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LISTENING STATION: When in ‘Rome,’ White still proves to be an overachiever

Unique voice stands out in tribute to Italian film music

- - Monday, May 16, 2011

Rome

Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi

Parlophone

Remember when you received your high school yearbook, and adjacent to each senior's portrait was a list of clubs, sports teams and theater performances in which the student had taken part? Every year, some overachiever would win the dubious "longest list" award, boasting a resume of extracurricular activities that trumped those of everyone else in school. Jack White, perhaps the most ubiquitous character in contemporary music, was probably that guy.

With "Rome," Mr. White adds another supergroup to his list. What differentiates this collaboration from the White Stripes, the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather, however, is the fact that Mr. White isn't in the driver's seat. He's not even riding shotgun. Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton and Italian composer Daniele Luppi are the main captains of the ship, while Mr. White is relegated to a back-seat role, singing lead vocals on three songs and letting his A-list collaborators — including Norah Jones, who also sings three songs — do the rest. He sure is a noisy passenger, though.

"Rome" is a well-intentioned tribute to Italian film music, with the most attention paid to the spaghetti western era. Session musicians from some of Ennio Morricone's best films make appearances, lending some elegance (and crucial credibility) to the sweeping, cinematic arrangements. The songs are meticulously detailed, reverent toward the material that inspired them and bold enough to take some 21st-century risks. The instrumental numbers are lovely, filled with strings, keyboards and minor-key arpeggios strummed on the acoustic guitar.

Whenever Miss Jones steps up to the plate, she takes note of her surroundings. Italian film music is a far cry from the jazz world she normally inhabits, but she adapts well, singing her three songs in a smoky, casual voice that suits the material. She meets her collaborators halfway - in other words, bringing her own cards to the table without forcing anyone to change the game they've already started playing.

Mr. White is different. Blessed and cursed with a high, unmistakably reedy voice, he has a hard time blending into the world of silver-screened nostalgia. Whenever he sings, we're spirited away from Italy and deposited back into America, an ocean away from the tumbleweeds and gunbattles evoked by the previous songs. At the end of the day, "Rome" isn't the real deal. It's a soundtrack to a movie that doesn't exist. Mr. White may be the album's most famous participant, but he's also its most obvious outsider, and he blows everyone's cover whenever he takes a turn at the mic. Then again, it's somewhat endearing how Mr. White sticks out like a sore thumb. "Rome" is so devoted to its source material that the instrumental numbers often sound indistinguishable from the score to "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." Mr. White's 21st-century yelp helps make this album something different.

The plush instrumentals still take the cake. Miss Jones' performances follow closely behind. Even so, Mr. White — now a member of four different bands — knows what it takes to make his voice heard above the din of other A-list stars, and his songs are the ones you walk away humming. Sure, he's a back-seat driver, but he helps steer the album to a more interesting place.

Boys of summer return to the road

Ah, summer. The time of year in which vacations are taken, lawns are mowed and classic bands return to the road to play the hits of yesteryear. Package tours have become a summertime institution for bands such as Def Leppard, who headlined a sold-out tour in 2009 alongside Cheap Trick and Poison. This year, they'll hit the road with Heart, while former tourmates Poison will traverse the country with Motley Crue and the New York Dolls. Another 1980s heavyweight, Journey, will launch an international tour with Foreigner, Night Ranger and Styx in June. Without another classic act in tow, these bands may be downgraded to smaller venues. Package them together, though, and they continue to sell out the amphitheaters that have housed them since the '80s.

Summertime, and the tourin' is easy …

The Go-Go's still got the beat

Also gearing up for a cross-country tour are the Go-Go's. "Beauty and the Beat," the band's debut, will turn 30 in July. To celebrate, Belinda Carlisle and company have planned a three-month tour, as well as a 30th anniversary deluxe edition of "Beauty and the Beat." The reissue hits stores this week.