There will probably be better album titles this year than Elvis Costello’s Momofuku. But I doubt any of them will be as much fun to say.
Momofuku. Momo. Fuku.
Apparently, the album is named after Momofuku Ando, the inventor of the Ramen noodle. Here’s what I don’t understand: you have a great name like Momofuku, and you saddle your enduring creation with a pedestrian name like Ramen. That’s just a shame. I bet college kids would eat even more of the stuff if it were called Momofuku. Can you see that? Momofuku, 10 for a dollar. “What are you eating?” “Chicken-flavored Momofuku.”
Thankfully, Costello knows a good name when he hears it. His solemn dedication to Ando in the liner notes is priceless: “Remembering Momofuku Ando (1910-2007). He fed those who study.”
So the title is awesome. But what’s the music like? Costello is one of the few long-running musicians about whom that question can honestly be asked each time out. I’m one of those freaks who likes everything he’s released – I don’t think Costello has made a bad record, and considering that Momofuku is his 27th or so, that’s saying something. I enjoy being surprised, and I like not knowing just what Costello is going to give me until I press play. Will this be another orchestral affair? Will we get chamber-pop, or country-rock, or jazz, or something completely different?
That diversity annoys some of Costello’s critics, and I can’t figure that out. I like tuneful, punky rock as much as anyone – honest, I do, especially when it’s as literate and thoughtful as Costello’s rock usually is. But if the man turns out a soulful New Orleans pop record with Allen Toussaint, or a song cycle with the Brodsky Quartet, and he can pull it off, more power to him, I say. There’s a contingent of Costello fans that believes his first three albums with the Attractions (My Aim is True, This Year’s Model and Armed Forces) are his apex, and with every record, they wish he’d return to that angry, energetic, we-did-this-in-a-weekend sound.
For the most part, those people will get their wish on Momofuku. It’s raucous, loud, bitter, sneering, and full of depressing, angry stories. It’s also very good – some have called it his best album in 25 years, and while I won’t go that far, it’s certainly the best “classic” Costello album since Brutal Youth. That’s 14 years, so, you know, not bad.
Momofuku is Costello’s fourth album with his new backing band, the Imposters – basically the Attractions, but with Davey Faragher on bass instead of Bruce Thomas. The other three have been varying shades of uncomfortable, as if Costello, now 54, had tried to fit into a younger man’s suit with little success. That’s not the case here – Momofuku is warm and comfy, as if Elvis had never stopped making this kind of music. The recording sounds quick and dirty, and mostly live, and there’s a loose party feel to the whole thing, helped along by a bevy of guest stars, including Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis, Jonathan Rice, and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos.
Opening track “No Hiding Place” is just awesome, a rant about anonymity with a killer melody and some sharp-as-knives lyrics. In fact, Costello’s lyrics here are better than they’ve been in some time, full of wizened cynicism – I’d say it’s a product of his age, but it’s really a throwback to bitter classics like Armed Forces and Spike. “Harry Worth” is vintage Costello, a sad yet judgmental tale of wasted romance, with great lines like this one: “She wishes he was mute instead of just dumb.”
The songs are similarly solid – there’s none of the meandering formlessness of The Delivery Man here, and none of the strained rage of When I Was Cruel. Just listen to the Imposters slam through the deceptively simple “Stella Hurt,” complete with some awesome electric guitar work by the man himself. Check out Steve Nieve’s old-school organ bits on “American Gangster Time.” Dig the too-short acoustic whirlygig that is “Drum and Bone.” And marvel at how well Jenny Lewis harmonizes with Costello on most of the tracks here.
Even when Momofuku veers from straight-ahead melodic rock, it’s very good. “Mr. Feathers” could have fit nicely on Mighty Like a Rose, with its thudding piano and soaring melody, and the two songs co-written with country luminaries (Roseanne Cash on “Song With Rose” and Loretta Lynn on “Pardon Me, Madam, My Name is Eve”) are sweet and sour delights. But Costello wisely returns to the garage-rock for the closer, “Go Away” – this song, and most of the album, has such an organic feel to it that it’s little wonder Costello chose to release this album on vinyl first.
