Omnireviewer (week of Aug. 7, 2016)

23 reviews. That seems to be my upper limit, these days. But I’m slowly and surely catching up with my podcast backlog. Relatedly, my average running pace is getting gradually quicker.

Television

Last Week Tonight: August 7, 2016 — Jason Sudeikis’s role in the final kicker of Oliver’s journalism segment is the villain of our times. He is shiny and dumb, utterly clueless and convinced of his own rightness, and he values the new more than the good. I have met this person a number of times and so have you. Individually, they are an embuggerance. Collectively, they are an intellectual apocalypse lying in wait. Thank you, John Oliver, for leading the charge against the shiny dummies.

Deadwood: Season three, episodes 1-6 — Thus far, season three of Deadwood is scarcely less excellent than season two. Its reputation and my knowledge of its hasty cancellation leads me to expect disappointment within the next six episodes, but so far I’m just enjoying being back in this richly-drawn setting with these characters and their gutter-Shakespearean dialogue. Brian Cox is a very welcome addition to the cast, even if his character isn’t involved in anything much resembling a story at this point. George Hearst is proving a more fearsome monster even than Francis Wolcott was last season. On that note, the most interesting thing about this season so far is the vastly different power dynamic that takes hold when Al Swearengen and Cy Tolliver are no longer vying for dominance under the watchful eye of Sheriff Bullock. Such trifling matters must be put aside when an individual as powerful and ruthless as Hearst threatens this entire civilization that’s been so miraculously built from nothing. (It may not be “civil,” but Deadwood represents a civilization nonetheless.) The AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff had a great line of argument about the first season of the show: you can tell who Deadwood’s “gods” are because they assay their domain from on high. Al and Cy have their respective verandas, and the very wealthy (if comparatively retiring) Alma Garrett has her high window. Telling, then, that the first thing Hearst does when he gets into town is roughly tear a hole in the second-story outer wall of his newly-purchased hotel to fashion a crude veranda. I have no idea how the town is going to get out of Hearst’s grasp. Given the slapdash end of Deadwood’s production, I suspect they may not.

Literature, etc.

Michael Lind: “Intellectuals are Freaks” — A very valuable essay about how the life experiences of the chattering set tend to blind them (us?) to certain realities. I know many people whose life experiences have placed them in an intellectual bubble wherein there are no ideologically-opposed people to them. And look, I’m as horrified about Trump and Brexit as anybody. But I think that a certain amount of exposure to a variety of viewpoints within my own family has made me slightly less incredulous about how these things can happen. I’m still massively blinkered, I’m sure. But I know lots of people who could do to read this. I will say that Lind’s conclusion that all opinion writers and professors should spend a year working in a shopping mall or warehouse seems a bit facile to me. Surely, that’s hardly enough to counter the rest of their lives?

Bernd Brunner: “Encyclopedia Blue” — Lind’s article appeared on a site called The Smart Set, which I hadn’t heard of and decided to give a shot. I went with the article most prominently displayed on their homepage, which was this disappointingly brief article on the colour blue. It cites two full books on the topic that sound like they would be interesting. But if you’re going to do the whole “thinkpiece about a colour” thing, I think I deserve at least a couple thousand words in return for the click. Come on, now.

