Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 8, 2017)

Big week! 31 reviews! I’m working part-time and it feels GREAT. Also, I have some magical new running pants that allow me to run in the cold. So, podcasts! But first, everything else.

Literature, etc.

Ken Doctor: “The Newsonomics of Podcasting” — Doctor’s analysis of the current state of podcasting is probably the most in-depth bespoke piece of journalism out there on the matter at the moment. (I say “bespoke” because the best way to stay informed about the podcast biz remains a subscription to Nick Quah’s weekly newsletter Hot Pod.) There is much here for podcast producers and enthusiasts to be scared about — especially in the fourth of the five parts in this series, which details how dynamic advertising (something that contributed to the web’s current state of dilapidation and skeeziness) will soon be implemented into podcasting at the cost of its current, open RSS-based model of distribution. However, the fifth and final section offers some reasons to be optimistic, as it seems that the people at the heads of the companies responsible for many of the most popular podcasts don’t want to see this industry go the way of commercial radio, or of digital publishing. As long as there are people in powerful positions at big podcasting companies who believe in the primacy of good programming over all other concerns, we’ll be fine. Right? Right??

Jed Gottlieb: “Curtains fall on arts critics at newspapers” — Well, this is intensely discouraging. Still, it’s gratifying to read a quote from a formerly full-time critic that calls the situation for what it is: “It’s all for kids. The papers, the movies and music. There is nowhere to go for smart analysis, beautiful features. Social media means everyone has a voice but what’s lost in the cacophony is that intelligent voice commenting on intelligent art.” Welcome to the abyss.

Olivia Laing: The Lonely City — Another 2016 notable book I’m hurrying through before my end-of-January list. This is unexpectedly cathartic: a study of urban loneliness in American art, and an examination of how that art can help ease loneliness. Halfway between straight art criticism and memoir, Laing’s book sets out exactly the headspace she found herself in when she became obsessed with the art of loneliness. The first chapter focusses on the work of Edward Hopper, whose paintings I have apparently seen plenty of without actually ever knowing who he was. But it also focusses on the way that the experience of loneliness of the acute sort that Laing has experienced, and that I can sympathise with in a much more muted form, has a tendency to further isolate you from the people that you want in your life. Moreover, Laing notes that there’s social science research that details how, once the loneliness subsides, we tend to forget the sensation altogether and fail to recognize and sympathize with it in others. So, for anybody who has experienced what Laing describes and has come out the other side, this is a useful read because it contains a description of the sensation that you may have forced yourself to forget. The appeal of this book lies in the intersection between Laing’s ability to articulate the experience of loneliness and her ability to look at and interpret pictures in interesting ways based on that experience. Familiar Hopper paintings like Nighthawks take on more beauty when seen through the lens that Laing offers. The next chapter’s on Warhol. No idea where she’ll go with that, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

