Saturday, October 16, 2021

Record Roundup: Plugged In

Electricity has been a driving force in music at least Leon Theremin developed his pioneering instrument over a century ago. So here's a collection of recent records that all rely on alternating currents, starting with more abstract efforts and ramping up to something more visceral. 

Matt Evans - Touchless Sonically, this is quite a different vibe from the percussion-based soundscapes on New Topographics, Evans' brilliant 2020 album. But as he helpfully points out, the methodology - a blend of electronics, field recordings, and acoustic instruments - remains the same, it's just the emotions being limned here are a world away from the more philosophical ideas being explored there. Specifically, Evans fearlessly delves into the realms of grief and loss he has had to live in since his partner, artist Devra Freelander, was tragically killed in a biking accident, arriving at a series of semi-ambient tracks that strand us on an arctic permafrost for much of the album. But when you listen deeper and hear the contribution of "practice room piano" - such a deeply human sound - along with Tristan Kasten-Krause's upright bass, David Lackner's sax, and Elori Saxl's violin, things warm up quite a bit. Contemplative, melancholy, and seamlessly presented, Touchless further expands on Evans' overall project, and may give others succor in their own moments of sorrow. As with New Topographics, the artwork is by Freelander, and reflects yet another facet of her multifarious talents.

Luce Celestiale - Discepolato Nella Nuova Era This is a debut from a duo made up of Andalusian painter Lorena Serrano Rodriguez and Tuscan "electronic sorcerer" Devid Ciampalini and the result is pure alchemy. Combining vintage synths, percussion, and sound generators, they create a candy-coated sci-fi fantasia of imaginary galaxies. Pere Ubu's synth magus Allen Ravenstine would heartily approve of the abstraction and textural variety while maybe getting a little jealous of just how much FUN this is to listen to. Delight awaits so don't hesitate!

Freak Slug - Slow Down Babe I was introduced to the work of Xenya Genovese when HBO's audacious skater series Betty featured her cover of Joy Division's Disorder in a scene that had me hitting Shazam. Her draggy, dreamy take has no shortage of attitude as she takes on post-punk bedrock without seeming intimidated. On her latest album, she collaborates with producer Dwyer for a series of downbeat slow jams spun from looped guitar strums, lo-fi beats, a pulsating synth clouds, and her airy voice. It's almost all mood as one song blends into another, but its a mood I'm happy to have on tap.

Scott Hirsch - Windless Day Building on the career high point of 2018's Lost Time Behind The Moon,  Hirsch's approach has never been more confident or clear than it is here. First, start with the songs, which are instantly old favorites in the Americana vein, drawing on folk, country, blues, and soul. Next, consider the production, which features every sound burnished to a warm glow, whether Clavinet (Phil Cook in the house, perhaps?), as on the slow burn funk of Dreamer, or Hirsch's trademark pedal steel, as on Dreamer, sung with Kelly McFarland. On the instrumental Redstone, he touches on soundtrack territory, perhaps auditioning for Netflix's next revisionist western. Either way, it's atmospheric, and Drummer Of Shiloh, a collaboration with The Dead Tongues, is even more so. The word that keeps coming to mind while listening to Windless Day is rich - and this album is so rich in spirit and sound that it lives up to that from many perspectives. Enrich your ears. 

Summer Like The Season - Hum FINALLY! I've been waiting for the first full-length from this Detroit-based "bizarre" art-pop band since I saw them cram the stage at Sidewalk back in 2018. Fueled by Summer Krinsky's polyrhythmic drumming, "cram" is still the operative word as each song is filled with sonic details, whether tricky percussive patterns, throbbing bass lines, funky guitars, splashy synths, or a multitude of vocal parts. Krinsky also has a quirky but very flexible voice that can wend its way through any serpentine melody she devises. The band also excels at episodic songwriting, as on Stranger, which hopscotches through three modules in the first minute or so, before returning to the opening duel between Summer's high-pitched vocal and a nasty little post-punk guitar part, all underpinned by a subterranean bass and dance-punk drums. Tune into Krinsky's sessions on Twitch to see some of her audio collage and sculpting skills in action, methods that infuse this kaleidoscopic album with freshness, creativity, and artfulness. I have never doubted that SLTS is one of America's most exciting bands - now I have the evidence to prove it.

