Ah man, I came so close to a clean sweep of my categories, this week. If I’d only listened to some classical music and played a video game. In any case, 26 reviews, many of which contain multiple items within them. Good week.
Vancouver Art Gallery: MashUp — I went to this exhibition on the last day before it ends, and left completely fried. All four floors of the VAG were devoted to this century-spanning show, with a different period on each, in reverse order. For two floors, I read more or less all of the curators’ text and stopped to look at everything on display. But at some point on floor three, amidst the Warhols and the Rauschenbergs, I got overwhelmed and couldn’t take it in anymore. This is a show I wish I’d been to see at least twice. The three hours I spent were not nearly enough to process everything on display. But I’m really happy to have seen it at all. It leant context to some figures that I’m particularly fascinated by, like John Cage, Luigi Russolo, Marcel Duchamp, Guy Debord and Brian Eno. Predictably, I was especially fascinated by the room devoted to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, in which the videos for “America is Waiting” and “Mea Culpa” were playing on repeat, alongside a display of works that were influential to Eno and Byrne as they were producing the album. The curators admirably didn’t shy away from pointing out the culturally imperialistic elements of the album, but also presented it as a key text in the history of mashup, which it definitely is.
Kanye West: The Life of Pablo — Okay, it’s growing on me. (It has also changed substantially since last I heard it, and the mix doesn’t sound like amateur hour anymore, so there’s that.) I am still bothered by the sheer extent of the asshat that Kanye’s willing to be here: that Taylor Swift line is unforgivable. Kanye’s verses on Pablo are even more mean-spirited than Yeezus, but they’re also more frequently stupid. However, a lot of the beats are nearly Dark Fantasy calibre. “Famous,” in spite of the aforementioned unforgivable line, is one of the best beats in Kanye’s catalogue, and “Ultralight Beam” is one of his best songs, full stop. Chance’s verse is the best on the album by a country mile. I’m reminded of Nicki Minaj on Dark Fantasy. “Waves” is a solid pop tune with something interesting to say about the permanence of great art. Now that Pablo is something resembling finished, it has the makings of a decent Kanye album. But there are still enough head-shaking moments (the outro of “30 Hours?”) that I think it’ll ultimately be regarded as one of his lesser works.
Jack White: Blunderbuss & Lazaretto — I loved Jack White’s bit on Lemonade so much that I needed more. These solo albums are maybe a bit less idiosyncratic than the best White Stripes albums, but they’re no less good. It’s interesting to hear what White does backed by a band of musicians as capable as he is. (That’s not a knock on Meg White — she shaped the White Stripes as much as Jack did, even if only by forcing Jack into a corner.) You might expect White to get lazy when provisioned with the relative freedom of working with ace session musicians and playing a bunch of instruments himself. (Giving an artist total freedom is castrating them, Peter Gabriel once said. Maybe he learned that from Eno.) But White maintains his discipline, writing great songs and only reaching for the studio magic juice when it will serve the track. Blunderbuss is the one that feels more familiar to me as a White Stripes fan, but it still goes madly off in many more directions than any other Jack White project I’ve heard. “Sixteen Saltines” is practically vintage, while the almost barrelhouse piano that starts “Hypocritical Kiss” sounds like nothing I’ve heard from White before. “Take Me With You When You Go” is as good as anything on a White Stripes album. Lazaretto is solid modern blues rock — from possibly the only living artist who can honestly claim that label. “Alone In My Home” is so unexpectedly joyous that I almost didn’t finish my first listen through, in favour of just hitting repeat on that one. And I don’t even think it’s the best track on the album. I love both of these, and I feel like they fill a hole — just as I suspect I’m nearing my lifetime saturation point for Led Zeppelin, I have another rootsy rock and roller to obsess over. And one with a more modern sensibility.
