Omnireviewer (Week of Oct. 25, 2015)

I read, watch and listen to a whole lot of stuff. Usually, I have thoughts on that stuff. Oftentimes, those thoughts are not substantial enough to justify a proper essay, and I don’t have time for that anyway. To wit, here is the premise of Omnireviewer: if I read, watch or listen to it, I will review it in a few sentences. Every Sunday, I will compile the previous week’s reviews in a post like this one.

Before we begin, a few guidelines. Here are some things I generally won’t review:

  • Stuff made by people I know, or people who people I know know. I’m doing this for fun, not to make my life awkward.
  • Every bit of music I listen to for work. My job involves listening to a LOT of music. I’ll review it if it’s especially interesting or new, but I won’t hold myself to this.
  • Fragments. If I listen to a single song on the way to the grocery store, no. If I listen to a whole album walking home from work, yes. If I watch a John Oliver segment on YouTube, no. If I watch a full episode of Last Week Tonight, yes.
  • Blog posts/articles/essays etc. This accounts for a lot of what I read in any given week. But actually reviewing that stuff seems needlessly far down the rabbit hole, even for me.

For things that will take me more than a week to get through (i.e. books and games), I’ll give them a mention when I start them, review them when I’m finished them, and give updates periodically in between. That’s unless the book or game breaks down logically, like episodic games or collections of short stories. In that case, I’ll review each part.

Not everything I review will be new, nor will it all even be new to me. I revisit old favourites as frequently or more than I seek out new favourites — especially where music’s concerned. But I’ll only review something in an Omnireviewer post once. Subsequent revisitations will occur anonymously. In general, if I don’t mention that I’ve seen/read/heard something before, I probably haven’t.

Finally, none of what I’ve said above constitutes “rules.” By which I mean: I reserve the right to break them at my convenience. And now, here are my reviews of the 28 things I read, watched or listened to since Sunday, October 25:

Movies

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night — I’m not one of those people who gorges on horror movies around Halloween, because most of my favourite horror movies aren’t the Halloween kind of horror movies. I don’t scare easy, so I tend to prefer horror of a more existential persuasion — the kind that finds its way into your dreams and changes you for a while. (See especially Davids Lynch and Cronenberg.) This is not that kind of movie. This is a vampire movie, totally Halloween-ready. But totally, totally unconventional. Best to go into it knowing as little as possible. But, if you’ve seen it: that scene with the disco ball? Seriously.

Television

Doctor Who: “The Woman Who Lived” — This season of Doctor Who hasn’t been hitting it out of the park for me. I adored the last season, and I think Peter Capaldi is as good an actor as ever played the Doctor. But the scripts so far this year have been bland: even Steven Moffat’s, and to me he’s the best writer in all the land. Strange then, that Catherine Treganna — best known for her work on Torchwood, which I don’t especially like — should write the first really good episode of the season. It’s no “Listen,” or “Kill the Moon,” but Maisie Williams playing a jaded immortal was always going to be a winning concept.

QI: “A Medley of Maladies” — The brilliance of QI is that the humour often veers into territory that you’d be embarrassed to enjoy if it were stand-up, but it’s packaged alongside fascinating obscure trivia to make you feel less dumb. Any episode with Ross Noble is bound to be a gem.

Music

Peter Hammill: Nadir’s Big Chance — I’ve been meaning to listen to this for years, and somehow didn’t get around to it until now. This is the album where the lead singer of Van Der Graaf Generator allegedly invented punk rock in 1974. If that sounds a bit outlandish to you, you’re right. But there are places where he comes surprisingly close. More importantly, this is fantastic. Possibly second only to In Camera in Hammill’s solo catalogue.

Philip Glass: Solo Piano — This is a collection of three separate pieces of music that all feature a two-note repeating pattern in the left hand. One might think it would get old, but it’s actually hypnotic in the way that Glass is at his best. His piano playing is pretty scrappy in places, but it’s always nice to hear recordings where that feels beside the point.

Wilhelm Kempff: Brahms Klavierstücke, Op. 116-119 — It was about time I sat down and listened to Brahms’s final piano pieces all the way through. The famous Eb-major intermezzo was always a favourite, but all of these pieces are gems. It’s perfect mood music — a mellow old scotch in harmony and counterpoint. I can see this joining my other favourite solo piano music (Debussy’s preludes, Beethoven’s late sonatas, Bach’s partitas) within a few listens. Kempff’s 1963 recording is deservedly a classic. I’ll be checking out his Beethoven next, for contrast.

