Category Archives: Movies

Omnireviewer (week of June 4, 2017)

Busy week! I seem to have gotten behind on my television watching. But never fear, next week will bring reviews of the most recent episodes of Doctor Who, American Gods and Better Call Saul. And maybe even some of the new Twin Peaks, because I finally finished my rewatch. Let’s start with that.

But first, some news! This dumb blog is now a substantially less dumb and more professional recurring segment on CBC Radio 1! Every so often, I’m going to be on B.C.’s weekend morning show, North by Northwest, to talk to Sheryl McKay about some things I like. This morning’s inaugural instalment was deliberately whiplash-inducing, very much in the spirit of this project. I brought in Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings and clips from the new Maria Bamford special Old Baby and Ted Hearne’s glorious cantata Sound from the Bench. If you’d like to experience this blog, except 50% more dulcet, I highly recommend it. I’m at 1:43:27 in this podcast.

16 reviews.

Television

Twin Peaks: Season 2, episodes 10 & 11 — What’s to say? These are terrible episodes. They’re far from the worst the series would produce, but by this point the show is in a full-on identity crisis and it doesn’t have any of the things that make the first season and a half good. Several plotlines I hate are now well underway — James’s road trip, the Lucy/Dick/Andy love triangle, and Ben Horne’s encroaching insanity. This is the point where I’m going to take the New York Times’s advice and skip straight to episode 21, which I recall also being terrible, but apparently important for keeping track of the finale. I’ve read a bunch of synopses of the next bunch of episodes, and I’m trusting that’ll be enough. Wish me luck.

Twin Peaks: Season 2, episodes 21 & 22 — These two episodes almost don’t bear reviewing together, because one is ghastly and the other is a thing of almost unmatched brilliance. So let’s breeze past episode 21 (“Miss Twin Peaks”), pausing only to say how glad I am to have skipped nearly everything involving Windom Earle: the most bog-standard melodrama villain they could have come up with. Moving on. The final episode of Twin Peaks before its cancellation is not perfect, but only because the spectre of a terrible preceding half-season looms large upon it. David Lynch is back in the director’s chair, and he makes short work of the dumber subplots his underlings introduced in his absence. Earle is presented here simply as a person who exists and is bad. He is mercifully not allowed to do any of his “master of disguise” schtick before being dispatched in rather stylish fashion by BOB, the show’s real villain. (A weirdly cathartic moment.) The teenage Nadine plotline is dutifully allotted one brief scene. And the Andrew Packard puzzle box plotline collides with Audrey Horne’s environmental campaign in a genuinely great scene. These are still bad plotlines, but Lynch deals with them in the exact opposite way that he does with Earle and Nadine: instead of drastically reducing their presence, he drastically elongates the one scene where they appear. He elongates it so much it’s hilarious. The actual things that are happening to the key characters in the bank scene isn’t what’s important. What’s important is the bank manager’s hilarious decrepitude (yes, we’ve seen this gag before with the room service waiter, but it never gets old) and the fact that Lynch is content to hold the camera on him while he takes a hysterically long time to do everything. David Lynch always has an idea. He’s got one up on everybody else involved in this show. But so far, we’ve only dealt with the bad stuff that he manages not to screw up. The legitimately brilliant part of this episode is the Black Lodge. I like Twin Peaks. I really do, for the most part. But its biggest flaw is an inevitable one: the Red Room/Black Lodge sequences are so brilliant, iconic and unsettling that they eclipse the entire rest of the series. Cooper’s dream, back in the third episode, will always be the definitive iteration because it came first. But Cooper’s journey through the Black Lodge in this final episode has so much more going on in it. I’d be lying if I said I had any idea what’s going on here — or at least, I’d be lying if I said I had any more of an idea about it than the broader fan community whose theories and decipherments I’ve relied upon in my viewing of Twin Peaks. But it is viscerally terrifying in a way that nothing else in the show ever was. Especially distressing are the Man From Another Place’s laughing doppelganger and Laura Palmer’s backwards scream. It all defies rational description. In spite of all of the loose ends it left (some of which are presumably no longer loose) the Twin Peaks season two finale is one of my very favourite episodes of the show — probably only topped by “Zen, Or the Skill to Catch a Killer.” I hope the new series is as much like this as possible. And with Coop trapped in the Black Lodge, I imagine it will be. Nobody tell me anything. Pick of the week.

Movies

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me — Ha, I forgot that this started with the image of a TV getting smashed. Chip on your shoulder, Mr. Lynch? Well, I’m glad you’re over it, and presumably so is Showtime. It’s a divisive film among Twin Peaks fans, I know. I have always been resolutely on the ‘pro’ side of the debate, since the David Lynch side of the show is what I really love. In general, that opinion held up after this viewing. But, there are problems. The simplest is just that the sexual violence need not have been so explicit. On television, there were useful limitations on what could be shown. So, Twin Peaks managed for the most part to be a story involving sexual violence without being creepily voyeuristic about it. Fire Walk With Me had no such limitations upon it, and I’m dubious about the way Lynch chose to use that freedom. The other problem is just that there are a few places in this where characters really don’t seem to match up with the versions of them we meet at the start of the series. Obviously, it’s a particular problem for Donna, who’s been recast. But the casting isn’t even the biggest problem. Mainly, I just don’t buy that Donna could have had these intense experiences with Laura and then have been so appalled by the darkness she uncovers in her life in her subsequent investigation. And are we seriously supposed to believe that the numbskull Bobby we meet in the pilot, who is a long way from realizing how far in over his head he is, has recently killed somebody? I guess you could easily retcon that by saying that Laura hallucinated it all, but I dunno. On the other hand, this does emphasize several of my favourite elements in Twin Peaks to the detriment of elements I hated. The primary pleasure of this movie is watching Sheryl Lee get to play Laura Palmer at greater, less interrupted length. Dead or not, she’s one of the most skilled actors in the cast of Twin Peaks. Scenes with her, Ray Wise and Grace Zabriskie are pure, chilling magic. Aside from Kyle McLaughlin, that trio emcompasses the best performances in the whole show. Have I mentioned the extent to which Ray Wise and Grace Zabriskie are national treasures? Because both of those actors are fucking geniuses. Wise in particular shows a different side of Leland here that I think is really interesting. Fire Walk With Me blurs the line between Leland’s possession by BOB and his own personal, non-supernatural darkness. Leland is not the sort of man who would rape his own daughter or commit murders for pleasure. But this movie opens up the possibility that he may at least be the sort of man who’d pay for sex. Also, for all the flak this movie takes for eliminating several of the show’s most pleasantly eccentric characters, it should get some credit for introducing new ones. Kiefer Sutherland’s nervous, bowtie-clad “toehead” is particularly loveable. In general, Fire Walk With Me is no more brilliant than an average episode of Twin Peaks, but it’s no less brilliant than that either. Alright. Done studying. Let’s get on with this new shit.

Music

Radiohead: Hail to the Thief — A friend started a thread on Facebook recently inviting us all to provide our top ten Radiohead songs. (Mine, in increasing order of preference: “Let Down,” “I Might Be Wrong,” “15 Step,” “Reckoner,” “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” “Paranoid Android,” “Kid A,” “Idioteque,” “Everything in its Right Place,” “Pyramid Song.”) Looking at the lists compiled on the thread, I realized that Hail to the Thief is the Radiohead album I’ve been neglecting. This, to me, was always the awkward odd record out in Radiohead’s imperial phase. It’s the one where they stepped back from the freaky electronica of Kid A and Amnesiac (my two favourites of theirs, in either order depending on my mood) and hadn’t yet arrived at the vibrancy and lushness of In Rainbows. And while another listen still has me questioning how it came to be that Radiohead made a fairly austere alt-rock album in the midst of a slew of electronic sensory overload records, I liked it a lot better this time. “There, There” is the clear highlight. One of the best things about Radiohead is Thom Yorke’s ability to isolate a particularly resonant lyrical fragment and make it the hook of a song. “Just because you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there” is one of his best, and it’s tied to one of his loveliest melodies. I adore the way it drops lower, resignedly, on the second time through. Also, from the “it’s in the details” files, I love the six snare drum hits that occur twice in the song: once after the first chorus and once at the very end. Both times, it seems like a setup to a crash on beat one, but the crash never happens. It just kind of subtly leaves you hanging. Among the album’s other tracks, the one that’s so good I can’t believe I forgot about it is “A Wolf at the Door.” It’s terrifying, and Yorke clearly means every word. Still, for the most part, Hail to the Thief continues to be an album I admire more than I like. It’ll probably grow on me. The King of Limbs did, and nobody seems to like that one.

Belle and Sebastian: The Life Pursuit — I haven’t listened to this since my other dumb blog went on hiatus. Looking back on what I said about it before, it seems like two years ago I was way worse at discovering new music, way less curious, and not quite as fatigued with my old standbys. I guess I do change. But I still like The Life Pursuit. I still haven’t checked out any other Belle and Sebastian albums. I may. But this one is working for me. My favourite tracks are probably “Another Sunny Day” and “The Blues Are Still Blue,” though “Dress Up In You” has the album’s best moment: a trumpet solo. It’s a song I’ve played on the piano occasionally, but I’m always a bit dissatisfied when that part happens and I’m physically unable to play the trumpet solo as well. It isn’t part of my regular rep.

Podcasts

Judge John Hodgman: “Vehicular Man-Squatter” — I think maybe this is the first one I’ve heard where the dispute is between two young adults. That makes for an interesting dynamic, because Hodgman has to factor in the extent to which they just don’t really have their lives figured out. Or, in this case, one of them doesn’t. This is about a guy in college who has made the conscious decision to live in his car. (“This is an almost acceptable bit of transitional weirdness,” says Hodgman, with admirable equanimity.) This fellow has a rationale for this that is both amazingly logical and completely crazy, which I won’t spoil, but look forward to Jesse Thorn exclaiming “It’s tax deferred!” a number of times.

Home of the Brave: “Trump’s Wall: Your Neighbor” — A simple interview with an undocumented farm worker. It says a lot in a short time.

In Our Time: “The Egyptian Book of the Dead” — A particularly amusing instalment, in which Melvyn Bragg’s self-professed literal mind keeps him from quite being able to get past the inconsistencies in the Book of the Dead. This is the farthest thing on the radio from a personality-driven show, but what personality it has is refreshingly unforced. Also, the Egyptian Book of the Dead is really interesting, as it turns out. The papyrus copies of the book were often sold with blank spaces for the buyer to copy their names in. Imagine. This is full of stuff like that. Love it.

Criminal: “Bully” — A story of a truly terrible person who actually intimidated his way to an “above-the-law” status. The ending is incredible. The way that the town where all of this happened responded to it is jaw-dropping.

In Our Time: “Purgatory” — More thoughts on death from Melvyn Bragg! The best part of this is an explanation of the actual function served by the idea of purgatory for the church, and the fact that they had an interest in making it seem horrible because otherwise they’d have a bunch of apathetic sinners running around hoping to pay the piper later.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “When To Break Up With Television And Pop Culture Advice With Mallory Ortberg” — Mallory Ortberg is so clever. Oh, to be that clever. Glen Weldon holds his own admirably in this live show as well.

WTF with Marc Maron — “Mark Lanegan/Mac DeMarco” — Brilliant stuff. Mac DeMarco is a surprisingly thoughtful fellow when he sits down for a civil conversation. My opinion of him is actually pretty similar to Maron’s: namely, I like his music a lot but I’m not sure why. I’m always surprised to find myself liking it. The interview with Mark Lanegan is intense. He’s an intense guy. Don’t let the fact that this is split in half fool you: Maron goes deep on this one. A great episode.

A Point of View: “In praise of the elite” — Eh, I dunno. Howard Jacobson is funny enough to not be really offensive, and there are elements of his argument that I buy. But I think this piece lacks class consciousness to a certain extent. He seems to be saying “if you want to be a member of the elite, be one.” Which isn’t really how it works.  

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Handmaid’s Tale and a New Comedy” — I need to watch The Handmaid’s Tale, but I need to read it first. Somehow I’ve read four Atwood novels and that isn’t one of them. I will not be watching Good News.

StartUp CatchUp — I listened to the last three episodes of this, including one where the famed “CEO Whisperer” counsels a entrepreneur who’s having trouble balancing work with family, one where a biotech researcher tries to develop a flu vaccine for pigs, and one where somebody’s trying to get people to eat bugs. I’m sort of starting to listen to this out of sheer inertia. At first, I listened because it was fun to hear Alex Blumberg tell his own startup story in real time. It was the most intimate radio I’d ever heard, and it’s still one of the most extraordinary things anybody’s done with the medium. I used to listen to each episode as soon as it came out, regardless of where I was or what I was doing. Unlike many, I stuck with the show through its second season, which I feel has a similar appeal. It’s not a personal story, but it is an intimate look inside of an interesting, high-stakes creative venture. But when StartUp isn’t serialized, I kind of wonder why I bother. (The American Apparel season was also absolutely outstanding.) I’m not interested in business stories. And, unlike other show focusses like, say, design, there is a certain extent to which every startup story is the same. In a serialized show, I can really get attached to the people this is happening to and their specific relationships and struggles. But in one-off episodes it’s harder. And these are good episodes. I enjoyed these episodes. But given how many goddamn podcasts I listen to, I find myself asking hard questions about what’s worth my time, these days. You’ll note that Invisibilia has already hit the chopping block. Might this be next?

99% Invisible binge — You know what I really needed to do? I really needed to take a break from 99pi. Because this show’s rhythms get in your head after a while and it becomes background noise. But that’s too bad, because it is genuinely a wonderful show, and deservedly the grand dame of the medium. The live story “This Is Chance,” featuring members of Black Prairie and the Decemberists playing a live score, is one of the best things I’ve heard in awhile. The story is amazing in itself: how a news anchor in Anchorage became a locus of communication during a catastrophic earthquake. But the other stories I listened to in my binge yesterday, more conventional though they were, were almost equally enjoyable. One, about the redesign of the Brazilian soccer shirt, proves that I can be interested in anything — even sports — when Roman Mars is telling me about it. Another, about squatters in the Lower East Side, is a whole element of New York history that I didn’t know about. But the really exciting thing is the preview of Mars’s new show about Donald Trump and constitutional law. With Roman Mars and Jad Abumrad both spinning off into legal shows, I feel I will soon be basically a lawyer. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of May 28, 2017)

Ladies and gentlemen, we’re celebrating a milestone over here at the Parsonage. When I started doing Omnireviewer not quite two years ago, I wrote up the first instalment in a Google doc. The next week, I wrote up the second instalment in that same Google doc. Unexpectedly enough, I’ve just kept adding to that Google doc ever since, and I’ve come to regard it as a symbol of the gradual deterioration of my sanity. So, it is with great pleasure and a certain amount of nervous cackling and muttering to myself that I’d like to announce that as of this week, Omnireviewer has surpassed a quarter of a million words! My Google doc clocks in at 253,023 to be precise. I like to think of those 253,023 words as 253,023 marbles that I used to have. And frankly, good riddance to them.

Anyway, I watched all of Ridley Scott’s Alien movies this week, including the new one, and I’ve reviewed them as a sort of loose essay. So we’ll start with that. If you’d like to read it with paragraph breaks, here you go.

If you’re new here, you’ll quickly notice my aversion to paragraph breaks, which I don’t know if I’ve ever really explained. Basically, I feel like paragraph breaks are dishonest somehow. They imply that there’s some premeditated structure to these reviews, which it’ll be clear to regular readers that there isn’t. This blog is the only thing I’ve ever written where I’m basically content to start from the beginning, put one word in front of another, and just go with whatever results from that. It is something close to stream-of-consciousness. Nothing reflects that like just having every review be a huge, never-ending string of text. I’m gradually distancing myself from that rule over on Tumblr, where I cross-post these reviews for maximum exposure. A few more people see those posts, and given that, I’m willing to entertain the notion that it might not hurt to smooth over some of my more gratuitous tics. But for the time being, I’ll remain committed to them here. I didn’t get to 253,023 words by not sticking to my guns.

19 reviews.

Movies

Alien — So, what do we actually know about the alien in Alien? For one thing, we don’t know to call it a xenomorph, since that word first appears in James Cameron’s Aliens, and probably wasn’t intended as an act of appellation. If we can trust Wikipedia on this, it seems like “xenomorph” wasn’t officially accepted by the franchise until Alien: Covenant, in which the word appears in the credits — though not in the dialogue. So, we didn’t definitively know what to call this thing until series originator Ridley Scott reclaimed Cameron’s accidental nomenclature decades later and made it official. But we’re already ahead of ourselves. The most important thing we learn about the alien in this movie is its life cycle. It starts life as an egg, which unleashes a larval “facehugger” parasite when a live host is nearby, and subsequently births itself from the chest of that host after its parasitic form has finished its work and died. Then, it grows ludicrously quickly into its adult form. The life cycle of the alien is, for all intents and purposes, the plot of Alien. The alien’s growth from egg to adult is the thing that happens to the characters in this movie. There’s a line of thought about Alien which holds that it is a good movie because of its simplicity: it’s basically just a story of a bunch of people trying to survive in a confined space with a monster. This is true, but the life cycle of the alien… isn’t that simple. Even by the standards of the grossest parasitic spores and blind lizards you’ve ever seen in BBC nature documentaries, the alien is weird. And it’s journey to adulthood is byzantine. It doesn’t seem like something that ought to occur in nature. It seems designed — by a screenwriter, perhaps. Or a Swiss surrealist painter, or a vengeful robot. Odd, then, that a film so concerned with the mechanics of its antagonist’s life cycle should leave out the factor that would actually complete that cycle: where do the eggs come from? Are we to assume that the alien we meet in the film can lay eggs? How does it become pregnant? Is that even a relevant question? Interestingly, this question was apparently answered in a scene that didn’t make it into the movie (again, to trust Wikipedia). Evidently, there’s a scene on the cutting room floor that shows the alien’s dead victims being converted into the leathery eggs seen at the start of the film. Were this scene to have been included, it would have answered another question that Alien does not bother with: what does the alien want? The answer would have been simply, to reproduce. It kills because of a rather gruesome biological imperative. But without that detail in the film, the alien doesn’t actually have a motive for hunting the crew of the Nostromo. It is clearly not acting out of self-defence. Otherwise, poor Harry Dean Stanton might’ve survived the movie. This lack of motive gives added effect to the android Ash’s line, spoken with a tone of faint admiration that now feels like foreshadowing, “Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” In fact, we’ll get back to the alien, but let’s take stock of what we know about androids from Alien. Not much. We know that they exist, their differences from humans are virtually imperceptible, and that this particular model played by Ian Holm has both a mission to retrieve an alien and a distinct admiration for them. It seems like Ash almost sees himself in the alien: like him, the alien appears to have been designed. But this admiration is intensely disquieting, because it is predicated on a complete lack of concern for human life. Given the information we have, we can only assume that the alien in Alien is motivated by sheer hostility. It is a totemic evil in the same vein as Heath Ledger’s Joker. Later films may complicate this (it’s been too long since I’ve watched Aliens for me to say, but I seem to recall a protective mother alien), and they do certainly offer a new take on how the eggs come to be. But in the Ridley Scott-directed Alienverse, which for three decades encompassed only this one film, the alien is very simply the enemy of humanity, who kills for the sake of killing, and nothing more complicated than that. The alien is evil incarnate. The idea that you can give such a thing an origin story displays a profound, and kind of wonderful hubris. Which, of course, is lately Scott’s theme of choice.

