does the job of creating a sense of desperation.

Also of note are quiet cues, where the instrumentation is more lean, and tension is derived from sustained bass chords, percussion taps, and bluegrass guitar – the latter a more prominent component in the electrified action cut “Escapes and Meets His Demise.”

The second suite – The Gunfighter episode, also from the first season – is a collection of generally eerie, minimalist cues largely performed by piano, acoustic guitar, and subtle synths mimicking strings and Indian vocal chants in the most basic harmonic form. This is the most atmospheric suite on the CD, and has a more natural flow without the series theme popping up every few minutes.

In the booklet’s excellent liner notes, Debney singles out Bruce Broughton’s Silverado (1985) as a major influence, and the CD’s third suite – Kansas, from the second season – is mostly orchestral, with real vocals and real strings adding greater depth and human emotion to the series’ music library.

One suspects Debney waited for the right moment to push the show’s music budget for an episode, and with the producers’ blessing (perhaps seeing his inventiveness in prior episodes), he gathered a modest-sized orchestra and went all-out for classical grandeur, sweeping melodic passages, and adapting western scoring clichés into his own creation.

“Burnt Offering/Escape” is a dramatically meaty cue, bookend by the subtle vocal lamentation “Oh, Freedom,” with the finale section switching to an aggressive brassy march that’s more evocative of Jerry Goldsmith.

To the other extreme, “The Kid & Noah/Into the Fray” is a rare switch to a more broad comedic style, with harmonica and a two-step piano motif; whereas “The Fight” recalls Elmer Bernstein’s own classic western scores, enhanced with quixotic meter chances and the coupling of circular pattern on strings and hard piano fingering.

La-La Land’s trilogy of suites suggests the series as well its composer were finding their own identities under the shadow of popular scoring and genre conventions, and although The Young Riders lasted three seasons, it provided Debney with 67 episodes to expand his skills set and move on to feature films within a few years, making a strong impression with Gunmen and Hocus Pocus (both 1993).

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© 2011 Mark R. Hasan

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External References:

IMDB Soundtrack AlbumComposer Filmography

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