So. Doctor Who first? OK.
Last week’s episode, “Listen,” is going to rank as one of the best and most thoughtful episodes of Who since the revival, and maybe ever. It fully cements Peter Capaldi in the role – this is the first of his stories that could only have been built around his Doctor. It also finds showrunner Steven Moffat using his own reputation as misdirection. It begins in fairly standard territory for Moffat, with the Doctor on the trail of a monster that has mastered “perfect hiding.” But by the end, it has blossomed into something completely new – a treatise on fear, and specifically, a look deep inside the fears of the man who scares the monsters.
“Listen” is a loop, but a glorious one, and its final revelation – the one that ties it all together – is not plot-related, but a chance to offer new insight into the Doctor and Clara. He gets his strength from her, who gets it from him, and on and on. Some fans decried the notion of seeing the Doctor as a young boy, but from where I sat, the ending to “Listen” was beautiful. Moffat spent 45 minutes flipping our expectations of him on their ears, and delivered a masterpiece.
This week’s, “Time Heist,” was not nearly as good, but still brought the fun. It’s Doctor Who meets Ocean’s Eleven, as the Doctor and Clara are kidnapped and forced to rob the most heavily guarded bank in the universe for reasons unknown. Writer Stephen Thompson (with an assist from Moffat) tries his hand at a similar loop structure, and this one doesn’t work as well – the final reveal is simultaneously obvious and nonsensical. But the story offers Capaldi a chance to be a warmer, softer Doctor (of sorts), and that’s nice to see. I expect he’ll open up as the series progresses, but right now I’m enjoying his brusque manner, and I think the writers are too.
And “Time Heist” gets extra points for a winking nod towards Capaldi’s other famous role, Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. I laughed out loud. We’re almost halfway through, and this season is remarkably strong. (I didn’t mention “Robot of Sherwood,” but I liked it more than almost anything else Mark Gatiss has ever written.) Looking forward to the back half. Bring it on, Moffat.
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At the beginning of every year, I sit down and write a list of records I’m looking forward to. I start with the sure things, albums that have already been announced or are heavily rumored. But by the end, I’m usually just writing down my wish list. I’ve had a new Postal Service album on the docket for years, for instance. But even allowing for the ludicrous, I never expected to be writing about a new Aphex Twin record in 2014.
Richard D. James is one of the few universally agreed-upon geniuses in electronic music. He specializes in spinning your head clean around – his work is maddening, complex, insane, confusing and difficult. It’s also amazing. My first Aphex Twin album was 1995’s I Care Because You Do, and I’d never heard anything quite like it. Where most electronic music found joy in repetition, James’ work was the sound of attention deficit disorder, new elements flying in every couple seconds. The result was something oddly beautiful, if a bit unsettling.
James’ discography is a wonderful mess. He records under half a dozen different names, including AFX, Polygon Window, Brad Strider and GAK. From the early 1990s to the early 2000s, he was frighteningly prolific, firing off releases at a blistering pace. But after 2001’s Aphex Twin double album Drukqs, James has quietly faded away. A collection of remixes, a series of 12-inch singles under the name Analord, and two projects by The Tuss, an alias James still has not officially claimed, are all that mark those 13 years.
A new Aphex Twin album became something of a joke, like an EDM version of Chinese Democracy. But just as Axl’s folly was finally released, so too has Richard D. James resurfaced, and under his most popular name. Syro is the first Aphex Twin album in more than a decade, and blessedly, it’s just as maddening and fascinating as anything he’s done. The album is a little more straightforward, especially at first, but as it evolves, the things that make Aphex Twin such a treasure unfold with it. Aside from some strange vocal samples, buried in the mix, it is entirely instrumental, and mostly danceable. That is, if you have seven legs.
Song titles rarely matter in Aphex Land, but they matter even less on Syro. By now you’ve probably heard the first single, “Minipops 67 (Source Field Mix).” That’s one of the more sensible titles. Others include “4 bit 9d api+e+6” and “s950tx16wasr10.” The sorta-title track is actually called “Syro u473t8+e.” These probably mean something to James, and perhaps to electronic music programmers, but they mean nothing to the average listener. The packaging, also, is somewhat insane – it’s a long cardboard fold-out that lists, in a plain font on a white background, the per-copy cost of everything that was paid for during the making of the album. For instance, I know that, per copy made of the album, James paid 0.00057 pounds for taxis for a planning meeting in London about the record. Of course, he doesn’t total all this up for us, so we still have no idea how much a single copy of Syro cost to make.