So, best album in 25 years? Not quite – I like a lot of his stylistic diversions better than this. But Momofuku is certainly up there. If it’s not a return to form, it’s certainly a return to a certain kind of form – this is the best rock and roll record Costello has made in a long, long time. This is no tired attempt to recapture his youth. Costello has genuinely made a rock record on par with some of his younger-days classics, and if you’re one of those fans pining for another This Year’s Model, this is probably the closest you’re ever going to get.
Plus, how can you resist that title? Momofuku!
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Another week, another Nine Inch Nails album.
It certainly seems that way, at least. No sooner do I receive my CD copy of Ghosts I-IV in the mail, here’s Trent Reznor back with another full-length record. It’s called The Slip, and the hook this time is that it’s available for free, right now, here.
Again, I’ll say more about this when I have a hard copy in hand – the CD will be released in July. But if you’re afraid this is another lengthy instrumental excursion, or a similar left turn, let me ease your mind: The Slip is an honest-to-God new Nine Inch Nails album. It’s loud, complex, difficult, angry and sexy, and it features Reznor in his familiar guitars-and-screaming mode for most of it.
In fact, this may be the loudest NIN record since Broken, all told. There’s a live band feel to songs like “1,000,000” and the single, “Discipline,” and “Letting You” is skull-splittingly heavy – the fastest and heaviest thing Reznor’s done since probably “Gave Up.” He gets more complicated on guitar epics like “Echoplex” and “Head Down,” which actually sound like Sonic Youth in places. For six tracks, The Slip is excellent.
Sadly, it falls apart somewhat from there. “Lights in the Sky” is lovely, a piano-vocal dirge that resists the temptation to go bigger. But the two instrumentals in a row don’t do much for the record’s momentum – “Corona Radiata” is overly long, and to follow it up with another wordless wonder is just wearying. (Adding to my disappointment is the great title of that second instrumental: “The Four of Us Are Dying.” I really wanted lyrics to go with that.) And “Demon Seed” is a bit of a weak closer, returning to the guitars-and-beats mania, but failing to cohere.
But hell, for the low, low price of free, this is a pretty good NIN record. And it’s been released under a Creative Commons license, which means anyone who wants to can remix it, re-post it, shoot video to accompany it, and distribute it any way they like, as long as they a) make no money and b) give full credit. I think Reznor is the highest-profile artist to embrace both free digital distribution of new work, and full listener interactivity with that new work. I’m excited to see where this goes.
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The producers of Doctor Who kicked off their show’s 20th season the same way they kicked off the 10th – with a story about Omega and the Time Lords. And like The Three Doctors before it, Arc of Infinity divides fan opinion to this day.
As the new series, now in its fourth season, continues to tease out little hints about the Doctor’s past, I’m struck at just how long it took the original series to give viewers anything on that score. By now it’s accepted that the Doctor is a Time Lord from Gallifrey, but in the beginning, he was a complete mystery, and the writers and producers kept that mystery alive for a long, long time.
Consider this: William Hartnell’s Doctor never once uttered the phrase “Time Lord.” Neither did Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, until his very last story – The War Games, which closed the sixth season. Even though we glimpsed it in that tale, it would be another five years before we heard the name of the Doctor’s home planet – not until The Time Warrior, the first story of season 11. We visited the still-unnamed Gallifrey in The Three Doctors, but we didn’t get a really good look at it until The Deadly Assassin, in season 13. That’s an awfully long wait for details about your central character.
The interesting thing is that when we finally do see Gallifreyan society, and meet the Time Lords, they’re… well, wankers.
The first time we meet them, in The War Games, they force the Doctor to regenerate and exile him to Earth for three seasons. They’re shadowy figures in The War Games, not at all what you’d expect of a society that produced the Doctor. They’re even worse in The Three Doctors – they’re weak and lazy and haughty. As the story opens, the Time Lords are under attack from Omega, who lives on the other side of a black hole and seems to be shooting crayon drawings of lightning bolts at Gallifrey. This somehow completely incapacitates the whole society, forcing them to break their own laws of time to bring the three incarnations of the Doctor together. Are they humble about it? Of course not, though they do free the Doc from exile at the end of the story.
