I’m adding a new feature, this time around. Each week, I will choose two things I particularly loved as my “picks of the week.” Due to the preponderance of podcasts in these reviews, one will always be a podcast, and the other will be something else. I won’t prioritize new things for my picks of the week, necessarily. It’s just a matter of what hit home the most on a particular day. So, it’s totally possible (and indeed, very likely) for a pick of the week to be a 40-year-old rock album. 29 reviews, this week:
Van Der Graaf Generator: The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other — You know how sometimes you’re listening to a song and you ask yourself, “Is this a good song?” and the answer is “no, it really isn’t.” But then you ask yourself “am I enjoying myself, though?” and the answer is “yeah I think I am!” That happens a lot on this album.
John Luther Adams/Glenn Kotche: Ilimaq — Adams is probably my favourite living composer. Become Ocean floored me; the subsequent recording of chamber strings music didn’t. This piece of percussion music, brilliantly performed by Wilco’s Glenn Kotche, falls somewhere in between. It’s not a masterpiece on the order of Become Ocean, Four Thousand Holes, or The Light that Fills the World, but it’s lovely, evocative, tense, etc.
Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — Listening to Glenn Kotche play John Luther Adams made me want to listen back to Wilco’s masterpiece. This is still a basically perfect album. It sounds chaotic in places, but when you listen to the details you realize that it’s actually a meticulous approximation of chaos. In fact, I’m not sure I can name a rock album that’s more detail-obsessed in its production. The way that “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” gradually coagulates from noise into a song is genius. And Kotche’s playing is outstanding. I was listening.
Max Richter/Antonio Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, Recomposed — At the risk of appearing heretical (oh, who am I kidding; I love appearing heretical) Richter’s remake of The Four Seasons is better than the original. These Vivaldi concertos are possibly the most moth-eaten body of work in the repertory, and for all of their objective virtues, I do not understand how anybody could legitimately prefer them to Richter’s clever, gorgeous, modern interpretations. I know it doesn’t have to be a competition. But I’m making it one. And Vivaldi’s lying knocked out at the edge of the ring.
Yes: Drama — This is comfort food to me. It’s one of those albums that I know every contour of so well that when I listen to it, it just snaps into the grooves in my head. It tends to get overlooked by Yes fans because Jon Anderson isn’t on it. And while that becomes a worthwhile critique when it happens again in 2011, in 1980 Anderson’s absence was exactly what Howe, Squire and White needed to go in the direction that felt natural. Also, I love that Yes and the Buggles basically made an album together. There aren’t many less likely collaborations out there, let alone ones that result in good music.
Hey Rosetta! Seeds — This comes recommended by the guy I went to the concert with last week. While I confess that I liked them better live (not a given for me; I tend to like most bands better on record), this has decent songs and great performances. And fantastic bass playing.
Crimson Peak — Sometimes I like my horror lavish, gothic and Victorian. This scratched that itch, but I’ve essentially forgotten it already.
Spectre — Fabulous. Christoph Waltz is no Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes is certainly no Judi Dench. And overall, this isn’t as good as Skyfall. But the Daniel Craig era of James Bond movies is still pretty much the bar for contemporary action franchises to clear. Marvel Studios can only aspire. A significant quibble: the entire London-based plotline with M and Moriarty is crap. This movie uses the threat of government surveillance (how am I already sick of this trope when it’s still a real-world problem?) to paper over the fact that the same ethical questions that have been posed about Jack Bauer apply equally to James Bond. But these days, I’m trying not to let things like this ruin my moviegoing experience. I believe I’m succeeding admirably.
In the event of binge-watching, I won’t hold myself to writing reviews of every episode. Because, who wants that? We’ll just check in every week, like with books.
BoJack Horseman: Season 1 — As with Hannibal a while back, I endured the rough patches early in the first season because I’ve heard it gets way better. It already has, actually. At first, I laughed most at the dumb, cartoony sight gags. Which is fine, because why else would one watch cartoons? But as the characters got fleshed out (as much as they ever do — they’re resolutely stock characters, albeit well-played ones) I started to get invested in the ongoing story as well. Then, the last two episodes totally sold me. Also, Ira Glass jokes are never not funny.
Lost: Season 1, Episodes 1-4 — I’ve decided to start rewatching Lost alongside a fabulous new essay series called Lost Exegesis by Jane Campbell of Eruditorum Press (a group blog I read religiously but don’t review because that would be insane). I have several observations, re. the show. Firstly, I remember thinking that the pilot was overrated, and that is not in fact the case. I persist in the contrarian belief that the show got more interesting as it got more complicated, but this is so well made that I don’t care that none of my beloved mythology is in place yet. Secondly, the first episode (if not necessarily the show as a whole) would have been better if Jack had died at the end as originally planned. I mean, what a bait and switch. Third, at this stage, Sawyer is basically a very bad first draft of Rustin Cohle. Fourth, “Walkabout” is still one of the finest episodes of television ever made. And finally, Shannon and Boone are still stupid, stupid characters.
