24 reviews, mostly of the audio persuasion, as I’ve been doing things and need things I can do at the same time as those things. The music takes it, this week. Of the five things I reviewed in that category, four blew my mind.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 2, episodes 2-6 — Okay, it’s picking up. There’s a moment in the second episode where Jane Krakowski and Anna Camp’s characters accidentally foreground their own passive aggression, and it is one of the funniest things this show has ever done. It’s all in the performances, too. This cast is so good that it can even prop up episodes where the writing isn’t up to par. Also, the concept of being excommunicated from the Apple Store made me laugh very hard.
Last Week Tonight: April 24, 2016 — The best they’ve done in a while. The presence of Lin-Manuel Miranda was always going to make me like it more, but the entire Puerto Rico segment is masterful.
Game of Thrones: “The Red Lady” — Oh, look what’s back. I wasn’t excited for this premiere, having outright loathed all but one (okay, maybe two) episodes of the (inexplicably Emmy-winning) fifth season. And the opening was not auspicious. Starting at the Wall was inevitable, but that plotline has been boring me for what feels like several seasons at this point. And having Ramsay Bolton, the most unwatchable character in prestige television, in the second segment felt like death. And when Brienne shows up to give a much needed infusion of characters I like into an otherwise plodding first third of the episode, it mostly seemed to indicate the extent to which Gwendoline Christie is a class act in a show that doesn’t deserve her anymore. Same goes for Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage, Iain Glen, Jonathan Pryce, Liam Cunningham and Emilia Clarke. Really, I’m in this for two reasons now: most prominently because I’m deeply susceptible to the sunk costs fallacy, but also because the cast remains mostly incredible and fun to watch. Hopefully that’ll get me through to the end of this interminable, bleak, dull, self-serious, water-cooler-moment-manufacturing, needlessly brutal, pedestrian drama.
Archer: Season 7, episodes 4 & 5 — Robo-Barry is always funny, Malory got her first solo plotline, and Krieger has facemasks (and hand replicas) of all of the other characters. So, episode four was great. Episode five, also great, but it’s the first of a two-parter, so I’m withholding judgement.
Anomalisa — This is going to take some time to process. It’s definitely very good. But, it’s also fairly unlike the other Charlie Kaufman movies that I love. There’s one moment of metafictional awareness here, and it is really something. But mostly, this movie is interested in telling a story that travels in a straight line. It’s a good enough story that the main character seems real and comprehensible, even as he behaves in completely unacceptable ways. Really, though, the reason to see this is the animation. It’s amazing to me that this was originally made for radio. It’s easy to see how that would have worked. The central conceit — the main character hears everybody (including Dame Joan Sutherland) as having the same voice except for one woman — is a radio conceit. But in this movie, the stop-motion animation dazzles as much as the script. I constantly found myself wondering how certain shots were done. I’m sure that’s not what the filmmakers intended me to be thinking, but it does go to show what an accomplishment this is on a purely technical level.
Super Troopers — The same person who I saw Anomalisa with this week also wanted to watch Super Troopers, which leaves me confused about his character. This movie makes 2002 look like a really long time ago. For one thing, that was apparently a time when comedies could have the premise “X, but funny!” Today, comedies aren’t defined by jokes; they’re built on premises and they happen to have jokes in them. All comedy is high-concept, and all comedy is working on some level of irony. But Super Troopers isn’t at all. And it’s not aping the style of anything in particular. It’s not a cop movie parody. It’s just a movie about some funny cops. In 2016, post Hot Fuzz (which was made all the way back in 2007, somehow), this is comedy from another planet. It is not a good movie.
Prince: Sign ‘O the Times — I was unaware that Prince invented Quasimoto. And yet, there’s Prince, pitched up into an alter-ego, right there on “Housequake.” I read this described somewhere (the AV Club, I think) as a “one-man White Album.” I can’t put it any better than that. It’s even got clear Lennon moments (the title track) and McCartney moments (“Starfish and Coffee”) This doesn’t have the massive hooks that Purple Rain does, but it’s a way better album. Purple Rain’s dated drum sound and synths are nowhere to be heard. It’s kind of amazing that an album so obviously intended to be an index of its own cultural moment (a sign of the times), could have dated so much better than other music of its time. This is almost an hour and a half long and there is nothing on it that isn’t good. Many tracks are basically perfect. “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” is one of the most infectious things I’ve ever heard.
