I was going to start this column by lamenting the sad state of Doctor Who this season. But then they went and aired an episode called “Hide” this week, and it was wonderful. So hey, maybe there’s a chance it will pull out of the tailspin.
But man, this season has been pretty lousy. We’re nine episodes and two specials in, and I can think of maybe four of those I’ve liked enough to watch twice. When one of the highlights of your season is a Chris Chibnall script called “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” something’s gone wrong somewhere. I think the problem is multilayered, but then, all I can do is compare this season to the previous two, which I think were pretty much marvelous.
Splitting the season up hasn’t helped. The first five episodes were mainly killing time until the “heartbreaking” exit of Amy and Rory. The second half has had much more forward momentum, thanks to the mystery of Clara Oswin Oswald, but even so, the single-episode-story format has kept things feeling disconnected. Yes, I know that’s the DNA of the show, but under Steven Moffat, Doctor Who has been much more about telling a longer, more involved tale.
So now we’re rushing headlong into the 50th anniversary celebrations this fall, and we’re working through another set of single-episode stories. Thus far, we’ve had a decent thriller about monsters in the wifi, a godawful mess about singing aliens and an impossible leaf, a mediocre rewrite of “Dalek” that botched the return of the Ice Warriors, and “Hide,” the first truly terrific story of the year. Even if the next four are all amazing, that puts Season Seven at around .500. And with another Mark Gatiss script on the way, even that seems doubtful. (On the bright side, we do have a Neil Gaiman story to look forward to.)
And then there’s the finale, a scant four weeks away. The title has just been revealed: “The Name of the Doctor.” The tagline is “His greatest secret revealed.” I don’t see a way out of this that isn’t, in some way, disappointing. Last year, I would have had full faith in Moffat to pull off a finale called “The Name of the Doctor.” He’s been leading up to it for some time anyway, and I expect he knows where he’s going with all this. But after the lackluster season we’ve had so far, I’m worried about it. The idea that it might fundamentally change the show is both exciting and terrifying.
I wish I had a Tardis, so I could pop forward four weeks and see how it all turns out. Fingers crossed that they don’t screw it up.
* * * * *
The Doctor has a time machine, but one thing he never does is change the past.
That was actually one of the show’s first mandates, spoken by William Hartnell, the first Doctor. “You can’t change history,” he warned Barbara Wright in “The Aztecs.” “Not one line!” Since then, many Who stories have centered around the dangers of trying to change what has already happened. It’s a tricky thing, revisiting the past. You may go into it with the best of intentions, but the results are often disastrous.
At least, they are on television. But don’t tell that to our three contestants this week, all of whom have taken a dive into their own histories with a big red pen. And despite the odds, all three have surfaced with something special.
Now, granted, there are a lot of ways to muck about with the past. British institution Marillion have chosen one of the easiest – remixing and remastering an older album that has never received its due. The band’s 1998 effort Radiation, their 10th album, was a classic case of fumbling right before the end zone. The songs were mainly excellent, the heavier vibe brought Marillion crashing into the age of then-modern rock, and the performances were first rate. But then the album was mixed by someone with water in their ears – the album has always felt muddy and indistinct, the vocals too low, the noise ratio way too high. There’s always been a sense that this album, good as it is, could have been great.
For their new release, Radiation 2013, the band handed all of the original album tapes to resident producer Mike Hunter. And he’s worked magic with them. The new version of Radiation is bright and bold, loud and layered – it sounds like an entirely new recording. Hunter has made a few changes – he nixed a collage-like intro to the album, and a reprise of “These Chains,” and he removed some effects from Steve Hogarth’s voice. But mainly, what he’s done is find the truly fantastic record that’s always been hiding within these tracks.
