Let’s Stick Together
Reunion Albums from The Black Crowes and Bauhaus

Apologies for the late posting this week – we had a special election on Saturday to select a congressman, and most of my week was spent keeping up with that, capped off by a 14-hour shift on election day itself. I’m dead tired. I do hope I made it up to you by writing extra-freaking-long this week. If you’re still unsatisfied, send me an email, and I’ll read it when I wake up.

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So the big music news this week is Trent Reznor’s attempt to outdo Radiohead.

If you missed it, last Sunday, Reznor released Ghosts I-IV, the new Nine Inch Nails double album, exclusively on his Web site. NIN’s contract with Interscope Records expired after last year’s two Year Zero projects, and he promised then that he’d make use of the world wide web for future releases. Many thought then that he’d be the first high-profile act out of the gate with a whole new paradigm for digital distribution.

And then In Rainbows happened. Radiohead’s seventh album was exclusively released on radiohead.com, with an ingenious pay-what-you-want pricing structure for the download-only version. It took the music biz by storm at first, but after a while, people started noticing the cracks in the firmament.

Radiohead made several mistakes with their maiden voyage into the digital delivery realm. First, they only offered their album download as low-quality MP3s, which upset audiophiles looking for lossless formats. And then, they produced an eight-song bonus disc, but only made it available with the hardcopy version of the album – an $80 “discbox” with CD and vinyl copies of the record, packaged in a massive box. They didn’t make those eight songs available for download, and didn’t produce a standard (read: affordable) version of the album until it came out in stores in January.

And, of course, with the option to pay nothing, many people did, stripping the band of potential revenue with each click.

Reznor, it seems, was taking notes, because he effortlessly vaulted over each of those obstacles. Ghosts I-IV is available in a number of formats, for a number of fixed prices. He’s made the first nine tracks (Ghosts I) downloadable for free, both on his site and on any number of torrent sites. If you don’t like them, fine – your obligation is finished. If you do, it’ll cost you $5 to download the whole 36-track extravaganza, and it’s available in MP3, FLAC and other lossless formats.

If you, like me, still buy physical CDs, Reznor’s got you covered. Ten bucks gets you the 2-CD set and a free download of the whole album. Collectors who like lavish packaging are covered, too – for $75, you can get the deluxe edition, which includes the two CDs, the free download, a DVD with all the songs, and a Blu-Ray disc with the whole thing in digital surround sound. That all comes in a swank hardcover book.

A $300 limited edition version of the album was also available, with everything from the deluxe edition plus the album on four vinyl records, all packaged in a… well, a “discbox,” but that’s sold out now. Sorry, millionaires!

It certainly seems like Reznor’s thought of everything. But there are some snakes in the garden here – namely, it seems the NIN camp wasn’t quite prepared for the interest this move would generate. Their servers were overloaded with orders early on, making it impossible to get to important areas of the website. I tried to order the thing Sunday night, but was unsuccessful – I only managed it Monday morning. I bought the 2-CD edition with the free download, and got my link in my inbox in seconds.

I’m writing this on Saturday morning, five days later, and I still have not been able to download my copy of Ghosts I-IV. I tried on Monday to make it work, but the server wouldn’t let me get more than nine percent of the way through before kicking me out. And after a couple of tries, the link wouldn’t work anymore – I’d started the download too many times. Three emails to NIN’s support staff have so far yielded no results.

I’ve heard the record, although I had to go to an outside source to get it. And that’s exactly what NIN’s sloppy preparation is going to achieve – it will send people to torrent sites and other methods of downloading the album if they can’t get it legitimately. If Reznor decides to go this route again, I hope he learns from this experience.

There’s another major difference between NIN’s experiment and Radiohead’s. In Rainbows was demonstrably the new Radiohead album – 10 songs, building on what the band had done before, nothing out of the ordinary. If the band had chosen simply to release it to stores on CD, no one would have bat an eyelash.

Not so Ghosts I-IV. This thing could almost be called a side project, if it weren’t such a massive endeavor. This is a 110-minute instrumental album, comprised of 36 unnamed tracks, most of which sound like the interludes between songs on “proper” NIN albums. The liner notes say it was recorded over eight weeks last year, but if I didn’t know that, I’d say this sounds like a collection of experiments and half-finished tunes. It’s certainly not the usual NIN fare, which makes its release this way a lot less risky – if it doesn’t work, Reznor can say it wasn’t a “real” NIN album, and can choose a record company for his next, more traditional release.

