Tag Archives: All Songs Considered

Omnibus (week of Jan. 21, 2018)

A big week for podcasts, a small week for everything else. Also, if you’d like to hear me try and make a connection between a prototypical sound recording from 1860 and a Bruce Springsteen song, you are cordially invited to scrub to 2:00:57 in this podcast.

24 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Herman Melville: Moby-Dick — This is happening. I’m putting my whole reading list on hold for this, and I have no regrets so far. For now, I will only signpost that I’ve started it. I guarantee I will have lots to say about it at some point, but who knows when and in what form that will come. In any case: I have started reading Moby-Dick. Pick of the week.

Adam Gopnik: “The Corrections” — This is a long essay I found thanks to a link in a shorter essay I found thanks to the fact that I’m reading Moby-Dick. (By the way, I’m reading Moby-Dick.) Gopnik wrote it in 2007, which was actually a fairly long time ago, and it contains some blasé sexism that I suspect Gopnik would regret nowadays. Or, maybe I should say — it contains some blasé acceptance of the sexism in James Bond movies, but it adds up to the same. Also, it hails from a time when DVDs were dominant and people watched movies with director’s commentaries. (I do miss director’s commentaries.) Still, it’s a good piece of criticism. The subject is essentially alterations being made to established texts — like the abridged version of Moby-Dick, or Apocalypse Now: Redux. The Moby-Dick bit is the best. I’ll quote his conclusion here and leave you to read the rest should you see fit: “…when you come to the end of the compact ‘Moby-Dick’ you don’t think, What a betrayal; you think, Nice job — what were the missing bits again? And when you go back to find them you remember why the book isn’t just a thrilling adventure with unforgettable characters but a great book. The subtraction does not turn good work into hackwork; it turns a hysterical, half-mad masterpiece into a sound, sane book. It still has its phallic reach and point, but lacks its flaccid, anxious self-consciousness: it is all Dick and no Moby.”

Music

Barbara Hannigan: Tiny Desk Concert — What a perfect choice for the tiny desk. Hannigan is maybe the most exciting artist in classical music, full stop. And in this miniature set, she sings four weird German art songs by Alexander Zemlinsky, Alma Mahler, Hugo Wolf, and Arnold Schoenberg, which are all captivating. I would say I’d like to hear more art songs at the tiny desk, but frankly most art songs bore me to tears. It takes an expert curator with sublime musicianship to bring this off. It’s great.

Movies

Don’t Think Twice — I’ve been meaning to watch this since it came out, and was reminded of it on Chris Gethard’s last podcast. I confess, I have a personal stake in this because I feel as though it outlines an alternate timeline version of my life. It’s about a troupe of 20/30-something improv comedians on the precipice of either breakout fame or the need to give up entirely. I was an improv kid in high school, and I can attest to the accuracy of this movie’s portrayal of adult improvisers. When you spend so much of your time on an art form that demands constantly saying yes to everything and essentially ignoring your god-given impulse control, it can cause you to act really strangely in social situations. I gave improv up after high school, studied classical trumpet, and was never spontaneous again, thank Jesus. But I know people who kept going with it, and they were increasingly difficult to associate with because improv makes your brain work in a weird way, like you’re constantly on a mild stimulant. Mike Birbiglia (who directed this and wrote the bits that aren’t actually improvised) understands this, and in that sense, Don’t Think Twice is a fascinating movie to watch. The casting is flawless, with Keegan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs standing out in particular as two very different kinds of people that improv attracts. Key is the hyper-performative show-off whose sense of self depends on the attention of others. (I was this.) Jacobs is the team player who believes in the art, and the slightly mystical notion of “group mind” that it’s based on. Birbiglia’s best decision as a writer was to take these two archetypes and put them in a relationship. The personal drama in the film springs from the same personality differences that make its two central characters such different presences onstage. Birbiglia and Gethard flesh out other important elements in the troupe’s collective psyche. Birbiglia plays the flipside of Key’s character: the one whose hunger for attention goes unsatisfied and makes him an insecure man-child. And Gethard plays, seemingly, his younger self: a person who can’t find purchase in the world around him, and takes solace in an increasingly untenable dream. (If you don’t like movies about sad creatives, give this one a miss.) The problems I have with the movie are the same problems I have with Birbiglia’s stand-up. He’s a fantastic storyteller, but he always has a theme in mind and he’s completely unwilling to let it arise naturally. His impulse is always to use the most obvious metaphor. For example: he establishes at the beginning of the movie that the first rule of improv is to say yes. When you negate something a teammate says onstage, it’s called “blocking” and it’s the most basic error in the improv book. Near the end of the movie, Birbiglia has a relationship come to an end during an improv scene — in which the breaker-up blocks the break-upee. It’s too much, and in a movie about spontaneity, it really exposes the strings in a way that takes you out of the experience. This sort of thing happens a lot: an audience member will shout something to the troupe for the purpose of showing the movie audience how the characters are feeling, or an improv scene will ham-fistedly reflect on the goings-on offstage. But the contrivances in the story can be mostly forgiven because of how real the characters feel. I suspect this is a movie that plays a lot better for people who have some experience with improv. Watch it if that describes you, or if you like any of the actors in it, because it’s worthwhile for the performances alone.

Television

Doctor Who: “The Romans” — I enjoyed this more than I expected to, given my lack of enthusiasm for a) historically-focussed episodes of Doctor Who, and b) the William Hartnell era in general. But for all its manifold flaws, there are some charming things in this. First off, Hartnell himself is finally playing the Doctor as a character that’s identifiably the same as his future, more famous incarnations. You need only look at his gleeful expression when he realizes his role in the burning of Rome to recognize that Hartnell, for all his manifold flaws, invented this character in a way he’s not always given credit for. He’s flubbing his lines as much as ever, but he’s so charming in this. This version of the Doctor, the gleefully Rome-burning one, comes back in many a future “geronimo,” “would you like a jelly baby,” and “oh, brilliant!” It’s also marvellous to have Vicky around instead of Susan, because she was always a problematic character to say the least. Maureen O’Brien plays Vicky as intelligent, curious and brave — three things that Susan was manifestly not, in spite of the characters’ assertions that she was. I’m quite a fan of Nero being portrayed as a bumbling idiot whose key purpose is to get fucked with by the Doctor, who is in a particularly playful mood this time around. I am less fond of Nero’s tendency to chase Barbara — the show’s longest-standing female character — around his palace in a clear attempt to commit some form of sexual violence. That last bit aside, I have basically just enumerated all of the redeeming qualities in this story, which very much remains television from the 60s that is mostly of historical interest.

The Good Place: “The Burrito” — I’m still waiting for this show to repeat itself. This takes place almost entirely in settings we haven’t seen before, and introduces another whole mechanic into the show’s cosmology: an ageless judge played by Maya Rudolph — my second-favourite guest appearance in this show so far, after Maribeth Monroe as Mindy St. Clair. She can spin a line like nobody else. Still, I find myself much more interested in the twists and turns of the story itself than I do in the show’s larger thematic concerns or, crucially, the jokes. To a certain extent I think The Good Place is the first sitcom I’ve watched where the jokes aren’t always funny but it doesn’t matter. There’s a perfect example in this episode. Near the beginning, Jason comes up with the loony idea that perhaps the burrito sitting before the group is in fact the judge they’ve been looking for. Tahani replies: “Don’t be so bloody ridiculous. Judges aren’t food, judges are serious people who wear long silk nightgowns and big white powdered wigs.” In a Tina Fey show, that would not pass muster. It’s a moment where, according to the rhythms of a single camera, non-laugh track sitcom, there should be a joke, and that line fills the space — not especially well. But you don’t really need to laugh during this scene, because, crazy as it sounds, you’re actually caught up in the question of what is actually going on with that burrito. And Eleanor refocusses the conversation on that pretty much immediately afterwards. It’s a very distinctive comedy that can make you care about the identity of a burrito more than you care about the jokes.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “Viking’s Choice: The Year In Cathartic Screams And Meditative Drones,” “New Year, New Mix: Typhoon, Lucy Dacus, Anna Burch, More” & “New Mix: David Byrne, Sylvan Esso, Nils Frahm, More” — I always love the year-end Viking’s Choice episode with Lars Gotrich, but the MVP of these three episodes of All Songs is definitely the most recent of them. It features a David Byrne track, co-written with Brian Eno (I’m already salivating), an appearance from Tom Huizenga to talk about Nils Frahm (whose new album sounds more promising than his last, which I did like), and a beautiful track by Darlingside, who I hadn’t heard of but whose album I will 100% check out. Likewise for Typhoon. Mostly I’m writing this to remind myself what to listen to later.

Imaginary Worlds: “Brain Chemistry” & “Doctor Who?” — “Brain Chemistry” is a collaboration with The Truth that I liked well enough, though I never especially like The Truth. This is about a guy who gets cryogenically frozen and wakes up as nothing but a brain. Listen if that sounds like a fun premise. The real attraction, though, is the first episode of Eric Molinsky’s Doctor Who mini-series. It’s very 101, but for most people that’ll be necessary. Also Molinsky does something here that he’s done before, which I always love: he focuses in on the reception of a piece of fiction rather than its making, and he finds people whose reception of that fiction is unique in some way. The best part of this episode features an interview with a trans man and his wife about how the Doctor’s constant state of change gave them a language to use in reference to his transition. It’s lovely stuff, and I’m looking forward to seeing what more specific topics Molinsky dives into.

Constellations: “joan schuman – walking in bad circles” — Of all the podcasts I listened to while I was cooking this week, this is the one that probably got the rawest deal. Always listen to Constellations through headphones, folks. It’s the only way it works. All the same, I really like the phrase “walking in bad circles,” which makes up a significant part of this short piece.

Criminal: “The Choir” — A deeply affecting story about Lawrence Lessig, of internet law fame, and the way he dealt with a horrifying instance of childhood abuse by a predator. This is one of the heavy episodes of Criminal, which I can sometimes find hard to take. I like when this show does light subject matter, because it shows the flexibility of their premise, which is basically “crime!” But this one’s good.

The Memory Palace: “The Prairie Chicken in Wisconsin: Highlights of a Study of Counts, Behaviour, Turnover, Movement and Habitat” & “The Nickel Candy Bar” — The Memory Palace has a few kinds of stories that it does often. One of them is “driven, iconoclastic woman from a bygone time defies the norms of her era.” This is a good kind of story, and the first of these two episodes is a particularly good iteration of it. It also incorporates elements of another Memory Palace standby: the environmental parable. So, it is altogether one of the most Memory Palace episodes of The Memory Palace, and that is a good thing. “The Nickel Candy Bar” is a lovely thing with a bit more structural adventurousness than usual. It starts with one story, abruptly transitions to another, brings them together, then undercuts the whole thing. Marvellous.

Bullseye: “Rian Johnson & The Go! Team” — The Rian Johnson interview is what makes this worthwhile. He’s a charming and funny guy, and this conversation really drives home the thing I’ve been saying about The Last Jedi all this time: it’s just a Star Wars movie. A very good but totally ordinary and in no way groundbreaking or unusual Star Wars movie. The only exception to this that Johnson and Jesse Thorn get to is that the reveal about Rey’s parentage reverses the franchise’s reliance on bloodlines for narrative importance. Granted, that’s not a small thing. But it’s only one thing in a whole movie full of things that strongly resemble everything else about Star Wars.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: Four-episode catch-up — I’ll be seeing The Florida Project ASAP, but I believe I’ll give Mrs. Maisel a miss. This panel wasn’t hot on Phantom Thread, which doesn’t surprise me, but I’m quite certain I’ll like it more than them. I’m prepared for it not to be There Will Be Blood or The Master. But I’ll like it. I’m 90% sure. Will I watch The Good Doctor? No I will not.

