Tag Archives: Bullseye

Omnibus (week of July 1, 2018)

It’s been a year light on instant favourites. There are a couple in here, though.

19 reviews.

Movies

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — Morgan Neville’s Mister Rogers documentary has already acquired a reputation for being a tearjerker. It is that. On the way home, I tried to figure out why. Nothing sad happens in it. True to its subject, nothing much happens in it at all. For me, it isn’t particularly nostalgic, either. I watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child, but I was so small that I barely remember it. My memory of television only extends back to Bill Nye the Science Guy, or thereabouts. So what is it about this nice movie about a nice man that hits me and everybody else so hard in the feels? For me, it might have something to do with my Pavlovian response to the music of Michael Nyman. But more broadly I think it’s basically this: Neville sets up the beatifically decent Fred Rogers as an alternative to the cynicism and mean-spiritedness that dominates public discourse today, and that periodically dominated it for the entire thirty-year run of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. There’s no mention of Donald Trump or contemporary politics in the movie, but there doesn’t have to be: celebrating Rogers’ big-heartedness is an implicit, gentle act of resistance to an administration that has of late been particularly cruel to children. The closest the movie comes to naming and shaming its target is in a sequence about the first episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, in which King Friday XIII tries to build a border wall. But even that is more amusing than preachy. The most moving moments of the film are the places where television intersects with history. Rogers dared to address the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in the forum of children’s television in his first season. And he stayed the course, casually delivering civil rights messages and folksy explications of intensely sad subjects. His rapport with children who have suffered trauma, be it the death of a pet or a serious medical condition, is a wonder to behold. As moving as any of this, though, is Rogers’ simple respect for children’s intelligence and curiosity. His show was famously slow, famously lo-fi, and famously concerned with, as Linda Holmes put it on Pop Culture Happy Hour, teaching kids how oboes are made. Obviously, all of this is catnip to me. Fred Rogers was a defining figure in the history of public broadcasting because he steadfastly refused to simply give the people what they want. He strove for the higher ideal of Making People Better, which is what public broadcasters are supposed to do. It’s just as instructive to look back on Mister Rogers in the era of Facebook as it is to look back on him in the era of Trump. That said, Rogers’ attitude (and by extension, the film’s) towards other approaches to television can be needlessly dismissive. There is an uncomfortably small distance between Fred Rogers’ distaste for conventionally entertaining television and Mary Whitehouse’s boneheaded attempts to censor the BBC. There’s an uncomfortable parallel between Rogers’ anxiety that children would watch superhero cartoons and think they could actually fly and Whitehouse’s media illiterate claim that children would see a cliffhanger where Doctor Who’s head was held underwater and think that he’d be held that way for the entire week until the next episode started. But ultimately, Rogers’ straightforward attempts to bring out the best in his young viewers overrides all of this. His is a philosophy that has vacated much of public discourse, including in the media, and we need it back. Fred Rogers believed in people, particularly children, and wanted to help them be better. That is why Won’t You Be My Neighbor is the year’s most beautiful film. See it while it’s in theatres if you can. It is best experienced collectively. Pick of the week.

Live events

Converge & Neurosis live at the Commodore — I don’t really do metal these days. But when invited, I don’t mind taking in a show. This triple bill (counting openers Amenra, who were not a major part of the advertising) featured exclusively bands that I had never heard. Amenra didn’t make much of an impression on me. I see what they’re doing, which is basically leaving as many elements out of their music as possible. That includes colour in their presentation, which consists of evocative, serene video projections in black and white. They build whole songs with almost no harmonic motion. They are admirably committed to their minimalism, but it’s not for me. In retrospect, Converge would appear to be the odd ones out on this bill — a hugely charismatic hardcore band sandwiched between two uncompromising metal behemoths. That charisma is largely the reason why Converge was the band that left the strongest impression on me. Where Amenra and Neurosis would never do anything so gauche as acknowledge the audience, Converge lives for the crowd. (The crowd lives for them, also: the mosh pit that formed during their set could almost be described as a ‘fight.’) Their frontman, Jacob Bannon, never stops moving. He greets the audience between songs, offering rousing encouragement to anybody in the crowd who may be a survivor of depression or family dysfunction, or who’s just learning how to be a parent. There is an odd warmth to Converge. I feel strangely compelled to draw a parallel to their polar opposite, Belle and Sebastian, who I saw last week. Like Bannon, B&S’s frontman Stuart Murdoch also wears his triumph over circumstances proudly. After such an unlikely charm offensive, what a shock to encounter Neurosis. They are the bill’s resident metal royalty, and they present themselves accordingly. Their songs stretch to ten or twelve minutes apiece, and when one of them ends, the lights go out. Spacey noises fill the venue. And we only catch another glimpse of these Old Gods when their performance begins anew. We don’t see them tuning up. We don’t see them moving equipment around (well, we do a little, but we pretend we don’t). We only see them when they are playing their instruments. They don’t wave or bow at the end of the set. They don’t do encores. They establish a stark and total divide between us and them. And in doing so, they make themselves terrifying. Heavy metal is inscribed on their faces. You pay attention. Loudness isn’t the half of it. In spite of this, and probably a little bit because of it, I spent the first three quarters or so of Neurosis’s set feeling distinctly that Converge had won the night. I surprised myself with that feeling, since Neurosis’s music is much more my style. There’s more transparency in it — enough variety in the texture that you can hear detail. In case anybody had any doubt that they’re musical iconoclasts, the keyboardist has even mounted a set of bass pedals to the top rack of his rig. Still, it wasn’t until the final two songs of the set that they totally won me over. “Reach” is from their latest album, and reminds me of what I loved about Opeth when I first discovered them: every minute of this long song is packed with as many musical ideas as most bands would put on a whole album. And the set ender, the title track from their apparently legendary 1996 album Through Silver In Blood was so mercilessly heavy that it left at least a portion of the crowd completely helpless as to how to respond. The atmosphere after Neurosis disappeared from the stage was of dumbfounded shock. None of these bands make the sort of music that I have space for in my life these days. I doubt that I’ll spend a lot of time listening to their albums. But the show was a thing to behold.

Music

Belle and Sebastian: Write About Love — Deeply underrated. A gem on par with Dear Catastrophe Waitress, featuring several of the band’s best tracks — especially “I Didn’t See It Coming,” which is a top five classic Belle and Sebastian song. Other standouts include “I Want the World to Stop,” “I Can See Your Future,” and the slightly Phil Spectory title track. Title aside, even “Calculating Bimbo” has a winning melody.

Belle and Sebastian: If You’re Feeling Sinister: Live at the Barbican — I feel weird saying this is better than the studio version. I came away from last week’s concert with a new appreciation for the early B&S material, and a general sense that it isn’t served well by the recordings it’s featured on. Ergo, this live album. It’s got a lot more energy than its studio counterpart, but Stuart still doesn’t quite sound like his energetic contemporary self. This is still 13 years ago, after all. People change. Anyway, I really like this. If You’re Feeling Sinister has been the hardest Belle and Sebastian album to get into for me, but this helps.

Comedy

Hannah Gadsby: Nanette — The premise of this is that Gadsby is leaving comedy and wrote this show to explain why. In practice, she effectively quits comedy halfway through the show. It is a deeply intelligent deconstruction of comedy. Gadsby points out the ways in which it differs from conventional storytelling, the way it prizes the release of tension over all other concerns, and the way it has been used as a tool of oppression as much as a vehicle for protest. There’s also a very resonant thread about art history in this, which ought to force anybody who has recently read E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, just for example, to reconsider some things.

Games

West of Loathing — For a brief time in high school, I was an enthusiastic player of a browser game called Kingdom of Loathing. Its intensely lo-fi aesthetic of stick figures moving through a world that looks like a 10-year-old’s Hilroy scribbler drew me in immediately, and the mercilessly consistent comic writing kept me there until I moved on to the next thing. It’s a type of gaming experience I wouldn’t have again until Fallen London, years later. Now, just like Fallen London has its one-player downloadable offshoot Sunless Sea, KoL has West of Loathing: a point-and-click adventure that takes its parent game’s pencil-drawn aesthetic and builds a Western out of it. It’s a total delight, and it’s been filling my free evenings for a couple weeks now. Here is a single moment that I think encapsulates the delightfulness of this game: at one point you find a pile of boards and nails, and you’re informed that you could probably build a crate out of these things. If you do, the game’s like “hey, it’s a crate!” And when you open it there are items inside. Brilliant. Aside from its wonderful comic writing, West of Loathing also plays well as a tribute to adventure games past and present. There’s a subplot involving alien technology where the puzzles play like something from Riven (but easier), and there is a culture of creepy clowns that could come straight from Sunless Sea. Both of these plot threads are semi-Lovecraftian in the way that all indie games are now. But that’s one genre among many that this game is juggling. I loved this. If you want to play a game that will make you smile, I highly recommend it.

Podcasts

Constellations catch-up — I’m all for sound art and experimental radio. I’m so for it that I’m frequently exhausted by mainstream podcasting. (Yes, there is such a thing as mainstream podcasting, for you terrestrial radio listeners out there.) But a lot of what I heard in the last spate of episodes from this podcast left me unmoved. They seemed to convey little except a cultivated aesthetic of artsiness. When the only thing to help you see the beauty in a piece is an interview with the artist after the fact, there’s a problem. But listening to this is worth it for exceptions like Meira Asher’s “refuse: military.01” which is a marvellous commentary on Israeli compulsory military service. It’s the perfect example of why it’s important to search outside the big podcast networks and public radio behemoths for good radio.

Bullseye: “George Clinton & Cristela Alonzo” — This is most worthwhile for the George Clinton interview, which is a real trip. He’s a genius that ought to be upheld more as one of the foundational figures in ‘70s popular music. He’s also very funny.

The Daily: “Assigning Blame in the Opioid Epidemic,” “How the Opioid Crisis Started” & “One Family’s Reunification Story” — The two opioid epidemic episodes are great and infuriating, particularly the first. The reunification story is very moving, and everybody involved is admirably committed to making it clear that this is the exception to the rule. It can be tempting to think of a story like this as the tail end of a narrative: children and parents were separated, and then because we heard the story of one reunification, it must be all over. You can’t listen to this story and feel that way, which makes it very responsible journalism, in my view.

In the Dark: “The End” — By necessity, this is an open ending. But it’s a good summation of a categorically effective investigation. I have nothing more to say about this season than I’ve already said. Suffice it to say it’s one of the best pieces of investigative journalism I’ve encountered all year.

The World According to Sound catch-up — The episode of this show that focuses on the first few minutes of the show that would become This American Life is fascinating. If there’s any takeaway from the “Sound Audio” season thus far, it’s that there are an infinite number of ways to make radio, and that shockingly few of them are represented in mainstream public radio and podcasting. TAL is where the aesthetic that has taken over those spheres came from, but it’s interesting to look back on how radical it was in its infancy.

You Must Remember This: “D.W. Griffith, the Gish Sisters and the origin of ‘Hollywood Babylon’” — I have been waiting for this for what feels like years, even though I didn’t know what I was waiting for. As it turns out, I think this season has the potential to be one of Karina Longworth’s best. The premise is outstanding: take one of the most influential books in the history of filmmaking, Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, and fact check it. In the process, we’ll inevitably cross paths with some of the most notable characters in Hollywood history. This first episode about D.W. Griffith and the Gish sisters offers proof-of-concept for that. It’s well known that Griffith was blithely racist, but this episode makes it clear that he was also a creep. Nice.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Mister Rogers Documentary ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor’” & “Ant-Man And The Wasp, Plus What’s Making Us Happy” — An accurate appraisal of Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and further permission to sit out the new Ant-Man.

Code Switch: “Code Switch’s Summer Vacation” — A light episode, for once, but a good one.

Fresh Air: “The State Of The Supreme Court” — It is not a happy state.

