16 reviews. It’s been busy.
Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial — I won’t say I love all of it. But I will say that “Vincent,” and “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” are up there with “Blackstar,” “Freedom” and ‘Animal Rites” as my favourite tracks of the year. This is guaranteed to grow on me in a big way. I can already recognize that it’s something really special. I may have my own idiosyncratic faves of the year so far — including John Congleton, Tim Hecker and David Bowie (atypical to the extent that I’m probably in the minority in thinking that Blackstar is one of his best albums) — but I’m happy to predict that for years to come, we’ll still be talking about Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of Denial. Pick of the week.
Jethro Tull: Nightcap: The Unreleased Masters — I can’t believe I’ve never listened to this. The first disc of this collection contains the music from the Chateau D’Herouville (nicknamed Chateau D’Horrible by the band) that predates A Passion Play but was never released. I won’t pretend it’s excellent — the best cuts made it onto A Passion Play, and the rest is mostly marginal. I suspect that these sessions are regarded more highly by people who don’t like A Passion Play as much as I do. Still, it’s got some worthwhile snippets and is absolutely fascinating as a document for geeks like me. The second disc contains some stuff I’d heard as bonus tracks on the second-most recent re-releases of the studio albums, and a bunch of stuff I hadn’t. The outtakes from the ‘70s are so close to album-calibre it’s almost painful. Some of the ‘80s stuff has its appeal too, but by the time we’re getting to Rock Island castoffs, things are getting dire.
Jethro Tull: Roots to Branches — Another album I can’t believe I’ve never heard. This is known among Tull fans, specifically those of us with an affinity for their proggier stuff, as the one really worthwhile ‘90s Tull album. Naturally, I really like it. There are problems: the digital keyboards are corny, and Anderson’s lyrics are not what they once were — in fact, they’re appallingly self-serious in places. But it’s definitely one of the good ones. It isn’t in the league of Songs From the Wood, for instance, but I’d put it about even with The Broadsword and the Beast.
Game of Thrones: “Blood Of My Blood” — Well, Arya’s plotline has gone well off the rails. King’s Landing isn’t as fun when Cersei’s not in most of the scenes. And Sam’s father is introduced as yet another intransigent fuckhead without a shred of self-knowledge. Basically, this feels like all of the plotlines that weren’t good enough for last week’s awesome episode stuck together. It’s still not actually bad, though, and I remain thoroughly turned-around on this season.
Archer: “Deadly Velvet, Part 1” — Huh, I’m actually excited to see the end of this story, as opposed to just hearing the rest of the jokes. Archer is good, but I would like to see these writers do a different show soon.
HyperBound — I’ll confess, a major part of why I wanted to play EarthBound in the first place is because I wanted to play this hack of it. I first heard about HyperBound in Anna Anthropy’s awesome games manifesto The Rise of the Videogame Zinesters. Essentially, it is a game that’s very unlike EarthBound, but which uses EarthBound as its building blocks. In HyperBound, Ness is not Ness, but rather a nameless amnesiac (ah, amnesia — always the most useful adventure game trope) who must travel through a number of towns gathering evidence about his former life. The principal new mechanic is quite ingenious: early in the game, you meet a doctor who will allow you to undertake a procedure to regain your memories. (The gameplay during the procedure feels like reverse Eternal Sunshine, but made of EarthBound sprites.) You can undergo the procedure whenever and however many times you like, but it has a slim chance of working. The more you’ve explored, the more likely it is to work. When it doesn’t work, it causes brain damage, which manifests as glitches in the game. (Much as EarthBound is a very reflexive game, HyperBound is a very reflexive hack.) For me, there are two problems with this. One is simply that I enjoyed EarthBound far more than I expected to, so playing this kind of makes me wish I was just playing EarthBound. (I had half expected to like it more than EarthBound, crazy as that sounds.) HyperBound eliminates the element of EarthBound that I found occasionally trying, the combat, and maintains the exploratory element that I enjoyed the most. But by the end of EarthBound, I had begun to appreciate the challenge of the combat, and it helped to break up gameplay. Now I miss it. But comparing the two games in this way is kind of moot: HyperBound’s goal isn’t to modify EarthBound, it’s to tell a substantial interactive story using the materials of another. Which leads me to my second issue: HyperBound doesn’t do as much to subvert EarthBound as I’d personally like. It’s not uncommon to encounter characters who speak the same dialogue as they did in the original version, and the tone of the original is replicated almost obsessively. There’s an opportunity here, given that this is effectively a mashup, to use the systems of meaning established in EarthBound for different purposes, thereby explicitly undermining them. The fact that HyperBound is so reluctant to take this approach is a bit disappointing to me. But, all of this is me refusing to take HyperBound on its own terms, which is terribly rude. It is spectacularly accomplished as a hack, and the intentional use of glitches is properly clever. Now that I’m done with this, I think it’s time for my second playthrough of Undertale. Now there’s a game that undermines EarthBound.
