It’s been quite the week. I MCed a wedding and then climbed a mountain. Stay tuned for more on that. In the meantime, it’s been a week of mostly doing stuff that people around me were doing. And also listening to podcasts. A rather slight 20 reviews.
Meru — This is a deeply nerve-wracking documentary about three guys trying to make the first ascent of Mount Meru, a treacherous and technical climb. I watched it with my mountain geek friend with whom I had just done a teeny-tiny (yet quite eventful) climb in Canmore. It’s got some beautiful photography by Jimmy Chin, one of the climbers in the party. And it has been shaped into a narrative with stakes by introducing backstories for all three climbers. What these guys went through on the mountain is extraordinary. And the movie manages to make them seem merely compulsive and not actually insane. It seems for climbers, there’s no glamour in recklessness. These are smart people who want the world to know that they’re not just risk-seekers; they do this sort of thing because they are hyper-competent. I’d love to see this in a theatre.
Mario Kart 64/Star Wars Episode I: Racer/F-1 World Grand Prix — A couple of friends and I spent a relaxing evening playing racing games for the Nintendo 64, a side of that platform that I never really explored when I used to play it. Of these three, Mario Kart 64 is the clear winner, of course. And not only that, but it also handily excels over its more modern iterations. In my limited experience of Mario Kart 8, there’s so much crap all over the screen, and such complicated tracks, that it detracts from the experience. The simpler, the better. And as for the Star Wars podracer, it is certainly better as a racing game than it was as a scene in a movie. It’s still a tad complicated. As hovercraft racing games for N64 go, it’s no F-Zero X. I never really got the hang of F-1 World Grand Prix. It’s obviously the only one of the three that makes any motion towards realism. But that feels strangely beside the point, to me. Give me homing turtle shells and Chain Chomps any day.
Last Week Tonight: July 31, 2016 — This is actually better than his episode on the Republican convention. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Oliver more genuinely angry than when he refutes Trump’s response to Khizr Khan’s speech. It’s the first time he’s stepped away from glib amusement and occasional pathos and veered towards Jon Stewart’s old territory of righteous indignation. Beautiful stuff.
The Decemberists: The Crane Wife — My Decemberists journey essentially ended with loving Picaresque as much as everybody and checking out The Hazards of Love to see if it’s as bad as they say. (It’s not; it’s brilliant.) It’s time I checked out the rest of the catalogue, I think. This seemed to have been the most egregious gap in my experience, since it’s about equal to Picaresque in terms of fan acclaim. And while on first listen I think that there are a few more middling tracks on this than there are on Picaresque (“Yankee Bayonet” and “Summersong” evaporated upon finishing), it also has some of the most beautiful music I’ve heard from this band. All three parts of the title track, “O Valencia!,” “When the War Came” and “After the Bombs” are all lovely story-songs in the vein of the best tracks on Picaresque. Colin Meloy’s lyrics are more traditionally “lyrical” here than on that album, wherein he wrote almost exclusively “ballads” — not in the sense of slow songs, but in the romantic sense of rhyming stanzas that relate whimsical narratives. Rather than focusing on what happens to a character, as is the case on “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” for instance, the songs on The Crane Wife make more of an attempt to tell the emotional, interior story: especially on the title suite. But the real surprise on this is “The Island,” a prog epic that sounds more like Thick as a Brick than anything from The Hazards of Love. While I’d hesitate to call it a lyrical highlight, the band’s playing on this track is absolutely top-notch, and it’s got some fabulous riffs and a wonderful arrangement. In fact, on this album the band has upped their instrumental performances substantially. To keep our comparisons in the progressive story-song milieu, it’s like the sound transition from Foxtrot to Selling England by the Pound. A beautiful, cathartic album that I will revisit frequently. Pick of the week.
Kyle Craft: Live on KEXP — He’s a little pitchy in “Pentecost,” but altogether, holy smokes he’s great live, too. Plus, he’s got that slightly nervous manner that you want from a rootsy singer who claims to have been living under a pool table. Who can I drag to a Kyle Craft concert?
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Stranger Things and Weddings” — Having listened to this the morning after MCing a wedding (highly recommended experience), the second part of this discussion had extra resonance. I can confirm that weddings are definitely not always boring and shitty, even if the panel is right to point out that they are very much a lazy trope much of pop culture. Stranger Things is very much on my to-do list, though I’ll need to decide whether I’m going to get back to Deadwood first.
Love and Radio: “On The Shore Dimly Seen” — Alright, this is what I’m talking about. Love and Radio has been doing solid public service during its off season by programming inventive features by other producers. Nick van der Kolk introduces this semi-documentary by producer Gregory Whitehead by saying that you can’t find this guy’s work online all that easily. Ironic that some of the most experimental audio productions are still coming out of terrestrial radio operations like the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I really want there to be more of this kind of experimental radio available in the podcast world. Although there’s a whiff of art school self-seriousness around this piece about torture in Guantanamo, I appreciate it for taking a risk in presenting information in a new way. This is very nearly an oratorio (much of it is sung), taking its text from interview transcripts and government documents. More than any radio I’ve heard, it reminds me of Ted Hearne’s The Source, which is explicitly labelled as an oratorio. Self-seriousness aside, I want to hear more like this. If radio/podcast producers accepted the premise that you can tell stories in a way that has nothing to do with This American Life, there would likely be more noble failures out there, but there would also be more like this.