TED 2023/PrometheusPrometheus is a profoundly ambitious film, so it probably seems like a dig to say that its themes are explored with nearly the same amount of nuance in TED 2023, a six-minute promotional short used in its viral marketing campaign. (This makes TED 2023 the first utterance of the Alien prequel series.) Taking the form of the most over-the-top TED talk ever delivered, it offers Scott and co. the opportunity to state some of their themes outright, through the mouth of Guy Pearce’s Elon Musk analogue, Peter Weyland (seen in terrible old-age makeup throughout Prometheus, but young here). It ties together two of Prometheus’s most ostentatious allusions: the titular titan of Greek myth, and the diplomat and fictionalized film hero T.E. Lawrence. This connection will resonate throughout Scott’s Alien prequels: the image of the great white European adventurer, mapped onto the image of mythology’s premier technology advocate: the man who was made to suffer for encouraging progress. This short is the first indication that Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien franchise would take a drastically different direction from the first film, focussing as much or more on his androids than his aliens. Though, in Prometheus, we don’t learn much more about either of them: the emergence of the aliens has something to do with a black pathogen, and androids are made by Weyland. That’s pretty much it, as far as I can tell. If Scott does in fact make two more Alien films, Prometheus will eventually seem like a prologue to the Alien prequel trilogy. (Which would make it analogous to Das Rheingold in Wagner’s Ring cycle, which makes it kind of maddening that Rheingold is so explicitly referenced in Covenant, but not here.) TED 2023 also plants the seed for what now appears to be the overarching story of the Alien prequels. That story in a nutshell is this: Humans arrogantly tried to create life, but being flawed, they created flawed life. And the flaws of the life they created led in turn to the creation of the alien nemesis that comes to plague humanity in Scott’s original film. At times, Scott’s story can seem familiar from Battlestar Galactica, but it’s far from the same thing. And besides, it’s a story as old as Prometheus.

Alien: Covenant, plus promotional shorts — The release of Covenant was preceded by several viral marketing shorts in the vein of TED 2023. The most substantial of these was the two-part Alien: Covenant – Prologue. The first of its two parts, “Last Supper,” establishes the fact that the coming movie will be at least in part an homage to Alien. It introduces a motley crew of rough-hewn space cadets aboard a vessel in deep space, with a loveable Ripley-esque lead character. And it includes a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the famous John Hurt chestburster scene at the dinner table. So, for the first time in the prequels, we find ourselves with feet planted firmly in nostalgia. And indeed, Covenant gives us callbacks o’plenty including, satisfyingly, “I got you, you sonofabitch!” On the other hand, “The Crossing” continues the story of Prometheus, detailing the arrival of the android David and Elizabeth Shaw on the homeworld of the Engineers (the blue dudes who fly the crescent-shaped spaceships we’ve been seeing crashed the exact same way since the start of the franchise). The coexistence of these two threads will turn out to be one of the weirdest things about Alien: Covenant, which is a deeply, deeply strange big-budget film. (The other promo shorts are insubstantial. Having watched them after seeing Covenant, I can say that they feature at least two characters who I honestly couldn’t tell you whether they were in the actual film or not. That can’t be a good sign, but I digress.) The connection between the two sides of the Covenant coin also constitutes the prequels’ first real piece of new information, as opposed to speculation fodder, about the alien, which I suppose we can now call a “xenomorph” and have it be textually accurate. The connection is that the xenomorphs were created by David, fulfilling the retrofitted prophesy of Ash’s kinship with the alien in the first film. Covenant confirms that David, the stealth protagonist of Prometheus, is the true focus of the Alien prequels. That’s deeply unfortunate, because he’s also their biggest problem. I’m really not sure what I’m meant to think of this character. I get the sense that Scott actually quite admires David. But then, what filmmaker wouldn’t admire a figure who literally creates life? Covenant tips its hand about what tradition of villainy David is meant to emerge from with one of a handful of conspicuous references to iconic European high art. As he’s fighting Walter, his duty-bound, non-generative doppelganger, David paraphrases the most famous line spoken by Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” (I’ve just discovered that the working title for the film was Alien: Paradise Lost. So, there’s a thing.) Milton’s Satan is a legendary character in part because the Romantics (e.g. Byron and Shelley, also invoked by David, though he confuses the two for thematic reasons I don’t understand) considered him a peer. Satan is a charismatic rebel: an underdog spoiling to reshape the world in his own image, at least in part as an act of vengeance. That maps pretty neatly onto David: the great creator with an instinct equal parts destructive and generative. But nothing in Alien: Covenant gives the sense that anybody involved in making it knows that David isn’t Satan’s equal — least of all Michael Fassbender, who plays the character with immense self-regard and not a hint of doubt. He’s as confident in his ability to channel Milton’s Satan as he was in his ability to channel T.E. Lawrence in Prometheus. This is what makes David insufferable. If we were given an android who creates hostile, perfect organisms out of a sense of inadequacy in the face of his literary models, that would have been an interesting characterization. But we instead get a precocious teenager who thinks he’s a romantic anti-hero. The fact that he quotes “Ozymandias,” by now the most mothballed literary reference in genre fiction, doesn’t help. It was already a little overwrought when Alan Moore did it back in 1987, but it was at least original. It was fun to hear Bryan Cranston do it in character as Walter White but that’s a different kind of story altogether, and besides, it was only in a promo clip. But it’s becoming the default recitation for ostentatious villainy — particularly the sort of creative villainy that the Romantics identified in Milton’s Satan. (“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair” almost sounds like it could come from Paradise Lost.) I think it’s time to declare an Ozymoratorium. David makes another high-minded reference in Covenant that’s slightly — very slightly — less clichéd: his reference to Das Rheingold from Wagner’s Ring. The Ring is as a four-opera cycle about how the time of the gods comes to an end and the time of man, their creation, begins. (Pedant’s corner: David’s maker, Peter Weyland, requests that David play something by Wagner on the piano at the start of the movie and then complains when his choice selection sounds “anemic” without the orchestra. Well then, why the hell did you ask for Wagner?!?! The man did not do intimacy, and he wrote hardly anything for solo piano. Also, at the end of the movie, David says that the Valhalla music comes from act two of Das Rheingold, which only has one act. It comes from the fourth scene of Das Rheingold’s one act. But then, David also mixed up Byron and Shelley, so what does he know.) Wagner is an excellent choice in general for grandiose characters with god complexes (David and Weyland, both). But the extent to which the story of The Ring maps onto David’s vision for the future frankly just seems too on the nose. There was a certain point in this movie when I realized that it was just going to keep making references to big ambitious works of art, to suggest that it may itself have similar designs. Ridley Scott and his collaborators seem to be suffering from the same delusions of grandeur that David does. But unlike the xenomorph, Alien: Covenant is far from a perfect organism. And I cannot help but think, having watched all of Scott’s Alien movies in the course of a single week, that his entire project with these prequels is a bit superfluous. His purpose is established now: he’s telling the story of how humans, having been given life and free will by their own creators, did the same, and thus brought True Evil into the universe in the form of David’s xenomorphs. He’s telling the story of the origin of evil (Paradise Lost) by way of the story of human progress (the Prometheus myth). But this is all expressed, albeit implicitly, within the elementally simple storyline of Alien. Presuming you’ve seen the movie before and are aware in advance that Ash is an android, Alien is the story of a manmade man literally opening the door to True Evil, and allowing it to ride roughshod over his human companions due to his own innate lack of morals and ethics. Alien is already the story of how our attempts at playing god fuck us over. It is already the story of Prometheus, or the story of Paradise Lost, and there’s hardly a literary reference to be found. Given that interpretation, it’s hard to credit Ridley Scott’s burning need to make a series of Alien movies that explicitly detail these same themes. That’s not to say that they’re not interesting and occasionally good movies. But, like this meandering essay, they always seem to be grasping for something interesting, but they never quite manage to close their fist around it. Alien closes its fist around exactly what it wants to be, and it can also be an allegory for the fall of man if you really want it to be.

Literature, etc.

Rebecca Solnit: “The Loneliness of Donald Trump” — This is quite possibly the most beautiful thing written about Donald Trump since he was elected president. “Beauty” doesn’t tend to be in my roster of descriptors for good writing about Trump. “Angry,” sure. “Incredulous,” certainly. “Darkly funny,” even. But Solnit has empathy for Trump, and uses it to ascertain why he appears to have no empathy at all. The result is less an indictment of Trump himself than of an entire social structure that can create a man like him. Few writers can craft sentences as simultaneously beautiful and forceful as this: “The man in the white house sits, naked and obscene, a pustule of ego, in the harsh light, a man whose grasp exceeded his understanding, because his understanding was dulled by indulgence.”

The New York Times Magazine: New York Stories — This is fantastic. The New York Times Magazine’s latest issue is all comics, each one an adaptation of a story from the Times metro desk, which covers the ins and outs of New York City itself. It’s easy to forget, given that the Times is the de facto paper of record for the entire North American continent, that it is a New York paper that covers local news in New York City. But these stories are generally small, localized and poetic. They’re the perfect kinds of stories to adapt into comics. In this day of “graphic novel” being the preferred term to legitimize the medium, the suitedness of comics for short-form stories has become obscured. But newspaper comic strips and three-to-five page strips in anthology books like The Dandy and 2000 AD — not to mention the ostentatiously literary short-form work of Adrian Tomine — are a huge part of comics history. These quick impressions based on reported stories are something I’d like to see a lot more of. I daresay there’s space in the media ecosystem for a whole publication that just does this — the immediate issue with that idea being that to hold up the standard, you need several decades worth of work from one of the best metro desks in the world. It’s worth scanning through the stories that these comics are based on, because they’re really great in their own right, and they’re conveniently linked. One or two of these adaptations seem like they could have tried a bit harder, but the best ones actually add depth to their subject matter. I’m particularly fond of Tillie Walden’s comic about a man who spent $700,000 dollars on a fortune teller who told him she could make the woman of his dreams fall in love with him, Tim Gauld and Andy Newman’s story of a man who was ordered to brick up a window so he replaced it with a camera and a screen, and — especially — Andrew Rae’s take on the story of the Queens residents who smuggle finches into the country from South America for birdsong competitions. I love this.

Television

American Gods: “Lemon Scented You” — “Oh, you’re an asshole, dead wife. You’re a fucking asshole, dead wife.” What a wonderful idea to have Laura and Mad Sweeney in a scene together. It’s fun to see Mad Sweeney get the piss ripped out of him any time. But this gives us the added bonus of Laura being delighted about it. Also, it’s amazing how they keep teasing the return of Mr. Nancy without it actually happening. The makers of this show clearly know what an electrifying impact his brief first appearance would have. But I’m desperately hoping he turns up next time. Gillian Anderson has finally gotten the character reinvention she deserves, as Media shows up as Marilyn Monroe and a spot-on “Life On Mars” era David Bowie. I love a good scene constructed from song lyrics. (“There’s a terror to knowing what Mr. World is about.”) And I’m wondering if Crispin Glover’s Mr. World, conspicuously not the same person that Shadow shared a cell with in prison, might constitute the biggest plot change to the book so far. Will he turn out to be Loki? I’m not sure that’s a given at this point. What we know is that his face-changing effect is even more gloriously unsettling than the effects related to the Technical Boy. Now the important stuff. What I really love about this episode is it drives home a key point of how this show is changing the book on a thematic level. The book was a rejoinder to crass commercialism and the worst impulses of American society. The line about cheap, sleazy roadside attractions being infinitely preferable to shopping malls basically gets to the heart of American Gods, the novel. But American Gods the show is a product of 2017, so it has to be about something different. And with the increased prevalence of Media and the reimagining of the Technical Boy as a shitsack YouTuber, it’s starting to seem like a rejoinder to the way that people today attempt to disguise their emptiness with a sheen of vapid self-branding. This is without a doubt my least favourite thing about the world today. Or at least, my least favourite new thing about the world. Everything is fake. You don’t have to be good at something to be recognized. Being recognized is considered a talent in itself. So, when Wednesday turns down the Technical Boy’s offer to help him really hone his brand, I got even more on board with this show. At this point, I feel like it’s being made specifically for me. “That’s all you do,” says Wednesday to Technical and Media. “Occupy their time. We gave back. We gave them meaning.” Long live the fucking old gods.

Doctor Who: “The Lie of the Land” — Ah boy. This pretty much lost me the first time the phrase “memory crime” was invoked. It’s so close to “thoughtcrime” that it immediately made me suspicious that this episode would have no original ideas at all. And it kind of doesn’t. Worse than that, the dialogue isn’t up to the usual standard. The first scene in the vault is particularly cringeworthy, with Missy’s variants on “getting warmer” and “getting colder” as the Doctor tries to figure out what’s going on being especially hard to take. But what all of this emphasizes is the caliber of performances being given by Peter Capaldi, Michelle Gomez and, in particular this week, Pearl Mackie. Bill’s rebuke to the Doctor in the show’s central scene isn’t a particularly inspiring piece of writing, but Mackie manages to make it into one of her character’s best moments. This isn’t one of the good ones, unfortunately. But, one more week until we get two straight episodes of Moffat/Talalay, and I’m definitely excited about that.

Twin Peaks: Season 2, episodes 1-9 — Ah, dear. This does go off the rails sooner than I remembered. This first batch of episodes in season two are worth a watch and contain explorations of some of the show’s most compelling lore. But it also introduces the plotlines that will end up tanking the show around the season’s halfway point. Piper Laurie in yellowface is a particular low. But we also get the agoraphobic botanist, Dick Tremayne, and teenage Nadine with super-strength. That last one is probably the weirdest of them, though it isn’t distractingly bad just yet. I’m actually really admiring the way that Wendy Robie commits to the gag. And Everett McGill’s stoic terror at the fucked up plotline he’s found himself in is even funnier. Dick Tremayne has all the hallmarks of a character who should appear once, maybe twice, and then never again. If he actually vanished from the show when Lucy told him to leave the sheriff’s department and never come back, the show would have been better for it. But there are other things that used to strike me as bad notes in the show that now seem more knowing: the James/Donna/Maddie love triangle sing-along made more sense to me this time around, once I realized that David Lynch directed that episode. And in general, the two episodes at the start of this season that are directed by Lynch are truly awesome television. There’s nothing better than that amazingly long sequence of a senile room service waiter not realizing that Coop is bleeding out on the floor. The other standout in this run of episodes is the one that Lynch returns to direct, “Lonely Souls,” in which Leland is revealed as Laura’s killer (in some abstract sense). One of the things Lynch brought to the television toolkit that is still rare even today is a willingness to take his time with important or interesting scenes. The scene with the room service waiter is one side of that, but another side is the truly distressing, and quite long scene in which BOB/Leland kills Maddy. The way Lynch chooses to direct this as a sort of grotesque dance that cuts between Leland acting oddly tender towards his victim and BOB being truly cruel is extremely perverse. It’s one of the most difficult sequences in the show to watch, in spite of how little is actually shown. It feels violent in a way that modern television violence doesn’t. And crucially, unlike a lot of today’s TV violence, it feels wrong. It feels like something that you’re supposed to recoil from. And the way that it’s bookended with scenes of the giant (and, wonderfully, that same room service waiter) warning Coop what’s happening in a way that he can’t understand makes it really heartbreaking. “Lonely Souls” is a really good episode, even if it’s central reveal did ruin the show. And the next two episodes, which tie up an almost uncomfortable number of loose ends — the way that Coop and co. just straight up explain what happened the night Laura was murdered really strikes me as pat, and a betrayal of the original spirit of the show — really rely almost entirely on the extraordinary performance of Ray Wise to paper over their comparative lack of inspiration. And Ray Wise really is incredible here. Kyle MacLaughlan might have given the most memorable performance in Twin Peaks, but Wise gives the best of the heightened, alienating, kabuki-esque performances that are so crucial to the feel of the show. In general, the notion that the first half of season two is on the same level as season one seems wrong. But it’s hard to tell if my mounting discomfort is actually because of what’s happening in the series right now, or because I’m starting to see the seeds of the truly awful half-season that’s quickly approaching. I’m following the New York Times’ advice and watching up to episode 11, then skipping to episode 21, but I’m not looking forward to these next couple of episodes. On the other hand, Leo being comatose makes for a fine application of Eric Da Re’s acting abilities.

Music

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Deluxe Edition) — It was 50 years ago today etc. It’s June 1 as I’m writing this, and I’ve listened to Sgt. Pepper three times today. First, I checked out Giles Martin’s new stereo remix of the album, then my old faithful 2009 mono remaster, and finally, the “alternate” Pepper of rough sessions on disc two of the deluxe edition. Mostly, it just reminded me how much I love Sgt. Pepper. But that won’t come as a surprise, so I’ll focus on my thoughts on the deluxe edition. I came to Giles Martin’s remix with the requisite puritanical scepticism. The original mono mix of Sgt. Pepper, particularly in its remastered edition, is a perfectly fine sounding album. But I do buy Giles Martin’s argument that the album needs a new stereo mix, because nobody listens to the mono except nerds like me, and the original stereo mix is terrible. It’s full of that horrible thing where all the instruments are on one side. Awful. So I figured the new mix would be worth hearing, if only to hear Sgt. Pepper in decent stereo for once. But this turned out to be a way different experience from that. Martin went right back to the original tapes, which for the original album’s mix had to be subjected to a certain amount of degradation because it was mixed on four-track. No such problem exists today, so the original tapes can be heard in all their glory, in a way that’s actually purer than what was on the first issue of the record. The result is a Sgt. Pepper that is clearer, cleaner, and more impactful than any previous version. Of course, it’s also subtly different than either of the versions I’m used to. (I grew up on the terrible 1987 stereo CD release, and have been devoted to the mono since 2009.) You might think that’s a stumbling block. Sure was when they remixed the Genesis albums. But honestly, the major impression I got throughout my listening was simply that this was Sgt. Pepper, except with better sound. That’s the highest possible praise Giles Martin could get for this. There are tiny exceptions, where a change to the mix gave me a different impression than the original. “Within You Without You” has always finished with a muted laugh from a crowd of imaginary onlookers. In the remix, they’re a lot more prevalent. Originally, George Harrison’s message of universal togetherness accompanied by ersatz Indian classical music was met with a knowing chuckle by a gaggle of hip sophisticates. Now it’s undermined by derisive laughter from a roomful of cynics. It’s a subtle sonic change with a substantial impact. But I can’t help but think Harrison, perverse weirdo that he was, would’ve appreciated the new version  — in which nobody recognizes how right he is. The other track in which the new mix makes a really ostentatious impression is Lennon’s “Good Morning, Good Morning.” As a song, it’s a relative weak point on the album, but as a sonic construction, it’s one of the weirdest, most fascinatingly cacophonous things in the Beatles catalogue. The new mix kicks that cacophony up a level — the bass drum sounds thunderous, and it all feels louder. Suddenly it makes sense in its context near the end of the album. It escalates the energy up to the level required for the borderline hard rock of “Sgt. Pepper (Reprise),” and makes the moment when the bottom falls out and the acoustic intro of “A Day in the Life” begins even more effective. The moral of the story in both of these cases is that sounds mean things. Infinitesimally small adjustments make big differences if you’re listening closely. But Giles Martin’s got the Beatles in his blood, so none of the changes jar. Not a single one. They don’t even feel like changes. I’ve heard a lot of reissues, and I think this might well be a new high standard. I’ll probably mostly listen to this instead of the mono now. A few words on the second disc: it’s a lot of fun. Basically, Martin and co. have assembled an alternative Pepper with the same running order out of rough takes without overdubs. And then some “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” at the end for good measure. Hearing just one take of each song before moving onto the next one doesn’t quite give the sense of process that I crave from these types of releases — I want to hear how the songs evolve. But for that I’ll need to splurge on the six-disc set, which I might do. In the meantime, hearing Sgt. Pepper rough takes at all is fascinating. This is one of those albums that’s so meticulous in its construction that it sometimes feels like it isn’t actually being performed by humans. Listening to the sessions re-establishes Sgt. Pepper’s connection to Earth, and makes it identifiably something performed by the same people who recorded the rough-and-ready fare on Please Please Me. I’m especially fond of the “When I’m Sixty-Four” rough take with no clarinets and, more crucially, no Varispeed. On the album, the vocal track is sped up so Paul sounds like he’s singing higher than he actually did. It’s a solid musical decision, but there’s something wonderfully human in the discrepancy between the session and the final mix. One of my personal maxims is that great craftsmanship doesn’t age. That’s why Sgt. Pepper is still great music 50 years later. And this two-disc set is the best commemorative edition we could have asked for. Except, I’m assuming, for the six-disc set. But this is on streaming services. So for god’s sake, go listen. Pick of the week.

