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Tori Amos Does Christmas, Joy Electric Does Covers

Good news out of Tennessee: The Choir is working on a new album.

If you’ve read this column for any length of time, you know of my sometimes irrational love for this band. For more than 25 years, the Choir has been crafting some of the finest spiritual dream-pop you’ll find anywhere. I first started listening with 1990’s Circle Slide, an album that has grown in stature for me with each passing year. If you only hear one Choir album, it should be that one.

But if you hear two, check out their last release, 2005’s O How the Mighty Have Fallen. The Choir welcomed Hammock guitarist Marc Byrd into their ranks, and delivered their finest long-player since Circle Slide. I was doubly pleased, since every Choir album these days carries with it the threat that it will be the last, and Mighty would have been a good way to go out. I’m glad to see it isn’t the band’s swan song, though, and delighted at the prospect of new Choir tunes in 2010.

Check the band out here. It promises to be a very good year for fans of the spiritual pop corner of the music world: Choir members Steve Hindalong and Derri Daugherty are also in the Lost Dogs, and their long-awaited Route 66 album and movie project should see release next year. Also, Mike Roe will hopefully give us his new album, his first all-original platter after two solid collections of old gospel tunes. Expect much rejoicing.

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It’s been six months since Doctor Who graced our television screens, and it’s been longer than that since I’ve talked about it here. But this weekend’s special, The Waters of Mars, was so fantastically good that it deserves a little ink.

We’re in the last days of David Tennant, the 10th Doctor. For those who are not fans of the longest-running science fiction show ever, let me explain Doctor Who’s extraordinary gimmick: the Doctor is a Time Lord who doesn’t die, he regenerates. That means every few years, we get a new lead actor in the title role, and theoretically, a shot of fresh blood. But it also means we get the heart-wrenching final episodes with the current actor – essentially an emotional series finale every couple of years.

And that’s where we are now with David Tennant, one of the finest actors to ever play the part. Tennant’s final season ended last year, but he stuck around for five hour-long specials, to give his Doctor a proper send-off. The first two were time-wasting knock-offs, but pretty decent little Doctor Who episodes for all that. But this one…

The Waters of Mars starts off like a typical base-under-siege story, the kind Second Doctor Patrick Troughton would go through three times a year in the ‘60s. We’re on an isolated base on the red planet, and a new form of alien infection that transmits itself through water is turning the crew into over-hydrated zombies. Just one drop, and it will happen to you too. It’s like a sopping 28 Days Later, until we find out just what the central dilemma is going to be – this is one of those “fixed in time” moments the Doctor can’t change. He has to let everyone die, or history will be irrevocably altered.

That’s handled extremely well, but even the emotional weight inherent in this situation didn’t prepare me for the final 10 minutes. Let’s just say it’s the darkest 10 minutes in the program’s history, and it elegantly pays off five years of character development. The Doc’s been building to this moment for years, and as much as it hurt to see, it was perfect. And David Tennant, well… what’s left to say about him? He was magnificent.

Sure, The Waters of Mars has its problems, and its logical lapses. Every story written (or co-written, in this case, with Phil Ford) by showrunner Russell T. Davies has those. But the emotional center has never been clearer, or darker, or better. There are two episodes left before Matt Smith takes over as the Doctor, and for the first time, I’m wondering what kind of character path he’s going to inherit. How can an entirely new man make up for the mistakes of his past incarnation? We’ll see.

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New Choir, new Who. Let’s see, what could bring me down? Oh yeah, Tori Amos.

I’m trying to imagine what my 1994 self would have done had he been given a glimpse of Tori’s future. This was the year Under the Pink came out, and Tori Amos was still one of the best and most emotionally devastating performers and record makers on the planet. I’m imagining going up to my old self, all of 20 years old, and saying, “I have good news and bad news about 2009.”

“The good news,” I would say, “is that Tori Amos will release 31 new songs in 2009. All in all, you will get more than two hours of new music by one of your favorite artists.”

I imagine I would be all but drooling at the prospect. “Two hours of Tori? How amazing is that going to be, 35-year-old self? Seriously, tell me. How amazing?”

“Well, 20-year-old self, that’s the bad news,” I would say with a sigh. “You’re not going to like any of those songs very much. 17 of them will be on a mediocre new album saddled with the awful title Abnormally Attracted to Sin. And the other 14 will be on her Christmas album, Midwinter Graces. Her terrible, terrible Christmas album.”

And then I would stand back and watch my head explode. (Okay, there are flaws in this plan.)

But it’s all true. 31 new Tori Amos songs, and I don’t particularly like any of them. Still, I had hope that Amos was still above something like Midwinter Graces. But here it is, a lame, inoffensive, tepid, adult contemporary stab at a holiday record. She’s floating in the sky on the front cover, next to an angel in white jeans on the back. That alone made me want to fling my copy across the room, but of course, I had to actually hear the thing before writing about it. Journalistic integrity, and all that.

So. Midwinter Graces is split into traditional songs and originals. The traditionals are more old-time folk songs, like “Jeanette, Isabella” and “Holly, Ivy and Rose” (which I have seen called “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”). They are ruined by lukewarm production, strings that barely rise above wallpaper level, and a seemingly all-consuming desire to have this album sold at Walmart. Everything is rounded off and shiny. I can’t even get excited by Tori Amos singing “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” my favorite Christmas carol. Her version is boring, not moving.

