Omnireviewer (week of Jun. 12, 2016)

29 reviews. A week of awesome music. Mostly.

Music

The Punch Brothers: The Phosphorescent Blues — Come to think of it, I listened to this when it first came out, loved it, and never listened to it again. Well, now I’ve listened to it again. It’s more ambitious and more polished than Who’s Feeling Young Now? but it’s also a bit slicker than anything they’ve done before. Drums make their first appearance, and there’s a general sense that when they’re not doing ten-minute prog tracks, they’re trying to be bluegrass Coldplay. Maybe that sounds like a dig, but bluegrass Coldplay sounds like a more appealing proposition to me than regular Coldplay. The lyrics’ obsession with smartphones, and whether or not we’re still capable of connecting, or living in the moment is a bit cliched, and the Punch Brothers don’t really have anything meaningful to add to the discussion (nobody does), but that’s not what anybody wants from any band, or shouldn’t be, at least. I don’t like this as much as Who’s Feeling Young Now? but “Familiarity” and the midsection of “Julep” are selling points for this band in themselves.

IQ: The Seventh House — It’s been a long time since I listened to anything like this. I really only ever listened to neo-prog when I was at my most prog-obsessed, maybe ten years ago. These days, I tend to think of prog as a moment — a moment that lasted from about 1969 to 1977 — and my exploration of it tends to go deep into that time period, rather than broadly across others. It’s not that I think nothing of value has been done in prog since then. But there’s a point where it became a “genre,” with tropes of its own to be imitated, rather than a dispersed music that takes cues from elsewhere. And that point was around the beginning of IQ’s career. Still, I really enjoyed The Seventh House. I remember hearing “The Wrong Side of Weird” on ProgArchives years ago, and loving it, and it totally holds up. Prog may have been a moment, but neo-prog of IQ’s vintage was too. Bands like IQ and Marillion come very much from the same context as new wave, and it’s fun to hear a take on prog that shares that characteristic directness with the Smiths or Joy Division. Yes, I know The Seventh House was made in 2000, but it’s quantifiably different from the nostalgic symphonic prog that younger bands were making at that time. Given the choice between IQ and a band like the Tangent, whose music is far more similar to classic 70s prog, I’ll take this.

Big Big Train: Folklore — Speaking of. Big Big Train is very much on the Tangent side of that line. I won’t say there weren’t parts of Folklore that I liked. I’ll probably listen to parts of it again. (I know there are prog fans out there who’ll tell you that you can’t get a handle on a prog album on the first listen, and I think that’s true for the really good stuff. Certainly, I’m still finding new angles in Relayer hundreds of listens in. But this is not Relayer.) It’s got some great playing, nice orchestrations that aren’t overbearing, good singing, the whole bit. But part of the reason that I like prog better than lots of other kinds of music is that I want to form relationships with the musical personalities involved in the records I listen to. I don’t love Steve Howe for his technical facility; I love him because his playing is weird and singular. I love how he can evoke Wes Montgomery and Carl Perkins within the same phrase, and how he uses the lap steel for symphonic effects with no reference to the country music it’s normally found in. I couldn’t give you that kind of description of any of the instrumentalists in Big Big Train. It mostly feels like prog by numbers to me.

Let’s Eat Grandma: I, Gemini — Holy shit. This is so weird. So, so weird. It’s also one of the best albums I’ve heard this year. If you’d told me last year that the best psychedelic record in years would be made by a pair of teenagers… well, I’d likely have believed you because I’m credulous. But I would have been mighty taken aback. There are parts of this that remind me of early Pink Floyd, other parts that bring Captain Beefheart to mind, a bit of Tom Waitsy sinister calliope music. But for the most part, there are very few reference points that make any sense for this music. It is very much it’s own thing, and the fact that the people who made it are so young is astonishing. Odd that two of my favourite albums of 2016, this and the John Congleton record, should be explicitly tied to horror. Just having that kind of year, I guess. But while Congleton’s horror is thought through and intellectual, Let’s Eat Grandma traffics in a more liminal sort of horror — you can almost tell what it’s about, but the fact that you can’t quite makes it more distressing. This album meanders, and winds and strolls along. It makes no compromises to anything as glum as “focus.” I love it. I can’t even adequately describe it because I can’t really process it fully. Anyway. Pick of the week.  

Justice: Cross — It’s loud and lo-fi, but it’s pretty rock and roll. And I like my dance music to be at least a little bit rock and roll. “DVNO” is irresistible; Uffie is insufferable. I suspect I may prefer their less acclaimed second album, but I enjoyed this. We shall see.

