Let’s Hear It For the Girls
Under the Blacklight and Over the Rhine

I can’t imagine what it must have been like that first time.

Fans of Doctor Who in 1966 could be forgiven for thinking they knew what this show was about. For three years it had been the story of an elderly, time-traveling alien who dispatches grandfatherly advice and crotchety bluster in equal measure, flitting about the universe with his younger companions. So those fans sitting down to watch The Tenth Planet, the second story of the show’s fourth season, were likely completely unprepared for what they saw.

I’ve only seen about two minutes of The Tenth Planet, but they’re the minutes at the end, where the Doctor, played by William Hartnell, collapses on the floor of his Tardis. (That’s British for “time machine.”) There’s a brilliant white light, and then the Doctor… changes. Completely. When he wakes up, in the next story (The Power of the Daleks), he’s played by Patrick Troughton, a younger, impish man with a bowl-cut hairdo and an ever-present twinkle in his eye.

Remember, this was long before the internet came along, with its behind-the-scenes reports and spoilers – if you missed the news stories that reported Hartnell’s departure, the end of The Tenth Planet was a complete shock. I’d bet that some viewers watched Troughton’s first story, expecting that this was a plot device – the Daleks had somehow changed the Doctor into this new form, and by the end of the six episodes, he’d put things right. But then Troughton did a second story, and a third, and by that time, it was obvious this was a new Doctor.

The concept is called regeneration, and I still think it’s one of the most brilliant ideas for a television character I’ve ever heard. It was developed out of desperation – Hartnell was old, and his health and memory were failing him, and he needed to leave the show. But Doctor Who was then, as it is now, a massive draw for the BBC, and a merchandising cash cow. They couldn’t ax it, so they needed a new lead actor and a way to explain him. What they came up with is the idea that when the Doctor gets into a scrape he can’t get out of, he dies, and then every cell in his body is reborn – he looks and acts completely different, but has all the same memories.

This wacky idea could easily have fallen on its face, but one thing that must have helped sell it is the fact that Troughton is fantastic. He’s magnetic, an absolute joy to watch every moment he’s on screen. He plays the Doctor like some kind of mischievous clown, but there’s a wild intelligence behind those eyes, and Troughton uses his sometimes silly mannerisms as a mask for the Doctor’s true cunning. (The seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy, adopted this technique as well.)

For most of his run, Troughton’s Doctor was accompanied by one of the best companions in the show’s long history, too – Jamie McCrimmon, the savviest 18th Century Scottish highlander you’ll ever see. He was played with wit and charm by Frazer Hines, who shared a connection with Troughton that few Doctor-companion match-ups had.

Here’s the tragic part for those of us who are just catching up with these early episodes. Troughton played the Doctor in 21 stories, from 1966 to 1969. Of those 21, only seven exist in their entirety. Most of Troughton’s run is missing – scattered episodes from 10 other stories exist, and four are gone entirely. Of the surviving seven, four are out on DVD, including one long thought lost – The Tomb of the Cybermen.

What the hell are the Cybermen, you ask? They’re basically the blueprint for the Borg, Star Trek’s inhuman assimilation machines. Cybermen are metal men with a chilling lack of emotion and personality, whose only goal is to conquer and make as many copies of themselves as they can. They, too, assimilate – they convert people into Cybermen, turning them into faceless drones, and they often say “resistance is useless” while they do it. Seriously, Trek pinched the whole concept.

The Tomb of the Cybermen is a locked-room story, taking place on the Cybermen home world. A group of archeologists have landed, looking for (you guessed it) a tomb full of dormant Cybermen, and two of the scientists have a secret plan to revive the metal monstrosities, hoping to use them as a private army. It’s terrifically silly, especially if you add in the Cybermats, little metal bug creatures that the Cybermen use to go places they can’t. Some of it is laugh-out-loud funny, but some of it is effectively creepy, too.

And then there’s Troughton, who is unquestionably in charge from the first scene. He manipulates events to his liking, using everyone except his companions, and stays one step ahead of the plot from minute one. There’s a great scene where he plays with over-the-top villain Klieg’s ego, spurring him on to greater and greater dreams of conquest, before stopping and saying, “Well, now I know you’re mad. I just had to be sure.”