Out of the Blocks: “A Conversation with Mayor Catherine Pugh” — This is weird. The mayor of Baltimore is a fan of this podcast, so she interviewed the host in public. The result is a conversation between a journalist and a politician where it feels like the politician is not taking a risk. I know that’s not the point of this interview, and Out of the Blocks isn’t that kind of show, but that power dynamic implicitly makes me uneasy. Anyway, the mayor is correct to observe that Out of the Blocks is excellent.

Trump Con Law: “Justice Kennedy” — A good breakdown of why Kennedy’s retirement has thrown everything into disarray — but it’s also a bit less useful than most other episodes of this show, because everybody else is covering this too.

The Memory Palace: “Patience” — Nate DiMeo is very good at finding stories from history that resonate with the news cycle. This one is about a slave who was separated from her child by ruthless slave traders. It is devastating, and it does not resolve neatly. Listen to it. Pick of the week.

99% Invisible: “Roman Mars on ZigZag” — This is the fourth episode of a serialized story, but it’s the first to appear on a show that I listen to regularly. It reminds me of StartUp season one, because it is straightforwardly similar to that — both are stories of people trying to start podcasting companies. I think I’ll listen from the beginning, though I’m not 100% sure I’m sold. It depends on how much talking about blockchain there is.

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Omnibus (week of June 24, 2018)

This contains one of my longest reviews ever, though a bunch of it is just a list of paintings, sculptures, woodcuts, lithographs, cathedral facades and interiors, ornate candlesticks etc. It also contains some of my shortest reviews ever because reviewing podcasts can be tedious. It also contains a lot of Belle and Sebastian. Enjoy.

25 reviews.

Music

Belle and Sebastian: Dear Catastrophe Waitress — In the past few weeks I’ve stumbled upon a couple things with unexpected connections to Yes’s unexpected commercial breakthrough 90125. It is not a particularly good album, so I’ll likely not heed the signs that are telling me to revisit it. But the two Trevors who made that album into a Yes album like no other (Rabin, a.k.a. the composer of the Hot Rod score, and Horn, a.k.a. half of the Buggles and the producer of this Belle and Sebastian album) are admirable people in their own right. This is my first listen through the full album, but I’d heard “I’m a Cuckoo” before. Trevor Horn’s influence on it was less obvious to me when I’d only heard The Life Pursuit. But now that I know what this band sounded like before they committed to actually sounding good, I get it. This is far from the high-gloss production we identify with Horn, i.e. 90125 and the first Frankie Goes to Hollywood album. But by B&S standards, it’s basically Purple Rain. It’s a great record. My favourites are probably “Step Into My Office, Baby” and “Lord Anthony,” but this will doubtless be subject to much reassessment.

Belle and Sebastian: The Boy With the Arab Strap — I’ll continue my odd habit of referencing Yes in Belle and Sebastian reviews, because this reminds me of Fragile in a very specific way. For Yes, that album was undeniably a step forward — the first to feature their classic lineup, and the home of several of their most accomplished tracks. It also contained five tracks designed to feature the band’s individual members, which are slight by design and hold the album back from unqualified masterpiece status. The album that had preceded it, The Yes Album, was a huge step forward in itself: the first album to consist entirely of originals, and the one that cemented them as critical favourites. Looking back on the two albums, the earlier one is the more consistent of the two. But nothing on it quite has the sublime confidence of “Roundabout” or “Heart of the Sunrise” from Fragile. I think this comparison is roughly analogous to If You’re Feeling Sinister and The Boy With The Arab Strap. The latter demonstrates a real advancement over the former in terms of the band’s performance and willingness to try out new instrumentation. “Sleep the Clock Around” is an album highlight for that reason: its synths and horns lend it the euphoric feel of much later Belle and Sebastian songs, like “We Are the Sleepyheads.” Even the Rhodes piano of the title track (which I only now realize the Decemberists totally ripped off in “Days of Elaine”) is a nice touch. But is anybody really going to think back on an album with tracks like “Chickfactor” and “A Space Boy Dream” as an unmitigated classic? Basically, I like this album a lot and its best songs are classics. But its restless need to try things makes it patchy in a way that its esteemed predecessor is not.

Belle and Sebastian: Tigermilk — Last week I expressed that I was slightly underwhelmed by If You’re Feeling Sinister, but I did think it was more than just nostalgia that made that album so revered. Now I’m reconsidering the role nostalgia might play. Because Tigermilk — Belle and Sebastian’s debut, made the same year as Sinister, first pressed on only 1,000 vinyl records, containing the first few recordings of songs from Stuart Murdoch’s massive songwriting backlog from his years with chronic fatigue, and presumably the ones in which he was most confident — is outstanding. It’s confident, it has hooks all over, Murdoch’s voice is strong, and it’s even fairly well recorded, which is not something anybody’s likely to say about If You’re Feeling Sinister, whatever its virtues. But only one thousand people at maximum heard it when it was released. Most people didn’t hear it until it was reissued in 1999, post-Arab Strap, at which point If You’re Feeling Sinister had already been enshrined as, if not a classic, then at least the Moment Of Revelation for the first wave of Belle and Sebastian fans. It strikes me that this album is similar enough to Sinister, and good enough on its own merits, that had it received wider distribution on its first release it might have had the same impact its successor did. That calculus reduces Sinister slightly, suggesting that the biggest thing it has going for it is the fact that it was the indie community’s first contact with the band. Don’t get me wrong, I really like If You’re Feeling Sinister, and it’s grown on me the couple more times I’ve listened to it since last week. But I love Tigermilk. “We Rule the School” is the most beautiful and delicate thing I’ve heard of theirs from before “Dress Up In You.” There are hints of the sonic variety I had assumed were first introduced on The Boy With the Arab Strap. The synth lead on “I Could Be Dreaming” is irresistable. And “The State I’m In” is delightfully funny and vulnerable at once. The Life Pursuit is still my favourite. After all, that was my first point of contact. But this is a close second.

Belle and Sebastian: How to Solve Our Human Problems — The last phase in my cramming for the concert. This is a compiled version of their three EPs released a few months back. It’s fine. There are some standouts, like the single “We Were Beautiful,” the leadoff to the first record, “Sweet Dew Lee,” and the Sarah Martin feature “Poor Boy.” But there’s a fair bit of chaff alongside it. Worth a listen, but only a few moments are worth returning to.

Live events

Belle and Sebastian live at the Vogue — What you don’t expect from a Belle and Sebastian concert, if you’ve never been to one and you’ve been marinating in their lo-fi early work for a week, is relentless energy. But you get it. This band, and particularly Stuart Murdoch, has mastered the fine balance of spreading catharsis without forcing it. There is no desperation in Belle and Sebastian — they aren’t Arcade Fire. Murdoch’s magnetism comes from the sense that he’s proven all he needs to prove to himself, and that it was a hard-won victory. It’s a confidence that radiates outwards to the rest of the band, with the effect that you can’t help but love them all. This was a great show. Musically, the band has the tightness of their post-Catastrophe Waitress records, and none of the sloppiness of their early ones. Excellent as those early records are, at least conceptually, nobody should mistake this for a loss. Many fans appreciate the sincerity of B&S’s lo-fi era — but they’re mistaking sincerity for an aesthetic. Nothing puts the lie to this notion like hearing the far more experienced modern iteration of the band play the snot out of “Judy and the Dream of Horses.” Songs from that era struck me as being better live — but only because they’re a better band now. Many of the highlights were early songs: a delicate reading of “We Rule the School,” a rollicking “Boy with the Arab Strap,” and “Me and the Major” transformed into a rousing encore. All of these hit harder in the room than on record. That’s less true of the later material, but a live performance only solidifies the brilliance of “I’m a Cuckoo,” “Sukie in the Graveyard” and especially “I Didn’t See It Coming.” Music aside, Murdoch also dispensed relationship advice and love hearts (one package of which he tossed cleanly into the balcony, which shouldn’t have been impressive but kind of was). Stevie Jackson wore a suit and was the spitting image of a British Invasion lead guitarist. Sarah Martin played a dozen instruments. A huge screen played wistful black and white video, which in the haze of the coloured lights became an animated rendition of the band’s album covers. The crowd was all about it. I am notoriously unmoved by most rock shows. But I left this show liking Belle and Sebastian a lot more than when I went in. Pick of the week.

KNOWER live at the Imperial — This concert preceded Belle and Sebastian in my week, but I’m reviewing it after. The contrast between these two concerts in a single week is not lost on me. The fellow nerd I saw both shows with summed it up rather well by pointing out that Louis Cole and Genevieve Artadi make music that is as counterintuitive as Stuart Murdoch’s is natural. Their melodies go off in every direction at once, they use complicated jazz school chords I don’t even understand, and they can change tempos on a dime. And yet it still all holds together. This was one of the few concerts I’ve been to by a group of professional musicians where it genuinely felt like anything could happen. This is the line that jazz fans use to explain the appeal of that music, and indeed this was a Vancouver Jazz Festival event. But this isn’t that. (Indeed, it’s not jazz — I’ll spare you my explication of the emerging genre of “meme funk” for now, but expect it in the medium-near future.) This is ludicrous dancing and drumstick throwing and lyrics about pizza. And I highly doubt that anybody else at Jazz Fest will be dressed as poorly. Cole was sporting a black t-shirt tucked into tiger-striped pajama pants and dark shades. It’s a look. Point is, KNOWER’s show is definitely not anybody else’s show. They are compulsively unpredictable. The most illustrative moment in the show came when Louis Cole called out to the audience to see if his cousin was still around (he’s got family here, shout out to the Coles). Turns out, Cole’s cousin is also an excellent drummer. When he joined the band onstage, the band started playing a song he hadn’t heard before. The premise of this song is that the band only plays for a few bars at a time before the drummer takes a solo. He goes wildly off in a direction that has nothing to do with the song itself, then counts the band back in and we’re back to where we started. So it would have presumably continued for several iterations, but in this case, the two Coles switched out on the drum stool every time the band started up again. And it worked. This kind of logistical fast-and-looseness only works for groups of supremely confident musicians. And they all are — the three touring band members included. Fun shit.

Literature, etc.

