Tag Archives: Achewood

Omnibus (weeks of Apr. 22 & 29)

I’ve been away for a week, and that always throws off my schedule here. So, we’ve got two weeks worth of reviews, and they are ALL OVER THE PLACE.

I think I’m actually proud of this particular Omnibus. There’s a lot going on here. There’s opera and paintings and other hoity-toity shit like that. There’s the new Avengers. There’s a pair of films about rock and roll, and a pair of albums by a band I’m currently obsessed with. There’s stuff that made me laugh. There’s a weird game. And there are not so many podcasts as to tip the balance away from the other stuff. I think this may be good. Anyway, it was fun.

I will also take this opportunity to direct you to the Tumblr associated with this blog, in case you would like a more media-rich experience that also includes paragraph breaks. Paragraph breaks are good, but we have a house style here and some rules are not made to be broken. Even when the paragraphs clearly are. I think the Tumblr may be particularly advisable in the case of the Vancouver Art Gallery entry, because pictures. Regardless of your choice, enjoy.

Does three picks of the week sound reasonable? I think that sounds reasonable.

20 reviews.

Events

Gaetano Donizetti: Anna Bolena (Canadian Opera Company) — I only had time to take in one show while I was in Toronto. It might have been a hard choice if Sondra Radvanovsky hadn’t been singing at the COC. That made it damn easy. I’ll be honest: I don’t like Donizetti. I don’t find his music memorable, and the librettos in these Tudor operas make me cringe. But in this case, that didn’t matter at all, because I was in this for Radvanovsky specifically, and she was magnificent. She’s a singing actor who puts intensity front and centre, in the tradition of Maria Callas — except, in my opinion, with a more innately attractive voice than Callas. And intensity is what you need for Bolena, a role that encompasses imperiousness, regret, madness, spite, and maybe love. Radvanovsky’s Bolena seems ready to spit in the king’s eye at any moment — a dramatic task made easier by baritone Christian Van Horn, who plays Enrico (Henry) VIII as a louche slimeball with no sense of his own hypocrisy. Van Horn and Radvanovsky have that delicious dynamic of intense loathing that’s hard to come by outside of the Lannisters on Game of Thrones. Remarkably, soprano Keri Alkema holds her own alongside Radvanovsky. The role of Giovanna Seymour is intrinsically less interesting than the role of Bolena, even if she does get some nice coloratura stuff to sing. Seymour is merely a lover — and a tediously sincere one at that, who knows Enrico is objectively horrible and loves him anyway. Bolena’s concerns are more complex: she wants power, and she’s concerned about her legacy. There’s a great love in her past, but when she looks back on it fondly, you get the sense that she’s really just regretting the pickle she’s gotten herself into by marrying such a terrible man. But it’s precisely this contrast between the two characters that makes Radvanovsky and Alkema so effective together. They understand that relationship completely. Of the smaller roles, Allyson McHardy stands out in the pants role of Smeton, a character whose only narrative purpose is to drive the tiresome intrigues that are a mandatory part of all bel canto opera. What the character lacks in narrative interest, McHardy compensates for with wonderful singing. If I haven’t made it clear already, this is a very well-directed production. Even though the libretto (or at least its translation) is made up exclusively of things that nobody would ever say, the actors commit. And their understanding of the relationships that underpin the drama goes some distance to papering over the weakness of the text. The set is spectacular without being overbearing. It is essentially a Jacob’s ladder of connected, tall wood panels that can slide back and forth across the stage to produce the impression of intimate spaces when they’re close to the audience and grand spaces when they’re far back. They can become corridors and gates. It’s nifty. It also aids the drama: Bolena’s chambers seem tiny and claustrophobic, while Enrico seems particularly frightening slouched on a throne in the middle of a huge, empty stage. Director Stephen Lawless and set designer Benoit Durgardyn have done well, here. I enormously enjoyed this. I still think it’s a dumb opera, but it hardly seems to matter. (Okay, fine, “Al dolce guidami” is gorgeous.)

A visit to the Vancouver Art Gallery (April 24, 2018) — As I’m writing this, it has been nearly two weeks since the visit in question, and the network of connections and ideas that formed in my head as I traversed the five exhibitions present at the time has largely disintegrated. But I did see a bunch of art that’s stuck with me and will continue to. So I’m just going to rattle some of it off. The reason I was at the gallery was that it was my last chance to see Takashi Murakami’s retrospective exhibition “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg.” Given what a hit it’s been, I figured I’d see it last, so as not to be completely underwhelmed by the rest of the art in the gallery. In practice, I think the opposite happened. I was at the VAG for more than four hours. By the end of that, I was completely overstimulated and my brain was having trouble processing images. That’s not the state you want to be in when you walk into a whole floor of brightly coloured, enormously detailed, narratively complicated art with influences ranging from ancient Japanese painting to Instagram. I’ve never seen Picasso’s Guernica or Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights in person, but I imagine that some of Murakami’s most gigantic paintings rival those works for sheer impact of spectacle. Seeing Tan Tan Bo Puking on a screen or an advertisement makes it look like a comics splash page or a Roger Dean album cover: you may be drawn in by its whimsy and impressed by its minute detail, but you’re unlikely to be overwhelmed. Seeing it in person is overwhelming because it is seven metres long. I have no idea what, if anything, it is meant to convey. But it doesn’t seem to matter because the spectacle is so effective. That’s a reasonable summary of my whole experience with the Murakami exhibit. I wish I could see pieces like 100 Arhats or Dragon in Clouds again while not being quite so spent, because they require a lot of energy. Knowing that I would need at least a fragment of my energy left for Murakami, I breezed through the small exhibition on the fourth floor somewhat inattentively. In addition to the traditional selection of Emily Carr paintings (which I never tire of), the VAG was showing some prints of photographs by Mattie Gunterman, a photographer born in 1872 who walked six hundred miles with her husband to get to B.C. to mine for silver. Seeing her photographs alongside Carr’s famous forest pictures made perfect sense, prompting me to go “ah” as I slingshotted around this floor and headed for Murakami. This brings us to “Bombhead,” maybe my favourite exhibition I saw on this visit. It’s a selection of art and artefacts focussed around the idea of nuclear disaster, curated by John O’Brian. It’s accompanied by a nifty little booklet designed in the style of Canadian nuclear survival guides that were published in the 50s and 60s. The exhibition takes its title from a Bruce Conner picture that sets the tone for the whole thing: the nuclear age is a void too dark to stare into, so we resort to whimsy. Accordingly, the exhibition is exhausting and marvellous. I spent more time than I needed to in an alcove, watching an old Cold War era documentary called The Atomic Cafe, while a Globe and Mail story about Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un loomed over me. I stared at a wall lined with photographs from Robert del Tredici’s epochal book At Work in the Fields of the Bomb. I surveyed unexpected images of nuclear detonations in popular culture. And I nearly barfed at the power of Nancy Spero’s bomb paintings. It’s a bonkers experience that feels terrifyingly relevant. The fallout from “Bombhead” seems to be drifting downwards to the lower floors of the VAG. Murakami’s exhibition is also concerned with the literal and figurative flattening of Japan by a nuclear bomb. And World War II looms large in the focus of “Living, Building, Thinking,” an exhibition of expressionist art building from the collection of McMaster University. I love expressionism. I do not know art, but this is where I live. This exhibition shuffles the entire history of expressionism and its influence around so that the expected wartime Germans rub shoulders with contemporary Canadians and others. Walking in, you’re greeted by Yggdrasil: an oppressive, overwhelming painting by the German painter Anselm Kiefer, who was born just as WWII ended. That sets the tone nicely. Shortly thereafter, we see Canadian painter Tony Sherman’s Poseidon, which stares bleakly at us from a sea of drab dribbles. At that point, we’re well prepared for an intensely German freakout by Jörg Immendorff and a moving work by the Montreal-based painter Leopold Plotek called Master of the Genre of Silence, depicting the Soviet journalist Isaac Babel being interrogated. But the real heart of the exhibition is a whole room full of wartime lithographs and etchings by Nazi-persecuted artists like Max Beckmann, Hermann Max Pechstein and Frans Masereel. Pechstein’s multi-part illustration of the Lord’s Prayer is the absolute highlight of the exhibit, and even more modest works like Beckmann’s The Draughtsman in Society and Masereel’s wordless graphic novel Passionate Journey have incredible power in their simplicity and expressiveness. I’ll explore all three of these artists in greater depth. We’ve been working backwards through my visit to the VAG, so we’ve now finally arrived at the beginning. The expressionism exhibition shares a floor with another one taken from the collection at McMaster, this one containing art that was donated by the private collector Herman Levy. With all due respect, I do not care about Mr. Levy, no matter how hard the annotations in this exhibition try to make me. However, he doubtless had excellent taste in art, and I totally enjoyed seeing some great works by Monet and Pissarro in the comfort of my own city. I enjoyed noticing for the first time that painters sometimes convey the motion of water by actually thickening the layers of paint on the ripples. And I definitely enjoyed being introduced to the work of George Braque and Roderic O’Conor, who I was previously unfamiliar with. You know what, I like art. Art is good. This was a fun afternoon. Also, during the course of my visit, two different people stopped to look at a fire extinguisher and jokingly said “so beautiful” to their friends. I wonder if that joke happens every day. Pick of the week.

