The film music of composer Ennio Morricone includes some of the most powerful and memorable compositions of modern times, particularly his ringing, stinging soundtracks devised for the classic Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns, where his music underscored gunfights, hangings, and dizzying chases for a fortune in gold. However, the great Italian maestro also has a much more gentle side, evident in his delicate, string-laden romantic scores for movies such as Malena and Cinema Paradiso. That lesser-known cache of sonic riches was clearly the inspiration for Rome, a fascinating collaborative concept album by Danger Mouse (a.k.a. Brian Burton of R&B duo Gnarls Barkley, pop-rock act Broken Bells, etc.) and Italian artist Daniele Luppi (whose much-admired 2004 debut An Italian Story employed many of Morricone’s regulars).
Nevertheless, it’s hard not to envision Eli Wallach running in circles amid Civil War graves when, just 45 seconds into the album-opening “Theme of Rome,” the majestic voice of Edda dell’Orso soars up gloriously from what until that point had been a somewhat mournful exercise in understated drums and minor-chord guitar. An immensely gifted soprano, dell’Orso is best known for her awe-inspiring operatics on the soundtrack of Once Upon a Time in the West and, more than 40 years later, her voice is still in absolutely stunning form. She’s joined on many of Rome‘s tracks by the nine other members of The Cantori Moderni, a vocal group under the direction of Alessandro Alessandroni, the man who voiced the iconic “awww-uh-awww-uh-awww” coyote howl for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
Although constructed like a film score (complete with three tracks labeled “interlude” as well as a closing reprise), Rome is first and foremost a pop record. Hence the presence of American chart-buster Norah Jones and the ubiquitous Jack White, who both sing English-language lyrics on several of Mouse and Luppi’s otherwise largely instrumental compositions. Jones fares the best, particularly when showing her range with “Problem Queen,” from its galloping guitar intro and loping verses to the pleasingly ascendant “lah-lah-lah”‘s on its bridge. “Season’s Trees” is a jazzy and string-sweetened song that compares shifting human emotion to the changes in nature’s flora, and Jones’ genuinely lovely performance of it makes one yearn to hear her take over on the less successful Jack White tracks. White has the thankless task of competing with The Cantori Moderni on “The Rose With The Broken Neck,” where his vocals are overshadowed by their superior backing harmonies. On the easily disposable “Two Against One” he breaks the album’s serenity by delivering its oppressively paranoid lyrics like a frightened, sobbing drag queen.
The album’s superb standout cut is “Roman Blue,” a sad but stately instrumental, casually paced but with a purposeful progression which, during its final 40 seconds, morphs into a wrenchingly beautiful showcase for dell’Orso’s haunting pipes. “The Matador Has Fallen” opens with a spiraling keyboard reel that feels more Celtic than Mediterranean, an uptempo romp that betrays the savage horrors evoked by its title. “Morning Fog” offers another great chorale showcase for Alessandroni’s crew, this time accompanied by a playful music box melody that suggests a lost track from For a Few Dollars More.
Fortunately nothing here overstays its welcome, with some lasting less than a full minute and the longest clocking in at a mere 3:39. In fact, the whole disc runs just a little over half an hour. It all wraps up with White redeeming himself during “The World,” on which he sings, “The world is an open book/ Take a look/ Welcome to your own views/ Your greed is your own hangman’s noose.” Accompanied by the ominous peal of a lone distant bell, it magically evokes the climactic flashback of Once Upon a Time in the West.
One thing’s for sure. This Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi