Surprises, Good and Bad
Mike Doughty Disappoints, Vampire Weekend Rules

I don’t understand people who say they hate surprises.

I love surprises. They make life worth living, and they certainly make music worth collecting. If a year goes by in which a new band or a previously unremarkable artist doesn’t toss something out there that knocks me out of my chair, I consider it a loss. Luckily, I can’t remember the last year without some pleasant stunner out of nowhere.

Of course, not all surprises are good ones, but that’s the risk. It’s undeniably disappointing when a favorite artist drops something bafflingly average, especially if the album in question came with high expectations. (Can you tell I’m going somewhere with this?) I actually have one of each type of surprises this week, and in typical cynical bastard fashion, I’ll take the bad news first.

The news really isn’t that bad, but I was honestly anticipating Mike Doughty’s second major-label record, Golden Delicious, more than just about anything else in the first third of the year. I’ve been a Doughty fan since the Soul Coughing days (20 percent nation of Casiotone!), but he hit my sweet spot in 2005 with his first full-lengther, Haughty Melodic. Here was the singer-beat poet of one of the most percussive bands in recent memory, delivering delightful pop music while retaining his rat-a-tat vocal style. Sweet, folksy numbers like “Unsingable Name” and “White Lexus” sat alongside rhythmic steamrollers like “Busting Up a Starbucks,” and every tune was a hit with me.

Three years later, here’s Golden Delicious, and it’s not bad, but it’s not a patch on its predecessor. The first half especially is disappointing – the best song of the first six is “27 Jennifers,” and that one’s five years old, first appearing on 2003’s EP Rockity Roll. Opener “Fort Hood” has nice lyrics, about a soldier aching to go home, but its chorus is lifted from “Let the Sunshine In.” Second track “I Just Want the Girl in the Blue Dress to Keep On Dancing” is better, but it rearranges “The Little Drummer Boy.” (Seriously.) And “Put it Down” is a two-chord nonsensical jam.

By the time you get to the filler track “More Bacon than the Pan Can Handle,” you’d be forgiven for thinking Doughty is out of ideas. But hold on past the delightful “27 Jennifers,” because the second half is much better. Doughty has split his album in two, putting the uptempo, percussive tracks up front and the slower, more reflective pieces in the back, and it’s the acoustic numbers that drive it home this time. “I Got the Drop on You” is a particular highlight, Doughty letting the emotion overpower his voice near the end. It’s great stuff.

Better still is “Wednesday (No Se Apoye),” the moodiest piece here. I could listen to this one on repeat for days. The next two tracks are kind of middling ditties, but they’re pleasant enough, especially “Like a Luminous Girl.” But closer “Navigating by the Stars at Night” brings it all together – it’s another phrase you know Doughty picked because of how its consonants sound together, and he manages to make the acoustic shimmer of the song turn into a rhythmic shimmy.

So Golden Delicious isn’t bad, but it does feel half-baked, unfinished, not fully formed. Mike Doughty remains a singular artist, even atop the pop-gloss production of Dan Wilson, and there are moments of excellence here. But as a follow-up to Haughty Melodic, it’s a stumble. I was hoping for amazing, and I got pretty good. Given time and distance, that may be good enough, but for now, I’m disappointed.

I had the exact opposite reaction to Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut. I picked it up on a recommendation, expecting very little. In fact, I expected to hate it – every year there are a couple dozen of these indie bands that come and go, blaring out their three-chord nothings and then disappearing, and I fully expected Vampire Weekend to be another one of those.

Give me credit for buying it anyway, because damn, this is the best debut album I’ve heard in quite some time.

Imagine a supremely talented college band determined to make the modern indie-pop equivalent of Paul Simon’s Graceland. The four guys in Vampire Weekend are influenced as much by African pop music as they are the American variety, and their sound includes hand drums, high harmonic chanting, and snaky clean guitar lines, right alongside hyper bass lines, organs used as punctuation, and synthesizers. Oh, and on “M79,” a full string quartet, playing lines right out of Johann Strauss.

