The first album I ever bought was Prince’s Batman soundtrack.
I mean, I’m not proud of it. It’s not exactly The Smiths. But there are some things you have to get out of your system before puberty kicks in, and my late 80s obsession with the Caped Crusader was probably it. The record itself is a strange beast: half film soundtrack, half concept album, a bunch of sampled dialogue snatches from the film laid over buzzing electric guitars and complicated drum machine grooves. Prince himself howls his way through songs that are supposedly from the point of view of the film’s leads, although they’re sprinkled with the libidinous debauchery that helped make him famous: hence Vicki Vale sings of being ‘the wildest in the city’, Batman himself puts in a request to ‘skip all the foreplay mama, and just get down here on the floor’, and Bruce Wayne makes dick jokes. I wish I could say I was making this up, but it would be a lie, and Batman hates it when you lie to him.
Songs From And Inspired By is a veritable can of worms. Years ago there was a Discworld record that worked quite well. It borrows in many respects from Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, which is incidentally a masterpiece. Lou Reed’s The Raven, on the other hand, is not. It’s better than Metal Machine Music, but I’ve been to primary school violin concerts that were less excruciating than Metal Machine Music. The best case scenario is something good. The more likely scenario is music that sounds like it was written by a fan, which carries its own set of risks. The worst case scenario is Neil Sedaka providing his own lyrics to Nessun Dorma and inciting a mass revolt in the graves of about a hundred music critics, not to mention Puccini himself.
So here come The Sevateem, better known as Janey Winterbauer and Christian Erickson (and who, a quick Google search reveals, live in a rather nice house in southern Minneapolis), with their take on the genre: a 16-track concept album based on The Caves of Androzani. Despite an endorsement from Gareth Roberts (we differ politically but he really knows his pop culture) I approached this with a certain amount of trepidation. Just how good could a Doctor Who concept album really be, given that the last one encouraged us to spend Christmas with a Dalek and had that wretched Roberta Tovey song on it? I mean, I love a bit of Caves – very few people don’t – but can you really stretch out Davison’s swansong to a full length album?
Short answer: yes, you can. Because this is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bloody brilliant record. It is worth both your time and as much cash as you can afford to throw at it, particularly as profits from the pay-as-you-want / donate-to-download fee go to Doctors Without Borders. That in itself is another can of worms, because charity purchases do not always sit well in the Whoniverse, particularly where music is concerned. Simultaneously it would be worth shelling out for this even if all the profits were going to Winterbauer and Erickson (and their cast of guest performers) instead of a medical organisation. They would deserve it, and their decision to pay it forward (to use their own words) is the icing on a cake that was fairly rich to begin with.
The Caves is made up of a bunch of songs that roughly tell the story of its televisual namesake, arranged in vaguely episodic clumps peppered with the odd instrumental, like 70s Bowie. Choosing to allocate songs to particular characters is a wise move, avoiding the kind of cringeworthy narration that frequently taints this sort of project. Instead, we’re given insights into the mindsets of Morgus, Timmin and Sharaz Jek, among others – including, of course, the two leads. A few lyrics are borrowed directly from spoken dialogue, but for the most part this is paraphrasing, and it works. “Is there anywhere pleasant in the universe we could go?” sings Peri in the opening number, astutely echoing the thoughts of just about every other companion in the show’s history through a simple complaint about the rocks and mud. Well, there’s bound to be a quarry, isn’t there?
Here’s a disclaimer – if synth-produced music isn’t your bag, you’re not going to have much fun here. For the most part the vibe is full-on electronica with an obvious 80s bent, although seasoned with an entire spice rack of musical influences old and new. Goldfrapp and, to a lesser extent Eurythmics dominate, but there are nods to Human League, Kraftwerk, Jon & Vangelis and Tangerine Dream, and about a dozen others: you will have your own. The mood varies from elegiac and mournful (Is This Death?, which not surprisingly taps into the Doctor’s regeneration) to wistful (the surprisingly placid I Would Crash This Ship To Save My Friend), and the guest cast bring a tonal variety that keeps you interested. Nonetheless the electronic ambience largely remains, although The Sevateem occasionally dabble with dubstep and even branch into full-on alt-rock in the triumphant Stotzy.
But make no mistake: this is not music for chameleons. It has a consistency and a vibe all of its own. It’s nothing earth-shattering or groundbreaking or even particularly new, and that’s fine. It is just a damned good collection of songs that – assisted by some impeccable production – have the surprising effect of becoming three-dimensional, taking on a life independent of their source material. Can you listen to The Caves with footage from Androzani running silently in the background? Undoubtedly. There will be a YouTube playlist coming soon. It’s probably how it was recorded. But it doesn’t matter if you don’t. This is not an album where you’re constantly scrolling through the lyrics to find out what’s going on; the music speaks on its own terms, and non-fans are likely to enjoy it as much as experienced ones. Everyone brings their own baggage to this record; in the great journey of life (and you didn’t say that, you Graham Crowdened it) The Caves is a warmly-lit tavern that sits at the side of a well-travelled road and welcomes any who care to enter it, with something for everyone. Buy it because it is unique, buy it because you are a fan, buy it because you’ll be helping doctors around the world, but most of all buy it because it is good. There need be no other reason.
Oh, and could we have Timelash next, please?
The Caves can be purchased from Bandcamp.