TV Club: Doctor Who, “The Seeds Of Death”

“The Seeds Of Death” (season 6, episodes 23-28. Originally aired Jan. 25-March 1, 1969)

As much as I like “The Seeds Of Death” as pure entertainment, I’m not sure there’s all that much to say about the story on a deeper level, because that’s really its biggest flaw: It’s kind of a low-budget late-‘60s British TV version of a Michael Bay movie, geared to deliver thrills and spectacle but not particularly interested in whether the story being told actually means anything beyond “bad guys threaten good guys, who defeat bad guys.”

That was kind of a problem with the Second Doctor era in general, which was far less wide-ranging in the kinds of stories it told than First Doctor-era Doctor Who, coming to rely on alien-invasion plots to the point where there’s a widely used shorthand phrase in Who fandom to cover this period’s signature subgenre: the “base under siege” story, in which an isolated outpost of humans is menaced by some monster or monster from beyond. It’s a classic format not unique to this show by any means—it’s also the driver of Alien, Night Of The Living Dead, and Assault On Precinct 13, to give three of my favorite examples—but the Troughton era came to rely on it as its bread-and-butter, overusing it to the point of exhaustion. And while “The Seeds Of Death” is intriguingly forward-thinking in a couple of respects, ultimately it feels like it settled for less than it could have achieved. The series as a whole wasn’t quite so unambitious—we’ve already looked at two other stories from season six, “The Mind Robber” and “The War Games,” both of which were more complex and rewarding than this one. But I think that the superficial emphasis on thrills and chills in “Seeds Of Death” was, unfortunately, more typical of this era, and maybe indicative of why the series came close to cancellation during this season, before the drastic overhaul in season seven that brought in the Third Doctor.

Originally published March 18, 2012 on Read the complete article.

Review: Andrew Bird, Break It Yourself

Andrew Bird’s songwriting approach is seemingly paradoxical, at once highly improvisational and long-simmering, with material sometimes taking years to finally gel together. The results are familiar to anyone who’s followed his string of breezily baroque albums over the last decade, full of virtuosic and engaging inter-weavings of melodies and loops spun from violin, whistling, guitar, and Bird’s warbling tenor. While his songs are elegantly crafted and artfully arranged, he’s careful not to lose the sense that music is about creating a space to explore, to wander through and maybe even get lost in. That’s certainly the case with his sixth solo album, Break It Yourself.

Working with his longtime, improv-friendly backing band of Martin Dosh, Jeremy Ylvisaker, and Mike Lewis, Bird recorded Break It Yourself in a loose-knit weeklong session at his barn outside of Chicago, capturing the performances largely live. The approach pays dividends in creating an off-the-cuff atmosphere for songs that have probably been honed and re-imagined frequently, often making Break It Yourself feel as if it’s being created on the spot.

It’s extraordinarily intimate at times, especially given the overarching theme of heartbreak and broken connections that suffuses the album. Which is not to say that Break It Yourself is ever nakedly and painfully personal. That is simply not Bird’s style, and even when his lyrics veer toward the confessional, they’re couched inside oblique and ambivalently calm language. “Lazy Projector” spins out a metaphor on the untrustworthiness of memory as the deliberately crafted fiction of a movie, edited and recast to smooth out the sharp edges of truth, before finally throwing in a direct statement: “I can’t see the sense in us breaking up at all.” From such a normally reserved songwriter, the line explodes like a depth charge.

On “Lusitania,” Bird turns to maritime war history—the ship sinkings that helped launch the U.S. into two wars—for another metaphor on a destroyed relationship, but shifts both mood and metaphor with a gently lilting guest vocal from St. Vincent’s Annie Clark nicely underplaying a verse about the electricity of a new connection. It’s indicative of a beautifully free-flowing set of tunes that soar and waft like a flock of starlings, building to a quietly epic mood that is too ruminative and introspective to suffer from grandiosity.

Originally published March 7, 2012 on Read the complete article.

