Pop: This Week's Album Releases

VARIOUS ARTISTS The Sopranos Columbia
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The Independent Culture
THE SOPRANOS is a splendid, emblematic narrative with which to close the 20th century, combining as it does two of the powerful traits that have driven the American Empire - the fascination with outlaw transgression, and the agonised introspection with which materialist alienation is so desperately combated. It's America taking a long, hard look at itself, and trying to reconcile its deadlier contradictions.

The only tracks on this soundtrack album which attempt to confront the same issues are Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody" - a crude reminder of a pecking-order beyond the purely earthly - Nick Lowe's "The Beast In Me", where surface calm disguises repressed rage with all the grim tenacity of Tony Soprano, and Elvis Costello's "Complicated Shadows", a bruising, unsentimental reflection on outlaw morality addressed to "All you gangsters and rude clowns/Who were shooting up the town/When you should have been looking for somebody to put the blame on". Not that the rest of the album wants for either attitude or style: these songs have been chosen (and, more importantly, sequenced) with the meticulous care and attention expended on the series in general, balancing archetypal mobster cliche (Sinatra's "It Was A Very Good Year") with local colour (the blue-eyed New Jersey soul of Little Steven's "Inside Of Me") and the fugitive paranoia of Springsteen's "State Trooper". Even the less pertinent tracks - Cream's "I Feel Free", Van's "Mystic Eyes", Bo's "I'm A Man" - are straight aces, exhilaration distilled into three-minute shots of R&B.

It's the two cuts that open the album which really lend it distinction, though. A typical Fat Possum blend of the raw and the cooked, "It's Bad You Know" combines RL Burnside's Hooker-esque boogie with a computerised drum programme, the old bluesman's repeated invocations of the title hanging like dark, ancient doubts about the song's deceptively confident progress, recurrent reminders of the latent horror of the gangster lifestyle. One of the year's more baffling pop mysteries, meanwhile, is how The Alabama 3's "Woke Up This Morning" failed to be reissued despite months of free promotion as the show's theme. As it is, this churning gospel-house groove offers one of the more pleasing of post-modern ironies: it's not the first time that an English group has sold US-inflected R&B back to the Americans, but it's the first time they've bought it as the theme to such a quintessentially American television series.