Omnireviewer (week of Aug. 28, 2016)

27 reviews, featuring the point where I finally caught up with my podcast subscriptions. Always a moment of joy and satisfaction.

Literature, etc.

Thomas Ligotti: “Gas Station Carnivals” — Another corker. Ligotti likes to make his narrators into straightforward authorial inserts: in this, “Sideshow” and “Teatro Grottesco,” the authors are writers of grim prose. It isn’t self-aggrandizement; it lends a terrifying verisimilitude to the stories, because you start to feel like these things could have actually happened to Ligotti. Cleverly, this entire story proceeds nearly to the end without anything unsettling specifically happening, but rather, a series of unsettling things being described to our incredulous narrator by a third party. I’ve found time and again that Ligotti is as impressive for his structural cleverness as for the specific details of the horrors he conjures.

Thomas Ligotti: “The Bungalow House” — I don’t know if it’s just the effect of taking a bit of a break from this short, but extremely intense book. But, I’m finding this final run of stories especially fantastic. This story is sort of built around a twist, and it’s a twist you can see coming for a mile. But that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story at all. It’s about a person who finds a kindred spirit in a series of tape recordings. (Does this resonate with me? To a point.) That premise, and the prose descriptions of the recordings in question make this another of the best stories in Teatro Grottesco.

Steven Pearlstein: “Meet the parents who won’t let their children study literature” — Pearlstein’s a bit condescending to accountants, I’d suggest. But then, how can you not be? While the broad sweep of his (admittedly familiar) argument is intensely sympathetic, the real reason I’m reviewing this is that shitty headline. This is an opinion piece, and a somewhat re-cooked one. There are almost no actual quotes from the reluctant parents the headline promises to introduce. I wanted a hate-read and I got a bland editorial. Screw you, WashPo.

Television

Stranger Things: Episodes 1-3 — I see why this is striking a chord. There’s more to it than just the ‘80s homages, which are great in themselves, though none of these reference points are especially meaningful to me, I must say. It’s just so fun. It’s a great yarn, strewn across familiar character and plot beats, with some truly great performances by many people, some of whom are barely teenagers, and some of whom are Winona Ryder. I feel like this is the sort of show I’ll have gotten the gist of before the story actually ends, but let’s not pre-judge that.

Music

Paul Simon: Surprise — This past Wednesday, a colleague casually mentioned loving the album that Paul Simon and Brian Eno made together, and I was thinking “why have I not heard that?” The answer, naturally, is a general prejudice against late works by legacy artists. We all have that prejudice, don’t we? But Simon’s poetic gifts had not waned substantially by 2006 (if the track I’ve heard from his most recent album is any indication, they still haven’t), and Eno remains a restless innovator. There are a few needlessly on-the-nose couplets here and there (It’s outrageous, the food they try to serve in a public school/Outrageous, the way they talk to you like you’re some kind of clinical fool”), but by and large this is one of the better pop albums made by a person over 60. Faint praise? Maybe. Here’s this though: the best track on this record is as good as the best stuff on Graceland. “Another Galaxy” is a marvel. It tells a simple story with astonishing economy (two verses and a chorus), it matches the peaks and troughs of the melody with the emotional highs and lows of the lines, and it offers a glimpse inside of its central character’s head with really simple language. This, from a guy who’s known to pack 20 words into a line when he can. Simon’s voice slips beautifully between the notes, and Eno’s electronics are perfectly complementary to the acoustic ballad that this is at its core. If there’s one problem with it, it’s that the broad strokes of the lyrics recall “Life On Mars” a bit, which is a comparison that does no song any favours. Both are about young women in difficult situations, romanticizing outer space as a place to escape. But where Bowie offers a generalized sort of discontentment, Simon’s is ultra-specific. There are other songs on this album that are nearly as good, which ought to demonstrate that, though this isn’t a masterpiece, it’s a really great album. Pick of the week.

