If for some reason you make a habit of reading these, you’ll quickly realize that I like everything. You’re unlikely to see any real hatchet jobs here. I just like to enthuse about things, mostly. Here are your 32 reviews for the week:
Vulfpeck: Thrill of the Arts — It’s funk produced with the minimalist precision of Krautrock. The arrangements are one unconventional decision after another. The choice to minimize the role of the drum kit at times is a weirdly good one. And the lyrics are brilliantly nonsensical. One of those unexpected pleasures.
David Bowie: Young Americans — In his book on John Peel, David Cavanagh refers to this as “the sound of [Bowie] cruising through black America in a limousine, occasionally slowing down to shed a few more parts of himself by the roadside.” I can’t do any better than that.
David Bowie: Station to Station — Young Americans was an only-half-successful experiment, but if it led to the insight that produced Station to Station, it was entirely worthwhile. This is my favourite Bowie album save for Low, and some days Hunky Dory. On the other hand, after listening to this and Young Americans in direct succession, my headphones are now coughing out thick clouds of cocaine. So, that’s inconvenient.
The Beatles: Rubber Soul — I just realized that my listening today has included soul of both plastic and rubber persuasions. Aside from that, what’s there to say about this? For years, it was the earliest Beatles album I cared to listen to. I’ve since developed a taste for the early stuff. But I still think this marks the point where they went from being a good little band to being the Best Band Ever. Not my favourite band, mind. But if you want to say to me that the Beatles are objectively the greatest band in history, I’ll tend not to argue with you.
Ted Hearne: The Source — First off, the track “We called for illumination at 1630” is one of the most staggering things I’ve heard recently. It’s an instant classic that everybody should hear. Most of the rest of this deeply unorthodox oratorio is less excellent than that. I sure respect Hearne’s political engagement (the oratorio’s text is drawn from the Manning leaks, among other primary sources). But it all feels a bit earnest to me: a bit austere and serious, as if to say, “This is important! DO NOT SMILE.” Still, it feels wrong to dismiss this on one listen. Accusing a work that deals with Chelsea Manning and the war in Afghanistan of being overly serious is admittedly somewhat perverse. I do wish more composers would try stuff like this. And that one track. Holy smokes. Listen to it now.
Eve Egoyan/Linda Catlin Smith: Thought and Desire — This is the first I’ve heard of Linda Catlin Smith’s music. It’s quite static, and at times there isn’t much to latch onto as a listener. Each of the nocturnes, chorales and miscellaneous compositions on this disc of piano music is essentially a sequence of slow moving but very rich chords without melodies stringing them together. Shades of Satie and Brian Eno. I listened while I worked, and eventually found myself really getting into it. I find the last twenty minutes boring, but the first forty are lovely. Egoyan’s releases are always worth hearing, because she plays music that nobody else does, and plays it well. Even if this isn’t quite as enthralling as some of her previous discs, these are still world premiere recordings and I value that inherently.
Mr. McFall’s Chamber: Solitudes — Who knew there was such a thing as Finnish tango? In any case, this is an album that takes that style as its jumping off point, and proceeds to do my favourite thing for contemporary classical albums to do: be completely enthralling while containing music written almost entirely by people I’ve never heard of. There’s nearly an hour of music by composers I don’t know, compared with less than ten minutes of music by composers I do. That seems about the right ratio. Olli Mustonen’s Toccata and Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Dedication are particular highlights. And the playing!
The Chemical Brothers: Further — I’ve already written at length about how happy this album makes me on Two Matts, the blog I co-write with Matt Meuse. It was one he assigned me, knowing full well I’d be into it. But he might not have guessed that I’d still be listening to it semi-obsessively several weeks later.
