I don’t want to hate anything.
I get the sense sometimes that this is what separates me from some other online music critics. I want to love everything I hear. The practical reason for this is obvious – every CD I buy costs me money, and I don’t want to feel like I’ve thrown away 10 bucks. But it goes deeper than that. Every time I plunk down my cash and take a chance on a new album, I’m not-so-secretly hoping that this is the one that changes my life again.
That’s one reason I buy so many records – the more dross I sift through, the better my chances of landing on some gold. That’s the theory, anyway, but it hasn’t quite panned out in practice. My life gets re-ordered by some band or another on a regular basis, but it’s usually once every couple of years. The last two years have seen the arrival of Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom into my musical pantheon, which is better than the usual every-24-months-or-so average. But I’ve been buying CDs at a ridiculous rate for years now.
Most music just bores me, honestly. It just slides in and out of my life without making much of an impact. I can’t say, for example, that I care enough about a band like Maroon 5 to hate them. I don’t hate them, I just don’t listen to them, because their music is like cold grey oatmeal to me. No, in order to get me to hate something, you have to first get me to care about it. With a band, that usually happens over time, and there’s no crueler twist of the knife for a music fan like me than finding something I dislike from a band I’ve loved for years.
If there’s anything I hate, it’s that. It’s a mixture of disappointment and betrayal – I’ve expended all this time and money following this journey, and you give me… this. What is this? Why did you think this was good enough?
The new Crowded House, Time on Earth, is a great example. I will follow Neil Finn’s music until one of us dies, but he’s been slipping lately, and Time on Earth is probably his lowest point, the shabbiest collection of songs he’s ever penned. I’m hoping time will work its magic on that record, but I doubt it, and as I said before, if this had been merely Finn’s disappointing new solo album, that would have been one thing. But it’s not. It’s the new Crowded House album, and it’s like Finn has no idea what that means to his fans.
But the prize for 2007’s Biggest Disappointment still belongs to Marillion. Three years ago, I wouldn’t shut up about this band. I’d loved them for ages, but rarely as intensely as I did in 2004, when the long-running Aylesbury quintet released their modern masterpiece, Marbles. This album was (and is) simply brilliant, a revival and a restatement all at once – here was everything that makes Marillion great, only on Marbles, it was all better than it had been in 10 years.
I still think they’re one of the best bands in the world. They are often mis-labeled as prog rock, when in fact what they do is emotional head music – thoughtful and difficult music that still bypasses the cerebral cortex and aims straight for the heart. They’re able to pull this off in about a dozen different styles, and they write two-minute pop gems and 20-minute epics with equal aplomb. They’re led by Steve Hogarth, one of the finest singers you’re likely to hear – nearly every song he sings gives me goosebumps. And in Steve Rothery they have an extraordinary guitar player, wringing surprising feeling out of every note.
I gush, but trust me, this isn’t a love letter. Their 14th album, Somewhere Else, landed with a thud on my doorstep back in April, and I had to listen to it three times before I could believe it. This was Marillion’s new album, and I… didn’t… like it. At all.
And so I put it aside, expecting, as I will do with Time on Earth, to come back to it later with fresh ears. Instead, though, it’s sat there on my shelf, gathering dust. So I think it’s time for a reappraisal now, and I’ll tell you why – I’ve just received the latest issue of the band’s Front Row Club concert subscription service, and it’s fantastic.
The Front Row Club was a great idea while it lasted – fans pay 100 bucks a year, and they’re rewarded with six full concerts on CD, sent right to their doors. The band is switching to a download-only version of the club after the next two issues, but before they do, they will have issued 40 of these CD sets, representing every era of Marillion history, from their earliest shows in 1983 to the current tour.
The latest, number 38, was taken from the Somewhere Else tour, and for the first time on any live release, it incorporates songs from that album. And amazingly, they hold up. Okay, “See It Like a Baby” is still crap, and it’s nearly painful to listen to them trundle their way through it, especially since it’s the second song of this set. And they didn’t play my other least-favorites, “Most Toys” and “Thankyou Whoever You Are.”
But man, listening to this recording, all my issues with the rest of these songs just fade away. “Somewhere Else” sounds like a classic here – it’s the Marillion sound, keyboard shimmers and aching guitar and Hogarth’s dazzling falsetto, and it stands up next to songs like “Afraid of Sunlight” nicely. “Voice From the Past” sounds even better here, segueing in from a piano-vocal take on “Cover My Eyes,” and what was somewhat static on record is, on stage, a mesmerizing, ever-flowering crescendo.
