The premise of Rome, the first collaborative album between American producer Danger Mouse and Italian composer Daniele Luppi, is expansive and has been five years in the making. Concisely put, Rome is a meticulously produced album based on the thematic elements of spaghetti Westerns, running just over a half hour in length and featuring two big musical names — Jack White and Norah Jones. However, for all the musical nuance and considerable timing that went into making the album, there’s one simple word that perfectly describes Rome: cool.
Danger Mouse, also known as Brian Burton, has torn his way through project after project over the past few years, making Rome’s success no surprise. Since rising to prominence with his revolutionary The Grey Album — a mashup of Jay-Z’s The Black Album and The Beatles’ eponymous release — in 2004, Danger Mouse has seemingly been all over the musical world. The producer helmed albums by Gorillaz, Beck, and The Black Keys and also was part of three high profiles duos: Danger Doom, Gnarls Barkley and Broken Bells. All these projects displayed Danger Mouse’s most powerful quality: the ability to inject nearly any musical atmosphere with a unique brand of cleanly executed funk and soul.
Rome finds Burton doing what he does best with a new cast of characters, utilizing Luppi’s compositional prowess, White’s dark allure and Jones’ surprisingly sensual and earthy voice. Rome’s tracks can be placed into three categories: instrumental songs and interludes, then songs that feature White or Jones, respectively. The best moments on the album are products with strong group synergy, most apparent on the Jones track “Season’s Trees,” the White song “Two Against One” and the instrumental “The Gambling Priest.”
“Season’s Trees” is Rome’s fourth track, and it electrifies the ethereal, distant tone that defines the opening six minutes of the record. Grandiose strings and a notably dramatic bass line lay the bed over which Jones sings. Jones, probably best remembered for sweeping the four major categories at the 2003 Grammy Awards with her debut album Come Away With Me, contributes performances on Rome that are wildly different — and far better — than her earlier work in the unfortunate genre of “adult alternative.” On “Season’s Trees” Jones comes across as the quintessential hottie in any James Bond film, albeit with a remarkable set of pipes. She also soars on “Black,” at times reciting her lyrics like a feminine Bob Dylan.
White’s contributions stay truer to his typical character, but are also remarkable. “Two Against One” finds White favoring the haunting storytelling technique he has previously favored on tracks like The Raconteurs’ “Carolina Drama.” The Rome track soars because of the cinematic good versus evil theme that permeates it, and due to masterful touches of production, like paradoxically dark harpsichords and excellent guitar work.
While Jones and White contribute thoroughly strong performances across the board, the same can’t be said about the instrumental tracks, which make about half of Rome. Due in part to its oily slick production, but also to its manageable length, “The Gambling Priest” is the best instrumental cut on Rome. By the end of the album — and especially considering the excellent vocal performances Burton and Luppi are able to cultivate — the instrumental theme of the album can wear a bit thin for listeners. “Her Hollow Ways (Interlude)” is almost a direct reimagining of the Broken Bells song “Sailing to Nowhere.” What sounds cool in theory falls flat in practice, because James Mercer’s vocals were an integral part of the Broken Bells sound.
Rome’s biggest drawback is that at times it is too instrumentally focused. Still, it’s tough to deny the album’s immaculate production, addictive grooves, and spectacular high points. Some listeners might relegate Rome to their rotation of background music, but the album is one that should be appreciated — at least, until Danger Mouse moves on to his next chatterworthy project.
Final Grade: B+