Movies

Avengers: Infinity War — It is without a doubt the mostest movie I’ve seen this year. Avengers: Infinity War is a big fun spectacle that I had a great time watching. And it embodies all the best and worst tendencies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in one movie. Weirdly, I think a useful way to look at this movie is in comparison with Game of Thrones. I’ll tell you why, and I’ll do so with no spoilers. Relax. The key question for me going into Infinity War is how the hell they’d be able to juggle all of these characters and still maintain a semblance of a cohesive story. The answer turns out to be that they structure it like an episode of GoT, which famously encompasses a vast range of characters and settings. Your standard episode of GoT pushes several independent stories forward at once, each of them linked to the others only in the sense that viewers are aware of the complex web of familial relationships and power dynamics that relates them. Tune into a random episode, and it might feel like you’re watching five different medieval soaps. Infinity War is structured much the same way, with characters from various bits of the MCU grouped off and pursuing stories independently of the others. But unlike GoT, this movie’s characters are pulled from separate franchises, some of which have drastically different tones than the rest. It’s great fun to see a Spider-Man school bus scene that could come straight out of Homecoming bump up against big silly Guardians of the Galaxy space opera scenes and climactic battles in Wakanda. If Infinity War operated along the same lines as the first two Avengers movies, with its cast largely concentrated on one threat in one area, it would be impossible. But the GoT approach makes it surprisingly fleet-footed. You can quibble with the underrepresentation of certain favourite characters (for many, Black Panther; for me, Hulk). But in a movie with a gazillion superheroes, this is inevitable. Infinity War strikes that balance more deftly than anybody could have hoped. (But seriously, though: when are we going to get a Mark Ruffalo-starring Hulk movie? That’s maybe my favourite performance in the whole MCU, and he’s only ever been a side-character.) The other way in which Game of Thrones can help inform a viewing of Infinity War is less flattering to the latter. GoT is famous for killing off major characters at the drop of a hat. So as not to spoil too much, I will only say that Infinity War also has a body count. But the funding models of these respective franchises prevent us from looking at them the same way. GoT can kill off characters and twist the plot around in crazy ways because its viewers are invested in a brand called “Game of Thrones” which will endure regardless until the story’s done. This is how television works. Infinity War, on the other hand, can’t easily kill anybody important off permanently because the MCU is a blockbuster movie generator buoyed by big, bankable characters. There is no end in sight to the overarching storyline of the MCU, and the brands that draw audiences in are “Spider-Man,” “Iron Man,” “Captain America,” and so forth. You can’t kill these characters because the characters themselves are brands. The brands need to stay alive if they can make money. In GoT, Tyrion Lannister is not a brand. He’s arguably a selling point for the show, but nobody’s tuning into a show called Tyrion. They’re watching Game of Thrones. These cold hard facts of capitalism are impossible to ignore while watching Infinity War, and they seriously undercut what would otherwise be some deeply affecting moments. Basically, I liked Infinity War. It’s a big, silly action movie. The villain is undercooked, and some of it is boring because of underdeveloped relationships. But it’s fun, and I don’t mind that it made a billion dollars.

Deconstructing the Beatles: The White Album — I went to this screening at the Rio expecting something else. This is a film of a multimedia lecture given by the Beatles scholar Scott Freimann. Freimann himself was in attendance, so I thought we’d actually be getting a live rendition of the multimedia lecture captured on the film. Still, the film was worth seeing, and it was fun to be able to ask Freimann questions after the fact. He’s been doing this whole series of lecture films on the Beatles, including ones on Sgt. Pepper, Rubber Soul, and Revolver. This particular film on the White Album covers the usual beats associated with that album — the move away from psychedelia, the trip to India, Yoko, George Martin getting fed up and leaving, Ringo getting fed up and leaving — but it also highlights the musical consequences of those events in a way that taught me a lot. I’m always worried going into a Beatles-related thing that I won’t learn anything. Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison documentary fell into that category. But this didn’t. It’s worth seeing for Freimann’s breakdowns of the multi-track recordings alone. Who knew the vibrato on Clapton’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” solo was done by manipulating the tape machine? Sounds like a whammy bar, but it isn’t. There are gems o’plenty along those lines in this. I’m curious to see the others, and may well do.

The Fearless Freaks — I’ve seen a ton of rock documentaries, and I’m not sure that any of them capture the spirit of the band they document quite as well as this one. Director Bradley Beesley had known and worked with the Flaming Lips for years by the time this was finished, and it allowed him to get footage of them that feels like genuine fly-on-the-wall material, rather than just relying on talking heads like most rock docs do. It also helps that Beesley directed a bunch of Flaming Lips music videos, so he’s a person who actually contributed to their iconic visual aesthetic, which is represented here in spades — it’s a hectic, fast-edited movie full of overwhelming colour. Except for when it’s in black and white. Honestly, the black and white footage is nutty because watching it is almost exactly the same as watching black and white footage of the early Pink Floyd. Without the beard, Wayne Coyne even looks a bit like Syd Barrett. A lot changed between the late 60s and the early 90s. But the appeal of getting high and making loud noises on guitars evidently did not. What I did not expect was that Coyne is not the highlight of the film. He’s a compelling live performer, no doubt. But this movie makes it entirely clear that his key virtue is being incredibly hardworking. That’s admirable, but not super interesting. The hero of this movie is Steven Drozd, the band’s once-heroin-addicted drummer/guitarist/keyboardist/pantomath. Drozd is a naturally lucid talker, to the point where Beesley can even have a frank conversation with him while he shoots up. This scene is the cornerstone of the film, but it doesn’t feel voyeuristic at all, given the obvious trust that exists between the two people. The key tension in the movie comes from the fact that Drozd is the most talented musician in the Flaming Lips, and Wayne Coyne is well aware that the band’s sound depends on a guy who could die at any moment. I don’t know the Flaming Lips’ music very well, but this is a great primer on their story.

Music

The Flaming Lips: Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots — The first time I listened to this I was really distracted. My review at the time said that “I generally find myself wishing that the fun spacey sounds and weird beats would occasionally also yield to a nice melody or a good lyric.” Did I just flat out fall asleep during “In the Morning of the Magicians?” That is a serious melody. Where was I right at the top of “Fight Test?” That’s a melody so good it’s actually by Cat Stevens. And as for lyrics, you can’t beat “you realize the sun don’t go down, it’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning round.” This is every bit the album I didn’t used to think it was.