Hey Rosetta! Live at the Vogue — I’ve only done this a couple of times: that thing where you go to a concert by an artist you’ve barely heard of. But the friend I went with has seen them eight or nine times, so he was well-prepared to give me the lowdown on these folks beforehand. Plus, the concert turned out to be a good way in. Hey Rosetta! is a great live band for a couple of reasons. First, they play and sing brilliantly. Not a given, as we know. It’s the bands whose execution is solid that you want to see live. Secondly, their songs can get a bit anthemic. You want to be in a crowd of people, listening to some of those songs. I’m especially glad to have been at this specific show because Yukon Blonde was the opening act, and the two bands did their 2015 election anthem “Land You Love” for the first time live as an encore. Lovely moment, there. Plus, the lighting design was clever: twenty-or-so incandescent bulbs were distributed across the stage on stands. At times, the stage lights would go off completely, leaving the band lit solely by those bulbs. Wonderful. Time to listen to some Hey Rosetta! albums.
The Zero Theorem — You know you’re truly in love with an artist when you even enjoy the works of theirs that you can objectively identify as bad. This is how I am with Terry Gilliam. I’m on record stating that my favourite movie is Brazil, and that remains true on all the days when it is not Mulholland Drive or Velvet Goldmine. Then there are the Gilliam movies that are basically accepted as good, which I believe are masterpieces: 12 Monkeys, The Fisher King, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. There are the misunderstood gems, Tideland and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, both brilliant. And so it goes, on down to Brothers Grimm and Jabberwocky, neither of them any good at all, both of which I like in spite of myself. The question with The Zero Theorem was never “will I like it,” but rather “which of those categories will it fit into?” Turns out, it’s the one with Tideland and Parnassus. Nobody likes this, but it’s great. Gilliam’s satire continues to be a hilariously blunt instrument, and his gender politics are extremely suspect, but this is an enthralling movie. It probably helps that it’s the most similar thing he’s done to Brazil. It’s full of signs and boxes and advertisements you should read but can’t, because everything goes by too fast. It’s got David Thewlis as a cut-rate Michael Palin and Christoph Waltz as a big-budget Jonathan Pryce. It’s got women wearing outlandish things on their heads. I was never not going to like this.
Doctor Who: “The Zygon Invasion/Inversion” — Well, the season got off to a slow start, but we’re sure as hell into the thick of it now. This two-parter was completely magnificent. Still not quite as good as last season’s high points (which were, incidentally, also written by the two writers credited here), but damn good. Between his Doctor Who work and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, Peter Harness is quickly becoming my second-favourite writer associated with Doctor Who. And if “space ISIS” isn’t quite as good a premise as “the moon’s an egg,” at least we got Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman both giving their best-ever performances on the show.
Last Week Tonight: November 1, 2015 — Nothing here that will set the world ablaze. No dingo babysitters. But it’s always nice to hear somebody say “hey, maybe we should focus on actual present-day news instead of talking about an election that’s a year away” and then doing that thing.
David Cavanagh: Good Night and Good Riddance — This continues to be fantastic, and really lent some clarity to the rise of punk rock. While I’ve become considerably more amenable to punk in recent years, I still have some lingering skepticism. But, when you see on a show-for-show basis how boring music was in 1975-76 (LOTS of Eagles and other Eaglesy bands on the radio), you begin to understand. Also, Cavanagh cleverly notes how many of the artists on certain Peel shows from this period were living in tax exile. Sort of puts a nice fine point on things, doesn’t it?
China Miéville: “The Buzzard’s Egg” — This is one of the best stories I’ve gotten to in this collection so far. Miéville’s stories live and die on the novelty of their premises, and this premise is really something: an army of ruthless imperialists conquer peoples and take their land by stealing their idols, thus rendering their prayers useless. Piquant, no? And Miéville’s chosen just the right narrator to offer a window into that world.
Alex Bilmes: Noel Gallagher interview for Esquire — I don’t really like Oasis. I’ve never listened to a full Oasis album. But I love interviews with Noel Gallagher. And this one is gigantic. Bilmes has the restraint to say his piece at the beginning, and then just give the people what they want, which is 6,500 words of Noel being garrulous and abrasive. Sample: “Hard work and a fucking filthy tongue, that’s what I inherited from my mum. She taught the Nineties how to swear. And what’s the word, stoicism? Yeah, she was hardcore. She didn’t give a fuck.”
