The Magnificent ’07
Seven New Records Put the Year on an Upswing

I’ve said this before, but one of the big problems with immersion in a relatively obscure art form is that when something tragic happens to one of your heroes, no one knows who you’re talking about. That’s partially why I sometimes pass over some of the more famous deaths that occur, content in the knowledge that they’ll be eulogized elsewhere.

But when someone like Mike Wieringo passes on, I kind of feel like it’s my duty to say something. Wieringo was a comic book artist, and a damn good one. He toiled on big-name super-hero comics, drawing Spider-Man and the Flash, but the work I’ll always remember him for is Tellos, a brilliant little book about talking animal pirates and one imaginative little boy, created with Todd DeZago. He had a style that was instantly recognizable – I’d buy comics just because they were Mike Wieringo works.

Wieringo died of an apparent heart attack on Sunday. He was 44. Fittingly, Tellos will be released next week in a complete, gorgeous-looking hardcover, and I can’t wait to have it on my shelf. Rest in peace, Mike, and thanks for all the great work.

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So let’s do Doctor Who up front this week. I’m through the William Hartnell era, or at least the ones that have been released on DVD, and I’m neck-deep in the Patrick Troughton era now. But let’s catch up a little bit first.

William Hartnell played the Doctor for three seasons, from 1963 to 1966. There are 29 stories that bear his name, not counting his turn in The Three Doctors in 1972. Of those, seven are completely lost, save for some clips, and another five exist only partially. Of the remaining 17, only six are out on DVD at the moment, so those are the six I’ve watched.

The final two are from the show’s second season, during which the ratings were spectacular and the production team were becoming more ambitious, despite their miniscule budgets. Hence The Dalek Invasion of Earth, the 10th story, which finds the crew filming those rolling pepper shakers all over London, stepping outside the studio for the first time in the show’s history. And it’s mostly a success, if you’re able to look beyond the early ‘60s camera techniques and special effects.

My biggest problem with the Daleks has always been that they’re not scary. Their first story, just called The Daleks, actually went some distance towards rectifying that – most of those seven episodes were drenched in spooky, alien dread, and they worked pretty well. But take the Daleks out into the streets of London, and they’re a lot less scary, especially as they trundle wobblingly over bridges and sidewalks. In this story, the Doctor and his companions have landed on Earth far into the future, after the Daleks have successfully conquered it, and the first thing you need to do to enjoy these episodes is suspend your disbelief that a rolling sex toy with no opposable thumbs could enslave humanity.

But if you can get beyond that, it’s a fun little romp. The location filming gives the story room to breathe, and even though the six-episode length is a little long for the plot, it’s an enjoyable ride all the way through. Kudos to the Restoration Team, who painstakingly transferred the black-and-white archival film of this story to digital perfection, and I’d highly recommend making use of the optional GCI effects they’ve whipped up for certain scenes. The pie-plate-on-a-string flying saucer is just too laughable…

Fancy new effects could not have saved The Web Planet, the 13th Doctor Who story, sadly. This is a case of ambitions far outstripping cash and technical ability, a clusterfuck of incredibly funny proportions. Let me set the scene for you – The Web Planet takes place on Vortis, a world where the only inhabitants are insect creatures. Big ant-things called the Zarbi, dancing moths called the Menoptera, and grunting grubs called the Optera. That’s three races, needing three kinds of costumes.

The Zarbi, then, are giant fiberglass ants with human legs sticking out of the back. It becomes clear early on that the actors in these ant suits can’t really see, so they bump into things and each other all the time. The Menoptera have plastic wings, striped jumpers and funny antennae, and they literally dance about and wave their arms as if they’re mimes. But they’re not – they speak in a sing-song voice that really grates. And the Optera are dressed in felt, and look amazingly stupid. And they talk in a strange language that’s never explained.

