Tag Archives: Beatles

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.

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Omnireviewer (week of May 28, 2017)

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

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

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

19 reviews.

Movies

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

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

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

Literature, etc.

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

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

Television

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

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

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

Music

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnireviewer (week of Jun. 12, 2016)

29 reviews. A week of awesome music. Mostly.

Music

The Punch Brothers: The Phosphorescent Blues — Come to think of it, I listened to this when it first came out, loved it, and never listened to it again. Well, now I’ve listened to it again. It’s more ambitious and more polished than Who’s Feeling Young Now? but it’s also a bit slicker than anything they’ve done before. Drums make their first appearance, and there’s a general sense that when they’re not doing ten-minute prog tracks, they’re trying to be bluegrass Coldplay. Maybe that sounds like a dig, but bluegrass Coldplay sounds like a more appealing proposition to me than regular Coldplay. The lyrics’ obsession with smartphones, and whether or not we’re still capable of connecting, or living in the moment is a bit cliched, and the Punch Brothers don’t really have anything meaningful to add to the discussion (nobody does), but that’s not what anybody wants from any band, or shouldn’t be, at least. I don’t like this as much as Who’s Feeling Young Now? but “Familiarity” and the midsection of “Julep” are selling points for this band in themselves.

IQ: The Seventh House — It’s been a long time since I listened to anything like this. I really only ever listened to neo-prog when I was at my most prog-obsessed, maybe ten years ago. These days, I tend to think of prog as a moment — a moment that lasted from about 1969 to 1977 — and my exploration of it tends to go deep into that time period, rather than broadly across others. It’s not that I think nothing of value has been done in prog since then. But there’s a point where it became a “genre,” with tropes of its own to be imitated, rather than a dispersed music that takes cues from elsewhere. And that point was around the beginning of IQ’s career. Still, I really enjoyed The Seventh House. I remember hearing “The Wrong Side of Weird” on ProgArchives years ago, and loving it, and it totally holds up. Prog may have been a moment, but neo-prog of IQ’s vintage was too. Bands like IQ and Marillion come very much from the same context as new wave, and it’s fun to hear a take on prog that shares that characteristic directness with the Smiths or Joy Division. Yes, I know The Seventh House was made in 2000, but it’s quantifiably different from the nostalgic symphonic prog that younger bands were making at that time. Given the choice between IQ and a band like the Tangent, whose music is far more similar to classic 70s prog, I’ll take this.

Big Big Train: Folklore — Speaking of. Big Big Train is very much on the Tangent side of that line. I won’t say there weren’t parts of Folklore that I liked. I’ll probably listen to parts of it again. (I know there are prog fans out there who’ll tell you that you can’t get a handle on a prog album on the first listen, and I think that’s true for the really good stuff. Certainly, I’m still finding new angles in Relayer hundreds of listens in. But this is not Relayer.) It’s got some great playing, nice orchestrations that aren’t overbearing, good singing, the whole bit. But part of the reason that I like prog better than lots of other kinds of music is that I want to form relationships with the musical personalities involved in the records I listen to. I don’t love Steve Howe for his technical facility; I love him because his playing is weird and singular. I love how he can evoke Wes Montgomery and Carl Perkins within the same phrase, and how he uses the lap steel for symphonic effects with no reference to the country music it’s normally found in. I couldn’t give you that kind of description of any of the instrumentalists in Big Big Train. It mostly feels like prog by numbers to me.

Let’s Eat Grandma: I, Gemini — Holy shit. This is so weird. So, so weird. It’s also one of the best albums I’ve heard this year. If you’d told me last year that the best psychedelic record in years would be made by a pair of teenagers… well, I’d likely have believed you because I’m credulous. But I would have been mighty taken aback. There are parts of this that remind me of early Pink Floyd, other parts that bring Captain Beefheart to mind, a bit of Tom Waitsy sinister calliope music. But for the most part, there are very few reference points that make any sense for this music. It is very much it’s own thing, and the fact that the people who made it are so young is astonishing. Odd that two of my favourite albums of 2016, this and the John Congleton record, should be explicitly tied to horror. Just having that kind of year, I guess. But while Congleton’s horror is thought through and intellectual, Let’s Eat Grandma traffics in a more liminal sort of horror — you can almost tell what it’s about, but the fact that you can’t quite makes it more distressing. This album meanders, and winds and strolls along. It makes no compromises to anything as glum as “focus.” I love it. I can’t even adequately describe it because I can’t really process it fully. Anyway. Pick of the week.  

Justice: Cross — It’s loud and lo-fi, but it’s pretty rock and roll. And I like my dance music to be at least a little bit rock and roll. “DVNO” is irresistible; Uffie is insufferable. I suspect I may prefer their less acclaimed second album, but I enjoyed this. We shall see.

The Beatles: Abbey Road — When it comes down to it, I’m a White Album man. But I think Abbey Road is probably objectively the strongest Beatles album. Also, it is possible that I am the only Beatles fan who thinks that “Octopus’s Garden” is the best track on side one. The combination of that childlike vulnerability and that staggeringly good guitar solo gets me every time.

Television

And Then There Were None: episodes 2 & 3 — I wish I’d seen trailers for this, if only to know if they contained Miranda Richardson saying “Trust in God. But perhaps also we should lock our doors.” This is fabulous in a Lord-of-the-Flies-for-grownass-Brits sort of way. Even small details like watching these characters go from eating elaborately prepared lobster hors d’oeuvre to eating tinned meat are somehow satisfying. I had absolutely no idea how this was going to turn out, but there’s a lovely poetry to it. This will end up being one of those bits of television that not a lot of people in this part of the world actually watch, but that is regarded as a treasure by those who do. I don’t know how faithful it is to Agatha Christie’s original, but if it does follow the story at least approximately, I 100% understand why she’s so revered. This is beautiful narrative clockwork. Also, I wasn’t hugely convinced of Burn Gorman’s performance in Torchwood, but I sure love him here. At some point, he emerges as a real standout among the cast. Which is a real trick in this cast. Watch this. It is astonishing in every single scene.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: June 13, 2016 — I’ve been meaning to watch Samantha Bee’s show since the beginning, but I only just got around to it. I always liked her on The Daily Show because in the face of insane injustices, you could count on her to be a vessel for righteous anger. John Oliver will never be that. And after the senseless, ludicrous tragedy in Orlando, that is exactly the comedic sensibility that is required. Bee’s merciless attack on Florida’s asshat governor Rick Scott is the most meaningful thing in comedy this week, and I urge everybody to watch it by whatever means necessary.

