If you haven’t watched Doctor Who…
What the hell is wrong with you?
-Meri Amber, “One Song Summary”
I need to start with a confession: I’m actually not qualified to write this review of Meri Amber’s new album, Pop Goes the TARDIS. Why? Because it’s a concept album about Doctor Who and sadly I have not seen a single episode of that show in my entire life – not from lack of interest (anything sci-fi is right down my alley) but simply due to lack of time and also being overwhelmed by the show’s lengthy history and not knowing where to start. So, yes, what the hell is wrong with me.
On the other hand, I am a huge fan of Meri Amber and when I heard that she was releasing yet another new album I couldn’t pass up the chance to listen to it even if it meant I might have to do some sudden, intensive reading of Doctor Who-related entries on Wikipedia and get drowned in spoilers. (Did you know that… um, never mind.)
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get on with the review proper. First off, Meri Amber is an artist we’ve covered regularly here on this site, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned about her it’s that she is insanely prolific. Last fall she released the superb Super EP which we also reviewed. Then in February this year she successfully finished her first FAWM (February Album Writing Month) in which the challenge was to write 14 songs in 28 days, which she did, writing a concept album about the 90s. It’s unreleased but I’ve had the pleasure of listening to it and all 14+ songs are excellent, infectious pop. Shortly after the 90s concept album she released The Postcard Singles which was pretty much another EP containing one of my favorite songs of hers, the soaring “Not Gonna Be Me.”
If she had put out nothing more this year it would have still been mighty impressive, but Amber also released a couple of singles oriented around the interrelated themes of texting and social media (“I XOX U” and “Comment Me”). On top of that she’s even joined this summer’s 50/90, an online songwriting event similar to FAWM, but longer, in which the goal is 50 songs in 90 days, and she’s written two wonderfully geeky songs there so far, “Mega You” and “Supergirl (What in Rao’s Name?)” based on the Mega Man video games and the eponymous superhero, respectively.
Now, if you’re an artist who struggles with motivation, productivity or time management, by now you’re probably hating Meri Amber, but I’m going to give you just one more reason to hate her even more (though if you’re a Doctor Who fan you’re going to absolutely love her for it): she’s just released yet another freaking album, this one a concept album about Doctor Who – yes, that’s right, thirteen songs all devoted to the long-running British sci-fi show in which a guy travels space and time in a blue police box.
The Super EP witnessed Amber’s shift from simply an emerging indie musician to a big geek who was beginning to embrace her identity, but Pop Goes the TARDIS is by far the geekiest thing she’s done yet. I mean, if there were an annual award for the Geekiest Album of the Year this would totally take the cake.
The aptly titled album starter “Introduction (‘Til The Aliens Came)” sets the album on the right note, boasting Amber’s marvelous a cappella skills and transitioning about two thirds of the way into something that almost sounds like a medieval Gregorian chant – appropriate, perhaps, when one considers the near religious fervor that fans have for the Doctor Who franchise. One of the neatest things that an artist you like can do for you is to surprise you with something she hasn’t done before (and that you didn’t know she could do), and Amber does just that, evolving her sound and pushing herself vocally without abandoning her knack for hooks.
“Baby, Get Me a TARDIS” then sets the tone for the rest of the album – an upbeat number that employs a bouncy sing-rap à la “Semi-Charmed Life” and signals Amber’s shift away from the guitar-based sound of Super EP to a more electronic-based one.
While Amber’s earlier releases were also characterized by their 90s-inflected sound, Pop Goes the TARDIS sounds like she has combed through three decades’ worth of influences and genres and squeezed them all into a… well, a TARDIS. From the goth synth that opens “Exterminate” to the old-school hip-hop of “One Song Summary” to the Duran Duran homage in “Doctor Who Guest Song Mash,” the 80s share brain space here with 2000s era dance pop like in the swaggering “Doctor Stylin’” which could easily pass for something you’d hear on this week’s Top 40 countdown. All the while the 90s flavor is still quite strong in songs like the catchy “Two Hearts” which sounds like something Hanson might have written during their “MMMBop” era. There are even some soul and R&B influences peppered throughout the album.
The lyrics, as usual for Amber, are a delight and if you’re a Doctor Who fan you’ll have a blast singing along to lines like these:
It’s hard not to care when you’ve got two hearts
And you’re stuck on Mars and you can hear them screaming
It’s hard not to care when you’ve got two hearts
And you swear that you’ll help until they both stop beating
What the average music listener reading this should take away from this review is that you really don’t need to be a Whovian at all to enjoy this album. As I’ve already admitted, I wasn’t either. But you’ll have just as much fun trying to pinpoint Amber’s manifold musical influences or keeping track of the layer upon layer of sound as any Whovian would have spotting all the Easter eggs.
Given that geek musicians have historically been relegated to a niche (though I think that is quickly changing), I think that if I were myself a geek musician one of the best compliments I could receive from a listener would be that I was not just one of their favorite geek artists but one of their favorite artists period. To Meri Amber I offer this very compliment.