Omnireviewer (week of Jun. 27, 2016)

23 reviews. Again!

Literature, etc.

Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky: Sex Criminals, Volume 3 “Three The Hard Way” — I love this comic so, so much. I love how it manages to be deeply insightful about modern sexuality and relationships, while also being hilariously immature. There’s an issue in this collection that pretty much offers a microcosm of the whole comic. The story intercuts a lecture, given in a lecture hall, about feminism and the suppression of female sexuality with a scene where the protagonists fight a character that is honest to god actually referred to as a “semen demon.” It is exactly as head-spinning as it means to be. Also, Jon and Suzie continue to have possibly the most believable relationship in current serialized fiction. The supporting cast is really getting fleshed out now as well. If I have one complaint, it’s that in two subsequent issues, Fraction avoids writing a difficult scene by going meta. The first time it happens, it’s brilliant and contains some top-notch Zdarskyana, but when it happens again one issue later, you can’t help but think that Fraction’s using the jokey tone of the book to avoid specific writing challenges. It’s a minor quibble, though. I love this comic so, so much.

Music

SebastiAn: Total — Having spent a fair bit of time with Justice at this point, I was exceedingly happy to listen to some dance music with less shitty mastering. Which is only halfway a dig — I still love both of those albums. I love this, too. M.I.A.’s guest vocal was always going to be a high point, but I also love “Jack Wire,” “Love in Motion” and of course “Tetra,” because I love anything vaguely Baroque-sounding. There will be more listens in the future.

Yes: Relayer — Another old friend. I spent many years liking this more than Close to the Edge, but I can’t say I did this time. It’s really wonderful, no question. But Jon Anderson’s lyrics on “Gates of Delirium” are, if anything, a little too comprehensible. Almost trite, in places. I love him best at his most obtuse, and his most indifferent to grammar. Which is not to say there’s not great stuff in there: “burn their children’s laughter on to hell” is a compelling line, for instance. And the entire outro — “Soon,” as it’s called in its single edit — is one of the most beautiful moments in the Yes discography. “Gates of Delirium” in its entirety is possibly the farthest point out on the thin peninsula of post-60s Flower Power. Anderson apparently wrote the bulk of it at a piano, but you can imagine most of it strummed on an acoustic guitar, sung to an audience of Vietnam war protesters. I do think Relayer has a better side two than Close to the Edge, though. Patrick Moraz’s playing on “Sound Chaser” might be the best keyboard performance on any Yes recording. And “To Be Over” is pure catharsis. Speaking of catharses, I saw Jon Anderson on a solo tour shortly after he’d been booted out of Yes. He’d been in the hospital the previous night for a resurgence of his respiratory ailment. It was October in Edmonton: not really the best place for a person in delicate health to travel to. But he sang beautifully. He even managed to pull off “Long Distance Runaround” transposed up a couple semitones, because he’d forgotten to take his capo off. He could only last about half an hour, but when the audience gave him an ovation, he came back out and sang “Soon,” which he said is the song he’d written that had been the most helpful to him throughout his life when he needed to heal from something. It was a hell of a moment. I think of it every time I listen to this.

Fiori-Séguin: Deux cents nuits à l’heure — I can’t speak to how this record is remembered in French Canada, but in my neck of the woods, this collaborative record by Harmonium’s Serge Fiori and the songwriter Richard Séguin is entirely forgotten. Which is a shame, because, it’s probably the best Canadian prog album I’ve heard that isn’t by Harmonium or Rush. The pair of them both have great voices: Fiori’s being more strident and Séguin’s being a bit more fragile. And their songwriting style is entirely complementary, and lent cohesiveness by the arrangements, written by Harmonium’s road band. Every track on this is great. It bears a certain resemblance to Harmonium’s L’Heptade, but it’s lighter. I’d highly recommend this to anybody who likes the more pastoral side of prog — early Genesis, Fairport Convention, the Pentangle, or even the Canterbury scene. This is the definition of a buried gem.