Reply All: “Apocalypse Soon” & “The Bitcoin Hunter” — Okay, now I’m starting to want more bespoke stories and fewer segments on this show. “Apocalypse Soon” is a fine and deeply entertaining episode. Anything that finds Alex Blumberg giggling about a meme is okay by me. And “The Bitcoin Hunter” is a captivating Super Tech Support that does everything you want a Reply All story to do. But I want more Sruthi Pinnamaneni.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “House of Night – The Lost Creation Songs of the Mojave People” — This is the story of two men who recorded and archived hundreds of Mojave songs. Being a Kitchen Sisters piece, it’s full of amazing archival tape and sounds great. But the story is compelling in itself. I always love how the Kitchen Sisters foreground the way that recordings and archives don’t just document, but can actually affect the course of history. In this case, a recording of a mostly forgotten song helped to save the Ward Valley and Colorado River from development by proving the longstanding Mohave connection to that land.

Theory of Everything: “Utopia (part iii)” — Instead of reviewing this I will tell a story about something that happened to me as I was listening to it. I started it on my lunch break, at which point I went out for a salad. As I sat and ate, I had a realization of a kind that I frequently have: that somebody I know has been trying to get my attention. In this case, it was a co-worker, and she was about to give up completely and leave me to my lunch when I looked up and saw her. Little did I know, this was not the whole story. The next day, a different co-worker came up to me and told me that he’d been waving at me and calling my name in that same restaurant at that same time, to no avail. He was just about to walk up to me and tap me on the shoulder when I noticed my other co-worker standing in the line. Two separate people tried and failed, or nearly failed, to get my attention while I listened to this. I guess it must be good.

Radiolab: “The Voice in Your Head – A Tribute to Joe Frank” — Oh god, how I wish I could dive into this guy’s archive for free. Joe Frank is a radio innovator I had never heard of until a few weeks ago, and I can already see how his work informs so much of what I love in radio. This features Jad Abumrad, Brooke Gladstone and Ira Glass talking about him, but aside from those three I see a huge debt to Frank in Nate DiMeo’s work, and even more so in Jonathan Goldstein’s. I could even see Kaitlin Prest being an acolyte of his. The stories they play here are outstanding and I will definitely be buying some of his pieces from his website (this is how he operated, even in a post-podcast world). This made me want to go make radio immediately. Pick of the week.

Beautiful Conversations with Anonymous People: “Boy Crazy” — This is a lighter episode of Beautiful/Anonymous, and also a lesser one. The caller is a 21-year-old artsy college student with some insecurities. The thing that makes the conversation work when it works is that Chris Gethard really relates to her, having been in much the same situation himself. But it’s awkward and meandering in a way that these conversations usually avoid being. I mostly enjoyed this. But the appeal of this format is that it isn’t always going to work. Really, the appeal of anything Chris Gethard does is that it isn’t always going to work.

Fresh Air: “Paul Thomas Anderson On ‘Phantom Thread’” — P.T.A. seems like a decent fellow. I’m prepared to basically enjoy Phantom Thread without being over the moon about it. But hearing the director talk about working once again with Daniel Day-Lewis and Jonny Greenwood makes me remember how much I love this guy’s work and everybody in his orbit.

99% Invisible: “Speech Bubbles: Understanding Comics with Scott McCloud” — Coincidentally, I just started a class on writing for comics. I read Understanding Comics a few years ago, and it blew my mind. McCloud is a very clever guy, and hearing him talk with Roman Mars is fun because they both get angry about bad design.

Song by Song: “Gun Street Girl, Rain Dogs, Tom Waits” — Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer are the only two guests so far in the Rain Dogs episodes who haven’t really worked. You need pop culture geeks for a show like this, and as much as I love Criminal, Phoebe Judge manifestly isn’t that. Lauren Spohrer may be slightly more so, but this isn’t a very enlightening conversation.

Code Switch: “The ‘R-Word’ In The Age Of Trump” — In which Kat Chow gets called out by a listener for not calling Trump racist. But… institutions like NPR are huge beasts that can sometimes force you to work against your better judgement. Fortunately, there’s such a thing as Code Switch, where conversations like this can happen publicly.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “The 4th Amendment and the Border” — “The border” is not a line, legally speaking. It is a space of up to 100 miles wide. Who knew?

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Secrets #3 – Broken Dreams” — A man hides his unemployment from his father for months. A good story, but the weakest of this series so far. I am not very invested in this, I’ll confess. But I’m too far in now to quit.

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Omnibus (weeks of Dec. 10 & 17, 2017)

Hello again and Merry Christmas. As you’ll have gathered from the fact that I am here to write this, I am both alive and uninjured following my alpine adventure. What follows are reviews of the things I managed to take in before and since that adventure. I didn’t totally disconnect from pop culture in the mountains, but I did disconnect from thinking about it. If you want the definitive image of my last couple weeks, picture two snowsuited white men in a Mazda 3 singing along to this.

It strikes me that my two picks of the week are both at a pivotal moment in their history as texts. The first has been recently reawakened by the publication of a new book that I’m going to try and get to before New Year’s Eve. And the second has just reached its bittersweet conclusion after a run as one of the greatest achievements in podcasting. Read on.

10 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Philip Pullman: The Amber Spyglass — My 11-year-old self’s favourite book is still a masterpiece. Reading the first two instalments of His Dark Materials for the first time as an adult, I was struck by how similar an experience it was to what I remember feeling as a child. But reading The Amber Spyglass felt different. And I think the reason for that is because my first encounter with The Amber Spyglass actually changed the kind of person I was. When my well-meaning but not entirely in-the-know mother bought me these books, I was being raised, nominally, as a Christian. I went to church most weeks and learned Bible stories in Sunday school. For the rest of the week, it wasn’t really a concern. But the incontrovertible truth of the Bible and the inherent goodness of God were things I had been led to take for granted. So, reading this book, I could accept that the church depicted in its pages was corrupt and evil. Certainly, that was never in doubt. They tried to kill Lyra! Trying to kill any child is bad enough — but Lyra! Still, when they talked about Lyra’s coming role as the second Eve — a girl who would be likely to fall victim to the temptation of the serpent — I just thought they were wrong about her. They just don’t know Lyra well enough. Surely, she won’t fail the test like the first Eve did! She’s far too good for that. It wasn’t until the end of the book that I realized what Pullman was actually on about: that God himself was as evil and authoritarian as the church he begat, and that it was therefore best for Lyra to accept the temptation. For Pullman, original sin is something to be celebrated and Eve is a hero. All of humanity’s most admirable traits spring from that mythic moment in Eden, and the villain of Genesis is God. This hit me like a thunderbolt when I was 11. I didn’t immediately renounce my faith or anything, but it was one of the first moments in my life when I was made to recognize that received wisdom shouldn’t be accepted as a default. Reading it 16 years later, I had mostly forgotten the specifics of the plot. But this time, I read the book hoping for Lyra to fall. I think I can award Pullman a share of the credit for this transformation. Reading The Amber Spyglass with the benefit of 16 more years experience in the world made me admire other elements of it as well. Pullman dramatizes a “first contact” narrative in Mary Malone’s plotline, which is roughly analogous to the sorts of stories we hear from the early days of European colonialism — except that in Pullman’s telling, Malone comes to regard the strange creatures she encounters as her equals. It’s worth quoting here: “When she saw how they worked, not on their own but two by two, working their trunks together to tie a knot, she realized why they’d been so astonished by her hands, because of course she could tie knots on her own. At first she felt that this gave her an advantage — she needed no one else — and then she realized how it cut her off from others. Perhaps all human beings were like that. And from that time on, she used one hand to knot the fibers, sharing the task with a female zalif who had become her particular friend, fingers and trunk moving in and out together.” There is not enough YES in the world to express my feelings about this passage. Where Malone could easily have gone on thinking herself superior to the inhabitants of this new world, she instead has the self-awareness to recognize that their way of doing things has its own value that hers does not share. Would that people could always be like this. There are some complaints to be had about this book. Is Lyra sidelined for a good chunk of it? Yes. Is she in need of rescue by a cast of largely male characters? Yes. Is this frustrating? You bet, for a couple different reasons. But does it undermine her role as the primary hero of His Dark Materials, with the highest amount of agency? No, it does not. She is still the character whose decisions matter the most at the end of the book. She is still of cosmic importance in a way that Will, for instance, is not. I daresay the reason that Lyra is given a whole book to herself, before Will is even introduced, is that Eve is the hero in Pullman’s reading of Genesis. She is the originator of original sin, and therefore the single most laudable and important personage in the history of creation. That is the company into which Pullman thrusts Lyra. The reason we come to love her so much, and that we are so frustrated by the stretch of The Amber Spyglass that finds her drugged and comatose in a cave, is that Pullman himself has such obvious affection for her. This is also the reason why we can never accept Lord Asriel as a hero, in spite of the fact that he is a great leader on the right side of history. His indifference towards Lyra makes him a monster. Even the vile, murderous Mrs. Coulter does not commit this sin. And frankly, if there’s anything in The Amber Spyglass that isn’t entirely convincing, it’s the transformation of Mrs. Coulter from irredeemable villain to perversely doting mother. It’s an obvious attempt on Pullman’s part to cast her as a foil to Asriel: the monstrous, inhuman “white hat” vs. the humanized, tragically flawed “black hat.” But to Pullman’s credit, he realizes that both of these characters are so irredeemable in their respective ways (and also because they are both child murderers) that the only sensible ending for them both is to die horribly at the climax of a vast historical conflict they were on opposite sides of. Whatever the flaws of their plotlines — and Coulter’s in particular — their endings are perfect. And speaking of endings, all of my most vivid memories of The Amber Spyglass come from the last few chapters, after the cosmic war the entire trilogy has been building towards is over. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about His Dark Materials is that God literally dies in it, and that’s not even the climax of the story. The larger, more contextual story of His Dark Materials concerns the huge vortex of theological conflict that Lyra and Will find themselves drawn into. That narrative climaxes with the death of God. But the more crucial story in the trilogy, which may have even more importance within the story’s cosmology, is the story of Lyra and Will as the new Eve and Adam. And, of course, with Dr. Malone as the new serpent — a character I barely remember from my first readthrough, but who I’m now convinced is the second-best character in the trilogy. The smaller story of these three characters plays out quietly, intimately, and heartrendingly in the final chapters of the book. Pullman saves his most beautiful writing for after the cosmic war is over: all of the sound and fury of the war in Heaven is eclipsed by a simple, elegant story about marzipan, and a star-crossed young love affair of Shakespearean proportions. It is one of the great endings conceived by any novelist of our time, writing for people of any age. The Amber Spyglass is nearly perfect. It is exhibit A in sticking the landing at the end of a series. If I ever have kids, I really hope they read these books. But I would never force them to: Pullman taught me too much for that. Pick of the week.

