I’ve had a big week for wasting time, and also a big week for getting stuff done that allows me to also listen to stuff simultaneously. You may enjoy the fruits of my labours below.
Chris Onstad: Achewood — It’s been ages, but I went back to Achewood this week and fell right back in. I got the the end of 2004 in the comics, which was also the year when Onstad started writing in-character blogs as all of the major characters. I’m making my way through the first year of those now, because what’s a rabbit hole if you only go halfway down? The blogs are interesting because they’re less explicitly comedic than the strips are. They’re basically sincere character studies where every single character seems unique and well-rounded. That makes them a bit of a mixed bag. Ray’s blog, for instance, is intermittently insufferable because Ray is a rich asshole whose life is a fantasy from a men’s magazine. Seen from a third-person perspective, this is always funny. But when it comes straight from him, it can be rough going because he’s less ridiculous when seen through his own eyes. But the blog never drifts out of character, which is a testament to what a fantastic writer Chris Onstad is. Other characters fare better. I’m particularly fond of Pat’s blog, because Pat is the least sympathetic character in the strip, and thus the most likely to have a completely insufferable blog. So the very existence of the thing is a joke in itself. Also, it features a plotline in which Pat attempts to place the mailman under citizen’s arrest because in Pat’s crazed worldview, junk mail constitutes litter. Achewood is a marvel. It’s a whole universe. I love it.
The Shape of Water — I’ve always loved Guillermo del Toro as a visual stylist, but the only movie of his that really stuck with me for some time after I watched it was Pan’s Labyrinth. I think what I liked about it was that it presents a very simple metaphor about childhood trauma and takes for granted that you’ll pick up on it. So, it just focuses on telling a story and, even more crucially, presenting a cavalcade of memorable and distressing images. The Shape of Water is much the same. It is not a subtle movie. It finds del Toro wielding Michael Shannon like a bludgeon. More troublingly, it also finds him casting Octavia Spencer as a walking trope, which, ugh. That makes the movie’s central civil rights metaphor a tad less resonant. But all of the stuff that del Toro packs around that metaphor is really marvellous. Maybe the best light to see the movie in is as a tribute to the romances of golden-age Hollywood. Del Toro has always been a film geek first, a storyteller second. And this movie finds him geeking out not only about monster movies, which is his perpetual obsession, but also with musicals and melodrama. And look: there are days when I’m a chilly aesthete, and there are days when I’m totally on board for a musical monster melodrama. This hit me on one of the latter kinds of days.
Coco — I don’t much like to cry in public, so there were some uncomfortable moments in this. *sniff* Coco has one of the most satisfying narrative switcheroos I’ve seen in a while. If you’ve seen it, you know the one. It’s a late-game reveal that I genuinely did not see coming, which is also the element the film’s emotional impact hangs on. Where Inside Out’s effect comes from a sustained melancholy, Coco’s comes from a single surprise gut punch. And what a gut punch it is. I don’t like this quite as much as Inside Out or WALL-E, which remain my two favourite Pixar movies. (Were they this good when I was an actual child??) But Coco goes beyond those movies in a couple of ways. First off, it takes place partially in a convincing (according to my Mexican friend) version of small-town Mexico. Its visual style is a pretty brilliant amalgam of Mexican art and architecture with Pixar’s usual fantastical whimsy. Once the movie finds its way to the land of the dead, it really turns into a visual marvel. And it’s not just the setting — it gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that most of its characters are skeletons and can thus be deconstructed and rearranged at will. There’s a character in this, Hector, who is maybe the closest any animator has gotten to the genie in Aladdin in the past ten years. Story-wise, the tension that drives Coco is the same as in Ratatouille: there’s a kid who wants to be an artist but his family forbids it. But where Ratatouille portrays its protagonist’s family as mere philistines, Coco manages to find a reason why they act like they do that makes them sort of sympathetic. I think that points to a way that children movies have matured since I was a kid: there doesn’t have to be an obvious villain anymore. Coco does have a villain, but for the bulk of the movie the key antagonists are the hero’s own family, who basically have some version of his best interest at heart. This is much more subtle than The Lion King. This is charming. And I’ll note one final detail: the town it takes place in is called Santa Cecilia. Cecilia is the patron saint of music in Catholicism, and thus a significant symbolic figure in this story. Nothing’s an accident in a Pixar movie.
Gustav Mahler/Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic Orchestra et al.: Symphony No. 3 — Man, it’s probably been five years since I listened to this. Famously long, obviously. But when you’re sitting at home with a glass of Petite Sirah (I am a caricature of myself) and a few open browser tabs, it flies right by. The scherzo is one of my favourite movements in Mahler’s whole oeuvre. I remember learning the offstage trumpet parts back when that was a sort of thing I did, and for all of their endurance challenges, they are some of the most satisfying orchestral excerpts I ever had to practice. There’s a haunting delicacy to that section that’s the sort of thing only Mahler can muster. This isn’t altogether one of my favourite Mahler symphonies, but even his lesser works are essential, to me. And that scherzo. Man oh man.
