Various Artists – Boardwalk Empire Vol. 2

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Funny thing, soundtracks. The words “Inspired by” sometimes instill the suspicion that the tracks contained in a soundtrack are more a label’s sampler than a cohesive piece that complements (and sometimes obscures) a television show, a miniseries or a film. Many soundtracks that I’ve bought had some great tracks and a lot of filler (mostly comic book film related soundtracks from the early 2000s.) Now, there are soundtracks that help quite a powerful scene sink in your conscience, like the very select few tracks that made it into Shawn Ryan‘s The Shield (one of the finest tv shows we’ve had, I might add.) Selected songs that fitted perfectly the mood and intentions of people on screen, like Grant Lee Buffalo‘s ‘Demon Called Deception’ or Live‘s ‘Overcome’ in poignant scenes.

And sometimes, you have the perfect companion piece to a visual experience. Witness the second volume of Boardwalk Empire‘s soundtrack, filled to the brim with the long forgotten sounds of the Prohibition Era, where long pearl necklaces and a new breed of cowboy roamed the still dangerous streets of the United States of America. It was a violent era that had a showbusiness industry that stank of both glamour and seediness.

Jazz, ragtime, vaudeville, all these elements mixed together with the bootlegger and violent confrontations. Some of the best music of the Americana songbook come from this era (like George Gershwin) and this soundtrack masterfully cherry picks some of the best songs of the era and introduces them to a new era by inviting some current musicians that have a high standing with both the blog-dwelling critics and their printed counterparts.

A cold, clinical and well calculated plot. This soundtrack could very well be arrested under racketeering, conspiracy and grand larceny charges for all the senses it will affect, because every single piece, masterfully arranged by Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks, who I think are the real stars of this compilation:  they captured the jazzy grooves with perfect precision, even managing to sneak ‘The Streets of Cairo’ into a couple of tracks. These songs are great as instrumentals and the vocals just elevate them a step further.

‘Strut Miss Lizzie’ encompasses everything that’s right with this compilation: perfect pacing, a great vocal (courtesy of David Johansen) and a peppy atmosphere that makes you want to take a few swills of your fave drink (a Charanda on the rocks for me.) Elvis Costello does a lovely rendition of ‘It had to be you’ (the one everyone knows because of When Harry Met Sally…) and Liza Minnelli battles that heartless fucker we call “age” and belts out that sassy Con Conrad number ‘You’ve gotta see Mama ev’ry night (or you can’t see Mama at all)’.

Stephen DeRosa‘s tracks are another highlight. The very upbeat ‘Old King Tut’ is a real pleasure, with that showtune atmosphere that should delegate it to the first act of a musical. ‘You’d be surprised’ is more of a romantic tune, but one with a warning: a face full of innocence can hide something nastier.

The darlings of every discerning music fan are here too. Pokey LaFarge adds that rum soaked vocal to ‘Lovesick blues’, St. Vincent seduces us with ‘Make Believe’, adding those celestial tones to Kern & Hammerstein II‘s ditty. This era of music had the usual “loser walks home alone” and Neko Case performs it perfectly with her cover of ‘Nobody Knows you when you are are down & out’. Special kudos to the trumpet in this song, simply wonderful.

Patti Smith does ‘I ain’t got nobody’, a song that has been covered by several people (including a bombastic version by David Lee Roth – which I recommend.) Ms. Smith does it with her usual panache. The National‘s Matt Berninger imprints his beautiful voice to ‘I’ll see you in my dreams’, the album closer. This is probably the only moment in the whole album where I’m tempted to say the vocals upstage the instrumentation. No offence to Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks, who are a great band, but Mr. Berninger stole the show and jumped into a 1926 Chrysler Imperial E80 and gunned it to another state.

Any downsides? Well, if you are not impressed with the first song or if you simply can’t take the nature of this music, I’m afraid this one and you won’t live in happy bliss. The genre is covered quite well, but don’t expect any surprises. What you should expect is a well crafted and stupendous display of music from a classier but bloodier era.

Words. Sam J. Valdés López.

PS: No, really, listen to Matt “Vocals like Sex” Berninger:

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