In this moody and contemplative album, the Neapolitan singer-songwriter cuts to the heart of what makes Italy tick
If you’ve been an active reader of Around The World In 200 Albums, you may have noticed the spectrum of Italian artists that we have reviewed so far, each one demonstrating either the good, the bad or the ugly that Italy has to offer. To make the case for this, one could say that Andrea Bocelli, with his beautiful operatic style, clearly epitomises the idyllic, romanticised version of Italy that many have of the nation, while hard-rocker and all-round bad boy, Vasco Rossi, represents the dangerous yet alluring side of the country, perhaps in a not too dissimilar way as to how the mafia have been glorified in popular culture for many decades. Meanwhile, Joel’s adept review of Karima 2G’s album, 2G, brings to light the repulsive side to Italian politics and the racist sentiments that are unfortunately deeply prevalent in Italian society. Yet, whilst these artists’ work evoke a starkly different interpretation of Italy, all of which are in some respects valid, none of them manage to marry these ideas together and truly represent Italy for what it is like Enzo Gragnaniello does.
“This slightly mysterious edge that surrounds the album could be described in some moments as ‘cool’ and at others ‘ominous’ but either way, changes in emotional state are constantly induced by the record.”
Gragnaniello comes from the city that is perhaps most illustrative of all that Italy has to offer both positive and negative – Naples. The city that one can stand in awe of the baroque architecture, be dazzled by the beautiful Amalfi coastline and dine on the perfect pizza is the same one that could have you killed by the abnormally crazy drivers on the road, the Camorra, or if one is really unlucky, Mount Vesuvius. Yet, this yin and yang is exactly what makes Italy what it is (though any proud Neapolitan would say that this insane yet appealing paradox applies to Naples far more than it does the rest of the country). The blissful joy is always one moment away from being destroyed by the madness and vice versa. However, that is the beauty of Gragnaniello’s album L’Erba Cattiva, as it treads the fine line between paradise and pandemonium with perfection.
There is a great contradiction on the music on this album as it upholds a relaxed and tense state throughout. However, this confusion does not come from a lack of sincerity. Rather, the opposite. Gragnaniello’s authenticity with which he sings can be heard in his husky and whispery voice which is reminiscent of Tom Waits. Yet, unlike Waits he is not accompanied simply by one or two instruments in which his voice is forced to become centre-piece of the music. Rather L’Erba Cattiva is full of a variety of instruments that make it become this almost mysterious Mediterranean mix of blues, folk, and pop. This slightly mysterious edge that surrounds the album could be described in some moments as ‘cool’ and at others ‘ominous’ but either way, changes in emotional state are constantly induced by the record.
What is perhaps most notable is that despite being a very proudly Neapolitan album, with much of the album in his Gragnaniello’s own dialect, the record features many instruments that are certainly not indigenous to Italy and have its origins elsewhere. Abdullah Chhadeh's playing of the qanun and Erasmo Petringa’s playing of the oud signify to the cynic in me that Gragnaniello is trying to distinguish his music from a typical Italian sound much like how a Napoli fan might perhaps not get fully behind supporting his nation at a World Cup. It is this kind of thinking that I am sure Gragnaniello would not appreciate, as realistically he innocently probably tried to include instruments from the Middle East/North Africa to improve the sound of his work and as a homage to the other cultures that have influenced his musical journey. For me, this album works perfectly as a complete piece. However, were I to be forced to recommend one track, I’d have to go for the title-track as it is just utterly beautiful. If you want to get a feel for the real Italy with all of its complexity, then this is the album for you.