Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 14, 2016)

21 reviews — not all of which are from this week, I confess. I forgot some stuff a while back. But! The live things are both from this week! Look at me, doing things! Leaving my apartment!

Live events

Robert Lepage: 887 — There’s no way to properly unpack this performance in a few words immediately after the fact. So I’ll just kind of describe what it is. It’s Robert Lepage onstage, talking about memory: the neurological phenomenon of memory, his childhood memories, the process of memorization. Along the way, he explores the origins of theatre (for him personally and in general), he remembers his father, and he reflects on Quebec nationalism and the FLQ. Onstage with him is a set so ingenious in its design that I’m not even going to try to describe it. But this isn’t really a show about spectacle. Mostly, it’s just Lepage talking to you, telling you a story, being a companionable guide through history and memory. It’s like an episode of The Moth combined with a TED talk inside a magical realist diorama. Some of the themes Lepage plays with in this don’t seem like they should necessarily connect, but they do, and never in ways that seem forced. And there are about a thousand different plot threads hanging at any one time, but it’s never hard to follow. He just strings you along. It is deft and haunting and you should take any opportunity that arises to see it. Pick of the week.

Nick Thune: Live at the Biltmore — I’m going to try to get out to more live comedy. I always love it, when it’s somebody I know won’t bomb. Thune is great. I’d say about three quarters of his jokes landed with the crowd. There’s some chaff in his set right now, but the good bits are really good. Generally, the darker he goes, the better he gets. It says something about the way this guy’s head works that his best line came in a bit about watching a man contemplate suicide on the edge of a bridge. Apparently, that bit did not go over in Antwerp. Live comedy, hey?

Literature, etc.

Susan Fast: Dangerous — I actually read this a few weeks ago and never wrote it up for some reason. This is the 100th volume in the 33⅓ series. Fast’s thesis is that Michael Jackson’s Dangerous is his most mature work: this version of Jackson is not an artist past his prime, but an artist embracing adulthood in a way that the media never gave him credit for, and embracing his blackness in spite of the media’s accusations that he was abandoning it. It’s an outstanding and entertaining little book, and I highly recommend reading it and listening to the album simultaneously. You’ll appreciate the music more for having read this.

Music

Michael Jackson: Dangerous — I suppose I also neglected to write this up. Basically, I’m with Susan Fast on this. It’s a dreadfully underrated album. “Jam” might well be my new favourite MJ song, and tracks like “Remember the Time” and “Who Is It” are delightfully complex. I confess, I can’t deal with the ballads — especially not “Heal the World,” and I suspect this is my liability rather than the song’s — but the impact of the album as a whole is staggering. It isn’t the one-disc hit parade that Thriller was, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s challenging and ambitious, and that makes it maybe even more awesome.

Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks — If I’m being honest, it’s probably my favourite Dylan album. His band sounds blandly professional compared to the kickass Nashville session players on Blonde on Blonde, but the lyrics are the best of his career and so are the vocal performances. The songs on Blood on the Tracks are direct enough to be comprehensible, but they still maintain a tantalizing bit of mystery. The perfect example of this is my absolute favourite Dylan song, “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” It tells a straightforward story with four fully fleshed-out characters (the title trio with the addition of Big Jim, the ill-fated rich dude) but it leaves out crucial information at the last minute, forcing the listener to dig through the lyric for clues as to what exactly took place. In a particularly wonderful touch, the most important clue is in the second line of the song. I love Blood on the Tracks. It’s one of the rock ‘n’ roll warhorses of the boomer generation that most deserves its reputation.

Julia Wolfe: Anthracite Fields — I’ve listened to this in bits and pieces at work a bunch of times. This was my second listen straight through. I dunno. I love the first movement, but this thing that new music people are doing now where they compose to librettos constructed from scraps of found writing (see also Ted Hearne’s The Source, and a while back, John Adams’ Doctor Atomic) is starting to wear thin for me. We get it: it’s a postmodern age. I’m tired. I just want to hear songs. Musically, there are parts of this that I love. But this is nowhere near as compelling as its two immediate predecessors in the list of Pulitzer winners.

Kate Bush: The Whole Story — I don’t generally love compilations, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve put this on to hear the alternate version of “Wuthering Heights” at the beginning and just let it play. No songs here are less than excellent.

Elvis Costello/Brodsky Quartet: The Juliet Letters — This is likely not the best Elvis Costello album to start with. But I happened to have a copy lying around that I got for free, so may as well. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. A string quartet has the same homogeneity as a punk band, so this format makes perfect sense, and should be explored further, by people who share Costello and the Brodsky’s aversion to “crossover” music. The songs with music written by members of the quartet really emphasize what a nimble vocalist Costello is. His own material doesn’t always make the same demands on him. It remains to be seen whether I’ll listen to this a second time, but I’m glad I heard it once.