TV Club: Doctor Who, “The Time Meddler”

“The Time Meddler” (season 2, episodes 36-39. Originally aired, 1965)

Season finales were not the kind of big events in 1965 that they are today, but the appearance of another rogue time traveler—and one who was not only from the Doctor’s own planet, but a sort of anti-Doctor in his own right—must have been a huge revelation for viewers back then. Before the War Chief, before the Master, before the Time Lords or Gallifrey had even been named, the Monk was our first glimpse at someone from the Doctor’s home. And it’s it’s important to keep in mind that the Monk does appear before any of that other baggage was attached, because he’s best understood as a mirror-inversion not of the Doctor we know now, but the First Doctor specifically—not a cosmic wizard who can feel the pulse of the universe, but a sly, troublemaking old man who always has a few tricks up his sleeve.

Before that, all we knew about Time Lords was a dyspeptic old man and his spacey-genius granddaughter—and even Susan had left the show earlier in the season, seven stories and 26 half-hour episodes previously in “The Dalek Invasion Of Earth.” Her place in the TARDIS crew had been filled by a character who was, on paper at least, nearly identical: Vicki, a young orphan girl who had survived a spaceship crash and was rescued by the Doctor and Susan’s former teachers Ian and Barbara in the appropriately titled story “The Rescue.” Once on board the TARDIS, she allowed the four-person dynamic set up in “An Unearthly Child” to continue mostly unchanged—she had a grandfather/granddaughter relationship with the Doctor, and a teacher/student one with Ian and Barbara. I haven’t seen much of the Vicki episodes besides “Time Meddler,” but she strikes me as more than just a replacement of Susan but an improvement on her, largely because Maureen O’Brien is a much more engaging and lively actress. Her scene with the Doctor at the start of the first episode here is warmer and more endearing than, say, the similar Doctor-Susan scene in “Dalek Invasion,” and she’s a far more effective conversational foil for Steven than I think Carole Ann Ford would ever have been.

Originally published March 4, 2012 on Read the complete article.

Review: The Small Cities, “With Fire”

The Small Cities’ guitarist Leif Bjornson and drummer David Osborn (who also split vocals and lyric-writing duties) grew up together in small-town Wisconsin, playing in high school bands before eventually splitting up for college and reuniting again in the Twin Cities. They haven’t lost touch with their rural roots, though—it’s right there in their band name, after all—and the wistful, melodic musings on With Fire are inspired in no small part by those earlier days. It’s an album that is consumed by the idea of memory, and perhaps its greatest strength is the band’s assured sense of storytelling, confessional and novelistic by turns, about the way the past informs the present for both good and bad. “Wonder Years” looks back at the awkward but thrilling days of teen romance, making mix-tapes and enduring the distrusting scrutiny of fathers before taking a girl out on a date, and discovering that love, whatever else it might be good for, is also a gateway to a larger world than you knew existed: “We were young and we would find to lose our hearts was to lose our minds—and our parents fell so far behind.”

The other main thread weaving its way through With Fire is religion—specifically, coming to terms with an upbringing you grow to disagree with, and trying to find a path for yourself that makes sense to you. “Abraham” describes a childhood grounded in tradition that’s both comforting (“in my father’s house / I knew my north from my south”) and toxic in its terrifying fear of the Rapture, the “fire” of the album title, winding up with a regretful head-shaking at “all the wasted days praying the Lord would change my ways.” Heavy stuff, but it’s also catchy enough to sing along to, buoyed by a jaunty guitar line and a driving, handclap-assisted rhythm that drives home what’s ultimately a joyful statement—hey, we’re not all going to die! “Wise Blood” picks up the theme again, with understated and deftly drawn imagery of wine as both religious sacrament and symbol of the loss of innocence in the line “spilled blood of Christ on your Easter dress.”

That energy simmers throughout the album, particularly in its first half, typified by “Laughter Song,” which shares a sense of wonder at the still-unblemished happiness of a newborn. But With Fire often hits hardest on the slow burners like the melancholy “Hospitals,” which goes for the emotional jugular with a story about a father still devastated more than a decade after the death of his son: “I think of him every time I see a child / and I lose track of myself sometimes / my mind goes running wild.”

Like their musical forebears Low, Radiohead, and Pedro The Lion, there’s a churning emotionality woven through The Small Cities’ earnest indie rock, a marbled texture of sadness and, more strongly, optimism—and it’s the latter that seems to truly define what The Small Cities are at their core.

Originally published March 2, 2012 on Read the complete article.

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