Tag Archives: Brian Eno

Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 8, 2017)

Big week! 31 reviews! I’m working part-time and it feels GREAT. Also, I have some magical new running pants that allow me to run in the cold. So, podcasts! But first, everything else.

Literature, etc.

Ken Doctor: “The Newsonomics of Podcasting” — Doctor’s analysis of the current state of podcasting is probably the most in-depth bespoke piece of journalism out there on the matter at the moment. (I say “bespoke” because the best way to stay informed about the podcast biz remains a subscription to Nick Quah’s weekly newsletter Hot Pod.) There is much here for podcast producers and enthusiasts to be scared about — especially in the fourth of the five parts in this series, which details how dynamic advertising (something that contributed to the web’s current state of dilapidation and skeeziness) will soon be implemented into podcasting at the cost of its current, open RSS-based model of distribution. However, the fifth and final section offers some reasons to be optimistic, as it seems that the people at the heads of the companies responsible for many of the most popular podcasts don’t want to see this industry go the way of commercial radio, or of digital publishing. As long as there are people in powerful positions at big podcasting companies who believe in the primacy of good programming over all other concerns, we’ll be fine. Right? Right??

Jed Gottlieb: “Curtains fall on arts critics at newspapers” — Well, this is intensely discouraging. Still, it’s gratifying to read a quote from a formerly full-time critic that calls the situation for what it is: “It’s all for kids. The papers, the movies and music. There is nowhere to go for smart analysis, beautiful features. Social media means everyone has a voice but what’s lost in the cacophony is that intelligent voice commenting on intelligent art.” Welcome to the abyss.

Olivia Laing: The Lonely City — Another 2016 notable book I’m hurrying through before my end-of-January list. This is unexpectedly cathartic: a study of urban loneliness in American art, and an examination of how that art can help ease loneliness. Halfway between straight art criticism and memoir, Laing’s book sets out exactly the headspace she found herself in when she became obsessed with the art of loneliness. The first chapter focusses on the work of Edward Hopper, whose paintings I have apparently seen plenty of without actually ever knowing who he was. But it also focusses on the way that the experience of loneliness of the acute sort that Laing has experienced, and that I can sympathise with in a much more muted form, has a tendency to further isolate you from the people that you want in your life. Moreover, Laing notes that there’s social science research that details how, once the loneliness subsides, we tend to forget the sensation altogether and fail to recognize and sympathize with it in others. So, for anybody who has experienced what Laing describes and has come out the other side, this is a useful read because it contains a description of the sensation that you may have forced yourself to forget. The appeal of this book lies in the intersection between Laing’s ability to articulate the experience of loneliness and her ability to look at and interpret pictures in interesting ways based on that experience. Familiar Hopper paintings like Nighthawks take on more beauty when seen through the lens that Laing offers. The next chapter’s on Warhol. No idea where she’ll go with that, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

Games

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: Part 4 — Not finished yet, but I’m happy to report that this is everything I’d hoped it would be. It incorporates the mechanical improvements of the third instalment into a setting that has more of what appealed to me in the second part: I’ll always prefer a text-based game that takes place in a city to one that takes place in a vast wilderness. Even a vast wilderness with nifty time beacons. So much of what makes me like interactive fiction is getting to interact with NPCs from fictional civilizations. Or fictionalized versions of real civilizations. The other advantage in this game is that the rewind feature is disabled at a crucial point, so that your decisions aren’t reversible and you can’t be tempted to try all of the routes through any given situation: a big part of what sunk the last instalment for me. That said, I’m only just getting to a situation where I wish I could rewind my choices, because I think I might have actually trapped myself somewhere I can’t get out of without rewinding back past the point where the rewind was disabled. My final assessment of this will likely depend on my level of frustration in getting out of this situation. But let’s just bequeath something on this pre-emptively, in case I decide I hate it later for unfair reasons, namely that I’m a terrible and idiosyncratic gamer. Pick of the week.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Season 1, episodes 5-13 — Okay, so I powered through the rest of this season faster than I’ve watched any show since before I entered the workforce. Here’s a thick slurry of thoughts. There’s something marvellously David Cronenberg about the way that the Cylon spacecraft are semi-organic. I don’t think I’ve seen spaceships that bleed in any other bit of science fiction. Also, those ships’ capacities feel refreshingly analogue: if the humans destroy a fleet of eight Cylon scouts, they’re safe. They haven’t been discovered. For 2004, this feels really pre-internet. What does it say about 2017 that Battlestar Galactica feels like a retreat into a world with less sophisticated surveillance? On the other hand, it’s clear now that Commander Adama has an extremely selective code of ethics. He has previously advocated for leaving behind huge swathes of the remaining human race for the safety of even bigger swathes. But when one of his pilots is stranded on an inhospitable moon, he risks the lives of his entire fleet to save her. It’s a clever decision on the show’s part to make Starbuck that pilot, because she’s far and away the most sympathetic character the show has. It’s the only thing that could make us support Adama in what is increasingly obviously a series of horrible decisions. (Also, it’s telling that Adama gets his way with this in the end — and he also comes damn close to getting his way when the president starts making seemingly awful decisions of her own in the two-part finale. The power of the presidency is dependent on the goodwill of the military.) However, putting Starbuck in that scenario specifically is also a bit of a cop out, because we know that she’s smart enough to find her way out of this situation without Adama’s help. We aren’t genuinely ever faced with a potential consequence, because Starbuck’s survival is never really in serious doubt. Still, “You Can’t Go Home Again” is one of my favourite episodes so far. Ditto for “Six Degrees of Separation,” in which Six appears to have superpowers. I’m generally less invested in worldbuilding and mythology than I am for the actual plotline of a series, but I confess to being fascinated by Cylon spirituality, and I wonder if this will end up being a Game of Thrones situation where one of the religions turns out to be correct and allows its worshippers to do seemingly impossible things. The seemingly prescient nature of President Roslin’s visions only makes the question: which one? Both? Also, intriguingly, given the show’s much vaunted willingness to engage with the ongoing war on terror, the human religion is founded on the belief that time repeats itself. “All of this has happened before and will happen again.” Perhaps the show’s metaphors are meant to be literal recurrences of the early 21st-century sociopolitical events they’re critiquing? (When you consider that there’s a line in “Colonial Day” about how the largest point of speculation at the start of an event regards whether or not two political figures will shake hands, the show seems oddly prescient — and thus backs up its own point.) “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down” is by miles the stupidest episode in the show thus far. It is only redeemed by Mary McDonnell’s performance of intense suspicion and strained tolerance of Tigh’s wife — about whom, oh my god get this character off of the screen. I think that’s just about all of my thoughts. In any case, it seems like enough. Also, much as I enjoyed Todd VanDerWerff’s Deadwood recaps on the A.V. Club, I halfway think that Sonia Saraiya’s BSG recaps are even better — specifically the one on the Starbuck two-parter. Check that out for sure.

Sherlock: “The Lying Detective” — Bizarrely, I think I liked Mark Gatiss’s episode last week better than this one by Steven Moffat. It’s not that it’s bad, certainly. It’s just that the tension of this episode rests largely on whether Culverton Smith (Toby Jones, at his leering creepiest) is actually a serial killer or if Sherlock is just finally too off his head on drugs to know up from down. That’s not a particularly interesting tension, and it isn’t resolved in an especially interesting way. The huge twist at the end is indeed a huge twist, but it doesn’t have much to do with the actual story of this episode: it’s just laying groundwork for the next one. On the plus side, Amanda Abbington is still in the show, as we all knew she would be. On the down side, Mary is still dead, and seemingly for no good reason.

Music

Hans Abrahamsen/Ensemble MidtVest: Works for Wind Quintet — Abrahamsen is responsible for my favourite newly-recorded classical work of the year, let me tell you, a song cycle for the magnificent Barbara Hannigan. I don’t generally write about the stuff I listen to for work on this blog, to avoid cannibalizing myself. But you can find my remarks about that recording at the top of this list for CBC Music. This recording is the only other music of Abrahamsen’s that I’ve heard. Being wind quintet music, it’ll be of limited accessibility to lots of listeners, I’m sure. But I’ve always loved the explicit heterogeneity of wind music, probably because I grew up playing in wind bands. Abrahamsen uses this format to its greatest possible advantage, allowing the instruments to play independent lines that are meant to diverge as much as they’re meant to blend. It’s interesting to note that the two original pieces featured here predate let me tell you by nearly 40 years, because they sound identifiably like they’re by the same person, even if let me tell you is a lot more satisfying. Abrahamsen took a ten-year hiatus in his compositional career, which the history books will look at as a dividing line the same way as they do with Bob Dylan’s motorcycle crash. But as with Dylan, the two sides of that line aren’t as distinct as all that. The latter half of the disc is devoted to Abrahamsen’s transcriptions of Schumann and Ravel, which if they were by anybody else would be derided as curiosities, or mere necessities to pad the limited repertoire of the wind quintet. That’s unfair, of course. But these transcriptions are genius of the same sort as Schoenberg’s orchestration of Brahms’s G minor piano quartet. Schumann has always been my very least favourite of the major composers, and I confess that I enjoy Kinderszenen more in this formation than the original piano version. At least there’s timbral variety in a wind quintet. Abrahamsen’s transcription of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin is less surprising on account of Ravel’s familiar orchestration, but it is lovely and intimate. The wind players of Ensemble MidtVest comport themselves ably. Nothing’s perfect: especially not wind quintet playing. But this comes acceptably close. I will certainly not be returning to this as often as let me tell you, but it leaves me assured that Hans Abrahamsen is a voice in classical music that I ought to be keeping track of.

Brian Eno: Reflection — This is an excellent alternative to silence. Perhaps that sounds like faint praise, but for anybody who admires John Cage as much as Brian Eno does (and indeed as much as I do), it is among the highest compliments to offer a piece of music. Eno’s ambient music projects fall into two camps. There are the sublime ones like Music for Airports and On Land, which in the midst of their drones and textures contain memorable musical material, spread out judiciously. These records are deeply unobtrusive, as Eno intended, but they still announce their presence in the gentlest ways possible. The melodies on Music for Airports are like supportive friends. Along with Brahms’s German Requiem, it is the most profound musical expression of human compassion that I’ve ever heard. Loving these records so much can tend to make you underestimate the power of the ambient records that fall into Eno’s other camp: records like Thursday Morning and this new one. These records are built differently. They feel like audible spaces as opposed to audible objects. As such, they’re unlikely to be perceived as something so specific as “compassionate,” because they’re seemingly conceived to be neutral. Music for Airports is a record you turn to to lower your heart rate and quiet your mind. Reflection is a record you turn to as an alternative to silence, to bring us back to where we started. Any attempt at finding true silence will inevitably fail. Cage taught us that. But we can substitute what passes for silence for music like this: music that proceeds nearly invisibly, whose musical events possess the seeming uniformity of randomness. Reflection will allow your mind to remain a bit noisy. It can help you get things done. It can help you think in a straight line. It is perhaps a less profound gift than some of Eno’s more intentionally beautiful music, but it is a gift nonetheless.

Daniel Lanois: Goodbye to Language — This construction of ambient sounds with pedal steel is the kind of ambient music that has presence. It feels like a person making sounds with an object, and then making decisions about what to do with those sounds. It isn’t ethereal at all; it’s physical. There are times when this feels like an intentional attempt to bend time. It’s like there’s an early version of Goodbye to Language sitting somewhere that’s a straight line, but the one that got released is full of knots, and swerves and loops. Of the numerous ambient albums from 2016 that I’ve heard, I like this one the best — with the proviso that I don’t consider Tim Hecker’s Love Streams to be ambient.

