Omnireviewer (week of Aug. 21, 2016)

33 reviews! Holy smokes!

Television

Deadwood: Season three, episodes 10-12 — Okay, so Deadwood doesn’t get a series finale with the intentionality of The Wire and The Sopranos (whose finale was a piss-take anyway; a beautiful piss-take). But I’m not convinced that the lack of an ending actually compromises the show all that much. Deadwood’s a show about a continuing process: the formation of a community. It’s also a show about its own genre, and a critique of the classic western movie value of rugged individualism. It isn’t so much a show with tightly woven, neat narrative arcs. In that sense, it may be one of the most discursive shows ever on television. Even Orange is the New Black, discursive as it can be, walks a traceable line from the beginnings to the ends of its seasons. Deadwood doesn’t so much walk from one place to another as it, to borrow a word from a favourite character, perambulates. These final three episodes of the show are three more hours of time spent in an interesting place, populated by interesting people. The people have changed gradually, along with their community. Regardless of whether that’s the point where the show was meant to end up or not, it’s a fine place to leave off. Deadwood is one of the best series in the history of television. I’ll watch it again for sure.

Last Week Tonight: August 21, 2016 — The chartered schools segment is a bit joke-light, but segments about Ryan Lochte and getting Trump out of the race compensate, mostly.

Comedy

David Cross: Making America Great Again — Does it make me a really good person that I thought all of these jokes were very very obvious? I think it does. This is an okay special. But I really don’t think that most of the people who’ll be inclined to watch it on Netflix will come away with their views challenged, and they probably won’t laugh much either. Because, when you laugh at, for instance, a great bit by Louis C.K., you’re laughing because he’s helping you see a thing in a way you hadn’t been able to see it before, because it was counterintuitive until it was communicated in a certain way. (“People have to do their favourite thing!”) David Cross has a few of those moments. There’s a completely brutal, absolutely wonderful bit about guns in schools that is a real highlight. But depending on who you are, most of these jokes will either make you very angry, or make you feel validated. That’s what Facebook does, and I hate Facebook. Comedy for the age of the viral mill. 

Music

The Tragically Hip: Fully Completely — Definitely not as good as Day For Night. I understand that this is the album where the Hip “broke through,” but they still sound a bit like a very good pub band on this. A very good pub band with several obvious hits in their set and extremely high-calibre lyrics, but still. “Nautical Disaster” is in a different universe to this music. I’ll still probably listen to it a bunch, because it’s compelling nonetheless. And I do have this one very large caveat to my general indifference: “Wheat Kings” is glorious. It tells a bittersweet story by way of small images, and it ties that story inextricably to its setting. And it does all of this in three verses and a minimalistic chorus. The band always plays beautifully in these acoustic ballads, and Downie’s voice delivers pathos without ever stepping over the line into indulgence. “Wheat Kings” easily eclipses the rest of the album, but that’s not so much an indictment of Fully Completely as a demonstration of this particular song’s power.

The Knights: The Ground Beneath Our Feet — I like it when a classical disc is programmed around an idea. This live recording by a new music ensemble I hadn’t heard before is based around the concept of the concerto grosso — a form where a small group of instruments is pitted against a larger group. It’s a broad enough notion that it can encompass a huge range of musical styles. The record is divided into halves that can roughly be characterized as “old stalwarts” and “proper new music.” The oldest of the stalwarts is Bach, whose Concerto for Violin and Oboe is well played here. I wonder why they didn’t go for Corelli, given his importance to the concerto grosso as a genre. Nonetheless, in this setting, Bach shines. It may be simply the company he’s keeping on this record, but it occurs to me that he’s got a more modern sensibility than many composers who came after. It’s got to do with his working within rule structures rather than prioritizing a personal idiom. Compared to, say, Beethoven, he’s a glib hipster. Historically, the next figure on the program is Stravinsky, whose Dumbarton Oaks concerto is an absolute gem that I’d never heard before. I’ve always loved Stravinsky’s neo-classical works, for similar reasons to why I love Bach. There’s something unforced about both of those bodies of work, but still beautiful. The other stalwart is the ubiquitous new music god Steve Reich, whose Duet for Two Violins and Strings finds him in a meditative mood. It’s quite wonderful. As for the proper new music, we’ve got two collaborative compositions. The first, by Brooklyn Rider’s Colin Jacobsen (whose music I adored on A Walking Fire) and the santur virtuoso Siamak Aghaei, is a double concerto for their two instruments. It has its moments, but it’s the weak point of the disc by a long shot. The second, the disc’s title track, is collaboratively composed (semi-improvised?) by various members of the ensemble. It’s based on a ground bass by the obscure Italian Baroque composer Tarquino Merula (get it? Ground beneath our feet?) and when it picks up, it’s absolutely thrilling and often ridiculous and stupid, which are characteristics I like in new music. This is the kind of disc that I really love from classical-derived ensembles these days. It devotes half of its running time to traditional but not overplayed selections from the rep, and the other half to taking risks. Whether the risks pay off or not is almost beside the point, though I’d say that about half of the new material on this disc is really good. I don’t review all of the classical music I listen to on this blog, because I listen for work, and a lot of the time I don’t make it through the whole disc. But I have heard a bunch of classical recordings from this year, and this is one of the standouts.

Literature, etc.

Lois Tyson: Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide — You may have realized that there are never any books or stories in Omnireviewer these days. I mean, I’ve been busy. But I’ve also been catching up with a lot of my favourite bloggers (whose work I don’t review because of my rabbit-hole rule, see Omnireviewer no. 1). And I’ve been reading this. Tyson’s prose is engaging and she takes on the explicit role of a teacher throughout, and not just a scholar. It’s trivial to breeze through a chapter on a long bus commute. I’ve done so on three commutes, now: one each devoted to the chapters on psychoanalysis, Marxism and feminism. The really great thing about this is how the chapters are structured. Each one starts with a series of simple explanations of the given theory’s terms and premises (sign-exchange value, materialist feminism, etc.) with even-handed accounts of the debates within these scholarly communities, and concludes with a practical application of each theory to The Great Gatsby: a short, good book that everybody has read. I have no specific need for these theories in my own work at the moment, but I do hope to do some of the sort of writing where they could be useful in the near future. I’d recommend this to anybody who wants to sharpen their criticism chops.

Tom Scocca: “Gawker Was Murdered By Gaslight” — I find many defences of Gawker’s ethics a little dubious, but there’s no arguing with Scocca when he says that the publication’s practices don’t really have anything to do with why it is ceasing to exist. The fact that we’re living in a world where journalism outfits have no legal defence against powerful rich people with vendettas makes me very uncomfortable.

Nick Denton: “How Things Work” — Denton comes off as a bit compromising in Scocca’s piece, but here he gets to be an idealist. Not a kind of idealist I like, mind you. The idea that Gawker’s goal was to “reduce the friction between the thought and the page” troubles me. There should be things that keep you from saying exactly what you think in public forums. Lots of things. People’s unfiltered thoughts are dangerous garbage. But I understand Denton’s impulse towards radical freedom of information in principle, even if it was practiced poorly. Plus, the site’s ahead-of-the-curve realization that a form of intensely critical journalism was needed to cover the new powerbrokers in Silicon Valley is a major moment in the culture of the internet. Which, of course, only makes the source of its demise more ironic and troubling.

Joseph and Amanda Boyden: “For Gord Downie, Seven Love Songs” — I mean, it’s a bit gushy. It’s a bit like rock criticism of old, where the subject is to be idolized and venerated. But, come on. The Boydens are friends of the Hip. They deserve to wax grandly poetic in public for a few thousand words. I think I’m done reading about the Hip now.

Jorge Luis Borges: The Book of Imaginary Beings — I found this for six bucks at one of my favourite used bookstores (MacLaod’s on Pender; seriously, it’s the best shop wander in the city) and figured what the hell. Trust Borges to elevate the encyclopaedia to literary status. This is literally what it says on the cover: an alphabetical listing of fictional beasts from various cultures. Most are described in Borges’s own prose, translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, working with Borges himself, but some are simply extracts from the prose of local experts. It’s not meant to be read from cover to cover, so I won’t. I’ll just keep it around and pick through it occasionally. A few highlights so far: the entry on the Squonk of Pennsylvania is excerpted from a guidebook by William T. Cox, which is the source for the Genesis song of the same name. Borges’s entry on the Golem focusses in a fascinating way on the idiosyncrasies of Kabbalistic magic. Also, there is apparently a fictional monkey in northern China that is only about four inches tall, jet black, and likes to drink India ink. It is described as waiting patiently with one forepaw resting on the other, until a person is finished writing, and then it drinks whatever ink is left in the inkwell, resting satisfiedly afterwards. Adorbs.  

Thomas Ligotti: “Teatro Grottesco” — It is good/terrible to be back in the world of Ligotti. The title story from the collection I’m reading proves not only to have the most demonstrative and catchy title, but also to be one of the highlights of the book. I’d place it alongside “The Red Tower” as the best I’ve read so far. It’s a story about weird art, written by one of the great weird artists. And, though it doesn’t obsess over its own structure as much as “The Red Tower” does, it is equally concerned with concepts and processes. Several pages are just the protagonist agonizing over what logical process could bring down the nebulous force called the Teatro, and it’s fascinating and horrifying. There’s not much to say about this without explaining the mystery away, so I’ll just encourage you to read it when it’s dark and shitty and you want to feel unsettled. Pick of the week.

Games

Pokémon Go — I don’t get it. I really don’t. It’s possible that I’m just doing it wrong, but I found so few Pokémon during the half-day I spent periodically doing this thing that I have very little inclination to continue. I have no prejudice against “casual games,” but I do tend to prefer when games are discrete units of experience with beginnings and endings, like movies. They fit into my life better that way, because I can decide that I’m going to devote X hours to them, and then be done forever. (Regular readers will know that I’m especially predisposed to games that only take a few hours to beat. I like my games to be as much like movies as possible.) Games with the potential to expand outward into the rest of my life are more inconvenient than anything. I don’t think I’m going to get into this.

Podcasts

Theory of Everything: “pass” — I’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating. It’s a not entirely comedic monologue about what happens when the self-driving cars become self-aware. Walker is a really good writer, and I’m just as happy for him to do stuff like this as I am to hear him do docs.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch” You’re Listening To Delilah” — This is worthwhile just to hear the rapport between Linda Holmes and David Greene, whose show I have never heard because I am neither American nor a morning person. I have also never heard Delilah’s radio program, which is one of those funny artefacts that’s just as much a part of a place as an old road or a gaudy neon sign. This interview is really great, though, because it demonstrates why she’s exactly the right person to be doing this job, and it also puts her opposite Greene, who gets to be a radio listener in the context of this piece, as well as a radio personality. Fun.

