Omnibus (week of April 1, 2018)

“Get it together, Parsons,” I said to myself. “Clean your damn apartment and get your 5K back under a non-embarrassing time.” That is why I listened to 34 podcast episodes this week. (That’s a conservative number — there are a few shows I don’t review, and I frankly can’t remember which of those I listened to this week.) Below, you’ll find them nicely compressed into a manageable 21 reviews, plus an additional three for the things I got through this week that aren’t podcasts.

Also, if you would like to hear me blindside Sheryl MacKay with a whack-a-doo theory that even I don’t completely subscribe to, you’ll find that at 1:21:58.

24 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Scott McCloud: Making Comics — I just turned in my final assignment in that comics class I’ve been taking, and I figured I may as well finish the course reading. Better late than never. We weren’t obliged to read Making Comics in its entirety, but I did because why the hell not. Scott McCloud is not only a good teacher and a perceptive analyst of the medium in which he works. He’s also one of the funnest media critics out there. In case you’re unfamiliar: this is a guy who makes works of serious, penetrating comics criticism — that are themselves comics. His ability to demonstrate concepts by example is unmatched, and his books of comics criticism are themselves among the most formally innovative comics I’ve encountered. Understanding Comics remains his masterpiece, because its focus is broad enough that it doesn’t really age. Making Comics contains some stuff about webcomics that feels ancient now. But when he sticks to the basics of the comics form, regardless of medium, McCloud is a fountain of practical advice here. If you’ve ever wondered what fundamentals you should keep in mind when working simultaneously with words and pictures, this is the book for you. Pick of the week.

Music

John Luther Adams/JACK Quartet: Everything That Rises — John Luther Adams either captivates me or leaves me cold. (No Alaska pun intended.) This did the latter. It is one of his more high-concept works, based on just intonation. It is also one of his more dissonant pieces, which isn’t something I look to him for. Don’t get me wrong, he can do what he wants: but I’ve always enjoyed the side of JLA that puts you in a trance, then takes you somewhere. This piece definitely takes you somewhere — up, in keeping with the title. But it foregoes the trance in favour of a calculating raised eyebrow. Not for me, I’m afraid.

Kyle Craft: Full Circle Nightmare — I loved Dolls of Highland. I had some concerns about its consistent portrayal of women as evil magic temptresses, but there was enough self-effacing humour throughout that I could give him the benefit of a doubt. It also helps that Kyle Craft’s music scratches a huge itch for me: huge sounding rock with bombastic vocals and a turn of phrase you can sink your teeth into. And that itch is almost equally scratched on this new record. But at this point I’m thinking he needs to find something new to sing about. This whole “women: can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em” thing is not sustainable. Still, when it’s good it’s good. I’m particularly fond of the new direction on the semi-psychedelic “Belmont (One Trick Pony).” This feels like one of those albums that may or may not be the second-last one by its artist that I ever hear. Stay tuned.

Podcasts

It’s Been A Minute: “Momofuku Chef David Chang’s ‘Ugly Delicious’ Food” & “Zach Braff and Alex Blumberg on ‘Alex, Inc.’” — I’m finding that I get a lot more out of this show’s Tuesday edition, where Sam Sanders talks with an interesting person, than I do out of its Friday wraps. Maybe it’s just that I don’t feel the need for any more “making sense of the news” in my life, because that is a thing that the entire media is trying to do now. But the Tuesday shows are really good, because Sanders is fun to listen to and seemingly fun to talk to as well. The David Chang interview is great fun, as they usually are. Sanders is good at talking about intersections of race and culture, and Chang is a thoughtful guy on that subject. The episode focussing on Alex, Inc. is really something — mostly because it’s great fun hearing Alex Blumberg pretend that he likes the milquetoast sitcom that ABC made out of his game-changing podcast. To Sanders’ credit, he manages to have an interesting conversation with Blumberg and Zach Braff that touches on both of their wheelhouses without the whole thing coming off the rails.  

Code Switch catch-up — Of the last four episodes, the two most recent are the most essential. “The Road to the Promised Land, 50 Years Later” is a bit jarring because it consists largely of news reports for actual NPR — like the radio. You don’t realize how different that tone is from NPR podcasts until you hear it on an NPR podcast. But the story of how Martin Luther King’s assassination reverberates half a century later is fascinating and well told here. For something a bit more podcast-native, the Amara La Negra interview is an energetic discussion of Afro-Latinx identity

Reply All: “A Pirate In Search of a Judge” — A lesser instalment of “Super Tech Support,” which nonetheless includes some amusing banter. Also: has anybody compiled the Breakmaster Cylinder bits into a supercut? Please somebody do that. I think there’s an argument to be made that whoever they are, they’re doing the most innovative audio storytelling in the podcast space — and they’re doing it in the last two minutes of somebody else’s show. (Unless, of course, P.J. Vogt is Breakmaster Cylinder, which I find quite plausible.)