Music

Simon Rattle & Berlin Philharmonic: Schoenberg Orchestral Works — This is perhaps an atypical recording to be in my most listened-to classical discs ever. But, according to my iTunes play count, so it appears to be. To be fair, that stems mostly from the recording of Schoenberg’s brilliant orchestration of Brahms’ G minor piano quintet that starts the disc off. Being Brahms, it’s a long way off from the dissonant, bizarre music that Schoenberg is best known for. But it’s also got more than a little of Schoenberg’s taste for the grotesque in it. The rapid string passages and loud percussion of the first movement conjure similarly nightmarish images to Schoenberg’s own early works, Erwartung in particular. Given that this is the only recording of this orchestration that I’ve heard, it’s hard to say how much of this is there in the score and how much of it is Simon Rattle leaning hard into the Schoenberg side of the Brahms-Schoenberg collaboration. But it’s exciting music, marvellously played. I listen to it more than any recording of an actual Brahms symphony. The Schoenberg originals that follow it keep the pace admirably, though I find myself listening to them less. Accompanying Music to a Film Scene is the one piece here that casual listeners might find distressing. In the absence of memorable melodic material, Schoenberg’s virtuosic orchestrations hold the attention. He really doesn’t get enough credit for his talents in that area. This recording of the Chamber Symphony No. 1 isn’t my preferred one — I do tend to like it it best in its original chamber orchestra scoring. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s recording is the real classic, I think. This music calls out for a one-per-part approach. There’s something about that feeling that you’re dealing with individuals rather than sections that makes the music easier to keep track of, somehow. But it’s hard to complain when it’s played as well as the Berlin Phil plays it here. An idiosyncratic favourite, I suppose. But I’d recommend it unreservedly to anybody who’s interested at all in classical music.

Kyle Craft: “Before the Wall” — A beautifully-timed old-school folky protest song about Trump’s wall. Given that you can record and release songs so easily now, I don’t know why social isn’t being constantly flooded with latter-day Woody Guthries and Pete Seegers, having their say about The Big Thing, and following in step with the news cycle. The kinds of contemporary, time-hooked songs you could write in a day and perform at a club that evening in the ‘60s are now the kinds of songs that you can write and record in one, two days and throw online to a potentially much bigger audience. Is this happening? Am I just in an echo chamber? Are we all? In any case, this song is tremendously moving at this specific moment in time. It will inevitably mean less next year, but that’s not the point. Kyle Craft now has his album — his big statement of arrival that I’ll probably be listening to for years — and this single, which in an equitable world would introduce him to a much larger audience, if only for a short time. “If the wall it goes up and your Jesus comes back/And he knocks on the door will you stand to attack/If he don’t have his papers and he don’t have much cash/Would you take him in, jail him, or just send him back?” Pick of the week.

Games

Sunless Sea — This remains my favourite game to return to. I played a fair bit this week, and I actually chose to end the story of my longtime character, when he finished a particular matter that led him through a vast gate to the far north of the game’s world, and onward to his poetic death. That is the sort of thing that can happen in Sunless Sea. I confess to being slightly disappointed with the sendoff that Captain Webern got. (Yes, I name my video game characters after avant-garde composers. Are you really surprised?) But my new character, Captain Alban (yeah, I know, Alban Berg died before Anton Webern; but who’s counting?) will certainly find his way to the corners of the game that Webern never managed to survey. If it seems like I’m strangely invested in this, I am. Sunless Sea is one of the great works of fiction of our time. I urge anybody with any inclination towards games at all to check it out.

Podcasts

Invisibilia: “Outside In” — Hanna Rosin has been a good addition to this team, but this season has still been weaker, all-in-all, than the first. It’s unfortunate that this final episode of the season is one of its strongest, with two major segments produced by outsiders. I’ll likely switch this over to an occasional listen, rather than a commitment next season.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: MTV Classic” — I’m so glad that Stephen Thompson works at NPR. His Onion roots show through frequently, and that’s a nice thing to have on current affairs radio.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Match Game” — This is seven minutes of Glen Weldon being extremely funny and Stephen Thompson delighting in how funny Glen Weldon’s being. You’ll notice that my responses to this show are as much about the people on it as the things they talk about. That’s the mark of a good panel show, I think. The people who actually make this show may disagree, who knows.

The Heart: “BFF” — This diary series is going to be great. This opening episode is everything you want from The Heart: it’s intimate, irreverent, beautifully produced, and yeah, kind of hot. Also, it’s got great music. I feel like I never have anything substantive to say about The Heart, but it really is one of my favourite podcasts.

99% Invisible: “The Magic Bureaucrat” — Welfare is a sticky topic, and I do not personally have any time for arguments against it. But this story about how the Bill Clinton-era welfare reforms (which I think were a travesty) were designed is really interesting because it folds a policy-making process story into the rhetoric that’s spouted by some of the sources here. It also contains horrific anti-welfare propaganda music. Worth a listen.