I haven’t seen the next two Gallifrey stories, The Deadly Assassin and The Invasion of Time, for more than 20 years. But I remember the Time Lords leaving me with a bad impression – their society is corrupt and stupid, and they wear ridiculous robes and stand on ceremony way too much. They accuse the Doctor of murder in the first story, and rely on him to repel a Sontaran invasion in the second – I wonder just how Gallifrey has survived this long without the Doc there. They do make him Lord President, I guess, but that seems to be an honorary title, as the Doc doesn’t appear to acquire any new duties after his coronation.
That impression is confirmed by Arc of Infinity, which portrays the Time Lords as a stuffy, inefficient ruling class, quick to judge and riddled with corruption. In the first episode, a being made of anti-matter tries to merge with the Doctor. The process is unsuccessful, but the Time Lords can think of no other solution but to bring the Doc to Gallifrey and kill him before the creature tries again. (Anti-matter and matter together would make a pretty big bang – it’d wipe out everything, apparently.)
Arc of Infinity is a tale of political intrigue, as the Doctor and Nyssa try to discover which of the high council of Time Lords has betrayed him. The big bad is Omega, the forgotten Time Lord who discovered the secret of time travel, and was trapped in an anti-matter universe because of it. And the story also involves Tegan and her cousin’s friend running around Amsterdam for a while, finally crossing paths with the Doctor in the third episode.
For a while, it’s kind of a mess, but when it all comes together, it’s a good little story, and as usual, Peter Davison sells even the most ridiculous aspects of it. At various points, he’s disintegrated by a smoke machine and chased by a giant chicken, and he does so with a wonderful sense of bravery and fear. I would watch him in anything.
Arc is notable for a couple of things. First, there is Colin Baker, playing Commander Maxil. Baker, you may know, would go on to take over as the Doctor once Peter Davison left the role. Maxil is a complete prick – he shoots the Doctor at the end of the first episode, sneers through the rest of the story, and even when he turns out to be a good guy, you don’t quite trust or believe him. The same can be said for his Doctor, especially at the start of his tenure, so this story gives you an idea of what you’re in for.
The other is the finale, which finds the Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan chasing Omega through the streets of Amsterdam. Most fans think this sequence goes on too long, and they may have a point. But for a story with such a grand scale, Arc of Infinity ends on a small, human, heartbreaking note. Omega has finally escaped the anti-matter universe, by growing himself a body made of matter – that body looks just like Peter Davison’s Doctor. And for a while, everything’s okay – he walks around Amsterdam, taking in the sunlight and the scenery, a free man.
But then it all goes wrong, and his body starts deteriorating, reverting to anti-matter. And you remember what happens when anti-matter meets matter, right? It sounds silly, but the chase through Amsterdam and the final scenes on the waterfront are genuinely moving, and when Omega is finally killed by the Doctor, the moment isn’t a victorious one. Davison, whose Doctor will not really show the weight of his run’s tragedies until the next season, conveys just what a sad waste Omega’s life has become, and gives the scene emotional heft.
All of you are going to go watch this now, and you’re going to think I’ve lost my little mind. But I like Arc of Infinity. Yes, it’s cheap-looking, and yes, the acting (by everyone not named Davison or Fielding) is atrocious, and yes, the music is godawful. But the story works for me, and it further demonstrates what a sad bunch of idiots the Time Lords are – we’ll see more of Gallifrey’s corruption in the epic Trial of a Time Lord in season 23, and then we never see them again, as far as I know.
I’m still plowing through my DVDs, but you’ll be happy to know my collection is officially up to date – I received Survival, the 159th and final Doctor Who story, in the mail last week. I have everything that’s available now, and I’m waiting for the other 82 stories to come out, just like all the other fans. (Next up is Beneath the Surface, a three-story box set with two Pertwees and a Davison.) Strangely, my fascination with this show hasn’t waned, even a year after I started collecting it. Here’s hoping it never does.
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Next week, Death Cab for Cutie.
See you in line Tuesday morning.