But all that is secondary. Here are 12 new Aphex Twin songs, and they’re all pretty great. The first few sound relatively sane, but still fold in new elements faster than you expect. Most of Syro is club music as reimagined by James – the ninth track is almost funky, in fact. Most of these tracks sound like a grown-up James experimenting with restraint. The 10-minute second track is a thesis statement on intelligent dance music, and even when things turn weirder on the fourth track, with its unsettling descending chords, it remains enjoyable. Aphex Twin for the masses? Maybe so, but it’s still brain-meltingly complicated stuff, beats flying together with palpable force, blips and bleeps covering everything like confetti, and that warm analog synth sound ringing out beneath the din.
For Aphex fans, there aren’t a lot of surprises here. In fact, the big stunner comes right at the end – the final track, “Aisatsana,” is a sparse solo piano piece. But it’s not the atonal prepared piano collages you’ll find on Drukqs – this is sweet, melodic, peaceful and quite lovely. Birds chirp in the background as James plays something honestly emotional, and it’s really quite something, especially after 11 tracks of electronic madness. For this alone, I’m happy to hear from Richard James again. The rest of Syro, terrific as it is, is just gravy. Here’s hoping the wait won’t be quite as long next time.
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Mike Doughty has never gone away, so I can’t say I’ve missed him.
But for years now, he has been delivering sub-par, tossed-off recordings that have made me wonder, on more than one occasion, why I’m still buying them. We’ve had two live albums, a covers album, a self-covers album (Doughty does Soul Coughing songs on his acoustic guitar), and a few pretty lame new studio records. Does anyone remember Yes and Also Yes with fondness? I’ve heard it four or five times, and I can’t remember anything about it.
Well, don’t call it a comeback, but Doughty’s new one, Stellar Motel, is his strongest since the fabled Haughty Melodic. It’s still spotty, but rather than just spit some nonsensical verses over that same twanged acoustic pluck he does, he’s put some serious effort into finding new contexts for his inimitable voice. He funded this one through PledgeMusic, and the creative freedom it bought him can be heard all over this disc. Just listen to the opening track, “Light Will Keep Your Heart Beating in the Future,” which features an awesome banjo loop atop a dance beat. You can practically hear Doughty waking up.
He did a few other things right this time. First, he remembered to write some pop songs, which he hasn’t really done since Haughty Melodic. “When the Night is Long” is his best chance for a bona fide hit in ages, a silky-smooth, simple singalong with a great beat. “Raging On” combines his sorta-rapping and his singing better than anything he’s written in a long time. “These Are Your Friends” is almost an ‘80s pop tune. And I absolutely love both “When You Come Home” and the closer, “Better Days Come Around.”
He also invited several unknown rappers to share the mic with him, and while the results are mixed, it’s an invigorating experiment. “Oh My God Yeah Fuck It” is just as throwaway as it sounds, but when MC Frontalot steps up on “The Champion,” amidst its ringing acoustic chords and hand percussion, it’s surprisingly terrific. On the other end of the spectrum, “Pretty Wild,” which features three guests named Ash Wednesday, Clara Bizna$$ and Uncle Meg, is pretty much the worst thing Doughty’s ever done. But it was certainly worth trying.
That’s the crux of Stellar Motel – this is the album on which Mike Doughty started trying again. It’s all over the place, but it’s never boring, and it feels like a new beginning after years in the wilderness. That might be too serious a metaphor for an album that includes a song called “Let’s Go to the Motherfucking Movies,” but there you have it. At the very least, this album is a good reminder of why I liked Mike Doughty in the first place. I was actually in danger of forgetting.
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Every time I hear new music from the 77s, I worry that it will be the last.
That’s why each time is such a delight. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of Michael Roe and his quieter, more reflective material. In fact, Roe is one of only a handful of guitarists that I never tire of – I could listen to him play for days and never be bored. But something special happens when Roe jams with bassist Mark Harmon and drummer Bruce Spencer. For one thing, he rocks – the 77s are one of the loudest and best rock bands you will ever see. There’s a certain undeniable energy that surrounds Roe when he’s with the band, and time has only sharpened their attack.
And yet, they record so infrequently. The last 77s album was 2008’s Holy Ghost Building, a collection of old gospel songs. It was fantastic, of course, but given that the last 77s record before that was 2002’s Direct, it wasn’t enough. Roe has been active, of course, playing with Derri Daugherty in Kerosene Halo and issuing several solo projects, including the heartbreaking Guadalupe last year. But I missed the band.
