First off, there’s a second episode of the fiction podcast I’m making with Nick Zarzycki: Mark’s Great American Road Trip. I like it a lot better than the first one. I daresay it’s quite good, actually. But what do I know. Subscribe, if you’re inclined. Rate, if you’re feeling really charitable.
Arrival — The twist in this movie is so good that it’s almost hard to watch it a second time and keep track of what you are and aren’t supposed to know. Arrival sets up its own metaphor for its protagonist’s experience: if you watch the movie twice, you know how she feels. Arrival is a masterpiece.
Downton Abbey: Season 6, episodes 1-3 — This show is feeling tired now. It’s still fun to see thee characters but they’re being placed in increasingly outlandish configurations and scenarios, including Mrs. Hughes sending Mrs. Patmore as an emissary to Mr. Carson because she’s uncomfortable talking about sex. But I am liking the general sense of foreboding that covers the early part of this season — a scene in a dilapidated old manor kept by a delusional old aristocrat waiting for “the good times” to return is a bit over the top, writing-wise, but it does its job with its visuals. Seeing a house like Downton in terms of size and style, but which hasn’t been maintained for decades, is enormously impactful. Even to those of us who recognize that these old houses were unequivocally a social blight.
Detention — The highest compliment I can pay it is that it reminds me of Year Walk. Both games derive their undeniable horror from a very specific time and place: in Year Walk the Sweden of mythological memory, and in Detention the White Terror in Taiwan. And while Detention can’t match Year Walk’s innovative presentation or unforced storytelling, it is a similarly immersive experience. Visually, it’s a marvel: particularly in its early and late stages, in which the environments are constructed from a mix of illustrations and photographs, like a creepy moving collage. Narratively, it puts a bit too much weight on a few shabby little shocks and generic bits of character backstory. But the story’s specifics aren’t quite the point. From a distance, Detention is a compelling psychological portrait of a person dealing with intense guilt — the specific sort of guilt that results from collusion with an if-you-see-something-say-something regime. And it’s properly terrifying, too.
Jorge Luis Borges: “Funes, His Memory” — Been a while, but I feel I need to get back to Borges in a serious way. This is a very typical story from him, in that it is basically a series of musings on a single extraordinary supposition: in this case that there is a person who remembers everything perfectly and completely. Borges may well be the greatest author of speculative fiction who ever lived, and also maybe the purest example of that style, because in his least narratively driven stories (those that are not, for instance, “The Garden of Forking Paths” or “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”) he does essentially nothing except speculating. In this story, for instance, he gives us the brilliant “the map is not (but nearly is) the territory” notion of a person reconstructing the complete memory of a full day, and having this take exactly the same amount of time as the original experience. I love Borges. I haven’t encountered a writer I connect with so much since I read At Swim-Two Birds, which Borges apparently also loved.
Kelly Sue DeConnick & Valentine De Landro: Bitch Planet, Volumes 1 & 2 — I read volume one when it came out in trade, but that was two years ago (jesus where is my life going). Two issues into the second volume, I realized I really needed a full recap. And even though I recall loving Bitch Planet from the start, I feel like I missed a ton of stuff the first time through. On second reading, it is incredibly kinetic, right off the top. The way it starts with a voiceover actor arriving for a gig and immediately transitions into the use of her tape en route to Bitch Planet is one of the cleverest bits of exposition I’ve ever seen in comics. I also don’t remember the characters coming into their own as fast as they actually do. The surprise reveal of Kam as the protagonist at the end of the issue, following the death of the Piper Chapman-esque white woman is a masterstroke — it’s a rug pull that the writers of Lost were planning to do in their pilot episode, but couldn’t get away with. Here, it’s staggering. I also missed that there’s a sports team called the Florida Men. DeConnick is a technically impeccable storyteller but she’s also super funny. The second volume is narratively much more exciting than the first, which has a lot of worldbuilding business to get through before the story starts in earnest. The addition of Kam’s sister and a new cast of inmates in an entirely different facility brings a new facet to the story, and the arrival of a revenge-seeking Makoto Maki adds forward momentum. It was a long wait, and I’ll probably have to read both of these again when the third volume comes out. But that’s not such a bad thing.
Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky: Sex Criminals, Vol. 4: “Fourgy” — This isn’t up to the ecstatically silly highs of the first two arcs, but it’s a huge improvement over the third. It doubles down on the two things I love most about this comic, which are the enormous density of dumb sex jokes in Chip Zdarsky’s art and the realism of Jon and Suzie’s relationship. I’m not sure there are any characters in comics that I care about more than these two, even in Bitch Planet or The Wicked and the Divine, which I am inclined to think are better comics in general. Also neither of those have a fake magazine article with a bogus oral (lol) history of Matt Fraction’s dumb jingle about “wide wieners.” And that’s their loss.
The Rolling Stones: Beggars Banquet — It’s widely regarded as the beginning of their four-album imperial phase. And while I see a much clearer line between this and the albums that follow it than between this and the albums that immediately precede it, I still feel like this is more of a transitional album than a full-on masterpiece. It doesn’t have the density of huge riffs of later albums, and the arrangements are still pretty bare bones. The most familiar songs are also the best: “Sympathy for the Devil” is one of Mick Jagger’s best moments lyrically, and his “yow!” at the start is just irresistible. And “Street Fighting Man” is a classic of rock star self-awareness — “what else can a poor boy do,” indeed. Of the album tracks, I am fondest of “No Expectations,” on which Brian Jones gives one of his most memorable instrumental performances on slide guitar, and “Jigsaw Puzzle,” which shimmers in a way that anticipates the band’s most open and cathartic moments in songs like “Monkey Man” and “Moonlight Mile.” On the other hand, “Salt of the Earth” is patronizing nonsense that almost makes me dislike Keith Richards, and the acoustic blues numbers still feel like pale imitations of old American icons. By Sticky Fingers, they’ll have finally internalized the blues enough to do it their own way, but they haven’t here. This has never been one of my favourites, and I daresay there are a couple of albums from prior to this that I prefer. Also, listening in mono does not add or detract much from the experience. I understand that aside from “Sympathy,” the mono mix is actually just a fold-down of the stereo, and so we have finally reached the phase where mono is no longer the definitive format for this band.
The Rolling Stones: Let It Bleed — At this point, maybe it’s worth stopping for a moment to consider how strange it is that I have devoted so much time to the Rolling Stones over the past couple of weeks, and indeed in my life generally. They do not remotely fit the profile of music that I tend to like. They’re undisciplined, macho, not terribly skilled, not terribly imaginative, and there are large stretches of their discography that feel produced by formula. I am hard-pressed to articulate why I like them in terms of actual musical qualities. But in a more autobiographical sense, the reason why I like the Rolling Stones is this album. Let It Bleed was the first Stones album I bought — yes, bought, on CD, at the Wal-Mart in my hometown, where they still sold these little shiny discs that I liked to collect even as all of my friends began abandoning them in favour of piracy. I was 16, and my musical taste thus far had been almost entirely dictated by the family orthodoxy. Not only did I listen nearly exclusively to music from my parents’ generation, I also studiously avoided the music that my father had defined himself against in his younger days. And the Stones were a tentpole in that canon. We were a Beatles family, thank you very much. And more to the point, we were a family who liked the sort of music that took after the Beatles: Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes — all of them still bands I like better than the Stones. But at some point I remember hearing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on satellite radio (remember satellite radio? we had it in our truck) and thinking for the first time that perhaps the family orthodoxy was wrong. I’d been led to believe that the Stones were incapable of producing beauty, or making anything with real ambition. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” put the lie to that. Even if the choral arrangement is awful — and it is: it’s an attempt to get a choir to do what a singer with a guitar does — the multi-part structure of the song is incredibly elegant. One section melts into the next without any fuss. It’s all based on the same verses and choruses, but they take on drastically different aspects as the song transforms from heartfelt ballad to rave-up. The way the piano and organ play off of each other at the ends of the choruses is ingenious. So I bought the album, halfway hoping that the rest of it wouldn’t live up to this standard, because that would complicate my worldview in a most untidy way. But as soon as the guiro came in over Keith Richards’ classic riff in “Gimme Shelter,” I realized I was in for no such luck. This, far more than Beggars Banquet, is the moment where everything coalesces for the Stones. Keith’s listen-close-or-you’ll-miss-it lead playing in the intro to that track is the mark of a band with a newly discovered sense of self. By the time “Monkey Man” came around and I hadn’t disliked any songs yet, I realized that I had some serious re-evaluating to do — of the Rolling Stones, but also of the entire value system that had led me to dismiss them in the first place. I’m not exaggerating for effect when I say that this album was the catalyst for a complete change-up in my way of thinking. In an odd way, this band that has long been the definition of baby boomer cultural dominance became a totem of rebellion for me, in the year 2006. There’s more to the story than I’m prepared to write about on the internet. But suffice it to say that regardless of whether Let It Bleed is the best Stones album, and regardless of whether the Stones are even a good band, I owe them — and this album in particular — a very great deal. Pick of the week.
