Hope and Change
BT and Corinne Bailey Rae Both Dazzle on New Records

I know I promised you some thoughts on Lost’s season premiere last week. And I should have seen this coming, but I don’t have much to say about it that wouldn’t be an enormous spoiler. Considering the new revelations, the twists and turns, and the oh-my-freaking-god moments this episode delivered in spades, I don’t want to do that.

So let me just say this: Lost is the best show on television. Full stop. Three years ago, as the third season slowly unwound, I was all but ready to give up on it. My biggest fear has always been that the writers and producers don’t know where they’re going with all this, and the formless, wandering nature of much of the third season fed those fears. And then they negotiated their ending with ABC – six seasons, done and out. And this, miraculously, freed them.

As we start the sixth and final season, I am absolutely convinced that the writers not only know where their labyrinthine plot is headed, but exactly how to get there, down to what information to parcel out in which of the final 18 episodes. But more than that, they know exactly who all their characters are, and how and why they’ve ended up in these squares on the big chessboard. For all its sky-high mythology and insanely complex plotting, Lost has always been about its characters, and after five years, they’re real – they live and breathe, and the toll the story has taken on them is truly painful. It’s a huge show, but its most important moments are almost imperceptibly small.

Lots of similar-sounding shows have come and gone in Lost’s wake, and none of them remembered to humanize their grand ideas the way the Lost team has. The Grand Idea at the start of the sixth season essentially turns the format of the show into a metatextual metaphor for its central question: can we change our own destinies? But beyond all of the wizardry on display, it’s the way this Grand Idea affects our characters, the subtle changes in them that longtime viewers can easily see, that counts.

I have no idea how many of Lost’s secrets and myths will be explained in this final season. And you know what? In some ways, it doesn’t matter to me. What matters is how this show leaves our characters, and which ones end up believing that their lives are in their own hands. We’re racing headlong towards what will no doubt be a mind-bending conclusion, and I’ll most likely have my head spun around a few more times before we get there. But I’ll really be watching for the little moments, the ways the characters change and grow, before the end. And I know now that those moments are at least as important to the Lost team (if not more important) as the hydra-headed plot.

Of course, my bet with Mike Ferrier still stands. If the writers don’t explain why Hurley’s numbers worked their way into our characters’ lives so often, then the sixth season DVD set will be mine, all mine, for free. I’ll keep you posted.

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Before we get to this week’s musical cornucopia, I have a couple of reactions to the Oscar nominations.

The Academy’s insistence that opening the Best Picture category up to 10 nominees would give voters a more varied slate certainly seems to have paid off. Most gratifyingly, the geniuses at Pixar finally got their first Best Picture nomination for Up, their saddest, most human, and most triumphant work. It has no chance of taking home the prize, particularly since it’s also nominated for Best Animated Film, an award it is sure to win. But it’s nice to see it sitting up there with the big boys.

Of course, it’s a cartoon that will take the top prize. Last month, I would have laughed at anyone who predicted James Cameron’s Avatar for Best Picture, but with its Golden Globe win, and its stunning box office, it’s practically a lock. And that’s a shame, because I like just about every other nominee more. (District 9 was a disappointment, and I refuse to see The Blind Side. But the other seven? Hell yes.) If I had to pick from these 10, I would probably go with The Hurt Locker, one of the most riveting war movies I have ever seen. Either that or the whimsical and emotional Up in the Air.

As usual, though, there are a couple of striking omissions, most gratingly the complete shut-out for my favorite movie of 2009, Away We Go. It’s a gorgeous, funny, moving film, and it showcases a revelatory performance by Saturday Night Live alum Maya Rudolph. And yet? Nothing. I also would have given some love to (500) Days of Summer and The Hangover, simply the funniest movie I saw last year.

But we can’t expect perfection. I love that Jeremy Renner is up for Best Actor, and Kathryn Bigelow for Best Director (only the fourth woman to be nominated in that category). I love that Christoph Waltz was an unknown just one year ago, and now he’s all but guaranteed the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. I love that Mo’Nique will likely win Best Supporting Actress for her amazing, heart-rending turn in Precious. (Where the hell has she been hiding this extraordinary talent?) And I love, love, love that Carey Mulligan, who dazzled as Sally Sparrow on Doctor Who two years ago, is nominated for her glorious work in An Education. A star is born, and the Who team was there first! How wonderful.

