James Rolfe: The Overcoat (Vancouver Opera Festival) — It’s a new piece, and a thing of beauty. The piece itself is based on Gogol’s story of the same name, about a lowly clerk who is the butt of everybody’s jokes until he buys a stunning new coat that makes him the talk of the town. Subsequently, the coat is stolen, causing the clerk to spiral into madness. It’s all very Russian. Morris Panych’s libretto evokes Robert Wilson’s numerical preoccupations in Einstein on the Beach, except with a story. Rolfe’s music slingshots between quoting Beethoven and Bach and channeling Gershwin. And while the sophistication of the score — particularly some really great trio writing for a chorus of narrators — belongs in the opera tradition, the feel of the music belongs just as much to the tradition of Stephen Sondheim. But the music accounts for only a percentage of what makes The Overcoat so much fun. The production started life as movement theatre, with Rolfe’s score added later. And that lineage is entirely clear in the beautiful, imaginative, and never overbearing staging. It’s amazing how much life you can inject into a production simply by putting everything on wheels. Some of the standouts in the cast don’t sing at all, but simply marshall the set pieces and props across the stage in dancelike fashion. Dunno where it’ll end up next, but it’s worth seeing if you can.
Atlanta: Season 1 — It’s about time I got around to this. Atlanta is one of those things that I absolutely love but cannot find anything to say about that hasn’t already been said. We are at the moment sitting in the wake of the “This is America” video and the season two finale, and Donald Glover is rightly the only thing anybody wants to talk about. So I’ll just do that thing where I list off bits that I love. I love the black Justin Bieber. I love the relationship between Earn and Van. I love every reaction shot involving Brian Tyree Henry. (Some actors have very specific skills. Brian Tyree Henry is particularly good at reacting to things.) I love every single second involving Darius, and particularly the bit where he takes a dog-shaped target to a gun range. I love the way the on-location approach of the show makes it look. I love the way the show zooms back and forth between realism and farce, e.g. the club with a false wall. I love the show’s understanding of social media as being fundamentally empty. I love the comedy of manners that ensues every time class becomes an issue on this show. And let me just go back and reiterate how much I love the relationship between Earn and Van. Much of what makes Earn tick isn’t quite clear, because this show eschews backstory to an almost unprecedented degree. (What the hell happened to Earn at Princeton???) But his relationship with Van makes perfect sense, right down to his refusal to stay the night with her at the end of the season, because he can’t bring himself to keep leeching off her. These two want to be together, but they both know Earn has to get his shit together before that can happen. Zazie Beetz is amazing, and her feature episode is one of the season’s highlights. The dinner scene at the top of that episode is maybe the best comedy of manners this show has conjured thus far. I love it. Pick of the week.
Rebecca Watts: “The Cult of the Noble Amateur” — First off, this polemic against the works of popular poets like Rupi Kaur and Hollie McNish is my first exposure to either of them. Part of me wonders if their work wouldn’t seem so stupid to me if I’d encountered it in a more positive context. But another part of me thinks, no, I’m an intelligent person who’s used to reading with a critical eye, so I should trust my instincts when they tell me that Watts is exactly right. There is nothing I hate more than mere simplicity masquerading as wisdom. And while these poets may not be up to any deliberate trickery — I’m entirely willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and believe that they are simply bad at writing poems — surely their publishers are aware that this is substandard work. Surely they’ve got dollar signs in their eyes. Watts compares Kaur, McNish and Kate Tempest (who I must admit I don’t mind, though I know her as a performing poet and not so much on the page) to Donald Trump, which will strike many as ludicrous. But the anti-intellectualism of their work is part of the same phenomenon that led to Trump’s rise: we live in a world that shuns complexity and nuance in favour of easily digestible narratives. Clearly these new poets’ narratives are not openly hateful and racist — seemingly the opposite. But the means of communication is troublingly similar. And neither phenomenon would exist if not for social media, with its constant appeals to our worst and dumbest instincts. I don’t agree with some of Watts’ premises. She quotes Ezra Pound’s aphorism that “literature is news which stays news,” an idea that eschews the value of timeliness in art — and I do think that is a value. I’ve never bought into the idea that a work of art is only good if it looks poised to stand the test of time. The only yardstick we have to measure that in the present is how much it resembles previous works of art that have managed to do that. And that’s useless, obviously, because things change. But this is a passing point in a larger argument about social media’s dumbing effect on culture, which I agree with. She moves from Pound’s quote directly onto one of the most powerful bits of her argument: “Of all the literary forms, we might have predicted that poetry had the best chance of escaping social media’s dumbing effect; its project, after all, has typically been to rid language of cliché. Yet in the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened. The reader is dead: long live consumer-driven content and the ‘instant gratification’ this affords.” Do read this. More than any calculated attempt to rid poetry of its supposed “elitism,” this essay has made me want to go read good poems.