The Rolling Stones: Stray Cats — We’ve come to the end of the Rolling Stones mono box, with this collection of songs from the 60s that didn’t make it onto an album. Or, at least, none of the albums included in this box. (“Not Fade Away” was on the American version of their debut.) It contains much that is trivial, some that is regrettable (Mick Jagger’s voice is uniquely ill-suited for singing “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” yet he insists) and a smattering of spectacular classics. It’s frankly bizarre that “19th Nervous Breakdown” never appeared on one of the singles-laden American records. It is quite possibly the best song from the Aftermath period that isn’t “Paint It, Black.” Also, this album is the home of the mono versions of “We Love You” and “Child of the Moon,” psychedelic curios that are idiosyncratic favourites of mine. And it is the home of the two essential non-album singles from the band’s imperial phase: “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Honky Tonk Women.” If you want to get to know the Rolling Stones in seven minutes, you could do worse than listening to those two tracks. Okay, so in general I’ve enjoyed hearing all of this stuff in mono. But unlike the Beatles, I am not convinced that the mono versions of this band’s songs are always definitive. The Beatles’ sound had more transparency than the Stones. More lines, fewer crunchy chords. The sheer opacity of the Stones sound is sometimes overwhelming in mono. To paraphrase a later rock and roller, everything seems louder than everything else. I never listen to the Beatles in stereo, where a mono version exists. I don’t think that will be the case with the Stones.
The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers — After I finished the mono box, I found that I couldn’t stop. Not just when things are getting good. Sticky Fingers is probably the best Rolling Stones album. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to quite proclaim it my favourite (see above, re: Let It Bleed), but it is the moment when this band self-actualized. Sticky Fingers maintains the groovy, dirty rock feel that has been their most successful style since “Satisfaction,” but it explodes that style in a way that no previous album has. Previously, whenever they’ve tried something really new, they’ve done it by distancing themselves from their default aesthetic. That led to some good art pop songs and some tepid psychedelia. But here they give us a mix of flat-out riff rock, blues, and country that nonetheless has a cinematic sweep to it that doesn’t exist anywhere else in their catalogue. It’s not just because of the strings. And I’m not just talking about “Moonlight Mile,” either, though that song is certainly their most grandiose, and also one of their best. This album seeks to transport you to places more than any other Stones album. It brings forth images like a movie screen: images of strung-out desperados in “Sister Morphine,” squalid bedsits in “Dead Flowers,” youthful courtships in “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” — and, yes, slave ships in “Brown Sugar,” which persists in being staggering troublesome. It’s odd that the Stones are still associated with the early days of the British Invasion. Not odd, maybe, but incongruous. Because this is their apex, and it finds them having outlived the Beatles by a year, abandoned every convention of British psychedelia, and settled on a kind of music that has much more to do with guitar-driven music of the early 70s — on both sides of the Atlantic. If you cut the Stones’ discography off after the Beatles broke up, “Beatles vs. Stones” would not even be a question. It’s Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. that tip the balance and make it so.
The Rolling Stones: Exile On Main St. — There have been times when this has been my favourite Stones album, but not this week. This week it’s my third favourite. Exile is famously sprawling and unfocused, and that is the point of it. Without its shaggier moments it would be merely a less ambitious, poorly engineered Sticky Fingers. A hypothetical track list might look like: “Rocks Off,” “Sweet Virginia,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Loving Cup,” “Happy,” “Ventilator Blues,” “Let It Loose,” “Shine A Light,” “All Down the Line.” These are all classic songs. I dare say “Let It Loose” is the most underappreciated track in the band’s oeuvre. But without tracks like “Torn and Frayed” and “Soul Survivor,” the album would lose its long, gradual descent from partytime ecstasy to morose regretfulness. And I daresay that is what makes this the consensus pick for best Stones album. It’s certainly not the parts that make it a classic of the rock and roll canon. Their sum must therefore exceed them by some distance. Sometime in the not too distant future, I’ll listen to this again during a week when I haven’t been listening exclusively to the Stones. That’ll reignite my interest.