99% Invisible: “Photo Credit” — The best episode of 99pi in a while. Lucia Moholy took iconic photographs of Bauhaus architecture and Walter Gropius, like a shit, denied her any credit for years. This contains some basic context about the Bauhaus, a diversion into copyright law as applied to photographic images, and also Nazis. Fantastic.

The Heart: “The Big House” — The memoir of a dominatrix brought to life. This doesn’t even really need to have a narrative arc to be fascinating. It’s a glimpse inside a world most people will never see, for our own various reasons.

All Songs Considered: “Bon Iver, the White Stripes, Ed Harcourt, Lambchop, More” — I’ve always resisted Bon Iver, but I really liked this track, I’ve got to say. I may even listen to the album. I was also super into the tracks by LVL UP and Lambchop. I want to like the instrumental, percussion-heavy track from Thor and Friends but I actually thought it was pretty bland. Good episode altogether, though.

The Gist: “The ‘80s Really Were the Best” — Were they, though? Both host and interviewee are very nostalgic for the original Ghostbusters, and I cannot figure out why the hell anybody still gives that movie the time of day. But I can listen to Pesca talk about anything.

Planet Money: “Oil,” episodes 3-5 — My podcast feed is obsessed with fracking, these days. This series was a wonderful, wild venture, and the contextual stories about the invention of fracking (by accident, no less) and how oil got into all of our consumer products are just as interesting as the tale of two intrepid NPR producers trying (and failing) to make a profit off of 100 barrels of oil. The mini-series finale is a lovely speculative exploration of how history might have unfolded differently if there were no fossil fuels. It is in itself a really great podcast episode that I think everybody should hear.

On The Media: “Bob’s Grill” parts 1-4 — This is a brilliant concept for an ongoing series of mini-episodes: Bob Garfield grilling people in the media who’ve been shitty. It isn’t uniformly great listening, but it’ll scratch the itch. These four focus on Judith Miller, who misreported on the alleged presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Hunter Moore, a revenge porn enabler who is the honest to god scum of the earth, James O’Keefe, a gotcha videojournalist who habitually distorts quotes and manipulates footage, and ExxonMobil’s Richard Keil, who denies that Exxon funds climate change denial. Garfield is adequately hard on Miller and Keil, but he doesn’t corner O’Keefe as thoroughly as I’d like. The real disappointment is Hunter Moore, whose very existence seems to depress Garfield so thoroughly that he can’t tear into him adequately.  

Code Switch: “Struggling School, Or Sanctuary?” — This is a crossover with Embedded, a podcast I likely won’t listen to, because I hate “ostentatious journalism,” even when the reporting is solid. But this story of a low-performing school in a predominantly black suburb that got closed down is a real heartbreaker. I’m reminded of This American Life’s two-parter about Harper high school. It’s not quite that good, but worth a listen.

The Sporkful: “Beyond Pot Brownies” — Dan Pashman and Jad Abumrad getting high together was not something I knew I needed in my life. But, there you go. Pashman’s key point in this episode are that in order for weed edibles to provide a good eating experience, in tandem with the intoxication experience, you need to be able to eat a full serving of whatever the weed’s baked into and not go out of your mind. It makes you wonder if some point in the future, weed edibles will become something like beer or wine, as opposed to being like tequila shots: you consume them for both halves of the experience, the taste and the high. I’m not super sure what Abumrad and the other Radiolab staffers are doing here. There’s a great moment when Jad gets too high and the sound design goes all Jad, to the point where I halfway thought he must have done it. The credits proved me wrong, alas. Maybe the Radiolab folks are just infamous stoners in the WNYC building?

This American Life: “The Incredible Case of the P.I. Moms” — Holy moly. This is honest to god the most enthralling radio I’ve heard in weeks. I love a lot of shows for a lot of reasons, but I really understand why TAL maintains its radio dominance: it can string you along like nothing else. This is a twisting, turning, film noir of a story about a horrible person who tried to make a reality show by committing crimes and staging stings — with a troupe of “soccer moms” who doubled as P.I.s. It’s amazing. I heard Ira Glass speak one time and he said that storytelling is as simple as saying what happens, and then what happens next, and then what happens next. This story could serve as proof-of-concept for that idea. Pick of the week.

Radiolab: “Playing God” — A good week for the juggernauts. This is a deep dive into the ethical considerations involved with hospital triage. It’s a collaboration with the New York Times, and their reporter Sheri Fink, who wrote that book about the hospital in Hurricane Katrina that I’ve been meaning to read since it came out. This hour asks the impossible questions that Radiolab always does at its best, and tells engaging stories. It’s got some great original music. It also has an incredible line from Robert Krulwich at the very end. It’s their best of the year for sure, not counting every episode of More Perfect

Sampler: “Paul F. Tompkins, The Mayor of Podcastland” — I listened to this in the hopes that it would make Paul F. Tompkins’ massive offering in the medium of podcasts more approachable and comprehensible. It didn’t, but I did get a great interview with Paul F. Tompkins, and that’s not nothing.

The Gist: “The Year Nirvana Lost Out to Bryan Adams” — Mike Pesca should not sing Hamilton parodies. But he should definitely keep talking to this music critic, who I’ve heard on this show a couple of times now, and he’s always great. And at least Pesca’s a bit less religious about fucking Ghostbusters this time around.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Stranger Things Creators The Duffer Brothers” — I am beyond excited to finally watch this series. Next week.

99% Invisible: “On Average” — Man, I feel like it’s two years ago. This week, I’ve listened to two great new 99pi episodes, and the other best shows of the week are This American Life and Radiolab. This piece on why designing things for “the average person” is a bad idea should serve as a parable for anybody making anything ever. But, even as a straightforward piece of journalism, it’s a remarkable story about how a seemingly good idea got way out of hand.

Code Switch: “Nate Parker’s Past, His Present, And The Future of ‘The Birth of a Nation’” — A nuanced, complex discussion of whether or not Nate Parker’s very righteous movie about a slave rebellion ought to functionally expunge his past as an alleged rapist. And, nuanced and complex as it is, it mercifully comes to a conclusion nonetheless. The answer is no. No it shouldn’t.

All Songs Considered: “The Beatles are Live And Sounding Better Than Ever” — Giles Martin is as much a gentleman as his father. And he’s also doing God’s work by cleaning up old live Beatles records. I can’t wait to hear the new Hollywood Bowl reissue. Even considering that those years are not my favourite part of the Beatles’ career, it’s really exciting to have these recordings back, and sounding good.

Reply All: “Making Friends” — This is a lovely story of a person who is living on a fine line between mental illness and a healthy imagination. She has four imaginary friends who help her through her life. She belongs to a community of people who have these so-called “tulpas” (a great, great word), but she’s also trying to exist within the institutions of conventional human society (for example, marriage). One thing I love about Reply All is that, being focussed on the internet and the communities that form there, it covers a vast swathe of humanity. All of the strange, wondrous, troubling corners of modern human experience are fair game on this show.

Theory of Everything: “revolutionary slogans will be written by the winners” — The story of a definitely totally real drinking contest between Guy Debord and Mitt Romney. There’s only one podcast that could happen on.

Science Vs: “Organic Food” — Here’s another issue with this new show that I desperately want to love: when the science is inconclusive, it makes for frustrating radio. I’m going to keep listening to this, though, because its best moments are truly great.

Omnireviewer (week of Aug. 14)

16 reviews. What on earth have I been doing? (Playing my new accordion. That’s what I’ve been doing.)

Movies

Shadow of a Doubt — I haven’t seen a lot of Hitchcock, and I honestly find him a mixed bag. I do not share the rest of the world’s reverence for Vertigo, and I think that Psycho is essentially saved by Bernard Herrmann. But I enjoyed this movie, screening at the Cinémathèque, on a number of levels. First off, the structure of establishing at the start that Joseph Cotten’s character is being chased and may be guilty of something terrible, and then avoiding the reveal for most of the movie worked brilliantly for me. In terms of the things that are happening for the bulk of the running time, this is mostly a comedic family portrait (it’s co-written by Thornton Wilder) with a Hitchcock-shaped cloud hanging over it. The tension of not knowing what Cotten did, or if he did it, is heightened by the fact that the family’s interactions are such a pleasure to watch. In fact, if there’s a real problem with this movie, it’s that the small-town comedy of manners is a better movie than the thriller it lives inside. The precocious young girl Ann is a complete scene stealer. And Herb the eccentric neighbour is far and away the best thing in this movie. I’m uncertain if some of the things I found funny were actually meant to be. Certainly, some of the laughter in the theatre was at the expense of the old-timey values espoused by the script. (“No champagne for me,” says the local priest. “And none for my wife, I’m sure!”) But there’s a fine line between reading the film as openly misogynistic and patriarchal and reading it as a critique of those same ideologies. It seems I prefer lesser-known Hitchcock movies to the critical juggernauts. As it stands, this is neck-and-neck with Saboteur for the mantle of my favourite Hitchcock movie. Bearing in mind that I have problems with both of them.

Television

Deadwood: Season three, episodes 7-9 — This is still great. In fact, two of these three episodes probably rank alongside season two’s best. “Unauthorized Cinnamon” in particular is just a classic hour. But “Amateur Night” is a joy as well, because it makes Brian Cox, a relative newcomer to the show, into an audience surrogate: he and we are both just enjoying the usual business of being in Deadwood. If this show manages to screw up the landing as badly as everybody says it does, it’ll have to do it real fast, because there are only three hours left and this season is still brilliant.

Last Week Tonight: August 14, 2016 — Neither here nor there. It’s fine, but it’s probably the least excellent episode so far this season. I have no further thoughts.

Comedy

Louis C.K.: Live at the Beacon Theatre — The first time I watched this it completely blew me away. I’ve cited it as my favourite stand up special on at least a few occasions. It holds up. Louis is amazing down to the tiny details, like “he sticks his face right in the front of his fuckin’ head…” His bit about not giving his first-class airplane seat to a soldier is possibly the definitive Louis C.K. bit, and there are few comedy bits with more repeat value than the segment on the evil child called Jizanthapus. I do think that even in the few years since this, he’s matured a bit in terms of knowing what he probably shouldn’t say. His bit about First Nations peoples is well-intentioned, but still stereotypes massively. His bit about men being bad at sex is similarly well-intentioned, but heteronormative. You take the good with the bad, I suppose. This is still a very, very good comedy special.