The Flaming Lips: Clouds Taste Metallic — Another week, another acclaimed pair of Flaming Lips albums. We’ll begin with the later of the two, and more one album back in the discography after. Clouds Taste Metallic is a brilliant record in the way that Radiohead’s The Bends is a brilliant record. It works within a particular musical idiom, stretches the boundaries of that idiom in keeping with the specific aesthetic of the artist, but doesn’t actually venture outside of that idiom. That would happen for Radiohead on OK Computer and for the Flaming Lips on The Soft Bulletin (and presumably even more so on the intervening Zaireeka, which I haven’t heard). But here on Clouds, the Lips are totally in control of their increasingly bonkers brand of alt rock. Highlights for me include the opening pair: “The Abandoned Hospital Ship,” with its gorgeous piano line that transforms into a kickass guitar lead, and “Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus With Needles,” which sounds remarkably like a Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd bootleg. This is at least in part thanks to Ronald Jones, whose guitar playing is as inventive as Barrett’s but with actual technique to fall back on. If there’s a better comparison to be made, it’s with Adrian Belew. The other musical standout is Steven Drozd, one of the most elegant drummers ever to play really fucking loud. The other songs I can’t get enough of are “They Punctured My Yolk,” “Lightning Strikes the Postman,” “Christmas at the Zoo” and especially the finale, “Bad Days,” which sounds like something from the Stones’ Between the Buttons. Specifically “Something Happened to Me Yesterday.” Except this arrangement is better — the novelty song it begins as eventually finds its way into rock territory by way of a two-stage descent into heaviness: first Drozd’s drums come in, then come the heavy guitars. I love this. There are melodies here that quicken my pulse just to think about. It isn’t Soft Bulletin, but it’s a step in the right direction.
The Flaming Lips: Transmissions from the Satellite Heart — This seems like pretty standard alt rock compared with what came after — but only compared with what came after. Actually, Transmissions from the Satellite Heart is pretty consistently surprising in ways both subtle and blatant. On the subtler side, there are details like the quiet incursion of muted strings into the lo-fi country of “Plastic Jesus.” More obviously, there’s the consistent tendency for messy sludge rock to coagulate into euphoric Beatlesque melodies. “She Don’t Use Jelly” features the clearest Beatles influence — its vaguely suggestive nonsense lyrics, catchy chorus and offbeat riff would feel at home on Abbey Road. But my favourite is probably “Moth in the Incubator,” which doesn’t give away the plot right away, preferring to build up to a revelation. This will probably grow on me. My investigation into the Flaming Lips now constitutes two very different pairs of albums, separated by a weird anomaly. Next week: the weird anomaly.
On the Media: “Dark Twisted Fantasy” — Worth a listen specifically for the breakdown of the various ugly internet subcultures of the “manosphere.”
Caliphate: “The Arrival” & “Us vs. Them” — I like that they’re splitting up one interview over many episodes to give it the context it requires. I wonder if this will continue once the story from that interview ends, though? I’m learning a ton from this, but I wonder what its endgame is.
Lend Me Your Ears: “Julius Caesar” — There is a Shakespeare podcast called Lend Me Your Ears. That in itself is wonderful. But the approach is marvellous. Each episode of this mini-series will deal with a specific Shakespeare play and how it resonates with contemporary politics. Julius Caesar is maybe the most obvious one, simply because of the high-profile production that portrayed Caesar as an obvious Trump analogue. But more than that, the play has a lot to say about demagoguery. The one wrinkle I wish had been addressed is the fact that our modern demagogues tend not to succeed on the basis of eloquence the way that Shakespeare’s do. Shakespeare’s most eminent demagogue, Marc Antony, is intensely eloquent, and thus intensely seductive. Brutus is the plainspoken one — that’s where demagoguery registers, these days. We get the worst of both worlds: ineloquent and empty. So why does it work? I dunno, I’m busy reading Shakespeare and listening to podcasts. This is great. I can’t wait for the episode on Richard II. That’ll be an interesting contrast with Caesar, since it also features opposing figures with different approaches to language: Henry Bolingbroke, who is enormously effective in spite (or because) of his ploddingly prosaic speeches, and Richard II, who is too busy soliloquizing brilliantly to be a good king.
