Category Archives: Popular Music

Omnibus (week of June 3, 2018)

Greetings. What you don’t see represented here is the substantial amount of reading I did this week, mostly of New York Times features and things linked to in New York Times features. These sorts of things generally do not justify a review in my opinion, though there’s one I’ve started that will recieve one next week. I love the New York Times. I’m starting to love that paper the way people love bands.

Of my week’s reading, a not insubstantial part of it consisted of memorial pieces to the wonderful Anthony Bourdain, who I at some point, however briefly, wanted to be. When Bourdain had a conversation with somebody on television, he always ensured that the other person was the most important part of the scene. That’s in spite of the fact that Bourdain himself had a huge personality, a tremendous amount of expertise in his subject area, and an incredible ability to tell a story. He was the rare media figure who managed to have it both ways: he could be the show when the occasion called for it, and he could also be a conduit to focus our attention on people and places we wouldn’t otherwise have thought about.

Unrelatedly to all of this, there was a poignant quote from Bourdain in one of those pieces I read: “I will find myself in an airport, for instance, and I’ll order an airport hamburger. It’s an insignificant thing, it’s a small thing, it’s a hamburger, but it’s not a good one. Suddenly, I look at the hamburger and I find myself in a spiral of depression that can last for days.”

I see you, Tony. R.I.P.

17 reviews.

Music

CHVRCHES: Love is Dead — It’s fine. It’s CHVRCHES. I’m less enamoured of it than I was of their previous albums on a first listen or two. Particularly not the last one, which is still one of my go-tos when I feel the need for rousing pop. But Love is Dead has some great tracks, including and especially “Graffiti” and “Get Out.” The rest is likely to grow on me.

Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition — I first came to this shortly after it came out, and I was not feeling it. But it also struck me as an album that, one day, I would return to when curiosity struck and it might win me over. It did. Brown’s voice is the most batshit thing I’ve ever heard, and the beats on this, produced largely by Paul White (and in one case by the excellently monikered Black Milk) are the freakiest shit I’ve ever heard. Atrocity Exhibition is a difficult listen. It is ceaseless sensory overload. And yet the pieces seem to all fit together. Brown himself is an enthusiastically outspoken user of a wide range of intoxicants, and also seemingly an anxious depressive. His music is a manifestation of his inner life, and thus his lyrics, delivery, and the beats he raps over are self-consciously disorienting and bizarre. Imagine being a rapper and hearing the beat that would become “Downward Spiral.” Where do you even start with that? Still, for all his capacity to alienate, Brown is also a good hand with a hook. “Ain’t It Funny” and “Dance in the Water” are both likely to get stuck in your head in spite of their manifest abrasiveness. I love this. It’s grisly, depressive and freaky. It’s dark psychedelia for the 2010s.

Belle and Sebastian: If You’re Feeling Sinister — It’s got some nice tunes. Ultimately I’m happy that my way into Belle and Sebastian was the much more varied and professional The Life Pursuit, but I can see reasons other than nostalgia why this might strike some as superior. The lyrics are openly sentimental, but also clever. The characters in the songs are well-drawn, which is a rare thing in songs. The melodies are nice. I like it. I probably would have written it off if it had been the first thing I’d heard from this band. But as it stands I’ll put it into rotation and it’ll certainly grow on me.

Pusha-T: Daytona — I’m trying to warm up for the inevitably confusing experience of listening to ye, and this seemed like the way to do it. The frustration of being a Kanye fan is summed up neatly in “What Would Meek Do?” in which he has an embarrassing feature verse, but also builds the beat out of a moment in Yes’s “Heart of the Sunrise” that’s so insignificant it changes in every live version. I almost didn’t spot it. It’s genius. The man has the ears of a god, anyway. I enjoyed this a lot, though it went by awfully fast. I quite like its brevity, which makes it the right length to walk home to from most of the places I’m likely to be walking home from. I don’t have much to say about Pusha himself at this point. Further listens required. But I will register my initial approval here.

Literature, etc.

Brooke Gladstone & Josh Neufeld: The Influencing Machine — I’m ashamed of not having read this earlier, given my line of work and my devotion to On the Media. But I was in the library the other day and picked up half by accident, and now I’ve read it. Gladstone is one of the most cogent explainers of complicated things we have in this world, and we should take her for granted at our peril. This book distils centuries of history in the way we process information en masse into a graphic format that’s readable in a couple of sittings. It’s a marvel. Still, Gladstone’s implication that our furor about the state of the media circa 2011 was just a continuity of affairs since the beginnings of collective communication seems pollyannaish today. It’s still worth a read, though there are other problems as well. The illustration is sometimes dissonant in unconstructive ways: for instance, depicting Brooke Gladstone as the statue of Saddam Hussein in Al-Firdos Square. Just because she’s the one talking and that’s what she’s talking about doesn’t make the two of them co-extensive with each other. That’s what the cartoon implies, which is obviously not what it means. These things are important. Scott McCloud, for instance, wouldn’t be so imprecise with his comics avatar, which works in a similar way. Given that I read a copy from my public library, I was gratified to see that a previous reader had made some cogent notes. Gladstone writes about Ray Kurzweil’s opinion that humanity has just over a 50% chance of making it through its hardest trials. She continues: “And he’s a glass-half-full kind of guy.” My predecessor has scribbled out the “and” and replaced it with “but.” Thank you, predecessor. I suspect you’re right. I enjoyed this. But it’s no match for the up-to-the-minute media analysis that Gladstone does on her show on a weekly basis.

Movies

A Trip to the Moon, The Astronomer’s Dream & The Eclipse — I went to a short program of films by George Méliès at the planetarium across the street from my apartment. Seeing Méliès screened on a dome-shaped screen in a planetarium is a whole thing — if ever there was an artist who looked out at the cosmos and envisioned it in art, it’s Georges Méliès. And the planetarium gives the opportunity to look out into models of the stars as we now know them to be. That juxtaposition of a dream of space travel with the contemporary reality of it was really powerful. Other elements of the presentation were less powerful, but I was honestly just there for the films. These were projected alongside fairly placid live music that brought out the movies’ dreamlike strangeness rather than their comic timing, but it worked reasonably well. All three of these shorts have aged remarkably well for films that will be a century and a half old in not too long. The Astronomer’s Dream is certainly the creakiest of the bunch, but it was 1898. Credit where credit’s due. The Eclipse is the latest of the three, and certainly the most technically accomplished, though not the best. It contains a wonderfully suggestive space ballet in which the sun and the moon have a thing, and it envisions a meteor shower composed of human women in white dresses. That shot may be one of the most beautiful and imaginative things in the history of film, though that’s a thought that passes through one’s mind relatively frequently when watching Méliès films. Something about the complete lack of cinematic grammar that existed when he was first making movies prompted a sort of aesthetic originality that few have ever matched. The presenters mentioned David Lynch as a contemporary reference point, and I can certainly see similarities. Though, Lynch’s dreamlike aesthetic is deliberate and fussy, whereas for Méliès it seems to have simply been his way of hooking viewers through novelty. That leaves A Trip to the Moon, the most familiar of Méliès’ films, and one of the best damn things ever. The most iconic shot is the one where a rocket lands in the man in the moon’s eye, but the one that received the most attention from this program’s presenters — and incidentally, the one that stuck out to me in a way it hadn’t before — is a shot of our wily astronauts, having just arrived on the moon, seeing Earth from afar. It’s a shot that imagines a moment that wouldn’t happen for more than fifty years — and the fact that Méliès thought to include it, however briefly, demonstrates his sublime eye for a poetic image. This is the only image that could have prepared us for how moving it turned out to be to see photographs of the Earth from space. Now, that moment in A Trip to the Moon stands as a historical signpost of human progress, both cinematic and exploratory: how great an achievement, and yet how far we’ve come. Old movies make me sentimental. I like it that way.

The Death of Stalin — Far from Armando Iannucci’s best work, but it’s got plenty of good stuff. Casting Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev was genius. My attention was slightly divided while watching it, which I imagine is not ideal for this movie. In fact, you know what, I’m just going to watch it again sometime and review it properly then.

Hot Rod — As much as The Death of Stalin does not play in a situation where you’re not quite paying attention, this movie almost certainly plays BEST in that situation. It is one instance after another of Andy Samberg getting hurt. It is actors taking words and making them into just sounds. It has the emptiest, most vapid love interest character maybe ever. Smartly, it never lampshades this, because that characterization is, in itself, the joke. Its best bits include a man aggressively giving high fives for no reason and a hapless AM radio host with a complicated tattoo. It is cleverer than it seems on the face of it, but still very stupid. It’s a good comedy.

Comedy

Tig Notaro: Tig Notaro LIVE & Happy to be Here — “Good evening, hello! I have cancer! How are you?” is probably one of the best jokes ever told. It’s almost unfair that Tig Notaro’s career was given such a boost by Tig Notaro LIVE, which is the set where she abandons all of her previous material to give a detailed explication of the absolutely terrible year she’d been having, which included not only her cancer diagnosis, but a terrible digestive disease, a breakup, and the tragic death of her mother. It doesn’t work because it’s “vulnerable” or “intimate” or any of the other reasons people are likely to give, which have nothing to do with comedy. It works because Tig Notaro is an expert at reading the room. By that, I don’t mean that she gives the crowd what they want. Rather, she uses their displeasure to her advantage. The funniest part of LIVE is when Notaro suddenly pivots from her cancer material straight back into the sort of absurdist observational comedy she would have done otherwise. Suddenly the jokes, which are funny in their own right, are hilarious because of the perversity of her telling them in this context. It’s a very good set. However, when I say it’s unfair that this set is the one that propelled Notaro to another level, that’s because she is an equally good if not better comic when she is dealing with totally quotidian subject matter. This year’s Netflix special Happy to be Here has very little talk of personal misfortune in it because, by the looks of it, Notaro’s life is pretty great now. The most significant thing to have changed between the two sets is Notaro’s marriage to the actor Stephanie Allynne, who sounds like she’s basically Karl Pilkington. Don’t meow at the kitten, Stephanie cautions Tig. You don’t know what you’re saying to her. Happy to be Here contains much of this domestic material, and it’s all great. But the thing that makes it an outstanding special is an extended bit about the Indigo Girls where Notaro uses the same sublime ability to take advantage of her audience’s annoyance that she does throughout LIVE. It’s worth watching for that alone. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

Love and Radio: “Counter Melody” — This is the story of a resentful obsessive who has a stupid idea about what the “enigma” in Enigma Variations is, and it ruined his life. It’s good.