I like the first three tracks on the record, but I fell in love with “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” – it sounds like an outtake from Graceland, all hand drums and shakers and nifty guitars. But then they slide sideways into a rhythmically-shifting chorus, complete with Peter Gabriel reference. I’m also in love with “Bryn,” a delightful singalong that makes perfect use of the Paul Simon guitar sound, mixing it with a sharp folk melody.

But there’s nothing bad here at all. In fact, this album is the coolest synthesis of sound I’ve heard in a long time, and even though it sounds on paper like an intellectual exercise, on record it just sounds amazing. I have no idea where they’re going to go with this, and I am usually hesitant to jump on a train with only one car, but I love Vampire Weekend to death. It reads like something a bunch of post-grads would come up with (and it is), but it feels like the soundtrack to our newer, smaller world.

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So, speaking of great expectations, I just got my imported copy of the Feeling’s second album, Join With Us. I’ll be doing an in-depth review next week, but I have to say, on first listen, I haven’t heard a pop album with a depth of sound as rich as this one since Jellyfish’s Spilt Milk, or at least Brian Wilson’s SMiLE. It’s more candy-coated wonder-pop, but the overall feel is more complex – it’s a grabber and a grower all at once. And the packaging is gorgeous. More next week!

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Lots of Doctor Who below, so apologies to anyone sick of that particular obsession of mine. We’re almost done, I swear. First, though, some quick Oscar picks, just in case anyone thinks I don’t care this year.

The top prizes belong to the Coen Brothers – they’re gonna get Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay for No Country for Old Men, and they’re gonna deserve them. Javier Bardem will also pick up Best Supporting Actor for No Country, for his unforgettable portrayal of pure, implacable evil.

So what does that leave? Well, no one’s beating Daniel Day-Lewis for bringing the year’s most despicable character, Daniel Plainview, to life in There Will Be Blood. Sadly, I think that’s the only award Paul Thomas Anderson’s film will pick up – he just released it in the wrong year.

I think Julie Christie will probably win Best Actress – her performance in the unspeakably sad Away From Her was dazzling. Although Ellen Page may have a chance for Juno. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Academy will reward the 83-year-old Ruby Dee for a lifetime of work by giving her Best Supporting Actress for American Gangster. And Best Original Screenplay will go to Diablo Cody for her awesome Juno script.

I have hopes, not predictions, in other categories. I think Brad Bird deserved a Best Director nomination for the astounding Ratatouille, but he’ll have to settle for Best Animated Feature. I sincerely hope No End in Sight wipes the floor with Michael Moore’s Sicko for Best Documentary. And if “Falling Slowly” from Once doesn’t beat out the songs from Enchanted (all THREE of them!), then I might lose hope in the goodness of the world.

Anyway, that’s my slate of predictions. Tune in Sunday night to see how I did.

Update: Not too badly. I missed Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, and I didn’t see the winning documentary, so I couldn’t have anticipated that one. And I’m very pleased that “Falling Slowly” won – it truly was the best song, and Marketa Irglova getting to deliver her speech after the orchestra cut her off was my favorite moment of the Oscars this year.

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The original run of Doctor Who was on for 26 years and seven Doctors. Watching it in some semblance of sequence, a funny thing happens to actors who play the Doctor for a long time: the show changes around them, to the point where they become out of place.

It happened to William Hartnell, the first Doctor. The cracks started showing when Carole Ann Ford left the show after the 10th story, The Dalek Invasion of Earth. The rest of the original four-person crew exited six stories later, in The Chase, and Hartnell’s Doc was never the same. As the third season wore on, Hartnell looked more and more frail, and the show morphed into a monster-of-the-week extravaganza behind him. His last story, The Tenth Planet, is much more in keeping with his successor Patrick Troughton’s time on the show, and Hartnell himself isn’t even in the third episode.

It happened to Jon Pertwee, who played the Doc for five years. The middle three seasons have an appealing family atmosphere to them, with Katy Manning’s Jo Grant and the rest of the UNIT bunch appearing regularly. Even Roger Delgado’s Master felt like part of the clan. But Manning’s departure and Delgado’s death made the job less fun for Pertwee, and you can see it in his final season – he’s haggard, he’s uncomfortable, and he knows the show isn’t for him anymore. When Tom Baker arrived, it was like a jolt of adrenaline.

