Category Archives: Classical Music

25 things I loved in 2017

Each year, I compile my own personal, inevitably idiosyncratic list of my favourite things from that year. This year, congratulations are owed to me for actually getting it out in the actual calendar year I’m writing about. So what if I haven’t seen all the movies I meant to see and barely read any of this year’s acclaimed books? In the end, a year is what it is. This is the best art and entertainment I personally experienced in my version of 2017.

The list is ranked. That means I’m comparing the relative virtues of music and stand-up comedy, movies and podcasts, novels and video games. It’s not so much that it’s like comparing apples to oranges; it’s more that it’s like comparing apples to oranges to avocados to pork tenderloins to fine china to used hatchbacks to racoons to sand. Therein lies the fun.

Let’s skip the tired remarks on what a trying year it’s been and get straight to the honourable mentions, shall we?

In podcasting: my perennial favourites Reply All and Theory of Everything stayed the course and made some of the year’s best individual podcast episodes. Two shows whose first seasons I liked but didn’t love, More Perfect and Homecoming, returned with far stronger second seasons that made me certain I’ll be back for the third. Jesse Thorn’s limited series of interviews with interviewers, The Turnaround, entertained me far more than a show with that premise ought to. The Museum of Modern Art and WNYC had the extremely good idea to cut Abbi Jacobson loose in the MoMA with a microphone in A Piece of Work. And The Daily arrived to show us how to cover the news on a podcast. It is frankly the most significant innovation in the form since the first season of Serial, and it would surely be in the upper echelons of this list if I’d actually had the wherewithal to listen to it more than a handful of times. The news is stressful.

In games: my most neglected medium of 2017, Detention scared the bejesus out of me while also illustrating what it’s like to live under the yoke of totalitarianism. And the sixth and final chapter of The Dream Machine brought that story to a deeply ambiguous conclusion, but not before sending the player through a wild, rhapsodical odyssey through the deepest realms of the collective human unconscious.

In comedy: Mike Birbiglia, Patton Oswalt, and Marc Maron all delivered intermittently brilliant specials that proved (by both positive and negative example) that the way forward for stand-up comedy in a bewildering political age is to get personal.

In film: two drastically different Marvel movies proved that solid storytelling can transcend the doldrums of the increasingly exhausting superhero genre: Spider-Man: Homecoming and Logan

In television: two of Netflix’s most acclaimed juggernauts lived up to high expectations: BoJack Horseman and Stranger Things. And Game of Thrones, freed from the expectation to conform to George R.R. Martin’s plotting and pace, delivered far and away its strongest season yet.

In comics: The Wicked and the Divine remains the coolest, smartest thing in the world. And Bitch Planet’s long-awaited second trade collection amped up the action and intrigue while remaining awesomely blatant about feminism.

In books: I deeply regret the non-inclusion of Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage on this list. It is a worthy expansion of a fictional world that was very dear to me as a child. If I were more than halfway through it by my self-imposed drop deadline, it would surely be here.

In music: “classical” and “experimental” won the day for me this year. Highlights included Brian Eno’s Reflection, William Basinski’s A Shadow in Time, Marc-Andre Hamelin’s recording of For Bunita Marcus by Morton Feldman, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s brilliantly straightforward recordings of the complete Mendelssohn symphonies. In popular music, two things that don’t quite count as “music from 2017” bear mentioning: Neil Young’s long-unreleased 1976 recording Hitchhiker and Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell Live: a concert film that I nearly awarded a very high spot on the list before deciding it wasn’t really eligible.

Finally, in stuff that doesn’t fall under any of the above categories, Bill Wurtz’s history of the entire world i guess is one of those things that occasionally manages to make me not hate the internet.

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And now the list. An observation: there are only three honourees here who have been on one of my previous lists. This wasn’t by design. I suppose I was just in the mood for new things this year. Onwards.

No. 25: Blade Runner 2049

We didn’t need a new Blade Runner. And the one we got has its problems. But like its predecessor, one of my ten or twelve all-time favourite movies, Denis Villeneuve’s sequel operates at the very highest level of cinematic spectacle. The way Roger Deakins’ camera hangs and drifts across the film’s incredible sets makes the world feel grandiose in a way that many other CGI extravaganzas fail at. The shockingly aggressive, kickass score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch helps. They respect the legacy of Vangelis’s marvellous, rhapsodical score for the original movie, but aren’t afraid to get a hell of a lot louder.

Although Blade Runner 2049 is not as good a film as Blade Runner, it is one of the best examples of respecting the source without replicating it in this era of endless rehashes. It would have been simple to remake the original film beat for beat, like in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which I like). But Blade Runner is a different kind of film from Star Wars and calls for a different kind of sequel. Blade Runner is slow, thinky, painterly, and not culturally ubiquitous. In keeping with that, Blade Runner 2049 is a slow, thinky, painterly film that relies as much on its director’s unique vision as on the canon it inherits from the nostalgia object that begat it. If there is anybody who can make Dune into a movie that’s actually good, it’s probably Villeneuve. I’m on tenterhooks.

No. 24: Code Switch

codeswitch_itunes2_sq-cc90dbc5dcdff7b93734f2a1a29864cb77742948-s300-c85Code Switch became NPR’s best podcast awfully fast. 2017 found the Code Switch team reflecting at length on the legacy of Barack Obama, exploring racial identity in the Puerto Rican diaspora, and exploring the increasingly pressing questions surrounding hate, police violence, and deportation in year one of the Trump era. They’ve also put out some of the best pop culture journalism of the year.

But the show’s crown jewel is the four-part series “Raising Kings,” based on a full year of reporting on a new school where a faculty made up mostly of black men teaches a student body made up mostly of black young men. It’s a sensitive, insightful, and frequently challenging piece of documentary radio that everybody should hear. Code Switch is a show you shouldn’t ever skip an episode of. It’ll help you get through life in a more practical way than just about any other show.

No. 23: Barbara Hannigan & Ludwig Orchestra: Crazy Girl Crazy

There are several levels of “why bother being this good” at play here. Barbara Hannigan could easily have settled for being merely one of the great sopranos of our time. But no: she has to also be a trailblazer for contemporary music, daring to learn the heretofore unlearned scores of composers who write vocal challenges few but her could rise to. (This is the version of Hannigan that brought us last year’s best classical recording: let me tell you by Hans Abrahamsen.) But even that isn’t enough for her. She’s also got to be a brilliant conductor. And since she can both conduct and sing, she clearly has to do them both at the same time. In music that’s crazy hard to begin with.

Crazy Girl Crazy is Hannigan’s first disc as a conductor, and indeed her first disc as a conductor/singer. It contains a selection of music from the 20th century that all feels like it’s at the core of Hannigan. At the centre of it all is a lush, romantic reading of Alban Berg’s beautiful Lulu Suite. Hannigan has been the soprano of choice for the role of Lulu for years now. Hearing her take on the orchestral music from that opera just confirms that she owns that piece as thoroughly as any musician owns any piece of music. The Ludwig Orchestra, a young ensemble that makes its recording debut here, plays skillfully, and with all of the intensity of an orchestra that’s not sick of making music yet. And Hannigan proves again that she’s one of the most multifaceted artists working in classical music today.

No. 22: Chris Gethard: Career Suicide

I got a lot out of Chris Gethard’s various projects this year. Whether he’s being exceptionally silly on The Chris Gethard Show, turning listening into a high art on Beautiful Conversations with Anonymous People, or telling the story of his own struggle with suicidal depression in this comedy special/one-man show, Gethard’s objective is simple: he just wants you to feel a bit better.

He’s a useful fellow to have around, even if your low points are a heck of a lot less dire than his. Gethard’s comedy and storytelling is something close to a public service. He’s working to normalize talking about mental illness, and he’s working against the stigmas surrounding medication for mental illnesses. But he’s also super funny, and this 90-minute HBO special is the best distillation of everything he’s been working towards. Where other comedians tend to address their own traumas with a facade of glibness or with the aid of characters, Gethard is not afraid to simply put punchlines aside for lengthy stretches and tell a story. And it’s a really good story with amazing characters including Morrissey and a therapist called Barb who thinks that the human brain was manufactured by aliens. 

No. 21: Mogul

I feel like I’ve been waiting for this podcast. I didn’t know it would come from Gimlet and I didn’t know it would be about the life and death of a hip hop businessperson. But I knew that at some point, somebody would make a rich sounding, story-driven music documentary that would prove there’s a hunger for music-focussed radio that doesn’t play full tracks. Mogul is the future.

It is also a second breakthrough for Reggie Ossé, AKA Combat Jack of The Combat Jack Show. Ossé’s approach to hosting this show isn’t quite like anything I’ve heard before. He comes to the story of Chris Lighty with a nearly complete knowledge of the musical culture that he sprang from and helped to shape. But that knowledge is secondary to the warmth and sensitivity with which he handles the story. Mogul is, among other things, a story about mental illness and domestic violence in the hip hop culture. It’s clear that, apart from the music, this is what compelled Ossé to tell the story in the first place. There is a second season forthcoming, and with the allegations against Russell Simmons that have come to light since season one wrapped, there are still plenty of thorny questions for Ossé and company to address. (Edit: I was unaware when I wrote this that Reggie Ossé passed away recently. It’s a terrible loss for podcasting. Mogul will stand as the high-water mark for music-related audio storytelling for a while to come.) 

No. 20: Tacoma

The Fullbright Company’s second game stands in a very long shadow for me. Their debut, Gone Home, was the game that re-introduced me to games after a decade’s absence. It demonstrated to me that the medium had grown and changed. Now, there were games specifically for those of us who appreciate the exploratory and narrative elements of games, but would rather not have to demonstrate sophisticated hand-eye coordination or work through complicated puzzles to get to the next bit of story.

When footage from Tacoma surfaced, two things were clear. First, this would be a more directly interactive experience than Gone Home, with more to actually do. Secondly, it was going to take place in that most “video games” of video game settings: a space station. Both of these concerned me. You may well conclude from my concerns that I essentially don’t like video games. And you may be right. But I liked Gone Home, and I held up hope for Tacoma. My hope was not misplaced. Tacoma’s approach to story is a cut above Gone Home, thanks to an innovative system of interactive cutscenes you can actually move around in. I still prefer the ambience of Gone Home’s creepy, empty mansion to the cramped quarters of the Tacoma space station. But my faith in the storytelling of the team at Fullbright is even stronger now.

No. 19: Lady Bird

I always love a movie with a good sense of place. Often, that place is New York City. Hollywood has provided a huge variety of takes on what it’s like to live in New York, from West Side Story to Rosemary’s Baby. It’s a setting that has been so well developed in movies that a) it no longer lives up to itself, and b) it’s almost shocking to see another American city painted with the same detail on the screen. With the release of Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s Sacramento joins Vince Gilligan’s Albuquerque and the Coens’ Fargo/Brainerd among the great cinematic depictions of Places People Don’t Ever Think About.

There are plenty of reasons why Lady Bird is one of the year’s best movies, including two of the year’s best performances by Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, and a screenplay that handles even the smallest characters with finesse and warmth. It’s a lovely depiction of a relationship between a mother and a daughter. It’s admirably aware of the realities of class in America and the ways it plays into raising a family. But my favourite reason to love Lady Bird is that it paints a portrait of an unloved place, lovingly.

No. 18: Kendrick Lamar: DAMN.

I slept on To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015. I missed the whole conversation. It’s not a mistake I ever intend to repeat.

I suspect that in the future, we’ll still think of Butterfly as Lamar’s breakthrough moment — his Are You Experienced. (Lamar once said he’d like to be talked about like Dylan, Hendrix and the Beatles. Happy to oblige.) But DAMN. feels like the sort of record you make when you’re out to prove you’re not interested in replicating past successes and following formulas — Lamar’s Band of Gypsies, maybe. It’s the kind of album that, if you pull it off, makes you not just accomplished but vital: an artist who is brilliant regardless of the idiom in which they choose to work. Kendrick Lamar is vital.

No. 17: The Beguiled

This coiled snake is the year’s most underrated movie. The subject of The Beguiled is propriety — particularly Southern propriety — and how it’s just one tool in the patriarchy’s huge, indulgent workshop. But like all good storytellers, Sofia Coppola doesn’t start from the theme and build outward. In fact, it starts from a source that has different themes entirely: the 1971 Clint Eastwood vehicle of the same name. (Or, perhaps more accurately, the novel that it’s based on. But it was the original film’s liabilities that prompted Coppola to remake it.)

The premise of both films is the same: a seminary school full of women loyal to the south is shaken by the arrival of a rather dashing but grievously injured Union soldier at their doorstep. Coppola’s masterstrokes are all in the telling of the story, rather than the story itself. Her film is as mannered and meticulously composed as the Southern ladies who inhabit it. And as the story’s potential for violence rises steadily, the tension comes from the discrepancy between the increasingly ugly atmosphere at the seminary and the film’s continuing insistence on pretty-as-a-picture decorum in its visual style. I haven’t seen filmmaking simultaneously so beautiful and savage since Hannibal got cancelled.

No. 16: Everything

I have a friend who likes to joke that my problem with video games is that I want them to be books. Fair enough. But that’s only half the story. What I really want is for a video game to be either a book or a theme park. In either case, I should ideally not have to shoot or jump over anything. The point is, I don’t need games to expect skill from me. I don’t need them to be things I can win or lose. I just want them to be experiences. For me, a great game is like Disneyland (but without the creepy half-reality that keeps you from fully suspending your disbelief). It’s a constructed reality for you to explore at your leisure. You can’t win or lose Disneyland. And yet it is still (ostensibly) fun. This is what I want from a game.

Enter Everything, my favourite game of 2017. Everything has no goals or trials to overcome. It has no traditional story. It is simply an interactive exploration of a single idea: that everything is connected. This runs the risk of getting cod-philosophical, and indeed it includes narration by the proto-hippie philosopher Alan Watts that can be hard to take seriously. But developer David OReilly undercuts his game’s potential for ham-fistedness by making everything else about it absolutely raving crazy. This is a game that offers the opportunity to be everything in it: to move around as anything from a bighorn sheep to a tiny elementary particle to a sentient hovering tea kettle the size of the sun. Everything is a fully-realized pocket universe full of planet-sized cows and trombones that travel in herds. I have never seen anything like it.

No. 15: Dunkirk

Seeing Christopher Nolan’s latest, best film in an IMAX screening sits very near the top of my list of great moviegoing experiences. Take note that this list is distinct from my list of favourite movies, and even from my list of favourite movies I’ve seen in theatres. A movie need not be a masterpiece to be an incredible experience in a theatre. Dunkirk is a truly great film, but my opinion of it is entirely contingent on the experience of seeing it in film projection, on an IMAX screen.

The beauty of IMAX is that it nearly fills your field of vision, encouraging you to forget everything that lies beyond the edges of the screen. So, when Nolan puts his camera in the galley of a ship, and it gets hit by a torpedo and fills instantly with water, you feel like you’re going to die. That, in a nutshell, is why Dunkirk is a great film: Nolan understands that cinema is an experience as much as a narrative art form, and he uses his mastery of the craft to put the audience inside of one of the most traumatic and unprecedented chapters in the history of warfare. And at the end, maybe we understand it a bit better.

14: Twin Peaks: The Return

While I was watching Twin Peaks: The Return on a week-by-week basis, I was uncertain whether I felt it was rising to the level of Twin Peaks’ original two seasons. Now that I’m not watching it week by week, I am quite certain that it altogether surpassed them. The Return was frustrating for its relative lack of familiar characters and story beats — particularly the almost complete lack of participation by the original protagonist, agent Dale Cooper, in any recognizable form. But now that the thing is complete, we can see that this series wasn’t supposed to be about Coop, and in fact that it wasn’t supposed to be about very many of the same things the original series was at all. If you can accept that and watch the show on its own terms, it reveals itself to be maybe the strangest and most ambitious season of television ever transmitted.

The eighth episode is a case in point. Much of its duration consists of abstract, non-figurative images in the vein of Stan Brakhage. Nonetheless, it does tell a recognizable story — an origin story, in fact. An origin story for the totemic evil that has haunted this show’s characters since its first episode. This could have turned out like Hannibal Rising: an unnecessary and disappointing wad of backstory that cheapens the previous instalments in the narrative. But by telling the story through lyrical, abstract, largely wordless filmmaking, David Lynch short circuits our rational brains and manages instead to convey a feeling of profound wrongness, and to convey it at length. This is how the whole of Twin Peaks: The Return worked, to a certain extent: by bypassing rationality entirely and speaking to something more primal in us. This is not something you’re supposed to be able to do on television. But it happened. There are seasons of television in higher slots on this list. But I doubt I’ll rewatch any of them. I will rewatch this.

No. 13: Offa Rex: The Queen of Hearts

I fell down a Decemberists hole in April. That’s when I bought my ticket for their show at the Orpheum in August. I have never been so excited for a show. But by the time the concert actually rolled around, I was more psyched for the opening act. Olivia Chaney is one of my favourite discoveries of the year. Her solo record The Longest River has now soundtracked many a walk home in the Vancouver rain. And I owe that discovery to this record, a collaboration between Chaney and the Decemberists that rises to the standard of Chaney’s solo work and far surpasses the most recent music by the Decemberists.

The Queen of Hearts is a revival of a revival. It consists of English folk songs arranged in the style of electrified British revivalists like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. This is a legacy that both halves of the collaboration have dealt with before. Chaney draws the folk component of her repertoire from the same pool as these bands, and the Decemberists’ trilogy of masterpieces — Picaresque, The Crane Wife, and The Hazards of Love — all crib liberally from the sound of the British folk revival. Together, they prove not only that the songs still have power, but that the style does. And Chaney’s solo rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” will melt you.

No. 12: mother!

About three seconds after the house lights came up at the end of mother!, the friend I saw it with burst out into hysterical laughter and couldn’t stop for several minutes. That is the most appropriate review I can imagine for this aggressively fucked up, semi-trolling movie by Darren Aronofsky: one of modern Hollywood’s strangest auteurs. The only reaction to mother! that I may treasure more is from the New York Times commenter who wrote: “It’s been a long time since I overheard Ma and Pa Kettle talking about a film on the way out of the theater. Art above all else should be misunderstood loudly.”

From the moment that the exclamation point appears in the title card, mother! is arch and theatrical. Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem give completely committed and sincere performances, but nothing else in the movie is sincere in the slightest. There are those who feel mother! can only be dealt with as a Biblical allegory — and they’ve certainly got Aronofsky’s distressingly specific remarks in interviews to back them up. He seems to be doing everything he can to reduce his creation, which offers a whole world of abstract possibility, into one tidy interpretation. But Aronofsky’s movie is too big to be held to a fixed meaning. I’m increasingly convinced that Aronofsky’s insistence on explaining away the movie’s contradictions is part of the performance: he’s casting himself as an extension of Bardem’s theological poet character, demanding dogmatic devotion to a specific meaning of his holy text. Perhaps only a critic as myopic as myself could possibly see this movie as a critique of the slipperiness of interpretation. But I do see it that way. Anyway, the real truth is just that I enjoyed the hell out of this movie, and I want it to be more than a banal Biblical allegory. Mother! is completely bonkers crazy and you’ll probably feel a little cracked at the end. Good enough for me.

No. 11: George Saunders: Lincoln in the Bardo (audiobook)

Lincoln in the Bardo isn’t even really about Lincoln. It’s about the processes of death and grieving that affect us all, presidents or not. Abraham Lincoln and his son Willie, who died at the age of 11, are in this story only to give it the profound specificity that all very moving stories require. They set the story in a time and a place, and give it the context of a particular personal tragedy with which we are all familiar. But the emotional heft of Lincoln in the Bardo actually stems from characters that George Saunders made up out of whole cloth: a kind old fool who died moments before consummating his marriage, and an effusive young man who regrets his suicide. These two reside in an uneasy state of quasi-friendship in a not-quite-afterlife like no other fantasy realm in fiction. Every line they speak is enthralling.

