I suppose that in a perfect world, producer/musician/all-around auteur Brian Burton—you know him as Danger Mouse, folks, or at least you should—would come to define the true sound of the past decade. In a sense, he kinda has: as one-half of Gnarls Barkley, his “Crazy” has become synonymous with the sort of insidious, viral, ubiquitous gross-genre smash that Outkast perfected a year prior with “Hey Ya!”, something so off-beat and yet so catchy that it couldn’t help but catch fire, and his stupendously seamless merging of Jay-Z and the Beatles into The Grey Album has ignited a whole new era of genre-bending mashups and beautiful illegal art.
But the man’s, unfortunately, a little too diverse, too esoteric to truly burn up the pop charts. Working with Cee-Lo, James Mercer, the Gorillaz, Sparklehorse—these are all terrific fringes-of-pop artists, but all a bunch of weirdos in their own right. DM has still managed to keep his career going with heapings of critical acclaim mixed with a healthy dose of crossover appeal; his latest collaboration, Rome, is garnering plenty of the former, but isn’t likely to make average joes take notice.
And there’s a reason for that: on Rome, Burton and Italian composer Daniele Luppi set out to pay homage to the spaghetti western, a very specific, niche genre of film. Problem is, unless someone is an enormous fan of both esoteric, interesting music AND a film-hungry cinephile (and while I try to be both, I can promise you that it’s a delicate balancing act), Rome could fall largely on deaf ears. I hate to say it, but when compared with DM’s other records—which largely set a gold standard for how great pop music can truly be—that may not be the worst thing.
Crafting a soundtrack for a film that doesn’t actually exist is far from a bad idea; last week, I mentioned in my Okkervil River review that, were it not for the specific lyrics, I Am Very Far sounds remarkably cinematic. But there’s an inherent difficulty in making such a project sound like something other than background music, and while Danger and Luppi are both true artistes in the realm of songcraft, they can’t quite elevate this project beyond the throwaway tag of “mood music”. Mind you, they’ve assembled a crackerjack team to make the songs sound terrific: in addition to most of the original team behind bringing Ennio Morricone’s atmospheric compositions for Sergio Leone’s classic westerns to life, Mouse and Luppi bring collabo-prone singers Jack White and Norah Jones on-board as featured vocalists. Trust me, the whole thing sounds good.
But. As I mentioned in my Okkervil River review last week, there’s often a world of difference between remarking that something sounds good and actively listening to it. Celine Dion is an exceptional singer. The guy from Train has a terrific voice. And while there’s nothing as bland and MOR as those two artists to be found on Rome, I still can’t pinpoint an occasion that I would really want to listen to it, outside of the next time I find myself weaving through the New Mexico desert at dusk. As that doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon—the Southwest is a bit of a hike from Jersey, amiright?—I may have to spin Rome a few more times just to make sure I’m not really into it, and then grudgingly set it aside.
Which is not to say that Rome doesn’t have its moments. Jack White has just the right level of vocal bravado to musically voice an old-west antihero, and his moments in the sun on “The Rose With the Broken Neck” and the terrific “Two Against One” shine nicely. And a soprano solo late in the mostly-instrumental “Roman Blue” rises and falls with ghostly transcendence, turning “Blue” into something more than a throwaway. Norah Jones isn’t quite as exciting, but she has her moments, particularly in the acoustic-spackled “Season’s Trees”, a dusky, sexy early-album standout.
The non-vocal tracks often sound great—save for the strange, out-of-place carnival-esque “The Matador Has Fallen”—but they blend a little too well, if that makes any sense. The problem is, the instrumental tracks, while fleshed out well, don’t bear any distinguishing marks. If that sounds like a knock against instrumental albums, it’s not—these aren’t distinguished, exciting, freeform tracks (modal jazz, for example), nor do they bear the pomp of, say, the best classical recordings. They’re often short and idea-based, rarely given the space to breathe and flourish. Again, it all sounds just fine—but this is mood music, nothing more.
Not that atmospherics don’t have a time and place. But given Danger Mouse’s pedigree and penchant for interesting and exciting collaborations, it seems to me like funneling this creativity—even this concept—into a bold, widescreen pop album a la St. Elsewhere (cinematic in its own right, really) could have yielded another unheralded success. As it stands, Rome is far from a blight on Burton’s storied career. I’m not saying it’s not an intriguing concept, or that it’s a poorly-made album. I’m just saying, in six months, you’re going to have to remind me that this existed.
Album grade: C+
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