Esperanza Spalding: Emily’s D+Evolution — Oh, I like this. I really like this. I have nothing against virtuosity. I’m for it. And I do think that it’s a viable end in itself. But personally, I’m more attracted to music with a big plan, these days: an idea. And Emily’s D+Evolution has a plan, and ideas o’plenty. This is virtuosity placed at the service of poetry. And equally, it’s poetry placed at the service of virtuosity. Spalding’s singing and bass playing are both astonishing here, and the lines she writes for herself to deliver with both instruments are worthy of her abilities. That’s not something you come across a lot. This is socially conscious music, delivered through a Bowie/Janelle Monaé-esque constructed persona. And it’s also a record you can listen to for the sheer joy of hearing people play instruments really freaking well. It is equally strong in concept and execution. I’m hard pressed to isolate favourite tracks, because the whole thing is so strong, but I’ll suggest “Good Lava” for its unison lines, “Ebony and Ivy” for its killer lyrics and awesome a capella opening, and also the extended cut of “Unconditional Love” for Matthew Stevens’ shit-hot guitar solo. Truly awesome.

Mitski: Puberty 2 — A good album, but I tend to prefer this kind of messy, grungy indie rock in song-length doses. All the same, there’s plenty of variety here, and the best tracks on the album (“Happy,” “Fireworks,” and especially “Your Best American Girl,” which is staggeringly good) are intensely repeatable. Mitski is a good songwriter and a committed enough rock ‘n roller that she doesn’t let her songwriting skill get in the way of making a gigantic loud noise. I’ll inevitably revisit my favourite tracks more than I’ll revisit the album as a whole, but that’s fine. Not everybody has to be an album artist.

Childish Gambino: Awaken, My Love! — A lovely little divertisment, with some truly impressive range from Donald Glover as a singer. He’s doing something different on nearly every track. The songwriting is a bit whatever, but that’s hardly the point. The point is this beautiful production that’s at once modern and a throwback to the 70s. Miles Davis and Teo Macero would have loved this. I haven’t heard either of the previous Childish Gambino records in their entirety, but what I have heard doesn’t leave me feeling entirely convinced about Glover as a rapper. I can definitely get into him as a person who does weird creative projects like this alongside big things like Atlanta, which I will certainly try to get to eventually. Nice.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “Viking’s Choice 2016” — Bob Boilen references Tales from Topographic Oceans! Never thought that would happen. I am so excited for more Lars Gotrich on All Songs in 2017. This guy has the most interesting taste at NPR. For every bit of hardcore that doesn’t connect, there’s a piece of weird synth music that I need in my life. He’s not as articulate as Ann Powers or Stephen Thompson, but he’s got such a depth of knowledge about music on what’s generally considered to be “the fringes” that it makes him essential to this operation. This is a great episode. The tracks by Oathbreaker and Zao were the standouts to me. I’ll at least check out the complete tracks, if not the complete albums.

Song Exploder: “Oathbreaker – 10:56 / Second Son of R.” — I actually like this song less upon hearing it in its entirety. I love the juxtaposition between quiet acoustic music and hardcore, but it doesn’t coalesce structurally in the way that I like. Maybe it would be a grower, but I think I’m past the point where I can listen obsessively to heavy music. Ah, well.

Chapo Trap House: “We Live in The Zone Now” — This show hits me where I live. This is their post-election episode, and it is the second-most indicative podcast episode I’ve heard of that destabilizing moment (the first being the On The Media post-election story meeting tape). I do think that in their (justified) zeal to tear down the DNC and the mainstream media for allowing Trump’s rise, the Chapos downplayed the material role of racism in the election, i.e. a segment of America either doesn’t recognize racist attitudes in themselves and their candidates or openly supports those attitudes. And either way, they were profoundly unprepared to prevent overt racism from overtaking the white house. In a decent world, rule number one ought to be “Don’t vote for a racist. Every other quality is secondary.” (You could also easily replace “racist” with “sexual abuser.” That is an equally valid rule number one.) But regardless, the red hot rage that these guys can articulate against the DNC is refreshing. I have been of many minds about the kind of comedy I want in a post-Trump world. And in spite of what I’ve written in the past, it’s not Samantha Bee. This is closer, at least.

Welcome to Night Vale: Episodes 63-65 — “There Is No Part 1: Part 2” is a single joke stretched too thin. But the following two episodes are excellent, and I’m very much enjoying the plot arc about Cecil periodically losing consciousness only to find upon awaking that he’s saved the mayor yet again. I have a suspicion about who purchased Cecil as lot 37 at that auction, which is verifiably either right or wrong, considering how behind I am on this. Nonetheless, here it is: I think Cecil purchased himself. I think he got tired of only reporting on the struggles of his loyal friend and former intern Dana, and decided that he could only get involved if he could do so under the pretense of unconsciousness. This will preserve his journalistic integrity, and also allow him an extra measure of bravery. I’m not clear on the mechanism by which he purchased himself. Maybe it has something to do with time travel. Maybe he’ll go visit Carlos in his desert otherworld, and time will turn out to work differently there in such a way that future Cecil can purchase past Cecil at a bygone auction. Just a guess. Anyway, I’m backed up on podcasts again, so who knows when I’ll actually get back to this and discover whether I’m right.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The Golden Globes” — This appears to be all of the Golden Globes 2017 that I could possibly need, i.e. eleven minutes of recap on a podcast, plus Meryl Streep’s speech on YouTube. Jimmy Fallon is the worst host on late night, so it stands to reason that he’d be awful here as well. I couldn’t care less about who won or lost, save that I’m disappointed Kenneth Lonergan didn’t win in one of his two categories. But WHATEVER.

The Gist: “The Secret to Meaningful Work” — Not Pesca’s most revelatory interview, but it’s nice to know that there are people doing research on how work does and doesn’t relate to personal self-worth.

Longform: “Terry Gross” — The most revealing moment in this great interview with America’s interviewer-in-chief is the bit where she talks about how she gradually became more willing to do media herself. As recently as a year ago, when she went onstage with Marc Maron, she seemed deeply uncomfortable with the idea of talking about herself. To be fair, that was in front of a live audience, whereas this is an intimate conversation in her Philadelphia office. But there’s something reassuring about hearing Gross talk about her own process and why she does what she does. It makes it clear that she’s not just a disembodied consciousness with above average levels of empathy. I also admire her approach to interviewing politicians. They’re the only group of people who don’t get the option to take back something they say or to refuse to answer a personal question. And hearing that clip from her Hillary Clinton interview again made me remember just why she sets my teeth on edge.

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “From Analogue to Digital” — If Twenty Thousand Hertz’s episodes thus far were compiled into an album, this would be filler. It doesn’t really have much to say about the value of analogue sound technology other than that it’s different from digital sound technology in ways that everybody is entirely aware of: i.e. there are rituals associated with analogue music that have died off. No matter, this show’s batting average is still high.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Obama’s Farewell, Russian Intel Reports, Senate Hearings” — Oh my god there is so much news right now. The real value of podcasts like this is that sometimes you only have time to catch the headlines of things that happen. On days when you’re not inclined to trawl through news articles, you can turn to this show instead and they’ll shove context and analysis directly into your head. It’s nice! It’s a good feeling. Makes things make sense. Well, no it doesn’t. But it allows me to be aware of the nonsensical, inexplicable things that are happening in the world, and also sometimes the reasons for them.

99% Invisible: “Mini-Stories: Volume 2” — I’ve enjoyed these two episodes because it’s nice to hear unscripted conversation on this show. Not as a usual thing, but every so often it’s nice to hear the facade drop away.

The Gist: “How the Onion Remade Joe Biden” — Joe Biden has been the best character on the Onion for a while now. It’s interesting to hear the editor talk about how the character came together, and particularly how they handled the death of Biden’s son. Lovely stuff.

The Heart: “Twirl” — A very promising start to the new season, which I suppose is going to be about femininity in male-identified people? Anyway, this particular episode where Kaitlin Prest interviews her exes (and her current boyfriend) about their feminine aspects is as thoughtful and intimate as the show always is. The high point is the conflict between Prest and her current boyfriend about whether his aversion to being thought of as having feminine traits is masked misogyny or not. It’s much deeper than “yes it is,” “no it isn’t.” Pick of the week.  

Imaginary Worlds: “Atari vs. The Imagination Gap” — I had no idea that the culture at Atari was so intense. I suppose the madness of the videogames industry goes back right to the start. That aside, the most interesting thing about this is the notion that the packaging and promotional materials surrounding janky old Atari games served a purpose beyond marketing: it helped to fill in the gaps left open by the games’ primitive graphics. I happened to flip through the book mentioned in this, The Art Of Atari when I found it at my comics shop the day I listened to this, and it really is some fantastic stuff. Worth checking out.

Fresh Air: “Why More Americans Are Giving Up On Banks” — I came to this thinking that it would be about credit unions and all that: people who are leaving their banks as a protest against their investment in fossil fuels, etc. It’s not that. It’s actually about people who use cheque cashing services and payday lenders. Which is interesting in its own way, but I should have read the description more carefully. Still, one thing about podcasts as opposed to actual radio is that you don’t often hear something by accident. This isn’t the sort of interview I’d normally listen to, and I learned something. Maybe I should institute a further element of randomness to my listening practices.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Trump’s Press Conference, Tillerson’s Hearing” — Once again, there is too much news. Also, has anybody else noticed how dangerously interesting the world is these days? Would I be paying attention to senate approval hearings if Clinton had won? No, I wouldn’t, because they’d be dull. Which, to be clear, I’d definitely prefer. And also, I don’t deny that this speaks to my insufficiency as a citizen. Though I do have an ironclad excuse where American politics is concerned: I’m Canadian. In any case, this is good. I don’t so much recommend this episode as I recommend that you definitely listen to whatever episode of this show is most recent when there’s a lot happening in American politics and you feel the need to make sense of it.

On The Media: “January Surprise” — Brooke Gladstone breaks down the ethics of Buzzfeed’s publishing the unverified Trump dossier with a Slate writer. It is what it is, and what it is is intensely valuable.

Code Switch: “Obama’s Legacy: Callouts and Fallouts” — Part two of maybe Code Switch’s best project yet: their wrapup of the Obama presidency. This one is about the various ways in which he failed people of colour during his administration. Especially interesting is the final interview with the immigration advocate who called him the “deporter-in-chief.” This offers a bit of necessary context to that remark, i.e. she was responding to allegations that Obama wasn’t enforcing the current policies. There’s more. You should listen to this.

Reply All: “The Reversal” — When I heard that Reply All had an ALS-related story, I assumed it would be about the ice bucket challenge, but it is mercifully not. It is actually about a doctor who set up a site by which he found that every so often, there’s a person who seems to recover from ALS. And by the providence of the internet, he may yet be able to find enough people to do a study on why it happens and whether it can be used as a treatment. Fascinating.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Hidden Figures and One Day at a Time” — I love Brittany Luse on this podcast. I hope they bring her back again before she’s utterly consumed by whatever her big new secret Gimlet project is. I never liked Sampler, but that’s because the premise was dumb. She was great on it, and I’m confident that whatever is replacing it will be better. Also, this show is about two broadly admirable things that I don’t have a lot of interest in. Maybe Hidden Figures. We’ll see. But I’ll definitely go to Hell or High Water, given Stephen Thompson’s intense enthusiasm and the fact that Glen Weldon agrees with him. I wouldn’t have thought it would be something that either of them would like. Good sign.

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Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 16)

Dear me. Verbose, this week. Well, I’ve had some spare time, which will be mercifully less spare fairly soon. 32 reviews.

Games

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 3 — My favourite of the first three acts by miles. The sequence with the Xanadu computer is one of my all-time favourite scenes in a video game. The fact that Donald built this thing as a bitter memorial to his relationship with Lula and friendship with Joseph is even sadder when you know that the first adventure game ever was inspired by heartbreak as well. Xanadu is clearly based on Adventure, which was made by William Crowther (another Kentucky-based computer scientist and cave explorer) as an attempt to reconnect with his young daughter after he and his wife divorced. On this playthrough, I came across a section of the Xanadu scene that I hadn’t before, where Lula explains why cave paintings are so sad: somebody wanted to memorialize something — a person or relationship, maybe — and we can barely make out any detail. How like the ruined Xanadu computer, and the primitive parser interface of Adventure. There are other highlights, here. I’d love to see the full text of Donald’s Kentucky-set version of “Kubla Khan.” And, as the party of player characters grows, so does the range of responses to any given situation. Conway is reflective, Shannon practical, Ezra whimsical, and Junebug totally off-topic. Their responses represent different types of gaming. I’m the sort of player who likes to linger and mull things over, so I tend towards Conway’s dialogue options. But it’s nice to have Shannon around to progress the plot, and the other two to throw occasional monkey wrenches into conversations. Also, the moment in the final scene where the game momentarily takes over the mouse to express the inevitability of Conway’s return to drinking is absolutely chilling. I am actually a bit scared to see how that develops in the next episode. I’ve come to love all of these characters, but if things work out badly for Conway, it’s going to be crushing.

Kentucky Route Zero: “Here and There Along The Echo” — I take back what I said about “The Entertainment” being my favourite of the KRZ mini-episodes. It’s a dead heat between that and this one. The notion of formatting a game as a telephone hotline menu is not only novel: it opens up a world of possibilities for interactive audio. (The only other example I’ve seen is Papa Sangre, which is essentially hide and seek in the dark, and I really don’t have much time for it.) Like so many other moments in this second playthrough of the pre-2016 portions of Kentucky Route Zero, I had intended for this to be a quick perusal, and then straight on to Act 4, which is new to me and super exciting. But, I ended up spending two hours going through the options, and listening to this fascinating character talk. It was worthwhile for the devs to briefly abandon the text-based aesthetic of this world to introduce spoken audio, if only because it allows a voice actor to give a convincing performance of what people might sound like in this universe. As a side note, anybody else who enjoyed his list of the different types of water as much as I did would do well to check out James Joyce’s list of water’s admirable attributes from Ulysses.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 4 — Well, it didn’t let me down. This is a quieter, slower, more deliberate Kentucky Route Zero than we’ve seen before. And it is the first one to be more concerned with the characters and their respective arcs than it is with exploring themes. Rather than presenting simulations within simulations, or posing high-minded questions about whether we’re inside or out, this act presents us with Shannon’s abiding anger over her parents’ death in the mine, Johnny’s yearning for a third person to ride with him and Junebug (he wants a child, essentially) and most devastatingly, the effects of Conway’s return to drinking. The subtlety with which Conway becomes a different character in this act is both masterful and sad. And the moment when he appears to literally become a different character is the most destabilizing thing in the game so far: the loss of that character and of his particular way of moving through the world seems likely to be more of a paradigm shift than the introduction of the Zero. In general, Act 4 encourages us to take a time-out from our obsessiveness about what everything means and how it connects, and just spend some time empathizing with these characters. But I’m still left with lots of thoughts about the various thematic moving parts and conspiracies at play, here. We know that the power company is evil. We know that they’re engaged in debt buying, because they acquired the pharmaceutical company that Conway owes. We also know that the distillery is evil. (How lovely to see a thriving business like the Rum Colony not pouring Hard Times, hey?) We know that the distillery is also involved in debt buying, since they bought the outstanding bar tabs from Harry at the Lower Depths pub. So, how are they connected? Are they connected? We know, at least, that Conway’s medical bills (owed, indirectly, to the power company) will be paid off by the distillery in exchange for work (though his labour was already an exchange for having drunk the top-shelf whiskey at the end of Act 3… I smell duplicity). And there’s definitely some significance to the fact that Conway’s descent into more and more abject debt is represented by his gradually turning into a creepy electricity skeleton. So, what are we going to find out about the connection between those two companies in the grand finale? It’s possible that the answer is nothing. I would be surprised if Conway doesn’t appear in some capacity in Act 5, but we probably won’t learn any specifics. Kentucky Route Zero has never been the type of game to do anything so vulgar as explain itself. It is working on the same level as the conceptual artworks it is so fond of displaying within itself. I’ve read some muted complaints about this act that criticize it for being less exploratory and interactive than its predecessors. And it’s true that you’re not allowed the agency to explore the Echo River at your leisure in the same way that you were with the Zero or overground Kentucky. But video game people sometimes need to be reminded of the fact that all art is interactive. The most important act of the movie is the one that happens in the car on the way home, when you talk about what it all meant. Paintings don’t live in galleries; they live in your brain. So, even if Act 4 of Kentucky Route Zero puts you on tracks in a way that previous acts didn’t, there still ought to be plenty for you to do as a player. End of review. But here are a few stray observations, A.V. Club-style. (And still, I refuse to employ a paragraph break. The nerve.) One. The airplane is back! When I first played Act 1, the thing that really stuck with me is a scene where you can’t do anything except for watch two men push a broken airplane down a road. I didn’t know what to make of it, and I still don’t quite, but that image of struggle left a big impact. And there’s a moment in this act, in the gas station scene, where the two men drift past on a barge with their airplane. You could almost miss it, and it’s never mentioned in the dialogue, nor is it witnessed by Conway, who was the only character to have seen it in the first place. It’s the little things. Two. This act really feels like it comes from 2016. The increasing preoccupation with oil in this reflects the same development in the real world during the two years since the last act of Kentucky Route Zero came out. Also, online dating is a thing in the KRZ world now, just as it’s been mainstreamed. Three. One of the small pleasures of this act is actually visiting the locales that were referred to in “Here and There Along the Echo.” I’m glad I spent as much time with that as I did, now, because I had a bit of advance knowledge of Sam and Ida’s, the Rum Colony, the Iron Pariah (what the hell is up with that!?) and the memorial to something that we can’t remember what it is, among other things. In spite of what I said above, if I could request a single expansion to this game, it would be a more open-world model of the Echo so I could actually be the drifter/pilgrim that the Bureau of Secret Tourism was courting. But then, I suppose that would more or less be Sunless Sea. Four. The flashiest, most formalist moment in this act is the one where the narrators are watching security footage of the events after the fact, but you’re controlling the characters on that security footage in real time. It’s pure Andrew Plotkin. It constitutes the most satisfying cognitive dissonance I’ve felt since I cheated my way through Spider and Web. Five. Again, it’s the little things: Sam and Ida remember their origin story a bit differently. She remembers that he was drinking malt liquor and doing a sudoku. He remembers coffee and a crossword. Six. I can only imagine that Shannon’s reunion with Weaver is going to be a bit awkward once she realizes that Weaver used her genius to (I think) invent a new kind of debt, as it was put in “The Entertainment.” Maybe she’s the missing link between the distillery and the power company. Who knows how long we’ll have to wait to find out? I’ve got to say, though, I honestly don’t mind because if it’s a long wait, it’ll give me an excuse to play through the whole game a third time. As it stands, I think I’ll do a second playthrough of Act 4 fairly soon, because it’s definitely more than two playthroughs worth of game. I shall report back. Pick of the week.

Literature

Magnus Hildebrandt: Kentucky Fried Zero — This is an indispensable primer on the sources for Kentucky Route Zero, ranging from dustbowl photography to Buckminster Fuller and on to the more expected reference points like computer science and Samuel Beckett. The three parts of this are quite short, and you get the sense that Hildebrandt could easily track down and elucidate many more references and influences. (He even says as much in the second-last paragraph of part three.) I hope that he will go back and expand these once the final act of the game is out and we know what we’re working with.  

William Blake: Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion — Look, I didn’t enjoy this. I just didn’t. I have very limited patience for this kind of inscrutable literature. I mean this kind as distinct from, say, Ulysses. At least Joyce’s obscurity seems to be motivated at least partially by a sense of fun: he’s laying out a trail of breadcrumbs, and trusts that you’ll arrive at some kind of understanding eventually. Blake doesn’t seem to know he’s being obscurantist. It appears to me, a deeply undereducated reader in these sorts of texts, that Blake isn’t trying to be obscure; he’s failing to be direct. And so, the proliferation of characters without fixed identities and the religious commentaries so idiosyncratic that I can barely relate them to what I know of a given religion are not endearing at all — they are massively frustrating. Blake’s canon, unexplained as it is, is like jargon. It’s like hearing Scientologists talk about thetans and SPs. I did enjoy doing a bit of reading about Blake, and what he’s apparently on about in this. But my actual time spent reading the poem, with its brilliant illuminated plates, was not fun. I suppose I have to accept that now that I’m a couple years out of grad school, I am effectively “the everyday reader” and so these kinds of texts that are not meant to be understood without rigorous study are simply no longer the kinds of things I’ll take pleasure in. And I’m totally okay with that. Anyway, now I feel prepared to tackle Alan Moore’s Jerusalem. I’ll get to it soon.

Karen Page: The Vegetarian Flavor Bible — I am not a vegetarian, nor am I likely to become one in the near future. But, as part of my ongoing mission to be more creative in the kitchen while eating a bit less meat, I have gone ahead and purchased this tome. It is basically an encyclopedia of flavour combinations, specifically for plant-based diets. I am well aware of the existence of the original Flavor Bible, with its lamb and its bacon, and I will almost surely purchase that as well if this one proves to be useful. But my first priority is getting a handle on creative cooking without meat. I confess that the introduction to this volume is a little bit depressing compared to the one in its meaty predecessor (I read the Kindle free sample) because it focusses almost entirely on nutrition. Maybe that’s predictable. I’m interested in nutrition, insofar as I want to be healthy. But my god, is it ever a boring topic to read about. Still, that’s hardly the point. I have already prepared some middling-to-good, but at least interesting vegetarian meals using this as my guide. One, with wilted spinach and nutmeg served on a grilled portabello mushroom with crumbled ricotta was actually pretty excellent. I shall keep you apprised.

