I’m writing this while still reeling from the news that Elisabeth Sladen has died.
Those of you who aren’t Doctor Who fans probably won’t care that much. But Sladen, who will forever be known for her portrayal of the Doctor’s best friend and finest companion, Sarah Jane Smith, meant a lot to me. Even as a kid, Sarah Jane was my favorite companion. Smart and plucky, with a playful nature, she was the perfect foil for Tom Baker’s wild-eyed Doctor in the 1970s. And she was a journalist, and while I don’t think she had anything to do with me choosing my career, it’s interesting to note that I was drawn to the reporter even at an early age.
Sladen played Sarah Jane, off and on, for more than 35 years. She left Doctor Who in 1977, but returned for the 1983 special The Five Doctors, and then reprised her role in countless audio adventures. Producer Russell T. Davies brought Sarah Jane back to Who in 2006, one of his many master strokes, but it was Sladen who made it work. She bravely chose to play Sarah Jane as brittle and somewhat damaged, having seen wonders and then been thrown back into everyday life. She was colder somehow, older and more distant, but still the same Sarah Jane underneath. It was tremendous acting on Sladen’s part.
And that’s the way she played Sarah Jane all the way to the end. Sladen became the star of her own spinoff, the Sarah Jane Adventures, and despite the fact that it’s aimed at children, it’s a strong show, well-written and darker than you’d expect. In the fourth season, Sladen got to act alongside Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor, and Katy Manning, as Jo Grant, the companion who directly preceded her in the ‘70s. That story, The Death of the Doctor, was a fan’s dream. It was just awesome.
Sladen was halfway through filming the fifth season of Sarah Jane when she died of complications from cancer. She was 63 years old. I don’t think it’s exaggerating anything to say she was the gold standard of Doctor Who companions. Sladen was an intensely private person – even now I don’t know much about her, and in fact didn’t know she was suffering from cancer – which puts the focus exactly where it belongs: on her portrayal of the greatest companion ever. Man, I’m going to miss her.
Rest in peace, Lis.
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I am, for the most part, a fairly patient person.
I like works of art that take their time unfolding, that require multiple listens (or viewings or readings) to really grasp. Most music flies right by me without leaving much of a mark. Some music I like right away. But some – and it’s invariably the best music – leaves me a little bewildered the first time. I’ve become familiar with that little tingle in the back of my head, the one that says, “Listen again. And then again. You will love this, but it’s going to take time.”
Marillion is the best example I can come up with. Virtually every Marillion album has underwhelmed me on first listen. (Marbles is the only one that did it for me right away.) Their latest, Happiness is the Road, struck me as particularly boring my first time through. But a few dives later, it clicked, and now it’s among my favorites. I’ve heard this said before, but Marillion is one of those bands that annoys people who skip through to the good bits. Essentially, you either think it’s all good, or it all slides by you uneventfully. It takes time and patience to really enjoy what they’re doing.
Elbow is another such band. Over five albums now, this British quintet has quietly spun out dreamy, wispy music that irritates people who think rock bands should, you know, rock. Elbow’s music has been described by some as boring, which means to me that those critics gave the band a cursory listen, waiting for the guitar solos. There’s a subtlety to what Elbow does, and that means their songs will often seem unremarkable to the impatient.
I’ll include myself in that list too. The band’s first two albums, Asleep in the Back and Cast of Thousands, did little for me at first. I’m a melody addict, and I want my Britpop to soar and crash and weep. Elbow songs sort of bloom and fade, without kicking up much dust. I admit I didn’t pay much attention to them initially, and the songs seemed lacking somehow. But over time, the secrets unfolded.
I remember the first one to really kick in with me. “Whisper Grass,” a tune included on the American release of Cast of Thousands, swept me up in a hypnotic spell. There isn’t a lot to the song, but its mesmerizing piano figure, and Guy Garvey’s dark and lovely vocals, made me fall in love with it. And once that fell into place, every other Elbow song started to work for me. Now I consider those first two albums little masterpieces, and the band has only gotten better from there.
Record number five, the comma-challenged Build a Rocket Boys, has quickly become my favorite. Impressively, it is their most subtle, the one requiring the most patience. It opens with the eight-minute “The Birds,” a slow burn built around a repeating melodic figure. If you spend “The Birds” waiting for the “good bit” – the explosive chorus, the guitar crunch, the big drum entrance – you’ll be disappointed. Allow yourself to be swept up in it, though, and you’ll hear just how deceptively complicated the tune is. It takes its time arriving at its destination, but the trip is absolutely worth it.
From there, Rocket is a series of moody soundscapes and pretty ballads. Only a couple of songs – the pulsing “Neat Little Rows” and the off-kilter “High Ideals,” with its Mariachi-style horns – push the tempos. The rest of the album is gentle and warm, from the ringing pianos of “Lippy Kids” and “The River” to the gossamer acoustic guitars of “Jesus Was a Rochdale Girl.” “The Night Will Always Win” is the closest to a singalong anthem here, Garvey belting out a sterling melody over old-time pianos and strings. But even that is subdued, somehow below the surface, never breaking it. (The lyrics help: “I miss your stupid face, I miss your bad advice,” Garvey sings.)