Last Week Tonight: June 12, 2016 — Oliver may not be capable of the level of sheer rage necessary to properly address the shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, but he is capable of generating pathos, and he did so reasonably well in his opening segment. Still, he loses the week in comedy, because Sam Bee was willing to tackle it head-on (albeit with an extra day to prepare). Which is not to say this isn’t a great episode of Last Week Tonight. They all are. But a show like this has to tap into the national mood, and that mood was basically just being sad and angry about a horrible tragedy. And they kind of missed. To be fair, they owned up to that fact. But it still feels weird.  

Game of Thrones: “No One” — Plenty of needless brutality in this one, and not just one but two military strategies that don’t make a lick of sense. Other than that, it’s perfectly fine. I’d put it at about average for the season, which is shaping up to be quite good.  

Literature, etc.

John Herrman: The Content Wars — In Herrman’s post of predictions for 2015, he wrote that “in 2015, notable (choose your definition) publications will declare their intentions to go fully distributed — or some other term that means the same thing — effectively abandoning their websites and becoming content channels within Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest or Vine or Instagram.” Mercifully, that hasn’t happened as of 2016. But it still feels like something that could be in the future and, mark me, it will be the end. On the other hand, there’s also this quite canny prediction: “GamerGate will return under different names in multiple venues. Its agents will not be GamerGaters or even necessarily know what GamerGate is, but they will behave almost indistinguishably.” Hello from the recent past, Hugo fascists! Also, this entire blog features an incredibly amusing selection of robot gifs that become weirdly threatening in context. Also: “There will be a backlash not against podcasts but against the podcasting voice, which is really an extension of Ira Glass voice [30 seconds of post-rock] which is a mutation of NPR voice.” I love Ira and a lot of the other people Herrman’s probably talking about (Alex Blumberg), but that backlash would actually be really nice to see. A bit more idiosyncrasy in public radio-mode podcasting would be great. I nominate P.J. Vogt and Benjamen Walker as potential ways into a new approach. Here is another quote that I like, from a different post: “A new generation of artists and creative people ceding the still-fresh dream of direct compensation and independence to mediated advertising arrangements with accidentally enormous middlemen apps that have no special interest in publishing beyond value extraction through advertising is the early internet utopian’s worst-case scenario.” And yet, it has come to pass. When I get to the end of this blog, I’ll do something more than just copy quotes. But again, if you happen to be an editor of a substantial web content enterprise who is reading my blog for some reason, go read Herrman’s instead.

Matt Fraction/Gabriel Bá: Casanova, Volume 3 “Avaritia” — I feel like I could have used a refresher before I started reading this third volume. But I totally enjoyed it, insofar as I had a clue what was happening. Gabriel Bá’s art is absolutely astounding. Every so often in this book, somebody experiences a time paradox and starts… fluctuating? I don’t even know how to describe it. God knows how Fraction expresses it in his scripts. But the way that Bá devises to illustrate it, a sort of psychedelic cubist freakout where giant lips and eyes protrude from a haze that envelops the character, is genius. Casanova is great fun. And the final chapter of this volume has a fantastic payoff to a story arc that’s been going since the beginning. I’ve got the next volume sitting right here, still in the shrinkwrap. I was going to read more Ligotti before I get going on that, but I hear volume four is sort of a soft reboot of the story and that sounds like something I could really enjoy right now, so…

Matt Fraction, Michael Chabon, Fábio Moon & Gabriel Bá: Casanova: Acedia Volume 1 — This is very much the new Matt Fraction we know from Sex Criminals going back to his old property. Acedia is far and away the most straightforward arc of Casanova, and I would highly recommend it as a starting point for anybody wanting to get into this — certainly moreso than Luxuria, which is both the least satisfying and most confusing arc. It’s called “volume 1” rather than “volume 4” for a reason. The key difference between this and previous arcs is that the story in Acedia takes place entirely in one timeline, which simplifies things immensely. It’s nice to see that this is something that’s possible with Casanova, but I can’t help but miss the craziness of realities converging, like it was in Avaritia. Also, Michael Chabon’s backup stories to each issue are quite perfunctory, and one feels that they were only included in this trade collection for the potential sales value of having his name on the cover. Backup stories don’t belong in trades. I’m with Kieron Gillen on that. Still, this is a good story, and a compelling new direction for the comic. I’m looking forward to the continuation of this arc.

Podcasts

The Heart: “Salt in the Wound” — A quiet denouement to the “Silent Evidence” season. It’s just Tennesee Williams talking over the events of the series with Kaitlin Prest — a format we don’t normally hear in The Heart. It serves its purpose, which is just to unpack the last three episodes, but it also reveals new information about yet another traumatic experience Williams suffered while she was making the story. It’s appalling, as many elements of this series have been. But it never loses that ray of hope, either. Again, I can’t recommend this series highly enough.

Reply All: “On the Inside, Part IV” — I’ve been effusively positive about this series for its entire run thus far but I have to say, while I was listening to this part, I couldn’t help but think… why this story? When Sarah Koenig decided to relitigate Adnan Syed’s case on Serial, that was because there were innumerable serious problems with his trial and and a relatively convincing counternarrative to be unearthed. I don’t know that the same thing applies here. Where in Serial, you heard Koenig become more and more doubtful of Syed’s guilt (if not exactly convinced of his innocence), in this series Sruthi Pinnamaneni seems to become more and more convinced that Paul Modrowski did in fact murder somebody, and thus that justice was carried out properly. So… what’s the story? The farther we’ve gotten from the standard Reply All internet story of an inmate who writes a blog, the more I’ve been forced to wonder what the point even is. I’m looking forward to a new story next week.

StartUp: “Happy Ending” — Winning the Gimlet sweepstakes for the first time in months, StartUp introduces us to a drug dealer every bit as enterprising as the fictional ones in The Wire. This fellow, who is now running a company that means to hire ex-cons as personal trainers, is charisma personified. The story doesn’t brush away the fact that he was involved in an illegal trade that materially hurts a lot of people, but it also doesn’t paint him as a villain. This is far and away the best story of this season, provided next week’s conclusion doesn’t let me down.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and Making Music Funny” — I will likely not see Popstar. But I think it’s about time I watched Spinal Tap.

