In One Ear…
Seven Quick Takes on Seven New Albums

So I think I might start writing weekly updates on my ongoing trek through Doctor Who, as it’s monopolizing an awful lot of my brain lately. I’ve decided to buy all the available stories on DVD – at my current rate of one a week, I’ll be caught up with the release schedule by mid-April of next year, I think, and then I’ll be one of the many waiting for the next BBC America newsletter…

Given that the original show was on the air for 26 years, there aren’t as many DVD releases as you’d think – only 49 of the 159 original stories are available on this side of the pond, and with an additional 23 or so either completely or substantially missing from the BBC archives, that leaves 87 more full stories to come out. As you might have guessed, this really appeals to my long-term collector’s nature.

You’d think that the older the story is, the bigger the chance that it wouldn’t exist anymore, but that’s not entirely true. With the exception of two stories, the first two seasons are accounted for – that’s 15 full black-and-white stories starring William Hartnell, the extraordinary first Doctor. The problems start in his third season, but there are an additional four Hartnell stories that exist in complete enough form that they will probably be released on DVD.

So far, we have six of those existing 19. I talked about the first two last week – the neat An Unearthly Child and the oddly superb The Daleks – but I glossed over the third, The Edge of Destruction, because it’s pretty awful. Two episodes, confined to the TARDIS (the good Doctor’s time-and-spaceship, disguised as the iconic blue police box you’ve probably seen, even if you’ve never seen Doctor Who). The main characters all start acting strangely, and for a while you think there must be some kind of alien presence on board, but no… the resolution is so remarkably lame that I’m surprised Hartnell could deliver his lines without laughing.

But this week, I bought 1964’s The Aztecs, the sixth Doctor Who story, and it’s terrific. It is the oldest surviving “historical” adventure, which finds the Doctor and his companions traveling back in time and meeting the titular Mexican natives. That would be enough to be fascinating, but this story also works in a philosophical debate about cultural differences, a morality tale about changing history (even if it is for the better), and a love interest for the Doctor – something that wouldn’t be repeated until the new series in 2005.

The Aztecs is frustratingly studio-bound, and you can tell that when the characters are staring out over the sunset, they’re looking at a matte painting, but if you ignore the Shakespeare-in-the-park shortcomings (something you need to do to watch any Doctor Who anyway), this is a great little story. Hartnell is at his best here, sly and manipulative, but genuinely caring and concerned when need be. Every one of the regulars has some terrific moments, and the supporting cast is superb. (It’s one of the quirks of Doctor Who’s format that you get a new supporting cast each story, with varying results.)

In the end, The Aztecs makes full use of its historical setting to present a morality play, a story of faith, and a sweet little romance, all in 96 minutes. This is what old-time Doctor Who should be – a fun, thought-provoking romp. Hopefully I’ll say the same about next week’s DVD, The Dalek Invasion of Earth.

* * * * *

Since there’s been an avalanche of new music lately, and I’m still digging myself out, I thought I’d give myself a bit of a chance to catch up this week. Most of the CDs I’ve bought over the past couple of weeks have made little lasting impression on me, sadly, and I’d find it difficult to fill an entire column with thoughts on any one or two of them.

So I picked seven, and I plan to keep them short. This will be especially helpful, since the onslaught of new tunes isn’t going to stop anytime soon. August alone will see new ones by Bruce Hornsby, Eisley, Mae, Minus the Bear, the New Pornographers, Over the Rhine, Rilo Kiley, Kanye West, KMFDM and Liars, plus I’m sure a few I haven’t thought of, plus two new Marillion live albums, and on and on. So here is me, shovel in hand, tunneling my way out.

First up is Prince, whose 4,962,589th album is called Planet Earth. It’s no secret that I think the former Purple One is a musical genius, even though he’s a marketing moron – see his scheme to give this new album away free in Britain through the Daily Mail, which has only succeeded in making every British music store owner pissed off at him. This may not concern him now, but when he tries to get them to stock his 4,962,590th album next year, we’ll see how well it works out for him.

Planet Earth’s cover is the most striking thing about it. It’s a flashy hologram that alternates between Prince’s male-female symbol thing and a picture of the man himself, hovering over the Earth like some kind of celestial puppet master. It’s the next step up from his Diamonds and Pearls cover, and it’s so neat that I can almost forgive him for not including the album title or a track listing on the package. (Almost.)

Unfortunately, the music doesn’t follow suit – this is a pretty lazy Prince album. The Artist Formerly Known as a Critic’s Darling gets taken to task a lot for not producing another Purple Rain or Sign O’ the Times, but his last couple of albums have been so self-consciously “classic” Prince that I worried he’d been listening to his detractors too much. Not to worry – Planet Earth is far from classic Prince. It’s a by-the-numbers disc that includes some Motown pastiches (“Somewhere Here on Earth”), some breezy guitar-pop tunes (“The One U Wanna C”), and some of his trademark religious imagery (“Lion of Judah”).