The record, a compact 51:44, ends perfectly. A brief, chilling reprise of “The Birds” (sung by the 68-year-old man who tunes the band’s pianos) leads into “Dear Friends,” the warmest song here. Over a sweet web of acoustics, pianos and chiming electrics, Garvey sings, “You are the stars I navigate home by.” It’s a charming sentiment for a charming song, one that will leave you smiling. It caps off the most low-key, and yet the most impressive album Elbow has made. They’re practically the poster children for patient, slowly-unfolding prettiness, and this one requires more patience than most. But it rewards it with some of the most delicately beautiful music you’re likely to hear this year.
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If that’s not enough British ambiance for you, you could also pick up the Boxer Rebellion’s new one.
This quartet is in the running for my discovery of the year, right up there with the Joy Formidable. I bought their third effort, The Cold Still, on a whim. I liked the packaging, and I saw that Ethan Johns had produced it. So I gambled, and I won big.
The Boxer Rebellion plays an atmospheric brand of Britpop that focuses more on feeling than anything else. But the feeling is always a peaceful sort of unsettled, an ever-building menace beneath placid waters. They rock more than Elbow does – listen to single “Step Out of the Car,” with its slashing electric guitars – but they also aren’t afraid to take one idea and make the absolute most of it.
The opening track on The Cold Still, “No Harm,” exemplifies this. The pitter-patter drums are almost tribal, though subtle, while the guitars and keys spread out over the same four chords for the entire running time. But I don’t care, because it feels right. “Maybe there’s no harm, there’s no harm in you, so watch what you see, there’s a beast in me,” Nathan Nicholson sings, while the band slides around behind him, building and building with no release.
I love the Fleet Foxes-esque “Locked in the Basement” and the relatively explosive “The Runner,” but my favorites here are the ones that follow the lead of “No Harm.” “Both Sides Are Even” is a stunner, opening up new vistas every few seconds while Nicholson explores more and more of the song’s simple melody. Each time he sings “It’s the same thing, right or wrong,” it’s like a little death, and the music follows suit. “Caught By the Light” is similarly mesmerizing, built around beautiful clean guitar patterns. And closer “Doubt” is perfectly pitched, planting that seed of unease that flows backward into the entire record.
The Cold Still sounds like the album the National has been trying and failing to make for years. It’s full of catharsis and power, taking simple songs and magnifying them into epics. It’s more accessible and immediate than Elbow, but the Boxer Rebellion still ask for and reward patience. The Cold Still is a gorgeous effort from a band I’m glad to have found.
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And finally, there is Derri Daugherty.
It’s been a running joke amongst fans of Daugherty’s band, the Choir: one day, we laugh, Derri will finish that solo album he’s been working on. Well. the joke’s on us, because here is Clouds Echo in Blue, Daugherty’s full-length solo debut. And it’s not at all what I was expecting, and it will probably surprise fans of the Choir’s atmospheric, spiritual pop music.
Clouds Echo in Blue is an eight-song instrumental effort, inspired by the shoegaze music of the ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s like a breeze over an ocean, Daugherty’s reverbed guitar falling like spring rain over beds of glorious noise. The first track, “The Sound at the End of the World,” sets the tone – there’s no song here, just droning high organ and pretty guitar accents. It’s meant to put you into a trance, and the remaining seven songs do little to break that trance.
Daugherty has long been one of my favorite guitarists, and his battery of tones is on fine display here. “This is How I Feel” finds him gently plucking a clean, chiming sound, while “Where Did Winter Go” is somewhat dirtier, distortion creeping in here and there. Throughout, Daugherty proves himself a fine, yet subtle player, only doing what is necessary to bring the song across. This is an album to play in a darkened room at four a.m., as you listen to the soundscapes flickering into the corners. The music, however, is never dark, always joyous and contented.
I’ve been waiting a while to hear Daugherty step out on his own, and while Clouds Echo in Blue is not at all what I thought I’d get, I’m beyond happy to have it. This is music that lifts spirits, that fills hearts with wonder, that gets at the beauty and joy of life without ever speaking a word. It’s been a good couple of years to be a Choir fan, and this is just the icing on top. This is slow, deep, gentle music that beckons you back to listen again and again. And you will.
You can hear and buy Clouds Echo in Blue here.
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I hope everyone had a great Record Store Day. I certainly did. My record store, Kiss the Sky in Geneva, held a release party for Made in Aurora, the local artist compilation I contributed to. It’s an amazing piece of work, especially considering how quickly it came together: recorded in three days, mixed and mastered in a couple of weeks. Hundreds of people packed into the tiny store to buy that record and several others, and owner Steve Warrenfeltz said it was his best day ever, sales-wise, in 15 years of business. Felt good to be a part of that.
If you want to order Made in Aurora, Steve will ship it to you. Just, you know, FYI.
Next week, right here, I tackle epic, multi-disc releases from the Violet Burning and Amplifier. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.