Matthew E. White - K-Bay Has it really been six years since White doubled-down on his expansive soul and gospel-infused Americana on Fresh Blood? Indeed it has. He's been busy since then, releasing a lush set of often sublime cover songs with Flo Morrissey in 2017 and an exploratory album with artist Lonnie Holley earlier this year. Some of those sonic excursions touched his process for making this album, which is anything but a tripling down on his earlier sound. Embracing a newly declamatory voice, these songs are packed with touches from electro-pop, R&B, funk, disco, and Krautrock, swirling through a variety of styles, sometimes in the same song. I'm not surprised to see Natalie Prass get co-write credits on a few songs as her 2018 smash, The Future And The Past, pushed White's Spacebomb studio in some sleek and shiny new directions. 

White's arranging powers have only grown, too, as a song like Take Your Time (And Find That Orange To Squeeze) proves, with its sweeping piano and gleaming horns. Fell Like An Ax is another example of the bold choices, with burbling synths competing with strings and what sounds first like an Ellington horn arrangement and then a distant salsa band, eventually floating off in a cloud of woodwinds. Lyrically, he's often in as frisky and antic a mood as the music, with more lust and love than the odes to inner strength on his previous albums. He seems to have a specific object of his affections, too, as the name Judy crops up on multiple songs, not just the one named Judy. 

On Only In America/When The Curtains Of The Night Are Peeled Back he goes into social commentary mode, reflecting on our country's dark legacy and dedicating the song to some of its victims, from Emmett Till to Sandra Bland. Perhaps a little heavy-handed lyrically,  the song generates equal parts uplift and introspection thanks to the extraordinary orchestration. George Floyd does not get a mention as the song was written in 2017, which is further proof that White's heart is in the right place. Overall, White's vision of what America CAN be comes through loud and clear in the stew of sounds he stirs up with such daring aplomb throughout this knockout album.

Colin Linden - bLow After a 45 year career inspired by a seismic encounter with Howling Wolf when he was 11, Linden, who has played with The Band, Gregg Allman, and Bob Dylan, among many others, has just now made his first electric blues album. And he sounds like a hungry new artist, whether letting rip outrageously overdriven solos or digging into a seductive backbeat. There's nothing revolutionary here, just blues and boogie delivered with the freedom - and occasionally abandon - that only great mastery can produce. No wonder Lucinda Williams chose Linden as the first outside release on her Highway 20 label. Put them on the road together and there will be good rockin' nights a-plenty. 

Amyl And The Sniffers - Comfort To Me These Aussie punks could have flamed out after that explosive debut. Instead, they tightened up their songwriting and nailed down their playing so there's slightly less chaos but no less power on this follow-up. Singer Amy Taylor is still a force of nature, delivering her outsider imprecations (Freaks To The Front!) in a controlled shout. The songs are sometimes about bigger topics, like Knifey, which has Taylor coming on like Courtney Barnett's more dangerous sister: "All I ever wanted was to walk by the park/All I ever wanted was to walk by the river, see the stars/Please, stop fucking me up/Out comes the night, out comes my knifey/This is how I get home nicely." But visceral impact trumps introspection every time in the Amyl universe. Taylor's stagecraft is already the stuff of legend and it's easy to picture her antics after initiating an especially good solo from guitarist Dec Martens with a guttural "Ugh" on Capital. The show taking place in your head as they steamroll through the set only adds to the experience - I hope I get see it in person someday.  