All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Beach House, Tank And The Bangas, Stevie Wolf, More” “At 70, Smithsonian Folkways Is An Antidote To Music Algorithms” & “New Mix: Childish Gambino, Mike Lindsay And Laura Marling As LUMP, More” — Couple good mixes, including a great track from the tiny desk contest winner, and a really fun retrospective on Smithsonian Folkways, which I need to explore further. Go back through the feed and check these all out.
Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — I cannot BELIEVE they liked A Quiet Place. They are WRONG. Ahem. I will watch Killing Eve and probably also Tully. Leslie Odom Jr. is a lovely man, but his book sounds corny.
The Daily: “The Breakdown of the Iran Nuclear Deal” — I am glad that The Daily is around to explain complicated things to me. It doesn’t take long for me to forget the whole context for things, so it’s good to have them conveniently reiterated.
Song by Song catch-up — I’m always a bit confused about why these guys choose not to like a song. “Blow Wind Blow” is clearly not a masterpiece on the level of “Innocent When You Dream,” but why complain? Just because it’s not a song you single out to listen to in isolation doesn’t mean it isn’t good in context. On the other hand, the episodes on “Innocent” and “Temptation” are reminding me exactly why I love Frank’s Wild Years so much, and particularly why I like it so much more than Rain Dogs: these songs have a sense of ostentatious theatricality that I love, and which I think is more prevalent in Waits’ post-Rain Dogs material.
The World According to Sound catch-up — This “Sound Audio” series is great. I’ve actually heard a couple of the pieces they’ve featured on here, including Tony Schwartz’s time-lapse recording of his niece growing up and the famous Hindenburg tape, which is actually impossible to listen to in public without having a small private breakdown. Still, I feel like this could serve as a crash course in the classic audio we’ve forgotten about in the podcast age. Also, there’s Sleep With Me, which is the weirdest shit ever.
In the Dark: Season 2, episodes 1-3 — I liked the first season of In the Dark once it got going with its larger implications, but I’m loving this one from the start. It’s the story of Curtis Flowers, who has been tried six times for the same crime in the town of Winona, Mississippi. There is so much going on here, and the writing is super sharp. The tape’s incredible too. Sometimes when investigative podcasts get into the weeds, I start to wonder whether they shouldn’t be shorter. But in this one, every blind alley they take leads them to another compelling individual with ties to the Flowers case: the witnesses who professed to have seen Flowers along the route the prosecution outlined at trial, the guy who owned the gun that’s ostensibly the murder weapon, the father of one of the victims, and even the expert ballistics sceptic who casts doubt on the study of the bullets. These are all really compelling people. And speaking of ballistics, the dude who did the initial ballistics report makes me so angry. He tries to shrug off scepticism about his work by saying crap like “it’s always been called an art.” No it hasn’t! It’s been called “forensic science!” And also, “a fact in somebody’s head might not be a fact in somebody else’s head.” Get outta here! That’s not how facts work! So many people in this story are so certain about things they clearly shouldn’t be certain about. That’s what’s making me mad about this: it’s not 100% clear that they got the wrong guy. By no means. But the cavalier attitude with which some people dismiss any doubt at all is completely enraging. Pick of the week.
Reply All: “No More Safe Harbour” & “INVCEL” — Two episodes of P.J. Vogt doing serious journalism. I like when that happens. He’s always a great sounding board for Alex Goldman, but it’s nice to hear him take the lead on stories like this. The episode about the surprisingly benign origins of the incel community is particularly worth hearing.
Fresh Air: “The Pope Who Would Be King” — When Terry Gross interviews a scholar who has written a book, it kind of listens like In Our Time, except that In Our Time doesn’t wait for somebody to have written a book. This is why I love In Our Time: it just does what’s interesting, contemporary hooks be damned. Anyway, that’s not relevant to what this episode actually is, which is a fascinating conversation about Pope Pius IX, a figure about whom I knew very little, but who factors into Italian reunification in some really interesting ways. I do wish Gross had touched more on the specific theological justifications for some of Pius’s more draconian proclamations, like the notion that free speech and Catholicism are mutually exclusive. But it’s a good listen.
Retronauts: “Tetris” — This is a weird show. They take so much of gaming history and experience as read, but they feel it necessary to explain things like the Beatles and the Cold War. Also, of course they’re Rush fans. Of COURSE. Anyway, Tetris has a fascinating history that is explored at length here, though I’m not convinced that roundtable discussion is the best way to approach historical storytelling. There you go.