The Long and Short of It
Why 30 Minutes is Sometimes Better Than 60

A little rant about television to get us started this week.

I really should have been talking up Pushing Daisies more than I have, and I fear it’s too late. This is yet another great, odd show from the mind of Bryan Fuller, who created Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls. Like those shows, Pushing Daisies is devilishly hard to describe – the best I can say is it’s like watching a full-blooded Tim Burton movie every week.

You know how some shows take place in the real world, the world outside your window? Yeah, Pushing Daisies isn’t one of those. Its central character, Ned the Piemaker, is a guy who can bring the dead back to life with a single touch. But, if he touches that person again, they will die again, this time for good. Well, Ned uses this power to resurrect his childhood sweetheart, Chuck, and the show is partially about how Ned and his entourage use his magical powers to solve crimes, but it’s mostly about the heartbreaking romance between two people who can never touch each other.

That doesn’t sound like a sure-fire hit to me either, and in its first full season, Pushing Daisies has scored ratings so dismal, they need a magical piemaker to resurrect them. Part of it is the show’s fault – this year, the producers have magnified the quirks almost to the point of annoying, and the stories are even more dense and layered. But part of it is the American public’s constant refusal to try anything new or intellectually taxing. We’re talking about a TV wasteland where 24 is considered highbrow.

Anyway, next Wednesday’s episode of Pushing Daisies (ABC, 8 p.m. EST) is strongly rumored to be the last one ever, so it may be your final chance to catch one of the most fascinating and unique shows on the air. Before it becomes yet another dead show I love.

And speaking of dead shows, there’s Dollhouse.

This is Joss Whedon’s new thing, with Buffy alum Eliza Dushku, and even though it hasn’t premiered yet, Fox is doing everything possible to kill it. First they messed with the pilot, causing massive re-shoots. Whedon said this was for the best, but he’s trying to get his network to promote his work – what else is he going to say?

And now, Fox has scheduled Dollhouse for Friday nights at 9 p.m. Yes, the Bermuda Triangle of timeslots, the very day that has meant death for Fox shows as far back as 1993. Oh, and by the way, the last time Whedon tried to bring a show to Fox, it was called Firefly, and they aired it – you guessed it – on Friday nights. We remember how well that turned out.

While I haven’t seen a single episode, Dollhouse sounds to me like another of those wide-reaching concept shows that will take time to grow an audience. It’s about a company that sells people – mind-wiped, programmable people, who can be anyone and do anything. And it’s about what those people do when they come back home, and have their memories erased again. It’s a Whedon show, so I’m sure this will be deeper and darker than that, but that’s what I know right now.

To top it all off, Fox will premiere Dollhouse on February 13. That’s right, Friday the 13th. I hope the first three episodes are good, ‘cause that’s probably all we’ll get to see.

* * * * *

I used to hate short records.

Seriously. I would figure out a minutes-to-dollars ratio for new CDs, figuring that anything over 60 minutes would give me my money’s worth. A half-hour-long album that cost $15 works out to 50 cents a minute, and that would be in the back of my mind as I listened for the first time. “Well, those two minutes weren’t really worth a buck.”

Conversely, give me a really long record, and I’m immediately excited, for some reason. If it’s a double album (or even a triple), then I’m doubly interested – I know, intellectually speaking, that most double albums suck just as much as most single ones, only for twice as long, but that never fazes me. There’s something important to me about a record that takes 75 minutes (or 100 minutes, or four hours) to experience, and something oddly slight about one that only takes half an hour.

This is, I have come to realize, totally silly. And lately, as the endless parade of padded-out 75-minute CDs continues, I have come to appreciate and enjoy the 30-minute marvel a lot more. I’m still excited by the prospect of an artistic statement that takes more than an hour to unfold, of course, but I’ve found that very few of them stand up as well as Marillion’s Happiness is the Road, to name a recent example. And of late, I’d rather end up wanting more than wishing I had less.

Case in point: Skeletal Lamping, the new Of Montreal album. I’ve been struggling to figure out what to say about this thing for a couple of weeks now, and I still don’t feel like I have a good grip on it. Like the last Of Montreal record, though, this one’s an hour long, and it feels like three.

Skeletal Lamping completes Kevin Barnes’ transformation from indie-pop wunderkind to bizarre electronic prog-funk solo act. (It was produced and performed entirely by Barnes.) Transformation, in fact, is the theme – this is a concept piece about Barnes’ metamorphosis into a cross-dressing transsexual named Georgie Fruit. Seriously, that’s what it’s about. And if you thought Ziggy Stardust was odd, you need to get a load of this.

Actually, you don’t. Barnes has thoroughly disappeared up his own asshole on this record, and while he’s delivered something musically audacious, it’s also unremittingly tedious. Initially, I had planned to compare Lamping to the Fiery Furnaces – the songs are maddeningly complex, are based around cheap electronic drums and keyboards, and seem to be about nothing. They are musically dizzying, but ultimately empty and wearying.

But I hit upon a more accurate (if more obscure) analogy. On their great fourth album, 1992’s Apollo 18, They Might Be Giants came up with something called “Fingertips.” It was actually 21 short, unrelated snippets, bounding from bit to scattered bit, from “aren’t you the guy who hit me in the eye” to “please pass the milk please.” That’s what this album is like. It’s a hundred tiny snippets of things that don’t cohere, at least musically.

