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V/A - ...And all the Pieces Matter: Five Years of Music from The Wire

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Artist: V/A

Album: ...And all the Pieces Matter: Five Years of Music from The Wire

Label: Nonesuch

Review date: Mar. 31, 2008

The crime novels of George Pelecanos were my gateway to HBO’s universally acclaimed dramatic series The Wire. Before joining the show’s creative team, he wrote a series of books that concerned themselves with pawns in the drug and criminal investigation realms of Washington D.C. and its periphery. Pelecanos’ grim portraits of urban rot forced the reading audience to turn hard questions of race, entitlement,and perceived notions of justice upon themselves, and not necessarily feel good about the conclusions. No one gets off the hook in any of his books, least of all the reader.

There are many similarities between The Wire and these novels, but most relevant to the discussion at hand is their shared use of music as a tone-setting device that drops the reader headfirst into the necessary environments: the ubiquitous urban drug den, the grimy office of the small time criminal, the sickeningly warm police cruiser left idling for hours on end... We’re not talking about merely name-checking bands and artists for the simple pleasure of doing so, and one shouldn’t think that The Wire or novels like Hard Revolution or King Suckerman are self-indulgent mixtapes strung together by an incidental plotline. Rather, they are all gateways to worlds that most of us are fortunate enough to avoid, but where the soundtrack reveals important details about those who do actually live there.

The Wire’s style was already well-established when Pelecanos was brought on board as a contributing writer at the end of the series’ first season, but one can’t help wondering if the show’s use of musical cues to similarly stirring effect was enhanced by his arrival. The Wire has repeatedly been called “a novel on TV,” with each episode being emblematic of a new chapter. It is generally agreed that Pelecanos’ writing style meshed brilliantly with that of the show’s other writers and its creator David Simon, and it’s fair to say that the group collaboration has resulted in an adventurous re-thinking of the way music can bolster a visual.

“There is no traditional soundtrack on The Wire, no scored background music intended to cue your emotions or instruct you how to feel,” Pelecanos explains in the liner notes to ...And all the Pieces Matter. “All of the music on our show, except for the music used in the title/credit sequences and the montages that conclude each season, is source music. This means that the tunes emanate from a source -- car radio, subwoofers, club stereo, elevator speakers -- within the scene itself. What you hear is what might actually come from the open windows of the cars and SUVs rolling through B’more neighborhoods on any given night.”

This cinematic technique enhances the show’s realism with a unity of sound and vision that’s unlike anything that’s come before it. It doesn’t take lavish devotion or repeat viewings to fuse The Wire’s images with their musical consorts, since they clearly exist as equal components of a singular mechanism. For example, the use of the Pogues’ “Body of an American” in a critical funeral sequence hits such a glorious symbiosis that disassociating the song from the visual seems utterly absurd. One without the other is a disservice to everyone involved.

With the case laid bare by innumerable critics and an ever-growing fan base, one could argue that The Wire is what’s finally illuminating just how bad most TV cop dramas really are. The sub-CSI: Postal Crimes Unit nonsense of network television seems utterly laughable by comparison, with the on-camera entrances of their carefully-manicured cops and robbers signaled by musical selections that might just as well turn up in car commercials or an ad for the Superbowl. (Unless, of course, the sight and sound of David Caruso walking in slo-mo across a beach to the forced strains of pedestrian rap-metal somehow works you into a lather.)

“Most smart people cannot watch most TV,” Simon argues, “because it has generally been a condescending medium, explaining everything immediately, offering no ambiguities, and using dialogue that simplifies the idiosyncratic ways in which people in different worlds actually communicate.” Clearly, Simon’s predilection for such ambiguity has carried over to this disc’s tracklist, which distills 600+ musical cues from the show’s five seasons to 23 memorable songs from across the genre spectrum. Also included are an additional 12 tracks of poignant dialogue that nicely enhance the overall listening experience for hardcore fans.

...And all the Pieces Matter features four versions of the Tom Waits-penned “Way Down in the Hole,” a variant of which serves as the opening score to each season of the show. Included here are arrangements by the Neville Brothers, Domaje, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and the Waits original, but not the Steve Earle rendition featured in the show’s fifth and final season. (Earle’s commanding “I Feel Aright,” which served as season two’s gripping closing montage is included, thankfully.)

At the beat-oriented end of the spectrum, this compilation is well served by contributions from some of the finest members of Baltimore’s unique hip-hop culture. Bossman’s “Ayo” is a recklessly manic speaker-cranker with a room shaking 808, and DJ Technics’ “My Extra Life” showcases the sound of the city’s storied club scene, and says much about an organic music community that’s yet to be compromised by the specter of outside influence. (Both of these tracks re-appear on the Beyond Hamsterdam compilation of strictly Baltimore-based musicians. That collection, which also features ace hip-hop tracks from Mullyman and Tyree Colion, is a nice augmentation to ...And all the Pieces Matter, but might have been better suited as its bonus disc, rather than a stand-alone release.)

In addition to the album’s many expected high points, such as the fiercely powerful Blake Leyh instrumental which rolls during each show’s closing credits, or Solomon Burke’s heart-rending cover of Van Morrison’s “Fast Train,” the best moment comes completely out of left field: Michael Franti (formerly of the Beatnigs and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphopricy) and his group Spearhead turn in an orchestral slo-jam that masterfully addresses cultural genocide, the war on drugs, stem cell research and other ethical dilemmas of modern existence, and does so with a pedigree not far from William DeVaughn’s “Be Thankful for What You’ve Got.” The song’s lyrics and swelling instrumentation adeptly suspend all sense of our time and culture’s forward march, so as to speak up for those in danger of being left behind. No doubt, the introspective tenor is one that will ring familiar for fans of The Wire, and this compilation is an excellent tool with which to continue pondering the systemic questions the show has so artfully raised.

By Mike Lupica

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