E.H. Gombrich: The Story of Art — Two flights and a quiet evening later, I know 99% more about art than before. As a person with very little visual imagination, who tends not to pay much attention to what’s happening in front of my eyes, this book made me see differently. Now I feel like I can go to a gallery and just enjoy the pictures, rather than spend 90% of my time reading the curatorial text. I’ve even started to look at photographs differently, making careful note of the compositions in news photos, and the expressions on people’s faces. (Check out the sneer on the woman near the centre of this story’s top photo. Or the play of light in this one.) This in turn has given me a greater appreciation of the work of painters who conceive of and craft scenes like this from scratch, or nearly. It seems to me that the biggest barrier to entry for appreciating works by painters like Vermeer and Rembrandt is how accustomed we are to seeing similar images in photographs. At the time, it must have seemed like magic for a painter to conceive of a scene like this one, with all of its personalities and reactions conveyed as if they’re of a piece with each other. Nowadays it takes a jolt of realization to fully recognize that a painting like this is the construction of a single mind. The Story of Art’s greatest asset is providing that jolt, without ever resorting to didacticism. This isn’t a book about arguments and value judgements. It is what it says it is: a story. Specifically, it’s the story of dozens of generations of artists trying to solve particular problems, like how best to represent nature in art, or how to convey depth in two dimensions. Gombrich’s central contention is that every artist, whether they know it or not, works inside a set of parameters that pose problems that need to be overcome. And if the artist is a great artist, we admire the resulting work of art for its beauty without even thinking about the reasons the artist had for making the choices they did. If Brian Eno could be bothered to write a survey of the history of art, it might not be so unlike this. Some of the problems solved are things you wouldn’t even think of as problems until you try to imagine a world where they hadn’t been solved. Here’s a crazy insight: think of an Egyptian relief carving. You know the ones I’m talking about — the ones where the head is in profile but the body is front on. You know why they look like that? It’s because the Egyptians hadn’t yet thought through the idea of conveying things as they saw them. Instead, they conveyed them as they thought about them. You can show more of a thing if you show it from different angles simultaneously. These images even have two left feet for this same reason. This is by no means a value judgement. In fact, the 20th century found Picasso doing much the same thing deliberately. One more example: think about what it would have been like to see a painting in perspective for the first time. You’ve never seen depth represented on a flat surface before, and suddenly there it is. Must have been like seeing Avatar. If you’re thinking about reading this book but wondering whether you might be better served by reading something more recent — I kind of can’t help you, because I don’t know any more recent books. But I can counsel you thus: Gombrich was clear-headed and sceptical enough to distrust certain fashions of his age that have come and gone, i.e. that creativity and madness are somehow intertwined. Even if this scepticism also made him discount Warhol, Rauschenberg and the other pop artists whose works still seem penetrating to us today, it seems to me a fair tradeoff. Gombrich’s outlook makes this book far less of its time than it might be. Of course, it is parochial in the way that all mainstream histories of creative endeavour have been until quite recently: people of colour are underrepresented save for the chapters on prehistoric art, which to Gombrich’s credit he clearly admires. And women are almost entirely absent — though even a critic writing in 1950 couldn’t ignore the stunning works of Käthe Kollwitz. The histories of these artists are something I’ll need to supplement my reading to learn. Gombrich saves his best writing for last. The final chapter of his original book (which, in my 16th edition is followed by an additional chapter on developments since then) sums up Gombrich’s idea that art tends to form around a central core of requirement, either from a patron or a flummoxing artistic problem: “We know that in the more distant past all works of art gained shape round such a vital core. It was the community which set the artists their tasks — be it the making of ritual masks or the building of cathedrals, the painting of portraits or the illustration of books. It matters comparatively little whether we happen to be in sympathy with all these tasks or not; one need not approve of bison hunting by magic, or the glorification of criminal wars or the ostentation of wealth and power to admire the works of art which were once created to serve such ends. The pearl completely covers the core.” Gombrich, circa 1950 is concerned about the fact that artists now exist for the sole purpose of creating “art with a capital A.” Maybe it’s our fault we don’t understand modern art: “If we do not ask them to do anything in particular, what right have we to blame them if their work appears to be obscure and aimless?” The point is: critics are important. Now that we no longer live in a world that accepts portraiture of the wealthy as great art for our times, there need to be people in the public who hold artists to specific standards. Today, this is a more resonant point than ever. Alex Ross wrote about it in the New Yorker only last year. So, read The Story of Art. You will enjoy yourself, and you will not necessarily even feel that you’re living in the past. A postscript: this is a dense book, and I feel the need to look through it again. So here, for your Googling pleasure, is a list of some of my favourite works featured in Gombrich’s book, upon a quick skim through. I can’t be bothered to link them. There’s only so much work I’m willing to do for y’all. Firstly, I love all of Gombrich’s tailpieces to his chapters, which are all images of artists at work that Gombrich does not comment on at all. It’s a nice touch. Here are more favourites, in order of appearance, with occasional notes: Caravaggio, Saint Matthew (both versions); Pablo Picasso, Cockerel; 19th century Haida chieftain’s house; Inuit dance mask from Alaska; Tutankhamun and his wife (c. 1330 BC); Hagesandros, Athenodoros and Polydoros of Rhodes, Laocoön and his sons (a favourite among favourites; enormously powerful; I desperately want to see it in person); Trojan’s Column (Google close-ups of this; crazily detailed); Court of Lions, Grenada; Mu Yüan, Landscape in moonlight; Liu Ts’ai, Three fishes; Saint Matthew (830 AD; artist unknown, but oh my god it’s practically Van Gogh 100 years early); the Gloucester Candlestick; Amiens Cathedral; Giotto, The Mourning of Christ; Virgin and Child (silver gilt statue, 1339); Paul and Jean de Limbourg, May; Masaccio, Holy Trinity with the Virgin, St. John and donors (the origin point of perspective); Donatello, The Feast of Herod; Jan van Eyck, The Ghent altarpiece; Jan van Eyck, The betrothal of the Arnolfini (there’s a mirror at the back of the painting, in which the painter paints himself painting; this is one of those decisions that seems almost unbearably clever when you think that he’d never seen a photograph); Benozzo Gozzoli, The Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem (one thing I didn’t expect is how colourful pre-Renaissance art can be); Leonardo da Vinci, anatomical studies (not so much for their aesthetic virtues as for their insight into one of the most obsessively probing minds of all time); Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper (it holds up); Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (so does this); Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel ceiling (quite possibly the greatest work of art ever made; there is much to be said for the intersection of skill and spectacle); Correggio, The Holy Night (the most convincing faces in the book); Correggio, The Assumption of the Virgin; Albrecht Dürer, St. Michael’s fight against the dragon (some of these figures could come straight from comics); Grünewald, The Resurrection (Blake before Blake); Albrecht Altdorfer, Landscape (better than landscapes from the heyday of landscapes); Hieronymus Bosch, Paradise and Hell; Federico Zuccaro, window of the Palazzo Zuccari (this one I will link because it’s bonkers for 1592); Giambologna, Mercury; El Greco, The opening of the Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse (the most shockingly modern thing from before the 19th century); Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Peasant Wedding; Anthony van Dyck, Charles I of England (so dashing); Diego Valázquez, Las Meninas (so meta; so Borges); Frans Hals, Pieter van den Broecke (maybe my favourite portrait in the book; very loveable); Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-portrait (c. 1655-8; probably objectively better than the previous portrait, but I still like it a little less); Jan Steen, The christening feast; Jan Vermeer, The kitchen maid; Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa; Melk monastery; Francisco Goya, The giant; William Blake, The ancient of days; Joseph Mallord William Turner, Steamer in a snowstorm (basically impressionism); John Constable, The haywain; Claude Monet, Gare St-Lazare; Katsushika Hokusai, Mount Fuji seen behind a cistern; Victor Horta, Hotel Tassel; Vincent van Gogh, Cornfield with cypresses; Ferdinand Hodler, Lake Thun; Frank Lloyd Wright, 540 Fairoaks Avenue; Käthe Kollwitz, Need; Paul Klee, A tiny tale of a tiny dwarf; Piet Mondrian, Composition with red, black, blue, yellow and grey; Marc Chagall, The cellist; Grant Wood, Spring turning; René Magritte, Attempting the impossible; Salvador Dali, Apparition of face and fruit-bowl on a beach; Jackson Pollock, One (number 31, 1950); Zoltan Kemeny, Fluctuations; Giorgio Morandi, Still life (1960); Henri Cartier-Bresson, Aquila degli Abruzzi; David Hockney, My mother, Bradford, Yorkshire, 4th May, 1982, terracotta army.

Stephen Rodrick: “The Trouble with Johnny Depp” — A showbiz tale for the ages. This story of how Hollywood’s most bankable star went broke is worth a read even if you’re not interested in him. Rodrick at one point compares Depp to Elvis, which is very apt. Johnny Depp, circa 2017, comes off here like a man child with access to vast riches and no sense of personal responsibility. This piece also casts Depp’s domestic abuse allegations in a larger context of increasingly troubling behaviour.

Podcasts

On the Media: “Chaos Agents,” “Polite Oppression” & “The Worst Thing We’ve Ever Done” — The first two are standard episodes, and good ones. But “The Worst Thing We’ve Ever Done” is a feature episode with no specific time hook, and those are often the best episodes of this show. This one is about America’s insistence on rewriting history and not confronting the reality and aftermath of slavery. The comparison between this problem and Germany’s total acknowledgement of the Holocaust has been made before, but maybe never as deeply as here. For one thing, this episode brings up the fact that the Allies dictated the narrative for Germany going forward — an example of history being written correctly by the winners. But the rest of the episode points out that this is a coincidence of history, and it isn’t always like that.

Reply All: “An Ad for the Worst Day of Your Life” — Alex Goldman helps a guy whose wife died tragically take down the clickbaity ads that take advantage of his story. In the process, he elucidates the shady (but very profitable) world of those ad boxes with terrible stories in them. It’s good.

Decoder Ring: “Clown Panic” — Willa Paskin is a welcome addition to the pop culture podcast world. This show is turning out to be as much about analysis as storytelling, and that is good. This is the story of how scary clowns became more ubiquitous than happy clowns and what that says about us.

Song by Song: “Wire Stripped Special” & “Straight to the Top” — Sometimes this show is a bit dumb and I wonder why I listen to it. The idea that anybody could ever listen to “Straight to the Top” and see it as anything other than a complete piss take is ludicrous to me. Oh well.

Theory of Everything: “It is happening again” — More stories of fictional artists from Benjamen Walker. No complaints.

99% Invisible: “Post-Narco Urbanism” & “Right to Roam” — Two stories from two continents that aren’t North America. Nice. The Latino USA collaboration “Post-Narco Urbanism” is especially good, outlining how urban planning played a role in rehabilitating a Colombian neighborhood after the fall of Pablo Escobar’s cartel.

In the Dark: “Discovery” — This season of In the Dark has something that the first season of Serial had that no true crime podcast I’ve heard since (including Serial season two and In the Dark season one) has had, which is the occasional incursion of innocuous but surreal investigative side streets. In this episode, the team speaks to more than six different men named Willie James Hemphill, searching for one person with that name who might be connected with the case. It’s like something Peter Greenaway would write. I’m not sure if this or Caliphate is my favourite podcast of the year so far, but it’s a two-show race.

Ear Hustle: “So Long” — Stories of people getting out of prison. It takes a lot of planning. Imagine dating. This is really good.

Slow Burn: “What If Nixon Had Been Good At Football?” & “Live in New York” — The first is a crossover with Mike Pesca’s new sports podcast Upon Further Review, which sounds good but not good enough to impel me to listen to multiple episodes of a sports podcast. The live episode doesn’t really add much to the series. I am looking forward to season two, though. My lack of enthusiasm for these specific episodes notwithstanding, Slate’s killing it these days. This has been followed by Decoder Ring and Lend Me Your Ears, both of which I love. Good work, Slate.

Code Switch: “Immigration Nation” — This is a long-term look back on the times when anti-immigration fervor reached similar heights as it has in America today. History. It’s useful.

The Truth: “The Jesse Eisenberg Effect” — Starring the real Jesse Eisenberg! As the fake Jesse Eisenberg. This is the best episode of The Truth I’ve ever heard, and it’s basically an episode of Upon Further Review. It’s the fully dramatized, and hugely exaggerated, story of how Jesse Eisenberg’s letter to his favourite basketball player ruined the world. I love it. Pick of the week.

We Came to Win: “How Soccer Made It in America” — Another underdog story, and a perfectly good one. But I think I’m done with this show now.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Songs of Summer” — An NPR Music takeover featuring a great many songs that I cannot rightly say I care about. I dunno. Some years I’m in new music mode. Some years I’m not. 2018 isn’t a new music year.

Home of the Brave: “Lick the Crickets by Larry Massett,” “Rumble Strip: It’s a Podcast” & “End of Season One: A Walk On the Beach” — “Lick the Crickets” is bonkers and I don’t understand it, nor do I feel the need to. I need more of this Larry Massett fellow in my life. Rumble Strip isn’t for me. But the story Scott Carrier replays to finish off his “first season” of Home of the Brave is beautiful. Just a conversation with an old friend as they walk along the beach. Simple. It’s the sort of thing people should do more of.

Trump Con Law: “Taking the Fifth” — This ties the Hollywood blacklist to the Russia campaign — but only conceptually! Though, I really would like to hear that conspiracy theory. Anyway, it’s really good.