The White Stripes: full catalogue — Hey, I had some spare time and a trial period on Tidal. (I’m becoming less hostile to Tidal, but when I inevitably sign up for the cheap version and don’t get this glorious hi-def sound, I’ll be pissed.) There were a few first listens here. In fact, it’s possible that White Blood Cells and Elephant were the only ones I’d heard before. I thought I’d heard Icky Thump all the way through, but not much of it sounded familiar. In any case, this is a serious body of work. The debut is a tad too punky for my liking, but the basics are in place. If nothing else, it features a very interesting selection of covers, marking the Whites as people with good taste from the start. De Stijl is a huge leap forward, and an album I can see myself returning to frequently. “Truth Doesn’t Make A Noise” is maybe the first great White Stripes song. White Blood Cells is the album that converted me, and still my pick for their best. I’ve always thought of Elephant as more of the same but not as good. Which is to say, still pretty good. Get Behind Me Satan was one of the biggest surprises here. It is certainly a larger, more elaborate-sounding album than the ones before it, but it’s a needed change of pace, and I think I may prefer it to Elephant. And finally, Icky Thump. If I had heard this all the way through I would damn well have remembered. It’s the most elaborate White Stripes album by a fair margin, and a sort of stepping stone to the sort of music Jack White would do on his solo albums. But there’s not a hint of dilution, here. The raw energy in tracks like “Icky Thump” and “Conquest,” and the Jimmy Page by way of Adrian Belew guitar squalls on “300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues” are not the sorts of things you hear on an album by a band that’s past their prime. It’s a hell of a swansong, and probably my second-favourite of their releases. This is a really fun discography to mainline. I highly recommend gulping it all down in a week. You’ll have so much energy. I can’t wait to check out the lives and B-sides.
Last Week Tonight: May 15, 2016 — Not among his funniest, but the standing invitation to Donald Trump’s alter-ego is a lovely little throw of the gauntlet.
Game of Thrones: “Book of the Stranger” — Okay, I asked for Daenerys to be allowed to do something, and as “doing things” goes, that is a fairly substantial thing. Actually, all of my complaints about the season thus far were at least partially rectified this time around, with Tyrion getting some actual story and a bit of decent writing, and the Wall finally getting interesting thanks to Jon and Sansa being reunited. Brienne continues to be the best thing in any given scene — my two favourite parts of this big, eventful episode are her confrontation with Melisandre and her lustful (I think?) glance across the table at Tormund. I’ll say this though:, killing off Ramsey Bolton won’t be enough. I’ll only forgive Game of Thrones when he gets retconned out of the universe.
Archer: Season 7, episodes 7 & 8 — “What are you all doing here?” “Lunch?” “It’s 5:30!” “Dunch?” I laughed very hard at most of these episodes. Archer in ordinary mode is still a very funny thing.
Zach Galifianakis: Live at the Purple Onion — I think it’s good, but I didn’t actually laugh that much. Galifianakis is a really good joke writer who doesn’t seem interested in thinking in a straight line. The piano plunking, the characters and the crowd work are a deliberate structural choice that allows him to string together unrelated jokes. The jokes are good, but I can’t decide if the whole is greater or less than the sum of its parts.
Primer — Oh good god. If it weren’t for YouTuber LondonCityGirl’s illustrated explanation, I would be 70% clueless. This is an outstanding movie for those of us who like movies to be puzzles, and I do. That’s one of the reasons that time travel is my favourite SF trope. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite as intentionally obscure as this movie. Having basically figured it out, with YouTube’s help, I now think this is one of the most ingenious hard(ish) science fictions I’ve ever seen. Without spoiling anything crucial, the key here is that the time travel mechanic enables an unprecedented amount of duplicity. The things that go wrong go wrong not because the machine doesn’t work as expected, but because people trick each other. Also, I love that this story clearly originated with the time travel mechanic. You don’t see that very much. Most people who write genre fiction use particular tropes because they already have a basic story and some themes in mind. This is obviously a story derived from the set of rules that its time machine imposes. If Brian Eno wrote a sci-fi movie, it might well be much like Primer.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier — Figured I’d catch up before Civil War. I hate cinematic universes because I want my stories to have endings. But as they go, Marvel’s universe is pretty good. This is far better than its pedestrian predecessor, and I’m actually hard-pressed to think of an MCU movie that I prefer to this. Maybe the first Avengers. The secret is the incursion of spy movie tropes into a blockbuster superhero movie, which is becoming a genre unto itself. The more that directors can play with genre to offset expectations, the better these movies will be. The Russos seem to be doing that best, at this point.