Bruce Springsteen: The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle — I think I prefer this to Darkness on the Edge of Town. I definitely prefer it to The River. Elements of it feel in retrospect like a warm-up for Born to Run, but it has an unexpected soul element that Springsteen wouldn’t really revisit after this. And I like that facet of this record. Much of the credit should likely go to David Sancious, a marvellous keyboardist who makes his final E Street Band appearance here, to be replaced by the equally brilliant but totally different Roy Bittan. Sancious is all kinds of funky throughout. “The E Street Shuffle” is a truly rollicking opener, and it’s the sort of thing that just wouldn’t fly on either of Springsteen’s next two albums. It’s got the requisite keen observational poetry, but it’s just too… fun for Born to Run or Darkness. Pete Townshend once said “When Bruce Springsteen sings, that’s not ‘fun.’ That’s fucking triumph.” It’s presumably those two albums, and Born to Run in particular, that he was talking about. The element of that classic style that E Street Shuffle is missing on about half of its songs is the profound romance — the seriousness. And while that makes it a less effective album, it also makes it a fundamentally different one, which can serve a different purpose in your rotation. On the other hand, if you’re worn out on “Jungleland” and “Backstreets,” “Incident on 57th Street” and “New York City Serenade” can easily fill in for them.
Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska — I can see myself coming to like this Springsteen album best of all. The guts it takes to make a record like this at that point in a career, I tell you. He’d just had his first major hit with “Hungry Heart,” and he comes back with an album of what were meant to be demos of almost unrelentingly bleak songs. But even that doesn’t quite get to the gutsiness of this release: try and think of a solo artist whose sound is more dependent on their band than Bruce Springsteen. The E Street Band is a way bigger part of their particular equation than, say, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was of theirs. And yet this album happened. Thank god Columbia Records had the guts to let it happen, too. Because, different as it is from everything else in his imperial phase, Nebraska has a delicate beauty that makes it stand up alongside Born to Run in terms of its ability to connect. Its palate of mostly acoustic guitar with a few ornamentations and a generous dollop of reverb reminds me of the first Bon Iver album, except made in 1982. My personal highlights are “Highway Patrolman,” which has a gorgeous melody and lyrics that compel you to actively listen to the story, and “Reason to Believe,” which may only feel as strong as it does because it’s positioned at the end of the album. After so many stories of hardship and wrongdoing, it’s nice to hear Springsteen sing about people’s tendency to keep their chin up in spite of it. I’m still processing this. I can tell I’ll be listening to it a lot.
The Good Place: Every episode thus far — Look, I had some spare time this week, and not a lot of willpower to be productive. It’s been a dog’s age since I had a good long binge, so I binged on this. I am a big fan of Michael Schur, primarily because of Parks and Rec: a show that was one of television’s greatest joke factories, and also had a cast of characters it’s almost dangerously easy to get invested in. The Good Place is an astonishing show, but for neither of those reasons. The Good Place is the first television comedy I’ve watched entirely out of interest in the story. I’m not sure I’ve watched a show whose fundamental rules change as often as this one’s. Maybe Lost. But I’d wager that the twists-per-minute ratio of this show is even higher. I’m going to leave it there. If you’re thinking about watching this, watch it. Don’t read anything more about it, just watch it. If you don’t find it funny, just keep watching it. You will eventually realize there’s a sort of virtuosic storytelling at work here that is incredibly rare in TV comedy. Pick of the week.
Love and Radio: “The Machine” & “The Secrets Hotline, Vol. II” — The secrets episode is much the same as the first one, which is to say it’s a bunch of secrets told anonymously on an answering machine. It’s great. “The Machine” is a really great story about a guy who bulldozed a bunch of his town before committing suicide, and managed to be remembered as some kind of hero. Being the show that this is, nothing is allowed to be that simple. It’s great.
The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Levee Stream Live from New Orleans” — A live episode consisting of interviews taking place in the seat of a sawed-in-half Cadillac, this is the sort of thing that could only come from a collaboration including the Kitchen Sisters. New Orleans is a super cool place I really want to visit, and this is a great evocation of its contemporary culture.
Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — The highlight of the slew of PCHH I listened to this week was their annual resolutions and predictions show, which I always love because they’re always so wrong except for Kat Chow. Good listening.
The Hilarious World of Depression: “Linda Holmes Leaves Law to Concentrate On Watching TV and It Works Out Great” — It’s always a shock when you learn about the difference between a person’s public-facing aspect and their private life. I’ve been following Linda Holmes’s work for NPR and as the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour for years, including during the period that she identifies during this interview as a mental health crisis. It was never less than amazing. I hadn’t listened to this show before, and I’m not sure it’s necessarily for me, but this is a really good conversation. Holmes’s story really demonstrates that there are gradations of depression and anxiety and that even the lower gradations need to be acknowledged and dealt with. Lovely stuff.
Beautiful Conversations with Anonymous People: “The Puppet Master” — This starts off as a pretty ordinary episode of Beautiful/Anonymous with a guest of middling interest. Then he laughs. And as soon as Chris Gethard hears this guy’s laugh, we’re off to the races. I listened to this on a train at seven in the morning. I had to keep pausing it because I was losing my shit. There’s nothing like listening to people laughing. And he really does turn out to be interesting later. Everybody is. That’s the point of this show.