In the Dark: “Punishment” & “The Trials of Curtis Flowers” — This is getting better and better. My question with journalism like this is often, how is it so easy for journalists to explain the weakness in the case of the prosecution, yet so difficult for defence lawyers? This goes some way towards answering that question, by demonstrating that the prosecutor did everything in his power to ensure an unfair trial. Listen from the beginning of the season. It’s well worth it.

Out of the Blocks: “Steal This Podcast” — This is a fun deconstruction of how an episode of this show is made. They go into a lot of detail about how to interview, and a fair bit about how to structure the tape you get from an interview. I do wish they’d talked a bit more about the design elements and the process of writing the music. But it’s still edifying, both as a listener and a producer.

Theory of Everything: “The Fake in the Crowd” — This episode of Benjamen Walker’s series on fakeness opens the door to the possibility that nobody advocating for any cause is actually who they are. This is clearly not true, but it’s a dangerous and fascinating idea because it’s the basis for a worldview where you can trust literally nothing.

The Daily: “Charm City” — This five-part series about race and policing in Baltimore follows one family through three generations and tracks the changes in black Baltimoreans’ relationship with law enforcement decade by decade. It’s magnificent journalism. The Daily is so good. The New York Times is so good.

Caliphate: “The Briefcase” — Speaking of the New York Times being very, very good, this is maybe the most affecting episode of Caliphate yet. In it, Rukmini Callimachi finds a briefcase full of documents that yield a great deal of information, and it traces back to one particular member of ISIS. The team tries to track him down, and only finds his family. And in that family, intense shame for what this man has gotten himself into. The story they tell about his childhood and how he came to his extremist views is the most penetrating single detail this series has offered about the process of radicalization so far. Pick of the week.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Anthony Bourdain from 2011” — Bourdain and Maron have a lot in common. But Maron seems to have escaped the darkness to an extent that Bourdain didn’t manage. This is a good conversation if you’re looking to understand Bourdain’s self-destructive side, which I imagine lots of people are right now.

Fresh Air: — “Anthony Bourdain,” “The Life and Death of Robin Williams/’Jessica Jones’ Star Krysten Ritter,” “Tig Notaro” & “Ronan Farrow” — The Bourdain remembrance is a Dave Davies interview and not a Terry Gross interview, but it’s still worthwhile. Though, there are a few moments that would appear to disprove the assertion in a few appreciations written this week that Bourdain didn’t repeat himself in interviews. If you want one audio interview to commemorate Anthony Bourdain, go with Maron. As for the rest of these, the interview with Dave Itzkoff about his new Robin Williams biography is well worthwhile, as is the Ronan Farrow episode. That last one doesn’t just focus on his Weinstein investigations, but his entire crazy life as a genius prodigy and son of celebrities. The Tig Notaro episode is fine, though there’s a weird moment where Terry Gross almost tries to defend Louis C.K. in spite of obviously finding him repulsive. It comes out of nowhere and is super weird and I don’t know why she felt compelled to do that, especially with Notaro seeming as viscerally uncomfortable as she is.

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Omnibus (week of May 20, 2018)

A number of people at my workplace and otherwise have occasionally identified a phenomenon they call “peak Parsons.” I have become adept at recognizing this phenomenon myself, and I daresay my review of Julie Taymor’s film of The Tempest is a prime example. So is my most recent NXNW column, in which I recommend geometry as a form of self-care. Enjoy.

19 reviews.

Movies

The Tempest — When this came out in 2010, I was bonkers excited. I watched the trailer over and over. Opening weekend was a scheduling no-go, but one week later I was there. Alas, the movie no longer was. This actually happened. I went to the movie theatre to see Julie Taymor’s The Tempest — starring Helen Mirren as the now-genderswapped Prospera and a bizarre assemblage of personalities from Alan Cumming to Russell Brand in supporting roles — and the movie theatre was no longer showing it. None of them were. Not in Edmonton. Guess I’m waiting for the DVD I said to myself, in those shockingly recent, pre-Netflix times. Eight years later, I still hadn’t seen it. But now I have, and all is right in the world. Except for the fact that the movie itself is… uneven. Much of it is bad; still more is baffling. Elliot Goldenthal’s score is deeply ostentatious. Ferdinand sings a song from Twelfth Night for no reason. Russell Brand is kind of a lot. The CG, and overreliance thereupon, is very 2010. (Though, I do think this is a valid and intentional choice, though not necessarily a fruitful one. I’ll get to it.) And even the one universally acclaimed aspect of the film, Helen Mirren’s performance, is undercut by some deeply bizarre editing, including her introduction with a very Ken Russell quick push into her screaming face. What keeps The Tempest from being a complete trainwreck is the sense that Taymor’s decisions, however crazy, are all deliberate and pointing in the same direction. There are little choices here and there that make you go, ah yes, here we have a good filmmaker. Take Ben Whishaw’s air spirit Ariel. He spends most of the movie morphing proteanly through various computer-generated forms. (This is not the good choice; some of these bits are a little embarrassing.) But his most important scene with Prospera works differently. I’m talking about the scene where Prospera ponders what to do with her prisoners, and Ariel suggests mercy. In one of the play’s biggest gut punches, Ariel reminds Prospera that he is not human, and therefore implicitly that she is. And thus, she must act humanely. Done right, it’s one of the best parts of The Tempest. Ariel doesn’t earn his freedom by doing Prospera’s bidding, like she says he will. He earns his freedom here by giving unexpectedly good, unexpectedly human, counsel. This is the turning point in their relationship. If this scene works, the moment Prospera frees him from their contract later on will work too. In Taymor’s rendition, this scene is the only one where Ben Whishaw appears opaque. He’s right there, in frame with Helen Mirren, which has almost never happened before in the film. It’s marvellous. But even if every single decision Taymor made throughout the film was as pitch-perfect as this one, it still might not work. Making a film out of The Tempest is a bit of a mug’s game to begin with. (I am about to get perverse. Be warned.) The Tempest is ostentatiously theatrical. More than any other Shakespeare play save possibly Hamlet, it is explicitly about the act of performance. The fourth wall is paper-thin in this play, with Prospero/Prospera threatening to break it several times during the “such stuff as dreams are made on” speech, and ripping through it completely in the final monologue, when they explicitly solicit the audience’s applause. That last speech is impossible in film, and Taymor wisely cuts it. Penetrating though her gaze may be, Helen Mirren cannot literally see us through the screen. But the broader challenge is simply that film is a more naturalistic medium than theatre. Its grammar (editing, camera motion, etc.) is usually intended to be invisible. On the other hand, I dare say that the word “theatricality” can almost be defined as the opposite of that: benign yet obvious artificiality. And indeed, Taymor almost manages to conjure the spirit of a staged Tempest in her film by making much of it appear deliberately fake. But our relationship to theatrical fakeness is different from our relationship to CGI fakeness, in that we can intuitively understand how the fakery is done on stage. In some cases, we can literally see the strings. CGI, on the other hand is inexplicable to most of us. It might as well be actual magic — magic that is well beyond our grasp. And this is where any film adaptation of The Tempest is bound to relate to its audience differently than a stage production: when we watch The Tempest on stage, we all become sorcerers. We marvel at the magic we see, but we also understand how it has come into being. This makes us coextensive with Prospero/Prospera for the play’s duration. And once they’ve broken their staff and drowned their book, relinquishing their powers, they demand release from a spell of their own making from us. By applauding their final speech, we magically free them from our plane to go off and be the Duke/Duchess in another, fictional one. They are to us as Ariel is to them. This is what Taymor cannot accomplish. And her replacement of the final speech with a visual image — the shattering of Prospera’s staff — reads as a tacit acknowledgement of that. (But the fact that the speech remains in place as the end credits song feels like a half measure. Do it or don’t. By the final lines of the song, the demand for applause, most of the crowd will have filed out of the theatre. Why bother?) So basically, this movie is not successful, and this was inevitable from the start. But in spite of that, I enjoyed a lot of it for its sheer weirdness and willingness to take one big swing after another. Really, the best and worst qualities of this movie are both defined by the fact that it has Russell Brand in it. You don’t cast that guy in Shakespeare if you don’t have a really specific vision. I almost recommend this. As for me, I think I’ll watch Titus again.

Literature, etc.

Alison Bechdel: Are You My Mother? — Bechdel’s second family-related memoir is consciously designed as a companion piece to Fun Home. Where Fun Home was a book about Bechdel’s relationship with her father, Are You My Mother? is (ostensibly) a book about her relationship with her mother. Where Fun Home was drawn in black, white and teal, Are You My Mother? is drawn in black, white and… I want to say magenta? (I’m not great at colours.) Where Fun Home was a book about reading, Are You My Mother? is much more a book about writing. And where Fun Home is a book about the impact of literature on Bechdel’s thinking about her own life, Are You My Mother? is about the impact that therapy and psychology texts had on her. If that makes it sound a bit abstruse, well yes. Bechdel’s graphic novels are essentially essays told in prose accompanied by narratives told in pictures. The essayistic portion of Are You My Mother? requires the reader to keep track of an armful of psychoanalytic concepts that build on each other and intertwine with the story such that you’ll get lost if you lose focus. This is by no means a problem, lest anybody misunderstand. Artists of Alison Bechdel’s calibre have every right to demand our full attention. But with all the focus on these psychoanalytic concepts, the story gets short shrift. I’ve mentioned a lot of differences between Fun Home and Are You My Mother? But perhaps the main one is that Fun Home’s main subject was deceased, whereas this book’s was very much alive at the time of writing. It’s very clear that Bechdel felt a certain awkwardness about mining her mother’s life for literature that she did not feel about her father, who would never see the end result. As a result, we get a far less fulsome picture of Helen Fontana Bechdel than we did of Bruce Bechdel: less biographical detail, less insight into her relationships with those around her — in short, less story. What we get instead is a great deal of friction and outright conflict between Bechdel and her mother about the writing of the book itself. While writing the book, Bechdel meticulously transcribed her phone calls with her mother. Much of the characterization we get comes from those conversations, which are wonderful but limited to a certain time frame and set of circumstances. Still, this is worth a read for many of the same reasons that Fun Home is remarkable. It weaves together Bechdel’s thoughts on not just psychoanalysis (and particularly Donald Winnicott) but also Virginia Woolf, Winnie the Pooh and Dr. Seuss. Even in this somewhat lesser masterpiece, Bechdel is still very best artist out there at building a sophisticated understanding of human behaviour through living, reading, and linking those two practices together.

