Omnireviewer (week of Sept. 4, 2016)

First off, a few things from the category of “things I don’t review” that I would like to recommend regardless. Firstly, the A.V. Club has a food section now, called Supper Club, which already has a bunch of good reads up. It promises to be as fearlessly catholic in its purview as The Sporkful, but with the A.V. Club’s brand of casually obsessive geekiness. This will soon become my entire internet, I imagine. Also, Jesse Brown’s Canadaland podcast put out an episode this week where he talks with Michael Enright, Robyn Doolittle and Jeet Heer about movies that deal with journalism. It is quite excellent. I’ve also been listening to and enjoying Love Me, which is a CBC podcast, and thus doesn’t get its own reviews, but it is produced by two of the key producers of the late, lamented Wiretap. Speaking of, that show’s host announced his new Gimlet show this week, which I am very excited for, but will not be reviewing on account of an upcoming episode of the Syrup Trap Pod Cast.

Now. On to our 15 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Ian Parker: “Pete Wells Has His Knives Out” — This New Yorker profile of the New York Times’s restaurant critic is one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve read this year. It is perhaps most interesting for its small observations into the details of this job, like the strange unwritten code that dictates that critics must not be acknowledged by restaurant staff, nor acknowledge themselves in restaurants. Everybody must simply act as if everything is normal, even when the head chef shows up halfway through the evening to ensure a full-capacity performance. Parker illustrates this with an anecdote about Wells and Jimmy Fallon coincidentally sitting next to each other at a sushi bar. Both were recognized, but only Fallon was acknowledged, and Wells was served more fussily prepared food. Or, there’s this: Wells sometimes shies away from restaurants before he hits the Times’s three-dinner minimum because he can’t think up a review that will be interesting to read. Declining to review for “literary reasons,” as Parker puts it, rather than anything to do with the food. Restaurant reviews are for reading, after all. (Speaking as a person who has forced himself to review every episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour since last October, I sympathize.) But Parker’s piece is also a fascinating portrait of a person who is carefully considering how best to wield a very specific kind of power. Wells can break fine dining establishments with a single snide remark in an otherwise positive review. The costs and benefits of that must be weighed attentively. Jobs are on the line, and not just those of people who’ve made fortunes in reality TV. Parker portrays Wells as intensely cognizant of how needless a pan can seem, even as David Chang derides him as old-fashioned and a bully. Also, in the “things I have to mention because I am me” category, apparently Wells uses Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies to combat writer’s block.

Thomas Ligotti: “Severini” — It’s in pieces like this where you can most clearly see Ligotti’s influence on China Miéville. Both of them are obsessed with horrors conjured by the act of human creation. They’re obsessed with art, but morbidly. Miéville is the more dazzling writer, and the more interesting accidental art critic. But Ligotti’s comparative directness and obsessive paranoia conjures a mood of dread more consistently.

Television

Stranger Things: Season one, episodes 4-8 — This show finally captured me in the opening moments of its fifth episode, where the children figure out what’s going on because of their awareness of the tropes of the kind of story they’re in. It’s not the first time this has been done, certainly. Parts of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and nearly the whole of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who use the same trick. But it signalled a moment where the show ceased to be a genre homage and started to become a genuine postmodern pastiche. By the end of the episode, Stranger Things is invoking Under the Skin and courting our modern paranoia about surveillance. How brilliant to have the villains of a piece be people who listen. Villains are usually acting; scheming; talking; monologuing. But our key villain in this show says very little — his power is in what he hears. How contemporary. But it also fits perfectly into the show’s Cold War setting. Then, in the next episode, another character figures out the monster (there’s a monster; that’s not a spoiler) with knowledge of predators that she gleaned from her nerdy childhood obsession with animals. This is a show where power comes from knowing things. I love that. I can’t say I was totally satisfied with the ending, but the second season renewal was announced just after I started watching, so I don’t have to be. Well-made television that scratches an itch.

Music

Björk: Debut & Post — You know how sometimes you listen to an early album by an artist you admire, mostly out of curiosity, thinking that it’ll at least shed some light into their later masterpieces? That’s not what listening to Debut is like at all. This album completely stands up on its own merits even today. Honestly, I’m inclined to say that however much Björk’s songwriting had matured by the time of Homogenic, this album has actually aged better, sonically. “Human Behaviour” is a totally nutty single on which Björk undercuts a great pop hook by singing in what first seems to be a different key. And the album starts as it means to go on. Every track on this is surprising, and never in the ostentatious way that art pop people can sometimes be on their debuts. This can stand alongside Björk’s best work, and thus alongside the best music of the ‘90s. Post starts off even stronger, with “Army of Me” and “Hyper-Ballad,” two of her best songs. But it meanders a bit from there. It seems like the sort of album that will be a grower in the same way that Vespertine is, and that Debut and Homogenic are not. Will revisit frequently.

