For the second week in a row, I’m a sad Doctor Who fan.
I’m still mourning the loss of Peter Halliday, and now I’ve received word that Philip Madoc has died. Madoc was another of those supporting actors with multiple roles across the years. In fact, he played four between 1968 and 1979. His first was in the Patrick Troughton story The Krotons, which I still haven’t seen, but the second was as the sinister War Lord in Troughton’s epic swan song, The War Games. He brought his trademark calm, unnerving menace to the part, underplaying just about every moment, and he was immensely memorable.
His final Who role was as Fenner in the forgettable story The Power of Kroll. (Well, the story was forgettable. The giant rubber squid, on the other hand…) But even casual fans of the classic series know Madoc best for his turn as Solon in the classic The Brain of Morbius. Madoc’s unhinged and desperate genius with a Frankenstein complex is one of the all-time great Doctor Who performances, verbally jousting with Tom Baker the way few actors could.
Madoc was 77 years old. Rest in peace, Philip. You’ll be missed.
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People often ask me what kind of music I like, and I never know quite what to say.
Lately I’ve been responding with, “I like everything.” And this always provokes a skeptical look. “How can someone like everything? You can’t possibly like everything.” And I just have to shrug and say, “I just work here.”
Because I do like pretty much every style of music. Ska is problematic, and synthetic pop balladry leaves me cold, but I’ve found examples of both that I enjoy. Next week, I’ll be buying three new albums: the latest from metal mavens Soulfly, the fourth album from emo punkers Say Anything, and a live album from indie-folk gods The Decemberists. The following week I’m picking up both the Shins and Esperanza Spalding. On the 27th I’ll be taking home new things from Iron Maiden, Madonna, the Mars Volta, Paul Weller and the Cowboy Junkies.
That’s a pretty wide swath, and I honestly expect to like all of it. It’s sort of a disease – I’d have more money and more shelf space if I only liked certain kinds of music. I’m not sure why my brain is wired this way, and why I can go from Jandek to David Crowder to Jellyfish to Nina Simone without getting mental whiplash. Some people are put off by the relentless positivity of this column, but it’s really that simple: I kind of like everything.
That’s not to say I give everything a pass. I still listen critically, and I hope that comes through. But if I had a map, I’d be all over it, taste-wise. Here’s some proof: the three albums I have to review this week have absolutely nothing in common at all. Well, they’re all collections of songs with choruses, I guess, so the difference isn’t as far out as it could be. But I couldn’t find a common thread between them at all. So here they are, in all their scattered glory, three albums bound together only by the fact that I like them all.
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Lyle Lovett’s a cheeky bastard.
His eleventh album is his last for longtime label Curb Records, and he’s complained publicly that he doesn’t see a dime from these CDs. So what does he call his final album for the label? Why, Release Me, of course. And the cover photo finds him literally bound with ropes, a world-weary look on his face. The message couldn’t be more clear.
And it extends to the content of the record itself. Release Me is almost entirely covers, and on paper, it’s the definition of a contractual obligation album. There are 14 tracks, and Lovett the songwriter contributes only two of them. Now, Lyle’s always been an interpreter as well as a writer – see his fantastic earlier covers record, Step Inside This House, and his collection of film songs, Smile. So this isn’t a screaming left turn, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that Release Me is a rushed-together, inessential bit of product.
There’s just one problem with that: the album is wonderful.
Lovett’s band has always been blessed with fantastic musicians, and this record is no exception. Russ Kunkel on the drums, Victor Krauss on the bass, Matt Rollings on the piano, Luke Bulla and Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Sam Bush and Keith Sewell on mandolin – the list just goes on and on, and these guys throw their full weight into these songs. That, combined with Lovett’s clear affection for these tunes, transforms what could have been a hodgepodge into an album that can proudly stand with the man’s best work.
Lyle’s usually typed as a country artist (he does wear a cowboy hat), and Release Me’s title track is an old country standard, with k.d. lang on harmony vocals and some fine fiddle and steel guitar. But the record rarely slips back into shitkicker mode. Instead, the band slams through Jesse Winchester’s rollicking “Isn’t That So,” complete with full Memphis-style horn section, before slipping into “Understand You,” a fragile folk number from fellow Texan Eric Taylor.
Lovett and his crack band give us the most laid-back version of Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” you’ll ever hear, and nimbly navigate the tricky-time traditional boogie “Keep It Clean.” The six-minute take on John Grimaudo and Saylor White’s gorgeous “Dress of Laces” can stand with Lovett’s finest, most heart-rending ballads, and the full-on bluegrass stomp through Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues” is jaw-dropping. The record ends with a brief prayer, Martin Luther’s “Keep Us Steadfast.” (Yes, that Martin Luther.) It’s stately and understated, a fine conclusion.
And what of Lovett’s two songs? They’re not bad. “The Girl With the Holiday Smile” is a shuffling blues, Rollings knocking it out the park on piano, and “Night’s Lullaby” is a pretty piece in waltz time. But this record isn’t about Lyle Lovett the songwriter, and his contributions pale in comparison to his cover choices. In the end, Release Me comes off as a classy move – despite the backhanded title, it’s a heartfelt piece of work, and though it could have been a tossed-off parting shot at Curb Records, instead it’s a little gift, both to them and us.