Six episodes of this. The Zarbi beeping and blipping, the Menoptera flitting here and there, and the Optera shouting out nonsense. There’s a plot, about something called the Animus taking control of Vortis and making the Zarbi their slaves, but after an hour or so, you won’t care, and you’ll still have 90 minutes to go…

The only thing that makes The Web Planet watchable is the so-awful-it’s-funny nature of the whole thing. Hartnell can’t get through a scene without screwing up his lines – there’s a moment in the first episode where he’s obviously blanked out, and the other actors just stare at him for what seems like a full minute. Director Richard Martin smeared Vaseline on the lenses of the cameras to play up the alien atmosphere of Vortis, but the result just looks like poor, smudgy film quality and crappy lighting.

And there’s this hysterical bit in the third episode where a giant fiberglass ant runs smack into the camera. What’s even funnier is the inevitability of it – you’re watching this thing lumber towards the camera for about eight seconds, and it’s obvious what’s about to happen the whole time. “If he keeps going, he’s going to run right into… ah, he did.” Really, the only way to get through all six episodes is by laughing, and even then, the final couple will test your will to live.

So that’s the first big strikeout, and even The Web Planet is fun in a way – they shot these things live, with almost no money, and I watch this one wondering just what made them think they could pull it off. Anyway, that’s it for Hartnell – he was replaced by Patrick Troughton in 1966, and I’ll talk about the concept of regeneration and the oldest surviving Troughton story, The Tomb of the Cybermen, next time.

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What’s that? You want to read about music? Okay, then. I have a lot of catching up to do, and some superb albums have hit the stores (and the ‘net) in recent weeks. Here’s a brief look at seven of them, all of which are worth your money.

First up is the Alarm, continuing their Counter Attack Collective series with the third of seven EPs, Fightback. Mike Peters and company continue their homage to old punk singles with this record, which actually looks like a record – black plastic, grooved front, cardboard LP sleeve, the whole bit. And like Three Sevens Clash, the first EP, Fightback has an intro, an extended outro, a couple of kickass punk tunes, and some fine surprises. These EPs are obviously crafted as individual 20-minute pieces, cohesive and inseparable.

One criticism often levied at the Alarm is that all of their songs sound the same, blurring into one long anthem. This is, to put it bluntly, a lazy and inaccurate dismissal, and Fightback proves it. It opens with “The Fall Out,” a mostly instrumental intro with shades of U2, then slams into the title track, a pure punk burst of positive energy. “What About the Man on the Street” is classic modern-day Alarm, propulsive and melodic and just plain awesome.

But then come the curve balls. “War Cry” is a Clash-style reggae tune, and even though I normally hate those, this one makes me sing along. It’s the weakest thing here, but it’s followed by the strongest – “Love Is My Enemy” may be the finest song Peters has written since the original Alarm broke up in 1992. It’s a minor-key stunner, starting off with a web of clean electric guitars and bursting into a great chorus that’s pure Alarm. It reminds me of “Strength” more than anything. The EP ends with “Life Support System,” almost a dance remix of the last five tracks.

There are another four of these EPs coming, one a month, with a full-length album scheduled for a month later, in January 2008. Peters says that none of these EP songs will appear on the album, which is just amazing – if these are the castoffs, then Counter Attack should be nothing short of incredible. The next EP, Watching Me Watching You Watching Them Watching Us, should be out in about three weeks. When this is all together, it could stand as the best thing Mike Peters has ever done. Check it out here.

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I owe Jim Worthen for getting me into Mae.

Worthen is a bigwig at Washington-based label Tooth and Nail, and he sent me Mae’s terrific debut, Destination Beautiful, when it came out. The label was understandably proud of that record, and even more so of Mae’s sophomore effort, The Everglow. Here is some of the catchiest modern rock you’ll find anywhere, with a genuine skill behind it – the melodies rarely go where you’d expect, and the instrumentation is surprisingly complex at times.

