18 May, 2011

Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi - Rome

Today I’m going to talk about vanity projects and music, using Danger Mouse’s latest record as an example of the benefit and problem of this topic.   A collaboration with Italian composer/arranger Daniele Luppi, this album’s concept is laid out within its title.  Rome is a scarily accurate summation of the music of Italian film composers and pop confectionaries, gliding on a mood of classic Sixties and Seventies nostalgia.  Your mileage may vary depending on how appealing you find that description to be. 
A little context is needed for this review.  Brian Burton, a.k.a. “Danger Mouse,” began his career as a composer of instrumentals for rap albums and gained fame in 2004 for his powerful remix The Grey Album, which combined a cappella versions of Jay Z’s The Black Album with the Beatles’ classic White Album.  This notoriety gained the attention of many tastemakers, and after he produced records for Gorillaz and MF Doom (the brilliant The Mouse and the Mask), Danger Mouse teamed up with former Goodie Mob rapper-cum-singer Cee-Lo Green to form Gnarls Barkley.  The band exchanged tracks and vocals through e-mail, they released the inescapable hit “Crazy” in 2006, and the rest is history.  Thus, having earned the right to be as strange as possible, Danger Mouse signed on with Luppi to realize a dream of creating his own soundtrack to the movies he plays in his head, and they all happened to be spaghetti Westerns (As if the music wasn’t clue enough to this, the song titles include “The Gambling Priest” and “The Matador Has Fallen”).  To achieve this dream, DM/DL recruited many surviving musicians of Ennio Morricone compositions to bring authenticity to the proceedings.  Danger Mouse has also recruited Jack White and Norah Jones into the fold to appeal to as many people as possible…I mean, to help realize specific aspects of his dream.  If this album had a cool quotient, its VU meter would be spiking hard red, and sunburned partygoers could probably play this to provide air conditioning when the Freon evaporates out of the SUV this year. 

A lot of context is needed for this music.  There’s very rarely a single that emerges out of the mix, and the album is content to rest on its atmosphere.  For some people, White’s vital contributions to “Two Against One” (a possible banger for the Raconteurs if Danger will let them have it) and “The Rose with the Broken Neck” (a lost Tarantino track from Kill Bill Volume 2) shows how organic the mix is.  Elsewhere, Jones brings a sultriness to the proceedings that could soothe the biggest beast, and believe me that I mean that oh so politely.  What she does with her voice on “Season’s Trees” and “Black” makes the songs the afterglow of a summer’s day in a villa, connoting images of the sunset just barely hanging on before one gets the call to go to the party next door.  Almost all of the other tracks are successful in evoking the sounds of Ennio Morricone. 

It’s only appropriate that we discuss how music has allowed for albums like Rome in many different ways, often creating places where the artist feels free to let their wildest impulses emerge.  The democratization of the Internet allows for a disparate variety of sounds on our music players now, and we are no longer constrained to liking only what can be found on our radios or televisions.  These choices similarly allow us to make all of the wildest choices that we can, and of course we all go wild.  Today our music is much more diverse, and we choose to listen to different things all of the time. 

There’s nothing wrong with thinking this, except that this is a complete lie.  Our tastes are partly determined by our social status, at least according to Pierre Bourdieu.  While I’m doing Msr. Bourdieu a disservice by breaking his argument down so much, the fact remains that part of our social status comes through our choices in popular arts and entertainment.  If there was ever a record that was supposed to connote cool, this was it.  I’m not complaining about bands that attempt to make cool-sounding records – I’m a fan of the Smashing Pumpkins and the Cars, for crying out loud! – but what I will say is that the album doesn’t surprise, and as such may not fulfill the larger pop ambitions DM seemed to have when he brought Jones and White into the mix.  You can see the larger pop album that could have emerged from their songs, but instead there is the soundtrack to a movie that only exists in DM’s head and through his fan tributes on YouTube (Claudia Cardinale is probably going to have her part from Once Upon a Time In the West turned into “Problem Queen” by a friend of mine.  You know who you are, and please do this fast).  I find it hard to imagine people listening to this and not showing it off because of how “cool” it is, but I don’t think that people who listen to it and don’t like it are “uncool.”  We live in a time where Internet opinions often vacillate between extremes and absolutes; either you like something or you hate it.  For me, this record occupies a middle ground, and I’m not sure that can be accepted in today’s hyperreal cultural/critical climate.  While I like the album, I think that there’s plenty of potential that has been squandered in making this because of the lack of hooks, and I wonder if that’s a problem with all vanity projects.  Sometimes the cultural cache of an artist will make them believe that what they are creating is an automatic commercial success, yet I don’t believe that is the case with this release. 

But this is a pet project still, and not an album proper.  It sounds great and sustains a mood, which already makes it streets ahead of Dogstar and Salty the Pocketknife, yet those who go in with expectations of greatness will be disappointed.  Make no mistake, what we are going through in this album is a continuation of the latest Fleet Foxes album, which is a move towards a classic, specific style of production.  While Fleet Foxes attempts to capture the spirit of the Beach Boys and Gram Parsons with the Pete Seeger Band, Rome is a deliberate attempt to construct the sound of a spaghetti western, an Italian moment of bravado and cool that will sound so good coming out of speakers where both men in suits and those wearing girl jeans can reference the coolness of the track. 

I don’t hear anything that will necessarily surprise me on this record, but that’s the point.  It evokes a specific place and time, and does not emerge as a product of now, but rather of the past.  But in looking to the past, the lack of excitement I feel for this record comes from its release as an early summer gift.  The sound belongs to the end of the party, not the beginning of it. 

Put simply, Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi have released an album that is less interested in impressing us with surprises and more interested in fitting into a groove.  If you are wired to love this music, then there will be much to enjoy, and casual listeners can find the atmosphere inviting, even if they leave without anything sticking in their heads.  Really, there’s nothing missing except surprise, and the surprise came from the fact that one of the hottest producers on the planet actually made an entire album based on the bass line of his biggest hit.  But what “Crazy” had that other songs didn’t was Cee-Lo, a vocalist and lyricist that wasn’t afraid to go beyond the music and provide something that was out of control, lighting a fire under his partner and producer.  Here, everything is cool, contained and controlled; for some, that will be reason to pick up this music.  For others, the lack of fire may be off-putting. 


Eric Lahm said...

"If this album had a cool quotient, its VU meter would be spiking hard red, and sunburned partygoers could probably play this to provide air conditioning when the Freon evaporates out of the SUV this year."


I haven't had a chance to listen yet, but this piece brings up another great topic, top 10 "cool" albums?

I'd like to throw Robert Plant & Alison Kraus into the mix with Raising Sand.

Great read as always my friend

Christopher.baldwin919 said...

I did not know anything about this album before I began reading your review...holy shit, how did I not hear or know about this? Rome sounds so "right up my alley" it's ridiculous. I' m excited to give this a listen and post my thoughts. Your review was as well written and compulsively readable as I’ve come to expect, however, it did manage to get my expectations for the album in check. Going to go find this and listen to it right away. More to come!