Jethro Tull: Peel Sessions, 1968-69 — A revisit, inspired by a book I’ve been reading (see below). These recordings really highlight what Mick Abrahams brought to the table. For all that Martin Barre added to the band, Abrahams plays most of these early songs better. Ian Anderson’s vocal performance on “Stormy Weather” is borderline minstrelsy, though. This is not a pun; this is an allegation of casual racism, lest anybody misunderstand. These things happen with white blues bands. I still love this, though.

Neil Young: Time Fades Away — An old favourite of mine. It’s hard to reckon why Young still hates this album and refuses to reissue it. Is he even listening? He may have been out of his head at the time, but his band has never sounded better. “Last Dance” is not one of Young’s best songs, but it is one of his very best tracks. It’s all in the performance. The fakeout at the end is one of my favourite moments on a rock live album. Also, how is this not in every list of best album covers ever?

Literature, etc.

China Miéville: “The Rope is the World” — This is from his short story collection Three Moments of an Explosion, which I’ve been really enjoying. Miéville’s writing sometimes borders on poetry in its density. In this story about elevators into the atmosphere, he coins words on the fly with no explanation. It forces you to think through their likely etymology, lest you lose the plot entirely. I can see how some readers might be frustrated by that, but I find it fun.

Reza Aslan: No God But God — I’m about two-thirds of the way through, and already recommending it to everyone I know. I was always amazed by Aslan’s eloquence in interviews. He could basically talk into a microphone for several hours, transcribe it, and that would be a decent book. But he’s way more of a craftsman than that. He structures his chapters around an introductory anecdote or parable, told in prose worthy of the best living novelists. Each of these stories helps situate you before he transitions into his always-lucid argumentation. It’s an ingenious structure. I’ll have more to say about the content itself when I’m finished the book.

David Cavanagh: Good Night and Good Riddance — I bought this as soon as I finished the Kindle sample. Good God, is this ever exactly what I want to read right now. In case you haven’t read the Guardian’s shimmering platinum review, this book is a deep dive into the life’s work of the BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel, with whom I am not directly familiar, being 25 and Canadian. But his show was clearly a force in a number of consecutive countercultures. And Cavanagh’s a dazzling writer. I’ll be putting a couple of other books down for a while, to tuck into this.

Games

Stasis — After reading so many rave reviews, I confess to being a little disappointed. There are bright spots in this: parts of it are genuinely terrifying, and exploring a post-catastrophe civilization riddled with biological horrors is never not going to be fun. But, the voice acting leaves much to be desired, the writing is weak at best, the villain is of the moustache-twirling variety, and the backstory just introduced a hackneyed love quadrangle that I assume was supposed to make me feel something but didn’t. By the time I finish this, I may like it better.

Podcasts

(These will always come at the end, because I listen to a lot of them — commutes, runs and dishes, you know — and I listen to several of the same ones every week. It may get dull for you, even if it never does for me.)

Welcome to Night Vale: “Rumbling” — My general opinion of Night Vale is that it’s a great idea with some great writing and some great jokes, but it has structural issues. This instalment foregrounds some of those issues. Cecil Baldwin, who I generally like a lot as a character and slightly less as a host, oscillates back and forth between phoning it in and overselling every joke. The choices of background music seem arbitrary. Still, this is tying up threads of a major plot arc, and I can forgive a bit of sluggishness while the show adjusts to a new status quo.

The Allusionist: “Vocables” — I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts from the Radiotopia network, lately. They’ve got a fundraising campaign on, and they’re going big. This is apparently the first of several planned crossover events where Helen Zaltzman will collaborate with hosts of other Radiotopia shows, which is satisfying in itself for podcast geeks like me. This week, it’s Hrishikesh Hirway from Song Exploder. So, language geekiness collides with music geekiness and I couldn’t be happier.

The Truth: “Starburst” — I loved this. I won’t spoil it by describing it too much. It’s a radio play about a jerk magazine writer at a comic con, but it quickly veers off in a truly unpredictable direction. The really notable thing about it is how The Truth’s pristine, elaborate sound design feeds into the story to become a structural element. I’ve never heard that before in the episodes of this show that I’ve listened to. It’s only fifteen minutes long. It’s well worth your time. Also, people who are interested in nominating things for Hugos should nominate this for a Hugo.

This American Life: “The Night in Question” — I love a good conspiracy theory. And here’s one with political implications, to boot. This is about how most of Israel questions the official narrative about the assassination of their prime minister 25 years ago. It’s gripping in exactly the way that Serial gets too much credit for being.

