Music Reviews

Danger Mouse & Daneile Luppi Rome

(EMI) Buy it from Insound Rating - 7/10

It’s a pretentious concept spawned by the imagination of amateur bands and producers to gain artistic credibility: the filmless film score, the soundtrack without a movie. It pales in contrast only to the wretched world of rock opera. It seems that the pitch is to create an album that places its cards on cinematic clichés of moods and atmospheres instead of, say, actual songs. What undermines the purpose of such an egomaniacal and self-indulgent venture is the fact that artists as far back as The Doors have been managing to evoke cinematic textures within their own songs without dedicating an album solely to the idea. Nevertheless, some artists instead opt to play dress-up, don their Philip Glass hat, and set out to create the magnificent score to the imaginary cinema. And it seems like nobody aside from back-catalogue completionists ever buys such a release – and part of me wonders if even they listen to it.

I have difficulty believing that Brian Joseph Burton, the man known for almost a decade as Danger Mouse, falls in this category. After self-releasing The Grey Album, co-founding Gnarls Barkley and Broken Bells, and producing bands such as The Black Keys, Burton has built a reputation on his bona fide ear for sound. He seemed to let this particular album stay on the backburner for five years, and with a cast including Italian composer Daniele Luppi, Jack White, and Norah Jones, Rome cuts no corners. The album is a reminiscing homage to the golden age of the Spaghetti Western soundtrack, and while there’s no squinting Clint Eastwood to accompany, the authenticity is impressive. It helps that studio musicians who worked with Ennio Morricone on the real soundtracks are employed as the band, choir, and orchestra. This paired with the marriage of Buton’s late-60s psychedelic pop fixation and Daniele Luppi’s mesmerizing orchestral arrangements creates an album of lush cinematic pop that appeals not only to followers of the Danger Mouse camp, but for fans of the gun-slinging originals.

What makes Rome such a fascinating listen is the innovative move from the Sergio Leone film setting to, as Burton and Luppi apparently intended, Rome itself. Whether it’s intended to create an allegorical parallel between Rome and the Western frontier, or to Eurocentricate that frontier doesn’t matter. The product, while monotonous at times, is the Spaghetti Western taking place in Rome.  Opening track Theme of Rome showcases Luppi’s sensibilities for the overture – the Spaghetti Western theme – conjuring a setting-sun landscape over the city. Jack White then enters as the outlaw on The Rose With a Broken Neck; by offering his raw, soulful voice, he paints Rome in the bluesy sentiment of Rome’s underbelly, the secret life. His voice becomes what Henry Miller was for Paris – the yearning voice of the desperate and isolated. Two Against One and The World follow in the same fashion, the latter leaves me with the image of White and Burton riding on horseback into the setting sun (I suppose the Western cliché is inevitable). A perfect complement to Luppi’s arrangements, Norah Jones brings Rome to its sweeping highlight, Season’s Trees. Jones’s songs take sixties female pop cues with an unmistakable swagger that spins Rome in some sort of sexy Italian mystery movie madness. If White is the outlaw, Jones is undoubtedly the seductress that never quite reveals everything while at the same time luring us in with her soft elegance. The instrumentals transition well between each of White’s and Jones’s songs, leading back and forth between these two personalities. These two-minute intermissions lose a bit of their charm and tend to underwhelm towards the second half of the album.

Unfortunately, I feel Rome will be disregarded as a genre-specific side project that, if anything, showcases Burton’s  eccentricity. One has to respect him and Luppi for their ability to recreate such a shelved genre and recreate it so that it sounds not only fresh, but completely inspired. In Burton’s now classic fashion, the amount of detail, from collecting these session musicians, to the analogue recording process, is what makes Rome such an artistic success. Of course the question arises: is Rome the greatest thing 2011 will offer? Hardly. Nevertheless, I’ll vouch to name it the most ambitious album of the year. Danger Mouse’s genius lies in understanding the value of the past and how it is relevant to the present. It’s just a shame that there really isn’t all that many avenues to take this intriguing genre. His attention to detail, Luppi’s beautiful orchestration, and the attention to detail that is apparent throughout the album are what will make this as ballsy and unpretentious of an album as one can make.