Games

The Walking Dead: Michonne: Episodes 2 & 3 — This has everything that the previous seasons of the Walking Dead game has: great characters, fantastic writing, a gripping story and somewhat superfluous combat. Yet it isn’t as successful as it predecessors. The weakest part of this mini-season is the addition of a psychological horror element. Normally, I’d be all for that. And it does illustrate the effects of Michonne’s emotional trauma. But the actual deployment of the psychological horror is the same as in pretty well every game ever, which is that the camera shakes and changes colour to differentiate a hallucination from reality. In its most effective moments, Michonne jumps between reality and somewhat fanciful flashbacks by hard cuts. Whenever other devices are used, it gets a little clichéd. I’d still recommend it if you like the series and can find it on sale.

Jazz Jackrabbit — There are shreds of my childhood that I can’t quite get ahold of as an adult, because they fall outside the narrative of my life that I’ve spun for myself. I recall that as a child, I was not allowed to play games like Jazz Jackrabbit: a PC platformer that shamelessly rips off both Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario Brothers in equal measure. And yet, I clearly did play it. When I was a kid, computer games were a matter of what my mother deemed edifying and what my father deemed affordable. On my mother’s authority, I played mostly Learning Company edutainment games. They ranged from unimaginative (Treasure Cove) to pretty compelling (Gizmos and Gadgets) to treasures of the PC gaming canon (Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?). An honourable mention ought to go out to Sierra’s The Incredible Machine 3, which remains a game I wish I could find a way to play again. These occasionally limp but well meaning programs are the video gaming experience that I have chosen to define my childhood. Together, they represent a substantial moment in the origin story of the persnickety infosponge that I’ve grown into. But on my father’s side of the equation, there was an entirely different and equally prevalent experience: games like Hugo’s House of Horrors, Heroes: The Tantalizing Trio, and Skunny: Return to the Forest. These were shareware titles, often made by tiny DIY studios, that my dad had no idea were moderately to substantially subversive. What mattered is that they were cheap. They came 50 to a disc, and those discs couldn’t have cost more than a few bucks apiece. Jazz Jackrabbit was one of the better executed and more conventional of those games. Revisiting it now on the Internet Archive brought back a wave of the best kind of nostalgia — nostalgia for something you’d nearly forgotten. Something you’d intentionally forgotten, wrongly. 

Television, etc.

Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared — Oh jeez. Pretty much at a loss, here. This is thoroughly unsettling and mysterious, and I am not likely to put it all together in the near future.

Last Week Tonight: June 26, 2016 — The Brexit debrief outshines the doping scandals feature, but I’m not complaining.

Game of Thrones: “The Winds of Winter” — If not for the first few minutes this would be a typically un-‘splody Game of Thrones finale. But that opening sequence, I tell ‘ya. It unfolds with all the clockwork inexorability of its Philip Glass-inspired score (the reprise of which at Cersei’s coronation is ingenious). The fallout of that opening sequence (pun intended) is brilliantly portrayed. And from there, this episode contents itself with watching the dust settle. And that’s a mode that I especially love in Game of Thrones: people examining the consequences of things. That scene with Daenerys and Tyrion is just a shimmering gem. It feels like the flipside of the famous trial scene from season four, and it can join that scene among Peter Dinklage’s best moments. Taken in combination with the previous scene with Dario, it’s one of Emilia Clarke’s best as well. And Lena Headey, my perpetual favourite cast member, finally gets to revert to evil mode. How gratifying. This is a great finale to a season that turned out shockingly well, considering its weak start and the low calibre of the season that preceded it. Game of Thrones is over for another year (or whatever), yet I’m starting to feel like it’s back.

