Tuesday, June 21, 2011


When In "Rome," Danger Mouse Gets It Right

by Wayne Robins

The production and performance projects of Brian Burton—better known as Danger Mouse—have been so diverse it's easy to overlook how dynamic the body of work has been. His new album, "Rome," with Italian musician Daniele Luppi, at first seemed such an outlier that I was ready to write it off as conceptual overreach. But ever since he emerged in 2004 as the mad mixer who spliced, sliced and diced the Beatles' "White Album" with Jay-Z's "Black Album," released as the bootleg sensation known as "The Grey Album," Burton has thrived by being pop's most malleable collaborator. That includes both Gorillaz' "Demon Days" (with Blur's Damon Albarn) and Gnarls Barkley's "St. Elsewhere" (with Cee-lo Green).

Although he first gained acclaim with music that had hip-hop as its core ("The Mouse and the Mask" as Danger Doom, with rapper M.F. Doom), in the last few years Mouse has moved towards rock: Producing the Black Keys' "Attack & Release," and collaborating with the late Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse) on "Dark Night of the Soul," and with James Mercer of the Shins on "Broken Bells."

"Rome" defies categorization, as it should. It was inspired by the spaghetti western music of Italian composer Ennio Morricone and some of his lesser known cohorts, such as Piero Umliani and Gian Piero Piccioni. For some authenticity, it was recorded at Rome's Forum Studios, which was sort of to spaghetti western soundtracks what Sun Studios was to rockabilly. Luppi, a multifaceted composer, arranger and instrumentalist, has been working on Danger Mouse projects since "St. Elsewhere." That Italian connection helped enlist many of the veteran studio musicians who worked with Morricone and others, including such essential role players as Alessandro Alessandroni ("the whistler") and Edda Dell'Orso ("the soprano"), who hits notes beyond the capacity of any earthling not named Yma Sumac.

Better known, perhaps, are Jack White and Norah Jones. It's a nice working holiday for each of them, who get to stretch their styles and play with their personas. On "Rose With A Broken Neck," White captures not just the desolation of the desert landscapes familiar to viewers of Sergio Leone's westerns, but the inner torment of characters in Italian horror film classics by Mario Bava and Dario Argento. "Two Against One" is more in the White Stripes mode, though infused with a gothic chill. Jones seems to be enjoying the dark persona on the song "Black," as she sings lines such as "We can't afford to ignore that I'm the disease," and on the evocative dream sequence of "Problem Queen."

White and Jones help keep the concept grounded in familiarity, alternating as they do with instrumental compositions steeped in a cinematografo style that would please a purist. Not for the first time, Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton proves that an overlooked requirement for success is not showing off what you know, but knowing what you don't know and finding out how to do it.

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