On the Media: “Sad!” — Bob Garfield’s essay from a few weeks ago on how the press tacitly legitimizes Trump was a masterpiece of media criticism, but I’m not sure I totally agree with him that the press needs to become actively partisan where Trump is concerned. On the other hand, I’m not totally convinced by Paul Waldman’s claim that traditional, old-fashioned shoe leather reporting and fact checking is the best way of dealing with Trump. Trump, as we know, exists outside the concept of truth. But here’s the thing: I don’t think it’s necessarily partisan for a journalist to behave in the way that Garfield suggests they should: by calling Trump out for racism and misogyny. We do possess reasonably stable definitions of those two behaviours, and I believe that people in general think that they are Bad Things (even as many of them fail to acknowledge those behaviours in themselves). So, it ought to be possible to make a factual statement that “Donald Trump is racist,” and to hold him accountable for that. Partisanship need not enter into the conversation. That small semantic quibble aside, Bob Garfield continues to be the public personality with whom I find the most common ground on Trump. Gone are the days when I thought him to be merely an equal horror to Ted Cruz’s theocratic raving. This hour of radio (edited by Brooke Gladstone, but featuring Garfield as the sole host — a canny decision in this instance) demonstrates why.

Code Switch: “Re-Remembering Muhammad Ali” — This is a discussion of what was missing in the coverage of Ali’s death. In being that, it is also an excellent remembrance of Ali.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: 2016 Tony Awards” — God, I wish I’d watched the Tonys. Glen Weldon’s right that we may well see a Hamilton backlash soon, but when it happens it’ll be empty hipsterism, because there’s nothing in the text to justify a backlash. Hamilton remains the most unimpeachable work of art since Abbey Road.

More Perfect: “The Political Thicket” — I am loving this. I dare say it’s my favourite political journalism anybody’s doing right now — insofar as On The Media is a media show rather than a politics show. This second episode is better than the first one. It tells this incredible story of how the Supreme Court completely changed because of one decision, which Jad Abumrad illustrates brilliantly with archival tape. Seriously, it contains his best sound design moment in years, probably. This is the best argument for long-view journalism that I’ve heard in a long time. The world today will make more sense once you listen to this, even though it tells a story that happened decades ago. Magnificent. Pick of the week.

All Songs Considered: “A Conversation With Paul McCartney” — This is fun, but it also illustrates a problem that I have with arts journalism in general, which is that the people who do it lose track of their opinions when an actual artist is present. I’ve toyed with the idea in the past that we should just stop interviewing artists altogether. Anybody who wants to get into arts writing probably knows enough about it to write compellingly without having to ask an artist what their work means. Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton just take for granted that the listener to this won’t think twice when they imply that McCartney’s career has been wholly worthwhile for six decades. But everybody would think twice when faced with that. Why are interviewers forced to ignore orthodoxies like “Paul McCartney’s solo work is patchy” when they ask their questions?

Reply All: “Friendship Village” — 120984957918379 19345734579171 39847896823151 168038645120 6857906565452210 6874121968595 9874848 649521062128 976218 0954021089510 951098500736587654 0687052180321084052 9945256889 0968408155094 987304267 0987450854098521220842 9765385659765764 0968740524 0987524210845240 7656 098732109842109684510 654524 09875135578952197970 741741455 0865118518410 984189748951984 0984984954954 9849809849512 98409 984984984984

99% Invisible: “The Blazer Experiment” — This is a great example of how a design angle can be used to tell a really huge story. This is basically the story of the British and American police forces and their respective relationships to the citizens they police. That story naturally includes a lot of branding. It’s not the most direct, incisive journalism about the police that we’ve seen in the past couple of years, but it adds context to the current controversies over policing.

All Songs Considered: “The Tallest Man On Earth, Lisa Hannigan, LP, More” — Nothing leapt out, musically and Bob and Robin are spouting platitudes this week. Oh, well. Sometimes you miss. On the other hand, I’d have never heard Let’s Eat Grandma’s album from this week without this podcast to point me there.

Code Switch: “How LGBTQ People of Color Are Dealing With Orlando” — Well, they had to address it somehow. And it happens that these producers/hosts are tapped into the best American writers about race, so they have plenty of people to call up. More than anything, this emphasizes the extent to which Code Switch is a welcome addition to the NPR podcast offering. They’ve had to deal with both this and Ali, right at the start of their podcast’s run. I do hope that they can double back to doing episodes that aren’t so explicitly news-hooked, but it’s great to see right at the beginning that they’re capable of responding thoughtfully to current events. (I mean, of course they are; they’re NPR journalists. But the show is still demonstrating what it can do, and impressively so.)

Reply All: “Vampire Rules” — Exactly what we all needed after “On the Inside.” A Super Tech Support about a suspicious Tinder photo, followed by a Yes, Yes, No about Hillary Clinton. I love Reply All. I love it as much for this dumb stuff as I do for Sruthi Pinnamaneni’s awesome investigative stuff.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Year Without a Summer” — I’ve heard the story of how Mary Shelley got the idea for Frankenstein over and over, but I hadn’t realized how the climate (literally) of that time links Frankenstein’s ideas to our current early-stage eco-apocalypse. Interesting.

More Perfect: “Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl” — I had heard this story before on Radiolab, and I think it’s one of their better political stories. It sits at that uncomfortable crossroads between a law that’s been really effective on the macro level, and one personal injustice that threatens to overturn the whole thing. I still think that the work this team has been doing on new episodes of More Perfect is better. There’s nothing like processing contemporary issues through the lens of history.

Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 20, 2016)

18 reviews. I’d like to think I’m making up for the comparatively small number with extra thoughtfulness, this week. Or maybe not. It occurs to me that a lot of what I write here is complete nonsense to anybody who doesn’t have near identical cultural touchstones to me. Therefore, to those of you who actually read this: thank you for your substantial feat of empathy.

Television

Horace and Pete: Episodes 2-5 — I think we’d better start with episode three, in which two people have a conversation, and that is all. Horace and Pete was already becoming a testament to the power of good writing and good acting presented straightforwardly, but that episode took it to another level altogether. Laurie Metcalf, an actress that I’ve never seen in anything before, opens the show with a ten-minute monologue in a single close-up shot. And even when Louis C.K.’s character enters the picture, it doesn’t get much more complicated than that. It’s just two people, telling each other captivating stories that they each have personal reasons to be particularly captivated by. It’s electrifying. Metcalf’s performance is completely staggering, in the same way that Alan Alda, Edie Falco and Steve Buscemi’s performances are staggering in other episodes. C.K. himself is a less technically able actor, and it’s occasionally bizarre to see him playing opposite people who are obviously much more accomplished than him, but in general he knows what he can and cannot do. The other episodes aren’t quite as good as the third one. But then, none of them take quite such a big swing. This is a really good show, that expanded its remit from the political theatre of its premiere remarkably quickly. Pick of the week.

Last Week Tonight: March 20, 2016 — This was brilliant, don’t get me wrong. But I’m beginning to become concerned that John Oliver is obsessing over the same ludicrous shit that everybody else is. When his show premiered, I had stopped watching Jon Stewart because I was starting to get tired of Stewart’s particular preoccupations — which is to say, the preoccupations of daily television news. Then Oliver came along and explained net neutrality with dingo metaphors. I’m hoping that version of Last Week Tonight doesn’t get forgotten in favour of being merely the most authoritative source of humourous Trump debunking.

