Whilst it’s easy to feel suspicious that Brian ‘Danger Mouse’ Burton’s ubiquity can too readily be mistaken for an instant stamp of quality, credibility and hipness, it’s hard not to argue that there is something special about his role as a roving producer, arranger and collaborator. Certainly, his studio support to Beck yielded an absolute gem in the shape of 2008’s still marvellous Modern Guilt and his work with The Shins’ James Mercer (as The Broken Bells) freshened-up the world of indie-pop without insulting it. Although his Dark Night Of The Soul conjoining with the late-Mark Linkous (AKA Sparklehorse) suffered from a top-heavy selection of guests, it still broke down a few doors between genres, scenes and artistic egos. With the unveiling of his latest LP, constructed with Italian composer Daniele Luppi, initial scepticism that Burton might have bitten off more than he can chew is happily unfounded.
Predominantly recorded in the city of its title with veteran Italian session musicians and featuring hired-in vocal spots from Jack White and Norah Jones, Rome is an openly-declared homage to the seminal spaghetti western soundtracks of Ennio Morricone. Whilst the modus operandi suggests something rather derivative, somehow the album achieves more than fan-boy indulgence; managing to be stylish and atmospheric without being too slick or insubstantial.
Taking the wordless pieces that dominate proceedings as a block, there’s an indisputably strong mesh of lush orchestrations, desert guitar twang and choral vocals that produces serene widescreen epics (“Roman Blue”), gentile intimacy (“Morning Fog (Interlude)”) and carnivalesque drama (“The Matador Has Fallen”). Whilst Morricone is the main touchstone, Burton’s eclectic tastes can’t but help let in other influences, which is no bad thing. Hence, there are also heavy dollops of bass-lines cribbed from Serge Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson (particularly on “The Gambling Priest”) and shades of John Barry’s more exotic film scores (in “Her Hollow Ways”).
The clutch of tracks voiced by Jack White and Norah Jones may be more uneven in their execution but they still sit well inside the overall Rome mood. No stranger to nomadic collaborating, White seemingly fits himself into the pre-built instrumental frames with relative ease; with the mournful “The Rose With The Broken Neck” and the terrific jagged-edged “Two Against One” being the most effective. Jones’s coffee-table jazz-soul tones must have required a greater leap of faith to transcend her previous polished blandness. However, Burton and Luppi admirably bring out some of her hidden strengths, to add an endearing sultriness to the infectiously twinkling “Black” and the string-drenched slow-funk of “Season’s Trees.”
Ultimately, despite its alluring and imaginative reach, Rome does still feel like a side-project. But as interim detours go there are certainly far less enjoyable ways to spend 35 minutes. Whether Brian Burton’s current spree of good luck will run out soon, remains to be seen. Undoubtedly the next gig – producing U2 – will test his considerable and transferable talents to the nth degree…