Music

St. Vincent: St. Vincent — Unbeknownst to me, this was my first exposure to John Congleton. He and St. Vincent are a great match, because he’s very good at blending rock and electronic music, and Annie Clark is a songwriter with a modern sensibility but also a virtuoso guitarist. This is a really great album. “Rattlesnake” and “Severed Crossed Fingers” are especially irresistible. But this time through, I also developed a greater appreciation for “Regret” and “Bring Me Your Loves.”

The Tragically Hip: Day For Night — I never got into the Hip. But right now, it’s pointless to resist getting sucked up into the Hipmania that has swept the nation. And rightly so. In preparation for last night’s epochal broadcast (not reviewed for CBC reasons, and also because the knowledge that you’re witnessing history makes assessment sort of beside the point), I listened to my first Hip album. I went with Day For Night rather than Fully Completely on the strength of “Scared,” a ballad I listened to for the first time on Friday, and then immediately five more times. It’s a really good album. I won’t pretend like it’s a clear all-time favourite. There are moments that feel crashingly generic to me — only musically, though. Gord Downie’s lyrics are anything but. I completely get why this band is so important to so many people. The Hip have a distinct identity, even when a song is sonically just cookie-cutter 90s rock and roll. The songs stretch past five minutes, just for the luxury of it. It’s not a statement; they just don’t really care about economy. There are good solos to be had. But mostly, this is a showcase for the very, very good songwriting of Gord Downie, accompanied by a very competent backing band. The songs that are the most obvious heavy-hitters are classics. Aside from “Scared,” which is still my favourite, “Grace, Too,” and “Nautical Disaster” are outstanding mood pieces. Downie’s lyrics are at their very best in the latter. Also, perhaps strangely, the other song on this that made a lasting impression is “Titanic Terrarium.” I’m not even sure what it’s about, or how the various threads of lyrical imagery running through it are meant to connect. But any song that starts with the lines “Growing up in a biosphere/ no respect for bad weather” has me straight away. This is a band that’s at their best when they are at their most idiosyncratic — lending credence to my theory that it’s intense specificity that endears audiences to artists’ broader oeuvres, even if blandness isn’t necessarily a hindrance to producing gigantic hit singles. This won’t be the last I listen to the Hip, even if they are a phenomenon that will keep me slightly at arm’s length, despite their admirable efforts to welcome all. My estimation of this may be higher than it would be otherwise, owing to the zeitgeist. But regardless, this is certainly the thing that has preoccupied me most this week. Pick of the week. 

Literature, etc.

Assorted Tragically Hip-related thinkpieces (Stephen Marche in the New Yorker, Chris Koentges in Slate, Michael Barklay in Macleans) — Before I get to these, I’ll say that my favourite single example of Hip-related media on the night of the concert came from Vox TV critic Todd VanDerWerff on Twitter. VanDerWerff happened to be vacationing in Canada and watching the Olympics on CBC, and then he tweeted this: “I didn’t even choose to watch this concert. I just turned on the TV in our cabin, and it was on. Like it was mandatory Canadiana.” Yup. We’ve got a bunch of problems up here, and Gord Downie has helped point them out as poetically as anybody. But I love that this is a place where there’s a band whose final concert is your civic duty to watch. VanDerWerff rightly proposed that there is no American equivalent to this. Of the three pieces listed here, my favourite is Koentges’s in Slate, where he frames Downie’s final tour in terms of post-Terry Fox Canadian heroism. Marche’s contains the best prose in terms of quantifying the Hip’s appeal. Barklay’s goes into the most detail about Downie as a figure in the broader Canadian community of musicians. But honestly, the only reason to read all three of these is if the Hip is all you’re thinking about for a certain period of time. And, speaking as a person who had very little interest in them two weeks ago, that is definitely the mood I was in after the show.

Podcasts

The Sporkful: “Is This Pizza Worth Waiting For?” — I want pizza. Dan Pashman makes me hungry. Also, this managed to be a convincing exploration of the psychology of expectation, as well as a narrative about a legendary pizza place. It’s a subtle narrative stunt, but it’s pretty impressive radio making.

Fresh Air: “Meryl Streep” — Streep’s a dull interview. But Terry Gross does her best to get an interesting conversation going by using singing as a throughline. Streep’s there to promote her new Florence Foster Jenkins biopic, from which there is copious hilarious audio in this. Streep’s approximation of Jenkins’s terrible singing is enough to maybe compel me to see this movie. But when she talks about Jenkins, this thing happens that often happens with very empathetic actors: she gets defensive of her character. Jenkins was a bad singer. A terrible one. That’s what she’s known for. That’s why there’s a movie about her. And even though Streep had to painstakingly learn to sing in the particular bad way that Jenkins did, she still has a tendency to try and point out Jenkins’s musical virtues, of which there are none. Still, once Terry Gross moves past the new movie and starts talking to Streep about singing more broadly — as a young woman studying opera, as a professional doing Broadway, and as a major movie star in Into the Woods — things pick up.

Reply All: “Sandbox” — Most of this episode is devoted to an alternate cut of P.J. Vogt’s story about his mom and his aunt for Invisibilia. But, tellingly, this cut is substantially different and actually a fair bit better. It is framed as a story about two people using technology to interact in a way that highlights their respective idiosyncrasies — two people who happen to be Vogt’s mom and aunt. That whole intro was lopped off in Invisibilia, which takes emphasis off of some of the broader implications of the story. Maybe I’m just a Reply All partisan.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Steven Universe and Board Games” — I probably won’t watch Steven Universe, not because I’m averse to children’s entertainment, but because committing to a children’s show feels weird to me. I saw Finding Dory like the rest of the world. But I’m not putting more than a couple hours into something like that, no matter how awesomely social justicey it is. And it does sound like a really great kids’ show. The discussion of board games that follows is an odd thing. Three of the four panelists are really devoted to talking about mostly pretty traditional games that aren’t pop cultural productions in any meaningful way (spades?), and Stephen Thompson keeps hearkening back to a prior discussion of board games from a couple years prior. Ehh.

Criminal: “Eight Years” — A pretty sobering tale of ongoing, long-term internet harassment. The founder of one of the major Harry Potter fansites, from way back in pre-social media days, has been mercilessly abused by one specific, clearly mentally ill person for nearly a decade. It’s a crazy story.

Science Vs: “Guns,” parts 1 & 2 — I’ll confess to already being slightly put off by the hokey tone of this. But the content is spectacular. Wendy Zukerman cuts through rhetoric on both sides of the political spectrum — though as any reasonable person would expect, the arguments posed by the gun lobby are more thoroughly untrue than those opposing them. I’ll definitely keep listening to this.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail” — I’m not interested in this show and I’m not interested in this man.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Werner Herzog/Godfrey” — The Godfrey segment is funny because Maron’s a jerk. But like most everybody, I expect, I listened to this to hear Werner Herzog’s Bavarian deadpan for an hour. It’s a miraculous interview, in which Maron proves himself to be a far more existentially anxious person than Herzog, but only because Herzog has come to know the void that they both stare at with much more depth. Herzog has come to terms with the void. Maron’s quaking in his boots. I can’t wait for Herzog’s four upcoming movies. Pick of the week.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Get Down and TCA 2016’ — I hope Brittany Luse comes back to this show often. They ought to make her a regular fourth chair. That is essentially what’s notable about this episode, the discussion topics of which are not totally compelling to me.

Omnireviewer (week of Aug. 7, 2016)

23 reviews. That seems to be my upper limit, these days. But I’m slowly and surely catching up with my podcast backlog. Relatedly, my average running pace is getting gradually quicker.

Television

Last Week Tonight: August 7, 2016 — Jason Sudeikis’s role in the final kicker of Oliver’s journalism segment is the villain of our times. He is shiny and dumb, utterly clueless and convinced of his own rightness, and he values the new more than the good. I have met this person a number of times and so have you. Individually, they are an embuggerance. Collectively, they are an intellectual apocalypse lying in wait. Thank you, John Oliver, for leading the charge against the shiny dummies.

Deadwood: Season three, episodes 1-6 — Thus far, season three of Deadwood is scarcely less excellent than season two. Its reputation and my knowledge of its hasty cancellation leads me to expect disappointment within the next six episodes, but so far I’m just enjoying being back in this richly-drawn setting with these characters and their gutter-Shakespearean dialogue. Brian Cox is a very welcome addition to the cast, even if his character isn’t involved in anything much resembling a story at this point. George Hearst is proving a more fearsome monster even than Francis Wolcott was last season. On that note, the most interesting thing about this season so far is the vastly different power dynamic that takes hold when Al Swearengen and Cy Tolliver are no longer vying for dominance under the watchful eye of Sheriff Bullock. Such trifling matters must be put aside when an individual as powerful and ruthless as Hearst threatens this entire civilization that’s been so miraculously built from nothing. (It may not be “civil,” but Deadwood represents a civilization nonetheless.) The AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff had a great line of argument about the first season of the show: you can tell who Deadwood’s “gods” are because they assay their domain from on high. Al and Cy have their respective verandas, and the very wealthy (if comparatively retiring) Alma Garrett has her high window. Telling, then, that the first thing Hearst does when he gets into town is roughly tear a hole in the second-story outer wall of his newly-purchased hotel to fashion a crude veranda. I have no idea how the town is going to get out of Hearst’s grasp. Given the slapdash end of Deadwood’s production, I suspect they may not.

Literature, etc.

Michael Lind: “Intellectuals are Freaks” — A very valuable essay about how the life experiences of the chattering set tend to blind them (us?) to certain realities. I know many people whose life experiences have placed them in an intellectual bubble wherein there are no ideologically-opposed people to them. And look, I’m as horrified about Trump and Brexit as anybody. But I think that a certain amount of exposure to a variety of viewpoints within my own family has made me slightly less incredulous about how these things can happen. I’m still massively blinkered, I’m sure. But I know lots of people who could do to read this. I will say that Lind’s conclusion that all opinion writers and professors should spend a year working in a shopping mall or warehouse seems a bit facile to me. Surely, that’s hardly enough to counter the rest of their lives?

Bernd Brunner: “Encyclopedia Blue” — Lind’s article appeared on a site called The Smart Set, which I hadn’t heard of and decided to give a shot. I went with the article most prominently displayed on their homepage, which was this disappointingly brief article on the colour blue. It cites two full books on the topic that sound like they would be interesting. But if you’re going to do the whole “thinkpiece about a colour” thing, I think I deserve at least a couple thousand words in return for the click. Come on, now.