Better Call Saul: “Bali H’ai” — One of my two favourite episodes of Better Call Saul. (The other is “Marco.”) The moment at the beginning where Kim stays home a little later specifically to hear Jimmy sing to her over voicemail is one of the sweetest moments ever to appear on this show. So much is communicated in that scene, about both characters. Rhea Seehorn is becoming one of my favourite supporting players on television right now. It’s really something to watch the longing play out on her face as a partner from a rival firm offers her a job she knows she can’t take. Plus, we have another intrusion of Breaking Bad into the Mike’s Better Call Saul plot. It comes in a gloriously creepy moment that also features some of Jonathan Banks’s best work in his role so far. Even Patrick Fabian impresses this week, with almost no screen time. He’s doing a great job of making Howard not be a cruel, cold bastard, even when he’s acting punitively. If the third episode of Horace and Pete were less brilliant, this would be the pick of the week.

Music

Madvillain: Madvillainy — You know when you love an album so much you try not to listen to it too much so it stays fresh? That’s how this album is with me. It’s absolutely one of my favourite rap albums, but I don’t actually know it that well because I want it to stay surprising. When I listen to this, I get the sense that MadLib and I are essentially the same person, except he’s a talented hip hop producer and I’m a hack radio writer. But this is basically what the inside of my head sounds like, complete with bits of Frank Zappa and Gentle Giant flying around. MF Doom, on the other hand, is very much unlike the inside of my head, because there is literally no other human who thinks like him.

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — There is no other album about which there is so little left to be said.

The Beatles: Revolver — Except maybe this one. All the same, I think I can say some things. Revolver seems to be the internet’s consensus favourite Beatles album. I have no metric to measure this, but I get the sense that Gen Xers picked this as their Beatles album in opposition to the boomers’ reverence for Sgt. Pepper. And while neither of those are my favourite (I’d pick the White Album, Abbey Road, Rubber Soul, and Magical Mystery Tour over both), I’m going to have to decisively side with the boomers on this one. Revolver has some of the best songs in the Beatles canon (“Eleanor Rigby,” “She Said She Said,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” “For No One” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”). But for an album that’s consistently touted as maybe the single greatest utterance of a generation, it has a lot of relative duds. “Taxman” is an early iteration of mid-70s fatass popstar syndrome — wherein most of England’s biggest stars were living in tax exile making bland, safe music. “Love You To” is a culturally appropriative misguided experiment that lacks the lyrical and melodic brilliance of Pepper’s similar (but equally problematic) “Within You Without You.” “Here, There And Everywhere” marks the first appearance of the saccharine Paul McCartney that the world would come to resent, post-Beatles. “Yellow Submarine” is fine. Everybody stop hating on “Yellow Submarine.” “Good Day Sunshine” is musical plain yogurt. It’s all subjective, of course. But during four of Revolver’s 14 tracks, I always find myself wondering who crowned this one king.

Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here — More boomer music! This used to be my favourite album from Pink Floyd’s most revered period (Dark Side through The Wall). These days I tend to lean towards Animals. But Wish has a certain appeal for being the most loosely constructed of the post-Dark Side albums. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is the most obvious illustration of this — that opening goes on for at least one chorus longer than it probably needs to. But economy isn’t the concern here, nor should it have been. It’s the slow burn that makes the song. And the whole album benefits from the feeling that the band has time to kill. It would have been a mistake for Pink Floyd to follow up Dark Side with another ruthlessly focussed album. Wish You Were Here is the final statement from the free, jammy psychedelic band that Pink Floyd was before they hit it big. From here on out, the albums meander less and less. And that is both a gain and a loss.

NPR Music: the Austin 100 — This is a six-hour, 100-song playlist of music from artists playing at this year’s SXSW, compiled by Stephen Thompson, who will not shut up about it on the two podcasts he’s on that I listen to. Having very much enjoyed All Songs’ SXSW coverage, I figured I may as well check out the giant heap of music that they’ve made available for download. And you know what: good decision. There’s a huge range here, much of which falls under the valuable category of “stuff I don’t really want to explore further, but am glad I heard once.” Just when you think it’s going to be a bunch more indie rock and songwritery stuff, alphabetical order gives you back-to-back Chynna Rogers (kickass rap) and CONAN (metal, obvs). You can download all 100 songs for free until the end of March and you should, because why wouldn’t you?

Literature, etc.

David Sheppard: On Some Faraway Beach — I’ve had David Sheppard’s Brian Eno biography on my phone for ages, having only gotten through a couple of chapters. Early this week, the third chapter became my commute entertainment of choice. It’s fantastic, and as much a look into the London experimental music scene — including notables like Cornelius Cardew, Gavin Bryars and Michael Nyman — as it is into Eno’s formative years. It’s fun to see how the approach that made Eno one of my creative heroes — Sheppard summarizes it as “create parameters, set it off, see what happens” — basically originated with John Cage, and was circulating around the experimental circles that Eno stumbled into. The line from Cage to Eno is an obvious one to draw, but what’s cool is seeing how everybody else who caught on to it (including Americans like La Monte Young and Steve Reich) was using it to make a sort of “art music,” and Eno was the only one to realize he could use it to produce pop albums.

Games

SOMA — Finished, at last. This did what I wanted it to, namely: to offer me a detailed world to wander around in as part of a linear story, and to occasionally scare the willickers out of me. SOMA really wants to be a thoughtful game, and sometimes it is. But the existential questions that are its thematic bread and butter are too hypothetical to be especially preoccupying. “Are digital copies of ourselves still ourselves?” Ehh. It’s worth noting that this is close to the same question that animated the first storylines of Swamp Thing, and that comic really started getting good when Alan Moore stopped worrying about it. (It’s also worth noting that there’s a famous philosophical thought experiment colloquially known as “Swampman” that offers almost the same hypothetical as Swamp Thing, but which was apparently conceived some time after Swamp Thing began. In any case, both of these iterations of this idea are more sophisticated that their expression in SOMA.) These days, I’m disinclined to grapple with such abstract notions. Give me Bioshock: Infinite. That game’s hypotheticals are beginning to look like the daily news. Altogether, I’d say SOMA was very much a video game. It was fun while it lasted, but it won’t be lingering with me for long, and I certainly won’t ever play it again.