None of that should take away from the boldness of his release strategy here, though. I think, if he can get this system working properly, Reznor may have discovered the template for digital delivery that will keep everyone – collectors, audiophiles, budget-minded consumers – happy. I’ll talk about the album itself more when I get a copy in my hands, but for now, let me just say it’s worth the ten bucks I paid.

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By and large, I hate reunion albums.

Whether it’s a two-year hiatus, as with Phish, or a 24-year absence, as with the Who, the reunion album is usually nothing but trouble. When a band breaks up, the reasons for the split are often deeply personal, and those don’t simply go away. The often-trotted-out “creative differences” don’t ordinarily disappear with time either – when artists find that they can work well together, it’s usually because they’re at similar points in their own musical evolutions, and when those roads diverge, it’s time to move on.

But lo and behold, this week brought us a pair of reunion records every bit as good as the legacies they hope to continue. I almost didn’t buy either one – who wants to hear a group of creaky old bastards try to reclaim past glories? – but I’m glad I bit the bullet.

Okay, I’m fibbing a little, because there was no way I wasn’t going to buy Warpaint, the new Black Crowes album. (Although I did purchase with a bit of trepidation, mind you.) I’m on record calling the Crowes the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world, and I stand behind that statement – you won’t find a better purveyor of beer-swilling, fight-starting, barstool-throwing, tear-the-walls-down rock anywhere. I get a lot of flak for saying this, but real rock ‘n’ roll is a mix of attitude and feeling, and these guys have both in spades.

Warpaint is the first Crowes album in seven years, and their seventh overall. The core of the band is the brothers Robinson – vocalist Chris and guitarist Rich. So much so, in fact, that the ever-changing lineup has become “Chris and Rich and some other guys” to me, and as long as the Robinsons are playing together, I call it the Black Crowes.

But since the existence of the band depends on two hotheaded siblings getting along, you knew they wouldn’t be able to sustain things forever. In 2000, after their sixth record, Lions, was released to no fanfare, they called it quits, and the Robinson brothers pursued solo projects. Family wounds are deep ones, so it didn’t surprise me that it took seven years to get the two of them back together, but blood is blood – you know these two will never break up for good.

So here’s Warpaint, the first on the band’s own Silver Arrow Records label, and the first with Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars on guitar. Just to be funny, I considered pulling a Maxim and reviewing it without listening to it. If I had, I probably would have touted the sharp rock riffs, the full frontal attack that you’d expect from a band that’s been away for seven years. I would have called it a relentless good-time rock record, full of Rolling Stones and Faces licks and just dripping with pent-up energy.

And I’d have been dead wrong.

Despite the title and the rollicking first single, “Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution,” Warpaint is the mellowest Crowes album ever. The other 10 songs range from slow-burners like “Evergreen” to acoustic ballads like “There’s Gold in Them Hills,” and the band never hits a delirious groove like “Goodbye Daughters” again.

Instead, they take their music to new places, something I expected after hearing Lions. Imagine an entire album of “Sometimes Salvation” and “My Morning Song,” and you’ve got a hint of what you’re in for here. “Walk Believer Walk” is a crawling blues stomp that sticks to one riff and one melody for its entire five minutes, but it’s absolutely awesome. “Oh Josephine” is the first of three terrific ballads here, Chris Robinson’s aching voice sitting perfectly next to his brother’s silky clean guitar lines.

Warpaint is a grower, but give it a few listens and it will take hold. The Robinsons stretch out in the back half, delivering the Revolver-esque “Wounded Bird” before launching into an insistent cover of the Reverend Charlie Jackson’s “God’s Got It.” (I like that song because, while it makes plain that God has everything you need, it never explicitly says he’s going to give it to you.) Even more typically Black Crowes songs mix it up here and there – check the piano-vocal conclusion of “Wee Who See the Deep.” (Spelling reproduced intact.)

The album has an endearingly loose feel to it, and it should, since much of it was recorded live with no overdubs. The closing song, the breezy “Whoa Mule,” was recorded outdoors, and you can hear the birds chirping in the background. This is a confident record by a band that doesn’t have to prove itself to anyone, and while some might see the overall mellifluous tone as a risk, I see it as proof the Robinsons will make whatever music they want to make, expectations be damned.

