Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 27, 2016)

I’ve been writing about Pink Floyd, and thus listening to and reading about Pink Floyd a hell of a lot. Hopefully the fruits of these labours will be visible soon. But you can’t rush these things. Speaking of Pink Floyd and Rush, let’s begin with Genesis, and continue with 29 other things, for a total of 30! That’s the most in ages. Well done, Parsons. Thank you, Parsons.  

Music

Genesis: A Trick of the Tail — You know when a song you haven’t thought about for years comes to mind unbidden and you have to listen to it? That happened to me with “Squonk,” just now. I never expected that to happen with “Squonk.” But it did prompt me to listen through this entire album, which I haven’t heard for ages. This is like homemade macaroni and cheese straight out of the oven to me. People consider it a miracle that Genesis managed to make an album this good immediately after Peter Gabriel’s departure. But those people might not have a firm grasp on the power dynamic in Genesis: it was never Peter Gabriel’s band. Tony Banks and Michael Rutherford were at least as influential. Without Gabriel, they did lose a certain amount of the darkness that made The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway so delicious. But that’s not objectively a bad thing. I think it’s telling that fans of Genesis’ prog output tend to love this album and dislike, say, Duke. Because both of those albums are basically pop albums. The difference is that Trick is a pop album wearing a prog aesthetic: Hans Christian Andersonesque fables in the lyrics and semi-acoustic pastoralism in the music. Whereas Duke is a modern-sounding pop album mostly made up of love songs. But they’re both full of pop hooks. Really, Genesis was always more of a pop band than their prog contemporaries, even when their frontman was a guy who wore flower costumes. Maybe that’s why their music has such comfort food potential.

Pink Floyd: assorted early singles and unreleased tracks — I listened to all of the most notable tracks from the Barrett era that aren’t on Saucerful or the Piper special edition. Namely: “It Would Be So Nice,” “Julia Dream,” “Point Me At The Sky,” “Careful With That Axe Eugene” (the less-familiar studio version), “Vegetable Man,” “Scream Thy Last Scream,” “One in a Million,” “Reaction in G” and “Sunshine.” Together, they make a nice, if disjointed, early Floyd mini-album. Seldom has there been a band whose castoffs and curios are quite so interesting. I think it’s undeniable that Pink Floyd got better towards the mid-70s, but they were never again so radical as they were when Barrett was around. (An aside: the “Point Me At The Sky” single is apparently the rarest of all Pink Floyd releases. It is also the first track with a Gilmour/Waters songwriting credit. It also features the line “If you survive ‘til 2005…” What I’m saying here is that they really should have played it at their 2005 reunion show. That’s a huge missed opportunity. Sure, nobody would have known it. But, considering that it was the first time in decades that Gilmour and Waters shared a stage, it would have had such sentimental value.)

Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon — It turned 43 on Tuesday, so I figured may as well. I always feel like a hipster when I say stuff like this, but I really don’t think that Dark Side is one of the best Pink Floyd albums. Wish You Were Here and Animals are both more up my street where the mid-70s stuff is concerned, and The Wall is stronger thematically, if not musically. But I sure do see the appeal: it’s got a directness to it that other Pink Floyd albums don’t have. I played a couple of songs from this album with the band I was in back in high school, Sundog One. Every time I listen to it, there’s a parallel version running in my head of how it would sound if the band were still together, playing these songs. I imagine that sounds terribly sentimental, and I suppose it is, but it’s also just a fun exercise. I like to imagine that Sundog would have gotten more playful with time. We’d do “Us and Them” as a twangy campfire song with a harmonica solo in lieu of the saxophone, and “Any Colour You Like” would be flat-out disco. *Sigh.* Maybe someday.

