Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi: “Rome”

The Rome project– a collaborative endeavor between hip-hop and pop-inclined producer Danger Mouse and Italian composer Daniele Luppi– has been gestating for half a decade now, and I confess that the allure of this enterprise has held my attention for as long as I’ve known about it, both for the concept itself as well as for the talent involved. A modern-day homage to the great Italian film scores of the 60s and early 70s– those by Ennio Morricone in particular, of course– Rome never really had any choice but to be a rather audacious and one-of-a-kind record, at least by contemporary standards. Whether a triumph or a failure, one suspected, it would at least be a true original. So that the final project would, curiously, fall somewhere almost perfectly in between– as an album that isn’t good, bad, or ugly, but is, more than anything else, just not terribly interesting— is perhaps the worst and most unexpected fate that could have befallen it, but it is still an album with some merit, if only for the footnotes. And footnotes are fine: After all, Rome always was destined to be a quirky project, so I’m content to regard it as a curiosity more than anything else.

Where it falls flat is on the level of execution, I’m sorry to say. I think there was real promise to what Danger Mouse and Luppi were trying to do here; the concept of a soundtrack in search of a film is, as far as concepts go, a rich one, and it wrought nothing but greatness for Barry Adamson on his wonderful Back to the Cat record. Like that album, Rome is fervently concerned with creating atmosphere and mood– but unlike Adamson’s fine work, I don’t know that the architects of Rome ever quite land on the kinds of songs they need to make this thing stick. Actually, there are surprisingly few songs at all; the whole thing clocks in at 35 minutes, which is by no means an unreasonable album length, but it’s oddly compact for something that seems to scream for the epic treatment, and it’s especially puzzling when you consider that many songs are recycled as brief “interludes” between the more pop-oriented vocal numbers.

This feeling of slightness carries over from the record’s length to its very execution, which really never veers very far from the province of recreation. Danger Mouse and Luppi are clearly enamored of the sound and spirit of those old soundtracks, and they capture these things very precisely here, even enlisting a number of veteran Italian classical musicians to lend the proceedings some authenticity. But their work is strictly an homage– never an interpretation. Despite a few of Danger Mouse’s token bells and whistles, the thing never really comes to bear the image of its creators, and it tends to feel like a labor of love that’s rooted in nostalgia, or worse, academia. I say this, you understand, as someone who finds the lush swells of strings here to be positively romantic, the whining organ to be supremely expressive– I simply feel like these are sounds too steeped in familiarity.

But as I said, the tarnished allure of Rome as a concept doesn’t negate some lovely moments, which come, I am almost embarrassed to admit, from its two most famous and most glamorous contributors. I am a big fan of Norah Jones, and don’t care who knows it; from the beginning I felt her classification as a “jazz” artist was undue, as her music has always hearkened to a time when genre was just a matter of tone and spirit, when jazz and country and folk and blues all existed quite comfortably under the same big umbrella. She has a truly classic kind of voice, I think, and I am ever pleased to hear her lend it to projects that allow her sultriness to flourish in a new environment, as it does here. She sings on three songs here, and I am more than sufficiently swayed by her spirited performances on “Problem Queen” and “Black,” in particular; she delivers the lyrics with a sense of rhythm and momentum that makes them work as pop songs, and she bites into the words (equal parts poetry and kitsch, I would say) like a true believer. She sells Rome‘s sepia-tinted romance.

Jack White is actually a little less convincing, I think, at least on his first track here, “The Rose with the Broken Neck”– but then, that’s a flat song to begin with, one that lacks the kind of tension or shifting momentum to really work like the Jones numbers do. He delivers a great performance on “Two Against One,” though. White also has one of those timelessly appealing kinds of voices, and hearing him sing in this context– hardly the kind of minimal backing he tends to provide for himself– is something of great interest, especially in these dark, post-White Stripes days. He reportedly composed the words to “Two Against One” while driving one day, rattling off stream-of-consciousness thoughts into a tape recorded until he arrived at something that sounded good, and the result serves as a superb example of his gifts as a lyricist; he gets the importance of the sound of the words, of the cadence, and he conjures a sense of fatalism and near-despair that fits the cinematic scope of the record quite well.

If only the rest of it lived up to White’s sense of grandeur. Rome, for its numerous virtues, is really just a very small record, something that makes precious little sense given its concept and its five-year gestation. That hardly makes it a dud, but it is, I think, a bit of a missed opportunity.

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