Brian Eno: Ambient 1/Music for Airports — No need to review this a second time, but I feel I should at least express gratitude for it. It’s been a frazzling week. But when I put this on, I could feel my heart rate slowing practically from the first second. This isn’t just good music, it’s good-spirited music — an applicable boon to all humanity.

Brian Eno: Ambient 4/On Land — I have adopted the two outer portions of Eno’s Ambient quadrilogy as true ambient music this week. But where Music for Airports soothes, On Land maintains an air of slight discomfort. It is the lesser album, but when fed through overworked iPhone speakers and placed on the dresser, it makes a grand soundtrack for reading Ligotti.

Stephen Sondheim: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Original Broadway Cast Recording) — There are no operas, not even Wagner’s, that can be considered great works of literature as well as great pieces of music. There are few musicals that this can be said of, but this is self-evidently one of them. For all of its typical unlikely plot elements (Todd’s seafaring companion just happens to fall in love with his daughter by sheer coincidence?) and less than plausible romances (Mrs. Lovett, what were you thinking?), Sweeney contains a dozen sublime verses ranging from the devastatingly simple (“You are young. Life has been kind to you. You will learn.”) to the magnificently virtuosic (“There’s a whole in the world like a great black pit” etc.). And even if their would-be love story is a tad undercooked, Todd and Lovett are two of musical theatre’s most fully-realized characters. This piece feels strangely ahead of its time, given how inundated we currently are with antihero narratives. But the highest compliment that can be paid to such a story is that its protagonist’s actions are genuinely sympathetic, even as they are unconscionable. And Todd’s actions are certainly unconscionable. The fact that this story exists at the emotionally heightened level of reality where musicals live means that Sondheim can throw a philosophy directly into Todd’s mouth and not have it feel hackneyed: “They all deserve to die. Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why: because the lives of the wicked should be made brief. For the rest of us, death would be a relief.” Todd is not merely an avenger for his ruined family. He is avenging the entire world for having been ruined by itself. This is a kind of person that exists. Sweeney Todd is every disillusioned nihilist who’s ever shot up a public place. He is also every religious fundamentalist who has committed atrocities. He is everybody who has ever ended a life in the name of a philosophy. And yet. It is difficult to despise Todd completely. This has less to do with his tragic history (angry-man-avenges-wronged-woman plotlines are a dime a dozen and they are sexist and bad) than it does with the fact that, like his fellow bloodstained musical theatre villain Aaron Burr (and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s model for Burr, the far less effective Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar), Todd has a legitimate grievance. “The history of the world, my love, is those below serving those up above.” Todd is an elegant enough thinker to see the poetry in baking unsuspecting Londoners into pies. For Todd, mass murder is the only true social equalizer. Todd is unforgivable. He is damned, even within the confines of his own play. But anybody who is aware of our civilization’s various systemic inequities may find it hard not to lick their lips as Sweeney slits throats.

Jon Anderson: Olias of Sunhillow — Parts of it feel like something that might be played in a spa. But all in all, I absolutely adore this and have since I first heard it. This is essentially Anderson doing what he always does, but without the rest of Yes to help him realize his vision. Working within those constraints, he makes something that is entirely unlike Yes music, but which is maybe the most fully realized iteration of his mystical vision that we have on record. It isn’t a masterpiece, but it is an exceptionally good solo album that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend even to people who hate Yes.

Games

Lethophobia — I’ve barely begun, but I’m quite enjoying this. It’s a free browser game made with Failbetter Games’ StoryNexus tool. So, basically, the mechanics are the same as Fallen London and the text-based portions of my beloved Sunless Sea. This is the first game I’ve played on this platform that isn’t actually developed by Failbetter, though I have had a bash at making one. (Didn’t get far.) Lethophobia starts in a familiar adventure game place: amnesia. Also, you’re by a house in a clearing. Rings a bell. But so far, it’s distinguishing itself with excellent, funny writing and by making interesting use of StoryNexus’s quality-based story progression. The real test of this is whether I return to it after my initial session. Never a guarantee with games I didn’t spend money on.