Thanks, Lyle. Now that you’ve been released, can’t wait to hear what you do next.
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Speaking of cheeky, there’s the Magnetic Fields.
Their new album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, comes affixed with a sticker that reads, “The best Magnetic Fields album on Merge Records since 69 Love Songs.” The joke is that it’s the first Magnetic Fields album on Merge since 69 Love Songs, in 1999. Between then and now, Fields mastermind Stephin Merritt has been plying his trade on Nonesuch Records, and while I wouldn’t say the music has suffered, it’s certainly been different – Merritt indulged his baroque pop tendencies, when he wasn’t dabbling in My Bloody Valentine-style layers of noise.
Love at the Bottom of the Sea pretends like none of that ever happened. It’s a return to computer-pop, and to clever two-minute marvels, and though the sound of the record is much more dense than early Fields efforts, the tone is the same. Fifteen songs in 34 minutes, none of them breaking the three-minute mark, with Merritt trading off lead vocals with Claudia Gonson and Shirley Simms. And it’s chock full of loneliness, pain and sadness, wrapped up in some wondrous wordplay.
The opening one-two shot is typical Merritt. First track “God Wants Us to Wait” is a sardonic look at religion getting in the way of sex (“Now you might like to kiss the dew on my hem, but when male and female God created he them, our lord intended us forever to mate, I love you, baby, but God wants us to wait…”), and killer single “Andrew in Drag” examines an unfortunate case of love at first sight: “So stick him in a dress and he’s the only boy I’d shag, the only boy I’d anything is Andrew in drag, I’ll never see that girl again, he did it as a gag, I’ll pine away forever more for Andrew in drag…”
“Your Girlfriend’s Face” takes that romantic-sounding title and spins a revenge fantasy around it: “So I’ve taken a contract out on you, I’ve hired a hit man to do what they do… they’ll have to hose off your trysting place after he blows off your girlfriend’s face…” (Gonson sings this one with glee, and the joyous synth sounds smile all the way through.) “I’d Go Anywhere With Hugh” is just as adorable as you’d expect, and “The Only Boy in Town” finds Gonson lamenting her unfaithfulness: “If only you were the only boy in town, for then I could not play the field and let you down…” (The last verse makes use of the phrase “more pricks than a cactus,” which is indescribably awesome.)
Melodically, this isn’t Merritt’s strongest set of songs, and it peters out by the end. (Last track “All She Cares About is Mariachi” probably should have been excised.) But for most of its running time, Love at the Bottom of the Sea is a charming return to form for the synth-pop side of the Magnetic Fields. It’s been a while since we’ve heard Merritt’s songs in this context, but it suits them – it adds a layer of plastic joy that only brings out the sadness of the lyrics. No matter the musical setting, I’m always glad to hear more Stephin Merritt songs, and this album delivers some terrific ones.
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Speaking of songwriters I love hearing from, there’s Donnie Vie.
Enuff Znuff is pretty high on the list of bands people can’t believe I like. But I’ll defend them to the death – they’re one of the best power pop bands on the planet, and Donnie Vie and Chip Znuff have a batting average most songwriters would kill for. Album for album, song for song, Enuff Znuff is one of the most consistent bands I’m aware of, and they keep on kicking – their last record, 2009’s Dissonance, was just as good as anything they’ve done.
The fact that a band so unfairly tied to the ‘80s hair metal scene keeps pumping out quality material after more than 20 years is amazing to me. I’m not sure what their sales numbers are, but they can’t be great, particularly in the U.S. In fact, I had to import Donnie Vie’s latest solo album, Wrapped Around My Middle Finger, from across the pond. But it was worth it – it’s another solid collection of heavy power pop, in a melodic class far beyond what you’d expect, if you haven’t been following along.
So yeah, the album is actually called Wrapped Around My Middle Finger, which isn’t going to help its reputation, and the groove-metal title track leads it off, giving the wrong impression right away. Not to say I don’t like it, but there are much more impressive delights waiting beyond it. Check out “Wunderland,” a terrific mid-tempo pop song with Vie’s typical shades of John Lennon. “Daddy’s Girl” is as cliched a fatherhood song as you’re likely to find, but it’s pretty in its low-budget epic way. And “Lil Wonder” is the album’s highlight, a swirling slice of prog-pop that builds and builds. Through all of this, Vie sings his heart out – his Beatle John-influenced voice shows signs of wear here and there, particularly on “Flames of Love,” but he still sounds great.
And “Now Ya Know” features a guest appearance from another guy still tied to his ‘80s past, Kip Winger. Here’s a guy who has tried hard to leave that image behind, releasing progressive pop solo albums and composing ballets. And In some ways, I wish Donnie Vie would do the same – it would be easier to argue for him as a swell songwriter if he’d stop coming up with tunes like “Smokin’ Hot Lollipop.”
But then it just wouldn’t be him. For more than 20 years, Vie and his Znuff-mates have married the screaming guitar party-rock aesthetic with some simply wonderful pop songs, and at this point, I’m not sure I’d want one without the other. (Plus, “Smokin’ Hot Lollipop” is pretty great.) Wrapped Around My Middle Finger is another in a long line of solid, sure-to-be-ignored efforts from a guy who deserves more respect than he gets. Here’s hoping he keeps on making records like this anyway.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.