Tool: 10,000 Days — I’m going to see Tool! And I need to study up. This is actually the album that I’m probably least in need of a quick study on, since it is for me the ‘period’ Tool album: the one they made when I got into them. I’ve listened to it a fair bit over the years, and I do like it a lot, though it has peaks and troughs. It never quite reaches the heights of its opening one-two punch of “Vicarious” and “Jambi” afterwards, though I do love the relatively low-key “Wings for Marie” and the title track. This is the one I revisit for nostalgia. But I think Lateralus, I think maybe the only other Tool album I’ve heard, is a better album. We shall soon see.

Podcasts

Theory of Everything: “Protest” — I like that there’s just one guy who can produce segments for TOE. Walker has a stable of one freelancer. Andrew Calloway’s segment on the Pepes rallying in New York is solid stuff with some good characters who I didn’t viscerally hate.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Master of None and Snatched” — I hate that moment when you hear about a show that got really good after being sort of ‘meh’ for a while. Because now I feel like I have to watch Master of None. Snatched sounds like a fiasco.

All Songs Considered: “Why Remix ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’? Giles Martin, The Man Behind The Project, Explains” — This is well worth hearing for the A/B comparisons of the remastered original stereo mix of Pepper with the new one. It’s also nice to hear Giles Martin sing the praises of the original mono mix, which, in spite of my real love for the remix, is still something that deserves to be listened to. What’s even clearer from this, though, is how terrible the original stereo mix was. And to think, I grew up on that mix on a CD released in 1987. You know music’s good when it can rise above that.

Theory of Everything: “Emergency” — Not a hugely memorable episode, he writes, having listened to this like a lifetime ago. But I do think the image of Benjamen Walker getting paranoid in a spa is a good one worth returning to.

Love and Radio: “The Pandrogyne” — A classic. This is a beautifully mixed interview with one of England’s great musical eccentrics, Genesis P-Orridge. I’ve always meant to get into Throbbing Gristle, but that is not at all what this is about. This is about P-Orridge’s relationship with their late partner, with whom they consider themselves one being. It’s warm, funny and sad. And it features the story of the time they stayed in a house that used to belong to Houdini. It burned down while they were staying there, but they escaped. *grins* It’s nice to hear somebody straightforwardly sympathetic on Love and Radio from time to time. Pick of the week.

Strangers: “Lea in Trumpland: Alicia” — This is… ugh, I don’t know what to think of this. This is that thing where a liberal reporter goes and talks to a Trump supporter. To be fair, Lea Thau seems entirely aware of the pitfalls of that. But this still falls into that genre, and I can’t help but feel that Alicia, a perfectly sympathetic person in many respects, has a worldview that just doesn’t really deserve the airtime. Maybe that sounds ruthless, but she really lost me at the moment when Thau asks her about racism and she responds by saying that she doesn’t really care about people’s feelings getting hurt. Never mind that it’s as much or more about people’s safety than their feelings — I just can’t get behind a person who thinks like that. I know that’s kind of the point, and I’m totally aware of the fact that I’m holding this to a different standard than I’ve held comparable episodes of Love and Radio. But I just feel like I don’t have the mental energy to grapple with this right now. Get back to me in ten years, and maybe I’ll have enough distance to know what to think.

On The Media: “The United States of Anxiety: America’s Allergy to Intellectualism” — I appreciated this, but similarly to the episode of Strangers I just reviewed, I’m just really not as much in the mood for anxiety-making radio about contemporary politics as I thought I was when I put this on. I’m sure The United States of Anxiety is a great show, but I’m probably going to pass on it for now.

Fresh Air: “‘Sgt. Pepper’ At 50” — First off, the A/B comparisons here were less valuable to me than their All Songs Considered counterparts, because this podcast is in mono. When comparing stereo mixes, that’s kind of not acceptable. I guess the broadcast edit was stereo? Never mind. This is still worthwhile for the interview with Giles Martin, which is more in-depth than the one on All Songs. But if you’re only picking one, go with All Songs, for the stereo.

Fresh Air: “Paul McCartney/Ringo Starr” — It speaks to the quality of The Beatles Anthology that I’m never surprised by Beatles interviews anymore. Why do I even bother?

Omnireviewer (week of May 7, 2017)

23 reviews. My most frequently-occurring number of reviews, I’d wager. I don’t know why that is. I just seem to do 23 reviews a lot.

Television, etc.

American Gods: “The Secret of Spoons” — Wow, it got better. This episode is, on balance, less flashy than the first. Though it has its moments of visual splendor, such as the way Chicago’s dot on the map of America crossfades to Zorya’s padlock, the tumblers of which are then juxtaposed with a slot machine (foreshadowing of the coming fateful checkers game). But by and large, this is a less cinematic, more theatrical episode of television than “The Bone Orchard.” They always used to say television was a writers’ medium, but in a post-Breaking Bad — and indeed, post-Hannibal — world, that’s becoming a more dubious claim. David Slade has directed both of those shows, and his style is abundantly evident here. Still, the measure of this second episode comes from the writing and acting, much more so than the first. And that starts in the opening scene, which introduces a radically different, much more interesting version of Anansi than the one readers will know from the novel. (I loved the version of Anansi in the novel, but he’s too nice for 2017. Better by far to have him be angry, sardonic and powerful.) Orlando Jones may be my favourite thing about this show so far, which is not nothing when the show also has Ian McShane in it. Everything about this scene is perfect, from the writing for Anansi to the prayer that his supplicant speaks to summon him, to THE SUIT OH GOD THE SUIT. What’s amazing about this scene is that Anansi, without saying a single untrue thing, tricks his followers. He tricks them into sacrificing themselves so that he could find his way ashore to America. (And how great is that shot of the spider — whose colouring is as flamboyant as its human form’s wardrobe — creeping off of the floating plank and onto the shore?) But he’s also not wrong that the sacrifice is potentially more meaningful than what many of the captives on the boat had ahead of them. This is not only a better version of Anansi than in the book, it’s also more thoughtful and up-to-date take on the Middle Passage than the one in the book. This scene would be an effective short film in itself, with absolutely no other context from American Gods. And it basically functions as one in this episode, since Anansi doesn’t enter the main story until later. Still, its themes resonate with the aftermath of Shadow’s lynching (an unexpected valence to add to the image of Odin hanging from the world tree; yet another addition on the part of the show) and the extremely uncomfortable conversations he has with Czernobog. Oh, yes, can we talk about Czernobog? Peter Stormare is third of three perfect casting choices for this show’s main trio of Old Gods. Given that I am primarily familiar with him from his famously taciturn performance opposite the famously verbose Steve Buscemi in Fargo, it’s nice to hear him get some dialogue to wrap his mouth around. And they’ve really made him look disgusting. His grubby, blood-soaked wife-beater is as brilliant a costume choice as Anansi’s suit (OH GOD THE SUIT). I am very much looking forward to the part of the story where we get to see Czernobog, Anansi and Wednesday together, because these actors are everything I love about television. I’m also extremely fond of Cloris Leachman’s performance as Zorya, and I hope the show contrives to give her more to do than in the book. And as if this isn’t enough, we’ve got Gillian Anderson doing “sinister Lucille Ball,” which is the role she was born to play. What I’m trying to get at here is that sure, American Gods is proving itself to be a televisual feast worthy of the creator of Hannibal. But this episode proves that the basics are so solid you could just take these actors and this script and play it out on a stage and it would still work. Easily my favourite episode of TV I’ve seen so far this year. Pick of the week.  

Better Call Saul: “Chicanery” — My wish for the Jimmy/Chuck/Kim plotline to move forward was granted. This is the side of the show that I’m usually close to 100% confident in. Jimmy’s transformation into Saul was always the impetus for this show’s existence, story-wise. I sometimes feel as though the presence of Mike, and now Gus, is only to maintain Better Call Saul’s connection to the violent, shocking world of Breaking Bad, where crime is right in front of you and not a matter of courtroom litigation. But this show has always been good at making a comparatively everyday story into something with equal dramatic weight to the sordid tale of Walter White. This week’s episode is maybe the best the show has ever done, and it’s basically a straightforward courtroom drama. What’s most satisfying here is seeing the two drastically different legal strategies of Jimmy and Kim employed in tandem. Kim’s meticulous and strategic in her cross-examination and Jimmy employs a pickpocket. (Huell!!!) The moment when Chuck realizes that he’s genuinely betrayed himself at the end of the episode is one of his best character beats in the show so far. Like courtroom dramas often do, this offers an opportunity to put this story’s conflict in the starkest relief it’ll probably ever get. Jimmy: the compassionate grifter. Chuck: the ruthless champion of justice. Outstanding stuff.

Doctor Who: “Oxygen” — Not bad. I always like the feel of Doctor Who episodes that take place on a spaceship/station with plenty of emphasis on the void of space. (“Kill the Moon” comes to mind in particular.) I dunno what I find intrinsically compelling about the void of space, but I to tend to like stories that take place there. I also like critiques of capitalism. And I love the note tacked onto the end of this that indicates the events of this episode were the impetus for some sort of space communist revolution. But I can’t help the feeling that the monster-based horror of this episode is awfully familiar from last season’s (awful) “Before the Flood.” This show is contriving more and more ways to do zombies without doing zombies these days. Fun to have Nardole actually on a TARDIS trip. I like him in limited doses. I’m curious about how the Doctor’s blindness will factor into the series’ main plot arc, which I”m hoping will start in earnest next week. But that final line, “I’m still blind!” was a bit much, wasn’t it? May as well have been followed by a huge DUN DUN DUUUUUUHHH. This was alright. Better than “Knock Knock.” Much better, in fact. But not a destined classic.

Bill Wurtz: history of the entire world i guess — I guess there is a point to YouTube. The cosmic stuff at the beginning of this is the highlight. Wurtz is funny, obviously. But he also manages to convey the inconceivable weirdness and complexity of the universe having at some point been empty and timeless. The closer we get to society, the easier a job he has. But he doesn’t hue too closely to the usual narratives and makes sure to not just do European history. I already feel like I’m taking this too seriously. I’m going to stop now.

Movies

The Darjeeling Limited — Hmm. Well, it’s got some really good stuff in it. Adrian Brody, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson are three actors who are wont to give excellent Wes Anderson performances. This is a very particular kind of performance. You have to be really good at listlessly staying in the same place. You can’t move your face too much. All three leads do this very well. Also, the movie is very distinctly not in these characters’ camp. Not entirely, anyway. The film is set in India, and is a Western portrayal of India, but doesn’t convey India as a fountain of exoticism for its white protagonists to dip into. The protagonists themselves certainly see it that way, which is the source of much of the movie’s humour. Still, I retain some suspicions about whether the more sincere moments in the movie (especially the young boy’s funeral) are accurate. If not, then I think this film is making some assumptions about its audience that it probably shouldn’t. Still, I don’t have the information to make the final judgement. Dramatically, I liked this as much as The Royal Tenenbaums (which I very much wanted to enjoy more than I did), but not quite as much as The Life Aquatic, and certainly not as much as my two favourite Anderson movies: Moonrise Kingdom and the spectacular masterpiece that is The Grand Budapest Hotel. But I’m a sucker for Anderson’s brand of intensely mannered filmmaking and this fits that bill.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — Basically, I enjoyed this. I like these actors, these characters, and the general tone of these movies. But this isn’t quite as fleet-footed as its predecessor. The issue isn’t just repetition; it’s that this movie doesn’t execute its jokes as thoughtfully as the first Guardians did. There’s nothing here that rivals that movie’s most iconic shot: the slow-motion corridor walk where instead of stoically staring ahead, they’re yawning and crotch-scratching and whatever. The joke being, they’re doing a thing that people only do in movies, except they’re all acting like they’re not in a movie. This has ideas that come close to that, but it doesn’t really follow through on them. The opening credits have a similarly promising premise: the Guardians fight a giant space monster, out of focus in the background while Baby Groot dances adorably in the foreground. But that’s the whole of the joke, basically. There aren’t really any beats to the scene except for the other characters getting thrown towards the camera one at a time. If we could actually follow the battle and watch it get progressively more disastrous as Groot dances, that would have been funny throughout its duration, instead of just at the start. The monster should be dead by the end of the credits. Then we should see the Guardians up close for the first time, exhausted and covered in goo. And somebody should snark about how Groot used to be helpful. Or something. I’m not a screenwriter. I’m just saying, that’s the definitive way that scene should have worked. The rest of the action-comedy in the movie is often fun, but I couldn’t shake the feeling after a while that in its action sequences, this movie only has one joke, and it’s basically “terrible violence is wrought upon villains to a sunny, 80s soundtrack.” Contrast with the master, who has scores of specific, bespoke jokes in every fight. Other problems! Chris Pratt can’t do feelings! Chris Pratt can do banter. That’s what you’re supposed to hire Chris Pratt to do. The story makes no sense! Why did Kurt Russell give Chris Pratt’s mom brain cancer? He didn’t have to do that! And at what point was it explained that Chris Pratt would lose his short-lived god powers if he killed his dad? How does that even work?!? Also, the characters are all split up so we don’t get to see any of the relationships between them! This is an observation I semi-nicked from Pop Culture Happy Hour, but the panelists there are definitely right about it. We don’t really get to see the dynamic between the members of the team we got to know in the first movie, because every one of them gets paired with a minor character instead. This hurts Zoe Saldana the most, because she gets lumped in with the not-reliably-brilliant Karen Gillan. But it doesn’t really do Pratt any favours either because he gets stuck in an emotional arc with a Kurt Russell character who does not crack wise, thank you very much. Rocket and Drax fare better with Yondu and Mantis, respectively. (Evidently, the less humanoid you look, the more likely I am to refer to you by your character’s name.) But I miss the Rocket/Pratt dynamic from the first movie a lot. Also! There are platitudes o’plenty in the screenplay, and not all of them get comedically undercut by Drax! They should. “I control the arrow with my heart” is one of the most unforgivably shitty sentiments ever to be allowed into a Marvel shooting script. And if I see one more genre film where the entire resolution rests on the intrinsic nobility of humanity I will lose my mind! Ahem. But it’s not all bad! Dave Bautista is consistently hilarious as Drax, and steals this movie to a much larger extent than he did the first one. Baby Groot is adorable! But they would do well to retire that version of the character now (as it appears they will), since his entire characterization is based on a single gag in the first movie’s post-credits scene. That cannot hold for long. There are a number of very funny jokes! That is much appreciated. There is a spaceship with lasers that roll around its exterior on tracks! It’s hard to describe, but it’s a lovely bit of design that spices up the huge space battles substantially. There is a certified dank special effect where their faces go weird from doing too many hyperspace jumps! I love that. There is Cat Stevens! I love Cat Stevens. So basically, there are many problems with this. But the Guardians of the Galaxy remain a pretty solid second place among my favourite properties in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (next to Captain America). I’ll watch Vol. 3, and I won’t even complain about it, probably.

Comedy

Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special — This is distinctly less excellent than her more recent special that I watched last week, but I think I’m pretty much always on board for Maria Bamford at this point. This is the special that she shot for an audience of only her parents. I confess that while I appreciate this choice as a joke in itself (and I certainly appreciate Bamford’s ability to talk openly about the darkest elements of her inner life right in front of her parents) I’m not sure it shows her material in its best light. I do generally prefer comedy specials to be as verité and sketch-light as possible — incursions of surreal sketch comedy mar specials that I otherwise love by Chelsea Peretti and Zach Galifianakis, for example. And to a certain extent, this entire special is a sketch with standup in it. Old Baby also has elements of this, but for the bulk of its running time, Bamford is at least telling jokes to a crowd large enough to have a homogenous reaction to those jokes. No such luck with the ‘rents. The material’s still awesome, though. The bits about Paula Deen and the double standard that applies to mental vs. physical illnesses are both perfect demonstrations of what’s great about Maria Bamford. But on balance, I think she stepped it up for this year’s special. It’s actually nice to find that an artist you’ve recently discovered is on an upwards trajectory rather than a downwards one. It doesn’t usually work that way for me because I’m wilfully late to every pop culture party. But yeah, this cements Maria Bamford among my top three or four comics, probably.

Chris Gethard: Career Suicide — I really like listening to somebody just tell a story. That’s ultimately why I like Mike Birbiglia so much, even though I generally think his jokes don’t rise to the level of some of my other favourite comics. Neither do Chris Gethard’s. But that doesn’t stop this from being wildly compelling viewing. This is a 90-minute (!) account of Gethard’s lifelong journey through intense mental illness. Gethard’s gift is that he can see how the following two things can both be true: depression is awful and has taken him to some truly dark places, and the experience of being depressed has provided him with some objectively funny stories. This is also a really excellent corrective to certain specious narratives about mental illness, especially the one about antidepressants taking your creativity away. I’ve watched three new comedy specials so far in 2017. It speaks to the caliber of the first two that I would rank them as follows: Maria Bamford, Chris Gethard, Louis C.K.

Literature, etc.

China Miéville: October — China Miéville’s self-admittedly partisan history of the Russian Revolution is off to a good start. That said, as a fan of his fiction, it is almost offputtingly straightforward. Aside from a few words necessitating a quick Google (ogee?) Miéville has basically put aside his most obscurantist tendencies here. And I confess, I always kind of loved him for those. I’ve read the first chapter of this book, and so far, Miéville’s introductory portraits of Lenin and Trotsky are the most promising elements. Though, the best single moment in this opening chapter is Miéville’s marvellous, withering depiction of Nicholas Romanov: “Absence defines him: absence of expression, imagination, intelligence, insight, drive, determination, élan. Description after bemused description turns on the ‘otherworldliness’ of a man adrift in history. He is a well-educated vacuity stuffed with the prejudices of his milieu — including pro-pogramist antisemitism, aimed particularly at revolutionary zhidy, ‘yids’. Averse to change of any kind at all, he is wholeheartedly wedded to autocracy. Uttering the word ‘intelligentsia’, he makes the same disgusted face as when he says ‘syphilis’.” So, yeah. He doesn’t hold back. And even in a comparatively simple idiom, Miéville’s use of English is still impressive. This bodes well.