And speaking of speaking, Lincoln in the Bardo also represents the moment when the audiobook really came into its own. The cover art brags of 166 narrators, but the ones you really need to know about are Nick Offerman and David Sedaris, who play the two central characters. They are brilliant, and even Sedaris, who is not an actor, inhabits the text like a good coat. Offerman audibly delights in his character’s tendency to coin phrases that allow himself to remain in denial of his own passing: phrases like “sick box” in lieu of coffin, or “sick form” in lieu of corpse. And both are heartbreaking in their final scene together. I can’t say whether the audiobook is the definitive format, having not read the printed book. But try it. The performances measure up to the material.

No. 10: Margo Price: All American Made

Sometimes you have a year when you just feel like you’ve accomplished nothing. Like you’ve gone backwards. Everybody has those years. It can’t be helped. And if 2017 was a year like that for you, I’d like to suggest you listen to some country music. Margo Price’s second album cements her as the queen of modern Nashville. Lots of it is rollicking fun country music with a band that sounds like it comes straight from a Jerry Lee Lewis record. (Indeed, it was recorded at the Sam C. Phillips Recording Studio, where many a country and early rock and roll icon cut acetates.) “A Little Pain” is probably the pump-up jam you need. But it’s the ballads that keep me coming back, and particularly “Learning to Lose,” Price’s duet with the great Willie Nelson. “I’m so far away from where I started,” Price sings in the opening verse, “but no closer to where I belong.” Oof.

It’s important to have songs like “Learning to Lose” in your life. Songs about the moments when life disappoints us, and humanity disappoints us and we disappoint ourselves. Because songs like this reassure us that disappointment, loss, rejection, loneliness, failure, acrimony, and strife are normal facets of the human experience that everybody goes through. And we now live in a world where everybody has their whole life on display on Facebook and Instagram, except that all of that stuff gets airbrushed out. So where do you turn for a quick hit of catharsis when it seems like everybody else is busy following their bliss? Turn to country music. Turn to Margo Price. And hope that next year, we’ll learn to win.

No. 9: Baby Driver

I have a friend who tells a story about how Brian Eno saved his life. “I suffer from tinnitus,” he wrote. “These days I’m mostly able to ignore it, but when I first noticed it, it was terrifying. I couldn’t sleep through the night without having this track (“Music for Airports 1/1”) on repeat in the background, just loud enough to distract me from the buzzing in my own head, just quiet enough to allow me to sleep.” He went on to coin a phrase I like: “societal tinnitus”: the terrifying sensation that the world is inescapably noisy. Music for Airports can drown out this kind of tinnitus, too. So can essentially any other sound recording. Music can offer a near-complete respite from the obligation to be present in the world. When you put in earbuds, you are doing two things in equal measure: connecting yourself to an imaginary reality that exists in a recording, and disconnecting yourself from the auditory portion of the empirical reality around you. It’s wrong to view the latter phenomenon as a byproduct of the former. Your inability to connect with the world around you when you’re wearing earbuds is a feature, not a bug. The world is so loud. To escape, simply superimpose a louder one. Disengage.

Baby Driver is a movie about a person suffering from tinnituses both literal and symbolic. (Well really, Baby’s literal tinnitus is a symbol in itself, for his emotional trauma.) It is a movie about music’s ability to subsume the empirical reality around you and replace it with a different reality that you can cope with, until you’re ready to cope with the real one. The movie’s relationship with music is different from that of lesser films like Garden State or even High Fidelity, both of which are about how a person’s relationship with specific genres, songs and artists help to inform that person’s identity. Baby Driver isn’t about any music in particular. It is about the act of listening itself. For Baby, music is neither indulgence nor signifier, but a basic necessity to drown out the constant ringing in his ears, to function in his job, to empathize with the girl he loves, and to drown out the noise of a dysfunctional household. (So this is what the volume knob’s for…) Baby Driver is not a music nerd movie. It is not a movie about listening to music. It’s a movie about not having to listen to the rest of the world, which is loud and confusing and stressful. It also has the best chase scenes ever. It is large. It contains multitudes.

No. 8: Better Call Saul

This scene, which you should not watch if you’re not caught up on the show, is everything I love about Better Call Saul in a nutshell. This show’s most dramatic moments take place in ordinary rooms and draw their strength from well-established relationships. When we think back to its esteemed predecessor Breaking Bad, it’s easy to recall it as a show full of train robberies and shootouts. But think of how many earthshaking moments in that show were actually really quiet. Hank finding Leaves of Grass. Walt lying to his doctor about his fugue state by telling the truth. Even “I am the one who knocks” is a quiet moment in the most literal sense. Better Call Saul is any one of those moments stretched out into a whole show. It’s a show where nearly every episode has a scene that feels like a set piece, but those set pieces seldom involve action. Jimmy’s trick with the phone battery in the scene above is a case in point. It’s not easy to write stories about con men, because you’ve got to be able to come up with cons. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have proven themselves equal to the task.

The third season of Better Call Saul is its best by miles. By reintroducing yet another beloved character from Breaking Bad, Gus Fring, the writers risked treading needlessly far into that show’s shadow. Instead, they doubled down on the relationships that have always been at the core of this show. The constant risk to Jimmy’s romantic-ish relationship with the intensely sympathetic workaholic Kim Wexler is one of the season’s key tension generators. And his relationship with his cruel, doctrinaire brother Chuck finally deteriorates past the point of no return. Better Call Saul is the best character drama on television. Every year, I seem to forget how much I love it until the new season starts. Not this time.

No. 7: Jon Bois: 17776

The greatest literary masterpiece I read this year was published on the sports news website SB Nation and it’s about three sentient space probes in the massively distant future watching humans play increasingly Dadaist games of football because they stopped dying and aging in the 21st century. I slightly regret that I have now spoiled the surprise of the story’s very opening. But if there were no more to 17776 than its bonkers premise, it would hardly be a literary masterpiece, would it? Come for the gonzo, unclassifiable, mixed media craziness. Stay for the beautiful prose about humanity’s place in the universe and the dialogue that elevates the game of football to a form of sublime performance art.

I can immediately think of at least four moments in 17776 when I got choked up — this in spite of the fact that it is a silly story rendered in Web 1.0 style, and that I have no grasp of how football works. It moves me because it forces me to consider, as Jon Bois has evidently considered at length, the actual importance of my particular passions. The humans of 17776 have unlimited time to spend on football and presumably other sports and pastimes. I do not. And yet I write a blog where I regularly review more than 20 things I watched, read and listened to during the course of a single week. No wonder 17776’s take on human ambition and the purpose of play resonated with me. I think a lot about something Bois wrote in a sort of afterword to the piece: “I think 17776 might get one thing right about the future: we’re never gonna leave the solar system… Too much distance, too much radiation, and too little incentive. If that ends up being the case, we’ll have nothing to do but solve our problems on Earth. I’m being really optimistic when I guess that we might someday. After we do that, we’re gonna want our games, our art, and each other. One day, we might see those as the only reasons we’re here.” Is it wrong that I feel a little better because of that statement?

No. 6: American Gods

Bryan Fuller’s last show, Hannibal, was one of the greatest screen adaptations of a familiar property ever made. American Gods is maybe better. The Neil Gaiman novel from which it is adapted is a grand old romp through various mythologies, with deeply affecting narratives of the American immigrant experience woven throughout. But that novel was written before 9/11, let alone before Trump. Let alone before Facebook. The show is a substantially different thing for a bogglingly different America.

American Gods rethinks Gaiman’s take on Anansi, the kindly African spider god of storytelling, as a ruthless pragmatist who finds his way to America on the remains of a slave ship he entreated the captives to burn. It suggests that our protagonist’s wife may be the reincarnation of an Irish immigrant who brought the leprechaun Mad Sweeney to the new world, where he wastes away from lack of belief. (“A Prayer for Mad Sweeney” is my favourite episode of the year, save possibly for Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return.) And it gives us a terrifying contingent of “new gods.” Media, a shapeshifting Gillian Anderson, distorts and distracts in equal measure. The Technical Boy is no longer a truculent fat kid surrounded by wires as he was in the novel, but a sleek, hollow Instagram star of a villain. Television’s American Gods enacts a battle for the life of an America with a more immediately threatening kind of cancer than the slow-acting one Gaiman detected in the late 90s. It is the best show I watched this year.

No. 5: Maria Bamford: Old Baby

Maria Bamford is my favourite comedian. She’s a better writer than anybody else doing comedy right now. See: her husband’s column in her “emotional sudoku” bit: “Your great-grandfather was a violent alcoholic in the army who beat his son, who was a violent alcoholic in the army who beat his son, who was a violent alcoholic in the marines who beat you. You’re not in the armed services at all. You don’t drink. But you have PTSD so bad that you think you can clench your buttocks and fly the plane.” All written out like that it almost seems like something Joseph Heller would write.

She’s also a better performer than anybody else doing comedy right now. She can flip from character to character as cleanly as Robin Williams. (“Hello! Is the beef fresh? … This is so powerful if you act it out… Is the beef fresh?”) Her material still lives in dark places: her experience and her family’s experiences with mental illness are at the centre of everything. But she is such a skillful comic that laughing never feels uncomfortable. Bamford has the rare gift of being able to make you realize that the same event can be both intensely traumatic and hysterically funny — that there’s no contradiction there. “Anybody been in a psych ward?” Bamford once said in another context. “It’s really funny in retrospect.” That’s a perfect joke. The humour comes from both the darkness and the construction. That’s why Maria Bamford is so funny: she insists on applying an extremely rigorous sort of structure to completely chaotic subject matter. Bamford proves that comedy about mental illness doesn’t need to be a sort of public therapy. I have not laughed harder at anything in recent memory.

No. 4: The Heart

The Heart is over. At least, for now. I’m as choked about this, if not more, than I was when Gimlet cancelled Mystery Show. This show has been in a league of its own since it rebranded from the earlier Audio Smut and joined up with the Radiotopia network. No other podcast discusses sexuality with the same combination of frankness, diversity, and beauty. This last quality is especially crucial. It’s possible to talk about The Heart as if it is merely noble: a sex-positive, intersectional feminist institution that Gets Important Conversations Started. But that is a drastically inadequate characterization of this show. It is also consistently the most beautiful sounding, atmospheric and subtle show in the podcast space. More than Radiolab. More than Love and Radio. The Heart is a show about the most intimate relationships between humans. In keeping with this, it uses its sound art aesthetic to forge an intimacy with the listener that is stronger than anything else I’ve ever heard.

2017 found The Heart offering two mini-seasons and a smattering of one-off episodes. It’s the second of the two mini-seasons, “No,” that makes this The Heart’s strongest year. It is a complicated, fair, and fearless sexual memoir by Kaitlin Prest, the show’s host. She interrogates her own past, from childhood through to the present day, and charts her own sexual boundaries over that time. Her story becomes a springboard for a nuanced discussion of consent that I can imagine being useful for every listener in a different way. The series also finds Prest at her best as a sound designer, going so far as to apply filters to tape of her own sexual experiences so she can assess the tone of her voice without hearing the words she’s saying. There is nothing else like The Heart. Whatever the team behind this show are planning next, its end is a tremendous loss.

No. 3: Ted Hearne/The Crossing: Sound from the Bench

Sometimes I like to just type out a sentence that describes a thing. It’s only fun when the thing you’re describing has lots of unexpected moving parts. I’m going to do that now. Here, look: My favourite music of the year is a cantata for mixed chorus, drums and two electric guitars with words drawn from ventriloquism textbooks and the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case. See? Wasn’t that fun?

Ted Hearne is one of the great contemporary composers for the human voice. I first discovered him through his oratorio The Source, which features an auto-tuned chorus called “We Called for Illumination at 1630” that floored me — it is the sound of humans trying to escape from a digital hellscape. This is what Hearne does with the voice: he uses it as a sympathetic force to latch onto in a world controlled by bewildering and absurd systems. Sound from the Bench is a semi-comedic piece that gets a lot of mileage out of the perversity of hearing a brilliant choir sing lines like “these corporations have a lot of money” and “you are not talking about the railroad barons and the rapacious trusts.” But the actual comedy of Sound from the Bench is a sad comedy. Citizens United, you may recall, is the Supreme Court decision that ruled that money is speech because corporations are people: two of the most patently absurd things that body has ever asserted. Sound from the Bench is a comedy about people doing their best to laugh at the absurdity of a world whose crazy rules they have to live with in spite of the fact that it makes their lives worse. It’s Twelfth Night as a contemporary cantata. It is unaccountably moving, hysterical, and vibrant. It is brilliantly performed by the Crossing, a magnificent choir based in Philadelphia. It is everything I want out of music.

No. 2: S-Town

“I did nothing good today,” reads an inscription on a sundial in S-Town. “I have lost a day.” Depending on your mood, it’s a sentiment that can reflect a profound resignation to the brevity of life, or a desperate mania to accomplish something in spite of it. S-Town’s hero, John B. McLemore, embodies both facets. He is a man alternately consumed by depression and ablaze with fascination for whatever project he’s putting his time into now: repairing antique clocks, growing a hedge maze in his yard, building a swing set for his adult protegé’s edification — or, most crucially, living his life as a story worthy of attention from an acclaimed This American Life producer.

S-Town is a story so full of pat, obvious metaphors that it would be insufferable if it were fiction. But producer and host Brian Reed didn’t actually devise any of these metaphors himself. His main character, McLemore, deliberately surrounded himself in metaphors. He’s a man who lived his life as a story, and then actually found somebody to tell the story. He is Hamlet, exerting a pull on the narrative that exceeds that of the storyteller. There are those in the blogosphere who disapprove of elements in Reed’s telling of the story. But as I listened to S-Town, I couldn’t help feeling McLemore’s hands on the strings of the story, even when it would have been impossible for him to affect it in real time. Woodstock, Alabama is a stranger-than-fiction town with implicit metaphors baked in. John B. McLemore is a stranger-than-fiction man who saw the metaphors, and cast himself as the tragic protagonist amidst them. Brian Reed knew to hit record, and made the best radio of the year.

No. 1: Get Out

One thing I discovered about myself in 2017 is that I am a bottomless fountain of slightly facile theories about the horror genre. Here is one of my facile theories: horror and comedy are the two most intimately related genres of fiction. This is because laughter and fear, at their root, are both ways of responding to the absurd. If you encounter something absurd, something that challenges your sense of what’s “normal,” you’re likely to either laugh or feel fear, depending on the framing of the event. The genius of Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out is that the comedy and the horror are derived from the same central absurdity: a black man’s sense that there is racism all around him, even though he is being constantly told there is not.

This movie is the most brilliant social commentary that’s been in movie theatres for years, but this is me writing here, so let’s think about from it a structural, movie nerd perspective. There are plenty of comedy-horror movies out there. Scream comes to mind. If you squint a bit, Scary Movie fits. It’s a long tradition, dating back at least to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Probably earlier. But these movies are parodies. The jokes are at the expense of horror movie tropes. Get Out is a horror comedy that is not a parody. It is a comedy-horror movie in which both the comedy and the horror arise from the same source, and neither undermines the other. It is a new approach to this particular fusion of genres that walks a delicate balance without ever putting a foot wrong. And in finding a way to negotiate this balance, Jordan Peele has devised a new mode of social critique — one that works particularly well in a world where every single thing that happens is both hysterical and terrifying. Smile into the void, children. Smile into the void.

***

And that’s the list! When I started writing this, I confess I was a bit on the fence about it. Looking back through my list from last year, I couldn’t help thinking that 2016 was a way better year for pop culture. I still think I may be right about that. But writing this took me way longer than I expected because I kept going back to these things, remembering what I loved about them, and spending more time with each of them than I could afford. (I am looking specifically at you, Jon Bois and Maria Bamford.)

This stuff matters to me. It helps me understand the world and the people around me. I apply the lessons from each entry on this list to my life, every day. It has been a good year.

I’m going to go outside.

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Omnibus (week of Dec. 24, 2017)

Hey there. If you’re on the homepage right now, you may or may not be able to see an in-progress version of my year end list. Ignore that. Very soon now, I will be publishing the complete one in its place. Meanwhile, a characteristically paltry Christmas selection of four reviews. As is traditional for weeks like this, the picks of the week go to two non-podcasts.

Television

Doctor Who: “Twice Upon A Time” — The Capaldi era, and more crucially the Moffat era, got a good send off. Nobody’s going to argue that “Twice Upon A Time” is Steven Moffat’s most brilliant Doctor Who story, or even in the top ten. But there is enough brilliance here to remind us that on the whole, Moffat’s Doctor Who has been epochal television. Moffat has spent his last stint on the show (series 10) rehashing the reasons why Doctor Who is great — not why his version of Doctor Who was great, mind, but why the show is an institution worth preserving. And why the Doctor is a character deserving of their iconic status. It hasn’t been his best run on the show, certainly. In general, I’m inclined to think Moffat peaked in series 8, save for the unspeakably brilliant two-part series 9 finale. These two series, plus the full run of Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor that preceded them, leave series 10 feeling a little bit like Goats Head Soup. But as victory laps go, series 10 did a lot right. It felt like a benediction from a version of the show that had naturally run its course. And “Twice Upon A Time” is the natural culmination of that. Moffat has always been in dialogue with the history of the series he’s helming. What more direct way is there to literalize that dialogue than to have the most recent Doctor be able to converse with the earliest version of himself? (David Bradley is to be commended for playing the First Doctor as a character, rather than simply imitating the tics and mannerisms of the late William Hartnell. He does what works for the story. So does Moffat, for that matter. Hartnell’s Doctor, and the writing for him, wouldn’t translate straightforwardly to modern television. Which is, of course, the source of much of the humour in the episode. Not all of that humour lands, but I’m quite fond of the moment when Bill shuts down the Doctor’s insistence that they simply ignore his former self’s racism and sexism. It feels like a tacit approval on Moffat’s part of the segment of fandom that insists on holding him to a high standard on this. Because his track record is less than perfect.) Aside from the premise of having Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor share the limelight with the First Doctor, the best and most Moffaty idea in this story is the way that the famous Christmas truce of 1914 factors into its resolution. Moffat’s previous Christmas specials have repurposed elements of the Christmas tradition ranging from A Christmas Carol (whose implicit time travel elements worked into Doctor Who to produce one of the show’s staggering masterpieces) to Santa Claus (meh). The Christmas truce is one of the most fitting Christmas stories to repurpose in this show. It is an illustration of humanity’s ability to be good and kind rather than simply vile and monstrous. This story’s denouement is striking because the Doctor doesn’t actually save Mark Gatiss’s captain by removing him from harm’s way: he simply adjusts the timeline a little so that he’d be saved by the mercy and goodness of humanity that managed to seep out even in a context of intense and senseless violence. It’s a brilliant summation of everything this show has come to stand for over its 50-plus years, and of the way it has come to articulate that worldview over the last seven. As for the future, I shan’t decide what my hopes are until I’ve seen Broadchurch. But the look on Jodie Whitaker’s face when she first sees her reflection is a thing of beautiful, childlike wonder. We’ve seen that look on many faces before: Patrick Troughton’s, Tom Baker’s, David Tennant’s… Wherever the show goes, story-wise, I’m enormously excited to get to know 13. “Twice Upon A Time” is a perfectly good episode of television, which represents the end of one of the greatest runs on any television show ever. I came to love Doctor Who because of Steven Moffat. Now I just love Doctor Who. Geronimo. Pick of the week.

