Omnireviewer (week of Jul. 3, 2016)

22 reviews. I’m slipping! (Also busy.)

Television

O.J.: Made in America: Episodes 1-3 — I think this is the best documentary I’ve ever seen. I haven’t finished it yet, so I’ll save my final assessment for next week.

Music

Banco del Mutuo Soccorso: Io Sono Nato Libero — I’ve been aware of Banco since I was probably about 12. I heard a couple of their songs at that point, but in the absence of streaming services or the willingness to engage in piracy, that was as far as I got. This is the first time I’ve heard an album of theirs all the way through, and it is glorious. It is strange and ambitious and incredibly beautiful at times. Ugly at others, like all of the best prog rock. Francesco di Giacomo had some serious pipes, which is primarily what puts this above PFM for me — though I’m not sure there’s anything on this quite as flawless as “Impressioni di settembre.” I’d like to know what the lyrics are about. Next time through I’ll keep a translation close by.

Harmonium: L’Heptade — A classic. This is my favourite Harmonium album, edging out Si on avait by a tiny smidgen. What I love about this is that the folk and chanson elements are still very present, but they’ve broadened the palette into full-on prog. The addition of drums adds weight, and the fact that they’re used sparingly doesn’t take too much from the effervescence of prior albums. The concept of L’Heptade, a person passes through seven states of consciousness within a day, is certainly similar to the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed, and the orchestral interludes amplify the comparison. But this is far more ambitious and far stranger. Serge Fiori deserves to be spoken of in the same sentences as Robert Fripp and Jon Anderson. Taken together, Harmonium’s three albums are an absolutely crucial body of work in ‘70s prog.

Lucy Dacus: No Burden — An All Songs recommendation. A few songs are great, and a few are a bit dull. I might listen again, or I might not.

Literature, etc.

Thomas Ligotti: “In a Foreign Town, In a Foreign Land” — All three stories in the second section of Teatro Grotesco (subtitled “Deformations,” as if it applies more to these specific stories than all his other ones) deal with a place across a mysterious border. The Quine Organization doesn’t appear in this one, and it isn’t labour-related. But it does confront the possibility of nearby societies behaving mysteriously. This clearly unsettles Ligotti, but not in a racist way like his weird fiction predecessor H.P. Lovecraft. It’s more a matter of a place that’s similar enough to home to be familiar but different enough to be, well, lethal. This story is actually four stories, all of which take place in the same town and presumably are told by the same narrator. What’s really interesting is the way that they paint a cohesive picture of a place when taken together. Not one of the better stories in Teatro Grottesco so far, but still good.

George Saunders: “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?” — This has supplanted Bob Garfield’s On The Media Trump coverage as my favourite piece of writing about this campaign. Saunders hits all the right notes here, whether comparing Trump to Ralph Kramden (“He’s a man who has just dropped a can opener into his wife’s freshly baked pie. He’s not about to start grovelling about it, and yet he’s sorry — but, come on, it was an accident. He’s sorry, he’s sorry, O.K., but do you expect him to say it? He’s a good guy. Anyway, he didn’t do it.”), directly quoting a man muttering as he leaves a rally (“Hey, I’m not paying for your shit, I’m not paying for your college, so you go to Hell, go to work, go to Hell, suck a dick.”), or using inventive metaphors to express why the right and left in America cannot understand each other (“You and I approach a castle. One of us has watched only ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail,’ the other only ‘Game of Thrones.’ What is the meaning, to the collective ‘we,’ of yon castle? We have no common basis from which to discuss it.”) It becomes less silly and more sad as it goes on, and the final kicker is really something. Go read. Pick of the week.

John Herrman: The Content Wars — “Internet platforms inherently favor their own content; more subtly, they create the conditions for their users to do the same.” This, in a nutshell, is the problem. Facebook and Twitter are naturally self-interested, and also very powerful and popular (at least, Facebook is). So, their progress will tend toward a total monopoly on human attention. And, as that quote implies, they won’t necessarily do it by Machiavellian means — they inherently privilege content that works better on their feeds. This makes them no less twisted.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Game of Thrones” — A nice, but inconsequential discussion of the changing role of women in Game of Thrones. Still a ways to go, it would seem.

More Perfect: “The Imperfect Plaintiffs” — This is the first episode of the constantly fantastic More Perfect to feature more than one story. It’s a dyad of stories that elucidates the odd world of test case lawsuits filed by activists. First off, we learn how an LGBTQ leader had a sodomy law in Texas deemed unconstitutional based on the case of two men who might not have even had sex with each other. Then, we dart over to the loathsome side of the political spectrum to learn how one man is trying to roll back decades of civil rights legislation, including the affirmative action case that was decided a few weeks ago. Fascinating stuff.