That leaves the lyrics, and most of this album is Barnes as Georgie Fruit cooing belabored come-ons and lamenting the life of a man-turned-woman-turned-man-again. A lot of this stuff sounds like it’s trying to imitate Prince, like the opening of “For Our Elegant Caste,” which finds Barnes singing, “We can do it softcore if you want, but you should know I take it both ways.” Barnes, as you might have guessed, isn’t Prince, and the attempts at sex-funk fall woefully short.

On paper, I should love this. It’s massive, it’s ambitious, it’s musically daunting, it’s the insular work of a mad genius. And yet, it’s a struggle for me to get through it. Strangely, if Barnes had cut half an hour off of this thing, I might have liked it more. But sadly, not much more. It’s too bad – I was really looking forward to hearing a song called “Triphallus, To Punctuate!”

But maybe ambition wears on me the closer we get to the end of the year, because I’m finding the smaller, simpler records much more appealing lately. The album I fully expect to slot at number one this year is a mere 39 minutes long, and both of this week’s other contestants are even shorter. And rather than complaining about how much I paid on a minute-for-minute basis, I’m just enjoying the hell out of both of them.

First is Scottish quintet Travis, and you know what I’ve figured out? There are two kinds of Travis albums, and you can tell immediately, without even listening, which one you’re in for. Exactly half of their records feature the easy-listening, somewhat twee Travis, all chiming clean guitars and sad, romantic lyrics, produced by Nigel Godrich. These albums all sport faraway shots of the band on the cover (On a beach! In a tree! On a rooftop!), and that trademark Travis font. And they’re nice records, but they’re nothing distinctive or amazing.

The other half of their output, though, is the ragged, electric, punchy, pulsing Travis, the band that sounds like they would beat the crap out of their more gentlemanly counterpart. These albums have very different covers, from a stupid picture of the band jumping to moody black and white headshots to, on the new Ode to J. Smith, a pink and green cartoon eye. It’s like anti-branding – it looks completely different, so you know what to expect.

And man, I like the uncouth, unshaven Travis a lot more. Leader Fran Healy and his band recorded this 37-minute monster in two weeks, and it has an energy completely missing from their last record, The Boy With No Name. (Yes, it was one of the “Travis font” albums.) The first three songs here smack down anything on that previous effort, especially the instantly memorable “Something Anything.” With its massive arrangement (including a choir), you’d think “J. Smith” would be an epic, but it’s in and out in about three minutes, like most of the songs here.

The record does quiet down, but it never loses its verve. The banjo-inflected “Last Words” could have been insipid (and might have been, on their last album), but it ends up a singable delight. Healy strains to yelp out the chorus of “Get Up,” a shuffling minor-key rocker, and the quick-and-dirty production benefits a lullaby like “Friends” tremendously. By the time Ode to J. Smith glides over the finish line with the yearning “Before You Were Young,” you’re ready to hear it again.

The difference, really, is that for the whole of J. Smith’s running time, Travis sounds like an actual band, real people playing instruments in a room. I like their The Man Who sound, but it’s processed and gleamed up to the point that it almost feels mechanical. J. Smith feels like five guys writing and playing the best tunes they can, and while they’ll never be mistaken for the Sex Pistols, or even Oasis, they rock much more convincingly than you’d think. This is worth $15 for 37 minutes, no doubt.

While Travis has never made an album as short as J. Smith, Starflyer 59 has made a career of them. Since 1994, Starflyer has released 11 albums, eight EPs, two live discs and a box set, and most of them (excepting the box set, of course) are bite-sized nuggets, just big enough to consume in one sitting. Oh, and Starflyer mastermind Jason Martin has been involved in a whole bunch of side projects, making several more half-hour gems.

The new Starflyer, Dial M, is no exception, clocking in at 34:32. But as usual, Martin has given us 10 dark pop gems here – and as usual, I wish he’d sprung for 15 or 20.

No two Starflyer 59 records sound quite alike, and Dial M veers off sharply from the guitar-driven new-wave rock of last year’s My Island. The sound of this one is as shiny as the pop art cover, based largely on synthesizers and acoustic guitars. Martin’s backup band this time consists of bassist Steve Dail and drummer Trey Many, and all the other sounds are Martin, overdubbing his keyboards and guitars. Don’t expect any Brian May-style six-string choirs or anything, though – this is deftly minimal stuff, layered as it is.

The punchiest tune here is “Concentrate,” with its insistent beat, funky guitars and synth blasts, although the next song, “Who Said It’s Easy,” is good competition. Martin will never be an American Idol-style emotional singer, but in the studio, he does wonders with his low, dark voice. The Smiths-like melody of “M23” is one of his best, and he delivers exactly what the song needs. And dig the pure ‘80s awesomeness of the keyboards on “Taxi,” which sound like they were lifted right from his brother Ronnie’s Joy Electric project.

Dial M quiets down considerably for its final two tracks. “Mr. Martin” plays like an interesting conversation between Martin and his father, who died earlier this year. (The line “Hey Mr. Martin, I need a new job, one that pays for my time” is darkly humorous if you know both Jason and Ronnie work for the family trucking business.) The song is a quiet shudder, all acoustic guitars and electric piano. And finale “I Love You Like the Little Bird” is a ‘50s pop breeze, with a current of darkness beneath its sweet exterior.

I said once that every Starflyer 59 album is the best Starflyer 59 album, and I stand by it. Dial M sounds like nothing else in Jason Martin’s catalog, but longtime fans will know immediately that it’s him, and will get that familiar pop songcraft dressed up in totally new sounds, once again. I have no idea why, after 14 years of wonderful little records like this one, Martin still toils in obscurity. Try his work here, and buy it here.

That will do for this week. Next, probably the Flaming Lips.

See you in line Tuesday morning.