A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity
Stephin Merritt Makes Distortion's Twin With Realism

I’d like to begin this week with a quick post-mortem for Dollhouse, what will likely be Joss Whedon’s last network television show.

I’ve long been of the opinion that Whedon is just too good for television. He belongs on HBO, or Showtime, or at the very least FX. Cable networks that can support his talent for lengthy serial narratives that slowly and completely explore difficult themes behind the veneer of genre shows. Network television just isn’t set up for that. What the networks want is predictable, easy-to-understand concepts that find their footing early and take no chances.

Whedon just doesn’t work like that. Of his four shows, only Firefly was on full power right out of the gate. The rest built their epic storylines slowly, holding their ideas under as many different lights as possible. Early Buffy the Vampire Slayer is perfectly fine, fun television, but it’s hard to sit through, knowing how extraordinary the show becomes later. The first season of Angel is a slow-moving nightmare, but from there, it unfolds brilliantly into a blood-soaked meditation on redemption.

In many ways, Dollhouse is Whedon’s most complex show, and in the end, it only got 26 episodes to prove its worth. The premise is bursting with possibility – the Dollhouse is an organization that finds people, wipes their memories and personalities, then imprints them with the memories and personalities of others. They then hire out these “dolls” to people who can pay for them (and not just for sex), and when their missions are over, they return to their childlike, mind-wiped state.

Of course, the central question of the show is, “Who are we?” Are we the sum of our memories, or do our essential beings run deeper? To his credit, Whedon never shied away from the grisly moral implications of the Dollhouse, and presented us with a thorny, tangled web of dark themes. The concept, and Whedon’s treatment of it, were never the problem. But Dollhouse suffered and eventually succumbed to a failure of execution, brought on mainly by the network that aired it, good old Fox.

Now, I recently re-watched those first five episodes, and they’re not as bad as I remembered. (Okay, “Stage Fright” is pretty damn bad.) But they certainly didn’t kick-start the story in any meaningful way. It’s common knowledge that the done-in-one format of the first five episodes was imposed upon Whedon by Fox, and that’s five fewer episodes he and his team had to tell the real story. And it’s a fantastic story, spinning the idea of the Dollhouse out to a global scale.

Naturally, with only 13 episodes to spin what should have been five full seasons of plotline, the second season feels rushed. The amazing thing is that for the vast majority of its running time, the quicker pace actually helps the show immeasurably. We get one slam-bang revelation after another in season two, and watching it all in a row will probably be like riding a particularly bendy roller coaster. But then, two episodes from the end, the writers piled up one twist too many without enough time to explain or explore it, and the show kind of deraied.

Not entirely, mind you. But the last two episodes of Dollhouse feel like three years of story compressed to 90 minutes. Thankfully, the final episode (which aired Friday) works pretty well, and the show goes out on a hopeful note, but the last few hours of Dollhouse are messy, unkempt things that race headlong to a conclusion, rather than telling a thoroughly satisfying tale. What’s there is full of potential, and makes the best of a lousy situation, but I can only imagine just how good a five-season Dollhouse might have been.

I can’t blame Fox entirely. They did renew the show for a second season, after the first pulled in dismal ratings. But I honestly can’t imagine Whedon going back to them, or any network, with another idea – particularly an idea as complex as Dollhouse. I hope the next time we see him, Whedon will be helming a show on HBO, or even online, Dr. Horrible style. As for Dollhouse, it’s very much worth seeing, if only to further demonstrate just how talented and imaginative its creator is.

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Two years ago last month, Stephin Merritt and his Magnetic Fields made the first great album of 2008 with Distortion. They’re a couple weeks late for that this year – OK Go stole the crown – but their new album Realism is another early favorite in a first quarter chock full of them.

I mention both records because they’re fraternal twins, a matched set. Distortion’s cover is the “gentlemen” lavatory symbol, while Realism’s is the “ladies” icon. The designs are identical, down to the smallest detail. And the albums are mirror images of each other – where Distortion is loud and sloppy and electronic-sounding, Realism is hushed and graceful and performed entirely on acoustic instruments. But other than that, it’s exactly the same – another collection of 13 wonderful Stephin Merritt songs.

Granted, the tone of Realism takes some getting used to. It’s closer to some of Merritt’s older work than Distortion was, but it’s still an album without drums, one which takes some florid and baroque detours. It’s acoustic, but it’s never strummed singer-songwriter stuff. The album is packed with sonic colors, including flugelhorn, tuba, cello, accordion, banjo, hammered dulcimer, zither and sitar. The vocals are often in three-part harmony, like an old-time campfire singing group, but the sound of the album is clean and modern.

But just like Distortion took a few listens to hear past the sheets of noise, Realism takes flight with repeated plays. The key, of course, is Merritt’s fantastic songs, each one a quirky gem. The record opens with its catchiest, “You Must Be Out of Your Mind,” a delightful kiss-off to an old flame looking to light the match again. “You can’t just go ‘round saying stuff because it’s pretty,” Merritt and his cohorts sing. “And I’m no longer drunk enough to think you’re witty…”

The album immediately gets darker and deeper from there. The whispered ballet “Interlude” would sound at home on Merritt’s Showtunes collection, singer Claudia Gonson lamenting a poor lovestruck fool. “I Don’t Know What to Say” finds Merritt running through the possible one-liners that could make the love of his life stick around, over a tune straight out of the sadder moments on Pet Sounds. And “Walk a Lonely Road” winds its melancholy melody around the tale of two loners finding one another: “Walk a lonely road with me, I will walk with you, half as lonely we will be when we walk as two…”

Of course, then there is “We Are Having a Hootenanny,” a hayseed hoo-rah on which the Fields offer you a personality quiz before encouraging you to “do-si-do down to our hoedown.” “Everything is One Big Christmas Tree” is a galloping delight, with two laugh-out-loud lines (one: “If they don’t like you, screw them, don’t leave your fortune to them”), and a verse in German. And “The Dada Polka” does what it says on the tin – its jaunty refrain is “Do something, anything, do something please.”

