Well, look at that. Moffat pulled it off.
A couple of weeks ago I spent an inordinate amount of space bemoaning the state of Doctor Who. The ship seemed directionless, particularly after a pair of lousy episodes (“The Rings of Akhaten” and “Cold War”), and I had less than no faith in showrunner Steven Moffat to stick the landing on a season finale boldly titled “The Name of the Doctor.” I could feel this show going off the rails, and quickly.
But then two things happened. First, the second half of the season turned out to be pretty marvelous. The streak began with Neil Cross’ “Hide,” but Steven Thompson nailed his experimental “Journey to the Centre of the Tardis,” and Mark Gatiss – Mark Gatiss! – delivered one of my favorite Who scripts in “The Crimson Horror.” That Neil Gaiman’s “Nightmare in Silver” was just solid instead of mindbendingly brilliant is a shame, but the episode was still strong, with a terrific performance by Warwick Davis. And some genuinely creepy Cybermen.
And then, with “The Name of the Doctor,” Moffat delivered one of his finest scripts. In a scant 45 minutes, he wrapped up years of plotlines, crafting an elegant solution to the mystery of Clara Oswald and cutting to the heart of the Doctor’s relationships with those he loves most. The farewell scene between the Doctor and River Song broke my heart, and the stunning revelation at the end dropped my jaw. It was a tremendous piece of work, and a perfect lead-in to the 50th anniversary special slated for November.
And you know what? I rewatched all of Season Seven (or Season 33) recently, and it all holds up much better than I remembered from my week-to-week viewings. Even “The Rings of Akhaten” grew in stature on a second spin. (“Cold War” still kinda sucks, though. And “The Angels Take Manhattan” is still something of a travesty.) It’s clear now that while this season did not scale the epic heights of the previous two, it certainly delivered a run of solid, enjoyable adventures, with some occasional brilliant moments. It’s Moffat’s worst season as showrunner, but it’s still damn fine television.
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Here’s a quick list of the last five albums to reach my number one spot for the year:
2012: Lost in the Trees, A Church That Fits Our Needs.
2011: Quiet Company, We Are All Where We Belong.
2010: Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz.
2009: The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love.
2008: Fleet Foxes.
Hands up if you can tell me what they all have in common. That’s right, they’re all intense, weighty things, Serious Statements about art, God, life and death. In short, none of them are any fun. I’m sure many of you have wondered if your faithful columnist has ever just let his hair down and had a musical good time without worrying about compositional structures or lyrical themes or any of that. The question at the heart of all of this: do I ever just dance?
And, well, yeah. I do. It’s not as rare as you’d think. I will cop to a preference for studied, mannered music produced like a symphony. But give me a good groove and I’m there.
Want proof? I absolutely adore Random Access Memories, the fourth proper album by French duo Daft Punk. It’s been eight years since their tepid third effort, Human After All, and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter have spent that time assessing just what they love about this thing called music, and crafting a valentine to it. They’ve been on a soulful trip for some time (with a brief detour to score a Tron movie with chilly electronics), but this is a whole new level. It’s simultaneously a glittering homage and a statement on the direction of modern dance music.
The first thing longtime fans will notice is that these songs were largely recorded with a live band. There’s a looseness, a vibe to this album that has been missing from Daft Punk records in the past, and the result is magical. The duo has chosen to weave their traditional electronics in among the live tracks, achieving a fascinating synthesis. There’s a massive orchestra on several tracks, a full choir on several others, and in the midst of this, that familiar-sounding modular synthesizer, providing a chilly counterpart. It all works marvelously.
But hey, I’m over-intellectualizing again. The thrill of this album is just how well these different styles flow into each other, how all-encompassing and danceable this record is. Random Access Memories is an hour and a quarter long, and one might expect a bit of self-indulgence, but despite some songs stretching to nine minutes, it’s all laser-focused. That’s even more remarkable when you look at the long list of collaborators, which includes former Chic mastermind Nile Rodgers, electronic music pioneer Giorgio Moroder, Strokes singer Julian Casablancas, Panda Bear, musical theater legend Paul Williams and pedal steel genius Greg Liesz. Yes, they’re all on the same album. No, it doesn’t sound like a mess.