J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child — I was never not going to read it, and I liked it a lot more than the fan consensus. It’s flawed, but it’s a decent afternoon’s-worth of nostalgia. And it is openly nostalgic for the first seven books, in the way that Jason Segal’s Muppet movies are for the original Muppet Show, or that certain modern Doctor Who stories are for the classic series. The story of Harry Potter’s time at Hogwarts is as important and formative a narrative for the characters in this story as it is for the people who grew up reading Harry Potter books, and thus the younger characters are effectively surrogates for us. Or at least, Scorpius Malfoy is. Albus Potter is a touch too resentful. It’s fitting, then, that the key plotline should involve time travel, and specifically time travel back to the days of the beloved Goblet of Fire. Because, The Cursed Child is more of a time capsule than it is a modern Harry Potter story. It’s a way to go back, and see familiar things from a slightly different vantage point. (This happens literally in the play’s final act, which takes place largely [spoiler] in Godric’s Hollow.) Its canonicity, as much as such things matter, will always be slightly compromised by the fact that it’s a play and not a novel, and that it mostly wasn’t written by J.K. Rowling. But that’s not the real issue: the real issue is that reading a script is a very incomplete experience. Without actors to bring the characters to life, their emotional arcs seem a bit rushed. Think of it as the opposite of the languidly-paced Order of the Phoenix. The biggest flaws really do come down to the difficulty of representing a stage play on the page — which isn’t even what this purports to do; it’s a script from which staged productions are meant to be extrapolated. I think most of the extremely negative critiques fail to take this into account. Jack Thorne comports himself fairly well, even if his dialogue never made me laugh. (Rowling doesn’t get enough credit for her wit.) Still, I’m left somewhat unsure of whether my beloved His Dark Materials is in good hands or not when Thorne adapts it for the BBC. Because that’s happening. There are really only two substantial problems with this in terms of story. One involves the play’s breakout character, Scorpius Malfoy, who is by a series of machinations briefly transformed from a school outcast to an immensely popular teenager. We’re meant to believe that, under a certain set of circumstances, there’s a part of Scorpius that could allow this to happen. And yet, he immediately casts off his good fortune for the greater good, with virtually no inner conflict at all. I found that a bit of a let down, and it certainly wouldn’t have played out that way in a novel, where the narrative need not be so collapsed. And the other issue is time travel. You have to completely ignore the time travel mechanics if you want to have a good time reading this. It’s not so much the divergence from the mechanic in The Prisoner of Azkaban that chafes: it’s a scene in which people in the present talk about a person who has gone to the past and tried to change it as if that hasn’t already happened — which, by definition, it has. And even this contradicts the way the time turner was seen to work earlier in the play. But the authors don’t let a thing like that get in the way of a good story. And the positives outweigh the negatives, even if the most satisfying moments are basically fan service. It’s immensely gratifying to see Hermione as the Minister for Magic (ergo, Harry’s boss). Too bad she got saddled with such a schlub of a husband. Ron seems to have shed what little charisma he had with age. But he wears his schlubbiness well. Possibly the deftest touch of all is the way that the acrimony between Harry and Malfoy is maintained into adulthood without Malfoy seeming like an overgrown schoolyard bully. They’re just two adults, living adult lives, who don’t get along. And, as star moments for fan favourites go, the sweepstakes are easily taken by Severus Snape, who gets to make his heroic sacrifice a second time. But there’s an impressive showing from Professor McGonagall as well, who offers a stirring rebuke to basically all of the other characters in the play for treating a peaceful world recklessly in spite of all that’s been sacrificed to bring it to bear. This is well worth reading. If you’re a fan and you’re on the fence, just do it now. You know you will eventually, anyhow.

Television

Last Week Tonight: October 16, 2016 — A strong episode containing very little of what I don’t like about this show. Oliver’s segment on Gary Johnson and Jill Stein will likely be the most widely seen piece on either of them during this election, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it actually affected their polling numbers.

Charlie Brooker’s 2015 Wipe — I’ve decided to go down a Charlie Brooker wormhole. It starts here, with him speaking direct to camera about what he thinks, and it will continue with Nathan Barley and the first two seasons of Black Mirror, in preparation for the new one. I’ve seen Brass Eye, but it was a long time ago, and that’s mostly Chris Morris anyway. This is worthwhile for Philomena Cunk alone, but Brooker himself gets some great lines as well. It’s also actually a good New Years’ program, which is as far as I know, unique on television.

How Videogames Changed the World — I like Charlie Brooker. I kind of want to be him. This special on video games (in my world, it’s two words) is limited, as an under two-hour documentary has to be. And, it focusses on the really gamey kinds of games that kind of don’t do much for me. (The history of the kind of games I like starts with Adventure, not Pong.) But it still has time to bring up stuff like Papers, Please, which remains one of the most powerful interactive experiences I’ve ever had. And this show’s real virtue is that it manages to cover the major moments and conflicts that video games stirred up in real life: moral panics, feminist critiques, the staggeringly gradual mainstreaming of the medium, etc. Brooker’s list of the most important games is self-evidently selected for ease of narrative rather than actual quality or influence, but that’s the only way to make a show like this, and it would have been profoundly boring if it were just a bunch of people talking about why a bunch of games that I probably mostly don’t care about are really good. (And that sight gag with the Braid mechanic is really clever.)

Black Mirror: “The National Anthem” — First, the shit. Naturally, the one female reporter in this episode with lines sends a nude pic to a government staffer for a scoop. This is a trope so depressingly common that it has the air of tragic inevitability whenever a female journalist is introduced into a show. The rest of the episode is astonishing. It doesn’t even matter if you already know the premise and the ending, which you inevitably do given this episode’s renewed relevance after David Cameron’s alleged porcine indiscretions. The remarkable thing is how straight it’s played. It’s wrenching human drama on a national scale. Everybody is cheapened by having watched what they watched. If it weren’t for that one lazy and harmful bit of misogyny, it would be a masterpiece.

Movies

Requiem for the American Dream — Chomsky is somebody who I’ve been aware of for years, but he falls just far enough outside the scope of my education that I never actually read him. This documentary, which is built entirely on original interviews with Chomsky, seems like a good primer for the most germane points of his philosophy. It focusses specifically on the process by which wealth and power are acquired by a smaller and smaller segment of the population: namely, the reduction of democracy. It’s brilliantly argued, and makes modern America make a sad sort of sense.

Music

Isabelle Faust, Claudio Abbado & Orchestra Mozart: Berg & Beethoven Violin Concertos — I realized after recommending this recording in last week’s VSO review that, firstly, I haven’t heard it in a really long time, and secondly, I have in fact never listened to the Beethoven that fills the disc. First the Berg, though. It’s flat-out one of my favourite recordings. I love this piece. I love its expressiveness and the way that it develops its melodic material. I love the way that it throws torrents at you, only to back away gradually and leave you breathless at the end. I love the Bach quotation in the winds in the second movement, and how the violin solo line plays against it. It’s a masterpiece. And of the handful of recordings I’ve heard, this is definitely my favourite. Faust plays with elegance, even when the melodies start to take on the rougher topography of Berg’s Second Viennese School compatriots. And Abbado will probably always be my favourite conductor of Berg, because he realizes that Berg is the true heir to Mahler. His approach to the orchestra in this concerto has the same lushness that he applies to Mahler 9 (a work that he absolutely owns, for me), and it is just as much of a study in contrasts. Everybody should hear this. Now, the Beethoven. The violin concerto is not one of my favourite pieces by Beethoven. The first movement has a nasty habit of going into a minor key right when I want to hear a triumphant reiteration of the theme in major. The third is one of those mid-tempo dance finales that usually doesn’t work for me. I do like the second movement, but compared to some of the slow movements from Beethoven’s middle period symphonies, even that falls a bit short. So, this recording has more labour to do with the Beethoven than with the Berg, because it has to sell a piece I like a lot less. And it doesn’t really. That’s about all there is to say.

Vulfpeck: The Beautiful Game — Difficult second album. On one hand, it’s got “Animal Spirits” (and heartfelt lyrics) which is one of their best and catchiest ever. Very much this album’s “Christmas in L.A.” Also, The Beautiful Game expands the palate to include house-reminiscent beats, which as far as I can remember, is new for Vulfpeck. But it certainly doesn’t have as many jump-out-of-the-headphones moments as Thrill of the Arts did. I might pick “Animal Spirits,” “1 for 1, Dimaggio” and “Dean Town” as highlights here. (And I do love that Klezmer clarinet intro, but it’s basically not a song.) And it’s notable that the former two are both transparent Jackson 5 pastiches (“Animal Spirits” is “I Want You Back” and “1 for 1” is clearly “ABC”) Think back to how many great tracks there were on Thrill, though: “Welcome to Vulf Records,” “Back Pocket,” “Funky Duck,” “Rango II,” “Christmas in L.A”… I will almost certainly warm to this, but there’s no way I will come to love that many of its tracks.

Tangerine Dream: Phaedra — I don’t know what possessed me to listen to this just now. I’d never heard it, and the only other Tangerine Dream I knew was Force Majeure. This is far more abstract than that, and it strikes me as an album that has more historical importance than modern-day interest. It’s like the electronic music equivalent of plainchant. Mostly it just made me wish I were listening to Tim Hecker, which I think I will now do. (And I did. My feelings about Love Streams are the same as when I reviewed it before. It’s some of the best music of the year.)

A Winged Victory for the Sullen: Atomos — That is a very overwrought band name, sure. But this is decent ambient music. I’ve been listening to stuff as I read, this week, and this is great for that. I’m not so sure it would stand on its own. That’s a key distinction in this milieu of modern classical music. John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, for instance, is profound and beautiful, and in spite of some superficial similarities to Atomos, it can sustain attention. Same goes for Max Richter — and he wrote music for sleeping. Still, this did the trick. I dunno if I’ll listen again.

Brian Eno: Another Green World — This is in my all-time top five, and as with all things that I love passionately, I try not to overexpose myself to it. But I was on a long bus commute recently, and it just seemed like the right thing. Incredibly, I had been listening to this semi-regularly for years before it struck me that it’s more than merely excellent and is in fact perfect. I can’t think rationally about this album anymore. Listening to some of these songs I feel like I could walk into traffic and it would pass right through me. Eno is strangely averse to the idea of love songs, but there are several ravishing ones on here, most notably “St. Elmo’s Fire”: the finest song with lyrics that Eno ever made. Without ever using the word “love,” Eno perfectly conjures that feeling of ecstasy that so many songwriters fail to describe. He does it by allowing the music to do the bulk of the heavy lifting, and especially Robert Fripp’s guitar solo which is the most beautiful guitar solo ever recorded. In spite of being fast and technical, it also feels human and brittle — the way it cracks and stammers at the ends of phrases just kills me. And the other ninja move that this album employs is the most ingenious track sequencing maybe ever. Rather than trying to balance out the energy throughout the record, it allows itself to gradually sink into a reverie at the end. The way that “Zawinul/Lava” builds and falls, and ejects us into “Everything Merges With The Night” (more ravishing guitar from Fripp), and then finally into the comparative uncertainty of “Spirits Drifting” is one of the greatest closing sequences on any record ever. At this point, you’d expect me to make it my pick of the week, but I feel a strange pressure to play against type, this time. Everybody who’s ever read anything I’ve written or been in the same room with me knows how much I love Brian Eno. KRZ takes it.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Lupita Nyong’o, Cameron Esposito & Rhea Butcher, and the Best of TV” — Nice that PCHH  can manage so often to cobble together a show even when they have no panelists. These interviews are great, specifically the one with Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher, because they are very funny people. But it’s also nice to hear Linda Holmes’ much-discussed friend Alan Sepinwall make his PCHH debut. TV: The Book sounds like something that would frustrate me immensely in its format: ranking the top 100 shows? Really? But I expect that these two authors would have something interesting to say, at least. Given that they’re basically already advertizing the second edition, I may sit this one out and wait for it to be updated. (But I’ll probably flip through it in the bookstore next time I’m browsing.)

Fresh Air: “How Free Web Content Traps Us In An Abyss Of Ads & Clickbait” — Nothing like a good bit of #content-related #content. Tim Wu’s new book, The Attention Merchants, sounds incredible and depressing. He talks about how advertising on major web platforms has cheapened web publishing and made the internet worse. I think I’m going to have to read this.

Love and Radio: “The Enemy Within” — Part of the appeal of Love and Radio is just purely listening to someone tell you a story with no interruptions. So, when Glenn Loury tells his story of womanizing and drug abuse while teaching economics at Harvard, you want to listen. But, being Love and Radio, it’s also more complicated than that and addresses not only the discrepancy between his own conduct and his socially conservative politics, but it also problematizes the very notion that a person’s actions can invalidate their arguments.