“The Wound” absolutely comes alive in this setting, and while I still cringe at some of the lyrics to “The Last Century for Man,” the music’s foreboding, moody blues vibe is very effective. Even without the studio-created orchestral ending.
So, in short, the Somewhere Else material impressed me here. Of course, that meant I had to drag out Somewhere Else for another go, which I did this afternoon.
And you know what?
It isn’t that bad.
It’s no Marbles, it’s no masterpiece, but over time, as the songs have burrowed their way into my brain, my reaction has mellowed. It’s weak, no doubt – “Most Toys” remains the worst song they’ve done in years, with “See It Like a Baby” close behind, and once you hit track five, there really aren’t any choruses to speak of. But as a mood piece, the second half works. “Voice From the Past” is elegant, starting small and ending up massive. “No Such Thing” is a wonder, still – a single repeated guitar figure, a mantra-like vocal, and some grand atmospherics. And “Last Century” has really started to stand up and claim its place as a good song, Hogarth’s “hats off to China” notwithstanding.
And “Faith,” my forgotten favorite, rounds it out nicely. I forgot how much I like the French horn finale, and Hogarth’s voice sends chills.
I’m not putting this near the top of my Marillion list anytime soon, but time has done its trick. Somewhere Else is a middling record, and a disappointing one after the wonder that was Marbles, but I no longer wonder what they were thinking. It’s there in the grooves of the record, and all it took was a fresh listen to find it.
But if I can, I want to put in a plug for Front Row Club Issue 38. Sadly, you can’t buy this two-CD set without throwing down for a full year’s worth of the club, but it is a perfect two-hour summation of this band. It starts with “Splintering Heart,” a 16-year-old song that’s still the best concert opener they’ve penned. It includes “Afraid of Sunlight,” and “Fantastic Place,” and “You’re Gone,” and “Three Minute Boy.” The band plays the complete 17-minute “Ocean Cloud,” perhaps their best long song. They cap it off with “Neverland,” the best concert closer they’ve penned, and encore with the perennially heart-wrenching “Easter.” (This song moves me every time, no matter how many times I hear it.)
For the past few months, I’ve been in need of a reminder of why I consider Marillion one of the best bands on the planet. Front Row Club Issue 38 is exactly the thing I needed. You want to know why I praise this band as much as I do? Listen to this, from start to finish. You’ll understand.
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Today’s Doctor Who flies by at a brisk clip.
Most of the stories are done in one episode nowadays, beginning and ending inside of 45 minutes. There are regular two-part stories, which come in at about 90 minutes, but you’ll only get two or three of those a season. And the finale of the third season (or series, as they call it across the pond) was a linked three-parter, still less than the equivalent of a six-episode story in the classic series.
It’s not just the length, it’s the pace. The new series rushes along at the speed of… well, everything else on TV. It’s frenetic and quick-cutting, and while I like that style, I find myself more attracted to the slower, more luxurious pace of the 1960s and 1970s Who. The old series takes its time, lingering on moments and extending conversations, and what would be crammed into one episode these days often took four, or six, back then.
All this is a way of saying that The Invasion, Patrick Troughton’s 17th story as the Doctor, is long and slow. It’s long even by Who standards – it spans eight episodes, and runs more than three hours. And it’s slow by Who standards, too. This is a classic alien invasion story, with the Doctor discovering and foiling a plan by his recurring enemies, the Cybermen. (Them again?) But viewers don’t even get a glimpse of a Cyberman until the end of episode four, more than an hour and a half in. And the invasion doesn’t even start in earnest until the closing moments of episode six.
So what is this, then? The Invasion is a story about people, and it’s all the better for it. Here’s the rundown: the Cybermen have enlisted the help of Tobias Vaughn, the head of International Electromatics, a worldwide electronics company. Vaughn, a bit of a noble nutter, wants to save humanity from itself, and he wants to use the Cybermen to do it. So he helps them out – he puts mind-control devices into his company’s products, and lets the Cybermen use his facilities as bases for their invasion.