Philip Pullman: Lyra’s Oxford, Once Upon A Time in the North & “The Collectors” — While I’m revisiting Pullman, I figured I may as well check out the three miniature books he’s written to tie into His Dark Materials before I move on to La Belle Sauvage. The first, Lyra’s Oxford, is a beautiful short story that demonstrates Pullman’s ability to write beautifully and movingly even when he doesn’t have a gigantic narrative canvas to work with. The story is low on continuity, though it relies on one’s familiarity with His Dark Materials for effect. The note the story ends on — the idea that Lyra and her daemon are being protected by Oxford itself, the city they call home — is much more effective when you know that Lyra is responsible for freeing the dead so that they can become part of everything. More than anything, Lyra’s Oxford is an illustration of the grace Lyra has received in return for her heroism and compassion in The Amber Spyglass. That makes it worthwhile. Also, I appreciate that there are only a couple of mentions of Will, as if her love for him was something very important that happened to Lyra, changed her, and now is over. That said, one of the most moving things in the book is a real photograph of a real bench in the botanic gardens at Oxford, where we are to assume, I suppose, that Lyra and Will still meet once a year in their separate worlds. The picture is shown on a postcard sent by Mary Malone, who jokes about what a crap postcard it is — because presumably these are just pictures taken by Pullman, or somebody working for him, of landmarks chosen for their narrative importance rather than their actual beauty. It’s a nice touch. Once Upon A Time In the North is a slightly more substantial read. Lee Scoresby was always the supporting character in His Dark Materials who seemed most likely to spin off. And indeed, this is a satisfying adventure story for him, with a substantial walk-on part for Iorek Byrnison. But the real heart of the story is more development of the relationship between Lee and his daemon Hester, which is probably the most colourfully rendered human/daemon relationship in the books. Rather than simply being a sort of emanation of her person, Hester is a snarky manifestation of his better judgement. Pullman knows well what Lee’s most memorable scene in the main trilogy is — his final stand in The Subtle Knife — and he’s sure to subtly evoke it just once. This is, among other things, the story of how Lee got his Winchester rifle. And because it’s Pullman, it cannot simply be a rollicking shoot ‘em up action story: it is also a political allegory for how demagogues hide their agendas behind hateful rhetoric. Philip Pullman: teaching kids the important shit since 1995. As for “The Collectors,” a short story available only as an audiobook read by Bill Nighy, it focuses on the specific element of the His Dark Materials universe that probably initially attracted me as a kid: namely its roots in the crusty yet oddly seductive world of British academia. I was a weird kid, and the culture of these head-in-the-cloud scholars that Lyra grew up with seemed nearly as romantic as the northern wastes where The Golden Compass’s adventure begins properly. It’s the most intimate of these three stories, consisting largely of a conversation between two art collectors, with its connections to the main trilogy existing mostly by implication. And perhaps unexpectedly, given all of this, it is also more straightforwardly horror-tinged than most of Pullman’s other writing. In this conversational setting, Pullman’s explanation of his version of the many-worlds theory comes off like something out of Borges — but horror Borges. So, basically China Miéville. I love that Philip Pullman can channel that. My only complaint is the recording: a better engineer might have rolled off some of Nighy’s natural sibilance. Funny how this is only an issue in audiobooks and never in the more professional echelons of podcasting. Taken together, these three stories really do enrich the world of His Dark Materials. I’m unspeakably excited to dive into the next proper novel.

Stephen King: On Writing — I bought it impulsively and it turned out to be one of the most useful books I’ve ever read. It is also approximately half autobiography. I came to this for good solid advice, and then suddenly he’s writing about how his wife’s poetry made him fall in love with her and suddenly I’m crying in the airport. THAT’S NOT WHAT I SIGNED UP FOR. Still, the autobiographical sections of the book are lovely illustrations of how a writer’s craft can interact with the rest of their life — without superseding it. That’s crucial. Of King’s many wise dictums, this may be the wisest: “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” As for the more practical section of the book, I was surprised to find myself seldom disagreeing with King and taking a lot of what he wrote to heart. I love King’s writing, but it’s really different from the more ornamented sort of prose that I usually admire. I somehow expected to find him dogmatically insistent upon simplicity and directness, like George Orwell. But he’s actually one of the least dogmatic writing teachers I’ve ever encountered. Mostly he just wants you to focus on the story. His thoughts on theme and symbolism are wonderful: don’t start with either of those things, but they’ll certainly help your readers make sense of the story if they arise naturally. I can see myself revisiting this periodically when my worst impulses as a writer start coming out again.

Movies

Lady Bird — A beautiful movie. Greta Gerwig’s story takes its name from its protagonist, but it could just as easily be called Sacramento. Lady Bird is a movie about the specific experience of growing up in that town: a hard place to be for a kid with a big sense of herself. Speaking as somebody who was once a highly performative small-town teenager with a penchant for weird music and theatre, this movie sooooo gets it right — the drama club scenes in particular. Those are the kids who are in drama club. And those are the songs they sing at auditions. And that’s the way they sing them. The thing that makes Lady Bird such a brilliant coming-of-age story is that it focuses on Lady Bird’s changing sense of her place in the world. Her character arc starts with shame: shame of where she’s from, shame of her class and the neighborhood she lives in, shame of her parents. Then, we see her try to escape from the life that causes her shame. We see her attempt this through theatre, through a deeply misbegotten relationship with another theatre kid, through an even more misbegotten relationship with an antisocial aesthete type, and finally by actually leaving. And finally we see her accept her circumstances. Much of what’s been written about this movie focuses on the relationship between Lady Bird and her mother, which is only appropriate since that’s actually the core of the movie. (And because Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf both give incredible performances.) But it’s the sense of place that jumped out at me more than anything: the sense that every human settlement is a network of connections and memories and regrets that have richness for the people who live there, whether they like the place or not.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi — Hey, this is fun! I never have much to say about Star Wars movies because it’s just not a franchise I feel a lot of attachment to. I get why others love it so much, but for me it’s just something that exists, and I’m not really engaged enough to have strong opinions one way or the other. I have opinions of middling strength. I liked The Force Awakens because it had a fun cast of loveable new characters romping through familiar story beats. I didn’t like Rogue One because it was dull, had a cipher for a main character, and Mads Mikkelsen was badly miscast. I can’t quite access the sort of adoration for this franchise that leads people to proclaim their childhoods ruined when it puts a foot wrong. I do, however, have some strong opinions about Rian Johnson movies. I think Brick and Looper are two of the most dazzling genre movies of the last two decades. And I think The Brothers Bloom is maybe the only Wes Anderson impression that’s actually worth anybody’s time. Among Star Wars movies, The Last Jedi is firmly in my upper echelon, along with the first two instalments of the original trilogy. But alongside Rian Johnson’s other work, I’d put it in the bottom half. I find it hard to credit the notion that anybody would find this more accomplished than Brick, with its virtuosic dialogue and flawless location shooting, or Looper, with its complex but comprehensible story and outstanding action. But it’s a good movie! You should go see it if you weren’t planning to.

Music

Led Zeppelin: Houses of the Holy — I dunno what possessed me to listen to this just now. It’s been like five years since I even thought about listening to Led Zeppelin. But this is still awesome. Either this or Physical Graffiti is my favourite Zep album. They’re a bit more elaborate than the more celebrated first four, and I like that. There are clunkers on Houses of the Holy (“The Crunge,” “Dancing Days”), but the best bits are sublime rock and roll. “The Rain Song” is one of their very best. It finds Jimmy Page elaborating on a few very simple ideas, including one of the most delicate acoustic riffs he ever devised (that syncopated thing in the sixth measure). The song’s slow build, from John Paul Jones’s elaborations of the harmony on Mellotron through John Bonham’s brushes, to the point where the band kicks into full electric mode, is to my ears a major refinement of the same idea in “Stairway to Heaven.” (Yeah, “The Rain Song” is better than “Stairway to Heaven.” Fight me.) “Over the Hills and Far Away” might be my favourite of the band’s major singles. Perhaps it’s a bit clichéd, but don’t blame Led Zeppelin for that. Blame the second-best guitarist at your high school. The one who was better than the dude who could only play “Smoke On the Water,” but not as good as the girl who could play “Eruption.” It’s a song where Jimmy Page’s abilities as a producer are really becoming obvious. Listen to the way the acoustic guitar starts off dead centre of the stereo image, as a matter-of-fact statement of the song’s musical material, then splits into a wide open binaural image on the second time through. It would sound hollow in the long term, but then Robert Plant comes in dead centre and holds it all together. Lovely stuff. And that little ten-note riff that Page brings in just before the outro is one of the loveliest tossed-off moments in the band’s catalogue. My other highlights are “No Quarter” and “The Song Remains the Same,” which is the best thing in the world when you need a sudden jolt of energy. I’d forgotten how much I like this.

Kate Bush: 50 Words for Snow — This album came out when I lived in Edmonton and it immediately became a winter tradition. It’s an album I can only bear to listen to when there’s snow on the ground. I’ve been living in Vancouver for a few years now, and the opportunity to get a good, full listen to this in the proper surroundings hasn’t really surfaced. And Christmases at home in Fort McMurray don’t lend themselves to a lot of deep listening in general. I seem to listen to it most frequently on the train to the airport, weirdly. But I can’t make it through the whole thing on that ride. Even if the train were travelling very slow indeed, this is quite simply not the city for it. But this year — hark! — we have snow in Vancouver! Not much of it, mind, but enough to make this album feel at least vaguely à propos. It is certainly Kate Bush’s most underrated album, though I can understand why it wouldn’t hit home for some listeners. No other music in her catalogue is this spare and spacious. Songs stretch on two or three times longer than her average — more, in the case of the 13-minute “Misty.” But if you’re willing to put in the time, you’ll find that 50 Words for Snow’s slow pace is never without purpose. Take “Wild Man.” It’s probably the most accessible track on the album, with something resembling a rousing chorus. Still, it clocks in at over seven minutes and it stretches on for more than two minutes past its climax. But those final two minutes give Bush’s protagonist — a mountain explorer who has just helped the Yeti avoid detection by the locals — time to process what she’s just been through. A rare thing in pop music. That ability to use musical structure to express meaning is one of the biggest reasons why Kate Bush is my favourite songwriter. The album’s crown jewel, of course, is “Misty.” The basic idea of the song is so simple and so perfect that it seems truly strange that it hadn’t been done before. Maybe it had. But the premise “a woman has sex with a snowman then wakes up to find he’s gone, leaving only a puddle on the bed” was a new one for me. But the beauty of the song is that Bush makes the whole thing feel like a normal, slightly melancholy human interaction (“so cold next to me”). That, and the fact that it contains some of the most beautiful music she’s ever written. I’m thinking specifically of the piano line that first appears at 2:26, and only once more (with strings) in the song’s whole 13-minute duration. That’s nearly as perversely withholding as the Sibelius violin concerto, which uses its gorgeous melody only twice in about 17 minutes, give or take a couple depending on the performance. In both cases, the restrained use of such beautiful material gives the same effect of fleeting euphoria giving way to melancholy. It’s a glorious construction. There are less effective tracks here. “Snowed in at Wheeler Street” never quite makes me believe in the supposed eternal love of its two protagonists, even though both Bush and her esteemed duet partner Elton John both give deeply committed performances. And I’ve never really gotten “Among Angels,” which is a fairly austere way to end the album. Clearly Bush sees something in the song that I don’t, because she also used it as an encore at her Before the Dawn shows. I hope to get it eventually. But this album’s high points (“Misty,” “Wild Man,” “Snowflake”) are some of the best in Bush’s catalogue, and therefore quite simply among my very favourite music.

Podcasts

On the Media: “Power Trip” — Worth hearing for Brooke Gladstone’s forthright take on WNYC’s own struggle to deal with revelations of sexual abuse in its workplace culture and Bob Garfield’s attempt to have a frank conversation with a far-right lunatic without having said far-right lunatic hang up on him. (He fails.)

All Songs Considered: “The Year In Music 2017,” “What Makes A Great Album Last” & “Poll Results: Listeners Pick The Best Albums Of 2017” — I haven’t been following this show all year, which means I haven’t really been following new music. There’s lots here that’s new to me, and I doubt I’ll actually check out very much of it. As great as the albums by SZA and Lorde sound, I just can’t keep on top of everything. Still, it’s nice to hear Bob Boilen, Robin Hilton and their associates summing up the year. It wasn’t a year full of stuff I connect with especially. It is what it is. Also, nice to be reminded of Reflection a year later. I should check out the seasonal editions as well.

The Heart: Five-episode catch up — Little did I know when I started this run of five episodes backed up in my feed that they’d be the last five episodes of this wonderful show as we know it. And they’re five episodes that demonstrate many facets of the show that make it great. “Signature Research” is a brief, gutting childhood story from a producer who hadn’t made a radio story prior to this one. The Heart has always been great about giving new voices a platform. “God + The Gays” is a deeply personal story from one of The Heart’s staffers about how her sexuality and her religious upbringing bounced off each other. The Heart has always been, quite simply, the best show about the intersection of sexuality and everything else in life. “Man Choubam (I Am Good)” is an expression of a very specific conflict in a very specific person’s life. The Heart has always known that the very personal and very specific are interesting and worthwhile, whether they intersect with broader concerns or not. “An Announcement” is a functional rather than complete episode, existing to inform us of the show’s coming hiatus. But it’s still full of personality and life. The Heart always is. And finally, “Dream” is the most adventurous and sonically beautiful thing I’ve heard in months. The Heart has always been the best sounding, subtlest and most technically masterful podcast in production. I’ve learned a lot from this show, about life, and other people’s experiences of the world, and also about how radio can sound when it’s made by someone with an open mind. Its whole catalogue, taken together, is one of the crown jewels of the medium. It’s a sad loss, but I’m looking forward to hearing what Kaitlin Prest, Mitra Kaboli and company will be up to in the next year. Pick of the week.