Bullseye: “Special: The Wire!” — I don’t know if I’ve ever heard an interview with Wendell Pierce before, but that man is interesting. This whole episode is great and made me want to watch The Wire again. Wherever will I find the time.

StartUp: “Arlan Hamilton” episodes 1 & 2 — I’ll always give a new season of StartUp a shot. But as interesting as Arlan Hamilton is, this show has become Gimlet’s “business podcast.” It’s no longer about the real-time tribulations of startup founders who may or may not succeed, like it was in its epochal first season and its hugely underrated second. For now, I’m out.

Omnibus (week of April 1, 2018)

“Get it together, Parsons,” I said to myself. “Clean your damn apartment and get your 5K back under a non-embarrassing time.” That is why I listened to 34 podcast episodes this week. (That’s a conservative number — there are a few shows I don’t review, and I frankly can’t remember which of those I listened to this week.) Below, you’ll find them nicely compressed into a manageable 21 reviews, plus an additional three for the things I got through this week that aren’t podcasts.

Also, if you would like to hear me blindside Sheryl MacKay with a whack-a-doo theory that even I don’t completely subscribe to, you’ll find that at 1:21:58.

24 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Scott McCloud: Making Comics — I just turned in my final assignment in that comics class I’ve been taking, and I figured I may as well finish the course reading. Better late than never. We weren’t obliged to read Making Comics in its entirety, but I did because why the hell not. Scott McCloud is not only a good teacher and a perceptive analyst of the medium in which he works. He’s also one of the funnest media critics out there. In case you’re unfamiliar: this is a guy who makes works of serious, penetrating comics criticism — that are themselves comics. His ability to demonstrate concepts by example is unmatched, and his books of comics criticism are themselves among the most formally innovative comics I’ve encountered. Understanding Comics remains his masterpiece, because its focus is broad enough that it doesn’t really age. Making Comics contains some stuff about webcomics that feels ancient now. But when he sticks to the basics of the comics form, regardless of medium, McCloud is a fountain of practical advice here. If you’ve ever wondered what fundamentals you should keep in mind when working simultaneously with words and pictures, this is the book for you. Pick of the week.

Music

John Luther Adams/JACK Quartet: Everything That Rises — John Luther Adams either captivates me or leaves me cold. (No Alaska pun intended.) This did the latter. It is one of his more high-concept works, based on just intonation. It is also one of his more dissonant pieces, which isn’t something I look to him for. Don’t get me wrong, he can do what he wants: but I’ve always enjoyed the side of JLA that puts you in a trance, then takes you somewhere. This piece definitely takes you somewhere — up, in keeping with the title. But it foregoes the trance in favour of a calculating raised eyebrow. Not for me, I’m afraid.

Kyle Craft: Full Circle Nightmare — I loved Dolls of Highland. I had some concerns about its consistent portrayal of women as evil magic temptresses, but there was enough self-effacing humour throughout that I could give him the benefit of a doubt. It also helps that Kyle Craft’s music scratches a huge itch for me: huge sounding rock with bombastic vocals and a turn of phrase you can sink your teeth into. And that itch is almost equally scratched on this new record. But at this point I’m thinking he needs to find something new to sing about. This whole “women: can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em” thing is not sustainable. Still, when it’s good it’s good. I’m particularly fond of the new direction on the semi-psychedelic “Belmont (One Trick Pony).” This feels like one of those albums that may or may not be the second-last one by its artist that I ever hear. Stay tuned.

Podcasts

It’s Been A Minute: “Momofuku Chef David Chang’s ‘Ugly Delicious’ Food” & “Zach Braff and Alex Blumberg on ‘Alex, Inc.’” — I’m finding that I get a lot more out of this show’s Tuesday edition, where Sam Sanders talks with an interesting person, than I do out of its Friday wraps. Maybe it’s just that I don’t feel the need for any more “making sense of the news” in my life, because that is a thing that the entire media is trying to do now. But the Tuesday shows are really good, because Sanders is fun to listen to and seemingly fun to talk to as well. The David Chang interview is great fun, as they usually are. Sanders is good at talking about intersections of race and culture, and Chang is a thoughtful guy on that subject. The episode focussing on Alex, Inc. is really something — mostly because it’s great fun hearing Alex Blumberg pretend that he likes the milquetoast sitcom that ABC made out of his game-changing podcast. To Sanders’ credit, he manages to have an interesting conversation with Blumberg and Zach Braff that touches on both of their wheelhouses without the whole thing coming off the rails.  

Code Switch catch-up — Of the last four episodes, the two most recent are the most essential. “The Road to the Promised Land, 50 Years Later” is a bit jarring because it consists largely of news reports for actual NPR — like the radio. You don’t realize how different that tone is from NPR podcasts until you hear it on an NPR podcast. But the story of how Martin Luther King’s assassination reverberates half a century later is fascinating and well told here. For something a bit more podcast-native, the Amara La Negra interview is an energetic discussion of Afro-Latinx identity

Reply All: “A Pirate In Search of a Judge” — A lesser instalment of “Super Tech Support,” which nonetheless includes some amusing banter. Also: has anybody compiled the Breakmaster Cylinder bits into a supercut? Please somebody do that. I think there’s an argument to be made that whoever they are, they’re doing the most innovative audio storytelling in the podcast space — and they’re doing it in the last two minutes of somebody else’s show. (Unless, of course, P.J. Vogt is Breakmaster Cylinder, which I find quite plausible.)

In Our Time: “Augustine’s Confessions,” “Hildegard of Bingen” & Roman Slavery” — Melvyn Bragg is in his glory when he gets to talk about Christianity. The Augustine episode is accordingly excellent. The episode on Roman slavery is a good summation of a thing that you probably don’t think about very much. But it’s the repeat episode about Hildegard that’s the real standout in this run. Being a music person, I have always mostly thought of her as the composer of the most beautiful music from the Middle Ages. And I’ve always been passingly aware of her status as a great polymath, contributing to theology, literature, medical research and brewing techniques. (She penned the earliest surviving writings on the use of hops in beer. She didn’t like them. Fair enough.) But this episode focuses on her role in the church of her time: a woman who was respected not so much because she was a genius, though she clearly was, as because she claimed to receive visions from God. It’s tempting for us now to look at Hildegard as a woman who overcame the social stigmas of her time by being exceptional and working hard, but really even that wasn’t enough. She was allowed to give sermons not because she was a good sermonizer, but because the church saw her as a direct channel to God, so they made an exception. A sad thing. That’s a great episode. You should listen to it.

Fresh Air: “The Evolution of Artificial Intelligence” & “Madeleine Albright” — Two interviews about big important things, one of which features a big important person. Listen to the Madeleine Albright one. When she talks about the problems with Trump’s foreign policy, it’s probably worth considering what she has to say.

Radiolab: “Rippin’ the Rainbow an Even Newer One,” “Border Trilogy” parts 1 & 2 — The update to the mantis shrimp story is good for my sense of nostalgia about the old Radiolab, but the first two instalments of their series on the border are both challenging my general sense that this show’s best days are behind it. Every so often they pull out a classic, and so far this is one. Basically, it poses the question of how well-meaning policies can result in migrants dying in the desert, possibly by the thousands. It is the new Radiolab — the au current, political Radiolab — at its best.

The Gist: “Clinging to Guns Is Our Religion” — This is a gun control debate between a moderate liberal and a moderate conservative. It is as scintillating as that sounds.

Bullseye: “Andrew W.K. & Bill Hader” — Here are two people I’m not super interested in, having conversations I enormously enjoyed. Andrew W.K. in particular is a person who you just know will have a good chat with Jesse Thorn. And he did. Note that this is also the episode with Thorn’s review of It’s Too Late to Stop Now by Van Morrison, which led me to make one of the weirdest pieces of radio that I personally have ever made. (See top of page.)

Desert Island Discs: “David Byrne” — Wow, he’s in a good mood. Like, a suspiciously good mood. But as we all know, he’s got great taste in music and he’s an interesting guy. I really need to read his book. Good listening.

The Daily: “Wednesday, Apr. 4, 2018” & “Friday, Apr. 6, 2018” — Oddly, I find myself more inclined to listen to news shows when they are meta-stories about the media. These are two episodes of The Daily that examine TV news in different ways. One demonstrates how Fox News played a role in the revitalization of Trump’s anti-immigration policies, and the other examines how the takeover of local media by larger corporations leads to a lack of editorial freedom. Both are great, the latter is likely the one that will remain relevant by the time you read this. Damn, the world is cray.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Love, Simon” & “Roseanne and What’s Making Us Happy” — I will watch neither of these things, but I did enjoy the chats. Linda Holmes and Stephen Thompson had an interesting exchange about Roseanne. That is my review of this week’s Pop Culture Happy Hour episodes; I hope you have enjoyed it.

The World According to Sound: “Idea of North” — I intend to go back and hear this show’s full archives at some point, which shouldn’t be hard since the episodes are a minute and a half long. But for now I will follow their series on great radio they think I should hear. I have never heard Glenn Gould’s “The Idea of North,” which is a travesty because I work at CBC Radio and I am literally looking at a three-CD set of Gould’s radio work right now. It’s right there on my shelf. Maybe this is the week.

Song by Song: “Hang On St. Christopher” — I’m looking forward to hearing these two give their take on Frank’s Wild Years, because I know from previously that it isn’t either of their favourite. On the other hand, it has always been my favourite. I think it is a masterpiece that stands head and shoulders above its two immediate predecessors. It is simultaneously weirder and more polished than Rain Dogs, and it contains Waits’ most theatrical music. That’s the mode I like him best in. This episode gives a good summation of why it’s so theatrical and why it’s necessary nonetheless to consider it as an album rather than the soundtrack to a misbegotten live show.

Imaginary Worlds: “Visions of Philip K. Dick” — I actually didn’t know that Philip K. Dick spent his final years having either religious experiences or a form of paranoid psychosis. That is interesting. This is interesting. The audio of Dick talking in Paris during that time is captivating. Listen at least for that. It’s right at the start.

Constellations: “anna friz – air can break your heart” — Okay, time to get frank about this show. The thing that’s good about it is that it highlights audio makers who are working largely outside the confines of what’s considered “radio.” Much of what’s featured here falls more easily under the category of “sound art.” This is good. I want this sort of thing to find its way into my podcast feed, between all the NPR and roundtable chat shows. But the fact is that a lot of this material is fairly obscure and alienating, and in presenting it without comment at the start of the episode, and only offering a bare minimum of context from the artist afterwards (the audio equivalent of a brief “artist’s statement” on a website or brochure) doesn’t necessarily present it in its best light. As a listener, I want to hear work like this week’s piece — an abstract mix of ambient sound and muted speech — addressed in a way that’s slightly more playful. Because however much I enjoy it on its aesthetic merits, it still leaves me with questions like “what?” and “why?” And I’d like to hear those questions answered conversationally, with frankness and humour. I want to hear the hosts engage these artists on the level that their listeners are coming into this at: with respect and curiosity, but also occasional good-natured bewilderment. I want a proxy — somebody to step in and have a human conversation in this art world’s rarified air. The fact that this show doesn’t do this strikes me as a missed opportunity. TL;DR: Constellations is doing good work, but I wish it were less precious about the good work it’s doing.

