It's about time -- way down in 2008 -- that HBO's series The Wire, set in the hardcore real-life world of Baltimore, finally got around to putting a soundtrack disc together from all of its seasons. The bottom line is that this David Simon-created show, like everything he did before it, isn't like anything else on television. Thank the gods. One of the most captivating, taut, and sometimes near vein-busting frustrating things they do involves the music in a particular episode, during a particular season, etc., and the space surrounding that music. It's also what they don't do: there isn't any incidental music playing in an episode, no serial music or score composed for the series. The music you hear is what's playing as the particular characters are encountering it: through a car radio, in a bar, in a restaurant, or at a party. When somebody gets locked up, or dies, there isn't any crap coming out of your TV to make you feel the obvious. As brilliant as Simon and his music supervisor, Blake Leyh (who also composed the closing credits music), are, is it possible to make this arresting and captivating manner of using music in the montage be equally powerful on a CD -- especially one where the music from four previous seasons is represented on a single disc? The answer is "no." That said, it's a good thing. While listening to this disc one will no doubt be reminded of The Wire, simply because there are snippets of dialogue used for context between tunes, but that's not the actual experience that comes from taking it in. Indeed, there are four versions of Tom Waits' "Down in the Hole" (the show's theme song) -- it is recorded by a different artist for each season, so here are the Blind Boys of Alabama from season one, Waits' original for the second, the Neville Brothers' taut stomper for season three, and Baltimore homegrown act DoMaJe's reading for the fourth season. Along the way are visits to DJ Technics' "My Life Extra," jazz piano and composition great Lafayette Gilchrist's "Assume the Position" (which is angular, funky, and tense as hell -- like the J.B.'s playing a chart by Allen Toussaint and arranged by Oliver Nelson), the Pogues' "The Body of an American," and Paul Weller's rockist cover of Dr. John's "I Walk on Gilded Splinters" (while it's not as great as the original or even as fine as Humble Pie's drunken rout of it, it is more likely to be on the radio or CD box for a character to hear than either of those).
Real is where it's at with this show. The dialogue snippets are woven seamlessly into the mix, and they feel like something completely alien and strange -- not to the music, but to your ears, as if someone is checking this on your own CD or MP3 player. There's the hip-hop of "What You Know About Baltimore" by Ogun with Phathead, along with Diablo's "Jail Flick"; Solomon Burke's deep, lonesome, and bittersweet groan "Fast Train"; the low-down woozy Southern funk and soul that is Jesse Winchester's "Step by Step"; and raucous blues in the cover of "Sixteen Tons" by the Nighthawks. Other characters play a role in this wily mess like Michael Franti and Spearhead, Bossman, Rod Lee, Steve Earle, Tyree Colion, and Mullyman, to name another few. But they are all transients: every single track in this 35-track maze is ephemeral in that it quickly passes away, but in a blink there's another one passing you on the street, like the inhabitants of a city, each with his or her own story, tales of woe, anger, disappointments, and bits of wisdom, braggadocio, and tears. So while it doesn't carry the same wallop that The Wire does, that's fine. Like the series, this isn't an easy swallow and it's not supposed to be. The fact is, though, that it carries its own punchy swagger. It's not sequenced for approval; it's sequenced as art -- low, high, popular, "edgy," whatever you want to call it. It's art man, period. It stands on its own, apart even from its obvious referents in the dialogue snippets. This is what radio used to be like back in the day; you never knew what you were gonna hear from one minute to the next. What was radio at one time? It was the soundtrack to life, and in that sense, at nearly 80 minutes, this whompy, unwieldy, unlikely wonder of a mixtape is a representation of that same thing for characters in The Wire. There is an added bonus in this handsome, silvery slipcase and digipack: the liner notes. There are three sets of them. The first is by creator Simon; the second by hard-boiled crime novelist extraordinaire, series writer, and sometimes producer and editor George Pelecanos; and the third by the fine hip-hop journalist and author Jeff Chang. The notes are alone worth the price of admission -- separated by color stills from the series, they are that good. They're provocative and revealing, yet utterly elliptical, at once mercurial and unintentionally evasive. They lay it out: you can scoop it up and take it in deep, or simply ignore or reject it. But they don't lie and neither does the music assembled here. This is a brilliantly done project. Period.