Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 10)

Back to sanity, with 22 reviews.

Music

Tim Hecker: Love Streams — I expected to love this, and I did love it, but It’s certainly not what I expected. Tim Hecker is interesting: from what I’ve heard, he spent his early career making a number of very similar, very static albums. But over his last two albums, he has become an artist with the capacity to surprise. Love Streams is pure ear candy. I loved it immediately. No resistance. It’s still abstract and meandering, and fairly abrasive in parts. But there’s a sweetness in this album that has been nowhere near a Tim Hecker album before. It’s partially the choir. But even when the choir’s not around, there’s a general sense of consonance here that’s basically the polar opposite of the music on Virgins, which remains the darkest and strangest album of Hecker’s career. And that consonance makes the moments where the music is ripped apart by noise all the more compelling. Really good. Up there with Bowie, Congleton and Kopatchinskaja as my favourite music of the year so far. Pick of the week.

Tim Hecker: Ravedeath, 1972 — I went into this expecting it to be a departure from Hecker’s early stuff, towards the heterogeneity of Virgins. It’s not that. It’s merely the best of Hecker’s pre-Virgins albums. That’s not nothing, but I think that Love Streams proves that we’ve been dealing with a fundamentally different (and more interesting) Tim Hecker since 2013. I am far more excited about the prospect of hearing what he does in the coming years than I am about completing my survey of his back catalogue.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja: Take Two — After being blown away by Kopatchinskaja’s totally bonkers take on the Tchaikovsky concerto, I figured I should check her out in a more conventional setting for her: namely, playing a 70-plus-minute programme of fragmentary duets with musicians of all stripes in modern and early repertoire. This disc isn’t the sort of thing that anybody is likely to obsess over who isn’t a contemporary musician themself. In fact, maybe the presence of this alongside Tim Hecker in these reviews marks a division: two figures making music that would inevitably be described as “difficult” by somebody without a preexisting interest. But in Hecker, we find a person with roots in techno, making music that is as immersive as it is abstract — and which is accepted by the indie music press far more so than the classical music community. In the sort of modern music that Kopatchinskaja plays, we often find a sort of austerity or high conceptualism, even when it is presented with the intention of playfulness. Heinz Holliger comes especially to mind. But Kopatchinskaja is the real thing. She provides a throughline on this otherwise head-spinning set of diverse pieces. She might be the best musician ever at the task of bringing out the latent fun in inaccessible music. (The fact that she defines “serious art” as “the art where you always fall asleep” must help. She venerates pop artists for their polyvalent tendencies in her fascinating and sympathetic liner notes.) And to top it off, the disc ends with a suitably heretical performance of the Bach Chaconne with improvised accompaniment on harpsichord. Just because something is perfect the way it is doesn’t mean you should do it that way every damn time. Kopatchinskaja is without a doubt my favourite living violinist, and I could see this CD becoming a favourite of mine with repeated listens. But that would require me to listen to it again, and that’s always the question, isn’t it?

Live events

Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent: Live at the Chan Centre — This was a performance of Orlando di Lasso’s masterpiece, Lagrime di San Pietro, which is probably tied with the Monteverdi Vespers for my favourite large work written before Bach’s time. The final motet, “Vide Homo,” that Lasso appended to the end of the preceding 20 madrigals, is one of the great moments in the whole history of Western music. I can’t pretend to fully understand it; my grasp of pre-tonal theory is shaky at best. But here’s what I know: it comes after 20 numbers sung in Italian, set to words from a single sacred poem. Those 20 numbers gradually go through each of the established musical modes codified by the church. (By mode, I mean a kind of scale. It’s like a “key,” before they invented keys.) And then, in that final number, the language switches from the vernacular Italian to the sacred Latin, the speaker switches from the narrative voice and that of Saint Peter to the words of Christ, and the music is suddenly no longer based on one of the sanctioned church modes — it is entirely unearthly music, reflecting the voice of Christ. You don’t have to be religious to recognize that this is pretty damn extraordinary. It’s also a gigantic penitential guilt trip, composed by a man who feared deeply for the fate of his immortal soul. Lagrime is serious business, and deserving of serious adulation. All the same, this was one of those concerts that I went to for the rep, but left in awe of the musicians. Herreweghe conducted his singers with restraint befitting such an austere piece of music, and his Collegium sang with some of the most astounding blend and sensitivity that I’ve heard in live choral singing. Two curtain calls and an encore. Really astonishing. If you can hear this group live, do.