The Oscars will be given out on March 7. I know, it’s a silly awards show, and it means nothing. But it’s fun. And I really want Avatar to win every technical award, and lose the big prize – I’ve really come to see it as a battle for the future of moviemaking. As impressive as Avatar is, I’m hoping the Academy chooses to honor something smaller and more human. We shall see.

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I’ve written a lot in this space about expectations, and the toll they can sometimes take on first impressions of new music. Well, this week I’ve got the perfect example of that point. I have an album I’ve been anticipating for months, to the point where the record in my head was totally different from the record I eventually heard. And I have an album I picked up on a whim, with no expectations whatsoever, that utterly floored me.

The spanner in the works is that both of these records are very good. And yet, it took me some time to come to grips with the first one, whereas the second knocked me out immediately and has only grown in stature since. None of this means anything to you, of course – you just want to know how the records sound. But for me, it’s taken a little while to get where I am with them.

The first is These Hopeful Machines, by BT. Start with this: Brian Transeau is a genius. I’m honestly not sure why he is not more acclaimed than he is. His first few albums are fine examples of epic trance music, all beats and bliss, but starting with 2003’s Emotional Technology, he began exploring this entirely new territory. He’s somehow found a way to write and perform moving, melodic pop songs without losing his glitchy electronic roots. And I don’t mean this in a Moby kind of way – BT albums are all the evidence I need that Moby should just hang it up.

No, I mean Transeau has perfected this synthesis between warm pop and cold dance music, and he’s used it to create sprawling, progressive masterpieces that are at once remarkably complex and wholly human. Emotional Technology is still unlike anything I’ve heard, particularly on melancholy epics like “The Force of Gravity” and “The Great Escape.” He flipped this new sound on its ear with the follow-up, the amazing This Binary Universe, which removed the vocals and unfurled his songs out past the 10-minute mark. It remains one of the best instrumental albums I own.

And I guess I was expecting Transeau to completely reinvent himself each time out, which is why These Hopeful Machines initially disappointed me. Of course, my expectations were ridiculously high – Machines is a two-disc excursion, six songs spanning 112 minutes, and I was hoping to hear sounds from BT that I’d never heard before. In fact, what he’s done here is build on his last two records, bringing them together in ways I didn’t understand my first time through. He’s also, somewhat perversely, stuck to clichéd pop song lyrics throughout, despite the extended running times and progressive detours of these songs, and that decision initially put me off as well. It’s like an even mix of the innovative and the insipid.

But give Machines time, and it will take its place as BT’s most expansive and brilliant work. Let’s first start by saying Transeau is one of the best producers walking the earth – his work is detailed to an almost ludicrous degree, each song probably requiring hundreds of tracks and millions of little edits. You can listen to a BT album 20 times and still not hear everything buried in it, and These Hopeful Machines may be his most intricate yet.

Its songs, however, are at heart little things, and that’s its secret. Opener “Suddenly” has a very simple, very effective chorus, and would be a fine three-minute pop song. Here, of course, it is an eight-minute glitch-pop masterwork, a grand statement of purpose. It’s eclipsed by track two, “The Emergency,” which starts with a ghostly piano part and builds into a 10-minute wonderama. But it pinions around a small flower of a chorus, a simple “I love you.” It’s the perfect realization of Transeau’s thesis this time out – a massive mechanical whirlygig surrounding a tiny, beating human heart.

So goes much of the rest of These Hopeful Machines, but there are some surprises along the way. Frequent BT collaborator Jes takes lead vocal duties on two tracks on disc one, and while “Every Other Way” seems to drift, the punchy “The Light in Things” is her showcase here. Transeau’s also turned in two instrumental pieces, “Rose of Jericho” and “Le Nocturne de Lumiere,” that would act as interludes if they weren’t so fully realized. And he brings a live band feel to “Love Can Kill You,” and to his closing cover of the Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost in You.” (Recorded on analog tape, believe it or not.)