The Beatles: Abbey Road — When it comes down to it, I’m a White Album man. But I think Abbey Road is probably objectively the strongest Beatles album. Also, it is possible that I am the only Beatles fan who thinks that “Octopus’s Garden” is the best track on side one. The combination of that childlike vulnerability and that staggeringly good guitar solo gets me every time.

Television

And Then There Were None: episodes 2 & 3 — I wish I’d seen trailers for this, if only to know if they contained Miranda Richardson saying “Trust in God. But perhaps also we should lock our doors.” This is fabulous in a Lord-of-the-Flies-for-grownass-Brits sort of way. Even small details like watching these characters go from eating elaborately prepared lobster hors d’oeuvre to eating tinned meat are somehow satisfying. I had absolutely no idea how this was going to turn out, but there’s a lovely poetry to it. This will end up being one of those bits of television that not a lot of people in this part of the world actually watch, but that is regarded as a treasure by those who do. I don’t know how faithful it is to Agatha Christie’s original, but if it does follow the story at least approximately, I 100% understand why she’s so revered. This is beautiful narrative clockwork. Also, I wasn’t hugely convinced of Burn Gorman’s performance in Torchwood, but I sure love him here. At some point, he emerges as a real standout among the cast. Which is a real trick in this cast. Watch this. It is astonishing in every single scene.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: June 13, 2016 — I’ve been meaning to watch Samantha Bee’s show since the beginning, but I only just got around to it. I always liked her on The Daily Show because in the face of insane injustices, you could count on her to be a vessel for righteous anger. John Oliver will never be that. And after the senseless, ludicrous tragedy in Orlando, that is exactly the comedic sensibility that is required. Bee’s merciless attack on Florida’s asshat governor Rick Scott is the most meaningful thing in comedy this week, and I urge everybody to watch it by whatever means necessary.

Last Week Tonight: June 12, 2016 — Oliver may not be capable of the level of sheer rage necessary to properly address the shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, but he is capable of generating pathos, and he did so reasonably well in his opening segment. Still, he loses the week in comedy, because Sam Bee was willing to tackle it head-on (albeit with an extra day to prepare). Which is not to say this isn’t a great episode of Last Week Tonight. They all are. But a show like this has to tap into the national mood, and that mood was basically just being sad and angry about a horrible tragedy. And they kind of missed. To be fair, they owned up to that fact. But it still feels weird.  

Game of Thrones: “No One” — Plenty of needless brutality in this one, and not just one but two military strategies that don’t make a lick of sense. Other than that, it’s perfectly fine. I’d put it at about average for the season, which is shaping up to be quite good.  

Literature, etc.

John Herrman: The Content Wars — In Herrman’s post of predictions for 2015, he wrote that “in 2015, notable (choose your definition) publications will declare their intentions to go fully distributed — or some other term that means the same thing — effectively abandoning their websites and becoming content channels within Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest or Vine or Instagram.” Mercifully, that hasn’t happened as of 2016. But it still feels like something that could be in the future and, mark me, it will be the end. On the other hand, there’s also this quite canny prediction: “GamerGate will return under different names in multiple venues. Its agents will not be GamerGaters or even necessarily know what GamerGate is, but they will behave almost indistinguishably.” Hello from the recent past, Hugo fascists! Also, this entire blog features an incredibly amusing selection of robot gifs that become weirdly threatening in context. Also: “There will be a backlash not against podcasts but against the podcasting voice, which is really an extension of Ira Glass voice [30 seconds of post-rock] which is a mutation of NPR voice.” I love Ira and a lot of the other people Herrman’s probably talking about (Alex Blumberg), but that backlash would actually be really nice to see. A bit more idiosyncrasy in public radio-mode podcasting would be great. I nominate P.J. Vogt and Benjamen Walker as potential ways into a new approach. Here is another quote that I like, from a different post: “A new generation of artists and creative people ceding the still-fresh dream of direct compensation and independence to mediated advertising arrangements with accidentally enormous middlemen apps that have no special interest in publishing beyond value extraction through advertising is the early internet utopian’s worst-case scenario.” And yet, it has come to pass. When I get to the end of this blog, I’ll do something more than just copy quotes. But again, if you happen to be an editor of a substantial web content enterprise who is reading my blog for some reason, go read Herrman’s instead.