Beyoncé: Lemonade (visual album) — Music videos have always been a place for weird, avant-garde, non-linear, symbolic filmmaking to break the mainstream. To some extent, that’s why Alan Parker’s The Wall is ultimately a less compelling work of art than the album it’s based on: it’s too devoted to fleshing out a story that’s told in brief tableaus on the album. You want meaning to be suggested, rather than stated outright. That’s why the animated segments work best. It’s also why Lemonade is something very close to a masterpiece. And while it may seem a bizarre choice, The Wall isn’t the worst point of comparison for Lemonade — at least for somebody with my specific, limited set of reference points. They’re both personal conceptual opuses apparently created to help deal with an emotional wound. They’re both works that are likely to be called “self-indulgent” by uncharitable critics. They both channel personal narratives in the service of broader social insights. And both have visual elements that attempt to expand the forms and styles of music videos in their respective times to (near) feature length. But while The Wall is ham-fisted (hammer-fisted?) Lemonade leaves space for interpretation, possibly out of conflicting needs for privacy and self-expression. Even if some of it is pretty direct (Beyoncé flinging her wedding ring at the camera and singing “you’ll lose your wife” could really only be directed at one person), it mostly operates according to song logic, rather than movie logic. Which makes it strange that, in the end, Lemonade still gives you a better sense of the wound it was constructed to help heal than The Wall does. I imagine I’ll get a better sense of the music itself once I listen to the album in audio-only form, but this is really something. Pick of the week.
Moon Hooch: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert — I haven’t been so unexpectedly bowled over by a group since I heard the Motion Trio play Michael Nyman music on three accordions. These guys have energy to burn. It is essentially EDM played on two saxophones and a drum kit. It must be seen and heard to be believed.
Kyle Craft: Dolls of Highland — Welcome to the concept of glam country. Lyrically, Craft is a blend of southern mysticism and Dylanesque oblique romanticism. Musically, he’s halfway between the Band and the Spiders from Mars. He has a way with a melodic hook, and holy smokes, that voice is like a fire alarm. I love it. “Lady of the Ark” and “Pentecost” have had a few weeks to grow on me, and those singles are, predictably, the most immediate songs on the album. But this is going to be one I’ll come back to. Between this and Until the Horror Goes, it’s turning out to be a good year for rock debuts.
The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground — Spun in preparation for the new Brian Eno album, which has a cover of “I’m Set Free.” I’ve loved the first two Velvet Underground albums for years, but never got around to checking out this or Loaded. Apparently, Eno loves this album so much that he’s never owned a copy for fear of becoming overfamiliar. I do see the appeal, though I definitely prefer the debut. I love the first album as much for its noisy sonic adventures as for its songwriting, and that element sort of left the band with John Cale. Still good.
Imaginary Worlds: “Economics of Thrones and Starships” — THIS is the reason I’m into genre fiction. The fact that the paratext of a show like Game of Thrones or Battlestar Galactica can be this interesting — i.e. their worlds can serve as hypotheticals for economic thought experiments — almost makes the question of whether the shows are any good moot. This might be my favourite episode of Imaginary Worlds aside from the Cthulhu one, which doesn’t really bear comparison to other episodes.
All Songs Considered: “Remembering Prince, The Utopian” — While I was listening to Ann Powers exposit on why she loves Prince, I thought of something. She talked about how his live shows were rituals, rather than just spectacles. That made me think of how incredible the opening of the Purple Rain album is. The start of “Let’s Go Crazy” is a secularization, and a humanization of the traditional funeral mass: “Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” First off, what a way to start an album. But also, I’ve been reflecting on how extraordinary it was to hear that for the first time on the day Prince died. And not only that, but to hear it on the radio, along with a community of people who were hearing it at the same time, albeit in many different places. It’s still a gathering of sorts, to get through this thing called life. When Bowie died, he left us an album that was meant to play like a message from beyond the grave. (“Look up here, man, I’m in heaven,” etc.) Prince did the same thing by accident, thirty years in advance.