Games

Fallen London — With last week’s encomium to Sunless Sea, I inspired myself to go back to the original. I found Fallen London a few years ago when I was really into interactive fiction in general — Twine, parser-based stuff, the whole works. Fallen London stuck out to me for all of the reasons I’ve already praised Sunless Sea, i.e. the prose is incredible. But it’s been a while. I can’t remember where I was at in the game and it’s taking me awhile to figure it out. But that’s fine! Because everything you do in Fallen London is a delight. It’s clear to me that a huge amount of the mythology that underlies Fallen London is still a mystery to me. (What the hell even is the Bazaar???) At first, I thought that the aura of mystery was the whole of the game and that you’re never really meant to get past the protective coating that sits on top of all of the lore. Certainly, most of the characters walking around seem to have just as incomplete an understanding of what the hell is going on as I do as a player. But playing a bunch of Sunless Sea made me realize that there are answers to the questions. Some of them, anyway. I’m looking forward to learning them. Also! There’s an app now! And it’s really pretty. Way prettier than the browser game. Now this feels like a bespoke product the same way Sunless Sea does. It’s a cosmetic thing, but cosmetics are important.

Music

Buffalo Springfield: Buffalo Springfield — Ah, fuck it. If I’m doing a Neil Young binge, I’m going to do it properly. From here on out, we’re going for completion. I’m defining that as “everything that’s been officially released by Neil Young or an act he was a member of.” This includes official and archival lives, and rarities on odds and sods collections. This is going to be taxing, but I’m experiencing a severe compulsion that I don’t think I’m going to best. Buffalo Springfield is not a bad album by any means, but it is first and foremost a period piece. It is interesting primarily for being an early work by Neil Young and Stephen Stills, both of whom would go on to do work that has aged much better than this. (The former in particular, obviously.) But I am always in favour of listening to things that are of primarily historical interest. In general, Neil’s songs are more adventurous and interesting than Stephen Stills’, but Stills penned the obvious standout, “For What it’s Worth.” It was tacked on in the second pressing after it became a hit. It would be a far poorer album without it, honestly. That’s how much better and more iconic it is than anything else on here. And the track it replaced, “Baby Don’t Scold Me,” is about as good as its title promises it will be. Neil’s songs don’t quite sound like Neil Young songs except for when he sings them. (Everything sounds like a Neil Young song if he’s singing it. Even if it’s a Beatles song.) And he only sings two of his own songs here. “Burned” is the stronger of the two, but I know from the Decade compilation that Neil’s best contributions to the Buffalo Springfield oeuvre will come later. Strangely, this record’s most notable “oh, Neil Young’s here!” moment isn’t on a track that he wrote. His guitar playing on “Leave” is remarkably similar to the way it’ll sound four years later in the outro of “Woodstock” with CSNY, or on “Southern Man.” A really interesting and intermittently good album.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and W. Kamau Bell” — Sounds like Guardians 2 is basically what everybody expected it to be. (He says, having written this before he saw the movie, which he reviewed above.) I’m in. (He says, not knowing he’d see the movie within the same week as this review, and that this would later read really weirdly because of my structural choice to always put podcasts last.) W. Kamau Bell is very funny.

Reply All: “The Silence in the Sky” — Nice to hear something where P.J. Vogt did the reporting. Seems to me that’s rarer than Alex Goldman-reported segments, but I don’t have the stats in front of me. I agree with Vogt that “Across the Universe” is not the best Beatles song.

The Media Show: “Secrecy and whistleblowing, Times Literary Supplement editor Stig Abell, Radio style guides” — Ah, good, there’s an excellent media-focussed show on BBC Radio 4. I love BBC Radio 4. I got linked to this from I can’t remember where and listened to it to hear the segment on the Times Literary Supplement. Maybe I’ll subscribe to a literary magazine. I could see myself doing something like that.

WTF with Marc Maron: “John Michael Higgins / Maria Bamford” — Too bad the Maria Bamford spot is so short. I need to go back into the archives and listen to previous Maron/Bamford conversations. These two understand each other. John Michael Higgins is not a person I know (the only Christopher Guest movie I’ve seen is, wait for it… Waiting for Guffman) but he’s super interesting and Maron’s good at getting him to tell the story of his crazy road through showbiz. Fine listening.

Every Little Thing: “Rapture Chasers” — Not bad, but not as substantially different from Surprisingly Awesome as I’d hoped it would be. If your premise is basically “things are great when you look into them,” you’d better have some serious personality in your show. Because that is essentially the premise of all journalism that isn’t hard news. This is the sort of show that I think will likely produce a lot of great episodes, but I’m having the same sort of hard time figuring out why it exists as I had with Undone, and we all remember how that worked out.

Beef and Dairy Network: “A Tribute to Paul Kitesworthy” — A segment based around a slightly predictable joke: the dead guy isn’t really dead; he just owes everybody money. Still funny and well-made. If I wasn’t so behind on my subscriptions, I’m sure I would have gulped this whole thing down.

Code Switch catch-up — Wow, I just listened to six episodes of Code Switch. (The most recent six.) I am sad and confused! Highlights include a segment in the mailbag episode where the problems with the Native American hunting rights episode get addressed (thank god), Audie Cornish talking about writer/comic John Leguizamo, and the entire episode about the L.A. unrest (as relevant a topic as ever). But the real standout episode is the most recent one, co-hosted by Shereen Marisol Meraji and Kat Chow, about Miss Saigon. This is the musical where, the first time around, a bunch of the characters were played in yellowface makeup, but now they’re not, but it’s still an intrinsically problematic piece because of “fragile Asian woman” stereotypes, etc. Maybe this is only the standout to me because this comes up frequently in the opera world (Miss Saigon is based on the same text as Madame Butterfly) except it’s even worse in the opera world. Yellowface is still considered acceptable at many (most?) opera houses and the drama of Madame Butterfly is so wrapped up in shitty racism of the century-old variety that it is actually not a good opera anymore. (Well, I mean, it never was. But I can understand why an early 20th-century audience in Italy might have thought it was.) I’m not sure if this applies to Miss Saigon or not, but Madame Butterfly has a protagonist that we’re expected to sympathize with and feel bad for in spite of the fact that she has absolutely no strength of character. We’re expected to feel gutted at her fate because she can’t help being the sort of person she is, because of her race. If Butterfly had been a white character and acted the same way, nobody in the opera’s original audience would have believed it. And yet, here we are today, still believing it. I really hate Madam Butterfly. And I think I hate Miss Saigon by extension now.

The Memory Palace: “Met Residency #5: Temple” — Fun to hear Nate DiMeo do one of these Met episodes that’s a little bit critical of the Met. Basically he follows a timeline posted in the Met’s reconstruction of an Egyptian temple and points out the interesting bits (and the boring bits). Not one of my favourites of these stories, certainly. The one about Prince Demah Barnes is still the best one, followed closely by the one about John Vanderlyn’s panorama. But this is probably number three.

The Memory Palace: “Notes on a Plaque, Still Imagined” — This was one of the first Memory Palace episodes I heard, back before I was completely sold on it. Listening again, I don’t know what I was thinking. This is a beautifully written proposal to affix a big, gaudy plaque to a statue commemorating the military record of a racist. And not just any racist: the first Grand Wizard of the KKK. Nate DiMeo muses about how the plaque should be designed and what it should say to convey the message that this statue of this man is a product of its time, and of a morally inexcusable value system. Beautiful stuff.

The Memory Palace: “The Year Hank Greenberg Hit 58 Home Runs” — Outstanding. This is that rare thing: a story about American Nazism in the years prior to Pearl Harbour. Which was very much a thing and quite a popular one, though it’s been conveniently scrubbed from American history. Nate DiMeo finds his way in through two sports figures: the Jewish baseball virtuoso Hank Greenberg and the Jewish strongman Joseph Greenstein (“The Mighty Atom”). Most satisfyingly, it features said strongman beating up some Nazis with a baseball bat. What kind of baseball bat? Listen to the episode. It’s a more satisfying revel than you might think. Also, on the show’s website, DiMeo tagged this episode “Richard Spencer sucks,” just in case the subtext wasn’t clear. Pick of the week.

99% Invisible: “Sounds Natural” — Way to be buzzkills, 99pi staff. Honestly, I’ve always wondered how nature documentaries get such clear sound. But I never looked into it because I feared that the answer would be “it’s all fake,” which it is. I don’t really mind, but I’m going to be conscious of it now.

99% Invisible: “Reversing the Grid” — A strangely compelling policy story about how governments should deal with the phenomenon that power meters are reversible: i.e. they go backwards when you put power back into the grid. Like with solar panels.

Omnireviewer (week of April 30, 2017)

Hey, remember last week when my post only had seven reviews in it and was super short? Prepare yourself. This one’s 6000 words. Also, I decided to allocate my two picks of the week to non-podcasts, because podcasts aren’t making up such a staggering preponderance of these reviews, these days. Never fear, this will likely be a temporary state of affairs. Incidentally, this was another week when I would gladly have given out more than two picks of the week, but I failed to exercise restraint last week and I’m not making it a trend. No sir.

29 reviews.

Games

Sunless Sea — It is with intense satisfaction that I would like to report that after 130 hours of playing this over the course of two years (and seven dead captains, to boot) I have completed the main story of Sunless Sea! By “main story,” I mean the ambition called “Your Father’s Bones,” which you can choose at the start of a game. (This ambition has a narrative hook: you’re looking for the final resting place of your departed father. Whereas the other starting ambitions are essentially opportunities to explore freely while amassing fictional money or items that will eventually allow you to end your game with a win if you choose. So, the Father’s Bones option seems like a “main story” to me.) I confess that playing through this ambition was very much a “journey not the destination” sort of experience. The ending of the story is entirely fine, and beautifully written. But the true appeal of this storyline is in the subplots you have to follow while collecting a series of rare items. True, a fair chunk of the quest falls under the category of that hoary old video game trope “find X things.” But seldom does a quest to find things result in such rich storytelling. I got to know my ship’s gunnery officer a bit, and realized he’d built munitions for some truly shady people. I aided in my chef’s training and watched as he prepared a meal for a retinue of the living drowned. I hunted a ship crewed entirely by spiders. And it was all expressed through, bar none, the best written prose in the industry. I say this every time I write about this game, but Sunless Sea and its sister title Fallen London are the only games I’ve played with a distinctive and sure-handed approach to language that rivals literature. The humour, terror, characterization and poignancy of the various stories contained within this game all arise from the writers’ ingenious and idiosyncratic use of English. It’s a thing to behold. I will likely put aside Sunless Sea for a while now (and perhaps take up Fallen London in a more serious way), but I’m sure I’ll return to it at some point. I still feel as though I’ve only made a cursory survey of many of its moving parts. I don’t understand the full significance of the island of mute exiles in the north. I don’t understand why the locals at Mutton Island, just off the coast of London, suddenly started acting so weird. And I definitely don’t understand where the terrifying artificial sun in the corner of the map came from. Plus, I haven’t really dove into (excuse the pun) the excellent Zubmariner expansion, which has a starting ambition of its own. I think I’ll make it my goal to finish at least one more ambition in Sunless Sea before the sequel, Sunless Skies comes out. I never tire of this game, and I increasingly love the parts of it that annoyed me at first — namely the long, slow trips from port to port — best of all. While these moments can become extremely stressful under certain circumstances, they are usually fairly placid. This lends a contemplative element to a game that otherwise serves up plot pretty swiftly. Like baseball, I suppose. For a game that is so concerned with (and so effective at simulating the experience of) abject terror, it can feel curiously therapeutic to play. Sunless Sea is for me the most magnificent escape into an alternate universe that gaming has ever offered. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Pick of the week.

Television

Bill Nye Saves the World: Season 1, episodes 1-3 — It was Bill Nye who first made me want to be a scientist. It is crucial to note at this juncture that I am not a scientist, and in fact have a tenuous understanding at best of many very basic scientific concepts. However, when I was about eight or nine, when Bill Nye the Science Guy was nearing the end of its run, I wanted nothing more than to be a madly gesticulating, eccentric, bowtied fellow in a lab full of Tesla coils and beakers of colourful fluid. It was only partially the whimsical aesthetic of the show that pulled me in: it was just as much the spirit of joyful curiosity about the way the world works. The Nye Labs point-and-click adventure Stop the Rock! likely had an even more formative influence. That game let you actually explore Nye Labs. The wonder! The part of me that got sucked into early Radiolab is a part that was probably put there by Bill Nye. So I feel a tremendous amount of goodwill towards this guy. And basically, I think his new show is good. Certainly it’s noble. But by focussing specifically on the controversial global issues that require us all to have a better understanding of science that we do, he gives up something really crucial about the science communication work he’s done in the past: he loses sight of the sheer mad joy of understanding as an end in itself. Yes, it’s true that science is crucial to helping us navigate the biggest challenges we face. But that’s only one side of it, as far as I’m concerned. The other is that it’s just better by definition to know more about the world than you do. And that experience of joy in knowledge is essential to winning people over onto the side of science. I’d like to see Nye do a show that is similarly aimed at adults, but which balances topics of substantial-to-massive contemporary importance (alternative medicine, climate change) with scientific topics that are complex but maybe not quite so tied into the nightly news. When I was a kid, Bill Nye taught me about things I’d never heard of before, from underwater life to plate tectonics. I kind of still want him to do that. And also talk about climate change! We should never shut up about climate change. But… also fun new science facts. And the celebrity guest appearances can go. The not-famously-charismatic Steve Aoki’s guest spot is so arbitrary I kind of enjoyed it in spite of myself. But why Zach Braff is in the first episode, I’ll never understand.

American Gods: “The Bone Orchard” — Hugely, enormously promising. Like, “maybe this will be better than the book” promising. There are so many blazingly good sequences in this first episode that it almost seems ostentatious. The casting is flawless, with Ian McShane being a particularly obvious but magnificent choice for Mr. Wednesday and Ricky Whittle offering a harder, colder Shadow than the one in the book. A good choice, since it gives him a direction to move in. The look of the show is much more similar to Hannibal than I’d expected. Clearly Bryan Fuller is in the habit of bringing his own aesthetic to stories originated by others. Shadow’s dreamworld is rich and hallucinatory. I’m particularly fond of the way the ceiling of his cell breaks open to reveal Laura. And the entire ending sequence with the Technical Boy is brilliantly creepy in a way that only tech-based horror can be. The way that the Technical Boy forms out of weird claymation is the sort of bizarre, entrancing choice that is making me feel like this might actually kick the book up a notch. It’s really trying to be its own thing. But there are standout segments straight from the book as well. Shadow’s first conversation with Wednesday on the plane is a delight, and gives McShane the opportunity to be as gruff as we Deadwood fans are used to seeing him, but with an unfamiliar note of whimsy. Likewise, the bar fight with Mad Sweeney plays out almost exactly as in the book, and the gradual escalation from coin tricks to full-on brawling is as satisfying in this medium as that one. But the appeal of this so far is definitely not the basic joy of seeing a familiar work of fiction play out onscreen. It’s the much more complicated thing of seeing a familiar work of fiction get filtered through another auteur’s sensibility. I didn’t expect so much stylized gore, nor so many scenes with the dialogue almost entirely re-written. These are indications that Bryan Fuller (and, I suppose Michael Green, who is ostensibly an equal partner in this) will be making this his own. This is going to be so great.

Doctor Who: “Knock Knock” — Again, the best thing about this episode is the riffing on Doctor Who as a cultural force. “Oh, you’re the Doctor?” “Yes.” “Cool!” So, that’s a theme that’s continuing. But man, this was pretty blah. I enjoyed it in the sense that it was good performers filmed well while saying witty lines. But as horror stories rooted in the confused dynamic between a parent and child go, it’s sure not “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.” I like seeing Bill just go about her life outside the TARDIS, but we don’t get much of that before the generic haunted house story starts up. Competent. Not great. The weakest of the season so far, by a substantial distance.

Better Call Saul: “Sabrosito” — I should have mentioned last week how satisfying it is to see Patrick Fabian’s Howard Hamlin gradually transition into a really wonderful comic performance. His fence-climbing antics last time around were a highlight, but this week all he has to do to get a laugh is say “well that is a shame” in the most transparently ingratiating tone of voice possible. I really like this character. Fring’s plotline in this is notable mostly for his final speech to his employees at Los Pollos, which is a terrible speech. Intentionally so, obviously. It really drives home the point that Fring is intensely cynical: he knows he can anticipate a certain amount of critical thinking on the part of the people he associates with in the drug business. And certainly on the part of the cops. But employees at a fast food restaurant? Nah, they’ll buy anything. I’m not sure we’ve seen this from him before. It’s the only time he’s been less than completely convincing in his cover, but he knows he only has to be convincing enough. And he is. Jimmy’s plotline only surfaces halfway through the episode, once we’re through with Fring and Hector Salamanca. (Mark Margolis is continuing to add depth to this character, which both makes him fun to watch in this show, and deepens the tragedy of his barnstorming mute, wheelchair-bound performance in Breaking Bad.) I do wish that this story would move a little faster. I’m enjoying the Mike/Gus side of this season, but I feel as though the emphasis on that is slowing down progress on the story that has always fascinated me the most, which is anything involving Jimmy and Kim. Still, this is great.

Comedy

Maria Bamford: Old Baby — This is the best comedy special I’ve seen since about three Louis C.K. specials ago. I will repeat none of the bits, because the trailer for this proves that they are not funny out of context. I will say that Bamford has the perfect mix of three characteristics I like in a comic: jokes that frame the familiar in a new way, a delivery that complicates and deepens the writing itself, and uncommon life experiences to draw on. Regarding the second-last one of those, Bamford’s characters are hilarious, particularly when they’re her parents. And regarding the last, Bamford’s experience with mental illness is (silver linings) a fruitful source of material for her. I’m underselling this by making it tediously abstract. But I’m not about to explain comedy, here. This is on Netflix. Go watch it now. Pick of the week.