Music

Björk: Utopia — I like parts of it. But for most of this album, I can’t help but feel a broad divide between what Björk and her co-producer Arca are doing in the music bed and what Björk is doing vocally. The lyrics are some of her most prosaic, and she phrases them semi-improvisationally over the music in a way that suggests melody wasn’t one a main priority during the writing process. This is fine, but it doesn’t make it easy. After the brilliant, raw directness of Vulnicura, this feels like a return to the weeds of Biophilia — but with mercifully less dubstep and more flutes. So, let’s call it a… B-minus?

Barbara Hannigan & Ludwig Orchestra: Crazy Girl Crazy — There are several levels of “why bother being this good” at play here. Barbara Hannigan could easily have settled for being merely one of the great sopranos of our time. But no: she has to also be a trailblazer for contemporary music, daring to learn the heretofore unlearned scores of composers who write vocal challenges few but her could rise to. This is the version of Hannigan that brought us last year’s best classical recording: let me tell you by Hans Abrahamsen. But even that isn’t enough for her. She’s also got to be a brilliant conductor. And since she can both conduct and sing, she clearly has to do them both at the same time. In music that’s crazy hard to begin with. Crazy Girl Crazy is Hannigan’s first disc as a conductor, and indeed her first disc as a conductor/singer. It contains a selection of music from the 20th century that all feels like it’s at the core of Hannigan. We get Luciano Berio’s Sequenza III, a piece for unaccompanied voice that shows off her crazy chops and her ability to inject drama into even the most potentially baffling scores. We get a new arrangement of music from Gershwin’s Girl Crazy that Hannigan leads and sings with Gershwin’s romanticism in mind as much as his jazz background. And sandwiched between them, we get a lush, romantic reading of Alban Berg’s beautiful Lulu Suite. Hannigan has been the soprano of choice for the role of Lulu for years now. Hearing her take on the orchestral music from that opera just confirms that she owns that piece as thoroughly as any musician owns any piece of music. The Ludwig Orchestra, a young ensemble that makes its recording debut here, plays skillfully, and with all of the intensity of an orchestra that’s not sick of making music yet. It’s a performance that makes you hope this orchestra and Hannigan have a long relationship ahead of them. It deserves the Grammy. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

Radiolab: “A Match Made in Marrow” — I got so behind on Radiolab that I almost considered using that as the out I’ve been looking for. This show isn’t what it was. But I started listening to this because it was the only thing downloaded on my phone, and goddamnit it’s pretty good. It’s the story of a very non-religious person becoming a Christlike saviour to a very religious persona and trying to reconcile this. I dunno. Maybe I’ll give them a few more episodes.

Omnibus (week of Nov. 26, 2017)

You know, I think this is actually a pretty strong instalment. Usually this blog just sort of is what it is. God knows nobody reads it. At least, not on days when I’m not on the radio. And obviously I don’t care, or I wouldn’t have been doing it every week for two years. But sometimes I think maybe it’s pretty good. This is one of those. For what it’s worth.

Three picks of the week, since I only did one last time. 15 reviews.

Music

Margo Price: All American Made — I think I speak for every single human on the planet when I say that 2017 suuuuuuuuuucked. Like, on a universal level, and also seemingly on a personal level for a whole bunch of people I know. I mean, lots of great things happened this year. But big chunks of it were confusing and disappointing, and perhaps some of us have been wishing we’d made different choices. It is what it is. We all end up there sometimes. Never fear. Margo Price has a new album, and it’s even better than the first one. All American Made isn’t a Sad, Dark, Personal Album in the vein of Blood on the Tracks, Tonight’s the Night or Blue. Hell, Price wrote these songs after breaking a 15-year losing streak in the music industry. And she co-wrote a bunch of them with her husband, who she seems rather fond of. This isn’t an exorcism. Musically, it’s even pretty peppy, aside from the ballads. But Price realizes the same thing that all of the greatest country songwriters have realized, which is that there is no catharsis in the world like a straightforward description of a bad thing happening. Or, a straightforward description of a shitty state of mind you’ve found yourself in — see the outstanding heartstring tugger “Learning to Lose,” featuring a very 84-year-old-sounding Willie Nelson. I believe (here begins the hot take segment of the review) that bleak, doleful country music is more relevant today than ever. The social role of songs like “Learning to Lose” is to reassure you that disappointment, rejection, loneliness and failure are normal facets of the human experience that everybody goes through. That they aren’t specific to you. This is crucial now that we live in a world where everybody can so easily airbrush the worst bits of their lives out of their public identities on Facebook and Instagram. These platforms have caused us to perceive life as a game that can be won or lost on an ongoing basis. And they have also made it really easy — and socially necessary — to lie and cheat at that game. We must always be winning, even when we are not. So, where do you turn for a quick hit of catharsis when it seems like everybody else is busy following their bliss? You turn to lonesome, dejected country music, soaked in whiskey and regret. On the day before the day before the new year, many of us will be looking back on a dubious 363 days. Margo gets it. She’s the most honest songwriter to emerge in the last couple years, and she’s exactly the one we need. Pick of the week.

Margo Price: Weakness (EP) — Since the title track is also on All American Made, this is mostly worth it for “Paper Cowboy,” the rare Margo Price recording where the focus is squarely on the band, which is amazing. Seriously, Luke Schneider’s pedal steel playing is next-level.

Queen: Sheer Heart Attack — I rewatched Baby Driver last week (conveniently forgetting at the start that it’s got Kevin Spacey in it) and I was plunged into a world of “Brighton Rock” on repeat. Seldom has a song that only has one repetition of its chorus been more addictive. (Is it really a chorus if it only happens once? Yes it is. Because it sounds like one. “Oh rock of ages, do not crumble” are not words you just throw into a verse or a bridge.) The clear next phase in this obsession was to revisit this album, which remains my most neglected classic Queen album, mostly as a consequence of how I experienced Queen at first. As a prog-obsessed teenager, Queen II was my go-to, with A Night at the Opera getting the secondary nod almost by default, just because it’s “the classic.” But with a few more years behind me, I’m willing to entertain the notion that Sheer Heart Attack is stronger than either. Sure, it’s got an uneven second half. The run of “Misfire,” “Bring Back That Leroy Brown” and “She Makes Me (Stormtroopers in Stilettos)” is markedly less magnificent than the rest of the disc, with the second of those being virtually the only Freddie Mercury novelty song that fails to amuse me. But I’m not sure Queen ever made an album that didn’t have a couple dogs on it. In retrospect, Queen II has more lacklustre tracks than that. And for all that album’s musical intricacy and wonderment, it is couched in a high-fantasy aesthetic that I find less compelling at 27 than I did at 15. Sheer Heart Attack’s greatest improvement over its predecessor is its adoption of surrealism and introspection in place of Queen II’s ogres and fairy fellers. I still love those songs, but Sheer Heart Attack keeps you at arm’s length just a little bit less. Aside from “Brighton Rock,” which belongs in everybody’s top five Queen songs, my highlight is the three-parter formed by “Tenement Funster,” “Flick of the Wrist” and “Lily of the Valley.” The middle part of the trilogy is what really holds it up: “Flick of the Wrist” is Queen’s entire ethos in three minutes. The way Mercury’s piano (absent throughout “Tenement Funster”) arrives suddenly, elegantly tossing off a bit of filigree before the vocal begins, is a masterstroke. And the moment when the Queen choir kicks on on “Don’t look back! Don’t look back!” is as dramatic and satisfying as they get. But the other two bits should get their due as well: “Tenement Funster” may be my favourite Roger Taylor track, simply because it is the most Roger Taylor track. And “Lily of the Valley” is a sort of refinement of “Nevermore” from Queen II, which has a lovely melody but very overwrought lyrics. To my ears this still leaves three classics in “Killer Queen,” “Now I’m Here” and “Stone Cold Crazy,” the latter of which sounds about four years ahead of its time. Bottom line, Queen is everything that’s good about rock music from the ‘70s, and this is maybe their best album.

Morton Feldman/Marc-André Hamelin: For Bunita Marcus — One of my favourite “classical” (terrible word) releases of the year. Every time Hamelin records something that isn’t stupidly technical — like his amazing Haydn recordings — the classical music chattersphere makes that the lede. And, fair enough. But in the case of this beautiful late piece by Morton Feldman, the set of demands placed on the performer are no less extraordinary than those of Alkan or Godowsky, though the piece is technically simple even by ordinary standards. The performer of For Bunita Marcus must play extremely sparsely populated music, very quietly, for well over an hour. I can hardly conceive of the presence of mind it must take to maintain the atmosphere. Hamelin is both an artist and a stuntman, and this is as much a stunt as anything he’s ever played. It’s also as much of an artistic accomplishment as he’s ever put to record. Also: in his liner notes, which I ignored the first time I heard this and only just read this week, Hamelin compares this music to Borges’s story “The Library of Babel,” which is an irresistible germ of a thought, given that I coincidentally finished the Ficciones last week. I’m not entirely sure what he’s on about, but certainly both Borges and Feldman are offering two attempts to visualize and quantify the infinite — or, in Borges’ case the finite but inconceivably vast. Maybe in Feldman’s case as well. This is great music for when you need to leave the small things behind.

Max Richter: The Blue Notebooks — Richter is either a genius or a charlatan, except he’s definitely a genius. I don’t like everything he’s done, but his best music (this, the Vivaldi recompositions, parts of Sleep) are modern classics that deserve to stand alongside the music of William Basinski and Tim Hecker. Mind, he’s a lot less spiny than either of them. If you felt emotionally manipulated at the beginning or end of Arrival, it’s Richter’s fault. “On the Nature of Daylight” is one of his simplest, most direct and (dare I say) poppiest pieces of music, so it makes sense that it should find a home in the movies. That track is a highlight of The Blue Notebooks, but it isn’t the highlight: that’s “Shadow Journal,” a dark, slow-moving piece with trancey electronics and reverb-laden harp and strings. You can’t quite call it ambient; it’s too structured for that. But it is spectacular mood music. So is the rest of this. It’s definitely the place to start if you’re looking for an introduction.

Movies

Andy and Jim: The Great Beyond — This is a magnificent documentary about a terrible man who was massively acclaimed for doing a thing badly. Andy and Jim confirms my theory that Jim Carrey’s performance as Andy Kaufman is horseshit. It is 100% based on the front-of-camera Andy Kaufman, with no attention paid or insight sought out into Kaufman’s actual character. Regardless of how deeply Jim Carrey descended into method acting hell to play Kaufman, his interpretation of the character is fundamentally misguided and has a lot more to do with the neuroses and tics of Jim Carrey than those of Andy Kaufman. Carrey’s Kaufman, for instance, simply can’t accept that Jerry Lawler is a person worth befriending. Where the real Kaufman (as illustrated in one presumably difficult to film segment of Man on the Moon) was a firm friend of the wrestler in real life and only condescended to him for show, Carrey’s Kaufman is a dick to him even when the cameras aren’t on. This is borderline emotional abuse, given that Jerry Lawler played himself in Man on the Moon and was therefore subjected to ruthless taunting by a cheap facsimile of his deceased friend. It’s no wonder he punched Carrey for real. Who among us hasn’t wanted to do the same? The reason Andy and Jim is a great documentary is that it lays bare the extent to which Jim Carrey’s performance was a semi-conscious attempt to outrun his own pathologies. He expresses a need to be “absent” from himself. That’s what acting really is to him: an escape from being a person he doesn’t like. And Man on the Moon seemed to offer a unique opportunity to up the ante on this escape by playing a real person who famously didn’t break character (even though this is untrue and exaggerated in the film). I don’t know what Jim Carrey thinks of this documentary. I don’t know what the director of this documentary thinks of Jim Carrey. Regardless, it’s a fascinating portrait of a violently needy person letting his worst impulses lead him by the nose.

Literature, etc.

Philip Pullman: The Subtle Knife — I vaguely recall liking this better than The Golden Compass as a kid. And I was right. Smart little fucker, I was. The Golden Compass is a sublime adventure story with one of the best protagonists in children’s literature. But The Subtle Knife is where Philip Pullman starts to tip his hand that what he’s really writing is an epic on a cosmic scale. This is where the elements of His Dark Materials that I really love start to come out: the multiple universes, the questions of free will and destiny, the rumblings of a great war to come. If there’s a weak point, it’s simply that Pullman has to introduce and develop the character of Will, which means we get less Lyra per page than in The Golden Compass. But Will is a more than acceptable secondary protagonist, and a great foil for Lyra. The early scenes of the two of them trying to cooperate in spite of their drastically different upbringing are fabulous. Also, The Subtle Knife turns up the horror by several degrees. The Golden Compass contained some truly horrifying scenes, particularly the reveal of the first severed child Lyra encounters. (Wonderful how Pullman normalizes the fact that people have daemons so successfully that when she finds something that would look to us like a normal child, it’s appalling.) But The Subtle Knife’s spectre attacks and the general atmosphere of Cittàgazze wouldn’t be out of place in The Dark Tower. Speaking of King, one thing Pullman doesn’t get enough credit for is the way he writes action. I’ve been reading King as well, so it sticks out to me that Pullman and King are equally adept at writing tense action sequences. The one where Lee Scoresby and Hester die is a) heartbreaking, but also b) a hell of a gunfight. Anyway, I’ve been finished this for a few days now and I just got The Amber Spyglass out of the library. I am as excited to crack it open as I was when I was 11 and finishing The Subtle Knife for the first time. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

In Our Time: “Picasso’s Guernica” & “The Picts” — These are two episodes that together illustrate why this weird, unvarnished, slightly stuffy talk radio show is one of my favourite podcasts. The Guernica episode is just a full-on, firing-on-all-cylinders episode of this show, where every professor on the panel has something different to offer and Melvyn Bragg organizes the discussion so you see the subject from multiple sides in only an hour. He gets into not only Picasso’s painting itself, but also the actual bombing of Guernica itself and the political situation that let Picasso to make the painting at all. He gets into the impact of reportage from Guernica on Picasso’s approach. He even manages to fit in a bit of the continuing story of Guernica in more recent times, i.e. its presence at the United Nations. The episode about the Picts is an entirely different sort of affair, because it is live in front of an audience, and it is a celebration of the show’s 20th anniversary. It is so demonstrative of this show’s sensibility that when faced with celebrating a milestone, they obviously just decided to do what they were going to do anyway, which was talk about the Picts. I love that. I also love how transparent Bragg gets in this episode, where he doesn’t even try to hide the fact that he’s attempting to lead his panelists into saying a specific thing. At one point Bragg explains about a general in a decisive battle: “Completely unexpectedly, after winning battles for 30 years, he was not only defeated but killed, and that changed everything.” And then he turns to a member of his panel: “Can you say that more elaborately than I did please. With more scholarship.” And his panelist proceeds to do so, brilliantly. Why mask the process, when forthrightness yields both results and punchlines?  

Fresh Air: “Margo Price” & “Comic Patton Oswalt” — Two fantastic interviews with people who make brilliant, vulnerable art. Also, Margo brought her guitar. So, listen to that one.

On the Media: “About that Nazi Next Door” — A good interview about a distressing reaction to a distressing New York Times story about a white nationalist. What this show is for.

More Perfect catchup — This is shaping up to be one of the best shows of the year, with a second season that eclipses the first by a fair margin. The fearless complexity that’s been missing lately in Radiolab is here in spades, and so is the musical sound design. And the stories themselves are the sort of thing that’ll make you stop doing the dishes from time to time and just stand in the middle of your kitchen. Of the three episodes I listened to this week, the one about Citizens United stands out. Go listen.

Beautiful Conversations with Anonymous People: “Black Cloud of a Husband” — The best episode of this show that I’ve heard so far, and a truly enthralling story. This time, Chris Gethard’s anonymous caller is a newly single mother who has been through what sounds like a hellish marriage and lived to tell the tale. She’s in therapy and seems to be moving past her trauma, which makes this feel less exploitative than it otherwise could. (Though I’ve never actually felt this show is exploitative, really. The anonymity helps, but mostly I feel that Chris Gethard always keeps his callers’ best interest in mind, or tries to as best he can.) But the story of this woman’s relationship with her husband, which she now sees with 20-20 hindsight, is an incredible thing to listen to. Gethard hardly has to do anything. She just has a story to tell and wants to get it out. This is a good starting place for this show. If you don’t like this, you’ll never be won over. Pick of the week.

Constellations: “ellie gordon-moershel – anatomy of the road” & “janet rogers – broken english” — “Anatomy of the road” is a dull, predictable bit of drama in itself, but I can imagine it going somewhere interesting in its continuation. Apparently that will happen. “Broken english” is more fun, on account of its basically being music. I’m all for the line between music and talk radio being blurred.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Right to Dissent” & “Criminal Justice and the POTUS” — Two great, disquieting episodes of a forever disquieting show about how everything is changing for the worse because the most powerful man in the world is a baby with no understanding of the system he’s at the head of. The criminal justice episode is particularly good, because it references Trump’s response to the Central Park Five to help understand his current stance on criminal justice, which is deplorable.

StartUp: “The Race for a Driverless Future” — It’s been a long time since I listened to the first part of this two-parter, but I remember it was more fun than this. If this show were continuing with this episodic approach, it would be gone from my feed.

Omnibus (week of Nov. 5, 2017)

Here’s a bit of an unusual instalment of Omnibus, because I recently went to six concerts in as many days. This was all part of the blandly-named-but-actually very-exciting International Society for Contemporary Music World New Music Days 2017. Standard talking points include but are not limited to: major annual event featuring music by composers from all over the world, premiered the Berg violin concerto in 1936, only held in Canada once before, music from more than 50 countries, hosted this year by Vancouver’s own Music on Main, etc.

I’ll be doing a more focussed dive into some of my personal highlights on North by Northwest next weekend (that’s on CBC Radio 1, if you’re new here). But here, we like to go broad. I’m starting this week’s instalment off with six notes-to-self about the concerts I saw at ISCM 2017. (Here, for interested parties, is the deluxe Tumblr edition.) Business-as-usual resumes below. I do hope you’ll stick around for the review of Paul and Linda McCartney’s RAM because I’m rather proud of it, actually.

19 reviews.

ISCM World New Music Days 2017

National Arts Centre Orchestra: Life Reflected — I had heard some of the music performed on this opening concert before on a recording NACO released earlier this year. In that context, it mostly left me cold. Live, it worked. Funny how being there makes you focus. The premise is this: four pieces, by four Canadian composers, focussing on the stories of four Canadian women. I hear your scepticism. I too am slightly repulsed by the sickly-sweet maple fragrance of events like this. And in the year of Canada 150, I wasn’t sure how much more I could take. The answer turned out to be: this much. I was not surprised at all to find myself particularly enamoured of the pieces by Jocelyn Morlock and Nicole Lizée, who are (with apologies to everybody I’ve forgotten I like) my favourite composers in the country right now. Morlock’s My Name Is Amanda Todd is a musical character study of Todd that starts off with the darkness you’d expect from a piece on that subject, but which eventually shoves the clouds of fear and desperation aside to allow something more vibrant and positive to come into view. That approach may cause cognitive dissonance for some, given the circumstances in which Todd came to the national consciousness. But I expect that’s the point. There’s more to any one life etc. Jocelyn Morlock writes gorgeous music. There’s some brass writing near the end that just kills me. You should check out the recording. I’ve revisited it, and this is well worth hearing, in whatever form you can. Nicole Lizée’s Bondarsphere, about the marvellous Dr. Roberta Bondar, is altogether sillier and completely wonderful. True to form, Lizée smooshes the orchestra up against meticulously manipulated tape from Bondar’s career as an astronaut. Thus, we are treated to the spectacle of a choir of Peter Mansbridges and Knowlton Nashes singing backup. I should say, each piece on the program came paired with elaborate projections which were generally a mixed bag. Morlock’s piece would have fared as well or better without them. In Lizée’s, they are essential: she manipulates video and audio alike. The audio recording represents half the piece. I’m really happy I saw it live. I don’t have much to say about the other two works on the program. Zosha Di Castri’s Alice Munro tribute Dear Life has some marvellous orchestral effects (and a vocal solo by Erin Wall, which nobody will complain about) but outstays its welcome by a good seven or eight minutes. John Estacio’s I Lost My Talk sets the moving and insightful poem by Mi’kmaq poet Rita Joe, but the musical material strikes me as having little or nothing to do with the words themselves, and is in itself rather bland. Still, two out of four ain’t as bad as it sounds. And honestly I liked the Di Castri too. I just would have liked it more if there were less of it.

