Brian Burton won’t be a name that’s immediately familiar. If, however, you were to give his alter ego Danger Mouse then chances are there will be instant recognition. The producer first came to prominence for his remix LP The Grey Album and subsequently produced Demon Days by Gorillaz. There have been further, almost universally lauded, collaborations with MF DOOM, Cee-Lo Green (as Gnarls Barkley), The Good, the Bad and the Queen, The Black Keys, Beck, Sparklehorse, David Lynch and most recently James Mercer from The Shins under the name Broken Bells. There’s also the small matter of an album with some up and coming band called U2 due out this year. With all that in mind it’s no surprise that Danger Mouse’s latest release with Daniele Luppi has taken five years to to complete.
It’s worth taking time to look at the history of the record before we get to the actual music itself as this is a story like no other. Burton and Luppi met in Los Angeles shortly after The Grey Album was released. Luppi had written music for the screen, as well as having a critically acclaimed album, An Italian Story, which referenced the sound of the cinema from his childhood back home. It was this passion for the sounds of Italian cinema that brought the two together and the idea for Rome was born. The process began in Rome back in October 2006 and incredibly the pair assembled the original musicians from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. Most of these guys, including the ‘I Cantori Moderni’ choir, were in their seventies.
The album was recorded in the Forum Studios in Rome, co-founded by Ennio Morricone, using vintage equipment to replicate the way the classic movies were recorded. Vocalists were then brought on board to fill the slots required as three songs were written for a man and three for a woman, with Jack White and Norah Jones being the two chosen. It’s also worth noting that this entire project was funded by Burton. With the history lesson over, how does the album itself measure up?
Things kick off with ‘Theme of Rome’. There’s a hiss of static lending it an immediate vintage feel as a lone drum leads to you to a nice, rich guitar sound. In comes the voice of Edda Dell’Orso, a soprano, who’s voice featured on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly almost half a century ago. Her voice is both haunting and dramatic and this track plays out like it belongs in that movie. If Burton and Luppi were after that vintage feel they certainly nail it on the opener. Jack White’s first vocal job is ‘The Rose with the Broken Neck’. The music retains the rich, warm texture of the opener while the rhythm section are more prominent. Jack White’s vocal flows along effortlessly with the music, lending this song a contemporary twist while retaining it’s vintage credentials. ‘Morning Fog’ follows and is one of several interludes on the album and provide beautiful sounding moments in between the full length songs.
Norah Jones steps up for her first song on ‘Season’s Trees’, another song where the rhythm section are in fantastic form. There’s also some stirring strings adding sweeping moments while Norah Jones vocals will surely take more than a few people by surprise. The combination of Jones’ voice, a wandering bass line and the strings all up to a cracking song. After an interlude we’re into a quite stirring instrumental track, ‘Roman Blue’. Strings help make some grand gestures, aided by a choir while the flawless rhythm section keeps things moving along at a nice pace. Jack White’s back on ‘Two Against One’. Throughout there’s a beautifully understated guitar, while White does some great vocal work, backed by some lovely harmonies. Another instrumental track, ‘The Gambling Priest’, brings with it images of Eli Wallach both through name and sound. It’s a modern twist on the sound of the spaghetti western. Contemporary guitar seems to duel with classic guitar as the bass wanders along.
After another interlude, Norah Jones returns on ‘Black’. Bass and guitar kick it all off for a few bars, with a nice keyboard sound underneath it all, before the rest of the band and Jones herself join in. The vocal is strong and rich and the song skips along at a fair pace. Without wanting to labour the point, it has to be said that the bass guitar is again amazing. It brings such character to each song on this album it beggars belief. Strings are once again used to great effect on what is another flawless song. ‘The Matador has Fallen’ is a fairly high tempo number, which manages to convey a sense or urgency and panic. The choir certainly add some of that with their haunting vocal but it’s the manic keyboard that lends the track its emotional heart. ‘Morning Fog’ is like the morning after. There’s a sense of relief as this song starts. The keyboard is a warmer, subtler sound here and the choir sounds much more optimistic. In the last song written for a female voice, ‘Problem Queen’ kicks off with a really catchy beat. Bass and drums are moving along at a decent pace, while a keyboard rises and falls playfully in the background. Again Norah Jones sounds spectacular.
‘Her Hollow Ways’ is another track that manages to marry the sound of classic Italian cinema with a more contemporary pop sound. It’s testament to the skills of Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi that they manage this with such apparent ease. The sound they create is so rich with emotion and feeling it really is a pleasure to listen to at every turn and this certainly continues on the final track ‘The World’. Initially a vintage sound, the song is placed firmly in the present when Jack White sings. During the musical passages, it’s guitar sound is all classic cinema, but the tempo rises and rhythm section takes up the mantle while White’s signature vocal joins them in a fantastic closer to the record. Another song that simultaneously spans the eras while remaining fresh and original.
From the beginning, this album is a sheer joy to listen to. That it’s recorded on vintage equipment, using the original musicians that worked on the original Italian movies certainly helps capture the sound of that period. Add Brian Burton and Daniele Luppi to that and the music is brought firmly into the modern era. Throughout there is a rich, warm sound and none of that clinical production that can sometimes be heard on modern music. The faint hiss of static underpins every moment and it adds to the record rather than detracts. Vocally, Jack White and Norah Jones are fantastic, especially the latter. It’s normally at this point that I’d try and mention any downsides in order to bring the review some semblance of balance, but I really can’t find anything negative on this record. Nothing feels too long or short, there’s no filler and ideas don’t fall down. It’s cinematic in it’s scope, delivery and from start to finish it’s simply breathtaking. Did I mention the rhythm section? Those guys are spectacular.