Doctor Who: “Sleep No More” — Mark Gatiss is not one of my favourite Doctor Who writers, but this is one of his better scripts. If I’m not mistaken, this is the first time that Doctor Who has done a found-footage horror story. And, to be clear, found-footage horror is a tired genre that should go slump off into a corner and never be heard from again. But Doctor Who has a unique ability to revitalize the genres it collides with — usually with metafiction, as it is here. As to the premise of the episode: the idea of a treatment that substitutes for sleep is something I’ve always dreamed of. Daydreamed of. Whatever. And the idea that this treatment would inevitably create monsters seems to follow. But the fact that those monsters are literally made of the stuff that collects in the corner of your eye when you sleep is super dumb. This is still probably my… fourth favourite episode of this season. Also, both this and Stasis (which I’m still playing, for some reason) take place in space stations orbiting Neptune. Funny how I’ve never seen “orbiting Neptune” as a story setting before and then it comes up twice in a few weeks.
Bit of a comics-heavy week, reading-wise. Still loving Good Night and Good Riddance, but I needed a diversion from that unwieldy tome.
Matt Fraction/Fábio Moon: Casanova, Volume 2 “Gula” — Along with Kieron Gillen, Fraction is my favourite writer in comics right now. I wasn’t 100% sold by the first trade collection of Casanova, but as ever, I was pulled in by the compulsive belief that it would get better. And it did. This second volume is a really solid bit of science fiction. It’s got a staggering twist ending that isn’t just played for the shock of it: it has serious consequences for the characters. I hope Fraction and DeConnick’s television production company at least considers adapting this.
Roger Stern/Tom Lyle: Starman #6 — My trivia team won at that nerd bar, again. We got a big ol’ stack of ‘80s comics, two apiece. The exciting one was a first printing of an issue of V for Vendetta. I didn’t take that. After all, I got the Klingon phrasebook last time. Fair is fair. Anyway, I picked this one because its Bowie-esque title made me favourably disposed to it. And, oh my god am I ever glad I did. It’s a DC comic about a hapless, reluctant superhero with fairly indistinct powers. (Wikipedia tells me he got them when he was hit by a bolt of energy from a satellite. OF COURSE.) The villains in this are a shadowy cabal that’s actually known as “the Power Elite.” It’s advertised as a crossover with several other heroes, including Green Lantern and several I’ve never heard of, but their appearances all basically boil down to Starman saying “Hey look! It’s that superhero! Okay, bye!” The story starts with the Sydney Opera House falling down, and Starman musing “How do you… hold up… a building?!” So, that gives you the jist of the actual comic, but what I really enjoyed were the ads. There’s an Atari ad in this, and one for Nintendo’s Bubble Bobble. Also, there’s an ad for something called a telephone role-playing game, which is a thing I didn’t know ever existed. And the classifieds page has an ad with the headline “BE TALLER,” another that promises to help you make your own stink bombs with household items if you send them two dollars, and ads for two separate companies that purport to sell real shark teeth. The letters page contains a fan letter entreating the writers to “keep thinking about those little things, like going to the bathroom.” This comic is terrible, obviously. But I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Charles Schulz: Peanuts (October/November 1964) — Throughout October of 1964, Charles Schulz wrote a series of Peanuts strips where Lucy convinces Linus to run for school president. In the end, he blows it because he uses his last speaking opportunity to raise awareness of the Great Pumpkin. What’s really amazing about this is how much better it works as a whole than as separate four-panel strips. Some Peanuts strips barely have jokes, let alone punchlines. But when you piece it together into a full narrative, the character beats make it start to feel like a sitcom. This is great. I love Peanuts. And it’s all online.
Jonathan Franklin: “Lost at sea: the man who vanished for 14 months” — I went into this Guardian feature half expecting an adventure story about a man showing nature who’s boss. Needless to say, that is not what it is. Being marooned for more than a year is not fun. The Martian is not a realistic movie. But this is still a hell of a story.
Javier Grillo-Marxauch: “The Lost Will and Testament of Javier Grillo-Marxauch” — This is a massive post on Grillo-Marxauch’s blog about the experience of working on the first two seasons of Lost. I remember meaning to read it when he first published it in March, but now that I’m re-watching the show, I have to. It’s a fascinating story, but here is what I really love: “While a lot of the accounts of Lost’s creation hinge on the question of whether we knew what the island was… few people ever ask if we knew the characters or had their stories worked out in advance. I find that curious.” Also, learning that David Fury was initially against the twist in “Walkabout” (which I resolutely refuse to spoil) is really something.
Kelly Sue DeConnick/Valentine De Landro: Bitch Planet, Volume 1 “Extraordinary Machine” — Kieron Gillen’s The Wicked and the Divine and Phonogram are among my favourite ongoing comics because they seem like they’re being made with me specifically in mind. I love Bitch Planet for the exact opposite reason: it doesn’t give a shit about pandering to me. Which, great. I’m over-served by the culture anyway. Pick of the week.