99% Invisible: “Airships and the Future that Never Was” & “Making it Rain” — 99pi is 300 episodes old. (Well, 301, actually. But I’m only just getting to both of those episodes.) It seems appropriate to me that in spite of the show’s substantial growth in terms of both audience and staff, the 300th episode should be a return to the early days, when it was just Roman Mars making elegant, miniature stories about design. Even the subject matter, airships, is nostalgic. It’s a good episode. “Making it Rain” is good too, but less singular. While I have come to really enjoy all of the producers on this show, their presence has the effect of making 99pi sound more like public radio and less like the trailblazing independent podcast that it started off as. That’s how I’d summarize the trajectory of this show: as it’s gotten bigger, it has become less distinctive — even as its stories have become more ambitious. I’m not likely to stop listening anytime soon, not when this show pulls off stuff like the recent two-parter about the Bijlmer. But ultimately, I think Roman Mars’s greatest accomplishment hasn’t been 99pi itself, but leveraging its success into the formation of Radiotopia, which remains the most consistent, satisfying and surprising podcast collective out there. Quite a throne to maintain in these times. On that note, here are the rest of the Radiotopia shows I listened to this week. This next one is something I never would have heard if not for 99pi, which would be unconscionable.  

Theory of Everything: “This Is Not A Drill (False Alarm! part i)” — This new mini-season from Benjamen Walker is justly receiving heavy promotion across the Radiotopia stable of podcasts, and if you haven’t checked it out yet, you must. It begins with a straightforward account of what it was like to be in Hawaii during the cruise missile false alarm, then continues into a scrambled retelling of both “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Then it gets straight into the question at the heart of the series: how can Benjamen Walker continue making a show that’s neither fully fact nor fully fiction in the era of Fake News? I know people who have been vexed by this show’s blend of real and fake. I’ve never been one of them. I tend to think that the people who are the angriest about stuff like this, the Onion and so forth, are actually mostly angry at themselves for their own credulousness. For my part, I am delighted that podcasting’s most protean paranoiac is about to dive into the nature of reality itself in 2018. Hear this. Pick of the week.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti — Celebrating 99 Years” — This story about the great counterculture icon and champion of the Beat poets, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, seems like it’ll be a good warmup for the Kitchen Sisters’ “The Keepers” series about archivists. I’m really looking forward to that. This is nice, though I confess that Ferlinghetti’s own poetry doesn’t do much for me.

This is Love: “A Private Life” & “What Are We Going To Do” — This is Love is proving to be a lovely show, though rather cute. These have thus far been rather positive stories. Even when they flirt with heartbreak, each episode manages to spin the story into something uplifting. That’s fine, but I hope (he says, realizing what a sadist he sounds like) that this show finds its way to the darker side of its subject matter at some point as well.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Deadly Force” — This is a slighter but more direct exploration of a topic that Radiolab went in depth about a few months back. I think I prefer this version.

The Memory Palace: “Junk Room” — This feels like a throwback to the episodes Nate DiMeo made for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I really enjoyed in spite of not having been to any of those exhibits. This episode is about one of the weirdest collections of art in Washington D.C.: a room where the states all sent statues of two of their greatest figures. That’s subject matter that allows DiMeo to do what he’s great at: writing beautifully about figures who have been left out of popular history, and asking why Confederate leaders keep getting included instead.

Omnibus (week of Jan. 21, 2018)

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

24 reviews.

Literature, etc.

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

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

Music

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

Movies

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

Television

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 11)

 

In case you’re one of the people who I don’t actually know who wanders through here from time to time, here is a link to my new, other, much more specific blog that you might like to check out. It is about Pink Floyd, progressive rock, and the way that societies make collective decisions about art.

For everybody else: 23 reviews.

Literature

Kurt Vonnegut: Slapstick — I think this may be Vonnegut’s most misunderstood book. This isn’t a broad satire of anything specific, though Vonnegut does snipe at his favourite targets from time to time: war, American exceptionalism, etc. This begs to be read not as a story but as a sort of self-therapy on Vonnegut’s part. It’s a way for him to express his grief about his sister’s death and his despair at the resulting loneliness. When you read it semi-psychoanalytically, it’s maybe the saddest book of Vonnegut’s career. If you try and read it only for its content, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. (Though, considering how direct Vonnegut is about the autobiographical nature of the story in the prologue, I’m not sure how anybody reads this any other way.) This is exceptionally companionable book during a sleepless night, and the most underappreciated thing that Vonnegut ever wrote.

Eric Lipton, David E. Sanger & Scott Shane: “The Perfect Weapon: How Russian Cyberpower invaded the U.S.” — I don’t usually include news pieces in this thing, but this New York Times feature is magnificent journalism. Its content is extremely disquieting, especially where the D.N.C.’s response to the initial discovery of its security vulnerabilities is concerned. But the construction of the piece is a thing to be marvelled at. Without sacrificing fairness or veering out of the somewhat austere voice that news should be presented in, the authors make careful note of the quiet poetry in certain elements of this story: the fact that the infamous filing cabinet from the Watergate burglary is sitting in the D.N.C.’s basement, or that the Russians sent a phishing email in which the bad link was to a fake Harvard paper called “Why American Elections Are Flawed.” The investigation is thorough, and the story is presented in a way that makes linear sense in spite of the many moving parts and their various aliases. I would likely not have taken the time to read this if I hadn’t subscribed to the Times. I am already glad that I did. This is top shelf.

Shirley Wu: “An Interactive Visualization of Every Line in Hamilton” — I confess that I find Wu’s actual analysis a little bit obvious throughout this feature, but having the data broken down in this interactive format is endlessly fascinating, and maybe my new favourite piece of Hamilton’s fan-made paratext. This allows you not only to look at visualizations of characters’ lines throughout the musical, but also to see where they are addressing each other directly, and when they make use of particular lyrical leitmotifs like “that would be enough” or “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” It makes certain observations simple, like the fact that Aaron Burr’s role is actually not much smaller than Hamilton’s, and also that Lin-Manuel Miranda almost never makes two characters sing together in duets. This is the lord’s work.

Gideon Lewis-Kraus: “The Great A.I. Awakening” — This is the best magazine feature I’ve read in a long time. It is impressive mostly because it has so much business to attend to throughout its length. It has to juggle a huge cast of characters, mostly computer scientists at Google. It has to touch on decades of history that are relevant to its story. It has to deal with the complexities of institutions, such that a relatively small service (Google Translate) can be at the forefront of innovation for a company. And, perhaps most dauntingly it has to explain complicated computer science concepts to a lay audience. Lewis-Kraus pulls it all off while also being funny. He is also neither alarmist nor boosterist where Silicon Valley is concerned, though he’s closer to the latter than the former. Also interesting is that I read this on the same day I started watching Battlestar Galactica. And in spite of Lewis-Kraus’s reassurances that A.I. in its current state is only here to help, there were many moments here where I found myself interjecting: “But Cylons.” Nonetheless, a fascinating read. Provided that Google doesn’t bring about the apocalypse in the next few years, I’d suggest that Lin-Manuel Miranda should learn to rap in about 100 more languages and consider this as the subject for his next musical. Look back at that list of all the business that Lewis-Kraus has to deal with in this feature and tell me it doesn’t play to LMM’s strengths.

Television

Planet Earth II: “Cities” — I had not expected this somewhat tangential finale to be the highlight of the series, but it absolutely was. The opening sequence features monkeys fighting over turf on rooftops, and it’s like something out of a Jackie Chan movie. Throw in adorable Torontonian raccoons and catfish who have learned to hunt pigeons, and you’ve got an incredible episode of television that also makes a compelling argument: the natural world is powerful enough to coexist with us in our modern environments if we only allow it to. This whole series has been some of the year’s best television, and this single episode is the one that makes this new instalment of Planet Earth the most distinct from its esteemed predecessor. Pick of the week.

QI: “Kinetic” & “Knowledge” — The “Knowledge” episode is one of the funniest of all, partially on account of its premise, which is that most facts turn out not to be true — and that therefore QI’s history is packed with falsehoods. Makes it disquieting to watch back episodes on YouTube. But what am I going to do, stop?

Battlestar Galactica: The Miniseries — Ooh, this is exciting. It’s been a long time since I binged a show, and I can feel a bender coming on with this one. This two-part backdoor pilot for the show that followed is mostly stunning television. Specifically, part one is outstanding throughout. The efficiency with which it introduces its world, setting and characters (that long take!) is really impressive, and the opening exposition sequence is genius. Let’s think about that for a second. If you haven’t seen it, just go watch the first five minutes of this. And note how much labour is done simply through the set design. The détante between the humans and the Cylons is explained through onscreen captions, but the interior set for the armistice station tells you exactly how the meetings between the two factions are supposed to work. There’s a long hallway with a big metal door on each side. The hallway widens a bit in the middle, and there’s a desk there, with a chair on each side. When a man walks through one of the doors and sits down at the chair on his side of the hallway, we know that the same thing is supposed to happen on the other side because of the symmetry of the set. This is brilliant. And the entire first episode, jumping as it does from character to character, is buoyant and propulsive, even when it turns into a war movie. The second part doesn’t fare quite as well. The first half hour introduces a moppetty child whose only function is to make a standard trolley problem a bit more emotionally wrenching, but it doesn’t work because the strings are so visible. It also introduces a sort of ostentatious philosophizing that I would like to go away, please. Mind you, the character most responsible for that becomes more interesting very quickly. So, a fabulous bit of television that flies off the rails halfway through. Sure hope this isn’t foreshadowing of anything.

Music

Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment: Surf — This is just pure joy. I’ve never quite heard this particular genre fusion: rap meets jazz and gospel in a mix that would rather relax then be aggressive. It’s super fun, and “Sunday Candy” is a masterclass in why everybody should love Chance the Rapper.

John Cale: Paris 1919 — I guess it was about time to give John Cale another shot. Years and years ago, I bought the set called The Island Years, which collected his albums Fear, Slow Dazzle, and Helen of Troy, plus some bonus material. I had high expectations for Fear, at least, given that it was one of his most acclaimed albums and featured notable contributions from Brian Eno. But I was thoroughly underwhelmed by all three records. They seemed to me like songwriter records, except that they were made by somebody who is definitely more of an experimental musician than a pop songwriter. Based on my recollection, the songs aren’t that interesting, either in their lyrics or their structures. So, I was never particularly inclined to check out the one John Cale album that most fans would recommend. How much better could it be? Well, as it turns out, a lot better. This is still not quite my thing, but it’s drastically different from the albums that came after in that it is a huge symphonic record rather than a stripped back art pop record. And that broader sonic palette (reminiscent of Procol Harum, but with a sense of irony) makes Cale’s pedestrian lyrics and taste for extremely basic chord progressions and song structures less important. If that seems like faint praise, it is. I don’t love this album. I think it’s fine. But by and large, John Cale’s solo career is one of those bodies of work that music nerds love for reasons I will never understand.

The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground — The first time I reviewed this album, I said this: “I’ve loved the first two Velvet Underground albums for years, but never got around to checking out this or Loaded. Apparently, Eno loves this album so much that he’s never owned a copy for fear of becoming overfamiliar. I do see the appeal, though I definitely prefer the debut. I love the first album as much for its noisy sonic adventures as for its songwriting, and that element sort of left the band with John Cale. Still good.” Reading that now, I’m reminded of the value of repeat listening. There was a time when listening obsessively to full albums was my default, but that gradually fell away as I stopped buying physical CDs. These days, the temptation is huge to just listen again and again to the one or two tracks on a given album that capture me initially. And the temptation is even bigger to dismiss albums like this one, that don’t make an immediate strong impression. But I’m glad I took it in mind to hear this again, because the second listen was astronomically more meaningful than the first. Now, I think that “I’m Set Free” might be Lou Reed’s most beautiful song, “The Murder Mystery” might be their most compelling extended experimental track, and the entire album is full of subtle gems. It’s an introverted record, unlike its two predecessors. Nothing here has the epic sweep of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” or “Venus in Furs.” But it’s the kind of thing that’s designed to sink in gradually. I think I need to consider whether writing this ridiculous blog encourages me to listen more broadly and less deeply. I like writing this blog, so occasionally I find myself listening to new stuff and things I haven’t heard before just to have something to write about. That takes away from the time I spend getting to really know an album. In any case, I’ll be listening to much more of this.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “This Is Us and Speechless” — Maybe it’s just because my personal pop culture experience of 2016 has revolved around music a lot more than around TV and movies, which remain the primary focus of this show, but I’m not getting as much out of PCHH as I used to. I have no intention of stopping, obviously. But I wouldn’t mind if this panel did tackle music once in awhile. Because All Songs Considered isn’t ultimately about discussion. It’s about playing music, usually. Anyway, this is fine.