Matt Taibbi: “Can We Be Saved From Facebook?” — Seemingly, we cannot. Taibbi is a famously forceful writer, and this is a good summation of the case against Facebook. It doesn’t contain much that is new on the subject, nor is the solution Taibbi suggests (an antitrust action) a new one. But if you don’t read a lot on this subject, this is the second-best magazine feature on it, next to John Lanchester’s essay in the London Review of Books, which predates Zuck’s congressional hearings and the whole Cambridge Analytica thing and therefore doesn’t cover that.

Bryan Lee O’Malley: Scott Pilgrim — I just read all six volumes of Scott Pilgrim in less than 48 hours. That in itself ought to tell you something about it. This is a deeply immersive comic that is far more relatable than I’m comfortable with. The relatability is in the broad strokes, i.e. our hero’s propensity to withdraw from all social contact in the aftermath of heartbreak. But much of the delight is in the details, such as: (1) We see Scott wearing a shirt of a (real) album called Mass Teen Fainting shortly before a mass teen fainting transpires. (2) Fully half of the band at Scott’s high school consists of Girls Who Play The Flute. (3) Knives Chau discovers heartbreak and immediately starts quoting Blood on the Tracks, possibly never having heard it. (4) A sequence in the last volume, where Scott descends to a basement and hence to his final confrontation is a mashup of Brazil and Daft Punk’s pyramid shows. There’s a satisfying experience to be had just reading Scott Pilgrim looking out for these sorts of details. But the real triumph of this series is the fact that as you progress through it you always sympathize with every member of its cast, even though they are frequently terrible people and many of them are consistently at odds with each other. Knives Chau, for instance, is extremely stupid for the bulk of the series’ duration. But, as we are constantly reminded, she is also 17 years old. Bearing that in mind, her bad decisions are just how everybody is at that age. And the moment when she ceases to be that way comes shortly after the book informs us that she’s turned 18. There’s nothing magical about that number; it’s just the book’s first indication that she’s growing up — and she immediately begins acting the part. There are complaints to be had, and there are rejoinders to those complaints. Firstly, Scott Pilgrim is a loser. He spends most of his time playing video games and sleeping in until noon, he is enormously reluctant to get a job, and the band he’s in is crap. One of the book’s more amusing heightenings of reality is the fact that this feckless bastard is also a staggeringly good fighter. But the other side of that coin is — why valorize a dude who never worked at anything? (Related: does the art rock band have to be evil?) Do we really need more illustrations of the fact that men don’t have to work that hard to succeed in the world? On that note: given that I’ve also been reading Alison Bechdel this week, we may as well observe that nearly every scene involving two women involves them talking about or literally fighting over boys. The women in Scott Pilgrim are mostly defined in relation to Scott. We have an object of obsession, a traumatizing ex, an obsessive hanger-on, the one that got away, and the taken-for-granted friend. None of these characters are particularly well defined outside of these relationships. However, I’m tempted to read this redemptively by looking at the entire series as a parody of a (specifically male) limited perspective on the world. Throughout the final chapters, we’re treated to various men’s “memory cams” of their past relationships, which are always hilariously inaccurate. We also see a recap of a previous fight scene that implies that the first iteration of that scene may have been sensationalized — opening up the possibility that most of what we’ve read may be unreliable. Basically, we spend the entire series tethered to Scott Pilgrim’s way of thinking about the world, which is as limited as any single person’s will inevitably be — and is limited further still by the fact that he possesses very little empathy. Naturally the book will fail the Bechdel test, because as far as its narrator is concerned, if a woman isn’t thinking or talking about him, what they’re saying can’t possibly be important. This is illustrated by a bit where two women are having a conversation about something Scott doesn’t perceive to be important, so it’s rendered in “blah blah blahs.” I believe that we’re meant to take careful note of all of this. Scott Pilgrim is acutely aware of the tropes it employs — even the sexist ones. That’s part of why it’s so satisfying when Scott defeats the comic’s “final boss” Gideon. It feels like he’s defeating the worst part of himself: the part that sees women solely as potential partners, devoid of potential in themselves. What you should take from all this is that Scott Pilgrim is complicated. But the fact remains that I cared more about this comic for a whole weekend than I did about anything else. The periodic reversals of fortune that it puts its characters through twisted me around for two days. I loved it. I’ll probably read it again. Pick of the week.

Music

Talking Heads: Remain in Light — One of these days I’ll move on to another Talking Heads album. Seriously, I think I may have heard Fear of Music once. I’ve seen/heard Stop Making Sense a bunch of times. And I’ve heard a smattering of stuff from their first couple of albums. But for the most part my interface with Talking Heads has been entirely through Remain in Light, which has oddly been one of my favourite albums for years, in spite of having failed to inspire me to dig into this catalogue any further. “Once in a Lifetime” is a rare case of the hit being my favourite track, because it is flawless. It is the perfect evocation of a familiar feeling: that your life is happening to you in spite of your own actions rather than because of them. I could listen to “The Great Curve” over and over. It’s the purest distillation of this album’s guiding principle of building everything from one-chord vamps. There is a huge amount of unique musical material on parade in “The Great Curve,” and nary a chord change to be found. This is Brian Eno’s doing, I suspect. In much the same way as he did with his early solo albums (especially Another Green World), Eno encouraged the band to come to the studio with as little prepared as possible. And nothing encourages spontaneity like a song with no chords to keep track of. It’s one of those limitations that Eno loves so much, and that always turn out to be so freeing in practice. “Crosseyed and Painless” is painfully relevant in the Trump era. Setlist.fm tells me he hasn’t been playing it on his current tour. Too on the nose? Anyway, this is a classic. I love it and I really regret missing Byrne at the Queen E the other night.

Podcasts

In Our Time: “The Almoravid Empire” & “The Mabinogion” — The second of these is the highlight, about a collection of 12th- and 13th-century British stories of women made of flowers and magicians with weird senses of humour. Some of the stories from The Mabinogion were familiar to me, but I did not know where they came from, so that was cool. The Almoravid Empire kind of evaporated upon contact, honestly. I was busy cooking.

Radiolab catch-up — This last batch of Radiolab episodes has some stuff I’d heard before and elected not to listen to again, some stuff I’d heard before and elected to hear it anyway, and some new stuff that left me a bit cold. I liked the conclusion to the border trilogy, but not as much as the first two parts. It’s just so brutal.

Sandra: “Hope is a Mistake” — Okay, time at last to check out the new offerings from Gimlet. First up, their latest fiction podcast, which is very dull and occasionally cringeworthy, i.e. the comedic in-universe ads. The first episode is almost pure setup, and while there’s a possibly interesting concept in here — an A.I. that’s actually driven by a bunch of humans in a building rather than machine learning or anything like that — this introduction fails to do the most crucial thing to do when you’re starting up a science fiction story, which is hint at the various directions that your cool premise might go. This only gets around to letting us in on the premise at the end. So, I’m out. Thanks for playing. I’ll always give a new Gimlet show one episode, but that’s all this one’s getting.

The Habitat: “This Is the Way Up” — Another of Gimlet’s new offerings, this is essentially Big Brother, but for actual science as well as for our entertainment. The characters in this show will be spending a year in isolation, with only each other for company. They’re doing this to emulate the psychological conditions of a hypothetical mission to Mars. But that doesn’t make the experience of listening in on it any more edifying or noble than standard issue reality television. Hard pass.

We Came To Win: “How the 1990 World Cup Saved English Soccer” — Shock; horror; the one podcast in the latest slate of Gimlet releases that I actually like is the sports one. The brilliance of this concept is in the limits it has set for itself: it’s just about the World Cup. By the standards of the sports podcasting world, that is by no means a narrow focus. But I feel like it would have been completely unsurprising if Gimlet’s first sports show had been about sports in the same way that 99% Invisible is about design. Instead, it is about the World Cup in the same way that 99% Invisible is about design, which is so much more promising. This particular episode is structured around the fall and rise of English soccer. We get a gut-churning retelling of the Hillsborough disaster, where 96 people died because too many people were packed into a section of a stadium. (The organizational stupidity it takes for this to happen boggles the mind. This episode tells the story in excruciating detail and I still don’t understand how a disaster like this could happen.) We hear about the culture of football fandom in the wake of that disaster. But that’s all context for the meat of the story, which is about the 1990 English World Cup team. The reason that story is fun is because the producers have really taken the time to establish the stakes with their retelling of the Hillsborough disaster and its aftermath. Also it involves New Order. This is really good. I’ll probably listen to more of this.

In the Dark: “Privilege” — A whole episode on the story of the prosecution’s key witness in the Curtis Flowers case: Odell Hallmon. The long and the short of it is, he kept testifying that Flowers confessed to him in trial after trial, and also seems to constantly be able to evade prison time for horrible crimes. Being good journalists, the In the Dark team does not come right out and say what it sounds like. But if there is some connection between Hallmon’s propensity to get out of jail free and his role in the Flowers case, that complicates matters for the prosecution, because Hallmon ended up confessing to a triple murder himself in the years following the trials. This is troubling, captivating radio. Every week I look forward to hearing new evidence.

Lend Me Your Ears: “Reading Julius Caesar in Modern Context” — A minor extra, intended to plug Slate Plus. But I’m enjoying this show enough that I’ll listen to whatever comes through the feed.

The World According to Sound: “Sound Audio: Father Cares” — Here we have something I need to remember to listen to in its entirety. The host throws a bit of shade on contemporary NPR for not being as adventurous as the producers of this documentary, which is semi-fictional, though the tape it uses is all real. And he’s right to throw that shade: Benjamen Walker is the only person I know of who’s still doing that, and it’s an enormously effective way to explore the space of possibility that exists just outside of actual reality — things that didn’t happen but could have.