The covers are one thing, but the originals are just awful. “A Silent Night With You” belongs on a Sarah McLachlan album, and it’s almost the best thing here. I can, without trying very hard, imagine “Harps of Gold” sung by Jewel. “Snow Angel” is nice, but forgettable. I wish I could forget “Pink and Glitter,” a horn-driven jazz ballad that could not have been a worse experience for me if it had leapt out of the speakers and punched me in the face.

Tori picks things up at the end – “Winter’s Carol” is impressively progressive, and “Our New Year” has some fine moments. And the bonus tracks, “Comfort and Joy” and “Silent Night,” are my favorite things here, both performed with piano and voice, just like the old days. But it’s too little, too late. My 1994 self would have laughed at the very idea of the author of “Me and a Gun” and “Precious Things” making a Christmas album, but my 2009 self isn’t laughing. This is just too depressing.

Tori Amos used to be one of my Reasons to Stay Alive. Now, listening to Midwinter Graces, she’s sapping my will to live. Ho, ho, ho. Sigh.

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On the other hand, we have Joy Electric. The existence and longevity of this band is one of those wonderful little anomalies that makes me love music.

Joy E is Ronnie Martin and an army of analog synthesizers. He uses nothing but those old-time vintage instruments, which means no digital programming or editing. It also means his stuff has a warmth and humanity about it, where most electronic music is cold and distant. Ronnie’s process is painstaking, but worth every moment. But the real difference is in the songs – Martin writes these melodic little wonders, tunes that would be hits if they were played on guitars. It would not be a stretch to call what he does pop-punk, but it’s all on synths.

Sounds like an interesting gimmick for an album or two, right? Well, Ronnie’s been at this Joy E thing since 1994, and has produced a dozen albums and just about as many EPs. In addition to Joy Electric, he contributes to a slew of other bands and projects, including the Foxglove Hunt and his own Ronald of Orange. He’s prolific, but more than that, he’s artistically restless, pushing and evolving his signature sound from album to album.

Still, I had doubts that Joy E could surprise me anymore. I thought I’d pretty much heard Martin’s bag of tricks. Which is why Favorites at Play, the new Joy Electric album, has left me with this wide, giddy grin.

Favorites is a covers album. But rather than reach back into his influences, and turn out versions of Thomas Dolby and Gary Numan and formative pop-punk tunes, Martin’s gone the other way. He’s created electro-pop takes on nine modern pop hits, none of them begging for this treatment, but all of them benefiting from it. And in the process, he’s made the most enjoyable Joy Electric record in a long time.

You can almost evenly split the selections of Favorites at Play into songs I liked and songs I hated. The fact that I enjoy what Martin has done to all of these songs – I’m not crying sacrilege or skipping tracks – is a testament to his skill and imagination. The record starts off with a song I like, Feist’s “1 2 3 4,” which here is turned into a skipping electronic march with a wonderful “ba-ba-ba-ba” coda. At the end of these two minutes and 34 seconds, I knew I was going to love this album.

Other choices I liked: Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” works surprisingly well as a dancefloor anthem, shorn of its strings, and Martin does a very good job of emulating that other Martin on the vocals. Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know” is given a loping beat and some melancholy synth beds, the focus remaining where it should be: on the gorgeous melody. The Killers’ “When You Were Young” simply belongs in this style – the keyboard lines are perfect, as is the blippy beat, and I ended up liking this version better than the original.

I was most worried about “Falling Slowly,” from the Once soundtrack. The original, by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, is a lovely acoustic ballad full of emotion and grace. Martin’s version doesn’t quite get there, but it sounds like something Yaz might have done in the ‘80s. The vocals have long been Joy Electric’s weak point, but here Martin really pulls it together – his whisper of a voice takes this melody line and runs with it, and the results are some of his strongest singing ever, on this song and elsewhere on Favorites.

Okay, that leaves four songs I don’t like, and amazingly, Martin’s versions of these tunes are my (ahem) favorites here. Blink-182’s maudlin “I Miss You” now sounds like it could fit on a John Hughes movie soundtrack, and I always crack up at Martin’s perfect imitation of Tom DeLonge’s fake British accent. Paramore’s “Decode,” from the Twilight soundtrack, is the fastest and most aggressive piece here, and it really works – beats whirl around a thumping synth bass line while Martin spits out the melody. He even retains the gender-specific lyrics: “What kind of man you are, if you’re a man at all…”

Martin turns “It Ends Tonight,” a terrible ballad by All-American Rejects, into a zippy little pop song with the addition of a great thump and a cavalcade of swirling keyboard sounds. He does the exact opposite for Nelly Furtado’s “Say It Right,” the closing number – Martin surgically removes the Timbaland beat, leaving moody synth washes and sad vocals. He really finds the heart of this song, and his version actually makes me appreciate the original. Somewhat. But it’s the imagination behind the arrangement I admire.

Best of all, Ronnie Martin sounds revitalized here, and that’s a good thing after last year’s dismal My Grandfather the Cubist. Hopefully making this fun little record has recharged his batteries, and the next Joy E full-length will be a rocket ride. Favorites at Play is great on its own terms, though, a delightful head-scratcher that shouldn’t work, but marvelously, masterfully does. You can hear the whole thing at Joy E’s Myspace page and buy it at their website.

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Next week, 2009’s last gasp, with new records from John Mayer and Switchfoot, and the debut of Them Crooked Vultures. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.

See you in line Tuesday morning.