Round Round Round the Bend
The Indigo Girls Fill It Up Again

Well, the brain surgeons at the WB canceled Angel this week.

If you’re not a fan of the show, you won’t give a crap, but as for me, it’s the only TV show I watch with any regularity. Angel is a spinoff of my beloved Buffy the Vampire Slayer, created and produced by Joss Whedon, perhaps network television’s only remaining genius. And while it has always suffered in comparison to its sister show, Angel is still one of the smartest, funniest, most inventive things to hit the airwaves since pretty much ever. Its passing will leave the cultural wasteland a far worse place.

More importantly, though, this decision by the WB seems like the final act of a dastardly plot that has finally succeeded in driving Whedon from the networks completely. He’s just barely recovered from the fiasco that was Firefly over on Fox. Here was a show that pretty much reinvented televised science fiction, breaking fully free from the Star Trek model. Here was a show full of engaging and mysterious characters, sparkling dialogue, and endless surprises. How did Fox treat this gift Whedon had given them? Well, let’s see. They aired the second episode first, leaving new viewers totally confused. They gave it no promotion, and they canned it after 11 episodes. Nice, guys.

So Buffy‘s seven-year run is over, Firefly has been executed and its corpse dressed up in a bittersweet DVD package, and now Angel is ending, seasons earlier than expected, and despite a decent ratings boost from last year. And for the first time since 1997, there will be no Joss Whedon show in the fall lineup this year. And I think I’m giving up television entirely. We still have eight Angel episodes left, and they’re still as off-the-cuff brilliant as ever – witness this week’s ep, in which our titular vampire investigates a haunted children’s program and is turned into a puppet, complete with three-fingered hands and permanent scowl. Next week’s was even written and directed by Whedon himself. But it’s somehow less exciting now.

There’s the obligatory petition online, but I’m not sure it will do any good. I think the best case scenario would be this – Whedon goes away and makes his Firefly movie, and then comes back and pitches something equally brilliant to HBO. It seems to be where all the visionaries are headed these days.

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So there’s this old band called Human Radio that I love. They only released one album, self-titled, but it remains one of the most criminally overlooked pieces of smartass pop I’ve yet heard. Imagine the Beatles hanging out with Stevie Wonder (when he was good) and inviting violinist Sugar Cane Harris to come jam with them, and you’ve kind of got the idea. Plus frontman Ross Rice wrote some terrific songs, witty and weaving wonders that transcend the dated production of the album. Last I heard from him, he’d made his nifty solo debut, Umpteen, in 1997, and then disappeared.

Imagine my surprise, then, to discover Rice’s website, complete with a first-person history of the Human Radio days. And imagine my further shock and delight to find that the band recorded a whole second album, one which was never released. Ten legal and sanctioned downloads later, I became the proud owner of a copy of Human Radio II.

And it’s good stuff. It’s not quite on par with the first one, but I’ve had more than 10 years to dig into that one, so we’ll see if the sophomore effort holds up over time. There are some embarrassments (“This House,” “Think Too Much”), but there are also some glittering gems like opener “Yesterday Girl” and sweet love song “15 Million Worlds Apart.” The prize here is “While You Were Sleeping,” which has vaulted over some long-loved favorites as my pick for best Human Radio song. And to think I might never have heard it at all. So thanks, Ross.

It’s like Christmas.

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My favorite CD of the year so far only has four songs on it.

You can guess that this has caused me some consternation – by my current set of rules, this record won’t be eligible for the Top 10 List in December. And while I certainly hope there will be 10 better albums than this EP in 2004, and I don’t foresee a big problem, at the moment my favorite record is again disqualified.

I am talking here about the Bens, and their self-titled four-song EP. The Bens are Ben Folds, Ben Kweller and Ben Lee, and I hope these four songs are merely a teaser for a full-length record, because they seem to have combined their strengths beautifully here. Opener “Just Pretend” is a sweet breeze, “XFire” is a trashy ’80s pop tune complete with synth vocals, “Stop” is a lo-fi winner, and closer “Bruised” is just perfection, Folds in the lead with his voice and piano. The three Bens take turns singing lead, and they harmonize gloriously.

