Tom McRae – Did I Sleep And Miss The Border

This is not just a return to a full band sound from Tom McRae but a real sit-up-and-shake-the-cobwebs attempt at reinvention.

McRae’s previous release, From The Lowlands, distilled his introspection down to 48% proof; both lyrically and musically pared to the bone and at times painfully raw. It also felt like part of a slow spiral away from the mainstream that seemed in danger of ending in an album of the singer busking in an underpass.

Refreshingly this new release is a big, percussive, even – dare I say it? – commercial album. Certainly the raft of 4 star reviews from the mainstream music press might stir some hope. There’s plenty of angst here, and darkness, but it’s largely directed outwards rather than inwards, into fables of soaring despair, futile hope, and richly crashing instruments. There’s a sense of McRae (and band) experimenting musically and vocally. The opening track, “The High Life”, is almost off-puttingly delivered in an Old West leer that sets a mood of ominous americana. The rest of the album wisely sees McRae’s pure voice used more traditionally, but there remains a ragged quality at times that suits the emotion. These are tales of people driven to the edge of existence; when he wails “I am lost now” over and over in “The Dogs Never Sleep” it’s hard to disbelieve him.

That’s not to say the album doesn’t deliver variety. From the ballad of “Christmas Eve, 1943” to the spare “Let Me Grow Old With You” to the propulsive pop protest of “We Are The Mark” it’s a diverse and rewarding set of songs.

It’s also far from a complete departure for McRae, with seeds of americana and musical experimentation evident in ‘The Alphabet of Hurricanes’ and ‘Just Like Blood’, but there’s an energy and purpose here that belies the apocalyptic themes.

At only nine tracks the album could perhaps use one more killer tune. A tune, perhaps, like the thundering single “What A Way To Win A War” or the joyous “The Breeze Blows Cold”, both relegated to the companion disk ‘The Buzzard Tree Sessions’. Artistically they might be at odds with the feel of the album, but in terms of quality they’re every bit its equal.

Tomorrow’s Worlds: The Unearthly History of Science Fiction

So part 1 of the BBC2 Tomorrow’s Worlds documentary on SF basically ticked all the most obvious boxes (but in a more or less random order – quite bewilderingly so at times). It barely touched on written SF except as source material for movies. Which is fair enough if it’s aiming to be a history of visual SF, but it doesn’t confine itself to TV and movies, which leaves it feeling scattershot. Kudos for mentioning and at least partly discussing Left Hand of Darknesss and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, though.

It was entertaining enough, and with some prestigious talking heads, but for the most part it felt like an extremely well-trodden way to make some fairly unambitious observations about SF. It was also prone to sweeping generalisations such as how no novel prior to the Mars trilogy had ever been so meticulously detailed, no film prior to 2001 had ever been so conceptually ambitious, nothing prior to Avatar had ever realised an alien ecosystem, which seemed prone to counter-argument.

Also on a more trivial note I’d have preferred it if, when talking about the NASA images of Mars that inspired KSR, we saw those NASA images – or at least ones from that era – not a random slideshow of images of Mars from all eras of exploration. Similarly, why stick a picture from Star Trek IV into a discussion of Star Trek II? Why use the remastered CGI version of the original Star Trek opening credits?

I’ll stick with the rest of the series, but my expectations are suitably lowered.

Doctor Who – Listen

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I wasn’t meaning to write reviews of Doctor Who this year, but bits of these spiky, slightly experimental episodes keep sticking in my head. After the romp to end all romps that was ‘Robot of Sherwood’ (huge fun but yes, please could that end all romps now?) ‘Listen’ is a very different affair, and it’s got me pondering again. On Capaldi’s Doctor. On whether Clara is well-written. And on whether Steven Moffat can write.

You know, stuff.

Spoilers for Doctor Who – 'Listen'