Odds, Sods, Remixes and Rarities Round Out the Year

So you may have heard that Norman Mailer died recently.

Now, I know the man won two Pulitzers and countless other awards, and was a very well-respected author, playwright and thinker. But this is just the way my mind works – upon hearing of his death, the first thing that ran through my mind was “I’ve been Norman Mailered, Maxwell Taylored…” Which is the first line of Simon and Garfunkel’s “A Simple Desultory Phillipic,” a semi-obscure number tucked away on their best album, 1966’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme.

The song is a bit of a thumbed nose to Bob Dylan’s style and following, and consists mainly of a list of then-contemporary and classic references, with very little connecting them except the sense of faux-scholarly importance they carry. It starts off alternating between writers and military officials, but soon moves into musical figures and comedians, even ending with references to Garfunkel and Roy Halee, who engineered or co-produced every album the duo made.

Mailer’s death got me thinking – just how many of the people referenced in “A Simple Desultory Phillipic” are still alive? So I checked. There are 17 references in the song, if you count both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones as entities in their own right, and of those 17, nine are dead and eight are alive. Among the dead: Norman Mailer, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, John O’Hara, the Beatles, Ayn Rand, Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler, Lenny Bruce, Dylan Thomas and Andy Warhol.

Still with us: former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the Rolling Stones, producers Phil Spector and Lou Adler, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Halee and Garfunkel.

What does this mean? Nothing at all, really. The passage of time just fascinates me – what were up-to-date references in 1966 now firmly date the song, and one day every one of its lyrical nods will be on that former list. But the song will live on, a marker of a specific era. I’m sure, given time and ambition, I could weave that into a metaphor of some sort, but honestly? I just think it’s neat.

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Welcome to the end of the year. As usual, there’s absolutely nothing of note coming out between now and New Year’s Day, which I’ve always found a bit odd – you’d think the labels would want to capitalize on the holiday shopping craze. Which they do, of course, with a metric ton of special products, best-ofs and box sets. (The best one this year is the 16-CD Pink Floyd box, with every album in beautiful-looking vinyl replica sleeves.) But new stuff? We got nothing.

No, it’s the time of year when artists and labels scour the hidden corners of their cupboards, looking for leftovers they can whip into some kind of acceptable casserole for the holiday dinner. It’s b-sides and rarities and remixes, oh my, but even so, there’s some interesting stuff hidden amidst the money-grubbing dross.

For instance, there’s Nine Inch Nails’ new remix album. It’s a tradition as sacrosanct as egg nog and stockings by the fireplace – every time Trent Reznor makes an album, he’s bound to issue a disc of remixes soon afterwards. This year’s NIN meisterwerk was called Year Zero, and was, no lie, a terrific slab of post-apocalyptic, beat-crazy, nihilism pop. And if you want to hear another take on it, here is (I am not making this title up) Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D. Or, you know, Year Zero Remixed.

Slight digression – I saw a t-shirt the other day with this slogan: “Remixing a song is like admitting you were wrong.” But I’ve always seen remixing as a very generous art. The two remix albums I’ve enjoyed the most this year, this one and Joy Electric’s Their Variables, are really collections of other artists’ work. Both Reznor and Ronnie Martin gave their original tracks to artists they admire, and let them go to town. It takes a sincere lack of ego to allow others to have their way with your music, and to admit that collaboration can lead to some interesting places.

In the case of NIN, remixers usually remove the human element from the songs. Reznor’s music has always been about the war between the organic and the mechanical, with real instruments and melodies fighting against the sonic manipulations and computer terrorism he inflicts on them. That’s why his original albums are ordinarily more tense and powerful than his remixes – the end result of the remix is less humanity, more machine.

That holds true on this album, but Year Zero is Reznor’s most mechanical work to begin with, so the remixers merely sprint further down that path. Epworth Phones makes a seven-minute beats-and-samples march out of “Capital G,” while Ladytron merely fills out “The Beginning of the End” with more synths and ethereal voices. Bill Laswell strips “Vessel” down to synthetic bass, drums and noise, keeping the basic core of the song intact. And The Faint gives “Meet Your Master” the same kitschy electro-pop sheen they bring to their own work.

The most interesting things here are the most bizarre. Olof Dreijer basically ignores the bulk of “Me, I’m Not” to turn in a 14-minute ambient piece of his own devising, while Enrique Gonzalez Muller enlists the Kronos Quartet to orchestrate and spookify the instrumental “Another Version of the Truth.” This is the only song on the remix album that attempts that electric-organic tension, and as such, it’s my favorite thing here.

Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D ends the same way Year Zero did, with the grand “In This Twilight” (noised up a bit by Fennesz) and the memorable “Zero Sum” (kept intact, but given some air and atmosphere, by Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert). In the end, it’s a remix album – you know what you’re going to get, and if you’re not interested in hearing the same songs reinterpreted, stick with Year Zero itself. But as remix albums go, this one is quite good.

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I’m glad Copeland has released Dressed Up and In Line in time for this column, and not the least of the reasons why is that it gives me a chance to rectify a prior review.

Last year, I gave this talented Florida quartet a hard time for not immediately pleasing me with their third full-length, Eat, Sleep, Repeat. I called it wispy and forgettable, and chided the band for incorporating a Radiohead influence on some of the tracks. And then I filed the disc, and didn’t touch it for about six months.

When I pulled it out again this summer, I found that most of my criticisms were really petty things. The album is a grower, and only a month or two later, I fell in love with it. It’s definitely smaller in scale than their others, and doesn’t reach for greatness as blatantly. And yes, Aaron Marsh’s lyrics this time out are not the best they’ve ever been. But the whole thing has a sorrowful, lovely tone that creeps up on you. Some of the songs (“Careful Now,” “Love Affair,” “By My Side”) are pretty much perfect. I think I was upset at the lack of a powerhouse song like “Sleep” or “Pin Your Wings,” and I missed the fact that the album is meant to be digested whole.

So I’m sorry, and please check out Eat, Sleep, Repeat. And while you’re in the store, you may as well pick up Dressed Up and In Line, a winning collection of rarities and b-sides from the band’s seven-year career. It’s the usual assortment of acoustic versions and demos and covers, but the selection highlights the main strengths of Copeland – their sense of melody, and the wonderful voice of Aaron Marsh.

The band does a great job of including tracks from every part of their career thus far, showing their progression. (A year ago, I would have said regression, but Eat, Sleep, Repeat is definitely a destination point, not a stumble backwards.) They include one acoustic take from each of their three albums, the best of which is “Careful Now,” here augmented with strings. They cover “Black Hole Sun” and “Every Breath You Take” with the same grace as the covers on their EP Know Nothing Stays the Same.

They take a long look back with all three songs from their first EP, nestled in the back third of this disc – the songs are louder and more average than anything they’ve done since. And they look ahead with a demo of “Chin Up,” a song they plan to record for their fourth album. The tune is a winner, based around a hook line that knocks me out: “Everyone knows you break your neck to keep your chin up.”

It’s taken a while for me to catch up to Copeland, and to accept that they’re not what I thought they were. Turns out, they’re better – the band has developed a dreamy, floating style that’s emphasized on this collection of slower, lovelier tunes. I was excited to hear Eat, Sleep, Repeat before it came out, and now that I’m on board with the direction Marsh is taking his band, I’m even more excited to hear whatever they do next. Until then, Dressed Up and In Line will do – it’s a fine record in its own right.

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Which brings us to Sigur Ros, and the best collection of leftovers I’ve heard this year.

This Icelandic quartet is quite unlike any band on the planet right now, and they’ve always been content to let the music do the talking. You may have seen their cringe-inducing interview on NPR’s The Bryant Park Project (and if you haven’t, here is is) – this is less about the lousy questions the interviewer asked and more about the band’s belief that the music is the music, and doesn’t need to be talked about.

My bet is they don’t do a lot of talking in Heima, their about-to-be-released concert film, either. They’re right, of course – their music speaks for itself, especially since it serves as something of a thesis on not saddling your melody or your sound with specificity. Jonsi Birgisson sings in Icelandic, but he also often sings in gibberish – he essentially forms syllables that go along with the melodies his band produces, and they mean nothing. They also mean everything.

Sigur Ros’ music is grand, massive, and crushingly beautiful. It’s no good trying to describe it. The melodies are immense, the orchestration bigger than life, the dynamics breathtaking, the singing otherworldly. It is unlike anything I have heard before, and seems to have sprung up fully formed, with no antecedents whatsoever. It is music for the movies they play in heaven, and it’s always seemed odd to me that such sounds, such music, is made by four regular people, not, for example, aliens from some distant moon.

So Heima is going to be a shock for me. But I’ve been prepared somewhat by listening to Hvarf/Heim, the band’s new two-CD set. Hvarf is a collection of five rarities, all of which have that astonishing Sigur Ros sound. Of them, my favorite is “Hjomalind,” formerly known as “The Rock Song” among the band members. This song takes everything that’s great about Sigur Ros and condenses it to a five-minute singalong. It’s fantastic, as are the longer songs here, especially “Hafsol,” previously released as a b-side.