Ben Grossblatt/Alex Fine: How to Speak Klingon — A few friends and I have been going to pub trivia around Vancouver for a year or so. There’s a nerd bar here called the Storm Crow that’s becoming a favourite for its fairly challenging questions and its Cthulhu altar. This was a first place prize, and it is frankly ridiculous that I’m even reviewing it. It is a children’s board book with buttons that make sounds. It is not a serious thing. That said, it is better than it needs to be. Wookiepedia tells me that in addition to this most minor of Star Trek credits, Grossblatt has also written peripheral fiction pertaining to Star Wars. And the illustrator, Alex Fine, did covers for Newsweek when Newsweek still had covers. So, they’re not hacks. This provides useful phrases for various contexts in Klingon society. Like, on public transportation, it teaches you the phrase for “I don’t have exact change and await my just and devastating punishment.” Or, at the office: “There are no bad ideas, only ideas meriting death.” Or, at karaoke: “Hold me closer, tiny dancer.”
Stasis: Howlongtobeat.com tells me it should take me about five hours to beat this game. Reviewers imply that they played it in an afternoon. I’ve played for nine hours over the course of two weeks, and I don’t feel like I’m nearly done. I’m really bad at this, aren’t I?
The Allusionist: “Criminallusionist” — Radiotopia cross-promotion continues. I’m beginning to wonder if this is a straightforwardly good thing or not. The bulk of this is just a full episode of Criminal, and while that’s nothing to complain about, I did actually tune in for The Allusionist. Maybe this is how Marvel Comics fans feel when they complain about big crossover events?
This American Life: “The Heart Wants What It Wants” — The major highlight of this is Shankar Vedantum’s story about men who were conned into paying for love letters from fictional women. The key takeaway is that I should probably start listening to Vedantum’s Hidden Brain, although do I really have time for another podcast? (Evidently yes, as we shall see.)
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “A Conversation with Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)” — I will likely not read Career of Evil, but the structural gimmick sounds fun (much of the novel is narrated by the murderer, but you don’t actually know which of the suspects is doing the narrating). This is one of my favourite things about listening to tons of podcasts: it helps me keep track of what’s going on in the cultural world without my having to actually take in ALL of it. (Though you can see I’m trying.)
Surprisingly Awesome: “Mold” — I’ve expressed ambivalence towards “wonder surrogacy” before, in other media. That’s where there’s a person in the text itself whose role it is to express wonder, interest or enthusiasm in the hopes that the audience will join in. This new podcast has wonder surrogacy baked into its premise. Provided that the topics covered continue to have the same hidden depths as they find in mold, there will always be one host whose job boils down to saying “isn’t that interesting?” At the worst of times, this approach strikes me as desperate. Surely it’s better to just say interesting things and get on with it than to be constantly trumpeting your own appeal. In this premiere episode, it’s fine. But I will remain vigilant.
In Our Time: “Utilitarianism” — This is BBC Radio 4. This is a very austere production with no music, no tape, seemingly no editing, and no obvious enthusiasm. This is a man mumbling disinterestedly into a microphone, trying to coax the history of a major branch of philosophy from a panel of sleepy professors. This condescends not a whit to its audience, and makes no compromises. In fact, it seems to be ignoring its audience altogether. I will probably listen to more of this.
Reply All: “Shine On You Crazy Goldman” — P.J. Vogt drops acid at work. P.J. Vogt is quickly becoming the most interesting podcast host. Matt Lieber is a Pink Floyd reference.
The Memory Palace: “no. 116,842” — The Memory Palace always makes me get all watery at inopportune moments. DiMeo has this uncanny ability to wrest meaning out of a phrase by repeating it: in this case, “let her mind wander.” See also, “Mary Walker would wear what she wanted.”
