Brian Burton is a busy man. Known by his pseudonym, Danger Mouse, he has been a mainstay in the music industry ever since he mashed together The Beatles’ White Album with Jay’s Z’s The Black Album to much acclaim in 2004. Since then he has produced albums for The Black Keys, Beck and Gorillaz while also becoming one half of Gnarls Barkley (with Cee Lo Green) and Broken Bells (with James Mercer of The Shins).
While Danger Mouse can be frequently spotted creating and producing hip-hop and indie-rock, he has a strong affinity for the Italian cinema scores of the late 1960s and early 1970s, (think Ennio Morricone’s oft-imitated soundtrack of Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly) that stemmed from taking a film course his freshman year of college. Danger Mouse’ adoration for composers such as Morricone, Piero Umiliani and other stalwarts of Italian cinema ultimately fostered his friendship with the Italian producer and Rome co-creator, Daniele Luppi. Soon after meeting each other, Luppi and Danger Mouse became enamored with the idea of creating their very own Italian soundtrack masterpiece and after a half-decade of work, the final product, Rome (a record that Danger Mouse says influenced all his other work for the past five years), is finally out to the public.
Not wanting to skimp on any aspect of the album, Danger Mouse and Luppi did everything possible to preserve the sounds of those classic Italian scores. The two booked Morricone’s Forum Studios in Rome, collected a wealth of vintage instruments and recruited the very same musicians who contributed to the soundtracks that Danger Mouse and Luppi so admire. The pair also pulled some strings to reunite Cantori Moderni di Alessandro Alessandroni – a choir that was commonplace in Morricone scores – as well as 76-year-old Edda Dell’Orso – another favorite of Morricone and Sergio Leone – who provides atmospheric vocals on Rome’s opening track. In an interview with The Guardian, Danger Mouse commented on the bringing together of such musicians, saying, “First day, they all came in and you could tell it was the first time they had been in the same room for a long time. They were hugging, some tears. But then, about two hours in, they’re all yelling at each other.” These veteran musicians, now in their 70s and 80s, provide the life and authenticity of this album.
Danger Mouse’s Ocean’s Eleven recruitment strategy continued as the brilliant workhorse Jack White and the delicate Norah Jones were enlisted to contribute vocals. The highlights of this album are Jack White’s three tracks. “The Rose With The Broken Neck,” the album’s first real song, is superb as a familiar higher-voiced Jack White duets with an unfamiliar sounding, lower-pitched Jack White. “The World” is another standout featuring an almost nervous sounding White. However, White’s strongest number and the album’s best track is the fast-moving, all-too-short, “Two Against One.” Starting with clean guitar, White’s impressive fast-talking lyrics and a playful harpsichord soon take over before the song ends much too quickly. Normally we hear White’s voice in front of the bluesy garage-rock of The White Stripes, the gloomy macabre of the Dead Weather and the 70s rock-pop of the Raconteurs; rarely do we get the pleasure of hearing him accompanied by the sweeping and eclectic sounds of an orchestra, and this makes Rome a delight to listen to.
While Norah Jones’ numbers aren’t quite as spellbinding as White’s, “Black,” “Season’s Trees” and “Problem Queen” are all very strong and interesting in their own right and suit her perfectly raspy voice.
Rome is a joy to listen to as we are treated to a multitude of rare instruments. The album’s three short interludes are surprisingly captivating and certainly add to the cinematic feel of the album. With that said, the album can drag a bit due to some uninteresting instrumentals, however, the strength of Rome’s lyrical tracks and interludes allow listeners to forgive these less interesting moments.
Rome sets the imagination wild by evoking the harsh desert terrain, black-clad baddies and unkempt facial hair of any Clint Eastwood western. However, no matter how entertaining the album is, Rome’s best moments can never reach the cinematic spiraling highs of an Ennnio Morricone score. Ultimately, Rome is a quality record that arose out of ambitious project to pay tribute to the greatness of Italian cinema soundtracks and it certainly delivers. Bravo, Danger Mouse, bravo.
– Lucien Flores, Music Editor