All of this and more in 33 minutes. One thing stays consistent – whether Merritt is telling sad stories or spinning delirious dance numbers, he never skimps on the melody. These are meticulously crafted, beautiful songs, and the acoustic instrumentation makes them sound like they’re being sculpted out of the air. He even makes “Seduced and Abandoned,” a story of a new mother left on her wedding day, into something that will get stuck in your head. Particularly the laughing-gasping final lines, “I think I might drink a few, and maybe the baby will too…”

Beyond all of its sonic exploration, Realism is just 13 more reasons to love Stephin Merritt. He’s a classic songwriter, one with wit and verve and unfailing sense of melody. You could perform the Distortion songs acoustically and cover the Realism songs in squalling feedback, and the core would remain the same. It’s all about these songs, and on Realism, they’re as good as they’ve ever been.

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And now, the fourth in a series of the Top 20 Albums of the 2000s.

#17. The Choir, O How the Mighty Have Fallen (2005).

It’s no secret that the Choir is pretty much my favorite band in the world. I’ve heard better bands, technically, but none that make my spirit soar the way the Choir does. I’ve been into them since 1990, when I bought their masterpiece, Circle Slide, based solely on the cover art. It was one of the best decisions, musically speaking, I’ve ever made. The Choir is a spiritual band, but their songs are full of doubts and fears, and the music is what I want all dream-pop to sound like: floating three feet off the ground, but still melodic and powerful.

So yeah, they’re my favorite band. But I can still admit when they fall down. Their post-Circle Slide output has been decent, from the amps-on-11 rock of Speckled Bird to the odd sonic experiments of Free Flying Soul, but in 2000, they released Flap Your Wings, a half-hearted collection that has been gathering dust since I bought it. It was the first new Choir album I’d struggled with, and I finally realized I just didn’t like it very much. When your favorite band makes a bad album, it’s difficult enough, but when they only release a new one every four years, on average, it hurts.

When 2005 rolled around, and word of a new Choir album started to trickle out, I didn’t know how to feel. For the first time, I approached the news with some worry. A healthy measure of excitement, sure, but a fair amount of trepidation as well. The title didn’t help me much. O How the Mighty Have Fallen. That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy if I ever heard one.

Oh me of little faith. One listen through and I was grinning. Two and I was giddy.

Mighty is a classic Choir album, a late-career renaissance. This is the one on which they found the perfect balance between their atmospheric swirly-guitar past and the driving rock they’d been doing of late. A big part of the credit must go to Hammock guitarist Marc Byrd, who painted this canvas with glorious swaths of shimmering sound, but Choir mainstays Derri Daughtery and Steve Hindalong stepped up their game immeasurably, and bass god Tim Chandler and sax man Dan Michaels turned in some terrific work. It’s only 10 songs, but all 10 songs are marvelous, and pound for pound, this is the best (and best-sounding) Choir album since Circle Slide.

But it’s more than that to me. Mighty is an album that fills me with joy, and at times, unspeakable melancholy. Part of that is, undoubtedly, a by-product of my 20-year fandom. “Fine Fun Time” invites me to reminisce about my years listening to this band, and knowing that “Terrible Mystery” is about Daugherty’s painful divorce gives it an extra dimension. But most of it is just because the Choir, when they are on, can craft music that digs deep, that touches the soul.

Just listen to “How I Wish I Knew,” a sad lullaby about the confusion and longing of fatherhood, and try not to be moved. Then take in “Mercy Will Prevail,” this album’s dark epic (at only 3:38). As reverbed guitars crash about, Daugherty, his voice an innocent babe in these woods, expresses his doubt about a God of love. “I want to swear it’s true but it’s hard to believe it,” he sings, before explaining all the things that give him pause: “In the thrust of a bayonet, in the hour of deep regret, in a world gone insane, in the eye of a hurricane…”

It’s this dark spirituality that gives added weight to the closing track, “To Rescue Me.” Daugherty and Hindalong have tried their hand at hymns before, but this is the one they got absolutely right. It’s a simple declaration of broken desperation, performed with subtle grace. I know many people who are turned off by even the slightest mention of Christian beliefs in song, and most say they don’t like to be preached at. The Choir would never stoop so low. “To Rescue Me” is entirely about how they need saving, and how grateful they are for that salvation. It may be the prettiest song they’ve ever written.

O How the Mighty Have Fallen is an album only a few thousand people have ever heard. Arguing for its placement on this list as an important record is a difficult prospect, however I feel about it. But it is a great one, a pop album of transcendent beauty, and in my little world, it was perhaps the most important record of the last 10 years. It was the album that restored my faith in my favorite band, and five years later, it’s lost none of its magic.

And get this: the Choir’s making another one as we speak. Life is impossibly good.

If you’ve never heard the Choir, go here.

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I still haven’t seen the Lost premiere – I had to cover an election, and didn’t get home until midnight or so. I’ll probably have some thoughts (of the non-spoilery variety) next week. Also, BT returns with nearly two hours of glitchy goodness, featuring Rob Dickinson (of Catherine Wheel) on two tracks. Who says this isn’t the Marvel age of musical magnificence?

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See you in line Tuesday morning.