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Retro Review: Decksandrumsandrockandroll

August 4, 2010

Image from Amazon

Summary: Two guys from the UK take the then-hot big beat electronic sound into the swanky 60’s and make a hip-hop James Bond score.

Fun Facts

  • Of the five major big beat acts of the late 90s (the others being Fatboy Slim, The Chemical Brothers, The Crystal Method, and Lo-Fidelity All-Stars), the Propellerheads made themselves stand out with their jazzy spy-film sensibilities. I seem to remember that in the late 90s, the swinging 60s aesthetic was hot, given the popularity of the Austin Powers movies and the emergence of rock bands like Lit and Smash Mouth who adopted lounge lizard looks while playing alternative pop music. My point is I’m surprised that this record wasn’t more popular when it first came out. (I know, not a fact)
  • “You may remember me from….”: “Spybreak!,” arguably the album’s most well-known song, features prominently on The Matrix (it’s in the lobby shootout scene). “Bang On!” is on both MTV’s Amp 2 compilation and the soundtrack to Wipeout 64. I first heard of the band on an early IPod commercial featuring “Take California.”
  • Sanguinestyle tipped me off that if you listen closely to “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” you’ll hear morse code. The morse code translates to “O.H.M.S.S.” Very nice little touch there!

Ups

  • So that last point about all those commercial and soundtrack features? Well, the band got those deals for a reason: they have ears for the cinematic, from their use of old film dialogue sound clips to their huge horn section samples. If you bump this in your car, be careful not to get pulled over, because you’ll be doing 90 for most of the album.
  • Do you like James Bond movies? The album really kicks into gear when Shirley “Diamonds Are Forever” Bassey comes in to belt on “History Repeating,” and her voice hasn’t aged in 30 years. The band pushes things even further for the album’s centerpiece, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” an epic 9+ minute remix of the titular film’s theme. It features two big movements and this cool breakdown where the band steps back and lets the original score run untouched for a while before the sick bass and Will White’s crisp drumming kick in again.
  • When you’re not rescuing Laurence Fishburne from evil Agents or stealing nuclear secrets back from SPECTRE, you can kick back with the album’s slower numbers. Both “Bigger?” and “Better?” make for lively lounge music that has more in common with Mr. Scruff than Fatboy Slim.
  • For me, this was also the first big electronic album to feature guest appearances from American rappers. Alternative hip-hop icons De La Soul and The Jungle Brothers pop by for a song a piece (Dreamworks US version only), which lends the album additional critical credibility outside of the 60s appreciation.

Downs

  • The album gets off to a slow start. It’s not that album openers “Take California” and “Velvet Pants” are bad or boring, they just don’t stand out as much when you know the banger-heavy middle and end sections are coming up.
  • Similarly, some more straightforward instrumentals like “Winning Style” rely more on building grooves than having pop-out features or guest vocalists and can feel like letdowns when compared to the album’s many standouts.
  • The 60s appreciation/appropriation may come off as shallow or a gimmick, but really, what band doesn’t have some kind of gimmick.

Conclusion: By fusing their love of old spy movies with classic New York hip-hop, Alex Gifford and Will White made a unique electronic album that could be classy and jazzy without being quiet or restrained. You don’t need to make a big listening investment to appreciate the album’s many neat touches and the music has some great applications. A modern classic if you can find it.

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