At first pass Mike Patton's latest project, Mondo Cane (pronounced "mon-doe ka-nay"), is a strange breed. The vocal manipulator's past projects ranged from brutally spastic noise to transcendent minimalism. However, even by his exhaustively eclectic standards, a covers album of Italian songs from the '50s and '60s is difficult to anticipate -- because it is so easy to listen to.
Mondo Cane mostly features pop and popular music of Italy's equivalent Greatest and Baby Boomer generations. As such, the styles range from Fred Buscaglione's noir-ish "Che Notte!" to the bubblegum charm of Nicola Arigliano's "20 KM Al Giorno" to the nostalgic Neapolitan folk standard "Scalinatella." While Italian pop may sound exotic to the uninitiated, American listeners should not find these songs foreign in style. Most of these songs in their original form employed a familiar recipe of wall-of-sound arrangements, syrupy melodrama, and/or a wet crooner's sense of syncopation.
Here Patton uses a 40-piece orchestra, augmented by a 15-piece band, to closely reproduce rather than redo. Modern studio trickery is subtle and kept to a minimum -- a touch of dubby echo here, a loudspeaker-affected vocal there -- in favor of what Patton describes as a more "respectful" approach. And, most notably, Patton sings gorgeously. Vocal acrobatics are practically nonexistent, and those oft-heard guttural grunts are rarely heard. Instead, he lets his muscular voice glide naturally through each number (yes, his Italian is pretty damn good). While collaborator conductor Aldo Sisillo's orchestrations deserve a healthy dollop of credit for the overall sonic success of the album, Patton's voice is clearly the centerpiece.
A number of these songs and their writers are well known to you, and perhaps even your less-than-knowledgeable aunts and uncles. Of course, no Italian collection would be complete without Ennio Morricone, who is represented by two decidedly different cuts from his career: "Deep Down," the groovy theme from 1968 crime thriller Danger: Diabolik that Patton digs into with delight (by the way, it's worth it to watch the non-MST3K'd version, but in case you're into that sort of thing...), and "Quello Che Conta," a tender ballad from the 1962 drama La Cuccagna. There is even "L'uomo Che Non Sapeva Amare," a rather drippy yet swinging collaboration between film-score composer Elmer Bernstein and Italian lyricist Mogol (who wrote extensively with Lucio Battisti, a quasi-Caetano Veloso of Italy).
Perhaps best known are the works of famed Italian songwriter Gino Paoli, who features prominently on Mondo Cane with two of his most well-known hits "Il Cielo In Una Stanza" (famously rendered by Italian pop star Mina, whose version was used in a classic Goodfellas scene) and "Senza Fine" (popularized Stateside courtesy of Connie Francis' cover, which was prominently used in the 1965 film The Flight of the Phoenix). Regardless of whether or not Patton was conscious of this, he wisely bookends the album with these two dramatic numbers respectively. He blows the album open by realizing the full bombastic quiet-loud potential of "Il Cielo," and gently closes the affair by channeling a peculiar form of charm in the power ballad finale.
So, what possesses a restless artist like Patton to put so much care and attention into such a quaintly accessible affair? After living in Italy for several years with his spouse at the time, Patton took to this music as an access point into Italian culture. In a recent interview, he noted: "When you do live abroad, you're basically searching for some kind of peace. You don't want to be the fuckin' foreigner. You want to be a part of everyday life there, and you don't want anybody to look at you sideways." Mondo Cane certainly realizes Patton's years-long effort to understand Italian culture. The title alone, which is an Italian expression loosely translated as, "The world has gone to the dogs," is indicative of Patton's worldview colliding with an Italian sensibility. Consider, then, Mondo Cane Patton's culminating report on his studies abroad. No, an artfully curated Flickr stream following an extensive backpacking trip. Better, a simple love letter for anyone to read.
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