Into the Fray
And I Don't Know Why

So Joss Whedon has a new television show. Um, yay.

That’s about all the enthusiasm I can muster after watching the premiere of Dollhouse last week. I know, it’s just the first episode, and it’s Whedon, so I’m going to give it another chance. (As many chances, in fact, as Fox will allow me to give it. My money’s on four.) But speaking as someone who has loved virtually every one of the man’s projects, I have to say, I’m just not feeling this one yet.

Dollhouse is a very good idea for a show that, somehow, just didn’t turn into a very good show. Star Eliza Dushku plays Echo, one of several “actives” who work for this strange corporation. The company rents out these actives to whomever can pay for them, and imprints new personalities each time, turning them into whatever the client wants or needs. And when the mission is over, the actives return to the Dollhouse, their carefully-controlled home base, to have their memories wiped.

Presumably, the show will be about Echo rediscovering who she is, which would make for great drama… if Whedon and Dushku can get me to care about their main character. The first episode just kind of unfolded on screen without any emotional impact, like a standard Fox sci-fi show. The seeds are there, but they haven’t blossomed yet. And I wonder just how long Fox will let this expensive-looking show go on before they do. I found the debut episode half-hearted – I wasn’t drawn into Echo’s world as much as I expected to be, and though the sci-fi trappings are neat, the characters didn’t resonate.

In a recent interview in Rolling Stone, Whedon discussed his future in show business. He claims Dollhouse is his last TV show – he prefers the model he pioneered last year with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, an Internet-only event that was written, produced and promoted Whedon’s way. Dr. Horrible made him tons of money, and was an artistically satisfying endeavor. Dollhouse, on the other hand, sounds like it was hell to get off the ground, and will probably be shitcanned in a few weeks. He talks as though Dollhouse is already dead to him, and that comes through on screen, unfortunately.

But I will keep watching. If Dollhouse had been created by anyone but Whedon, I’d probably have given up already, but I can imagine just how good this concept could be, if its creator is allowed to explore it. If he wants to, I hope he gets the chance. If he’s already moved on, then I hope Fox grants this show a quick death.

* * * * *

I’m usually pretty good at figuring out why I like something.

It’s part of the reason I started doing this music critic thing. Even as a teenager, I was picking apart my own reactions to things, analyzing why certain songs hit me and others didn’t. I can tell you just what it is about OK Computer that I love (complex song structures, alien production that complements the music, gorgeous melodies topped off by Thom Yorke’s plaintive voice and paranoid lyrics), and what it is about Kid A I can’t stand (virtually no songs at all, production that aims for interesting but hits annoying, Yorke yelping like an unrestrained hyena).

What I’m trying to say is, I am rarely at a loss to defend my tastes. I can make good cases for even the strangest stuff I enjoy, like Jandek and Joy Electric. But every once in a while, I will tap into something that I can’t explain, something roundly rejected as empty and worthless. I will find myself loving this music that, under normal circumstances, I would toss aside, and I will be unable to put up a good defense, even to myself.

This is where I am right now with The Fray. I should hate this. I hate things that are exactly like this. But I have been unable to stop listening to their second album. I’ve had since February 3 to figure out why I like this stuff, but I can’t. I reservedly liked this Denver band’s debut album, How to Save a Life, but the flaws were obvious to me too. That’s not happening this time – I just really like this self-titled effort. The band has amplified what they’ve done before, and smoothed out the rough spots. It just really works for me.

If I break this music down to its basic elements, it falls apart. The songs are moderately melodic affairs, the ballads sappy and the mid-tempo tunes merely adequate. (Those are your two options here – walking and crawling.) The lyrics are cliched, both in their depression and their hopefulness. Isaac Slade’s voice sounds like a grown-up version of his namesake’s in Hanson, and his piano playing is decent, but nothing extraordinary. The production here is full, but bland and commercial. Every song sounds like it was polished up with hundred-dollar bills. There is nothing about it I should like.

But the opening piano chords of “Syndicate” get me every time. The song has an intriguing three-into-four time signature, but I’m not even listening to that. I’m just drawn in, singing along with the chorus and humming the opening motif every time it comes around. “Absolute” is even better, the double-time drums on the verses providing the album its quickest pulse. And by the time the piano breakdown segues into the chorus, I’m sold.

I know, I should be ashamed. If I really think about it, I can’t imagine why I like “You Found Me,” the single that’s cropped up in ads for Lost all month. It’s musically boring, lyrically trite – especially the stabs at profundity, like “I found God on the corner of First and Amistad” – and spit-shined in the studio to be as inoffensive as possible. But Lord help me, I do like it. It sounds like the kind of song I would have tried to write in 11th grade, all big piano chords in familiar patterns. It has nothing to recommend it, but I sing along with it every time anyway.

