Episode 11 - Sam Smith, The Arcs, The Tallest Man On Earth

Musicology With Kurt - Episode 11 - Sam Smith, The Arcs, The Tallest Man On Earth.jpg

Show Notes

This week, I look at tradition and how certain artists are adhering to it. With the announcement of Sam Smith as the singer of the new James Bond theme, we look back at past Bond themes to determine what makes a great one. We also have a listen to The Arcs - a new retro-soul side project from Dan Auerbach - and go searching for The Tallest Man On Earth and his 2013 watershed moment There's No Leaving Now.

  • The Best of Bond...James Bond (50th Anniversary Collection) can be downloaded from iTunes here. The album contains all the Bond themes excluding 'Skyfall', as well as alternate themes used in the film franchise.
  • You can pre-order Sam Smith's 'Writing's On The Wall' on iTunes here.
  • The Arcs' 2015 album Yours Dreamily can downloaded from iTunes here.
  • The Tallest Man On Earth's 2013 album There's No Leaving Now can downloaded from iTunes here.

Our theme music is provided by PodcastThemes.com - thanks!

Segment Times

Jump to your desired section at these points:

  • Sam Smith

3:00 to 10:57

  • The Arcs

10:58 to 16:14

  • The Tallest Man On Earth

16:15 to 21:34

Show Transcript



Hello and welcome everyone to the eleventh episode of Musicology With The Eagle. I am your host, The Eagle, and I hope you’ve all had a great week.

We’re going to be taking a break for the next few weeks, as I’m going on a much-needed vacation to my home country. Despite my eagle eye for detail, I am mostly human, and humans need to take leave from work every once in a while.

I think an opportunity like this is a perfect chance to pause and reflect on what our podcast has grown into.

Over the course of ten episodes, we’ve touched on a range of topical, relevant issues in music news, whether it be ‘lost’ albums, tribute bands, award shows, or more serious social concerns, like addiction and fame, or musicians dealing with online abuse. We’ve managed to keep abreast of some amazing new releases week in week out, ranging widely from hip hop to folk punk to indie pop. And whenever we’ve looked back at past greats, it’s been with a spirit of discovery and left-turns away from the norm, whether it was a lesser-known posthumous Jimi Hendrix album or a hip hop legend’s thesis on chess.

Behind the scenes on Soundcloud, we’ve been astonished by the number of countries where our podcast has reached: a total of at least 86 so far. Aside from the obvious big names like the USA and the United Kingdom, we’ve had listeners from Latvia to El Salvador, and Portugal to Iran. Shout out to Madagascar and Tajikistan as well – you’re not forgotten! Currently our top 5 episodes are numbers 8, 4, 1, 2 and 6 – so it seems like a lot of you enjoyed our recent CHVRCHES / Mutemath / Kyuss show, as it’s had a very rapid rise to the top.

All told, at the time of recording this, we are approaching 1000 listens, and have 77 downloads from people who like the takeaway option. Regardless of the stats, I’m very glad that we’ve managed to stick to a weekly format and embrace that challenge, because I think it’s kept things fresh and exciting, with little chance to obsess over past niggles. I’m also incredibly grateful for each listener who’s taken the time to listen to our show, especially multiple times. You must all be suckers for punishment – or just have good taste!

So for the next weeks, I’m going to recharge and relax, and then we’ll be back with a bumper show as soon as possible. But let’s get stuck into the show ahead of us right now…


Sam Smith

(wordless humming)

Despite my laughable attempt at beatboxing, I’m sure you were able to pick out that iconic theme song.

The long-running James Bond film franchise is entering its fifty-third year in 2015 with the upcoming film ‘Spectre’, once again casting the gritty Daniel Craig in the title role.

The spy franchise is in a class of its own now, with aspects of the films instantly recognizable in pop culture. The Bond name has long been associated with his gadgets, his girls, his cars, his villains, and his looks. And with each new film, fans and critics come to expect something a little different, but which still adheres to that timeless Bond tradition.

The theme songs to these films also get their own category in the pantheon of popular music. Aside from the fact that there aren’t that many film series – if any – which have lasted as long, the decades-worth of Bond themes have been sung and performed by a wide variety of artists, many of which became big hits in their own right on the charts.

It’s with this in mind that I introduce to you to the latest singer of the Bond theme: the ‘Writing’s On The Wall’, and the name’s Smith – Sam Smith.

At twenty-three years old, the pop-soul crooner is already a four-time Grammy winner, thanks to his well-received 2014 debut In The Lonely Hour. This also makes him one of the youngest to perform the Bond theme, but his choice should come as no surprise given who his predecessor is.

