October Surprises
Fall Rises With Three Great Albums

Doctor Who reviews first? You betcha.

There are two final Jon Pertwee stories that have made it to DVD on this side of the pond, and they couldn’t be more different.

Start with Carnival of Monsters, a minor classic by Robert Holmes that is let down here and there by the budget, but is no less captivating for it. This one’s just pure fun – the Doc and Jo Grant take the Tardis for its first spin since the Time Lords disabled it more than three seasons ago, and they end up in the 1920s, aboard a cargo ship in the middle of the Indian Ocean. However, all is not what it seems, and they soon find out that they’re really in a miniaturized menagerie, a carnival attraction, and what’s happening outside the machine could have dire consequences for the beings trapped inside.

Seriously, what a cool idea, and for the most part, it’s well-realized. (Well, you know, as well-realized as 1970s Doctor Who could be…) There’s a great sense of variety to the production, as we jump from the 1920s to the inner workings of the machine to a barren landscape filled with monsters. Outside the scope, there’s a rebellion happening on an alien world, and while those scenes aren’t quite as compelling, they do tie the story together nicely. Carnival moves quickly and fancifully, and it’s never boring – it’s a terrific way to kickstart the space-faring adventures again.

By contrast, The Green Death is long and plodding, and for the most part, it’s a pretty serious tale. It’s a six-parter, which means it stretches to two and a half hours long, and very few Doctor Who stories earn that length. This one comes close, though, and even the heavy-handed environmental morality tale at its center can’t fully derail it.

Yes, The Green Death is about a chemical company poisoning the planet, and about the heroic hippies that try to stop it. And yes, there are long speeches about how we’re killing the Earth, and about how we can all live happily on toadstools and use water to power our cars. But this was ahead of its time in 1973, and it’s still pretty much right on today, so even though it’s as subtle as a sledgehammer, it’s hard to fault the story too much for that.

Especially since we’re soon off of that and on to giant maggots. For the first four episodes, the big bad of The Green Death is a hive of irradiated, mutant maggots, and I have to say, they’re pretty scary looking. The plastic dragons in Carnival of Monsters just look cheap, but the creepy crawlies here look great. This story is another Earth-bound one, guest-starring Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, and Nicholas Courtney is terrific as always.

And the languid pace lets the characters shine in this story. The writers only had six episodes to introduce Professor Clifford Jones, establish his immediate chemistry with Jo Grant, and then justify her leaving the Doctor to travel the Amazon with her new paramour, but they do a decent job with it. Stewart Bevan is very good as Jones, and the script never gives short shrift to his budding relationship with Grant. Writer Robert Sloman also makes time to round out the bad guys at Global Chemicals, and he brings a real sense of place to Professor Jones’ commune, the Nuthutch.

It’s a silly little story, of course, but the final 10 minutes add a touch of poignancy to it. This is Katy Manning’s last story as Jo Grant, after three full seasons with the Doctor, and in their final scene together, you can see just how much Pertwee will miss his co-star. Every Doctor goes through this – the dissolution of the family unit (or UNIT, in this case) that has been built up around him. It usually signals the end of one actor’s tenure, and sure enough, five stories later, Pertwee stepped down as the Doctor.

It’s fascinating, though, to watch it happen repeatedly. The Doctor builds up a life for himself, it’s good for a while, then it evaporates, and shortly thereafter he regenerates. It’s usually obvious, in the final stories of any actor’s time as the Doctor, that the joy of doing the show has disappeared, and that heavy weight adds immensely to the regeneration scenes. It’s very meta – the Doctor isn’t just regenerating himself, the show is regenerating itself as well, adding new energy where it was lost.

None of Pertwee’s last season is on DVD yet here (although those lucky Brits have The Time Warrior already, which introduces beloved companion Sarah Jane Smith), so we have to jump right into Tom Baker’s iconic seven-year run next time. Pertwee returned to the role one last time, in the 1983 story The Five Doctors. He sadly died of a heart attack in May of 1996.

That makes Tom Baker the oldest surviving Doctor. Next week, we launch into his run, all teeth, curls, a massive scarf and a giant robot.