Omnibus (week of Nov. 5, 2017)

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

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

19 reviews.

ISCM World New Music Days 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music

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

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

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

Literature, etc.

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

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

Games

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnibus (week of Oct. 29, 2017)

A rather sparsely populated instalment, this week. I’ve been out and about, and I’ve been to a few concerts I haven’t written about yet. There’s a big new music festival on in Vancouver and I’m taking in as much of it as I can. I’ll recap that here next weekend, and probably on North by Northwest as well. Look forward to some weird shit.

Meanwhile, there’s a new episode of Mark’s Great American Road Trip, and it’s one that I’ve been looking forward to people hearing since the day we mapped out the main story. It is several things at once, including a critique of the “white saviour” narrative, a Western, and a retelling of a classic folktale. But I’ll leave the explaining at that, because Nick would quite rightly prefer you to see it as a dumb comedy where trucks explode because internet.

13 reviews.

Live events

Roger Waters: Us + Them Tour, Rogers Arena, October 29, Vancouver — This was a great concert marred by an embarrassing incident midway though. I went to this Roger Waters show (my third) with a friend who shall remain anonymous because of the dishonest behaviour she and I exhibit in this story. This was the second of two dates Waters played at Rogers Arena, and it was nowhere close to a full house. So at intermission, we scarpered from our cramped upper bowl seats to a row of luxurious, unspoken-for seats on the opposite side of the lower bowl. We weren’t the only ones. The lower bowl was mysteriously much fuller throughout the second half. Anyway, the second half of this show starts with one of the coolest effects I’ve seen at any concert that isn’t The Wall. (I feel fine spoiling it since this was the last show of the tour.) Sirens wail, red lights flash, and an apparatus descends from the ceiling right over the middle of the crowd. Gradually, it extends itself upwards until it stands revealed as a set of screens in the familiar shape of the Battersea Power Station from the iconic Animals album cover, complete with diminutive inflatable pig. The band starts playing “Dogs.” “Dogs” is my third-favourite Pink Floyd song, after “Echoes” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” neither of which were on this program. Just as the cool ambient midsection was starting, we were approached by one of Rogers Arena’s discourteous miserable jobsworths and told to return to our original seats. (I’d had to shift places to accommodate some of my fellow cheaters, and I suppose it gave us away.) It took us the entire duration of the instrumental to return to our original seats, and the whole affair left a sour taste. I guess we got what we had coming, but about a hundred others didn’t. I have outlined this mostly because I feel like if we’d gotten away with it, I would be OVER THE MOON about this show, as opposed to merely satisfied. Consider it disclosure. The Us + Them tour is a response to the presidency of Donald Trump, delivered largely through the messages of two albums, released four decades apart from each other. One of these is Waters’ latest solo effort, Is This The Life We Really Want?, a not especially strong but very blatant album released earlier this year. The other is Animals, a classic Pink Floyd album that is 40 years old this year. Waters and co. play neither of these in their entirety, and indeed the critique of Trump bleeds through into songs from The Wall and The Dark Side of the Moon (from which the tour takes its name) as well. But that two-album axis makes up the thematic spine of the show. It’s worth pondering why Waters didn’t choose to just do all of Animals, rather than three quarters of it. I have a theory about this which is probably wrong: “Dogs” and “Pigs” are ferocious songs aimed at the powerful. You don’t need to do any twisting or mapping to relate them very straightforwardly to the politics of today. (And indeed the projections during these songs were the show’s most blatant — a double-edged sword in the case of “Pigs,” during which the illustrations of Trump veered into misogyny, transphobia, and fat shaming.) But the other centrepiece track of the album, “Sheep,” is more complicated. It is about the powerless masses, and it envisions a world where they overthrow their oppressors. The question is: who are the powerless masses in this scenario? I’m fairly sure that many of Trump’s voters would place themselves in that category, probably rightly in lots of cases. In in the 2016 election, they did enact a profound upheaval of the status quo — albeit an upheaval that has led to an ass-backwards, reactionary administration. Could it be that Waters sees this parallel between Trump’s base and the “demented avengers” of his song as well? I could see him not wanting to go there. That said, there’s a Trump-era reading of “Sheep” to be had in which it becomes a revenge fantasy — a bit of idle speculation about what could happen in America if wealth continues to buy power. I think something along those lines could have worked. And just think how affecting “Pigs on the Wing 2” would have been in the wake of that rendition of “Sheep”: “You know that I care what happens to you, and I know that you care for me too.” The new material did come off better in concert than on record, which I expected to be the case. But it’s a tough sell to put large chunks of an unfamiliar, middling record in a show largely consisting of massively acclaimed rock classics. This became a particular problem in the encore, during which Waters decided to do a song they hadn’t ever played before, in honour of the tour’s end: “Wait For Her,” which is actually three songs on the album: “Wait For Her,” “Oceans Apart” and “Part of Me Died.” It was nice to hear Waters talk a bit about what these songs mean to him and why he wanted to play them live at least once. But after the slog that was their nine-minute duration, even “Comfortably Numb” struggled to get the crowd’s energy back up. (Again, I’d likely be more charitable if I hadn’t been recently chastised for my seat swapping indiscretion.) But once lead guitarist Dave Kilminster cracked out his album-perfect rendition of the first solo (and a more freewheeling take on the extended second one), all was forgiven. The band in general is fantastic this time around, with Kilminster continuing to be a consummate pro at impersonating David Gilmour, and at knowing when’s the time to cut loose. And having both singers from Lucius as backing vocalists is frankly an embarrassment of riches. I was a bit worried at the outset of their rendition of “The Great Gig In The Sky,” which they started off singing in unison, but it turned out to be a highlight of a musically magnificent show. For all of its problems, the Us + Them tour has a vision and clear thematic raison d’etre, which is more than can be said of 2006’s Dark Side of the Moon tour — and much, much less than can be said of 2010’s fabulous, life-changing Wall. It is an often beautiful, completely unsubtle work of political performance art by a performer who has been the top name in that field for going on fifty years.

Music

The Beatles: Help! — I daresay this is the most underappreciated Beatles album. (There’s no such thing as an underappreciated Beatles album, but it’s relative.) I hear you yelling about With the Beatles, or Please Please Me. And while those are certainly a rung below this in terms of mass appreciation, I think it ought to be obvious to anybody that they’re much poorer. Listening to Help! this week, I realized for the first time how much of the human experience is reflected in these 12 originals and two covers. This is especially remarkable given that all but two of these songs are love songs, and one of those two is “Act Naturally,” which is essentially a love song by omission. The other is of course the title track, which, like many Beatles songs, seems less remarkable than it might if it were less familiar. Considering what a vast preponderance of early Beatles songs, and pop songs in general, are love songs, it’s remarkable in itself that John Lennon would think to compose a song about something else. (I suppose it has a precedent in “I’m A Loser,” but that’s got nothing on this.) Clearly, the ideas in this song were important to him. “Help!” is a song about realizing your need for other people — not a sexual or romantic need, but a general sense of requiring the presence of others for your wellbeing. This is by no means a radical insight on my part; the key virtue of Lennon’s lyrics is their straightforwardness. But once that song is over, we’re catapulted into a succession of 12 love songs and one song about Ringo being a sad, lonely movie star. (I love “Act Naturally.” I daresay it’s the band’s best ever use of Ringo’s thoroughly unremarkable pipes.) And on this listen, it still hit me as remarkably varied and insightful. These songs aren’t specific in the way that, say, Kate Bush songs or Gord Downie songs are. They broadly conform to the standard pop music rule that your listener should be able to map their own experiences onto the lyrics without stretching too much. But each song is specific to a particular facet of a universal experience. “I’ve Just Seen A Face” gives us maybe the best musical expression of the first blush of infatuation. “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” gives us the anguish of secret, unrequited love. “Another Girl” gives us a first-person, aggressor’s eye view of a callous breakup. And “Yesterday” treads on the most fertile territory of all: missing somebody. But what it contributes to the pool of ideas established by eminent forebears like “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and “I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)” is the conflation of a lost love with a lost moment in time. “Yesterday” isn’t a song about wanting a person back in your present-day life: it’s explicitly a song about wanting to go back to the point in time when you were together. It’s a subtle difference, but it gestures at a profound truth, which is that a single change in your life can make the difference between everything being fantastic and everything being awful. From the latter vantage point, it’s hard to conceive of a remedy, so we dream of time travel. I could go on. I like every song on this album and love most of them. George Harrison hasn’t come into his own as a songwriter yet, and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” only works in context. (After “Yesterday,” there’s nothing like a silly, happy ‘50s cover.) But the weaker moments are shallow troughs among some of the most satisfying pop music ever. Pick of the week.

Bon Iver: 22, A Million — I have nothing to add to my initial review of this, in which I enthused about it and chastised myself for misunderstanding the first two Bon Iver records (which I still have not revisited). But I’ll say this — I listened to it three times in one day this week. It’s been very autumn in Vancouver, lately. In the best way. Aside from the one day of torrential rain, it has been my favourite kind of weather: chilly, still, bracing. Walking around in that while listening to this was a highlight of my week. I keep having new favourite songs on it.

Television

The Chris Gethard Show: “Fight For The Fish” — Look, I’ve been busy. I can’t commit to anything that threatens to eat up my life nine hours at a stretch. Ergo, Chris Gethard. The longer I watched this episode, the more surprised I was to find I was still watching it. It is essentially a wrestling match, fought for the custody of Gethard’s fictional companion the human fish, who is actually just a guy in swimming goggles. Jon Hamm is there for some reason. It’s very strange, and definitely the episode of this show that treads most fully on the side of weird alt-comedy and there’s comparatively little space for Gethard’s humanity to shine through the weirdness. Chris Gethard is awesome, but I’m mixed on this show.

Podcasts

More Perfect: Three-episode catch-up — Specifically, “The Gun Show,” “The Heist” and “Enemy of Mankind.” The first of these is a history of readings of the second amendment, which is exactly the sort of summary that I’m sure puts a lot of people off this show, but the only thing I can tell you to do is listen and find out for yourself how interesting this stuff is. A member of the New York Times Podcast Club (an awesome Facebook group you should join if you’re a podcast geek) mentioned that it’s kind of wrong to talk about the Black Panthers’ role in gun rights as if it’s a forgotten story. Aside from that, it’s a good episode. “The Heist” is slight but fun: a follow up to this show’s crowning glory, “The Political Thicket,” in which we learn that most of Felix Frankfurter’s papers are missing from the National Library. “Enemy of Mankind” is already looking like this season’s equivalent of “The Political Thicket,” since its subject seems almost unapproachably broad at first. It is about the SCOTUS’s ability to decide cases from outside the United States’ borders. It deals with the history of human rights law, and also pirates. It’s a fantastic episode of radio and I’d recommend it as the second-most worthy starting point in this show. “The Political Thicket” is still their finest hour.

Nocturne: “Interloper” — An episode about a guy who likes trespassing. This is one of those things you should listen to if you’re in the mood for a slice of life, but not necessarily if you’re in the mood for a good story. “This is a thing that happens” is a perfectly okay raison d’etre for a podcast episode, but your mileage may vary.

Fresh Air: “Technology’s ‘Frightful Five’” — Okay, this interview was all well and good until Terry Gross and Farhad Manjoo start talking about the cameras he has running in his house all the time. Sure, Manjoo: you’re an insightful observer of the impact of big tech companies on modern life, BUT YOU’RE RAISING YOUR CHILDREN IN THE FUCKING PANOPTICON. Don’t do that! I’m not even exaggerating. At one point he’s like “I tell my son ‘don’t start a fight with your sister because I’ll know.’” Panopticon! Also, when Gross asks him actually why he does this, he says it’s because he doesn’t have time to spend with his kids, so he wants their childhood to be recorded somewhere. Gross is like “so, you aren’t raising your kids, but you still want to watch them grow up on TV sometime.” Which Manjoo seems to think is a bit uncharitable, but it’s also EXACTLY WHAT HE SAID. This is a hilarious, weird interview.