IQ: The Wake — I had an inexplicable urge to listen to Marillion’s Misplaced Childhood yesterday. It’s an album I loved in high school, but has since grown insufferable to me for its preening self-pity and overwrought, empty bombast. Still there are memories in it, and I managed to get about ten minutes in before I began shuddering so hard I had to turn it off. I remembered my recent survey of The Seventh House by IQ, Marillion’s erstwhile neo-prog rivals, and how much better I liked it than the bulk of the Marillion catalogue, which is completely inaccessible to me now, save occasionally for Clutching at Straws and Brave. I figured perhaps it was time to give their most relevant period piece a listen. This is almost exactly concurrent with Misplaced Childhood, so unlike some of IQ’s later, more beloved albums, it actually belongs to the neo-prog moment that they are perpetually and anachronistically attached to. It’s a conflicting listening experience. On one hand, there are occasionally moments where a melodic snippet or solo leaps out of the headphones in the way that the best classic prog does. On the other hand, this is very much of its time. It sounds more ‘80s than Marillion ever did, and the recording fidelity is pretty dodgy, even by that era’s standards. Musically, it sounds a bit like what it is: a younger generation attempting to revive a lost art. The members of IQ are ‘80s prog’s hipster woodworkers. It’s like they’ve got a list of things that the old masters did, and they check as many boxes as they can while still sounding like a band that isn’t Genesis. At least Marillion had a distinctive personality fronting them. Fish’s vocals and lyrics frequently grate, but there’s nothing like his intensely introspective, confessional style in prog prior to Script for a Jester’s Tear, with the very notable exception of The Wall. (I just learned that Script and The Final Cut came out within a week of each other. Who poured self-pity into England’s water supply?) On The Wake, singer Peter Nicholls is clearly trying, but his performances and lyrics remain fairly generic. He would improve drastically, along with the rest of the band, by the time of The Seventh House. The closest they come to something as distinctive as “The Wrong Side of Weird” here is “Headlong,” which is also the one track on this album I could see myself returning to. I came to this expecting an interesting period piece, and I found a slightly dull one. But it never made me shudder the way that “Lavender” does.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Pete’s Dragon & Kids and Their Monsters” — Wow, they’re rough on Pete’s Dragon. I was half-inclined to see that movie after reading the reviews. But… we’ll see. Also, Stephen Thompson mentioned the Hip! I love that, even though the Hip will never be a thing in the States, the story of their denouement is making the rounds down there.

On The Media: “Define ‘Normal’” — Lots of good stuff, here. The opening segment on therapists doubling as specious pundits (specious therapists doubling as pundits?) is of particular interest, but the discussion of sexism in the Olympics, as it relates to gendered physical/physiological traits is also worth sticking around for.

Criminal: “The Editor” — One of the best prison correspondence stories I’ve heard. A man who was never taught to read (shame on American public schools) teaches himself to read in prison, reads 600 books, and starts finding errors in the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia. So, he contacts the editor, and they become lifelong pals. Brilliant. And brilliantly told.

The Memory Palace: “Numbers” — One of the good ones. DiMeo cedes the spotlight to archival audio from newscasts in this episode. His writing and delivery are still first rate, but they’re bolstered by the incredibly matter-of-fact reading of the Vietnam draft lottery. The archival audio highlights the way that DiMeo is able to weave plausible fictions around his historical material. Probably in my top five episodes of this show. Profoundly moving. Pick of the week.

Code Switch: “‘Southside’ and Black Love at the Movies” — Karen Grigsby Bates is a relatively recent introduction to this podcast, but I’m definitely a fan. It could just be that this is about movies, and I’m always all about the pop culture-focussed episodes of this show. But this conversation with Bob Mondello is good listening.

Love and Radio: “An Old Lion or a Lover’s Lute, Special Extended Cut” — I listened to the additional conversation tacked on the end of this, because I remember the original clearly enough. It’s a classic episode of Love and Radio in that it defines the show’s central ethos, which is the notion that it’s better to listen to people than not to. Jerome, the cat-calling man of dubious gender politics who is the subject of this episode, is too complicated to write off completely. So are most people. This show recognizes that. Hearing the producer Ana Adlerstein talk to Jerome once again about people’s responses to the episode only makes it explicit that this is what she and the show’s regular producers are trying for. It’s a profound approach that challenges listeners to engage empathetically, even as it realizes that many of its protagonists (I’m thinking especially of the sex offender in “A Red Dot”) will not win the audience’s sympathies.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: MTV’s Video Music Awards 2016” — Stephen Thompson wants fights at the VMAs. And who can blame him? Still, I’m yet to watch that 15-minute Beyoncé performance, so I likely shouldn’t judge.