The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin — My second foray into the Lips discography, and the one that’s going to end up cementing me as a fan. This album is gorgeous. It has just enough of the archness I know from Yoshimi and the smattering of earlier Flaming Lips stuff I’ve heard to keep it from being tedious. But Wayne Coyne and co. seem much more concerned here with producing a thing of beauty rather than a thing that’s just fun. “A Spoonful Weighs a Ton” strikes the perfect balance between preening Broadway balladry and cheap, janky indie rock. The song itself is grandiose and cathartic, but it’s clothed in bad orchestral synths and Wayne Coyne’s detuned bleat. It’s perfect. I love every song on this. The ones I keep going back to are “Buggin’,” which is a very unexpected summer jam about mosquitoes, “The Spark That Bled,” which goes off madly in every direction, “The Gash,” which is psychedelic gospel music, and “Waiting for a Superman,” which is one of those songs that made me regret not being close to a piano right when I first heard it. I don’t know why it took me so long to get to this, but it’s one of my favourite musical discoveries I’ve had recently. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc.

E.H. Gombrich: The Story of Art — What book should I take on the plane, I asked myself. Maybe Moby-Dick, so it won’t take you a whole year to get through it? Or possibly something light, both physically and figuratively? You know, airplane reading? No, I said to myself. What you need to take on the plane is this hardback brick of a book about the history of visual art from prehistoric times through the 20th century. That is what you will enjoy. And you know what? I DID. I have only gotten up to the Renaissance so far, but this book is 100 percent living up to its reputation as a clear and lucid introduction to art with a layout that encourages you to look at the pictures discussed with a fresh eye. I’m learning so much — like, I didn’t realize that the reason Ancient Egyptian art looks like that is because they were trying, Picasso style, to show the whole of a thing from one angle. Nor did I realize how long it took for painters to devise a way to show an image from a perspective that makes it look lifelike. These are things I just took for granted. Thank you, Dr. Gombrich. I look forward to learning more.

Chris Onstad: Achewood — My plan for Achewood reading going forward is to read a year’s worth of the comics followed by a year’s worth of the affiliated blogs until I’m done. It’s too tedious to keep up with the blogs as I’m reading the comic, but I’ve realized that they are an essential part of the Achewood experience. If you’re unfamiliar, Chris Onstad wrote a series of in-character blogs for the various personages that populate his webcomic. Together, they expand the universe by a fair margin. And more than that, they provide Onstad with a more flexible platform to explore the language of his characters. Everybody in Achewood talks in their own particular way, and the blogs reflect that. Given that, some of them are virtually unreadable. Lyle’s blog is a tragically garbled account of life as an unrepentant blackout drunk. Little Nephew’s is an admirably committed performance of teenage affectation. Both are nearly as challenging as some chapters of Ulysses, or at least A Clockwork Orange. Molly’s is problematic for a different reason, namely that her entire identity revolves around her boyfriend. But aside from these, the blogs are a pleasure, and they add layers upon layers to the comic. If you noticed that Cornelius had been absent from the strip for a while, you might well take to his blog to see where he’s been. Sure enough, he’s in Russia, attempting to seduce an Olympian. (Cornelius’s blog contains my absolute favourite post I’ve read so far, which is this.) The other standout is Nice Pete’s blog, which contains a serialized novel of such derangement that your laughter is almost defensive. A sample: “Eustace ducked into the bathroom six seconds later. Six seconds is the amount of time it takes a man to really get into a good pee. He knew that Dimitri would be focused on the pleasure of his peeing sensation, and that he could have his way.”

Comedy

John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City — Mulaney remains the comic with the highest batting average. His two previous specials are both brilliant and this one keeps the pace. It’s a bigger venue (it’s Radio goddamn City Music Hall), and Mulaney is accordingly more physical. But his jokes are still things of immense precision. I’ve been off learning about how to write better for the radio for the last week. Radio producers would do well to listen to Mulaney’s writing. It is everything that is good in writing. If you are a radio producer and you are reading this, I specifically recommend the bit about Stranger Danger. It is a well-oiled machine of perfect construction. Also, this has a live appearance by Jon Brion playing Radio City’s weird old organ. He closes Mulaney’s set with Nirvana’s “Lithium,” which he’s talked about at length in interviews. That’s fun.

Games

OFF — I was listening to a recent episode of the podcast No Cartridge and this weird French indie game came up as a point of contrast with EarthBound, which I love. So, I downloaded it — for free; it is a non-commercial release. And I could not run it without it freezing constantly. But I was compelled enough by it to want to see it in some form anyway, so I watched a three-hour playthrough on YouTube. I wish I could have played it myself, because watching somebody else play a turn-based RPG isn’t the best experience. Still, I think I got a sense of the story and feel of OFF, and it is a hell of a thing. Firstly, it came out in 2008, before the recent pileup of recursive, meta indie games (The Stanley Parable, Device 6, Stories Untold, Pony Island, etc., etc., etc.). Nowadays, it’s par for the course for an indie game to put forth a Borgesian transgression of the boundary between fiction and reality, but it doesn’t seem to me that this was the case in 2008. Given all the praise that was quite deservedly heaped upon Undertale, which is also a deeply meta game with a fairly explicit debt to EarthBound, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was the first game to really question the mechanics of a video game in that particular way. But OFF did something remarkably similar, long before. That doesn’t lessen Undertale’s accomplishment — it is, execution-wise, by far the better game. But it does demonstrate how ahead of its time OFF was. In this game, you control a character known only as the Batter (seemingly a reference to Ness’s weapon of choice in EarthBound, though apparently the creator of the game denies this). The Batter is aware that he is being controlled by a puppeteer he cannot see — the player; you. At least one of the other characters in the game, a grotesque cat called the Judge, is aware of this as well and often addresses the player directly. This one idea — that the player character of OFF is aware of the player — completely changes the dynamic of the game, relative to your standard old-school game. Where a character like Ness or Link looks like a hero moving actively through the world and overcoming obstacles, the Batter comes off as a ruthless inquisitor. He kills because it is inevitable that he must kill, because that is why we are playing the game. Again, this is expressed more subtly in Undertale, but OFF has more going on that just that theme. Its final stage is a creepy masterpiece of bizarre reiterations and echoes. At one point, you have to navigate several different versions of a room by using a fake version of the menu screen. That’s very nearly an Undertale idea. I enjoyed this a lot. I only wish I could have actually played it.

Podcasts

On The Media: “Moving Beyond the Norm” & “Dog Whistle” — Two good episodes with some great segments between them. Highlights include a Ken Kesey retrospective, a piece on the history of self-immolation, and two bits of metacriticism on Roseanne and The Simpsons — the latter featuring Hari Kondabolu. So yeah, it’s On the Media.

The Daily: “Friday, Apr. 20, 2018,” “Tuesday April 24, 2018” & “Friday, April, 27, 2018” — Wow, I’ve been away from this blog a while. The first of these is Michael Barbaro’s excellent interview with James Comey, which is the best of the many Comey-related things I listened to during Comey Week. Remember Comey Week? The media declared Comey Week, a couple weeks ago. It was all really interesting. But Barbaro’s interview is the best one because he focussed specifically on the idea of ego, and whether that character trait might have a lot to do with the decisions Comey made during the 2016 presidential election campaign. He denies this, and argues persuasively against it, but it’s interesting to hear how hard he has to work at it. The second is a fascinating look at a story that had nothing to do with the news cycle we’re constantly bombarded by: a Hong Kong bookseller suddenly disappeared and all hell broke loose. It’s an incredible story. The third is the Cosby episode. It’s also good.

No Cartridge: “Videogames’ Citizen Kane w/David ‘TheBeerNerd’ Eisenberg” — This is a conversation about EarthBound, a game I love and am endlessly fascinated by, and OFF, a game I had never heard of but have now watched a full playthrough of in the absence of a download that will run properly on my computer. It’s a fun conversation, but both of those games are sort of self-explanatory, and I’m not sure this really enlivened my thinking about either. But it did bring OFF to my attention, and I’m grateful for that.

Code Switch: “Members of Whose Tribe?” & “It’s Bigger Than The Ban” — Here we have a pair of episodes taking the long view of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in America. These are both things you should hear. Start with the anti-Semitism one because it is SUPER complicated, even by this show’s standards.

