Guilty Pleasure?
Beck Downsizes and Delivers... Somewhat

So I did not get the Alarm’s new album Guerilla Tactics this week. I guess I misinterpreted their press release – where it says “available everywhere July 8,” I took that to mean I could buy it everywhere, but in reality, I can only get it from their website. Guerilla Tactics is a collection of remixed and re-recorded songs from the awesome Counter Attack Collective, and since I have the Collective, I don’t quite feel like paying $25 for songs I own. But I’ll gladly pay domestic CD prices for it when and if it’s released here, and I’ll post a review shortly thereafter.

I did, however, get Beck’s new album, Modern Guilt. As it’s a short record, I don’t think it’s deserving of a long review. It’s Beck’s last album for Interscope, and it feels like a contractual obligation in places. But at 33 minutes, it’s half as long as last year’s endless The Information, and at least twice as good.

Beck has always been a malleable artist. His first self-produced efforts were acoustic and ramshackle, and it wasn’t until he hooked up with big-name producers like Tom Rothrock and Rob Scnapf (trust me, they’re big names) that he added that cultural junkyard feel to his work. The world went nuts over “Loser,” so naturally he never made a song like it again. And ironically, although he inspired hundreds of imitators in the early ‘90s, the last thing you’d call the prolific Beck Hanson is a slacker.

It would be a mistake to call Beck dependent on his collaborators, but his sound has changed album to album. Odelay made good use of the Dust Brothers’ cut-and-splice style, heard most famously on the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. Meanwhile, Mutations and the great Sea Change found Beck absorbing the spectral folk-pop leanings of producer Nigel Godrich, who shepherded Radiohead and Travis through similar styles.

But lately, Beck has been playing against type, to mixed results. He brought the Dust Brothers back for Guero, but made a wind-blown acoustic dance-blues album, a linear effort instead of a collage. And he teamed with Godrich again for The Information, but forced him to work his magic on lame and uninspired club-style pop.

Now, on Modern Guilt, he’s done it again. This compact effort was produced by Danger Mouse, and if you think you can guess what a Beck/Danger Mouse collaboration might sound like, you’re probably wrong. Modern Guilt is a dark and dreary suite of songs, with mainly atmospheric beats instead of danceable ones. It’s the Danger Mouse who made The Odd Couple, not the one who slammed out St. Elsewhere, and the resulting album is… not difficult, per se, but not much fun, either.

There are some good tracks on here. The almost surf guitar underpinning “Gamma Ray” is nice, and the big-beat “Soul of a Man” works well. “Chemtrails” is very good, with its repeated piano figure, grand finale and all-around excellent acoustic bass, courtesy of Jason Falkner. And “Replica” is a favorite, all ghostly repetition. But song for song, it just doesn’t sound like Beck is trying too hard.

Modern Guilt works much better as a single piece than as a set of 10 songs. Listen to it all in a row, and it has a cumulative effect. (A theme this week, as you will see.) The album opens with the line, “I think I’m stranded but I don’t know where,” but closing track “Volcano” finds Beck choosing a direction and a destination. “I know where I’m going, to that volcano, don’t want to fall in, though, just want to warm my bones…” It’s an oddly hopeful conclusion to an odd little album of shipwrecks and misery, and taken as a whole, the thing works.

There’s no mistaking a contractual obligation record, however, and this is one. Within a few months, count on seeing Beck’s name added to the growing list of artists deciding to go it alone, to bypass the record companies and go straight to the fans via the internet. It will be fun to see what he can do with complete creative and commercial freedom, and I hope it revitalizes him. Modern Guilt, while better than his last effort, still isn’t up to the bar Beck set for himself over the last decade-plus, and I hope he sees brighter futures ahead.

* * * * *

The 30th season of Doctor Who ended this week with an overstuffed, joyous, nonsensical, tragic blowout. It was classic work by show runner Russell T. Davies, in his final regular season performance, and it contained all of the horrific flaws, and all of the grand sense of childlike wonder that he has brought to this show.

I haven’t talked too much about the revived series here (I know, I haven’t talked much about the classic series in a long time either), mostly because I’ve been working my way up to it. I’ve been an avid viewer of the new Doctor Who since it started four years ago, and since then, we’ve been through two Doctors, three main companions, a slew of other new characters, new Daleks, new Cybermen, new Sontarans, a new Master, a new Davros, and about 600 invasions of Earth.