Adele’s stunning performance on 2012’s ‘Skyfall’ was widely acknowledged as one of the best Bond themes ever, and was the first to receive an Oscar award. And given its stratospheric success, it’s going to be a hard act to follow for Smith, who counts Adele and divas like herself as his biggest vocal inspirations.

Making a truly magnificent Bond theme is a precarious process – you need to balance so many variables to produce something believable. Some of the franchise's best songs are simultaneously timeless and representative of the eras in which they were recorded. They capture the specifics of each film while embodying, in a larger sense, the franchise's rich history and allure.

The presence of Adele also highlighted another crucial factor: you need to have an artist who is in the prime of their career, and who is able to filter what makes them great into the established template.

But just what exactly is that template? This past week, I gave a listen to all the previous Bond themes in an effort to find this out, and be reminded of some very happy moments from my childhood in the process. My father is a big Bond fan, and by the age of 10, I had watched the entire catalogue with him, right from the Connery and Moore days.

Since there have been twenty-three official films, getting all of the soundtracks in one place is a daunting task. Thankfully, there was an awesome compilation album that was released for the 50th anniversary in 2012 called Best Of 50 Years, and I’d highly recommend it for any Bond fan looking to take a trip right back to the beginning.

The original James Bond theme - which I woefully tried to beatbox earlier - was composed by Monty Norman, and first appeared in 1962’s ‘Dr. No’, the very-first James Bond film. The instrumental song plays over the opening credits as a montage, and set the tone for almost all future releases. What is most notable about it is the rumbling surf-rock guitar riff, which was typical of the easy listening orchestral pop music of the era. Accompanying it are brash brass sections and a swinging tempo that builds to a thunderous climax. It was cocky, dangerous, dark, and suggestive – all potent ingredients of Agent 007’s character.

The producers began to incorporate this theme as a musical motif throughout the series, appearing in various action sequences or moments of Bond magic, always shifting and being recomposed to match the setting and era.

If this was the musical template, then the performance template as we know it - when the Bond theme became a mantle to be passed from artist to artist – began with 1964's ‘Goldfinger’.

From the opening blast of the orchestra, it's bold and brassy and unforgettable, thanks to a powerful, dynamic vocal performance from Shirley Bassey. Where a lesser singer might’ve been drowned out, she manages to loom over the instrumentation like an all-seeing deity. Aside from her singing, the song’s lyrics manages to encapsulate the mood and feel of the film in a way that isn’t forced or cheesy, and it’s no wonder that it’s been the mark to which every subsequent Bond theme is measured. She’s also the only artist to perform multiple Bond themes, appearing on ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ – which was notably sampled on Kanye West’s Grammy-winning song ‘Diamonds Are From Sierra Leone’ – and ‘Moonraker’.

Since ‘Goldfinger’, Bond themes have mostly alternated between female and male singers, occasionally featuring bands. The Connery era of the 1960’s continued the orchestral pop formula, yielding some of the series’ most memorable tunes as the producers tried to capture lightning in the bottle again. ‘Thunderball’ is a good example of this: it borrows the title of the movie; its lyrics focus on the villain, not Bond himself; and the orchestration is even more brassy and bombastic. Singer Tom Jones also physically pushed himself to the limits, apparently fainting in the recording booth after singing the song's final high note.

But not every great Bond theme had to be loud and overwhelming. ‘You Only Live Twice’ was a breezy and elegant detour by Nancy Sinatra, who gently cooed over striking Oriental-flavoured strings – which pop fans who grew up in the 1990’s might instantly recognize from Robbie William’s chart-topper ‘Millennium’ (you know I did!).

Her template was echoed on Carly Simon’s unlikely crossover mainstream hit ‘Nobody Does It Better’ from ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’, which was the first theme to not feature the film’s name in the title. It addresses an obvious question when writing a theme song: do we have to put the name in there?

Not always, it seems. One of my favourite Bond themes, ‘You Know My Name’ from 2006’s series reboot ‘Casino Royale’, makes subtle references to gambling and the ruthless origin-story approach of the film, which is way cooler than forcing the film’s name in somewhere. Chris Cornell’s rock template also harkened back to Paul McCartney & Wing’s “Live And Let Die” from 1973 – whose mishmash of styles was as rapidly paced and unpredictable as any of 007’s missions.