The Tomb of the Cybermen is pulp adventure at its best, and I’m glad it survived all these years. The Restoration Team has worked magic again, cleaning up 40-year-old film to an amazing degree. The effects are silly, the Cybermen (and especially the Cybermats) are more laughable than scary, the whole story is just ridiculous, but man, it’s a lot of fun.

Next week, I’ll talk up The Mind Robber, a surreal and superb Troughton story. We now return you to your regularly scheduled music column.

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I’ve never understood the big deal about Rilo Kiley.

I don’t hate them – that would require a lot more effort and attention than I’m willing to give them. They have a scrappy indie-pop-folk sound that bores me more often than not, and despite having a very good vocalist in Jenny Lewis, the quartet often fails to come up with any hooks or melodies to make use of her. The band has become more and more shiny and poppy as they’ve gone along, but even their last one, More Adventurous, lay flat for most of its running time. Lewis’ solo excursion, a stripped-down country record called Rabbit Fur Coat, was somehow better and more memorable than anything she’d done with the band.

When I reviewed that record, I wondered whether Lewis would bring any of its naked and soulful qualities back to Kiley. Turns out, though, they’ve gone exactly the opposite direction – Rilo Kiley’s fourth album, Under the Blacklight, sounds nothing like anything they’ve done. It’s a glossy, big pop album, loaded with hooks and drum machines and sparkling keyboards. Some will cry sell-out, no doubt, and they may be right. But they’ll be missing out on the fun, because Under the Blacklight is the best record Rilo Kiley has made.

Maybe it’s just that it sounds so very different from anything I expected. Opener “Silver Lining” is the record’s highlight, skipping along in a ‘50s pop vein before taking off with a sweet chorus and an actual, honest-to-God hook. I’ve heard More Adventurous probably eight times, and I can barely remember any of it, but I was humming “Silver Lining” for hours after my first spin. Does that make it better? Probably not, but it certainly trips my particular wires more.

The record continues lobbing surprises at you. First single “The Moneymaker” is a dirty funk rumble that’s so left-field from Lewis and company that I almost didn’t notice that it has no chorus. “Close Call” has one, though, and it’s a winner. “Breakin’ Up” starts off like a Joy Electric song, all analog synth sounds and trippy beats, but morphs into a sort of first cousin to the Caridgans’ “Lovefool,” Lewis following up the forlorn pre-chorus (“Are we breakin’ up?”) with an effervescent pink bubble of a refrain (“It feels good to be free…”).

Blacklight is a tawdry record, most of its songs dealing with cheap and dingy sex. “Moneymaker” is obvious, but there’s the prostitute at the center of “Close Call,” the dangerous dancer that narrates “Smoke Detector,” and the teenage seductress at the heart of “15.” (The video for “Moneymaker” features real porn stars, too.) One gets the sense that these are characters, as much as the meeker souls that populated Lewis’ lyrics in the past, but Rilo Kiley has never been this sexy, this willing to get down and dirty, and it’s a surprising delight.

The album doesn’t sustain its high, unfortunately. The Dusty Springfield knockoff of “15” is kind of embarrassing, and “Dejalo” is a skipper for sure. “The Angels Hung Around” is the only thing here that sounds like Kiley of old, and as such, it stands out, but they close with “Give a Little Love,” a limp attempt at R&B that makes for a lousy comedown. But for the most part, Under the Blacklight is a swell surprise, a collection of well-written pop songs spit-shined and candy-coated. It’s just my kind of record, though it may turn off some of the band’s more indie-oriented fans.

But then, what’s life without a little risk? This album plays less like a calculated sell-out and more like a great experiment. It’s the Jenny Lewis Show – she’s at the wheel, and she’s taken the opportunity to write some of her most compact and memorable songs. Is it a bid for stardom? Maybe it is, but when I spin this album, I hear a bright, danceable pop confection that still retains its intelligence and earthiness. To me, there’s nothing strange about taking on new influences and trying something so very different, especially if the results are this much fun.

Rilo Kiley in my top 10 list? Now, that would be weird.