Firewatch — Yeah, this is what I want games to be like. I mean, not the only thing I want games to be like, but if this could be the default that would be fine by me. Firewatch is a walking sim with a branching narrative stacked on top of it. It gives you the freedom to explore a compelling place that Gone Home offered, but with the addition of the sort of choice-based dialogue that Telltale’s Walking Dead games are known for. Mechanically, this is a perfect union. It fixes potential problems with both of those pre-existing models for gaming (loathe as I am to entertain the notion of problems with Gone Home). It adds choices and agency to the Gone Home model, which really just basically throws you into a space and says “walk around!” And, it combats the ruthless constraints of the Telltale model, which allows for choice but confines you to exploring one small area of space at a time. I could see this exact set of mechanics working brilliantly for just about any story, and I imagine we will see that happen in the coming years. But the story we have here is pretty magnificent in itself. The premise of a video game where you’re a fire lookout may seem to hold a whiff of Papers Please-esque perversity, but that’s not what’s happening here. There is no “look what I can make fun!” in this game. The fact that your character takes a job as a fire lookout in a huge, gorgeously-rendered national park is straightforwardly and obviously a setup for a proper adventure story. Of course, that story does turn out to be only about a quarter of the point, tops. The real beauty of playing Firewatch is in hearing the interactions of its two main characters: Harry, the player character (voiced brilliantly by Mad Men’s Rich Sommer), and Delilah, his boss in another lookout tower who is available only by radio (voiced equally brilliantly by Cissy Jones). These two both have some shit to work through. You don’t voluntarily isolate yourself in the brush if you don’t. And it’s the relationship that forms between them (which can presumably be very different depending on your choices) that forms the core of the game. Firewatch is a rare thing: a fun, unpretentious video game that nonetheless feels like it’s for grown-ups. I love it. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

WTF with Marc Maron: “Joseph Arthur/Peter Bebergal” — A great episode featuring two guests I’m interested in but whose work I’ve never gotten around to. Bebergal’s book about rock music and the occult, The Season of the Witch, has been on my list for ages. He’s not a great interview, but he seems like the sort of person who might write a good book. Also, Maron is curiously comfortable talking about magic without caveats and provisos. At no point did he say something like “but you know this is all bullshit, right?” Maybe he understands that magic is only ever a metaphor, which indicates that it has meaning, which means that it has power regardless of its ontological status. Or maybe he just remembers what it was like to be on coke. Either way. Also, the conversation with Joseph Arthur is interesting as a peek into the career of somebody who had votes of confidence from Peter Gabriel and Lou Reed but never quite made it. I’ve known who he is since Gabriel’s Big Blue Ball came out belatedly in 2008: a dubious, messy record made from three weeks of sessions at Real World Studios in the 90s. I liked Arthur’s contribution. But I never checked out his records. Perhaps I should. He sounds like what Marc Maron would be if he were a musician.

Love and Radio: Season 5 preview — Not the most exciting preview that came out this week (Again, I’m recusing myself from reviewing Heavyweight) but I’m definitely excited to hear stories about transgenic humans.

99% Invisible: “Public Works” — Roman Mars remarked on Twitter that this would be the nerdiest episode of 99pi ever. It kind of is, and it is also one of the best of recent times. It’s just a flat-out discussion (not a story, mind you) of the history of the notion of “infrastructure,” a word so new that the Washington Post put it in quotation marks like I just did as recently as the ‘80s.

The Gist: “A GOP Apostate Explains Her Vote for Hillary” — The best Gist I’ve heard since picking it up. Firstly, it contains a reasonable interview with a reasonable Republican, which is the unicorn of this election season’s press coverage. Secondly, it contains the most delightfully discursive and amusing spiel I’ve heard. It’s about the notion that sophistication does not necessarily equal excellence, but that’s an oversimplification. Pesca takes his time getting to his point, and he wheels through a whole bunch of implications without warning you it’ll happen. Radio doesn’t have to proceed in a straight line. Pesca’s success as a podcaster is proof that listeners are smart enough to follow along with a train of thought, even when the tracks have corners. Pick of the week.

All Songs Considered: “New Sylvan Esso, Sharon Van Etten, R.E.M. Acoustic, More” — Stephen Thompson’s presence is always appreciated. I recognize the value of Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton and I’ve come to love both of them as inviting presences on this podcast. But Thompson is smarter than either of them. As for the music, the Kate Tempest track eclipses all of them handily. I’ll definitely be checking out that record.

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