I have saved the best for last, however. Transeau has also enlisted Rob Dickinson, the singer and songwriter of Catherine Wheel, to grace two songs. “Always” is a nice number, sounding like a remix of something that could have fit on Happy Days or Wishville. But the 10-minute “The Unbreakable” is the best thing here, a sustained joyous shout over blipping synths and delirious sounds, Dickinson bringing the whole thing home. It’s an absolute wonder of a track, and sequenced 11th out of 12, it serves as the natural climax of the record.

These Hopeful Machines is the biggest and boldest statement Transeau has made. The trite lyrics and pure pop choruses will turn off electronic music purists, while the elongated song lengths and stuttering production will try the patience of pop fans. This album is for neither. It’s for people who are willing to follow Transeau down this new path, towards this exciting synthesis he’s aiming for. Machines is a stunning web of sound, mixing the mechanical and the organic with remarkable clarity. It is, in nearly every way, BT’s masterpiece.

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The other album is Corinne Bailey Rae’s The Sea. Rae is one of those artists whose work was just kind of there for me. It exists, it blends in with the background noise, and I barely even notice it. “Put Your Records On” is a nice song, and Rae has a great jazzy voice. But I didn’t expect great things, and I probably wouldn’t have even bought The Sea if not for a raving write-up I saw online.

But damn, I’m glad I did.

The Sea is Rae’s first album since losing her husband, Jason, who died of a suspected drug overdose nearly two years ago. Some say that the best art comes from tragedy, and I believe them. I would never want anyone to go through what Rae has in the last two years, but out of her pain, she has crafted a gorgeous record of deep folk-soul, a moving and surprisingly fun album that should plant her firmly amongst the best purveyors of this sound.

But it’s more than that. The Sea is an emotional gut-punch, a bottomless well of despair and hope in equal measure. Opener “Are You Here” brings it right up front – a collection of memories, of love in days gone by, her voice floating over acoustic guitars and horns. “I’d Do It All Again” and the striking “Feels Like the First Time” are more experiments in time travel, Rae using memory to heal, and by the end of the third song, she’s singing her little heart out over rat-a-tat drums and jazzy piano. It’s an opening trilogy that holds together like a single piece.

On half of this record, Rae indulges her rock side more than ever. “The Blackest Lily” just… well, it rocks, all bass and kickass organ. Both “Paris Nights/New York Mornings” and “Paper Doll” should put paid to any notions that Rae has made a depressing record here. “Closer” is the hit, slinky and horn-driven, like the best of Billie Holliday. Those scouring the lyrics of these songs for hints to Rae’s mental state will probably come away disappointed – they are pure pop wonders, and Rae sings the living hell out of them.

But the album’s other half is its heart. “Love’s On the Way” finds Rae contemplating just how to use her pain and love to improve the world, and contains the album’s most indelible, wonderful chorus. (And some of its most elastic bass playing.) “I Would Like to Call It Beauty” takes her tragedy head-on, opening with the line “So young for death” and exploring just how difficult it’s been for her to find her joy again. “Strained as love’s become, it still amazes me,” she sings, over strummed acoustics and lovely strings.

On “Diving for Hearts,” Rae questions just how deep she has to go to heal. And the closing title track finds her surfacing again, and contemplating how easily everything washes away – even crushing pain. “The sea, the majestic sea, breaks everything, crushes everything, cleans everything, takes everything away from me,” she sings, in what is the record’s most sad and gorgeous moment.

Needless to say, Corinne Bailey Rae’s music is far more than just background to me now. The Sea is a wonderful album, one that hurts in all the best ways. It’s the kind of soulful dive into truth that you just don’t hear much anymore. In a pop music landscape littered with singers with less than half of Rae’s skill, she could simply coast on her pipes and make a mint. That she’s chosen to write songs of such power and grace speaks volumes about her as an artist. The Sea is a remarkable work, an honest and clear statement from a singer-songwriter swimming through pain, striding onto the shore, and coming into her own.