Orange is the New Black: Season 4, episodes 5-13 — Boy does this season ever hold its cards close to its chest. Nearly everything that happens in the first ten episodes is part of a huge invisible clockwork machine that’s setting up the events of the last three. Like every season of this show, there’s plenty here to shock and appall and move you. There’s an almost unfair number of excellent performances in it. But what sets it apart is the way that the various seemingly unrelated components of its story are all set up to lead inexorably to a conclusion. The way that this season examines consequences of decisions that are made on an institutional level — the macro story feeding into the micro story — reminds me of nothing more than The Wire. That’s maybe most obvious in Sophia’s storyline, which is remarkably the most dramatic that character has ever had, even though Laverne Cox gets substantially less screen time than in any prior season. Having a central character’s season-long arc occur nearly entirely offscreen is a masterstroke, and it’s only one of many. I’m trying to decide whether I like this better than season two. I have rosy memories of that season, but thinking back, it’s mostly just Suzanne’s arc that I’m attached to. Every strand of season four is extraordinary. I’m really happy we’re getting at least a few more seasons of this, because it seems far from tired out. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

WTF with Marc Maron: “Neil Young” — Neil’s in an obliging mood for this one, which is good. Because on an ornery day, he would have eaten Maron alive. As a Neil Young fan, there are a lot of moments where I felt like a great question was staring Maron in the face and he didn’t ask it. But for the most part, this is an engaging conversation that even touches on some of the less well-regarded stuff in Neil Young’s catalogue (Trans, Everybody’s Rockin’). It also made me halfway think I should probably listen to his new album. It sounds ambitious, if nothing else.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch” The Outs with Adam Goldman” — The Outs sounds great, but I will likely not get around to watching it. On the other hand, hearing Glen Weldon interview somebody is fun.

The Gist: “Billboard Hits From 1964” — I’m really getting into this show. This episode is a lot of fun, focussing as it does on the British Invasion in the week of the Brexit. I have an infinite capacity for Beatlemania chart statistics, but I do suspect that many people who don’t might also enjoy this. Also, in Pesca’s post-Brexit breakdown, he makes the single most gratuitous Yes reference I’ve ever heard. (Actually, to be specific, it’s not even a Yes reference — it’s an Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe reference, which is way geekier.) That makes me wonder what references in the other episodes I’ve heard flew past me.

Theory of Everything: “sudculture (part II of II)” — It’s ToE at its most straightforward, but sometimes that’s a good thing. This nicely problematizes elements of the craft beer revolution, like the herd mentality beer bros who will follow delivery trucks from one liquor store to the next so they can stockpile small batch sours and IPAs. The most interesting moment comes near the end when a pair of craft brewers talk about the time their art professor asked them if brewing was art. Which, firstly, fuck anybody who thinks that’s even a worthwhile question. That professor sounds like an insufferable professor. But their response that producing a good flavour can’t be an art because it’s supposed to be straightforwardly pleasant is compelling. And I’m inclined to agree, if only because they’re right to place the power to answer that question in the hands of the audience (the beer drinker) rather than the artist (the brewer). The production of beer may be as subtle and complex as painting or sculpting, but the optimal response is different. And while that prof is still an asshole for bringing it up, at least it gave Benjamen Walker an opportunity to end the episode on a really ToE note.

99% Invisible: “Home on Lagrange” — This is one of the best episodes they’ve done in ages. It’s about Gerry O’Neill, the scientist who made actual designs for human settlements in space. And rather than straightforwardly tell his story, the 99pi crew offers up a kaleidoscopic vision of all of the inspirations and implications of his work, including his intellectual offspring in the modern world. Fascinating.

Code Switch: “I Don’t Know If I Like This, But I Want It To Win” — I hope we get more of Gene Demby and Kat Chow co-hosting this show. I know them both from Pop Culture Happy Hour, and to some extent, this is just that with PCHH’s three regulars excised. It’s good to know that there will be pop culturey episodes of Code Switch, because this is really good. And the thing that sets it apart from other pop culture shows is that it’s a story. Kat Chow takes us through this crazy saga of Asian-American television, wherein an Asian-American critic, Jeff Yang, writes a review that’s credited with the cancellation of All-American Girl, a not-very-good sitcom about an Asian-American family. In the risk-averse television industry, an event like that can have terrible consequences. Namely, there were no more network television shows starring predominantly Asian casts for 20 years. The next one to be greenlit was the currently-running Fresh off the Boat, which in a drastic twist of fate, stars Jeff Yang’s 12-year-old son Hudson. You couldn’t make that up. The interviews with both Yangs are totally compelling and raise interesting questions about how a critic should deal with television that reflects a possible positive change in the industry, but just isn’t very good.