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We’re coming to the end of the year, a time when, traditionally, the good stuff just dries up. The next few weeks will give us the likes of Britney Spears and Jay-Z, but little in the way of music that touches the soul. It’s going to be a long, hard winter when the upcoming releases I’m most looking forward to include the likes of Queensryche and Duran Duran.

That’s why it was so gratifying to have an October like we just had. Late-year surprises are always nice, but this year sent some amazing records our way, many of which went unnoticed. Perhaps the best of those was a genuine shock – I mocked the very idea of this album when I heard about it, and man, I feel like an idiot for doing so. It’s Raising Sand, a duets album by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, and saying it’s better than you’d expect that pairing to be is probably the understatement of the decade.

Honestly, this album is amazing, easily one of my favorite records of the year. The song selection sticks mostly to old blues, folk and country songs, including tunes by Gene Clark and Mel Tillis, but it also branches out with some Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt and Everly Brothers numbers. The production by T-Bone Burnett is earthy yet ethereal, tapping into some mystical vein of pure, unadorned beauty. These are all simple songs, treated respectfully and recorded like hymns.

But you won’t care about much of that. Raising Sand is all about the voices of Plant and Krauss, entwining and dancing around each other. Here’s a guy who fronted one of the greatest rock bands of all time, and a woman who brought bluegrass music into the mainstream – they couldn’t come from more diverse backgrounds, and yet, they sound as if they were born to sing together. Their harmonizing on Clark’s “Polly Come Home” is spine-tingling, and they knock the Everlys’ “Gone Gone Gone” out of the park.

My initial apprehension about this album stemmed from my inability to reconcile the histories Plant and Krauss bring to this project, but listening to it, none of that matters. Plant, who turns 60 next year, has honed his bluesy voice into a restrained and lovely instrument – it took all of the intervening years between Zeppelin and now for his voice to become this world-weary and wise thing it is now, and Krauss complements it perfectly, her graceful tones reaching down and lifting Plant’s off the ground.

They are perfect together, in this moment in time. I promise you – they are perfect.

My only complaint about Raising Sand is that Krauss sometimes takes whole songs by herself. She does a stunning job with Waits’ “Trampled Rose” – it’s never sounded better, honestly – but I wanted to hear more of this unlikely, yet incredible pairing. Elsewhere, Plant resurrects “Please Read the Letter,” a song from Walking Into Clarksdale, his 1998 record with Jimmy Page, and it makes for a super country ballad. Van Zandt’s “Nothin’” makes for a dusty, desolate departure, its dirty guitar contrasting with the atmosphere conjured by banjo and fiddle. Plant takes this one by himself, though, and again, I wanted more of the pairing.

That’s a minor complaint, though, when everything here is so good. The record concludes with a sad, graceful reading of funeral hymn “Your Long Journey,” and as it’s the most spare piece on the album, you get to really hear how Plant and Krauss mingle their silken voices. I had no idea that this combination would even work, never mind cast such a spell. It’s full of covers, so you won’t see it on this year’s top 10 list, but Raising Sand is one of the finest albums of the year, a genuine treasure.

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A new Autumns album is always a pleasant surprise. Their first full-length, The Angel Pool, came out 10 years ago, and they’re only now issuing their fourth. The new one, Fake Noise From a Box of Toys, is out on Bella Union… but only in the U.K. The Autumns are from Los Angeles, and they can’t even get their own record in their home country yet, and if I hadn’t obsessively checked their website for the past few months, I’d have missed the release entirely.

But even more surprising than the existence of a new Autumns album is the content of this one. Three years ago, the band released a self-titled album that took some steps toward redefining their sound. On their earliest records, the Autumns unleashed sheets of glorious noise and beautiful, nearly formless ambience, the kind of thing Hammock does so well. They’ve been slowly transitioning towards a more traditional sound for a while, and the self-titled went a considerable distance towards that, angling for distorted, dramatic rock – like a prettier, less absurd Muse, in a way.