The Dream Machine: Episodes 1-3 — This is more my speed. First off, it’s amazing that somebody made a stop-motion point-and-click game with clay models. Aesthetically, The Dream Machine is the most distinctive game I’ve played since… I dunno, FEZ? It’s so beautifully presented that the apartment building where most of the game’s real-life segments take place is just as vibrant as its fanciful dream sequences. The puzzles, such as they are, are intuitive and don’t disrupt the flow of the story. The writing is clear and refreshingly non-stylized, and all of the characters have distinct voices — even in the third episode, where they literally all look the same. It’s not quite Kentucky Route Zero, but what is?

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: More SXSW coverage — The tail end of All Songs’ SXSW late night dispatches found Bob Boilen invigorated by an environment that most people, including apparently everybody else involved in NPR Music, would find exhausting. But the team’s tenacity paid off in this week’s proper episode of All Songs, which features some really fantastic discoveries that I’ll probably check out more from. I am so excited for that John Congleton album. Pick of the week.

On the Media: “Party People” — I can’t say I have any better an understanding of who the hell these people who support Trump are after listening to this, but it was certainly interesting to hear more about how ineffective the campaign finance system is — to the point where it’s almost hard to think of it as evil anymore. Just inept.

In Our Time: “Bedlam” — I continue to be equally fascinated by this show’s existence as its content. It’s refreshing — almost shocking, really — to hear Melvyn Bragg respond to a guest’s meandering answer to a question with “that was an excellent survey, but can you just give me the answer?” He’s totally artless and I kind of love him for it. The actual content of this episode is horrifying and fascinating.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Glen Weldon’s ‘The Caped Crusade’” — Fun! I will say, I find that as a culture critic, Weldon can be a bit on the orthodox side for my Phil Sandifer-inclined tastes. He has a tendency to recite the standard narratives of cultural history, rather than offering the sorts of counterintuitive arguments I tend to enjoy. But it sounds like in this book he’s really gone out of his way to put the most toxic parts of nerd culture under a microscope. I fully intend to read Weldon’s Superman book, having enjoyed the Amazon preview some time ago. This new Batman one may have to wait, but I’ll probably get there because Weldon is good company, in podcast and printed form.

On The Media: “Gawker, Hulk Hogan, and the First Amendment” — Bob Garfield is the best. This is a case study in why he and Brooke Gladstone are a great team. This is the sort of straightforward, umbrance-driven story that he would be way more into than her. Meanwhile, she’s probably off thinking about how Marshall McLuhan would have critiqued Twitter. It’s the perfect arrangement.

Reply All: “Good Job, Alex” — You know what’s something you can’t do on public radio? Be the main character in your own story. Thank god there are podcasts, because the Vogt/Goldman double act has never been funnier than in this, where Goldman tries to solve a problem and Vogt makes fun of him mercilessly.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “SXSW Wrap and Songs That Changed Our Lives” — This arrived just in time for me to reach peak NPR SXSW ‘16 coverage. After hearing Bob Boilen and co. geek out about the music at SXSW, it was nice that this offered Stephen Thompson, Katie Presley and Audie Cornish the opportunity to talk about it more broadly, as a phenomenon. And honestly, after hearing about the masses of sweaty people and the pace of it all, I think I might not bother ever going. I’ll just experience it vicariously through NPR.

Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 1, 2015)

If for some reason you make a habit of reading these, you’ll quickly realize that I like everything. You’re unlikely to see any real hatchet jobs here. I just like to enthuse about things, mostly. Here are your 32 reviews for the week:

Music

Vulfpeck: Thrill of the Arts — It’s funk produced with the minimalist precision of Krautrock. The arrangements are one unconventional decision after another. The choice to minimize the role of the drum kit at times is a weirdly good one. And the lyrics are brilliantly nonsensical. One of those unexpected pleasures.

David Bowie: Young Americans — In his book on John Peel, David Cavanagh refers to this as “the sound of [Bowie] cruising through black America in a limousine, occasionally slowing down to shed a few more parts of himself by the roadside.” I can’t do any better than that.

David Bowie: Station to StationYoung Americans was an only-half-successful experiment, but if it led to the insight that produced Station to Station, it was entirely worthwhile. This is my favourite Bowie album save for Low, and some days Hunky Dory. On the other hand, after listening to this and Young Americans in direct succession, my headphones are now coughing out thick clouds of cocaine. So, that’s inconvenient.

The Beatles: Rubber Soul — I just realized that my listening today has included soul of both plastic and rubber persuasions. Aside from that, what’s there to say about this? For years, it was the earliest Beatles album I cared to listen to. I’ve since developed a taste for the early stuff. But I still think this marks the point where they went from being a good little band to being the Best Band Ever. Not my favourite band, mind. But if you want to say to me that the Beatles are objectively the greatest band in history, I’ll tend not to argue with you.

Ted Hearne: The Source — First off, the track “We called for illumination at 1630” is one of the most staggering things I’ve heard recently. It’s an instant classic that everybody should hear. Most of the rest of this deeply unorthodox oratorio is less excellent than that. I sure respect Hearne’s political engagement (the oratorio’s text is drawn from the Manning leaks, among other primary sources). But it all feels a bit earnest to me: a bit austere and serious, as if to say, “This is important! DO NOT SMILE.” Still, it feels wrong to dismiss this on one listen. Accusing a work that deals with Chelsea Manning and the war in Afghanistan of being overly serious is admittedly somewhat perverse. I do wish more composers would try stuff like this. And that one track. Holy smokes. Listen to it now.

Eve Egoyan/Linda Catlin Smith: Thought and Desire — This is the first I’ve heard of Linda Catlin Smith’s music. It’s quite static, and at times there isn’t much to latch onto as a listener. Each of the nocturnes, chorales and miscellaneous compositions on this disc of piano music is essentially a sequence of slow moving but very rich chords without melodies stringing them together. Shades of Satie and Brian Eno. I listened while I worked, and eventually found myself really getting into it. I find the last twenty minutes boring, but the first forty are lovely. Egoyan’s releases are always worth hearing, because she plays music that nobody else does, and plays it well. Even if this isn’t quite as enthralling as some of her previous discs, these are still world premiere recordings and I value that inherently.

Mr. McFall’s Chamber: Solitudes — Who knew there was such a thing as Finnish tango? In any case, this is an album that takes that style as its jumping off point, and proceeds to do my favourite thing for contemporary classical albums to do: be completely enthralling while containing music written almost entirely by people I’ve never heard of. There’s nearly an hour of music by composers I don’t know, compared with less than ten minutes of music by composers I do. That seems about the right ratio. Olli Mustonen’s Toccata and Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Dedication are particular highlights. And the playing!