Lori Freedman & The Hard Rubber Riot Ensemble: RIOT — One of my favourite things about the festival was that it had late-night concerts beginning at 10:15 — just the time of night when I usually start to stare into the void. Bass clarinetist Lori Freedman is undoubtedly a fabulous musician, but the semi-improvised, vocalization-heavy piece she performed here was a bit much for me. RIOT, on the other hand, lived up to the name. The Hard Rubber Riot Ensemble is a permutation of the Hard Rubber Orchestra, a very loud jazz-inclined new music ensemble led by John Korsrud. RIOT is a piece for percussion, guitar, bass, strings and keyboard — but really mostly percussion. It is a bracing, draining, extremely loud piece about Vancouver’s super dumb 2011 Stanley Cup riot. Hard Rubber’s incessant crashing and banging was backed up by video from the riot, and interviews with social psychologists, rioters, etc. The combined effect of the music (which is great fun) with the video (which is infuriating) is that you can’t quite decide how much fun you should be having. I had a whole bunch, halfway in spite of myself.

Leo Correia de Verdier & Gabriel Dharmoo: Question Notions — Another late night concert, and my personal highlight of the festival, narrowly edging out the closing concert. Leo Correia de Verdier is billed as “one of the world’s foremost sewing machine players.” (“One of.” I love it.) Naturally, I was more excited about her than just about any other performer in the festival. (Yes, there’s video.) She didn’t disappoint, though I will say that sewing machine music might actually be better suited for headphone listening than live performance. Live and learn. But here is where things get awesome. Gabriel Dharmoo’s Anthropologies Imaginaires is the cleverest bit of theatre I’ve seen since Robert Lepage was last in town. I halfway feel compelled to issue a spoiler warning here, even though it’s entirely possible that nobody who reads this will actually have the opportunity to see it for themselves. It’s a piece that is served well by going in completely cold. Those willing to put that aside, read on. In Anthropologies Imaginaires, Dharmoo gives a virtuoso vocal performance of strange, silly noises while a panel of fake professors talk shit on a screen above him. If that sounds a bit esoteric, well yes. But I’ve never heard a crowd laugh harder at weird art before. Everybody involved in this is totally committed to the bit, nobody more so than Dharmoo himself. But the actors who play our bogus academics channel the blithe condescension of so many of their real-life counterparts with nary a wink or a gurn in sight. Chris Morris would be proud. The issue at stake in Anthropologies Imaginaires is colonialism: Dharmoo presents one invented indigenous vocal tradition after another, ranging from mouth noises to faux-pop songs, and the profs make asses of themselves again and again, for different reasons each time. It’s near impossible to convey the effect of this without simply urging you to take any opportunity to see this thing. Sure, check out the promotional materials, but be aware that they don’t and can’t do justice to the show. Pick of the week.

Powell Street Festival at the Annex — This tried my patience a bit. More than most of the other concerts I saw, this one put the more esoteric and difficult side of new music front and centre. There are people who begrudge that music its very existence. I am not one of them. But now that my own musical studies are far behind me, I don’t feel especially inclined toward it. There were a couple of highlights, though. I very much enjoyed Murat Çolak’s NEFES.PAS.ÇIRA.IŞI, which dives deep into the combinations of a few key sounds, like crotales and piccolo. (I like Çolak even better because of this tweet.) And Yasunoshin Morita’s ReincarnatiOn Ring II for Sho, U and iPods is a bit gimmicky, but it introduced me to the existence of the sho, which is a beautiful thing.

Victoria Symphony at the Roundhouse — The only concert I wish I hadn’t bothered with. I was playing new music cliché bingo by the end of it. Mouthpiece pops, breath attacks, tinfoil, endless harmonics, repeated patterns on mallet percussion instruments, they were all here. I don’t mean to be catty, but unlike every other concert I attended at ISCM 2017, this one showed me nothing new. Jared Miller’s Concerto Corto was the most promising piece on the program, but even that was let down by scrappy playing. Alas.

Vicky Chow, Eve Egoyan, Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa & Megumi Masaki: A Kind of Magic — One thing I haven’t mentioned is that each of the concerts I’ve discussed so far was short. About an hour a piece, no intermissions. NOT SO FOR THIS ONE. This one was FOUR HOURS LONG. I’m not complaining; it was brilliant. Had it been shorter, it would have been less of an event. The “muchness” of it eventually became part of the appeal. Naturally, given what a massive spread of music this was, not all of it hit the target. And I suspect the performers knew this would be the case for a substantial chunk of the audience. The most obscure and difficult music was mostly saved for later in the program, by which time the packed house had understandably thinned out. Mind you, the early bedtime set did miss Rodney Sharman’s beautiful transcription of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, which manages the neat trick of making it sound almost entirely different without actually changing any of the notes. It was surely the most nostalgic piece I heard at the festival, but we’ll allow them one. They deserve that much. I’ll touch on three other highlights, because more would be madness. My very favourite piece on the program was Hildegard Westerkamp’s Klavierklang for piano and stereo soundtrack. True to Westerkamp’s predispositions, the piece is nearly a radio documentary, with Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa doubling as musician and narrator. (And a quite good one, too.) The subject is Westerkamp’s musical upbringing: the sounds of her childhood, the teachers who led her to love and hate the piano, and the role of a hopelessly broken instrument she found in an abandoned house in helping her realize the kind of music she wanted to make. More than just being a good story set to good music, it is a straightforward explanation of why a person might like to make a particular sort of music. That’s a useful thing to have in the mix at a concert, and a festival, where the artists’ intentions might not always be immediately clear. The evening’s other two highlights were extended performances by Vicky Chow. David Brynjar Franzson’s The Cartography of Time is a beautiful, very spare piece of music with only three or four unique bits of musical material over its 26-minute duration. It never feels stagnant, but it also gives a rather pleasant sense of not really moving. It was apparently composed as a lullaby, which makes perfect sense. I wonder if I’d respond the same way to a recording. Maybe. In any case, it’s lovely stuff. And if it is indeed a lullaby, then it is the polar opposite of Chow’s other featured performance: Remy Siu’s Foxconn Frequency No. 2 for one visibly Chinese performer. I’ve had panic attacks that were less stressful than watching this piece. Basically, Chow sits at a keyboard, playing exceedingly difficult exercises that we don’t actually hear. Instead, her accuracy percentage is displayed on a huge screen behind her, alongside a constantly counting down timer. If she doesn’t play a given exercise with a certain degree of accuracy within a given time frame, a buzzer goes off and she has to try again. Failure is baked into the premise of the piece. So, naturally, is Foxconn: the terribly abusive company whose labour practices are satirically dramatized here as a sort of perverse, nightmarish musical video game. Foxconn Frequency No. 2 wasn’t the best thing I heard at ISCM 2017, but it was no doubt the most viscerally affecting. Also, I can’t not mention Eve Egoyan. I didn’t find her rep as memorable as Chow’s, or some of Iwassa’s. But she’s an extraordinary musician with a marvellous sense of musical colour. I’ve loved her recordings for years, especially Simple Lines of Enquiry by Canada’s best-ever composer (fight me) Ann Southam. I’m very happy to have finally heard her live. Much the same can be said of Megumi Mesaki, though I do find some of her rep a bit frustrating. This magnificent concert serves as an apt microcosm for my entire experience with ISCM 2017: I loved it, I feel my horizons were widened, and have an odd sense that its mixed effectiveness only adds to how memorable and compelling it was. A final point before I leave this be: I heard 34 pieces (I think) at the festival altogether. I am unsure of the specific number, but only a modest handful of them were by white men. This is enormously refreshing, given how notoriously backwards our major “classical” music institutions are in this way. As of 2017, people who call themselves composers — thereby, however unintentionally, placing themselves in the tradition of Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms — come from everywhere and are everyone. Now, if we could just staple that sentence to every music director’s forehead, we’d be in business. ISCM 2017 is one of precious few experiences I’ve had that left me feeling that this musical tradition, such as it is, might not only be relevant in a modern, progressive society, but could actually serve as a vital force in one.

Music

Björk: Biophilia — I listened to this in preparation for an installation at ISCM 2017 that I arrived at three days after it closed. So much for that. Anyway. This is certainly one of the lesser Björk albums, which is not to say it’s bad. But it doesn’t have much that reaches out and grabs you the way that her best stuff does. I do love “Crystalline,” which is certainly the most immediate track. I shouldn’t dismiss this out of hand: I could see it being a grower, and Björk is one of those artists who deserves the benefit of a doubt. I do see why Vespertine was regarded as a return to form, though. Frankly I still think that album is as good as anything she’s done.

Tom Waits: Swordfishtrombones — I’ve been listening to a podcast about Tom Waits — specifically about Rain Dogs, and I realized that I hadn’t actually heard the album that began the stylistic transition that brought him to that point. This is not as good as Rain Dogs. It has the requisite creepy freakouts, but it is lacking the tracks like “Time,” “Downtown Train” and “Hang Down Your Head” to counterbalance them. It is certainly not as good as Frank’s Wild Years, which seems likely to remain my favourite for all time. But it is an obvious watershed. It’s a strange thing: Rain Dogs seems totally plausible when you know that it was preceded by an album with similar stylistic tics. But this album was preceded by Heartattack and Vine, which I have heard many a time, and it has nothing to do with this. Nothing. There are several tracks that I love, particularly the title track and “In The Neighbourhood,” which is a less beautiful but more self-sufficient prototype for “Anywhere I Lay My Head”: one of the most gorgeous things ever.

Paul and Linda McCartney: RAM — I would like to present an extremely specious breakdown of Paul McCartney’s psychology. Lingering in the bit of Paul’s brain where most of us keep our secret hunger and despair, there is instead a delirious, unsettling happiness: a happiness that would, if left unchecked, force him to run constant laps around buildings with his tongue lolling out, climb trees and laugh maniacally from the highest branch he could reach, hug strange dogs, do jumping jacks always, build enormous sandcastles, throw confetti at strangers, complement snowmen on their hats, develop consuming enthusiasms for idiosyncratic hobbies such as bottlecap collecting or leathercraft, kick footballs off the roofs of tall buildings, convert his living room into a ball pit, and aggressively yell his appreciation for the good weather at all passing motorists, pedestrians, cyclists, and pets. This being an untenable way to live one’s life, Paul’s subconscious mania must be held in balance by an ego and superego with the soporific strength of several dozen tranq darts. This is how we get songs like “I’ve Just Seen A Face” and “Martha My Dear”: expressions of unalloyed joy that nonetheless fall within the acceptable confines of normal human behaviour. But on RAM, the one album Paul made with his wife Linda as a co-billed collaborator, the tranq darts have failed to gain purchase. This album is a deranged expression of Paul McCartney’s aggressively euphoric id. Even the dim shadows that occasionally appear — the open condescension of “Dear Boy,” for instance, or the “don’t know how to do that” backing vocals on “Smile Away” — are couched in a general mood of “MAN OH MAN CAN YOU EVEN BELIEVE THIS CRAZY LIFE.” From his first yelping vocal on “Too Many People,” to the final squalls of “The Back Seat of My Car,” Paul is out of control on this record. He cannot shut up. Even when there are no words for him to sing, he’s content to exclaim, squeal and coo abstractly. His vocal performances here make “Hey Bulldog” and “Oh! Darling” look like models of restraint. And in terms of songwriting, he seems to have entirely given up on the notion of cohesion within a song. Even the most “together” track on the album, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” is fractured by ludicrous play-acting and a two-part structure wherein the two parts have nothing to do with each other. And “The Back Seat of My Car” loses track of where it’s going about a minute in, at which point the thin veneer of narrative that drives the opening verses gives way to a succession of would-be climaxes that each seem to be trying to outdo the “better better better” bit from “Hey Jude.” It is completely exhausting, totally undisciplined and I absolutely love it. That’s basically the album summed up, right there. RAM is my favourite Beatles solo album by a mile, with even the sublime All Things Must Pass trailing substantially. No other Beatle ever made an album so gloriously inconsequential. While George was composing spiritual koans on All Things, John was publicly working through his deepest psychoses on Plastic Ono Band, and Ringo was doing his best, Paul was content to just run around in circles in a studio, occasionally colliding with instruments and trusting that glorious sounds will result because he’s Paul McCartney. The Beatles trained a generation of music listeners to think that pop music can and should be “important.” John and George worked to honour that legacy on their early solo albums. Paul just turned himself inside out, and made a dumber, weirder, better solo record than either of them ever did.

Literature, etc.

Philip Pullman: The Golden Compass — My favourite book from when I was ten definitely holds up. (To clarify, by the time I was eleven, it had been usurped by The Amber Spyglass.) What really satisfied me about this re-read, 17 years later, is that the bits that are meant to be disturbing still are. It’s remarkable how thoroughly Pullman normalizes daemons in this book. He does such a job of it that when Lyra first discovers Tony Makarios, the severed child, it is horrifying for the reader. Here we have a person who is by all appearances more realistic than any of the other characters in the book, because he does not possess an external manifestation of his soul, and yet we feel Lyra’s repulsion. The form he takes, which is our own form, is a grotesque deformation. That’s just one of many reactions I remember having as a child reading this for the first time that I had a second time when I read it as an adult. Another is incredible anger at Lord Asriel’s callous treatment of Lyra. This, I think I experienced even more acutely this time. I don’t quite remember how things turn out with Lord Asriel in the end, but the way he talks to Lyra at the end of this novel is unforgivable. It’s also a refreshing break from the trope of absentee fathers being humanized and forgiven by the text. (See: Blade Runner 2049.) Pullman wants us to hate Asriel, because he is a terrible man. Certainly, there’s a legitimate reason that he wasn’t able to raise Lyra himself. But he also didn’t want to and doesn’t like her. (Equally unforgivable. If he knew her like we do, he surely would.) We aren’t treated to the disgusting spectacle of a father justifying himself for abandoning his child. Instead, Pullman just writes Asriel as being flat-out horrible. And we don’t see Lyra pining for his affection, either. Instead, we become invested in her genuine, intense and earned love for Iorek Byrnison and the gyptians. Pullman’s first priority is clearly to tell a good story. His second is probably to set up an analogy about organized religion as it exists in our own world. But another clear intention of his that he doesn’t get enough credit for is demonstrating healthy, rational familial relationships. In practice, that means rebelling against a callous and ruthless pair of biological parents while embracing an adopted family of people who care for you the way a family should. That’s remarkable. Pullman is a remarkable writer. This is a remarkable book. I can’t wait to re-read The Subtle Knife.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Shape of the Sword” — Probably the least remarkable story I’ve read by this author. At less than five pages, it is focussed on a single twist that is entirely predictable. Even the greatest ever have their off days, I suppose.

Games

Tacoma — Finally got around to this. I was super excited for it, because Gone Home was and is one of my favourite games ever. It almost single-handedly reinvigorated my interest in the medium after about a decade of not playing games at all. I was worried that Tacoma would fall flat purely because of its setting: one of the things about Gone Home that made me think there’s hope for this art form yet was the simple fact that it takes place in a realistic, domestic space. It’s a divergence from what I then perceived to be the entirety of the gaming world: fantasy and wish fulfilment. So, the news that Fullbright’s follow-up was to take place on a space station was concerning. But I should have had more faith: the Tacoma is as domestic a setting as Gone Home’s Pacific Northwest mansion. It’s just bigger and more… in space. Truthfully, I find the overall story a bit hackneyed: a big corporation is revealed to be increasingly evil, and the goals of a scrappy insurgency are elucidated piece by piece. I’ve seen this before. (I’ve written this before; fairly recently. But mine has a twist!) But focussing on the linear story of Tacoma is missing the point. The point of both of Fullbright’s games is learning about people by examining the places where they live. I often think about how a person who had never met me would perceive me if they wandered into my apartment randomly. I often wonder what it would be like to wander randomly into somebody else’s apartment. The places we spend our time are littered with the weird ephemera of a life in process, and each piece can serve as evidence of who we are. That’s the phenomenon Fulbright exploits. Even without the extremely clever interactive cutscene-type things, Tacoma would tell us a lot about its characters purely by way of the rooms they inhabit. And that’s why the “not a game” people are idiots. Both this and Gone Home set up experiences that are unique to this medium, and the fact that the endings of both are entirely prescribed and any player’s completion of the game is virtually a foregone conclusion is a feature, not a bug. I liked Tacoma a lot. Wonder what Fullbright will do next. They said they almost made this game on a ship in the middle of the ocean. God, what I wouldn’t do to play that.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “Pearls Before Swine’s ‘Underground’ Classic Reissued 50 Years Later” — Quite content to pass this reissue by, I think. This is the kind of psychedelia that grinds my gears these days. But Bob Boilen still facilitates a good conversation here, even if the music isn’t to my taste.

Song by Song: First four episodes on Rain Dogs — I don’t get much out of this podcast’s regular episodes, but I had to drop in for the live ones on the first three songs on Rain Dogs, featuring John Hodgman and Helen Zaltzman. Those are fabulous episodes that are both funny and insightful into the music. I’m particularly gratified to hear the panel acknowledging Tom Waits’s awkward and offensive ableism and his tendency to exoticize whole countries. That hasn’t aged at all well. But the fourth episode, with the two main hosts back in the studio, isn’t nearly as fun. I think I’m opting out now.

Code Switch: “Raising Kings” (four parter) — This series of episodes is one of the crowning glories of Code Switch so far. It’s a deep dive into a unique new school where the vast majority of the students are young black men, and the teachers are also mostly black men. The school’s focus on restorative justice and its attention to the root causes of students’ misbehavior is apparently totally alien to the American public school system (I am Canadian and have limited knowledge about these things). And as admirable as the mission statement is, there are some bugs in the system that keep the school from getting the results its staff hope for. This is great journalism. Check this out. Pick of the week.

Reply All catchup — Sruthi Pinnamaneni’s two-parter on a Mexican-American skip chaser who’s hunting for a Mexican undocumented person is a crazy story with an actual satisfying ending. And the episode about whether or not Facebook is spying on us through the microphones of our smartphones features P.J. Vogt laughing uncontrollably at Alex Goldman’s inability to do something. So, altogether, a pretty strong run.

The Memory Palace: “Hoover” & “Elizabeth” — Two of the best episodes of this show in a long time. “Elizabeth” is particularly heartbreaking, moreso because Nate DiMeo is straightforward about how the story makes him feel, specifically. I am reminded of why this was my favourite podcast for so long. Sometimes it still is.

99% Invisible catchup — It’s fundraising time, and the Radiotopia flagship is pulling out all the stops. The most recent three episodes of this show have all been outstanding. The one on La Sagrada Familia is the best architecture episode they’ve done in ages. They followed it up with a story about how oysters could save New York from sea level rise. And then they did an episode about how houses in St. Louis are literally being stolen brick by brick. It’s three episodes of classic 99pi. And when this show is on, there’s nothing better.

Fresh Air: “Humorist John Hodgman” — I’ve heard a few interviews with Hodgman in the wake of his book release, but this is unsurprisingly the best by far. Terry Gross talks with him about his journey from ostentatiously weird only child in high school (I feel as though I have known a person like this) to professionally dissatisfied twentysomething (I feel as though I may currently know a person like this) to famous writer and weird dad (who can even say). It’s lovely stuff. He’s a treasure.