So I can’t tell you how pleased I am to have a new double record from Roe and his cohorts – one disc from the 77s, and one from Roe solo. It’s called Gimme a Kickstart and a Phrase or Two, a title that hints back at its origins. This record was originally a reward for backers of Guadalupe on Kickstarter, and all of its 20 covers were chosen by those who paid for the privilege. The album is now available to everyone, and if you like hearing an incredible guitarist and singer interpreting some fantastic songs, both as a rocker and a troubadour, then this should definitely be on your wish list.
The first disc is the 77s, and man, it is so good to hear them playing together again. They sound comfortable, like no time has passed, and that old alchemy is still in effect. The record opens with Wilco’s “The Late Greats,” a song that was lost at the end of A Ghost is Born, and it makes a fine starting gun. From there, the band tackles a multitude of styles, ripping through an almost-punk take on the Smoking Popes’ “I Need You Around,” gliding over Simon and Garfunkel’s “Flowers Never Bend With the Rainfall,” and pulling off a credible version of Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore.” (In an ironic touch, they follow that up with a faithful rendition of Blind Willie Johnson’s “In My Time of Dying,” which Zeppelin completely rewrote.)
The undisputed highlight of disc one is an absolutely scorching rendition of the Animals tune “Bury My Body.” Harmon is a monster on the organ part, and the entire band crushes this song as if they wrote it. It’s a perfect 77s song. It contrasts mightily with the closing number on the disc, Eric Clapton’s sappy “Wonderful Tonight,” a stark reminder that the band did not pick the songs for this collection. They do a decent job with it, and Roe sings it sweetly, but it’s still “Wonderful Tonight.”
Roe takes the second disc solo, just him and his acoustic guitar, and it’s unfailingly gorgeous stuff. I could listen to this disc on repeat for hours and not mind. He begins with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s glorious “Looking Forward,” harmonizing with himself beautifully. From there, it’s just one highlight after another: Band of Horses’ lovely “No One’s Gonna Love You,” Bruce Cockburn’s underappreciated “Lord of the Starfields,” and perhaps best of all, the Waterboys’ amazing “How Long Will I Love You.” Hearing Mike Roe sing this song is one of the high points of my musical year.
The funniest thing here is a mash-up of Michael W. Smith’s “Never Been Unloved” and Art Garfunkel’s “Bright Eyes,” essentially the same song. Roe plays it straight, but whoever asked for this song must be smirking. The disc ends with three hymns, and then, oddly, a tremendous version of Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me.” It is jarring to hear a paean to sex sequenced after “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” but on reflection, that melding of the sacred and the secular pretty much sums up Mike Roe’s career.
A disc of the 77s playing like the stunning rock band they are, and a disc of Mike Roe breaking my heart with graceful beauty? Yes, please. Gimme a Kickstart is another fine production from Lo-Fidelity Records (based right here in Chicagoland), and you can get it right from the band’s Bandcamp page. If you’re new to the band, try some of the other records there too. You won’t be disappointed.
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There is a certain subset of the population for whom there is only one comeback that matters this year, and that’s The Physical World by Death From Above 1979.
I can’t really count myself among them, although I like DFA quite a bit. Ten years ago, the bass-and-drums duo of Sebastien Grainger and Jesse F. Keeler unleashed their debut album, You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine. It was an onslaught of danceable punk delivered with a manic energy and an abrasive, who-cares-if-you-like-it sensibility. In a lot of ways, it set the template for dance-punk for the next decade. So of course, the band immediately broke up. Grainger started a solo career. Keeler formed MSTRKRFT. And that was it.
Did anyone expect a reunion, and a second record? And if so, did anyone expect that second record would pick right up where they left off, and deliver another set just as solid as the first? The Physical World could have been recorded in 2006 – the band has made virtually no changes to its formula, but since no one else is doing quite what these guys are doing, that’s just fine. The songs are slightly more refined, but they explode with just as much attitude and power as they did 10 years ago. There are synths here and there, but in the main, they don’t need anything but Grainger’s pounding drums and Grohl-esque voice, and Keeler’s fuzzed-out, knock-you-across-the-room bass.
The first five songs on The Physical World just erupt from your speakers, culminating in the phenomenally danceable “Crystal Ball.” On “White is Red,” you can hear that these guys are a decade older – the song is slower, more reflective, sweeter – but with “Trainwreck 1979” they’re right back in it. The back half is a torrent of power, particularly the thrashy “Government Trash,” and it leads to the title track, which, at five minutes, is the DFA 1979 version of an epic. It’s tricky, nuanced, and louder than hell.
I can’t agree that The Physical World is the only comeback that matters, but listening to it, I can understand why some feel that way. It’s rare to hear a band return after so long away, and to return with such fire and fury. If you liked them before, and your tastes haven’t changed dramatically in the last decade, you will like them now.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.