I have a lot of music to catch up on. But lately, I’ve been spending more time watching those recently found episodes of Doctor Who.
You may have read about this. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, before the advent of home video, the BBC saw no need to keep old episodes of television shows after they aired. So they junked the only copies in their archives of most of the old Doctor Who stories. The only reason we have most of what we have from those early seasons is that they would also create film copies of the stories to sell in foreign markets. For decades, industrious episode hunters have been searching for those film copies around the world.
A few years ago, a chap called Phillip Morris decided to conduct an on-the-ground search of television stations in Africa. A couple weeks ago, the first fruits of that search were unveiled – nine previously missing episodes from 1965, starring Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor. Put together with a couple we already had, we can now watch all six episodes of The Enemy of the World and five of the six episodes of The Web of Fear, two stories I thought I would never see.
And the BBC did another very smart thing – they offered these episodes for immediate download. I have them, and I’ve been slowly making my way through them, savoring the experience. For years, I’ve been watching these stories as reconstructions – essentially, slideshows of on-set photos run over the original episode’s audio. Watching them come alive has been a pretty emotional thing for me. For years, the opening sequence of The Enemy of the World has been a static shot of Troughton’s face with scrolling text reading, “The Doctor takes his shoes off and runs to the water.” Now it looks like this.
The Enemy of the World is a revelation. I’ve always liked the story, but to see Patrick Troughton pull this off is just astounding. Troughton plays both the Doctor and the villain, Salamander, and he’s giving three distinct performances – as the Doctor, as Salamander, and as the Doctor pretending to be Salamander. It’s remarkable work, and I’m so glad I can watch it. I haven’t seen The Web of Fear yet, but come on… it’s The Web of Fear. The Yeti in the London Underground, and the first story to feature Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. (Wouldn’t you know it, his first episode is the one that stubbornly remains missing.)
Nine recovered episodes at once is monumental, and I’m trying not to think about rumors I’ve heard that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Even if this is it, fans owe Morris a huge debt of thanks for going where no one has before in search of these bits of Doctor Who’s past. The 50th anniversary of the show is coming up in just over a month, and I couldn’t have asked for a better present. And you can bet we’ll get to these newly discovered episodes in due course on Doing Doctor Who. They are absolute classics, and it’s great to have them back.
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Speaking of classic, there’s Paul McCartney.
I’m not really sure there’s a songwriter more deserving of the accolade “living legend.” I’m not even sure what that phrase would mean, outside of McCartney. The man started his career in the best band of all time, essentially helping to rewrite all the rules of pop music before he was 28. He went on from that to a slightly spottier solo career, with a long and fruitful stopover in Wings, and this body of work deserves a complete reassessment. (The ‘80s weren’t kind to anyone.) McCartney’s written more astonishingly good pop songs than virtually any of his contemporaries, and he tends to get dismissed simply because he prefers effervescence over soul-searching.
The crux of the matter is this – Paul McCartney doesn’t have to write new songs, or record new albums. He’s 71 years old, and he’s done everything a lad from Liverpool could possibly have dreamed of. He’s scratched his “serious artist” itch with a number of orchestral works, he’s dabbled in electronic and avant garde, and he’s legitimately the most successful composer and recording artist of all time. He’s in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame twice. No one would blame him for becoming a nostalgia act at this point, or just retiring.
And that’s why New, his 16th album as a solo artist, is such a joyous surprise. The deluxe edition contains 15 new songs, and none of them rest on McCartney’s laurels. They’re almost all vital, imaginative tunes with a pulse, recorded with an energy and a verve you’d never expect from someone of McCartney’s age and stature. This is a young, hungry record, the sound of one of the world’s best songwriters rediscovering his love of the craft, and going after it with gusto.
I will admit to not enjoying New on first listen. I think I subconsciously compare any new McCartney work with Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, and that’s just not fair. It’s the same attitude that has led to popular dismissal of killer records like Ram and Venus and Mars. These new songs won’t reinvent pop music, but they do celebrate it, and that’s enough. McCartney’s voice has also aged, as you might expect, and he sometimes strains it here more than he should. But that’s just part and parcel of the fearless, reckless abandon with which he approached this album.
The first four tracks here may be the best opening salvo of McCartney’s later years. “Save Us” kicks things off with a bang, a stomping piano, and a sharp beat. It’s a sweeping rocker, and it sets up “Alligator” nicely – the second track keeps the insistent beat, but adds a strumming acoustic and some nifty electric guitar and keyboard flourishes. “On My Way to Work” slows things down a little, but by the time the song gets to the pealing instrumental bridge, it’s soaring. And “Queenie Eye” is a four-minute epic, explosive and complex, with some fitting Queen touches.
“Early Days” almost derails things. You’re going to hear a lot about this song, since it finds McCartney revisiting his Beatles days with a sardonic eye toward people who claim they were there, but weren’t. It’s a good lyric, but the song, performed on weepy acoustic guitar, is threadbare, and McCartney can’t really sing it. The vocal take he chose is certainly emotionally naked, but it’s hard to listen to. The ship is righted with the sprightly title track, but takes on water again with “Appreciate,” an electro-pop slog. Luckily, that’s the last song on New that fails to impress.