Music

Simon Rattle & Berlin Philharmonic: Schoenberg Orchestral Works — This is perhaps an atypical recording to be in my most listened-to classical discs ever. But, according to my iTunes play count, so it appears to be. To be fair, that stems mostly from the recording of Schoenberg’s brilliant orchestration of Brahms’ G minor piano quintet that starts the disc off. Being Brahms, it’s a long way off from the dissonant, bizarre music that Schoenberg is best known for. But it’s also got more than a little of Schoenberg’s taste for the grotesque in it. The rapid string passages and loud percussion of the first movement conjure similarly nightmarish images to Schoenberg’s own early works, Erwartung in particular. Given that this is the only recording of this orchestration that I’ve heard, it’s hard to say how much of this is there in the score and how much of it is Simon Rattle leaning hard into the Schoenberg side of the Brahms-Schoenberg collaboration. But it’s exciting music, marvellously played. I listen to it more than any recording of an actual Brahms symphony. The Schoenberg originals that follow it keep the pace admirably, though I find myself listening to them less. Accompanying Music to a Film Scene is the one piece here that casual listeners might find distressing. In the absence of memorable melodic material, Schoenberg’s virtuosic orchestrations hold the attention. He really doesn’t get enough credit for his talents in that area. This recording of the Chamber Symphony No. 1 isn’t my preferred one — I do tend to like it it best in its original chamber orchestra scoring. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s recording is the real classic, I think. This music calls out for a one-per-part approach. There’s something about that feeling that you’re dealing with individuals rather than sections that makes the music easier to keep track of, somehow. But it’s hard to complain when it’s played as well as the Berlin Phil plays it here. An idiosyncratic favourite, I suppose. But I’d recommend it unreservedly to anybody who’s interested at all in classical music.

Kyle Craft: “Before the Wall” — A beautifully-timed old-school folky protest song about Trump’s wall. Given that you can record and release songs so easily now, I don’t know why social isn’t being constantly flooded with latter-day Woody Guthries and Pete Seegers, having their say about The Big Thing, and following in step with the news cycle. The kinds of contemporary, time-hooked songs you could write in a day and perform at a club that evening in the ‘60s are now the kinds of songs that you can write and record in one, two days and throw online to a potentially much bigger audience. Is this happening? Am I just in an echo chamber? Are we all? In any case, this song is tremendously moving at this specific moment in time. It will inevitably mean less next year, but that’s not the point. Kyle Craft now has his album — his big statement of arrival that I’ll probably be listening to for years — and this single, which in an equitable world would introduce him to a much larger audience, if only for a short time. “If the wall it goes up and your Jesus comes back/And he knocks on the door will you stand to attack/If he don’t have his papers and he don’t have much cash/Would you take him in, jail him, or just send him back?” Pick of the week.

Games

Sunless Sea — This remains my favourite game to return to. I played a fair bit this week, and I actually chose to end the story of my longtime character, when he finished a particular matter that led him through a vast gate to the far north of the game’s world, and onward to his poetic death. That is the sort of thing that can happen in Sunless Sea. I confess to being slightly disappointed with the sendoff that Captain Webern got. (Yes, I name my video game characters after avant-garde composers. Are you really surprised?) But my new character, Captain Alban (yeah, I know, Alban Berg died before Anton Webern; but who’s counting?) will certainly find his way to the corners of the game that Webern never managed to survey. If it seems like I’m strangely invested in this, I am. Sunless Sea is one of the great works of fiction of our time. I urge anybody with any inclination towards games at all to check it out.

Podcasts

Invisibilia: “Outside In” — Hanna Rosin has been a good addition to this team, but this season has still been weaker, all-in-all, than the first. It’s unfortunate that this final episode of the season is one of its strongest, with two major segments produced by outsiders. I’ll likely switch this over to an occasional listen, rather than a commitment next season.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: MTV Classic” — I’m so glad that Stephen Thompson works at NPR. His Onion roots show through frequently, and that’s a nice thing to have on current affairs radio.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Match Game” — This is seven minutes of Glen Weldon being extremely funny and Stephen Thompson delighting in how funny Glen Weldon’s being. You’ll notice that my responses to this show are as much about the people on it as the things they talk about. That’s the mark of a good panel show, I think. The people who actually make this show may disagree, who knows.

The Heart: “BFF” — This diary series is going to be great. This opening episode is everything you want from The Heart: it’s intimate, irreverent, beautifully produced, and yeah, kind of hot. Also, it’s got great music. I feel like I never have anything substantive to say about The Heart, but it really is one of my favourite podcasts.

99% Invisible: “The Magic Bureaucrat” — Welfare is a sticky topic, and I do not personally have any time for arguments against it. But this story about how the Bill Clinton-era welfare reforms (which I think were a travesty) were designed is really interesting because it folds a policy-making process story into the rhetoric that’s spouted by some of the sources here. It also contains horrific anti-welfare propaganda music. Worth a listen.

Reply All: “Dead is Paul” — This entire episode is devoted to a recurring segment, which is kind of the journalism equivalent of a bottle episode. But I have never been disinterested in P.J. Vogt and Alexes Goldman and Blumberg together in a studio. This is good fun, and very much the sort of thing that I look to podcasts to contribute to my life.

Code Switch: “What Does ‘Objectivity’ Mean to Journalists of Color?” — It’s great to hear some journalists of colour talking specifically about how they deal with reporting on Trump, given that he has been so outspoken in his racism. Pilar Marrero from La Opinion is particularly trenchant: her paper has no problem calling Donald Trump racist, because there is a preponderance of evidence that this is the case. There’s a bit of debate about this point in this episode, and it’s interesting, but nobody ever really quite eclipses Marrero’s analysis.

Theory of Everything: “The art of the deal” — This is just a flat-out conspiracy theory, which is exactly the sort of thing I want from this show. It starts off reasonably enough, but it ends with Donald Trump’s sons fighting ISIS on reality TV. Lovely.

All Songs Considered: “A Conversation With Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood” — Greenwood is a reticent fellow, and not a very good interview. But there are gems littered throughout this, like the fact that “Burn the Witch” is the first Radiohead song that’s been built on strings, rather than having strings added after the fact. I should probably listen to A Moon Shaped Pool again. The cuts Bob Boilen plays here are better than I remember.

99% Invisible: A Sea Worth its Salt” — This story about the fraught preservation efforts being put towards the Salton Sea in California is not quite as compelling somehow as the earlier story about the ruins of California’s public baths. It may seem a strange comparison, but they’re both stories about things that have dubious cases for preservation, though the Salton Sea’s dubiousness seems less dubious.

The Memory Palace: “Dreamland” — Another lovely, elegiac prose poem. This one comes from the back catalogue, but I haven’t been listening long enough to have heard it. It hones in on a specific element of Dreamland — a Coney Island theme park that burned down in 1911 — that’s really poignant: at this time, when travel was prohibitively expensive or inconvenient, this was a way for people living nearby to feel like they’d escaped their surroundings. That makes its destruction more tragic.

Code Switch: “Say My Name, Say My Name (Correctly, Please)” — A deep, funny discussion of why it sucks when people say your name wrong. I have never dealt with this, so it’s probably good for me to hear other people’s experiences with it.

All Songs Considered: “Blood Orange, NAO, Joyce Manor, Factory Floor, More” — Daoud Tyler-Ameen and Saidah Blount are always great to hear from, and they play some good tracks here. I was particularly taken by Swet Shop Boys “T5,” which makes me suspect I should probably check out more that Heems has been involved with.

Planet Money: “Oil,” episodes 1 & 2  — Oh, yes. This is what I want to listen to for the next few weeks. The team at Planet Money are learning about the oil business from the inside. By which I mean, they actually bought a hundred barrels of crude oil with cash and they are planning to transport, refine and sell it. Perhaps the gonzo spirit of Alex Blumberg survived his departure from this show. Pick of the week.

The Gist: “Mike Birbiglia and Ira Glass Followed the Fear Here” — Interviewing Birbiglia and Glass together is something you can just expect from Mike Pesca, I suppose. It’s more interesting than the other Birbiglia interviews I’ve heard surrounding Don’t Think Twice. This episode also contains an amusing riff on podcast tropes as pertaining to Hillary Clinton’s new (real) podcast. Also, this contains the second seemingly unmotivated Yes reference I’ve heard in this podcast in the relatively short time I’ve been listening to it — and I’ve only been listening occasionally. I’m impressed.

Imaginary Worlds: “Finding My Voice” — Maybe it’s a bit narcissistic of Molinsky to just bring in his old editor to talk about his development as a producer. But the actual stories here are interesting. And for those of us trying to figure out radio, it’s actually interesting all the way through. 

Omnireviewer (week of Jul. 31, 2016)

It’s been quite the week. I MCed a wedding and then climbed a mountain. Stay tuned for more on that. In the meantime, it’s been a week of mostly doing stuff that people around me were doing. And also listening to podcasts. A rather slight 20 reviews.

Movies

Meru — This is a deeply nerve-wracking documentary about three guys trying to make the first ascent of Mount Meru, a treacherous and technical climb. I watched it with my mountain geek friend with whom I had just done a teeny-tiny (yet quite eventful) climb in Canmore. It’s got some beautiful photography by Jimmy Chin, one of the climbers in the party. And it has been shaped into a narrative with stakes by introducing backstories for all three climbers. What these guys went through on the mountain is extraordinary. And the movie manages to make them seem merely compulsive and not actually insane. It seems for climbers, there’s no glamour in recklessness. These are smart people who want the world to know that they’re not just risk-seekers; they do this sort of thing because they are hyper-competent. I’d love to see this in a theatre.

Games

Mario Kart 64/Star Wars Episode I: Racer/F-1 World Grand Prix — A couple of friends and I spent a relaxing evening playing racing games for the Nintendo 64, a side of that platform that I never really explored when I used to play it. Of these three, Mario Kart 64 is the clear winner, of course. And not only that, but it also handily excels over its more modern iterations. In my limited experience of Mario Kart 8, there’s so much crap all over the screen, and such complicated tracks, that it detracts from the experience. The simpler, the better. And as for the Star Wars podracer, it is certainly better as a racing game than it was as a scene in a movie. It’s still a tad complicated. As hovercraft racing games for N64 go, it’s no F-Zero X. I never really got the hang of F-1 World Grand Prix. It’s obviously the only one of the three that makes any motion towards realism. But that feels strangely beside the point, to me. Give me homing turtle shells and Chain Chomps any day.