But it happened to Baker, too. When he first bounded into the role, Baker was all teeth and curls and witty exuberance. Seven years later, he looked tired and old, his hair ragged and his face cragged. Off screen, Baker had been through three production teams, six companions and an ongoing power struggle over the vision of the show by the time he started Season 18. On-screen, the effect was one exhausted Doctor, ready to shuffle off this mortal coil.

I’m not sure at what point in planning the 18th season the production team found out that Baker was leaving, but they seem to have (consciously or unconsciously) centered the entire set of stories around that theme. Age, decay and death are constant companions in Season 18, the most downbeat of Baker’s seven. We have a machine in The Leisure Hive that ages the Doctor hundreds of years, and that machine is at the heart of an enclave clinging to the last embers of their dying world. In Meglos, we have a fading power source for an entire planet – a world on the brink of death.

I’ll discuss the landmark E-Space Trilogy when it’s released on DVD, but suffice it to say the allusions to entropy and decay continue. Baker’s final two stories are on DVD, however, as the first two-thirds of a box set called New Beginnings, and it’s a fitting title. Tom Baker, after 42 stories (counting the unfinished Shada), bows out quietly, with one of the most somber tales in the program’s history, and his replacement, Peter Davison, immediately gives the show the same infusion of youthful energy Baker had seven years before.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First up is The Keeper of Traken, a somewhat stilted realization of a pretty decent idea. The Doctor is fresh back from E-Space, with stowaway Adric in tow, and he’s left Ramona and K-9 behind. It’s clear Doctor Who is already becoming a very different show, even by this point, and though Baker gives it the old college try, he can’t muster the same enthusiasm for this era.

And looking at it, I hardly blame him. Under John Nathan-Turner, the show has become oddly plastic. The all-synths-all-the-time music doesn’t help, but the effects are cheaper-looking, the costumes less convincing, and the overall look and feel is shabby. I know the budget had started its inexorable shrink by this point, but it really seems like no one cared how the final program turned out.

The Keeper of Traken is about a world held together by goodness. Anyone arriving on Traken with the intent of doing evil is immobilized by the planetary forces, and turned into a stone-like Melkur. Traken is overseen by the Keeper, who has access to a massive power source called (naturally) the Source. It turns out, the Master (last seen in The Deadly Assassin, four seasons earlier) has made his way to Traken to steal that Source, and has become a Melkur.

There’s some potential there, right? Well, the final product is kind of… boring. It’s like B-grade Shakespeare, people in fancy clothes with no personalities, trading proclamations. The Keeper warns of a great evil, and naturally the fine Traken people think the Doc and Adric are that evil. Our heroes are helped by new regular companion Nyssa, daughter of Tremas, the man who will be the next Keeper. And together, they defeat the Master (spoiler!) before he can complete his plan. It all kind of lays there, though, with no energy behind it at all.

But The Keeper of Traken is essential Doctor Who because of its final scene. The Master, nearing the end of his final regeneration, kills Tremas and takes over his body. (Note the anagram – clever clever!) This ushers in the Anthony Ainley era of the Master. Ainley brings a more over-the-top theatricality to the character – his portrayal is not fondly remembered, but a lot of that isn’t his fault. During his time, the Master was written as completely bugfuck insane, killing people for no reason and hatching one stupid, nonsensical plot after another.

But Ainley proves in Traken that he can act – his Tremas is subdued and likeable. It’s a genuine shock when the Master kills him and steals his face, ending up looking like a younger, flashier version of Roger Delgado’s Master. He slips into his Tardis and takes off, leaving Nyssa calling after her father in vain.

And then we’re into Logopolis, Baker’s last story. I have a lot of conflicting thoughts about this final four-parter. It was written by script editor Christopher H. Bidmead, the man who wanted to bring more actual science to Doctor Who, but under his tenure, the “science” turned even more ridiculous. Bidmead’s plots rarely make a whole lot of sense, and they’re complex enough that it takes three or four viewings to be sure they don’t make sense.