The rest of the record is made up of skipping, joyous tunes like “Everybody Out There” and slower experiments like “Hosanna,” and they all work, despite some vocal problems. “I Can Bet” is a fuzzy delight, “Looking at Her” overcomes its sappiness with some deft production (and an infusion of unexpected noise), and “Road” provides a suitably dramatic finish. Even the three bonus tracks are pretty good. Hidden track “Scared” ends things on a surprisingly down note, Sir Paul singing over just his piano about his hidden fears. But it’s quite nice.
With 13 out of 15 songs striking gold, New is McCartney’s most consistent effort in some time, and all by itself makes a great argument for him continuing to follow his muse. At 71 years old, he could be looking at a nice, easy retirement. Instead, he’s attacking his career as a recording artist with renewed force, and producing his most vital work in ages. McCartney doesn’t need to make new records. But if they’re going to be as good as New, I hope he keeps on making them for a long time to come.
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If there’s a current band that could be described as classic rock, it’s Pearl Jam.
Seattle’s favorite sons came of age during the grunge revolution of the ‘90s, and you would have been forgiven for thinking they wouldn’t make it out of that decade intact. And yet, here they are, with four-fifths of their original lineup (and a drummer, Matt Cameron, who has been in the band for 15 years). They’ve just released their tenth album, Lightning Bolt, hot on the heels of a Cameron Crowe documentary celebrating their 25th year together.
Over that time, the band has changed somewhat, but they’ve never taken any of the disastrous roads their peers have traveled. No dabbling in electronic music, no piss-taking lounge covers, no conceptual rock operas, no stabs at radio-rock relevance. Every few years, they simply release another slab of well-considered meat and potatoes rock, and they tour it until they drop, playing marathon shows wherever they go. And what many seem to have missed in their rush to condemn Pearl Jam for remaining basically the same is that they’ve quietly assumed the throne of the best rock band in the world.
Pearl Jam’s biggest problem is that they are consistent, and consistency is the hardest thing to get excited and write about. Lightning Bolt is another 12 very good Pearl Jam songs, on which the band plays like Pearl Jam, and Eddie Vedder sings like Eddie Vedder. The band once again worked with producer Brendan O’Brien, who has manned the boards for more Pearl Jam albums than anyone else. This one’s a little more slowed-down, a little more drawn-out, than 2009’s Backspacer (which comparatively was more of a lightning bolt). But that’s really the only difference. If you’re looking for radical reinventions and easy conceptual hooks, you won’t find them here.
So why is Lightning Bolt worth getting excited about anyway? Because it’s damn good. The first three tracks are the sound of a fantastic rock band at the height of their powers. “Getaway” is a strong opening shot, leading into the punky “Mind Your Manners,” a spiritual cousin to “Spin the Black Circle.” And “My Father’s Son” is tricky, full of interesting and unexpected melodies and chords, but it rocks like an avalanche anyway. Things slow down after that, but if you’re going to slow down, do it with a song like “Sirens,” one of the band’s best mid-tempo tunes. It just keeps climbing, piling one swell melodic moment atop another. After establishing their bona fides on the opening trilogy, they earn this moment of pure beauty. (Listen to Stone Gossard’s all-out-there solo.)
Much of the rest of the album is similarly slow and pretty, although the band does rip through the title track and the snarling, bluesy “Let the Records Play” with vigor. (Vedder pulls off that stomper convincingly.) “Infallible” takes a jabbing eighth-note thump and builds it into a full-blooded melodic wonder, Vedder singing his heart out while the two guitarists drive things forward. “Pendulum” is a dark, swirling work, with subtle percussion from Cameron and chiming piano from O’Brien, and an instrumental outro that sounds like sinking into a deep cavern.
Lightning Bolt ends with three quieter numbers, perhaps the gentlest landing the band has ever given us. “Sleeping By Myself” is a skipping acoustic number about loneliness, one that brings the Everly Brothers to mind, while “Yellow Moon” hearkens back to songs like “Better Man,” with its strum and organ lines. The finale, “Future Days,” actually begins with melancholy piano before lifting off with a pretty acoustic lilt. Vedder sounds perfect here, crooning a song of devotion: “If I ever were to lose you, I’d surely lose myself, everything I have found, dear, I have not found by myself…” Gossard’s gossamer guitars share space with a shimmering violin. It’s just lovely.
So yeah, Lightning Bolt is another in a long line of very good Pearl Jam albums. This one has a lot to recommend it, particularly the slower and prettier material. But Pearl Jam is Pearl Jam, and the band’s consistency has been its greatest strength and its biggest obstacle. They’ve carved out a quarter-century career by sticking to their guns and making the best rock music they know how to make. Their longevity, and the sheer quality of albums like Lightning Bolt, would seem to indicate that they’re doing something right. In fact, one might even say they’re doing everything right.
Best rock band in the world? Yeah, I think so.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.