Radiolab: “Father K” & “Oliver Sacks: A Journey From Where to Where” — “Father K” is one of my least favourite episodes this show has ever done. It’s about a Christian Arab candidate for Brooklyn city council whose key strategic hurdle is convincing Muslim Arabs in the community that he will represent them in a way they’ve never been represented before, while also not alienating the white members of the constituency. It continually raises the false equivalency that by standing up for the politically underrepresented Arabs in his riding, he is doing the same thing as his white opponents are when they play to their base. Aside from that, it’s also just dull. The Oliver Sacks episode is nice, but still nothing special. I’m listening to Radiolab out of sheer inertia right now. The more time Jad spends on More Perfect, the better.

StartUp: “New Money” & “The Grand Challenge” — As I’m writing this, I don’t even remember what “New Money” was about. Oh right, cryptocurrency. Man, I’m looking forward to this getting back to a serialized format. “The Grand Challenge” is fun, though. I’m looking forward to hearing the next instalment of this two-parter on self-driving cars.

Love and Radio: “Photochemical” & “Murdertown, USA” — Two very Love and Radio episodes of Love and Radio. “Photochemical” begins with a remix of itself, and proceeds to tell the story of a person who is sexually attracted to photo booths. And “Murdertown, USA” is about a guy who collects stuff made by serial killers. If you want to know what this show does, these two episodes will tell you. They’re also quite good, though neither is a classic, by this show’s standards.

Theory of Everything: “Iron and Lies (Wisconsin part II)” & “Bad Science” — The second half of Benjamen Walker’s Wisconsin duology isn’t as good as the first (no Mathilde, this time), but it does meander through some fascinating American kitsch. “Bad Science” is a live episode featuring one of my favourite recurring characters in any podcast: Chris the fake Washington insider. Nice stuff.

The Combat Jack Show: “Return Of RZA & Mathematics” — I was always going to check this out, but figured I’d wait until somebody I know and love showed up. RZA it is. Combat Jack is a really good host and RZA and Mathematics are both fascinating individuals, but there’s a certain amount of lifestyle brand hokiness to the modern incarnation of the Wu-Tang Clan that comes out in this. Still worth a listen. Nobody else talks like RZA.

All Songs Considered: Two recent episodes — Specifically, the mix with MGMT and Courtney Barnett, and the feature on Margo Price. The mix has some great tunes, especially the track from A Ghost Story, which I haven’t seen. But I feel the need to check out Susanne Sundfør as well, because that album sounds like madness. And then we get Ann Powers interviewing Margo Price, which was always going to be a good time. Also: there’s a new Margo Price album! I, for one, am enthusiastic about this. Pick of the week.

Omnibus (week of Oct. 9, 2017)

First off, there’s a second episode of the fiction podcast I’m making with Nick Zarzycki: Mark’s Great American Road Trip. I like it a lot better than the first one. I daresay it’s quite good, actually. But what do I know. Subscribe, if you’re inclined. Rate, if you’re feeling really charitable.

23 reviews.

Movies

Arrival — The twist in this movie is so good that it’s almost hard to watch it a second time and keep track of what you are and aren’t supposed to know. Arrival sets up its own metaphor for its protagonist’s experience: if you watch the movie twice, you know how she feels. Arrival is a masterpiece.

Television

Downton Abbey: Season 6, episodes 1-3 — This show is feeling tired now. It’s still fun to see thee characters but they’re being placed in increasingly outlandish configurations and scenarios, including Mrs. Hughes sending Mrs. Patmore as an emissary to Mr. Carson because she’s uncomfortable talking about sex. But I am liking the general sense of foreboding that covers the early part of this season — a scene in a dilapidated old manor kept by a delusional old aristocrat waiting for “the good times” to return is a bit over the top, writing-wise, but it does its job with its visuals. Seeing a house like Downton in terms of size and style, but which hasn’t been maintained for decades, is enormously impactful. Even to those of us who recognize that these old houses were unequivocally a social blight.

Games

Detention — The highest compliment I can pay it is that it reminds me of Year Walk. Both games derive their undeniable horror from a very specific time and place: in Year Walk the Sweden of mythological memory, and in Detention the White Terror in Taiwan. And while Detention can’t match Year Walk’s innovative presentation or unforced storytelling, it is a similarly immersive experience. Visually, it’s a marvel: particularly in its early and late stages, in which the environments are constructed from a mix of illustrations and photographs, like a creepy moving collage. Narratively, it puts a bit too much weight on a few shabby little shocks and generic bits of character backstory. But the story’s specifics aren’t quite the point. From a distance, Detention is a compelling psychological portrait of a person dealing with intense guilt — the specific sort of guilt that results from collusion with an if-you-see-something-say-something regime. And it’s properly terrifying, too.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Funes, His Memory” — Been a while, but I feel I need to get back to Borges in a serious way. This is a very typical story from him, in that it is basically a series of musings on a single extraordinary supposition: in this case that there is a person who remembers everything perfectly and completely. Borges may well be the greatest author of speculative fiction who ever lived, and also maybe the purest example of that style, because in his least narratively driven stories (those that are not, for instance, “The Garden of Forking Paths” or “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”) he does essentially nothing except speculating. In this story, for instance, he gives us the brilliant “the map is not (but nearly is) the territory” notion of a person reconstructing the complete memory of a full day, and having this take exactly the same amount of time as the original experience. I love Borges. I haven’t encountered a writer I connect with so much since I read At Swim-Two Birds, which Borges apparently also loved.

Kelly Sue DeConnick & Valentine De Landro: Bitch Planet, Volumes 1 & 2 — I read volume one when it came out in trade, but that was two years ago (jesus where is my life going). Two issues into the second volume, I realized I really needed a full recap. And even though I recall loving Bitch Planet from the start, I feel like I missed a ton of stuff the first time through. On second reading, it is incredibly kinetic, right off the top. The way it starts with a voiceover actor arriving for a gig and immediately transitions into the use of her tape en route to Bitch Planet is one of the cleverest bits of exposition I’ve ever seen in comics. I also don’t remember the characters coming into their own as fast as they actually do. The surprise reveal of Kam as the protagonist at the end of the issue, following the death of the Piper Chapman-esque white woman is a masterstroke — it’s a rug pull that the writers of Lost were planning to do in their pilot episode, but couldn’t get away with. Here, it’s staggering. I also missed that there’s a sports team called the Florida Men. DeConnick is a technically impeccable storyteller but she’s also super funny. The second volume is narratively much more exciting than the first, which has a lot of worldbuilding business to get through before the story starts in earnest. The addition of Kam’s sister and a new cast of inmates in an entirely different facility brings a new facet to the story, and the arrival of a revenge-seeking Makoto Maki adds forward momentum. It was a long wait, and I’ll probably have to read both of these again when the third volume comes out. But that’s not such a bad thing.

Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky: Sex Criminals, Vol. 4: “Fourgy” — This isn’t up to the ecstatically silly highs of the first two arcs, but it’s a huge improvement over the third. It doubles down on the two things I love most about this comic, which are the enormous density of dumb sex jokes in Chip Zdarsky’s art and the realism of Jon and Suzie’s relationship. I’m not sure there are any characters in comics that I care about more than these two, even in Bitch Planet or The Wicked and the Divine, which I am inclined to think are better comics in general. Also neither of those have a fake magazine article with a bogus oral (lol) history of Matt Fraction’s dumb jingle about “wide wieners.” And that’s their loss.

Music

The Rolling Stones: Beggars Banquet — It’s widely regarded as the beginning of their four-album imperial phase. And while I see a much clearer line between this and the albums that follow it than between this and the albums that immediately precede it, I still feel like this is more of a transitional album than a full-on masterpiece. It doesn’t have the density of huge riffs of later albums, and the arrangements are still pretty bare bones. The most familiar songs are also the best: “Sympathy for the Devil” is one of Mick Jagger’s best moments lyrically, and his “yow!” at the start is just irresistible. And “Street Fighting Man” is a classic of rock star self-awareness — “what else can a poor boy do,” indeed. Of the album tracks, I am fondest of “No Expectations,” on which Brian Jones gives one of his most memorable instrumental performances on slide guitar, and “Jigsaw Puzzle,” which shimmers in a way that anticipates the band’s most open and cathartic moments in songs like “Monkey Man” and “Moonlight Mile.” On the other hand, “Salt of the Earth” is patronizing nonsense that almost makes me dislike Keith Richards, and the acoustic blues numbers still feel like pale imitations of old American icons. By Sticky Fingers, they’ll have finally internalized the blues enough to do it their own way, but they haven’t here. This has never been one of my favourites, and I daresay there are a couple of albums from prior to this that I prefer. Also, listening in mono does not add or detract much from the experience. I understand that aside from “Sympathy,” the mono mix is actually just a fold-down of the stereo, and so we have finally reached the phase where mono is no longer the definitive format for this band.

The Rolling Stones: Let It Bleed — At this point, maybe it’s worth stopping for a moment to consider how strange it is that I have devoted so much time to the Rolling Stones over the past couple of weeks, and indeed in my life generally. They do not remotely fit the profile of music that I tend to like. They’re undisciplined, macho, not terribly skilled, not terribly imaginative, and there are large stretches of their discography that feel produced by formula. I am hard-pressed to articulate why I like them in terms of actual musical qualities. But in a more autobiographical sense, the reason why I like the Rolling Stones is this album. Let It Bleed was the first Stones album I bought — yes, bought, on CD, at the Wal-Mart in my hometown, where they still sold these little shiny discs that I liked to collect even as all of my friends began abandoning them in favour of piracy. I was 16, and my musical taste thus far had been almost entirely dictated by the family orthodoxy. Not only did I listen nearly exclusively to music from my parents’ generation, I also studiously avoided the music that my father had defined himself against in his younger days. And the Stones were a tentpole in that canon. We were a Beatles family, thank you very much. And more to the point, we were a family who liked the sort of music that took after the Beatles: Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes — all of them still bands I like better than the Stones. But at some point I remember hearing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on satellite radio (remember satellite radio? we had it in our truck) and thinking for the first time that perhaps the family orthodoxy was wrong. I’d been led to believe that the Stones were incapable of producing beauty, or making anything with real ambition. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” put the lie to that. Even if the choral arrangement is awful — and it is: it’s an attempt to get a choir to do what a singer with a guitar does — the multi-part structure of the song is incredibly elegant. One section melts into the next without any fuss. It’s all based on the same verses and choruses, but they take on drastically different aspects as the song transforms from heartfelt ballad to rave-up. The way the piano and organ play off of each other at the ends of the choruses is ingenious. So I bought the album, halfway hoping that the rest of it wouldn’t live up to this standard, because that would complicate my worldview in a most untidy way. But as soon as the guiro came in over Keith Richards’ classic riff in “Gimme Shelter,” I realized I was in for no such luck. This, far more than Beggars Banquet, is the moment where everything coalesces for the Stones. Keith’s listen-close-or-you’ll-miss-it lead playing in the intro to that track is the mark of a band with a newly discovered sense of self. By the time “Monkey Man” came around and I hadn’t disliked any songs yet, I realized that I had some serious re-evaluating to do — of the Rolling Stones, but also of the entire value system that had led me to dismiss them in the first place. I’m not exaggerating for effect when I say that this album was the catalyst for a complete change-up in my way of thinking. In an odd way, this band that has long been the definition of baby boomer cultural dominance became a totem of rebellion for me, in the year 2006. There’s more to the story than I’m prepared to write about on the internet. But suffice it to say that regardless of whether Let It Bleed is the best Stones album, and regardless of whether the Stones are even a good band, I owe them — and this album in particular — a very great deal. Pick of the week.