Matt Fraction/Gabriel Bá: Casanova, Volume 3 “Avaritia” — I feel like I could have used a refresher before I started reading this third volume. But I totally enjoyed it, insofar as I had a clue what was happening. Gabriel Bá’s art is absolutely astounding. Every so often in this book, somebody experiences a time paradox and starts… fluctuating? I don’t even know how to describe it. God knows how Fraction expresses it in his scripts. But the way that Bá devises to illustrate it, a sort of psychedelic cubist freakout where giant lips and eyes protrude from a haze that envelops the character, is genius. Casanova is great fun. And the final chapter of this volume has a fantastic payoff to a story arc that’s been going since the beginning. I’ve got the next volume sitting right here, still in the shrinkwrap. I was going to read more Ligotti before I get going on that, but I hear volume four is sort of a soft reboot of the story and that sounds like something I could really enjoy right now, so…

Matt Fraction, Michael Chabon, Fábio Moon & Gabriel Bá: Casanova: Acedia Volume 1 — This is very much the new Matt Fraction we know from Sex Criminals going back to his old property. Acedia is far and away the most straightforward arc of Casanova, and I would highly recommend it as a starting point for anybody wanting to get into this — certainly moreso than Luxuria, which is both the least satisfying and most confusing arc. It’s called “volume 1” rather than “volume 4” for a reason. The key difference between this and previous arcs is that the story in Acedia takes place entirely in one timeline, which simplifies things immensely. It’s nice to see that this is something that’s possible with Casanova, but I can’t help but miss the craziness of realities converging, like it was in Avaritia. Also, Michael Chabon’s backup stories to each issue are quite perfunctory, and one feels that they were only included in this trade collection for the potential sales value of having his name on the cover. Backup stories don’t belong in trades. I’m with Kieron Gillen on that. Still, this is a good story, and a compelling new direction for the comic. I’m looking forward to the continuation of this arc.

Podcasts

The Heart: “Salt in the Wound” — A quiet denouement to the “Silent Evidence” season. It’s just Tennesee Williams talking over the events of the series with Kaitlin Prest — a format we don’t normally hear in The Heart. It serves its purpose, which is just to unpack the last three episodes, but it also reveals new information about yet another traumatic experience Williams suffered while she was making the story. It’s appalling, as many elements of this series have been. But it never loses that ray of hope, either. Again, I can’t recommend this series highly enough.

Reply All: “On the Inside, Part IV” — I’ve been effusively positive about this series for its entire run thus far but I have to say, while I was listening to this part, I couldn’t help but think… why this story? When Sarah Koenig decided to relitigate Adnan Syed’s case on Serial, that was because there were innumerable serious problems with his trial and and a relatively convincing counternarrative to be unearthed. I don’t know that the same thing applies here. Where in Serial, you heard Koenig become more and more doubtful of Syed’s guilt (if not exactly convinced of his innocence), in this series Sruthi Pinnamaneni seems to become more and more convinced that Paul Modrowski did in fact murder somebody, and thus that justice was carried out properly. So… what’s the story? The farther we’ve gotten from the standard Reply All internet story of an inmate who writes a blog, the more I’ve been forced to wonder what the point even is. I’m looking forward to a new story next week.

StartUp: “Happy Ending” — Winning the Gimlet sweepstakes for the first time in months, StartUp introduces us to a drug dealer every bit as enterprising as the fictional ones in The Wire. This fellow, who is now running a company that means to hire ex-cons as personal trainers, is charisma personified. The story doesn’t brush away the fact that he was involved in an illegal trade that materially hurts a lot of people, but it also doesn’t paint him as a villain. This is far and away the best story of this season, provided next week’s conclusion doesn’t let me down.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and Making Music Funny” — I will likely not see Popstar. But I think it’s about time I watched Spinal Tap.

On the Media: “Sad!” — Bob Garfield’s essay from a few weeks ago on how the press tacitly legitimizes Trump was a masterpiece of media criticism, but I’m not sure I totally agree with him that the press needs to become actively partisan where Trump is concerned. On the other hand, I’m not totally convinced by Paul Waldman’s claim that traditional, old-fashioned shoe leather reporting and fact checking is the best way of dealing with Trump. Trump, as we know, exists outside the concept of truth. But here’s the thing: I don’t think it’s necessarily partisan for a journalist to behave in the way that Garfield suggests they should: by calling Trump out for racism and misogyny. We do possess reasonably stable definitions of those two behaviours, and I believe that people in general think that they are Bad Things (even as many of them fail to acknowledge those behaviours in themselves). So, it ought to be possible to make a factual statement that “Donald Trump is racist,” and to hold him accountable for that. Partisanship need not enter into the conversation. That small semantic quibble aside, Bob Garfield continues to be the public personality with whom I find the most common ground on Trump. Gone are the days when I thought him to be merely an equal horror to Ted Cruz’s theocratic raving. This hour of radio (edited by Brooke Gladstone, but featuring Garfield as the sole host — a canny decision in this instance) demonstrates why.