Arts and Ideas: “Thinking – Blade Runner. Ghost Stories” — Okay, so now I’ve got the negative perspective on Blade Runner 2049. At the time of writing, I have not seen it, so I can’t judge the value of these critiques yet. But I do think that both the guests and the host of this discussion have gotten misdirected by Blade Runner’s tenuous status as an adaptation of Philip K. Dick. We didn’t get a Blade Runner sequel because we wanted another Philip K. Dick movie. The original is barely that anyway, as the panelists are quick to point out. We got one because Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is a fabulous classic in its own right, and one which has as much to do with the spectacle that Sarah Dillon so abhors as it does with storytelling — and that’s fine, because it helps to form a vision of a world. (Mind you, it sounds like what Dillon objects to most is the representation of female sexuality through the male gaze as a component of that spectacle. And without even having seen the movie, I know enough to expect that’s a valid critique. But there’s nothing wrong with spectacle in itself.) Also, it always throws me listening to British radio and hearing them say words like “empiricism” without explaining them. I guess they don’t have to because the populus has gotten smart by listening to the radio. What a concept!
Home of the Brave: “We Thought It Was a Movie” — A brief, powerful interview with somebody who was in the thick of the Las Vegas shooting. I have an acquaintance who was there and related a similarly harrowing story. What an awful thing to reckon with.
StartUp: “Make China Cool Again” & “Just Hit Record” — The China episode is baffling for its lack of having anything to do with the premise of this show. “Just Hit Record” has even less to do with that premise, but it does reckon with the show’s legacy as a document of the formation of a business. That makes it more interesting than many of the episodes that have come out lately.
In Our Time: “Constantine the Great” — This is GREAT fun. Sometimes Melvyn Bragg’s attempts to wrest a cursory survey of a subject from his panel takes on an athletic dimension. He careens unknowingly towards obstacles, only to pivot at the last minute so that valuable time won’t be lost. And in this case, he’s practically forced to sprint towards the finish line. If this show were conceived as a podcast rather than a live broadcast show, the time limit might be a gimmick rather than a necessity: “I’m Melvyn Bragg, and this is the show where I have one hour to make three professors explain something comprehensively!” Thank god it isn’t that. But the limitation is an asset, and adds a bit of excitement. If you want to hear a man become hysterically frustrated with how little is known about a topic, this episode is a must-listen. Pick of the week.
Love and Radio: “For Science!” — Here we have a story about a person who makes a living by participating in medical studies. It is funnier than it might have been. I wonder how many people will listen to this and think: “Ah! An option!”
Longform: “Michael Barbaro” — I tend to listen mostly to the episodes of this show that deal with podcasters, because I have a fixation. It is becoming a good source of behind-the-curtain perspectives on the stuff I listen to for hours a day. Barbaro is the voice of one of the most important podcasts in the history of the medium: The Daily, which is more than essential. It’s practically benevolent.
99% Invisible: “The Athletic Brassiere” & “The Containment Plan” — Two very 99pi episodes of 99pi, even though one of them is actually from Outside. You’ve got to respect a show that gives you what you think you’re going to get.
All Songs Considered: “Hallelujah! The Songs We Should Retire” — I love when Stephen Thompson is on this show, and I really love when Tom Huizenga makes an appearance. This is fun. It’s fun to hear people talk about overfamiliar music. It’s a conversation that I’ve had myself. Part of the point of podcasts is hearing people just talk. One of those simple things.
Uncivil: “The Raid” & “The Deed” — A good start to Gimlet’s latest. Neither of these episodes shook me to my core, but I love that they’re doing a whole show, and not just a limited-run series, about the Civil War. There’s plenty of material for years of this, I’m sure.
The Memory Palace: “A Brief Eulogy for a Commercial Radio Station” — One of Nate DiMeo’s best in a while. His favourite alternative radio station is shutting down, so he muses on the entire history of commercial radio as an influencer on the formation of young identities. It’s really beautiful, and it would be my pick of the week if I were in a less capricious mood.
Imaginary Worlds: “Rappers with Arm Cannons” — A story about two rappers who styled themselves after video game characters: specifically Mega Man and Samus. Listen to satisfy your curiosity.
The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Thad Vogler: A Short History of Spirits” — A slight, nice story on a person who knows a lot about alcohol. Not much more to say.