The Daily: “Putting ‘Fake News’ on Trial” — This is about the Alex Jones lawsuit. It’s crazy making, but you should hear it if you are unaware of how batshit the world has become.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Solo: A Star Wars Story and What’s Making Us Happy” — I will likely see Solo in spite of it probably being kind of bad. At least there is Donald Glover.

Caliphate: “Paper Trail” — The best episode so far. Turns out their source was unreliable (not a surprise). So this episode traces the process of verifying what is and isn’t true in the story we’ve already heard. Caliphate is becoming not just a disturbing look inside ISIS recruitment, but also a revealing look inside the process of doing journalism for the world’s best newspaper. Pick of the week.

On the Media: “Glenn Beck Reverses His Reversal” — This is mostly a rebroadcast of Bob Garfield’s interview with Glenn Beck from 2016. It’s worth hearing again in the wake of Beck’s recent pledge of support for Donald Trump — a thing which, let’s remember, he did not do in 2016, in spite of being completely horrible in every way.

The Media Show: “The Evolution of Radio” — An extremely weird conversation about podcasts that is clearly meant for people who heard this on the radio rather than as a podcast. I say that because it assumes almost no knowledge about podcasts. This is the first time I’ve experienced a podcast that assumes that. It is disorienting and made me lose faith in this show, which I have often enjoyed.

Reply All: “Pain Funnel” — A Sruthi Pinnamaneni-produced episode about fraudulent rehab centres. It’s not a laugh riot, but it’s worth your time.  

Omnibus (week of May 13, 2018)

Let’s see, what have we got here. We’ve got a movie I should have seen a long time ago, a great season of TV, a couple albums, and a broad assortment of journalism in written, audible and even visual form. There’s some stuff I’ve got on the go right now that’s not accounted for here that you will hear about next week. This particular omnibus may lead you to wonder about my seemingly arbitrary use of links. I link the things I review when they are both linkable and urgently worth your time. Other that that, links are for reference. That is all.

Oh, also, I had a review column on NXNW for the first time in a while this morning. But to hold you over until it’s online, here is a thing I made about how I don’t like Gilbert and Sullivan so I went to find some people who really really do in the hope that they can make me see what I’m missing. (They didn’t. But they were lovely.)

20 reviews.

Movies, etc.

This is Spinal Tap — Possibly the most frequently referenced movie that I had not actually seen until yesterday, This is Spinal Tap is also a remarkably durable parody that has aged pretty much impeccably. As an avid fan of quite a lot of music that sounds a bit like “Stonehenge” and quite a lot more music that sounds like “Jazz Odyssey,” I can attest to the calibre of the style parodies themselves. But this movie’s greatest success is the fact that its jokes don’t rely specifically on recognition to succeed. Certainly, if you’ve heard your share of Led Zeppelin, Queen, Scorpion, Motley Crüe, the Zombies, Yes, King Crimson, Lonnie Donegan, and any number of other artists of variable consequence throughout the history of rock and roll, you will get something out of this that those without that context will not. But fundamentally, This is Spinal Tap is character-based comedy, with the jokes coming from the same place that the stakes of the story do, which is relationships. Michael McKean and Christopher Guest do the heavy lifting here, but there’s comedy even in the occasional shot of actual prog rocker David Kaff playing keyboards, at an almost complete remove from the story at large. Parody is hard. This is the benchmark.

Lindsay Ellis: The Hobbit: A Long-Expected Autopsy, etc. — Lindsay Ellis’s justifiably three-part video essay on the un-justifiably three-part Hobbit trilogy is some of the best media criticism I’ve seen in a while. The first and second parts tackle the low-hanging fruit: namely the myriad ways in which the movies themselves are narrative failures driven more by studio fiat than creative control. But the third part is a work of honest-to-god journalism, telling the story of the labour disputes that nearly sundered the production of The Hobbit and the laws that were passed to exploit the New Zealand-based actors who took part. It’s worth a watch as much to learn about all of that as to remind yourself why the original Lord of the Rings trilogy is a masterpiece worth revisiting.

Television

Atlanta: Season 2 — Donald Glover is the pre-eminent creative person right now. Atlanta is farther out than anything else on TV, and its experiments didn’t let it down all season. In “Teddy Perkins” we got a horror movie with a monster as simultaneously ghastly and tragic as Frankenstein’s. In “FUBU” we got a coming-of-age story that takes place over barely more than a single day. In “Champagne Papi” we got Waiting for Godot with(out) Drake. In “North of the Border” we get a road movie that isn’t insufferable. And those are only the best episodes. I always have trouble finding things to say about shows I watch quickly, and this one contains such multitudes that I feel this review was doomed from the start. Watch Atlanta. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc,

Tad Friend: “Donald Glover Can’t Save You” — The profile is not a genre I am always fond of. Too often, they are excuses for a writer to show off their own character in relation to their subject’s rather than simply focussing on the ostensible task at hand. But this one’s really good. Friend focuses on simply recounting what Glover did and, more to the point, said while they spent time together. Witness this paragraph: “Do you look up to anyone? ‘I don’t see anyone out there who’s better,’ he said. ‘Maybe Elon Musk. But I don’t know yet if he’s a supervillain. Elon is working on ways for storytelling not to be the best way of spreading information.’ Musk’s new company, Neuralink, intends to merge human consciousness with computers, allowing us to download others’ thoughts. ‘It will turn us into a connected macroorganism, but it will make our individual desires seem trivial,’ Glover went on. ‘Sometimes I get mad at him—”You think people are insignificant!” But we probably are at the end of the storytelling age. It’s my job to compress the last bits of information for people before it passes.’ He sighed. ‘The thing I imagine myself being in the future doesn’t exist yet. I wish it was just “Oh, I’ll be Oprah,” or “I’ll be Dave Chappelle.” But it’s not that. It’s something different and more, something involving fairness and restoring a sense of honor. Sometimes I dream of it, but how do you explain a dream where you never see your father, but you know that that’s him over your shoulder?’ It was very quiet. ‘It’d be nice to feel less lonely.’” Go read.

Robert Silverman: “My dad painted the iconic cover for Jethro Tull’s ‘Aqualung,’ and it’s haunted him ever since” — Not to be confused with the Canadian pianist of the same name who is celebrating his 80th birthday this week, Robert Silverman is a writer whose father is the painter Burton Silverman. This feature tells the story of how Silverman Sr. painted the cover of one of my least favourite albums by one of my favourite bands, and how he received no royalties for it. Robert Silverman does a great job of emphasizing how shitty this is. It’s not clear that he was actually stiffed out of any money — nobody did anything illegal, it seems. Burton Silverman simply had no way of predicting that the album he was working on would turn out to be iconic and that his cover would become Jethro Tull’s most merchandisable image. He had no reason to think that he should request royalties, or the continuing ownership of his intellectual property. He caught a bad break, and he’s mad about it. Who can blame him? But what’s to be done? All the same, Ian Anderson comes off as a complete shit in this, even refusing to be interviewed at the last minute. I always knew that Ian Anderson didn’t like the cover. But it now seems even shittier for him to have said that so freely when the artist was so poorly compensated. Insult to injury. Also, given Anderson’s own efforts to maintain copyright over his work, there’s irony here.

Jennifer Egan: “Children of the Opioid Epidemic” — Jennifer Egan’s portrait of several different mothers and their struggles to do right by their children while suffering from addictions is a thing that not only exhibits empathy, but manages also to explain the lack of empathy these women receive in a way that makes it seem ludicrous. It is heartrending journalism without the barest hint of voyeurism. Read it.

John Luther Adams: “Becoming Desert” — I was shocked to learn that my favourite living composer, John Luther Adams, had left Alaska. It’s a place he’s identified with as much as Prince is identified with Minnesota. But at least he lives in a desert now. I don’t need to reconsider my image of him as a man of extremes. I haven’t heard his new piece Become Desert yet, because it hasn’t been recorded. But I’m told it’s spectacular and worthy of the legacy of its predecessor, Become Ocean, which is my favourite orchestral work of the past decade. Can’t wait.

Music

Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats: Tearing at the Seams — My experience with prior Night Sweats albums has been primarily in cars paying little attention, save for their amazing single “S.O.B.” So, Tearing at the Seams is in a sense my introduction to them as an albums band. And it’s great! It’s a lot of fun. It’s primarily made up of soul and R&B music with a full horn section and plenty of Hammond B-3. But every so often, as with “I’ll Be Damned” and “You Worry Me,” it sticks a toe into piano pop territory. Nice to know they’re not purists. “Intro” is the track I can’t stop listening to, though if it has ever been an intro to something, that context is lost on this album. All the same, whenever somebody asks me about a thing I am proud of, I shall henceforth reply “Ahhh-aaaahhh-HEEEY-Yeah!”

The Flaming Lips: Zaireeka — The first Flaming Lips album I haven’t entirely enjoyed. These days, the 0.0 Pitchfork review of this is arguably more famous than the album itself. It’s an interesting read if you haven’t seen it — not because it’s good criticism, because it isn’t. But it does probably read more sympathetically today than it did at the time. If you’re unfamiliar, Zaireeka is a bonkers piece of concept art that consists of four CDs to be played simultaneously in four separate CD players. This concept was born of some genuinely interesting live experiments that Wayne Coyne and co. had done where they put their audience in control of car stereos and boomboxes and made genuinely participatory performance pieces. But as a commercial product for home consumption, Zaireeka made itself inaccessible to the vast majority of its potential audience, who likely wouldn’t have four CD players just lying around. This is the crux of the Pitchfork reviewer’s complaint. In a post-Occupy world, this seems entirely reasonable. In 1997, I imagine it was scandalous. But lest I seem like I’m needlessly extolling a piece of writing that was merely ahead of its time, let me clarify that Jason Josephes, who wrote the review, appears not to have bothered with any sort of aesthetic appraisal of the record. And while I can get on board with the notion that mere aesthetics may be secondary to the basic fact of accessibility for audiences of all income brackets, if you are being paid to assess a work of art, you have to clear a higher bar than just being pissed off about how you can’t listen to this record because you’re broke. Call me old-fashioned. It’s just how I feel. The irony of all this is that the way I chose to hear Zaireeka was through a YouTube video that mixes down the four CDs into a single stereo signal that I can listen to through a single pair of headphones. And what makes this doubly ironic is the fact that the four CDs taken together actually sound like four separate things happening simultaneously, having little to do with each other. It’s entirely possible that Josephes, listening to the record in piecemeal fashion, had a more aesthetically pleasing experience than I did. Pity he couldn’t be bothered to say anything about it.