In The Dark: “What’s Going On Down There?” — This has become a truly excellent podcast in the late phase of its run. And I’m only partially saying that because this features an actual police investigation where a man was told by (clearly awful) police officers that his missing son may have been eaten by turtles. I laughed out loud at that and subsequently felt a little bad. Anyway, last week’s survey of wide-ranging police incompetence in the town where Jacob Wetterling was abducted started the train towards this episode’s staggering finish, which posits that the way America handles policing is deeply and inherently flawed. Local police departments are not held to any kind of standard by the federal government, which just seems wrong. If I were the Stearns County sheriff, I’d be huddling in a corner right about now. This would have been a powerful finale, but I’m looking forward to the one episode that they’ve decided to add to this.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Previewing The Final Debate” — I’M NOT WATCHING THIS DEBATE! LA LA LA LA LA! Because they’re not going to talk about policy, they’re just going to talk about Clinton’s leaked emails (actually worth talking about, if only it wasn’t an orangutan doing the talking) and Trump’s temperamental unfitness to be president (EMINENTLY CLEAR). The fact that the panelists on this show are willing to entertain the fact that policy may enter into this is frankly adorable. I do love them.

99% Invisible: “Half a House” — A lovely complement to the previous episode about Chile. 99pi can lapse into design boosterism at times, but really it’s just boosterism for human ingenuity. Like, you have a problem: an earthquake levelled a city and there’s not enough public money for the necessary subsidized housing. And, you have a solution: build people half a house. It sounds ridiculous, but people can build the other half for themselves when they’re back on their feet. It seems to be working. There’s a moment in this where Roman Mars confirms that the reason this sort of thing doesn’t happen in the U.S. isn’t lack of money or lack of necessity, but simply a difference of values. Which is why I have very little respect for American values. This is 99pi doing what it does best. I haven’t enjoyed it this much in a long time.

All Songs Considered: “Pusha T and Rivers Cuomo Join Zeds Dead, Amber Coffman, TOY, More” — Whole lotta meh. I liked the Agnes Obel track well enough, but I haven’t heard much on this show that I want to check out for a while. Not their fault. I’m probably just not in music discovery mode.

Radiolab: “Seneca, Nebraska” — This story is just begging to be told in a not public radio way. The Radiolab crew obviously knows that in the story of a small town that voted to unincorporate because their 20 residents couldn’t get along, they have a parable. So, why not tell it that way? Where’s Nate DiMeo when you need him? Hell, even Scott Carrier would suffice.

On the Media: “Race to the Bottom” — Gladstone’s poverty myths series has moved from debunking myths about impoverished people to debunking the myths that America tells itself about how it approaches poverty. In this one, it’s the bootstrap myth. That is a sad narrative to turn out to be a myth, because it means that there isn’t actually much of a chance that a person can better their lot — not without an astronomical amount of luck. It’s also interesting to hear about the origins of the phrase “pulling oneself up by their bootstraps,” which actually started off as a metaphor for impossibility before it started representing the American Dream. And then, in a demonstration of the profound power of metaphors and ideas to shape society, the American Dream became impossible to attain.

The Gist: “Rapid Response: Cirque du Debate” — Okay, so I did end up watching the debate. And I’m happy I did, if only to have context for Mike Pesca’s latest round of spin room misadventures. It is so obvious listening to Trump’s surrogates talk that they just do not have anything under control. Ben Carson straight up brushing Pesca off is the highlight, but the whole thing is chaos. The best that a non-American such as myself can hope for in this election, given that I am not one of the millions of unauthorized voters that Trump predicts will swarm the polls in November, is to be nearly as entertained as you are bewildered, and I confess to having been that while listening to this.

NPR Politics Podcast: “The Third Presidential Debate” — The fact that this debate is being praised as the most substantive of the three is both accurate and still really depressing. The panel is right to assert that the most notable thing about this phase of Trump’s campaign is his insistence that whenever he doesn’t win something, it’s rigged. I’ve known people like this. People who believe that “unfairness” is coextensive with “bad things happening to them, specifically.” I think that it’s a kind of logic that underpins much of what’s wrong with the world. The notion of having a president of the U.S.A. that thinks like this without a shred of self-awareness is void-screamingly, cliff-jumpingly frightening. Fortunately, it won’t happen because he’s also too dumb to know when he’s shooting himself in the foot.

A Point of View: “In Praise of Difficulty” — Why must every critic who has the bravery to stick up for difficult art and educated audiences also have a stick up their ass about pop culture? This is a pretty good vindication from Howard Jacobson of the kind of art that gets the shaft from the shitty kind of populists — but then it nosedives into jabbing at the kind of art that appeals to the good kind of populists. There is an emerging kind of intellectual for whom the phenomena and iconography associated with boy bands and thrillers (Jacobson’s examples, not mine) are fodder for a rather exciting sort of criticism, in much the same way that Shakespeare was for many prior generations. Can’t we acknowledge that fact while also shitting on people who don’t understand Shakespeare? I really think it ought to be easy to have it both ways. Additional thoughts: I would generally stick up for the rights of the reader over the rights of the writer, in opposition to Jacobson, but I’ll provide here that the reader has to earn that right by being an interesting reader. (Read as: critic.) That is why, in my review for the staggeringly difficult work by William Blake that I’ve just slogged through, I blamed myself for having nothing to say.

Fresh Air: “‘Black Mirror’ Creator Dramatizes Our Nightmares About Technology” — Charlie Brooker is a less-than-scintillating interview, and I’m not totally convinced that Black Mirror is as smart as all these old people think it is. I’m one episode in, and I did like that episode, but it seems like the more explicitly it engages with modern media, the more vapid its critiques become. That’s sad to see, because I’m also watching Nathan Barley right now (review to come when it’s done; it’s useless to critique in part) and that is remarkably prescient for having been made in 2005.

StartUp: “Shadowed Qualities” — This is such enrapturing radio. The bulk of it is taken from a single conversation — virtually a therapy session — between Alex Blumberg (holy moly is he having a rough month) and an executive coach who we heard from in season two. And while I am usually quick to dismiss such people as snake oil salesmen, this fellow gets to the heart of Blumberg’s reluctance to step up and command his company as opposed to focussing on story edits really, really efficiently. And hearing Blumberg work through that in real time is fascinating. Traditional radio has moments that they call “driveway moments,” where you stay in your car to hear the end of the story even when you’ve already gotten home. Podcasts don’t have that, obviously. But at several moments during this episode, I forgot that I was eating breakfast. That seems like a logical equivalent. Pick of the week.

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist,” parts 12-13 — Elia Kazan is one of my new favourite characters in this series. Looks like he’ll be back soon, too.

Omnireviewer (week of Sept. 4, 2016)

First off, a few things from the category of “things I don’t review” that I would like to recommend regardless. Firstly, the A.V. Club has a food section now, called Supper Club, which already has a bunch of good reads up. It promises to be as fearlessly catholic in its purview as The Sporkful, but with the A.V. Club’s brand of casually obsessive geekiness. This will soon become my entire internet, I imagine. Also, Jesse Brown’s Canadaland podcast put out an episode this week where he talks with Michael Enright, Robyn Doolittle and Jeet Heer about movies that deal with journalism. It is quite excellent. I’ve also been listening to and enjoying Love Me, which is a CBC podcast, and thus doesn’t get its own reviews, but it is produced by two of the key producers of the late, lamented Wiretap. Speaking of, that show’s host announced his new Gimlet show this week, which I am very excited for, but will not be reviewing on account of an upcoming episode of the Syrup Trap Pod Cast.

Now. On to our 15 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Ian Parker: “Pete Wells Has His Knives Out” — This New Yorker profile of the New York Times’s restaurant critic is one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve read this year. It is perhaps most interesting for its small observations into the details of this job, like the strange unwritten code that dictates that critics must not be acknowledged by restaurant staff, nor acknowledge themselves in restaurants. Everybody must simply act as if everything is normal, even when the head chef shows up halfway through the evening to ensure a full-capacity performance. Parker illustrates this with an anecdote about Wells and Jimmy Fallon coincidentally sitting next to each other at a sushi bar. Both were recognized, but only Fallon was acknowledged, and Wells was served more fussily prepared food. Or, there’s this: Wells sometimes shies away from restaurants before he hits the Times’s three-dinner minimum because he can’t think up a review that will be interesting to read. Declining to review for “literary reasons,” as Parker puts it, rather than anything to do with the food. Restaurant reviews are for reading, after all. (Speaking as a person who has forced himself to review every episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour since last October, I sympathize.) But Parker’s piece is also a fascinating portrait of a person who is carefully considering how best to wield a very specific kind of power. Wells can break fine dining establishments with a single snide remark in an otherwise positive review. The costs and benefits of that must be weighed attentively. Jobs are on the line, and not just those of people who’ve made fortunes in reality TV. Parker portrays Wells as intensely cognizant of how needless a pan can seem, even as David Chang derides him as old-fashioned and a bully. Also, in the “things I have to mention because I am me” category, apparently Wells uses Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies to combat writer’s block.

Thomas Ligotti: “Severini” — It’s in pieces like this where you can most clearly see Ligotti’s influence on China Miéville. Both of them are obsessed with horrors conjured by the act of human creation. They’re obsessed with art, but morbidly. Miéville is the more dazzling writer, and the more interesting accidental art critic. But Ligotti’s comparative directness and obsessive paranoia conjures a mood of dread more consistently.

Television

Stranger Things: Season one, episodes 4-8 — This show finally captured me in the opening moments of its fifth episode, where the children figure out what’s going on because of their awareness of the tropes of the kind of story they’re in. It’s not the first time this has been done, certainly. Parts of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and nearly the whole of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who use the same trick. But it signalled a moment where the show ceased to be a genre homage and started to become a genuine postmodern pastiche. By the end of the episode, Stranger Things is invoking Under the Skin and courting our modern paranoia about surveillance. How brilliant to have the villains of a piece be people who listen. Villains are usually acting; scheming; talking; monologuing. But our key villain in this show says very little — his power is in what he hears. How contemporary. But it also fits perfectly into the show’s Cold War setting. Then, in the next episode, another character figures out the monster (there’s a monster; that’s not a spoiler) with knowledge of predators that she gleaned from her nerdy childhood obsession with animals. This is a show where power comes from knowing things. I love that. I can’t say I was totally satisfied with the ending, but the second season renewal was announced just after I started watching, so I don’t have to be. Well-made television that scratches an itch.

Music

Björk: Debut & Post — You know how sometimes you listen to an early album by an artist you admire, mostly out of curiosity, thinking that it’ll at least shed some light into their later masterpieces? That’s not what listening to Debut is like at all. This album completely stands up on its own merits even today. Honestly, I’m inclined to say that however much Björk’s songwriting had matured by the time of Homogenic, this album has actually aged better, sonically. “Human Behaviour” is a totally nutty single on which Björk undercuts a great pop hook by singing in what first seems to be a different key. And the album starts as it means to go on. Every track on this is surprising, and never in the ostentatious way that art pop people can sometimes be on their debuts. This can stand alongside Björk’s best work, and thus alongside the best music of the ‘90s. Post starts off even stronger, with “Army of Me” and “Hyper-Ballad,” two of her best songs. But it meanders a bit from there. It seems like the sort of album that will be a grower in the same way that Vespertine is, and that Debut and Homogenic are not. Will revisit frequently.

Brian Eno: Ambient 1/Music for Airports — No need to review this a second time, but I feel I should at least express gratitude for it. It’s been a frazzling week. But when I put this on, I could feel my heart rate slowing practically from the first second. This isn’t just good music, it’s good-spirited music — an applicable boon to all humanity.