Television

Last Week Tonight: July 31, 2016 — This is actually better than his episode on the Republican convention. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Oliver more genuinely angry than when he refutes Trump’s response to Khizr Khan’s speech. It’s the first time he’s stepped away from glib amusement and occasional pathos and veered towards Jon Stewart’s old territory of righteous indignation. Beautiful stuff.

Music

The Decemberists: The Crane Wife — My Decemberists journey essentially ended with loving Picaresque as much as everybody and checking out The Hazards of Love to see if it’s as bad as they say. (It’s not; it’s brilliant.) It’s time I checked out the rest of the catalogue, I think. This seemed to have been the most egregious gap in my experience, since it’s about equal to Picaresque in terms of fan acclaim. And while on first listen I think that there are a few more middling tracks on this than there are on Picaresque (“Yankee Bayonet” and “Summersong” evaporated upon finishing), it also has some of the most beautiful music I’ve heard from this band. All three parts of the title track, “O Valencia!,” “When the War Came” and “After the Bombs” are all lovely story-songs in the vein of the best tracks on Picaresque. Colin Meloy’s lyrics are more traditionally “lyrical” here than on that album, wherein he wrote almost exclusively “ballads” — not in the sense of slow songs, but in the romantic sense of rhyming stanzas that relate whimsical narratives. Rather than focusing on what happens to a character, as is the case on “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” for instance, the songs on The Crane Wife make more of an attempt to tell the emotional, interior story: especially on the title suite. But the real surprise on this is “The Island,” a prog epic that sounds more like Thick as a Brick than anything from The Hazards of Love. While I’d hesitate to call it a lyrical highlight, the band’s playing on this track is absolutely top-notch, and it’s got some fabulous riffs and a wonderful arrangement. In fact, on this album the band has upped their instrumental performances substantially. To keep our comparisons in the progressive story-song milieu, it’s like the sound transition from Foxtrot to Selling England by the Pound. A beautiful, cathartic album that I will revisit frequently. Pick of the week.

Kyle Craft: Live on KEXP — He’s a little pitchy in “Pentecost,” but altogether, holy smokes he’s great live, too. Plus, he’s got that slightly nervous manner that you want from a rootsy singer who claims to have been living under a pool table. Who can I drag to a Kyle Craft concert?

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Stranger Things and Weddings” — Having listened to this the morning after MCing a wedding (highly recommended experience), the second part of this discussion had extra resonance. I can confirm that weddings are definitely not always boring and shitty, even if the panel is right to point out that they are very much a lazy trope much of pop culture. Stranger Things is very much on my to-do list, though I’ll need to decide whether I’m going to get back to Deadwood first.

Love and Radio: “On The Shore Dimly Seen” — Alright, this is what I’m talking about. Love and Radio has been doing solid public service during its off season by programming inventive features by other producers. Nick van der Kolk introduces this semi-documentary by producer Gregory Whitehead by saying that you can’t find this guy’s work online all that easily. Ironic that some of the most experimental audio productions are still coming out of terrestrial radio operations like the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I really want there to be more of this kind of experimental radio available in the podcast world. Although there’s a whiff of art school self-seriousness around this piece about torture in Guantanamo, I appreciate it for taking a risk in presenting information in a new way. This is very nearly an oratorio (much of it is sung), taking its text from interview transcripts and government documents. More than any radio I’ve heard, it reminds me of Ted Hearne’s The Source, which is explicitly labelled as an oratorio. Self-seriousness aside, I want to hear more like this. If radio/podcast producers accepted the premise that you can tell stories in a way that has nothing to do with This American Life, there would likely be more noble failures out there, but there would also be more like this.

Invisibilia: “The Secret Emotional Life of Clothes” — There are six stories in this episode and I’d say one of them is great: the very last one, about a Jewish concentration camp prisoner who was able to keep his head down by wearing a Nazi shirt. He went on to become one of the great tailors in America, having dressed three presidents and a vast range of celebrities. The rest of this is forgettable.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Comic-Con Dispatches” — It’s always interesting to hear the work that these panelists do elsewhere at NPR. Glen Weldon’s piece on hard SF offers no new perspective, but Petra Mayer’s Wonder Woman celebration is lovely. It’s especially great that she talks only to women.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Jason Bourne and Suicide Squad” — I’m behind on this, and every other podcast. But I couldn’t resist jumping ahead to hear what they had to say about these two apparently pretty bad movies. Jason Bourne sounds more superfluous than anything, and I think I’ll just stick with the original trilogy, thanks. But Suicide Squad sounds like a complete disaster, and this conversation between Glen Weldon and Chris Klimek about why that is may be the best thing to come out of it. On that note, let us momentarily travel back in time…

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Swiss Army Man” — Weldon is absolutely correct that Klimek is dead wrong about this movie. Swiss Army Man is one of the best films I’ve seen in awhile, and Klimek’s assertion that it’s a short that got wrongly extended to feature length is completely ridiculous. The fact that there is this much of the Daniel Radcliffe farting corpse movie is definitely part of the joke. But that aside, I also agree with Weldon that it absolutely builds as it goes. Still, you’d be best off to heed both Weldon’s advice to see this movie and Klimek’s advice to throw a few bucks at The Nice Guys, because that’s really great too.

The Memory Palace: “Local Channels” — This story of the great swimmer Florence Chadwick is at its best when it gets elegiac near the end. I suppose The Memory Palace is seldom not elegiac. But, when DiMeo really gets to sink into a narrative of diminishment, he’s at his best. I don’t know what it says about me that I think that.

99% Invisible: “Combat Hearing Loss” — Boring and slightly markety. Hearing loss among soldiers is obviously a problem, but the design solution isn’t that clever or interesting.

Code Switch: “A Letter From Young Asian Americans, To Their Parents, About Black Lives Matter” — Kat Chow remains a secret weapon of this podcast. This episode is another of those that sheds light on something that isn’t necessarily hitting the big headlines, but is massively consequential to communities that I don’t belong to. This is why I listen to this show.

Imaginary Worlds: “Legacy of Octavia Butler” — I’m finding that when Molinsky focuses on a specific text or artist in a single episode, he can get a little dull. It’s easy to just explore abstractly in this format, whereas when you take a specific concept that could apply meaningfully to a number of texts, like the relationship of economics to genre fiction, you’ve got to do some real thinking. So, this one’s mixed.

Reply All: “The Picture Taker” — The Super Tech Support that anchors this episode is firmly in the middle of the pack as they go, but P.J. Vogt’s constant interjections make it worthwhile. He has a real knack for taking serious, grown-up problems and phrasing them in terms of man babies living in fantasy worlds. Also, the half-episode of Science Vs that’s tacked on her is very, very promising. About which more promptly.

StartUp: “Introducing Science Vs” — This whole “only put half the episode in the established podcasts’ feeds” strategy is a good one, because now I’m subscribed to Science Vs. And I don’t even feel like I’ve been suckered. This show is great. I’d say it’s starting off strong, but of course it’s been on in Australia for a full year already. The only real reason to listen to this episode of StartUp instead of just heading straight for the new show’s own feed is that you get to hear a bit about the acquisition, which is interesting to those of us who like geeking out about the insider world of podcasting. (Do you subscribe to the Hot Pod newsletter? You should.)

Science Vs: “Attachment Parenting” — There’s a fine line between reasonably assessing problematic assertions based on science and doing whatever Richard Dawkins is up to on Twitter these days. This show is firmly on the right side of that line. It is deeply satisfying to see snake oil salesmen getting debunked, especially when the host is as funny and engaging as Wendy Zukerman. I am going to enjoy this.

Science Vs: “Fracking” — I immediately knew I was going to like this show when Wendy Zukerman and P.J. Vogt were talking in the Reply All preview of this and Vogt said he didn’t like talking about fracking because he didn’t like talking about politics — to which Zukerman immediately replied that it shouldn’t even be about politics. There are facts to be considered, and that’s that. We need this show in a time when we are so inundated by political talking points and marketing that facts are seemingly ignorable. Pick of the week.

Radiolab: “From Tree to Shining Tree” — This is amazing: trees don’t actually absorb the bulk of their own nutrients with their roots: it’s done for them by near-microscopic tube-shaped fungus. This will completely change the way you think about your primary school science classes.

Omnireviewer (week of Jul. 24, 2016)

I was underwhelmed by podcasts this week, so I’ve chosen two non-podcast picks of the week instead. And here they are at the top.

Movies

Swiss Army Man — You know this as “The Daniel Radcliffe Farting Corpse Movie.” What you don’t know is the extent to which that is exactly what it is for its entire 97-minute duration. But, in spite of And, because of its relentless devotion to its own ridiculous premise, Swiss Army Man is one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen all year. It is essentially a feature-length two-hander, with Paul Dano and Radcliffe together in almost every frame of the movie. The fact that the whole thing doesn’t come crashing down under the weight of its own childishness is largely due to the fact that Dano and Radcliffe both offer grounded, emotionally realistic performances within an absurd context. Even Radcliffe, who plays a talking (farting) corpse, gives his character a believable emotional arc. The movie’s dreamlike magical realist logic comes to life in the hands of directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who don’t get bogged down in the mechanics of what’s real and what isn’t. Instead, they turn the whole story into a visual fantasia, piling found objects one on top of the other in elaborate hallucinatory montages. It’s hard to say what, if anything, the themes of this movie are. But that seems almost beside the point. It is realistic character drama that takes place within a high-concept, gross-out, borderline trolling indie comedy that gets laughs out of subjecting a corpse to untold indignities. It almost seems like a deliberate response to assholes like me who complain ad nauseum about how there are no new ideas in the movies. But honest to god, I would take an endless stream of weird, unpredictable, probably bad movies with crazy premises like this one to another year of bland superhero blockbusters. Pick of the week.