Podcasts

In the Dark: “The Confessions” — It continues to be a convincing argument for the prosecution’s shoddiness in the case of Curtis Flowers, and it continues to introduce compelling voices that will ring in my head long after the season’s over. In The Dark has officially proven itself to be a more durable investigative operation than its blockbuster big sibling Serial.

The World According to Sound: “Sound Audio: Edward R. Murrow” — Stunning. Those of us who only listen to podcasts, and are too young to remember a world where terrestrial radio was king would do well to pay attention to this series, which highlights recent and long-past audio alike. This time around, the wartime bulletins of Edward R. Murrow, complete with an explanation of how he strung together mic cables to reach the roof of the BBC, so he could report on a proper aerial view of the London blitz. It’s tempting to say they don’t make them like this anymore, though of course they do. (Witness Caliphate.) But Murrow was an original, and I’ll be seeking out more of his work, out of professional interest.

Out of the Blocks: “200 W Read St.” parts 2 and 3 — Any show whose mandate is simply to tell “everybody’s story” is going to get saccharine at some point. And I do bristle a bit at the forced pathos of some of the stories here. But ultimately that’s secondary to my appetite for simply hearing people talk about their lives. I don’t care what the stakes are; ultimately I’m fine with just listening to people — mostly, people don’t talk about themselves, so it’s fun to hear how they respond when they’re asked to. This is a great show. You should hear it.

Caliphate: “The Heart” — The most disturbing episode so far details an incredibly garish murder, perpetrated by the main interview subject of the series thus far. It is a hard listen, but a worthwhile reality check. I am confident that what’s coming up in this series will problematize the content of this interview to no end. If it doesn’t, that would be a problem.

Judge John Hodgman: “Wedding Clashers” — It’s been a while since I listened to this, and I had nearly forgotten how satisfying it is. The premise here is that Hodgman must decide whether a couple will have a traditional wedding, like the dude wants to, or go off and elope, like the lady wants to. His decision is not straightforward, which is in itself a demonstration of how seriously Hodgman takes the ludicrous task he’s set out for himself within the context of a comedy podcast. I love that he’s never dismissive of the decisions that people have to make in their lives. It takes a show that could so easily be mean spirited and makes it the opposite.

Theory of Everything: “S-Coin” — Benjamen Walker’s continuing exploration of fakery forays into cryptocurrency. It’s everything you ever wanted from Benjamen Walker. This mini-season has been a lot to process so far, but I’m finding it rewarding — even just to puzzle out what’s real and what isn’t.

On the Media: “Africatown” — This episode, focussing on a town formed by the last slaves to be brought to America from Africa (illegally) on the Clothilde, gets into so much more than just the story of that town. I won’t go into it, just listen to it. It’s a Brooke Gladstone solo episode (in the sense that there’s no Bob Garfield; Alana Casanova-Burgess is here in full force), which means it’s going to be complicated and it’s going to take the long view. Listen.

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — I did not watch the royal wedding. I will likely not watch Deadpool 2. And while Vida sounds great, if I’m being honest with myself I will not get to that either. My ability/willingness to keep up with pop culture has waned enormously over the past year, and listening to this show has made it clear just to what extent that is the case. I am okay with that, and I’ve still got this podcast to at least let me know what I’m missing.

The Memory Palace: “Snakes!” & “The 8th Story” — Two episodes of The Memory Palace that reinvigorated my love for the show — a love that never goes away entirely. “Snakes!” is an outright laugh riot, which is a rarity for Nate DiMeo. And even though it gets all of its milage out of the absurdity of cobras being released in a Missouri town, it does contain one genuinely affecting line: “In the absence of laws, and in the absence of shame, you can just lie and lie and lie.” The next episode, “The 8th Story,” features a formal trick I’ve never heard before on this show, namely DiMeo’s narration being interrupted by SFX. Given how much of an anomaly it is, it works really well. It’s also a great story, but it doesn’t involve cobras being loose in Missouri. Pick of the week.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Melissa McCarthy” — She’s funny. No surprises there. It’s a fun conversation, but nothing earthshaking.

All Songs Considered: “New Music Friday: May 18” — Some nice stuff here. Many albums I should check out but likely won’t, due to my general sense that I’d rather fill gaps in my existing knowledge than keep up on what’s new — thereby forming new gaps in my knowledge. But I may actually listen to the Remember Sports and Courtney Barnett records.

Omnibus (week of May 6, 2018)

Hi!

17 reviews.

Live events

James Rolfe: The Overcoat (Vancouver Opera Festival) — It’s a new piece, and a thing of beauty. The piece itself is based on Gogol’s story of the same name, about a lowly clerk who is the butt of everybody’s jokes until he buys a stunning new coat that makes him the talk of the town. Subsequently, the coat is stolen, causing the clerk to spiral into madness. It’s all very Russian. Morris Panych’s libretto evokes Robert Wilson’s numerical preoccupations in Einstein on the Beach, except with a story. Rolfe’s music slingshots between quoting Beethoven and Bach and channeling Gershwin. And while the sophistication of the score — particularly some really great trio writing for a chorus of narrators — belongs in the opera tradition, the feel of the music belongs just as much to the tradition of Stephen Sondheim. But the music accounts for only a percentage of what makes The Overcoat so much fun. The production started life as movement theatre, with Rolfe’s score added later. And that lineage is entirely clear in the beautiful, imaginative, and never overbearing staging. It’s amazing how much life you can inject into a production simply by putting everything on wheels. Some of the standouts in the cast don’t sing at all, but simply marshall the set pieces and props across the stage in dancelike fashion. Dunno where it’ll end up next, but it’s worth seeing if you can.

Television

Atlanta: Season 1 — It’s about time I got around to this. Atlanta is one of those things that I absolutely love but cannot find anything to say about that hasn’t already been said. We are at the moment sitting in the wake of the “This is America” video and the season two finale, and Donald Glover is rightly the only thing anybody wants to talk about. So I’ll just do that thing where I list off bits that I love. I love the black Justin Bieber. I love the relationship between Earn and Van. I love every reaction shot involving Brian Tyree Henry. (Some actors have very specific skills. Brian Tyree Henry is particularly good at reacting to things.) I love every single second involving Darius, and particularly the bit where he takes a dog-shaped target to a gun range. I love the way the on-location approach of the show makes it look. I love the way the show zooms back and forth between realism and farce, e.g. the club with a false wall. I love the show’s understanding of social media as being fundamentally empty. I love the comedy of manners that ensues every time class becomes an issue on this show. And let me just go back and reiterate how much I love the relationship between Earn and Van. Much of what makes Earn tick isn’t quite clear, because this show eschews backstory to an almost unprecedented degree. (What the hell happened to Earn at Princeton???) But his relationship with Van makes perfect sense, right down to his refusal to stay the night with her at the end of the season, because he can’t bring himself to keep leeching off her. These two want to be together, but they both know Earn has to get his shit together before that can happen. Zazie Beetz is amazing, and her feature episode is one of the season’s highlights. The dinner scene at the top of that episode is maybe the best comedy of manners this show has conjured thus far. I love it. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc.

Rebecca Watts: “The Cult of the Noble Amateur” — First off, this polemic against the works of popular poets like Rupi Kaur and Hollie McNish is my first exposure to either of them. Part of me wonders if their work wouldn’t seem so stupid to me if I’d encountered it in a more positive context. But another part of me thinks, no, I’m an intelligent person who’s used to reading with a critical eye, so I should trust my instincts when they tell me that Watts is exactly right. There is nothing I hate more than mere simplicity masquerading as wisdom. And while these poets may not be up to any deliberate trickery — I’m entirely willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and believe that they are simply bad at writing poems — surely their publishers are aware that this is substandard work. Surely they’ve got dollar signs in their eyes. Watts compares Kaur, McNish and Kate Tempest (who I must admit I don’t mind, though I know her as a performing poet and not so much on the page) to Donald Trump, which will strike many as ludicrous. But the anti-intellectualism of their work is part of the same phenomenon that led to Trump’s rise: we live in a world that shuns complexity and nuance in favour of easily digestible narratives. Clearly these new poets’ narratives are not openly hateful and racist — seemingly the opposite. But the means of communication is troublingly similar. And neither phenomenon would exist if not for social media, with its constant appeals to our worst and dumbest instincts. I don’t agree with some of Watts’ premises. She quotes Ezra Pound’s aphorism that “literature is news which stays news,” an idea that eschews the value of timeliness in art — and I do think that is a value. I’ve never bought into the idea that a work of art is only good if it looks poised to stand the test of time. The only yardstick we have to measure that in the present is how much it resembles previous works of art that have managed to do that. And that’s useless, obviously, because things change. But this is a passing point in a larger argument about social media’s dumbing effect on culture, which I agree with. She moves from Pound’s quote directly onto one of the most powerful bits of her argument: “Of all the literary forms, we might have predicted that poetry had the best chance of escaping social media’s dumbing effect; its project, after all, has typically been to rid language of cliché. Yet in the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened. The reader is dead: long live consumer-driven content and the ‘instant gratification’ this affords.” Do read this. More than any calculated attempt to rid poetry of its supposed “elitism,” this essay has made me want to go read good poems.