Reply All: “Decoders” — I don’t know any other show that so fearlessly oscillates between very serious and very silly. First, Goldman and Vogt take the time to demonstrate how the debate over cracking the San Bernardino’s shooter’s iPhone is founded on false pretences. Then, they talk to Adam West. Love it.
Radiolab: “On the Edge” — Listening to figure skating is more compelling than you’d think. This is an interesting story with a great main character, figure skating iconoclast Surya Bonaly. It turns out to be a bit of a shaggy dog joke in the end. But hey: I listened to half and hour of radio about figure skating. Didn’t see that coming.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Summer Movie Preview” — My god, what a dire wasteland of a few months it’s going to be for movies. Thank god for Swiss Army Man.
WTF with Marc Maron: “Julia Louis-Dreyfus/Louis CK” — Maron’s two-part 700th episode extravaganza is a good distillation of why he’s earned his place in the pantheon of podcasting. He’s audibly nervous in his conversation with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but as with many great Maron interviews, the nervousness comes from a place of reverence — justified reverence. And while it’s not one of his best — Louis-Dreyfus seems perplexed that she’s found herself on a podcast, having a somewhat dubious understanding of what they are — it’s still an entertaining hour and a half. The second part with Louis CK, on the other hand, is totally essential, because it’s the most in-depth he’s gone on the making of Horace and Pete. Maron and CK have a compelling dynamic to begin with, but when CK is this excited to talk about something, it really adds something. This was released as two separate episodes. Both are worthwhile, but at least go listen to the Louis CK interview. Unless you haven’t watched Horace and Pete. In which case, plop down your 30 bucks for that, watch it, and then double back here. Maron talks about how Horace and Pete forced CK to listen more. On that note, I’ve never heard Maron listen to anybody so intently without interjecting. Normally, that wouldn’t be an asset on this podcast, but this is electrifying. Pick of the week.
StartUp: “Gaming the System” — Now I get why they did this as a two-episode slow burn. The company turned out to be something that everybody’s heard of. I love that. Now I’m really excited for this season. And the look-ahead to next week’s show is a great teaser.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’” — A slight, effective little segment on a thing that you cannot avoid hearing everybody’s thoughts on this week. These are thoughts you might be glad you heard.
This American Life: “In Defence of Ignorance” — Aw man, Ira’s so sick. But he soldiers through! This is a really good episode of This American Life. Sean Cole is one of my favourite radio producers. He’s the only person who could do a piece on psychological research and have it be hilarious. But the other two segments, both about people who suffer for knowing things that others don’t, are equally wonderful. Also, there’s Vulfpeck in this! Yay, Vulfpeck!
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Another Round’s Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton” — Linda Holmes really should have started this by telling us what Another Round is all about. Because, speaking as a large podcast nerd (see above, see below), I did not know this show. It does sound wonderful, though.
The Sporkful: “Comic Maria Bamford Risked Her Life For Ice Cream” — God, I love Maria Bamford. Probably one of my top three current comedians. Also, this is the first time I listened to The Sporkful while eating, and I think that is the way I will continue to do it, because this show makes me so hungry. I think if I ever met Dan Pashman, my stomach would immediately start growling as soon as he started talking. I’m becoming conditioned that way.
All Songs Considered: “Moon Hooch, Summer Cannibals, PUP, More” — Oh my god, Moon Hooch. If I ever get to be involved in a live show of any kind, with musical guests, I want to bring in Moon Hooch and the Motion Trio, and then have them play together. That is my new goal in life.
Reply All: “1000 Brimes” — An Email Debt Forgiveness day special that doesn’t match last year for volume, but has some very uncanny stories.