Movies

The Road Forward — The opening film of this year’s DOXA festival, this is a musical semi-documentary by Marie Clements, one of our local visionaries. It uses a gigantic storytelling toolbox including songwriting, music video, interviewing, visual symbolism and archival footage to tell a vast, nuanced story. The story is about the untold history of First Nations activism on the West coast of Canada. And it would be a hell of a story, even told straightforwardly. There are stories here, like the origins of the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood and the Indian Constitution Express movement, that are the sorts of incredible tales that inevitably prompt white people such as myself to say things like “how was I never taught this?” (Which is a sentiment that the film pokes fun at once or twice.) It’s moving, important and enormously ambitious. Its flaws are flaws it shares with virtually all movie musicals and some music videos: a certain ostentatious theatricality keeps it slightly at arm’s length (this started life as a theatre piece). But it’s still something I think every Canadian should see, not out of a sense of duty, but because it features contributions from a huge number of really great artists, with Clements at the top of the pile.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in his Labyrinth” — I’ve decided not to read this Borges collection in order, but rather to skim through and read the ones whose titles or first sentences jump out at me. The first sentence of this story is as follows: “‘This,’ said Dunraven with a vast gesture that did not blench at the cloudy stars, and that took in the black moors, the sea, and a majestic, tumbledown edifice that looked much like a stable fallen upon hard times, ‘is my ancestral land.’” I’m in. This is a fairly restrained application of Borges’s genius, but it’s definitely Borges. (One thing I recall from my long-ago reading of “The Garden of Forking Paths” is that it’s about a labyrinth. Sounds like this will be a theme.) Again I’m curiously reminded of Neil Gaiman. A cursory Google (and the slightest bit of common sense) reveals that Gaiman is a fan of Borges. And this story about stories feels like the sort of thing that wouldn’t be out of place in Sandman. Basically, one man tells a friend a story about a man who hid away in a labyrinth. And another man ponders the story, finds it insufficient and tells another version that’s more convincing based on the same facts. Simple, direct, ingenious. And also fable-like. Borges’s recurring motifs of labyrinths and libraries appeal to me on an aesthetic level as well as a thematic one. This is going well.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Borges and I” — An extremely short, vaguely troubling autobiographical sketch that finds Borges negotiating the difference between his public and private personas. This is part of The Maker (AKA Dreamtigers), and I think I’ll probably hold off on reading any more of that until I get a copy of the complete text. (My complete fictions collection dogmatically refuses to include the poems in The Maker, which are apparently crucial to its flow.) But this is a lovely little observation. If it’s any indication of what The Maker is like in general, it seems like the sort of thing I’ll enjoy more once I’ve got a better sense of what made Borges into the public figure he describes here. Perhaps I’ll focus on the earlier stories.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Garden of Forking Paths” — You know, it’s possible that I hadn’t actually read this like I’ve been saying I have this whole time. Having read it now, it’s clear to me that the reason I was familiar with it is primarily because of the extraordinary way that Borges poses a thought experiment that prefigures hypertext literature decades before its actual invention. This is definitely something I’d read about this story. But the story itself seems unfamiliar to me. Maybe I just read it in a different translation? I dunno. I can’t imagine it would have made such a weak impression. This is deservedly a classic. Not as mindbending as “The Library of Babel,” but it’s also spinning more plates. It’s got a narrator with a motivation, a framing device, and an espionage plot all surrounding the main event, which is clearly the conversation about the labyrinthine novel that is effectively hypertext. One of the things I love most about the Borges stories I’ve read so far is they’re very short, and thus make rereading a completely non-daunting proposition. Future rereads of this will likely find me trying to decide why Borges decided to place this idea in this particular story. What difference does it make that the narrator learned the secret of his ancestor’s novel during the course of an act of espionage? How does the detective story connect with the metafiction? I’m sure somebody could explain this to me, but I’m just as happy to figure it out at my own damn pace.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Circular Ruins” — This is the one Neil Gaiman cited as a favourite. It’s a good one, with a fantastic premise and a twist ending that renders this much better upon re-reading, or at least re-considering. The premise is that there’s a place with gods who will allow you to imagine a person into existence. The detail with which Borges describes this process makes this a good read on the first time through. But really it’s about the ending.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” — This is second only to “The Library of Babel” in my survey of Borges thus far. This is ingenious for so many reasons: 1) Its form, which is a sort of academic memorandum complete with all of the resentfulness and spite for one’s rivals that those can often contain. 2) Its premise, which is that a 20th-century author made it his life’s goal to write Don Quixote (i.e. writing the exact same novel as Cervantes, word for word, but arriving at it independently and centuries after Cervantes already wrote it). This is wonderfully absurd and highlights a side of Borges that I don’t hear talked about that much, namely that he’s really funny. 3) The way that Borges chases this premise down several compelling rabbit holes. (This is a similar approach to the one he takes in “The Library of Babel,” which is perhaps why I like it so much.) Borges’s narrator analyses the content of Menard’s Quixote alongside the content of Cervantes’ original (which, remember, is exactly the same) and finds them to be entirely different works by virtue of their authors’ differing contexts and intents. Borges manages to be both instructive on how context is crucial to criticism (and the nature of criticism is explicitly discussed in the text) and he also satirizes this very same approach by way of reductio ad absurdum. This is outstanding. So far, reading Borges has felt like coming home.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Deutsches Requiem” — A slightly less effective Borges story, though that might be an unfair judgement on my part, because it just doesn’t have the specific things I’ve loved about the few Borges stories I’ve read so far. It’s not a premise-driven story, it’s a character-driven story. And the character is, apparently, the ultimate Nazi. I’m not going to lie, I picked this one out because I love the Brahms piece it’s named after. Not a highlight of my Borges reading thus far. But here’s a miscellaneous note I haven’t been able to work into any of my previous Borges reviews: I’m really reminded of China Miéville in a few of these stories. Neil Gaiman has been the modern reference point I’ve gone back to again and again when discussing Borges, but Miéville shares Borges’s gift for the mindblowing premise. Some of the stories from Three Moments of an Explosion could practically be Borges stories. I’m thinking particularly of “A Second Slice Manifesto,” in which Miéville describes an art movement that exposes new sides to classic works of representational painting by imagining a “slice” down a certain point in the image, revealing cross-sections of people and buildings that were whole in the original picture. That’s damn close to Borges in “Pierre Menard” mode.

Farhad Manjoo: “Can Facebook Fix Its Own Worst Bug?” — This piece about how Facebook is handling its post-election flail is not encouraging. A couple of choice excerpts: “For the typical user, Cox explained when I met him on a morning in October at MPK20, News Feed is computing the relative merits of about 2,000 potential posts in your network every time you open the app. In sorting these posts, Facebook does not optimize for any single metric: not clicks or reading time or likes. Instead, he said, ‘what you really want to get to is whether somebody, at the end of the day, would say, ‘Hey, my experience today was meaningful.’’” This is notable because I have never once felt this way on Facebook. The lack of meaningful interactions with people or content is the basis of my entire objection to the news feed. It promotes (and thus encourages the production of) the content equivalent of marshmallows: you consume them because they’re there and they have a sort of outward appeal. But you never actually enjoy yourself and eventually you start feeling shitty and resenting all the marshmallows you ate and the source where you got them. (This is Facebook’s shit to take responsibility for, but it’s also on every news organization and producer of web content to not fall into the trap and reject what value they have.) The piece then goes on to detail Facebook’s moderately successful efforts to combat clickbait — efforts that were predicated on a logic that I cannot imagine applying universally: “Facebook’s entire project, when it comes to news, rests on the assumption that people’s individual preferences ultimately coincide with the public good, and that if it doesn’t appear that way at first, you’re not delving deeply enough into the data.” Evidently, Facebook’s internal method for fixing problems is as pig-headedly metrics-focussed as it has forced the entire rest of the world to be. This piece is fascinating, and leaves me with more of a sense of Mark Zuckerberg’s good intentions than I had before, but absolutely zero faith in his (and his company’s) ability to fix the problems they’ve caused, let alone the ones they set out to remedy from the beginning.

Music

Neil Young: Neil Young — So I thought to myself, how deep should this deep dive go? Shall I make a detailed survey of the early material from Neil’s time in Buffalo Springfield — or rarer still, the Squires? Shall I finally listen to those other two CSNY albums? No, I decided. This will be a survey of Neil’s solo career, with that defined as any album that has his first and last name on it as a principal artist. Crazy Horse albums count, as does anything he released with ad-hoc bands like the Stray Gators and the Shocking Pinks. And Pearl Jam. I won’t obligate myself to listen to every live and archival release, though I’ll likely check out some, because the ones I’ve heard are among Neil’s best work, and albums like Rust Never Sleeps and Time Fades Away make the secondary designation normally afforded to live albums sort of inapplicable in Neil’s case. By my count, these guidelines will still find me listening to at least forty albums. So, we begin a fair ways from the beginning, actually, with the self-titled album. At this point, he’s already written and recorded classics like “I Am A Child” and “Mr. Soul.” He was five years past his earliest recordings. But this marks the start of Neil Young as “Neil Young” as opposed to “guy in band.” And it’s… well, it’s an anomaly, but it’s a compelling one. This is one of those albums like Jethro Tull’s This Was that feels like the start of an alternate history that forked a different way in our reality. (Maybe I’ve been reading too much Borges.) It’s the album that finds the now-anointed godfather of grunge sounding like a well-heeled young folkie with aspirations towards glossy marketability. The arrangements on this have a similar feel to the ones on Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter in the way that they never just leave the singer alone. This isn’t bad by definition. Far be it from me to criticize polish while being a huge prog fan. But Neil is an artist who feels more radical by far when he’s being noisy and sloppy and spontaneous. With this much fuss applied, he sounds a bit MOR. (To use his own nomenclature, I prefer Neil in the ditch.) “The Old Laughing Lady” suffers particularly from its arrangement, which almost works — until the midsection with the wordless backing vocals comes around. I could live with the little electric piano riff in 5/4 that breaks up the verses, but I don’t understand what that wordless midsection has to do with the rest of the song. It’s empty bloat, and it would be profitably excised on the Unplugged album years later. “The Loner” fares better, if only because it’s familiar enough that it seems unfathomable without its arrangement. The less familiar tracks range from hidden gems (“Here We Are in the Years”) to unmemorable instrumentals (“The Emperor of Wyoming”) to “The Last Trip to Tulsa,” which is the one truly unvarnished performance on the album but isn’t necessarily one of Neil’s best lyrics. Neil Young has its undeniable pleasures, but it’s best heard as a piece of Neil’s history. This polished side of him wouldn’t vanish outright after this: it would continue to marvellous effect in his work with CSNY and to blockbuster effect on Harvest. But immediately afterwards, the radically unvarnished side of Neil would come to the fore and mark the point where it’s clear that he’s a real creative force.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere — If Neil’s self-titled debut represented his introduction to us as something other than “guy in band,” Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is where Neil Young arrives as a legend. This is a hell of an album, and though I’d heard the majority of it before (because more than half of it is on the Decade compilation), this was my first time through the whole thing. Crazy Horse is the kind of band I ought to hate, being who I am. But their committed sloppiness feels less like the result of laziness than like a progressive musical experiment. This is the point where noise becomes a major part of Neil Young’s sound. This is the album that starts the thread of Neil’s career that will climax on Rust Never Sleeps and go gloriously over the top on Weld. “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand,” both feature sprawling jams where Neil strains at the very edges of his extremely limited technique as a lead guitarist and they set the template for all great Crazy Horse jams to come. The shorter songs are all excellent, especially “Cinnamon Girl,” obviously. And the title track is maybe the most Canadian song ever recorded. This is also the album that makes it clear we can never know what to expect from Neil Young. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is as unlike the debut as it is possible to be. And within a year of this album, Neil would join CSNY and go back to making radically structured music, albeit of an entirely different persuasion from on his first solo record. This is already an exciting ride. But Neil’s next solo album is his first proper masterpiece.

The Mountain Goats: The Sunset Tree — We interrupt this Neil Young binge for yet more erudite early-2000s indie rock. (Because the full Decemberists catalogue wasn’t enough.) I’ve meant to properly get into the Mountain Goats since I heard “Heel Turn 2” on Welcome to Night Vale. (I understand they’re working on a podcast together now? I’m curious.) This was apparently something of a breakthrough for them, though they have more acclaimed albums that predate this than postdate it. Still, The Sunset Tree served its purpose. I’m hooked. “This Year,” which I’m told is a very famous song in certain circles, is exactly what I needed right now. “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me” is one of those lyrics that seems obvious in retrospect, except that nobody wrote it before. Other highlights include “Dance Music,” which belongs to a niche subgenre I’m particularly fond of, namely songs with really chipper music and really dark lyrics. I’m also a big fan of “Dilaudid,” with its string arrangement and escalating vocal performance from John Darnielle. I need a few more listens for this to sink in, but this is definitely a band I’m going to listen to now.

Shugo Tokumaru: Toss — I’ve gotta say, it doesn’t live up to the promise of “Lita Ruta,” which is still my favourite song of the year so far. (Provided we don’t count cantatas based on Supreme Court decisions as “songs.”) Unlike In Focus? which is the other full Tokumaru album I’ve heard, this is really uneven. It is also sparser and simpler on balance than In Focus? is, and I’m not sure simplicity suits Tokumaru. Naturally, the best parts of the album are almost dizzyingly complex, with “Lita Ruta” being the clear winner but the first track, “Lift,” is glorious as well, as is the magnificently-titled “Cheese Eye.” This album is apparently the first time Tokumaru has gone out of his way to work with a variety of other instrumentalists, which makes for an album which is at times extremely timbrally diverse, but I would have preferred if it stayed that way for its whole duration. If I’m going to listen to this guy, I want total sensory overload. Honestly, there’s still enough great stuff on it that I’m confident in calling it one of my favourite albums of the year so far, but I suspect that has more to do with how badly I’ve fallen off the music discovery wagon than anything.

Podcasts

Crimetown: Episodes 16 & 17 — Good episodes. The problem with this season has just been lack of focus. If they’d just found a way to really hone in on two narrative threads: Buddy Cianci and the Patriarca crime family, this would have been great. And I suppose everything does tie back to that to a certain extent, but this feels like it’s really gone everywhere. But this focusses on Cianci, which makes it feel of a piece with the season’s arc as I’d originally perceived it. Still, I have other problems. In their promo for the big party they’re holding to celebrate the end of the season, the hosts of this say something to the effect of “by the end you won’t be sure who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.” Except yes I will. The ones who committed or were implicated in murders for business reasons are the bad guys. That’s pretty clear to me. I wish it were clearer to the people who make this show. (To be fair, cops and government officials are often also the bad guys. But my point is that Crimetown sometimes can’t resist saying “look how great these criminals are!” And I wish they wouldn’t.)

All Songs Considered: “Todd Rundgren On Technology, Creativity And His New Song With Trent Reznor” — Rundgren’s a good interview. You can tell somebody’s a good interview when they’re even interesting on All Songs Considered. Can’t say the song does anything for me. But I’ve always meant to check out Rundgren’s catalogue, especially A Wizard, A True Star. So maybe it’s time.

StartUp: Season 5, episodes 1-3 — I wish they’d stick to serialized seasons. The Dov Charney season was one of the undersung wonders of last year’s podcasts, and probably journalism in general. The first episode of this is a story of one businessman’s foray through “the surprisingly cutthroat world of toys.” I’m honestly kind of sick of journalism that starts from the premise of “look how interesting this seemingly mundane thing is!” So that didn’t work for me. But the two-parter on Friendster is really solid. What a catastrophe. It concludes with a comparison of the way Friendster was managed with the way Facebook was managed, and that really drives home the point that Friendster was the biggest idea of the early millennium, deployed by the wrong people.

You Must Remember This: “Barbara Loden (Dead Blondes Part 12)” — I’m starting to feel similarly about this as I am to Crimetown, though to a much lesser degree. The beginning of this season promised a point would be made about “blondeness” in Hollywood, and it hasn’t really come to that. This is still a good story about a compelling historical person, and how she was misrepresented by her powerful husband, Elia Kazan. But I’m hoping that Karina Longworth finds a way to tie everything together in the last episode of this series the way she almost did in the Barbara Payton episode several weeks ago.

Judge John Hodgman: “Live From the London Podcast Festival” — Nice stuff, but the highlight by far is a moment where the hosts of No Such Thing As A Fish argue over whether the existence of a conspiracy theory counts as a fact. The conspiracy theory in question? That the Titanic was sunk by time travellers who all wanted to see the last moments of the Titanic and thus all arrived at the same time, causing it to sink. This is bonkers in itself, but I won’t spoil the best moment of this exchange. I’ll just say that somebody definitely doesn’t understand the concept of a bootstrap paradox.

All Songs Considered: “The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy & Olivia Chaney Talk About New Collaboration, Reimagining British Folk” — ALERT ALERT NEW DECEMBERISTS sort of. Offa Rex is a side project where the Decemberists cover old British folk tunes (the sort of ones that inspired the band’s trilogy of bona fide classics: Picaresque, The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love) with the brilliant Olivia Chaney on vocals. God, can she ever sing. And the arrangements are so ‘60s I can barely contain myself. I will be listening to this album in full as soon as I can, and I am overjoyed to see that Chaney will be joining the Decemberists at the August tour date I’m seeing here in Van. Also, I feel like I’ve been a right dickwad about Bob Boilen’s interviewing, lately. This is a really fun conversation and Bob really keeps it frothy, pointing out Meloy’s mispronunciations of things and everything. Nice stuff.

Reply All: “The Secret Life of Alex Goldman” — The payoff to the “P.J. hacks Alex’s phone” arc. This is actually really fantastic in spite of Alex Goldman having a really boring life, because 1) Goldman and Vogt have a compelling enough dynamic that they can talk about nothing and still be fun and 2) there turn out to be broader implications. Reply All can spin gold out of very thin material.

Imaginary Worlds: “Healing Through Horror” — I’d like to hear more episodes of this show that deal with horror, especially modern horror, but this isn’t really a highlight. This features two people who have both used horror as a means of escaping trauma, but their reasoning for why this is helpful to them is more obvious and less compelling than the episode that deals with this same thing with respect to Harry Potter. Seriously, that Harry Potter series was really great.

On The Media: “Rewriting the Right” — Nice to see OTM explaining the American right. Because god knows I would never understand it otherwise. I’m only half snarking. This trip through the horrible odyssey of right-wing think tanks and their campaigns to influence academia and policy is truly horrifying and I feel bad now.

Imaginary Worlds: “Designing BoJack’s World” — This features an interview with the cartoonist who was hand-picked (with no animation experience) by the creator of BoJack Horseman to design the show’s aesthetic. Given that this show’s host is a former animator himself, this is really interesting. BoJack is the adult cartoon that I feel gets the most out of its choice of idiom. All of the character drama would play out fine in a live-action dramedy, but the animation allows not only for great sight gags, but also for the sense that this is a bizarre and alienating world — a great mood to strike in a narrative about show business.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Summer Movie Preview 2017” — I, too, am looking forward to Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.

Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 23, 2017)

Well, this is an odd instalment. For the first time since starting Omnireviewer in October 2015, I went a week without listening to any podcasts. This is because I was listening to an audiobook instead. It also means that this week we only have seven reviews, which is an all-time low. Given that, it would seem logical to only do one pick of the week. But, you know what? I’m going to allow myself not just my usual two, but THREE. It was a very high-performance week and I make the damn rules, here. And a seven-review Omnireviewer with no podcasts is an anomalous farce to begin with, so fuck it.

Here are your seven reviews.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Library of Babel” — I have purchased a rabbit hole full of rabbit holes. Namely, the collected fictions of Jorge Luis Borges as translated by Andrew Hurley. I am essentially unfamiliar with Borges, given that the only things I’ve actually read of his are excerpts from The Book of Imaginary Beings and a long-ago, half-attentive read of “The Garden of Forking Paths.” But I’ve always meant to dive into his work, primarily because of my personal obsession with metafiction (note that Neil Gaiman also figures largely in my media consumption this week). There’s a quote I happened upon once (I think it’s Borges, but I may be wrong because I can’t source the quote no matter how hard I Google) that explains what’s creepy about metafiction. The quote posits that we’re unsettled by stories where the characters become self-aware as characters in a story, because it makes us feel like there’s a possibility that we too may be fictional. Stories within stories suggest infinite regress of which we are only one level, and by definition in between two others. (I may be thinking of the second paragraph on the second page of this essay, where Borges discusses Hamlet’s play within a play, which kind of outlines the same idea. Though in my memory, the quote was more on-the-nose than this.) I love this. It’s like Borges predicted The Matrix, and also every Silicon Valley conspiracy theory about how we’re actually all in a computer simulation. More to the point, it pins down my exact morbid fascination with metafiction. This is why I suspect Borges might be a writer I should seriously investigate. “The Library of Babel” is a much-suggested starting point, and I adore it. At a mere seven pages long, it establishes a complete universe governed by a simple premise with some unthinkably mindfucky implications. The premise is that the universe of this story is an inconceivably vast (but not infinite) library, in which every possible combination of 25 characters is present. The most astounding implication of this is that all meaning, even impossible meaning, can be expressed flawlessly through language. An example: in this library, there is a book that tells the true story of your death. Because there would have to be. Read this goddamn story. I enjoyed Hurley’s translation and the one linked here is not that, but a cursory glance finds it to be adequate, though it regrettably does not contain Borges’s footnotes. Pick of the week.