Reply All: “Dead is Paul” — This entire episode is devoted to a recurring segment, which is kind of the journalism equivalent of a bottle episode. But I have never been disinterested in P.J. Vogt and Alexes Goldman and Blumberg together in a studio. This is good fun, and very much the sort of thing that I look to podcasts to contribute to my life.

Code Switch: “What Does ‘Objectivity’ Mean to Journalists of Color?” — It’s great to hear some journalists of colour talking specifically about how they deal with reporting on Trump, given that he has been so outspoken in his racism. Pilar Marrero from La Opinion is particularly trenchant: her paper has no problem calling Donald Trump racist, because there is a preponderance of evidence that this is the case. There’s a bit of debate about this point in this episode, and it’s interesting, but nobody ever really quite eclipses Marrero’s analysis.

Theory of Everything: “The art of the deal” — This is just a flat-out conspiracy theory, which is exactly the sort of thing I want from this show. It starts off reasonably enough, but it ends with Donald Trump’s sons fighting ISIS on reality TV. Lovely.

All Songs Considered: “A Conversation With Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood” — Greenwood is a reticent fellow, and not a very good interview. But there are gems littered throughout this, like the fact that “Burn the Witch” is the first Radiohead song that’s been built on strings, rather than having strings added after the fact. I should probably listen to A Moon Shaped Pool again. The cuts Bob Boilen plays here are better than I remember.

99% Invisible: A Sea Worth its Salt” — This story about the fraught preservation efforts being put towards the Salton Sea in California is not quite as compelling somehow as the earlier story about the ruins of California’s public baths. It may seem a strange comparison, but they’re both stories about things that have dubious cases for preservation, though the Salton Sea’s dubiousness seems less dubious.

The Memory Palace: “Dreamland” — Another lovely, elegiac prose poem. This one comes from the back catalogue, but I haven’t been listening long enough to have heard it. It hones in on a specific element of Dreamland — a Coney Island theme park that burned down in 1911 — that’s really poignant: at this time, when travel was prohibitively expensive or inconvenient, this was a way for people living nearby to feel like they’d escaped their surroundings. That makes its destruction more tragic.

Code Switch: “Say My Name, Say My Name (Correctly, Please)” — A deep, funny discussion of why it sucks when people say your name wrong. I have never dealt with this, so it’s probably good for me to hear other people’s experiences with it.

All Songs Considered: “Blood Orange, NAO, Joyce Manor, Factory Floor, More” — Daoud Tyler-Ameen and Saidah Blount are always great to hear from, and they play some good tracks here. I was particularly taken by Swet Shop Boys “T5,” which makes me suspect I should probably check out more that Heems has been involved with.

Planet Money: “Oil,” episodes 1 & 2  — Oh, yes. This is what I want to listen to for the next few weeks. The team at Planet Money are learning about the oil business from the inside. By which I mean, they actually bought a hundred barrels of crude oil with cash and they are planning to transport, refine and sell it. Perhaps the gonzo spirit of Alex Blumberg survived his departure from this show. Pick of the week.

The Gist: “Mike Birbiglia and Ira Glass Followed the Fear Here” — Interviewing Birbiglia and Glass together is something you can just expect from Mike Pesca, I suppose. It’s more interesting than the other Birbiglia interviews I’ve heard surrounding Don’t Think Twice. This episode also contains an amusing riff on podcast tropes as pertaining to Hillary Clinton’s new (real) podcast. Also, this contains the second seemingly unmotivated Yes reference I’ve heard in this podcast in the relatively short time I’ve been listening to it — and I’ve only been listening occasionally. I’m impressed.

Imaginary Worlds: “Finding My Voice” — Maybe it’s a bit narcissistic of Molinsky to just bring in his old editor to talk about his development as a producer. But the actual stories here are interesting. And for those of us trying to figure out radio, it’s actually interesting all the way through. 

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