I’m not sure what I was hoping for from the first Black Crowes album in seven years, but Warpaint confounded those hopes, and then exceeded them. This is a great little album from the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world, a fine addition to their legacy. You’re just not going to find an album like this from any other band, and it’s crafted with heart and a sense of history. Maxim can stuff their two-and-a-half-star fake review. Warpaint is terrific.

But seven years is barely enough time to establish your solo career. If you want to see a real reunion, check out Go Away White, the first album from British goth-rockers Bauhaus in 25 years. And here’s the real kicker – before the album was even released, the band broke up again.

Bauhaus formed in the late ‘70s, and initially gained notoriety on the strength of a nine-minute single called “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” Their sound was always dark and propulsive, led by Peter Murphy’s creepy baritone, and it set the template for gothic rock from then on. They made four albums before bowing out in 1983, but those four albums are legendary among fans.

I was nine when Bauhaus split, and I wouldn’t buy my first cassette until the next year. (The soundtrack to Ghostbusters, thankyouverymuch.) I came in through the back door, first hearing Peter Murphy’s superb solo stuff (especially Deep and Holy Smoke), then moving to Love and Rockets before hearing Bauhaus. Initially I was surprised at how raw their music was – later goth-rock is lavishly produced, with keyboards and sound effects, but Bauhaus was a moody, brooding punk band.

And they still are. Go Away White was recorded quick and dirty – mostly live, in 18 days, keeping first takes whenever possible. And damn if this doesn’t sound like it was plucked from the band’s repertoire in 1981. Openers “Too Much 21st Century” and “Adrenalin” are thumping single-riff stompers, Murphy’s voice sounding just as grandly silly as it ever has, and third track “Undone” even has that patented tinny, 1980s snare drum sound.

The 10 songs here reach for that classic Bauhaus sound, and for the most part, they get there. The heavy guitar waves in “Endless Summer of the Damned” are there to show disciples like Type O Negative how it’s done, and the sparse, stunning “Mirror Remains” makes perfect use of Murphy’s voice, double-tracked over David J’s slinky bass. But the real stunner is “Saved,” a six-minute ambient excursion with layers of keyboards and chiming bells. It takes two decades of inferior goth-rock and sets it on fire.

I can’t say I’ve ever been a raving fan of Bauhaus, but to my ears, the reunited foursome has done the near-impossible here – they’ve come back together after a quarter-century apart and made an album that sounds as good as their classics. I’m sure more informed fans will tell me where I’m wrong, but I think Go Away White makes for a better-than-expected reunion record, and a fine swan song

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Every Doctor Who fan has their Doctor.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be the first one you encountered, but it’s the one you most closely associate with the role. It’s the one you grew up with, the one whose adventures you remember most vividly. And for me, although Tom Baker was my first Doctor, my Doctor is Peter Davison.

The Davison years get a lot of flak, and not undeservedly, but they’re my sentimental favorite of the original 26-year run. Doctor Who aired every weeknight on our local PBS station, WGBH-2 out of Boston, at 7 p.m. I remember pleading to stay up to watch Tom Baker’s episodes, but not really understanding them, and not having any idea what happened when he turned into Davison at the end of Logopolis.

But by the time WGBH started airing the Davison episodes, my family had its first VCR, so I taped every one of his stories I could, and watched them over and over. I remember individual episode cliffhangers, I recall costume and haircut changes, I remember every cheesy special effect (though I thought they looked pretty damn cool when I was 10).

I remember my mother making fun of the plastic Mara snake at the end of Kinda. I remember that sinking feeling when I realized that the atrocious Time-Flight was four episodes long, not two. I recall my fascination with Davison’s decorative celery – I think I wore one for a while, just around the house – and how amazed I was when I found out the reason for it in The Caves of Androzani. I remember Kamelion, though I wish I didn’t. I remember being gobsmacked by the ending of Enlightenment, one I’m really looking forward to (and dreading) seeing again.

As a 10-year-old American, I had no idea who Peter Davison was. But everyone in Britain knew his name when he took the role in 1981 – Davison was the first honest-to-gosh TV star to take on the mantle of the Doctor. He was famous for his role as Tristan Farnon on All Creatures Great and Small, a long-running and well-liked BBC drama. His acceptance of the role was big media news, partly because Tom Baker had played the Doctor for seven years, but also because of who Davison was.

