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The "Sopranos" soundtrack

By Gary Susman

JANUARY 10, 2000:  Why is The Sopranos so good that it's worth subscribing to HBO just so you can watch it? Sure, it's a panoramic drama (that's also wickedly funny) about the American Dream gone sour. And sure, it's the greatest Mafia saga since Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather series and Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas. And yes, there's plenty of praise to go around for the sharpness of series creator David Chase's writing and the layered performances of the much-Emmy-nominated cast.

But no small part of The Sopranos' appeal is its impeccable soundtrack of both new and classic rock tunes, one that shows Chase and company to have an ear for evocative and complementary pop as acute as that of Scorsese himself. Since the show is as much about Tony Soprano's psyche and memory as it is about his attempt to juggle his duties to both his home family and his crime family, it's apt that the tunes balance boomer nostalgia with current VH1-type artists and more menacing gangsta sounds. Blending the specific with the universal, the show's songs create the ideal mental jukebox for a New Jersey mobster who's also an ordinary middle-aged upper-middle-class dad.

It's no wonder that Sopranos fans have been clamoring since the show's debut a year ago for a soundtrack CD, if only to own a copy of A3's grim, percolating themesong, "Woke Up This Morning (Chosen One Mix)." At last, in anticipation of the second-season premiere (on January 16), we have The Sopranos: Music from the HBO Original Series (Play-Tone/Columbia/Sony Music Soundtrax), which offers that track plus songs from both the first and the upcoming season.

Supposedly, Chase first heard the "Woke Up This Morning" on the car radio, and indeed, it's the perfect song to blast through Tony Soprano's speakers as he drives home to suburban Jersey during the show's opening credits. Known in their native UK as Alabama 3, A3 owe as much to Willie Dixon as to the Chemical Brothers. "Woke Up" offers a sinister electronic groove beneath samples of Muddy Waters, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Howling Wolf, as well as a rumbling, blues/soul-inflected lyric of implied violence and vengeance: "Woke up this morning/Got yourself a gun."

The album's contemporary spin on old-school blues continues with R.L. Burnside's "It's Bad, You Know." Burnside, the legendary Mississippi back-porch guitarist who's been discovered in his 70s by such hipsters as Jon Spencer, creates monster riffs that work well in big-beat remixes. There are also several blues-inflected classic rock tracks, much heard yet still vital, including Cream's oddly unsettling "I Feel Free," Bo Diddley's roaring "I'm a Man," and Them's "Mystic Eyes," which is powered by a galloping beat, a mad swirl of organ and harmonica, and the yowling chants of the wild Van Morrison.

Naturally, the CD features tracks by several New Jersey gangsta rappers. From Bruce Springsteen, there's his ominous, acoustic "State Trooper," about a fugitive running from his own demons as well as the law. Erstwhile Springsteen sideman Little Steven (who plays one of Tony's crew on the show) and his Disciples of Soul contribute "Inside of Me," a '60s-style Phil Spector-ish rocker from 1982. Wyclef Jean checks in with "Blood Is Thicker Than Water," a Sopranos-inspired tale of betrayal and punishment. And from mob-movie sine qua non Frank Sinatra we get "It Was a Very Good Year," which, like Tony, is nostalgic without being the least bit sentimental.

Also adding to the air of foreboding is Nick Lowe's "The Beast in Me," an acoustic ballad of Jekyll-like mildness in which Lowe trembles at the specter of his own Hyde. Los Lobos offer a new song, "Viking," about a bad-ass neighborhood character who's gone, an apparent victim of the inevitable; with its distorted vocals and howling guitars, it may be the hardest-rocking tune the band have released in years. Further welcome fury comes from Elvis Costello and the Attractions' 1996 song "Complicated Shadows," with cackling guitars matching Costello's taunts directed at "all you gangsters and rude clowns." Then there's Bob Dylan in "Gotta Serve Somebody," warning, "It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord," but everyone has to answer to someone.

The album closes with a new ballad by the reunited Eurythmics called "I've Tried Everything" that seems to reflect the desperation and bitterness often felt by Tony's wife, Carmela. It's an apt finale in this a collection of haunted tunes for a show about people who, like most of us, have made some dubious moral choices and live every day with the consequences.

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