99% Invisible: “Gander International Airport” & “The Hair Chart” — The Gander airport episode is maybe one of my favourite things this show has ever done. I am intensely prejudiced about this, mind you, because one side of my family is from very near Gander and I grew up flying into the Gander airport to visit them. Nowadays the St. John’s airport has taken precedence, but I’m happy that the Gander airport’s foyer is still considered a modernist landmark. I’ll be honest though: the fact that it was considered that was a surprise to me. It’s one of those things you come to take for granted. Actually, there’s a lot of stuff in this episode that I was really surprised to learn for the first time in a podcast. I would have expected somebody in my family to have told me the story of Fidel Castro going sledding in Gander, but they did not. Thank god for Roman Mars. “The Hair Chart” is a really good episode too, about the endlessly complicated issue of how hair products are marketed to black people. Pick of the week.

Caliphate: “Recruitment” — Here we have the New York Times’ top ISIS reporter interviewing a guy who was recruited into ISIS. It is enlightening.

Theory of Everything: “Fake Nudes (False Alarm! Part ii)” — This series exploring fake news through the medium of fake news continues to be bewildering, clever, and one of my favourite things that any podcaster is doing right now.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Avengers: Infinity War and What’s Making Us Happy” & “Scandal” — Well Scandal sounds like a whole thing. If it was your thing, I’m sad for you that it ended badly. The Avengers episode is pretty much bang on. It’s one of those movies that it’s hard to have an original thought about because its virtues and problems are so self-evident.

All Songs Considered: “Swan Songs: Music For Your Final Exit” — As I finally come to the end of two weeks worth of review writing, I remember that the proximate cause of my Flaming Lips wormhole was a coincidence: I played one of their songs with a friend at a party one night, and woke up the next day to find “Do You Realize?” in this mix of funeral songs. It’s a maudlin premise, but there’s some good music here.

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Omnibus (week of Jan 14, 2018)

I’ve had a big week for wasting time, and also a big week for getting stuff done that allows me to also listen to stuff simultaneously. You may enjoy the fruits of my labours below.

25 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Chris Onstad: Achewood — It’s been ages, but I went back to Achewood this week and fell right back in. I got the the end of 2004 in the comics, which was also the year when Onstad started writing in-character blogs as all of the major characters. I’m making my way through the first year of those now, because what’s a rabbit hole if you only go halfway down? The blogs are interesting because they’re less explicitly comedic than the strips are. They’re basically sincere character studies where every single character seems unique and well-rounded. That makes them a bit of a mixed bag. Ray’s blog, for instance, is intermittently insufferable because Ray is a rich asshole whose life is a fantasy from a men’s magazine. Seen from a third-person perspective, this is always funny. But when it comes straight from him, it can be rough going because he’s less ridiculous when seen through his own eyes. But the blog never drifts out of character, which is a testament to what a fantastic writer Chris Onstad is. Other characters fare better. I’m particularly fond of Pat’s blog, because Pat is the least sympathetic character in the strip, and thus the most likely to have a completely insufferable blog. So the very existence of the thing is a joke in itself. Also, it features a plotline in which Pat attempts to place the mailman under citizen’s arrest because in Pat’s crazed worldview, junk mail constitutes litter. Achewood is a marvel. It’s a whole universe. I love it.

Movies

The Shape of Water — I’ve always loved Guillermo del Toro as a visual stylist, but the only movie of his that really stuck with me for some time after I watched it was Pan’s Labyrinth. I think what I liked about it was that it presents a very simple metaphor about childhood trauma and takes for granted that you’ll pick up on it. So, it just focuses on telling a story and, even more crucially, presenting a cavalcade of memorable and distressing images. The Shape of Water is much the same. It is not a subtle movie. It finds del Toro wielding Michael Shannon like a bludgeon. More troublingly, it also finds him casting Octavia Spencer as a walking trope, which, ugh. That makes the movie’s central civil rights metaphor a tad less resonant. But all of the stuff that del Toro packs around that metaphor is really marvellous. Maybe the best light to see the movie in is as a tribute to the romances of golden-age Hollywood. Del Toro has always been a film geek first, a storyteller second. And this movie finds him geeking out not only about monster movies, which is his perpetual obsession, but also with musicals and melodrama. And look: there are days when I’m a chilly aesthete, and there are days when I’m totally on board for a musical monster melodrama. This hit me on one of the latter kinds of days.

Coco — I don’t much like to cry in public, so there were some uncomfortable moments in this. *sniff* Coco has one of the most satisfying narrative switcheroos I’ve seen in a while. If you’ve seen it, you know the one. It’s a late-game reveal that I genuinely did not see coming, which is also the element the film’s emotional impact hangs on. Where Inside Out’s effect comes from a sustained melancholy, Coco’s comes from a single surprise gut punch. And what a gut punch it is. I don’t like this quite as much as Inside Out or WALL-E, which remain my two favourite Pixar movies. (Were they this good when I was an actual child??) But Coco goes beyond those movies in a couple of ways. First off, it takes place partially in a convincing (according to my Mexican friend) version of small-town Mexico. Its visual style is a pretty brilliant amalgam of Mexican art and architecture with Pixar’s usual fantastical whimsy. Once the movie finds its way to the land of the dead, it really turns into a visual marvel. And it’s not just the setting — it gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that most of its characters are skeletons and can thus be deconstructed and rearranged at will. There’s a character in this, Hector, who is maybe the closest any animator has gotten to the genie in Aladdin in the past ten years. Story-wise, the tension that drives Coco is the same as in Ratatouille: there’s a kid who wants to be an artist but his family forbids it. But where Ratatouille portrays its protagonist’s family as mere philistines, Coco manages to find a reason why they act like they do that makes them sort of sympathetic. I think that points to a way that children movies have matured since I was a kid: there doesn’t have to be an obvious villain anymore. Coco does have a villain, but for the bulk of the movie the key antagonists are the hero’s own family, who basically have some version of his best interest at heart. This is much more subtle than The Lion King. This is charming. And I’ll note one final detail: the town it takes place in is called Santa Cecilia. Cecilia is the patron saint of music in Catholicism, and thus a significant symbolic figure in this story. Nothing’s an accident in a Pixar movie.

Music

Gustav Mahler/Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic Orchestra et al.: Symphony No. 3 — Man, it’s probably been five years since I listened to this. Famously long, obviously. But when you’re sitting at home with a glass of Petite Sirah (I am a caricature of myself) and a few open browser tabs, it flies right by. The scherzo is one of my favourite movements in Mahler’s whole oeuvre. I remember learning the offstage trumpet parts back when that was a sort of thing I did, and for all of their endurance challenges, they are some of the most satisfying orchestral excerpts I ever had to practice. There’s a haunting delicacy to that section that’s the sort of thing only Mahler can muster. This isn’t altogether one of my favourite Mahler symphonies, but even his lesser works are essential, to me. And that scherzo. Man oh man.

Bruce Springsteen: The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle — I think I prefer this to Darkness on the Edge of Town. I definitely prefer it to The River. Elements of it feel in retrospect like a warm-up for Born to Run, but it has an unexpected soul element that Springsteen wouldn’t really revisit after this. And I like that facet of this record. Much of the credit should likely go to David Sancious, a marvellous keyboardist who makes his final E Street Band appearance here, to be replaced by the equally brilliant but totally different Roy Bittan. Sancious is all kinds of funky throughout. “The E Street Shuffle” is a truly rollicking opener, and it’s the sort of thing that just wouldn’t fly on either of Springsteen’s next two albums. It’s got the requisite keen observational poetry, but it’s just too… fun for Born to Run or Darkness. Pete Townshend once said “When Bruce Springsteen sings, that’s not ‘fun.’ That’s fucking triumph.” It’s presumably those two albums, and Born to Run in particular, that he was talking about. The element of that classic style that E Street Shuffle is missing on about half of its songs is the profound romance — the seriousness. And while that makes it a less effective album, it also makes it a fundamentally different one, which can serve a different purpose in your rotation. On the other hand, if you’re worn out on “Jungleland” and “Backstreets,” “Incident on 57th Street” and “New York City Serenade” can easily fill in for them.

Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska — I can see myself coming to like this Springsteen album best of all. The guts it takes to make a record like this at that point in a career, I tell you. He’d just had his first major hit with “Hungry Heart,” and he comes back with an album of what were meant to be demos of almost unrelentingly bleak songs. But even that doesn’t quite get to the gutsiness of this release: try and think of a solo artist whose sound is more dependent on their band than Bruce Springsteen. The E Street Band is a way bigger part of their particular equation than, say, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was of theirs. And yet this album happened. Thank god Columbia Records had the guts to let it happen, too. Because, different as it is from everything else in his imperial phase, Nebraska has a delicate beauty that makes it stand up alongside Born to Run in terms of its ability to connect. Its palate of mostly acoustic guitar with a few ornamentations and a generous dollop of reverb reminds me of the first Bon Iver album, except made in 1982. My personal highlights are “Highway Patrolman,” which has a gorgeous melody and lyrics that compel you to actively listen to the story, and “Reason to Believe,” which may only feel as strong as it does because it’s positioned at the end of the album. After so many stories of hardship and wrongdoing, it’s nice to hear Springsteen sing about people’s tendency to keep their chin up in spite of it. I’m still processing this. I can tell I’ll be listening to it a lot.

Television

The Good Place: Every episode thus far — Look, I had some spare time this week, and not a lot of willpower to be productive. It’s been a dog’s age since I had a good long binge, so I binged on this. I am a big fan of Michael Schur, primarily because of Parks and Rec: a show that was one of television’s greatest joke factories, and also had a cast of characters it’s almost dangerously easy to get invested in. The Good Place is an astonishing show, but for neither of those reasons. The Good Place is the first television comedy I’ve watched entirely out of interest in the story. I’m not sure I’ve watched a show whose fundamental rules change as often as this one’s. Maybe Lost. But I’d wager that the twists-per-minute ratio of this show is even higher. I’m going to leave it there. If you’re thinking about watching this, watch it. Don’t read anything more about it, just watch it. If you don’t find it funny, just keep watching it. You will eventually realize there’s a sort of virtuosic storytelling at work here that is incredibly rare in TV comedy. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

Love and Radio: “The Machine” & “The Secrets Hotline, Vol. II” — The secrets episode is much the same as the first one, which is to say it’s a bunch of secrets told anonymously on an answering machine. It’s great. “The Machine” is a really great story about a guy who bulldozed a bunch of his town before committing suicide, and managed to be remembered as some kind of hero. Being the show that this is, nothing is allowed to be that simple. It’s great.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Levee Stream Live from New Orleans” — A live episode consisting of interviews taking place in the seat of a sawed-in-half Cadillac, this is the sort of thing that could only come from a collaboration including the Kitchen Sisters. New Orleans is a super cool place I really want to visit, and this is a great evocation of its contemporary culture.

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — The highlight of the slew of PCHH I listened to this week was their annual resolutions and predictions show, which I always love because they’re always so wrong except for Kat Chow. Good listening.

The Hilarious World of Depression: “Linda Holmes Leaves Law to Concentrate On Watching TV and It Works Out Great” — It’s always a shock when you learn about the difference between a person’s public-facing aspect and their private life. I’ve been following Linda Holmes’s work for NPR and as the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour for years, including during the period that she identifies during this interview as a mental health crisis. It was never less than amazing. I hadn’t listened to this show before, and I’m not sure it’s necessarily for me, but this is a really good conversation. Holmes’s story really demonstrates that there are gradations of depression and anxiety and that even the lower gradations need to be acknowledged and dealt with. Lovely stuff.

Beautiful Conversations with Anonymous People: “The Puppet Master” — This starts off as a pretty ordinary episode of Beautiful/Anonymous with a guest of middling interest. Then he laughs. And as soon as Chris Gethard hears this guy’s laugh, we’re off to the races. I listened to this on a train at seven in the morning. I had to keep pausing it because I was losing my shit. There’s nothing like listening to people laughing. And he really does turn out to be interesting later. Everybody is. That’s the point of this show.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Darren Aronofsky,” “Marc’s Family” & “Ta-Nehisi Coates” — These are all great episodes. Aronofsky turns out to be quite funny and engaging. He was a fan of Maron’s from way back in his struggling stand-up days. Also, Maron hasn’t seen the end of mother! He’s actually interviewing Darren Aronofsky about that movie without having seen it all. I love that. The episode of conversations between Maron and members of his family feels like some much-needed catch-up on the years of the podcast that I missed. And the Ta-Nehisi Coates interview is completely scintillating. Maron is enraptured with this guy, and Coates just loves how good he is at listening. It’s fabulous. Listen to that one.

The Organist: “How to Be in Two Places at Once: The Firesign Theatre in the US and Vietnam” — I am so glad this show exists. We need more arts and culture podcasts that are about long-form storytelling rather than conversation and criticism. I love those shows too, but I feel like Studio 360’s American Icons series has been cornering the market for long enough. I actually found a record by the Firesign Theatre in the five dollar bin at my local record store while I was digging for a gag gift recently. I did not pick it up, but it left me wondering about what it was. Apparently, they were a group of avant-garde comedians and sound artists who made records that had a substantial countercultural impact in their day. This is a good introduction to Firesign because it focuses not on the members of the troupe themselves, but on the people who listened to and understood the records in various contexts. Too often arts journalists default to interviewing the artists. The artists are arguably the least important people involved in a work of art. I will listen to this show a lot, I think.

Trump Con Law catch-up — The episode about whether or not you can prosecute a president is maybe the archetypal example of this show: it opens up the possibility that a thing you want to happen could happen, then shuts it down and makes you realize that it might not actually be a good idea anyway. I’m getting into this now, even if it kind of makes me even more fearful.

On the Media: “The End Is the Beginning” — Come for the retrospective on early third-wave feminism, stay for the tribute to the late Joe Frank — a radio producer I didn’t know and now am in love with.

Uncivil: “Song” — Basically, “Dixie,” the song widely regarded as the anthem of the Confederacy, was written by a white Yankee. Except actually no, it wasn’t, because it was probably taught to him by a black man. It’s a complicated, compelling story and if you want it in detail, this episode is the place to be.

Longform: “Zoe Chace” — Chace is one of my favourite This American Life producers, but the story of how she got there is pretty familiar. You just get an internship to get your foot in the door and do everything you can to stay there forever. That’s the gist of this, though it’s a good conversation because she’s good at talking.

Theory of Everything: “Utopia (part ii)” & “False Flags” — The second utopia episode features an attempt at utopia that seems to be falling apart less than the attempts in the first episode. But that’s because nobody there regards it as a utopia. So that’s interesting. But it’s “False Flags” that really caught my attention. Benjamen Walker merges his argument about the increasing prevalence of conspiracy theories with an amusing fictional vignette about him getting yelled at in the airport. That’s what I come to this show for.

The Daily: “Special Episode: The Year in Sound” — This is largely Barbaro-less: a collage of mostly Trump-adjacent sound bites from a completely insane year. Remember Scaramucci? I had completely forgotten about that guy. What kind of a year lets you forget that Anthony Scaramucci was in the White House for, what was it, a week?

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Secrets,” episodes 1 & 2 — This new series from Radiotopia’s rotating exhibition space is not particularly experimental or innovative, but both of these episodes have told really compelling stories. The first is about an undercover cop, and the second is about a wildlife photographer who faked his photos. Start with either.

Home of the Brave: “Two More Stories About Mountains” — The first of these two guest stories is an interview with Scott Carrier, with added music. But it’s the second that knocked me flat. “The Ascent to K-2” is a story by Joe Frank, who was still alive when Carrier released this episode, but who died shortly after. I became aware of him thanks to On the Media, and heard my first full piece of his thanks to this. This is an intensely odd narrative about the strangest (totally made up) attempt to climb K-2 that has ever been undertaken. It is radio storytelling at its oddest and best. Pick of the week.