Movies

Eye in the Sky — This movie is too movie. Its plot is an extended trolley problem (the single most cliched plot element in political thrillers) wherein the ethics of killing one to save many are… not so much debated endlessly as merely fretted over endlessly. As always in these scenarios (see especially the equally problematic but far better executed 24), the arguments given against such an action are never backed up with a philosophy or clear ethics. In Eye in the Sky, the people making objections come off as cowardly, indecisive, political, or sentimental to the point of not being able to do their jobs. And that’s not just a political objection from me, it’s a fundamental storytelling problem as well. If you’re going to make a movie that’s about people repeatedly not firing a rocket and talking about why, you had damn well better offer a compelling ethical difference. Otherwise the whole movie is just an extended sequence of “I’m going to do this thing!” “Oh, no you’re not!” And that is basically what Eye in the Sky is. None of the roles in this movie are particularly demanding on their actors, but I would be remiss not to mention that the lamented Alan Rickman is once again far better than the movie he’s in.

High Rise — Okay. So, this is a movie that was made specifically to cater to certain aesthetic tastes that define me. It’s basically Roeg and Cammel’s Performance meets Lindsay Anderson’s …if meets A Clockwork Orange with a heavy dollop of Brazil. It is openly anti-capitalist, and based on the same source material (J.G. Ballard’s eponymous novel) as one of my favourite classic Doctor Who stories, “Paradise Towers.” When a movie is carrying all of the same cultural baggage that I am, it is honestly kind of hard for me to tell whether or not it’s good. Certainly it’s brutal. (Brutalist, even.) Certainly it doesn’t make sense in a way that seems very intentional. But it also has a sense of fun about its total bleakness, some truly great lines, the only Tom Hiddleston performance I’ve found convincing outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Jeremy Irons in the exact kind of role people should always cast Jeremy Irons in. When it gets a wide release, you should probably see it if you’re not squeamish. I’m not saying you’ll like it — I’m saying I have absolutely no idea if it’s any good or not, so you should just go see for yourself. I loved it.

Television

Last Week Tonight: April 10, 2016 — There is a joke in this about getting a credit check to work at a fireworks store that is one of the cleverest things I’ve heard in many months. This show gets a lot of credit for “destroying” things. But maybe it doesn’t get enough for sharp writing.

Better Call Saul: “Nailed” — “Sometimes the good guys win,” he says. Hoo boy. The scene where Chuck makes his allegations about Jimmy in Kim’s presence is probably the best scene this show has ever done. And it’s surrounded by other incredible scenes: the Mesa Verde hearing, Jimmy’s schoolyard video shoot, Mike’s heist, Kim telling Jimmy euphemistically to burn the evidence, and the whole sequence with Lance the copy guy. By sheer accretion of perfect scenes, this is probably the best episode of Better Call Saul. I still think I prefer “Rebecca” and “Marco” for their relative focus. But holy hell is this season drawing to a rollicking conclusion.

Literature, etc.

Kurt Vonnegut: Hocus Pocus — I usually devour Vonnegut novels. This one is taking me a while to get into. It’s got an intriguing setup and already a few great aphorisms, but the only other time I’ve been this uninvested in the early chapters of a book by Vonnegut was when I read his dodgy first novel Player Piano. I find it odd that critics of the time treated Hocus Pocus as a return to form, considering that his previous two novels were Galapagos and Bluebeard, both of which are really strong in my opinion. Bluebeard especially. I’m sure I’ll like this better once I’m halfway through it or so.

Games

EarthBound — “Peaceful Rest Valley ahead. Proceed through cave.” I’m starting to really enjoy this. I do wish there were a few puzzles, or choices to be made, and a bit less RPG combat. But it’s witty and unassuming in a way that’s really refreshing for a game from this period. And wandering around the towns, talking to people and reading billboards is actually a lot of fun. Call it the anti-Zelda.

Podcasts

StartUp: Season 3 Teaser — Well, I’m sad that they’re not doing another serialized story. On the other hand, focussing on the make-or-break moments of various companies’ early lives is a solid premise for a season. It worked when The Heart did it with relationships. Looking forward to this.

Imaginary Worlds: “Becoming Godzilla” — This feels slight after the Cthulhu episode, but any story about a guy spending months of his life building a Godzilla suit is going to have a certain amount of charm. (Also, that’s ELP low in the mix at the start. A tribute to Emerson, I assume. Though, for a show about a giant monster, one would think “Tarkus” would have been a better choice than “Toccata.”)