The Rolling Stones: Stray Cats — We’ve come to the end of the Rolling Stones mono box, with this collection of songs from the 60s that didn’t make it onto an album. Or, at least, none of the albums included in this box. (“Not Fade Away” was on the American version of their debut.) It contains much that is trivial, some that is regrettable (Mick Jagger’s voice is uniquely ill-suited for singing “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” yet he insists) and a smattering of spectacular classics. It’s frankly bizarre that “19th Nervous Breakdown” never appeared on one of the singles-laden American records. It is quite possibly the best song from the Aftermath period that isn’t “Paint It, Black.” Also, this album is the home of the mono versions of “We Love You” and “Child of the Moon,” psychedelic curios that are idiosyncratic favourites of mine. And it is the home of the two essential non-album singles from the band’s imperial phase: “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Honky Tonk Women.” If you want to get to know the Rolling Stones in seven minutes, you could do worse than listening to those two tracks. Okay, so in general I’ve enjoyed hearing all of this stuff in mono. But unlike the Beatles, I am not convinced that the mono versions of this band’s songs are always definitive. The Beatles’ sound had more transparency than the Stones. More lines, fewer crunchy chords. The sheer opacity of the Stones sound is sometimes overwhelming in mono. To paraphrase a later rock and roller, everything seems louder than everything else. I never listen to the Beatles in stereo, where a mono version exists. I don’t think that will be the case with the Stones.

The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers — After I finished the mono box, I found that I couldn’t stop. Not just when things are getting good. Sticky Fingers is probably the best Rolling Stones album. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to quite proclaim it my favourite (see above, re: Let It Bleed), but it is the moment when this band self-actualized. Sticky Fingers maintains the groovy, dirty rock feel that has been their most successful style since “Satisfaction,” but it explodes that style in a way that no previous album has. Previously, whenever they’ve tried something really new, they’ve done it by distancing themselves from their default aesthetic. That led to some good art pop songs and some tepid psychedelia. But here they give us a mix of flat-out riff rock, blues, and country that nonetheless has a cinematic sweep to it that doesn’t exist anywhere else in their catalogue. It’s not just because of the strings. And I’m not just talking about “Moonlight Mile,” either, though that song is certainly their most grandiose, and also one of their best. This album seeks to transport you to places more than any other Stones album. It brings forth images like a movie screen: images of strung-out desperados in “Sister Morphine,” squalid bedsits in “Dead Flowers,” youthful courtships in “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” — and, yes, slave ships in “Brown Sugar,” which persists in being staggering troublesome. It’s odd that the Stones are still associated with the early days of the British Invasion. Not odd, maybe, but incongruous. Because this is their apex, and it finds them having outlived the Beatles by a year, abandoned every convention of British psychedelia, and settled on a kind of music that has much more to do with guitar-driven music of the early 70s — on both sides of the Atlantic. If you cut the Stones’ discography off after the Beatles broke up, “Beatles vs. Stones” would not even be a question. It’s Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. that tip the balance and make it so.

The Rolling Stones: Exile On Main St. — There have been times when this has been my favourite Stones album, but not this week. This week it’s my third favourite. Exile is famously sprawling and unfocused, and that is the point of it. Without its shaggier moments it would be merely a less ambitious, poorly engineered Sticky Fingers. A hypothetical track list might look like: “Rocks Off,” “Sweet Virginia,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Loving Cup,” “Happy,” “Ventilator Blues,” “Let It Loose,” “Shine A Light,” “All Down the Line.” These are all classic songs. I dare say “Let It Loose” is the most underappreciated track in the band’s oeuvre. But without tracks like “Torn and Frayed” and “Soul Survivor,” the album would lose its long, gradual descent from partytime ecstasy to morose regretfulness. And I daresay that is what makes this the consensus pick for best Stones album. It’s certainly not the parts that make it a classic of the rock and roll canon. Their sum must therefore exceed them by some distance. Sometime in the not too distant future, I’ll listen to this again during a week when I haven’t been listening exclusively to the Stones. That’ll reignite my interest.

Podcasts

Arts and Ideas: “Thinking – Blade Runner. Ghost Stories” — Okay, so now I’ve got the negative perspective on Blade Runner 2049. At the time of writing, I have not seen it, so I can’t judge the value of these critiques yet. But I do think that both the guests and the host of this discussion have gotten misdirected by Blade Runner’s tenuous status as an adaptation of Philip K. Dick. We didn’t get a Blade Runner sequel because we wanted another Philip K. Dick movie. The original is barely that anyway, as the panelists are quick to point out. We got one because Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a fabulous classic in its own right, and one which has as much to do with the spectacle that Sarah Dillon so abhors as it does with storytelling — and that’s fine, because it helps to form a vision of a world. (Mind you, it sounds like what Dillon objects to most is the representation of female sexuality through the male gaze as a component of that spectacle. And without even having seen the movie, I know enough to expect that’s a valid critique. But there’s nothing wrong with spectacle in itself.) Also, it always throws me listening to British radio and hearing them say words like “empiricism” without explaining them. I guess they don’t have to because the populus has gotten smart by listening to the radio. What a concept!

Home of the Brave: “We Thought It Was a Movie” — A brief, powerful interview with somebody who was in the thick of the Las Vegas shooting. I have an acquaintance who was there and related a similarly harrowing story. What an awful thing to reckon with.

StartUp: “Make China Cool Again” & “Just Hit Record” — The China episode is baffling for its lack of having anything to do with the premise of this show. “Just Hit Record” has even less to do with that premise, but it does reckon with the show’s legacy as a document of the formation of a business. That makes it more interesting than many of the episodes that have come out lately.

In Our Time: “Constantine the Great” — This is GREAT fun. Sometimes Melvyn Bragg’s attempts to wrest a cursory survey of a subject from his panel takes on an athletic dimension. He careens unknowingly towards obstacles, only to pivot at the last minute so that valuable time won’t be lost. And in this case, he’s practically forced to sprint towards the finish line. If this show were conceived as a podcast rather than a live broadcast show, the time limit might be a gimmick rather than a necessity: “I’m Melvyn Bragg, and this is the show where I have one hour to make three professors explain something comprehensively!” Thank god it isn’t that. But the limitation is an asset, and adds a bit of excitement. If you want to hear a man become hysterically frustrated with how little is known about a topic, this episode is a must-listen. Pick of the week.

Love and Radio: “For Science!” — Here we have a story about a person who makes a living by participating in medical studies. It is funnier than it might have been. I wonder how many people will listen to this and think: “Ah! An option!”

Longform: “Michael Barbaro” — I tend to listen mostly to the episodes of this show that deal with podcasters, because I have a fixation. It is becoming a good source of behind-the-curtain perspectives on the stuff I listen to for hours a day. Barbaro is the voice of one of the most important podcasts in the history of the medium: The Daily, which is more than essential. It’s practically benevolent.

99% Invisible: “The Athletic Brassiere” & “The Containment Plan” — Two very 99pi episodes of 99pi, even though one of them is actually from Outside. You’ve got to respect a show that gives you what you think you’re going to get.

All Songs Considered: “Hallelujah! The Songs We Should Retire” — I love when Stephen Thompson is on this show, and I really love when Tom Huizenga makes an appearance. This is fun. It’s fun to hear people talk about overfamiliar music. It’s a conversation that I’ve had myself. Part of the point of podcasts is hearing people just talk. One of those simple things.

Uncivil: “The Raid” & “The Deed” — A good start to Gimlet’s latest. Neither of these episodes shook me to my core, but I love that they’re doing a whole show, and not just a limited-run series, about the Civil War. There’s plenty of material for years of this, I’m sure.

The Memory Palace: “A Brief Eulogy for a Commercial Radio Station” — One of Nate DiMeo’s best in a while. His favourite alternative radio station is shutting down, so he muses on the entire history of commercial radio as an influencer on the formation of young identities. It’s really beautiful, and it would be my pick of the week if I were in a less capricious mood.

Imaginary Worlds: “Rappers with Arm Cannons” — A story about two rappers who styled themselves after video game characters: specifically Mega Man and Samus. Listen to satisfy your curiosity.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Thad Vogler: A Short History of Spirits” — A slight, nice story on a person who knows a lot about alcohol. Not much more to say.

Omnibus (week of Sept. 17, 2017)

Well hi. Here’s the link to the latest segment on CBC Radio, in which I discuss the slippery notion of “creative beginnings.” Also, if you listen really closely you can hear my quarter-life crisis humming in the background. Fun! I’m at 1:21:19.

23 reviews. The classic number of reviews. (I think there’s been 23 more than any other number of reviews.)

Games

Everything — Not long after I posted my last, very satisfied review of this, I finished the section of the game that apparently constitutes the tutorial. Well then. It’s a clever structural tactic, actually: once all of the game’s mechanics are introduced, Everything beckons you back to the place where you started: an oddly shaped golden gate that you can now actually enter into. It leads to an inescapable prison, where every object is miserable and solipsistic. But if you’ve been paying attention to Alan Watts’ proto-hippie voiceover lectures, you’ll know that they’ve all got the wrong idea. They don’t realize that everything is everything else. This is the one part of the game so far that presents a clear objective: escape. And of course, you can do so by using the mechanics you’ve learned already, in a neat bit of symmetry with the more abstract set of realizations the game takes for granted that you’ve internalized. Once you escape, you’re treated to a very late-90s cinematic that has the feel of an ending, but which culminates in the words “Welcome to Everything.” Because a game like Everything can’t have something so banal as an ending. The object of the game is to explore, and that’s not an objective that can be deemed complete by anybody save for the player. Another note: this game has a highly customizable autoplay mode that takes over when you stop playing, basically rendering it a deeply contemplative screensaver. This is far more satisfying than you might think. I let Everything play on its own while I made lunch today, and I saw more of it than I probably would had I been in control that whole time. So if you’re playing this, don’t discount that mode. Put it on while you’re reading, or something. If I had a television in addition to this damned laptop, Everything might make nice ambience for the apartment. I’ve never seen anything like Everything before. In a sense it’s staggeringly ambitious — a game that illustrates the whole of creation. But in another, it’s a pleasantly modest and quirky little confection that can take the edge off if you’re stressed out. I’ve come to like it a whole lot.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Razor, Razor Flashbacks & Season 4.0 — BSG is not so much a show as a hole you fall down. This week I fell down the hole. For clarity: I watched the TV movie Razor, the series of short webisodes Razor Flashbacks and the first half of the fourth season, officially known as Season 4.0 (as opposed to 4.5, which is next week’s project). I understand I’m a season and a half into the part of the show that people think isn’t good. I only halfway understand that. Seasons two and three are in my view equally patchy, with the high points of season three being among the most staggering episodes in the series. So far, this is holding up that pattern. Razor and its largely redundant flashbacks are not among the show’s finest hours, but it’s fun to see the events of a fascinating moment in the show’s timeline through an unfamiliar perspective. I can imagine that it might have been frustrating on original transmission, seeing how it has very little to do with the enormous cliffhanger of the season three finale. But from a binge-watching perspective, it’s exactly what the show needs at this moment: a reprieve from the acceleration of the show towards its much-prophesied endpoint, and a trip back to the simpler times of mid-season two. As for the season itself, it feels creaky at times, but only to the same extent as the last two seasons. Occasionally there’ll be a joke that falls flat or a line that doesn’t make sense. “It’s time to take a stand. And that time is now,” Baltar says at one point. Half of that line shouldn’t have made it to the shooting script. But then, Baltar is getting to be the show’s biggest problem. He was fun at first, and I enormously enjoyed the arc that led him from the presidency to the trial of the century. But as a prophet, and an increasingly sincere one at that, he’s less fun. The spiritual element of Battlestar Galactica has always been my favourite thing about it. The collision of political power, military might and religious devotion that fuels this show’s large-scale conflicts are starting to feel increasingly like a far more interesting (and earlier) version of what Game of Thrones is at its best. But having Baltar at the centre of it strikes me as a bit arbitrary — just something new for him to do. (Also, where has Head Six been these last few episodes? She vanished like Lear’s fool as soon as Baltar took the lead of his cult. Will she be back? I sure hope so.) I don’t really have much more to say about this in general. Only specific gripes like the fact that I’m not especially happy to see Lampkin back. He was overbearing at best during the trial arc, and he’s even more tediously gothic in “Sine Qua Non,” a nonsense episode of television. I’ll resist the impulse to generalize until next week, by which time I’ll surely be done this.

