'Sopranos' mob hits include alt-rock and the blues

CD REVIEWS

February 10, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

The Sopranos

Music From the HBO Original Series (Playtone Columbia 63911)

We all know about gangsta rap, but what about real gangster music? What do actual mobsters -- wise guys, good fellas or whatever -- listen to when concocting the soundtracks of their lives?

Unless somebody decides to assemble a box set of FBI surveillance tapes, it's doubtful we'll ever know for sure. But thanks to TV and movie soundtracks, we certainly know what Hollywood thinks mob hits sound like.

In Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" films, the score is mostly Italian in flavor, with Fellini's favorite composer, Nina Rota, providing the bulk of the music for the first two films. Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas," by contrast, is musically mostly nostalgic, using pop music to establish the feel of a specific era. To this day, it's difficult for some fans of that film to hear the second part of Derek & the Dominoes' "Layla" without recalling the tableau of corpses left by Robert De Niro's character after a spectacularly lucrative heist.

But that was the old-time mob. Today's gangsters have a different aura, a different sensibility. That's part of the appeal with HBO's hit series "The Sopranos." Even though the basic story remains the same -- charismatic bad guys do terrible things in the name of "the family" -- the specifics of the show are oddly suburban and upscale. Hero Tony Soprano is precisely the sort of mobster you'd expect would appeal to the upscale pay-cable audience.

Even so, there's something unexpected about the sound of "The Sopranos: Music From the HBO Original Series." To begin with, who'd have thought that made guys would be hip enough to groove to an edgy, alt-rock track like A3's gritty "Woke Up This Morning"? Certainly not anybody in the record industry, which has left A3 without an American recording contract for over a year now.

Part of the appeal of "Woke Up This Morning" is that, for all its club-music smarts, the song itself is deeply rooted in the blues, and the blues seem to be a modern mob constant. Maybe it's a reflection of Tony Soprano's own depression, but "The Sopranos" soundtrack has all sorts of blues, from the Chicago basics of Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man" to the post-modern thump of R.L. Burnside's "It's Bad You Know." There are even songs that evoke the desperation of the blues while almost entirely avoiding its musical vocabulary, like Nick Lowe's stirring, understated "The Beast in Me."

Naturally, some of the selections are not-too-inside jokes. Because Steve Van Zant plays one of the show's mobsters, it seems only fitting that the soundtrack includes "Inside of Me" by his band, Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul. There's also a version of the spooked and scary "State Trooper" by Van Zant's boss, New Jersey poster boy Bruce Springsteen, as well as "A Very Good Year" as sung by the Garden State's other favorite son, Frank Sinatra. (Mercifully, this Jersey loyalty wears out before the show's producers get to Jon Bon Jovi.)

Whether or not actual wise guys share this aesthetic is anybody's guess. But even if not, the soundtrack to "The Sopranos" is so richly evocative that liking it seems an offer we can't refuse. ***

Pop/rock

Morphine

The Night (Dreamworks 0044-55056)

It's always tragic when a musician dies suddenly in mid-career, but it's especially sad when such a death comes just before what should have been a career breakthrough. Such is the case with Morphine and its final album, "The Night." After several albums of moody, noir-ish alt-rock, singer/songwriter Marc Sandman had considerably broadened his band's sound, leavening the music's darkness with a measure of sweetness and vulnerability in songs like "Rope on Fire" and the title tune. That makes "The Night" a significant step forward for Morphine, but unfortunately, the album turned out to be the band's swan song, as not long after completing this album, the band left for a European tour, during which Sandman died of a heart attack on stage. ***

Lo Fidelity Allstars

On the Floor, At the Boutique (Skint/Columbia 63951)

In America, remix albums are strictly the province of DJs, and as such tend to reflect the prevailing tides of club culture. But in Britain, where DJs can also be bandleaders, remix albums sometimes stand simply as a statement of taste. That's definitely the case with "On the Floor, At the Boutique," a remix album by the Lo Fidelity Allstars.

A bracingly eclectic set, the album reflects remarkably disparate tastes as the Lo Fi crew bounces from the hip-hop pop of Blackstreet's "No Diggity" to the old-school go-go of Trouble Funk's "Pump Me Up," to the classic R&B of the Tams' "Be Young Be Foolish Be Happy," to the deep house thump of Armand Van Helden's "Funk Phenomena." But all the pieces fit, because the Lo Fi crew understands the basic groove that links these different sounds. ***

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