Television

BoJack Horseman: Season 3, episodes 4-12 — This is now officially my favourite Netflix original. I loved the fourth season of OITNB, but if you take the past two seasons of both of these shows and average them out, BoJack wins by a mile. The fourth episode of this season does a thing that I wish cartoons would do more often and proceeds with almost no dialogue. It is completely virtuosic and manages to be dark and moving in the way that this show always is even while it’s doing silly sight gags for the entirety of its duration. Two episodes later, we get a wonderfully non-hand-wringy story about abortion. Episode eight is one of the most beautiful episodes of TV comedy I’ve seen since last season’s “Hank After Dark.” It addresses one of the strangest elements of storytelling, which is our tendency to root for the protagonist regardless of everything. It’s an episode where everything falls apart for all of the characters we’re supposed to care about, which results in a happy ending for a few characters we don’t. It’s brilliant. This show has everything, including one of the best casts on any current show. I may just be misremembering, but it seems to me that Alison Brie and Paul F. Tompkins have substantially upped their game this time around. Tompkins in particular is bringing out many subtler shades of Mr. Peanutbutter than existed in prior seasons. I think that this is currently my second-favourite scripted program of 2016 so far, next to Horace and Pete. Pending my capriciously changing opinions, it will beat Better Call Saul by a narrow margin. Pick of the week. 

Lost: “Solitary” — Ooh, I dunno about this. The love story segment of Sayid’s backstory is maybe the most contrived element of this show’s first season. Even Sawyer, while generally a shit character, has a better backstory than this. On the other hand, Hurley’s plot in this is one of the most beautiful moments of the season. A mixed bag.

Last Week Tonight: July 24, 2016 — This contains one of this show’s greatest moments ever and one of its most lacklustre. (Is it “most lacklustre?” Or just, “least lustrous?”) The good one is a moment where Oliver pulls a distressing if-then formulation from an interview with Newt Gingrich. In the interview — whether out of ignorance, malevolence or whatever arcane combination of the two is currently fueling the GOP — Gingrich asserts that feelings are facts. Or, at least, he fails to understand that this is not the case. Given this, Oliver provides this calculus: if candidates can create feelings, and feelings are facts, then candidates can create facts. “That is the closest thing to an actual magic spell I think I’ve ever seen,” says Oliver, and he is shudderingly correct. The least lustrous bit is the celebrity feature at the end where a bunch of major recording artists sing about how they don’t want candidates to make unauthorized use of their songs, which is a thing that happens constantly. It’s one of those things where the writers obviously just trusted that having a whole bunch of celebrities would be sufficient, so they didn’t write any jokes. (Sorry, they wrote one joke: about Spotify. And they gave it to Josh Groban to sing, because he was the only one who appeared to even care. Josh Groban loves being on TV.) This is fine. But I wish this show wouldn’t do that sort of “event” programming. They don’t need to: no matter what Oliver talks about, he’s going viral the next day.

Literature, etc.

Laurie Penny: Welcome to the Scream Room — No, this isn’t another of the Lovecraftian horror stories I’ve been so into this year. It’s a series of five posts on Medium about the 2016 Republican and Democratic conventions. Penny is a spectacular writer, almost to the point of showing off, and her existential dread at the implications of both conventions is intensely relatable. She sees the same apocalypse in the Republican convention that every sane person in the world does, but she also decries the horror of the lesser-evilism that was the spirit of the day at the Democratic convention. “Outside,” she writes, “an epic summer storm is breaking over the Democratic Demilitarized Zone like the world’s laziest metaphor.” Nearly every paragraph has a sentence that good. But the cream of the crop, and the most enraging thing I’ve read in awhile is “I’m With the Banned,” a crazy piece of first-person journalism that tells the story of Penny’s experience at the Republican National Convention with the infamous Twitter hate speech geyser Milo Yiannopoulos. Throughout the evening, she also encounters Pamela Geller, Geert Wilders, and most disturbingly, Roosh V, whose relative lack of cynicism marks him as especially dangerous. This series is a quick, engrossing read, but have something calming nearby to serve as a chaser.

John Hermann: The Content Wars — I am finally finished reading this and I am too anxious and confused to have any feelings. I will say that I highly recommend Hermann’s writing. He has a wonderful way of clearly stating what’s happening in cases where most writers would find it hard to even quantify, and rather than directly editorializing, he’ll just lapse into an intentionally glib, irony-laden voice. So, he never comes off as a prophet of doom, in spite of his considerable scepticism about the future of platforms. The sheer imperiousness of his writing makes him much harder to ignore than even highly-regarded but slightly frantic tech-sceptics like Benjamen Walker. One last lengthy quote before I leave this be forever: “Maybe at some point pundits look back at access-based journalism and think, wow, that never made sense, how rude of those weird “publications” to hold readers hostage and blackmail their subjects. The triumphalist pundits will explain this, and why it matters, but also doesn’t, and why basically everything is good and getting better, anyway. Maybe, at the same time, other pundits will lament the media’s lack of interest in certain Important things. This will be dealt with by people who will explain what is actually Important, and what does that even mean, and who, actually, you’re talking about when you accuse the media of doing or not doing something you want them to do (yourself) and why that matters, or doesn’t, and whose fault it all is. (It’s yours.)”

Music

Nils Frahm: Solo — I listened to this while I read Penny’s piece on Milo Yiannopoulos, which is probably why I didn’t claw my eyes out during the course of that. It is immensely calming without feeling cheap. Think Brian Eno and Harold Budd. It is worth hearing simply for the sound of the piano itself, which is an unconventional thing about ten feet tall. It is marvellously sonorous, and well recorded here.

Strawbs: Ghosts — This is far better than I expected this band could be after a few listens of their apparent masterpiece, Hero and Heroine, many years ago. I dare say that this is much better than that album, with even the middling tracks reaching the heights of Hero and Heroine’s best ones (“Autumn,” the title track). Both albums find them a ways from their folk origins, playing a unique sort of laid-back symphonic prog. But this one is lower on treacle. Perhaps the album doesn’t quite belong on the prog 101 syllabus, but anybody who likes that genre ought to hear its best two tracks: “Ghosts” and “The Life Auction.” My favourite ‘70s prog discovery I’ve made in a while.

The Decemberists: Picaresque — Ah, memories. I first heard this album around the time when I first became amenable to music that was made after 1975. It was an easy sell, because Colin Meloy’s theatrical story-songs smacked of Genesis. That’s not the end of their prog connection: it would only be a few years before the Decemberists would go full neo-Tull on The Hazards of Love, which I like far more than most critics did. But Picaresque is their masterpiece. Every song is good, most are excellent. This album hits that perfect mark several times, where both the melody and the lyrics have a hook simultaneously. “16 Military Wives” may be the definitive song of the George W. Bush administration, and “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is as funny and haunting as ever 11 years later. A classic.

Games

Undertale — I sunk a bunch of free hours into a second playthrough of this, and thank god. Without spoiling anything, all of this game’s endings require you to take drastically different approaches throughout. So, it actually didn’t feel like a second playthrough so much as a totally different game taking place in the same overworld. I saw completely different sides to several of the characters I encountered on my first time through. These new characterizations in no way contradict the old ones; rather they suggest that these pixelated video game characters contain multitudes and respond in drastically different ways to drastically different circumstances. But the real genius of Undertale, I’m realizing, is its capacity for staggering narrative rug-pulls. The one in my first ending was earthshaking; this one less so. But still, the fact that playing the game through once will only yield a third of the story at most is properly impressive. My initial assessment of this game as being overrated is entirely due to how tightly it holds its cards to its chest. It is in fact a marvel. And I’ve still got one ending to go.

Podcasts

Imaginary Worlds: “Ghost in the Shell” — This kind of slipped past me, honestly. I will say this: there is no defence for casting Scarlett Johansson as an Asian woman. None. I won’t see that movie. I’ll just watch the original anime. (Maybe. But probably not.)

99% Invisible: “The Mind of an Architect” — This features never-before-heard tape of several renowned architects participating in a study about human creativity. That alone should make you want to listen.

Code Switch: “Black and Blue” — This is a more structured and thoughtful extension of last week’s extra episode about the most recent spate of violence between police and black people. I’m sure the Code Switch blog always did this kind of thing, but I’m really glad that it comes directly into my podcast feed now, because there’s no way I’m going to ignore it.

Reply All: “Stolen Valor” — The main segment is a really interesting story about people who attempt to shame people who falsely wear military uniforms in public. It’s great, and does a great job of demonstrating why there are people who find this very offensive and others who are taking it way over the line. The attempt to do something, anything, on the police violence of the previous week is as good a take as you can ask for from a show that focusses on how our experiences of the world are mediated by the internet. It’s an angle I hadn’t heard before, even if it is a bit of a paltry response.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “On Endings And Road Trips” — This is a rerun, and awww, they all sound so young! It’s a fun show, and if anything it ought to clear away any notion that they’re treading water these days, because the panel is actually less engaged-sounding here than they are on 2016 episodes.

On The Media: “The Country of the Future” — A bit of appealingly self-conscious parachute journalism from Bob Garfield and Alana Casanova-Burgess. This will be really edifying for anybody who doesn’t know anything about the Brazilian media. Considering that Brazil has a controversial publicly-funded broadcaster, I’d actually like to see more Canadian journalists take these topics on. The implications for our audience would be dramatically different from those for Garfield’s presumed American one.

All Songs Considered: “My Cell Phone Rights At Shows Vs. Yours” — This isn’t a reasoned debate so much as it’s just Boilen’s platitudes vs. Hilton’s curmudgeonliness. Maybe this would connect with me if I went to more concerts.

More Perfect: “Object Anyway” — This is only tangentially related to the Supreme Court, but the history of racism in jury selection, and the ineffective rules put in place to prevent it, is a really interesting story.

Invisibilia: “Flip the Script” — Another pair of stories without distinction. The first finds some Danish cops choosing to treat radicalized young Muslims with respect and discovering that this is an effective way to fight radicalization. Well, who’d have thought. I could have told you that. The second is about a guy with a really dumb idea about how to fix online dating. StartUp did a whole season on people with a good idea about how to fix online dating. I don’t need this story.

NPR Politics Podcast: Democratic National Convention coverage — This podcast was posting daily during both conventions, which is a great thing for a show like this to do. It’s good conversation. Being a politics show, it’s not as appealingly frothy as Pop Culture Happy Hour, but it’s as close as you can come to that show for politics. This was my media of choice throughout the convention because I hate TV (and don’t have one) and Facebook is worse. It was a great way to keep up without feeling like you’re being beaten over the head with messaging. I’ll certainly return to this when the convention’s over and they’re back to regularly scheduled programming. I bet the episodes on the Republican convention would have driven me insane, though.

Fresh Air: “The Rise And Fall Of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes” — This is a somewhat airless discussion, but the topic is fascinating. Roger Ailes is, of course, the scum of the earth. And now it turns out that creating Fox News isn’t even the worst thing he’s done in his life. Check this out for some horrifying context about this mess.