Mae has moved onward and upward to Capitol Records for their third album, Singularity, and I’m not sure how Worthen feels about that. (I haven’t asked him.) But I can tell you that it’s Capitol’s gain, because Singularity is great, another leap forward for the band. They’ve retained their focus on tight songwriting, and they’ve added a bit of prog-rock – the album is colored with synthesizers of all kinds, and some of the songs (“Sometimes I Can’t Make It Alone,” “Rocket”) edge into King’s X territory. But amazingly, they can still pass for a swell modern rock band, albeit a more talented one than most of their peers, and their sound should appeal to melody addicts of all ages.

Singularity’s opening trilogy is a rocket ride. “Brink of Disaster” was the first song I heard from this project, its looping synth line and dynamic chorus sticking with me for days afterwards, and “Crazy 8s” is just as good. What you think is the chorus is in fact just the pre-chorus – most bands would have stopped there, but Mae kicks their tune into orbit with great melodies and harmonies. And the title is the only thing about “Sometimes I Can’t Make It Alone” that’s reminiscent of U2 – the song is a powerhouse of stop-time riffs and soaring vocals.

I could keep going – “Just Let Go” is sweetly straightforward, “Sic Semper Tyrannis” has one of the record’s coolest choruses (“All hands on deck, we’re going down…”), and the final few tracks are beautiful – but suffice it to say that if you liked The Everglow, Singularity is several steps above even that album. And if you’re not yet a fan, and you’re wondering where all the good modern rock bands are these days, well, buy Singularity. It’s enough to shame the members of Fall Out Boy into retirement. Or at least, I can hope.

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I was worried that we’d never see a second Eisley album.

Their 2005 debut, Room Noises, was terrific, even though I never got around to reviewing it here. They’re a family band from Texas – three sisters, their brother, and their cousin, all named not Eisley but DuPree. The name actually is a Star Wars reference – they were originally Moss Eisley, after the Mos Eisley Spaceport in Episode IV, but legal worries forced the change when they signed to Warner Bros.

For those of you who tuned out at Star Wars, don’t worry. Eisley isn’t even close to a geek-rock band. They play deep, atmospheric pop with crystal-clear harmonies, and while their stuff isn’t always memorable, it is always pretty. Room Noises had some lovely songs on it, reminiscent of the more ethereal side of Sixpence None the Richer, and their sophomore effort, Combinations, is no different.

It sounds like it will be at first, though. “Many Funerals” is surprisingly loud in places, with a killer riff in the middle, and some hurt and angry lyrics. (“How could you have left us here, you had friends, had us… goodbye…”) Combinations, all told, is not a happy or peaceful album, but from there, the music takes on more of the expected ambient pop sound. “I Could Be There For You” is lovely, as is the closer, “If You’re Wondering,” and the band even kicks up some low-key dust on “Ten Cent Blues.”

And again, Eisley’s work is not always memorable, but it is always well made, and very pretty. The production, by a multitude of folks, positively shimmers, and the Sisters DuPree weave a thick, gossamer vocal web atop it. If this is the band’s sophomore slump, then it should be smooth sailing from here, because Combinations is swell.

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Shifting gears entirely, we have Upfront and Down Low, the third album from Teddy Thompson.

Thompson is the son of Richard and Linda Thompson, two of the brightest lights in the folk-rock sky, so he labors under charges of nepotism from the start. But over two good-to-great albums, Thompson has proven himself as a songwriter – his second, Separate Ways, is a gem. Still, the last thing you’d expect from an up-and-comer still struggling to get his own songwriting vision out there is a covers album, and especially a covers album made up of nothing but old-time country classics.

Fellow Brit Elvis Costello did this very thing with Almost Blue in 1981, and it nearly derailed his whole career. Thompson is in little danger on that score, however, because as much as I like Almost Blue, Upfront and Down Low is better. Thompson sticks to slower, weepier numbers, like Dolly Parton’s “My Blue Tears,” and his band, including some of Nashville’s finest (and his dad), does a sterling job with them. The star, though, is Thompson’s voice, deep and husky and strong. As well as he does with his own pop-rock material, these country standards sound like the songs he was born to sing.