Kurt Vonnegut: Hocus Pocus — One of only two Vonnegut novels out of the ten I’ve read that I haven’t enjoyed. (The other is Player Piano, which is practically juvenalia.) There are occasional great lines, but so many of Vonnegut’s attempts at aphorism fall flat in this that I started to wonder if it might be intentional. One of the book’s key themes is that rhetoric (“verbal hocus pocus”) can be used to make people think illogically. So, when Vonnegut makes a statement that takes the basic form of a dark joke, but doesn’t seem to be based on anything true, it’s tempting to read redemptively and assume that he’s just offering concrete examples of the sort of fallacy he’s critiquing. But I’ve never seen Vonnegut go in for that particular kind of subtlety before, so I don’t honestly think that’s what’s happening here. Not good. But hey, they can’t all be masterpieces.
Elizabeth Alsop: “The Future Is Almost Now” — This Atlantic piece posits that science fiction is becoming more and more interested in the near future rather than the far future. It’s worth a look for anybody interested in the genre, or anybody just generally paranoid.
Kieron Gillen/Jamie McKelvie: Phonogram vol. 3 “The Immaterial Girl” — Absolutely marvellous. Gillen and McKelvie’s music fantasies are among the best contemporary literature, in or out of comics. Nobody has reckoned with the material effects of music and pop culture on people’s lives more incisively than they have in Phonogram and The Wicked and the Divine. And while the latter of those remains the easier one to recommend, this concluding arc of Phonogram is the best expression of their general thesis that music is never just music, but rather one of the forces that most powerfully animates human society. These are broad generalities, but to describe what they do here in any detail would likely make it seem trite. So instead, I’ll just urge you to read Gillen and McKelvie’s work. Start by catching up with WicDiv, then read the three collected editions of Phonogram in this order: 2, 1, 3. If you have ever been a superfan of anything, you will appreciate every panel in these volumes. If the thing you are a superfan of is music, you will have a new favourite comic. Possibly two. Pick of the week.
Thomas Ligotti: “Purity” — This is the first story in his collection Teatro Grottesco, which I managed to find at Pulpfiction, my absolute favourite bookstore in Vancouver, when I could not find it anywhere else, in physical or digital form. I needed to be shook up a bit, and I had heard that Ligotti was the man for the job. He has already begun. This story is properly creepy, with bits of mundane imagery taking on a grotesquerie that they simply ought not to have. Much is left unsaid, but it is all totally clear. And to boot, the story strongly reminded me of one of the creepiest things I’ve ever read, Michael Lutz’s Twine story “My Father’s Long, Long Legs.” A very promising start.
Now that my Podquest submission has had cold water poured on it gently, Radiotopia reviews will resume as usual.
On The Media: “Trending Topics” — It’s nice to hear a treatment of the Facebook trending topics scandal that actually gets to the root of the problem, which is that today’s tech giants have far too much control over the dissemination of information. Whether stories get traction by way of algorithms or human intervention, the kind of thing that’s likely to get huge on Facebook is not necessarily the kind of thing that people most need in their media diets. It’s also incredible to hear about the conservative economist who advocated for government intervention in monopolies (which may be a term that meaningfully applies to Facebook) in order to repair the free market. This episode also features a discussion with the New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan that is interesting for its frankness about the Times’s shortcomings, but also interesting for the extent to which Bob Garfield allows it to be a straightforward valediction. I suppose not everyone needs to be afraid of him. But if he’s in softball mode during that segment, he roars back into righteous indignation mode in his final essay about the media’s sudden elevation of Donald Trump to legitimacy. To Garfield, talking to Trump about tax policy is “like asking Charles Manson about his driving record.” It is one of the best things that has been written about Trump since this whole boondoggle began, and I can’t recommend it enough. Even if you skip the rest of the episode to get to those last three or four minutes it’s worth your time. Pick of the week.
All Songs Considered: “The 1975, SOAK Covers Led Zeppelin, A Home Demo From My Morning Jacket” — A consistently interesting episode, but not one with a lot of songs I feel likely to return to — with the notable exception of Gaelynn Lea’s studio recording of the song she won the Tiny Desk Concert with. That is a remarkable piece of music.
On The Media: “How the ‘Fake News’ Gets Made” — Oh good, journalists can make funny things. This is Brooke Gladstone interviewing a bunch of satire writers and producers, all of whom came from journalism. So basically, you get Bob Garfield at his best in the main episode and Gladstone close to her best in this podcast extra.