The Chemical Brothers: Further — I’ve already written at length about how happy this album makes me on Two Matts, the blog I co-write with Matt Meuse. It was one he assigned me, knowing full well I’d be into it. But he might not have guessed that I’d still be listening to it semi-obsessively several weeks later.

Live events

Hey Rosetta! Live at the Vogue — I’ve only done this a couple of times: that thing where you go to a concert by an artist you’ve barely heard of. But the friend I went with has seen them eight or nine times, so he was well-prepared to give me the lowdown on these folks beforehand. Plus, the concert turned out to be a good way in. Hey Rosetta! is a great live band for a couple of reasons. First, they play and sing brilliantly. Not a given, as we know. It’s the bands whose execution is solid that you want to see live. Secondly, their songs can get a bit anthemic. You want to be in a crowd of people, listening to some of those songs. I’m especially glad to have been at this specific show because Yukon Blonde was the opening act, and the two bands did their 2015 election anthem “Land You Love” for the first time live as an encore. Lovely moment, there. Plus, the lighting design was clever: twenty-or-so incandescent bulbs were distributed across the stage on stands. At times, the stage lights would go off completely, leaving the band lit solely by those bulbs. Wonderful. Time to listen to some Hey Rosetta! albums.

Movies

The Zero Theorem — You know you’re truly in love with an artist when you even enjoy the works of theirs that you can objectively identify as bad. This is how I am with Terry Gilliam. I’m on record stating that my favourite movie is Brazil, and that remains true on all the days when it is not Mulholland Drive or Velvet Goldmine. Then there are the Gilliam movies that are basically accepted as good, which I believe are masterpieces: 12 Monkeys, The Fisher King, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. There are the misunderstood gems, Tideland and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, both brilliant. And so it goes, on down to Brothers Grimm and Jabberwocky, neither of them any good at all, both of which I like in spite of myself. The question with The Zero Theorem was never “will I like it,” but rather “which of those categories will it fit into?” Turns out, it’s the one with Tideland and Parnassus. Nobody likes this, but it’s great. Gilliam’s satire continues to be a hilariously blunt instrument, and his gender politics are extremely suspect, but this is an enthralling movie. It probably helps that it’s the most similar thing he’s done to Brazil. It’s full of signs and boxes and advertisements you should read but can’t, because everything goes by too fast. It’s got David Thewlis as a cut-rate Michael Palin and Christoph Waltz as a big-budget Jonathan Pryce. It’s got women wearing outlandish things on their heads. I was never not going to like this.

Television

Doctor Who: “The Zygon Invasion/Inversion” — Well, the season got off to a slow start, but we’re sure as hell into the thick of it now. This two-parter was completely magnificent. Still not quite as good as last season’s high points (which were, incidentally, also written by the two writers credited here), but damn good. Between his Doctor Who work and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, Peter Harness is quickly becoming my second-favourite writer associated with Doctor Who. And if “space ISIS” isn’t quite as good a premise as “the moon’s an egg,” at least we got Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman both giving their best-ever performances on the show.

Last Week Tonight: November 1, 2015 — Nothing here that will set the world ablaze. No dingo babysitters. But it’s always nice to hear somebody say “hey, maybe we should focus on actual present-day news instead of talking about an election that’s a year away” and then doing that thing.

Literature, etc.

David Cavanagh: Good Night and Good Riddance — This continues to be fantastic, and really lent some clarity to the rise of punk rock. While I’ve become considerably more amenable to punk in recent years, I still have some lingering skepticism. But, when you see on a show-for-show basis how boring music was in 1975-76 (LOTS of Eagles and other Eaglesy bands on the radio), you begin to understand. Also, Cavanagh cleverly notes how many of the artists on certain Peel shows from this period were living in tax exile. Sort of puts a nice fine point on things, doesn’t it?

China Miéville: “The Buzzard’s Egg” — This is one of the best stories I’ve gotten to in this collection so far. Miéville’s stories live and die on the novelty of their premises, and this premise is really something: an army of ruthless imperialists conquer peoples and take their land by stealing their idols, thus rendering their prayers useless. Piquant, no? And Miéville’s chosen just the right narrator to offer a window into that world.

Alex Bilmes: Noel Gallagher interview for Esquire — I don’t really like Oasis. I’ve never listened to a full Oasis album. But I love interviews with Noel Gallagher. And this one is gigantic. Bilmes has the restraint to say his piece at the beginning, and then just give the people what they want, which is 6,500 words of Noel being garrulous and abrasive. Sample: “Hard work and a fucking filthy tongue, that’s what I inherited from my mum. She taught the Nineties how to swear. And what’s the word, stoicism? Yeah, she was hardcore. She didn’t give a fuck.”

Ben Grossblatt/Alex Fine: How to Speak Klingon — A few friends and I have been going to pub trivia around Vancouver for a year or so. There’s a nerd bar here called the Storm Crow that’s becoming a favourite for its fairly challenging questions and its Cthulhu altar. This was a first place prize, and it is frankly ridiculous that I’m even reviewing it. It is a children’s board book with buttons that make sounds. It is not a serious thing. That said, it is better than it needs to be. Wookiepedia tells me that in addition to this most minor of Star Trek credits, Grossblatt has also written peripheral fiction pertaining to Star Wars. And the illustrator, Alex Fine, did covers for Newsweek when Newsweek still had covers. So, they’re not hacks. This provides useful phrases for various contexts in Klingon society. Like, on public transportation, it teaches you the phrase for “I don’t have exact change and await my just and devastating punishment.” Or, at the office: “There are no bad ideas, only ideas meriting death.” Or, at karaoke: “Hold me closer, tiny dancer.”

Games

Stasis: Howlongtobeat.com tells me it should take me about five hours to beat this game. Reviewers imply that they played it in an afternoon. I’ve played for nine hours over the course of two weeks, and I don’t feel like I’m nearly done. I’m really bad at this, aren’t I?

Podcasts

The Allusionist: “Criminallusionist” — Radiotopia cross-promotion continues. I’m beginning to wonder if this is a straightforwardly good thing or not. The bulk of this is just a full episode of Criminal, and while that’s nothing to complain about, I did actually tune in for The Allusionist. Maybe this is how Marvel Comics fans feel when they complain about big crossover events?

This American Life: “The Heart Wants What It Wants” — The major highlight of this is Shankar Vedantum’s story about men who were conned into paying for love letters from fictional women. The key takeaway is that I should probably start listening to Vedantum’s Hidden Brain, although do I really have time for another podcast? (Evidently yes, as we shall see.)

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “A Conversation with Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)” — I will likely not read Career of Evil, but the structural gimmick sounds fun (much of the novel is narrated by the murderer, but you don’t actually know which of the suspects is doing the narrating). This is one of my favourite things about listening to tons of podcasts: it helps me keep track of what’s going on in the cultural world without my having to actually take in ALL of it. (Though you can see I’m trying.)