The Turnaround: “The Turnaround with Dick Cavett” — Ah, I forgot how much I enjoy hearing Jesse Thorn interview people about interviewing. Cavett is good fun, and he taught me a new word. I’m going to paraphrase my favourite part of this interview. Cavett says, I think the lack of a sense of humour is the ultimate lack. It is un-human and inhuman. Thorn says, I wonder if the president finds anything funny. I’ve never seen him laugh at something funny. Cavett says, oh no, he’s a born clodpate. CLODPATE! I love it. Great stuff.

99% Invisible: “Mini-Stories: Volume 4” & “Thermal Delight” — This might be my favourite batch of mini-stories yet, but “Thermal Delight” came and went from my brain. To be fair, I was in the heat of cooking at the time, and sometimes that happens. It’s nobody’s fault but mine.

Code Switch: “This Racism Is Killing Me Inside” — This is about weathering, which is one of the most unsettling effects of racism. If you want to know more, you should listen to this episode. This should be a show you listen to always.

Omnibus (week of July 24, 2017)

This was one of those weeks where I watched a whole season of TV. It happens. But I still managed to get a bunch of podcasts in and some truly wonderful music. 25 reviews.

Movies

Blade Runner — The only other time I’ve watched Blade Runner was when I was probably 16. I’m not sure which cut I watched at the time, but it couldn’t have been the Final Cut, which I watched this time, because that didn’t come out until the next year. Regardless, I remembered liking it a lot, but that’s kind of all I remembered. This week, I watched the Final Cut with a friend, in a state of distraction and fatigue. Truthfully, a lot of the story and many of the themes slipped past me, given how little attention I was paying. But the result of this was a unique sort of viewing experience: I feel as though I watched Blade Runner as a painting. Without following the story or attempting to parse the characters’ motivations and identities, Blade Runner becomes a mystifying, entrancing procession of sensations and impressions. If it were possible to photoshop out all of the main characters from Blade Runner and mute all of the dialogue, I daresay it would still be a compelling art film. It would still be a fever dream of a future city: we would still see the magnificent towers occupied by the very privileged, the sweaty masses of pedestrians in the Tokyo-inspired lower quarters, the vast modernist step pyramids where authority lives, and the total dominance of advertising from the street level straight up to the rarified air of the police aircrafts. We would still have Vangelis’s abstract, improvisational score imparting a feel of creeping malaise. We would still see rooms filled with grotesque semi-sentient toys, and beams of golden light enrobing the figure of an owl with a curiously reflective iris. When my friend and I first tried to start the movie, we were disappointed to discover that her HDMI cable had reached the end of its lifespan. (“It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”) We rushed to London Drugs for a replacement, and since the store was just about to close, one of the employees in the home electronics section was indulging himself by playing Philip Glass’s score to Koyaanisqatsi over the speakers. A small moment of serendipity, this was. Koyaanisqatsi is an experimental film by Godfrey Reggio that was released the same year Blade Runner was. Inevitably, the music conjured up the film’s narrative-free imagery of late 20th-century cities in my mind, and it remained lodged there throughout the duration of Blade Runner. Maybe that’s part of why I saw it the way I did. Contained within Blade Runner is both a science fiction thriller about human identity and a sort of speculative Koyaanisqatsi. Where Reggio’s film is a study of then-contemporary urban malaise, conveyed through images and evocative music, Ridley Scott’s is the same thing for an imagined near future. The two films never struck me as being of a piece with each other before, but I doubt the connection will ever leave me now. I might watch Blade Runner again next week. I love this movie and I still don’t really know what it’s about.

Television

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 11 — Okay, so Shelly has abruptly become much less admirable in the show’s estimation. First, she jumps onto the windshield of a moving car, something no reasonably intelligent person would do, regardless of the circumstance. Then, she instantaneously forgets the moment of family crisis she’s trying to negotiate when her latest criminal boyfriend drops by. I mean, it’s not like she didn’t always have a thing for criminals, but that scene is super weird. One second she’s crying, embracing her off-the-rails daughter, and the next, she’s scampering away from that same daughter as fast as she can to go make out with Balthazar Getty. I am trying hard to maintain my view that Twin Peaks is intrinsically worthwhile by virtue of being unlike anything else on television, but it’s not making it easy. Mind you, if it were making it easy, it wouldn’t be unlike anything else on television.

Game of Thrones: “Stormborn” — Wow, this must be blazingly good for me to not hate it. I always hate the beginnings of GoT seasons. Now I’m actually looking forward to this show’s next episode. I don’t think that’s happened for about three seasons. That’s my highest possible praise for this show, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Downton Abbey: Season 5 — Once you start a season of Downton it is impossible not to finish it that week. I defy anybody to try. Here is the season where everybody’s moral clarity, however misbegotten, gets shot to hell. The situation with Edith’s illegitimate daughter is an absolute minefield. While the constant scenes of her getting turned away by the unknowing foster mother of her illegitimate child get trying, the denouement of that plotline makes everybody a victim. Edith herself is the victim of the social strictures of her time that would see her scandalized if her pregnancy had been revealed, and the foster mother is deprived of the child that she raised because of her inferior class. When Cora finds out, even she is unable to maintain her usual consistency of ethics: she’s deeply offended that Violet and Rosamund kept the secret from her, but once she knows she claims it’s “not their secret to tell,’ even to Robert who by rights has an equal claim to the knowledge as Cora. But of course she’s right to feel he can’t know. Because he’s an ass-backwards jerk. That ought to be the reasoning Cora offers. And he is awfully insufferable this season. One of Downton’s perverse delights is watching as Robert’s way of life is eroded gradually in ways he finds unacceptable and unjust. His misplaced anxiety about his wife’s fidelity is a clever way for the show to demonstrate the extent to which his grip is slipping. But it’s also a clear indication of how much he takes Cora for granted. Elizabeth McGovern walks a fine line in scenes with her would-be illicit lover Simon Bricker: never once implying that she actually wants to have an affair, but happy to be appreciated for once. Meanwhile, Mary maintains her steadfast code of self-interest and remains basically sympathetic due to the extent to which her being that way flies in the face of convention. I’m quite the fan of how this season makes it even clearer that she’s the second coming of her grandmother, with all of the wit and imperiousness that entails. As for her suitor Lord Gillingham, holy smokes what a dolt. I never tire of scenes in which he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that he is no longer involved with Mary. I have no particular wishes for how the relationships on this show are to turn out, but I’m very happy to see that guy get thrown over. And on the note of Mary’s similarity to Violet: Maggie Smith continues to be the best part of this show, if only because her total insincerity offers a comment on the proceedings that’s in line with those of us who find ourselves watching Downton half in spite of ourselves. Her storyline with Cousin Isabel, and their mutually unexpected reinvigorated romantic prospects is probably the most consistently amusing thing in this season. As for historical context, the first Labour government gives rise to hopes and fears alike among the servants. For Carson, whose identity and what prestige he has is based entirely on the continuing prosperity of the aristocracy, it seems catastrophic. But for Daisy, who still has her life ahead of her, it seems like an opportunity to do something more with her life. It’s an interesting exploration of the double bind that the serving staff are in: reliant upon the class structure for their livelihoods, but held back by it in larger measure. Also, now that we’re well into the inter-war period, I suppose there need to be some anti-Semites in the show. Clever of Fellowes to have Rose fall for Atticus before she knows of his Jewish heritage. That prevents the unpleasant sense that she’s fetishizing his otherness the way she did with her previous suitor, who was black. Altogether, I think this is one of the stronger seasons of the show, if only because it focusses in on its characters and their lives more than contriving schemes and implausible happenstances to elicit drama. But I honestly would have been pretty much satisfied even if it were just nine hours of Lord Grantham getting called “Donk” by a small child.