Simply put, this is four different shades of terrific pop. The EP is only available at shows and online. The Bens are continuing with upcoming solo projects, including Kweller’s On My Way and Folds’ still-untitled project, but it would be a shame if they decided not to continue this partnership. This is 14 solid minutes of pop bliss, folks. Like the man said, it’s all about the Benjamins.

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And now I have to try to find something new to say about the Indigo Girls.

This is not an easy task. Emily Saliers and Amy Ray have been doing what they do so well for so long that pretty much everything one can say about their sound has been said. For nine albums now, the Girls have plied their stock-in-trade: wonderfully written folk, rock and pop songs, sung by two voices that were born to go together. We’re talking about a career that’s just vaulted past the 15-year mark. We’re talking about one of the most loyal cult followings in the country. We’re talking about one of the most important and influential folk music successes since the days of Joan Baez. What more can I add?

All I can do is tell you about the new album, All That We Let In, and put it in perspective with the rest of their catalog. Do I even need to mention here that it’s another really good one? Didn’t think so.

Last decade, the Indigos released a series of albums that expanded their sound exponentially. The songs remained pretty much the same, but the production grew and grew. 1998’s Shaming of the Sun felt like critical mass, and 2000’s Come On Now Social slipped into overload. How sweet, then, was 2002’s Become You, a knowing return to the Girls’ acoustic roots. All That We Let In continues in the same vein, with a few more pop leanings. It bears the most resemblance to Rites of Passage, actually -acoustic guitars prevail, pianos and mandolins augment, and the Girls sing beautifully as usual.

The album is a joy right from the start. It opens with “Fill It Up Again,” simply the best and sprightliest single they’ve released since “Galileo.” True to its title, it’s about replenishing, about finding roads and places that re-energize: “You’ve been the hole in my sky, my shrinking water supply, before my well runs dry, I’m going round the bend and fill it up again,” Saliers sings, with perfect accompaniment from Ray. Really, if this song is not at least a minor hit, then something’s wrong, and radio has lost touch with the sort of songs that made pop music great in the first place.

“Fill It Up Again” is so perfectly formed that leading with it could have cast the rest of the record in a bad light. Though it never again achieves that level of energy, the album doesn’t flag – the remaining 10 songs are all winners too. Saliers has tapped into her melodic folk well again, delivering unabashedly sentimental numbers like “Free In You” and the lovely “Come On Home.” On the latter she offers another sweet song of support, like many she’s written before, but they never get old. “I’m stacking sandbags against the river of your troubles,” she sings, and it melts your heart.

Amy Ray has long been the more political and explosive of the two, and while this album never ignites with the fury of her solo album, she does contribute an edge here. One song in particular, “Tether,” cranks up the electrics for four minutes of concerned observation: “Can we bring it together, can we call from the mountain to the valley below? Can we make it better, do we tether the hawk, do we tether the dove?” Similarly, she notes in “Perfect World” that all we need do to make the song’s title a reality is “look the other way.”

But this is not a political record. If you want a boiling reaction to world events, you might want to try recent Ani Difranco albums. The Girls these days are more about love and beauty, and their music is all the better for it. Even a song called “Rise Up,” which in days past might have mentioned oppression and injustice, even hintingly, is here about finding new life in yourself and others: “Just move to the music, move your body to the band and rise up.” All That We Let In is another in a hopefully endless series of great Indigo Girls folk-pop albums, full of laughter and joy and small, wonderful delights. And in a way, making an album like this these days is a political statement all its own.

My inner geek cannot let me end this review without mentioning the album’s cover art. It’s by Jaime Hernandez, one of the famous Los Bros Hernandez who write and draw the superb comic Love and Rockets for Fantagraphics. Hernandez even crafted a wordless comics story for the interior booklet pages, and his work makes this gorgeous little album even more so. Jaime has dedicated most of his artistic life to chronicling the lives of his spunky creations Maggie and Hopey, and those stories are soon to be collected in a deluxe hardcover called Locas. Check him out here.

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Next week the deluge begins, with new records by Jonatha Brooke, Jonny Greenwood, Grant-Lee Phillips, Starflyer 59, and advance peeks at forthcoming discs by Peter Mulvey and Dada. Hope I can clear my schedule…

See you in line Tuesday morning.