Davies’ Doctor Who has been one of the least consistent shows on television, ascending amazing heights one week and plumbing dank, smelly depths the next. The see-saw effect is everywhere – some of the effects over the last four seasons have been amazing, like virtually everything in Journey’s End, the fourth season finale. And some of them have been downright embarrassing, not worthy of the old show. (See the Absorbaloff, or the plastic beetle on Donna’s back in this year’s otherwise excellent Turn Left.)

Season 30 has been the best of the lot, though, with some classic stories and punchy dialogue. And even the total lack of sense on display during the gobsmacking final episodes, which included crossovers with both spinoffs (Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures) and the return of nearly every character from the past four years, couldn’t derail it. (The scene in which the Tardis tows the Earth across the universe, back to its orbit around the sun, causing little more than a few tremors and rain storms… that came close.) It was a strong sendoff for Davies, who will end his era with four special episodes over the next 18 months.

Davies is leaving Doctor Who in the hands of its best writer, Steven Moffat, whose six episodes so far have been the highlight of New Who. He’s the most consistently rewarding writer the show has – his The Girl in the Fireplace still stands as my favorite story of this new run, but this year, he nearly outdid himself with the amazing, heart-wrenching, creepy Silence in the Library. His stories have more ideas than some full seasons of other shows, and they always orbit a deep emotional core. The show is, hopefully, in good hands.

Looking back on the Davies era, though, I think it was all designed to alleviate what he saw as a flaw in the classic series – there was no cumulative effect. Stories in the classic series were almost entirely unrelated to each other. You’d get five or six of them a season, but taken as a whole, they wouldn’t lead anywhere, and there were no season finales that wrapped things together. New Who is all centered on the season finale – every story in Season 30 leads us to Journey’s End. In fact, nearly every story in Seasons 27-30 leads us to Journey’s End, and despite the variable quality, you get the sense throughout that it’s all heading somewhere.

But I think Davies is wrong. I think the classic series does have a cumulative effect, albeit a subtler one. As Exhibit A, I offer up Peter Davison’s three-year tenure as the Doctor, from 1982-1984.

In a lot of ways, the Davison years were about growing up. They were about taking the nicest of nice-guy Doctors and putting him face to face with the ugliest horrors of the world, and then watching how he coped. The stories started pleasantly enough – Davison, with his cricket outfit and decorative stick of celery, ambled through stories like Castrovalva and The Visitation amiably, and even attended a masquerade ball in Black Orchid.

But then it all started going wrong. The first blow was dealt in Earthshock, when longtime companion Adric perished fighting the Cybermen. He was the first companion to die on screen since William Hartnell’s time in the 1960s, a genuine shock. (I remember it well from my younger days.) After that, the Mara returned to violate Tegan, and the Black Guardian twisted the mind of Turlough, a companion the Doctor trusted. Davison’s era wasn’t about putting the Doctor in peril. It was about watching him helplessly twitch as his friends were harmed and killed.

Season 21, the darkest of the original run, opened with Warriors of the Deep, a story which found the Silurians and Sea Devils – both foes of Jon Pertwee’s Doctor – teaming up to reclaim the Earth. Both were noble races, the original inhabitants of the planet, and in a way, they were right – they had cause to kick the human race aside. The story ended with a virtual genocide, as the humans killed Silurians and Sea Devils alike while the Doctor watched helplessly. His final line, “There should have been another way,” was haunting.

And then there is Resurrection of the Daleks, the bloodiest story of the classic series. As the title suggests, this story – by Script Editor Eric Saward – brings back the Doc’s most ruthless foes, and they have never been as ruthless as they are here. The story is confusing – the Daleks are losing their war with the Movellans, mainly due to a chemical warfare virus the Movellans have developed. They send a search party to find their creator, Davros, and spring him from a prison ship – he’s spent the last 90 years in suspended animation, after the end of Destiny of the Daleks.

Meanwhile, the Daleks have opened a space-time corridor to Earth, and they’re stealing people to perfect their cloning experiments. The Doctor’s Tardis is caught in the corridor, and the Daleks’ plan is to clone him and his companions, and send the clones to assassinate the High Council of Time Lords on Gallifrey. They’ve got cloned policemen on their side, and even a Dalek double agent pretending to be a prisoner. Confused yet?

None of that really matters, because the plot of Resurrection of the Daleks is an excuse for a four-episode bloodbath. From the first moment, people start dying in horrible ways, and they don’t stop for all 100 minutes. Daleks kill people, clones kill people, people kill people – it’s dark and oppressive from first frame to last. Characters are introduced only to die minutes later. Daleks use flesh-melting gas to kill the guards on the prison ship. Those who escape the Daleks are gunned down in cold blood by their cloned slaves. The Doctor even wields a gun, pumping bullets into a Dalek mutant that has escaped its casing. He joins in on the violence, only making things worse.