He even adds one of his own, the sweet “Down Low,” and it fits right in. This is a hazy, tears-in-your-beer kind of record – Thompson only kicks up the dirt once or twice, most notably on the closer, Boudleaux Bryant’s takedown of country cliches “Let’s Think About Living.” But as good as it all is, the highlight, as far as I’m concerned, is a bonus track – Thompson’s acoustic read of the Everly Brothers’ lovely “Don’t Ask Me to Be Friends.” I’ve always loved this song, a rare jewel tucked away in the lower reaches of the Brothers’ catalog, and Thompson does an amazing job with it.

Upfront and Down Low is a strange choice for a budding songwriter – at least, on paper. But press play on this disc, and it becomes clear quickly why Thompson did it. This collection sounds like coming home for Thompson, and whether he chooses to do another set of originals next or a box set of these grand old songs, I’ll be happy.

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It’s been six years since Suzanne Vega’s last album. It’s also been 20 years since the general public gave a rat’s ass whether Suzanne Vega has a new album – her one fluke of a hit, “Luka,” took over the charts in 1987. I’ve said this before, too, but the general public has been missing out, since Vega is one of the most consistently rewarding songwriters of her kind.

Her new one, Beauty and Crime, is a mere 34 minutes long. But what minutes they are. Vega writes deceptively simple songs that hide labyrinths of complexity beneath them, and stretches themes to album length. This record is a love letter to New York City, a series of snapshots through time, sketched out in a multitude of styles. The base is Vega’s traditional folk-rock, of course, with her precise, half-spoken vocals atop it, but here she explores samba beats, small combo jazz, and Hollywood-sized vistas.

Here is “Frank and Ava,” a cautionary tale about Sinatra and Gardner and their volatile relationship, revolving around the line “It’s not enough to be in love.” Here is “Pornographer’s Dream,” a bouncy yet deep tune about Bettie Page and other out-of-reach women. Here is “As You Are Now,” the sweetest love song since “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.” And here is a brief connected suite, titled “Bound” and “Unbound,” about marriage and separation – these are the heart of the album, and the most lavish productions.

But they are not the soul. That’s in the closer, “Anniversary,” a lovely acoustic statement of newfound purpose. “Put away the draft of all your eulogies, clear the way for all your private memories,” Vega sings, before exhorting, “Make the time for all your possibilities, they live on every street.” This is a line about New York, and about life, and it caps an album about memory and loss beautifully. It’s been six years since the last Suzanne Vega album, and as Beauty and Crime can attest, that’s way too long to be without a songwriter of her caliber. This is one of the finest records of the year.

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In contrast, Julian Cope seems to be on a serious roll – no six-year delay for him. We’re lucky if we get six months between new releases.

You’d think that wouldn’t give Cope time to fully express his mad genius, and in a way, you’d be right. His two 2005 albums, Citizen Cain’d and Dark Orgasm, were both raw and ragged affairs, victims of their low budgets. Cope also used both albums as a way of bringing the proto-punk sound of his side band, Brain Donor, into his solo work, with decent results. But Cope had yet to make a latter-day album that was the equal of his best stuff from before the turn of the century, including Jehovahkill and Autogeddon.

But hold on. He’s finally got his pagan ass in gear, and made the greatest Julian Cope album in ages with You Gotta Problem With Me. Another two-disc affair from his own label, Head Heritage, Problem returns Cope to the trippy, psychedelic sound of his best work. He’s still as insane as Syd Barrett was, but he’s kept hold of his finely developed sense of melody this time, turning out some of his most bizarre yet singable songs. It’s still a low-budget concoction, and if you’re looking for easy listening that doesn’t require a lot of effort on your part, I wouldn’t recommend this. But if you’re a Cope fan, you should buy this right the hell now.