A Point of View: “Holes in Clothes” — Presumably, right now Adam Gopnik is thinking “I was clearly so insightful about Trump… I wonder if I can get people to listen to me talk about jeans with holes in them?” And the answer is obviously yes. And his take is neither stodgy or vapid. This is a slight thing, but proof that Gopnik is a worthwhile voice, even when he’s tackling current affairs from an oblique angle.

Homecoming: “PINEAPPLE” — This continues to be dark and beautiful, but I’m not feeling myself pulled in by the suspense in the same way that I did with, for instance, Limetown. Possibly it’s in part because the story comes in such small bits, and possibly it has something to do with the MANDATORY documentary segments at the ends of the episodes. But this feels slight to me. I imagine it’ll grow on me. Maybe I’ll try a few episodes at a time, next I listen. I am behind, after all.

On the Media: “Imagine That” — OTM’s public existential crisis continues apace, but they’re still doing great work on topics like digital security. If the segment on Pizzagate is somewhat underwhelming, that’s only because OTM’s former reporter Alex Goldman has already covered the hell out of it elsewhere.

Too Much Information: “On Four Lions, Comedy, Radio and Idiots” — Firstly, it’s weird to hear Benjamen Walker do a straight interview. He’s in a strangely good mood here, grunting affirmatively at most of what Chris Morris says. But then, Benjamen Walker is clearly a huge fan of Chris Morris. And with good reason: Chris Morris is the comedian equivalent of Benjamen Walker. Everything is tediously researched. Nothing is sacred. Most of what’s called “progress” isn’t. They’re two peas in a pod. Interesting.

Theory of Everything: “Useful Idiots” — Holy bonkers. The final segment of this episode connects Jeremy Bentham to Putin’s key advisor by way of Grigory Potemkin. And after some cursory verification, I don’t think I’m being fucked with. This show is valuable as much for its tendency to breed scepticism as anything. I have often felt compelled to make sure that something on this show that seems fake is actually fake, and vice versa, because I fear being made a credulous fool. But that final interview here (starts at 16:50) seems like the real thing. And it is earthshaking. Pick of the week.

Bullseye: “John Cale & TJ and Dave” — This is really why I listened to Paris 1919 this week: the live version of the title track that Jesse Thorn plays a snippet from here is infectious. The interview is great, though it does hue rather closely to the best-known elements of Cale’s career: meeting Lou Reed, getting kicked out of the Velvet Underground, producing the Stooges, etc. The TJ and Dave segment isn’t as funny as you’d like, but it’s vulnerable. Bullseye is a pop culture interview show done mostly right, in that the focus never really moves too far away from the sensibility of its host. It’s not trying to be for everyone. But also, it’s just so cool, sometimes. And I find that offputting, frankly. That’s why I listen so seldom. On the other hand, I can wholeheartedly recommend the one segment from the episode after this one that I did listen to: Jesse Thorn’s love letter to 19th-century paintings of cows. Magnificent.

Code Switch: “Audie and the Not-So-Magic School Bus” — Nice to hear Audie Cornish on Code Switch finally. This is a bit odd in the sense that it’s a behind-the-scenes look at a story that Cornish did on All Things Considered, but they don’t play the actual story. I suppose I could go find it, but it would have been nice if they could have played at least a little bit more than the one tiny clip that they used. Still, this is a really interesting trip through the history of busing and school segregation.

99% Invisible: “Plat of Zion” — The best 99pi in ages. (I think I probably say that a lot. But I honestly don’t remember another episode this year that’s as good as this one.) This is a discussion of the urban planning of Salt Lake City, Utah, which is seen by Mormons as having been divinely revealed. This is maybe the single greatest urban planning story in American history, on account of simply being so crazy. I love it.

Crimetown: Episodes 4-5 — This turned out to be really bingeable. This show is built around incredible interviews with charismatic mobsters, of various degrees of regretfulness. It is so fun to listen to these complicated people talk. Gimlet doesn’t hit it out of the part every time, these days. But this one is destined to be one of the crown jewels in their stable.

Imaginary Worlds: “Working On the Death Star” — I guess now this podcast is also doing Star Wars every year? Whatever. This is fun. Hearing serious people talk about non-serious things is always fun. And in this episode, a prosecutor and a judge argue about the legality of the Galactic Empire’s labour practices, and an economist argues that the Rebel Alliance might have been wrong to blow up the Death Star, because it would throw the galaxy into economic disarray, which would have dire consequences even for those with no enthusiasm for the Empire itself.

StartUp: “Anger” — This is a fairly elegant solution to the problem that Dov Charney won’t talk on the record about the shit he did that got him fired. Lots of other people will. This is a details-heavy episode with lots of contractual talk, but the drama never flags. I’ve actually really warmed to this season of StartUp since I started hating Charney. Lisa Chow has always been more of a reporter and less of a personality than some of her fellow Gimlet hosts, which is greatly to her credit. Even when she’s stretched to her limit by an extremely complicated subject such as Charney, who is occasionally openly hostile to her, she doesn’t make the story about her for more than a couple of minutes. It’s kind of amazing. This season is a real return to form for this show.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and La La Land” — I think I’ll actually sit Rogue One out. Maybe I’ll watch it when it’s on Netflix. But I’m not giving money to Disney for a bad Star Wars movie. I’ll give them money for the good ones. I was more enthusiastic about La La Land before I listened to this, but the panel kind of threw cold water on that as well. What can you do. 

Omnireviewer (week of May 15)

Ah man, I came so close to a clean sweep of my categories, this week. If I’d only listened to some classical music and played a video game. In any case, 26 reviews, many of which contain multiple items within them. Good week.

Events

Vancouver Art Gallery: MashUp — I went to this exhibition on the last day before it ends, and left completely fried. All four floors of the VAG were devoted to this century-spanning show, with a different period on each, in reverse order. For two floors, I read more or less all of the curators’ text and stopped to look at everything on display. But at some point on floor three, amidst the Warhols and the Rauschenbergs, I got overwhelmed and couldn’t take it in anymore. This is a show I wish I’d been to see at least twice. The three hours I spent were not nearly enough to process everything on display. But I’m really happy to have seen it at all. It leant context to some figures that I’m particularly fascinated by, like John Cage, Luigi Russolo, Marcel Duchamp, Guy Debord and Brian Eno. Predictably, I was especially fascinated by the room devoted to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, in which the videos for “America is Waiting” and “Mea Culpa” were playing on repeat, alongside a display of works that were influential to Eno and Byrne as they were producing the album. The curators admirably didn’t shy away from pointing out the culturally imperialistic elements of the album, but also presented it as a key text in the history of mashup, which it definitely is.

Music

Kanye West: The Life of Pablo — Okay, it’s growing on me. (It has also changed substantially since last I heard it, and the mix doesn’t sound like amateur hour anymore, so there’s that.) I am still bothered by the sheer extent of the asshat that Kanye’s willing to be here: that Taylor Swift line is unforgivable. Kanye’s verses on Pablo are even more mean-spirited than Yeezus, but they’re also more frequently stupid. However, a lot of the beats are nearly Dark Fantasy calibre. “Famous,” in spite of the aforementioned unforgivable line, is one of the best beats in Kanye’s catalogue, and “Ultralight Beam” is one of his best songs, full stop. Chance’s verse is the best on the album by a country mile. I’m reminded of Nicki Minaj on Dark Fantasy. “Waves” is a solid pop tune with something interesting to say about the permanence of great art. Now that Pablo is something resembling finished, it has the makings of a decent Kanye album. But there are still enough head-shaking moments (the outro of “30 Hours?”) that I think it’ll ultimately be regarded as one of his lesser works.

Jack White: Blunderbuss & Lazaretto — I loved Jack White’s bit on Lemonade so much that I needed more. These solo albums are maybe a bit less idiosyncratic than the best White Stripes albums, but they’re no less good. It’s interesting to hear what White does backed by a band of musicians as capable as he is. (That’s not a knock on Meg White — she shaped the White Stripes as much as Jack did, even if only by forcing Jack into a corner.) You might expect White to get lazy when provisioned with the relative freedom of working with ace session musicians and playing a bunch of instruments himself. (Giving an artist total freedom is castrating them, Peter Gabriel once said. Maybe he learned that from Eno.) But White maintains his discipline, writing great songs and only reaching for the studio magic juice when it will serve the track. Blunderbuss is the one that feels more familiar to me as a White Stripes fan, but it still goes madly off in many more directions than any other Jack White project I’ve heard. “Sixteen Saltines” is practically vintage, while the almost barrelhouse piano that starts “Hypocritical Kiss” sounds like nothing I’ve heard from White before. “Take Me With You When You Go” is as good as anything on a White Stripes album. Lazaretto is solid modern blues rock — from possibly the only living artist who can honestly claim that label. “Alone In My Home” is so unexpectedly joyous that I almost didn’t finish my first listen through, in favour of just hitting repeat on that one. And I don’t even think it’s the best track on the album. I love both of these, and I feel like they fill a hole — just as I suspect I’m nearing my lifetime saturation point for Led Zeppelin, I have another rootsy rock and roller to obsess over. And one with a more modern sensibility.

The White Stripes: full catalogue — Hey, I had some spare time and a trial period on Tidal. (I’m becoming less hostile to Tidal, but when I inevitably sign up for the cheap version and don’t get this glorious hi-def sound, I’ll be pissed.) There were a few first listens here. In fact, it’s possible that White Blood Cells and Elephant were the only ones I’d heard before. I thought I’d heard Icky Thump all the way through, but not much of it sounded familiar. In any case, this is a serious body of work. The debut is a tad too punky for my liking, but the basics are in place. If nothing else, it features a very interesting selection of covers, marking the Whites as people with good taste from the start. De Stijl is a huge leap forward, and an album I can see myself returning to frequently. “Truth Doesn’t Make A Noise” is maybe the first great White Stripes song. White Blood Cells is the album that converted me, and still my pick for their best. I’ve always thought of Elephant as more of the same but not as good. Which is to say, still pretty good. Get Behind Me Satan was one of the biggest surprises here. It is certainly a larger, more elaborate-sounding album than the ones before it, but it’s a needed change of pace, and I think I may prefer it to Elephant. And finally, Icky Thump. If I had heard this all the way through I would damn well have remembered. It’s the most elaborate White Stripes album by a fair margin, and a sort of stepping stone to the sort of music Jack White would do on his solo albums. But there’s not a hint of dilution, here. The raw energy in tracks like “Icky Thump” and “Conquest,” and the Jimmy Page by way of Adrian Belew guitar squalls on “300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues” are not the sorts of things you hear on an album by a band that’s past their prime. It’s a hell of a swansong, and probably my second-favourite of their releases. This is a really fun discography to mainline. I highly recommend gulping it all down in a week. You’ll have so much energy. I can’t wait to check out the lives and B-sides.

Television

Last Week Tonight: May 15, 2016 — Not among his funniest, but the standing invitation to Donald Trump’s alter-ego is a lovely little throw of the gauntlet.

Game of Thrones: “Book of the Stranger” — Okay, I asked for Daenerys to be allowed to do something, and as “doing things” goes, that is a fairly substantial thing. Actually, all of my complaints about the season thus far were at least partially rectified this time around, with Tyrion getting some actual story and a bit of decent writing, and the Wall finally getting interesting thanks to Jon and Sansa being reunited. Brienne continues to be the best thing in any given scene — my two favourite parts of this big, eventful episode are her confrontation with Melisandre and her lustful (I think?) glance across the table at Tormund. I’ll say this though:, killing off Ramsey Bolton won’t be enough. I’ll only forgive Game of Thrones when he gets retconned out of the universe.

