Odds and Sods
Marillion, Watchmen, Ani Difranco, Ben Folds and More

I know I said I would talk about reissues this week, but there are so many other interesting topics floating about in my head that I think I’m going to make this an odds and sods column. But hey, they’re reissues – they’ll wait.

As a teaser, though, I highly (highly) recommend the new deluxe remasters of U2’s first three albums, Boy, October and War. I’ll discuss them in greater depth next week, but these records have never sounded or looked better. The packaging is gorgeous, and we finally get the correct cover for Boy, so the War cover (a chilling sequel) makes sense. The bonus discs are fascinating – I’ve now finally heard the original version of “11 O’Clock Tick Tock,” although I could have used fewer remixes of “New Year’s Day.” These are three absolute classic albums, and they’ve been given their just due here.

All right. Enough of the past, on to the future.

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I’m an old-fashioned music fan. Downloading my tunes is okay as a backup plan, a last-resort alternative, but I like actually going to the music store, plunking down my cash and buying the physical CD. I enjoy taking the shrink wrap off, and reading the liner notes, and looking at the design. I spent about 20 bucks on a copy of Nine Inch Nails’ The Slip this week, an album I already downloaded for free off the band’s site, just for those very pleasures. And to have The Slip, and slot it into my collection.

But even I’m excited at the new ways artists are finding to go it alone, to make their work available to the people immediately. I bought The Slip, it’s true, but I was happily stunned when Trent Reznor gave it away for free. An entire album that fans could just, you know, have. You’re not going to make a lot of money that way, but you are going to make new fans, and artists are realizing (in ways the paranoid record companies just aren’t) that the music is often the best ad for itself. Give it away, and people will come back and buy more.

That’s the theory, anyway. The problem with digital distribution online has never been making the music available, it’s been letting people know about it, and getting them to pony up when it’s time to do so. I still think every band with a website and a dream needs to take a few notes from Marillion, who not only remain one of the very best bands on the planet, but who also have cultivated the most loyal fanbase I’ve ever seen.

Now, granted, Marillion was big once, in the ‘80s. (Well, big across the pond – precious few people remember their chart hits “Kayleigh” and “Lavender” over here.) They had a major-label fanbase to build from, but they’re not like Radiohead, releasing In Rainbows at the height of their label-financed acclaim. In the 22 years since “Kayleigh,” Marillion has switched singers, and embraced styles of music a million miles from their progressive rock beginnings, so even the older fans may not recognize them now.

So they have slowly and organically built up a new fanbase online, to the point where now, Marillion is a completely fan-supported enterprise. They have no record label but their own, no marketing staff but their own. They own the Racket Club, their recording studio, and work at their own pace. They’ve engendered such faith with their fans that three times now, they’ve asked them to pre-order albums that haven’t even been recorded, to allow them the funds to make and market their work. In 2004, 18,000 of those fans pre-ordered Marbles, at around $60 each, and those same fans took the single “You’re Gone” into the British top 10.

For a band whose music is steadfastly committed to old-fashioned ideas like melody, song construction and crisp production, Marillion is astonishingly innovative when it comes to marketing their work. And now, they’ve hit upon one of their most brilliant schemes yet, one that includes their fanbase as junior marketers, with quite an incentive.

Marillion’s 15th album, Happiness is the Road, is scheduled to come out in September. It’s another one paid for through pre-orders, and I’m guessing the pre-release campaign was a big success – not only did they pay for the recording, mixing, mastering, production and distribution of another double album, but they had enough left over to cook up this idea.

The first single is called “Whatever is Wrong With You,” and you can download it for free now here. Your mission, then, is to shoot a video that goes along with the song and post that video to YouTube. The video can be anything you want, but make it good, because in December, when the European tour ends, the video with the most views on YouTube will win its author $10,000.

Yes, $10,000. Ten. Thousand. Dollars. (Well, 5,000 British pounds, but thanks to a weak dollar…)

The band will also offer an as-yet undetermined second prize to the video they deem best, but the beauty of the YouTube method is it’s all about eyeballs and eardrums experiencing the new song. The group reasons that even if you click on your own video a thousand thousand times to fix the contest, a Marillion video will still be in YouTube’s “most viewed” list, drawing more attention to the band and the song. It’s brilliant.

But what about the song? “Whatever is Wrong With You” is… okay. It’s not a bad choice, but it’s certainly not representative of the band’s sound, and has nothing on “You’re Gone,” perhaps the most perfect pop single of Marillion’s career. The song is loud, but slow and repetitive, and it has a decent hook, but some silly lyrics. (“We need to talk about the Christmas lights in your clothes…”) It’s not bad, but it’s probably not the song I’d want hundreds of thousands of people to hear first.

And hopefully, that’s what we’re talking about here. I want Marillion to become a household name – they ought to be million-sellers. More than that, they ought to be acclaimed as one of the finest bands on Earth. I wasn’t thrilled with album 14, Somewhere Else, but the snippets I have heard of Happiness is the Road have me hopeful they’re back on track. I’m saving a spot in my top 10 list for it.

Learn more about Marillion (and buy their stuff) here.

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Speaking of the top 10 list, the rest of the year is shaping up nicely. Here are some things I’m looking forward to, and some things I’m dreading:

The big news is September 30, which will see new records from Ani Difranco and Ben Folds. I’m excited about Ani’s album, called Red Letter Year – it’s her first since Reprieve two years ago, and apparently it’s a sprawling, full-band effort. That can only be a good thing, after three more sedate albums in a row. I love Ani, but I think I love her best when she’s taking bizarre flights of fancy, and bringing a dozen or more musicians along with her. Besides, with the great Reprieve, I think she took the tiny little sound she’s been cultivating about as far as she could.