Literature, etc.

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale (audiobook) — The genius of this, both in terms of the book itself and this audiobook adaptation, doesn’t become entirely clear until very near the end. Spoilers ahoy. In my view, the thing that makes the main body of The Handmaid’s Tale great is its worldbuilding and the beauty of its prose, more so than its story. The story is perfectly fine, and it’s cleverly parsed out in a smattering of recollections of times past among the present-day narrative. But in my head I can’t stop comparing it to later Atwood novels like Oryx and Crake and especially The Blind Assassin which just rocket along with one twist and turn after another, and this is a much less dense book than either of those. But the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale, which takes place at a conference years later, at which the text of the narrative you’ve just read is examined as a factual, in-universe document from a bygone time, kicks what was a good book up to near-masterpiece territory. Hearing a professor jocularly question the veracity of the whole narrative thus far — thereby failing to learn from the lessons of history in the way he explicitly deems necessary — is perverse in the extreme. As much of a narrative rug pull as this surely is in print (I’ve never read the book in its original form), it’s even cleverer in this audio adaptation, where the final chapter makes good on the ad copy’s promise of a “full cast.” These historians unearthed Offred’s narrative in the form of audio, which is precisely what we audiobook listeners have just experienced. The very limited sound design elements at the start of each part of the book are suddenly explained as the sound of Offred taping over what was once a mixtape. The producers of this audiobook managed to turn it into a (very minimalistic) radio play, without really needing to change anything. If you’ve been meaning to finally read this, or re-read it in light of recent events (Atwood’s afterword for this audiobook edition, written this year, details some of her thoughts on the book’s new relevance in the Trump era), you should consider the audiobook. Claire Danes’s reading of Offred’s story will ring in your head long after the credits roll. Pick of the week.

China Miéville: October — This was more of a slog than I’d expected. Miéville is one of the most virtuosic writers alive, but his mandate to tell the story of the Russian Revolution as straightforwardly as he can leaves him hog-tied, with none of his usual structural ingenuity to rely on. His clinical prose never quite gives the impression that we’re talking about a turning point in history, and his fascination with the minutia of party in-fighting causes whole chapters to pass by without much of interest. I understand why Miéville made some of the choices he did. If he’d written in more ornamented prose, he’d run the risk of producing something close to Soviet kitsch. And if he’d chosen to focus on the narratives of individuals, as many nonfiction writers do to lend a human dimension to cataclysmic events, he’d be implicitly denying the grassroots reality of the revolution. The only characters in this who really come alive on the page are Lenin and Kerensky, and I’d still like to have gotten into their heads a little more. It seems to me that Miéville set himself an impossible challenge with this book. I respect him for trying, but I don’t believe he produced the history that he intended to.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Emmy Awards 2017” & “Fall Movie Preview” — I missed this year’s Emmys. Doesn’t sound like much happened. The coverage of this makes me realize how much I need to watch Atlanta, which is seemingly the consensus pick for “thing that deserved better.” As for the fall movie preview, I can’t honestly say that any of this sounds especially interesting to me. The nearest movie that I’m super excited for is Isle of Dogs and that’s not out until March.

The Daily: Sept. 18 & 20, 2017 — The September 20th episode, breaking down Trump’s address to the U.N. is actually still worth a listen even this long after the fact. I actually feel regret that I can’t find time for this every day. It is an astonishing undertaking.

Fresh Air: “Hillary Rodham Clinton” — This is worth hearing even (especially?) if you are not fond of her. Terry Gross takes the opportunity to address her previous interview with Clinton, which was taken advantage of by right wing interests to undermine Clinton in the eyes of her base. This event, which predates the heat of the 2016 campaign, now seems like a prophecy.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix” Björk, Neil Young, Burial, Kelela, More” — I am so out of the loop about the year’s new music, and that is mostly because I haven’t been listening to this. Still, new music by Björk is reason to tune in. That’s a funny thing to say, isn’t it? Since I can hear that music in many other places that are also free. But I still like to hear new tracks on this show first, because I know it’ll also introduce me to stuff I wouldn’t have otherwise heard. Neil Young’s Hitchhiker was always something I was going to hear. (I am still technically planning to hear all of his albums in chronological order, but that project has been on a long hiatus because I’m not in the mood.) But having heard this gorgeous acoustic version of “Powderfinger,” which in defiance of Robin Hilton I will happily say is at least in my top three Neil Young songs, I clearly need to hear the album very soon.

The Gist: “The Frat Doesn’t Have Your Back” — As an alumnus of two Canadian universities, I have no idea why American students are so taken in by frats and sororities. This episode about racism in frats only surprised me during the bits where it outlined some of the reasons frats are not terrible.

The Heart: “Bodies: Goddess” — The “Bodies” mini-season concludes with an episode about the poet Maria R. Palacios, whose work deals with her body: she uses a wheelchair as a result of childhood polio. This mini-season has been a solid continuation of The Heart’s best year yet.

99% Invisible: “The Finnish Experiment” — Universal basic income from a design perspective. This is essential listening for anybody curious about how this whole thing might work. The short answer is that nobody knows. But this will tell you about the people who are trying to figure it out who you should be keeping tabs on.

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “Watergate” — It’s been ages since I listened to this show, but the idea of them doing a sound-focussed political story interested me. This is the story of how recording technology in the Nixon White House became so much a part of the scenery that it led to the president’s downfall. Fun stuff.

Longform: Reply All two-parter — These two interviews with the hosts of Reply All are among the most fascinating documents of the world of podcasting that I’ve heard. I’d argue that Reply All, more so than StartUp, is the show that made Gimlet Media an institution. It is an ongoing classic, and a thing that couldn’t really exist if not for podcasting. It is a seamless integration of This American Life-style reported storytelling with the sort of loose chatter that’s native to podcasting. These interviews highlight how both sides of that coin came together. They go into detail on the story development process of the show’s six-person team (I can hardly believe this show is made by only six people) and they also shed light on how Vogt and Goldman’s rapport developed. This is fascinating stuff. Reply All is eminently deserving of a two-hour peek behind the curtain.

Constellations: “adriene lilly – migraines & tsunamis” & “michelle macklem – ode to my last 10 years of dating” — Here is a new podcast dedicated to boundary pushing, sound art-adjacent radio. In other words, it may be the medium’s saviour. Time will tell. Of these first two I’ve heard, “migraines & tsunamis” is the standout. It is a marvellous collage that deals with two very distinct, but oddly analogous kinds of pain. I want more like this from the podcast space. I will be listening to this one closely.

Code Switch: “A Weed Boom, But For Whom?” — A fascinating look into how the oncoming post-legalization weed boom will likely mostly help white people. Also, a fascinating look at the pre-history of the drug war, which predates Nixon by decades.

Reply All: “At World’s End” — A two-story episode focussed on Newgrounds. Remember Newgrounds? What a cesspool. I recall it with fondness.

Theory of Everything: “Concrete and Respect (Wisconsin part I of II)” — This is so great. It’s co-produced by Mathilde, who is the episode announcer on the show, and Benjamen Walker’s wife. (I cannot find a reliable spelling of her last name on the internet, otherwise I’d give it.) The two of them and their young son Arthaud head off to Wisconsin for a family vacation to see some weird art and talk to people who aren’t politically aligned with them. They’re a family with an unorthodox idea of fun. But Mathilde brings a well-read thoughtfulness to this show that’s different from Walker’s trademark informed paranoia. She’s been reading Tocqueville lately, and it deeply influences her take on what she sees. I love this. It’s a great example of what makes this show totally different from anything else out there. Pick of the week.

Imaginary Worlds: “Worldbuilding With Music” — Weird episode. A guy from a band got in touch with Eric Molinsky to suggest an episode on concept albums, which is a great idea. But this focusses mostly on that band, which is yet to release their first EP. And by all indications here, it doesn’t sound that great. I would have loved to hear from Del the Funky Homosapien, Neil Peart, and maybe Tony Visconti, or somebody else who worked with Bowie on Ziggy Stardust. I guess they’re hard to get in touch with. But something like that would have been great.

StartUp: “An Announcement from StartUp and Introducing The Nod” — The announcement that StartUp will be devoted specifically to serialized seasons from here on out is EXTREMELY welcome. Guess I won’t drop this show after all. And the episode of The Nod that they play here is great: it’s a fashion-focussed episode and I still liked it, which means it must be very compelling storytelling. I should listen to this show more often.

Nocturne: “Shortboard” — I feel like I need some new podcasts in my life. This one has been coming up in the New York Times podcast club Facebook group, so I figured I’d give it a go. I’m a fan — though this particular episode could almost be Love and Radio. The premise of the show is just, stories that happen at night. That’s a promising premise, although I generally don’t listen to podcasts at night, so I might have trouble being in the mood for it. Still, always nice to find a new show that’s good.

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Ways of Hearing #6 – NOISE” — This final episode of Ways of Hearing is one of the strongest. It details how digital instruments are noiseless, and how layering them thus loses the noisy richness of analogue recording. It finishes with a slightly forced attempt to link the concepts of signal and noise to every other episode of the show, but prior to that, it’s good stuff. I had high hopes for this series, and it didn’t really even come close. But when it was at its most insightful, it was really good.

Radiolab: “Oliver Sipple” — This is an overall pretty good story about a guy who saved the president’s life and then had all of his privacy and his family taken away from him by the press, who seized on the fact that he was gay. The story has two weak points: one, nobody involved really tries that hard to litigate the central conflict in the story which is whether or not the public actually had a right to know about Sipple’s sexuality. This is the sort of conflict that Radiolab used to thrive on, and it comes and goes in about 30 seconds here. The other problem is that the story starts with original interview tape of the attempted assassin that Sipple stopped. She never reappears. I have no idea why this was necessary for the story, aside from to shock and titillate us with the notion that we’re hearing from that person. There’s some great archival tape in this, though.

On the Media: “Trust Issues” — A really good one. The highlights are a particularly persuasive argument that government deregulation of tech giants has led to us being “governed” by private companies, and another conversation on how a code of ethics might come into effect in Silicon Valley. It also contains a not too confrontational (but confrontational enough) conversation with the guy who runs Gab, the free speech absolutist, conservative dominated social platform. In their now infamous post-election day episode, the hosts of OTM talked about how they’d need to find a new paradigm for the show, the same way they had to when Obama was elected. I think the close examination of social media might be a viable new paradigm for this show. Certainly it’s the only one that seems to understand it at all.