You can hear the difference right away, as Steve Rothery’s thick, chunky guitar opens “Under the Sun.” That song is now perfectly mixed, and the improvement is staggering. I’m not sure I agree with Hunter’s decision to dispense with the voice mail effect on Hogarth’s voice on “The Answering Machine” – that was kind of the point of the song – but aside from that, one of Marillion’s most rocking numbers now sounds brilliant. And “Now She’ll Never Know” sounds delicate now, instead of brittle and breakable. The acoustic guitar is noticeably bigger, Hogarth’s crystal-clear falsetto filled out, and the sparse arrangement has been augmented with more focus on the keys.
Many of these songs didn’t need much work to become amazing. “Three Minute Boy” has always been Marillion’s McCartney moment, a piano-pop epic worthy of any in the genre. (The thrilling rock moment after the second chorus is even more jolting now.) “These Chains” remains a great pop song, and the stunning closer “A Few Words for the Dead” still sweeps you away. The big recipient of Hunter’s TLC here is “Born to Run,” a blues meander that stood still on the original album, but has gained a new fluidity in this mix. Rothery’s soulful guitar has rarely sounded better.
Radiation was always a pretty good little album, but in this new incarnation, it takes its rightful place as one of the great modern rock records of our time. The band has helpfully included the original mix for comparison, but really, there is none. This new version sets Radiation alongside Marillion’s best works, and lets it shine.
* * * * *
But remixing old material is easy. Reinventing it, now, that’s more difficult. But I can’t think of anyone who has turned revisiting his own past into an art form the way Michael Roe has.
Roe is the guitarist and singer for the 77s, one of the best rock bands you’ve never heard. His last album of original material was 2004’s Fun With Sound – since then, he’s alternated between covers albums celebrating his influences, and reworkings of past material. With just about anyone else, I’d be complaining about a lack of new work. But Roe has found so many different mirrors onto his past lately that I haven’t been bored or upset by any of them.
The streak holds with Guadalupe, his new album. The 30-minute affair contains one new song, seven new versions of older Roe tunes, and one cover that should be familiar to fans. But what could have been a rehash is actually the most beautiful thing Roe has given us in years, a glorious sequel to his 2002 acoustic album Say Your Prayers. I’ve always said that Mike Roe alone with an acoustic guitar can break your heart. Here’s the proof.
Guadalupe begins with the new song, and it’s lovely. “U U” is a poem of faithful companionship, sung to both God and his fans. In less than two minutes, Roe sums up his career – all the songs he’s written, he says, he did not write alone. “I did it all with you, you…” His voice is weathered, but remains a tender instrument, and his guitar playing… well, it’s simply magic. I’ve been in the room and watched Roe do this, pull beauty from the air, and it’s life-changing.
The spell remains for the rest of the album. Every song is recast in acoustics, and each one is more beautiful than the last. Some have always been pretty – “Come and Gone” is one of Roe’s most tender songs, and “Come Down Here,” his marvelous prayer (written for the Lost Dogs), is his entire career in miniature. But even these are made more heartbreaking. “Dig My Heels,” from the 77s EP Direct, has transformed from a Tom Petty-ish mid-tempo rocker to a yearning folk song, and the change is glorious.
The album’s title track is pulled from Fun With Sound, and is dedicated to the late, great Gene Eugene. Its tribute is even more heartfelt here, Roe’s whispery voice cracking over blissful guitars. “I Need God,” a full-on gospel number on Safe as Milk, is here a stop-you-in-your-tracks confession. But it’s the two songs from 1994’s Drowning With Land in Sight that benefit from the new treatment the most. I’ve been hoping for a good version of “For Crying Out Loud” for years, and here it is. And “The Jig Is Up,” one of the finest 77s songs, sounds like a miniature epic here, Roe pulling out his electric for a soaring solo. It’s phenomenal.
Guadalupe ends with a brief run through Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More,” a song Roe has covered with the Lost Dogs. It’s a perfect coda to a gorgeous collection. Even if you’ve never heard of any of these songs, this record will move you. And if you’re a longtime fan, Guadalupe will fill your soul. Word is that Roe is writing original tunes for a new record now. That’s a good thing, but Guadalupe proves that returning to the well as often as he has can yield delightful dividends too. You can hear and buy Roe music here.
