Review: ‘Songs, Bond Songs: The Music of 007’
This may come as a shock, but I’ve never been a fan of James Bond films. They always have confusing plots, and I get bored halfway through.
But the music is always fantastic. From the opening lines of John Barry’s James Bond theme, you get a sense of the romance, swagger, intrigue and mystery of 007 (even if I didn’t get it in the movies). Over the years, movie producers used a wide variety of artists to pen and perform James Bond movie themes, from the crooning of Shirley Bassey and Sheena Easton to pop superstars such as Wings and Duran Duran to the alternative edge of Chris Cornell and Jack White.
Andrew Curry, who has two successful compilations under his belt (Drink a Toast to Innocence and Here Comes the Reign Again) has again produced a gem of covers by alternative pop artists. But unlike the other two compilations, in which I knew most of the songs covered, there were several James Bond themes that I had never heard before. This gave me a chance to compare which version I liked better, no matter which one was the original, genuine version.
Of course, there are classics: “Live and Let Die” and “A View to a Kill” are almost impossible to improve upon. So I decided to compare each song with its cover and determine what changed in the interpretation and whether it improves upon or at least preserves the integrity of the song.
- “James Bond Theme” — Lannie Flowers improves upon John Barry’s score by creating more of an overture, incorporating elements of other Bond songs into the theme while keeping it all fast-paced with a pounding drum beat. It’s hard to beat John Barry’s classic theme, but Flowers seems to do it.
- “From Russia With Love” — Although the Stereo Twins don’t have the vocal chops that a crooner like Matt Monro had, it doesn’t matter; their vocals are still very good. Their version features eerie percussion and synthesizers that give the song that air of mystery that the original, which sounds like a cocktail hour song, doesn’t have. The harmonies help as well.
- “Goldfinger” — considered by most to be the greatest Bond song ever, I always though Bassey oversang it (but that’s her thing). In contrast, Jason Berk’s interpretation is less orchestral and more laid back vocally. It’s a refreshing change.
- “Thunderball” — Only Tom Jones can pull this one off – a bombastic, larger-than-life theme – so Jaret Reddick turns it on its head and transforms it into an almost comical power pop anthem. It’s 180 degrees from the original, but it’s bouncy, energetic and fun.
- “You Only Live Twice” — Nancy Sinatra’s version is, well, boring. In contrast, Jeff Litman and Andi Rae Healy’s cover features slow drum beats that seem to echo forever, pounding away as Healy’s girlish voice serves as a nice complement, sounding like Mazzy Star.
- “The Look of Love” — Dusty Springfield has an amazing voice, but “The Look of Love” sounds a bit like elevator music. Wyatt Funderburk updates the song with electronic drums and synthesizers, and the result is less campy and more genuine.
- “We Have All the Time in the World” — Louis Armstrong gives an admiral performance on this song, which still doesn’t seem to fit the James Bond mode. Ryan Hamilton makes it a more acoustic song but stays true to the original.
- “Diamonds are Forever” — We get Shirley Bassey again, this time more subdued, and we start getting hints of the James Bond sound with horns backing her vocals. The Corner Laughers update it with a modern alt-pop sound, and it’s catchy, even if it is in another language.
- “Live and Let Die” — We come to another Bond classic. How do you improve upon perfection? Popdudes don’t try; instead, they deliver a spot-on cover of the original; the lead singer even sounds like McCartney. It’s wonderful to hear.
- “The Man with the Golden Gun” – Lulu’s contribution to the Bond series usually gets short shrift, but it sounds like a Bond song. But Lisa Mychols takes it up a notch, delivering a powerful, guitar-laden cover full of energy.
- “Nobody Does It Better” — One of the very few disappointments on the album. Another song that’s impossible to improve upon, it gets a total deconstruction by Mike Viola and Red Bank Catholic. Strange Moog-like synthesizers begin the song; sparse and strange, it’s almost unrecognizable. Only during the refrain does the song resemble the original.