Games

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: Part 4 — Not finished yet, but I’m happy to report that this is everything I’d hoped it would be. It incorporates the mechanical improvements of the third instalment into a setting that has more of what appealed to me in the second part: I’ll always prefer a text-based game that takes place in a city to one that takes place in a vast wilderness. Even a vast wilderness with nifty time beacons. So much of what makes me like interactive fiction is getting to interact with NPCs from fictional civilizations. Or fictionalized versions of real civilizations. The other advantage in this game is that the rewind feature is disabled at a crucial point, so that your decisions aren’t reversible and you can’t be tempted to try all of the routes through any given situation: a big part of what sunk the last instalment for me. That said, I’m only just getting to a situation where I wish I could rewind my choices, because I think I might have actually trapped myself somewhere I can’t get out of without rewinding back past the point where the rewind was disabled. My final assessment of this will likely depend on my level of frustration in getting out of this situation. But let’s just bequeath something on this pre-emptively, in case I decide I hate it later for unfair reasons, namely that I’m a terrible and idiosyncratic gamer. Pick of the week.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Season 1, episodes 5-13 — Okay, so I powered through the rest of this season faster than I’ve watched any show since before I entered the workforce. Here’s a thick slurry of thoughts. There’s something marvellously David Cronenberg about the way that the Cylon spacecraft are semi-organic. I don’t think I’ve seen spaceships that bleed in any other bit of science fiction. Also, those ships’ capacities feel refreshingly analogue: if the humans destroy a fleet of eight Cylon scouts, they’re safe. They haven’t been discovered. For 2004, this feels really pre-internet. What does it say about 2017 that Battlestar Galactica feels like a retreat into a world with less sophisticated surveillance? On the other hand, it’s clear now that Commander Adama has an extremely selective code of ethics. He has previously advocated for leaving behind huge swathes of the remaining human race for the safety of even bigger swathes. But when one of his pilots is stranded on an inhospitable moon, he risks the lives of his entire fleet to save her. It’s a clever decision on the show’s part to make Starbuck that pilot, because she’s far and away the most sympathetic character the show has. It’s the only thing that could make us support Adama in what is increasingly obviously a series of horrible decisions. (Also, it’s telling that Adama gets his way with this in the end — and he also comes damn close to getting his way when the president starts making seemingly awful decisions of her own in the two-part finale. The power of the presidency is dependent on the goodwill of the military.) However, putting Starbuck in that scenario specifically is also a bit of a cop out, because we know that she’s smart enough to find her way out of this situation without Adama’s help. We aren’t genuinely ever faced with a potential consequence, because Starbuck’s survival is never really in serious doubt. Still, “You Can’t Go Home Again” is one of my favourite episodes so far. Ditto for “Six Degrees of Separation,” in which Six appears to have superpowers. I’m generally less invested in worldbuilding and mythology than I am for the actual plotline of a series, but I confess to being fascinated by Cylon spirituality, and I wonder if this will end up being a Game of Thrones situation where one of the religions turns out to be correct and allows its worshippers to do seemingly impossible things. The seemingly prescient nature of President Roslin’s visions only makes the question: which one? Both? Also, intriguingly, given the show’s much vaunted willingness to engage with the ongoing war on terror, the human religion is founded on the belief that time repeats itself. “All of this has happened before and will happen again.” Perhaps the show’s metaphors are meant to be literal recurrences of the early 21st-century sociopolitical events they’re critiquing? (When you consider that there’s a line in “Colonial Day” about how the largest point of speculation at the start of an event regards whether or not two political figures will shake hands, the show seems oddly prescient — and thus backs up its own point.) “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down” is by miles the stupidest episode in the show thus far. It is only redeemed by Mary McDonnell’s performance of intense suspicion and strained tolerance of Tigh’s wife — about whom, oh my god get this character off of the screen. I think that’s just about all of my thoughts. In any case, it seems like enough. Also, much as I enjoyed Todd VanDerWerff’s Deadwood recaps on the A.V. Club, I halfway think that Sonia Saraiya’s BSG recaps are even better — specifically the one on the Starbuck two-parter. Check that out for sure.

Sherlock: “The Lying Detective” — Bizarrely, I think I liked Mark Gatiss’s episode last week better than this one by Steven Moffat. It’s not that it’s bad, certainly. It’s just that the tension of this episode rests largely on whether Culverton Smith (Toby Jones, at his leering creepiest) is actually a serial killer or if Sherlock is just finally too off his head on drugs to know up from down. That’s not a particularly interesting tension, and it isn’t resolved in an especially interesting way. The huge twist at the end is indeed a huge twist, but it doesn’t have much to do with the actual story of this episode: it’s just laying groundwork for the next one. On the plus side, Amanda Abbington is still in the show, as we all knew she would be. On the down side, Mary is still dead, and seemingly for no good reason.

