The story goes that as a student in telecommunications at the University of Georgia, long before he’d become DJ Danger Mouse and one of the most in-demand producers on the music scene, Brian Burton’s musical heroes included Pink Floyd and the British trip-hop group Portishead. One class short of his degree, he moved to London to become a trip-hop DJ, and there he caught the attention of the techno label Warp with his remixes of—you guessed it—Portishead, as well as the French combo Air.
Clearly, this Portishead fixation and a fascination with similarly ethereal sounds is nothing new, nor is Burton’s attraction to soundtrack work—witness his “Dark Night of the Soul” collaboration with Sparklehorse and filmmaker David Lynch. And now that he’s made his bones with Gnarls Barkley, Beck, Gorillaz, “The Grey Album,” and other high-profile projects, he’s returned to pay homage to his first loves with “Rome,” a soundtrack to “an imaginary film” (hello, Brian Eno) crafted over the last five years with Italian composer Daniele Luppi (whose credits include “Sex and the City”), recorded in Rome at Forum studios (a former church where Ennio Morricone created much of the celebrated music for the spaghetti westerns of the’60s and ’70s), with backing from many of the Italian session pros from those recordings, and featuring guest vocals from Jack White and Nora Jones, both of whom sound incredibly cool in this context.
Like Clive Tanaka’s “Jet Set Siempre No. 1,” this mix of instrumentals and laidback pop songs perfectly captures a space-age/retro Mediterranean café vibe, serving as perfect coffeehouse/dinner party music, but much, much cooler than that faint praise would lead you to believe, since unlike so much likeminded ambient music, there’s soul and grit here (the instrumentation is almost all analog) and deep pop smarts and craftsmanship that reward repeated listening and refuse to be relegated to mere background Muzak. All of that, and some of the coolest—and most appropriate—song titles in recent memory, with monikers such as “Rose With a Broken Neck,” “The Gambling Priest,” “The Matador Has Fallen,” and “Morning Fog” perfectly describing the sounds contained within.
On the four-star scale: 4 STARS
STILL IN HEAVY ROTATION
Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues” (Sub Pop)
Beastie Boys, “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two” (Capitol)
tUnE-yArDs, “WHOKILL” (4AD)
Gorillaz, “The Fall” (Virgin)
Clive Tanaka, “Jet Set Siempre No. 1”
The Feelies, “Here Before” (Bar None)
TV on the Radio, “Nine Types of Light” (Interscope)
Lykke Li, “Wounded Rhymes” (Atlantic)
Screeching Weasel, “First World Manifesto” (Fat Wreck Chords)
Lupe Fiasco, “Lasers” (Atlantic)
Lucinda Williams, “Blessed” (Lost Highway)
Radiohead, “The King of Limbs” (self-released)
Drive-By Truckers, “Go-Go Boots” (ATO)
North Mississippi Allstars, “Keys to the Kingdom” (Songs of the South)
Smith Westerns, “Dye It Blonde” (Fat Possum)
The Decemberists, “The King Is Dead” (Capitol)