Can this fearless, mighty avant-garde vocalist also sing in velvety Italian? You bet.
The idea of Mike Patton grafting his Bowie warble to Italian golden oldies arranged for a 40-piece orchestra and choir should not surprise anyone. This is a man who has been throwing caution to the wind since the Reagan administration, be it thrashing with Mr. Bungle or Faith No More to screeching alongside John Zorn’s saxophone in Hemophiliac. Patton pretty much carves a niche for himself wherever and whenever he feels like doing so. It may be a stretch to call him a renaissance man, but weaker terms like "versatile" and "eclectic" feel insufficient when trying to describe someone who gets by on his ghoulish demeanor and frightening musical attack. And in his willingness to try it all, he often comes out the other end successful. The debut album for his crooning Italian pseudonym, Mondo Cane, is no exception.
Part of the album’s success is that it does not sound like a gimmick. True, Patton did assume a stage name for this persona and performed with an orchestra throughout Europe, playing some pretty classy places. Everything, right down to Patton’s clothes and haircut, has "kitsch" written all over it. Yet the strings, backing voices and the star of the show himself sound so well versed in the performance of the Italian pop song that one could swear they’ve been at it for a lifetime. All told, it’s a genuine package, dispelling any notion of novelty or nostalgia as it plays.
Since this is a Mike Patton project, after all, there is a healthy drop of weirdness to the proceedings. "Urlo Negro" in particular gets to rock out in a way similar to its 1967 original, showcasing Patton’s signature scream during the verses. Clocking in under three minutes, it’s intense. Elsewhere songs are accentuated with slightly unconventional ornaments, such as scattered electronics, a rapid guitar tremolo (or is it a snapping reverb spring?) in "Il Cielo In Una Stanza" and "Senza Fine" and a mouth harp teaming up with a trombone to kick off "20 KM AI Giorno". Overall the orchestra behaves itself, giving Mike Patton plenty of space to indulge in his whispers and growls. But a song like "Scalinatella" does not try to fulfill any oddball expectations. Sparse and full of romantic interpretation, Patton spits out rolling R’s with just a Spanish guitar to help guide the way. One can’t help but picture an old fashioned serenade under a balcony. At night. In the piazza.
And it’s worth noting that the song guaranteed to nab everyone’s attention will be the Ennio Morricone cover "Deep Down". Anyone who has heard the 1968 original is already aware that it’s a maddeningly insistent melody, probably designed to be hummed by everyone leaving the movie theaters after seeing Danger: Diabolik. In the hands of Patton and his musicians it is, dare I say it, even slinkier. In a marvelously effortless rendition, the song feels like it was written just for Mike Patton to sing. Likely an odd notion to fans of Faith No More, but the gravitational pull of the tune is undeniable in this setting. Good luck getting it out of your head.
Even if this album is a genre exercise, it’s still a very fine one. Mondo Cane pulls no punches, makes no apologies, and is impossible not to enjoy on some level. Choruses like the one from "L'Uomo Che Non Sapeva Amare" are designed to sweep people up and give them something to waltz about. In this chapter of his career, it’s obvious that Mike Patton is more concerned with entertaining us than challenging us. So if Mr. Cane becomes an ongoing concern for Mr. Patton’s career, then we can consider ourselves amply entertained.