None of it is bad, but none of it makes me want to press play again. The best thing here, and the only song with a definite pulse, is funky workout “Chelsea Rodgers,” containing some bitchin’ saxophone solos. Otherwise, this is a lightweight effort from a guy who can do much better, and I kind of wish I’d been able to get it free with my Sunday newspaper.

* * * * *

They Might Be Giants fare better with their 12th album, The Else, although it’s not quite up to the high standard set by The Spine two years ago. This album was co-produced by the Dust Brothers, but if you’re expecting a return to the synth-heavy days of old, or a beat-crazy collage like Paul’s Boutique, you’ll be disappointed.

I wasn’t expecting either of those, so The Else seemed to me like the next step in a natural progression. Gone forever (most likely) is the image of John Linnell and John Flansburgh in matching suits, standing behind a row of synthesizers. This here is a live-sounding rock band album, with thunderous drums and raucous guitars throughout. Oddly, the opening song, “I’m Impressed,” brings Lincoln to mind, but from there, it’s a thoroughly modern They Might Be Giants.

Trouble is, it just isn’t that compelling. The songs are okay, especially mini-epics like “With the Dark,” and there are superb turns of phrase in tunes like “Bee of the Bird of the Moth” and “Withered Hope,” but largely, this is a forgettable TMBG album. “Take Out the Trash” sounds like a lost Smash Mouth song, all bass and sneering, and it’s the album’s low point. But even the more TMBG-ish songs are less than breathtaking. Breezy closer “The Mesopotamians” may be the best thing here, and that’s unfortunate.

But The Else is probably the first TMBG album that fully makes the case for their records to be removed from the Novelty/Comedy section of the record store. These are probably the most serious songs the Johns have written, and there are no quirky interludes (like The Spine’s “Stalk of Wheat” or “Bastard Wants to Hit Me”) to be found. As much as I’ve been pulling for the Johns to do something like this, and convince all their detractors what legitimate songwriters they are, the result here leaves me a little cold. A bad TMBG album is still better than half of what I hear on an annual basis, but I wish I liked The Else more than I do.

* * * * *

From their first gig to their last multi-day festival, Phish were compared to the Grateful Dead.

Now, I wouldn’t want to suggest they didn’t take a big chunk of their sound and aesthetic from the Dead, but I always thought a bigger influence on the Vermont foursome was Frank Zappa. Their tendency towards jazz-rock, their predilection for comedic/nonsensical lyrics intoned in a low voice, their marathon solo spots in concert, and even lead guitarist Trey Anastasio’s lead guitar tone all seemed to bear the mark of Zappa. (There’s a Doctor Who story title for you: The Mark of Zappa.)

So far, Anastasio’s solo career has been the furthest thing from perfectly Frank, but with his new one, The Horseshoe Curve, he’s brought that influence back in spades. The album is basically Anastasio’s Hot Rats – jazz-rock instrumentals covered in horns, with some dynamic extended solos over them. He’s assembled a nine-piece band – essentially his Petit Wazoo – for the record, and laid down some smoking grooves.

And like Hot Rats, it’s just about the right length at 44 minutes. There’s a certain sameness to some of these tracks, no matter how neat the bass lines are, or how explosive Anastasio’s own solos turn out to be. Pianist Ray Packowski gets a workout here too, and the horn section is excellent, but by the time The Horseshoe Curve is over, you’re pretty much gorged on the sound. It ends with a pair of Zappa-esque compositions, notably the angular “Porter’s Pyramids,” which add just the right cherry on top. This is good stuff, much better than the dreck Phish released in their last years of life, and light years ahead of Anastasio’s own recent solo records.

* * * * *

One thing about Phish, though, is that they were constantly changing. If you need a stable sound, one you can count on year after year, you should try being a Bad Religion fan. Their 14th album, New Maps of Hell, sounds just like their 13th, which sounded just like their 12th, and on and on. But then again, the last time they tried to shake up their sound was in 2000, when they hired Todd Rundgren to produce The New America, and it was a mess. So perhaps sticking with what they know isn’t a bad idea.

So here are 16 more populist polemics set to crashing double-time drum beats and chock full of hooks and harmonies. Greg Graffin’s voice is as powerful as ever, and the three-guitar attack packs just as much punch as it always has. It’s a formula, and sometimes that formula works for me and sometimes it doesn’t. I think it just depends on my mood. I panned The Empire Strikes First for playing into that formula too much, but New Maps of Hell does the same thing, and I found myself liking it a great deal. Most of these songs hover around two minutes long (the last song, “Fields of Mars,” is a genuine Bad Religion epic at 3:39), and all of them deliver hook after hook with their trademark force.