But it’s Heim, the second disc, that is the biggest surprise. Here are six acoustic versions of songs taken from each of the group’s four albums, played live with a string quartet, and they’re revelatory. Stripped of their studio wizardry, Heim’s selections reveal Sigur Ros as a warm, human band obsessed with beauty. The songs stand up marvelously, and Birgisson has never sounded more like a down-to-earth lead singer than he does here.

You’d think that would take away some of this band’s magic, but you’d be wrong. Just listen to the slower, acoustic-led version of “Agaetis Byrjun” here. It’s pianos and six-strings (with audible fret noises) and brush drums and a single, sweet voice – it is, undeniably, music made by people in a room. But it’s still soul-crushingly gorgeous stuff, made somehow more magical by pulling the curtain back. I love every note of this too-brief disc, one of the true gems of the latter half of the year, and I can hardly wait to see Heima. Far from ruining the mystique, this intimate glimpse into Sigur Ros makes their music sound even more remarkable to me. I can’t recommend their work highly enough.

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I’m now in the era of Doctor Who that many fans consider the high point of the entire series. Far be it from me to disagree – the 1975 and 1976 seasons have a lot going for them. First, there’s Tom Baker, everyone’s favorite Doctor, at the height of his powers. Baker hit his stride pretty early, and only refined his quirky, alien, morally authoritative performance as the years went on.

Then we have Phillip Hinchcliffe in the producer’s chair. Hinchcliffe saw it as his mission to bring a more adult sensibility to what is still wrongly thought of as a children’s show – he figured the kids would be watching anyway, let’s give the parents some reason to tune in, too. The Hinchcliffe-era stories are on the whole darker and more complex than those many of his predecessors (and any of his successors) brought to the program.

Finally, we have Robert Holmes serving as script editor. By 1975, Holmes had contributed more than his fair share of cracking stories, including one of my favorite Jon Pertwee tales, Carnival of Monsters. He’d introduced the Autons and the Sontarans to the program, and would go on to be arguably the show’s most influential writer, up until his untimely death in 1986. As script editor, Holmes routinely cleaned up and improved screenplays, tightening dialogue and plot, and adding his own touches as he went along. The Hinchcliffe-Holmes era is very distinctive, very adult, and holds a revered spot in the hearts of Who fans.

So why didn’t I like the first Hinchcliffe-Holmes story available on DVD, Pyramids of Mars?

It’s hard to say. Repeated viewings have certainly improved this story, but on first run-through, I found it a bit of a mess. It’s hard to follow, it’s cheap-looking, and its villain is one of those cackling bad guys with no apparent motivation other than pure evil. Its first three episodes consist of a lot of running around an old manor, the Doc and Sarah Jane chased and menaced by flimsy-looking mummy-robots (really). Its fourth is a disaster of bad effects, the Doctor working to keep the Egyptian god Sutekh locked away in his prison on Mars – a prison that seems to be made of Atari-quality graphics and curtains.

Anyway, here’s the plot. Sutekh, one of the original Big Bads of ancient Egypt, is apparently a real guy, with a really menacing helmet. He’s been trapped in a jail cell on Mars for centuries, even though he seems to have been imprisoned with everything he needs to get out. He’s taken over the mind of a modern-day archeologist, Marcus Scarman, and is using him and his palatial estate to set up an escape plan that involves building a big rocket to blow up Sutekh’s prison.

And the Doctor must stop him. Which he does, barely – this is one of those stories that earned Hinchcliffe his reputation as a master of darkness, since everyone who isn’t the Doctor or Sarah Jane dies by the end.

That sounds solid enough for a Doctor Who story. So what didn’t I like? Well, there’s no real explanation for what’s going on, which is unfortunate. My big question – Egyptian gods are real? How come? – was never addressed. The viewer gets to piece this thing together, and we never get a big-picture look at things. Halfway through the second episode, we get a new character that’s not properly introduced, and that ends up being pretty confusing. And the whole thing is melodramatic and serious, despite the budget’s inability to prop up the story.

And then there’s the toilet paper men. At least, that’s what my friend Mike and I called them when we were younger. I used to make fun of the idea of a monster that could barely move, lest it rip the layers of Charmin it was wrapped in. Turns out, that’s still funny, and it’s hard to take the lumbering mummy-bots seriously at all.