* * * * *
Remaking a few songs is certainly interesting, but how about remaking an entire album?
That’s what Texas band Quiet Company have done on their new record, A Dead Man On My Back: Shine Honesty Revisited. Taylor Muse and company have essentially re-recorded every minute of their debut album, Shine Honesty, in an attempt to bring the past into the present.
I first bought Shine Honesty on a whim. It came out in 2006 on tiny Northern Records, a label I adored – I shudder to think that I might have missed QuietCo entirely without that connection. At the time, the band was a bedroom project for Muse, and it shows. The album was recorded cheaply, with synthesizers standing in for pianos and strings, and Muse’s voice wasn’t quite to the level that it would soon be. Shine Honesty is basically a series of intricate demos, a big ball of potential that would shortly be realized.
Of course, I didn’t know then that Quiet Company would quickly become one of my favorite bands, or that their third album, the amazing and scary We Are All Where We Belong, would rocket to the top of my list a mere five years later. I liked Shine Honesty anyway. I can pinpoint the moment I fell in love with my first Taylor Muse song – the little instrumental figure that follows the choruses in “Fashionabel,” this album’s second track. It still makes me grin.
So why remake Shine Honesty? Well, three reasons: to claim it back from Northern Records, to get these songs back in print, and to update the sound to represent the five-piece band Quiet Company has become. A Dead Man On My Back revitalizes these old songs with new arrangements and a fuller sound, and the result is like a new QuietCo album. And those are always welcome in my house.
I was initially surprised to hear just how closely these new versions hew to the older ones. The pianos sound real, the guitars are fuller, the drums better, and Muse’s voice shows seven years of improvement, but for the most part, the band is very respectful of the original Shine Honesty. (They even kept the little synth piccolo trill in “Fashionabel.”) The new versions allow the songs to step forward, and while they’re not Muse’s best, they’re still fine tunes.
I was struck this time by what a slow record this is. After “Fashionabel,” you have to wait for track seven, “The Emasculated Man and the City That Swallowed Him,” to hear something that rocks. QuietCo has become such a powerhouse band that these songs seem reserved in comparison. That’s not to say that piano-led numbers like “Then Came a Sudden Validation” are not engaging, particularly in these new versions. It’s just that when the live band does kick in, as on the ragged and wonderful new version of “Circumstance,” it sounds more like the Quiet Company I’ve come to know.
But as a reflective work, Dead Man is lovely. “So Gracefully” is the rough draft for half a dozen romantic Muse songs that came after, and it’s great to hear the roots of those sentiments here. “Tie Your Monster Down” is still a pleasant, strummy affair, and “Love is a Shotgun” is still a melodic delight. The coda of “Circumstance” (“…and the sun is shining on me again…”) now has a title: “I’ve Got a Lot of Problems With You People.” But it’s still very pretty.
Shine Honesty’s best songs are also its most faith-filled, and it’s no secret that Muse has turned from the beliefs he once held. But he performs these songs honestly and earnestly anyway. The grand “We Change Lives,” the album’s finest hour, here takes on a magnificence it barely hinted at before, and when Muse sings “Heaven outstretched its perfect arms to me,” there’s no sign of hoping to erase history. He lives it again, and it – and the chorus of hallelujahs that end the song – are glorious. Same goes for the album’s coda, “When You Pass Through the Waters,” and its baptismal imagery. Muse has resisted the urge to rewrite his past here, and I’m grateful.
Dead Man ends with a pair of bonus tracks, both written at the same time as the Shine Honesty material, and both more rocking than most of the album. In particular, “Gun Control Means Using Both Hands” lives up to its awesome title. It’s a fun trip in the wayback machine, and though both Muse and QuietCo have evolved considerably since these songs were written, Dead Man reclaims them with style. It’s a fine reminder of why I first fell in love with this band, and of just how far they’ve come.
You can buy that (and other QuietCo records) here.
* * * * *
See you in line Tuesday morning.