Omnibus (week of July 30, 2017)

This week’s North by Northwest segment is a good one, I think. A few overlooked gems by eminent artists. And it’s always a pleasure to do a segment with Margaret Gallagher, who’s guest hosting this week. I’m at 10:25 in this podcast.

21 reviews.

Live events

Cinquecento: Live at Christ Church Cathedral — This was a lovely evening at Early Music Vancouver’s Bach festival, so named for having a lot of Bach, but not only Bach. Cinquecento is a five-piece male vocal ensemble that specializes in the music of the 16th century. This concert, in the resonant acoustic of Burrard Street’s Christ Church Cathedral, focussed on the music of Reformation England. The program was a mix of Thomas Tallis (a name to know, but not a composer I’d really ever looked into), Christopher Tye (who I’d honestly never heard of at all), William Byrd (a favourite of mine) and an encore by Robert Parsons (no relation). Cinquecento sings with otherworldly accuracy and feeling — only the occasional siren from outside the thin shell of the church walls reminded us that we were in fact still participating in material reality. Particularly ethereal were the moments of these pieces when the polyphony gave way to unison singing, in the style of plainchant. It’s almost spooky how together they are in those moments. Funny how when you’ve experienced complexity on basically every musical front, from harmonic to technological, a handful of people singing in unison makes the world stop. It has taken me a long time to develop a taste for renaissance polyphony in more than short bursts. It seems to me that for all of the variation in compositional style between different composers and genres in this period, there isn’t a whole lot of variation in texture — and that’s what you hear first. Increasingly, I think that the way to hear this music is simply to surrender yourself to it, and the best way to do that is to hear it live, in a resonant space. It’s a rare thing that I say any music is better live. But I love hearing early music in concert. I should do it more. In terms of rep: the standouts among the Tallis selections were his “Lamentations of Jeremiah I” and the hymn “Te lucis ante terminum,” which contained the aforementioned world-stopping unison sections. But the real highlight, totally unexpectedly, was the Agnus Dei from Tye’s Mean Mass. I know nothing about this guy, and I wasn’t particularly moved by any of the other sections from this mass. A cursory Google doesn’t unearth any recordings, so I do hope I manage to encounter this music again. In any case, a wonderful concert.

Television, etc.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 12 — “Crisco, you been selling your blood again?” As much as I complain about the lack of Dale Cooper in the new Twin Peaks, I tend to prefer episodes in which he has no part at all to the ones that focus on him as a monosyllabic husk of his former self. (Aside from that wonderful shot of Sonny Jim nailing him with a baseball.) This was a pretty fantastic episode, all things considered. I tend to enjoy the Gordon/Albert plotline, and here’s hoping that Tammy gets something to do now that she’s officially on the dangerous Blue Rose task force. But aside from those reliably enjoyable scenes (with one exception, in a moment), this also gives us generous doses of two characters who have been either largely or entirely absent for the bulk of the season. Audrey Horne’s return is as baffling as we had every reason to believe it would be, since Lynch and Frost seem hellbent on putting our favourite characters in situations so unfamiliar to us that they read as functionally different people. But at least we get Grace Zabriskie, stepping back into the role of Sarah Palmer for more screen time than in any prior episode. I love this performance, because unlike many of this show’s reintroduced characters, Sarah seems exactly like you’d expect her to, 25 years after the original series’ events. Which is to say, she seems similar to the way we’re used to her — but moreso. The intense trauma of what happened to her daughter has continued to eat away at her just like it was in the first place, and it’s been like that for decades, now. Zabriskie’s performance has always been one of the best in Twin Peaks. And here, she contorts herself into a person who seems like she hasn’t been calm since a third of a lifetime ago. But also there’s that scene where David Lynch ogles a comically sexed-up French woman. I mean, at least he’s being explicit about it. But I really wish this show was better about not being sexist. The last thing I wanted Lynch and Frost to do with a revived Twin Peaks was demonstrate what out-of-touch old men they are. For some, Twin Peaks’ attitude towards women is likely grounds for dismissal out of hand, and I understand that. Personally, I just wish that a show that’s so radical in so many ways could be a little less ass-backwards in that way.

Game of Thrones: “The Queen’s Justice” — Marvellous. This is Game of Thrones at its talkiest, most political, and best. The long-awaited meeting of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen is enough to make it classic. It’s a beautifully wrought bit of political drama in which two sympathetic characters are both right in conflicting ways, as are their sympathetic aides. Tyrion and Ser Davos are equally compelling as the two marquee names. In fact I daresay Liam Cunningham wins the scene with his spirited defence of Jon’s worthiness of the title King in the North. It’s nice to see somebody respectable offer a bit of resistance to Daenerys, too. She is glorious, to be sure, but she’s getting ostentatious, and she doesn’t see the whole picture. Nobody south of Winterfell has, yet. That scene is so good that it risks sucking the air out of everything that comes after. But then we get a pair of the best Cersei scenes ever. First, we watch her carry out truly gruesome revenge against her daughter’s killer. Then, in a scene I didn’t know I wanted, we watch her spar with Mark Gatiss, who brought all his considerable smugness to bear. We get Littlefinger the chaos theorist, advocating a model of decision making based on envisioning every branch in a tree of outcomes. We get Sam continuing to be abused in the way of all unpaid interns. And we get the magnificent Olenna Tyrell dying as she lived: with an acid tongue and an impeccable knowledge of her sparring partner’s pressure points. So far, this is my favourite season of Game of Thrones. If it keeps this up to the end, it may yet become a show I mostly like.

Literature, etc.

Ryan Lizza: “Anthony Scaramucci Called Me To Unload About White House Leakers, Reince Priebus, and Steve Bannon” — Even after Priebus got pushed out and made this piece into a previous version of the news (it happens so fast now), I felt I had to read this and I am not sorry I did. Scaramucci is a cartoon character. He is a man with absolutely no self-awareness. He refers to himself in the third person and calls himself “the Mooch.” He is making a concerted effort to come off as some kind of goon/kingpin hybrid and he ends up sounding like a sad man who thinks he’s in Goodfellas. Wild shit. Also, like an hour after I wrote this review, he got the boot. Awesome.

Chris Ware: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth — I am about three quarters of the way through this magnificent graphic novel. I daresay I’ve lingered longer on each page of this than I have with any other comic, thanks to Chris Ware’s complex and adventurous page layouts, resolutely quadrilateral-based, but with the panels of sequences arranged in pleasingly counterintuitive ways. And the art itself is basically the platonic ideal of comic art: cartoonish and expressive, with each panel limited in its colour palate, but with an almost schematic attention to the detail of structures and environments. Early in the book, Ware’s layouts are more ostentatious and formalist. Some take on the character of a flow chart, with narratives told through abstract series’ of cause and effect. But as the book proceeds, his approach becomes more direct, befitting the increasing drama of the story. Because for all of the novelty of Ware’s approach, for all of the virtuosity in his artwork, the story he is telling is a brutally sad and often cringeworthy tale of isolation and hardship. I’ll cover my thoughts on the story next week once I’m finished it. But it’s already pretty clear to me that this is soon to join the ranks of From Hell and Phonogram, my other favourite works in this medium.

James Parker: “The Whitest Music Ever” — LMAO where to even start. Firstly, I am grateful to Parker for reiterating the traditional critical line about prog rock in a mainstream publication. With a book like David Wiegel’s The Show That Never Ends on the market, which Parker is reviewing here, I was getting concerned that my love of prog no longer makes me a contrarian and THAT CANNOT STAND. Equally gratifying is the way in which Parker dismisses prog with the general sentiment “but just listen to it its so ugly!” This is by some margin the most defensible negative critique of the genre. It is super weird! Prog is often very unattractive music — fascinatingly so, to those of us who like it. Parker’s got a great line about “the tune” of a piece of music being “the infinitely precious sound of the universe rhyming with one’s own brain.” I find that unbelievably relatable. Except that I feel the universe rhyming with my brain when I listen to “Knots” by Gentle Giant, which Parker, reasonably enough, finds unlistenable. One man’s trash, etc. All the same, Parker’s surety that this music is intrinsically unlikeable carries an unpleasant implication: that those of us who claim to like it do so out of something other than the intuitive aesthetic attraction that draws everybody else to their favourite music. I.e. we are pretentious, and we would have fewer liabilities as cultural consumers if we were normal. That’s real shitty. Dan Fox puts it better than I could ever hope to: “The accuser of pretension always presumes bad intentions. Truth is, more often than not pretension is simply someone trying to make the world more interesting, responding to it the way they think is appropriate. It’s more likely that what you think is one person’s pretension is another’s good faith… To fear being accused of pretension is to police oneself out of curiosity about the world.” I can’t help but feel when I read a critique like Parker’s that I’m being beckoned back to my box. “Don’t enjoy weird shit; it’s unbecoming.” And while I absolutely agree with Parker that the elements of pop music that prog sometimes eschews, i.e. hooks and repetition (though his loathed Magma are plenty repetitious), are valuable and attractive, I don’t think that’s any reason to proclaim the genre “murder, artistically speaking.” It’s insufferably closed-minded to expect all music to conform to any one set of standards. And I don’t think that Parker’s self-acknowledged glibness is at all constructive. Rather, I think it only serves as virtue signalling for his own normalcy, which isn’t even a virtue. Am I being unfun? Probably. But this is bad criticism, and I don’t know how to say that without getting on my high horse. Finally, a word on prog’s whiteness. Prog is super white! This is by no means good, but I’m also not sure that its deliberate distance from the blues is a sin by default. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’m still of two minds about it. On one hand, you could look at prog’s disavowal of blues as a creepily Brexity refusal to engage with anybody’s culture save for these musicians’ own white, European culture. On the other hand, you can also look at it as a respectful reluctance to engage in cultural appropriation. Of all of the rock music to emerge from the U.K. in the late 60s, prog is the only subgenre whose musicians have consistently acknowledged, in their musical practice and in interviews, that blues does not belong to them and they don’t really have any business playing it. Which of these two interpretations seems more convincing probably depends on how charitable you feel towards the music in general, but I expect the truth involves a bit of both. Personally, I find prog’s enormous whiteness a hell of a lot more palatable than this bullshit.

Movies

Snowpiercer — I don’t know why I didn’t see this sooner. This is a really good movie. The conceit of showing a revolution happening in a class-stratified train is one of those premises that is so elegant from the outset that you wonder why nobody did it long before. (I suppose the graphic novel came out in 1982, but that still seems curiously recent to me.) In execution, all it really has to do is make the journey from the back of the train to the front compelling and varied, which it is. Chris Evans is a bit of a cipher of a protagonist until near the end, when things get really complicated. But in the supporting cast we get John Hurt, Tilda Swinton (with some really great false teeth), Octavia Spencer and Ed Harris, so how can you go wrong. Good fun. The kind of movie I wish we saw more of.

Dunkirk — Seeing Christopher Nolan’s latest in an IMAX screening sits very near the top of my shortlist of great moviegoing experiences. Take note that this is a distinct list from my list of favourite movies, and even from my list of favourite movies I’ve seen in theatres. A movie need not be a masterpiece to be an incredible experience in a theatre. Some of the films I’d put on this list are masterpieces (Mad Max: Fury Road). Some are resolutely not (Avatar). Dunkirk is a truly great film, probably Nolan’s best. But my opinion of it is entirely contingent on the experience of seeing it in film projection, on an IMAX screen. The beauty of IMAX is that it nearly fills your field of vision, encouraging you to forget everything that lies beyond the edges of the screen. So, when Nolan puts his camera in an enclosed space, the hugeness of an IMAX screen makes the scene feel more claustrophobic, not less, because you feel that you’re in that space as well. And when that claustrophobic space, say, the galley of ship, gets hit by a torpedo and fills instantly with water, you feel like you’re going to die. That, in a nutshell, is why Dunkirk is a great film: Nolan understands that cinema is an experience as much as a narrative art form, and he uses his mastery of the craft to put the audience inside of one of the most traumatic and unprecedented chapters in the history of warfare. Nolan’s customary structural game, i.e. telling three intersecting stories in three different timespans, is the only thing serving as a reminder that what you’re seeing is a narrative construction. Nolan’s playing with timelines has been one of the most remarked-upon elements of the movie, which is understandable since it’s basically the only thing connecting this movie’s narrative approach to any previous Nolan film (namely Inception). But the real spark of ingenuity in Nolan’s three-story approach is that the stories in question encompass land, sea and air. Equally thrilling and stressful to the beach evacuation are the sequences of airborne battle, taking place over an impossibly long ocean horizon. This is filmmaking at its most spectacular and affecting. Dunkirk is too stressful to see in theatres twice. But you must see it. On the biggest screen possible. Pick of the week.

Games

Day of the Tentacle — It was on sale, and Rock Paper Shotgun called it the best adventure game of all time. It isn’t. It’s fine, but its dopey comedy tone is extremely trying. I played the remastered version of the game, which modernizes the interface and recreates the original’s pixel art as beautifully rendered cartoon animation, which still studiously maintains the detail of the original. The remaster offers the option to switch to the original version of the game, which I periodically did, just to see the difference. Seems to me that the remaster is faultless, but it can only do so much with the material at hand. Day of the Tentacle’s writing is full of silliness, but light on actual jokes. Its characters are not real characters but ‘types,’ which would be fine if the game did anything at all to undercut those types, but it doesn’t. It just rehearses them by rote. Day of the Tentacle is happy to risk being childish for the benefit of being funny, but it isn’t funny, so its childishness is insufferable. I suppose I shouldn’t gripe about that since it’s for children, after all. But one expects that children’s entertainment that attains this degree of acclaim would at least be admirable on a structural level to an adult. Nope. As for the puzzles, many are extremely clever and satisfying, especially when they involve the game’s time travel premise in their solutions. But just as often, the puzzles in Day of the Tentacle are maddeningly obtuse, in the manner of most point-and-clicks from this time period. In an effort to not spend hours and hours on this silly game that I wasn’t really enjoying, I made moderate use of a walkthrough for puzzle hints. I mention this because there are those who would say I haven’t really played the game if I haven’t arrived independently at all of the puzzle solutions. To those people I say: this review would be far less charitable if I had. This game is adequate. It’s no classic. The Myst games get a raw deal these days for the unfairness of their puzzles and their relative lack of story. But they at least provide an interesting space to explore and play amateur anthropologist. Give me Riven any day over this.

Music

Meredith Monk: Dolmen Music — A wonderful NPR feature on the best albums made by women reminded me that this is something I’ve always meant to check out. Monk is a fascinating composer whose work I’ve heard in bits and pieces in various contexts, but I’ve never sat down with a full album’s worth of her music. This is fabulous stuff, but for my money the first half, featuring music for solo voice and piano is more satisfying than the larger title track that makes up the second side. “Gotham Lullaby” is especially attractive. There’s something to be said for the sound of the human voice when it is divorced from the concrete meaning making of language. A wonderful discovery.

Pink Floyd: Zabriskie Point score — (How odd that the word “Zabriskie” comes up in two different contexts this week.) Noting that a substantial amount of The Early Years volume four contains outtakes from the sessions Pink Floyd did for Michelangelo Antonioni’s psychedelic odyssey (which I’ve never seen, but I’ve heard described by Karina Longworth), I figured I’d best hear the tracks that actually made it onto the soundtrack album. These are a rather astonishing and attractive sound collage called “Heart Beat, Pig Meat,” an unextraordinary acoustic number called “Crumbling Land” and an alternate version of “Careful With That Axe Eugene” retitled “Come in Number 5, Your Time Is Up” that is superior to the previous studio version but can’t touch the magnificent live recording on Ummagumma. But there’s more: four additional tracks made it onto the special edition from 1997. “Country Song” would sit nicely on Obscured by Clouds, the band’s most listenable soundtrack work. “Unknown Song” anticipates the midsection of the “Atom Heart Mother Suite,” i.e. the good part. “Love Scene (Version 6)” is a fairly bland blues jam of the sort that British rock bands were prone to do when nobody sternly told them not to. So far, all of these tracks have been full band credits, but the one remaining track, along with “Heart Beat” the crown jewel of the bunch, is a Richard Wright solo piano number. “Love Scene (Version 4)” finds Wright playing in his pleasingly unaffected fashion, exploring melodies over chords that sway gently to and fro. It’s a trifle, and I expect he thought nothing of it, but it feels like a candid photograph. I quite like it. It’s a mystery to me why all of this stuff wasn’t remastered for inclusion on The Early Years, considering that it’s probably the least familiar of all of Pink Floyd’s officially issued material. These tracks, plus the outtakes in the box set would make up a lost Pink Floyd album that’s superior to More. (Though none of the tracks with lyrics can compete with “Green is the Colour” or “Cymbeline,” both of which deserve to be on a better album.)

Pink Floyd: The Early Years 1965-1972 — Another week, another two volumes of this box set on Apple Music. Volume three focusses on 1969, the year of More and Ummagumma: albums that I mildly dislike, and half like, respectively. All the same, this volume demonstrates that for all the inconsistency in the band’s studio output at the time, they were nonetheless reaching a new peak of creative vibrancy. After a first disc that features some tepid outtakes from More and a couple of live performances that range from fine to good, the second disc gives us a complete recording of the band’s famous The Man and the Journey live show. It’s a conceptual piece, and so it risks coming off as a bit tedious or literal, but as a sound recording it seems mercifully abstract. This is a great performance — everything from the extended “Cymbaline” to the found-object piece “Work” is compelling. It’s tempting to listen in the manner of a trainspotter, locating bits of previous and upcoming pieces of music in this liminal, transitory performance. But you don’t have to listen like that. It sustains a simple listen for its own virtues. Volume four covers 1970, the year of Atom Heart Mother, and thus a problem year. So far, I have not been annoyed with the multiple instances of some key songs, like “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” or “Careful With That Axe, Eugene.” But the three complete versions of the “Atom Heart Mother Suite” on this volume are a bit much to bear. Two of the three feature no orchestra, which one might initially think would remove some of the problems with that misbegotten work. But the band declines to incorporate the melodic material that appears in the horns and strings in some other way, which makes the whole thing feel a bit insubstantial. You can’t win. The John Peel session that features a complete “Atom Heart Mother” is by and large a satisfying listen, but the brass band and choir assembled in lieu of the full orchestra/choir implement shit the bed as badly here as the ensembles on the record do. (Kind of puts a fine point on how bad the studio record is, doesn’t it?) Also, “Embryo” is a weirdly important song in Pink Floyd sets of this time period. It was not good enough to make it onto a proper album, but they play it at every show, seemingly. This volume also features the outtakes from the Zabriskie Point sessions, which are really fun. There’s definitely a full soundtrack album’s worth of music in there. Great stuff.

Podcasts

Radiolab: “Breaking News” — A terrifying tale from the precipice of a dystopia. The team tells the story of a new bit of technology that allows for convincing fake audio and video to be made of famous people. The video that they made with it isn’t actually all that convincing, but we’re fast approaching a point where it will be, I’m sure. Shudder.

A Piece of Work: Episodes 1-3 & 5 — A fun journey through the wonder and weirdness of modern art, with one of the stars of Broad City. What more could you want? The episode on Yves Klein’s monochromes, feat. Questlove, is the highlight. I’m really enjoying this, and it made me want to go look at pictures. I daresay that’s the goal.

The Turnaround: “Louis Theroux” — I kind of wish Jesse Thorn were as willing to challenge Jerry Springer and Louis Theroux as he was Audie Cornish. Because Springer, for all his self-awareness, hosts a trashy show, and Theroux sometimes stirs the pot for the sake of drama rather than understanding. Not one of my favourite episodes of this.

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Introducing… Showcase from Radiotopia” — This is such a good idea. The biggest problem with podcasting that isn’t a problem in broadcasting is that a show idea has to be infinitely self-sustaining, unless it’s something like S-Town or Mogul and has the support of a major player in the industry. So here’s a channel with the support of a major player in the industry, PRX, that focusses on smaller series with experimental approaches. I’m salivating.

