A Fistful of Genius 

Crazed film composer Ennio Morricone's new two-disc set is more evocative than the movies themselves.

His iconic scores for Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns made him famous, but set those aside and Ennio Morricone would still be one of the modern era's most intriguing composers. On a par with jazz-funk icon David Axelrod in terms of both madness and genius, the crazy Italiano sure knew how to set a mood. At times haunting, sensuous, eerie, fractured, psychedelic, funky, tawdry, minimal, layered, and just plain out-there, Crime and Dissonance -- a double-disc collection of Italian film scores from the height of his creative apex in the '60s and '70s -- shows there's much more to Morricone than For a Few Dollars More. But unlike Leone's dalliances with Eastwood-starring shoot-'em-ups, it's safe to say that none of the celluloid source material highlighted here (sample title: Una Lucertola con la Pelle di Donna) has ever aired on TNT.

Yet a lack of familiarity with obscure Italian film canons shouldn't prevent you from diving ear-first into Crime and Dissonance, which is out on Bay Area weirdo-rocker Mike Patton's Ipecac label and includes a luxurious 24-page booklet with gorgeous full-color stills. It's a small leap of faith, and one instantly rewarded with "Giorno di Notte," an off-kilter instrumental jam whose driving bassline contrasts sharply with underwater-sounding keyboards, giving it a fast-but-slow (or, if you prefer, sweet-but-sour) effect, further enhanced by a distortion-laced guitar squealing wildly throughout. Heavy-breathing female voices are a recurring theme, figuring prominently into "Corsa Sui Tetti," which otherwise would sound like On the Corner-era Miles Davis (except it was released three years before the trumpeter's fusion masterpiece). Elsewhere, "Astratto 3" contrasts more sexy moans with a woodblock and various other percussion instruments, while "Forza G (Quella Donna)" frames its orgasmic pleasures in a soft bed of hi-hat licks and warm electric bass.

Some of the most interesting musical ideas Morricone explores are found on his shorter compositions -- snippets that beg to be sampled and looped, but also work in a larger context by revealing his massively diverse reach. By the end of the second disc, you're fully immersed in a bizarre musical dimension where anything can and does happen.

Yet no matter how strange or loose it gets, Crime's chaos is always controlled. You might not anticipate where Morricone is going next -- part of the fun, really, in an era of utter pop-culture predictability -- but unfailingly, he knows where he wants to end up. Whether it's a trippy freakout with sitars, wailing flutes, mournful cellos, and dirge-like drums; a melodic mix of bells and choral voices that abruptly changes, first into an electrified groove, then into a military march interspersed with orchestrated strings; or a chilled-cool jazz excursion that seems conventional by comparison, Morricone is the man of many moods. Indeed, his ability to swing wildly from one emotion to the next makes Crime and Dissonance an anomaly -- an immediately engaging set that still gets deeper with each listen.


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