The Heart: “The Understudy” — A lovely piece by Sophie Townsend that was first produced for Love Me, the CBC podcast from the producers of WireTap that I somehow haven’t checked out yet (but which I won’t review for obvious reasons). The premise of having an actor portray her ex, and then using mostly the parts of the sessions where he talks about how he can’t get the lines right is brilliant. It’s a perfect metaphor for the fact that the ex in question wasn’t quite able to play the part of Townsend’s dead husband. Really nice.

99% Invisible: “America’s Last Top Model” — “Knowledge creates wonder.” If there was ever a credo for this show, it’s that. The rest of the episode, about a gigantic ridiculously accurate model of the Mississippi River floodplain that could predict levee failures more accurately than modern computers, is vintage 99pi.

Fresh Air: “Comic Mike Birbiglia” — A fun interview, but it touches on a lot of the same topics that are in Birbigila’s well-known specials and his first movie. It would have been nice to hear more about the new movie.

Code Switch: “46 Stops: The Driving Life and Death of Philando Castile” — This gets far into the weeds of Castile’s driving record. That’s a worthwhile thing to do. It’s not just discrimination in policing that’s the issue, although it’s the main one. It’s also housing discrimination and segregation.

Theory of Everything: “Something will happen, eventually” — Benjamen Walker is the only person who can do a reported piece based on an interview and make it sound like a prose poem. This show begins with the premise that coincidences aren’t as unlikely as they seem and weaves a tight 14 minutes around that idea without ever defaulting to the standard formats and techniques of public radio. If I were giving a podcast pick of the week it would go to this, but I’m not, so consider it a technical victory.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Ghostbusters and Mr. Robot” — I think they’re pretty much spot on about Ghostbusters. It’s a perfectly fine movie, but definitely lesser work from all those involved. Mr. Robot has never particularly drawn me.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Chuck Klosterman” — I think Klosterman slows down for Maron’s benefit here. But a fun chat that offers some insight into culture criticism’s most accomplished dilettante.

Omnireviewer (week of Jul. 18, 2016)

15 reviews. These small numbers are making me feel so well-adjusted.

Television

O.J.: Made in America: Episodes 4 & 5 — I’ll double down on what I said last time: this is the best documentary I’ve ever seen. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that’s quite this good at telling the big story and the little story at the same time. This is not just the story of the O.J. Simpson trial. It is the story of the fraught relationship between police and African Americans (yes, this series comes at an appropriate time). It is the story of how a pre-infamy O.J. Simpson made the conscious attempt to distance himself from his race. And most fascinatingly of all, it is the story of how the former narrative, about police brutality, was cynically co-opted by Simpson’s defence team in spite of the latter narrative in which O.J. preferred not to be seen as black. This series also makes a lot of time for Nicole Brown, which is extremely important given that this is as much a story about domestic violence as it is about race. If I go on any longer, I’ll go on much longer, so I’ll leave it there. But suffice it to say that this is head, shoulders and torso above every other new thing I’ve reviewed on this blog in 2016. I will certainly be writing more on at some point. Pick of the week.

BoJack Horseman: Season 3, episodes 1-3 — Oh man, I love this show. So far, this season is relatively light (very relatively) but I’m sure that will change. For now, it’s fun to just reacclimate to the density of visual humour in this show. (The titles on Princess Carolyn’s bookshelf are all bad cat puns, etc.) This is certainly my favourite of the current crop of adult cartoons.

Movies

Ghostbusters — It’s great! It is essentially a delivery system for hilarious jokes and a quartet of excellent performances. The story isn’t much. But, that’s not the point. This is a marvellous update of a franchise that was always more memorable than good. The fact that it stars four women and has a red pill shitsack as its villain certainly adds to the appeal. But mostly, this is great because Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and especially Kate McKinnon are extremely funny and likable screen presences.

Music

Nonkeen: The Gamble/Oddments of the Gamble — I’m reviewing them together, because their titles make it seem like they’re meant to be taken together. That said, they’re no much alike. The Gamble itself is a dark, moody thing that I can’t see myself returning to that often. But Oddments of the Gamble, in spite of having a name that explicitly marks it as the subordinate one in the pair, is enthralling and far more energetic. (It may help that I listened to the latter while watching fireworks, but I don’t think that necessarily kills my objectivity.) Taken together, The Gamble and its Oddments are lovely ambient music. They’re slight, but nice.

Peter Gabriel: Peter Gabriel (2) — Gabriel’s least-appreciated album has always been an idiosyncratic favourite of mine. It was produced by Robert Fripp, whose primary function seems to have been making Gabriel work quickly. That’s not necessarily as utilitarian an approach as it may seem. Gabriel is an infamous slowpoke, and possibly the easiest way to get him working outside of his comfort zone is to speed the process up. The result is the only Peter Gabriel studio album where it sounds like there may be such a thing as “The Peter Gabriel Band.” It all sounds fairly live, and there’s a consistency across the album, because it was primarily played by the same people. Roy Bittan from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band gives particularly evocative performances on piano. It’s true that there are some weak moments — “Home Sweet Home” is the ghastliest track in Gabriel’s catalogue, vying only with his awful cover of “Street Spirit (Fade Out).” (And for some reason, he put both of them at the end of their respective albums. Self-sabotage? His early album covers suggest he has a taste for it.) “Perspective” hasn’t aged well. And “A Wonderful Day In A One-Way World,” much as I love it in spite of myself, is too clever by half. But, they’re more than counterbalanced by, in my estimation, five classics: “On the Air,” “Mother of Violence” (astonishing), “Animal Magic,” “Exposure” (better here than on Fripp’s solo album of the same name), and “Flotsam and Jetsam.” Throw in “D.I.Y.,” which isn’t quite the “Solsbury Hill” cash-in that some have accused it of being, the pleasantly elaborate “White Shadow,” and “Indigo,” which I love when I’m in my least cynical mood, and you’ve got an album nearly worthy of the two acclaimed classics on either side of it in the discography. I shall sit and wait for the global reappraisal.

Peter Gabriel: Live in Athens 1987 — Having exhausted my Tidal trial (and the second month that I accidentally paid for), I’ve moved on to a free trial with Apple Music. They’ve got a Peter Gabriel collection on there that’s got all of the non-soundtrack studio albums, plus a bunch of live stuff. This was the only live album in there that I hadn’t heard before, and it 100% trumps both Plays Live and Secret World Live. By a lot. Gabriel is at his vocal prime, having built up substantial grit since his Genesis days, but still with every ounce of his flexibility intact. His live band has not yet started to sprawl: it’s a tight four-piece of his long-term collaborators David Rhodes on guitar and Tony “best bassist alive” Levin, plus David Sancious on keys and the completely astonishing Manu Katche on drums. The setlist is heavy on material from the then-recent commercial breakthrough So, but that’s not a complaint. While I prefer other Peter Gabriel albums to that juggernaut, listening to him perform these songs while they’re new is really something. It’s the first and last time in Gabriel’s career that he’s managed to write songs with this kind of directness, and he’s audibly delighting in the extent that he’s connecting with his audience. Two years before Say Anything, “In Your Eyes” is an anthem of white-hot spiritual euphoria. This 11-minute rendition, containing the introductory verse that got lopped off the studio album, is the definitive one. The same could be said for a bunch of the earlier stuff, too — in front of a crowd, “Solsbury Hill” releases all of the latent joy that’s reined in on the studio version. This is incredible, and a great argument for live albums in general.

Chance the Rapper: Colouring Book — This is the album that I wish The Life of Pablo was: big shimmery gospel hip hop with great beats and without Kanye’s 2016 full-time troll persona mucking up the works. In fact, Chance is so likeable that it almost seems like an overcorrection of Pablo. This is the most overtly joyful album I’ve heard this year. It is the only one of my favourite albums of 2016 that isn’t extremely dark. That counts for a lot.

Podcasts

In Our Time: “The Invention of Photography” — Melvyn’s in an odd mood, this time around. At one point he feels compelled to urge his guests to move forward with the story more rapidly. But that made me realize something: some of Melvyn Bragg’s idiosyncrasies come down to his having to preside over a rounded conversation on a complex issue that must fit exactly into a timeslot. What you’re hearing on the podcast has presumably not been altered from what I occasionally forget is a live broadcast. If Bragg seems a bit brusque at times, it likely has something to do with that. The actual content of this episode is enthralling as ever, with Simon Schafer proving an especially compelling guest. The early history of photography is full of personalities, and they’re brought to life here. Nice.

Invisibilia: “Frame of Reference” — At one point in this, Hanna Rosin describes “a science fiction story she once read” that actually sounds like it might just be Plato’s cave allegory. That aside, this is a strong episode. The first story, about a woman with Asperger’s who is momentarily afforded a glimpse of a world seen without Asperger’s is moving as a character-driven narrative, even if the themes don’t hit as hard as the producers probably want them to. But the second, an interview with comedian Hasan Minhaj about how his father’s reference points for suffering hindered their mutual understanding, is really lovely. It helps that Alix Spiegel has a similar relationship with her mom. This season is yet to produce an earth shattering story in the vein of the first season’s locked-in syndrome story. But it is now reliably satisfying me.

Code Switch: “No Words” — This was the first time I heard the tape of Philando Castile’s girlfriend after he was shot. I am glad I have not seen the video. It is appalling and unbelievably sad. Code Switch has had a lot of news to react to since its inception, and it tends to be the kind of news that there’s almost nothing to say about, thus the title of this extra episode. But they’ve comported themselves admirably.

On The Media: “Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Bearing Witness” — I don’t tend to find myself in situations where I’ve got to film horrible things on my phone, and also I am not American, so different laws apply. But this was interesting in a more abstract way than it was possibly meant to be.

Radiolab: “David and the Wire” — This is a borderline non-story, and consciously so. But I was riveted. It’s a personal narrative, related by a man who records everything in the hopes that he will someday become Scott Carrier. Radio about radio will always appeal to me. I’m interested to see what else happens on Radiolab while Jad’s away on other business.

The Memory Palace: “Oil, Water” — A slight episode, but nice. It’s good to know that the river doesn’t catch fire in Cleveland anymore. It’s distressing to know how frequently it once did.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Pokemon Go” — Glen Weldon is so often a real curmudgeon that it’s nice to hear him being so wonderfully enthusiastic about something that so many people are being curmudgeons about. I will be checking out Pokémon Go when my life has space for it.