Code Switch: “Re-Remembering Muhammad Ali” — This is a discussion of what was missing in the coverage of Ali’s death. In being that, it is also an excellent remembrance of Ali.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: 2016 Tony Awards” — God, I wish I’d watched the Tonys. Glen Weldon’s right that we may well see a Hamilton backlash soon, but when it happens it’ll be empty hipsterism, because there’s nothing in the text to justify a backlash. Hamilton remains the most unimpeachable work of art since Abbey Road.

More Perfect: “The Political Thicket” — I am loving this. I dare say it’s my favourite political journalism anybody’s doing right now — insofar as On The Media is a media show rather than a politics show. This second episode is better than the first one. It tells this incredible story of how the Supreme Court completely changed because of one decision, which Jad Abumrad illustrates brilliantly with archival tape. Seriously, it contains his best sound design moment in years, probably. This is the best argument for long-view journalism that I’ve heard in a long time. The world today will make more sense once you listen to this, even though it tells a story that happened decades ago. Magnificent. Pick of the week.

All Songs Considered: “A Conversation With Paul McCartney” — This is fun, but it also illustrates a problem that I have with arts journalism in general, which is that the people who do it lose track of their opinions when an actual artist is present. I’ve toyed with the idea in the past that we should just stop interviewing artists altogether. Anybody who wants to get into arts writing probably knows enough about it to write compellingly without having to ask an artist what their work means. Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton just take for granted that the listener to this won’t think twice when they imply that McCartney’s career has been wholly worthwhile for six decades. But everybody would think twice when faced with that. Why are interviewers forced to ignore orthodoxies like “Paul McCartney’s solo work is patchy” when they ask their questions?

Reply All: “Friendship Village” — 120984957918379 19345734579171 39847896823151 168038645120 6857906565452210 6874121968595 9874848 649521062128 976218 0954021089510 951098500736587654 0687052180321084052 9945256889 0968408155094 987304267 0987450854098521220842 9765385659765764 0968740524 0987524210845240 7656 098732109842109684510 654524 09875135578952197970 741741455 0865118518410 984189748951984 0984984954954 9849809849512 98409 984984984984

99% Invisible: “The Blazer Experiment” — This is a great example of how a design angle can be used to tell a really huge story. This is basically the story of the British and American police forces and their respective relationships to the citizens they police. That story naturally includes a lot of branding. It’s not the most direct, incisive journalism about the police that we’ve seen in the past couple of years, but it adds context to the current controversies over policing.

All Songs Considered: “The Tallest Man On Earth, Lisa Hannigan, LP, More” — Nothing leapt out, musically and Bob and Robin are spouting platitudes this week. Oh, well. Sometimes you miss. On the other hand, I’d have never heard Let’s Eat Grandma’s album from this week without this podcast to point me there.

Code Switch: “How LGBTQ People of Color Are Dealing With Orlando” — Well, they had to address it somehow. And it happens that these producers/hosts are tapped into the best American writers about race, so they have plenty of people to call up. More than anything, this emphasizes the extent to which Code Switch is a welcome addition to the NPR podcast offering. They’ve had to deal with both this and Ali, right at the start of their podcast’s run. I do hope that they can double back to doing episodes that aren’t so explicitly news-hooked, but it’s great to see right at the beginning that they’re capable of responding thoughtfully to current events. (I mean, of course they are; they’re NPR journalists. But the show is still demonstrating what it can do, and impressively so.)

Reply All: “Vampire Rules” — Exactly what we all needed after “On the Inside.” A Super Tech Support about a suspicious Tinder photo, followed by a Yes, Yes, No about Hillary Clinton. I love Reply All. I love it as much for this dumb stuff as I do for Sruthi Pinnamaneni’s awesome investigative stuff.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Year Without a Summer” — I’ve heard the story of how Mary Shelley got the idea for Frankenstein over and over, but I hadn’t realized how the climate (literally) of that time links Frankenstein’s ideas to our current early-stage eco-apocalypse. Interesting.

More Perfect: “Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl” — I had heard this story before on Radiolab, and I think it’s one of their better political stories. It sits at that uncomfortable crossroads between a law that’s been really effective on the macro level, and one personal injustice that threatens to overturn the whole thing. I still think that the work this team has been doing on new episodes of More Perfect is better. There’s nothing like processing contemporary issues through the lens of history.

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