Surprisingly Awesome: “Mold” — I’ve expressed ambivalence towards “wonder surrogacy” before, in other media. That’s where there’s a person in the text itself whose role it is to express wonder, interest or enthusiasm in the hopes that the audience will join in. This new podcast has wonder surrogacy baked into its premise. Provided that the topics covered continue to have the same hidden depths as they find in mold, there will always be one host whose job boils down to saying “isn’t that interesting?” At the worst of times, this approach strikes me as desperate. Surely it’s better to just say interesting things and get on with it than to be constantly trumpeting your own appeal. In this premiere episode, it’s fine. But I will remain vigilant.

In Our Time: “Utilitarianism” — This is BBC Radio 4. This is a very austere production with no music, no tape, seemingly no editing, and no obvious enthusiasm. This is a man mumbling disinterestedly into a microphone, trying to coax the history of a major branch of philosophy from a panel of sleepy professors. This condescends not a whit to its audience, and makes no compromises. In fact, it seems to be ignoring its audience altogether. I will probably listen to more of this.

Reply All: “Shine On You Crazy Goldman” — P.J. Vogt drops acid at work. P.J. Vogt is quickly becoming the most interesting podcast host. Matt Lieber is a Pink Floyd reference.

The Memory Palace: “no. 116,842” — The Memory Palace always makes me get all watery at inopportune moments. DiMeo has this uncanny ability to wrest meaning out of a phrase by repeating it: in this case, “let her mind wander.” See also, “Mary Walker would wear what she wanted.”

The Memory Palace: “Craning” — Every time I hear a really good episode of The Memory Palace, it makes me want to go back and listen to this one again. I must have heard it ten or twelve times, now. It is my favourite nine minutes of audio I’ve heard this year. It’s a landscape of Cape Canaveral on the morning Apollo 11 launched, wrought with incredibly fine brushstrokes — right down to the spectators camping out in station wagons, overnight, with the tailgates open for the feet of tall children in sleeping bags. There are more perfect turns of phrase here than I’ve ever heard in a radio piece. Throw in some meditative music, and this is a total sucker punch. I can’t account for why this has such an effect on me. That’s probably why I love it so much.

99% Invisible: “Butterfly Effects” — An original, Sam Greenspan-produced story about how bad design might have decided a federal election. This is what this podcast is for. 99pi is a continuous act of validation for Roman’s “beautiful nerds.” Because, when everything in the world is so inherently interesting, how can you not want to learn everything about it? How can you not be a nerd? In a sense, the premise of 99pi is the opposite of the premise for the new Gimlet podcast, Surprisingly Awesome. Where the latter takes for granted that some things are boring, 99pi is interested in everything, and trusts that you are too. No wonder surrogacy, here.

The Moth: “Hand Transplant, DNA, and a Backwards Heart” — And, we’re back. Janna Levin’s story of love and astrophysics is structurally a thing of beauty. I’m a sucker for recurring motifs that develop thematically through the course of a narrative. (See: The Memory Palace, and also most everything by Beethoven.) The other two stories are less interesting, but not by much.

The Heart: “Kaitlyn+Mitra” — This two-parter about the intimate business partnership of The Heart’s two founders could have been a little inside baseball, but they invited their audience in by literally inviting the audience to a big event — a wedding, of sorts. The Heart is so good. For one thing, it’s one of the best-sounding podcasts on Radiotopia, along with The Truth and 99pi. For another, it cares not a whit about taboos. And was that Brian Eno’s slowed-down Pachelbel I heard in there? Clever.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ and Things We Meant to Do” — And now, a proper episode of PCHH. Pop culture panel shows are a dime a dozen, but this is far and away the best of the major ones. Every episode sounds like what it hopefully actually is, which is four people who really like talking to each other talking about stuff they like. I generally find this panel more insightful than Slate’s, and it’s actually funnier than the less structured and less censored Pop Rocket from Maximum Fun. This episode is a pretty standard instalment. And that is just fine. This is a podcast I almost always listen to the day it comes out, because I can rely on it to be good company on a commute or a run, even when the topics at hand aren’t that interesting to me.

Radiolab: “Staph Retreat” — You know you listen to too many podcasts when you hear two separate accounts of Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in the same week, entirely by coincidence. This is the better one, by the way. As you’d expect. Honestly, Radiolab lost me for a while. Between the reduced presence of Robert Krulwich, the less ambitious sound design and the increased focus on the sort of current affairs stories that other shows like This American Life already do, I felt like this show had somewhat lost its distinctiveness. But between this and “The Rhino Hunter” from September, it looks like they’re back on top.

Surprisingly Awesome: “Free Throws” — More wonder surrogacy, but this time, Adam Davidson is essentially a perfect surrogate for me, because this is a sports story, and neither he nor I could care less about sports. But, even given this optimal situation, in which both Davidson and I come around to the interest of free throws in the end, they cap it off with an ending in which Davidson’s wonder far exceeds my own, and the perfect surrogacy is broken. This is the key risk of this kind of storytelling: if the audience isn’t completely analogous to the surrogate, they need to engage their empathy in order to feel the intended effect. And people are (or at least, I am) bad at engaging their empathy when the stakes are zero. I’ll keep tuning in to this, because it really is entertaining on a moment-for-moment basis. But I distrust this structure.

Welcome to Night Vale: “The September Monologues” — I do like it when Night Vale plays with the format. I suppose some of what I said last week might make it sound like I don’t. But the real problem is when there’s too much focus on long-term storytelling and worldbuilding, and not enough on just making the episode at hand work. This is one of the best episodes I’ve heard, if only for the brilliant monologue by Steve Carlsburg. I always figured Cecil was just being a jerk about him. And that weather gag is genius.

Which Beatles Album Are You? (Answer: You wish you were a Beatles album.)

I’ve been hesitant to ever write anything about the Beatles. I figure they’ve far exceeded their deserved allotment of critical ink. At this point, the Beatles’ overwhelming significance is a cyclical proposition: they are overwhelmingly significant, and thus they are much discussed, and thus they are overwhelmingly significant.

But they can be useful to have around. Beatles albums have become part of the critical vernacular, each one signifying a specific creative intention, or point in a band’s career. Most readers will know what you mean when you refer to an album as a given band’s “Sgt. Pepper.” Ditto for “White Album,” as this review attests to. Some would refer to these as critical clichés. I prefer “archetypes.” These albums are so ubiquitous that you can use them as shorthand without the fear of alienating anyone.