In Our Time: “Augustine’s Confessions,” “Hildegard of Bingen” & Roman Slavery” — Melvyn Bragg is in his glory when he gets to talk about Christianity. The Augustine episode is accordingly excellent. The episode on Roman slavery is a good summation of a thing that you probably don’t think about very much. But it’s the repeat episode about Hildegard that’s the real standout in this run. Being a music person, I have always mostly thought of her as the composer of the most beautiful music from the Middle Ages. And I’ve always been passingly aware of her status as a great polymath, contributing to theology, literature, medical research and brewing techniques. (She penned the earliest surviving writings on the use of hops in beer. She didn’t like them. Fair enough.) But this episode focuses on her role in the church of her time: a woman who was respected not so much because she was a genius, though she clearly was, as because she claimed to receive visions from God. It’s tempting for us now to look at Hildegard as a woman who overcame the social stigmas of her time by being exceptional and working hard, but really even that wasn’t enough. She was allowed to give sermons not because she was a good sermonizer, but because the church saw her as a direct channel to God, so they made an exception. A sad thing. That’s a great episode. You should listen to it.

Fresh Air: “The Evolution of Artificial Intelligence” & “Madeleine Albright” — Two interviews about big important things, one of which features a big important person. Listen to the Madeleine Albright one. When she talks about the problems with Trump’s foreign policy, it’s probably worth considering what she has to say.

Radiolab: “Rippin’ the Rainbow an Even Newer One,” “Border Trilogy” parts 1 & 2 — The update to the mantis shrimp story is good for my sense of nostalgia about the old Radiolab, but the first two instalments of their series on the border are both challenging my general sense that this show’s best days are behind it. Every so often they pull out a classic, and so far this is one. Basically, it poses the question of how well-meaning policies can result in migrants dying in the desert, possibly by the thousands. It is the new Radiolab — the au current, political Radiolab — at its best.

The Gist: “Clinging to Guns Is Our Religion” — This is a gun control debate between a moderate liberal and a moderate conservative. It is as scintillating as that sounds.

Bullseye: “Andrew W.K. & Bill Hader” — Here are two people I’m not super interested in, having conversations I enormously enjoyed. Andrew W.K. in particular is a person who you just know will have a good chat with Jesse Thorn. And he did. Note that this is also the episode with Thorn’s review of It’s Too Late to Stop Now by Van Morrison, which led me to make one of the weirdest pieces of radio that I personally have ever made. (See top of page.)

Desert Island Discs: “David Byrne” — Wow, he’s in a good mood. Like, a suspiciously good mood. But as we all know, he’s got great taste in music and he’s an interesting guy. I really need to read his book. Good listening.

The Daily: “Wednesday, Apr. 4, 2018” & “Friday, Apr. 6, 2018” — Oddly, I find myself more inclined to listen to news shows when they are meta-stories about the media. These are two episodes of The Daily that examine TV news in different ways. One demonstrates how Fox News played a role in the revitalization of Trump’s anti-immigration policies, and the other examines how the takeover of local media by larger corporations leads to a lack of editorial freedom. Both are great, the latter is likely the one that will remain relevant by the time you read this. Damn, the world is cray.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Love, Simon” & “Roseanne and What’s Making Us Happy” — I will watch neither of these things, but I did enjoy the chats. Linda Holmes and Stephen Thompson had an interesting exchange about Roseanne. That is my review of this week’s Pop Culture Happy Hour episodes; I hope you have enjoyed it.

The World According to Sound: “Idea of North” — I intend to go back and hear this show’s full archives at some point, which shouldn’t be hard since the episodes are a minute and a half long. But for now I will follow their series on great radio they think I should hear. I have never heard Glenn Gould’s “The Idea of North,” which is a travesty because I work at CBC Radio and I am literally looking at a three-CD set of Gould’s radio work right now. It’s right there on my shelf. Maybe this is the week.

Song by Song: “Hang On St. Christopher” — I’m looking forward to hearing these two give their take on Frank’s Wild Years, because I know from previously that it isn’t either of their favourite. On the other hand, it has always been my favourite. I think it is a masterpiece that stands head and shoulders above its two immediate predecessors. It is simultaneously weirder and more polished than Rain Dogs, and it contains Waits’ most theatrical music. That’s the mode I like him best in. This episode gives a good summation of why it’s so theatrical and why it’s necessary nonetheless to consider it as an album rather than the soundtrack to a misbegotten live show.

Imaginary Worlds: “Visions of Philip K. Dick” — I actually didn’t know that Philip K. Dick spent his final years having either religious experiences or a form of paranoid psychosis. That is interesting. This is interesting. The audio of Dick talking in Paris during that time is captivating. Listen at least for that. It’s right at the start.

