The Sopranos sing
But they’re not rats
BY JON GARELICK
If you’re a Sopranos fan (and, really, what excuse do you have at this point unless you’re Martin Scorsese?), then the show’s music has probably played a key role in your obsession. I’m not necessarily talking about the now ubiquitous opening theme, “Woke Up This Morning.” Good as it is, A3’s techno-ized blues is slick and familiar in a way that the best Sopranos music isn’t. I’m talking about the little snippets of pop songs that float through the show, their identities familiar but elusive, always counterpointing the dramatic action. Your average Hollywood bad-boy action flick goes for the obvious, either massive contemporary hits (Metallica, Blink-182, anything by the Stones), or Tarantino-esque retro (George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone,” Link Wray’s “Rumble,” Dick Dale, anything by the Stones). But the first episode of the Sopranos ended with “The Beast in Me” — a grim ballad that was making inroads at the time because Johnny Cash had recently recorded it for Rick Rubin’s American label. Except that this wasn’t even Johnny — it was the song’s author, Nick Lowe. Like everything else about The Sopranos, it was just-left-of-mainstream pop. And it was in a league with any number of mood-enhancing Sopranos offerings, from Johnny Thunders to the Latin Playboys to Mazzy Star.
In that regard, the first CD culled from the HBO TV series was a bit of a disappointment — Dylan, Cream, Springsteen, Bo Diddley, and the mob-show-requisite Frank Sinatra track. All fine, but where was Johnny Thunders? Now the show’s producers have returned with a double-CD sequel, The Sopranos: Peppers & Eggs (Columbia), and this one fares better, though there’s still no Thunders. (Dominic Chianese, the show’s redoubtable septuagenarian, Uncle Junior, has also come out with his first solo album; it’s called, uh, Hits, but more on that later.)
For a show as hip as The Sopranos, some songs are no-brainers. It figures that series creator and capo di tutti capi David Chase would go for the twisted Delta blues of R.L. Burnside, whose “Shuck Dub” remix here harks back to first season’s (and first CD’s) “It’s Bad You Know.” No Bruce this time, but the Jersey locale and the E Street Band connection continue with series regular Steven Van Zandt’s Stonesy “Affection” and E Streeter Nils Lofgren’s “Black Books.” The latter is surprisingly un-Stonesy (and un–E Street) and affecting, a synth-and-drums ballad with a poignant major-to-minor key shift, a typically understated comment on Tony Soprano’s car-wreck love life.
When we do get the Stones, it’s not Mick but Keith, with his “Make No Mistake,” and, more effectively, his scraped guitar chords and equally weathered vocal cords crooning “Waitin’ on a call from you” (“Thru and Thru,” from Voodoo Lounge) as we, and Tony, ponder the whereabouts of once-trusted lieutenant Big Pussy Bompensiero. What’s more, Van Zandt’s early-’90s tune (with his band the Lost Boys) hadn’t been released till now, and Bob Dylan’s entry is a remake of the Dean Martin hit “Return to Me” that was recorded especially for The Sopranos and in which, yes, Bob sings in Italian.
Okay, there are a few obvious choices. I could do without the album’s curtain-raising interpolation of Henry Mancini’s theme from Peter Gunn with the Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” or even Elvis Costello’s “High Fidelity,” but hey, that’s show biz. And Van Morrison returns with an overplayed classic, but after all, the name of Tony’s fatally attracted girlfriend is Gloria.
No, the glories here, the echt Sopranos songs, are Keith singing “Thru and Thru,” Pigeonhed’s tech-nasty “Battle Flag” (conjuring Tony’s temper tantrum at the Ba-da Bing!, where he pounded a bartender’s head over and over with a telephone receiver), Kasey Chambers’s cracked-voice masochistic country ballad “The Captain” (which in timbre matches the voice of daughter Meadow Soprano but in theme fits all the women in Tony’s life), the lounge stupor of the Tindersticks’ “Tiny Tears” (reflecting Tony’s vertiginous depression in the “Isabella” episode), and the trip-hoppy lounge of Lorenzo Jovanotti’s “Piove.”
Yes, it’s hard to separate the soundtrack from the show, but I think this is a good collection that works on its own, with some inspired, or at least crafty, segues. The sequence of “Black Books” to Cake’s “Frank Sinatra” to Sinatra’s bossa-beat “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads” to Keith’s “Thru and Thru” speaks to both theme and music — tempo shifts, rhythms, mood. On CD #2 the producers get to Cecilia Bartoli’s breathtaking Vivaldi (“Sposa son disprezzata,” with spare piano accompaniment) via Vue’s garagy, organ-based “Girl” and then follow it up with Ben E. King’s operatic, string-enhanced “I Who Have Nothing.” Really not a bad way to cover vastly disparate material. The album closes with an unlisted reprise of A3’s “Woke Up This Morning” and a selection of Sopranos dialogue, including Uncle Junior’s now legendary “I’ve got federal marshals so far up my ass I can taste Brylcream.”
Which brings us to dear old Uncle Jun himself. Dominic Chianese’s “Core ’ngrato” (“Ungrateful Heart”) concluded the third season’s finale with a great Sopranos moment: the old man breaking into song at a post-funeral bash, summing up any number of conflicting emotions, while a roomful of thugs were moved to tears.
Which makes me wish the producers of Chianese’s Hits (Madacy/Suite-102) had taken a lesson from the TV show. Chianese is a former MC at Gerde’s Folk City, so he’s included Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” and Randy Newman’s “Feels like Home” among “Santa Lucia,” “Guantanamera,” “Amazing Grace,” and a few originals. But in this, his debut CD, the producers have homogenized everything with a Perry Como gloss. What worked in his performance of “Core ’ngrato” was his voice-breaking vérité emotion. It was Uncle Junior — and the song’s various levels of meaning — exposed, warts and all. As Tony might say, that’s what we love about the old bastard.
Issue Date: June 21 - 28, 2001