Fake Noise is the album that takes it all the way. The instrumental interludes are gone, the glorious oceans of reverb have been phased out, and the Autumns stick to writing grandiose, stratospheric rock songs and playing them super-freaking-loud. For those who loved the fragile, otherworldly beauty of the first couple of albums, this record will land with a thud. But for those willing to take the trip with them, Fake Noise represents a very successful change – it’s noisy dramatic rock, but it’s excellent noisy dramatic rock.

The heart of this record, and of this band, is the voice and guitar of Matthew Kelly. His voice is elastic, leaping up to the highest of high notes on dynamite rocker “Boys,” and yet delivering a mid-range wonder like “Glass Jaw” with force. His six-string work on this album is excellent, but it’s the tightness of the band that knocks me out this time. Drummer Steve Elkins particularly shines – listen to his circular, imaginative work on “Clem” – and the whole group pulses with a connection, a life, that they haven’t quite managed before.

Kelly and company have come up with some terrific songs for this album, and the production is varied – it’s all guitars, but they take on different shades and tones, from clipped and clean to explosive, even when confined to one speaker or the other. “Killer in Drag” marches forward in bass-driven lockstep, but the swirling guitar sounds all around it send it skyward. Even late-album pieces like “Adelaide” are melodic and memorable, and make the most of the new, aggressive sound.

So yeah, this is a totally new kind of Autumns album, but it’s just as stunning as their others – they remain one of the best bands no one’s ever heard. Fake Noise From a Box of Toys will cost you a bit more as an import, though I hear a U.S. release is in the cards for February, but if you like grand, writ-large rock, you owe it to yourself to try it out.

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Our last contestant is a true surprise – I never thought Monarch’s second album, Lowly, would see the light of day. I also didn’t expect it would be brilliant.

Monarch put out one album, The Grandeur That Was Rome, through tiny Northern Records in 2004. The band is so under the radar that they don’t even have a Wikipedia page. I saw Brennan Strawn, singer and songwriter for the band, opening for the Violet Burning last year, and assumed he’d gone solo. So the sudden appearance of the second Monarch album, recorded more than a year ago, came as a shock. (Apparently its release took Strawn by surprise as well…)

There may be financial trouble at Northern. They haven’t put anything else out this year, and Lowly comes in a cheap package – one piece of cardboard, folded over, with one-color printing and a plastic tab attached. But don’t let that deter you – the album sounds like a million bucks, and it’s even bigger and better than the debut.

Lowly may be credited to the band, but this is Brennan Strawn’s album. He wrote all the songs and played just about every instrument, and the focus here is clearly on his amazing voice. I was blown away seeing him live, with only an acoustic guitar, and he sounds even better surrounded by pianos, strings, guitars and flailing drums. It’s one of those crystal clear voices that cuts through everything – the spotlight would be on Strawn’s vocals even if he were backed by a 90-piece orchestra and the sound of an avalanche.

But even though I’d listen to Strawn sing the Farmer’s Almanac, Lowly would be nothing without the songs, and what songs they are. I love it when artists aim for greatness, unironically, and pursue it with everything they have – these are all intense, anthemic wonders, produced brilliantly by Strawn and the Prayer Chain’s Andy Prickett, and the album never coasts. It never leaves you waiting for the next song, because every one is a knockout.

It opens with the mid-tempo stunner “Perform,” which sets the tone – the acoustic strum is accompanied by keyboards and atmospheres, leading into Strawn’s powerful singing on the chorus, like the clouds parting. “If You Dance” and “Lose it All” are two of the most hummable pop songs you’ll hear all year, but it’s with the slower, more dramatic numbers that Strawn really hits his stride. Check out “Find Others,” with its close-miked vocals and gorgeous string parts, then stick around for “Save Your,” an astounding six-minute sustained crescendo that is the album’s high point.

There is nothing bad here. There is only good. I can’t fathom that Brennan Strawn’s music will only be heard by a few. An album this well-made, emotional and flat-out wonderful should be heard by everyone. This is top 10 list material, believe me. If you’ve ever liked unironically grand music that touches the soul, seriously, get thee to Northern Records and buy a copy of this right now.

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Next week, sad sack solo acts Dan Wilson and Justin Currie. And a giant robot.

See you in line Tuesday morning.