This comes to light very slowly, as the Doctor and his companions, Jamie and Zoe, start off looking for a missing professor, and begin piecing together Vaughn’s plot over the first four episodes. It would be wrong to call this stuff exciting, but it is engaging, and it sets a nice atmosphere as it becomes more and more clear that something sinister is going on. I do wish that I, like the viewing public in 1968, hadn’t known about the role the Cybermen play in this story, because the reveal at the end of episode four is effective and surprising.
But even after that, the pace doesn’t pick up. The Invasion is an important story in Doctor Who lore because it introduces UNIT, the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, led by Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. UNIT and the Brigadier became staples of the show during the next few years, and in total, Nicholas Courtney played Lethbridge-Stewart in more than 100 episodes. So we spend some time in The Invasion getting to know him and his men, and we undertake a pair of daring rescues with them.
We also spend an awful lot of time with Tobias Vaughn and his team, although we really don’t get into what makes Vaughan tick until the end. There’s a very large cast in The Invasion, and each of them gets a number of good moments – by the end, we’ve gotten to know them all a little bit, and that’s down to the length and pace of the story. Don’t get me wrong, The Invasion isn’t a deep character drama – there’s a lot of pointless running around, a few shootouts and a full-scale military-vs.-metal-men finale, after all – but it is darker, slower and more serious than you might expect from this show.
I mentioned last time that there are only six complete Troughton stories in the BBC vaults, but The Invasion isn’t one of them – episodes one and four are missing. But for this DVD, the producers have come up with an ingenious solution. The audio soundtracks still exist, thanks to fans recording them off air in 1968, and the BBC enlisted animation studio Cosgrove Hall to reconstruct the missing episodes to the audio tracks. The result is brilliant. It’s in black and white, and meshes perfectly with the live-action episodes. It’s awesome, and I hope the BBC uses Cosgrove Hall again – it would be a great way to preserve the more than 100 missing episodes.
Of course, you’ve got a team of animators itching to take a crack at the Cybermen, and except for a two-second glimpse at the end of the fourth episode, there just aren’t any Cybermen in the missing installments. Ah well… Most of The Daleks’ Master Plan is missing, and I’m sure they’d have fun with that one, too.
The Invasion again makes my point that the Doctor Who format is limitless. This story directly follows The Mind Robber, shifting the tone completely from drug-trip fantasy to suspenseful, earthbound drama. While I do think that The Invasion is a tad too long, it benefits immensely from its luxurious pace, and even though it’s a story about metal men in spaceships, it stands as one of the most down-to-earth Who serials available on DVD right now. Two stories later, the producers will flip that tone on its ear with The Seeds of Death, but we’ll get to that one next week.
And after that, Jon Pertwee arrives, and the entire format of the show changes completely. There’s a reason Doctor Who has been around for more than 40 years – the concept is one of the most flexible ever created for television. Show someone episodes from 1966, 1976, 1986 and 2006, and they’d never peg them as examples of the same show, but they are. And the well still hasn’t run dry.
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This column is already way too long, but I wanted to put in one recommendation before I go.
Morphine was a band unlike any other. They were the two-string bass and baritone vocals of Mark Sandman, the bari sax of Dana Colley, and the down-tuned drums of Billy Conway, and that was all. They played smoky, sexy, low-register blues-rock, and they could turn any size venue into a dingy nightclub just with their sound.
Mark Sandman died in 1999, but the other two members of Morphine have continued on with a band called the Twinemen, named after a comic strip Sandman used to write. The duo joined forces with singer-songwriter Laurie Sargent, whose vocals are suitably smoke-filled, and they thankfully continue to sound much like Morphine did.
Their third album, the unfortunately-titled Twinetime, is their best yet. It’s eight longer songs, exploring their moodier side, and there’s not a bum note here. The songs are simple, but smooth and haunting – you won’t be able to get the opener, “The End of My Dreams,” out of your head, trust me. It’s fascinating to hear such a low, rumbling sound topped off with the sweet, higher-register vocals of Sargent – Morphine was all about the bass, but the Twinemen add other colors.
The Twinemen aren’t about to set the world ablaze, but it’s wonderful to hear these musicians continuing to play together, and develop a sound immortalized by the late Sandman. If you dug Morphine, you’ll like this.
Next week, we go under the radar with Pinback, Liars and Minus the Bear.
See you in line Tuesday morning.