Music

Buffy Sainte-Marie: Illuminations — One of the great underrecognized classics of the era. This is the album where Buffy Sainte-Marie leaves folkiedom behind in favour of a very idiosyncratic and not-to-be-pigeonholed rendition of psychedelia. She’s cited Morton Subotnick as an influence in the past, probably the only songwriter I’ve ever seen that remark from. And the electronic filigree that links this album’s songs together has Silver Apples of the Moon’s influence all over it. Except it never outstays its welcome. One of the best things about the rock music of the late 60s and early 70s is the fact that all of these musicians were listening to avant-garde classical music, but had the impulse to fold its aesthetic into their music rather than its spirit, which didn’t necessarily always prioritize sounding good. I have no problem with that, but it’s nice to hear the legacy of Subotnick colliding with something I actually love. And the songs themselves are outstanding. “God is Alive, Magic is Afoot” is fun because it’s not a Leonard Cohen cover, but rather a setting of a poem that he himself did not set to music. How lovely it is that we have in the world a song that can be credited to Cohen/Sainte-Marie. The music is pleasingly simplistic: Sainte-Marie has cottoned onto the chant-like character of the text and made that the central inspiration for her music. Among the originals, my favourites are “Better to Find Out for Yourself,” “The Dream Tree,” “Keeper of the Fire” and “Poppies.” The first and third of these feature some of Sainte-Marie’s most aggressive singing. One reason I love her early records so much is because she offers such a compelling alternative to more conventionally pretty folk voices of the time, like Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. She has that sweet, lyrical character in her voice as well, and it comes out gorgeously on “The Dream Tree.” but that’s only one facet of the voice. “Better to Find Out for Yourself” finds her folding wolf calls into the ends of her phrases and “Keeper of the Fire” is a flat-out hard rock vocal performance with an imitation guitar solo in the voice as well. This is a classic, visionary, haunting album and I am constantly appalled by its overlookedness.

Pink Floyd: The Early Years 1965-72 — Oh man, the audio portion of this box set is on Apple Music now! (Except for the last volume, because they still have to entice me to buy the set somehow. As if the hours of video footage weren’t enough.) This is astonishingly entertaining for a vast set of outtakes and rarities. I’ve gotten through the first two volumes, and I am having a Grand Old Time. Let us go into detail, shall we? Volume one, focussing on the period from 1965 through 67, is the only one in the bunch to entirely predate Syd Barrett’s replacement with David Gilmour. It runs the gamut from bracing to boring, but there’s less of the latter than you might think. It’s in four sections. The first is a set of recordings from 1965, while the band was still calling itself the Tea Set, and had a second guitarist. The sound is excellent, but the same can’t be said of the songs, which find Syd Barrett in the throes of a rhythm and blues obsession that will have long abated by the time Pink Floyd actually releases a record. The performances are surprisingly good, though. Already, this is a band that’s more concerned with how they play than what they play. The second part is a collection of the band’s singles, B-sides, and a few unreleased tracks. Of these, the singles and B-sides are familiar but welcome here as part of the broader picture of this band at this time. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn proves to be a very narrow window through which to view these artists. The unreleased tracks include a few new mixes of familiar tracks, including a “Matilda Mother” with different, funnier lyrics. “There was a boy whose name was Jim / His friends they were very good to him / They gave him tea and cakes and jam / And slices of delicious ham.” God, I love that. But probably the highlight of the volume is the new stereo mixes of the famous unreleased tracks “In the Beechwoods” and especially “Vegetable Man” and “Scream Thy Last Scream.” These last two are in fact among Syd Barrett’s finest songs and in a just world would have become two sides of a single, or maybe showed up on A Saucerful of Secrets in place of, I dunno, “Corporal Clegg” and “See-Saw.” It seems they’ve been regarded as unfortunate symptoms of Barrett’s decline over the years. But with these new mixes, they stand revealed as two of the best early Pink Floyd songs. The second disc of volume one, consisting of the other two parts, is a less triumphant affair. It does feature the archeological diamond of a full live set with Syd Barrett, though the vocals are missing from the mix and only audible through distant mics. Still, it sounds like Syd was having a bad night vocally, so maybe that’s not such a bad thing. It’s weird to hear him sing “Set the Controls” to begin with — let alone so out of tune. And the instrumentals like “Interstellar Overdrive” and the unrecorded “Reaction in G” are as compelling as the band’s early fans would have you think. Volume one finishes with an unused free improvisational film score made for the experimental filmmaker John Latham. This is not great. It’s one of those things that it’s nice to have, just because we’ve all known that it exists for so long. I imagine it’s kind of like finally getting to see the pyramids in person. Except, if the pyramids were shitty. Because this is Pink Floyd doing a sort of free improvisation that they were a bit out of their depth to attempt. Their best semi-improvisational pieces, “Interstellar Overdrive” and especially the sublime “A Saucerful of Secrets” are based around concrete structures, as opposed to just noodling. AMM could make noodling sound good. So could King Crimson. Not Pink Floyd. Still, it’s a pleasure to experience. Volume two is simultaneously worse than volume one and more narratively compelling. It focusses on 1968, a rough year for the band in many ways, though it did see the release of one of my idiosyncratic faves in their catalogue, A Saucerful of Secrets. But for all of their success as an albums band that year, the first section of this disc proves they were creatively spent as a singles band. If Barrett’s “Apples and Oranges” had proven a disappointing follow-up to “See Emily Play,” then Wright’s “It Would Be So Nice” and especially Waters’ “Point Me At The Sky” prove completely unworthy. Their engine of ingenious psychedelic pop was irreparably broken. It now seems obvious that the only feasible direction was towards the very avant-garde. The BBC sessions that close out volume two (one of which delightfully comes with John Peel’s intros and extros intact) finds the band seemingly in denial of this, as they focus on performing their singles. We do, mercifully, get a rather good live “Saucerful of Secrets,” though it is inexplicably retitled “The Massed Gadgets of Hercules.” I say “inexplicably” because the album had already come out when the session was recorded — it can’t have been an early title. Am I wrong? In any case, volume two of this box is endlessly fascinating from an anthropological perspective, in large part because of how bad it is. Can’t wait to hear the rest.

Tom Waits: Frank’s Wild Years — My favourite Tom Waits album. To me, it strikes a perfect balance between the freaky cabaret music on Rain Dogs just before it and the crunchy aggro of Bone Machine shortly after. “Innocent When You Dream” is one of the most heartbreaking songs ever, made moreso by its comedic drunken ugliness. This is a man who hit bottom and smashed through into a dark, parody underworld where nothing seems real but everybody’s still behaving like nothing’s wrong. The same goes for the demented Kander and Ebb pastiche “I’ll Take New York,” which finds Waits at his most openly parodic and nightmarish. The best thing about it is that there’s nothing dark in the lyric. It’s a pitch perfect impression of Kander and Ebb’s civic boosterism. But it’s refracted through the lens of the demented calliope music that is one of Waits’ most profitable standbys. And even when Waits is working on a slightly less heightened level, like on “Temptation” or “Cold Cold Ground,” both among his best songs, he still sounds like he’s living in a pocket universe where the rules of reality are a bit different from our own. This is one of those rare albums that suspends reality. I love it.

Tom Waits: Small Change — I am generally more of a fan of Tom Waits’s post-Swordfishtrombones albums than his 70s material. I like the complex irony of those later albums. It’s like there’s a dark mirror planted somewhere near the year 1980, and Waits stepped through and became a gurning, grotesque reflection of what he was before. But there’s a time and a place for Waits’s more sincere early music. The time is 2:00am and the place is staggering home drunk. Or, in the absence of these conditions, you can simply imagine yourself in that state and it still kind of works. I had previously only known Waits’s earlier music through my longtime favourite Heartattack and Vine and a scattering of tracks from before it. This is my first listen to Small Change, and it is a heck of a lot better than Heartattack. There’s not a single song on this that I didn’t love immediately. While Waits is lacking his later derangement here, he still has the unique wit of a self-romanticizing drunk hobo. “Step Right Up” is a distillation of all of the most familiar slogans in cheap advertising and straightforward swindling into a song. It is substantially virtuosic, and it helps to clarify the difference between Waits’s early novelty songs and his later ones like “Cemetery Polka.” In “Step Right Up” (and also “The Piano Has Been Drinking”) Waits is letting the audience in on a joke he’s come up with. He’s performing a routine. In “Cemetery Polka,” there’s a joke somewhere, but it’s hard to parse and we feel alienated because of it. It’s entirely possible that we’re the brunt of the joke. But most of the album is made up of the sad, lovelorn ballads that Waits is so good at during this period. “Tom Traubert’s Blues” is the clear highlight, with its ripped-off chorus (from “Waltzing Matilda”) taking on more heft in this context than in its original one. It is one of Waits’ great pictures of modern despair and displacement, and one of his very best songs. The same goes for “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” and “Invitation to the Blues.” This immediately struck me as a brilliant album. I expect to be back to it as frequently as its ultra-specific mood will permit. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc.