Constellations: “anna friz – air can break your heart” — Okay, time to get frank about this show. The thing that’s good about it is that it highlights audio makers who are working largely outside the confines of what’s considered “radio.” Much of what’s featured here falls more easily under the category of “sound art.” This is good. I want this sort of thing to find its way into my podcast feed, between all the NPR and roundtable chat shows. But the fact is that a lot of this material is fairly obscure and alienating, and in presenting it without comment at the start of the episode, and only offering a bare minimum of context from the artist afterwards (the audio equivalent of a brief “artist’s statement” on a website or brochure) doesn’t necessarily present it in its best light. As a listener, I want to hear work like this week’s piece — an abstract mix of ambient sound and muted speech — addressed in a way that’s slightly more playful. Because however much I enjoy it on its aesthetic merits, it still leaves me with questions like “what?” and “why?” And I’d like to hear those questions answered conversationally, with frankness and humour. I want to hear the hosts engage these artists on the level that their listeners are coming into this at: with respect and curiosity, but also occasional good-natured bewilderment. I want a proxy — somebody to step in and have a human conversation in this art world’s rarified air. The fact that this show doesn’t do this strikes me as a missed opportunity. TL;DR: Constellations is doing good work, but I wish it were less precious about the good work it’s doing.

99% Invisible: “Airships and the Future that Never Was” & “Making it Rain” — 99pi is 300 episodes old. (Well, 301, actually. But I’m only just getting to both of those episodes.) It seems appropriate to me that in spite of the show’s substantial growth in terms of both audience and staff, the 300th episode should be a return to the early days, when it was just Roman Mars making elegant, miniature stories about design. Even the subject matter, airships, is nostalgic. It’s a good episode. “Making it Rain” is good too, but less singular. While I have come to really enjoy all of the producers on this show, their presence has the effect of making 99pi sound more like public radio and less like the trailblazing independent podcast that it started off as. That’s how I’d summarize the trajectory of this show: as it’s gotten bigger, it has become less distinctive — even as its stories have become more ambitious. I’m not likely to stop listening anytime soon, not when this show pulls off stuff like the recent two-parter about the Bijlmer. But ultimately, I think Roman Mars’s greatest accomplishment hasn’t been 99pi itself, but leveraging its success into the formation of Radiotopia, which remains the most consistent, satisfying and surprising podcast collective out there. Quite a throne to maintain in these times. On that note, here are the rest of the Radiotopia shows I listened to this week. This next one is something I never would have heard if not for 99pi, which would be unconscionable.  

Theory of Everything: “This Is Not A Drill (False Alarm! part i)” — This new mini-season from Benjamen Walker is justly receiving heavy promotion across the Radiotopia stable of podcasts, and if you haven’t checked it out yet, you must. It begins with a straightforward account of what it was like to be in Hawaii during the cruise missile false alarm, then continues into a scrambled retelling of both “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Then it gets straight into the question at the heart of the series: how can Benjamen Walker continue making a show that’s neither fully fact nor fully fiction in the era of Fake News? I know people who have been vexed by this show’s blend of real and fake. I’ve never been one of them. I tend to think that the people who are the angriest about stuff like this, the Onion and so forth, are actually mostly angry at themselves for their own credulousness. For my part, I am delighted that podcasting’s most protean paranoiac is about to dive into the nature of reality itself in 2018. Hear this. Pick of the week.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti — Celebrating 99 Years” — This story about the great counterculture icon and champion of the Beat poets, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, seems like it’ll be a good warmup for the Kitchen Sisters’ “The Keepers” series about archivists. I’m really looking forward to that. This is nice, though I confess that Ferlinghetti’s own poetry doesn’t do much for me.

This is Love: “A Private Life” & “What Are We Going To Do” — This is Love is proving to be a lovely show, though rather cute. These have thus far been rather positive stories. Even when they flirt with heartbreak, each episode manages to spin the story into something uplifting. That’s fine, but I hope (he says, realizing what a sadist he sounds like) that this show finds its way to the darker side of its subject matter at some point as well.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Deadly Force” — This is a slighter but more direct exploration of a topic that Radiolab went in depth about a few months back. I think I prefer this version.

The Memory Palace: “Junk Room” — This feels like a throwback to the episodes Nate DiMeo made for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I really enjoyed in spite of not having been to any of those exhibits. This episode is about one of the weirdest collections of art in Washington D.C.: a room where the states all sent statues of two of their greatest figures. That’s subject matter that allows DiMeo to do what he’s great at: writing beautifully about figures who have been left out of popular history, and asking why Confederate leaders keep getting included instead.

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