Neil Gaiman: American Gods (The Tenth Anniversary Edition audiobook) — I feel as though my initial impressions of this novel from last week carried through to the ending, so I won’t belabour this. I’ll only say that this is straightforwardly one of the greatest fantasy novels ever. Still, I think it’s in third place out of the four Neil Gaiman works I’ve encountered (numbers one and two being, respectively, The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Sandman. “The Doctor’s Wife” is a respectable number four.) This is at turns immensely moving and terribly clever. As a mythology enthusiast in general, I got a lot out of this. I’m incredibly psyched for the TV show. I’m certain Ian McShane will knock it out of the park. Also, a word on audiobooks: I’ve decided I like them. I got through this a hell of a lot faster than I would have if I’d read it, because I seemingly spend most of my life on busses, running, or doing chores: none of which are settings I tend to enjoy reading in. This is going to be part of my life now, I’ve decided. And now, a few more specific notes. Firstly, Neil Gaiman has a very specific and nuanced sense of the epic. In American Gods, that manifests in many ways, some rather unlikely. Food, for instance. In The Odyssey, everybody is constantly eating. They eat roasted meat and fruits and they drink sweet wine, and the way Homer (and his translators) describe it draws me into the adventure as surely as any story of a cyclops or siren. In American Gods, everybody is also constantly eating. And the meals they eat are every bit as decadent and as lavishly described as the feasts in Homer, but of course they’re modern and American. One of the first things that happens in the novel is a man eats a burger with a side of chili. A burger with a side of chili. It may simply be that I’m Canadian, and thus used to a touch more restraint in my pub fare. But to me, chili is under no circumstances a side dish. So this plot detail is deliciously and, yes, epically gluttonous. I love it. It makes me want to live in this world of heroic, divine eaters. It makes me want burgers and chili and french fries and meatball subs and macaroni and cheese and fried chicken and lager and black coffee. Not chocolate cream pie, though. I’ve never liked chocolate cream pie. But when I read about it in American Gods, I kind of wish I were the sort of person who would enjoy chocolate cream pie. Another note: the “Coming to America” chapter about Essie Tregowan is everything I love about Neil Gaiman in a nutshell. Essentially, it’s a story of a woman whose love for fantasy stories helps to bring a god over to America. Stories about the value of stories are not rare in Gaiman’s oeuvre, but he does them more movingly than anybody else. Hearing this in audio form makes me wonder if Nate DiMeo has read or listened to this. Because, supernatural element aside, that segment could easily be an episode of The Memory Palace. I’m not sure whose writing that’s a greater compliment to: DiMeo’s or Gaiman’s. Finally: it’s nice to now have read two novels with Mad King Sweeney as a character. He is a highlight of At Swim-Two-Birds as well, and that is my favourite novel ever. American Gods has an entirely different take on him, and that take deepens my impressions of this mythological personage. I adored American Gods. Neil Gaiman is a class act in a generation of genre fiction writers that I mostly don’t like. He articulates a vision of America from the outside that is deeply consistent with my Canadian perspective, and thus I’m certain the perspectives of many many non-Americans living in a world inundated with American culture against our will. He strings you along like the finest con artists the world has ever known. Pick of the week.

Television

Better Call Saul: Season 3, episodes 1-3 — I always forget how much I love this show when it isn’t in season. I wouldn’t say that any of these three episodes find the show at its very best. But we’ve got several promising elements, here. Firstly, it looks like this season’s arc will primarily deal with Jimmy being on trial. That’s a good story arc idea, and it gives plenty of opportunities for development in my favourite element of this show, which is the relationship between Jimmy and Kim. Rhea Seehorn continues to be outstanding, and I love every scene with the two of them together, not just because of the dynamic established between the two characters in the scripts, but also because Seehorn is really good at reacting in a traditionally actorly way to Bob Odenkirk’s often idiosyncratic approach to delivering lines. It’s easy to forget, given the increasing esteem in which he is held for this role, that Odenkirk comes from sketch comedy, which is a writer’s medium, not an actor’s one. He’s not at all the usual sort of person you see headlining an hour-long drama. That’s a big part of this show’s appeal. Of course, the other promising element is the return of the magnificent Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring. I must admit, I felt a bit trepidatious about this when I first heard they were doing it. I’m not a fan of overreliance on favourite elements from any given narrative’s canon (see basically any review I’ve ever written of Welcome to Night Vale). And this show has generally been very good about ensuring that its story works independently of Breaking Bad — quite the trick given that show’s long shadow. But so far, it seems like Gilligan and Gould are managing to integrate Fring into their narrative fairly organically. The origins of Mike Ehrmantraut’s relationship with that character is narratively rich ground, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out. The episode that he first appears in is brilliantly stage-managed as well, with the delayed reveal of the Los Pollos Hermanos sign and then the extended sequence where Fring is an extremely conspicuous blur in the background of a shallow-focus shot. You have to be really paying attention to see it, but when you do, you know it’s completely intentional. This is what I love most about Vince Gilligan as a television auteur: he takes the audience’s intense attention for granted, and uses it to his advantage. I’m really looking forward to the rest of this season. Maybe this will be the year when I remember how much I love Better Call Saul even when the season ends.

Doctor Who: “Thin Ice” — So much of this season so far feels like a victory lap. I don’t mean that in a bad way, nor do I mean to credit Steven Moffat with every decision on this show, which has been written by three different people in as many weeks. (The usual state of affairs.) But aside from this season’s interest in reiterating the basic appeal of Doctor Who at its core, it also feels like an excuse to just have a hell of a lot of fun. If there was a non-tragic component to the Doctor’s loss of Clara’s memory (*sniff*), it’s that he’s been able to move on from his most recent loss faster than usual. There’s none of the brooding that was necessary after the departures of, say, Rose or the Ponds. This gives Peter Capaldi the opportunity to show off the side of Twelve that shares DNA with Tom Baker’s whimsical Fourth Doctor and Sylvester McCoy’s hammy, performative Seventh. Twelve will probably still go down in history as a curmudgeon with a heart of gold (the previous reference points always seemed to be William Hartnell and Jon Pertwee), but it’s lovely to see him cast off the shade and just have a ball being a mercurial pot-stirrer. Which, of course doesn’t last for long, because we need a story. And what a moment when Spider disappears under the ice. This character moment is communicated through acting, and without a single word. The Doctor, thinking pragmatically, retrieves his sonic screwdriver. He does not show an outward sign of concern for the death that’s just taken place. He busies himself examining the screwdriver. Bill is appalled. We as viewers are not made to think the Doctor monstrous. He is not, after all, openly cavalier. (This would have been a tempting but bad place for a one-liner.) But neither are we allowed to think that what’s just taken place isn’t a terrible thing, because Bill is there to offer the expected reaction while the Doctor behaves in the idiosyncratic way he believes to be most useful. Our brooding Twelve from two seasons ago (“You would make a good Dalek”) doesn’t make an appearance, however. This is a more stable version of the character. We seem to be done with the stories about whether or not the Doctor is truly a hero. I predict that this is the closest we’ll come to that this season, and it’s a subtly different sort of thing: it’s a story about confronting the unpleasant realities of throwing in with a character from an adventure serial. This comparatively sunny setup is going to make Twelve’s regeneration absolutely gutting. Let’s be prepared.

Movies

The Lost City of Z — I had high hopes for this that weren’t quite realized, but it’s definitely two and a half hours well spent in a movie theatre. And I do mean that precisely: this is a movie that you need to see in theatres, because it is conceived as an experience. This is an epic in the David Lean tradition: it’s the closest thing to Lawrence of Arabia that I’ve seen this decade. I do have a weakness for huge movies like this. (There’s a hint of Apocalypse Now in it too, which is always a compliment from me.) But I freely confess that my bar for these movies isn’t hard to clear: show me some pretty scenery framed nicely by the cinematographer, maybe with some elegant slow pans, and I’m pretty much good. This did that. But I won’t pretend to have been especially engrossed by the story or characters. The key tension comes from Charlie Hunnam’s protagonist, Percy Fawcett, struggling to balance his compulsion to explore the Amazon with his obligation to be present for his family. This is not psychologically complicated. And this movie is not psychologically complicated. The hardships of jungle exploration are mostly conveyed as physical struggles. This is where it breaks from Apocalypse Now, which finds a source of delirium in the jungle, rather than just a straightforward threat to life and limb. I can’t help but see this as a missed opportunity. Also, I’m not convinced that this movie is the corrective to certain colonial narratives that some critics seem to think it is. It is still focussed on a white man, and it has tinges of the “white saviour” trope about it. I dunno. I enjoyed looking at this movie, but I haven’t got much to say about it, apparently. The acting’s fine. Hunnam is more capable than I’d thought. And it’s lovely to see Robert Pattinson settling into the role he was always meant for, namely, second-fiddle eccentric character actor. Pattinson is a genius in this context and it was a criminal offense for any casting director to ever mistake him for a leading man. This is not a masterpiece. It’s awfully pretty, but it isn’t narratively or thematically ambitious enough for me to really consider it great.

Music

Neil Young: On the Beach — This was the one instalment in Neil’s “Ditch Trilogy” that I’d never heard from start to finish. I’ve always considered the other two chapters, Time Fades Away and Tonight’s the Night to be among his most effective work. But On the Beach might be the best of the three. Of the three, Time Fades Away is always going to be the odd one out, since it’s completely live. So, if we judge this against Tonight’s the Night, we find that this is substantially more put together, even if its songwriting moves in the same general direction of desolation and despair. But in music, sound is everything. So, in its comparative restraint, On the Beach takes on a substantially different meaning than its predecessor/successor (depending on whether you consult the order of recording or release). If Tonight’s the Night is the sound that emerges from an open wound, On the Beach is the residue from a recently cauterized one. Given this interpretation, “Walk On” is one of the most uplifting and glorious tracks in the Neil Young catalogue. It opens the album with a sense of genuine fortitude in the face of trauma. “See The Sky About To Rain” is a sad song, but it’s wistfully sad, in the same way as certain songs on After the Gold Rush or Harvest. (It is also quickly becoming one of my favourite Neil Young songs, up there with “After the Gold Rush,” “Powderfinger” and “Tired Eyes.” I cannot listen to this enough.) The rest of side one keeps the pace, with a general sense of a person in possession of his faculties, in spite of having recently walked through the valley of the shadow of death. But side two gets darker. Here we have Neil really sinking into the feelings of paranoia and worthlessness that plagued him at the bottom of the ditch. “Ambulance Blues” is especially dismal, in the best way. If we look at the Ditch Trilogy in its intended order with Time Fades Away representing the descent, Tonight’s the Night representing the nadir, and On the Beach representing the emergence, then I think it’s a magnificent choice to have something as dark as “Ambulance Blues” to finish the whole thing off. “Walk On” is a great way to start the final instalment in a trilogy about pain and despair, but it would be a needlessly pat way to finish it. By putting the triple shot of “On the Beach,” “Motion Pictures” and “Ambulance Blues” at the end of the trilogy, Neil suggests that the hard times don’t dissipate so easily. Nothing here has the bloodshot suicidal terror of “Tired Eyes,” but much of it acknowledges that such a state existed in the past. On the Beach is a tremendously cathartic record. It has everything. It might be Neil Young’s finest achievement. Pick of the week.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Arc-Weld — I feel an intense Neil Young binge coming on. This is another album I’d meant to listen to for ages but never got around to. And oh my god is it heavy. It is hearing loss in an LP sleeve. It’s a return to shit-hot, dirty knucklehead rock and roll after a decade of bizarre (and sometimes interesting, but always bizarre) dalliances with other styles. But it’s more than that: Arc-Weld finds Neil doubling down on the heavy rock he’d done more than a decade prior on Rust Never Sleeps. The tracklist shares many songs with that earlier quasi-live album, but they are infinitely heavier, noisier, sloppier and better here. This is the Neil Young that they call the godfather of grunge. This Neil Young doesn’t do “Heart of Gold.” For background: you may have heard of Weld, which is the double live album that makes up the bulk of this collection, but it’s not really complete without the third disc, Arc, which is just abstract guitar noise culled from the same live dates as Weld. Basically, as far as I can tell, on this tour Crazy Horse did a ton of noisy extended endings and openings of the heavy songs (namely, all of them), and Arc is just a bunch of them sewn together. I saw Neil in 2009 (not with Crazy Horse, though I thought it was until a bit of recent Googling) and they were nearly this noisy, aggressive and abstract then, as well. (They did do “Heart of Gold,” though, and a handful of other acoustic tracks.) Noise is a huge part of Neil’s appeal for me, and that’s why I kind of feel like Weld alone is incomplete without Arc. The entirety of Arc-Weld highlights the extent to which Neil Young is as much a noise artist as a songwriter, but Arc throws it into starker relief. This is what puts Neil Young above many of his contemporaries to me: he embraces chaos and intensely esoteric modes of music-making such as harsh noise — even as he continues to epitomize the earthiest of North American songwriting traditions. The highlights are a 14-minute “Like a Hurricane” that seems to pass in three, a distortion-laden take on “Blowin’ in the Wind” with added air raid sirens that feels less like a pastiche than a much-needed update, and tracks from Ragged Glory that I hadn’t heard before, whose studio versions will surely pale in comparison once I get around to them. Also, apparently the backing vocals are overdubbed on this. I could care less. This has a rawness to it that you don’t get in a studio. I’m not often in the mood for Neil Young, but when I am I think maybe he is the definitive rock star: the one we can point to and say “that.” That’s what he sounds like on Arc-Weld.

Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 16)

Lots of good stuff this week. Also one very bad thing that I enjoyed regardless. 22 reviews.

Movies

The Wicker Man (2006) — Oh, good lord. Firstly, be warned (BEE warned) that the infamous “NOT THE BEEEES” scene is actually not in the theatrical release of this movie. It’s in an alternate ending only on the DVD. I guess when they were editing the movie they found the line they couldn’t cross, and that was it. If you haven’t seen this, you should definitely watch it. Watch it with some people around. Nicholas Cage’s scenery chewing results in one of the most compellingly terrible performances I’ve ever witnessed. Everything about this movie is so crazily off the mark that I have trouble believing any actor attached to it (maybe Cage more than anybody) took it seriously as they were making it. It’s laden down with severely inept writing (“Of course. Another plant!”), weirdly benign jump scares (that bit where he wakes up twice) and badly-directed child extras (“Phall-ic sym-bol, phall-ic sym-bol”). I must confess, I never saw the appeal of the original, acclaimed version of The Wicker Man. But seeing some of the stuff that this version gets wrong makes me appreciate it a little more. For one thing, the remake de-emphasizes the protagonist’s religion. We do see a crucifix in Cage’s house early in the film, but that’s about the extent of it. In the original, the detective’s religiosity is what compels him to investigate the missing girl’s disappearance with such vigor: he inherently distrusts the Hebridean islanders because of their paganism. And that’s really what the original film is primarily about. Its horror derives from Christian anxiety over lingering paganism in rural places. This is substituted out in the remake for two ill-advised alterations: making the missing girl the detective’s daughter (“there has to be stakes” says American cinema) and making the island not merely pagan but also a matriarchy. Because to secular, urbane, 21st-century Americans, paganism isn’t scary. But women running society? Heaven fucking forfend. And then there’s the fucking bees, which are somehow both ham-fistedly symbolic and a seemingly arbitrary addition to the story. But all of this is just me wilfully missing the point of watching this movie. I said before that I didn’t really enjoy the original Wicker Man all that much. I think it has a good story with interesting implications about religious anxiety. But it also has tonally jarring musical numbers and Christopher Lee at, frankly, not his best. On the other hand, I completely enjoyed the Nic Cage remake. This is the rare case where I’ll happily recommend a ridicule-watch of a bad movie over a sincere screening of an objectively more accomplished one. Seriously. Watch this.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Season 3, episodes 14-20 — Let’s make this a full-on appraisal of the complete season, shall we? Okay. Starting at the beginning. The New Caprica arc is outstanding, if far shorter-lived than I’d expected. It’s remarkable how close to the season two status quo (and in fact, the pre-”Pegasus” status quo) we end up in, a mere four episodes after everything changes. Still, the decision not to belabour the point of New Caprica is probably a good one, and it allows for a remarkably brisk start to the season. The “Exodus” two-parter is up there with the season two finale, the first episode of the miniseries and “33” among my favourites in this series. Once we’re past that arc, the show returns to something like business as usual, but with the extremely satisfying addition of a plotline that takes place on a Cylon baseship. I brought this up last week, but it bears repeating: the set alone is one of the best things this show has ever done. The way that the editing is deliberately disorienting in the baseship scenes is brilliant. And every new glimpse we get of Cylon society — of the ways that they interact with their surroundings and each other in ways that are both human and alien — adds depth to the show. It’s in the small choices: like the way that red characters are projected over the Cylons whenever they’re in their control room and the water-filled interfaces with the consoles. The Cylons aren’t creepy because they’re mechanical. They’re creepy because they’re weirdly organic, and yet they live like this. I’m particularly enamoured with the Hybrid: a Cronenbergian horror that puts the interior of the Cylon raiders to shame. Number Three getting her own honest-to-god(s?) plotline is a welcome development. At this point in the show, nearly half of the known Cylon models (Three, Six and Eight — the women, not coincidentally I imagine) have at least certain sympathetic aspects. I love that we’re seeing more from that side of the conflict. The Galactica-based plotlines of the mid-season are more hit and miss. Starbuck, my favourite character in the first two seasons save possibly for Roslin, gets particularly short shrift. She’s jammed into an inelegant love quadrangle in which neither of the inconvenient marriages involved makes a lick of sense. (There’s still satisfaction in seeing her at her triumphant moments, though. Every time she triumphs I get this warm fuzzy feeling like I’ve just punched Dirk Benedict in the face.) Still, one episode takes these flawed storylines and makes them sing, and that is “Unfinished Business.” Weaving together a recreational boxing tournament onboard the Galactica and flashbacks from the almost good times of early New Caprica, it establishes that the characters in this show don’t need to be dogfighting, fomenting revolution or barking commands to be compelling. It leaves out everything I love most about this season — the Cylon baseship, Baltar’s plotline aboard said baseship, weird spirituality — and still manages to be the best episode of the season. However, like season two, this has some serious clunkers in its second half. “The Woman King” is a shitty would-be conspiracy thriller with Helo in the lead. Even so, while the actual crimes that Helo’s investigating are deeply unconvincing plotting, it does develop his character in an interesting way that I wouldn’t have thought to observe: he’s the character on the ship who is constantly on the wrong side of everything. Among the crew, he’s possibly the most liberal. Speaking of politics, another disappointment in this season is the transformation of Tom Zarek from a revolutionary freedom fighter to an abuser of executive power. That’s dispiriting. But then, it has happened frequently enough throughout history. What’s really bizarre is how the show suddenly recast Baltar as a farmer’s son and he was briefly the fleet’s primary voice of radical politics. So, effectively, both of Battlestar Galactica’s far-left figures are compromised: Zarek because he eventually perpetrates the abuses he once professed to hate, and Baltar because he’s using leftist rhetoric for cynical, personal means. At least there’s kickass union boss Chief Tyrell. (I also love that this entire plotline is scored with a sort of quasi-bluegrass from space.) And I do like that the show is willing to have its two broadly sympathetic leadership figures, Adama and Roslin, be completely and committedly wrong and insensitive about labour organizing and issues of class in general. That rings true. But back to the negatives for a moment. “A Day in the Life” is an Adama feature episode that’s not worthy of the character. It finds him wilfully hallucinating his own dead wife, whose line readings are bizarrely terse and suck the energy out of every scene she’s in. That takes us to the season’s endgame, I suppose. In general, I approve of the plot developments in these episodes as broad strokes — Starbuck dies and returns enlightened, Baltar is found not guilty, everyone is a Cylon, etc. — but I don’t think they make especially good television on a micro level. It’s little choices that let them down, not big ones. I understand that there’s a twist in this show somewhere that people disapproved of. I can’t figure out what it is. But there are little things creeping in that make it seem a little bit less sure-handed than it once was. The whole contrived thing of Apollo being called as a witness at Baltar’s trial to deliver his speech, for instance. That speech needed to happen, but why go about it in such a weird way? And really, the whole decision to focus such a big chunk of the season finale on something as relatively low-stakes as Baltar’s trial. Or the “All Along the Watchtower” thing in the finale. That was a little overcooked. (Though I’m curious about how a song from contemporary Earth ended up in this show, given what we’ve been made to understand about when in human history it takes place. I have an obvious theory. Don’t tell me if I’m right.) The final shot of the season, with all of the cosmic zooms finishing on the reveal of Earth feels like it’s from a completely different show, aesthetically: a much more 2001 sort of science fiction show. Could it be that we’re hurdling headlong into crazy for season four? (That much I know.) And finally. Fat Apollo. Fat fucking Apollo. This is a good season of television. The highs are super high, and the lows aren’t much lower than previously.