Invisibilia: “The Secret Emotional Life of Clothes” — There are six stories in this episode and I’d say one of them is great: the very last one, about a Jewish concentration camp prisoner who was able to keep his head down by wearing a Nazi shirt. He went on to become one of the great tailors in America, having dressed three presidents and a vast range of celebrities. The rest of this is forgettable.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Comic-Con Dispatches” — It’s always interesting to hear the work that these panelists do elsewhere at NPR. Glen Weldon’s piece on hard SF offers no new perspective, but Petra Mayer’s Wonder Woman celebration is lovely. It’s especially great that she talks only to women.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Jason Bourne and Suicide Squad” — I’m behind on this, and every other podcast. But I couldn’t resist jumping ahead to hear what they had to say about these two apparently pretty bad movies. Jason Bourne sounds more superfluous than anything, and I think I’ll just stick with the original trilogy, thanks. But Suicide Squad sounds like a complete disaster, and this conversation between Glen Weldon and Chris Klimek about why that is may be the best thing to come out of it. On that note, let us momentarily travel back in time…
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Swiss Army Man” — Weldon is absolutely correct that Klimek is dead wrong about this movie. Swiss Army Man is one of the best films I’ve seen in awhile, and Klimek’s assertion that it’s a short that got wrongly extended to feature length is completely ridiculous. The fact that there is this much of the Daniel Radcliffe farting corpse movie is definitely part of the joke. But that aside, I also agree with Weldon that it absolutely builds as it goes. Still, you’d be best off to heed both Weldon’s advice to see this movie and Klimek’s advice to throw a few bucks at The Nice Guys, because that’s really great too.
The Memory Palace: “Local Channels” — This story of the great swimmer Florence Chadwick is at its best when it gets elegiac near the end. I suppose The Memory Palace is seldom not elegiac. But, when DiMeo really gets to sink into a narrative of diminishment, he’s at his best. I don’t know what it says about me that I think that.
99% Invisible: “Combat Hearing Loss” — Boring and slightly markety. Hearing loss among soldiers is obviously a problem, but the design solution isn’t that clever or interesting.
Code Switch: “A Letter From Young Asian Americans, To Their Parents, About Black Lives Matter” — Kat Chow remains a secret weapon of this podcast. This episode is another of those that sheds light on something that isn’t necessarily hitting the big headlines, but is massively consequential to communities that I don’t belong to. This is why I listen to this show.
Imaginary Worlds: “Legacy of Octavia Butler” — I’m finding that when Molinsky focuses on a specific text or artist in a single episode, he can get a little dull. It’s easy to just explore abstractly in this format, whereas when you take a specific concept that could apply meaningfully to a number of texts, like the relationship of economics to genre fiction, you’ve got to do some real thinking. So, this one’s mixed.
Reply All: “The Picture Taker” — The Super Tech Support that anchors this episode is firmly in the middle of the pack as they go, but P.J. Vogt’s constant interjections make it worthwhile. He has a real knack for taking serious, grown-up problems and phrasing them in terms of man babies living in fantasy worlds. Also, the half-episode of Science Vs that’s tacked on her is very, very promising. About which more promptly.
StartUp: “Introducing Science Vs” — This whole “only put half the episode in the established podcasts’ feeds” strategy is a good one, because now I’m subscribed to Science Vs. And I don’t even feel like I’ve been suckered. This show is great. I’d say it’s starting off strong, but of course it’s been on in Australia for a full year already. The only real reason to listen to this episode of StartUp instead of just heading straight for the new show’s own feed is that you get to hear a bit about the acquisition, which is interesting to those of us who like geeking out about the insider world of podcasting. (Do you subscribe to the Hot Pod newsletter? You should.)
Science Vs: “Attachment Parenting” — There’s a fine line between reasonably assessing problematic assertions based on science and doing whatever Richard Dawkins is up to on Twitter these days. This show is firmly on the right side of that line. It is deeply satisfying to see snake oil salesmen getting debunked, especially when the host is as funny and engaging as Wendy Zukerman. I am going to enjoy this.
Science Vs: “Fracking” — I immediately knew I was going to like this show when Wendy Zukerman and P.J. Vogt were talking in the Reply All preview of this and Vogt said he didn’t like talking about fracking because he didn’t like talking about politics — to which Zukerman immediately replied that it shouldn’t even be about politics. There are facts to be considered, and that’s that. We need this show in a time when we are so inundated by political talking points and marketing that facts are seemingly ignorable. Pick of the week.
Radiolab: “From Tree to Shining Tree” — This is amazing: trees don’t actually absorb the bulk of their own nutrients with their roots: it’s done for them by near-microscopic tube-shaped fungus. This will completely change the way you think about your primary school science classes.