Kanye West: The Life of Pablo — I stole this album and so should you. Tidal exclusives cannot become a thing. Shitty distribution methods aside: when Yeezus came out, I thought of it as Kanye’s White Album, given that Fantasy is clearly his Sgt. Pepper. I’m going to revise that. Yeezus is now Kanye’s Magical Mystery Tour — a good, but somewhat slight and incidental work between two more substantial ones. The Life of Pablo is a perfect analogue for the White Album: troubled production, bloat, songs in various stages of incompletion upon release, lack of focus. But where the actual White Album manages to use all of those things to its advantage in the end, making a unified aesthetic out of its heterogeneity, The Life of Pablo just kind of feels like a slog to me, on first listen. There are moments I loved, and I clearly need to listen to it more than once to process it. (As did all of the reviewers who wrote it up the day after its surprise release. WHY must everything happen NOW?) Still, I loved both of Kanye’s last two albums immediately. At the moment, I think this is his worst album since 808s and Heartbreak. That may change.

Television

Last Week Tonight: February 14, 2016 — Oh, thank god he’s back. He managed to cover Scalia’s death in a way that was funny but not tasteless and also not needlessly deferential to a person who materially harmed many lives. He brought out the comedy in the horrible irony that voter ID proponents routinely commit voter impersonation in state legislatures. And, he curated an extravaganza devoted to a New Zealand MP getting hit in the face with a dildo. I love this show so much.

The Art of the Deal: The Movie — I’m going to call this television for arbitrary reasons. This is one of those internet things where the fact of its existence is more relevant than the thing itself. It’s pretty funny, though. Watch it before it has no more caché.

Better Call Saul: “Switch” — It’s the switch that makes the whole thing. That moment with the switch. I don’t even know what to think. Also, I love how adept this show is becoming at creating idiotic, white, suburban petty criminals whose downfall is their entitlement. I don’t know what this show is planning on doing to that guy with the Hummer, but it’s going to be so satisfying.

Deadwood: “A Lie Agreed Upon” (Parts 1 & 2) — The two-part premiere of the second season provides the Swearengen/Bullock showdown we’ve all been waiting for, Al’s greatest closing benediction thus far, and Anna Gunn. This is clearly going to be a good season.

Podcasts

The Memory Palace: “The Wheel” — Longer isn’t necessarily better for The Memory Palace. And, as much as I love this show, I’ve also begun to become aware of some of DiMeo’s ticks as a writer. He likes to hone in on particular evocative phrases and adopt them as recurring motifs. Sometimes, it works brilliantly, like “she let her mind wander” in the episode about Margaret Knight. But “they could take the boat” doesn’t have quite the same poetic resonance in this story. It is a heck of a story, though — the tale of Robert Smalls’ incredible escape from slavery during the Civil War. And the anecdote that DiMeo tacks on the end is perfect. DiMeo doesn’t hit it out of the park every time, but there are wonderful moments in every episode of The Memory Palace.

Reply All: “In The Desert” — This is both an excellent mystery story and a very amusing example of P.J. Vogt knowing exactly how to piss off Alex Goldman. This podcast is amazing.

Reply All: “Apologies to Dr. Rosalind Franklin” — How like Reply All to turn an oversight into a fun story. I have to say, though: it seems a bit pedantic to me that somebody listened to Goldman’s story about diversity in tech workplaces and honed in on the fact that he neglected to mention Dr. Franklin alongside Watson and Crick in an aside that really didn’t have much to do with the story at hand. But she does deserve more credit, so whatever.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Super Bowl Snacks” — Two takeaways from this. One: I could have Superbowled more committedly. Two: I need to start listening to The Sporkful, which I’ve known for some time.

99% Invisible: “The Ice King” — People used to ship American lake ice all the way to India. That is completely amazing, and this is a great story. Plus, the sources for it are sufficiently obscure that this feels like a genuine public service from 99pi. I would never have heard about this otherwise.

On The Media: “Common Sense” — A nearly two-month old episode of OTM, but one that I knew I still had to listen to. It’s so nice to hear that there are people willing to casually call bullshit on the arguments in opposition of gun control.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Harper Lee and To Kill A Mockingbird” — I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only person who gets a lump in their throat at the mere mention of Boo Radley.

On The Media: “Brooke on the Longform Podcast” — Brooke Gladstone is the greatest. She’s one of the few people that journalism can’t do without. This is the first I’ve heard her talk about her own work rather than other people’s, and is absolutely essential listening for anybody interested in the media. It’s great to hear her talk about the differences between her sensibility as an OTM host and Bob Garfield’s. She’s more interested in how people process information, whereas Garfield mostly likes to take umbrage with specific instances of journalistic misconduct. That’s why it’s important to have both of them: Garfield delivers what a lot of people presumably go to a media criticism show for — confrontation and reckoning. But Gladstone’s the one who’ll teach you how to read the news intelligently. This is a lovely bit of insight into how she thinks. I guess I also need to start listening to Longform. Pick of the week.

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