99% Invisible: “Ways of Hearing” — John Berger would be proud. I’m counting this as an episode of 99pi, because that’s how I heard it. But it’s actually the first episode in Ways of Hearing, which is itself the first serial on Showcase from Radiotopia. Interestingly, this series on the social impact of digital recording is airing for the first time just as a CBC Radio series on the impact of electricity on music is airing again on Ideas. I’ve been avidly following that, but not reviewing it because it was co-produced by a friend of mine. (Regardless, it is a masterpiece. Listen to it.) This is more specific in its subject than that series and less sweeping in its scope, but it is so far very eloquent in its argumentation — even if that argumentation is basically that technology took something out of music, which is one of those arguments that’ll either be obvious or obviously wrong to you. Or perhaps not, because when I think about it, I’m not sure which side of that debate I land on. I’ll let this sit for a while before offering my final assessment. But I’ll definitely listen to the rest of the series. Oh, and the Jon Brion interview at the end of this is a very eloquent elaboration on a concept that is fairly central to my understanding of pop music: the notion that a song and a performance are two distinct things.

Reply All: “Long Distance, Part II” — An ending that befits the beginning. Wow, is this ever a thrill ride, considering that it started with Alex Goldman personally being the subject of a scam attempt. How wonderful that he works somewhere with the money to sent him across the world with a producer to find the guy who scammed him. Bracing, wonderful stuff.

The Gist: “A Video Came Thoreau Might Play” — Walden, a game sounds like an interesting concept, but I feel like regardless of its distinctive subject matter I wouldn’t be able to help comparing it with Firewatch, which is too awesome to compare to anything. We’ll see.

Ear Hustle: “The SHU” — This is a rough listen. Solitary confinement is a brutal practice, and one that it’s a miracle doesn’t leave a person irreparably broken. Stories worth knowing, though.

Longform: “Maggie Haberman” — This is one of the most astonishing interviews I have ever heard. During the course of this conversation, Maggie Haberman, NYT White House reporter, reports a story. Like, she talks about her job at the same time as she does it. And moreover, she acts as if this is simply not unusual. It’s disquieting, actually. I feel concerned for her. I think she’s forgotten how to be human. I am reminded of the words of the immortal Malcolm Tucker: “This is a fucking husk. I am a fucking host for this fucking job.” Come for the niche interest process story and stay for the bizarre fucking implicit psychodrama. Pick of the week.

Omnibus (week of July 9, 2017)

Oh, but it’s a good one this week. We’ve got theatre, a pair of superhero blockbusters, some great new music, the start of a chapter-by-chapter rundown of a truly excellent episodic adventure game, and the most unexpected literary classic of recent years from a sports website. Also a metric tonne of podcasts. I’ve been procrastinating again.

32 reviews. Eat up.

Live events

The Merchant of Venice (Bard on the Beach) — Like The Winter’s Tale, this is not a play that I know well. I know it as Shakespeare’s most fraught play, since it is widely considered anti-Semitic. Given my lack of knowledge of the text itself, I can’t easily judge whether that’s the case, because this production is intensely sympathetic to Shylock. It paints him as a man who insists upon his own dignity in spite of the world’s hatred and disregard for him. It paints his ruthlessness as a symptom of the constant abuse he suffers at the hands of Christians. Mind you, that’s present in the play itself to the extent that it allows Shylock the interiority to know his own intentions and the reasoning for them. The “hath not a Jew eyes” is evidence enough that Shakespeare has some sympathy for Shylock. But that only makes it more perplexing that he goes on to ruin Shylock’s life and write him out of the last act. After watching what happens to Shylock in this production, it is almost viscerally unpleasant to watch the play as it refocuses on the foibles of newlyweds. This is probably intentional: director Nigel Shawn Williams makes clear in his notes that he is more interested in the play’s struggles for dignity and power than with its romances. He associates this theme of struggling for dignity with Shylock, Jessica, Portia and Antonio: the latter two of which I have a bit of trouble accepting — Antonio in particular. But nonetheless, it is the struggle between Antonio and Shylock that really soars in this production, thanks in very large part to excellent performances by Edward Foy and (especially) Warren Kimmel. Kimmel will also be performing in Mark Leiren-Young’s Shylock in September, and I’m going to get my tickets real quick. The lovers are less inspired. This is partially due to the decision to turn the males in these plotlines into insufferable nightlife dudebros, but it’s mostly because some of them really shout a lot more than they need to. Still, on the whole, I enormously enjoyed this. It’s probably my favourite of the three Bard productions I’ve seen so far.

Literature, etc.

Amanda Petrusich: “MTV News, Chance the Rapper, and a Defense of Negative Criticism” — Whither music criticism? “Pivot to video.” Sigh. This is a lovely piece about the importance of the sort of music writing that doesn’t depend on access. I feel it ties in slightly with what I wrote about the first episode of The Turnaround last week, particularly Petrusich’s last graf: “A funny thing about journalism is that it’s contingent upon the willful participation of a subject; a reporter always needs a reliable, talkative source. People agree to coöperate with journalists for reasons of self-promotion or, on rare occasions, moral obligation. But criticism doesn’t require its subject to acquiesce. For anyone accustomed to high degrees of control, this can seem, at first, like an affront. But well-rendered criticism confirms that the work is high stakes. This criticism can be illuminating and thrilling, and might offer an important vantage on a very private experience. It is, at least, less strangulating than a feedback loop of endless, bootless flattery.” Read the rest.

Jon Bois: 17776 — If you’d told me in January that one of the highlights of my pop culture year would be a story about football that came from SB Nation, I… would probably have believed you but also been very surprised. This story of life in the inconceivably distant future is one of the most effortlessly, unassumingly funny, bittersweet and occasionally heartbreaking stories I’ve come across in a very long time. The fact that it’s so surprising and so totally different from anything else I’ve ever seen a major news/sports/culture publication do is only part of the appeal of this. Mostly, it just knows exactly what it is and follows through again and again. I’ll try not to spoil too much, because the novelty and element of surprise are nice. But a certain amount of spoilers are inevitable from here on out. Basically, 17776 is a story about a world where people stopped dying, stopped aging (or, stopped aging involuntarily at least), stopped getting sick, and invented a way to prevent all accidental death and injury. It envisions a world where the people who inhabit earth in the year 17776 are for the most part the same set of people who inhabit the earth now. Having arrived in a post-scarcity world, where even time is not scarce, humanity (particularly the American portion of it) now occupies itself with increasingly long, large-scale and absurd games of football. It is largely told from the point of view of three incredibly loveable protagonists, all of them space probes launched in the 20th and 21st centuries who have over time become sentient. It just took me 126 words to describe the premise of this thing. That should give you some sense of its amazing strangeness. Pioneer 9 is our real protagonist, and our audience surrogate. The story begins with Nine finally attaining sentience and having a whole lot of questions. Fortunately, their little sister (or big sister, depending how you think about it) Pioneer 10 is around to explain the new status quo. The third main character, the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) is the story’s masterstroke. You know that slacker dude you used to hang out with who also might be the smartest person in the world? That’s JUICE. Reading this trio’s banter is an unbelievable pleasure. Each of them is a perfectly defined character who is more than what they seem: more compassionate, more astute, wiser. Jon Bois is a weird writer with his own voice and a sensibility unlike anybody else, but he’s also got the basics down pat, and he knows how to write characters that provide a human throughline in a story that involves really quite a lot of talking about football. Okay, let’s touch on that. I have seen a total of two, maybe three football games in my life and my grasp of the rules is laughably rudimentary. But I ate up the sections of 17776 that are about the gameplay and logistics of future football games. As a work of speculative fiction, 17776 is very whimsical. But as a set of works of speculative football, it is impressively rigorous. Bois uses the premise of the story to propose several wonderful games of borderline Dadaist football, mostly with fields that stretch across several states. In one, the end zones are in Washington and New Mexico, but the field is still just the width of a normal football field, so you have no choice but to climb mountains, jump off cliffs, etc. if you want to move the ball. In another, Bois asks how a contemporary NHL game might evolve if it were allowed to continue nearly indefinitely. He devises a parody of commercial football so absurd that it may well be my new favourite fictional anti-cap parable. Here’s the moment when I fell in love with JUICE, as he explains his love for this game to Ten, lack of apostrophes and all: “this IS capitalism you donk. this is what its supposed to be, this is how it ends. if it isn’t there its only because it isnt there yet. its like youre staring at a cake in the oven and wondering if its gonna be a cake. things went the other direction in america and thank god for that. but capitalism deserves a zoo like this one. it’s a beast of the wild, as wild as any grizzly bear with fawn’s blood in its mouth. i think you see deeds and contracts and bureaucratic bloat and see that something went wrong. something was ALWAYS wrong y’all. i love it. i love to watch it. in a zoo, where it can’t hurt me.” Unspeakably brilliant. This is the same character who waxes nostalgic for Lunchables and spells “Wolverine” as “wolferine.” He’s the best. Jon Bois’ brain works in crazy ways. There are tossed off observations here that for other people would become the premises of whole stories. I’m thinking particularly of a moment where Al Capone and his brother are likened to Greek gods, and then Bois points out that they lived in a town called “Homer.” It’s infuriatingly clever. But we’re yet to touch on the single greatest thing about 17776, which is that it fashions from its premise an idea about humanity’s place in the universe and why we are drawn to aimless, arbitrary pursuits like playing and watching football. The “intermission” section of the story features Bois’ most beautiful writing. Through the mouthpiece of Ten, Bois offers a picture of humanity’s purpose and destiny that outstrips Star Trek by basically inverting it. The humans of 17776 are bittersweet creatures who long ago stopped striving. This is not fine, but there’s nothing to be done. So, they play football. As JUICE says, “the point of play is to distract yourself from play being the point.” As an obsessive consumer of a frankly unwise amount of pop culture, I feel that I can sympathize with the sports fan impulse that produced a sentiment like this. If we really have so much left to accomplish, and such a great destiny, shouldn’t we feel inconceivably terrible about wasting so much time? And even in a world where time is not a factor, it’s hard to look at a passive humanity as anything other than a failure. This is what these characters are grappling with. This is something that the very obsessive among us understand best, provided that the obsession in question is essentially non-generative and consumerist. 17776 is the saddest and most inspiring thing I’ve read this year. It is extraordinary. Also, it is the only work of fiction that will ever make you mourn for a light bulb. I’m serious, Bois turns a light bulb into the most important thing in the universe. This is what the internet was always supposed to be. We need more Jon Bois. Pick of the week.

Television, etc.

Pretty Good: “I Wish Everyone Else Was Dead” — Here is more Jon Bois. Pretty Good is a YouTube series he does “about stories that are pretty good.” This particular instalment is about 24, the single most fucked up show I have ever watched (and liked in spite of myself). 24 is a show that takes suspension of disbelief to an entirely new level. It makes you suspend your entire value system: your entire reality. Bois points to the ruthlessness with which the show kills its named characters and the ways that people die to make a very clever point about America’s Goliath complex and the tendency of the privileged to think themselves persecuted. It also really highlights how incredibly gruesome the show was by cutting together a bunch of its cruellest moments. Other highlights include insights about 24 as a form of post-9/11 wish-fulfilment (it in large part negates the war on terror) and its incredibly fraught relationship with the office of the president. It is frankly unfair that a sports writer should also be this insightful about television. Watch this.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 9 — Exactly the episode that we needed after last episode’s abstract freakout. This is the most classically Twin Peaks this series has felt since it returned, mostly because it actually features people figuring things out instead of people treading water as more and more inexplicable things transpire around them. Don’t misunderstand me: I really like the show in the latter mode as well. But now that we’re in the back half of this season, I am ready for things to start coming together. Is it foolish to expect that between Gordon and his FBI cohorts, Truman and his Twin Peaks deputies, and the trio of clownlike Buckhorn detectives, we may have enough investigative advances at hand here to bring the Dougie Jones plotline to an end next week? Because I am still very much in need of Dale Cooper in this show.

Movies

Spider-Man: Homecoming — Third time’s a charm. I grew up a Spider-Man fan, but my enthusiasm for the character flagged with each passing cinematic adaptation. I am far less fond of Sam Raimi’s trilogy (yes, even the second one) than most, and the Andrew Garfield franchise was DOA. But this! Oh, this! This movie is light on its feet! And it’s completely lacking in the ostentatious moralizing that defined previous incarnations! Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is every inch the clever misfit I want Spider-Man to be. The opening sequence of the movie, in which he excitedly vlogs his way through his initial encounter with the Avengers in Civil War, sets the tone of ecstatic joy that the bulk of the movie traffics in. This is what I’ve been missing in superhero movies. Even the last Guardians of the Galaxy sidelined its comic lead in a misbegotten daddy problems plot. (The closest we get to that here is in a plotline with Tony Stark, and frankly it’s him who’s got the daddy problems.) This movie just allows Peter Parker to be a goofy kid trying to get a date while also trying to save the day. Classic Spider-Man. Moreover, the stakes aren’t at the permanently escalating heights of the Avengers movies: this is primarily a movie about your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. He negotiates curfews with his super cool Aunt May. (Casting Marissa Tomei was a masterstroke: she’s the last person you’d expect to play that role, which revitalizes it completely.) He helps an old woman and gets a churro for his troubles. He raises the ire of a housing block by setting off a car alarm. I love all of this. And I really love the film’s brief excursion into the suburbs, which are not Spider-Man’s natural habitat. The film’s weak moments are its huge action setpieces, which feel like they could come from any other Marvel movie with any other combination of heroes and villains. But these are refreshingly far apart, and they’re enlivened by a Michael Keaton performance by Michael Keaton who continues to play wingèd super persons, even after having parodied himself for doing just that. Having the villain of the first movie for this Spider-Man be small potatoes like Vulcan was a great call. It further localizes Spider-Man as a non-international superhero, and a street level personality, without the gigantic platforms of a Tony Stark or a Steve Rogers. But as fun as Keaton and Tomei are, Homecoming’s best supporting performances come from its ensemble of convincingly teenage teenagers, from Peter’s crush Liz, the classic overachieving senior, to his would-be tormentor Flash (played by Tony Revolori; I kept hoping he’d get captured so I could shout “GET YOUR HANDS OFF MY LOBBY BOY!”). The movie’s absolute MVP is Jacob Batalon as Peter’s best friend Ned. This guy is so exactly the guy who should be Peter Parker’s best friend that I can’t believe anybody ever thought James Franco fit-for-purpose. I really hope Ned doesn’t turn out to be the Hobgoblin. There are too many delightful moments in this to get to. I haven’t mentioned Donald Glover, who plays straightman to Holland in one of the film’s funniest scenes. I haven’t mentioned Peter’s rapport with the strangely empathetic yet bloodthirsty AI who talks to him in his suit. All of it is good. This is now tied with Civil War for the title of my favourite Marvel movie. I still resent universes and franchise juggernauts, but every so often Marvel makes a movie good enough to make me forget about that.

Wonder Woman — Now that awkward moment after giving a great review to the SIXTH Spider-Man movie where you admit to having mixed feelings about the ONLY major superhero movie with a female protagonist. My general thoughts are that Wonder Woman is fantastic, Gal Gadot is fantastic, and the movie’s take on the character is solid. It makes her comical without undermining her power, and powerful without being stolid and bland like the other DC heroes are these days. But I wasn’t a big fan of the straightforward punch-em-up war movie that she finds herself in here. The third act is particularly bland. But fuck my opinion. This is utterly necessary. The acclaimed no-man’s land sequence is pretty magnificent, and should become a cultural touchstone, at least until we get a better Wonder Woman movie, which I trust we will.

Music

John Luther Adams/The Crossing: Canticles of the Holy Wind — Another lovely offering from new music’s poet of the elements. Though this choral piece is not entirely original — some of the best moments are also present in his wonderful piece for strings, Canticles of the Sky — it feels like a new direction for Adams, whose music does not generally revolve around voices. However, with the new national prominence of The Crossing, the extraordinary Philadelphia chamber choir who astonished even more thoroughly on Ted Hearne’s record from earlier this year, he’s got access to an ensemble with the chops for his often sustained and minimal music. But the choral medium alone isn’t the only new innovation here. Adams also takes advantage of the extraordinary voices at his disposal to write music that relies on the play of birdsong against silence. I’m not sure there’s anything else in Adams’ recent oeuvre that is as staccato and abrupt as “Cadenza of the Mockingbird,” nor can I think of anything he’s written that requires the same level of ostentatious virtuosity from the musicians. That said, it isn’t a highlight of the work. High voices imitating birds wears out its welcome more quickly than Adams thinks. And there are other weak points: “The Singing Tree,” with its ceaseless triangle tinkling crosses the line from a genuine conjuration of the majesty of nature to nature boy drum circle nonsense. My impression of this might change with repeated listens, but I generally come to Adams for music of peace and majesty (The Light that Fills the World for the former, the world-destroying magnificence of Become Ocean for the latter). Canticles of the Holy Wind presents a picture of nature not only in all its majesty, but also all its banality. This is a worthwhile thing to do, especially with access to as versatile an ensemble as The Crossing. But it makes for a rougher listen than some of Adams’ other music. Still, there is much to marvel at here, and I far prefer it to 2015’s percussion music recording with Glenn Kotche.

Offa Rex: The Queen of Hearts — This is as great as I’d hoped, though to be fair, the feature episode of All Songs Considered on this from a while ago dropped enough hints at its greatness that it was a relatively sure bet. I likely wouldn’t have listened to this if not for the Decemberists’ involvement, but it is much more Olivia Chaney’s album than it is theirs. Mind you, they sound great, and the notion that they’d be involved in an English folk revival… revival album is entirely in character. But I challenge you to not get a bit miffed when Colin Meloy starts singing on the his two vocal features. Chaney’s voice is an incredible instrument, but better still she knows what to do with it. On the title track, listen to how she gradually sings more and more with the lead guitar throughout the song, eventually harmonizing with it. And the best track has no Decemberists on it at all, as far as I can tell: Chaney’s harmonium-adorned rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Say what you like about the Roberta Flack version, and there is much good to be said. But Chaney’s version strips everything about the song, including the chord progression, down to the most basic possible version of itself. And the way she delivers the melismas at the ends of the lines is just chilling. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s “Sheepcrook and Black Dog,” which is the album’s best evocation of the more rock and roll side of the English folk revival. It even gestures towards Jethro Tull at times: shades of “No Lullaby” and “Velvet Green.” I’m still waiting for somebody to write something detailed about the provenance of each of these songs. I’d really like to do a deep dive into this, and listen to some of the 60s and 70s recordings of these, as well as earlier acoustic versions, if they exist. But some are obvious. For now I’m going to listen to “The Old Churchyard” again. One of my favourite albums of the year.

Steeleye Span: Hark! The Village Wait — Is it wrong to like this more than Liege and Lief? Because on first listen, I do. “The Dark-Eyed Sailor” and “Lowlands of Highland” are particularly attractive. It’s just old folk songs performed well, with electric instrumentation. It’s sort of undeniable. I can feel myself sinking into a British folk rock phase. Thanks, Offa Rex.