In fact, the whole thing wraps together beautifully. It starts with a Rodgers collaboration, the chill-funky “Give Life Back to Music,” all wacka-wacka guitar and electric piano, and you wouldn’t think that could play nicely with the epic “Giorgio by Moroder,” but it does. True to its title, “Giorgio” features a monologue by the venerable musician discussing his life in music, and a blissful synthesized tribute to the man’s style. But over nine glorious minutes, Daft Punk add strings and screaming guitar, keeping the core of Moroder’s blocky sound while exploding it. It’s magnificent.
After that, you need a comedown, and tender piano ballad “Within” fits the bill. Every note the Daft Punkers sing on this album is through a vocoder, but they don’t use it as a crutch. It becomes a signature, so much so that when Casablancas steps in for the more traditional pop of “Instant Crush,” they do the same thing to him, rendering him unrecognizable. “Instant Crush,” all by itself, explains and outdoes the electronic-tinged material on the new Strokes album. It’s a fine mid-tempo piece, but it’s crushed into oblivion by the four-on-the-floor “Lose Yourself to Dance,” the album’s first collaboration with Pharrell Williams. (Rodgers is back for the ride on this one too, and he’s relentless.)
“Get Lucky,” the second of Pharrell’s tracks, is even more infectious. But only Daft Punk would sequence “Touch” between them. An eight-minute slice of orchestrated drama, “Touch” feels like it’s straight out of a funky musical, which is why Paul Williams fits in nicely. His voice is campy and classically trained, right off of a Broadway stage, and it fits this crazy composition nicely. There’s a “Domino Dancing” feel to some of it, as the pianos pound and the horns blare atop stirring strings, but this thing changes every few seconds, culminating in a massive refrain: “Hold on, love is the answer…” Very little of this should work, but all of it does.
Daft Punk’s experimental streak continues into the superb final third of this record. “Fragments of Time,” sung by Todd Edwards, is like a lost Doobie Brothers track, with pedal steel accents by Liesz. The chorus will take up residence in your head. “Doin’ It Right” is the only fully synthesized tune here, but it features the Brian Wilson-esque voice of Panda Bear, so it wins. And the instrumental finale, “Contact,” is pure Daft Punk – a swirling, constantly building synth motif that explodes like the big bang. It puts the perfect capstone on an album that puts forth a hundred different definitions of dance music, and ties them all up with the same bow.
Random Access Memories may be the most inclusive dance album I’ve ever heard. And yet, it never loses the core of what Daft Punk does. It’s wildly experimental, but it’s still geared toward moving your feet. It’s without a doubt the best record Daft Punk has made, a valiant attempt to redefine what they can do, and what dance music can be.
You’ll get more modest thrills on the new record by !!! (pronounced Chk! Chk! Chk!). In fact, the best part about the album is its title, an easy front-runner for the best of the year: Thr!!!er. That’s a bold choice, calling back to one of the best pop albums of all time, and the record can’t quite live up to it. But it’s a strong return to form for Nic Offer and his comrades, and a foot-stomping good time.
Opener “Even When the Water’s Cold” is classic !!!, all slippery bass, funky drumming and slinky guitar. The first line: “Friends told her she was better off at the bottom of a river than in a bed with him, he said until you try both you won’t know what you like better, why don’t we go for a swim?” You can just hear the smirk, and the infectious chorus delivers on it. The first third of this album is one dancefloor stomper after another – “Get That Rhythm Right” is unstoppable, if a little chilling, while “One Girl One Boy” is a devilish disco party, with soaring vocals by Sonia Moore.
From there, the music gets deeper and weirder, but no less infectious. “Fine Fine Fine” is tremendous, with its nods to Echo and the Bunnymen, while Moore returns to give “Except Death” a nice boost. “Careful” is more subtle, its skittering percussion raining atop a throbbing bass line and some Spanish guitar accents. The biggest surprise is closer “Station (Meet Me at The),” a full-on garage-rock workout. It doesn’t seem to fit with this album, Offer trying out his Nick Cave impression, but it’s a bold choice, and it does have a strong chorus, and its sloppy, explosive live band feel is an interesting counterpoint.
Still and all, Thr!!!er largely stays in place, delivering another slab of danceable rock from this always-likeable outfit. Perhaps it simply falls short in contrast to Daft Punk’s more wild effort – taken on its own, it’s a fine, fun shimmy of an album, accomplishing the same ends with simpler means. If all you want to do is dance, dance, then this record will do it for you. If you’re looking for wider vistas, you know where to find them.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.