Archer: Season 7, episodes 7 & 8 — “What are you all doing here?” “Lunch?” “It’s 5:30!” “Dunch?” I laughed very hard at most of these episodes. Archer in ordinary mode is still a very funny thing.

Comedy

Zach Galifianakis: Live at the Purple Onion — I think it’s good, but I didn’t actually laugh that much. Galifianakis is a really good joke writer who doesn’t seem interested in thinking in a straight line. The piano plunking, the characters and the crowd work are a deliberate structural choice that allows him to string together unrelated jokes. The jokes are good, but I can’t decide if the whole is greater or less than the sum of its parts.

Movies

Primer — Oh good god. If it weren’t for YouTuber LondonCityGirl’s illustrated explanation, I would be 70% clueless. This is an outstanding movie for those of us who like movies to be puzzles, and I do. That’s one of the reasons that time travel is my favourite SF trope. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite as intentionally obscure as this movie. Having basically figured it out, with YouTube’s help, I now think this is one of the most ingenious hard(ish) science fictions I’ve ever seen. Without spoiling anything crucial, the key here is that the time travel mechanic enables an unprecedented amount of duplicity. The things that go wrong go wrong not because the machine doesn’t work as expected, but because people trick each other. Also, I love that this story clearly originated with the time travel mechanic. You don’t see that very much. Most people who write genre fiction use particular tropes because they already have a basic story and some themes in mind. This is obviously a story derived from the set of rules that its time machine imposes. If Brian Eno wrote a sci-fi movie, it might well be much like Primer.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier — Figured I’d catch up before Civil War. I hate cinematic universes because I want my stories to have endings. But as they go, Marvel’s universe is pretty good. This is far better than its pedestrian predecessor, and I’m actually hard-pressed to think of an MCU movie that I prefer to this. Maybe the first Avengers. The secret is the incursion of spy movie tropes into a blockbuster superhero movie, which is becoming a genre unto itself. The more that directors can play with genre to offset expectations, the better these movies will be. The Russos seem to be doing that best, at this point.

Literature, etc.

Kurt Vonnegut: Hocus Pocus — One of only two Vonnegut novels out of the ten I’ve read that I haven’t enjoyed. (The other is Player Piano, which is practically juvenalia.) There are occasional great lines, but so many of Vonnegut’s attempts at aphorism fall flat in this that I started to wonder if it might be intentional. One of the book’s key themes is that rhetoric (“verbal hocus pocus”) can be used to make people think illogically. So, when Vonnegut makes a statement that takes the basic form of a dark joke, but doesn’t seem to be based on anything true, it’s tempting to read redemptively and assume that he’s just offering concrete examples of the sort of fallacy he’s critiquing. But I’ve never seen Vonnegut go in for that particular kind of subtlety before, so I don’t honestly think that’s what’s happening here. Not good. But hey, they can’t all be masterpieces.

Elizabeth Alsop: “The Future Is Almost Now” — This Atlantic piece posits that science fiction is becoming more and more interested in the near future rather than the far future. It’s worth a look for anybody interested in the genre, or anybody just generally paranoid.

Kieron Gillen/Jamie McKelvie: Phonogram vol. 3 “The Immaterial Girl” — Absolutely marvellous. Gillen and McKelvie’s music fantasies are among the best contemporary literature, in or out of comics. Nobody has reckoned with the material effects of music and pop culture on people’s lives more incisively than they have in Phonogram and The Wicked and the Divine. And while the latter of those remains the easier one to recommend, this concluding arc of Phonogram is the best expression of their general thesis that music is never just music, but rather one of the forces that most powerfully animates human society. These are broad generalities, but to describe what they do here in any detail would likely make it seem trite. So instead, I’ll just urge you to read Gillen and McKelvie’s work. Start by catching up with WicDiv, then read the three collected editions of Phonogram in this order: 2, 1, 3. If you have ever been a superfan of anything, you will appreciate every panel in these volumes. If the thing you are a superfan of is music, you will have a new favourite comic. Possibly two. Pick of the week.

Thomas Ligotti: “Purity” — This is the first story in his collection Teatro Grottesco, which I managed to find at Pulpfiction, my absolute favourite bookstore in Vancouver, when I could not find it anywhere else, in physical or digital form. I needed to be shook up a bit, and I had heard that Ligotti was the man for the job. He has already begun. This story is properly creepy, with bits of mundane imagery taking on a grotesquerie that they simply ought not to have. Much is left unsaid, but it is all totally clear. And to boot, the story strongly reminded me of one of the creepiest things I’ve ever read, Michael Lutz’s Twine story “My Father’s Long, Long Legs.” A very promising start.

Podcasts

Now that my Podquest submission has had cold water poured on it gently, Radiotopia reviews will resume as usual.

On The Media: “Trending Topics” — It’s nice to hear a treatment of the Facebook trending topics scandal that actually gets to the root of the problem, which is that today’s tech giants have far too much control over the dissemination of information. Whether stories get traction by way of algorithms or human intervention, the kind of thing that’s likely to get huge on Facebook is not necessarily the kind of thing that people most need in their media diets. It’s also incredible to hear about the conservative economist who advocated for government intervention in monopolies (which may be a term that meaningfully applies to Facebook) in order to repair the free market. This episode also features a discussion with the New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan that is interesting for its frankness about the Times’s shortcomings, but also interesting for the extent to which Bob Garfield allows it to be a straightforward valediction. I suppose not everyone needs to be afraid of him. But if he’s in softball mode during that segment, he roars back into righteous indignation mode in his final essay about the media’s sudden elevation of Donald Trump to legitimacy. To Garfield, talking to Trump about tax policy is “like asking Charles Manson about his driving record.” It is one of the best things that has been written about Trump since this whole boondoggle began, and I can’t recommend it enough. Even if you skip the rest of the episode to get to those last three or four minutes it’s worth your time. Pick of the week.

All Songs Considered: “The 1975, SOAK Covers Led Zeppelin, A Home Demo From My Morning Jacket” — A consistently interesting episode, but not one with a lot of songs I feel likely to return to — with the notable exception of Gaelynn Lea’s studio recording of the song she won the Tiny Desk Concert with. That is a remarkable piece of music.

On The Media: “How the ‘Fake News’ Gets Made” — Oh good, journalists can make funny things. This is Brooke Gladstone interviewing a bunch of satire writers and producers, all of whom came from journalism. So basically, you get Bob Garfield at his best in the main episode and Gladstone close to her best in this podcast extra.

This American Life: “Promised Land” — This episode of This American Life begins with Ira Glass singing an “I wish” song, and continues with pieces by Starlee Kine and the late David Rakoff. It is what public radio is for. Kine’s story about how her overprotective mother wouldn’t let her kids go to Disneyland (in spite of them living in L.A.) but would take them to the Disneyland Hotel twice a year is exactly the kind of story you want to hear from Starlee Kine, and Rakoff’s piece about fasting and not finding enlightenment is exactly the kind of story you want to hear from David Rakoff. Then it ends with a story from Hillary Frank from The Longest Shortest Time, a parenting podcast that I do not intend to listen to. But this story is absolutely riveting. You know when your friend says, “I heard the craziest conversation on the bus,” and then tells the best story you’ve heard all day? This is that story, except the best one ever. This is light on reporting for TAL, but it’s mercilessly consistent.

Sampler: “Mother Podcast” — This is Sarah Koenig on Sampler, which is a reason to listen to Sampler. It’s awkward at the start, because Brittany Luse insists on saying a bunch of the gushy stuff that should have been consigned to the intro while Koenig is actually in the room, which puts Koenig in the uncomfortable position of having to react to fervent praise in public. It gets better from there, but not by much. The concept for the episode must have seemed solid: here are a bunch of podcasts that have been born in the post-Serial world — “Look what thou hast wrought, Koenig!” But Koenig doesn’t seem much more than bemused at the clips Luse subjects her to. For all her staggering success, Koenig doesn’t belong to the crazy world of podcasting that virtually all of the Gimlet staff does — even those who had prominent public radio careers previously. She’s a reporter. Playing her clips from Hello From the Magic Tavern is pretty counterintuitive, improv background or no. Not good.

Bullseye: “Maria Bamford & Wanda Sykes” — That’s a hell of a double bill. These are the kinds of interviews with comics that you want to hear. Bamford is charming and has an uncanny ability to find the humour in terrible, uncommon things that have happened to her. Sykes is super sharp and a great storyteller. The best talk radio I’ve heard in awhile.

99% Invisible: “Separation Anxiety” — And, we’re back! During my Radiotopia reviewing hiatus, 99pi continued to interest me casually but not blow me away. This episode is about trash disposal in Taipei, and also San Francisco. I recently listened to a bonus interview with Roman Mars for Radiotopia supporters, and one thing he mentioned that I was happy to hear him mention is the fact that many episodes of 99pi don’t really have stories — they just explore an idea for a while in a logical fashion. That’s kind of what this episode does, and I so appreciate that there’s a show that has the guts to do that. I’m all for storytelling, but it’s also a dogma among media producers. There are other ways to impart information in an entertaining fashion.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Robot Uprising” — There are apparently people, or at least one person, who advocates for robot’s rights on the basis that the same justifications are used to deny the humanity of black people are being used to deny the humanity of robots. Eric Molinsky is rightly confused by this idea — surely, robots actually aren’t human? But he doesn’t push quite hard enough. There are times on this show where I feel like Molinsky is offering a sort of menagerie of strange worldviews without taking any of them to task. Still fun, though.

Invisibilia: Season 2 trailer — I think it’ll be good, but this show can be awfully cloying at times. They don’t even totally avoid it in this three-minute trailer.

The Memory Palace: “Open Road” — I’m so glad to get to review The Memory Palace again. I love this show so goddamn much. Anyway, this is about the Green Book, the guide for black motorists in pre-Civil Rights America. It is the second Radiotopia treatment of this topic in just a few months, after 99pi’s, but I think I prefer this approach. Just a gorgeous, semi-imaginary story with beautifully-drawn imagery. Really nice.

On The Media: “Ghosts” — Collectively, the episodes of On The Media I listened to this week did me more good than anything else this week. This special episode on the uses and misuses of collective memory demonstrates just how thoughtful this show can be. It isn’t hemmed in by the news cycle; there’s so much more it can do.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Money Monster and Eurovision” — I’m really shocked at how little they trashed Money Monster. I mean, I know it’s called Pop Culture HAPPY Hour, but that movie does not look okay. Also, Glen Weldon’s enthusiasm for Eurovision is one of the few moments where he can honestly be described as “adorable.”

Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 10)

Back to sanity, with 22 reviews.

Music

Tim Hecker: Love Streams — I expected to love this, and I did love it, but It’s certainly not what I expected. Tim Hecker is interesting: from what I’ve heard, he spent his early career making a number of very similar, very static albums. But over his last two albums, he has become an artist with the capacity to surprise. Love Streams is pure ear candy. I loved it immediately. No resistance. It’s still abstract and meandering, and fairly abrasive in parts. But there’s a sweetness in this album that has been nowhere near a Tim Hecker album before. It’s partially the choir. But even when the choir’s not around, there’s a general sense of consonance here that’s basically the polar opposite of the music on Virgins, which remains the darkest and strangest album of Hecker’s career. And that consonance makes the moments where the music is ripped apart by noise all the more compelling. Really good. Up there with Bowie, Congleton and Kopatchinskaja as my favourite music of the year so far. Pick of the week.