Games

The Dream Machine: Chapter 1 — I realized recently that the sixth and final chapter of this magnificent game came out two months ago! How did I not hear? In any case, it’s been long enough since I’ve played this that I think it’s wise for me to play it from the beginning again, which will be a pleasure anyway. I’m going to take this one chapter at a time, like I did with Kentucky Route Zero when the most recent episode of that came out. The first chapter of The Dream Machine isn’t really demonstrative of what’s great about it: it doesn’t really come alive until you encounter the dream machine itself. But its visual aesthetic is instantly impressive — the headline for The Dream Machine is that it’s a handmade point-and-click adventure game, where every image is constructed from cardboard, clay and found objects. That is astonishing in itself, though the built environments are better in episodes that aren’t so tied to the apartment complex that is the game’s primary setting. But visuals aside, on a second playthrough, it’s really clever how this episode plants seeds of the themes to come throughout its relatively simple story. Starting the game in a dream is an obvious, but profitable choice. Firstly, it establishes what the game’s primary modus operandi: namely, cardboard and clay constructions of dreams. Secondly, it offers a crash course in the psychology of our protagonist, Victor. Should you allow the conversation to drift in a particular direction, Victor’s wife Alicia will be kind enough to do the armchair psychoanalysis for you. Victor’s dream of a desert island is an escapist fantasy that allows him to get away from his doubts about the new life he’s about to embark upon in a new apartment with his expectant wife and regress to a situation where his own self is the most important thing in his world. And indeed, there are plenty of indications throughout this chapter that Victor Neff is a bit of a man-child, from his self-assurances that he’ll start up his music career again once the apartment is set up to the ever-present conversation options that imply he can sometimes be a bit of a selfish jerk to Alicia. This is very clever exposition, since The Dream Machine is shaping up to be a sort of delayed coming-of-age story for Victor. (Bear in mind that I’m yet to play the final chapter.) He’ll be spending subsequent chapters tramping through other people’s subconsciouses (including Alicia’s, which is teased in this chapter), which is as direct a way to learn empathy as exists. That’s what I love most about The Dream Machine: it doesn’t just contrive a roughshod frame narrative as an excuse to make you solve puzzles inside of dream worlds, it actually works as an arc for its protagonist as well. Throughout The Dream Machine, Victor finds the tools to get out of his own head by literally getting inside the heads of others. Having not played the final chapter yet, I can only conjecture, but I assume this will assuage some of his fears and doubts about starting a family. The appeal of this is coming back quickly. A couple of additional observations: another theme that first emerges near the end of this chapter is voyeurism. (The game’s tagline positions this front-and-centre: “an award-winning game about dreams and voyeurism.”) Alicia thought the camera above the bed was creepy. Just wait. Also, the dream sequence at the start of this is my first bit of evidence for a personal crackpot theory: that The Dream Machine is a long and detailed enactment of the Brian Eno song “On Some Faraway Beach.” I’ll develop this theory in later reviews, as I gather more evidence. But to start, I’ll just point out that the song is a work of deliberate escapism to a place where there are no other human souls around to care for or to rely on. And I’ll also mention that the devs confirmed their Eno fandom to me on Twitter. So that’s a start.

The Dream Machine: Chapter 2 — This is where things really get going. Mr. Morton’s dream is the first proper one in the game, but nonetheless one of the most abstract. Where subsequent dream sequences will convey something close to a possible physical space (though Edie’s dream deconstructs this observation and Willard’s contradicts it entirely), Morton’s takes place in an abstract world seemingly constructed entirely of the anxieties and traumas brought upon him by a lineage of flawed and obsessive forebears. We meet the three previous male members of the Morton lineage as huge stone heads, and we learn about their relationships to each other. We learn that our Mr. Morton was coddled by a sympathetic father as an antidote to the abuse he received from his grandfather. Victor doesn’t even know what’s going on yet and already the dream machine is teaching him about parenting. This theme will become less explicit in future episodes, but it behooves the game to lay its cards out at this early stage. In terms of gameplay, this is also where we get our first substantial puzzles, with the dream journal sequence, getting each statue to talk, and finding Mr. Morton. From the start, I thought that this game had some of the best puzzles I’ve ever encountered, if only because they are fair. A moderately skilled puzzle solver won’t get stuck very much in The Dream Machine, which is good, but the puzzles still require you to observe closely and think through possibilities. (I recall chapter five’s puzzles being several levels harder, but we’ll get there.) The only problem I had with the puzzles in this chapter, this time, was that it took me a while to realize (indeed, remember) that there were hatches on the sides of the statues. They’re hard to see, and it always sucks when your failure results from a design element being virtually invisible. But it’s a vanishingly minor quibble, and honestly, the meat of the game doesn’t really start until the next chapter. The first two chapters are thematic and narrative exposition and throat clearing. They’re wonderful, but the best is yet to come. Now, what you all came for: more evidence for my theory that this entire game is actually about the Brian Eno song “On Some Faraway Beach.” Only one piece this time, but it’s the first substantial one: the title of the song — phrased exactly that way, with the word “some” rather that “a” or whatever other article — is one of the key repeating phrases in Morton’s dream journals. This isn’t the last time it’ll be namechecked in the game. But, as I implied in the chapter one review, the game and the song do have a compelling thematic link. “Given the chance,” sings Eno, “I’ll die like a baby on some faraway beach.” This is Victor’s attitude at the start of the game: jealous of his unborn child, and wishing to revert back to a pre-adult state. I also see a hint of Mr. Morton in some subsequent lyrics: “Unlikely I’ll be remembered/as the tide brushes sand in my eyes I’ll drift away.” Morton was thrust into his family’s legacy from early childhood, against his will. Even in old age, he still was unable to come to terms with that legacy, or the extent to which it had eaten up his life. Morton dies childless, breaking the cycle and providing a useful negative role model for Victor. And Morton’s final wish is for his life’s work, and his family’s, to be destroyed. Better to be forgotten than to be remembered for something hideous.

The Dream Machine: Chapter 3 — I am remembering now that this is my least-favourite episode of The Dream Machine, though it is still, on balance, excellent. This is the episode where the puzzle structure is most obvious: complete three tasks for three different people, then complete three more tasks for those same three people to get to the endgame… the wires are on display here a little more than in other episodes. Plus, it contains fewer areas to explore than other chapters. But the puzzles themselves are delightful and the premise of the episode is solid. Here, Victor finds himself inside his wife’s recurring dream — and face to face with a gaggle of clones of himself, each of them one of Alicia’s subconscious impressions of a facet of Victor’s personality. In spite of the fact that nearly all of the characters in this chapter are clones of the player character, they’ve all been given different postures to reflect their different personalities. The dreamer’s resting position is looking up at the sky. The pompous one has his arms behind his back at all times. The player character just keeps slouching his way through the game. It’s the small details that make this game great. I especially love it once it turns into a detective story. Investigating Victor Eleven’s disappearance is a great opportunity for the writers to show different elements of the same story through the voices of very different characters. The conspiratorial busboy is the highlight of the episode, for me. You can tell from the way that others talk about him that he’s the sort of guy who’s always got a conspiracy theory, but it just so happens that this time he’s right. Psychoanalytically, this is a harder one to parse than the first two episodes. But I think my central contention that this game is about a man learning empathy pulls through, here. This is literally a case of Victor seeing himself as somebody else sees him. Fortunately for his ego, the person whose eyes he’s seeing through is somebody who loves him, and who also knows him well enough to know that he contains multitudes: hundreds of Victors who vary from moment to moment in intelligence, self-sufficiency, leadership, and the propensity for ambition, pretension, paranoia and good humour. Another person’s dream of Victor might have been more disillusioning. Also, boy, does this ever get creepy at the end. This is The Dream Machine’s equivalent of the mid-album slump, but we’re right on the precipice of some of my favourite moments in any adventure game. If memory serves, Chapter Four made me all verklempt last time. Alas, no further evidence for my crackpot Brian Eno theory in this one. Will report back.

The Dream Machine: Chapter 4 — This isn’t the most formally inventive chapter of The Dream Machine; that’s chapter five (bearing in mind that I still haven’t played the final chapter). But it may be my favourite. This is the point where the segments between dream sequences start to really work. The sequence of puzzles that allows you into Edie’s dream is ingenious, and by far the hardest thing in the game so far. It took me ages to figure out the first time. But as with the previous two chapters, the main event is the dream sequence itself. Edie’s dream is my favourite in the game’s first five chapters. The kind old lady’s mind, as Mr. Morton tells us in chapter one, is not as sharp as it once was. And indeed, her memories are literally fraying around the edges. The people she once knew, and the person she once was, are aloof spectres in her subconscious. The fragility and mutability of the dream is moving in itself, but it’s made deeper by what we learn about Edie’s life from the tableaus that we see in each room of her dream apartment. And again, the focus is on family. Edie spent her younger years in a not entirely happy marriage with a very pious man. Her husband, whoever he was — his dream self is a fading cipher from Edie’s past — has parental issues to match Mr. Morton’s. The bulk of this dream deals with the end of life and the death of Edie’s mother-in-law, a stern and ruthless figure who haunts her so much that the dream machine takes on her form. The most telling moment occurs in the bathroom of the dream apartment, which Edie’s subconscious has repurposed as a memorial for two late family members: Edie’s mother-in-law, and her child, who presumably died in infancy. When you shoehorn Edie’s younger, spectral self into this room along with the ghost of the mother-in-law, they stand together by the child’s grave. And the latter says “Sin brings forth death.” Which is, just, an incredibly shitty and unkind thing to say. And it’s the kind of thing that sticks with you, because it prompts guilt. And, in one of the game’s very best images, we see that Edie’s elderly self is tethered to her memories by the image of her mother-in-law. So, if it’s guilt and regret that are keeping her in this decaying, dilapidated mental space, perhaps it is best to let go. The ending of chapter four is the most affecting moment in the first five chapters of The Dream Machine, because it finds Edie drifting away from her memory palace, presumably losing that part of herself forever — but also losing the trauma that comes with those memories. It is perhaps the most gentle and loving portrayal of a person with dementia I’ve seen in a work of fiction. And as with everything in The Dream Machine, it has profound emotional consequences for Victor. His final exchange with Edie is the closest thing he has to a specific moment of epiphany. He realizes, with Edie’s help, that he’s doing something extraordinary for the sake of his family. It isn’t just the implicit nature of dreams that’s helping Victor to accept the forthcoming new phase of his life as a father, it is also the explicit threat that the machine poses to his family. This is the moment when all of Victor’s character development in the first three episodes comes to a head. For the first time he realizes consciously that something has changed inside him. And the fact that this change is finally expressed among the detritus of Edie’s regrets — all of which are risks for Victor: the risk of a child’s death, of a failed marriage, and of not escaping your own lineage — just heightens the effect. And Edie caps it all off with yet another explicit Brian Eno reference: “We’re just sandcastles, Victor. I’m sure some part of me will reform on some faraway beach somewhere down the line. Perhaps we’ll meet again there.” Edie, in the end, is alone. Her bridge club can hardly substitute for the relationships that, for better or worse, defined her earlier life. Victor started this story dreaming of some faraway beach where he could be alone and life could be simple. Now, with Edie’s bittersweet farewell, he sees the lonely side of that fantasy and he’s ready to return to reality. If memory serves, chapter five is less explicitly concerned with Victor’s character arc, which is fine. Putting this crucial moment at the end of chapter four allows the devs one episode to just indulge in some intense formalism before getting back to the story’s main thrust. But unless chapter six unseats it, this right here is the defining chapter of The Dream Machine.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: St. Vincent, Mogwai, Benjamin Clementine, My Bubba, More” — This finds Bob Boilen in a distractingly mellow mood, frankly. I’m all for chill, but Boilen’s side of this mix is very very chill. I came to hear the new St. Vincent song, which is very lovely but doesn’t really offer any insights about what a hypothetical forthcoming St. Vincent album might sound like. The standout here, if only for its total commitment to its own weirdness, is the Benjamin Clementine track. I didn’t know this guy, and I can’t say I’m entirely sold on the basis of the track they played here — it’s really overwrought, though possibly intentionally so. But it is definitely not like anything else, and considering that my favourite music from last year included John Congleton and Let’s Eat Grandma, I’m sort of starving for that right now.

The Daily: July 11-12 — I have been meaning to check out this new trend of daily news podcasts for a while, and this seemed to be the one. NPR’s entry into the budding canon sounds like a newscast, which is not a thing I like or see the point of. And I’m aware of The Outline World Dispatch. I may in fact have neglected to review an episode or two of it, but I am generally fond of it. However, the New York Times’ rendition of this evolving new form is the clear current gold standard. Michael Barbaro is a personable and smart host, and the one-two story format serves the listener well. The two episodes I heard this week dealt with the Donald Trump Jr. emails, and was a great way to get my head around that story. There is an element of “behind the story” to Barbaro’s approach here, which is welcome given the extent to which the Times is a major player in the way that events have transpired with this. Other stories about the devastation of Mosul and the reintegration of thousands of rebel fighters into Colombian society make it reassuringly clear to me that this is not going to be all Trump all the time, or even all American federal politics all the time. And thank god, because there’s a whole world out there. This is one of the great innovations in the recent history of podcasts, and shame on the world’s public broadcasters for letting a newspaper perfect it first.

Love and Radio: “The Boys Will Work It Out” — WOW this is something. Our main character is a prolific author of Lord of the Rings slashfic and an enthusiastic sexual roleplayer as Elijah Wood. Through the magic of radio, we’re even treated to an enactment of one of those fantasies with Elijah Wood and Dominic Monaghan soundalikes. Listen advisedly.  

StartUp: “Building the Perfect Cup of Coffee” — Worth listening to for the delight of hearing a cup of coffee described as “plump without being… portly.” But man, has this season of StartUp ever evaporated on impact. This is one of the shows that kicked my obsession with podcasts into high gear. First there was Radiolab and 99pi, then there was season one of StartUp. Amidst that company, Serial doesn’t even register. The thrill of listening to Gimlet coalesce in real time was and is one of the glories of the medium. And I enthusiastically stayed onboard for season two, the Dating Ring season, which I idiosyncratically consider season one’s equal. Season three’s non-serialized format didn’t do much for me, but Lisa Chow brought the show back in magnificent fashion for season four, the story of the fall and rise of Dov Charney. The lesson here ought to be that this show is best when it’s serialized, and particularly good when it’s serialized in real time. I’d gladly listen to another season in the vein of season two, about a company that is in the midst of its startup struggles. But failing that, I think I might have to reduce this show to sometimes food status.

Criminal: “The Procedure” — A marvellous entry in the “crimes of conscience” category of Criminal episodes. This is about a network of clergy who would help women safely get abortions in places where they were illegal. Wonderful stuff.

The Sporkful: “Why Lefties Buy Less Soup” — Aww, I thought it was going to be about why liberals buy less soup. That would have been interesting. Still, a fun episode, though I remember most of this from the introduction of The Flavor Bible, which posits that flavour is the result of a confluence of factors above and beyond mere taste. Visual stimuli and social context, just to give two examples, also affect your experience of food. Also I am SO HAPPY to hear that Dan Pashman favours the inside-out pizza folding technique. I do this as well, and it is so good that I feel like I am constantly surrounded by idiots: outside-in folding assholes who are just rubbing bread all over their tastebuds instead of the delicious cheese and sauce alternative that’s RIGHT THERE on the other side of the slice. THANK YOU, Dan.

Home of the Brave: “The Continental Divide, Part Two” — I am so conflicted about these “talking to Trump voters” stories. On the one hand, you can trust Scott Carrier not to be condescending or self-abnegating, both of which are death in these contexts. But even if the conversations are civil, which these are, how do you make headway with a person who constructs reality in a way that’s entirely different from you? On one hand, I can accept that a guy who’s been involved in fracking for decades knows more about it than I do. Much more. But I’m also inherently suspicious of that person’s perspective, because the practice is normalized for him. I know this territory very well, given that I am a current, self-identified coastal elite who nonetheless grew up in a blue-collar oil town where everybody is delusional about climate change. Where I grew up, the notion that the Alberta oil sands are somehow sinister is laughable. It’s not because anybody especially takes pride in the industry — though in these divided times, that pride appears to be taking root retroactively, as a defense mechanism. It’s because the oil sands are normal. When I talk about the negative impact of the oil industry with friends and family from Fort McMurray, I may as well be telling them that shoes are evil, because the collective impact of all our human stomping is making the earth uninhabitably small. Global shrinking. It’s a ridiculous notion because shoes are too normal to be harmful. I’m getting off topic. My point is that Carrier is right to think that the two sides of divided America need to be able to talk to each other, but I don’t actually know what he or I is supposed to learn from that exchange. Ultimately I still think that systematic learning and teaching that can be expressed in statistics, research and reasoned argument in both academic and media spheres is the way to draw conclusions about the world. And the fact that at least two of the people Carrier interviewed expressed doubts about the value of education relative to the value of their specific lived experiences makes me crazy. Anecdotal experiences are valuable, but if you shape your worldview around them in opposition to the best available information (which happens every time poverty comes up in this program), you’re just wrong. And I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with that.

The Heart: “People Who Need People” — Lovely. This rerun is The Heart at its simplest: a relationship forms in the crucible of a difficult moment of somebody’s life. That’s the whole of it. But it’s worth revisiting in light of recent events in the characters’ lives.

The Turnaround: Episodes 2-6 — Okay, I’ve fallen into this in a big way. In spite of my previously-stated doubts about the necessity for so many interviews of artists in the world, I do think interviewing in general is an absolutely fascinating craft, and this is the deepest dive into it that I’ve heard, though Longform is often about interviewing also. Let’s take these one at a time. Susan Orlean’s interview is most notable because she’s so completely different from Jesse Thorn in the product she’s trying to make. She can go down rabbit holes with very little hope of getting anything useable because ultimately interviewing is an exploratory process for her. She’s learning what the story is as she goes. The Marc Maron episode is one of the highlights for basically the opposite reason: he’s probably the closest of all of the interview subjects so far to Thorn’s method. And this actually made me realize that Maron has a way of getting around the arts interview pitfall that I identified in my last post on this show (i.e. that there’s no way for the journalist’s insight to factor into an interview without making the guest superfluous). Maron goes into every interview with an idea of why people are the way they are and why they do what they do. And in the interview, he takes the opportunity to present an artist with his impression of them and have them either confirm or deny it. Or, more likely, just to complicate and deepen it. It’s a way he has to get past the branding. That’s valuable, and I guess it’s what makes Maron my favourite interviewer of artists. Audie Cornish is probably the guest on this program whose work I am least familiar with (Pop Culture Happy Hour notwithstanding), just because I’m Canadian and we have our own daily news programs up here. But her episode is the highlight of The Turnaround so far. It gets a bit contentious when Thorn presses her on the supposed dispassionate delivery of NPR hosts, and she kind of schools him. It obviously affected Thorn’s thinking profoundly, because he brings up that moment in nearly all of the other interviews. The Larry King episode is the least valuable, partially because he’s the worst interviewer on the show and partially because Thorn lets him get sidetracked from the topic of interviewing. But, I mean, he’s Larry King. What are you going to do? And then there’s Brooke Gladstone, who is simply the most valuable person in the entire American media. Hearing her talk extemporaneously is incredible because she is preternaturally gifted with the ability to put complicated ideas in a logical sequence. It’s really similar to listening to Reza Aslan talk. The only reason it’s not the best episode of the show is that she did a longer interview on Longform a while back that covers some of the same ground. The Turnaround is some of the most fascinating radio of the year. Can’t wait for the rest of it. Pick of the week.

WTF with Marc Maron: “GLOW Writers & Creators” — A nice nuts and bolts process sort of interview with some folks Maron worked with on GLOW. I haven’t really had room for TV binges in my media consumption schedule lately, but once I do this will be among the top priorities.

99% Invisible: “Repackaging the Pill” — A design story that is also about undermining the paternalism of the mid-20th-century medical profession. Nice stuff.

Reply All: “Minka” — Sruthi Pinnamaneni is so valuable on this show, which is very silly very often. It’s always refreshing to have her come in and do a real, reported story about something very consequential — in this case, nursing homes and how terrible they are.   