The album opens with its oddest piece, the nine-minute, nearly drumless “Doctor Know,” which rumbles through its many movements with the grace of a wounded elephant. But the core melody is excellent, and the overall trippiness of the song sends it over. Two tracks later, Cope is trying on his sarcastic side with “Soon to Forget Ya,” a monologue about cavalier men with a chorus like a great lost Kinks song. And the title track is one of the few raging rockers, but it’s drowned in odd electronic noises, all playing in the wrong key.

Here’s the thing with Julian Cope, too – while listening to him, I’m often reminded of the old saying, “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” That adage springs to mind when I’m faced with Cope’s simplistic criticism of Arab culture in “They Gotta Different Way of Doing Things,” although he fares better on “Can’t Get You Out of My Country,” sung from the point of view of an orphan on the streets of Baghdad. Cope has a unique perspective on the world, one I’m not in sync with most of the time, though it is interesting to peer through a window into his mind.

The second disc contains the most successful stuff, including the breathtaking “Woden,” a menacing acoustic tale of old gods falling before a vengeful and jealous Christianity. “Vampire State Building” is my favorite song title of the year so far, I think, and the tune itself is a creepy takedown of the new American empire. And if Problem opens with its most inscrutable song, it ends with its most straightforward – “Shame Shame Shame” is further proof that a protest song is always more effective if you can sing along with it.

You Gotta Problem With Me is Julian Cope’s best album of the new century so far, and if he’s faltering or slowing down with age, he’s certainly not showing it. Check out his work here.

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And I think I’ve saved the best for last again.

You ever hear a song and immediately know you will follow its authors until either you or they die? That’s how it was with me last week, when I first heard Okkervil River’s “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe.” It’s the leadoff track on their new album, The Stage Names, and is easily one of the best songs of 2007.

Let me try to describe it for you. It starts off with a Cars-like guitar part played on an acoustic, as leader Will Sheff sidles in with his commanding voice. “It’s just a bad movie, where there’s no crying,” he sings, and then he slips into the main melody, and it’s kind of awesome. The snare drum enters sparingly, the first sign that the song is about to get grander, and then without warning, Sheff shoots up an octave, the piano kicks in, and the song is in the stratosphere. And it never comes down.

It’s the best opening to any record this year, and The Stage Names mostly lives up to it. Okkervil River hails from Texas, and they play a scrappy version of down-home folk-rock, with that edge of grandeur that some folks call pretension. I just call it knowing what you want, and Sheff and company are in control of every second of this album. “Movie” throws down a gauntlet that the rollicking “Unless It’s Kicks” can’t quite pick up, but “A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene” is terrific, with its memorable horn section.

And then there is “Savannah Smiles,” one of the prettiest songs I’ve heard yet this year. (Yes, I know, too many superlatives, but it’s true.) The sad tale of a father reading his daughter’s diary and seeing for the first time how difficult her life is, “Savannah Smiles” will tear you apart. It’s almost entirely acoustic guitars and xylophones, and it’s haunting.

The album never quite hits that height again, but it remains excellent until the end, especially the semi-sweet “A Girl in Port” and the wonderful “Title Track.” The record ends with “John Allyn Smith Sails,” which segues into a rocking version of “Sloop John B,” a nice surprise for Beach Boys fans. And when I finished The Stage Names the first time, I felt stupid for not having heard Okkervil River before. This is pure American music, traditional-minded and earthy, yet it sounds fresh and new, and incredibly gorgeous. The Stage Names just gets better each time I hear it, and I’m already buying the older ones, reveling in this great band I’ve finally discovered.

You can hear all of The Stage Names here.

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Next week, we get new ones by Over the Rhine, the New Pornographers, Rilo Kiley, Jeremy Enigk and Minus the Bear, all of which are getting nice advance notices. And I’ve just pre-ordered the new Fish album, 13th Star, which many are saying is the big Scot’s best record yet. The year is looking up! Thanks for trawling through this very long column.

See you in line Tuesday morning.