There are some good things about Pyramids of Mars, but I wouldn’t call it a triumph for this era. It does contain one of Tom Baker’s best straight-drama performances, and the scene where Sutekh tortures the Doctor is pretty effective. But the story as a whole is too much of a mess to really connect, so I find myself disagreeing with its status as a stone cold classic.

Faring much better, I think, is The Hand of Fear. One season later than Pyramids of Mars, and the team seems to be firing on all cylinders, for the most part. This is the second story of Hinchcliffe’s last season as producer, and it’s considered the weakest of the lot. If that’s true, I’m very much looking forward to seeing the rest of them, because, with the exception of a disastrous final episode, The Hand of Fear works very well.

The Doc and Sarah Jane materialize in a quarry. (Nothing new there, only this time, it’s meant to be a quarry on Earth, not an alien landscape…) They’re caught in an excavation blast, during which Sarah Jane finds a disembodied hand that takes over her mind. She brings the hand to the nearest nuclear reactor, and it absorbs enough radiation to start moving about on its own, regenerating. As it turns out, the hand belongs to Eldrad, exiled criminal from an alien planet, and she’s desperate to get home.

I vividly remember The Hand of Fear, having first seen it at age seven or so, and I remember being creeped out by the hand moving by itself. Now, as a 33-year-old, I find myself more creeped out by Elisabeth Sladen’s performance as the hypnotized Sarah Jane in the first two episodes. She’s unnerving here, despite her red-and-white-striped overalls, and commands the screen. The first two installments of this story are pretty much flawless, and full of suspense.

What helps is that the production team was allowed to shoot inside a real nuclear power plant, giving the story a sense of scale. If they’d stayed there, the story would have remained on the right track, but unfortunately, Eldrad must live, as they say. Eldrad, played by Judith Paris in a skin-tight costume, is a good, complex character, and the audience is uncertain whether to trust her or not. Even when the Doc and Sarah Jane take her back to her home planet, and she tells us the history of the environmental wasteland we see when we get there, we’re not sure if she’s planning something sinister.

Spoiler – she is. In a drastic miscalculation of a fourth episode, Eldrad achieves his “true form,” changing from Judith Paris to Stephen Thorne, in a bulkier, gem-like costume. Thorne is awful here, bellowing and posturing, and his Eldrad is just a megalomaniacal tyrant. He wants to take over his home world and then conquer Earth, for some reason, and I found myself begging for a quick end to spare me from his histrionics.

The sad thing is, there’s a brilliant idea here – Eldrad’s entire race, it turns out, has committed mass suicide, rather than be ruled by him. This should be chilling, soul-shaking stuff, but it isn’t. It’s a man in a funny costume, yelling a lot and then tripping over a scarf. If not for this terrible lapse in judgment, The Hand of Fear could have been one of Tom Baker’s best stories.

Ah, but it does have one thing going for it that no other Tom Baker story has – the departure of Sarah Jane Smith. Elisabeth Sladen played Sarah Jane for more than three years, appearing in 80 episodes with two doctors. She’s one of the longest-running companions, second only to Frazer Hines’ Jamie McCrimmon, who appeared in 113 episodes. (And if you count by seasons, she’s the longest, with three and a third.)

The actual goodbye scene is wonderfully understated – so much so that I found myself wanting more, initially. But on repeat viewings, I think it’s very good. The characters (and the actors) clearly have such affection for each other that nothing more need be said. And the last few moments, where Sarah Jane realizes that the Doctor’s dropped her off in the wrong part of England, are just priceless. A fine finish to a celebrated run.

Anyway, next week, we’ll get into two of the best-loved Hinchcliffe-Holmes stories, The Robots of Death and The Talons of Weng-Chiang.

On a related note, and just to bookend this column with death, I’ve just heard that Verity Lambert passed away this week, at age 71. Lambert was Doctor Who’s first producer, and the woman responsible for a lot of the sensibility of the show even today. Seriously, watch the first episode from 1963 – you’ll be surprised just how many elements of the show were in place right from the start.

It was Lambert who first moved what could have been a silly pantomime children’s program into a serious, dramatic direction, it was Lambert who shepherded the development of the Daleks (back when they were scary), and it was Lambert who pushed for the spooky, iconic theme music still in use today. It would not be an exaggeration to say that she created much of what we call Doctor Who today. Though she didn’t realize it at the time, she was one of the original architects of a show loved by millions through generations, and we fans all owe her immensely. She’ll be missed.

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Next week, the yearly barrage of live albums hits. Happy Turkey Day, everyone.

See you in line Tuesday morning.