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Sunday, October 03, 2021

Bond, James Bond: Ranking The Theme Songs

For the first decade of my life, my dad worked six days a week, eight hours a day, as a psychiatrist, to not only keep his four kids in everyday clover, but also so we could have unique experiences from time to time. As a parent now myself, I question the idea of being essentially absent 90 percent of the time so you can put on a big show later, but I am also grateful for the unforgettable things we did, one of which was getting six people on an ocean liner that takes them to France and then go on a tour of Europe for a month. This is how I found myself on the SS France at the age of nine watching something called Live And Let Die in the ships crushed-velvet jewel box of a theater. It was almost more than my pre-pubescent mind could take, just the sleekness of it all, whether the guns, cars, boats, or Roger Moore's chiseled jawline. 

While I recognize the extreme privilege of that scenario, I also embrace it as the most James Bond way to be introduced to James Bond. That was the start of my 007 obsession, too, which later included "Bonding" afternoons with my brother-in-law, in which we made our way through the entire series on rented VHS tapes, as well as several years where we saw the latest flicks on opening night. I also read everything Ian Fleming ever wrote and several books about him and the Bond films. One of my fascinations with the whole thing, besides the gripping tales and  eye-popping visuals, is the idea of one man creating something so enduring that it eventually becomes an industry all its own. Part of that industry didn't become standard until the third film: the James Bond Theme Song. As a music fanatic, nothing thrills me more than when the opening titles of a Bond film are accompanied by a song I can fully endorse.

But I also wouldn't be much of a Bond fan if I wasn't a critical Bond fan and I recognize that there have been choices along the way, from actors and screenwriters to directors and musicians, that resulted in a product that was, to put it kindly, less than ideal. Does the name Timothy Dalton ring any bells? Don't feel ashamed if not - he only made two films with the franchise in the 80s before returning to near-anonymity. And Moonraker is not just a lesser Bond film, it's just a bad movie, period. As for the music, much of that over the years was under the control of the great John Barry, who scored 11 films in the series, which now numbers 25 official entries (there were also two made by outside forces, not included here). Barry was remarkably adaptable as a composer, helping the series move from the 60s to the 70s and 80s, but always plied his trade with a flair for lush arrangements and sweeping melodies.

Barry's plush and dramatic style also infused the theme song for many years, establishing a template that often included bold brass and neck-snapping dynamics, usually driven by a vocalist with a big personality. Some of the best Bond songs became hits in their own right, leading to a latter-day scrabbling for chart success by employing popular stars who were maybe not the most suitable for the Bond sound, rather than letting the integrity of the ideas drive acceptance by audiences beyond the Bond core. With the conclusion of the Daniel Craig series finally reaching screens, there could be no better time to rank all of the theme songs from best to worst than now. At least until the next film!

A note about the James Bond Theme: Although the familiar twang of the James Bond theme is arguably the theme song for first film, Dr. No, since it went on to become a regular part of the series I did not include it in the ranking. It is a terrific piece of music, however, from the interlocking brass arrangements to Vic Flick's serrated guitar, and the way everything assembles to create an aura of mystery and excitement. Although credited to Monty Norman, who did much of the calypso-infused music for Dr. No, Barry may have written it and most certainly arranged it, using some ideas from The Bee's Knees, a song by The John Barry Seven. Whatever his role, he was paid $1,000 for his troubles - and handed the prize of scoring many of the films that followed.

1. Goldfinger (1964) - Shirley Bassey (Leslie Bricusse - Anthony Newley - John Barry) While not the first to have a theme song per se (see #7), the third movie was the first to set the template for how the theme song would be used for most of the rest of the series. And, man, did they create a tough act to follow! From the attention-getting opening with its wailing brass to Bassey's titanic performance (which made the Welsh singer an instant star) to the clever lyrics, Barry and co. did not put a foot wrong here. Fun fact: that's Jimmy Page, in his early days as a session man, strumming guitar on the track. He had a front row seat to Bassey's collapse after hitting those final high notes!