Music

The Flaming Lips: Clouds Taste Metallic — Another week, another acclaimed pair of Flaming Lips albums. We’ll begin with the later of the two, and more one album back in the discography after. Clouds Taste Metallic is a brilliant record in the way that Radiohead’s The Bends is a brilliant record. It works within a particular musical idiom, stretches the boundaries of that idiom in keeping with the specific aesthetic of the artist, but doesn’t actually venture outside of that idiom. That would happen for Radiohead on OK Computer and for the Flaming Lips on The Soft Bulletin (and presumably even more so on the intervening Zaireeka, which I haven’t heard). But here on Clouds, the Lips are totally in control of their increasingly bonkers brand of alt rock. Highlights for me include the opening pair: “The Abandoned Hospital Ship,” with its gorgeous piano line that transforms into a kickass guitar lead, and “Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus With Needles,” which sounds remarkably like a Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd bootleg. This is at least in part thanks to Ronald Jones, whose guitar playing is as inventive as Barrett’s but with actual technique to fall back on. If there’s a better comparison to be made, it’s with Adrian Belew. The other musical standout is Steven Drozd, one of the most elegant drummers ever to play really fucking loud. The other songs I can’t get enough of are “They Punctured My Yolk,” “Lightning Strikes the Postman,” “Christmas at the Zoo” and especially the finale, “Bad Days,” which sounds like something from the Stones’ Between the Buttons. Specifically “Something Happened to Me Yesterday.” Except this arrangement is better — the novelty song it begins as eventually finds its way into rock territory by way of a two-stage descent into heaviness: first Drozd’s drums come in, then come the heavy guitars. I love this. There are melodies here that quicken my pulse just to think about. It isn’t Soft Bulletin, but it’s a step in the right direction.

The Flaming Lips: Transmissions from the Satellite Heart — This seems like pretty standard alt rock compared with what came after — but only compared with what came after. Actually, Transmissions from the Satellite Heart is pretty consistently surprising in ways both subtle and blatant. On the subtler side, there are details like the quiet incursion of muted strings into the lo-fi country of “Plastic Jesus.” More obviously, there’s the consistent tendency for messy sludge rock to coagulate into euphoric Beatlesque melodies. “She Don’t Use Jelly” features the clearest Beatles influence — its vaguely suggestive nonsense lyrics, catchy chorus and offbeat riff would feel at home on Abbey Road. But my favourite is probably “Moth in the Incubator,” which doesn’t give away the plot right away, preferring to build up to a revelation. This will probably grow on me. My investigation into the Flaming Lips now constitutes two very different pairs of albums, separated by a weird anomaly. Next week: the weird anomaly.

Podcasts

On the Media: “Dark Twisted Fantasy” — Worth a listen specifically for the breakdown of the various ugly internet subcultures of the “manosphere.”

Caliphate: “The Arrival” & “Us vs. Them” — I like that they’re splitting up one interview over many episodes to give it the context it requires. I wonder if this will continue once the story from that interview ends, though? I’m learning a ton from this, but I wonder what its endgame is.

Lend Me Your Ears: “Julius Caesar” — There is a Shakespeare podcast called Lend Me Your Ears. That in itself is wonderful. But the approach is marvellous. Each episode of this mini-series will deal with a specific Shakespeare play and how it resonates with contemporary politics. Julius Caesar is maybe the most obvious one, simply because of the high-profile production that portrayed Caesar as an obvious Trump analogue. But more than that, the play has a lot to say about demagoguery. The one wrinkle I wish had been addressed is the fact that our modern demagogues tend not to succeed on the basis of eloquence the way that Shakespeare’s do. Shakespeare’s most eminent demagogue, Marc Antony, is intensely eloquent, and thus intensely seductive. Brutus is the plainspoken one — that’s where demagoguery registers, these days. We get the worst of both worlds: ineloquent and empty. So why does it work? I dunno, I’m busy reading Shakespeare and listening to podcasts. This is great. I can’t wait for the episode on Richard II. That’ll be an interesting contrast with Caesar, since it also features opposing figures with different approaches to language: Henry Bolingbroke, who is enormously effective in spite (or because) of his ploddingly prosaic speeches, and Richard II, who is too busy soliloquizing brilliantly to be a good king.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Beach House, Tank And The Bangas, Stevie Wolf, More” “At 70, Smithsonian Folkways Is An Antidote To Music Algorithms” & “New Mix: Childish Gambino, Mike Lindsay And Laura Marling As LUMP, More” — Couple good mixes, including a great track from the tiny desk contest winner, and a really fun retrospective on Smithsonian Folkways, which I need to explore further. Go back through the feed and check these all out.

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — I cannot BELIEVE they liked A Quiet Place. They are WRONG. Ahem. I will watch Killing Eve and probably also Tully. Leslie Odom Jr. is a lovely man, but his book sounds corny.

The Daily: “The Breakdown of the Iran Nuclear Deal” — I am glad that The Daily is around to explain complicated things to me. It doesn’t take long for me to forget the whole context for things, so it’s good to have them conveniently reiterated.

Song by Song catch-up — I’m always a bit confused about why these guys choose not to like a song. “Blow Wind Blow” is clearly not a masterpiece on the level of “Innocent When You Dream,” but why complain? Just because it’s not a song you single out to listen to in isolation doesn’t mean it isn’t good in context. On the other hand, the episodes on “Innocent” and “Temptation” are reminding me exactly why I love Frank’s Wild Years so much, and particularly why I like it so much more than Rain Dogs: these songs have a sense of ostentatious theatricality that I love, and which I think is more prevalent in Waits’ post-Rain Dogs material.

The World According to Sound catch-up — This “Sound Audio” series is great. I’ve actually heard a couple of the pieces they’ve featured on here, including Tony Schwartz’s time-lapse recording of his niece growing up and the famous Hindenburg tape, which is actually impossible to listen to in public without having a small private breakdown. Still, I feel like this could serve as a crash course in the classic audio we’ve forgotten about in the podcast age. Also, there’s Sleep With Me, which is the weirdest shit ever.

In the Dark: Season 2, episodes 1-3 — I liked the first season of In the Dark once it got going with its larger implications, but I’m loving this one from the start. It’s the story of Curtis Flowers, who has been tried six times for the same crime in the town of Winona, Mississippi. There is so much going on here, and the writing is super sharp. The tape’s incredible too. Sometimes when investigative podcasts get into the weeds, I start to wonder whether they shouldn’t be shorter. But in this one, every blind alley they take leads them to another compelling individual with ties to the Flowers case: the witnesses who professed to have seen Flowers along the route the prosecution outlined at trial, the guy who owned the gun that’s ostensibly the murder weapon, the father of one of the victims, and even the expert ballistics sceptic who casts doubt on the study of the bullets. These are all really compelling people. And speaking of ballistics, the dude who did the initial ballistics report makes me so angry. He tries to shrug off scepticism about his work by saying crap like “it’s always been called an art.” No it hasn’t! It’s been called “forensic science!” And also, “a fact in somebody’s head might not be a fact in somebody else’s head.” Get outta here! That’s not how facts work! So many people in this story are so certain about things they clearly shouldn’t be certain about. That’s what’s making me mad about this: it’s not 100% clear that they got the wrong guy. By no means. But the cavalier attitude with which some people dismiss any doubt at all is completely enraging. Pick of the week.

Reply All: “No More Safe Harbour” & “INVCEL” — Two episodes of P.J. Vogt doing serious journalism. I like when that happens. He’s always a great sounding board for Alex Goldman, but it’s nice to hear him take the lead on stories like this. The episode about the surprisingly benign origins of the incel community is particularly worth hearing.

Fresh Air: “The Pope Who Would Be King” — When Terry Gross interviews a scholar who has written a book, it kind of listens like In Our Time, except that In Our Time doesn’t wait for somebody to have written a book. This is why I love In Our Time: it just does what’s interesting, contemporary hooks be damned. Anyway, that’s not relevant to what this episode actually is, which is a fascinating conversation about Pope Pius IX, a figure about whom I knew very little, but who factors into Italian reunification in some really interesting ways. I do wish Gross had touched more on the specific theological justifications for some of Pius’s more draconian proclamations, like the notion that free speech and Catholicism are mutually exclusive. But it’s a good listen.

Retronauts: “Tetris” — This is a weird show. They take so much of gaming history and experience as read, but they feel it necessary to explain things like the Beatles and the Cold War. Also, of course they’re Rush fans. Of COURSE. Anyway, Tetris has a fascinating history that is explored at length here, though I’m not convinced that roundtable discussion is the best way to approach historical storytelling. There you go.

Omnibus (week of April 1, 2018)

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

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

24 reviews.

Literature, etc.

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

Music

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnibus (week of March 25, 2018)

If you’re one of my six regular readers, you will likely already know that I got a job recently. This has resulted in a general sense of stability, clear headedness, and purposefulness that I haven’t had for a while. So, what does one do with one’s suddenly guilt-free spare time on an occasion such as this? One plays computer games.

I’ve been avoiding games for a while because they stretch out to fill the time. And when there’s too much time for them to stretch out into, they can take a toll on your self-worth. But I have plenty of that at the moment, so I played no fewer than three games this week. They’re all very short, to be fair. But it feels good to be back to this medium for at least a while, because all three of them were extremely interesting, and it was hard to pick just one to recommend. Read on to find out if I managed — and to find out which of the gaming podcasts I tried out was the best. When I get in a mood, I commit. 

Also, I had three pieces on the radio this weekend. Readers here will likely be most interested in this one

17 reviews.

Games

Kentucky Route Zero: “Un Pueblo De Nada” (and assorted miscellany) — Kentucky Route Zero’s final intermission minisode is an elegiac trip behind the scenes of a declining small-town public access station. I could have identified that as a KRZ premise even if you hadn’t told me it’s a video game. The minisode itself has less to offer than its two immediate predecessors: “The Entertainment,” which opens up the possibility that the entire game is a stage play being written by one of its supporting characters, and “Here and There Along the Echo,” which makes trawling through a touch-tone telephone menu fun. But when you take into account the fact that “Un Pueblo De Nada” has a slew of online videos associated with it, all of which are live-action renderings of broadcasts from the public access station we explore in the minisode, it rises to the level of prime KRZ. I watched the videos first (save for a couple of hour-long, out-of-universe media art pieces that may be edifying but don’t seem crucial), then played the actual game. I think I recommend doing the opposite. Or at least save the final, longest video until after you’ve played the game. I’ll say no more, except that if you intend to play KRZ at any point, you can’t skip the intermission features, because in spite of their brevity they are as enthralling as the actual chapters of the game. (A final note for obsessives: it looks like the airstrip from the first chapter, which initially seemed like little more than a haunting non-sequitur, is actually going to take on more significance. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I really liked it as an inexplicable, beautiful moment that’s basically unmoored from the rest of the story. But then, if there’s any developer we can trust not to make anything too tidy, it’s Cardboard Computer. So I still feel like the ambiguity won’t be explained away to the point where the airstrip vignette becomes banal.)