- “Moonraker” — By far my favorite cover on the album. Gary Frenay takes a Shirley Bassey ballad and turns it into an ELO-sounding pop gem, complete with a Roy Orbison-like ending showcasing Frenay’s range. It had me scrambling to find out more about this guy; this may be the pop song of the year.
- “For Your Eyes Only” — Sheena Easton’s contribution isn’t very Bond-sounding, but it’s still considered a classic because of its beautiful arrangement. Freedy Johnston turns it into a quiet acoustic number, but some of the memorable chord progressions in the original are left out of Johnston’s version.
- “All Time High” — Considered one of the worst Bond songs, it nevertheless is recognizable. Zach Jones takes the schmaltz out of the song and sounds like Eric Carmen in places. It’s more upbeat and an improvement over the original.
- “Never Say Never Again” — a mediocre song sung by relatively unknown Lani Hall, this song gets a modern update by Minky Starshine. It’s sexier and less hokey; the group manages to turn it into a song I like.
- “A View to a Kill” — Besides “Live and Let Die,” this is my favorite James Bond tune. So Jay Gonzalez is fighting an uphill battle on this. He tries to deliver a different take with a swinging acoustic version, but the over-the-top feel of the original is gone. Nevertheless, it’s a good interpretation.
- “The Living Daylights” — The Bond folks tried to create “A View to a Kill 2” with a-ha delivering this song, but its melody never caught on with me. It’s much clearer with Cirrone’s version, which surprisingly sounds a little like Duran Duran covering a-ha. Which would have been better.
- “License to Kill” – Gladys Knight was a surprise choice for this song, but she did a fantastic job with this song. How do you top Gladys Knight? Durga McBroom & Fernando Perdomo don’t try, instead delivering a faithful rendition of the original that is powerful and addictive.
- “Goldeneye” – Tina Turner’s contribution to the Bond catalog is one of the most underrated songs. It sounds like a Bond song. Identical Suns, however, turn it into a pop masterpiece, with beautiful vocal harmonies and power chords.
- “Tomorrow Never Knows” – Sheryl Crow performs admirably on the original, but Brandon Schott, with Jake Gideon, blows it out of the water with an intense cover accented by rolling drums and jangling guitars. It’s a powerful change.
- “The World Is Not Enough” – Garbage was the perfect band to perform a James Bond song, and Look Park, Chris Collingwood’s new band, delivers a true, if not different, cover of the song.
- “Die Another Day” – Whoever got this tune received a present; there was no way you could do worse than Madonna’s dance-pop, Auto-Tuned disaster. Luckily, Big-Box Store doesn’t aim low, with an ominous interpretation that is somehow done perfectly with an acoustic guitar, synthesizers and xylophone.
- “You Know My Name” – Chris Cornell, the originator of the angry, barbaric yawp genre, nevertheless has one of the best openings of any Bond song. Phil Ajjarapu mimics the opening, then eases back on the anger for a nice pop rendition of the song.
- “Another Way to Die” – Another softball: Jack White and Alica Keys’ contribution is tuneless and disorganized. Unfortunately, Ballzy Tomorrow doesn’t improve on it much.
- “Skyfall” – Adele made this an instant classic – partly because she’s Adele. It’s one of those dangerous songs that’s hard to improve upon, so Gretchen’s Wheel plays it conservatively while giving the song an air of creepiness. All in all, it’s very well done.
- “Writing’s on the Wall” – Sam Smith’s ballad sounds like something the winner of American Idol would sing. But Cliff Hillis is a master songwriter, and in the words of former AI judge Randy Jackson, he “makes it his own.” With his version, I can actually hear a melody.
So there you have it; Andrew Curry has done it again with Songs, Bond Songs. He’s created a delightful mix of songs that brings back memories but gives them their own modern touch. He also blows the trumpet of melodic pop music, and for that, he should be applauded. Here’s hoping there’s a rush of Bond nostalgia and a rush for this record. And I can’t wait for his next project.