So don’t listen to me. If you ever liked Bad Religion, you’ll dig New Maps of Hell. If you’ve grown tired of their melodic punk sound, then don’t bother, because there’s nothing new here at all. But this time, I don’t seem to mind.

* * * * *

I first heard of Bryce Avary and his one-man band, the Rocket Summer, when I reviewed a reissue of his first record for HM Magazine. I was impressed, to say the least – Avary writes neat little pop songs, with thumping pianos and oceans of harmonies, and while he’ll occasionally invite a guest musician or two on board, he mostly creates this whole shiny, spunky pop sound all by himself.

The Rocket Summer’s new album, Do You Feel, is no exception, but I swear, I didn’t quite make the emo connection when I first heard Avary’s work. There’s some very typical pop-punk stuff on here, nice as it all is, that gets wearying by the end. But hell, that’s quibbling, especially since Do You Feel is so huge and melodic from start to finish. “So Much Love” may well be Avary’s finest moment so far, a piano-pounding pop tune with some sublime saxophone licks and a great chorus at its center, and many of the album’s 13 songs follow suit.

I just wish there were more variation in Avary’s sound here, since it wears a little thin over a whole album. Avary doesn’t push himself here as much as he refines his prior sound for his new major label audience, and while it works, and it certainly inspires singalongs, I find myself wishing that some of these songs sounded significantly different from the others. But Avary’s impassioned, high voice and his knack for killer harmonies sells Do You Feel. It’s a good record, but I want the next one to be better.

* * * * *

If you want a consistent pop-rock record that’s as diverse as it is well-written, though, you can’t go wrong with Rooney’s new one, Calling the World. It took this New York quintet four years to follow up their self-titled debut, but the wait was worth it – the result is a pop gem seeped in history, with hook after hook after hook.

Lead singer Robert Schwartzman is Rushmore star (and former Phantom Planet drummer) Jason Schwartzman’s younger brother, and he proves that a knack for superb ‘60s and ‘70s-based pop melodies runs in the family. Just try not to sing along with “When Did Your Heart Go Missing,” and then prepare to be blown away by “I Should’ve Been After You,” one of 2007’s finest pure pop songs. Seriously, it starts with a Queen-style fanfare, kicks in with a dazzling pop chorus, and then spins off into Rick Wakeman territory for a smashing middle eight. Superb song.

Calling the World pulls from the Beatles, Cheap Trick and ELO in equal measure, and Jeff Lynne himself would probably dig “Are You Afraid,” a tribute to his sound. The album isn’t all amazing, but it is all good, and it’s the first album of the six I’ve reviewed so far this week that made me want to press play again as soon as it was over.

* * * * *

Which brings us to the odd one out, Tegan and Sara’s The Con. It’s odd because it’s the only one in this list that sounds anything remotely like it, but also because it’s flat-out amazing, and even though I don’t have much to say about it, I highly recommend it.

Tegan and Sara Quin are twin sisters, and their previous albums have found them swimming in familiar pop-punk and folk waters. Not so The Con – I almost didn’t pick this album up, because their previous discs bored me, but this one sounds like a whole new thing to these ears. This one was produced by Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla, but even that won’t prepare you for the odd, yet perfect, sound of this record. It is the sisters’ most fully realized effort, even if on first listen it can sound like a collection of disparate parts.

With the Quins’ high, screechy voices and the music’s odd angles, it’s a wonder that The Con is so immediately likeable. It opens with the brief, drum-less “I Was Married,” and it takes a full minute before “Relief Next to Me” takes its full shape, but even through what could have seemed like a false start, the sisters keep the focus on the melodies (and bizarre harmonies) that are this album’s treasure. From there, there is just nothing wrong with this album at all, as the songs move from strength to strength.

It may seem odd that I have very little to say about The Con, other than to recommend it, and I can’t explain that either. I love this album, and it will probably find its way into my top 10 list, and I owe Dr. Tony Shore another round of thanks for urging me to buy it. Every time I listen, I fall in love again with the new wave synths on “The Con,” and the lazy groove of “Back in Your Head,” and the gorgeous guitars of “Dark Come Soon.” Don’t let the truncated size of this review put you off – The Con is one of the coolest albums of 2007, and it comes highly recommended.

And that’s all I have to say.

* * * * *

Next week, the new Swirling Eddies album. After that, a look at three new albums from my friends in Maine, and then, well, the avalanche continues…

See you in line Tuesday morning.