Syd Barrett: Opel — Everything that improved in Barrett’s songwriting after he left Pink Floyd (or, was forced out by necessity) is counterbalanced by the way his solo albums are seemingly produced to highlight his “madness” rather than his genius wherever possible. This is more of a problem on The Madcap Laughs than on Barrett and it’s hard to discern why, considering that both were produced by Barrett’s friends (Roger Waters, David Gilmour and others on the first, Gilmour alone on the second). You’d think they’d want Syd to get a sympathetic hearing, and not seem like a freak show exhibit. In any case, Opel is an odds-and-sods collection from an artist whose music is chaotic even in a more polished state. It isn’t an easy listen, and you get the sense that some of it should have been kept in the vault for the sake of Barrett’s reputation. But like everything he ever did, it’s got some intensely haunting moments, and others of intense joy. The alternate take of “Golden Hair” is among the former (and also as good a setting of a literary poem as any composer ever made), and the version of “Octopus” (here called “Clowns and Jugglers”) featuring Soft Machine is very much the latter. Worth hearing at least once.

Literature, etc.

Mark Blake: Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd — I continue to be distracted from David Day’s annotated Alice, but I promise it is very good. This is something I picked up from the library for research, which I likely won’t be finishing this time around, but it’s a really great book. Like all rock music from the pre-punk era, Pink Floyd has inspired some truly dodgy writing. But Blake is a class act, with a real sense for storytelling. He starts at the end, nearly, with the band’s reunion at Live 8 in 2005. And he uses the absence of one member at that reunion, Syd Barrett, to transition to the band’s origins — and to set the scene for oncoming tragedy. Blake gets great recollections from band members and associates in original interviews. This makes a great pairing with Nick Mason’s Inside Out, which, being a memoir, can’t lay claim to accuracy. Both are entertaining reads.

Movies

World of Tomorrow — Here’s one of the two animated shorts that everybody said got egregiously snubbed at the Oscars. I haven’t seen Bear Story, so I can’t say. But this was adorable! And really dark. And adorable! The story and writing are only okay, really. It’s not top-shelf science fiction. But the really clever thing is how it uses audio that’s clearly just random babbling of an actual child as a key part of its dialogue. It’s only 17 minutes long, and it’s on American Netflix, so if you have access to that, just go watch it.

Television

Deadwood: Season 2, episodes 7-12 — The back half of this season is, no question, some of the best TV I’ve ever seen. A few highlights: at pretty much exactly halfway through the series, Al Swearengen and Alma Garrett finally have their first scene together. It’s insane that those two characters have gone so long without actually meeting, but it’s a canny decision because it makes that scene feel really momentous — so much so that when Al emerges from Alma’s room, E.B. asks him, “Have we a new pope?” What a line. Then there’s the ending of the episode “Amalgamation and Capital,” which, without spoiling anything, brings several ongoing storylines to their separate conclusions so that they all combine to have one specific consequence. It’s the kind of showy storytelling that I don’t think TV saw again until Breaking Bad. And frankly, Deadwood has better dialogue. There’s Timothy Olyphant’s performance in the following episode. He’s a scary dude when he’s angry, but he’s heartbreaking when faced with tragedy. And, of course, there’s the arrival of George Hearst, a character who’s been talked about so often that you feel like it should be a momentous event when he actually gets to Deadwood. But the show undercuts it by sending E.B. Farnum to meet him in a state of gastrointestinal distress. This is now my favourite poop joke: “Allow me a moment’s silence, Mr. Hearst, sir. I am having a digestive crisis, and must focus on suppressing its expression.” Deadwood is a show that everybody should watch. I am dreading the third season, because I’ve heard about how badly cancellation threw the ending into disarray. But the two seasons I’ve watched so far are essential. Pick of the week.

Last Week Tonight: February 28 — The main reason this isn’t pick of the week is that you’ve almost certainly watched it anyway. (And also Deadwood.) I never wanted John Oliver to cover Donald Trump. I admired him for saying that he wasn’t interested in Trump on Colbert. Basically, the thing I love most about Last Week Tonight is that it focusses on topics that aren’t necessarily part of the news cycle at any given time and manages to find the relevance and humour in them. And covering Trump is the opposite of that. But Oliver’s right: ignoring him won’t help. As I write this, Trump is trouncing Ted Cruz on Super Tuesday. And the key insight that Oliver brought to the conversation is that Trump’s greatest asset is his name. Not necessarily the actual word “Trump,” although that helps. But, the Trump brand has massively positive connotations for many people, in spite of Trump’s actually pretty dodgy leadership. So, the best mode of attack is to strip him of his damn name. Make Donald Drumpf again, indeed.