The Folds album has me a little more worried. It’s called Way to Normal, and is apparently a return to the snarky rock of the early Ben Folds Five stuff. That’s all well and good, and it will probably feature much more explosive piano work than Folds’ last couple of records. But I liked the new, grown-up Folds of Songs for Silverman. He matured on that album without getting old and turning into Elton John, and I admired him for writing a first-person record and living in it, instead of observing it.

That’s okay, though. Way to Normal looks like it’s a romp, with song titles like “Bitch Went Nuts,” “Brainwascht,” “Free Coffee” and “Errant Dog.” And also, my favorite subtitle in years: “Hiroshima (B-B-B-Benny Hits His Head).” Hopefully it’s not all stupid jokes, because I think Ben Folds is best when he’s telling off-kilter, heartwarming stories, lovely piano melodies in tow.

Anyway, I am also excited for the new Matthew Sweet, his first in four years. It’s called Sunshine Lies, it’s apparently a psychedelic pop kaleidoscope, and it’s out on August 26. The Fiery Furnaces have a two-disc live album called Remember set for August 19, with 51 tracks – the Furnaces are famous for rearranging their songs into medleys and snippets live, and they’ve captured that here, with most tracks running two minutes or less. And Dresden Doll Amanda Palmer has a solo album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer, set for September 16. Ben Folds (him again?) produced that one, in case you needed another reason to buy it.

I am equal parts excited and nervous for That Lucky Old Sun, Brian Wilson’s proper follow-up to SMiLE, out September 2. It’s another cohesive work, incorporating spoken word and orchestral music, and like SMiLE, it was written with Van Dyke Parks. I’m trying not to get my hopes up – I remember how awful his last album of “new” music, Gettin’ In Over My Head, was – but I can’t deny a tingle of anticipation for this one.

On the other hand, the more I learn about the new Metallica, the more I think it’s going to be a disaster. It’s been given a lousy name – Death Magnetic – and the track listing made me want to ram my head into a wall. Most egregious is the inclusion of something called “The Unforgiven III.” I accepted the lame sequel on Reload, since that record was just a collection of discards from Load. But to keep the thread going just smacks of desperation and lack of inspiration.

Then again, the other song titles don’t fill me with confidence either. “All Nightmare Long”? Really? “Broken, Beat and Scarred”? Honestly? Okay. The album was produced by Rick Rubin, which does make me interested – at least they got away from Bob Rock, who all but ruined the band’s career over the last few records. Hopefully, Rubin had the good sense to replace Lars Ulrich’s trash cans and cookie tins with actual drums this time. We shall see…

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So, I saw the Batman movie. It was pretty damn good, especially Heath Ledger’s fearless performance as the Joker. I know, Ledger’s turn in this film doesn’t need any more hype, but believe me, it lives up. It’s the most sinister and genuinely dangerous take on the Joker ever filmed.

But forget that, because what I really want to talk about is one of the trailers that ran before The Dark Knight. It seems that Watchmen movie is really going to happen this time. You can see the trailer here. I have been losing sleep dreading this film – Watchmen is one of the best graphic novels I have ever read, and also one of the best books-full-stop I have ever read. It is a massive, intimate epic, which turns on character moments and is rich in subtlety and symbolism. And my biggest fear has been that Hollywood would turn it into a superhero slugfest.

That doesn’t appear to have happened, although you can’t really tell from the trailer. After half a dozen directors lined up to take a shot at it, including Terry “I Film the Unfilmable” Gilliam, the winner was Zack Snyder, who says he’s making Watchmen to prevent the no-doubt awful version another director might make. Snyder, at least, is a fan of the book, and he had success with another comics adaptation, Frank Miller’s 300. But I’m still concerned that a guy with two films under his belt is taking on a novel so complex Gilliam couldn’t get his head around it.

The trailer ain’t bad, though. Design-wise, they seem to have a lot of things right – Nite Owl’s ship, for instance, is perfect, as is Dr. Manhattan’s glowing blue self. And the scene at the end of the trailer, in which Manhattan builds his glass citadel on Mars, took my breath away. It’s exactly like seeing the comic in motion, which is all I could ask for. With the exception of Billy Crudup, who plays Manhattan, Snyder has gone for a cast entirely of unknowns, which potentially hurts his box office, but hopefully makes Watchmen a more timeless film.

Reportedly, Snyder traveled to set every day with a copy of the Watchmen graphic novel, which he annotated as he went along. He even filmed the Tales of the Black Freighter stuff, which I figured would be the first to go. (It was, sadly – it’ll be out as its own DVD in March.) I can’t ask for more than that – Watchmen has a director who seems to care about the book, and about capturing what Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created 22 years ago. I am still a bit worried, but amazingly, I’m also looking forward to sinking into my theater seat next March and seeing what Snyder has come up with.

Marvelously, Snyder has also crafted his own YouTube contest, asking fans to create commercials for products produced by Adrian Veidt, one of the characters in the movie. The winners each received $1,000 and will compete to have their commercial included in the movie. You can see the winners here.

If you haven’t read Watchmen, you really should, and you really should before you see the movie. That gives you about eight months. Get to it.

Next week, those reissues I promised for this week. After that, new ones from Randy Newman, Amy Ray, the Levellers, and the solo debut from Conor “Bright Eyes” Oberst.

See you in line Tuesday morning.