2. You Only Live Twice (1967) - Nancy Sinatra (Leslie Bricusse - John Barry) Soaring strings and swirling harp atop a lush bed of french horns open this pure fantasy of a song for the fifth movie. While Sinatra doesn't have the same power as Bassey, her penetrating, vibrato-free soprano cuts through the arrangement like a laser while she delivers the lyrics with perfect articulation. You'd never guess that Sinatra was so nervous that Barry had to assemble the vocal from 25 separate takes! Barry's arrangement is packed full of details and grounded by a distorted guitar line that snakes through the song. Vic Flick again?

3. Live And Let Die (1973) - Paul McCartney & Wings (Paul McCartney - Linda McCartney) After a dispute with producer Cubby Broccoli, Barry took a hiatus from Bond, leaving shoes so big they could only be filled by an ex-Beatle and his producer, George Martin. And, despite seeing it as "a job of work," Sir Paul accomplished the mission with aplomb, concocting ear candy perfect for seventies radio with a suite-like song that combines orchestral grandeur, rock theatrics, and a dash of reggae. Although Broccoli wanted Thelma Houston to sing it, I'm sure he changed his tune when the track hit #1 in the U.S.

4. No Time To Die (2020) - Billie Eilish (Billie Eilish - Finneas O'Connell) There's a fascinating moment in The World's A Little Blurry, the documentary about Eilish, where she and O'Connell are up against a deadline and need to finish their Bond entry on a tour bus. O'Connell is pushing her to up the drama in her vocal but she's resistant, saying, "I hate belting." But you can't have a classic Bond song without it and when she lets it rip after the intimate, almost conversational opening, it's thrilling. Hans Zimmer's orchestration and Johnny Marr's guitar hit the right notes, too, making for the best Bond song in decades. Further proof that a touch of darkness is an important part of the Bond sound world. Watch it live from the Brit Awards for a definitive performance. 

5. Diamonds Are Forever (1971) - Shirley Bassey (Don Black - John Barry) For Sean Connery's return to a role he had abdicated for the prior film, Barry returned to first principles, bringing Bassey back for a turn that was nearly as fabulous as her first. Barry's arrangement adds some novel touches, too, like subtle wah wah guitar and driving electric bass.

6. Nobody Does It Better (1977) - Carly Simon (Marvin Hamlisch - Carole Bayer Sager) In which 70s schlock merchants put tongues firmly in cheek and come up a winner with a Bond theme that is all wide-lapeled romance. Many Bond songs prior were about the villain or hinged on the film title or plot, but has Hamlisch pointed out "It was time that Bond be pretentious enough and vain enough to have a song written about him." Also clever was the way they embedded the film title in the lyrics rather than the song title: "Like heaven above me/The spy who loved me..." Driven by a melody even Radiohead couldn't deny, the song was all over the radio after Roger Moore's third film hit cinemas. 

7. Thunderball (1965) - Tom Jones (John Barry - Don Black) Something must be in the water in Wales as the only man who could almost beat Bassey at her own game was also Welsh. While it's a somewhat formulaic follow-up to Goldfinger, Barry and Black still deliver excitement - and Jones blows the vocal OUT. Originally the theme song was supposed to be called Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and sung by Bassey, who was then replaced(!) by Dionne Warwick. The ensuing kerfuffle died down when the song was scrapped for Jones' Thunderball.

8. Moonraker (1979) - Shirley Bassey (John Barry - Hal David) It will take more than time to dim a voice like Bassey's, which sounds unchanged from the 60s in this, her third and final theme for the series. Unlike the overstuffed disaster onscreen, Barry's arrangement is restrained (for him, anyway) and a better  evocation of starlit space than all the special effects by Industrial Light & Magic.

9. From Russia With Love (1963) - Matt Monroe (Lionel Bart) Although the second film in the series opens with an instrumental theme, having this song in the midst of the film must have given the producers ideas about how a song with the same title as the movie could work to boost the brand. Sung by Matt Monroe, one of several Frank Sinatra soundalikes around in the early 60s, it has an intriguing mixture of gravitas and romance. 