Tim Hecker: Ravedeath, 1972 — I went into this expecting it to be a departure from Hecker’s early stuff, towards the heterogeneity of Virgins. It’s not that. It’s merely the best of Hecker’s pre-Virgins albums. That’s not nothing, but I think that Love Streams proves that we’ve been dealing with a fundamentally different (and more interesting) Tim Hecker since 2013. I am far more excited about the prospect of hearing what he does in the coming years than I am about completing my survey of his back catalogue.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja: Take Two — After being blown away by Kopatchinskaja’s totally bonkers take on the Tchaikovsky concerto, I figured I should check her out in a more conventional setting for her: namely, playing a 70-plus-minute programme of fragmentary duets with musicians of all stripes in modern and early repertoire. This disc isn’t the sort of thing that anybody is likely to obsess over who isn’t a contemporary musician themself. In fact, maybe the presence of this alongside Tim Hecker in these reviews marks a division: two figures making music that would inevitably be described as “difficult” by somebody without a preexisting interest. But in Hecker, we find a person with roots in techno, making music that is as immersive as it is abstract — and which is accepted by the indie music press far more so than the classical music community. In the sort of modern music that Kopatchinskaja plays, we often find a sort of austerity or high conceptualism, even when it is presented with the intention of playfulness. Heinz Holliger comes especially to mind. But Kopatchinskaja is the real thing. She provides a throughline on this otherwise head-spinning set of diverse pieces. She might be the best musician ever at the task of bringing out the latent fun in inaccessible music. (The fact that she defines “serious art” as “the art where you always fall asleep” must help. She venerates pop artists for their polyvalent tendencies in her fascinating and sympathetic liner notes.) And to top it off, the disc ends with a suitably heretical performance of the Bach Chaconne with improvised accompaniment on harpsichord. Just because something is perfect the way it is doesn’t mean you should do it that way every damn time. Kopatchinskaja is without a doubt my favourite living violinist, and I could see this CD becoming a favourite of mine with repeated listens. But that would require me to listen to it again, and that’s always the question, isn’t it?

Live events

Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent: Live at the Chan Centre — This was a performance of Orlando di Lasso’s masterpiece, Lagrime di San Pietro, which is probably tied with the Monteverdi Vespers for my favourite large work written before Bach’s time. The final motet, “Vide Homo,” that Lasso appended to the end of the preceding 20 madrigals, is one of the great moments in the whole history of Western music. I can’t pretend to fully understand it; my grasp of pre-tonal theory is shaky at best. But here’s what I know: it comes after 20 numbers sung in Italian, set to words from a single sacred poem. Those 20 numbers gradually go through each of the established musical modes codified by the church. (By mode, I mean a kind of scale. It’s like a “key,” before they invented keys.) And then, in that final number, the language switches from the vernacular Italian to the sacred Latin, the speaker switches from the narrative voice and that of Saint Peter to the words of Christ, and the music is suddenly no longer based on one of the sanctioned church modes — it is entirely unearthly music, reflecting the voice of Christ. You don’t have to be religious to recognize that this is pretty damn extraordinary. It’s also a gigantic penitential guilt trip, composed by a man who feared deeply for the fate of his immortal soul. Lagrime is serious business, and deserving of serious adulation. All the same, this was one of those concerts that I went to for the rep, but left in awe of the musicians. Herreweghe conducted his singers with restraint befitting such an austere piece of music, and his Collegium sang with some of the most astounding blend and sensitivity that I’ve heard in live choral singing. Two curtain calls and an encore. Really astonishing. If you can hear this group live, do.

Movies

Eye in the Sky — This movie is too movie. Its plot is an extended trolley problem (the single most cliched plot element in political thrillers) wherein the ethics of killing one to save many are… not so much debated endlessly as merely fretted over endlessly. As always in these scenarios (see especially the equally problematic but far better executed 24), the arguments given against such an action are never backed up with a philosophy or clear ethics. In Eye in the Sky, the people making objections come off as cowardly, indecisive, political, or sentimental to the point of not being able to do their jobs. And that’s not just a political objection from me, it’s a fundamental storytelling problem as well. If you’re going to make a movie that’s about people repeatedly not firing a rocket and talking about why, you had damn well better offer a compelling ethical difference. Otherwise the whole movie is just an extended sequence of “I’m going to do this thing!” “Oh, no you’re not!” And that is basically what Eye in the Sky is. None of the roles in this movie are particularly demanding on their actors, but I would be remiss not to mention that the lamented Alan Rickman is once again far better than the movie he’s in.

High Rise — Okay. So, this is a movie that was made specifically to cater to certain aesthetic tastes that define me. It’s basically Roeg and Cammel’s Performance meets Lindsay Anderson’s …if meets A Clockwork Orange with a heavy dollop of Brazil. It is openly anti-capitalist, and based on the same source material (J.G. Ballard’s eponymous novel) as one of my favourite classic Doctor Who stories, “Paradise Towers.” When a movie is carrying all of the same cultural baggage that I am, it is honestly kind of hard for me to tell whether or not it’s good. Certainly it’s brutal. (Brutalist, even.) Certainly it doesn’t make sense in a way that seems very intentional. But it also has a sense of fun about its total bleakness, some truly great lines, the only Tom Hiddleston performance I’ve found convincing outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Jeremy Irons in the exact kind of role people should always cast Jeremy Irons in. When it gets a wide release, you should probably see it if you’re not squeamish. I’m not saying you’ll like it — I’m saying I have absolutely no idea if it’s any good or not, so you should just go see for yourself. I loved it.

Television

Last Week Tonight: April 10, 2016 — There is a joke in this about getting a credit check to work at a fireworks store that is one of the cleverest things I’ve heard in many months. This show gets a lot of credit for “destroying” things. But maybe it doesn’t get enough for sharp writing.

Better Call Saul: “Nailed” — “Sometimes the good guys win,” he says. Hoo boy. The scene where Chuck makes his allegations about Jimmy in Kim’s presence is probably the best scene this show has ever done. And it’s surrounded by other incredible scenes: the Mesa Verde hearing, Jimmy’s schoolyard video shoot, Mike’s heist, Kim telling Jimmy euphemistically to burn the evidence, and the whole sequence with Lance the copy guy. By sheer accretion of perfect scenes, this is probably the best episode of Better Call Saul. I still think I prefer “Rebecca” and “Marco” for their relative focus. But holy hell is this season drawing to a rollicking conclusion.

Literature, etc.

Kurt Vonnegut: Hocus Pocus — I usually devour Vonnegut novels. This one is taking me a while to get into. It’s got an intriguing setup and already a few great aphorisms, but the only other time I’ve been this uninvested in the early chapters of a book by Vonnegut was when I read his dodgy first novel Player Piano. I find it odd that critics of the time treated Hocus Pocus as a return to form, considering that his previous two novels were Galapagos and Bluebeard, both of which are really strong in my opinion. Bluebeard especially. I’m sure I’ll like this better once I’m halfway through it or so.

Games

EarthBound — “Peaceful Rest Valley ahead. Proceed through cave.” I’m starting to really enjoy this. I do wish there were a few puzzles, or choices to be made, and a bit less RPG combat. But it’s witty and unassuming in a way that’s really refreshing for a game from this period. And wandering around the towns, talking to people and reading billboards is actually a lot of fun. Call it the anti-Zelda.

Podcasts

StartUp: Season 3 Teaser — Well, I’m sad that they’re not doing another serialized story. On the other hand, focussing on the make-or-break moments of various companies’ early lives is a solid premise for a season. It worked when The Heart did it with relationships. Looking forward to this.

Imaginary Worlds: “Becoming Godzilla” — This feels slight after the Cthulhu episode, but any story about a guy spending months of his life building a Godzilla suit is going to have a certain amount of charm. (Also, that’s ELP low in the mix at the start. A tribute to Emerson, I assume. Though, for a show about a giant monster, one would think “Tarkus” would have been a better choice than “Toccata.”)

This American Life: “For Your Reconsideration” — Wow, it’s been a long time since I listened to TAL. I should never have been away so long. First, there’s a story about a previous TAL story being wrong — not their fault; there was a fake, peer-reviewed study — and they manage to make the wrongness of it into a more interesting story than the first one. Plus, they excerpt the best bits from a fascinating, high-stakes, 60-minute conversation from the podcast Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People. I suspect that the full conversation would have killed me to listen to, but the moments included here, with commentary from TAL’s editor, are gold. There was a moment in there that made me fist-pump as I was walking down the sidewalk.

On the Media: “Rolling In It” — Okay, I guess that great outtake from last week did make their main hour. No matter. This is still amazing. If you want to understand the Panama Papers as a media phenomenon, here’s your thing.

Bullseye: “Ellie Kemper & Glen Weldon” — This is a heck of a set of guests. Two fabulous conversationalists. Kemper is apparently as fun in real life as she is on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. And it’s fun to hear Weldon in a non-PCHH context. Jesse Thorne is a little ingratiating during Kemper’s interview, but he’s also done his homework for both of these interviews. He’s probably the closest thing there is to my ideal pop culture interview show host. I’d still really like to hear a show where the host goes deep into textual analysis with the creator of the thing there for verification, and this is not that. But you can’t fault a notepad for not being a treehouse.

Welcome to Night Vale: “Antiques” — I can’t tell if “Antiques” was actually substantially better than the episodes that preceded it, or if I was just in the right mood. But every segment of this was really funny: especially the one about the child with the very long tongue who distresses Cecil very much. But also the premise of a bunch of antiques escaping from the antique shop is great. It’s Night Vale by numbers, but it’s the best that Night Vale by numbers gets.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: The National Covers The Grateful Dead, Free Cake For Every Creature, More” — Nothing here jumped out and made me want to buy, but I’ve listened to that Dawg Yawp track a couple times. Appalachian folk with sitar. Imagine.

Reply All: “Baby King” — The “Yes Yes No” segment continues to be better than the story it follows. However, this story about a company that made GIFs before there was a grammar and syntax for them is fascinating, and concludes with a lovely bit of reflection by Alex Goldman on the fragility of the internet.

WTF With Marc Maron: “David Simon” — Maron isn’t entirely aware of the extent to which he is not Simon’s intellectual equal, but he facilitates a really interesting conversation and allows Simon to get angry about the things we all want him to get angry about: capitalism, the drug war, etc. And you don’t hear a lot of Simon taking, these days. That in itself makes this worth a lot. Simon is enthralling.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Ta-Nehisi Coates on Black Panther” — The best interview I’ve heard in ages. Turns out, Ta-Nehisi Coates is as incisive on comics history and nerd culture as he is on race. Audie Cornish gives him plenty of room to be massively thoughtful about both. It is so cool to hear him say that his introduction to the wonders of language came through hip-hop, Marvel Comics and Dungeons and Dragons. Honestly, that really is a trifecta of inspiration that you could expect to produce a MacArthur genius. Pick of the week.

On The Media: “That NPR Thing” — This is useful context for those of us who live outside the reach of any NPR member stations, for whom NPR is effectively a podcasting company. Because, here’s the thing: NPR is not a podcasting company. And NPR’s top brass are becoming openly hostile to their company’s own efforts in that form. This also contains a fascinating doc about movie novelizations. Super interesting.

Podcast-adjacent things

Cast Party — After months of thinking “oh yeah, I should really check that thing out sometime,” I finally did. This is that thing that was advertised non-stop on Radiolab and Reply All for a few weeks back when it happened. It’s a live performance by a bunch of amazing podcasts, including those two, The Truth, and Invisibilia. Sometimes, Cast Party reminds you that podcasters aren’t necessarily performers. Reply All, my favourite podcast of this bunch, isn’t served well by having its two charmingly neurotic hosts spotlit and stared at. They pull it off, but you get the sense that they’d rather be alone in a dark studio. Their story is great — most of these are — but there’s an overall sense of “you had to be there” surrounding this. If you’ve been on the fence about whether to shell out the dollars, consider the amount of goodwill you have towards these shows, then consider that it isn’t very good, then decide against it.