Around 1995, my dad brought home his first work computer. It was a green-screen laptop with huge, chunky keyboard buttons, a trackball in place of the now-ubiquitous mousepads, and exactly one feature that was of interest to me and my brother (one year my senior): a DOS program called “Ugly”. As a five-year-old, I had very little use for a laptop, let alone one with such rudimentary features as this. Yet, “Ugly” offered endless entertainment because it played a chiptune version of Ennio Morricone’s theme from Clint Eastwood’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly while two pixelated cowboys drew guns and fired at each other. There was also a silly cactus waving in the desert breeze of that otherwise black screen.
Despite being a household of two young boys, we were not a household particularly into Westerns. Our shoot ’em up favorites were more fantastical science fiction than old cowboy grit. Even so, that iconic theme was permanently seared into our youthful minds.
I share this anecdote to emphasize how deeply ingrained spaghetti western film music is in our public consciousness. Thus, when Third Man Records announced (in 2011) that they’d be releasing Rome, a collaboration between music producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton and film producer Daniele Lupi that celebrated the classic Italian genre, it immediately made sense. Incidentally, it features players from some of the most recognizable spaghetti westerns, including The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Think about that for a second: a record flipper and the guy who made Boogie Nights happen were writing and recording a spaghetti western soundtrack with no spaghetti western movie. Happily, what it lacks in actual cinema, it makes up for via the drama brought to six of the LP’s tracks (“The Rose with a Broken Neck”, “Two Against One”, “The World”, “Season’s Trees”, “Black”, and “Problem Queen”) by the unmistakable voices of Jack White and Norah Jones.
Let’s step back for a moment, though. This is a movie soundtrack for which there is no movie, featuring players from Ennio Morricone’s greatest hits. Undoubtedly bolstered by the credibility of White and Third Man Records, Rome managed to land fifth on the Billboard charts for alternative and rock albums (as well as 11th for the Billboard 200). Both Jones and White have performed their songs live, to great acclaim (well, at least in White’s case, with “Two Against One” always receiving spectacular responses from audiences). The album also enjoyed a magnificent limited-release vinyl whose second LP consists of the entire album as instrumental tracks (pressed on sublime orange and yellow speckled wax).
The funny thing about re-encountering Rome ten years later is remembering how, upon release, it was like a dusty discovery after some meticulous crate-digging. Even “Two Against One”—a Record Store Day exclusive seven-inch single issued a mere month before the album’s wide release—sounded like something unearthed rather than like a brand new song. That is to say, Rome mostly sounds like it hasn’t aged in ten years, and that’s because ten years ago, Rome so successfully echoed the soundscapes from the late 1960s. To me, the album isn’t ten years old; it’s 60.
That timeless quality is most apparent on the instrumental tracks. Take, for example, “The Gambling Priest”, which plays leaps off of a drum-fill motif established in the “Theme of Rome” and jumps into dissonant guitar plucks that sound like alien trumpets. Its chanting voice haunts the mental desert that your mind automatically begins conjuring, and just when the album’s sonics and sparse lyrics take you too far into a Martian landscape, the tender motif of “The World (Interlude)” brings listeners back to Earth. Here, Norah Jones’s vocal is less of a haunt and more of a terrestrial whisper.
At the risk of sounding pretentious, this is an album particularly suited for vinyl consumption (more so if you can get your hands on the all-instrumental LP). You really can’t scoff at Rome’s highly flatulent and ambitious side since Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi stick the landing. It’s a magnificent and lush escape into another time and another place. Ten years ago, it would have been impossible to predict the global pandemic that has largely altered our daily lives, but today, the ‘new normal’ makes Rome all the more essential.
Can’t go see a movie? Close your eyes and listen to “The Matador Has Fallen” really loudly, and you’ll see the scene. Miss traveling? Slip into the otherworldly quiet that “Morning Fog” evokes with glockenspiel bells. As the dust settles on this 35-minute affair, you’ll know what I mean about Rome’s great transcendental qualities. To echo a different Clint Eastwood one last time: this record will make your day.