Doctor Who: “The Pilot” — Ohhhh yes. Oh, I’m so glad it’s back. The title flags the most interesting thing about this episode, which is that it is functionally a new start. Doctor Who isn’t the first show to make a pun on the word “pilot” in an episode title. Lost comes to mind immediately, and there must be others. But I don’t know of another that does one 10 seasons into its run (or, indeed, 36 seasons in). This feels like Steven Moffat challenging himself to restate the premise of the show and express its fundamental romantic joy without too much reference to continuity. It is enormously successful in that, and I found myself as overwhelmed as ever by the reveal of the TARDIS interior. I’ve written before about a concept I call “wonder surrogacy,” where a show or movie establishes a character inside of its narrative whose specific role is to marvel at what’s going on around them in the hopes that their wonder will rub off on an audience who may be skeptical. I first noticed this in Jurassic World, and I’ve been extra cognizant of it ever since. It nearly never works. Certainly, Doctor Who is the sort of text you may expect wonder surrogacy to rear its head in. It’s been around for over 50 years, and the key elements (the TARDIS, Daleks, regeneration, etc.) are part of the public consciousness. And yet, every time a new companion is introduced, we’re treated to the phenomenon of a person being surprised and aghast and overjoyed to find the TARDIS “bigger on the inside,” as if this is not common knowledge. So, why does the elongated “bigger on the inside” sequence with Bill work so well? Why does this seeming example of wonder surrogacy (like all of the “bigger on the inside” scenes in the new series) give me chills while the rest leave me rolling my eyes? The best answer I can come up with is that the TARDIS is a genuine wonder. A CGI dinosaur is not a genuine wonder. It’s just an image, and an increasingly banal one. The TARDIS is the entry point to an entirely new understanding of the cosmos. Crossing the threshold from its outside to its inside requires an entirely new concept of how physical space works, and when you cross the threshold again to the outside, everything may well have changed completely. As an image, the TARDIS is purposely banal. As a concept, it is the perfect metaphor for imagination itself. There is no wonder surrogacy required for such a thing. Only wonder. Love him or hate him (and I believe there are reasons for both), Steven Moffat understands this better than anybody else who has ever written for this show. That’s why I’m excited for this season, and why I’ll be fairly disconsolate about his departure.

Doctor Who: “Smile” — Still the most interesting thing about this season so far (and I am quite favourably disposed to this season so far) is the way that it is reiterating certain basic elements of the appeal of Doctor Who. The moment that really stands out in this episode for me is a small one right after Bill asks the Doctor why it has to be him that saves the people of the planet they’re on. Naturally, being Twelve, he doesn’t give a satisfactory answer. But Bill, being cleverer even than the people who initially dreamed up this show, sees the notice on the outside of the TARDIS that proclaims, in the manner of even the most non-bigger-on-the-inside police boxes, “advice and assistance obtainable immediately.” Why does the Doctor keep the TARDIS in its police box form? Because he lives by that notice on the door like a code. This is fundamental to the show, and it squares with Steven Moffat’s view of the Doctor as a different, worthier kind of hero. So far, it looks like Moffat has decided to use his final season on the show to revisit the first principles of the show, and compose a love letter to the glorious legacy of Doctor Who, which he recognizes that he’s an infinitesimally small part of. A good part, though. A really good part. The rest of this, with a script written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce (whose “In the Forest of the Night” is an idiosyncratic favourite of mine), is a fun Doctor Who romp that allows Bill and the Doctor plenty of time alone to get to know each other. The Emojibots are deeply scary in a way that conventionally terrifying monsters are not. They throw our own vapidity back in our faces and then kill us. I love that. This series is two-for-two. If Sarah Dollard delivers next week like I think she will, it’ll be off to a massively better start than its predecessor.  

Literature, etc.

David A. Banks: “Podcast Out” — An interesting critical look at the limitations and potential consequences of NPR’s major podcasts. Broadly I agree with Banks’s assessment, though to me the biggest problem with Radiolab and its ilk is not their reliance on the sciences to explain the world, but on the stories of individuals to explain science. There’s no room in most public radio-derived podcasts for any huge, world-defining story that can’t be localised into a personal narrative told by, like, a single dad in Newark or whatever. It’s a weirdly closed-minded approach to curiosity. Note that I still listen to a boatload of these kinds of podcasts, but I increasingly appreciate the ones like Theory of Everything and Love and Radio that break from the structure and challenge rather than confirm the listener’s assumptions.

Neil Gaiman: American Gods (The Tenth Anniversary Edition audiobook) — Okay. Enough podcasters have told me to check out Audible that I’m doing it. This edition of the audiobook features a full cast, including a really brilliant fellow (Ron McLarty) doing the role of Mr. Wednesday, and it features Neil Gaiman himself reading certain interstitial chapters. As a listening experience I’m pretty sold on full-cast audiobooks. Gaiman’s presence is much appreciated as well, as he’s always an engaging reader of his own work and he’s got a wonderful and distinctive voice. I also appreciate that he’s deployed sparingly. Makes you really lean in when you hear him. The only issue with the audiobook so far is a sex scene that becomes distinctly unsexy when read aloud. These actors can only act so much. It’s not a play, after all, and we listeners have lives to get on with. But hearing a sex scene read aloud in a fashion somewhere between matter-of-fact and actually dramatic is, well, awkward. As for American Gods itself, I’ve been meaning to get around to this since I read and adored The Sandman a few years back. With the show coming up soon, with both Bryan Fuller and Ian McShane attached, I figure I’d best do it now. I’m three chapters in and I love it already. The idea of ancient gods finding their place in America is outstanding, and I’m already very curious about who this youngster is who wants them gone. I know enough of Norse mythology to know that Odin won’t live forever, so the stakes are already high. As for Shadow, he’s a compelling enough protagonist. His relationship with his dead wife is proving to be the most interesting thing about him. But so far, I’m really in it for the lore. I’m enjoying this enough that I’m actually rushing through writing this so I can get back to it. More next week, I’m sure.

Music

Ted Hearne/The Crossing: Sound from the Bench — This is my favourite music of the year so far. Admittedly, it hasn’t been a busy year for me in terms of discovering new music. But this is really, really good. I was familiar with Hearne from his oratorio The Source, which has moments of staggering brilliance (especially the chorus “We called for illumination at 1630”) but which I generally found a bit literal and earnest. The choral music on this collection has no such problem. The title work is the centrepiece and the highlight, featuring guitars and drums backing up the chorus. The text is drawn from both Supreme Court decisions and ventriloquism textbooks. This unorthodox and rich choice of texts helps to combat the earnestness that I found slightly offputting in The Source. Sound from the Bench is a genuinely funny piece of music. Its primary subject is the Citizens United decision that deemed corporate campaign spending to be a form of free speech protected under the first amendment. This is patently absurd and implicitly hilarious. Of course, it has some rather dire connotations, but unlike the war-adjacent texts of The Source, it isn’t directly a matter of life and death. But holy crap is it ever musically powerful. The other three works on the disc are nearly as good as the main event, but the short piece “Consent” stands out. It gets dark partway through, but the opening — is simply a mixed chorus singing the words “I want you, I want to” — is absolutely staggering. Hearne is one of the most explicitly socially-conscious composers working right now, and while I wasn’t certain whether it was working when I heard The Source, I have no doubt now that it absolutely can. And the recording itself is fantastic as well. None of the fuzziness that you sometimes hear around the edges of choral recordings. This isn’t pretending to be a live concert. It’s music that happens right in your head. The Crossing is a miraculous ensemble with a distinctive sound that ranges from symphonic choir to glee club. I can’t wait to hear more from them. This is beautiful. I desperately want an opera from Ted Hearne. Not the usual kind with arias and duets and things, but an Einstein on the Beach sort of opera that takes advantage of his facility with found texts and choral writing. If someone could please commission that from him (I’m looking at you, Opera Philadelphia) it would be epochal. Pick of the week.

Kendrick Lamar: Damn. — Ah man, this is going to make me work, isn’t it? Kendrick Lamar’s music always takes a gigantic amount of listening to sink in for me. It’s entirely possible that he’s my favourite rapper around right now, but I’ll never connect with him as directly as, say, Run the Jewels, because the beats are so raw and spare that my mind wanders. And you can’t let your mind wander with this guy. Here’s what I love: “DNA,” with its Fox News samples. “DUCKWORTH,” with its (maybe specious?) storytelling. “FEAR,” with its tripartite structure and uncharacteristic repetition. And “LOYALTY” with Rihanna rapping. This is approximately the same number of high points I detected on my first listen of To Pimp a Butterfly. If things proceed similarly, I will like and understand this better many many months from now.

Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial — Here’s an album that took a while to creep up on me. I’m still not convinced it’s the second coming that some claim it is, but I enjoy a larger percentage of the many many tracks on this than I did when I first heard it. “Vincent,” “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” and “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” are still the highlights, but I’ve come to love “Fill in the Blank,” “Cosmic Hero” and “Drugs With Friends” as well. In general, this is music that occupies the same space as the Smiths and Belle and Sebastian: you listen to it for a catharsis. It’s at its best when your life isn’t. But for all its structural ingenuity, Will Toledo’s songwriting doesn’t have the wit of Stuart Murdoch, let alone Morrissey. So I’m not sure this can transcend those moments of needing catharsis the same way that other sad guy music can. This isn’t every day music the way that Strangeways, Here We Come is, for instance. No shame.

Podcasts

Containers: “Welcome to Global Capitalism” — The episode on 99pi convinced me to check this out, but I’m not going to make it through. There’s some good tape in this, but there’s also tape of the host literally flipping through archives. An eight-part series on how shipping containers changed the world was always going to be a maybe/maybe not proposition. At another time, in another state of mind, I would love this. But I think I’d prefer it if it didn’t take such a public radio approach of insisting that its subject matter is interesting every step of the way. Maybe I don’t need all these personal narratives to keep me involved. Maybe I can just hear you out and be interested in your thesis for its own merits. Anyway, I tried.

Love and Radio: “The Secrets Hotline” — This has been a truly great season of Love and Radio. As a final episode, this is a nice capper, though it’s insubstantial compared to, say, “A Girl of Ivory,” “Doing the No No” or “Blink Once For Yes,” which are three of my favourite episodes the show has ever done. The original scoring in this is a nice touch, and some of the secrets proffered here by anonymous callers are truly juicy. The feeling of sanctioned voyeurism is a good one. If you’re reading this, do listen to this episode, but seek out the three I’ve mentioned first if you’ve never heard this show. It is one of the miracles of podcasting.

Home of the Brave: “Trump’s Wall: Part 1” — My god, the tape in this is so beautiful. It’s just nature sounds from a riverside, recorded beautifully. More broadly, I’m very happy that Scott Carrier is doing a larger piece on Trump’s wall. That promises to be some of the best radio of recent years. And doing short updates like this is a good way to keep us sated.

Radiolab: “Nukes” — For everything I said about Radiolab earlier, they can make straightforwardly compelling radio. This episode poses the question, who gets to call the President’s decision to use nuclear weapons into question? The answer: it has differed from one administration to another. But the specifics are really fascinating.

Criminal: “420” — Ah, hilarious. This episode tells the story of how three teenagers’ tongue-in-cheek codeword for pot became universally acknowledged, with a substantial assist from the Grateful Dead. It also broaches the hilarious subject of Colorado’s 420 mile-marker signs getting stolen so consistently that they had to be replaced with 419.99 mile-marker signs. This is why Criminal is the best true crime podcast.  

Crimetown: “Family Ties” & “Bonus Episode: Gangster’s Daughter” — I have nothing more to say about this season of Crimetown. These are both adequate standalone episodes of this season. But I’m basically still in this solely because I’m susceptible to the sunk costs fallacy. Good thing it’ll soon be done.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Tony Schwartz: 30,000 Recordings Later” — This may be the third time I’ve heard this, but it’s good every time. The story of a guy who devoted his life to going out into the world and preserving sounds with a microphone, only to succumb to agoraphobia late in life. There’s a doc like this to made about R. Murray Schafer, but don’t tell anybody I said that or they’ll beat me to it.

99% Invisible: “The Architect of Hollywood” — A new classic from this old standby. It’s the story of Paul Revere Williams, the architect who single-handedly conceived the Hollywood style of architecture. This story reveals how that  intensely hybridized style grew out of this one architect who learned to do every style out of necessity, because he was a black man working almost exclusively for white people whose instincts were not to trust him. This is super. I’ve missed Avery Trufelman’s stories. Is it just me, or has it been a while?

Code Switch: “The Beef Over Native American Hunting Rights” — I dunno, there’s a major source in this who kind of sounds like a bigoted fool to me. Maybe I’m wrong, but this is the first time I’ve felt the bad kind of uncomfortable while listening to this show. Also, there’s some super ham-fisted writing at the end. An off week.

The Gist: “The Handmaid’s Fail” — Alexandra Petri is a fantastic guest host, though I do wonder if she’s just doing a Mike Pesca impression here. She really is a lot like Mike Pesca in her questions and her delivery. Also, this reminded me that I really need to read The Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t know how I’ve read four Margaret Atwood novels and that isn’t one of them.

This American Life: “The Other Mr. President” — The best part of this Sean Cole’s segment on Vladislav Surkov, and that’s not nearly as good as Benjamen Walker’s.

Slate’s Political Gabfest: “Bill Comes Due Edition” — I had forgotten how dull I find this. There’s been some stuff happening that compelled me to return to it — I mean, North Korea, Bill O’Reilly… this is fascinating, disgusting stuff — and I still couldn’t help myself from getting bored.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Fate of the Furious Plus Clapbacks and Feuds” — I hadn’t realized how funny Sam Sanders is. Now I’m extra excited for whatever the hell he’s developing. This is really good episode of this show, by the way. If you want to know why it is my preferred example of this format, this is a good episode to go with. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 2, 2017)

I’m going to see the Decemberists! In August. Which is ages away. Still, the ticket purchase has me spiralling back through the years to high school, when they were one of the few currently-relevant bands I was interested in. Still, my affection for them throughout my mid to late teens was based on the then-contemporary albums Picaresque, The Crane Wife and Hazards of Love. I’m not sure I ever checked out the four full lengths that bookend that trilogy, and I certainly hadn’t heard any of the EPs or miscellaneous singles. So, this week, I ran the discography. Normally, I’d lump all of these into one gigantic review. But given my aversion to paragraph breaks, I think that wall of text would stretch on a bit. So, to start the week’s reviews, here are my thoughts on every studio album, EP (excluding lives) and single that the Decemberists have released. In chronological order.

14 Decemberists-related reviews and 12 others, for a total of 26 reviews.

Music

The Decemberists: 5 Songs — By no means is this essential. It’s evidence that Colin Meloy has been Colin Meloy since the beginning of his career, but for the most part, the Decemberists’ debut EP is an expression of promise that’s not yet fulfilled. The songs I’m most likely to return to are “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist,” whose lyric is a vintage Meloy first-person narrative, and “Apology Song,” which was clearly intended as a bit of ephemera (it’s literally just Meloy apologizing to his friend for losing his bicycle) but turned out to be ome of the more skillful and witty early Decemberists songs. They’re very much a folk band at this point. The arrangements are simple. There are no bad songs here, but the first full-length represents a giant leap forward from this EP.

The Decemberists: Castaways and Cutouts — How typical of this band to give their debut full-length a title that sounds like an outtakes collection. Part of this band’s charm is the way that their songs focus on people who are in some way on the margins, sometimes for reasons beyond their control, but just as often because they’ve engaged (with relish) in some sort of shady deal or dubious practice. Castaways and Cutouts is where that really starts. It’s fitting that the key line in the album’s final song is “Calling all bedwetters and ambulance chasers.” Because they clearly all showed up, and they’ve been populating Decemberists albums ever since. The music on here is more ambitious by far than on the debut EP, but they’re yet to go all Fairport Convention/Jethro Tull. Still, even in this more subdued setting (relative to later albums), it’s obvious how awesome Jenny Conlee is. The accordion on this is just great.

The Decemberists: Her Majesty the Decemberists — I can tell this is going to be the Decemberists album that my opinion will be the most subject to change about. My initial impression is that it’s something like Beatles for Sale or Time and a Word: an album where the band has clearly honed their craft since the last one, but which is nonetheless not as consistent as what came before. However, I can’t honestly say that there are any particular songs on this that I’m especially ambivalent about. “Shanty for the Arethusa” has some lines that made me raise an eyebrow, but it’s also got some fantastic melodies. “Billy Liar” is a bit pat in the verses, but the chorus is glorious. And then there’s the fact that this album has “I Was Meant for the Stage” on it, which is a classic. I know it’s meant to be ironic, but it’s hard for me not to take it a bit seriously, given that it was my theatre kid friends who first introduced me to this band. I think Castaways and Cutouts is a bit better than this, but not by much.