Better Call Saul: “Amarillo” — Okay. I’m just going to take a moment to rain on the parade. I still love this show, and this was a good episode. Things are picking up. But I started thinking about where the points of tension are in this story. And they’re basically, “Will Jimmy screw up his hard-won new career, and ruin his promising new relationship?” And, putting aside the fact that we know from Breaking Bad that the answer is yes, I feel like I’ve seen this story before. That’s not a knock, though. Actually, it’s nice to see such skilled TV craftspeople making something so simple. Not everything has to be Deadwood.

QI: “Messy” — Stephen Fry’s leaving QI? My god, I hadn’t heard! I’m disconsolate.

Podcasts

Criminal: “Hastings” — This is a story about a day when an eighth-grader brought a gun to school and tried to fire it. It’s told by three people who were there: the principal and two former students, now grown. It’s refreshing to hear a story like this told with so much attention paid to the experience of the survivors and so little paid to the sensational details of the (potential) shooter’s life, mental health, etc. Criminal tends to be a show that I appreciate more than I love, but it could be that I just haven’t heard a bunch of the best episodes.

Fugitive Waves: “A Secret Civil Rights Kitchen” — A lovely, slight little story about a woman who used her phenomenal cooking abilities for social good. Like all Kitchen Sisters stories, it’s beautifully produced. Listen to this to find out if Fugitive Waves will be for you. And then, even if it’s not, go listen to “Waiting for Joe DiMaggio.”

Radiolab: “K-poparazzi” — Really great. This is presented as a counterpart to the story about Gary Hart: both ask the question, “how much do we want to know about our public figures?” But instead of focussing on American politics, this one focusses on K-pop. I kind of wish they’d tightened both stories up and added a third, so it could be a classic Radiolab themed triptych. But then, my attitude towards Radiolab is always mediated by misty nostalgia.

99% Invisible: “The Green Book” — A new producer! Nice. I love how 99pi can find a way to present just about any story as being about a design solution. The Green Book was a travel guide designed to help black people travel through the United States in relative safety during the years of Jim Crow. The last edition was published shortly after the Civil Rights Act was passed, but it’s still enormously informative of that time.

On the Media: “Spotlight on ‘Spotlight,’ the Movie” — This made me even more glad that Spotlight won Best Picture. Robby Robinson and Sacha Pfeiffer’s devotion to truth in storytelling obviously extends even to their own story. Brooke Gladstone doesn’t push Robinson too hard on why he and the Globe didn’t break the Catholic Church child abuse story earlier, because she doesn’t need to. The movie explores that side of the story just as deeply as it explores the journalistic process. I loved this interview, but mostly I just love Spotlight.

The Heart: “Ghost: Alex” — This didn’t work for me. The Heart’s previous forays into fiction/semi-fiction have worked because they relied principally on a third-person narrator, which is a familiar format for a podcast. This is just a straight-ahead radio drama, and while I adore that format, the writing and acting feels forced. I would have preferred if Kaitlin Prest had remained present throughout. Maybe that’s just me.

The Memory Palace: “Overland” — Hey, there’s humour in this! I love The Memory Palace, but I’m not sure I’ve ever actually heard humour in it before. I’ve also never heard Led Zeppelin in The Memory Palace before. Nice.

Reply All: “Zardulu” — This might be the best episode Reply All has ever made. It’s best not to know too much about this going in. I’ll just tell you that it involves a conspiracy, a number of enigmas, some head scratchers, and Justin Trudeau getting threatened by the Sasquatch. I’ll also tell you that I am now halfway convinced that nothing is real. Pick of the week.

Love and Radio: “Deep Stealth Mode” — This is actually an episode of Here Be Monsters that’s making a guest appearance in Love and Radio’s feed. I’ve never listened to Here Be Monsters, but it sounds like it’s basically just Love and Radio made by different people. This is a story of a mother raising a transgender daughter whose consciousness of her gender became obvious when she was three years old. In classic Love and Radio style, the narrative stays in the tape the whole time: it’s just the mother and the daughter. No host or interviewer. It’s a lovely little story, and probably more relevant than the one I’ve chosen as pick of the week, but relevance isn’t everything. Let’s call it “recommended.”

