Putumayo is like the record label version of a Starbucks Caramel Macchiato. You always know exactly what you’re getting with the Macchiato, and you know that it’s always going to be pretty good. But there’s none of the flair or subtle touch that you might get with a latte from your locally-owned neighborhood coffee shop. From their trademark idealized, borderline-caricature sleeves to the “Guaranteed to make you feel good!” slogan, Putumayo releases are designed to present world music in a homogenized, no-frills context, and Italian Café is no different.
Italian Café purports to showcase the fruitful Postwar period in Italian popular music; and, while it does feature some of the most successful Italian artists from that period, it also mixes the vintage tracks with some by contemporary artists. The result is a likeable but rather slight album that you’d be much more likely to hear in, say, Starbucks than on the streets of Milan.
Fred Buscaglione was the most popular Italian singer of the 1950s, and his jazzy “Juke Box” demonstrates the charisma and cool that made him a sort of one-man Rat Pack. If Buscaglione causes you to imagine a romantic encounter in a smoke-filled lounge, then Quartetto Cetra’s silly “Un Bacia a Mezzanotte” is the oblivious bartend walking in on the whole thing. Interesting trivia: The group was hired by Disney to do the musical overdubs on the Italian release of Dumbo; they later did the same for The Wizard of Ozz. But really “Un Bacia” is most reminiscent of the Dom DeLuise dance number in Blazing Saddles. You know, “Throw out your hands / Stick out your tush”.
Some more substantive material comes in the form of ‘50s singer Giorgio Conte’s two featured tracks. Conte’s gravelly voice and detached, almost sardonic delivery make him come across as sort of an Italian cross between Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. Furthermore, Gianmaria Testa, a modern artist, provides a slightly more folksy update of the same sound (and voice) on his two selections.
Not all the modern artists fit in so well. Although it won the Italian equivalent of a Grammy, Daniele Silvestri’s “Le Cose in Commune” sounds like the Italian equivalent of Fun Lovin’ Criminals: faceless faux lounge-soul. And, while the presskit heralds Vinicio Capossela as being “like a Tom Waits of Italy”, the flashy salsa of his “Che Cossé L’Amor” is far too polished and breezy to warrant that comparison.
Italian Café looks and sounds good; but for a more varied, historical, and truly romantic experience, seek out EMI’s fine Italy After Dark collection. The packaging’s not as cool and the sound’s not as good, but sometimes that’s the price you pay for a bit of flair.