He also has little idea how to pace his scripts. Very little happens in the first two episodes of Logopolis – the Doctor’s Tardis accidentally materializes around the Master’s Tardis, causing a loop of police boxes inside police boxes. All well and good, but it goes on forever. The Master kills a couple of people just because he can – in fact, from this point on, most of the Master’s plans will be undone because he can’t stop killing people for no reason – and the Doc realizes his old enemy is aboard his ship, leading to the stupidest idea he’s ever had. (I can’t even bring myself to write it, it’s so dumb. Thankfully, it doesn’t work.)

Midway through the second episode, you’ll be wondering if Bidmead realizes this is Tom Baker’s last story. Director Peter Grimwade certainly does – Logopolis has a hushed, funereal tone, aided by the presence of the Watcher, a strange man in white who appears from time to time, unnerving the Doctor.

Atmospherically, Logopolis is great, but it could use a plot with some momentum – we don’t even arrive on the titular planet until the end of episode two. Logopolis is a planet of mathematicians, performing complex equations and logic problems too advanced for computers. They have mastered something called block transfer computation, which means matter from mathematics, and as the story progresses, we learn they have been using this computational method to literally hold the universe together.

Here comes the entropy theme again, full force – the universe long ago passed the point of total collapse, we are told, and Logopolis has been keeping it from dissipating for decades while the mathematicians there try to work out a permanent cure for decay. They’ve almost got it when, you guessed it, the Master starts killing people again, bringing Logopolis to a halt and sending a wave of black nothingness through everything.

This is, to put it mildly, awesome. The third episode is riveting, as we discover just how screwed everything really is. It concludes with the Doctor and the Master shaking hands, forming an unholy alliance to rescue the universe. As Tom Baker’s final cliffhanger, it’s pretty powerful.

It’s too bad that Logopolis, perhaps a victim of its own entropy field, simply falls to pieces in its final episode. The Doctor and the Master travel to Earth, to borrow a deep-space transmitter and use it to broadcast the final computations of the Logopolitans – a sequence of numbers that will stabilize the universe. This should be pulse-pounding, but it’s kind of lame – it relies on cheap-looking location footage too much, and as a last struggle for the survival of everything, it’s a little too easy. They evade some guards, hook up a machine, press some buttons and that’s that.

But then everything goes pear-shaped. The Master comes up with an amazingly stupid plan to hold the universe hostage, broadcasting a threatening message out to the stars. Never mind the fact that it would take millions of years for his threats to reach any waiting ears, even assuming that every listening alien speaks English. How does he expect them to respond? It’s just retarded.

What happens next is even worse. Instead of just laughing at the insane man and his dumb-looking beard, the Doctor takes the threat seriously, and resolves to DISABLE THE TRANSMITTER. You know, the thing that’s HOLDING THE UNIVERSE TOGETHER! After a cheap-looking tussle on the satellite dish’s scaffolding, the Doc yanks out an all-important cable, then falls to the ground. He’s apparently doomed the universe, but Bidmead completely ignores this, and we never mention it again, because it’s time for Tom Baker to regenerate. (Yes, the fall apparently mortally wounds him. Just go with it.)

This is the first regeneration I can vividly remember from my childhood. Baker lies on the ground as his companions surround him, and the faces of friends from the last seven years swirl around his head. The Watcher shows up, and it turns out he was a future version of the Doctor or something – even Bidmead can’t explain it – and they merge, and seconds later, the Doctor sits up, now a twenty-something blond guy. It sounds stupid, but I still get a little bit emotional at this scene – I remember how it felt to watch it the first time, and to know that irrevocable change was coming.

My love for Doctor Who started with stories like this, when I was a wee lad. By the end of Logopolis, it almost doesn’t matter to me how dumb the preceding 90 minutes has been – I’m seven years old again, watching one of my Doctors change into the other. Viewed from my current vantage point, Logopolis is a terrible mess of a story, not a fitting finale for the great Tom Baker. But I still love it.

Next week, some music, I promise.

See you in line Tuesday morning.