This American Life: “For Your Reconsideration” — Wow, it’s been a long time since I listened to TAL. I should never have been away so long. First, there’s a story about a previous TAL story being wrong — not their fault; there was a fake, peer-reviewed study — and they manage to make the wrongness of it into a more interesting story than the first one. Plus, they excerpt the best bits from a fascinating, high-stakes, 60-minute conversation from the podcast Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People. I suspect that the full conversation would have killed me to listen to, but the moments included here, with commentary from TAL’s editor, are gold. There was a moment in there that made me fist-pump as I was walking down the sidewalk.

On the Media: “Rolling In It” — Okay, I guess that great outtake from last week did make their main hour. No matter. This is still amazing. If you want to understand the Panama Papers as a media phenomenon, here’s your thing.

Bullseye: “Ellie Kemper & Glen Weldon” — This is a heck of a set of guests. Two fabulous conversationalists. Kemper is apparently as fun in real life as she is on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. And it’s fun to hear Weldon in a non-PCHH context. Jesse Thorne is a little ingratiating during Kemper’s interview, but he’s also done his homework for both of these interviews. He’s probably the closest thing there is to my ideal pop culture interview show host. I’d still really like to hear a show where the host goes deep into textual analysis with the creator of the thing there for verification, and this is not that. But you can’t fault a notepad for not being a treehouse.

Welcome to Night Vale: “Antiques” — I can’t tell if “Antiques” was actually substantially better than the episodes that preceded it, or if I was just in the right mood. But every segment of this was really funny: especially the one about the child with the very long tongue who distresses Cecil very much. But also the premise of a bunch of antiques escaping from the antique shop is great. It’s Night Vale by numbers, but it’s the best that Night Vale by numbers gets.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: The National Covers The Grateful Dead, Free Cake For Every Creature, More” — Nothing here jumped out and made me want to buy, but I’ve listened to that Dawg Yawp track a couple times. Appalachian folk with sitar. Imagine.

Reply All: “Baby King” — The “Yes Yes No” segment continues to be better than the story it follows. However, this story about a company that made GIFs before there was a grammar and syntax for them is fascinating, and concludes with a lovely bit of reflection by Alex Goldman on the fragility of the internet.

WTF With Marc Maron: “David Simon” — Maron isn’t entirely aware of the extent to which he is not Simon’s intellectual equal, but he facilitates a really interesting conversation and allows Simon to get angry about the things we all want him to get angry about: capitalism, the drug war, etc. And you don’t hear a lot of Simon taking, these days. That in itself makes this worth a lot. Simon is enthralling.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Ta-Nehisi Coates on Black Panther” — The best interview I’ve heard in ages. Turns out, Ta-Nehisi Coates is as incisive on comics history and nerd culture as he is on race. Audie Cornish gives him plenty of room to be massively thoughtful about both. It is so cool to hear him say that his introduction to the wonders of language came through hip-hop, Marvel Comics and Dungeons and Dragons. Honestly, that really is a trifecta of inspiration that you could expect to produce a MacArthur genius. Pick of the week.

On The Media: “That NPR Thing” — This is useful context for those of us who live outside the reach of any NPR member stations, for whom NPR is effectively a podcasting company. Because, here’s the thing: NPR is not a podcasting company. And NPR’s top brass are becoming openly hostile to their company’s own efforts in that form. This also contains a fascinating doc about movie novelizations. Super interesting.

Podcast-adjacent things

Cast Party — After months of thinking “oh yeah, I should really check that thing out sometime,” I finally did. This is that thing that was advertised non-stop on Radiolab and Reply All for a few weeks back when it happened. It’s a live performance by a bunch of amazing podcasts, including those two, The Truth, and Invisibilia. Sometimes, Cast Party reminds you that podcasters aren’t necessarily performers. Reply All, my favourite podcast of this bunch, isn’t served well by having its two charmingly neurotic hosts spotlit and stared at. They pull it off, but you get the sense that they’d rather be alone in a dark studio. Their story is great — most of these are — but there’s an overall sense of “you had to be there” surrounding this. If you’ve been on the fence about whether to shell out the dollars, consider the amount of goodwill you have towards these shows, then consider that it isn’t very good, then decide against it.

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