Music

Hans Abrahamsen/Ensemble MidtVest: Works for Wind Quintet — Abrahamsen is responsible for my favourite newly-recorded classical work of the year, let me tell you, a song cycle for the magnificent Barbara Hannigan. I don’t generally write about the stuff I listen to for work on this blog, to avoid cannibalizing myself. But you can find my remarks about that recording at the top of this list for CBC Music. This recording is the only other music of Abrahamsen’s that I’ve heard. Being wind quintet music, it’ll be of limited accessibility to lots of listeners, I’m sure. But I’ve always loved the explicit heterogeneity of wind music, probably because I grew up playing in wind bands. Abrahamsen uses this format to its greatest possible advantage, allowing the instruments to play independent lines that are meant to diverge as much as they’re meant to blend. It’s interesting to note that the two original pieces featured here predate let me tell you by nearly 40 years, because they sound identifiably like they’re by the same person, even if let me tell you is a lot more satisfying. Abrahamsen took a ten-year hiatus in his compositional career, which the history books will look at as a dividing line the same way as they do with Bob Dylan’s motorcycle crash. But as with Dylan, the two sides of that line aren’t as distinct as all that. The latter half of the disc is devoted to Abrahamsen’s transcriptions of Schumann and Ravel, which if they were by anybody else would be derided as curiosities, or mere necessities to pad the limited repertoire of the wind quintet. That’s unfair, of course. But these transcriptions are genius of the same sort as Schoenberg’s orchestration of Brahms’s G minor piano quartet. Schumann has always been my very least favourite of the major composers, and I confess that I enjoy Kinderszenen more in this formation than the original piano version. At least there’s timbral variety in a wind quintet. Abrahamsen’s transcription of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin is less surprising on account of Ravel’s familiar orchestration, but it is lovely and intimate. The wind players of Ensemble MidtVest comport themselves ably. Nothing’s perfect: especially not wind quintet playing. But this comes acceptably close. I will certainly not be returning to this as often as let me tell you, but it leaves me assured that Hans Abrahamsen is a voice in classical music that I ought to be keeping track of.

Brian Eno: Reflection — This is an excellent alternative to silence. Perhaps that sounds like faint praise, but for anybody who admires John Cage as much as Brian Eno does (and indeed as much as I do), it is among the highest compliments to offer a piece of music. Eno’s ambient music projects fall into two camps. There are the sublime ones like Music for Airports and On Land, which in the midst of their drones and textures contain memorable musical material, spread out judiciously. These records are deeply unobtrusive, as Eno intended, but they still announce their presence in the gentlest ways possible. The melodies on Music for Airports are like supportive friends. Along with Brahms’s German Requiem, it is the most profound musical expression of human compassion that I’ve ever heard. Loving these records so much can tend to make you underestimate the power of the ambient records that fall into Eno’s other camp: records like Thursday Morning and this new one. These records are built differently. They feel like audible spaces as opposed to audible objects. As such, they’re unlikely to be perceived as something so specific as “compassionate,” because they’re seemingly conceived to be neutral. Music for Airports is a record you turn to to lower your heart rate and quiet your mind. Reflection is a record you turn to as an alternative to silence, to bring us back to where we started. Any attempt at finding true silence will inevitably fail. Cage taught us that. But we can substitute what passes for silence for music like this: music that proceeds nearly invisibly, whose musical events possess the seeming uniformity of randomness. Reflection will allow your mind to remain a bit noisy. It can help you get things done. It can help you think in a straight line. It is perhaps a less profound gift than some of Eno’s more intentionally beautiful music, but it is a gift nonetheless.

Daniel Lanois: Goodbye to Language — This construction of ambient sounds with pedal steel is the kind of ambient music that has presence. It feels like a person making sounds with an object, and then making decisions about what to do with those sounds. It isn’t ethereal at all; it’s physical. There are times when this feels like an intentional attempt to bend time. It’s like there’s an early version of Goodbye to Language sitting somewhere that’s a straight line, but the one that got released is full of knots, and swerves and loops. Of the numerous ambient albums from 2016 that I’ve heard, I like this one the best — with the proviso that I don’t consider Tim Hecker’s Love Streams to be ambient.