I’ve always thought that most of the Beatles’ albums are somehow archetypal. So much so, that my thinking about any other band’s body of work tends to be mediated by the Beatles’ discography. I’ll give an example of that later. First, here’s my attempt to codify what some of the Beatles’ albums signify, at least for me.

(Note: Below, I am referring to the UK versions of these albums, as standardized on the 1987 CD releases.)

A Hard Day's NightA Hard Day’s Night – Some bands don’t have an “early period:” they arrive fully formed. This archetype belongs to the bands that aren’t like that. Seen in retrospect, early periods are interesting because of their promise of things to come. During their early period, a band may produce innovative music, and even great music, but their superlative masterpieces are still ahead of them. The archetypal “Hard Day’s Night” is the best album of a given artists’s early period. Some of the traits that will come to define their best work are first observed on this album.

Examples: Pink Floyd’s Meddle, Rush’s Fly By Night, The Rolling Stones’ Out of Our Heads

Beatles For SaleBeatles For Sale – Sometimes, a band makes an album that demonstrates a substantial refinement of their skills both as songwriters and instrumentalists, but fails nonetheless to live up to the standards of their previous work. This could occur because of a single creative misstep, or because of any number of mitigating circumstances, such as lack of time, or interpersonal tensions.

 

 

Examples: Yes’s Time and a Word, Genesis’s Nursery Cryme

RevolverRevolver – The archetypal “Revolver” is the album where a band is straining against the constraints of the idiom they have established for themselves. It is a masterpiece, but it is characterized less by effortless mastery than by a sort of hardy frontier spirit. Usually, it directly precedes the archetypal “Sgt. Pepper,” but there are exceptions to this.

 

 

Examples: Radiohead’s The Bends, Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, Wilco’s Summerteeth

Sgt._Pepper's_Lonely_Hearts_Club_BandSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – There’s more to this archetype than simply being a band’s best or most acclaimed album. (Besides, the internet seems to prefer Revolver nowadays, anyhow.) A given band’s “Sgt. Pepper” is a meticulously constructed demonstration of utter confidence in their idiom. It may be groundbreaking, but it does not feel experimental in retrospect, because its construction is such that it does not call attention to its innovation.

 

Examples: Radiohead’s OK Computer, Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

The BeatlesThe Beatles (“The White Album”) – This archetype usually marks a point in a band’s career when they have produced a masterpiece that will make it difficult for them to best themselves. Having reached the apex of their established idiom, and having found themselves at the risk of creative stagnation, the band sees no option but to revert to an extreme form of the experimentalism that defines the “Revolver.” The result is always diverse and usually unwieldy. But, at the best of times, it attains a sort of cohesiveness from its compulsive heterogeneity. It usually directly succeeds the archetypal “Sgt. Pepper.” There are very few exceptions to this, as this archetype derives its identity from its precedents. (In the case of the original “White Album,” the album Magical Mystery Tour separates the two. However, the original UK release of Magical Mystery Tour was not a proper album, but an EP. So, The Beatles was the band’s first album-length statement since Sgt. Pepper.)

Examples: Radiohead’s Kid A, Jethro Tull’s A Passion Play, Wilco’s A Ghost is Born

Let It BeLet It Be – Much in the same way that the archetypal “White Album” comes about because of a conscious attempt not to stagnate, the archetypal “Let It Be” is the product of a band’s anxieties about going too far afield, or becoming a caricature of their more successful incarnation. Sometimes, it acts as a sort of damage control when a band has already reached that point. The “Let It Be” represents a conscious effort to make music that is simpler in any number of ways than the music that immediately precedes it.

 

Examples: The Moody Blues’ A Question of Balance, The Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet

Looking at Beatles albums as archetypes allows us to look at non-Beatles albums as mirrors of Beatles albums. Whether it is critically profitable or not is beside the point: this game of equivalences is great fun. It is particularly entertaining when it doesn’t really work, so you’re forced to justify your choices in outlandish ways. To demonstrate, here’s how I have come to think about the classic albums of the Beatles’ eternal rivals, the Rolling Stones:

The Stones’ early period ended with Aftermath and Between the Buttons. On these records, R&B gave way to art pop, and then to psychedelia, in a perfect reflection of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Revolver. To clarify: Between the Buttons is a “Revolver.” And indeed, the variety of timbres and styles on Between the Buttons represents the most profitable experimentalism of the Stones’ career. What happens next is a little complicated.

Their Satanic Majesties Request is the most problematic album the Stones released until the mid-seventies. Critics deride it as a fashion-conscious knock-off, cashing in on the success of Sgt. Pepper. Putting aside the fact that Satanic Majesties has much more to do with the jangly psychedelia of Pink Floyd’s recent debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn than with the meticulously composed Sgt. Pepper, mere imitation is not sufficient for an album to constitute an archetypal “Sgt. Pepper.” For the Stones, mastery of their idiom was a long way off at this juncture.

So, the band had their first genuine failure on their hands. Time to go into damage control mode. The rootsy country-rock of Beggars Banquet, together with the hard rock single “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” represents a return to form, in terms of critical reception as well as style. The Stones will likely never be remembered as masters of psychedelia or art pop. Their idiom is fundamentally based in American styles of popular music, poured into British Invasion-shaped bottles. Beggars Banquet returns to this model of music making, and is thus a textbook “Let It Be.”

This realignment allowed the Stones to once again begin working towards their own “Sgt. Pepper.” In Let It Bleed, punning title aside, they produced a second “Revolver.” Not since Between the Buttons had there been a Stones album with this level of stylistic variety. And having experimented once again, the Stones finally made their “Sgt. Pepper” with Sticky Fingers: the most seemingly effortless collection of satisfying songs the Stones would ever make. For instance, a track with the epic sweep of “Moonlight Mile” is fairly unprecedented in the Stones’ catalogue. But, it succeeds so completely that it fails to call attention to the innovation, much like the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” and perhaps more so. Only a “Sgt. Pepper” could contain such a track.

Having made Sticky Fingers, there was only one direction for the Stones to go in, and that was every direction conceivable, all at once. Thus, Exile on Main St. Every rootsy style that the band had assimilated is accounted for here: blues, country, gospel, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll, maybe even with a bit of folk thrown in. Exile is an unwieldy double album, including tracks in barely releasable states of completion. The only more archetypal “White Album” is the original one.

So, to recap:

Between the Buttons = a “Revolver”

Their Satanic Majesties Request = a would-be “Sgt. Pepper”

Beggars Banquet = a premature “Let It Be”

Let it Bleed = a second “Revolver”

Sticky Fingers = a deferred “Sgt. Pepper.”

Exile on Main St. = a “White Album”

Convincing? Probably not. Whatever. I had fun.