Chris Onstad: Achewood — I have read up to April of 2002 in this wonderful, absurd, very funny and often poignant web comic. Evidently I am still a long way off from the good stuff, but I am already very into this world. Ray and Roast Beef are yet to become the central characters (I know enough to know that they eventually will) and Philippe is the current highlight. He is so adorable that it can only be hilarious to see him subjected to the capricious whims of the Achewood universe. Great stuff.

John Errington: Centuries of Sound — I’m trying to catch up with this blog, which includes mixes for every year of recorded sound. It’s a great premise, and the very early years are super interesting, though the mixes are understandably short and abstract. The first of them features a few reconstructed recordings of Édouard-Léon Scott, who made a machine that could record indications of sound in soot. They were never meant to be played back, because Scott couldn’t conceive of such a thing, but of course we’ve found a way. Errington’s mix includes a documentary by Studio 360 about how that came to be. It’s actually crazy to hear, however scrappily, the sound of a voice from 1860 — the voice of a person who might not have thought that such a thing was possible.

Podcasts

The Nod: “Greetings, My Brothas” — Okay, now this is good. There’s something about hearing people laugh at a funny thing that makes it funnier, and these two laughing at a YouTube conspiracy theory about the Jay-Z/Solange elevator incident is start-to-finish hysterical.

Mogul: “How Heavy It Was,” “August 30, 2012” & Uncle Murda cameo — Mogul is a beautiful thing. These last two episodes (I’m not going to deal too much with the cameo, fun though it is) just clinch the whole thing. What I love about this is that the show subtly frames its narrative as a low-key true crime story that culminates in a contested suicide ruling. But the narrative proceeds inexorably to the conclusion that Chris Lighty’s death probably was what it seemed like. The chief contribution of Mogul to the story of Chris Lighty is bringing the mental illness he suffered to light. That’s part of what makes it so vital: it addresses a death that’s regarded as a mystery by framing it in terms of the evidence that nobody wants to talk about. This is so good, and I have become very fond of Reggie Ossé. I don’t know how an Ivy League educated lawyer can be so warm and likeable. The Combat Jack Show has a new subscriber.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Dunkirk,” “Girls Trip” & “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” — I’m liking the new format. Of these episodes, the only one that convinced me to see something was the Dunkirk one, because I was genuinely on the fence prior to this. The other two amount to a “not for me” and a “this sounds awful.”

The Turnaround: “Anna Sale” & “Reggie Ossé (Combat Jack)” — I really admire Jesse Thorn for not cutting the moments in these interviews when his guests don’t know what his question means. Because I can absolutely relate to that. Anna Sale’s interview is a bit rough, since it was the first for this show, but it’s still edifying enough. The Combat Jack episode is a series highlight, though. I’m happy Thorn included him, since there aren’t likely to be any other specialists in a subject area on this show. (Unless you count Brooke Gladstone, but “media” isn’t really a niche.) Since Mogul’s been coming out, I’ve been amazed at how easy it seems for Combat to talk with huge hip hop stars. Turns out, there’s value in being a bit of an insider. He’s a known enough quantity that these artists are comfortable talking to him. But that’s not to say that craftsmanship and intent don’t enter into what Reggie Ossé does. He’s always thinking in broader terms to what just about any generalist interviewing a rapper would be thinking. He’s interested in hearing their take on life in general, rather than just about their art. That’s valuable. Have I done a complete about-face on my opinion of interviewing artists since I started listening to this show? Yes? I dunno. I’m very confused about my own value system. But I know I enjoyed these shows.

Code Switch: “What’s So Wrong With African Americans Wearing African Clothing?” & “What’s Good? Talking Hip-Hop and Race With Stretch and Bobbito” — A pair of preview for shows I’m not super interested in. The Stoop covers interesting territory, but I’m not sold on the hosts. And I’m suspicious of the extent to which NPR is getting in on the personality-driven podcast bandwagon with the Stretch and Bobbito show. Probably I’m wrong.

Theory of Everything: “Private Ear” — I can’t help but feel like the guy this story is about — an aural reconstructor of secret spaces who uses the memories of prisoners as his guide — is a bit dodgy. But it’s very much like this show to introduce me to an artist (because this is what he is, mostly) who works so far outside of the expected arenas.

99% Invisible: “The Trials of Dan and Dave” — ESPN is getting into podcasting, and they’ve already got the Roman Mars bump. Imagine. This is a fun story that’s not really all about the sports, which as far as I know is the 30 For 30 trademark. Nice stuff.

This American Life: “Break-Up” — It’s pretty rare for me to listen to anything from a show’s back catalogue these days. But this is the episode that made Starlee Kine’s career. As a steadfast mourner of Mystery Show, I felt it was necessary to finally hear the famous story where Kine works through her bad breakup with the assistance of one Phil Collins. As a Genesis fan, it’s doubly interesting to hear Collins tell the story of how his first divorce precipitated his transition from being a jazz fusion drummer in his non-Genesis career to an international pop star on the back of several heartrending ballads. This all strikes a personal chord for me, because I went through a shit breakup that was scored by the music of Phil Collins’s one-time bandmate, Peter Gabriel. There was a while there where I obsessed over Gabriel’s Us album for very similar reasons to the ones Kine cites for her love for “Against All Odds.” I am Starlee Kine in the Upside-Down. T’was ever thus.

99% Invisible: “El Gordo” — Ah yes, a story in which only one person in a town does not win the lottery. The world is quite marvellous, you know that?

The Memory Palace: “Elmer McCurdy Rides Again and Again” — It was only a matter time before our greatest author of historical prose poems attempted a rhyming couplet story. It is a mixed affair. Mostly I like it, but I halfway feel that the gimmick gets in the way of a genuinely marvellous story, in which an embalmed human body is mistaken for a wax sculpture and ends up on the set of The Six Million Dollar Man. Still good.

Criminal: “A Bump In The Night” — A terrifying story of a woman who hears sounds in the night that turn out to be something. It ends unsatisfyingly, but so do most things in life.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “The Emoluments Clauses” — The most interesting thing about this is the fact that the emoluments clauses of the constitution have been considered so obscure that they’re not even in textbooks, and Trump is the first president so unconventional that he requires them to be taken into consideration. Everything is bad.

The Daily: July 24-28 — My first full week of listening to The Daily reveals it to be a genuinely excellent way to keep on top of the biggest stories, at least as they pertain to American federal politics. I have generally preferred this show when it contains at least one segment that takes place outside of the U.S.A. But there are some genuinely confusing and terrifying things happening in the White House on a week by week basis, so what are they to do? Regardless, this is one of the best shows to launch in recent years, and a genuine innovation.

Reply All: “Long Distance” — The best episode of Reply All for some time. And it’s not like it’s been in a slump. Some schlub who didn’t know what he was getting into tried to scam Alex Goldman and ended up the subject of a piece of playful yet ruthless investigative journalism. Goldman’s imperiousness is hysterical here, and the fact that he doesn’t reveal the consequence of the story at the start is much appreciated. I feel compelled to be coy about this and not spoil it. Listen to it. It is magnificent. Pick of the week.

Song by Song: “Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen), Small Change, Tom Waits” — I came across this Tom Waits song randomly at work, having never listened to Small Change. (You’ll note from above that I have since listened to the full album and had quite the response.) It is a beautiful thing, and I figured I’d take the opportunity to sample this podcast that’s going through his songs in order, one by one. It could do to be longer, honestly. It feels a bit slim. Fun that they’ve got Jeffrey Cranor, though. Not sure I’ll be back to this.