Unlikely duets - when two become one

It's not just Alicia Keys and Jack White. Everywhere you look there are unlikely duets. By John Elmes

Since news broke that Jack White and Alicia Keys are to collaborate on the new Bond film theme, "Another Way To Die", bloggers and critics have been in a frenzy. Surely White, who penned the track, would be the proverbial chalk to the cheese of Keys's sultry, soulful R&B?

The film's producer, Barbara Broccoli, described the sound they'd created for Quantum of Solace as "unique". Well, maybe, but there is reason to fear, given recent Bond turkeys (Madonna's "Die Another Day", say), that this will be an unhappy marriage. It is the first Bond film duet. Keys gushed: "This was such an incredible process for me! Rockin' with Jack White is something that has been an unforgettable experience. Mixing rock and soul for the new Bond movie theme gives it a mysterious, unexpected, strong and sexy vibe that I love. I'm glad to be a part of such a legacy."

Is this why singers like to hook up with musicians from other genres? Often, duets are a gimmick for certain times of year, such as Crosby and Bowie's "Little Drummer Boy", but maybe there is a deeper point where sounds can meld into something truly original. This does seem to be a factor in how music is looking for ways to innovate and keep the record-buying public interested.

Generally, the music business churns out fairly obvious partnerships: Arctic Monkey Alex Turner joins Miles Kane of The Rascals to form The Last Shadow Puppets; R&B stars flirt with R&B stars; and a hip-hop album wouldn't be complete without half a dozen duets and featured guest artists.

However, it can be interesting when the industry throws us a curveball. Take the widely praised collaboration of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, whose covers album Raising Sand is up for the Mercury Prize. On paper, the mixture of master of heavy rock and gentle bluegrass singer raises eyebrows, but their voices blend to create an almost soporific harmony. Folk is starting to cause a bit of a stir in the music world, and to have such a luminary of the genre joining forces with a rock legend and creating something as special as Raising Sand can only raise its profile even further.

Of course, the sheer bloody-mindedness of some music commentators would be enough to deter the most respected of musicians from dabbling in duets. It looks like career suicide for an airy songstress from a classical and indie-pop background to craft an album with a grunge and hard-rock doom-mongerer – but Isobel Campbell disagreed, and the backing vocalist of Belle and Sebastian produced and wrote most of Ballad of the Broken Seas, teaming up with Mark Lanegan of the Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age.

The profound differences in their voices – honey-dipped tranquillity and angst-laden despair – don't jar, but seem to transcend musical confines and become conversational, two people caught in dialogue about love, betrayal, loss, melancholy and attraction. This collaboration, which earned a Mercury nomination in 2006, suggests that this is a lucrative outlet for musical creativity. It augurs well for Keys and White, stars in their own right with 11 Grammys between them.

Musical joint ventures needn't solely be about making hits. On the Park Stage at Glastonbury 2007, Damon Albarn, after his trip to Mali in 2006, oversaw an expansive cross-cultural spectacle, merging well-known Western artists with the some of the best musicians Africa has to offer. These were not duets in the traditional sense, but the intention was to draw together African and Western contemporary music of many genres in order to provide a showcase for the unity music can generate.

These types of musical events, heralded by the Live8 concerts in 2005, have shown that duets can allow music fans to enjoy different acts at one time, at the same time as broadening individual tastes. The artists, too, have the chance to participate in something exciting and creative.

Having performed with Keith Urban at Live8, Keys is certainly not new to all this, so the Bond theme she and White come up with may usher in a new wave of musical collaborations.


Lily Allen and Kaiser Chiefs

After providing vocals for Mark Ronson's arrangement of the Kaiser Chiefs' "Oh My God", loud-mouthed Londoner Allen is teaming up with the Leeds band for "Always Happens Like That" on their third album, Off With Their Heads. The album includes a swath of guest artists such as New Young Pony Club, grime star MC Sway and the film composer David Arnold.

Val Kilmer and 50 Cent

Rumours are afoot that the corpulent former Batman and G-Unit gangsta rapper will be joining forces on one of Kilmer's own songs. They became firm friends on the set of Streets of Blood, in which both starred, and Kilmer has intimated in interviews that Fiddy liked one of his songs and offered to help him finish it. Could this be the start of a beautiful friendship?

Norah Jones and Q-Tip

It's been nine years since the rapper from A Tribe Called Quest released an album, but Q-Tip's latest venture is a collaboration with jazz warbler Norah Jones. "Life is Better", which is released in October, is old-school hip-hop meets middle-class Sunday afternoon easy-listening. It's not the most obvious of hook-ups, but it works.

The Streets and Muse

In April, Muse frontman Matt Bellamy said he wanted to collaborate with The Streets' Mike Skinner to create England's answer to Rage Against the Machine. Now "Who Knows Who" has been leaked on the internet. The rap vocals are unquestionably those of Skinner, and the piercing opening guitar very Bellamy. They seem to have achieved their goal: it's very reminiscent of Rage's Tom Morello.

Shlomo and Martha Wainwright

Festivals are the perfect opportunity for surprise collaborations, and at recent events Martha Wainwright has played duets with both Guillemots frontman Fyfe Dangerfield and beatboxer Shlomo. Her collaboration with Shlomo in "This Life" had already been a hit at her show at the Royal Festival Hall in May.