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Over the Rhine are no strangers to the list – their double-disc masterpiece Ohio made it there a few years ago. That massive work felt like the peak, the culmination of years of this husband-and-wife duo honing their woodsy pop sound, and since then, they’ve produced a stripped-back regrouping album (the superb Drunkard’s Prayer) and a couple of stopgaps – two live records, a Christmas album, and a best-of collection. And none of these releases answered the big question: what’s next?

Well, here it is, proof that Rilo Kiley isn’t the only band exploring new caverns of sound. The Trumpet Child, Over the Rhine’s eighth full-lengther, finds them slipping backwards in time, and coming out fresh and reinvigorated. OTR has always been a traditionalist act, and every time they’ve run aground in their long career, they’ve returned back to their roots – stark acoustic folk and blues, with an unmistakable earnestness and a genuine belief in beauty. On Trumpet, they find their footing in 1920s cabaret-style jazz, spinning earthy tunes the likes of which we’ve never heard from them.

Opener “I Don’t Want to Waste Your Time” starts with a saxophone quartet, and morphs into a piano-led invocation, a torch song invitation to spend the next 42 minutes in Over the Rhine’s company. “I won’t pray this prayer with you unless we both kneel down,” Karin Bergquist sings, and then spends the next batch of songs in the church of the jazz crooners. “Trouble” is a knockout, an acoustic shuffle with light piano sprinklings from Linford Detweiler. “Nothing is Innocent” picks up a light samba beat, and the title track is a devastating gospel ballad with some glorious trumpet and saxophone work.

Bergquist and Detweiler haven’t completely given over to their nightclub spotlight muse. “Entertaining Thoughts” is a pretty standard Over the Rhine song, poppy and driving, while “Let’s Spend the Day in Bed” is a mini-epic, its electric piano groove sliding effortlessly into an extended guitars-and-drums blowout. But they always dip back into their Wayback Machine – “Desperate for Love” follows “Let’s Spend the Day,” and it’s a lilting showtune with a great clarinet solo. And while the title character of “Don’t Wait for Tom” may not be Mr. Waits, the music is all him, echoing his delightful perversion of old-time jazz. Plus, we get to hear Detweiler’s Waits impression, which is pretty damn good.

At the core of this album, as always, is Bergquist, and let me just take a moment to rhapsodize about this woman’s voice. There’s no question she can sing, but just listen to any random three tracks of The Trumpet Child – she can really sing. She does vixen on “Trouble” with surprising ease, rolls out her playful side on “I’m On a Roll,” and just two songs later, her vocal on “The Trumpet Child” will simply slay you. She takes on many different roles during this album, and plays them all with different personalities, singing the hell out of every song here. Bergquist has always been great, but this album fully reveals her as one of the finest singers we have.

If you want to think of The Trumpet Child as a flat-out masterpiece, it’s probably best to consider the closer, “If a Song Could be President,” as a bonus track. The one flaw on an otherwise flawless album, this slipshod country ballad would have sounded out of place even if Detweiler hadn’t saddled it with hokey, hippie lyrics of the worst kind. “We’d vote for a melody, pass it around on an MP3, all our best foreign policy would be built on harmony,” Bergquist sings before suggesting that Neil Young should be a Senator despite his Canadian birth, and Emmylou Harris should be an ambassador because “world leaders would listen to her.” I’m not sure what they were thinking, but this song is an embarrassing blotch on an album that could have been perfect.

But you can’t win them all, and that’s why God made the skip button. For 10 superb songs, Over the Rhine rewrote their own rulebook, and the album they came up with is one of their very best. Every Over the Rhine album is worth it just for Karin Bergquist’s amazing, angelic voice, and this one even more so, but it’s the restless musical spirit here, the search through the back alleys of history to find something pure and timeless in these grooves, that makes this one special. I hope they keep traveling this path, because it’s a fruitful one.

Over the Rhine on my top 10 list? That wouldn’t be weird at all.

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Next week, well, it could be anything. We’ve got new ones from Jeremy Enigk, Minus the Bear, the New Pornographers, Liars, Collective Soul and Lyle Lovett, to name a few. I’ll just pick a couple and let you know what I think.

See you in line Tuesday morning.