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And now, the next installment in my Top 20 Albums of the Decade. This one might surprise you.

#16. Aqualung, Memory Man (2007).

It would be easy to lump Matt Hales’ Aqualung project in with all the other shaky-voiced piano-driven Brit-pop that has cropped up in Coldplay’s wake. Unfortunately, I think that’s what American audiences have done, since Hales hasn’t had the same level of success as some of his contemporaries. Part of it might be that he’s chosen an awful, awful name for his project, one that brings Jethro Tull to mind more often than not. Part of it might be that he hasn’t enjoyed a strong push from his label.

None of it, however, is the music. Matt Hales is an extraordinary songwriter, but he’s also an equally gifted record-maker. Memory Man was our first taste of that side of his talents here in America – its predecessor, Strange and Beautiful, was a compilation of tracks from his first two U.K. albums. Turns out, a full Aqualung album is an amazing thing. This is Hales’ attempt to make a big-budget spectacular, a finely-detailed widescreen pop record, and he approached it as a unified whole. Memory Man carries you through from one end to the other.

But it’s the songs – oh man, these songs. Opener “Cinderella” is astonishing, beginning with a plinking piano before exploding with Radiohead-like drums and guitars, and a full horn section. The whole song starts and stops like this, sometimes including nothing but drums and Hales’ voice, sometimes containing so much sound it feels like the world will burst. One section floats on nothing but a mournful French horn and a couple of soaring, operatic female voices. Through it all, the melody remains impeccable.

Over the next 10 songs, whether Hales is pleading to the heavens on the pounding “Something to Believe In,” channeling Motown on “Rolls So Deep,” or watching the sun rise on “Glimmer,” he never falters. “Pressure Suit” should have been a hit – its grand sci-fi lyrical conceit is set to a glittering pop gem of a melody. On the other end of the spectrum, there is “The Lake,” a haunting and spare shiver of a song. It starts with simple piano and voice, and as Hales adds dozens of flittering distractions around it, including a bass part that will rattle your walls, that basic through line remains. Hales’ voice is a quiet whimper, building to a storm.

Memory Man is an album about trying to find meaning. Its most important line comes in “Black Hole,” one of the album’s more rhythmic tracks: “If love is not the answer, maybe I misunderstood the question.” Throughout this album’s remarkably quick 50 minutes, Hales turns over every rock he can find, looking for hope and purpose. His lyrics easily support the grandiose music he has composed for them. Where his previous (and, to be honest, subsequent) works have merely been pretty, Memory Man digs deep, and gets loud when necessary – the coda of “Black Hole,” leading into the bright blur of “Outside,” is one of the most surprising moments here.

He saves his best, most poignant songs for last. “Garden of Love” is a tender epic, Hales inviting Paul Buchanan of the Blue Nile (a clear influence) to sing the second half. It’s a song with peaks and valleys, effortlessly tugging at the heartstrings.

But it’s the closer, “Broken Bones,” that takes the prize. Here Hales uses the very sound of his recording for emotional effect – he plays the song on an out-of-tune piano, and records half of it through a broken CB radio. The song is about watching one’s world disintegrate – “The world is burning and I’m terrified, I just need a little more time with you” – and the effect is unspeakably moving. Hales has found his purpose, his reason, as all else fades away.

It’s probably obvious at this point, but I think Memory Man should be hailed as one of the finest British pop albums of the modern era. That it has been largely ignored over here is… well, criminal. I’ve heard hundreds of albums from quivering British piano-poppers over the last 10 years, and none of them have stuck with me quite like this one has. It’s beautifully written, perfectly realized, and packs an unexpected emotional punch.

Of course, the very next year, Hales would go on to write his prettiest-ever song, “Arrivals,” so I expect he’ll only get better. (Aqualung’s new album, Magnetic North, is set for release in March.) How he’ll get better than this, though, is beyond me. Memory Man is that good.

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Man, that’s a lot of words. Tune in next week for reviews of a whole bunch of things, including Spoon, Midlake, Beach House, Fair, and maybe a couple of others. 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.