10. A View To A Kill (1985) - Duran Duran (Duran Duran - John Barry) For Moore's last outing as 007, the 80s superstars collaborated with Barry and Chic's Bernard Edwards and created the most successful theme song of the franchise's first 30 years. It's also one of their best songs, a minor-key verse that's pure Bond abutting a chorus that has all the pompadoured bombast that defined new romantic Euro-pop at its peak. The use of digital sampling (by John Elias) made the song sound futuristic while emulating the quick-cutting style that's a signature of the Bond films.

11. Skyfall (2012) - Adele (Adele Adkins - Paul Epworth) A decade on, my antipathy towards Adele has subsided enough for me to hear that this is a pretty good Bond song. It has some of the mystery and drama we've come to expect and incorporates the chord changes of the James Bond Theme in a nice homage to the history of the series. The lyrics also do a decent job of telegraphing the somber mood of Craig's third film. But I will also say that Adele's bizarre relationship to vowel sounds ("skyfoal" "crumbowls" instead of "skyfall" and "crumbles," etc.) can still drive me crazy and putting the song at this point of the list is more a reflection of the degradation to come than the actual quality of the song.

12. For Your Eyes Only (1981) - Sheena Easton (Bill Conti - Mike Leeson) As this is unequivocally Moore's finest Bond film, it's too bad John Barry was a tax exile at the time and couldn't be involved. The song isn't a total disaster, but the complete lack of sensuality in Easton's vocals and the glittery arrangement put it too deeply into "adult contemporary" territory for my taste. 

13. We Have All The Time In The World (1969) - Louis Armstrong (John Barry - Hal David) For On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the first Bond film without Sean Connery, the producers returned to the From Russia With Love template of opening with an instrumental theme and including a song midway through the film. As it is the song most closely associated with George Lazenby's one shot as 007, I included it instead of the opening theme, which is a better piece of music. This breezy ditty with Herb Alpert-esque trumpet is pleasant enough but has few of the sonic hallmarks of classic Bond. While its cavity-inducing sweetness is somewhat mitigated by Armstrong's gruff vocals and the fact that it hinges on the death of Bond's first wife (played by Diana Rigg), it remains pure sap. It's not much a song and ends in a curiously unsatisfying fashion, but Satch always delivers, thus it's not ranked lower.

14. The Living Daylights (1987) - A-ha (Pal Waaktaar - John Barry) Sounding more than ever like the poor man's Duran Duran, this clanky retread succeeds mainly thanks to Barry's strings and stabs of brass. Some things never go out of style, unlike the cheap synths employed by the band. It's a little stiff, just like Dalton's first time as Bond. It's also not the valedictory one would have desired for Barry's last film in the series. He died in 2011 and, while there were moments where it seemed like he would return, he never scored another Bond movie. The good news about that is that he was freed up to compose the music for Dances With Wolves, one of the greatest soundtracks of all time.

15. License To Kill (1989) - Gladys Knight (Narada Michael Walden - Jeffrey Cohen - Walter Afanasieff - John Barry - Leslie Bricusse - Anthony Newley) I'm not sure what Frankenstein legalities caused the inclusion of Barry and co. in the credits. Based on its unremittingly blandness, however, maybe it would have been better if they had actually written the song. Knight's vocal is fine but Walden and Afanasieff have proved time and again that when you drain the rhythm and blues from R&B, there ain't much left. Pity, as this was Dalton's best attempt at being Bond.

16. The World Is Not Enough (1999) - Garbage (David Arnold - Don Black) For Pierce Brosnan's entertaining but forgettable third outing as Bond, Arnold again played the role of a souped-up high-tech John Barry, something he does fairly well. So it makes sense that the theme would have a retro resonance, with a huge orchestra, including a tsunami of harps, and some twangy guitar. I might have ranked it higher were it not for Shirley Manson's underwhelming vocal.  A better song, while not quite title sequence material, was Arnold and Black's Only Myself To Blame, sung by Scott Walker in a stunning return to his 60s croon, which was used over the end credits. 