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Spider-Man: Homecoming and Tour de Pharmacy” — I am so onboard with Audie Cornish when she says she’d trade this incarnation of Spider-Man for the Tobey Maguire movies. Also man oh man, you can pretty much be certain that when Andy Samberg does something, this show will make note of it. Maybe it just seems that way. But if they talk about a comedy, there’s a pretty solid chance it’ll either involve Samberg or Paul Feig. That probably says more about the world than about this show.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Presidential Immunity” — Oh man, I guess it might be impossible to sue the president. That sounds really bad and I hope it doesn’t stay that way.

Judge John Hodgman: “Live in Chicago at Very Very Fun Day 2017” — The couple at the centre of the main case here didn’t turn out to be the best: one has a tendency to show instead of tell, which works for the live audience, but not the podcast audience. And the other is a jerk. The swift justice segment is better.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Book of Dune” — I never really got Dune. I recall having read it the summer that I read 20 novels at my boring summer job. And I just found it a bit of a slog. (I also ready Paradise Lost twice that summer, so, one man’s trash etc.) But I never stopped to think about the influence of real-world religions, and especially Islam, on the text. I wouldn’t have known enough to notice it. So, this is a fun crash course in Frank Herbert’s relationship with Islam, including a discussion of its classic “white saviour” narrative. I wonder how (and if) Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation will reckon with that? Maybe by not casting a white person as Paul? I’m not even sure that would be enough, since it’s still a story about a high-born outsider saving a marginalized people. I guess we’ll see. Anyway, it’s bound to be an improvement on the available adaptations. I don’t think I ever actually finished the TV series, and the David Lynch movie is infamous. (Personally, I think it has its charms, but it’s been a while so maybe it’s worse than I remember.) In general, I’m inclined to believe that the best version of Dune is the one that exists inside of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s head. And even that is almost certainly much better than the movie he would actually have made.

Ear Hustle: “Looking Out” — The warden is already my least favourite character. But hey, good on him for approving a story even though he thought it was bad. This is the lighter side of Ear Hustle, so far. But I guess that’s part of the prison experience too?

On The Media: “Three-Dimensional Chess” — Good decision to focus a large part of this episode on Raqqa and Mosul, in the week of the Don. Jr. email scandal. America is only part of the world.

Omnibus (week of June 25, 2017)

Greetings! A normal week. 18 reviews.

Television

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 8 — I’m willing to entertain the notion that this is the strangest, most obscure thing ever to be seen on television by an audience that exceeds the low dozens. This is the hour of television in which David Lynch reveals himself as the Black Lodge doppelganger of Terrence Malick. It is the second story I’ve seen this year that frames the origins of an iconic, totemic evil from a beloved old franchise as a consequence of human technological progress. But unlike Alien: Covenant, Lynch’s account of BOB’s birth in the crucible of the Manhattan Project is expressed through lyrical, abstract, largely wordless filmmaking. This helps to mitigate the potentially prosaic quality of the plot point that goes: “BOB is an evil spirit summoned by a nuclear bomb.” In practice, it doesn’t seem prosaic at all. Instead of focussing on the narrative, the cause and effect, Lynch tells us the story with reference to its abstract emotional quality. This type of filmmaking talks past our rational brains and communicates a sort of meaning to us that is ineffable. It works in a similar way to instrumental music in that way, and indeed, it gets a significant assist from Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. That piece of music is connected to nuclear weapons by its title, but the music itself wasn’t written with any such thing in mind. It was meant to be an abstract, academic piece of music. Regardless, it seemed from the first to elicit a muted version of our universal human response to inconceivable horror. So, title or none, it is music with the same goal as Lynch’s Stan Brakhage-like terror painting in this episode. So, instead of simply expressing a new piece of continuity in the usual way, Lynch’s approach offers a sense of the horror and disorientation of a world that’s recently been made aware of a new outer limit in human ruthlessness. Given that, it seems totally natural that BOB should arise from this. Pretty much any other approach would have seemed dumb and overwrought. Like Alien: Covenant. But in bypassing rationality entirely and speaking to something more primal in us, Lynch has deepened the world of Twin Peaks more here than in any other single episode of the show — possibly including the one that introduces the Red Room in the first place. Pick of the week.

Doctor Who: “The Doctor Falls” — A more than serviceable finale, though one that I feel works better on a scene-by-scene basis than it does all-in-all. I’ve said before that I like Moffat best in “big idea” mode, and he got most of that stuff out of the way last week with the time differential stuff. But what’s left to do is the emotional labour of a season ending, and this manages that just fine. Still, two characters overshadow the Doctor’s story here. The first, obviously, is Bill. Her arc from Cyberman conversion through her departure from the series (I think?) is the highlight here. I’m particularly fond of the mirror scene, which Pearl Mackie plays brilliantly. Also, this is the second companion departure in a row that feels like a spinoff waiting to happen — and a pretty killer crossover that would be! Bill and Heather the water creatures meet Clara and Ashildr the immortals in a diner-shaped TARDIS. Somebody write that. The other highlight is the two Masters, and who knows how that’s going to turn out. These are self-evidently the best (Michelle Gomez) and second-best (John Simm) renditions of this character the series has ever managed, and I’m delighted to have seen them together. I do hope Gomez isn’t finished with the role yet, but it would be a good way to go out. Also interesting how pigheaded misogyny is the Simm Master’s new calling card. Perhaps when he was last on this show, the possibility of such a blatant sexist being elected to public office seemed a bit of a hard sell. Oh, what a world. And as for the Doctor, this is to some extent a less impactful retread of Eleven’s last stand on Trenzalore, but we’ve still got a proper regeneration story to go. And what a corker it promises to be. I’ve been saying since the beginning of Peter Capaldi’s tenure that this is a Doctor who somebody needs to pair with the First Doctor. I always assumed that if it were to happen, it would be in a comic or a novel. But David Bradley has a history with playing William Hartnell, so why not playing his character as well? Part of me thinks it feels like a bit of a slight to Hartnell that he’s the only Doctor whose character has been played by not just one but two other actors. But the promise of what these two characters can do together is too much to pass up — especially since Moffat and his writers spent so much of the early part of this season focussing on the legacy of Doctor Who, right from 1963 on. This looks like it’ll be an opportunity for Moffat to say goodbye to the series with one more rumination on what it is at its core and why it’s great. This is now the primary reason I am looking forward to Christmas.

Movies

Lost in La Mancha — A bit of pop culture news you might have missed if you’re not me is that Terry Gilliam finally finished shooting The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a movie he’s tried and failed to make eight times over the course of twenty years. I am super happy about this, especially since it will reunite Gilliam with his Brazil leading man Jonathan Pryce, who is only now the right age to play Quixote. I’m prepared to completely love this movie, but the truth is that I’m not sure it’ll surpass the story of Gilliam’s struggle to make it. (Many would say the same about Brazil, though I’m sure as hell not one of them.) Lost in La Mancha tells the story of Gilliam’s first attempt to film the movie in 2000, which was a complete disaster. The frequent reference points for what went wrong are big, obvious problems like unexpected noise from a nearby NATO base (F-16 target practise turns out to be very loud), a lead actor with a herniated disc, and a flash flood that nearly carried the crew’s equipment away. But the film documents a thousand tiny hurdles as well. The narrative doesn’t just play out in setpieces of acute misfortune — it plays out in the looks on the crew’s faces. If you like watching people’s expressions grow from contented to concerned to worried to frantic, then this is the film for you. There’s a costume designer who is particularly wonderful in this respect. You will know her when you see her. But in the middle of it all is Terry Gilliam. “How are we doing for time?” he asks his first assistant director. “Badly,” the first AD replies. “Good,” says Gilliam without missing a beat. It’s hard to judge the extent to which he’s deluding himself throughout this process. Certainly, he’s always aware that things aren’t working. But it’s Gilliam’s occasional sense of total imperiousness in the face of harsh realities that makes Lost in La Mancha so captivating to watch, if possibly through your fingers. And it’s that quality that may yet make this documentary an even better modern adaptation of Don Quixote than Gilliam’s own film will turn out to be.

Live events

Much Ado About Nothing (Bard on the Beach) — I always look forward to Bard on the Beach, because I am from a small town and I think it’s a damn miracle that it’s possible to see several productions of Shakespeare mounted by professionals every year. So, all snark must be weighed against a sense of perspective. However, I’ve seen theatre at Bard over the past four seasons that has run the gamut from extraordinary (Kim Collier’s multimedia saturated Hamlet, Anita Rochon’s refreshingly minimal Cymbeline) to garbage (an appalling massacre of Love’s Labour’s Lost with showtunes). More than that, though, they’ve been fine. They’ve been the sorts of productions that can run for a whole summer in a city of Vancouver’s size. This Much Ado is basically that. Set, completely arbitrarily, in an Italian movie studio in the 1950s, it evokes the glamour of black and white cinema in a way that mostly made me wish I were watching Joss Whedon’s wonderful film version from a few years back. The performances here are mostly good, but suffer from the expectation that the actors will deliver Shakespeare’s fiery repartée while also performing hackneyed physical comedy. The impulse to over-choreograph pays dividends in only one scene: the masked ball where Beatrice and Benedick pair their verbal fencing with dancing. That’s really the one scene where I got the sense that this production understood the point of this play, which is listening to two world-class wits spar with each other. There are other good scenes, but I mostly found this a pretty dull production of a comedy that I actually really like.

Literature, etc.

George Saunders: Lincoln in the Bardo (audiobook) — The last time I reviewed a full-cast audiobook, I basically reviewed it in two layers: the basic text of the book, and the performance layer on top of that. I don’t think I can do that with this one. The audiobook production of Lincoln in the Bardo feels like its own thing. The book isn’t written in the standard third-person or first-person voice, so its audiobook edition is going to work a bit differently. (The 166 narrators advertized on the cover art might have tipped you off.) This is a very stripped-down radio play, basically. And the performances feel like an integral part of the text — not an additional layer that you’ll endeavour to see past to the basic elements. The Nick Offerman/David Sedaris double act is reason enough to choose the audiobook over the paper book. The former gives as good a performance here as he does in film and television roles, and it’s fun to hear the latter reading somebody else’s work. I’ll leave discussion of the story for next week, by which time I’ll have heard all of it.

Geoff Edgers: “Why My Guitar Gently Weeps” — There are a few points of interest in this story, namely the numbers. It’s kind of amazing to read about the economic troubles of Guitar Centre, Gibson, and other businesses who rely on the fashionability of the guitar. But I actually think it’s mostly a pretty bad piece of journalism. Speaking as somebody who deals a lot with classical music, a musical tradition that is in a long-standing and seemingly permanent economic/identity tailspin, I have seen all of this before. The story that Edgers is telling is the story of the culture changing in a way that displeases the people who thrived in the previous version of the culture. And nothing that Edgers writes in this piece really indicates that he understands the extent to which the phenomenon whose demise he is mourning lines up with white supremacy and patriarchy. This is as true of the particular species of baby boomer/Gen X rock music that he’s discussing as it is of Western Art Music. (Say it like “WEST-un AHT mew-zik.”) That’s not to say that either kind of music is bad, or even badly intentioned! But things change, and they should. Insofar as the much vaunted “death of the guitar” is a real thing, it’s not by definition a bad thing. (And the best thing about this piece is the extent to which it uses sales figures to demonstrate that the guitar is materially less enticing to potential musicians today than it has been.) This is the same feeling I’ve had when I’ve read stories about how symphony orchestras are struggling to stay in business, opera companies are folding, and classical music audiences are aging. Of course they are. You can’t expect a generation’s music to outlive that generation and maintain the same popularity. Everything becomes a niche at some point. (Granted, the classical canon has managed to hang on an awfully long time. I’d say that has a lot to do with how it brands itself as “timeless.” Say what you will about the ineptitude of classical music’s modern-day branding professionals. Their late-19th century counterparts did their job so well that it stuck for a hundred years.) It’s almost surreal to read in Edgers’ piece about guitar classes where kids find a sense of community while learning about the great classics of the rock and roll repertory. (I find it intensely gratifying that “The Spirit of Radio” is among the lessons on offer.) This is the same sense of guardianship of a dying tradition that exists in the classical space. And frankly, more power to them for doing that. Classical and rock music are both traditions that deserve defending — but not with the end goal of retaining their cultural dominance. That ship has sailed, and good riddance to it. On the other hand, it’s worth checking out the Cut’s riposte to Edgers, which is simply a playlist of kickass recent guitar music being made by women. This is an altogether better argument than the one I’ve just made. Basically, “Brittany Howard, St. Vincent. Your argument is invalid.” Yes, fine. I’ll round out my metaphor by recommending you go listen to Caroline Shaw, Nicole Lizée and Jennifer Higdon.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim” — Solidly middle-of-the-pack by the standards of Borges’s Fictions collection, but that’s only to say it’s really great. This is the most straightforward iteration of Borges’ strategy of writing a critical essay about a fictional book that I’ve seen. It’s clever, but it doesn’t have the imperious ambition of “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” or “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.”

Music

Felix Mendelssohn/Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, RIAS Kammerchor: Symphonies 1-5 — I honestly rarely listen to new classical discs in their entirety, at least when they’re recordings of familiar rep like this. But it occurred to me that I might not actually have heard all of the Mendelssohn symphonies (the fact that I’m not sure ought to demonstrate what I think of a few of them), and I am in general favourably disposed towards YNS. So, why not binge them along with a few of my coworkers. The best thing that can be said about Nézet-Séguin is that he’s a clean windowpane: he gives you a clear picture of the music. And while I’ll always fall on the side of classical artists who offer personal, idiosyncratic interpretations, there’s value in the sort of artist who is a superb technician with a firm grasp of any given score, but who will defer to tradition when it comes to interpretation. (I’m not saying that’s what he’s doing here, because I don’t know most of this music well enough to judge. But I’ve heard a lot of his other recordings, and I think it’s a valid general characterization.) This is especially valuable when there’s a great orchestra involved, and up-to-the-minute recording techniques. Judging by YNS’s readings of the two symphonies I do know quite well (numbers three and four), this is a Mendelssohn set that could easily serve as a new standard for anybody wanting to familiarize themselves with these works. (I’d then send any such person straight to Leonard Bernstein’s “Scottish” with the Israel Philharmonic, to hear what it sounds like with a lot of energy.) All that said, the truth is that I’m unlikely to revisit any of these recordings aside from the two symphonies I know and love. Because my milage with Mendelssohn varies, and ultimately I only connect with him when he’s at his most joyful. Mendelssohn is that rare composer who can express actual joy, and not just contentedness, in a way that makes it contagious. And for that you should turn to the third and fourth symphonies, because the others are a bit serious and Beethovenesque. I’ll take actual Beethoven instead, thanks. In any case, this is a marvellous set that you should hear if you want to hear some good Mendelssohn. And you should check out the first movement of the “Italian” regardless of what you want.  

Podcasts

WTF with Marc Maron: “Jenji Kohan” — This is a lot more fun than the interview I heard with Kohan on Fresh Air a few years back. Maron gets her in anecdote mode, so we get to hear about her enthusiasm for dominoes and how her dad wrote David Bowie’s countermelody in the Bing Crosby Christmas special. It’s a fun chat, and she’s a genius.

Long Now: Seminars About Long-term Thinking: “James Gleick: Time Travel” — Thus returns one of the strangest things in my podcast subscriptions to make its 2017 debut on this blog. I have, in my limited experience, found the Long Now Foundation’s podcast seminars to be totally engrossing listening, bland title be damned. This talk by the author of the brilliantly titled book Time Travel: A History is no exception. Particularly wonderful is the idea that before the technological maelstrom of the early 20th century, the idea of time travel didn’t really exist. It’s fun hearing James Gleick explain the pains that H.G. Wells took to explain the basic idea of time travel, which was totally anathema to basically every writer who came before him (except Mark Twain, and even he didn’t quite commit). But as is to be expected from these, the question and answer segment with Stewart Brand after the actual talk is the highlight. Brand is a loveable eccentric whose questions never adhere to a standard interview formula. He’s just a smart person who really listens to the talks from beforehand. Pick of the week. 

Arts and Ideas: “Canada 150: Robert Lepage, Katherine Ryan” — I had to hear this because I haven’t actually heard an interview with Lepage about 887, the incredible performance of his that I saw early last year. It seriously is one of the best experiences I have ever had in a theatre. But I didn’t enjoy this program very much at all, because the host, Philip Dodd, is an idiot. He handles Lepage reasonably well, although he spends altogether too much time huffing disapprovingly about Lepage’s identity as a “multidisciplinary artist.” I don’t see the issue there. (The one amazing upside to that part of the conversation is a bit where Lepage turns the tables on Dodd by referring to Wagner as a multidisciplinary artist.) But Dodd really shits the bed in his interview with Katherine Ryan. He is five to ten years out of date in the discourse about comedy. Ryan outlines the pretty standard rule for modern comedy that you punch up and not down, and Dodd seems to take this (or something else Ryan said, who knows what) to mean that comedy isn’t supposed to offend anymore. Sure it is! It’s just supposed to offend the relatively privileged or powerful! “You’re starting to sound like a Guardian reader,” he tells her. Who exactly does he assume his audience is? I’ve enjoyed the programs that come through BBC’s Arts and Ideas feed before, but I think I’ll avoid Dodd like the plague from here on out.

All Songs Considered: “Listeners Picks For 2017’s Best New Artists (So Far)” — Most of this didn’t catch fire for me, but it picked up at the very end of the countdown. Gracie and Rachel, Charly Bliss, and especially Overcoats are all now on my must-check-out list. The listeners’ number one pick, Diet Cig, worked for me too, but not like those other three. I’ve got to say, last year’s equivalent episode of this was better. This one has a lot of generic guitar rock.

It’s Been A Minute: “Lena Waithe from ‘Master of None’” — The first episode of this left me cold, partially because of its ostentatious format. But if these Tuesday episodes are going to all be like this, I’m in. Presumably the whole reason Sam Sanders has his own show now is that he’s a preternaturally gifted conversationalist. So, giving him the chance to just talk to people in a not toooo structured way (i.e. this is an interview, but it doesn’t feel like one) is probably the best way to leverage his talent. But even if only one of every two episodes works for me, this is still a really good thing to have in the world. Also, Lena Waithe is amazing and I’m going to have to resign myself to putting some time into Master of None.

99% Invisible: “Mexico 68” — This starts off like it’s going to be a sports story without an obvious design angle, but then it turns into a pretty awesome exploration of why it matters who is involved in a project and what happens when design is repurposed for political means. Also, the Mexico 68 Olympics are just really interesting. I’ve really reconnected with this show in recent weeks. I love 99pi.

Radiolab: “Revising the Fault Line” — Another revisit of an older episode, and a really great one, too. This is a story I remember well, about a guy who does something terrible, possibly because of a neurological condition he can’t entirely control. But it goes beyond that story — it gets to a point where Jad and Robert are actually debating with a guest whether free will is a thing that exists. Ye olde Radiolab.

Code Switch: “It’s Our Anniversary” — This episode revisits a few of the most contentious and noteworthy episodes from this podcast’s first year. Mostly, it’s just a really good reminder that Code Switch hit the ground running and is now one of the most valuable podcasts in the public radio space. Many happy returns.

Ear Hustle: “Misguided Loyalty” — There’s a moment here that really drives home a potential issue with this show, which is just that it’s absolutely crucial for the inmates who are telling their own stories be allowed to do so in a way that works for them. It’s possible that this means the show sacrifices a certain amount of emotional honesty. This features a man reading a script about the murder of his family in an almost shockingly affectless way. Better this than the alternative, though. I don’t want anybody’s emotions to be harnessed for the sake of radio art.

On the Media: “Newton Minnow Still Cares About the Media” — Newton Minnow is an interesting fellow. A former advisor to President Kennedy, he made the improvement of television his professional cause. I’m with him on this, though I do think there’s a place in the world for Gilligan’s Island.