This American Life: “Promised Land” — This episode of This American Life begins with Ira Glass singing an “I wish” song, and continues with pieces by Starlee Kine and the late David Rakoff. It is what public radio is for. Kine’s story about how her overprotective mother wouldn’t let her kids go to Disneyland (in spite of them living in L.A.) but would take them to the Disneyland Hotel twice a year is exactly the kind of story you want to hear from Starlee Kine, and Rakoff’s piece about fasting and not finding enlightenment is exactly the kind of story you want to hear from David Rakoff. Then it ends with a story from Hillary Frank from The Longest Shortest Time, a parenting podcast that I do not intend to listen to. But this story is absolutely riveting. You know when your friend says, “I heard the craziest conversation on the bus,” and then tells the best story you’ve heard all day? This is that story, except the best one ever. This is light on reporting for TAL, but it’s mercilessly consistent.
Sampler: “Mother Podcast” — This is Sarah Koenig on Sampler, which is a reason to listen to Sampler. It’s awkward at the start, because Brittany Luse insists on saying a bunch of the gushy stuff that should have been consigned to the intro while Koenig is actually in the room, which puts Koenig in the uncomfortable position of having to react to fervent praise in public. It gets better from there, but not by much. The concept for the episode must have seemed solid: here are a bunch of podcasts that have been born in the post-Serial world — “Look what thou hast wrought, Koenig!” But Koenig doesn’t seem much more than bemused at the clips Luse subjects her to. For all her staggering success, Koenig doesn’t belong to the crazy world of podcasting that virtually all of the Gimlet staff does — even those who had prominent public radio careers previously. She’s a reporter. Playing her clips from Hello From the Magic Tavern is pretty counterintuitive, improv background or no. Not good.
Bullseye: “Maria Bamford & Wanda Sykes” — That’s a hell of a double bill. These are the kinds of interviews with comics that you want to hear. Bamford is charming and has an uncanny ability to find the humour in terrible, uncommon things that have happened to her. Sykes is super sharp and a great storyteller. The best talk radio I’ve heard in awhile.
99% Invisible: “Separation Anxiety” — And, we’re back! During my Radiotopia reviewing hiatus, 99pi continued to interest me casually but not blow me away. This episode is about trash disposal in Taipei, and also San Francisco. I recently listened to a bonus interview with Roman Mars for Radiotopia supporters, and one thing he mentioned that I was happy to hear him mention is the fact that many episodes of 99pi don’t really have stories — they just explore an idea for a while in a logical fashion. That’s kind of what this episode does, and I so appreciate that there’s a show that has the guts to do that. I’m all for storytelling, but it’s also a dogma among media producers. There are other ways to impart information in an entertaining fashion.
Imaginary Worlds: “The Robot Uprising” — There are apparently people, or at least one person, who advocates for robot’s rights on the basis that the same justifications are used to deny the humanity of black people are being used to deny the humanity of robots. Eric Molinsky is rightly confused by this idea — surely, robots actually aren’t human? But he doesn’t push quite hard enough. There are times on this show where I feel like Molinsky is offering a sort of menagerie of strange worldviews without taking any of them to task. Still fun, though.
Invisibilia: Season 2 trailer — I think it’ll be good, but this show can be awfully cloying at times. They don’t even totally avoid it in this three-minute trailer.
The Memory Palace: “Open Road” — I’m so glad to get to review The Memory Palace again. I love this show so goddamn much. Anyway, this is about the Green Book, the guide for black motorists in pre-Civil Rights America. It is the second Radiotopia treatment of this topic in just a few months, after 99pi’s, but I think I prefer this approach. Just a gorgeous, semi-imaginary story with beautifully-drawn imagery. Really nice.
On The Media: “Ghosts” — Collectively, the episodes of On The Media I listened to this week did me more good than anything else this week. This special episode on the uses and misuses of collective memory demonstrates just how thoughtful this show can be. It isn’t hemmed in by the news cycle; there’s so much more it can do.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Money Monster and Eurovision” — I’m really shocked at how little they trashed Money Monster. I mean, I know it’s called Pop Culture HAPPY Hour, but that movie does not look okay. Also, Glen Weldon’s enthusiasm for Eurovision is one of the few moments where he can honestly be described as “adorable.”