The Decemberists: The Tain — Nobody could have known at the time, but this now seems like the moment when the Decemberists’ imperial phase started. (Retrospectively, it’s also the one reason why Hazards of Love shouldn’t have come as a surprise.) Not coincidentally, it is also the start of their fixation on the music of the English folk revival and its folk rock cousins. This turned out to be good look for the Decemberists, and one that they could mine a surprising variety of approaches from. Here, they veer towards the Jethro Tull side of the folk revival equation: the side that isn’t fully engaged in “revivalism,” and would just as soon adopt elements of the proto-metal that was floating about at the time. I’ve always loved music that contrasts heavy elements with acoustic elements, see also: Tull, Led Zeppelin, Opeth. Having access to both ends of the spectrum strikes me as a more likely way to capture a panoramic image of the human experience. Basically, The Tain marks the point where the Decemberists decided that regardless of their folky origins, they would be making massively ambitious music from here on out. I’m reminded of a couple lines from the album that precedes this “I was meant for applause/I was meant for derision.” The fact that the Decemberists followed Her Majesty with something as potentially divisive as this strikes me as another reason to doubt the ironic intent of that song.

The Decemberists: Picaresque — This is the one. The classic. The period album, where the period is the one that former indie kids associate with the Decemberists. The one you’d anthologize if that was a thing you did with albums. The masterpiece. To be fair, it’s also the album with nostalgia on its side. It was certainly the first Decemberists album I heard, and possibly the only one I heard for several years after. (I think I may have sat The Crane Wife out until after Hazards of Love came out.) I will forever associate it with my days as a weird theatre kid. It was one of relatively few albums that were current at the time that I could appreciate with the same intensity that my peers did. In retrospect, it seems like a gift of coincidence that this deliberately theatrical album came out at the very time when I was hanging out with the community theatre folk that this seems directly intended for. The slapped-together costumes and cardboard sets of the album cover and CD booklet were the world I was living in at the time. And I still love the Decemberists for glorifying the naïve overreach of small-time theatre. The whole album is infused with “let’s put on a show!” bonhomie. I remember my experience of that: it was always more about satisfying my own need for an expressive outlet — and for a community — than it was about satisfying the audience. Nothing teaches you the appeal of self-indulgence like community theatre. Except for Picaresque. Listening back to it now, it’s that rare thing that a) arrived in my life at the right time and b) is just as good or better now. There are songs on this, like “On the Bus Mall” and “The Bagman’s Gambit” that I don’t recall being nearly so enamoured with when I was 15. That’s reassuring. It convinces me that my love for this album and this band isn’t just a matter of nostalgia. For evidence of Colin Meloy’s undeniable virtuosity, you need look no farther than the opening track. “The Infanta” is probably peak Meloy, insofar as his defining characteristic is his huge vocabulary. I particularly love “Within sight of the baroness/Seething spite for this live largesse/By her side sits the baron, her barrenness barbs her.” It was the theatricality of the Decemberists that captured my attention when I first heard them. These days, it’s their literary quality. Meloy clearly just loves words. He loves big words, old words and rare words. But he doesn’t use them for obfuscation — just the opposite: Meloy’s vocabulary allows him to tell unfamiliar stories about unusual characters with incredible clarity. It’s impossible to listen to a song from Picaresque and come away from it without knowing what it was about. Google may come in handy in a few places, but you can ascertain everything you really need to from context. That’s about all I’ve got for generalities. If I were to take this review any farther, I’d need to start diving into specific songs. I’ll resist that, save to say that “16 Military Wives” is the definitive protest song of the George W. Bush era, and that “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is not just one of my favourite songs but also one of my favourite stories in any context. This is a classic of its time. Pick of the week.

The Decemberists: Picaresqueties — I hadn’t heard this collection of outtakes before, and while it’s a slight thing compared to the band’s previous EP, it’s worth hearing. “The Bandit Queen” is especially good. (Man, we’re already a fair way into this and I haven’t heard a bad song yet.)

The Decemberists: The Crane Wife — This reminds me a bit of Selling England by the Pound, not just because it’s a poignant album full of elaborate, beautiful story songs, but also because it’s the first time that the band’s playing is captured in an ideal light. Meloy’s songwriting excellence was always obvious, and the band’s arrangements were always a highlight of their albums. But The Crane Wife is the first album where it becomes clear that this band has chops. Like, serious chops. It’s a clear demonstration that the resources of a major label can actually make a difference to the product. This album’s popularity surprises me a little, given that it’s the proggiest thing in their catalogue up to this point (save for The Tain). “The Island” in particular is practically a Jethro Tull song. Its second section, with the Hammond organ and guitar picking, is a dead ringer for Thick as a Brick. Shortly after, Jenny Conlee uses a synth sound that’s almost identical to the one on A Passion Play and War Child. So there are signifiers here that appeal to me. But “The Island” isn’t the album’s highlight: that would be the title suite, which is neck-and-neck with “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” for my favourite thing this band has ever done. Lyrically, it’s restrained by Meloy’s standards. No dictionary words, here. But the storytelling is absolutely heartbreaking, and benefits enormously from its first-person perspective (like “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”). It was a canny decision to place the suite’s third part at the beginning of the album, because it adds poignancy to part one. Once we know how the story ends, the beginning becomes bittersweet. The smaller, standalone songs on this album don’t preoccupy me the way that the shorter tracks on Picaresque do, but it always surprises me how much I like them when I listen to the album start to finish. “When the War Came” and “Sons and Daughters” are particular favourites. The latter is good evidence that Meloy can write a good song with economy in mind, rather than his usual effusiveness. I love The Crane Wife. It’s very much the sound of a band at their peak.

The Decemberists: Always the Bridesmaid — I’m treating this like an EP, even though it’s a collection of three singles. Given that I’ve listened to a lot of Decemberists music in a short period of time, this was a welcome respite between two of their meatiest works, The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love. As Decemberists EPs go, it strikes me as the opposite of The Tain. Where that was a huge proggy epic, this is a collection of Decemberists songs working on the smallest scale they operate at. The Velvet Underground cover is inessential, but aside from that this is all gold. Musically, I’m particularly enamoured of the super catchy “Days of Elaine,” but the best lyrics are in “A Record Year for Rainfall.” That song joins “Sixteen Military Wives” in the ranks of Decemberists songs that seem more relevant now than ever. “In the annals of the empire/did it look this grey before the fall?”

The Decemberists: The Hazards of Love — This may be my second-favourite Decemberists album. I can’t quite tell whether my affection for it is a bit puffed up due to its unfairly mixed reception relative to The Crane Wife, but I really do think this belongs alongside the band’s very best works. Mind you, I’m always going to step up to defend an overreaching concept album. This is just another example of the spirit of theatricality and indulgence that the band celebrated in the album art of Picaresque. Storywise, it only makes as much sense as the average opera. But like the best operas, it trades more on the inner lives and relationships of its characters than on narrative cohesion. And while the characters are effectively cardboard cutout (and castaway) fairytale characters, their plights and scenarios are relatable enough for any receptive listener to graft their own inner life onto. More crucially, the music is outstanding. For a few years, The Tain must have seemed like a first step down a road ultimately not taken. But The Crane Wife cracked the door back open to some of the proggier tendencies on that EP. And Hazards represents a proper maturation of that side of the band’s sound. It’s the fullest flowering of their Anglophilia, with folk, prog and proto-metal all accounted for — plus a story that pulls from the same well as Narnia or Harry Potter: what happens when a normal human stumbles into a world of fantasy? For my money, parts one and four of the title suite, “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid,” “The Rake’s Song” and “Annan Water” are all among the best songs in the catalogue. Again, it owes a lot to Jethro Tull. But it isn’t a pastiche. More than anything, it feels like the band arrived independently at the formula for Thick as a Brick or A Passion Play, by way of some of the same sources. For my tastes, it doesn’t get much better than that.

The Decemberists: The King is Dead — I implied earlier that the Decemberists’ imperial phase was coextensive with their obsession with the British folk revival. That turns out to be a bit unfair. This is a sharp left from Hazards of Love, and whether that has anything to do with its lukewarm reception is a fool’s game to try and suss out. But the band is definitely not relying on British models, here. It’s Americana all the way through. But this isn’t entirely outside of the band’s wheelhouse: the early albums had a whiff of American folk about them. Just, with a bigger vocabulary. And besides, this is just another folk tradition that foregrounds story and character, which has always been what Colin Meloy is most interested in. True, the characters on The King is Dead are undefined everypeople, rather than children of the Spanish monarchy or infanticidal rakes. But this album strikes me as having essentially the same goals and modes of connection as all of the ones that came before. It’s just doing it with a drastically different sonic palette and set of reference points. Taken in context of the discography, it has the feel of a “wings of wax” album, in the sense that they may have flown too close to the sun on Hazards of Love and this finds them once again on the ground. (See Let it Be following the White Album and Beggars Banquet following Satanic Majesties for archetypal examples.) But listening to it, I got the sense that Meloy is successfully having his cake and eating it too: he’s still doing what he’s always done, but differently enough to appease those who felt that Hazards was a bit much. This is certainly my favourite new discovery I’ve made through the course of this survey. For my money, it’s superior to the two early albums and belongs in the same category as the three that directly precede it. I find “January Hymn” especially poignant, but then I would.

The Decemberists: Long Live the King — The first set of non-album tracks since Picaresqueties to actually feel like outtakes. Always the Bridesmaid is awesome and Crane Wife has a bunch of fantastic outtakes (more on which shortly). But this EP is definitely a bunch of songs that weren’t good enough for The King is Dead. No shame in that, and I’d certainly classify it as inessential rather than bad. It’s a curiosity. Worth a go if you like The King is Dead, which I sure do.

The Decemberists: What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World — Ah, well, we had to come to it eventually. After such prolonged ebullience on my part, I’m hesitant to actually say it outright: this is disappointing. Not shatteringly disappointing, or anything, but it’s certainly the only Decemberists full-length I discovered this week that I’m not super excited to return to. It seems I’m not alone in my muted response. Still, does anybody else feel like critics are generally more inclined to chastise an artist for overambition than underambition? Because I was paying attention to that sort of thing when Hazards of Love came out, and it seemed clear to me that it was an unpopular album among those sorts of people. And having read up on the critical appraisal of this one (also not an enormously popular album), the backlash seems substantially less vitriolic. I wish this were the sort of album that bands got chastised for. Because to me, there is very little here that catches the ear, lyrically or musically, in the way that basically every song from the previous four (five? six?) albums did. There are exceptions. Musically, “Make You Better” is a brilliant, hooky pop song with the unexpected development of an Adrian Belew impression from guitarist Chris Funk. Lyrically, “The Singer Addresses His Audience” is as wonderfully arch as Colin Meloy gets, and it’s the one song on the album whose lyrics I immediately felt compelled to listen to. And, by the way, I take Meloy’s point. The song is basically a preemptive (and might I add, slightly defensive) retort to reviews like this one. And I agree with Meloy that it’s only right for his band to change. I was happy to hear them transition into full-on prog on Hazards of Love. I was delighted by how naturally they sunk into the groove of Americana on The King is Dead. But I’m only happy with changes that expand and refocus the band’s ambition, which is what I love them for. Terrible/Beautiful pares it back. I hope their next album is, I dunno, a movie.

The Decemberists: Florasongs — Not much to say that I didn’t already say about What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. These songs are outtakes from that album, and sound like it. This is the least essential Decemberists studio release.

The Decemberists: Miscellaneous singles, B-sides and outtakes — I did make a real effort for true completion here. I’m defining that as “every finished studio recording by the Decemberists, plus one or two unfinished ones.” There are songs that fall into that box but don’t appear on any of the previously discussed releases. As far as I can tell, this is a complete list of them: the John Denver cover “Please Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk this Christmas),” the Her Majesty-era B-sides “Everything I Try to Do, Nothing Seems to Turn Out Right” and “Sunshine,” the Crane Wife bonus tracks “Culling of the Fold,” “After the Bombs,” “The Perfect Crime #1/The Day I Knew You’d Not Come Back,” “The Capp Street Girls” and “Hurdles Even Here,” “One Engine” from the Hunger Games soundtrack, and “Sleepless” from the charity compilation Dark Was the Night. If anybody reading this knows of tracks I’ve missed, I’d be much obliged to know. This is an album’s worth of additional material from this band, most of it worthwhile. The Crane Wife outtakes are the most essential, and I do mean essential. “After the Bombs,” “Culling of the Fold” and “Hurdles Even Here” are all as good as some of the tracks that made the album. “After the Bombs” also serves well as a postscript to the album, given that “Sons & Daughters” ends with a lyric about bombs. “The Perfect Crime #1/The Day I Knew You’d Not Come Back” has some wanky horns that do it no favours, but it’s still the sound of a band in their prime, having a good time in the studio. That’s not nothing. The rest of this is ephemera, but it’s good ephemera, particularly the Hunger Games track, weirdly. As a final note on this topic, I feel as though I plunged rather suddenly into negativity towards the end of this. But to be clear, I definitely don’t think that it’s over for this band. One rough album does not a career ruin. But even if this body of work was all we’ll get, it’s pretty damn impressive. Of everything I listened to this week, let me list what I consider essential: Castaways and Cutouts, Her Majesty the Decemberists, The Tain, Picaresque, The Crane Wife and its outtakes, Always the Bridesmaid, The Hazards of Love, The King is Dead, “One Engine,” “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” and “Make You Better.” That’s a staggering batting average, and I’m in no way sick of this band, even after listening to their entire output in the space of a week. (As I post this, I’m listening to The King is Dead again.)

Comedy

Louis C.K.: 2017 — I have a theory about this special. My theory is that it is Louis C.K.’s challenge to himself to see how brilliantly he can perform sub-par-to-average material. He’s got a bunch of jokes that aren’t as good as in his previous specials, and he wants to see if he has the chops to elevate them by being more performative than he ever has before. There are characters, pantomime and silly voices in this special and it feels like C.K. is honing a very specific part of his toolkit in a controlled environment, i.e. on mediocre jokes, to see what happens. It’s possible that I’m being overly charitable. But this is a guy who is constantly working to move himself forward. So I wouldn’t be surprised if, say, Todd Barry mentions in an interview that Louis told him about a concept for a show where he only does his weakest material and tries not to bomb. This is the worst Louis C.K. special. That’s why I’m working so hard to justify it. But the fact that there’s something in there to help me do that is evidence that it still isn’t all bad.

Podcasts

Judge John Hodgman: “DNA NDA” — One twin wants to know for sure whether they’re identical. The other does not. This is great because it walks a fine line between remaining lighthearted and exploring the somewhat troubled relationship between these two brothers. It also features a sleep-deprived but rather amusing bailiff Jesse Thorn, whose presence on this show is invaluable. He’s almost a psychopomp: guiding us into the unfamiliar and oddly-reasoned world of Judge Hodgman. Very nice.

Criminal: “Wildin” — A sad story of a kid who spent six months in a federal detention centre after having crossed the border into America and made a life there. The saddest part of the story is an interview where a teacher mentions how after Wildin’s arrest, a huge chunk of her class stopped coming to school for fear that ICE was out to get them.

Science Vs: “Acne” — God, I don’t know why I came back to this show. The premise is gold, but the jokes are beyond insufferable: they’re almost not jokes. I know they’re not supposed to be good, but that’s no excuse. I see the next one’s about climate change, so I’ll probably listen to that. But I’m going to be selective from here on out.

Strangers: “Claire Obscure” — This is one of the hardest podcast episodes to listen to that I’ve ever encountered. It’s a story about a woman who was sexually abused by her father as a child, and it only gets more extreme from there. Lea Thau is one of relatively few people who could tell this story. She’s empathetic and feels no need to make the story her own, or to make it mean something larger. It’s simply a story about a person’s intense trauma, delivered with no purpose except to acknowledge that these things happen. People like Claire’s father exist. This is appalling, and I don’t know if I can straightforwardly recommend it. But it is definitely a good thing that should have been made. Pick of the week.

Science Vs: “Climate Change… the Apocalypse?” — And just as I suspected I might never listen to this show again, it does this really great episode. This isn’t asking the question “is climate change real?” Because if you have one-third of a brain you know it is and you’re sick of the conversation. This is basically a history of the evolving consensus on climate change. It goes into details like the debate over whether rising temperatures and increasing carbon content in the air are related. And it puzzles over how the future might turn out, given that we can’t predict how humans will respond to the crisis. Great stuff.

Arts and Ideas: “Monks, Models and Medieval Time” — I wish I’d heard this before I listened to S-Town. It’s a talk by Seb Falk about astrolabes and other medieval timepieces, and how their existence is counterevidence to the claim that the medieval ages were a time of dogma and darkness. Or, at least, that they were entirely that. I mean, Falk also goes into how these timepieces were used to determine the time of the month when the planets were in the proper alignment for effective bloodletting. So, you know.

Longform: “Hrishikesh Hirway” — I don’t listen to Song Exploder regularly, but I admire Hirway’s accomplishment very much. And this interview reveals that he’s a deeply self-aware sort of person, with a certain ambivalence towards his own success as a podcaster. He’s also a tireless workaholic. I hope he’s actually as bad at time management as he claims to be, because that means there’s hope for me. Also, the idea that Marc Maron was a major inspiration for Song Exploder is something I never would have thought of.

Code Switch: “Changing Colors In Comics” — This is a fascinating look at a deeply frustrating industry. Given that the only recent superhero comic I’ve read (and disliked, but that’s beside the point) is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther, it’s easy to forget that the industry is a morass of whiteness. Glen Weldon (who sounds soooo happy to be here) does a great job of contextualizing those fuckheaded remarks from Marvel’s VP sales about people not wanting diversity. The interviews here are fantastic, and I really want to go to Amalgam Comics in Philly. Though, I don’t see myself going to Philly anytime in the near future.

The Moth: “Facing The Dark” — It’s been ages since I listened to The Moth. This episode contains some of what often turns me off about it, namely a compulsive need to have perfectly self-sufficient stories conclude with a homily. The second story here is the best one, precisely because it doesn’t do this. It’s told by a neurologist who tries to understand her father’s trauma from the Holocaust through her study. You wouldn’t think it would be a funny story, but it is. John Turturro shows up after to tell a really remarkable story about his family, but it suffers from concluding homily syndrome, which ends the episode on a sour note. I’m happy I listened to this, because I’ve been meaning to revisit some shows I’ve put aside. But, this show remains difficult to recommend to the majority of my deeply unsentimental friends.

Longform: “Brian Reed” — The host who interviews Reed (entirely about S-Town, obviously) here knows him a bit, and has some insights to share about him. He is apparently a person with a remarkable ability to “meet you where you’re at.” That’s why S-Town is as good as it is. The best that can be said of Reed’s involvement in that story is that he didn’t fuck it up. And appearing to be at cross-purposes with the people around you is a surefire way to fuck it up. This is a fascinating interview, and I highly recommend it as a piece of post-S-Town listening.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “S-Town and Chewing Gum” — I’m with Glen Weldon on S-Town, obviously. I do see the ethical concerns levelled by Margaret Willison (and others), but I’m sticking to my concept of the show as being fundamentally John B. McLemore’s attempt to have his life novelized. This is idiosyncratic, I understand. But to the extent that he was aware of his own charisma and the extent that he gives good tape (and the Longform interview with Brian Reed indicates that he was), I feel like he really did know that he’d be the central character of this narrative. That goes a fair ways towards assuaging what doubts I might have momentarily had. Which, to be fair, weren’t many.