On The Media: “Bob’s Grill #5: Former CNN President Jon Klein” — AKA “Brooke’s Grill.” This is a nice reminder that Gladstone can summon Garfieldesque umbrage when need be. If there’s one thing I hate in a smarmy interview subject, it’s that thing where they say to an established journalist, “if you were only listening to me…” Shut up. There’s no way that Brooke Gladstone’s not listening to you. If her questions don’t line up with what you’ve told her, it’s because you’re not making sense, or you’re bullshitting. In this case, the latter.

Radiolab: “The Girl Who Doesn’t Exist” — The story of how it’s possible to be born in the United States and not have a birth certificate — and of how some assholes think that this is okay. Honest to god, that sovereignty bullshit makes me go out of my mind. But this is mostly the story of a girl escaping from a family who has that ideology and finding herself, perhaps ironically but perhaps not, more free.

The Memory Palace: “O, How We Danced” — A small thing. A tiny word painting of a dancing marathon that got shut down by the police for obviously specious reasons. Nice, but I listened to it mostly because the below showed up in my feed.

The Memory Palace: “Remixx: (o how we danced with miley) — It’s just the above episode, with Miley thrown in. Not an especially clever remix, and you get the feeling that it’s something that the three people who work on this show thought was funny when somebody brought it up, and then somebody actually made it as a joke, and then they released it. Which is a thing that I like, when it happens. Fine.

All Songs Considered: “Breaking Up With Your Favourite Bands” — It seems that Bob Boilen and I have some similar reference points. We are both baby boomers, see. However, when Boilen is discussing why he doesn’t listen to ELP anymore (something I definitely do not begrudge him for), he does not seem to have the facts at the tip of his tongue. Carl Palmer never played with the Nice; he was with Atomic Rooster and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown prior to ELP. Also, when Robin Hilton comments on the guitar sound, Boilen seems not to be aware that it’s a synth. Tut, tut. Also, he’s the only person in the room who’s heard of Cockney Rebel… but I have too! They’re so glammy that they even made the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack. All nitpicking aside, this is a really fun conversation. The notion of breaking up with bands you once loved doesn’t hit me quite so hard as many, I’d imagine, since most of my favourite bands did their best work 20 or more years before I was born. I never had a whole lot of interest in what Jethro Tull was up to in the ‘00s. We were preemptively broken up. I suppose there’s Opeth, though. Time was, I’d look forward to everything they put out. But then nostalgia took over, and even an openly nostalgic music fan such as myself couldn’t handle the constant reiterations of tired prog tropes. I haven’t cared since Heritage, and probably won’t listen to any of their new albums going forward.

Fresh Air: “Remembering Gene Wilder” — Amazing that this 2005 interview doesn’t even touch on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Still, Wilder was a gentleman, and a fabulous comic actor. This is a lovely remembrance, and Wilder’s story about how Richard Pryor fixed a racist scene in Silver Streak at a moment’s notice is fabulous.

Code Switch: “What’s So Funny About The Indian Accent?” — I’m curious about how many Indians and Indian-Americans will listen to this conversation, in which a panel of Indian and Indian-American people claim not to be that offended by stereotyped Indian accents à la Apu, and think, hey wait. Obviously, I haven’t the slightest clue about this, but it strikes me that people could pretty justifiably get upset about Apu’s accent, given that it’s actually spoken by a Greek American man with no ear towards accuracy. I’m surprised it didn’t come under more intense scrutiny, here.

Reply All: “Boy Wonder” — “Can you solve this?” “Yeah, you’re a Yeti.” I dunno, Reply All has done this story before. Down to the same online diagnosis community, the same New York Times columnist, and the same references to House. Like House, it is frustrating for its repetition of things past. But it does have a great central character. If you do tune in, stick around until he starts reading self-coined platitudes.