The Heart: “Ten Foot Pole” — Okay, this is getting great. On one hand, there’s the always-present discomfort about being entertained by somebody else’s real-life horror story, but this continuing series about a woman coming to terms with her childhood sexual abuse is the most gripping thing I’ve heard in awhile. In this episode, she actually talks to the man who abused her, though she doesn’t tell him who she is or bring up the abuse. Nonetheless, the conversation turns out to be shocking in its resonance. The Heart is a fantastic podcast, always, but I think this might be the most meaningful thing it’s ever done. And of course, it sounds amazing. These folks are the best audio editors at Radiotopia. (Alongside The Truth, maybe, but when have they had a story this good?)
StartUp: “Kitchen Confidential” — I’m starting to get sick of hearing the same story, week after week. Which is an ironic thing to say, given that this is the first season of StartUp to feature a different story every week, as opposed to one serialized narrative. But in focussing on the same moment in each of their subject companies’ developments — the “make or break” moment, to use the parlance of a superior podcast — they’re retreading the same narrative ground, again and again. A return to serialized seasons would be much appreciated at this point.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Live at Vulture Festival” — Okay, so their topical link to Vulture is pretty tenuous, but this is a fun listen. Linda and Glen are at their funniest in a live setting, and Stephen Thompson and Audie Cornish are both very thoughtful here. Cornish on pop culture and politics makes this worthwhile in itself.
Reply All: “On The Inside, Part III” — This is getting really awesome. The fact that Reply All is a show about the internet that employs a journalist with Sruthi Pinamaneni’s investigative chops ought to make every other internet-focussed media enterprise cower with shame.
On The Media: “Kidnapped” — A marvellous hour devoted to journalists who have been kidnapped reporting in war zones, especially in Syria. There are some extraordinary stories here. What’s particularly enraging is the fact that the systemic breakdown of journalism as an industry that hires reporters full-time can be linked to the problem: if you’re a freelancer, you’re incentivized to behave in really risky ways, like sneaking over borders and such. That, and many other aspects of this story make me want to throw things.
Love and Radio: “Another Planet” — Unlike most episodes of this show, this features a number of different characters, all telling the story of a single place: an abandoned gas station that was turned into an unofficial shelter and cultural centre for a community of (mostly) homeless people. But, like most episodes of this show, it doesn’t start out telling you that’s the story you’re hearing. The lede is always buried in Love and Radio, and that is why I love it so much. Also, Tim Robbins is in this for some reason.
Theory of Everything: “Analogue Time” — I think I prefer the 99pi version of the cassette tape story, but this pairs it with two other stories about technological change, including an account of why Benjamen Walker’s Radiotopia Live segment won’t work on the radio, and a reflection on David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Part of what I love about this show is its ability to find thematic resonances between little bits and pieces of things. It sort of scratches the itch that I’ve had since Radiolab changed format and started devoting whole episodes to single stories.
Strangers: “The Son, The Goddess, and Leopoldo” — Here’s a good yarn. A boy born into a coven of lesbian witches travels America with his radical leftist mother and helplessly witnesses her abuse by a man who seemed to define everything she believed in. (So much abuse, this week.) It’s told in first-person by the son himself, and it twists and it turns and it twists. It’s appalling at times, but it’s one of those stories that’s so good you don’t pause it to do something else. I don’t listen to Strangers enough. Pick of the week.
Code Switch: “Can We Talk About Whiteness?” — Speaking as a really, really white person, it’s great to hear some smart people actually tackle the concept of whiteness head-on. It’s also a bit strange that the first episode of a podcast about race hosted by people of colour is about white people, but they lampshade that from the outset and who am I to say, anyway. This is really promising. I’m really looking forward to hearing more of this.
All Songs Considered: “The Worst Songs Of All Time?” — This is a lot of fun. Hearing Carrie Brownstein talk about music she hates is just great. “No Rain” by Blind Melon is “sitting on a couch with bad posture.” Talking about music doesn’t get any better than that.