WTF with Marc Maron: “Darren Aronofsky,” “Marc’s Family” & “Ta-Nehisi Coates” — These are all great episodes. Aronofsky turns out to be quite funny and engaging. He was a fan of Maron’s from way back in his struggling stand-up days. Also, Maron hasn’t seen the end of mother! He’s actually interviewing Darren Aronofsky about that movie without having seen it all. I love that. The episode of conversations between Maron and members of his family feels like some much-needed catch-up on the years of the podcast that I missed. And the Ta-Nehisi Coates interview is completely scintillating. Maron is enraptured with this guy, and Coates just loves how good he is at listening. It’s fabulous. Listen to that one.
The Organist: “How to Be in Two Places at Once: The Firesign Theatre in the US and Vietnam” — I am so glad this show exists. We need more arts and culture podcasts that are about long-form storytelling rather than conversation and criticism. I love those shows too, but I feel like Studio 360’s American Icons series has been cornering the market for long enough. I actually found a record by the Firesign Theatre in the five dollar bin at my local record store while I was digging for a gag gift recently. I did not pick it up, but it left me wondering about what it was. Apparently, they were a group of avant-garde comedians and sound artists who made records that had a substantial countercultural impact in their day. This is a good introduction to Firesign because it focuses not on the members of the troupe themselves, but on the people who listened to and understood the records in various contexts. Too often arts journalists default to interviewing the artists. The artists are arguably the least important people involved in a work of art. I will listen to this show a lot, I think.
Trump Con Law catch-up — The episode about whether or not you can prosecute a president is maybe the archetypal example of this show: it opens up the possibility that a thing you want to happen could happen, then shuts it down and makes you realize that it might not actually be a good idea anyway. I’m getting into this now, even if it kind of makes me even more fearful.
On the Media: “The End Is the Beginning” — Come for the retrospective on early third-wave feminism, stay for the tribute to the late Joe Frank — a radio producer I didn’t know and now am in love with.
Uncivil: “Song” — Basically, “Dixie,” the song widely regarded as the anthem of the Confederacy, was written by a white Yankee. Except actually no, it wasn’t, because it was probably taught to him by a black man. It’s a complicated, compelling story and if you want it in detail, this episode is the place to be.
Longform: “Zoe Chace” — Chace is one of my favourite This American Life producers, but the story of how she got there is pretty familiar. You just get an internship to get your foot in the door and do everything you can to stay there forever. That’s the gist of this, though it’s a good conversation because she’s good at talking.
Theory of Everything: “Utopia (part ii)” & “False Flags” — The second utopia episode features an attempt at utopia that seems to be falling apart less than the attempts in the first episode. But that’s because nobody there regards it as a utopia. So that’s interesting. But it’s “False Flags” that really caught my attention. Benjamen Walker merges his argument about the increasing prevalence of conspiracy theories with an amusing fictional vignette about him getting yelled at in the airport. That’s what I come to this show for.
The Daily: “Special Episode: The Year in Sound” — This is largely Barbaro-less: a collage of mostly Trump-adjacent sound bites from a completely insane year. Remember Scaramucci? I had completely forgotten about that guy. What kind of a year lets you forget that Anthony Scaramucci was in the White House for, what was it, a week?
Showcase from Radiotopia: “Secrets,” episodes 1 & 2 — This new series from Radiotopia’s rotating exhibition space is not particularly experimental or innovative, but both of these episodes have told really compelling stories. The first is about an undercover cop, and the second is about a wildlife photographer who faked his photos. Start with either.
Home of the Brave: “Two More Stories About Mountains” — The first of these two guest stories is an interview with Scott Carrier, with added music. But it’s the second that knocked me flat. “The Ascent to K-2” is a story by Joe Frank, who was still alive when Carrier released this episode, but who died shortly after. I became aware of him thanks to On the Media, and heard my first full piece of his thanks to this. This is an intensely odd narrative about the strangest (totally made up) attempt to climb K-2 that has ever been undertaken. It is radio storytelling at its oddest and best. Pick of the week.
The Turnaround: “The Turnaround with Dick Cavett” — Ah, I forgot how much I enjoy hearing Jesse Thorn interview people about interviewing. Cavett is good fun, and he taught me a new word. I’m going to paraphrase my favourite part of this interview. Cavett says, I think the lack of a sense of humour is the ultimate lack. It is un-human and inhuman. Thorn says, I wonder if the president finds anything funny. I’ve never seen him laugh at something funny. Cavett says, oh no, he’s a born clodpate. CLODPATE! I love it. Great stuff.
99% Invisible: “Mini-Stories: Volume 4” & “Thermal Delight” — This might be my favourite batch of mini-stories yet, but “Thermal Delight” came and went from my brain. To be fair, I was in the heat of cooking at the time, and sometimes that happens. It’s nobody’s fault but mine.
Code Switch: “This Racism Is Killing Me Inside” — This is about weathering, which is one of the most unsettling effects of racism. If you want to know more, you should listen to this episode. This should be a show you listen to always.