So where does this leave Sam Smith and ‘Writing’s On The Wall’? Given that it’s due to be released in the next few days, I’m most likely to be proven very wrong, but I think that we will hear something stately yet adaptive to current music trends. Smith has shown this on his sultry collaborations with the electronic music duo Disclosure, and that simmering style could work well with his Adele-worshipping voice.

Regardless of what the song ends up being, Sam Smith’s name will forever be linked with one of the biggest, most enduring film franchises in Hollywood history. Now that is news which would leave any artist a little shaken, not stirred.


The Arcs

This week, we have a new release from a blues-rock guitarist who’s assembled a group of fellow musician friends together for a side project.

Ah yes, the side project. It seems that we are often covering these on our podcast. But I think they’re a useful way of trying something new which comes with the reputation of something old. And oftentimes you don’t hear about these projects or groups unless you’re a fan already.

The Arcs are thus the brainchild of Dan Auerbach, a man who’s spent over a decade plying his trade as the singer and guitarist for The Black Keys. Auerbach is very much a traditionalist at heart, and his style of blues guitar playing hews very closely to the greats of old.

The first few Black Keys albums kept to a simple yet effective formula, but on 2008’s Attack & Release, producer Danger Mouse – previously mentioned in our lost albums segment in Episode Six - entered the picture. He was the first outside producer to work with them, and his influence on that album allowed the band to explore new soundscapes, and add a dreamy retro-cool flair to subsequent releases, which coincided with mainstream success.

Auerbach, already a producer himself, added more sonic strings to his bow with this collaboration. As a result, he has managed to procure his services behind the mixing desk on some notable records by Dr John, Jeff The Brotherhood, and Lana Del Rey, in addition to his day job.

So if he wanted to step away from The Keys, even for a moment, why not just cut a solo record? He has done that before – 2009’s Keep It Hid dabbled in acoustic country blues and added subtle psychedelic flourishes to his gruff guitar riffs. But The Arcs point towards a much wider collaboration, which seems to have been born rather spontaneously in early 2015, when Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney was recovering from a shoulder injury.

Being the perennial workhorse that he is, Auerbach leaped at the chance to make the most of what could’ve been downtime, recruiting like-minded ‘musical compadres’ to flesh out his soulful, spooky, and seductive vision. The quintet ends up being a multi-instrumentalist monolith: we have Homer Steinweiss (drummer of funk/soul revivalists The Dap-Kings), bassist Nick Movshon (who has previously collaborated with Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse), Richard Swift (who has done time as keyboardist for The Shins as well as being touring bassist for The Black Keys) and saxophonist Leon Michels, who shares much of the songwriting credit with Auerbach.

At its most base level, what transpired from these two-week recording sessions was a hazy collection of R&B-influenced rock, some of which wouldn’t have felt out of place on the most recent Black Key’s album, 2014’s adventurous Turn Blue – if it had favoured more feel over grind.

But if you peer a little deeper, and slip on some noise-cancelling headphones, Yours Dreamily lives up to its sleepy name. Blissed-out, slippery grooves stretch over its fourteen tracks; ghostly, grainy vocals gradually appear out of the abyss, and there’s an eccentricity and lightness to it which feels warm and inviting.

It starts right away with the delightfully odd intro ‘Once We Begin’, where a pitch-shifted voice instructs the listener that “once we begin, the only thing there is for you to do, is to do absolutely nothing”, and ends up sounding like a demented host of a children’s TV show.

‘Outta My Mind’ charges out of the gates with some funky drumming from Steinweiss, and has oily reverb-soaked guitar parts from Auerbach leaking all over the studio floor. Cleaning up the mess, we have ‘Put A Flower In The Pocket’, which creeps and crawls over a slow hip hop-inspired groove, with ear-shuddering bass and fuzzy production tricks to match.

While long-time Auerbach aficionados will most likely appreciate the retro-soul refined middle-ground which populates many of these tracks, such as the surprisingly sunny first single ‘Stay In My Corner’, I was intrigued by the moments when The Arcs truly swung for the fences and did something unexpectedly beautiful or bizarre.

‘Nature’s Child’ sent shivers up my spine the first time I heard it – and every time since – with its delicate trip-hop sound collage and strategically-deployed guest vocals from soul survivor Lee Fields. Contrasted with that, we have the murky, reggae-tinged meanderings of ‘Everything You Do (You Do For You), which shuffles and gurgles as if it was recorded at the bottom of a swamp in New Orleans.

Auerbach has often been criticized for operating within very narrow parameters, but here with The Arcs, he has definitely ventured a bit outside of his comfort zone to flex some creative muscle, and soak up some more inspiration in the process.