Esperanza Spalding: Emily’s D+Evolution — Oh, I like this. I really like this. I have nothing against virtuosity. I’m for it. And I do think that it’s a viable end in itself. But personally, I’m more attracted to music with a big plan, these days: an idea. And Emily’s D+Evolution has a plan, and ideas o’plenty. This is virtuosity placed at the service of poetry. And equally, it’s poetry placed at the service of virtuosity. Spalding’s singing and bass playing are both astonishing here, and the lines she writes for herself to deliver with both instruments are worthy of her abilities. That’s not something you come across a lot. This is socially conscious music, delivered through a Bowie/Janelle Monaé-esque constructed persona. And it’s also a record you can listen to for the sheer joy of hearing people play instruments really freaking well. It is equally strong in concept and execution. I’m hard pressed to isolate favourite tracks, because the whole thing is so strong, but I’ll suggest “Good Lava” for its unison lines, “Ebony and Ivy” for its killer lyrics and awesome a capella opening, and also the extended cut of “Unconditional Love” for Matthew Stevens’ shit-hot guitar solo. Truly awesome.

Mitski: Puberty 2 — A good album, but I tend to prefer this kind of messy, grungy indie rock in song-length doses. All the same, there’s plenty of variety here, and the best tracks on the album (“Happy,” “Fireworks,” and especially “Your Best American Girl,” which is staggeringly good) are intensely repeatable. Mitski is a good songwriter and a committed enough rock ‘n roller that she doesn’t let her songwriting skill get in the way of making a gigantic loud noise. I’ll inevitably revisit my favourite tracks more than I’ll revisit the album as a whole, but that’s fine. Not everybody has to be an album artist.

Childish Gambino: Awaken, My Love! — A lovely little divertisment, with some truly impressive range from Donald Glover as a singer. He’s doing something different on nearly every track. The songwriting is a bit whatever, but that’s hardly the point. The point is this beautiful production that’s at once modern and a throwback to the 70s. Miles Davis and Teo Macero would have loved this. I haven’t heard either of the previous Childish Gambino records in their entirety, but what I have heard doesn’t leave me feeling entirely convinced about Glover as a rapper. I can definitely get into him as a person who does weird creative projects like this alongside big things like Atlanta, which I will certainly try to get to eventually. Nice.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “Viking’s Choice 2016” — Bob Boilen references Tales from Topographic Oceans! Never thought that would happen. I am so excited for more Lars Gotrich on All Songs in 2017. This guy has the most interesting taste at NPR. For every bit of hardcore that doesn’t connect, there’s a piece of weird synth music that I need in my life. He’s not as articulate as Ann Powers or Stephen Thompson, but he’s got such a depth of knowledge about music on what’s generally considered to be “the fringes” that it makes him essential to this operation. This is a great episode. The tracks by Oathbreaker and Zao were the standouts to me. I’ll at least check out the complete tracks, if not the complete albums.

Song Exploder: “Oathbreaker – 10:56 / Second Son of R.” — I actually like this song less upon hearing it in its entirety. I love the juxtaposition between quiet acoustic music and hardcore, but it doesn’t coalesce structurally in the way that I like. Maybe it would be a grower, but I think I’m past the point where I can listen obsessively to heavy music. Ah, well.

Chapo Trap House: “We Live in The Zone Now” — This show hits me where I live. This is their post-election episode, and it is the second-most indicative podcast episode I’ve heard of that destabilizing moment (the first being the On The Media post-election story meeting tape). I do think that in their (justified) zeal to tear down the DNC and the mainstream media for allowing Trump’s rise, the Chapos downplayed the material role of racism in the election, i.e. a segment of America either doesn’t recognize racist attitudes in themselves and their candidates or openly supports those attitudes. And either way, they were profoundly unprepared to prevent overt racism from overtaking the white house. In a decent world, rule number one ought to be “Don’t vote for a racist. Every other quality is secondary.” (You could also easily replace “racist” with “sexual abuser.” That is an equally valid rule number one.) But regardless, the red hot rage that these guys can articulate against the DNC is refreshing. I have been of many minds about the kind of comedy I want in a post-Trump world. And in spite of what I’ve written in the past, it’s not Samantha Bee. This is closer, at least.