Brian Eno: Ambient 4/On Land — I have adopted the two outer portions of Eno’s Ambient quadrilogy as true ambient music this week. But where Music for Airports soothes, On Land maintains an air of slight discomfort. It is the lesser album, but when fed through overworked iPhone speakers and placed on the dresser, it makes a grand soundtrack for reading Ligotti.

Stephen Sondheim: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Original Broadway Cast Recording) — There are no operas, not even Wagner’s, that can be considered great works of literature as well as great pieces of music. There are few musicals that this can be said of, but this is self-evidently one of them. For all of its typical unlikely plot elements (Todd’s seafaring companion just happens to fall in love with his daughter by sheer coincidence?) and less than plausible romances (Mrs. Lovett, what were you thinking?), Sweeney contains a dozen sublime verses ranging from the devastatingly simple (“You are young. Life has been kind to you. You will learn.”) to the magnificently virtuosic (“There’s a whole in the world like a great black pit” etc.). And even if their would-be love story is a tad undercooked, Todd and Lovett are two of musical theatre’s most fully-realized characters. This piece feels strangely ahead of its time, given how inundated we currently are with antihero narratives. But the highest compliment that can be paid to such a story is that its protagonist’s actions are genuinely sympathetic, even as they are unconscionable. And Todd’s actions are certainly unconscionable. The fact that this story exists at the emotionally heightened level of reality where musicals live means that Sondheim can throw a philosophy directly into Todd’s mouth and not have it feel hackneyed: “They all deserve to die. Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why: because the lives of the wicked should be made brief. For the rest of us, death would be a relief.” Todd is not merely an avenger for his ruined family. He is avenging the entire world for having been ruined by itself. This is a kind of person that exists. Sweeney Todd is every disillusioned nihilist who’s ever shot up a public place. He is also every religious fundamentalist who has committed atrocities. He is everybody who has ever ended a life in the name of a philosophy. And yet. It is difficult to despise Todd completely. This has less to do with his tragic history (angry-man-avenges-wronged-woman plotlines are a dime a dozen and they are sexist and bad) than it does with the fact that, like his fellow bloodstained musical theatre villain Aaron Burr (and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s model for Burr, the far less effective Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar), Todd has a legitimate grievance. “The history of the world, my love, is those below serving those up above.” Todd is an elegant enough thinker to see the poetry in baking unsuspecting Londoners into pies. For Todd, mass murder is the only true social equalizer. Todd is unforgivable. He is damned, even within the confines of his own play. But anybody who is aware of our civilization’s various systemic inequities may find it hard not to lick their lips as Sweeney slits throats.

Jon Anderson: Olias of Sunhillow — Parts of it feel like something that might be played in a spa. But all in all, I absolutely adore this and have since I first heard it. This is essentially Anderson doing what he always does, but without the rest of Yes to help him realize his vision. Working within those constraints, he makes something that is entirely unlike Yes music, but which is maybe the most fully realized iteration of his mystical vision that we have on record. It isn’t a masterpiece, but it is an exceptionally good solo album that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend even to people who hate Yes.

Games

Lethophobia — I’ve barely begun, but I’m quite enjoying this. It’s a free browser game made with Failbetter Games’ StoryNexus tool. So, basically, the mechanics are the same as Fallen London and the text-based portions of my beloved Sunless Sea. This is the first game I’ve played on this platform that isn’t actually developed by Failbetter, though I have had a bash at making one. (Didn’t get far.) Lethophobia starts in a familiar adventure game place: amnesia. Also, you’re by a house in a clearing. Rings a bell. But so far, it’s distinguishing itself with excellent, funny writing and by making interesting use of StoryNexus’s quality-based story progression. The real test of this is whether I return to it after my initial session. Never a guarantee with games I didn’t spend money on.

Firewatch — Yeah, this is what I want games to be like. I mean, not the only thing I want games to be like, but if this could be the default that would be fine by me. Firewatch is a walking sim with a branching narrative stacked on top of it. It gives you the freedom to explore a compelling place that Gone Home offered, but with the addition of the sort of choice-based dialogue that Telltale’s Walking Dead games are known for. Mechanically, this is a perfect union. It fixes potential problems with both of those pre-existing models for gaming (loathe as I am to entertain the notion of problems with Gone Home). It adds choices and agency to the Gone Home model, which really just basically throws you into a space and says “walk around!” And, it combats the ruthless constraints of the Telltale model, which allows for choice but confines you to exploring one small area of space at a time. I could see this exact set of mechanics working brilliantly for just about any story, and I imagine we will see that happen in the coming years. But the story we have here is pretty magnificent in itself. The premise of a video game where you’re a fire lookout may seem to hold a whiff of Papers Please-esque perversity, but that’s not what’s happening here. There is no “look what I can make fun!” in this game. The fact that your character takes a job as a fire lookout in a huge, gorgeously-rendered national park is straightforwardly and obviously a setup for a proper adventure story. Of course, that story does turn out to be only about a quarter of the point, tops. The real beauty of playing Firewatch is in hearing the interactions of its two main characters: Harry, the player character (voiced brilliantly by Mad Men’s Rich Sommer), and Delilah, his boss in another lookout tower who is available only by radio (voiced equally brilliantly by Cissy Jones). These two both have some shit to work through. You don’t voluntarily isolate yourself in the brush if you don’t. And it’s the relationship that forms between them (which can presumably be very different depending on your choices) that forms the core of the game. Firewatch is a rare thing: a fun, unpretentious video game that nonetheless feels like it’s for grown-ups. I love it. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

WTF with Marc Maron: “Joseph Arthur/Peter Bebergal” — A great episode featuring two guests I’m interested in but whose work I’ve never gotten around to. Bebergal’s book about rock music and the occult, The Season of the Witch, has been on my list for ages. He’s not a great interview, but he seems like the sort of person who might write a good book. Also, Maron is curiously comfortable talking about magic without caveats and provisos. At no point did he say something like “but you know this is all bullshit, right?” Maybe he understands that magic is only ever a metaphor, which indicates that it has meaning, which means that it has power regardless of its ontological status. Or maybe he just remembers what it was like to be on coke. Either way. Also, the conversation with Joseph Arthur is interesting as a peek into the career of somebody who had votes of confidence from Peter Gabriel and Lou Reed but never quite made it. I’ve known who he is since Gabriel’s Big Blue Ball came out belatedly in 2008: a dubious, messy record made from three weeks of sessions at Real World Studios in the 90s. I liked Arthur’s contribution. But I never checked out his records. Perhaps I should. He sounds like what Marc Maron would be if he were a musician.

Love and Radio: Season 5 preview — Not the most exciting preview that came out this week (Again, I’m recusing myself from reviewing Heavyweight) but I’m definitely excited to hear stories about transgenic humans.

99% Invisible: “Public Works” — Roman Mars remarked on Twitter that this would be the nerdiest episode of 99pi ever. It kind of is, and it is also one of the best of recent times. It’s just a flat-out discussion (not a story, mind you) of the history of the notion of “infrastructure,” a word so new that the Washington Post put it in quotation marks like I just did as recently as the ‘80s.

The Gist: “A GOP Apostate Explains Her Vote for Hillary” — The best Gist I’ve heard since picking it up. Firstly, it contains a reasonable interview with a reasonable Republican, which is the unicorn of this election season’s press coverage. Secondly, it contains the most delightfully discursive and amusing spiel I’ve heard. It’s about the notion that sophistication does not necessarily equal excellence, but that’s an oversimplification. Pesca takes his time getting to his point, and he wheels through a whole bunch of implications without warning you it’ll happen. Radio doesn’t have to proceed in a straight line. Pesca’s success as a podcaster is proof that listeners are smart enough to follow along with a train of thought, even when the tracks have corners. Pick of the week.

All Songs Considered: “New Sylvan Esso, Sharon Van Etten, R.E.M. Acoustic, More” — Stephen Thompson’s presence is always appreciated. I recognize the value of Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton and I’ve come to love both of them as inviting presences on this podcast. But Thompson is smarter than either of them. As for the music, the Kate Tempest track eclipses all of them handily. I’ll definitely be checking out that record.

Omnireviewer (week of May 8, 2016)

A round 20.

Movies

Ex Machina — Fearsomely good. I’m detecting a recent trend in screen-based entertainment that indicates people are beginning to hanker for the theatrical rather than just the cinematic. We saw it in Horace and Pete, clearly. Also The Hateful Eight. And while Ex Machina is a film about robots, with an Oscar for visual effects, I could totally see it produced as a stage play. It’s directed by a writer, and it shows. This is a movie that is about three things: writing, acting, and sets. The writing deals with big contemporary questions, like all of the best plays of any given time. The acting is top-shelf — Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac are my two favourite newly-minted A-listers — but the bulk of it is performed by only four people, giving it the intimacy of theatre. And the sets, if you eliminate the gorgeous natural scenery outside of the vast panes of glass, are designed in a similarly symbolic way to the sets of good theatre pieces: the glass that separates Ava and Caleb, the cameras that stand in for Nathan even when he’s not present, and the mirrored, casket-shaped cases holding [insert spoiler here] are just a few examples. (And yes, that’s the second acknowledgement of spoilers on this blog. Like Horace and Pete, this is best if you’re allowed to process information as it is presented to you, without prejudice.) But, theatrical tendencies aside, Ex Machina is cinematically glorious as well. It lets the camera linger on magnificent natural vistas, to emphasize what Ava’s missing, locked away in her glass cage. It uses effects to communicate the idea that everybody’s being surveilled constantly for reasons they couldn’t possibly know. And it makes Ava look really, really cool. This is what I want genre movies to be like. If even half of the money that is currently being budgeted to franchise juggernauts could be routed into smaller films like this, contemporary cinema would be a hundred times more interesting than it is. Pick of the week.

Television

Game of Thrones: “Oathbreaker” — Things are getting interesting on a few fronts and continuing to bore me on others. So far, this season’s unforgivable sin is its forced writing for Tyrion and Varys — two characters who should always be at the apex of wit. Also, much as I admire what Emilia Clarke can do with her face alone, it would be nice to see her get more lines, and possibly a story where she isn’t totally helpless. Daenerys is at her most interesting when she’s powerful, but making mistakes. Taking away her agency is problemsy for many reasons, but significant among them is that it makes her storyline boring. Such a waste of a great character and a great actress.

Last Week Tonight: May 8, 2016 — Marvellous. John Oliver’s takedown of science reporting on morning shows isn’t as incisive as Brooke Gladstone’s, but it’s got jokes. And H. John Benjamin.

Cunk on Shakespeare — Philomena Cunk made me realize how much I miss The Colbert Report. This is a complete idiot’s take on Shakespeare, presented in a format that makes it feel authoritative. There are reaction shots in this that are funnier than most American sitcom one-liners.  

Archer: “Bel Panto: Part 2” — Like the ones in this, for instance. But it’s Archer. It’s fine. I laughed.

Music

Brian Eno: Ambient 1/Music for Airports — This is the moment where Eno mastered ambient music. He would devise a number of additional, quite different, and perhaps equal variants on it over the next twenty-odd years. But I’m not sure he’s ever substantially improved on Music for Airports. It is simultaneously unobtrusive and totally memorable. When I haven’t listened to it for a while, I tend to forget what it sounds like. But as soon as I play it, it comes right back. It is so simple it barely seems like something a human could have made, which makes it all the more profound — it’s as if it has been made by nature. Any reasonable list of Eno’s great accomplishments would be at least twenty or thirty entries long, but this should be near the top, up with the first three solo albums, the first two instalments of the Berlin Trilogy, and Remain in Light.

Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool — Lack of hyphen notwithstanding, this is quite good. I suspect we may be into the part of Radiohead’s career where they don’t blow anybody’s minds anymore. Of their last four albums, only In Rainbows has been a masterpiece on the level of their early 2000s work. But A Moon Shaped Pool is a really solid album. It has plenty of variety, and it feels like a new direction — two things you couldn’t say about The King of Limbs. I suspect it’ll be a grower. Years from now, after the band’s officially done, maybe we’ll see A Moon Shaped Pool as Radiohead’s Some Girls: the good album they made a few years after their heyday that’s the last thing in the discography that’s really worth a look. Or maybe not. This is a band with near-infinite capacity to surprise, after all.

Beyoncé: Lemonade (audio-only version) — Yeah, it works just as well without the visuals. This is mighty powerful stuff. The visual album is very much its own wonderful thing, but the songs aren’t given their full expression. On this version, “Freedom” stands out as the best track, thanks in part to Kendrick Lamar’s characteristically virtuosic verse (cut from the video for pacing, I assume). I still think “Formation” is a bit ersatz, but it’s also inessential to the album. Everything before that final track is gold. This isn’t my favourite album of the year so far, but I think it’s probably the most accomplished.

Kanye West: Yeezus — I had to give this another listen after being so disappointed by The Life of Pablo, just to make sure it was as good as I remembered. It is. Maybe better. When I think of this album now, I generally have three tracks in mind: “Black Skinhead,” “New Slaves,” and especially “On Sight.” But this listen reminded me that “I Am A God,” “Blood On The Leaves,” and “Hold My Liquor” are also great songs. I suppose Pablo really is just the first bad Kanye album. “Bound 2” is still stupid, though.

Literature, etc.

David Auerbach: “The Most Terrifying Thought Experiment of All Time” — I’ve got a copy of Phil Sandifer’s new Kickstarter-funded work of theoretical madness, Neoreaction a Basilisk, coming in the mail sometime this summer. So, I figured I’d better do a bit of reading on its central metaphor written by someone a little less idiosyncratic. (Also, this ties in with Ex Machina in ways I didn’t expect.) I won’t summarize this here because I am just enough of a crackpot to find it terrifying. I will, however, link it. Read at your own risk.

Sarah Boxer: “The Exemplary Narcissism of Snoopy” — Fantagraphics finished its heroic 25-volume reprinting of Peanuts recently, and the internet went into Schulzmania mode. I stumbled upon this at some point in a Google wormhole while looking for a specific strip. If you need to have this comic’s brilliance explained to you, this is where to go. The defence of Snoopy that forms the core of the argument may not seem necessary to many, but it is extremely successful.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “The Season Of Surprise Albums, From Beyoncé To James Blake” — Honestly, it was nice just to hear a snippet of Lemonade again. It was also revealing to hear about the completely bogus way that record companies are calculating streaming metrics. The idea that Drake’s album could have accumulated hundreds of millions of listens on its first day, just because of the advance plays of “Hotline Bling” is absurd. The world is bad. But there is a lot of good music in it. I’m not sure how much of it is made by Drake.

This American Life: “Who Do We Think We Are?” — Sean Cole is a really good host. Somebody should give him a show. The fact that he also produced the second half of the show only adds to this episode’s consistency. The story in the first half, about a woman dealing with the consequences of female genital mutilation, is one of the best radio stories I’ve heard so far this year. It’s worth noting that I’ve also heard the version that went out on The Heart, which I’m not reviewing these days for Podquest reasons. (It was staggeringly good.) But the two versions of the story are sufficiently different that both are basically essential. Pick of the week.

Radiolab: “Bigger than Bacon” — A good but rather slight story about how an unassuming species of shrimp makes bubbles as hot as the sun. Yeah, bubbles as hot as the sun. Robert Krulwich can’t believe it either.

Welcome to Night Vale: “Water Failure” — One of the best episodes of Night Vale. They break the format without relying on continuity, and the jokes feel fresher for being told in a new way. This is an episode of the show that I would point newcomers toward to demonstrate what it’s like at its best.

Code Switch: “The Code Switch Podcast Is Coming!” — The title of this three-minute trailer says it all. I would personally add a few more exclamation points to express my joy, but that is basically all I have to say.

Reply All: “On The Inside” — I was wondering why it had been so long since Sruthi Pinnamaneni had done a story. This is worth the wait. It’s going to inevitably remind you of Serial season one, because it’s full of phone calls to a prison. But it’s not really about crime: it’s basically a character sketch of this guy who’s spent his entire adult life in prison. It’s super. And next week’s part two promises to be even more interesting.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Captain America: Civil War” — Linda Holmes’s interview with the Russos made me more interested in them than I was before. I have briefly suspended my distaste for cinematic universes in general. I guess I’ll see how this Civil War thing is.

StartUp: “Dear Music Fans…” — The sordid, and strangely moving tale of Grooveshark, a company that everybody knew was bad, but that still had a bunch of committed employees. This is almost a crime thriller.

All Songs Considered: “This Week’s Number 1 Song” — NPR Music listeners selected “I Need A Forest Fire” from the new James Blake album as their favourite song of the week. That record was released on May 6, and announced three days prior on May 3. That day, a wildfire burned down a substantial chunk of my hometown. Careful what you wish for, James. Somebody else might get it instead.

Omnireviewer (week of May 1, 2016)

Another week of good, or at least interesting music. And some other things. 18 reviews.

Music

Brian Eno: The Ship — Eno has been doing ambient music for a long time now. It’s only natural that it would start to seem paint-by-numbers at some point. The 21-minute title track of this album is perfectly fine music, but it has little to recommend it over other ambient music. Eno’s musical offspring have long started to outstrip him. Compared to Tim Hecker’s latest release, for instance, The Ship is pretty unadventurous. Perhaps it’s not a fair comparison, but there was a time when Eno’s ambient music was equally interesting as a backdrop and as a focussed experience: I’m thinking particularly of Music for Airports and On Land, but also some of his collaborations with people like Harold Budd and Daniel Lanois. This doesn’t hold up to scrutiny quite so well. There are a lot of string and wind samples that sound like presets on a high-end workstation keyboard. In a piece of music this minimal, everything comes down to timbre. So, the use of dodgy samples is bothersome. The second half of the album, “Fickle Sun,” fares better. In fact, it’s pretty great. Eno’s singing voice sounds essentially the same as ever, but he’s gotten better at recording it. And the Velvet Underground cover at the end doesn’t feel tacked on. It actually works. And Eno sounds distinctly like he’s singing his favourite song. But I must admit, I’m a bit let down that Eno felt the need to make a concept album. (And, if you read his notes on the album on his website, it does seem clear that that’s what this is.) I’ve always particularly admired Eno for his devotion to pure process. His art isn’t oversignified: it just is. It is simply a thing that resulted from him using a certain method. The Ship is about things. Specific things. And that disappoints me. To be clear, this is the idiosyncratic response of a person who has thought about Eno enough to love him for very idiosyncratic reasons. Good on him for not being the same kind of artist he always was. After all, it’s not like Eno hasn’t made a career out of confounding expectations. It would be wrong and strange to hold him to my particular standards. Half of The Ship is very good music. Let’s leave it at that.

Moon Hooch: Moon Hooch — This is extraordinary. These guys have found a plausible way to make modern dance music with acoustic instruments, and without entirely leaving behind their roots in jazz and funk. This studio album doesn’t quite have the insane verve of their Tiny Desk Concert, and I suspect their full sets are absolute madness, but I still really enjoyed this.

Timo Andres: Shy and Mighty — I have been underwhelmed by Andres before, but this album of music for two pianos is everything I love about modern post-minimalist music. It isn’t dogmatically minimalist in the way that some classic Steve Reich is (though I frequently love that music), it just takes the sound and rhythms of minimalism and runs with it. I’m reminded of Bryce Dessner’s Music for Wood and Strings, which came out substantially after this, but also defines the sort of music I most want to hear from today’s composers. It is also possibly the most listenable grad school thesis ever produced.

Gentle Giant: The Power and the Glory — Of the really classic Gentle Giant albums (by my estimation, from Octopus through Interview), this is the one that I’ve neglected over the years. The simple reason for that is that it was the one I didn’t have on CD as a kid. But it’s actually nice to have one masterpiece by one of your favourite bands that you aren’t overfamiliar with. Because The Power and the Glory still surprises me, and also it’s blatantly one of the best Gentle Giant albums. Possibly the very best one. Derek Shulman’s voice was never more extraordinary — he’s in his high register for nearly the full album, but still maintains the timbre of a rock baritone. The rhythm section has their work cut out for them, with all of the metric shifts in this music, but they manage to be not mere timekeepers and actually imbue the music with some groove. Gary Green reaches his studio apex here, though his guitar solos always pop more in a live setting. And, Kerry Minnear even deigns to take a proper organ solo in “Playing the Game,” which proves that he could have been Keith Emerson if he’d wanted, but he’d rather emulate Glenn Gould in a rock band. Really, Power is one of the undersung gems of the entire prog rock canon. It’s even the right kind of concept album: a vague story of a despot with just enough of a narrative to hang a set of anti-authority sensibilities on. I stopped midway through an episode of On The Media to listen to this again, and realized that it really is the prog album you want to listen to in primary season. Really puts the “progressive” in progressive rock, for once. Also, “Cogs in Cogs” is possibly the best distillation of prog you’ll find in under four minutes. Pick of the week. (Didn’t I tell you that a 40-year-old rock album would take this prize at some point?)

Television

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 2, episodes 7-13 — Oh, much better. This season was backloaded with all of the good episodes. It’s mostly the small jokes that I love. (“Sup.” “Sup.” … “Sup.” “Soup?”) But, there are great ongoing plotlines here as well. The seventh episode features one of the best stories on the show so far, complete with machinations of the unscrupulous wealthy. Jane Krakowski and Anna Camp are hilarious together in every scene. And once Tina Fey shows up to do battle with herself as two different sides of the same character, the season really cooks. The season finale is wonderful for all of the reasons that this show is, at the best of times. Without getting earnest, and without abandoning joke density for as much as a minute, the show allows Kimmy to have a minor epiphany and grow as a person. Like The Ship, half of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s second season is very good.  

Game of Thrones: “Home” — Alright, I got angry too early last week. This episode is pretty fantastic, actually. But there’s no reason it shouldn’t have been the first episode of the season. I’m especially enjoying the King’s Landing plot. If this entire season could just be the struggle between the Lannisters and the High Sparrow’s army, that would suit me fine. (Though that may just be my particular love for Jonathan Pryce talking.) Meanwhile, Bran is back, and I’m actually fairly excited to find out where that’s going.

Literature, etc.

Kurt Vonnegut: Hocus Pocus — This continues to be one of the lesser Vonnegut novels I’ve read, and I’ve read all but four, not counting this one. But, I just read a three-page chapter with an allegory involving being trapped in an elevator that was so perfect, and came with such an unexpected punchline that I was suddenly reminded why I love Vonnegut more than most other novelists. (That said, Joseph Heller’s blurb about this being Vonnegut’s best novel is insane. But then, Vonnegut though Heller’s best novel was Closing Time.)

Lois Tyson: Critical Theory Today — Given that I write about art for a living, I have always felt compelled to understand critical theory better than I do. I’m in this weird position where I have a masters degree, yet I still feel like my education is the equivalent of two professional programs: one that taught me the trade of making music with an acoustic instrument, and another that taught me how to write words on factual topics that I can sell and that can get me contracts and (theoretically) jobs. So, I don’t have an especially solid grounding in theory. And I’m interested in theory. Tyson’s book has the reputation of being a relatively simple survey of the major currents in theory — a starting point, after which you might better understand the works of the major theorists — and the previous edition of it is available for free online. I’m going to dive into this. So far, it is eminently comprehensible. So, that’s a good start.