Mike Grell/Hannibal King/Elliot S. Maggin/John Koch: Secret Origins #38 — This is the other comic I won at the nerd bar. It’s from 1989 and it’s got two stories: one about Green Arrow, and the other about his sidekick, Speedy, who I’d never heard of. I have no opinions about either of them. Bog standard pulpy nonsense. Though there is a moment where Green Arrow takes down a couple of marijuana farming hippies. Took me a while to realize that they were actually supposed to be bad guys. The ads in this one are just as wonderful as in Starman #6. There’s one for Campbell’s soup with a variety of puzzles, like connecting the dots to find “the first thing you need for making a bowl of soup” — a can opener. There’s an ad for a Nintendo football game featuring an actual NFL quarterback playing the game on a couch with a gap-toothed child wearing Coke bottle glasses. These craven ad agencies and their shameless wish-fulfilment fantasies. Oh, and the back of the issue has an ad for this.
StartUp: “The Secret Formula” — Oh boy! Gimlet Media’s giving us a peek behind the curtain again. This is an inside look at the production of the new Gimlet show, Surprisingly Awesome. I was rough on Surprisingly Awesome last week, and I’ll probably keep being rough on it. But hoo boy, did it ever improve from the initial pass. This is a fascinating listen — possibly even for people who aren’t radio producers.
The Allusionist: “Spill Your Guts” — I wonder if Zaltzman is really going to co-host with all 12 of the other Radiotopians before getting back to regular, scheduled Allusionist episodes? (This was fine.)
Planet Money: “OMG TPP” — It says something about the team on Planet Money that they were able to put together a coherent episode about the TPP in a day. I now know something about it, whereas I didn’t before.
The Moth: “Jon Ronson & Mica Truran” — Jon Ronson is an autolisten. I’d actually heard the story he tells here before, on This American Life, but it was different hearing him tell it in a live audience situation. Plus, we learned that his wife says things to him at parties like “Make your smalltalk more… general.” Come for Ronson, stay for Mica Truran’s actually much more personal and meaningful story.
99% Invisible: “Fountain Drinks” — See? Even drinking fountains are interesting. And nobody had to claim they weren’t to help me through this. Also, Radiotopia being what it is right now, there was an episode of Song Exploder tacked onto the end of this (the one on tUnE-yArDs’ “Water Fountain”). And it was an excellent episode of Song Exploder about an excellent song that I am going to listen to again right now. (I’m back. Holy crap, that video.)
This American Life: “Transformers” — Sean Cole is one of my favourite TAL producers. His story about a young man coming out to his parents, and then that man’s mom coming out to him is worth listening in itself. The rest is fine.
In Our Time: “P vs. NP” — Look at me, listening to more of this. This episode is about an almost incomprehensibly complicated mathematical problem that nobody’s ever solved. It is a totally fascinating topic, and absolutely the kind of thing that almost every radio show in the world would toss aside immediately because confusing and because boring. I admire the sheer audacity with which In Our Time tackles this — not that it’s entirely successful. One sometimes wishes Robert Krulwich were around to lend clarity. Still, this may be the first show I’ve ever listened to where the host asks the guests for clarification not because he fears the listeners won’t understand, but because he himself is having trouble. I love that. I could get used to Melvyn Bragg, though I still think he could use a Red Bull or six before going to studio. All the same, there are moments of dour wit, here. When a guest explains to Bragg that “broadly speaking, exponential means hopelessly impractical,” Bragg replies: “Yes, broadly hopeless, right.” I’m beginning to delight in this, but it remains a somewhat knowingly perverse delight.
WTF with Marc Maron: “Lorne Michaels” — Michaels is astonishingly patient with Maron as he obsesses over a misbegotten SNL audition in 1995. That’s not an observation; that’s just a summary of this podcast. This is what we know to expect from Maron, but not necessarily what you’d expect from Michaels. If you’ve never heard WTF, this will show you what it’s all about, and why it’s so great on its best days. Pick of the week.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Live at the Howard Theatre” — Audie Cornish’s thoughts on horror movies are identical to my own. Glen Weldon’s thoughts on sports are similar to, though more dramatic than, my own. Linda Holmes’s delight in people getting trivia questions wrong resembles my own. Stephen Thompson’s rage at never getting trivia questions right himself is exactly my own. Also, Fred Armisen’s there.
The Memory Palace: “Artist in Landscape” — Gorgeous. Gorgeous and longer than usual. And sad. So sad. Listen to The Memory Palace. Just, listen to all of it.
Reply All: “The Rainbow Pug” — There was a time when StartUp and 99pi were undoubtedly my favourite podcasts. I think that recently, it’s shifted to The Memory Palace and Reply All. On the latter of which, this week, P.J. Vogt gets angry about a woman not being able to get her dog back from a shelter, and Alex Goldman tries to solve the problem. Reply All is possibly the most playful journalism outlet, full stop.