BANCO DEL MUTUO SOCCORSO: DONNA PLAUTILLA (1989)
1) Ed Io Canto; 2) Cantico; 3) Piazza Dell'Oro; 4) Mille Poesie; 5) Un Giorno Di Sole; 6) Un Uomo Solo; 7) Bla, Bla, Bla; 8) E Luce Fu; 9) Mille Poesie (version 2); 10) Donna Plautilla.
Finally, an Eighties album from Banco that does not at all sound like the Eighties... hmm, I wonder if this could have anything to do with the fact that all of the recordings here allegedly date from the late 1960s / early 1970s? The decision to open the vaults and flood the fans with pre-proto-nostalgic demos, recorded way back when DiGiacomo was not even a member of the band yet, and most of the vocals were handled by the Nocenzi brothers themselves, came at a strange time — just two years earlier, Gianni had left the band for good in order to embark on a solo career, and what with ...E Via being the latest and «greatest» trace of their legacy, the band must have looked essentially finished for everybody still the least bit concerned.
So the fact that they turned to their almost archaeological past was quite telling: you do not usually bother publishing your teenage scraps unless (a) you happen to be one of the greatest bands in the world, in which case your legions of fans will be happy to buy anything, or (b) you happen to be totally defunct, in which case your three or four remaining fans will be happy to buy anything. And Donna Plautilla offers few revelations — by default, it happens to be the best Banco album of the decade due to utter lack of competition, but in the overall scheme of things, it is primarily of interest for the historian.
The songs are surprisingly well recorded: these are not bare-bones demos, but full, professional studio productions, background harmonies, multiple overdubs and all — strange enough, there seems to be no trace of this material ever having been officially released, even though I am pretty sure that some of these songs could have been turned into (at least) modest hits on the Italian market. Rather predictably, this is mainly «sunny» Italian art-pop, already with some baroque tendencies, but very much derivative of the typical Italian scene, particularly in the vocal department — and, speaking of vocals, Vittorio Nocenzi's singing is not all that bad: nowhere near as distinctive, sharp, or «soulful» as DiGiacomo's, but also less manneristic and overwrought. Fans of Francesco should probably stay away in the first place, but non-fans of Francesco who hold the opinion that his singing frequently distracts one, in an irritating manner, from the intricacies of the music, could actually find satisfaction — provided, that is, that the melodies were awesome in any way, and it looks like they are not.
If the songs are arranged in chronological order (I am not sure), then there is a clear «growth» tendency: the first song, ʽEd Io Cantoʼ, sounds like a typical late-Sixties pop «nugget», a hybrid of hip British psychedelic style with Italian dramatism that is neither too inventive nor too catchy, while the last one — the instrumental title track — already boasts the trademark Nocenzi organ / piano duo in full flight, engaging in a flashy jazzy duel reminiscent of contemporary Traffic (some of the glissandos and stuff sound inspired by ʽGladʼ off John Barleycorn). In between you have it all — hyper-driven, corny acoustic ballads (ʽCanticoʼ); distorted heavy piano boogie (ʽPiazza Dell'Oroʼ); even an early attempt at a «universalist» epic anthem (ʽE Luce Fuʼ).
In short, they were trying hard, but the short art-pop song format just does not yield good results for these guys — they never really hit their stride until they'd finally worked out the long multi-part instrumental form. Essentially, it is just that some bands function best in «Procol Harum mode» while others have limited pop sensibility and tend to thrive in nineteen-minute long symphonic rock à la Yes environments. Thus, Donna Plautilla, while listenable overall and having its occasional moments, clearly shows that, as an «art-pop singles band», the early Banco had no chance whatsoever at being noticed in the crowd — there is nothing here except for general competence. If you want yourself some really solid «Mediterranean» art-pop from the era, equally influenced by Romance and British (as well as Greek) spirits, check out Aphrodite's Child instead — hooks galore, plenty of atmosphere, and surprising diversity out there that expose Donna Plautilla for the timid training camp that it really was.
Nevertheless, the album is unquestionably of great importance for those wishing to experience and assess the Banco curve from start to finish — after all, the marvels of ʽR.I.P.ʼ and ʽMetamorphosiʼ did not come out of nowhere. And just because the brothers' playing technique is already well established, as well as for the sake of having, that way, secured at least one mildly worthy release in the 1980s (through cheating, but would we rather have another ...E Via? no way!), I am definitely not giving it a thumbs down.