Oh, and one other thing – Davison, at 29, was the youngest actor ever to take the part. Some thought he was too young to effectively play the Doctor, but it turns out, he was very good – one of the best actors ever in the role – and he used parts of all of his predecessors. He especially incorporated the surliness of William Hartnell, though Davison’s Doctor was so charming and upstanding that I barely remembered how sarcastic he was as well.

In what will soon become a familiar song, though, Davison was a good Doctor in a flailing, cheap show with little quality control. While it got so much worse later on, the rot was beginning to set in by the time Davison donned his cream-colored hat. Producer John Nathan-Turner had this idea that everyone on the show should wear costumes, for example, and that the Doctor’s costume should be the most outlandish of all.

It’s my understanding that Davison mentioned a whisper of a germ of an idea to Nathan-Turner about his Doctor perhaps liking a spot of cricket. The next thing he knew, Davison was dressed head to toe in a cricket outfit – quite like if Jack Bauer walked around dressed in a baseball uniform. His shirts still had the godawful question marks, and by the end of his first adventure, his trademark would appear: a stick of celery stuck to his jacket lapel.

Yes, I said a stick of celery stuck to his jacket lapel. The fact that anyone can take his Doctor seriously is down to Davison’s presence as an actor, and nothing else.

It’s certainly not down to the writing, especially in his debut story. Castrovalva, written by Christopher H. Bidmead, is an extension of the author’s work on Logopolis, which means that a) it continues the theme of matter from math, or block transfer computation, and b) it makes no sense whatsoever. It’s also dreadfully dull and hampered by the usual problems of ‘80s Who, including synthetic music, substandard acting, and cheap-looking effects.

Okay, it’s not all bad. But here’s the basic outline: the Doctor and his three companions (Adric, Nyssa and Tegan) escape from the Master on Earth, but not before the Master captures Adric and replaces him with a block transfer computational double. (Yep, he made an Adric out of math.) This fake Adric sets the controls of the Tardis for “event one,” the in-rush of hydrogen that caused the big bang. This is especially problematic because the Doctor’s regeneration isn’t going very well, and he can’t take charge of the situation.

With me so far? Okay. The Doc gets his wits about him enough to save everyone, but he collapses, and the companions take him to Castrovalva, a place of harmony, to heal. The place does wonders for him, and an entire episode’s length goes by before any kind of plot happens at all. But wait! It turns out that Castrovalva itself is a massive trap set by the Master, who created the city/planet/whatever out of numbers, with Adric’s keen mathematical mind to help.

The Doctor exposes the trap, and escapes Castrovalva, leaving the Master to die with his creations. Cut, print, end. Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? It’s deadly slow on screen, though, and it’s nearly three whole episodes (out of four) before we start to see a plot forming. The Castrovalvans are boring, and the actors playing them don’t make much of an impression. The regulars are their usual selves – Matthew Waterhouse is awful as Adric, Sarah Sutton is serviceable as Nyssa, and Janet Fielding is best of all as Tegan, when she has good lines to say. Which isn’t often.

Anthony Ainley is back as the Master, and it’s here that his wild-eyed insanity starts to take root. There is nothing even remotely human or sane about his Master – he’s just a pure, cackling caricature. Sadly, Ainley shows once again that he really can act – he spends much of the second half of Castrovalva dressed up as an old man, and his performance is so different that I didn’t realize it was Ainley at first. Otherwise, though, he’s a cartoon.

Does anything hold this mess together? Surprisingly, yes, and it’s Peter Davison. His debut performance is immediately strong – we follow the Doctor as he tries to bring his regeneration under control, and Davison whips out perfect impressions of William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee along the way. When he finds the “zero room,” a place of harmony in the Tardis, and his head clears, we see Davison immediately take charge of his performance – this is the Doctor we will see for the next three years, and he’s great.

Most of Davison’s first season (the program’s 19th) is quite good. Next week, I’ll talk about two of the best, from writer Eric Saward: The Visitation and Earthshock. (Which puts me one step closer to having to talk about Time-Flight. Shudder.) I’ve made my way through most of the DVDs of the Davison era, though, and I have to say, he’s still my favorite. He’s still my Doctor.

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Next week, the Alarm finishes up their Counter Attack Collective. (Hint: it’s awesome.) Also, I will write less, I promise.

See you in line Tuesday morning.