Subsurface Circular — This is a miniature, dialogue-driven story game that takes place on a single, continuous train ride. It observes the Aristotelian unities more aggressively than maybe any other game I’ve played: it takes place in real time, as far as I can tell, and your character does not (and cannot) move from their seat in the subway carriage. It is written by Mike Bithell, of Thomas Was Alone fame, and like that game it is about artificial intelligences. However, in Thomas Was Alone, that fact was basically only relevant to the plot: the character drama proceeds as if the characters are odd humans. Subsurface Circular has a little bit more fun with the fact that its characters are robots, encumbering some of them with really strange traits, like having their mood entirely determined by the mood of a separate robot. The story is a straightforward mystery that you investigate the only way you can: by talking to people on the train. The dialogue is choice-based, in the vein of Telltale, except that your choices don’t seem to have a great deal of impact on the actual story — or even the relationships between the characters. That’s not a flaw. It still presents a compelling story and offers you the opportunity to role-play within it. Still, to progress through the story you must hit on certain crucial bits of dialogue. Getting to them is less a matter of cleverness and more a matter of simply exhausting all of your options. Given my own propensity to try and see as much of the text as I can in one sitting, this can get a bit tedious. And it’s partially my fault. But the writing and the story are really, really fun. I highly recommend this to people who loved the writing in Thomas Was Alone, and to people who like text-based games in general.  

Virginia — I love this game. I can imagine what the key critiques of it are, even without reading anything about it. I can hear people’s objections about the lack of even the illusion of player choice, and the way in which you are driven through its spaces on tracks without any real opportunity to explore. (In that way, it is fundamentally different to some of the games it will inevitably be compared to, i.e. Gone Home, Tacoma.) But the way that Virginia tells its story is completely ingenious and wouldn’t be possible in another medium. The story itself is fairly simple to describe, at least until near the end. You’re an FBI agent, assigned to investigate a missing person with another FBI agent — and while you’re at it, you’re expected to carry out an internal investigation of your partner. Virginia’s FBI is a paranoid body where duplicity is par-for-the-course. It even invokes J. Edgar Hoover: a figure whose time would have been up long before this game takes place, but who looms large in the FBI’s institutional memory. You experience the story from a first person perspective, in which you walk down corridors, search for things in rooms, and frequently find yourself jump cutting to another location altogether. Those cuts are the game’s masterstroke — they convey a sensation of the unreliability of memory, perception and reality. The cuts are simple at first: you’re walking down a corridor, only to find yourself walking down a different corridor. The message is simple: we’ve elided part of the story, because it’s not important. But soon, you find yourself cutting from the present-day to a memory, from a dream to reality, and maybe even into the perspective of another character altogether. All of these are bog-standard techniques in film editing, but they make you disoriented and paranoid in this context. Also notable: nobody speaks in Virginia. It proceeds with visual storytelling akin to a Méliès film or a Pingu short, minus the grunting. That only adds to the vagueness. In fact, Virginia avoids words almost entirely, only deigning to put them on screen when there are especially crucial plot details that you can’t afford to miss. (After an hour of wordless gameplay, a key revelation is delivered via microfiche.) The point is this: Virginia is deliberately obscure because of its central themes. Virginia is a game about transgressing the boundaries of what’s true. It is about the levels of artifice that exist in relationships between people, the disconnect between what we perceive as real and what is empirically real outside of us, and how truth can be deliberately distorted for one’s own means. It is strange, unique, powerful, probably unknowable, and it has an original score performed by an honest-to-god symphony orchestra. I love it. I can’t wait to play it again. Pick of the week.

Movies

Isle of Dogs — Hmm. Look, it would be an excellent movie if it weren’t so culturally insensitive. I want to like it, believe me. Wes Anderson is one of my favourite directors, with The Grand Budapest Hotel standing particularly tall among my all-time favourites. And there’s much to love in this film. It contains some of the most objectively gorgeous stop-motion animation I’ve ever seen. And all of the stuff involving the dogs themselves is gold. Bryan Cranston gives a fabulous performance as the hardened stray that the other dogs both look up to and resent. Jeff Goldblum is hilarious as the town gossip. And Harvey Keitel puts in a curiously heartbreaking turn as a dog for whom desperate times called for desperate measures. But much of the remainder of the movie takes place in a Western fantasy of Japan: a Japan with only its aesthetics intact. A key element of the film is that the audience is not supposed to understand the human dialogue throughout much of it. But… presumably those members of the audience who speak Japanese will not get the benefit of that choice. Like Pop Culture Happy Hour’s Linda Holmes pointed out, Japan isn’t Narnia. It’s a real place that exists in the world. Much of Isle of Dogs constitutes textbook cultural appropriation. Shame, too: if this had been made to take place in an actual fantasy world, I think it might be a near masterpiece. As it is, I spent much of the movie’s duration squirming uncomfortably.

Literature, etc.

Brian Vickers: “Too too solid: On the Norton Shakespeare and the New Oxford Shakespeare” — I have been meaning to buy a proper complete Shakespeare for a while now. Reading Moby-Dick in the Norton Critical Edition has opened my eyes to the advantages of a solid critical edition, even for recreational reading. This opinionated, not to say catty, review of the two most recent editions of Shakespeare from perpetual rivals Oxford and Norton highlights the latter as a pretty clear winner. Even if you’re not in the market for one of these, this is worth a read simply to watch Vickers excoriate the Oxford for its misbegotten attempts at trendiness: referencing Hamilton, referring to Shakespeare as “the ghost with the most,” and eschewing critical introductions to the plays (probably the whole point of a critical edition for most readers) in favour of something they call “Shakespeare tapas,” in which they sample one or two lines from essays and interviews with notable Shakespeareans out of context. Norton it is.  

Music

The New Pornographers: Mass Romantic — Somebody mentioned them in conversation recently and I was reminded that I’d never heard a full album. I’m not sure I’d even listened to a song with any real intention. I began where one begins: with “Letter From an Occupant.” That song is a miracle. Neko Case’s voice is a laser, and it contains the lines “I cried five rivers on the way here, which one will you skate away on?” That’s a Joni Mitchell riff that improves on the original. There’s something you don’t see every day. Nothing on the rest of the album quite compares, except maybe the title track. After one full listen, my sense is that I’ll be compelled to revisit the Neko Case songs (I’ve listened to “Letter” probably a couple dozen times this week) immediately, and the A.C. Newman songs may yet grow on me. Good album.

Jack White: Boarding House Reach — It’s not all excellent, but it is so crazily heterogenous and energetic that it doesn’t matter. This is the album where Jack White finally embraces the digital, and it turns out not to actually affect his aesthetic all that much. This is as messy, weird and disjointed as any White Stripes album and also toes the same line between knowing ludicrousness and total sincerity. It’s a succinct demonstration that an artist is not defined by their chosen tools, but by their approach to them. Highlights include “Corporation,” which injects an unexpected dose of P-Funk into the record, “Ice Station Zebra,” which contains the much-complained-about rapping (as if we’ve forgotten that he did it on “Lazaretto” too and nobody minded), “Over and Over and Over,” which is the closest we come to a classic garage rock track, and “Respect Commander,” which does some intensely fun stuff with tempo adjustment, and “Get In the Mind Shaft,” which is probably the closest Jack White will ever get to making a Daft Punk song. His best work since Icky Thump. Freaky good fun.

J.S. Bach/John Eliot Gardiner, English Baroque Soloists et al: St. John Passion — It’s Easter. On Easter we listen to Bach. I’ve always preferred the St. John Passion to the St. Matthew, which I can never get all the way through. Where Matthew is mutedly passionate, John is explosive. The opening chorus is a particular favourite — one of the most openly dramatic things in Bach’s entire oeuvre. There’s nothing quite like a big, awesome choir making their first entrance with “HERR!! HERR!! HERR!!” Speaking of, the Monteverdi Choir are the true stars of this fantastic recording with Gardiner. Neither he nor they are afraid of “letting it rip,” as the kids are saying. The English Baroque Soloists play with a sense of individuality that befits their name. And the vocal soloists put in lovely performances, particularly Anthony Rolfe-Johnson in the often thankless role of the Evangelist. Have a listen. At least check out the choruses.

Podcasts

Retronauts: “Zork,” “EarthBound” & “Broderbund” — In my recently rediscovered enthusiasm for video games, I felt compelled to check out a couple things from the doubtless well-populated gaming podcast space. True to its name, Retronauts is a roundtable chat podcast that focuses on retrogaming. In general, I am a modern gaming person, but I played just enough games in my childhood that I can occasionally conjure some nostalgia for eras of gaming gone by. How surprised was I, then, to find that the most recent episode of Retronauts focussed on Broderbund, a company whose edutainment titles made up a big chunk of my early exposure to computers. This episode reminded me of the existence of Living Books, which I’d forgotten entirely, as well as The Print Shop and the Carmen Sandiego games, of which Where in Time is permanently imprinted on my DNA. The Zork episode is a fun exploration of that game, which I’ve put many hours into and never even really come close to beating. I do feel that the panel may have a limited experience of post-Infocom parser-based interactive fiction, in light of which Zork’s puzzles look counterintuitive and inexpert. The EarthBound episode is the one with the most difficult task, namely to say interesting things about a game about which there is little left to say. It’s probably the Super Nintendo equivalent of Bowie’s Low. Alas, much of the discussion focuses on the game’s music, which is deeply beside the point. Still, I’ll listen to more of this. They’ve got a rich back-catalogue with at least one thing I care about for every dozen that I don’t.

No Cartridge: “Desert of the Real Fictions” — The second gaming podcast I checked out this week is this loose conversation show hosted by a professor. A conversation between that professor, Trevor Strunk, and the developer of Night in the Woods, Scott Benson, is bound to be fun. This particularly focuses on the question raised by gamers who demand better endings from game developers — as if a game is something other than a thing made by a person, but rather a thing that exists whole in some other universe and has been dragged imperfectly into this one by a flawed human vessel. It shines a light on the ways in which a large swathe of the gaming hordes are substantially lacking in critical facility. A fun listen if you’re into that sort of thing.

On the Media: “Big, if True” — One of the best things about OTM is that it’s always there on the stories you need it for. The Cambridge Analytica story was one of those. This is as good an exploration of that as you could hope for.