Podcasts

Planet Money: “Lance Armstrong and the Business of Doping” — Telling the story of Lance Armstrong’s doping ring with a business angle is a masterstroke. This is the best episode of Planet Money that I’ve heard.

StartUp: “Pirate Needs Pirate” — I listened to this at the grocery store right across the street from the old Pirate Joe’s location that this episode is about. That little coincidence probably makes me favourably disposed to it from the outset. But it really is a pretty great story. It follows the owner of Pirate Joe’s south to a proper Trader Joe’s location, and captures the experience of surreptitiously purchasing in bulk for resale. That’s more fun than it sounds. And it’s got a fantastic main character. This is really great radio. Pick of the week.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Silicon Valley and Bob’s Burgers” — This contains the first interview I’ve heard Stephen Thompson do, and I would like to hear that more often. The second segment of this show is Thompson’s interview with Loren Bouchard, the creator of Bob’s Burgers. Rather than just talk about the show broadly, they dive into the dodgy territory of television merchandising and why the Bob’s Burgers cookbook had to actually be good. Worth hearing for that segment alone.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Remembering Prince” — Almost missed this! Glad I didn’t miss this. Still, there’s only so much you can say about Prince, and as far as NPR’s concerned, Ann Powers basically said it all on All Songs last week.

On The Media: “In The Shadows” — This episode tells the story of how America arrived at the two-party, one candidate per party system of presidential elections. If you’re not interested in that, who are you?

All Songs Considered: “Suuns, Autolux, Adult Jazz, Mutual Benefit, Let’s Eat Grandma” — It’s nice that they let John Congleton sit in, but they really ought to let him do a proper guest DJ episode. In the meantime, the indisputable highlight of this show is “Rapunzel” by the wonderfully-named group Let’s Eat Grandma, two friends who are all of 16 and 17 years old. It’s a haunting, complex, piano-driven piece of music with wonderful lyrics about being named Rapunzel and not identifying with the fairy tale character at all. It’s brilliant, and I can’t wait to hear more.

On The Media: “A Face in the Crowd” — I haven’t listened to Sara Fishko in ages. In this OTM podcast special, she dives into the movie A Face in the Crowd, which is now being touted as a prophecy of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. I should listen to Fishko more often.

Imaginary Worlds: “Humans: New & Improved” — Molinsky tackles transhumanism. Between this and the previous episode on economics in genre fiction, he has essentially proved the material impact that genre fiction has on legitimate, real-world discourses. And the transhumanists he talks to are just normal folk!

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Free Comic Book Day and Keanu” — It’s that time of year again! It remains to be seen whether I’ll take in Free Comic Book Day, this time. It also remains to be seen whether I’ll see Keanu. But I’ve never listened to this show to help me make decisions.

On The Media: “The Centre Cannot Hold” — This and the previous full episode of OTM taken together do an incredible job explaining the strained status quo of America’s two-party system. These two hours of radio might be the best contextual journalism done in this primary season. Also, Brooke Gladstone uses Mozart (I think it’s Mozart?) as a punchline here, and it’s brilliant. There’s nothing funnier than the most elegant music ever composed being juxtaposed with contemporary American politics.

Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 27)

12 reviews. What? I have a life, lately.

Television

Horace and Pete: episodes 6-8 — I’ve been enjoying the fact that Horace and Pete is unlike anything on actual TV. But in the sixth episode it briefly turns into everything else on TV — namely, a story about an insecure man getting tripped up by his insecurities. Of course, Steve Buscemi is brilliant and his character Pete is more genuinely marginalized than, say, Louis C.K.’s fictionalized self on Louie. Still, the drama in this episode is complicated by America’s divided politics, which remains the key theme of the show, and is explored differently here than anywhere else. The following episode, with its discussion of trans issues, is bound to be flawed from the outset — Louis C.K.’s take on trans issues isn’t really something anybody asked for. But, as a fellow cisgendered straight dude without the lived experience necessary to properly parse this, I do think that C.K. should generally be commended for his willingness to point out the hypocrisy of social liberalism as practiced by many cis straight white dudes. I’m just not sure that this specific instance of that is especially commendable. The eighth one is fine.

Better Call Saul: “Inflatable” — Well, the flashback off the top was a bit hacky, wasn’t it? Still a fine episode, but after the last two I mostly just want to watch Kim’s story play out, and there was less of that here than there has been recently. I do really love those montages with the colourful suits, though.

Games

The Dream Machine: episodes 4 & 5 — First off, I have confirmation from the devs on Twitter that at least one of them is an Eno fan, so the recurring references to “On Some Faraway Beach” can’t be an accident. (I’m already speculating about how the line “given the choice, I’ll die like a baby” will factor into the ending…) Let’s take the fourth episode first. In isolation, it’s one of the best adventure games I’ve ever played. Even if it lacked its headline gimmick — the stop-motion clay and cardboard presentation — it would still be. I’ve played games with stories that appeal more (Kentucky Route Zero springs to mind, but that might just be because it scratches my perpetual itch for clever metafiction), but I’ve never enjoyed solving puzzles as much as the ones in The Dream Machine episode four. These puzzles made me think, and try stuff, and go down blind alleys, but they never felt unfair or counterintuitive, and solving them felt amazing. Episode five doesn’t fare quite as well in this respect. There were a lot of puzzle solutions in there that I happened upon by chance and only understood in retrospect. There was a lot of “maybe if I try using this item with this item,” which isn’t a very satisfying gameplay experience. But at the same time, the fifth episode is far and away the largest of the bunch, and it certainly has the most ambitious premise. There’s a jaw-dropping twist midway through that makes it fundamentally different from the episodes that precede it. And of course, there’s still the fact that somebody made a sprawling adventure game out of clay and found materials. That will never be less than astonishing. Quibbles aside, this is pretty spectacular, and I honestly don’t know what I’m looking forward to more: the next episode of this, or Kentucky Route Zero. Adventure game fans should really try and find time for both.

Music

Joseph Bertolozzi: Tower Music — This is possibly the strangest recording ever to randomly land on my desk. The whole thing is constructed from samples of the Eiffel Tower being struck by mallets. Bertolozzi traversed the entire structure, painstakingly recording the sounds of different parts of the tower being struck by mallets of varying size and firmness, and then used the resultant library of 10,000 samples to compose this piece. It seems like it’s essentially destined for the broad ranks of fascinating musical marginalia, but that’s not to say it isn’t actually pretty good in places. There are moments that are explicitly gamelan inspired, as you’d expect from music made by striking metal repeatedly. Some of it has a dancelike quality, and much of it calls John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano to mind. I can’t say I actually recommend it, but it’s nice that it exists in the world.

Giacomo Puccini/Victor de Sabata, Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi et al: Tosca — Is it bad that I’d never actually heard Tosca from start to finish? In any case, this recording is basically perfect. Callas is one of those rare artists in classical music who sounds like absolutely no one else — like Glenn Gould or, I’m increasingly convinced, Patricia Kopatchinskaja. Tito Gobbi and Giuseppe Di Stefano both sing wonderfully as well, and Gobbi is properly terrifying as Scarpia. The orchestra sounds great, though the recording quality is of its time. If you want to experience recorded opera with its best foot forward, this might be the very best recording you could try out. (Though dramatically, Tosca is completely inane and nonsensical. Just listen to the pretty music.)

Genesis: Foxtrot — I loved this so much when I was 12 that I can’t hope to ever assess it objectively. But, for what it’s worth, I’ve lived with this album (and most of Genesis’s other albums, and Yes’s and Jethro Tull’s and King Crimson’s…) for half of my life, and it still holds up. It isn’t merely comfortable: I get the same rush of endorphins from the end of “Supper’s Ready” now as I ever did. It isn’t all like that: “Time Table” remains a bit of regrettable filler and “Get ‘Em Out By Friday” has moments that don’t charm me like they used to. But “Watcher of the Skies” has actually grown on me, if anything. By and large, Foxtrot has held up over a truly astonishing number of listens. I hope I can say that in 13 years about some of the music I’m discovering now.

El-P: Fantastic Damage — Like this, for instance. I actually have nothing much to say about this, at the moment. I feel like I’ll need to listen to this about ten more times before I even know what’s going on. I hadn’t realized that El-P is exercising  restraint in Run the Jewels. This is madness. 

Literature, etc.

Jia Tolentino: “Is This the End of the Important, Inappropriate Literary Man?” — Just get past that headline and read this piece. It’s a rigorous, reasoned and troubling appraisal of the widespread harassment that happens when men are made so important that they can get away with anything. Actually, that’s a really inadequate summary. It’s also an investigation into mob justice. That’s still an inadequate summary. Here, have a quote: “Our awareness of the prevalence and magnitude of sexual assault has outpaced the systems that expose and adjudicate it.” Still not perfect. But then, if I gave a perfect summary, maybe you’d be less inclined to read it. Read it. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

Radiolab: “Update: 23 Weeks 6 Days” — It’s strange to hear Jad say at the start of this repeat episode that this was the first show where they devoted the whole hour to a single story. I suppose it was the beginning of the decline, in some sense. But nobody could have known it at the time. This is one of the very best episodes of Radiolab, and thus one of the best radio stories ever told. It’s horribly, gut-wrenchingly sad for most of its duration, and it grapples with impossible questions, but it makes no concessions to either the complexity or the sadness. It’s just all there. No attempts to mitigate it were made. And that’s such a wise decision. Marvellous, staggering, superlative. The whole point of radio. Pick of the week.

The John Peel Lecture: Brian Eno — Firstly, I love that the John Peel Lecture is a thing that exists. Secondly, I love that they’re available as podcasts. And thirdly, Brian Eno is really one of the people you’d most want to do one. His lecture isn’t entirely groundbreaking — it’s based around the idea that art has a purpose that can’t quantified, which is a well-established line of thought, albeit not one that has found adequate footing in Western governments. But there are two very interesting things here. One is Eno’s broad definition of art: “everything that you don’t have to do.” That just serves to remind us that there are two things Eno is very, very good at: music and aphorisms. And the second interesting thing is Eno’s notion of “scenius,” rather than genius (also wonderfully extrapolated upon in Sheppard’s Eno biography). The idea is that we place too much emphasis on the accomplishments of individuals, and too little on the community — the scene. Eno extrapolates on this by telling his own early story in terms of community support for his art. He went to art school for free. He went on the dole immediately after graduation so that he could continue developing his art and not get stuck in a job he hated. He got his first national exposure as a member of Roxy Music on the BBC, thanks to Peel himself. The point is clear: art is the result of the circumstances imposed by the artist’s community. So, it shouldn’t necessarily be conceived of in the terms of an industry. Even if it isn’t totally revolutionary, Eno’s argument should be heard loud and clear, preferably by policy makers around the world.

Imaginary Worlds: “When Cthulhu Calls” — This is the best new thing I heard this week. It really is pretty brilliant. For just this one episode, Eric Molinsky assumes a Jonathan Goldsteinian relationship to the truth and tells us about the cultural significance of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, only to get sucked into a Lovecraftian horror story himself. He thus answers the question “Why do people make/buy cutesy Cthulhu tchochkes?” by putting himself in a fictional situation where he needs them. I want to make it pick of the week, but it can’t beat Radiolab at its best.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Explosions In The Sky, Parquet Courts, Wire, Told Slant, More” — It’s amazing how quickly All Songs went from being a show I’d never considered listening to, to a show that I almost never miss. The highlight here is the new Explosions in the Sky, though I can’t quite tell if I’m interested enough to check out the album or not. We’ll see.

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.