99% Invisible: “Remembering Stonewall” — This is a great piece from 1989 featuring the voices of people who were at the Stonewall riots telling the story from their perspective. The narration is minimal, so the story feels like fragments strung together. It’s apparently the first documentary made about Stonewall, so it’s very much worth a listen.

Imaginary Worlds: “Undertale” — Molinsky doesn’t quite get to the heart of what makes Undertale a fascinating and revolutionary game, partially because he hadn’t finished it when he made this, and partially because any adequate discussion would involve spoiling the most shocking moment in any video game ever. And that moment must go unspoilt, even to the spoiler-unconcerned such as myself. What Molinsky does get into is the idea that Undertale deconstructs certain video game tropes. Which is true, of course, and Undertale is an effective metacritique even before its staggering, unspoilable conclusion. But it’s far from the first to deconstruct the idea of choice in video games (The Stanley Parable did it first and does it better), or even the idea of death in video games (Adam Cadre’s parser game Endless, Nameless did it first, though less compellingly). So, this has its weak points, but it did make me really want to go back and play Undertale again. After all, I’ve still got two whole endings to discover.

Code Switch: “I’m Not Black, I’m O.J.” — Ezra Edelstein is disappointingly uninteresting in conversation, but I could listen to Gene Demby talk about this documentary series for days.

All Songs Considered: “Your Favourite New Musicians of 2016 (So Far)” — Not a lot of this music jumped out at me, but this did prompt me to check out Lucy Dacus and Margaret Glaspy.

More Perfect: “Kittens Kick the Giggly Blue Robot All Summer” — Silly mnemonic title aside, this is as wonky as you’d hope a story about the establishment of the Supreme Court’s powers would be. God, was Thomas Jefferson awful.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The State of the Sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence, and a Quiz — This broad discussion of sequels is a lot more interesting than a segment on Independence Day: Resurgence would have been. Quizzes, on the other hand, are not generally my favourite part of this show.

In Our Time: “Sovereignty” — If there is a weakness to In Our Time (and there are many, in spite of my undying affection), it’s that discussions focus almost entirely on European thought and history. It’s very old-guard academia — no critical theory here. So, in this discussion of the concept of sovereignty as extrapolated from Aristotle by Bodin and elaborated upon by Hobbes and Rousseau, I found myself wishing for a discussion of First Nations sovereignty as it relates (or doesn’t relate?) to those principles. Naturally, it never came, because In Our Time is only actually interested in our time in a rather limited way. That’s a serious liability for a radio program that purports to be about the discussions and debates that define our era. On the other hand, where else are you going to hear about this stuff in this much detail? Radiolab? No.

StartUp: “2680 Madison Road” — This starts with a needlessly long and falsely suspenseful trek through a semi-abandoned building. But after that, it gets going. It uses the brilliant premise of charting the rise and fall (or the rise and further rise, in some cases) of businesses that were started on the same lot: 2680 Madison Road, just down the street from Alex Blumberg’s childhood home in Cincinnati, to highlight the fickleness of business. The back half of this season of StartUp has been fantastic. I still hope they go back to serialized stories next season, though.

Invisibilia: “The Problem with the Solution” — Now I remember why I mostly liked the first season of Invisibilia — it occasionally brings stories that are so astonishing you can’t believe you’ve never heard them before. I constantly felt like the first season of this show was pulling my leg: that eventually it would reveal that all the stories had been made up as part of a social experiment to see how far they could stretch their audience’s credulity. This episode, about a Belgian town where families take in boarders with serious mental illnesses and care for them for an average of 28 years, is one of those stories that seems like it can’t be real. It’s great.

The Memory Palace: “Natural Habitat” — This is one of the good ones. Their all good, but this is a really top-shelf episode of The Memory Palace. It tells the story the first American woman to bring a live panda home from China. It manages to be a love story, an adventure story, and a tale of evolving notions about animal captivity at the same time. Plus, it throws some anti-imperialism in there. It’s long by this show’s standards, but completely sustains the length. Again, this is the best writing in radio. Pick of the week.

Invisibilia: “Mr. Kitt” — A fun character piece about a man who lives in the progressive housing development from the week’s full episode. This is a good week for Invisibilia.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Jeff Goldblum” — It turns out that Jeff Goldblum does the Jeff Goldblum thing when he’s not acting as well. He’s a lovely fellow, and less eccentric than you might think. Maron’s a real steamroller for the first third or so of the conversation, but he eases into a rhythm eventually and lets Goldblum talk. You might not expect this podcast to contain an elevated discussion of acting technique, but it does, and it is quite marvellous.

99% Invisible: “Unpleasant Design” — I’ve discovered that I like this show best when it dives into a concept and its implications more than when it tells a story. This is outstanding. Probably the second-best thing I heard this week.

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