Welcome to Night Vale: Episodes 63-65 — “There Is No Part 1: Part 2” is a single joke stretched too thin. But the following two episodes are excellent, and I’m very much enjoying the plot arc about Cecil periodically losing consciousness only to find upon awaking that he’s saved the mayor yet again. I have a suspicion about who purchased Cecil as lot 37 at that auction, which is verifiably either right or wrong, considering how behind I am on this. Nonetheless, here it is: I think Cecil purchased himself. I think he got tired of only reporting on the struggles of his loyal friend and former intern Dana, and decided that he could only get involved if he could do so under the pretense of unconsciousness. This will preserve his journalistic integrity, and also allow him an extra measure of bravery. I’m not clear on the mechanism by which he purchased himself. Maybe it has something to do with time travel. Maybe he’ll go visit Carlos in his desert otherworld, and time will turn out to work differently there in such a way that future Cecil can purchase past Cecil at a bygone auction. Just a guess. Anyway, I’m backed up on podcasts again, so who knows when I’ll actually get back to this and discover whether I’m right.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The Golden Globes” — This appears to be all of the Golden Globes 2017 that I could possibly need, i.e. eleven minutes of recap on a podcast, plus Meryl Streep’s speech on YouTube. Jimmy Fallon is the worst host on late night, so it stands to reason that he’d be awful here as well. I couldn’t care less about who won or lost, save that I’m disappointed Kenneth Lonergan didn’t win in one of his two categories. But WHATEVER.

The Gist: “The Secret to Meaningful Work” — Not Pesca’s most revelatory interview, but it’s nice to know that there are people doing research on how work does and doesn’t relate to personal self-worth.

Longform: “Terry Gross” — The most revealing moment in this great interview with America’s interviewer-in-chief is the bit where she talks about how she gradually became more willing to do media herself. As recently as a year ago, when she went onstage with Marc Maron, she seemed deeply uncomfortable with the idea of talking about herself. To be fair, that was in front of a live audience, whereas this is an intimate conversation in her Philadelphia office. But there’s something reassuring about hearing Gross talk about her own process and why she does what she does. It makes it clear that she’s not just a disembodied consciousness with above average levels of empathy. I also admire her approach to interviewing politicians. They’re the only group of people who don’t get the option to take back something they say or to refuse to answer a personal question. And hearing that clip from her Hillary Clinton interview again made me remember just why she sets my teeth on edge.

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “From Analogue to Digital” — If Twenty Thousand Hertz’s episodes thus far were compiled into an album, this would be filler. It doesn’t really have much to say about the value of analogue sound technology other than that it’s different from digital sound technology in ways that everybody is entirely aware of: i.e. there are rituals associated with analogue music that have died off. No matter, this show’s batting average is still high.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Obama’s Farewell, Russian Intel Reports, Senate Hearings” — Oh my god there is so much news right now. The real value of podcasts like this is that sometimes you only have time to catch the headlines of things that happen. On days when you’re not inclined to trawl through news articles, you can turn to this show instead and they’ll shove context and analysis directly into your head. It’s nice! It’s a good feeling. Makes things make sense. Well, no it doesn’t. But it allows me to be aware of the nonsensical, inexplicable things that are happening in the world, and also sometimes the reasons for them.

99% Invisible: “Mini-Stories: Volume 2” — I’ve enjoyed these two episodes because it’s nice to hear unscripted conversation on this show. Not as a usual thing, but every so often it’s nice to hear the facade drop away.