Omnibus (week of Aug. 19, 2017)

A normal week once again. A bit smaller than usual, I guess. But I honestly quite enjoyed the media detox I went through in Newfoundland. Might try to cut back a bit. We’ll see if that sticks. 14 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Stephen King: The Drawing of the Three — You know, I didn’t realize how much I missed reading page-turners. I’ve been reading mostly nonfiction and “literature” (or at least ambitious genre fiction) for so long that I nearly forgot the pleasure of reading something where the prose and story structure is custom made so that the pages fly by. Two books in, it’s pretty clear to me why Stephen King is such a phenomenon, because I’ve read two books in two weeks, and I can’t remember the last time that happened. Which isn’t to say that there’s no ambition in King’s writing: The Dark Tower is, after all, an eight-volume epic genre mashup inspired by Robert Browning. But King manages this while also asking relatively little of the reader. Your mileage may vary, but you can get plenty out of this without really pondering things like structure or, heaven forfend, “themes.” This is refreshing. That said, let me tell you the weird thing I find most remarkable about The Dark Tower thus far. In both The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three, our protagonist Roland is moving through a series of unforeseen obstacles towards a goal, the Tower, that he doesn’t know why he’s seeking. Moreover, we as readers don’t even really know what prompted Roland to begin his quest in the first place. Contrast this with The Lord of the Rings, a confessed inspiration for The Dark Tower, in which copious exposition is employed to inform the reader of why Frodo and company are heading to Mordor. There’s no missing the whole Sauron/Mount Doom/one-ring-to-rule-them-all thing. This blank space where the exposition should be gives The Dark Tower a dreamlike quality: oftentimes Roland will find himself somewhere, and a thing will happen, and he’s faced with the consequences of that thing without really understanding any of the logic that underpins the story he’s in. I imagine this is partially the result of King’s somewhat improvisational approach to writing fiction — evidently, he didn’t know how it would all turn out either. (Fun fact: Damon Lindelof is a fan of The Dark Tower. Does Lost make more sense now?) But that’s turning out to be the real joy of this series. Much like the death of Laura Palmer was supposed to be in the original Twin Peaks, the Tower is just an excuse to take some characters and have weird shit happen to them while they’re searching for something. I expect the Tower itself will take on more of an active role in later books, but for now it’s a distant McGuffin exerting an uncertain influence over the more proximate narrative. In this book, the weird thing that happens to an unsuspecting Roland is that three doors open up into other people’s minds, all of whom are living at various points in time in New York City. (Why these people? Why New York City? By what mechanism do the doors appear? We don’t know, and our protagonist doesn’t care so we don’t either.) So basically, the story is split into three parts, involving Roland’s interactions with three different characters (well, four really, but I’d spoil it if I explained why). These three parts are not created equal, i.e. the first is far and away the most compelling. (Also, as a personal aside: I read the first few pages of the book in an airport. The plane started boarding just as I got to the moment where Roland steps through the first magic door, so I closed the book there. Moments later, I got on the plane and started reading again, only to realize that Roland, too had found himself on an airplane. I love these moments of synchronicity.) This part of the book works best because, added to the book’s usual aesthetics of fantasy and Western is a crime story, and a marvellously tense one at that. The second part is weighed down by a central character who is a deliberate, and perhaps not completely irredeemable racist caricature (or perhaps so), and that becomes tiring. Things pick up again towards the end, but in general the first half of thereabouts of The Drawing of the Three is much stronger than the second. This book also makes it clear why the relatively slight first volume, The Gunslinger, was necessary. That book has little in the way of plot, but it allows us to spend time with Roland and it establishes him as the centre of this narrative. The structure of The Drawing of the Three requires us to spend substantial amounts of time inside other characters’ heads (sometimes quite literally). Without The Gunslinger, Roland’s centrality wouldn’t be as clear. A final random note: it’s awfully amusing to see King referring to the camera work in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining for a descriptive passage, given how much he famously hates that movie. Always one for the Easter eggs. I enjoyed this enormously. I figure I should finish one or two of the dozen or so other books I’m reading before I move on to volume three, but I may not be able to resist. Pick of the week.

Robert Browning: “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” — This is of primarily academic interest to me at this time: mostly I wanted to read it for the sake of seeing how it inspired Stephen King. Still, it’s an awfully compelling yarn, especially when you hear it read aloud. Interestingly, the nature of the Tower and the route towards it is even more uncertain and dreamlike here than it is in King. I’ll read this again when I’m done King’s series, to appreciate it a bit more on its own merits.

Comedy

Hannibal Buress: Animal Furnace — This is by far my favourite Hannibal Buress special, and certainly one of the most densely-packed hours of standup I’ve seen. With the exception of a few bits that are a tad too “bitches be crazy” for my liking (including a bit about rape statistics that almost makes his later Bill Cosby bit seem like an apology), this is unimaginably original stuff. Buress’s ninja move is trying to rationalize inexplicable experiences with absurd hypotheticals: an airport security officer inexplicably swabs his hand with a cloth, and he speculates: “Good thing I didn’t have bomb juice on my hands. Was that the bomb juice test?” But what if he did have bomb juice on his hands? What if his friend offered him the rare opportunity to hold a bomb just before he went to the airport? (“I’m open to new experiences!”) Hannibal Buress’s mind is a place where extremely strange things happen on a very casual basis. And that is why he is one of the best comics working today. Plus, this has the classic Young Jeezy bit. Can’t go wrong.

Mitch Hedberg: Mitch All Together — Mitch Hedberg is comedy’s most brilliantly counterintuitive thinker. His jokes are like zen koans. I particularly love his bit about do not disturb signs. It should be “don’t disturb,” he argues. “‘Do not’ psyches you out. ‘Do!’ Alright, I get to disturb this guy. ‘Not!’ Shit! I need to read faster!” Marvellous.

Movies

Wind River — So I hated this when I walked out of the theatre, but the people I saw it with were smarter about it and talked me off the cliff. What I saw was a movie by a white, male writer/director, headlined by white actors, about the murder of a teenage girl on a Native American reservation. Moreover, it is a tense thriller in the vein of Sicario (written by the same guy), the thrills of which are motivated by the death of a native woman. This seemed exploitative to me, and the elongated depiction of the brutal crime itself did nothing to endear me to the film. But I am a white man, and my barometer isn’t always well calibrated in these situations. I’ve been partially brought around to the idea that this film is directed specifically at people like me, who have none of the life experience depicted in the film, and it is supposed to make me squirm. I’m one of the people who won’t be triggered by this, just disturbed. And I suspect that’s what Taylor Sheridan is up to: lure in the audiences who need to see this story the most with posters featuring two Avengers, and shake us out of our complacency with a ceaselessly fucking brutal depiction of a reality we don’t know. If we take this charitable view of the film, it still has a big problem in that the story is told through substantially through the perspective of Elizabeth Olsen’s outsider FBI agent. Realistically enough, one expects, this character shits the bed constantly, both in her social interactions with locals on the reservation and in her police work. This would be more effective, however, if the movie didn’t centralize the perspective of an outsider: if the movie were as concerned with the trauma of the community as it is with the personal growth of this interloper. Jeremy Renner’s character is more complex, given that he has family on the reservation and he works there. Still, it’s easy to regret the scenes in which he delivers hackneyed monologues about coping with grief while Gil Birmingham quietly gives a better performance, out of focus. I didn’t like this movie. I don’t know whether or not I admire it. I would be very careful about recommending it. I am open to being swayed further in either direction.

Television

Game of Thrones: Season 7, episodes 5 & 6 — Man was it ever nice to have two episodes stacked up to watch. I am still incredulous about how much I like this season. “Eastwatch” seems uneventful in retrospect, but only because of what comes after and I still enjoyed it a lot. As for “Beyond The Wall,” say what you like about the stupidity of the characters’ plan in this episode, which is profound, this is still an episode where a group of characters including Jorah Mormont, Tormund, and the Hound go questing through majestic Icelandic wastes. I love it, and if you don’t you’re missing the point. The speed with which GoT is currently introducing hitherto unintroduced characters to each other is extremely satisfying this season. Also ice zombie dragon. Oh shit. Also this making-of featurette is incredible.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Parts 14 & 15 — Okay, so Lynch and Frost do know that the Dougie Jones thing is frustrating. The “look how many Douglas Joneses there are in the phonebook” thing is definitely trolling. If this show moved as fast as Game of Thrones, for instance, we’d learn that Janie E is Diane’s half-sister in one scene, and Dougie and Gordon would be face-to-face in the next. But this is Twin Peaks, so no such luck. Still, these are two incredible episodes: the most consequential since the two-part premiere, though the eighth part is still the clear standout. The sequence with Dark Cooper and Phillip Jeffries (voiced by somebody doing a good impression of David Bowie’s bad southern accent) is a satisfying descent into this show’s weird supernatural depths. But the following episode one-ups it with the sequence of the sheriff and deputies in the woods. I love how every consequential step towards this point was the result of Hawk and Bobby’s efforts, and it’s still Deputy Andy who gets to receive the epiphany. If you’d asked me to list the characters least likely to visit one of the lodges in the new Twin Peaks, Andy would have been close to the top of that list. That character in that place is a marvellous juxtaposition in itself. I love how he instantly loses his bewildered aspect upon arrival, just like Cooper loses his effusiveness. There is only listlessness and manic terror in the lodges. And jazz dancing. Also, I guess maybe that’s a wrap on Big Ed and Norma? This story has been intensely simple in a way that the rest of the show is not. I sure didn’t expect the primary function of the Nadine/Dr. Jacoby plot to be bringing Big Ed and Norma back together, but I’ll take it. I’ll take what gratification I can get. Still, there are weeks when this show is easy to love. These have been two of them.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women” — A lovely and warm conversation about NPR’s super awesome list of great albums by women. I’d quibble with some of the album placements, and with some of the ones chosen for discussion here, but it’s not really my place. Point is, this is a ton of awesome music, much of which I haven’t heard, and I will make the effort to do so now.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: Episodes 7-9 — The tail end of this first batch of Trump Con Law episodes is as informative as everything else, though I can’t claim to be preoccupyingly taken with any of it. I know more about American con law now, though.

The Daily: “Special Edition: The Fall of Steve Bannon” — I listened to this super late, and after having read the Timeslengthy article on Bannon’s departure the next morning, but it still helps somehow to get a sense of things to hear a reporter talking about them conversationally. That’s the genius of The Daily, and why it’s one of the most essential developments in podcasting.

This American Life: “Our Friend David” — I’d heard most of these stories from the late lamented David Rakoff before, but they bear repeating. He was one of the funniest and most articulate presences on the radio, and one of those defining This American Life figures, like David Sedaris, Sarah Koenig, and Starlee Kine. The tape of Rakoff reading from Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish while dying of cancer just kills me. The writing isn’t even his best: it’s clearly rushed because he was racing to the final deadline. But it’s shattering when he reads it, especially considering how sick he sounds. Pick of the week.

Radiolab: “Truth Warriors” & “Truth Trolls” — God is Radiolab out of touch. The second of this pair of episodes is one that they’ve now removed from their feed, but I could still listen to it after the fact because I downloaded it immediately. But let’s start with the first. The tape of Robert Krulwich’s conversation with Neil DeGrasse Tyson about how a conversation with his barista reflects the process of attaining scientific consensus is a good start. But the rest of the episode is a rerun of a story from 2012, which I would like to have been warned about. My time is too valuable to listen to Radiolab stories twice. (Though when I first heard this story, I wouldn’t have felt that way.) Interestingly, this rerun story, featuring documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, is from the same episode as the story that provoked Radiolab’s harshest backlash: the “yellow rain” story, in which the hosts insensitively accused a guest of trying to “monopolize” a story in which said guest’s family had suffered severe trauma. Appropriate, then, that the following episode, “Truth Trolls,” should find Radiolab once again lacking in judgement. Without any context, it might be easy to see how this story of a bunch of 4channers trolling Shia LaBeouf would read as a fun romp. But there is literally nobody in North America who does not have the context to realize that the people this episode treats basically as harmless scamps are hateful bigots. The context is everywhere. How did they miss this? Anyway, Radiolab’s not trying to answer the big questions anymore. They’re just throwing shit at the wall. It sticks just often enough to keep me listening. And that is the most enraging thing of all.  

The Memory Palace: “A Scavenger Hunt” — This is the least self-sufficient of Nate DiMeo’s episodes for the Metropolitan Museum, but in being that, it also made me really want to go to the Metropolitan Museum. That’s a pricey plane ticket, though.

Long Now: Seminars About Long-Term Thinking — “Nicky Case: Seeing Whole Systems” — I always love these talks. They’re satisfyingly complex, and Stewart Brand always asks great questions afterwards. But this one relies too much on visual aids to be a satisfying podcast. It sort of feels like an ad for the video cut that’s available to paying members of the Long Now Foundation, which is something I’ll certainly be when I’ve got the money for frivolous expenditures such as that. But there’s still a lot to be gained from just listening to Case, who is a clever game designer with a deep knowledge of game theory and feedback loops. I’m not sure about his sweeping applications of these concepts — sounds a bit like the sort of thinking that leads Mark Zuckerberg to try and treat hate as an engineering problem. Still, I’m compelled if not convinced.