On the topic of unlikely comebacks, Fleetwood Mac have nothing on James Bond. The films GoldenEye (1995) and last winter’s Tomorrow Never Dies instilled new commercial life into the seemingly exhausted series, just as albums of Bond music — new compilations and, in the case of David Arnold’s tribute album Shaken and Stirred, remakes of its classic themes — suddenly began appearing in record stores. (Arnold also supplied the inventive, techno-enhanced score for Tomorrow Never Dies.) This spate of activity marking 007’s return is hardly coincidental. In the ’60s, the rakish sexuality, tuxedoed confidence, brassy scores, and highest-tech gadgetry of the Bond movies were proud symbols of England’s cultural dominance. Now that London is swinging again — in terms of fashion, pop music, and filmmaking — it’s no surprise that its most virile symbol of world conquest is alive and smirking once more.
It’s also no accident that the end-of-the-millennium Bond would have electronica as his accompaniment. Techno’s warp-speed energy embodies the character’s sleekness and drive, just as the genre’s obsession with technology and knob twiddling matches a secret agent’s penchant for gizmos. Electronica is pop as doohickey. When it comes to merging Bond and techno — England olde and new — nobody does it better than the Propellerheads. The Bath, U.K., duo — multi-instrumentalist, DJ, and programmer Alex Gifford and percussionist-DJ Will White — collaborated with Arnold on a track for Tomorrow Never Dies and remade the theme to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service on Shaken and Stirred. The latter also appears on the duo’s first full album, Decksandrumsandrockandroll.
The Propellerheads are worthy (or is it ”whir-thy”?) in several regards. Theirs is the first truly notable album to emerge from DreamWorks Records, which until now seemed to feel that pop’s future lay with alt-rock novelties like the Eels, or ’80s deadbeats like George Michael and Randy Travis. Excepting the company’s recent reissues of hip-hop soundscapes by Dr. Octagon, Decksandrums is the first DreamWorks release that indicates the Spielberg-Geffen-Katzenberg gang is aware that it’s 1998, not ’88. In another promising sign, the label scooped up slumper-songwriter Elliott Smith, fresh off his astonishing best-song Oscar nomination for Good Will Hunting.
In other bonus points, the Propellerheads don’t play strictly push-button techno. In the U.K., Gifford and White are members of the latest electronica in-crowd, big beat. Though steeped in the burping, grunting rhythms of techno and hip-hop, big beat also slathers on distinctly rock elements like guitar riffs (sampled, that is) and snare-demolishing drumming. Loud, garish audio fun, it’s the extreme sport of pop. At the very least, it’s the sound of a generation that’s tired of chilling out to ambient watercolors and wants to re-tap into its inner adolescent.
Certainly, Decksandrums is one very big beat. Gifford and White lock into electro-funk grooves but never let the music petrify. Making cameos are lounge-organ solos, riff-happy guitars, scratching (the decks in the title pun refers to turntables), and kitschy vocal snippets. A sample from Richard Nixon, for instance, becomes a hook in ”Take California,” while a female groupie’s space-cadet insights, supposedly lifted from an old documentary, give a stoner seductiveness to the delicious ”Velvet Pants.” Tossing off non sequiturs in ”360[degrees] (Oh Yeah?),” rappers De La Soul sound less burdened than they have in years. The album is a heady, but human, sonic boom.
In itself, the boldness of big beat recalls composer John Barry’s Bond soundtracks. Decksandrums, though, is crammed with less subtle ties to 007. ”Spybreak!” could easily work in a cliff-hanger scene for the next Bond installment. ”History Repeating” machine-guns the point home, not just with its lyrics (”They say the next big thing is here…. But to me it seems quite clear that it’s all just a little bitta history repeating”) but with its guest vocalist: Goldfinger diva Shirley Bassey. Although the concept of placing retro-hip relics like Bassey or Tom Jones in an ironic dance-music setting is beyond tired, ”History Repeating” feels delightfully organic — and Gifford and White actually make their computers swing.
The duo can also be derivative — you hear the influence of Deee-Lite and fellow big-beaters the Chemical Brothers. And as with DJ-propelled records, some of Decksandrumsandrockandroll is best heard in a club. But for guys who took for their name the derogatory slang for computer geeks, the Propellerheads don’t need to get out more. They’ve created an entertaining world all their own. A-