The Tallest Man On Earth

Finally this week, we go searching for The Tallest Man On Earth in the Swedish wilderness, and spoiler alert folks: he’s actually not that tall at all.

This is the pseudonym which mysterious Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson has operated under since his first self-titled release in 2006, and despite multiple chapters in his homespun discography, we still know very little about the man behind the myth.

Much like another famous folk singer who he is often compared to, Matsson’s music is full of intrigue and frenetic fingerpicked pop-folk balladry. The similarities with the mighty Bob Dylan are obvious, whether it be the raspy vocal style, or the sinewy and shrewd songwriting abilities. While both express a disdain for interviews and activities superfluous to the music, I think there are more differences between these two artists than critics usually let on.

Dylan has often surrounded himself with collaborators and influences, hurtling through decades on tour as he wryly comments on the state of the world. Matsson, however, is a far more secluded, pastoral soul, choosing to nimbly fashion hooks and melodies out of stones, branches and whatever else he encounters along the winding trail.

The reverence for the natural world is clearly evident in The Tallest Man On Earth’s work and he often draws on myths and legends to craft his abstract poetry through song. Speaking English as a second language also helps Matsson imbue a special significance to words that are often lost on native English speakers, and it makes for some decidedly difficult lyrics to unwind and understand.  Matsson then delivers this all through deceptively simple tunes which often incorporate intricate open guitar tunings – and the juxtaposition of the two is where the power lies.

The road to this week’s retrospective took all of four releases for Matsson to perfect, and 2013’s There’s No Leaving Now is a sweet spot amidst the undulating shifts in sound throughout his career. Just as it was for Dylan and the infamous moment he went ‘electric’ – which we discussed at length in Episode Four – Matsson has gradually incorporated electric guitar and piano into his sparse yet supple palette, but the leap did not elicit the same reaction. In fact, the decision was seen as revelatory – firstly on ‘Kids On The The Run’, the album closer to 2010’s The Wild Hunt, and later in that year on the song ‘The Dreamer’, from the stop-gap EP Sometimes The Blues Is Just A Passing Bird.

There’s No Leaving Now thus shows a more developed musical maturity from his uptempo earlier albums, with wistful ringing guitar licks and some of Matsson’s most meditative, bittersweet melodies. These are songs you can actually bathe in as a listener, that let you reflect on the autumnal musings he makes, such as on album opener ‘To Just Grow Away’, where Matsson celebrates a continued progression through life: “Like a rain to help a river, but a river’s so hard to please. But I’ve grown to see the diamonds you’ve thrown in just for me.”

The nostalgic mood continues as the album plays out like an old home movie on the rippling ‘Revelation Blues’, which sounds like his sprightly earlier work if it were compressed and filtered through faint memories, almost forgotten.

An exception to this rule is ‘Leading Me Now’, one of my favourite Tallest Man On Earth songs, which unashamedly adorns itself in the quick fingerpicking style which Matsson specializes in. It’s also an excellent example of the wonders of open tunings – which for those of you who don’t know, is when a guitar’s strings are all tuned to the same note. In this case, it allows Matsson to construct a dense, percussive melody that honestly sounds like two guitars are playing at once.

At the time of its release, Matsson said of the album that "I wanted to build something that didn't sound like a rock band, but wasn't super minimalistic. I wanted a sound that had that a brittle quality, that feeling that it might just fall apart." An important factor in that sound has to be his nuanced vocals, which ache and arch over these tracks in riveting fashion. Take the title song, a languid piano-ballad which Matsson uses an opportunity to wring all the emotion he can out of lyrics about growing up and figuring out you can't really run away from your problems anymore. Or the chorus of ‘Wind And Walls’, where the beauty is in the breaking of that voice, in its attempt to reach that first falsetto.

Earlier this year, The Tallest Man On Earth delivered a lush, radically different follow-up to this album called Dark Bird Is Home, and the metamorphosis to a full band was complete, with Matsson not afraid to embrace larger soundscapes and interactions with other musicians.

But if we look back across the forest with the perspective of someone as tall as him, we can see a fleeting moment where The Tallest Man On Earth first grappled with experimentation, and won.



So we’ve reached the end of yet another episode. Just a reminder that we will be back in a few weeks’ time after my vacation to continue delivering nuggets of insight and discovery on all things music. So thank you very much for tuning in, in this week and all the weeks before. I am The Eagle, and you have been listening to Musicology With The Eagle. See ya next time.