Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 20, 2016)

18 reviews. I’d like to think I’m making up for the comparatively small number with extra thoughtfulness, this week. Or maybe not. It occurs to me that a lot of what I write here is complete nonsense to anybody who doesn’t have near identical cultural touchstones to me. Therefore, to those of you who actually read this: thank you for your substantial feat of empathy.

Television

Horace and Pete: Episodes 2-5 — I think we’d better start with episode three, in which two people have a conversation, and that is all. Horace and Pete was already becoming a testament to the power of good writing and good acting presented straightforwardly, but that episode took it to another level altogether. Laurie Metcalf, an actress that I’ve never seen in anything before, opens the show with a ten-minute monologue in a single close-up shot. And even when Louis C.K.’s character enters the picture, it doesn’t get much more complicated than that. It’s just two people, telling each other captivating stories that they each have personal reasons to be particularly captivated by. It’s electrifying. Metcalf’s performance is completely staggering, in the same way that Alan Alda, Edie Falco and Steve Buscemi’s performances are staggering in other episodes. C.K. himself is a less technically able actor, and it’s occasionally bizarre to see him playing opposite people who are obviously much more accomplished than him, but in general he knows what he can and cannot do. The other episodes aren’t quite as good as the third one. But then, none of them take quite such a big swing. This is a really good show, that expanded its remit from the political theatre of its premiere remarkably quickly. Pick of the week.

Last Week Tonight: March 20, 2016 — This was brilliant, don’t get me wrong. But I’m beginning to become concerned that John Oliver is obsessing over the same ludicrous shit that everybody else is. When his show premiered, I had stopped watching Jon Stewart because I was starting to get tired of Stewart’s particular preoccupations — which is to say, the preoccupations of daily television news. Then Oliver came along and explained net neutrality with dingo metaphors. I’m hoping that version of Last Week Tonight doesn’t get forgotten in favour of being merely the most authoritative source of humourous Trump debunking.

Better Call Saul: “Bali H’ai” — One of my two favourite episodes of Better Call Saul. (The other is “Marco.”) The moment at the beginning where Kim stays home a little later specifically to hear Jimmy sing to her over voicemail is one of the sweetest moments ever to appear on this show. So much is communicated in that scene, about both characters. Rhea Seehorn is becoming one of my favourite supporting players on television right now. It’s really something to watch the longing play out on her face as a partner from a rival firm offers her a job she knows she can’t take. Plus, we have another intrusion of Breaking Bad into the Mike’s Better Call Saul plot. It comes in a gloriously creepy moment that also features some of Jonathan Banks’s best work in his role so far. Even Patrick Fabian impresses this week, with almost no screen time. He’s doing a great job of making Howard not be a cruel, cold bastard, even when he’s acting punitively. If the third episode of Horace and Pete were less brilliant, this would be the pick of the week.

Music

Madvillain: Madvillainy — You know when you love an album so much you try not to listen to it too much so it stays fresh? That’s how this album is with me. It’s absolutely one of my favourite rap albums, but I don’t actually know it that well because I want it to stay surprising. When I listen to this, I get the sense that MadLib and I are essentially the same person, except he’s a talented hip hop producer and I’m a hack radio writer. But this is basically what the inside of my head sounds like, complete with bits of Frank Zappa and Gentle Giant flying around. MF Doom, on the other hand, is very much unlike the inside of my head, because there is literally no other human who thinks like him.

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — There is no other album about which there is so little left to be said.

The Beatles: Revolver — Except maybe this one. All the same, I think I can say some things. Revolver seems to be the internet’s consensus favourite Beatles album. I have no metric to measure this, but I get the sense that Gen Xers picked this as their Beatles album in opposition to the boomers’ reverence for Sgt. Pepper. And while neither of those are my favourite (I’d pick the White Album, Abbey Road, Rubber Soul, and Magical Mystery Tour over both), I’m going to have to decisively side with the boomers on this one. Revolver has some of the best songs in the Beatles canon (“Eleanor Rigby,” “She Said She Said,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” “For No One” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”). But for an album that’s consistently touted as maybe the single greatest utterance of a generation, it has a lot of relative duds. “Taxman” is an early iteration of mid-70s fatass popstar syndrome — wherein most of England’s biggest stars were living in tax exile making bland, safe music. “Love You To” is a culturally appropriative misguided experiment that lacks the lyrical and melodic brilliance of Pepper’s similar (but equally problematic) “Within You Without You.” “Here, There And Everywhere” marks the first appearance of the saccharine Paul McCartney that the world would come to resent, post-Beatles. “Yellow Submarine” is fine. Everybody stop hating on “Yellow Submarine.” “Good Day Sunshine” is musical plain yogurt. It’s all subjective, of course. But during four of Revolver’s 14 tracks, I always find myself wondering who crowned this one king.

Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here — More boomer music! This used to be my favourite album from Pink Floyd’s most revered period (Dark Side through The Wall). These days I tend to lean towards Animals. But Wish has a certain appeal for being the most loosely constructed of the post-Dark Side albums. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is the most obvious illustration of this — that opening goes on for at least one chorus longer than it probably needs to. But economy isn’t the concern here, nor should it have been. It’s the slow burn that makes the song. And the whole album benefits from the feeling that the band has time to kill. It would have been a mistake for Pink Floyd to follow up Dark Side with another ruthlessly focussed album. Wish You Were Here is the final statement from the free, jammy psychedelic band that Pink Floyd was before they hit it big. From here on out, the albums meander less and less. And that is both a gain and a loss.