Song by Song: “Bride of Rain Dog” & “Anywhere I Lay My Head” — I’ve enormously enjoyed this podcast’s breakdown of Rain Dogs. These final two episodes are the general summation you’d hope for. It’s all well that they chose to do that, since I’m really not sure there’s much to say about “Anywhere I Lay My Head” that it doesn’t say for itself. It is one of Tom Waits’s most poignant creations. I’ll be returning to this show for Frank’s Wild Years — my idiosyncratic favourite Tom Waits album, an opinion I know the panel does not share.

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — It came to pass that I agreed with Linda Holmes (and not Chris Klimek) on Isle of Dogs, a very problemsy movie. In other news, High Maintenance sounds not for me, Ready Player One sounds intensely not for me, and the SXSW wrap was sort of repetitive after hearing All Songs Considered’s coverage in its entirety.

Theory of Everything: “Utopia” parts iv and v — This hasn’t been my favourite mini-season in ToE’s history. But there’s much to enjoy here, in particular Andrew Calloway’s trip to a pagan utopia in part iv.

Imaginary Worlds: “Remembering Ursula K. Le Guin” & “Stuck in the Uncanny Valley” — The Le Guin episode is a good primer that I’ll look back to when I am in search of an SF novel to read. The uncanny valley is one of the better Imaginary Worlds episodes in a while, in no small part because it draws on Eric Molinsky’s expertise as a former animator.

The Memory Palace: “Outliers” & “A quick update and a bonus episode” — “Outliers” is a brief thing about the reasons why a person might decide to take part in a freak show in the 19th century. It is as compassionate and broad minded as you expect this show to be. Oddly, though, the bonus episode that follows it is almost better. It transitions seamlessly from being a bland housekeeping episode to being a really lovely tribute to Lavinia Dock, whose suffrage slogan, “the young are at the gates” is now being repurposed movingly as a slogan for the Never Again movement. This show is an ongoing miracle. Pick of the week.  

The Nod: “Peak Reality” & “Sister, Sister” — It’s been awhile since I listened to this. I heard a preview for “Sister, Sister” on another Gimlet show and figured I had to hear it. But first I listened to a completely different episode by mistake that turned out to be even better. “Peak Reality” finds Eric Eddings arguing to Brittany Luse that 2016 was the best year for reality television. There’s nothing like smart people talking about dumb things. As for “Sister, Sister,” it’s an interesting bit of family drama in which a producer finds out her sister doesn’t identify as black and is upset by this. Alas, the actual conversations with the sister in question make it plain immediately that this sister’s issue is simply that she is in college, with all of the attendant confusion. It’s less compelling than it might be.

Omnibus (week of March 18, 2018)

Can I just say for a second how good it is to be busy? Honest to god, it is so much easier to get up in the morning when you have a million things on the go. Consequently, I am happy to say this was yet another week during which I consumed not much more media than I produced. HOWEVER, I have also started running again, after a too-long hiatus. So that probably means the podcast count will go up again in coming weeks. We’ll see.

Seven reviews.

Television

Broadchurch: Season 1, episode 1 — Not for me, I’m afraid. Given all its ties to Doctor Who both previous and forthcoming, I was hoping to enjoy it. But nothing in this really lept out and convinced me it’s significantly different from any other cop show — save for its beautiful cinematography. But in the absence of an unconventional story or characters more defined than “brooding cop with a troubled, mysterious past,” I think I’ll leave it at this.

Movies

Best of Enemies — Anybody with any interest in the media at all should watch this deeply engaging documentary about ABC’s televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley in 1968. But even if you don’t have any particular interest in that, you should watch it anyway because these two are among the most interesting characters of their milieu, and this is ultimately a character-driven film. The debates, it must be said, were character-driven debates. It probably speaks to the film’s quality that I changed my mind halfway through as to whether the debates were actually a good idea. At first, I marvelled at the notion that there was a time when a major network would devote a significant amount of time to lofty discussions of the issues by people with a decidedly academic grasp of language. How our discourse has been degraded since then, I thought! But then I realized that these debates weren’t about the issues at all — they were two-way character assassinations motivated more by mutual loathing than by any principles at all. By the time Buckley delivers his famous rejoinder in which he threatens to punch Vidal in the face, you realize that you’re watching the invention of modern political discourse on tape. Also, this film contains footage of Buckley playing Bach on the harpsichord, badly. As if we needed more reasons to find him noxious. (The filmmakers get bonus points for pairing that footage with Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach, which came out in the year of the debates.)

What We Do In The Shadows — Taika Waititi is one of the funniest people alive. This isn’t entirely his movie, of course. He co-stars and co-directs with Jemaine Clement. But he steals every scene he’s in, right from the sublime opening, in which he floats out of a coffin and immediately grins goofily. You understand his character before he says a word. What We Do In The Shadows is consistently funny from start to finish. Every joke is contingent on the character speaking it, and the characters are all brilliant, so there are very few jokes that don’t land. (“Werewolves, not swearwolves” is a personal favourite that would not be funny in another context.) And there’s even a bit of heart. There are few things sadder than a vampire watching a video of a sunrise on YouTube.

Music

The Decemberists: I’ll Be Your Girl — Let’s start with the single. “Severed” was the first track I heard from I’ll Be Your Girl. That was before I knew it was produced by John Congleton, so it didn’t make a lick of sense. Once you know that, everything slides into place. Suddenly it’s hard not to hear it as a John Congleton song feat. Colin Meloy. You can even imagine Congleton singing it: lyrics like “I alone am the answer/I alone will make wrongs right/But in order to root out the cancer/It’s got to be kept from the sunlight” wouldn’t be out of place on Until the Horror Goes. Realizing this made something click into place for me that might otherwise have caused me to hate this album: for three albums now, the Decemberists’ goal has been to push the limits of what it means to be the Decemberists. (The Hazards of Love was pushing something, but it’s still resolutely in their Anglophilic comfort zone. So is The Queen of Hearts, for that matter.) I have had mixed opinions of how well this has worked. I adore The King is Dead and listen to it as often as the period classics from my high school days. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World didn’t do much for me because I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly it was trying to be. So far, I’ll Be Your Girl sits somewhere between those two poles, but an awful lot closer to the good end. Like The King is Dead, it has a clear premise. The King is Dead was a migration of the band’s folk influences from England back home to America. It was a revitalizing switch-up. I’ll Be Your Girl is an earnest attempt to merge Colin Meloy’s archaisms and affectations with John Congleton’s deranged postmodernism. Part of that attempt involves paring back Meloy’s trademark long-windedness to an uncompromising opposite extreme: several of these songs revolve around one or two key lines repeated at length. This too is revitalizing. Like The King is Dead, this album is a reminder not to only expect one thing from a band. I’ll remark on a few key tracks. “Severed” isn’t the only song that could belong on a Congleton solo record: “We All Die Young” is even more deranged, with Congleton’s signature rough drum sound and a children’s chorus shout-singing the title line as a call-and-response in the chorus. That’s a Congletonian touch if ever I’ve heard one — and a particularly disturbing one in light of the recent school shootings and protests against gun violence. It steps right up to the line of being tasteless, but manages to land on haunting instead. Also: when I said that “Severed” was the first track from the album I heard, that’s not strictly true. It was the first recording from the album I heard. But I heard the Decemberists do “Everything is Awful” and “Sucker’s Prayer” in concert last year. Coming off the disappointment of Terrible/Beautiful, they were a ray of hope for the future. The former is an instant classic. Calling it plainspoken would be an understatement: it consists almost entirely of its title and a wordless singalong outro. Set to a chipper acoustic accompaniment that morphs into stadium rock over the course of three minutes, it is a perfect evocation of what it’s like to hate everything while trying to maintain your sense of humour. On that note: I’ll Be Your Girl is Colin Meloy’s most openly depressive album to date, and also the one where his debt to Morrissey is most pronounced. “For Once In My Life” is nearly a rewrite of “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want.” And like Morrissey, when Meloy writes about depression, he does so with the self-awareness of an elderly man and the overwrought drama of a teenager. “I wanna love somebody, but I don’t know how,” he sings on “Sucker’s Prayer,” before throwing all that self-knowledge away with the line “I wanna throw my body in the river and drown.” None of this is what you’d expect from the Colin Meloy of “The Infanta” or “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” And that’s fine. But there is one thing here for the Picaresque and Crane Wife crowd. “Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes” is a prog folk epic in the vein of “The Bagman’s Gambit” or “The Island.” It’s nice that it’s there, but it’s frankly not one of the best tracks on the album. And that’s maybe the most encouraging thing: where Terrible/Beautiful made me long for the Decemberists of old (ye olde Decemberists), I’ll Be Your Girl makes me confident that while they can still do what they used to do, they’re now actually better at doing something else entirely. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Notes on Germany and the War” — Not everything in this collection of Borges’ writings against the Nazis has aged perfectly, but it’s worth reading for the general thrust of his arguments about the people who support fascism implicitly without realizing it. It also contains this peal of slightly petulant but sympathetic wisdom: “the true intellectual refuses to take part in contemporary debates: reality is always anachronous.”

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: SXSW Late Night Dispatches, recap, and New Music Friday: March 16 — I’m always a fan of All Songs’ SXSW coverage. Points out a bunch of stuff I need to check out. But frankly, there are too many recent and upcoming releases from artists I’m already invested in that I doubt I’ll get to any of it soon. The recap episode is the most useful for actually finding new music. But even without actual music, the late night dispatches are great radio featuring a group of people who are as overstimulated as it is possible to get while also being sober. Plus, this was the first New Music Friday episode I’ve heard, which is a fun feature. I’m glad I put this show back in my regular rotation. It is as useful as it is fun. Pick of the week.

99% Invisible catch-up — The most recent five episodes of 99pi is a pretty strong run — as is appropriate, given that they’re coming up to their 300th episode. Imagine. Specifically, the two-parter on the Bijlmer is outstanding. The Bijlmer was a neighborhood built by modernists that fell into disrepair almost immediately. It’s a great story. It was also nice to revisit episode 200, “Miss Manhattan.” I don’t remember it being a favourite the first time around, but maybe I was distracted. It’s lovely. Next week, the big three-oh-oh, and an appraisal of how the show’s been since the epoch-defining Kickstarter that allowed it to expand its team to the extent that it now has.