The Allusionist: “Generation What?” — I think this maybe gives a bit too much credit to Strauss and Howe. They’re the guys who devised the generational theory that says the characteristics of generations are predictable in advance, and therefore history is a relatively tight cycle. Their system always read like horoscopes to me. But when Zaltzman focusses on the language, this is great. Also, this has Megan Tan on it from the Millennial podcast, which I’m intending to check out. She is not super insightful here, and anybody who tries to own the label “millennial” is inherently suspect to me. But I won’t write her off until I’ve heard her show. Possibly not even then!

Omnireviewer (week of Jul.10)

A mere 16 reviews. Don’t you scowl at me. There are other things in my life, you know.

Live events

Romeo and Juliet (Bard on the Beach) — I mostly really enjoyed this. Hailey Gillis’s Juliet and Jennifer Lines’ nurse are the highlights. Gillis plays Juliet as young and excitable, but also cosmically self-aware. And Lines plays the nurse not as a character who bumbles and rambles because she is unaware of her station, but one who talks as much as she likes because having raised her lady’s child she knows she’s earned the right. I’ve seen Lines in three or four Bard productions now, and she’s always marvellous. The same could be said of many of the returning regulars in this production. Getting to know the company and their respective calling cards over the course of a few seasons has been fun. Also, there’s some fabulous music in this by the likes of Max Richter and (I think?) Arvo Pärt, which adds to the religious subtext of the play. All this said, the most interesting thoughts I had after seeing this were spurred on by one element that I wasn’t especially taken with, which was Mercutio. Maybe he just had an off night. Still, Mercutio needs to be massively charismatic, because his death is the most consequential moment in the play. It is his confrontational, urm, mercurial nature that leads to the death of Tybalt, and thus to the entire downward spiral of the second act. There is also a more interesting, more superstitious reading of Mercutio’s impact on the plot. This is a deeply religious play. The friar, the prince and Juliet all comment on the notion that the heavens are responsible for suffering. If you do bad things, or participate in ridiculous enmities, God will punish your innocent loved ones. So, when Mercutio dies, and says “a plague on both your houses,” it should give the impression of an actual curse — a moment where a dying man actually wills God to strike down both the Montagues and the Capulets — which of course is fulfilled with the death of the protagonists. Mercutio needs to be strong because as an audience, we need to believe that he has that level of determination over the narrative. (This will be expanded on mightily in Hamlet and Othello, about which more momentarily.) But it’s a fine production. It’s more conservative than Kim Collier’s last outing with Bard, her fabulous Hamlet in 2014. But it is entirely decent Shakespeare.

Othello (Bard on the Beach) — If you ever wanted to hear Gilbert Gottfried play the Shakespearean Iago rather than just the red bird from Aladdin, go see this. It’s amazing the extent to which this Iago seems like he’s in the wrong play. This character should be witty and charismatic in his evil scheming, and the audience needs to be seduced by him because he is effectively writing the play as he goes. Boring Iago = boring play. However, the seduction of the audience must stop well short of the broad comedic performance that’s given here throughout act one. Mugging for laughs is the wrong kind of ingratiation. Iago is the weakest point of this rather weak production. There is one really clever bit: at the start of the second act, Othello sits alone at his desk while the rest of the cast march around the outside of the tent singing William Billings’ “Now Shall My Inward Joys Arise” (a period-accurate hymn for the Civil War setting of this production) and Othello pointedly looks up when they sing the verse that goes “Why do we now indulge our fears/suspicions and complaints?/Is he a God and shall his grace/grow weary of his saints?” It’s nice. But then they keep singing in solfege for some reason. Skip this.

Literature

Harold Bloom: Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human — Whenever I read or see something by Shakespeare, I read the relevant chapter in this. Bloom is undeniably frustrating, and his lack of understanding of the need for feminism and postcolonial criticism in the humanities makes him deservedly persona non grata in the academy. But I don’t think that should prevent me from adoring him for his insight into Shakespeare. For instance, he begins his chapter on Romeo and Juliet by lamenting the incursion of feminism into modern productions of the play, which is an extremely troubling starting point. But, he goes on to outline a vision of the play in the context of Shakespeare’s visions of love that’s both compelling and amusing. Take this for instance: “If there were an Act VI to Shakespeare’s comedies, doubtless many of the concluding marriages would approximate the condition of Shakespeare’s own union to Anne Hathaway.” This is a book that anybody who loves Shakespeare should own. Grit your teeth through the bombastic bits. It’s worth it in the end.

John Hermann: The Content Wars — New favourite Content Wars quote: “One of the great triumphs of Silicon Valley is its success in framing its companies’ objectives as missions, and their successes as pure contributions to progress. This is a sentiment that would not stand quite so easily in most other contexts: the success of a single business does not map perfectly onto the greater success of the economy, which does not map perfectly onto any useful concept of human progress. Anyway, what were we talking about? This is all going to seem so insane in twenty years. Or two years.”

Reggie Ugwu: “Inside the Playlist Factory” — Sure: Google, Apple and (to a lesser extent) Spotify are big evil companies. But, am I so wrong to be slightly heartened by the fact that they are all aware of the superiority of human tastes to algorithms in making playlists? This is a fun exploration of how human curation is working in these companies’ music services right now. The one thing I wish Ugwu had probed into deeper is the fact that these humans who make these playlists are still beholden to the data they receive about their audiences’ behaviour. We see this at play in the piece as curators struggle to understand why certain songs aren’t working in playlists. Surely, the fact that they are attempting to react to audience behaviours rather than simply exerting expert authority represents an impulse to imitate algorithms?

Music

Margaret Glaspy: Emotions and Math — Another one of those albums I heard a promising snippet of on All Songs which turned out to be not quite my thing. Glaspy’s a good songwriter and an interesting guitarist, and when she’s got a couple more albums out, I may look back on this as better than I’d initially thought. But a lot of it feels a bit too sleepy to me, and there’s very little variety in its power trio textures.

Jeroen van Veen: Michael Nyman, complete piano music — Mind you, if variety in texture is something I care about, why do I love minimalist solo piano music? The side of Michael Nyman that I have traditionally been drawn to is the side that’s on display in his Peter Greenaway scores: the cartoonish neo-Baroque music performed by his charismatically bizarre-sounding band. And there is a bit of that on here, reduced to solo arrangements by the composer himself. (I will confess that this rendition of “Chasing Sheep Is Best Left To Shepherds” is pretty weak sauce compared with the Nyman band’s original or the Motion Trio’s arrangement for accordions.) But the largest chunk of the album is Nyman’s music from The Piano, a movie I haven’t seen, and from which the only thing I previously knew was “The Heart Asks Pleasure First,” which I’ve always found saccharine in a way that Nyman’s more lyrical music for Greenaway (like “Fish Beach” from Drowning by Numbers) isn’t. But hearing it in the context of the rest of the movie’s music is revelatory. (I imagine that hearing it in the context of the film itself would probably help too, but I remain uninterested.) The music from The Piano finds Nyman in 19th-century salon music mode — the farthest he can get from the Purcell ground basses of his previous film music. But just as he subsumed the Baroque aesthetic into his modernist style, he does the same with this completely different historical period music. Jeroen van Veen plays beautifully, and indeed one of the greatest pleasures of this set is simply hearing Nyman’s piano music performed by somebody other than Nyman himself. Nyman lacks subtlety at the keyboard to such an extent that it appears an aesthetic choice. (And in fact, I’m sure it is — much like his band’s dodgy intonation.) I love Nyman’s piano playing, but van Veen is far more skilled, and it’s certainly nice to have this as an alternative to the composer himself. A very nice set — essential for fans of minimalism.

The Highest Order: Still Holding — Right in the 1965 sweet spot. The Highest Order are the latest reincarnation of mid-60s, country/folk-inflected American psychedelia. Except that they’re Canadian and can write songs. I love this album. It is spacey and jangly and every other adjective that can generally be applied to things I love. Plus, it does that happy/sad thing where the music is mostly profoundly euphoric, while the lyrics remain ironically bleak. Fantastic. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “Daniel Lanois, Deap Vally, Nonkeen, Pinegrove, More” — Starting off with a double-hit of ambient music featuring Nils Frahm and Daniel Lanois is a surefire way to get me interested, and probably a surefire way to turn a lot of people off. Both of those albums sound like they will be fabulous. I shall investigate post-haste.

The Gist: “The Life and Death of Aaron Swartz” — In Pesca’s spiel about how justice is inevitably coming to the police who commit violence against black people, I’m not entirely sure he knows how his optimism sounds. On the other hand, the segment where he talks to Justin Peters about Aaron Swartz is great. I barely knew the story, and this is a nice introduction.

Theory of Everything: “Because there’s nothing else to do” — A not-especially-distinctive take on Brexit, but it’s nice to hear somebody associated with a relatively major media outlet (PRX) calling Nigel Farage a fascist, casually and as a matter of course.

The Gist: “A Kamikaze Mission to Jupiter” — This is the value of a daily(ish) podcast: it can talk news, or when there’s nothing new to say about the news, it can talk to an astrophysicist about probes being sent to the moons of Jupiter. Very compelling listening. The Gist is my favourite new discovery of recent weeks.

Code Switch: “You’re A Grand Old Flag” — If there’s a problem, it’s earnestness. But it’s also delightfully complicated. Nothing much more to say except this remains good.

Reply All: “Disappeared” — I’ve missed this show during the break. This isn’t even an especially gobsmacking episode, but it does have Alex Goldman thinking through the implications of open source culture, which is the sort of thing I love about this show. It also has P.J. Vogt apologizing for a cultural oversight in the most heartfelt way possible. That’s another thing I love about this show. Pick of the week.

The Gist: “Art That Makes You Angry” — I’m finding that Pesca’s interviews, in which he is prone to the sort of spontaneous reference-making and obviously unscripted detours that are the exclusive province of the world’s very smart interviewers, more compelling than his monologues. If there’s something I can’t quite get behind in this podcast, it’s Pesca’s big-personalityness. He really does exert dominance over the audience every second he’s by the mic. But he’s smart enough that it doesn’t really bother me.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The BFG and The Great British Baking Show” — I will not be seeing The BFG. It’s so seldom that so much of the panel seems so annoyed by the thing they’re talking about that I’m sure it must be very poor. But it is always fun to hear them get annoyed. It’s also fun to hear Linda Holmes call Glen Weldon out for his shitty views on art. The thing I love about this show is that it is frictionless enough that when Holmes does that, it doesn’t feel like confrontation. These are people who like and respect each other, so they can disagree amicably. That’s what puts PCHH above other similar shows for me. Also, I likely will check out The Great British Baking Show. I need something calming and slow in my life right now.