I’ve been trying to justify the weird crush I have on this album by pointing out the things it does right. And there are some – “Enough for Now” has a nice melody, the whole of “We Build Then We Break” seems to turn the amps up (at least to five or six), and the second half of “Say When” is a mantra-like crescendo that packs a velvety punch. You know what? I’m listening to “Say When” right now, and though it never jumps out of the speakers and commands your attention, it’s a good little song. It is. Honest.

Why must this be such a struggle? Why can’t I just like what I like? Is it because I’m worried about my credibility? I know people who would rather jump in front of a moving train than admit to liking something like The Fray. Why is that? Is it because the band has sold millions of records? Is it because the music sounds at least partially designed to sell millions of records? How is that different than music that is designed to garner indie credibility? Is writing a likeable piano-pop song less of a laudable ambition than composing a lo-fi garage-folk epic?

Some critics say there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure. If it makes you happy, you should enjoy it guilt-free. But I don’t think they mean it. I think these people ultimately want you to enjoy whatever you want, as long as you show the proper amount of penance for it. I’ve dutifully done this – I have no idea why I like The Fray, and it weighs on me. “Where the Story Ends” is barely even a song, it’s so simple and slight, but I’m nodding my head as it plays. “Never Say Never” is just sappy, but when Slade repeats “don’t let me go” again and again in its final minute, I’m taken by it.

The problem, of course, is not with the music. The Fray does what they do very well, and they do it better on this album than they have before. The template is basically unchanged from the first record, but the sound is bigger, the songs tighter, the overall feel more complete. This is what they do, and expecting them to do anything else is silly. You like it or you don’t.

I wish I could just like it. Everything in me is yearning to simply embrace it, but I’m not built that way. If I can’t figure out what there is to embrace, and why I’m embracing it, I can’t seem to let go and do it. Rolling Stone panned this album. Rolling Stone, a mag that gives a minimum of three stars to anything, can’t find much to like here. I’m left wondering if it’s me, if my taste has taken a critical blow.

But no. The Fray is an earnest album of mid-range piano pop, not the end of civilization as we know it. Though I can already feel the scorn coming my way from some of my more indie-friendly correspondents, I have enjoyed this record each time I’ve played it, and I don’t see that dissipating any time soon. It is a pleasure, and I am guilty of it. I know why I shouldn’t like it, and I know why many, many others have dismissed it. Thankfully, none of that seems to be stopping me. I keep playing it, and I keep on liking it, and each time, I find myself worrying about it less and just enjoying it more.

* * * * *

And now for another installment of Stuff I Missed. This week, another record I heard courtesy of Dr. Tony Shore, one I really should have reviewed last week while talking about one-man bands. It’s called Free at Last, and it’s by a guy named Josh Fix.

And it’s a huge, unabashed pop record, performed with astonishing skill. Like Roger Manning, whose new album I reviewed last week, Josh Fix is steeped in ‘60s and ‘70s rock traditions. This means his songs are massive constructions, packed with layers of instruments and vocals. It’s the kind of thing people who don’t like Queen would call over the top. I love Queen, so I call it sonically dazzling.

Aside from a few drum beats here and there, Fix plays and sings everything on this album, and when you hear it, you’ll understand what a feat that is. He’s overdubbed himself again and again, and yet the final product sounds like he assembled the greatest sugar-coated pop band you’ve ever heard. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say there are very few musicians around today who could have made Free at Last this way.

The album kicks off with “Don’t Call Me in the Morning,” which Dr. Shore rightly called one of the best songs of 2008. I’ll retroactively do the same – this song is fantastic. You get a brief overture, verses performed on piano and bass, and then an explosion of vocals over a purely Freddie Mercury bridge. And then that chorus… so sweet. The whole thing is produced in 3-D full color, like an unreleased Jellyfish tune. This is one of the finest pop gems in recent years.

The record never gets quite as good again, but it never gets bad, either – it’s like the difference between A Night at the Opera and News of the World. Both classics, but one’s a bit more classic, if you know what I mean. Anyway, “Jethro” is a nice piano-driven piece that reminds me of The Band, “Whiskey and Speed” is an unlikely (yet terrific) six-minute epic, “The Water in My Brain” (Queen reference!) is a slower, moodier delight, and closer “I Thought About It First” has shades of Kevin Gilbert hiding in its rock-god melancholy.

The whole thing is pretty much super. You don’t hear albums like Free at Last too often, simply because the skill it takes to make something like this is rare. I don’t know where Josh Fix came from, but damn, I’m glad he’s here, and I’m excited to see where he goes. If you’d like to hear Free at Last, the whole thing is streaming here. At the very least, listen to “Don’t Call Me in the Morning” – it’s the first thing that plays when you click on the site. I am ashamed to have missed something this good. Tony Shore has earned his keep once again.

Next week, we’ll still be waiting for the good stuff – the deluge starts in earnest on March 3. I may take the opportunity to ramble about Colin Baker’s run on Doctor Who. Just to warn you.

See you in line Tuesday morning.