On The Media: “Truth(ish)” — Where Jon Stewart was always a comedian who also happened to be a media critic, Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield are media critics who also happen to be funny. If you were one of the people who watched Stewart’s Daily Show as much for the sanity as for the humour, you need to be listening to this. If the West Wing pastiche that opens this episode doesn’t sell you on the entire show, you’re unlikely to be into it at all.

Fugitive Waves: “WHER: 1000 Beautiful Watts” — The Kitchen Sisters’ radio storytelling can be a bit on the slow, meditative side for my taste, but they have a great ear for interesting characters. In this two-parter, they interview the women (and a couple of the men) who kept the first all-woman radio station in the United States running. It also contains an infuriating yet funny clip of one of the first female radio announcers trying to ward off the explicit advances of her male guest while maintaining on-air decorum. Worth a listen.

This American Life: “The Call Was Coming from the Basement” — The story of a woman getting attacked by a rabid raccoon is perhaps not Alex Blumberg’s very best work. But David Sedaris’s story about hanging out in a morgue makes up the difference.

The Memory Palace: “Butterflies” — This podcast might just have the best writing for the ear that I’ve ever heard. Nate DiMeo is basically a spoken word artist for history nuts. This is a particularly sweeping and ambitious story, at more than twice the normal length (it’s 20 minutes long). It’s a story about humans screwing themselves. Those stories are always relevant.

Fresh Air: “Gloria Steinem” — Steinem is a hero and has some great stories. Hearing her talk about the circumstances she encountered in media at the beginning of the women’s movement is fascinating: editors feeling that one editorial saying “women are equal” needed to be counterbalanced by another saying “no they’re not,” etc. Terry Gross asks some unexpected questions and gets some truly wonderful moments of radio out of it. There’s a reason Marc Maron calls her the “industry standard.”

Meet the Composer: “Ingram Marshall” — This is the first episode of Meet the Composer that I’ve listened to that’s about a composer I’d never heard of. And, I’ll certainly be looking into Ingram Marshall’s music further. So, mission accomplished, there. But the great thing about this show is that every episode incorporates at least one tangential discussion of an element of music history for context. This time around, we hear about the legacy of gamelan in Western music: from Debussy to the Canadian composer Colin McPhee, who transcribed gamelan music for two pianos and performed it with Benjamin Britten. That you’ve got to hear.

99% Invisible: “War and Pizza” — Most of what’s in our grocery aisles started off as military technology. That is a tidbit I can now file away and impress somebody with later. This is why I love 99% Invisible.

Reply All: “The Law That Sticks” — A somewhat procedural episode of Reply All. You should listen to it, because the law it’s about is properly disturbing. But it feels like that’s the main reason the producers think you should listen to this episode, also. Basically, not one of their most fun episodes, but worth hearing.

The Moth: “Kimya Dawson & Kevin Haas” — It’s fine. Kept me amused during my run. Sometimes The Moth knocks me flat. Not this time.

Theory of Everything: “The Things We Do For Money” — ToE’s cross-promotion game has been strong since the start of the Radiotopia fundraising campaign. Last time, Roman Mars helped tell the long-view story of podcasting, and this time Jonathan Mitchell from The Truth reconstructed a radio play by Walter Benjamin. (I know.) I don’t mind people asking for money when they do it in a way that’s this clever.

Welcome to Night Vale: “The Retirement of Pamela Winchell” — Oh, look, it’s picking up already.

Live events

Welcome to Night Vale: Live at the Chan Centre — I waffled on whether to go to this. Night Vale is scrappy at the best of times: their live episodes even more so. Plus, I’m about twenty episodes behind. But then I thought, eh, what are the chances of the most popular comedy/horror podcast coming through your town on Halloween? And I bit the bullet, ditched my plans and went. (I tried to convince my friends to come with, but it went down kind of like this.)

Gosh, but this was a whimsical experience. The story was a fluffy, whimsical romp. The musical guest was a whimsical sort of musical guest, of the harmonium/glockenspiel/ukulele-playing variety. And the audience sure was whimsical. I mean, it was Halloween, to be fair. But one gets the feeling that some of those people might dress like that year-round. Good on ‘em.

This live show lacks the bloat of some of the others I’ve heard. Cecil carried the bulk of the story, with a brief appearance from Carlos being the only significant guest spot. The story was mercifully continuity-light, considering how much listening I have to do before I’m caught up. It just told a story and got done with it, which is what I wish Night Vale would do more often. Cecil was in top form. Everything was in its right place and made me glad I decided to go. Plus: kidding aside, that whimsical musician, Eliza Rickman, is completely fantastic.

But even in a live setting, Disparition’s background music still doesn’t make a lick of narrative sense.

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