Millennial: episodes 1 & 2 — I caught up with my subscriptions! I can finally start listening to new shows! But at this point, I’m committed to listening to every episode of so many podcasts that I need to be judicious about which ones get added to the pile. This show has its merits. The host, Megan Tan is very self-aware about the fact that making a podcast about being a millennial is extremely #millennial of her. And she’s a good storyteller with an engaging presence. But… I’m not sure how badly I need to hear the story of a person graduating journalism school and then struggling in a tricky job market when… well, this story bears a certain resemblance to EVERYBODY’S LIFE WHO I KNOW. I imagine it’s more interesting to people who are in less similar situations to Tan than I am. Also, I don’t relish the part of this story where her podcast gets picked up by Radiotopia like, three months in. I mean, really. But the primary reason why I don’t think I’ll listen to more Millennial is just that I’m more than 20 episodes behind, and I am not super willing to commit to a serialized podcast of that length with everything else I’ve got to listen to. Especially since I’m hoping to get back to my beloved You Must Remember This, which does tend to come in large chunks. It’s a shame, though. This is a good show. If I could stop time, I’d definitely listen to this.

Science Vs: “The G-spot” — This is a departure for the show, in that it doesn’t do its standard bullet-point interrogations of the major questions regarding a topic. Instead, it tells the story of public awareness of the G-spot since the 80s, with much giggling. Wendy Zukerman also takes an interesting detour into the history of anatomists suppressing the knowledge that the clitoris exists. This is definitely becoming, if not one of my favourite Gimlet shows, at least one of the good ones.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “You’re The Worst & Mixing Comedy and Drama” — You’re The Worst doesn’t sound like my kind of thing, but Glen Weldon explaining how stories work always is. This reminded me that I really need to listen to the audiobook of his Batman book.

On The Media: “Kids These Days” — Some great segments here. The one on millennials in the media is mostly satisfying for correctly identifying that Strauss and Howe’s generational theory is completely loopy. The one on music in presidential campaigns is fantastic, and pointed me towards this crazy art film of an attack ad for Nixon’s 1968 campaign, of all things.

Seminars About Long-term Thinking: “Neil Gaiman: How Stories Last” — I’m more interested in commenting on the form of this than the content, which is a perfectly good bit of Neil Gaiman in Neil Gaiman mode. This is a podcast provided by the Long Now Foundation, a fascinating organization co-founded by this program’s host, Stewart Brand, and best known for the very large, very slow clock they are constructing as a symbol for how much more long-term humanity should be thinking. It is also well known for including Brian Eno among its board members. This is a particular kind of podcast offering that doesn’t get included in lists of recommended listening. It fits alongside BBC Radio 4’s annual podcast of the John Peel Lectures, and other such things. Seminars About Long-term Thinking is simply an audio series made from the foundation’s lecture series of the same name. It is unedited, as far as I can tell. Very much in keeping with the philosophy of the Long Now, Gaiman is allowed to stretch his talk out for a substantial time, repeating himself at will, and allowing for long, pregnant pauses. The full episode is 103 minutes long. Brand is an occasionally bungling host, without an ear for when Gaiman says something interesting and worth picking up on, but that’s not really the point. This is a way to immerse yourself in a new way of thinking. The lecture series has a broad enough focus — long-term thinking — that its individual episodes can be about anything. But it is always framed by the fascinating philosophy of the organization that produces it. I can’t say for sure whether I’ll listen to any more of this. But I do admire it.

Code Switch: “ Singer Juan Gabriel’s Sexuality Was ‘Open Secret’” — This is a nice 20-minute primer on why Mexico is going all Canada over Gabriel’s death. (The parallels between Juan Gabriel and Gord Downie are extremely few, it would seem. But we can sympathize with the feeling of losing, or being about to lose, an icon who was uniquely of your home country.) It occurs to me that this episode may not be of much value to people who already know who Gabriel was — which is to say, apparently every Spanish-speaking person living within a hemisphere of Mexico. But Code Switch shouldn’t be held to that standard. I’ve learned something from every episode I’ve heard.

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