All of this blood and death culminates in a massive explosion, as former cloned slave Stien sets the prison ship on self-destruct, killing (we hope) Davros and his Daleks. But it all proves too much for Tegan, who runs away rather than continue traveling with the Doctor. “It isn’t fun anymore,” she says, echoing what must have been going through the minds of longtime fans. Resurrection of the Daleks isn’t any fun at all. It’s a pitch-black massacre, and it ends with the Doctor’s awakening: “It seems I must mend my ways,” he says.

All of this, every story of the Fifth Doctor’s run from Earthshock on, is setup for The Caves of Androzani, Davison’s magnificent swan song. It contains no returning characters, and shares no plot elements with what came before, but it is in every sense the finale to Davison’s run. As a single story, it’s very good, but taken in context, it’s one of the best serials in the program’s history. (It shouldn’t be any surprise that it was written by the great Robert Holmes.)

The Doctor and brand-new companion Peri Brown find themselves on Androzani Minor, the smaller of two twin planets. (Guess what the other one’s called.) Very quickly, they get caught up in a violent political struggle between the government of Androzani and mask-wearing terrorist Sharaz Jek. The war is partially over Spectrox, a restorative drug that is all the rage on Androzani Major. It’s mined on Minor, and Jek has commandeered most of the supplies for himself, holding them ransom and driving Spectrox prices sky high.

Jek has an army of androids keeping the military at bay, and he’s infiltrated their ranks as well, so he has advance word of any move they make. Jek is motivated by revenge. Powerful political figure Morgus betrayed Jek years ago, leaving him to die in a mud burst on Minor – hence the creepy mask, which hides his hideous scars. Jek wants Morgus brought low, and he’s willing to hold both planets hostage to see that happen.

The plot is much more complex than that, roping in political intrigue, honor among mercenaries, and Jek’s appreciation for beauty. It being Holmes, it all works perfectly, except for the cheap-looking magma creature, but we won’t talk about that. But the political struggle is the backdrop of The Caves of Androzani, not the story. The story is much simpler – raw Spectrox, you see, causes paralysis and death, and the Doctor and Peri both come in contact with it shortly after they land. The story is about the Doctor saving Peri’s life.

On a deeper level, the story is about the Doctor redeeming himself for the pain and agony he has put his companions through. He’s lost them all – some have died, some have run screaming from him and the life he leads – and he’s determined not to lose this one. Not this time. Risking his own life, he rappels down to the deepest caves of Androzani Minor, retrieves the antidote (the milk of a queen bat), and returns just in time to see the struggle between Jek and Morgus come to its fiery end.

Davison plays this all brilliantly. The third episode ends with one of the finest cliffhangers of his tenure – he’s piloting the gun runners’ ship back to Androzani Minor, preparing to crash land, as the gun runners themselves cut their way into the cockpit, determined to stop him. Davison’s performance makes this chilling, and he dazzles in the fourth and final episode – the Doctor has never seemed so heroic. You cannot look away from this performance.

It all leads to the heartbreaking final scenes. The Doc does get the bat’s milk, but only enough for Peri, who drinks it and is healed. But the Doctor has Spectrox Toxemia as well, and he slowly dies, regenerating before Peri’s eyes. It’s the end of an era – the Fifth Doctor has won one small victory against the horrors of the world, and he takes comfort in that as he closes his eyes. His next two incarnations will be a lot less fragile, a lot more in keeping with the violent world they are born into. (And, it must be said, a lot less heroic.) In many ways, this is the last we see of the Good Guy Doctor, and he goes out brilliantly.

That’s how you do it, Russell. That’s how you set up and pay off a character thread over three seasons, without calling attention to the fact that you’re doing it.

I vividly remember seeing the end of The Caves of Androzani as a child, and walking away stunned. Peter Davison – my Doctor – was done. In his place was this wild-eyed redhead, and in his first few seconds, he left a sour taste. “Doctor?” Peri asks, unsure what has happened. “Expecting someone else?” he cruelly shoots back. This was Colin Baker, the Sixth Doctor, and a more complex interpretation of the character there never will be. But that’s next time. For now, a raised glass to Peter Davison, and to The Caves of Androzani, still the best final story of any Doctor’s run.

It may be a while before I get to Colin Baker’s run, so I hope this extended Who rant tides you over. Next week, The Hold Steady and John Mellencamp.

See you in line Tuesday morning.