This is some delightful cheese.
I imagine that most non-Italians’ experiences with Piero Umiliani start and end with “Ma Nah Ma Nah.” That’s right, the dapper gentlemen on the cover art was the genius behind the weirdo earworm that scored The Muppets one of their iconic scenes. If that’s your only taste, then hold on to whatever expectations you had when going into Grazie! and let this glorious silliness wash over you. Yes, Umiliani was a connoisseur of camp, but he was one of the finest to ever do it. Grazie! collects his Library Music, erotica scores and Spaghetti Western pieces. And this is some delightful cheese.
Everything is delivered with a wink, but it is consummately composed music. You can hear the DNA of Todd Terje’s lounge lord shtick from the opening, sultry notes of “Le Ore Che Cantano” and Giorgio Moroder undoubtedly took inspiration from Umiliani’s pomp. Even the desert-fried bad-assery of The Budos Band has something owed. But, unlike The Budos boys, you’re not expected to take any of this shit seriously. That would ruin the fun. Most of Umiliani’s songs are founded upon tasteful horn arrangements, crisp basslines and swooshing strings adding romantic spice to the proceedings. With that bedrock, much of Grazie! is liable to soundtrack a nighttime drive on the coast, or your next make-out session. For Umiliani, the two situations are probably interchangeable. There’s a playful sensuality to his compositions, prime for waggling eyebrows and “come hither” stares.
Though, at 18 tracks, we certainly see more than softcore soundscapes and muscle car fantasies. “Chaser,” despite its minute-and-a-half length, is a captivating little piece of pseudo-jazz, propelled by a crunchy piano line. “Goodmorning Sun” has a bit of Beatles psychedelia floating at the edges and another bite-sized track, “Tanto Tempo Fa” would have fit snuggly on a Miles Davis album.
It’s all mood music with a decidedly ridiculous bent. Umiliani does, though, stop blowing raspberries for two songs, adding some surprising gravity to the collection. There are two tracks titled “Nostalgia” on Grazie! and both of them live up to their name. The first of the sibling songs is startling wistful, focused on a marvelous plucked guitar and haunting synth lines. The second is a more upbeat tune, centered on a confident trumpet, but the swooning strings and sleek guitar hint at underpinnings of longing and melancholy. And considering their compatriots, the “Nostalgia” songs hit all the harder.
But these are brief detours from Umiliani’s usual scenes of fast cars and attractive people doing attractive things. There’s a strong funk backbone to many of his songs. “Coast to Coast” is propelled by a smooth-as-butter bassline and the sexy time of “Blue Lagoon” wouldn’t have its lazy strut without those faint low-end notes.
Umiliani passed away in 2001 at the age of 74. He never hit the heady heights of Ennio Morricone, at least not in the eyes of critics. He had his name attached to too many pornos for that to happen. Hell, even “Ma Nah Ma Nah” was originally used in a shockumentary film about lesbian night clubs in Sweden (no, really). Though he did score Western gem Son of Django, most of Umiliani’s work has been consumed in a decidedly more pop context, when it wasn’t jamming at strip clubs. But the music of Grazie! smiles in a way that says Umiliani didn’t want anything too grand struck to his name. Instead, he lasts thanks to a complete lack of pretention. This is music for beach bums and hippies, hopeless romantics and hormone-laden teenagers. It creates its own silly splendor.