The Gist: “How the Onion Remade Joe Biden” — Joe Biden has been the best character on the Onion for a while now. It’s interesting to hear the editor talk about how the character came together, and particularly how they handled the death of Biden’s son. Lovely stuff.

The Heart: “Twirl” — A very promising start to the new season, which I suppose is going to be about femininity in male-identified people? Anyway, this particular episode where Kaitlin Prest interviews her exes (and her current boyfriend) about their feminine aspects is as thoughtful and intimate as the show always is. The high point is the conflict between Prest and her current boyfriend about whether his aversion to being thought of as having feminine traits is masked misogyny or not. It’s much deeper than “yes it is,” “no it isn’t.” Pick of the week.  

Imaginary Worlds: “Atari vs. The Imagination Gap” — I had no idea that the culture at Atari was so intense. I suppose the madness of the videogames industry goes back right to the start. That aside, the most interesting thing about this is the notion that the packaging and promotional materials surrounding janky old Atari games served a purpose beyond marketing: it helped to fill in the gaps left open by the games’ primitive graphics. I happened to flip through the book mentioned in this, The Art Of Atari when I found it at my comics shop the day I listened to this, and it really is some fantastic stuff. Worth checking out.

Fresh Air: “Why More Americans Are Giving Up On Banks” — I came to this thinking that it would be about credit unions and all that: people who are leaving their banks as a protest against their investment in fossil fuels, etc. It’s not that. It’s actually about people who use cheque cashing services and payday lenders. Which is interesting in its own way, but I should have read the description more carefully. Still, one thing about podcasts as opposed to actual radio is that you don’t often hear something by accident. This isn’t the sort of interview I’d normally listen to, and I learned something. Maybe I should institute a further element of randomness to my listening practices.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Trump’s Press Conference, Tillerson’s Hearing” — Once again, there is too much news. Also, has anybody else noticed how dangerously interesting the world is these days? Would I be paying attention to senate approval hearings if Clinton had won? No, I wouldn’t, because they’d be dull. Which, to be clear, I’d definitely prefer. And also, I don’t deny that this speaks to my insufficiency as a citizen. Though I do have an ironclad excuse where American politics is concerned: I’m Canadian. In any case, this is good. I don’t so much recommend this episode as I recommend that you definitely listen to whatever episode of this show is most recent when there’s a lot happening in American politics and you feel the need to make sense of it.

On The Media: “January Surprise” — Brooke Gladstone breaks down the ethics of Buzzfeed’s publishing the unverified Trump dossier with a Slate writer. It is what it is, and what it is is intensely valuable.

Code Switch: “Obama’s Legacy: Callouts and Fallouts” — Part two of maybe Code Switch’s best project yet: their wrapup of the Obama presidency. This one is about the various ways in which he failed people of colour during his administration. Especially interesting is the final interview with the immigration advocate who called him the “deporter-in-chief.” This offers a bit of necessary context to that remark, i.e. she was responding to allegations that Obama wasn’t enforcing the current policies. There’s more. You should listen to this.

Reply All: “The Reversal” — When I heard that Reply All had an ALS-related story, I assumed it would be about the ice bucket challenge, but it is mercifully not. It is actually about a doctor who set up a site by which he found that every so often, there’s a person who seems to recover from ALS. And by the providence of the internet, he may yet be able to find enough people to do a study on why it happens and whether it can be used as a treatment. Fascinating.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Hidden Figures and One Day at a Time” — I love Brittany Luse on this podcast. I hope they bring her back again before she’s utterly consumed by whatever her big new secret Gimlet project is. I never liked Sampler, but that’s because the premise was dumb. She was great on it, and I’m confident that whatever is replacing it will be better. Also, this show is about two broadly admirable things that I don’t have a lot of interest in. Maybe Hidden Figures. We’ll see. But I’ll definitely go to Hell or High Water, given Stephen Thompson’s intense enthusiasm and the fact that Glen Weldon agrees with him. I wouldn’t have thought it would be something that either of them would like. Good sign.

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