The Memory Palace: “Craning” — Every time I hear a really good episode of The Memory Palace, it makes me want to go back and listen to this one again. I must have heard it ten or twelve times, now. It is my favourite nine minutes of audio I’ve heard this year. It’s a landscape of Cape Canaveral on the morning Apollo 11 launched, wrought with incredibly fine brushstrokes — right down to the spectators camping out in station wagons, overnight, with the tailgates open for the feet of tall children in sleeping bags. There are more perfect turns of phrase here than I’ve ever heard in a radio piece. Throw in some meditative music, and this is a total sucker punch. I can’t account for why this has such an effect on me. That’s probably why I love it so much.
99% Invisible: “Butterfly Effects” — An original, Sam Greenspan-produced story about how bad design might have decided a federal election. This is what this podcast is for. 99pi is a continuous act of validation for Roman’s “beautiful nerds.” Because, when everything in the world is so inherently interesting, how can you not want to learn everything about it? How can you not be a nerd? In a sense, the premise of 99pi is the opposite of the premise for the new Gimlet podcast, Surprisingly Awesome. Where the latter takes for granted that some things are boring, 99pi is interested in everything, and trusts that you are too. No wonder surrogacy, here.
The Moth: “Hand Transplant, DNA, and a Backwards Heart” — And, we’re back. Janna Levin’s story of love and astrophysics is structurally a thing of beauty. I’m a sucker for recurring motifs that develop thematically through the course of a narrative. (See: The Memory Palace, and also most everything by Beethoven.) The other two stories are less interesting, but not by much.
The Heart: “Kaitlyn+Mitra” — This two-parter about the intimate business partnership of The Heart’s two founders could have been a little inside baseball, but they invited their audience in by literally inviting the audience to a big event — a wedding, of sorts. The Heart is so good. For one thing, it’s one of the best-sounding podcasts on Radiotopia, along with The Truth and 99pi. For another, it cares not a whit about taboos. And was that Brian Eno’s slowed-down Pachelbel I heard in there? Clever.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ and Things We Meant to Do” — And now, a proper episode of PCHH. Pop culture panel shows are a dime a dozen, but this is far and away the best of the major ones. Every episode sounds like what it hopefully actually is, which is four people who really like talking to each other talking about stuff they like. I generally find this panel more insightful than Slate’s, and it’s actually funnier than the less structured and less censored Pop Rocket from Maximum Fun. This episode is a pretty standard instalment. And that is just fine. This is a podcast I almost always listen to the day it comes out, because I can rely on it to be good company on a commute or a run, even when the topics at hand aren’t that interesting to me.
Radiolab: “Staph Retreat” — You know you listen to too many podcasts when you hear two separate accounts of Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in the same week, entirely by coincidence. This is the better one, by the way. As you’d expect. Honestly, Radiolab lost me for a while. Between the reduced presence of Robert Krulwich, the less ambitious sound design and the increased focus on the sort of current affairs stories that other shows like This American Life already do, I felt like this show had somewhat lost its distinctiveness. But between this and “The Rhino Hunter” from September, it looks like they’re back on top.
Surprisingly Awesome: “Free Throws” — More wonder surrogacy, but this time, Adam Davidson is essentially a perfect surrogate for me, because this is a sports story, and neither he nor I could care less about sports. But, even given this optimal situation, in which both Davidson and I come around to the interest of free throws in the end, they cap it off with an ending in which Davidson’s wonder far exceeds my own, and the perfect surrogacy is broken. This is the key risk of this kind of storytelling: if the audience isn’t completely analogous to the surrogate, they need to engage their empathy in order to feel the intended effect. And people are (or at least, I am) bad at engaging their empathy when the stakes are zero. I’ll keep tuning in to this, because it really is entertaining on a moment-for-moment basis. But I distrust this structure.
Welcome to Night Vale: “The September Monologues” — I do like it when Night Vale plays with the format. I suppose some of what I said last week might make it sound like I don’t. But the real problem is when there’s too much focus on long-term storytelling and worldbuilding, and not enough on just making the episode at hand work. This is one of the best episodes I’ve heard, if only for the brilliant monologue by Steve Carlsburg. I always figured Cecil was just being a jerk about him. And that weather gag is genius.