Discussing this album without addressing the extra-musical accomplishments of the artist is hopeless. Dominic Chianese is the actor who plays Uncle Junior on The Sopranos. He has a long and distinguished resume as an actor (including a key role in The Godfather II), but it is as the cunning Corrado Soprano that Chianese has made his name. And it is that role which has given him the exposure needed to release his debut album . . . at age 70.
Despite the title and tongue-in-cheek cover (which portrays a black-clad Chianese sitting next to an ominous guitar case), this is not some tacky attempt at Mob Hits Volume 5. Chianese is not shy about capitalizing on his portrayals of Mafiosi, but his musical heart is in completely different territory. Growing up with a musically inclined grandfather, Chianese's tastes run an eclectic gamut from traditional Neapolitan ballads to country and folk music. This diversity is manifested on Hits. Chianese covers songs by Kris Kristofferson and Randy Newman, interprets traditional songs in Spanish and Italian, and pens three songs of his own in various and diverse styles. The result is an album that, while uneven musically, conveys a powerful sense of who Dominic Chianse is, both as a musician and as a person.
Warm vocals are Chianese's hallmark, and this is apparent immediately on the opening track. "For the Good Times", written by Kris Kristofferson, combines those warm, inviting vocals with sentimental lyrics -- a combination that will appear often on Hits. The chestnut "Santa Lucia", with a vocal assist from former Mavericks lead singer Raul Malo, follows. Their voices intertwine beautifully and create a haunting, reverent harmony over an elegant and simple arrangement. The effect is charming and classic, with the feel of a friendly, after-dinner musical interlude. Over the course of the album, Chianese's vocals are inconsistent, but this track shows that at the top of his game, he is capable of wonderful things. It is a notable accomplishment to duet with a vocalist of Malo's rare gifts and come off sounding like a peer.
Unfortunately, this gem is followed by a few less successful efforts. "Passing of Time" is a cliché-ridden trifle that makes unreasonable demands on Chianese's range. "Guantanamera" is sodden with an solemn but cheesy spoken-word introduction. The body of the song itself is marred by a flat arrangement that glosses over the rhythmic bite that usually highlights this classic.
The next traditional song fares much better, however. "State Vicino A Me" is one of the Neapolitan songs that Chianese recalls from his grandfather's repertoire. It's a simple, stately song with a wonderful traditional arrangement. Chianese vocally navigates the melody landscape with the confident ease of a man walking around a neighborhood he's known for years. An album focusing on the elements that make this track such a joy would have been more consistent, engaging and successful.
"Typical New Yorker" is the first of three tracks written by Chianese himself. Sounding almost like an outtake from a classic Broadway musical, this tune is a swaggering travelogue of the city. Delivering this song with a sly saloon-singer smirk, Chianese shows off some of his acting chops as well. The odd jazzy break, featuring the unusual pairing of trumpet and acoustic slide guitar, is a microcosm of the unusual juxtaposition and eclecticism present all over the album.
The Randy Newman-penned "Feels Like Home" is up next. It's natural given Chianese's demonstrated affinity for the sentimental that he would choose a track like this rather than one of Newman's acerbic masterpieces. While the song is lyrically right in Chianese's wheel-house, the arrangement tends to overwhelm his vocals. There is no problem with that in "Ramona", a traditional American song that sounds right in line with the Italian numbers of which Chianese is fond. This tune suits his vocals beautifully and features a delightful little whistled interlude prior to the chorus.
Raul Malo rejoins the proceedings for "Solamente Una Vez", a terrific Cuban-influenced number that contains all the rhythmic playfulness that was absent from "Guantanamera". On "Shady Grove" Chianese demonstrates that his affection for these hymn-like folk numbers might slightly exceed his vocal compatibility with them. The supple warmth that he brings to the traditional numbers doesn't translate to the idiomatic writing of the folk numbers. He runs into the same problem on his own "True Love is Still on My Mind", which is written in an extremely simple, almost Willie Nelson-like folk style. While it is easily the best example of his songwriting, his vocals remain better suited to the classic numbers.
The low point of the album is Chianese's "Love is Real". He runs through the entire song, a maudlin rumination of love, in spoken-word fashion before singing the very same pedestrian lyrics again. In choosing this approach, Chianese undermines the potentially simple beauty of the lyrics and delivers an overblown sermon that reeks of self-grandeur. This is unfortunate, because the rest of the album, including the charmingly personal liner notes, give us a glimpse of a truly warm and thoughtful artist. While his inclination for the grandiose might be part of the package, he would have been better served by his producers if they had helped him downplay these aspects of his work.
The album closes with a tasteful, heartfelt version of "Amazing Grace". Backed by a simply-arranged choir, Chianese solemnly delivers this hymn with aplomb. This track demonstrates why Chianese succeeds as a singer more than he probably should. He overcomes his lack of vocal firepower or distinction by applying the skills of empathy and interpretation that are essential to his success as an actor. As a result, he creates intimacy that is even startling at times. Those songs on which he lets this technique handle the heavy lifting succeed. It's only when he makes demands on his interpretive ability that they can not handle, or when he burdens those abilities with lesser material, that he fails - for his vocal ability alone is not enough to carry the day.
Popular music is rife with artists who have rafter-rattling vocal power yet lack even the smallest shred of interpretative capacity. These artists tend to churn out song after song of musical aerobics with no more emotional impact than an episode of Wall Street Week. Chianese is the rare artist with the opposite problem. Thus, he must be careful in choosing material that will let him flex his dramatic muscle without unduly burdening his vocal skills. Hits is, after all is said and done, a debut album. Any new artist, even when he's 70, can be expected to make some missteps. It's an engaging and often touching album, but one that could have been even greater. Hopefully, this senior rookie will get another chance to show us all what he can do.