Sure, the acting is unerringly authentic and the stories absorbing. But some of the most sublime moments on The Sopranos occur in its closing scenes, when an often little-known but fitting piece of music chimes in. Consider the use of the Kinks' ''Living on a Thin Line'' -- with its air of dissipation and fading empires -- during the strip-club finale in a recent episode involving the gruesome murder of a dancer. Or the overwhelming pathos evoked by Ben E. King's ''I Who Have Nothing,'' those sad strings hanging over Tony and Carmela as they sat in their kitchen, momentarily at peace with each other. Or Elvis Costello's ''High Fidelity'' blaring sardonically as the camera zoomed in on an FBI-bugged lamp, or Nils Lofgren's haunted lullaby ''Black Books'' accompanying Carmela's blanket-wrapped depression.
The experience is marred only by the fact that the recordings aren't listed in the credits; I've lost count of the number of people who've asked me ''You know the name of that last song?'' the day after a new episode has aired. For that reason alone, The Sopranos: Music From the HBO Original Series/Peppers & Eggs, the second compilation drawn from the show, serves a valuable public service, allowing us to attach names and titles to fairly obscure songs from the second and third seasons. That it's the savviest TV companion album ever made almost goes without saying: Anyone remember, much less still play, those Friends or X-Files discs? So let's up the praise a notch. Just as The Sopranos is better written, acted, and shot than the majority of cineplex options, Peppers & Eggs also puts most movie soundtracks to shame.
Series creator David Chase is generally given credit for selecting the tunes, and his choices are, as Paulie Walnuts might say, dead-on. True to the characters, many of the songs circle around themes of restlessness or romantic discontent (the Lofgren and King tunes, plus Otis Redding's ''My Lover's Prayer''). The sense of dread and foreboding that hovers over each episode, not to mention over everyone in Tony Soprano's home and work families, also snakes through Peppers & Eggs: Recent cuts by Vue (a pent-up cover of Suicide's ''Girl''), R.L. Burnside (the eerie techno blues ''Shuck Dub''), and Pigeonhed (the punk-funk scuzz of ''Battle Flag'') are apprehension set to music.
Judging by the inclusion of the rumbly Pretenders instrumental ''Space Invader,'' it's clear that an unusual amount of thought and record-collection excavation went into the album -- and that the songs were singled out to enhance moods rather than conquer the pop chart. Only a few of these tracks, like Kasey Chambers' alt-country piffle ''The Captain,'' have radio or TRL potential. And what would a Sopranos record be without its share of nods to the musical contributions of Italy: opera star Cecilia Bartoli's interpretation of Vivaldi, Italian rapper Jovanotti's trip-hop novelty ''Piove,'' Sinatra's bossy-nova ''Baubles, Bangles and Beads,'' and Bob Dylan's positively festive version of the Dean Martin-associated ''Return to Me,'' in which he even sings (and lucidly, at that) in Italian.
On paper, the juxtaposition of cuts must seem jarring, a mix tape gone psycho. But Peppers & Eggs feels deeper and more expansive than the first, 1999 Sopranos album, and not simply because it's one disc longer. The wild-eyed eclecticism allows you to sample a subgenre like sacred steel: gospel meets honky-tonk, heard on the rousing ''I've Got a Feeling'' by the Campbell Brothers and Katie Jackson. Chase clearly has a Stones jones (the Lost Boys' ''Affection'' is pure knockoff), but give him a big plate of ziti for not opting for the obvious. I'd forgotten entirely about ''Thru and Thru,'' a ravaged, slow-crawling Keith Richards ballad from Voodoo Lounge, and it was a delight to rediscover it. One of the only unfortunate MIAs is a lovely, acoustic Daniel Lanois instrumental used in a recent finale, which would have been preferable to the gimmicky intertwining of the Police's ''Every Breath You Take'' and Henry Mancini's ''Theme From Peter Gunn.''
Not surprisingly, a few of the songs lose their force when heard without the accompanying scenes. Yet it doesn't take a Dr. Melfi to see the effortless way in which Peppers & Eggs transcends its grab-bag quality. By expressing the innermost thoughts of characters who aren't particularly expressive, the songs are revealing little thought balloons -- balloons that, like many other things on The Sopranos, are quickly shot down when reality knocks once again. A-
The Sopranos: Peppers & Eggs
COLUMBIA/SONY MUSIC SOUNDTRAX