Song Exploder: “CHVRCHES – Clearest Blue” — This isn’t one of the most interesting episodes I’ve heard, but this is a great song, and it was fun to hear CHVRCHES talk about the rules they established for themselves when they were writing this — it should be laid back, and have only two chords — which they swiftly broke.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Bellows, Cornelius, Keaton Henson, A-WA, The Wild Reeds, More” — This contains a lot of music that I don’t especially care to hear again, but I’m glad I heard once. I think I may have written this exact review before…

In Our Time: “Songs of Innocence and Experience” — I’ve decided I love this show. I’ve decided that because I’ve realized that it’s the only podcast I’ve ever listened to that never condescends to me. Jad Abumrad, Ira Glass, and even more idiosyncratic hosts like Benjamen Walker and the Reply All guys all present stories in a way that assumes limited knowledge in the audience. But in lots of areas, my knowledge is not especially limited. Melvyn Bragg is the opposite of everything that North American media types think of as a good radio host — he interrupts his guests, he opines, he’s not afraid to show off his own knowledge, and he mumbles. In short, he’s an intelligent person first, a radio personality second. (Probably the closest thing to Melvyn Bragg in American media is Mike Pesca, and even he feels the need to throw in dodgy jokes and a dumb signoff phrase.) In Our Time is uncompromisingly smart, and probably really alienating to a lot of people. It’s pretty much my ideal for what public broadcasting should be like. This episode on William Blake demonstrates everything that I find enthralling in this show. It tackles ideas head-on without sugar coating them, and takes for granted that its subject matter is interesting, which of course it is. I hope the BBC recognizes what it has here. This sort of thing is what makes it the best public broadcaster in the world. Pick of the week.

Love and Radio: “The Neighborhood” — I love hearing non-standard, non-narrative approaches to audio production. This collage is the sort of impressionistic thing that I can only take in small doses, but it’s pretty brilliant, actually. Scott Carrier has a great ear for interesting tape, and that’s enough to carry this short piece about the neighborhood where he lives. Maybe I need to start listening to Home of the Brave. Grumble. Another one. Great.

StartUp: “Up in Flames” — This season has picked up rather dramatically. This story is told in a very NPR fashion — interviews, narration, music and basically no field tape — but the story is incredible. It’s about a man whose business decisions drove him out of his mind, so he burned down his yogurt factory. You should listen to this.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Finding Dory and Great Voice Acting” — Stephen Thompson’s 11-year-old daughter is one my favourite minor characters on this show (along with Glen Weldon’s husband Faust, and producer Jessica Reedy). At the start of this episode Thompson refers to her as a “sullen crank,” which is a hilariously aggressive descriptor for one’s own daughter. It’s the little things that make this podcast.

Invisibilia: “The Personality Myth” — This is an hour of radio about how people don’t have fully fixed personalities and how it’s all actually very much more complicated than that. I was unaware of the specifics, but I think that when you listen to a lot of podcasts and just generally consume a lot of media, at some point you become inured to the idea that things are more complicated than they seem. So, when somebody tells you that, you just sort of say “oh, of course,” and get on with your day. I reached that point about seventeen Radiolabs ago. So, unless a given commonly-held belief is oversimplified in a really interesting way, I kind of don’t see why I should listen. And this episode explores the notion of fundamental human change in the most predictable way possible: through the lens of incarcerated criminals. Maybe I’m just Orange is the New Blacked out, but that seems facile to me.

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