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Oscars Omnibus 2016” — It’s possibly more fun listening to this with the benefit of hindsight. The lack of outright dismissiveness towards The Revenant is appreciated. I get it, awards momentum makes things tiresome. But it’s a skillfully made movie, and this panel recognizes that. On the other hand, Bob Mondello’s dislike of Spotlight is totally beyond me. Doesn’t matter now, though, does it?

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The 2016 Oscars” — Basically a continuation of the above. Nice to have Gene Demby on here to offer some insight into the problems with the Chris Rock monologue.

99% Invisible: “Norman Doors” — This is actually a video, but the audio from it showed up in my feed anyway. It does really work better with the visual element. Mostly it’s just cool to see Roman Mars show up as a Vox reporter’s audio spirit guide. But I’m also a fan of any instance where he gets to gripe about bad design. (I.e. his TED talk.)

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Breakthroughs by Car Seat Headrest, The Coathangers, Big Thief, More” — Oh my god that Car Seat Headrest song is incredible. The full version is nearly twice as long as the video edit and that’s what you need to hear. Stream it here. Do it. A show that starts there and ends with Tim Hecker has got to be good. Actually, it’s probably the best All Songs I’ve ever heard.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Music From M. Ward, Nothing, Marissa Nadler, a Chat with Mitski & More” — There hasn’t been a song on these last two episodes of All Songs that hasn’t been awesome. I’ve already gone back and listened to huge chunks of these shows. Now I have to try and remember to actually check out the records when they come out. My highlights here are “Pentecost” by Kyle Craft, “Girl From Conejo Valley” by M. Ward, and “Your Best American Girl” by Mitski.

On The Media: “FiveThirtyEight Explains Super Tuesday” — Listening to statisticians talk about Super Tuesday was almost as depressing as Super Tuesday itself.

Imaginary Worlds: “Imagining Wonder Woman” — Wonder Woman has the most interesting real-world origin story of any superhero, bar none. Can Superman claim to be created by a renegade polyamorous psychologist with a whips and chains fetish, as a vision of a feminist utopia? No he cannot. This is fascinating.

99% Invisible: “Mojave Phone Booth” — Actually a Snap Judgement story, this is the tale of the man who discovered a phone booth in the middle of the desert and how it became a precursor to social media. Really good.

Serial: “Trade Secrets” — Again, we venture into the weeds, and again I can’t keep myself apprised. Presumably, the reason Serial was the breakout podcast is that it was exciting. Not that this is a virtue in itself, but I do think that’s a reasonable statement of causation. So, in a sense, it’s sad to see it descend into something so eye-glazingly boring. On the other hand, maybe it reflects admirably on the team’s principles: don’t just be fun, be important. Can you tell I’m conflicted about this season? Every time I sit down to write one of these blurbs, I tie myself in knots. This is the sort of thing I’m quick to say should exist in the world, yet I’m basically listening to it out of inertia at this point.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Downton Abbey and Nostalgia as a Genre” — I came so close to starting Downton Abbey. I even made it about five minutes into the premiere. But now that I know how swiftly it went south, I think I may sit this one out. As for the podcast, I love when Barrie Hardymon and Audie Cornish come around. But for some reason, this episode doesn’t seem as interested in speaking to people who haven’t seen the thing they’re talking about. Still fine. But that’s usually one of the reasons that I prefer this show to the likes of Pop Rocket, which is more insidey. Just saying.

All Songs Considered: “The 2016 Tiny Desk Contest Winner” — Gaelynn Lea is awesome. I love that NPR chose somebody with such an idiosyncratic sound as their winner. Frankly, finding talent like this is the entire reason why public broadcasters should still be in the music business. I could not love All Songs Considered more than I do this week. In fact, let’s give the three episodes I reviewed here a collective, honourary pick of the week. But Reply All is still the best podcast episode I listened to this week, no question.

And with that, I got my listen later playlist on Stitcher down to zero for the first time in months. Thank you, dishes. Thank you, running.

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