17. All Time High (1983) - Rita Coolidge (John Barry - Tim Rice) Even lyricist Rice conceded this was "not one of the most exciting Bond songs" and it's mainly pure inoffensiveness that keeps it from ranking lower. An abandoned cover version by Bassey shows that it could have been better with a stronger voice than Coolidge's - but not by much. Funny that they felt Octopussy was an appropriate name for a movie but not a song!

18. GoldenEye (1995) - Tina Turner (Bono - The Edge) On paper, post-comeback Turner is a perfect candidate to sing a Bond theme. However she sounds unengaged with this song, which is melodically barren, and delivers a wooden performance. Nellee Hooper does what he can as producer to bring some Bond class to the proceedings, but seems unable to develop the weak material beyond his initial ideas. Not a promising fanfare to introduce Pierce Brosnan as 007.

19. The Man With The Golden Gun (1974) - Lulu (John Barry - Don Black) Barry returns after McCartney's triumph and gives us...this? Even with the trademark strings and brass combined with stinging guitar, the tempo is all wrong and Lulu can't seem to find a consistent way to master her voice's limitations to deliver the song. The movie wasn't much better.

20. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) - Sheryl Crow (Sheryl Crow - Mitchell Froom) It took them 15 years, but the Bond production team finally found a singer with less danger and mystery than Sheena Easton. The song itself has some good elements but Crow's singing lacks any semblance of a personality. In a bizarre twist, the original theme, written by David Arnold with Don Black and sung with panache by K.D. Lang, was relegated to the end credits. Arnold overall did a fine job with the music, but the misstep with the song only made it sting more that Barry couldn't agree on a fee to return to the franchise for Brosnan's second film.

21. Writing's On The Wall (2015) - Sam Smith (Sam Smith - Jimmy Napes) Like Crow's entry, this song has a smidgen of promise as a Bond theme, but Smith is a dreary singer with an especially egregious falsetto. To make matters worse, the producers rejected two songs by Radiohead, the epic Man Of War and the moody Spectre, either of which would have made a stunning and distinctly different opener for the film. Unfortunately, the Oscars rewarded this kind of behavior by giving a statue to Smith's regrettable entry. 

22. You Know My Name (2006) - Chris Cornell (Chris Cornell - David Arnold) For all its histrionics, this was a disappointingly generic way to herald in Craig's triumphant debut as Bond, but Casino Royale was so good I didn't care.

23. Another Way To Die (2008) - Jack White and Alicia Keys (Jack White) While many criticized Quantum Of Solace, Craig's second Bond, I thought it was a brilliantly nasty follow-up to Casino Royale. This song, however, a just a mess, filled with "musical" ideas as wrongheaded as teaming up Keys and White, who coagulate like chalk and cheese. Feel free to skip!

24. Die Another Day (2002) - Madonna (Madonna - Mirwais Ahmadza├») As much as I encourage innovation in the Bond universe, a techno parody by Madonna is not what I had in mind. Sheerly awful claptrap, ending this ranking in unnecessarily ignominious fashion! 

Many things are uncertain. But James Bond will be BACK - once they figure out who can follow Daniel Craig, that is. When it comes to the next theme song, I still maintain hope that Goldfrapp will get the nod, but there are several others, like Angel Olsen, Anika, or Jane Weaver who would do a great job. Who are you hoping to hear over a glamorous title sequence in the future?

Listen to the themes in chronological order here and my ranking in the playlist below. As the James Bond Theme is unranked, I put it at the bottom as a palate cleanser!


Note: Some quotes and information were taken from the booklet included in The Best of James Bond 30th Anniversary Limited Edition (1992), with track annotations by Steve Kolanjian. The picture above depicts John Barry in the studio with an orchestra.