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Frustrating album allows monotonous droning to get in the way of excellent action material
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 2006 Danjaq, LLC, United Artists Corporation, Columbia Picturs Industries, Inc.; review copyright (c) 2006 James Southall
So, after a four-year hiatus, James Bond is back, and this time he's gone back to his Dr No / From Russia With Love roots, abandoning the ludicrous elements that made Die Another Day such a wretchedly poor film. Out goes Pierce Brosnan, in comes Daniel Craig, a very capable actor and a sign right from the start that the filmmakers were heading in a very different direction. In fact, the film chronicles Bond's origins as a secret agent and really is a return to the start. Let's hope it's as good as (most of) the early hype suggests.
While most aspects of the film have been reimagined, the music hasn't, so returning for his fourth Bond assignment is composer David Arnold. Predictably, opinion on his score was mixed after parts of it were made available for preview - "It sounds too much like John Barry!" cried some; "It doesn't sound enough like John Barry!" cried others. In fact, it just sounds like David Arnold, very much being in the same vein as his previous Bond scores (though mercifully ditching much of the electronic nonsense that blighted Die Another Day).
Arnold was even allowed to write the title song, "You Know My Name", sung by Chris Cornell (the first time a Bond theme has been sung by someone I've never heard of). It's more "Beigefinger" than "Goldfinger", though far better than the previous Bond song - but bizarrely, it doesn't appear on this soundtrack album. Apparently it was excluded for "legal reasons" - don't you just love lawyers? It does seem a damn shame that legal reasons couldn't have excluded Madonna's "effort" from being on the previous soundtrack (or, indeed, in the film) - but lawyers are never around when you need them. Even though the song isn't here, Arnold does incorporate its melody throughout the score. Also largely absent is the James Bond Theme, which makes sense in terms of the film - Arnold interpolates it occasionally, but it isn't heard in anything like it's full glory until the very end.
The score begins incredibly, with easily the best piece Arnold's ever written for a Bond movie, the extended action track "African Rundown". It's absolute dynamite, quite dark but always melodic, maintaining a frenetic pace throughout, and Nicholas Dodd's orchestrations - while detailed - are, for once, not overwhelmingly intricate, allowing the music a real chance to breathe. It really is a phenomenal piece and raises expectations incredibly that the rest of the score is going to be a real belter. Sadly...
The album suffers enormously from being over-long. After the tremendous "African Rundown", the two tracks which follow are so dull and pointless, they just make everything grind to a halt, and already the whole flow of the score is spoiled. I can't understand how anyone would think "Nothing Sinister" and "Unauthorised Access" add anything at all to this listening experience - the music is an exercise in suspense scoring "for the sake of it" (ie writing music just so there's music there in the film - rather than writing music which actually does something for the film dramatically) which has nothing to say. "Blunt Instrument" perks up a bit, but then things grind to a halt once more in the pointless "CCTV". The whole album goes on like this.
"Solange" is the first, and last, time the score sounds anything like John Barry - but it's 1990s Barry, not Bond-era Barry, complete with long notes and repeated phrases and everything. It's brief, but a nice little diversion. The score's big set-piece, and the cue most people will probably name as their favourite, is the thirteen-minute "Miami Action". I absolutely love extended action pieces where the composer takes an idea and really develops it, taking one step back from the action and delivering a piece that instead of flying around all over the place, actually maintains its own musical pace and coherence. Unfortunately, this is not such a piece. Instead, it flits about everywhere and is disappointingly incoherent, with only a two-minute passage towards the end truly satisfying - this is made all the more frustrating because Arnold demonstrated in the first track of this very album that he is more than capable of composing the kind of impressive piece I described.
The next good action track is "Stairwell Fight", and after this comes the lovely "Vesper" including the first really romantic material, which is terrific. Then, the brief action cue "The End of an Aston Martin" excepted, nothing much happens until six tracks later, with "City of Lovers" being the loveliest piece of all, expanding on the romantic music from "Vesper" (though I always expect it to go into Luis Bacalov's theme from Il Postino for some reason). "The Switch" is a nice, modern action/suspense piece in which Arnold incorporates electronics fairly subtly, and very well, a nice contrast to his previous Bond score. The album concludes with "The Name's Bond... James Bond", a straight orchestral version of John Barry's timeless James Bond Theme, and it is by a distance the best interpretation of it I've heard since the original.
I've written a lot of reviews of soundtrack albums over the last decade (so you might wonder why I'm not better at it), and of course have received a few complaints during that time. By far the most common complaint is when I say something about albums being too long. Well, I can't think of another soundtrack in history that suffers so much as a result of it. Film music by its nature sometimes demands that composers write music that just isn't very interesting away from the film - there's at least some of this in the vast majority of scores ever written, even by the most talented composers of all. That's the reason that long albums rarely work. Casino Royale is a score with some truly fantastic music in it and there is a glorious album waiting to burst out of it which would, by a distance, make it seem like the best Bond score to come since The Living Daylights. But by having all the pointless droning that surrounds the good music, the album completely loses its flow and direction, and is made to seem considerably worse. I have deliberately concentrated in this review on praising the good parts of the album rather than criticising the bad, and I'm willing to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak, and suggest to the doubters that you reprogram this album and just leave in tracks 1, 4, 6, 10, 11, 13, 14, 16, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23 and 25. You're left with a tremendous 41-minute listening experience which is indescribably better than the album that has been released.
We live in an age now where record companies are able to let us have the best of both worlds - put out the strongest album they can on CD, and release the rest of the score on iTunes and the like for other people to download, who have to have the whole thing. Ironically Sony did the latter this time (there's about ten minutes available to download which isn't included on this album) without doing the former. A pity, because the album as it stands allows the tedious music to overwhelm what is an excellent core of material at its heart.