NPR Music: the Austin 100 — This is a six-hour, 100-song playlist of music from artists playing at this year’s SXSW, compiled by Stephen Thompson, who will not shut up about it on the two podcasts he’s on that I listen to. Having very much enjoyed All Songs’ SXSW coverage, I figured I may as well check out the giant heap of music that they’ve made available for download. And you know what: good decision. There’s a huge range here, much of which falls under the valuable category of “stuff I don’t really want to explore further, but am glad I heard once.” Just when you think it’s going to be a bunch more indie rock and songwritery stuff, alphabetical order gives you back-to-back Chynna Rogers (kickass rap) and CONAN (metal, obvs). You can download all 100 songs for free until the end of March and you should, because why wouldn’t you?

Literature, etc.

David Sheppard: On Some Faraway Beach — I’ve had David Sheppard’s Brian Eno biography on my phone for ages, having only gotten through a couple of chapters. Early this week, the third chapter became my commute entertainment of choice. It’s fantastic, and as much a look into the London experimental music scene — including notables like Cornelius Cardew, Gavin Bryars and Michael Nyman — as it is into Eno’s formative years. It’s fun to see how the approach that made Eno one of my creative heroes — Sheppard summarizes it as “create parameters, set it off, see what happens” — basically originated with John Cage, and was circulating around the experimental circles that Eno stumbled into. The line from Cage to Eno is an obvious one to draw, but what’s cool is seeing how everybody else who caught on to it (including Americans like La Monte Young and Steve Reich) was using it to make a sort of “art music,” and Eno was the only one to realize he could use it to produce pop albums.

Games

SOMA — Finished, at last. This did what I wanted it to, namely: to offer me a detailed world to wander around in as part of a linear story, and to occasionally scare the willickers out of me. SOMA really wants to be a thoughtful game, and sometimes it is. But the existential questions that are its thematic bread and butter are too hypothetical to be especially preoccupying. “Are digital copies of ourselves still ourselves?” Ehh. It’s worth noting that this is close to the same question that animated the first storylines of Swamp Thing, and that comic really started getting good when Alan Moore stopped worrying about it. (It’s also worth noting that there’s a famous philosophical thought experiment colloquially known as “Swampman” that offers almost the same hypothetical as Swamp Thing, but which was apparently conceived some time after Swamp Thing began. In any case, both of these iterations of this idea are more sophisticated that their expression in SOMA.) These days, I’m disinclined to grapple with such abstract notions. Give me Bioshock: Infinite. That game’s hypotheticals are beginning to look like the daily news. Altogether, I’d say SOMA was very much a video game. It was fun while it lasted, but it won’t be lingering with me for long, and I certainly won’t ever play it again.

The Dream Machine: Episodes 1-3 — This is more my speed. First off, it’s amazing that somebody made a stop-motion point-and-click game with clay models. Aesthetically, The Dream Machine is the most distinctive game I’ve played since… I dunno, FEZ? It’s so beautifully presented that the apartment building where most of the game’s real-life segments take place is just as vibrant as its fanciful dream sequences. The puzzles, such as they are, are intuitive and don’t disrupt the flow of the story. The writing is clear and refreshingly non-stylized, and all of the characters have distinct voices — even in the third episode, where they literally all look the same. It’s not quite Kentucky Route Zero, but what is?

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: More SXSW coverage — The tail end of All Songs’ SXSW late night dispatches found Bob Boilen invigorated by an environment that most people, including apparently everybody else involved in NPR Music, would find exhausting. But the team’s tenacity paid off in this week’s proper episode of All Songs, which features some really fantastic discoveries that I’ll probably check out more from. I am so excited for that John Congleton album. Pick of the week.

On the Media: “Party People” — I can’t say I have any better an understanding of who the hell these people who support Trump are after listening to this, but it was certainly interesting to hear more about how ineffective the campaign finance system is — to the point where it’s almost hard to think of it as evil anymore. Just inept.

In Our Time: “Bedlam” — I continue to be equally fascinated by this show’s existence as its content. It’s refreshing — almost shocking, really — to hear Melvyn Bragg respond to a guest’s meandering answer to a question with “that was an excellent survey, but can you just give me the answer?” He’s totally artless and I kind of love him for it. The actual content of this episode is horrifying and fascinating.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Glen Weldon’s ‘The Caped Crusade’” — Fun! I will say, I find that as a culture critic, Weldon can be a bit on the orthodox side for my Phil Sandifer-inclined tastes. He has a tendency to recite the standard narratives of cultural history, rather than offering the sorts of counterintuitive arguments I tend to enjoy. But it sounds like in this book he’s really gone out of his way to put the most toxic parts of nerd culture under a microscope. I fully intend to read Weldon’s Superman book, having enjoyed the Amazon preview some time ago. This new Batman one may have to wait, but I’ll probably get there because Weldon is good company, in podcast and printed form.

On The Media: “Gawker, Hulk Hogan, and the First Amendment” — Bob Garfield is the best. This is a case study in why he and Brooke Gladstone are a great team. This is the sort of straightforward, umbrance-driven story that he would be way more into than her. Meanwhile, she’s probably off thinking about how Marshall McLuhan would have critiqued Twitter. It’s the perfect arrangement.

Reply All: “Good Job, Alex” — You know what’s something you can’t do on public radio? Be the main character in your own story. Thank god there are podcasts, because the Vogt/Goldman double act has never been funnier than in this, where Goldman tries to solve a problem and Vogt makes fun of him mercilessly.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “SXSW Wrap and Songs That Changed Our Lives” — This arrived just in time for me to reach peak NPR SXSW ‘16 coverage. After hearing Bob Boilen and co. geek out about the music at SXSW, it was nice that this offered Stephen Thompson, Katie Presley and Audie Cornish the opportunity to talk about it more broadly, as a phenomenon. And honestly, after hearing about the masses of sweaty people and the pace of it all, I think I might not bother ever going. I’ll just experience it vicariously through NPR.

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