Tag Archives: China Miéville

Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 22)

Only 20 reviews, this time. A slow week. To be fair, I’ve got a brand new digital piano and that seems to be taking up a lot of my time. Also, down below the podcasts you’ll find a review of thing that required more words than usual. So, look forward to that.

Movies

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 — This oscillated wildly. At its best, I thought it was pretty brilliant and lived up to the rest of the franchise, which I generally like. At its worst, it was slow, laboured, and a considerable waste of Julianne Moore. But the fantastic cast sees this through. Seriously, it’s like the casting director for these movies just raided my brain for the kind of actors I like: Donald Sutherland, Natalie Dormer, Jeffrey Wright (also underutilized, but twas ever thus), Stanley Tucci, Philip Seymour Hoffman (nice to see him, one last time), Elizabeth Banks… I could go on. Even Gwendoline Christie shows up for a scene. (Somebody needs to make a movie starring Gwendoline Christie and Jeffrey Wright.) Jennifer Lawrence continues to be wonderful. And, honestly, even Moore is so amazing that she manages to elevate her somewhat bungled character into the realm of watchability. With a cast like this, it’s easier to forgive weaknesses.

Star Wars — I watched a fan edit of Episode IV that aims to reconstruct as much of the original movie as possible — without special editionification — in high def. It was great. Star Wars remains a movie that I don’t especially admire, but I sure love putting it on when there are other people around, and talking through it. And I also learned that my childhood role model, C-3PO, remains my favourite character in the Star Wars universe.

The Empire Strikes Back — I also watched this in the despecialized edition, and it really is something. These edits are really worth checking out. And this movie is wonderful, in a way that the first one sort of isn’t. From Hoth to Cloud City, it’s enthralling. But this time through, it was especially clear that the best part of the movie (and the franchise) by a mile is the sequence of Luke training with Yoda on Dagobah. That senile little weirdo is the best thing in Star Wars (aside from C-3PO, obviously). Frank Oz is a wonder, and the Yoda puppet is more expressive than any of his Muppet characters. But more than that, Yoda is a plausible representation of what it might be like if the sharpest mind in the galaxy were forced into isolation for decades. He might be the most believable character in the series.

Television

Last Week Tonight: November 22 — If the first half of this episode were all that John Oliver had ever done in his career, he’d still be awesome. Not only is this segment — on the needlessly thorny topic of Syrian refugees — amusing somehow, it is also beautifully argued. It is a thing you can send to people who think differently to you and say “This! Look! Reasoning!” The other segment, on pennies, is fantastic because we Canadians have been through this. Pick of the week.

BoJack Horseman: Christmas Special + Season 2, episodes 1-6 — “Hoo-ray! Begrudging acquiescence!” Okay, I’m properly loving this now. It’s sad, and dark, and the humour is incredibly writerly — full of wordplay and incredibly structured exchanges of dialogue. And the voice acting is universally wonderful. This must be one of the best things Netflix has produced.

Doctor Who: “Heaven Sent” — The best episode of the season, and possibly of Capaldi’s tenure as the Doctor. It’s really fantastic to see the Doctor get to be the main character in his own story, which surprisingly isn’t the default for this show, considering that it’s named after him. It takes considerable guts to do an hour of TV with basically only one character, but Capaldi carries it easily. The reveal towards the end (re: where all of the skulls came from) is something that only Steven Moffat could have come up with, and it’s why I love his version of Doctor Who in a nutshell. All that said, I’m going to try to avoid making the same show pick of the week twice in a row. So, it goes to another televisual Brit, this time around.

Literature, etc.

I dove back into No God But God this week. There will be remarks to be written on that very soon.

China Miéville: “Säcken” — Certainly the most frightening story in Three Moments so far. Apparently there are people who think that Miéville’s characterization is weak? No. The entire reason this story is terrifying is because we’re able to see through the protagonist’s eyes so easily. And because Miéville is very good at grotesque descriptions. The story doubles as an acute examination of the impact of loss.

China Miéville: “Syllabus” — Not so much a story as a whimsical joke. But it’s a whimsical joke that makes my brain hurt. Typical Miéville.

Music

The Smiths: Strangeways, Here We Come — This is about on par with the debut, to me. So, a magnificent album, better than Meat is Murder, but not quite as good as The Queen is Dead. Morrissey’s voice is remarkable on this. In fact, all four members of the band give their best performances on record here. It’s nice to hear Johnny Marr take a proper guitar solo on “Paint a Vulgar Picture.” Lately, I’ve been thinking about how one of my old favourite bands (but no longer), Marillion, are basically what the Smiths would sound like if they’d been huge Genesis fans. In addition to that, the Smiths’ four studio albums map neatly onto the first four Marillion albums, prior to their first breakup: there’s the promising debut, the problematic sophomore effort, the masterpiece third album, and the ever-so-slightly compromised final album. Strangeways is very much the Smiths’ Clutching at Straws, insofar as it’s remotely useful to compare one of the most esteemed bands of the ‘80s to a niche interest neo-prog band who weren’t even very good.

The Smiths: Hatful of Hollow — There’s a reason this singles/odds-and-sods collection is considered as essential as the studio albums. This is incredible. That guitar on “How Soon Is Now!”

Comedy

Chelsea Peretti: One of the Greats — Just as funny the second time. The bit about how to eat a banana in public is one of my favourite bits of stand-up. The gimmicky audience cutaways, on the other hand, are less effective. Would have been better if this were a straight-ahead film of her show.

Podcasts

The Heart: “Desiree+Aaron” — This is a story about a woman who is deeply invested in Aaron Carter fandom. As you might expect, it’s an awkward listen. It lacks the humour and the slight remove of Mystery Show’s Britney episode, and you kind of don’t know whether to be sad or not. I do like the premise of this season of The Heart, though: following unusual relationships through their make or break moments. I intend to keep listening.

Reply All: “Yik Yak Returns” — One of Reply All’s best episodes gets an update. Alex Goldman’s story about how campus racism went especially bonkers on one particular mobile app, on one particular campus was fantastic journalism when it came out months ago. This expanded version covers a spate of similar violence on campuses across the USA. Pretty much essential. Pick of the week.

Fresh Air: “ Music Writer Peter Guralnick on ‘The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll’” — This and Good Night And Good Riddance are apparently part of my recent obsession with the people behind the success of iconic musicians. Sam Phillips — the founder of Sun Records, and discoverer of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin’ Wolf, and countless others — was fascinating. I’m sure Guralnick’s book is also fascinating, and I’d love to read it. But I’ll have to space it out from Good Night and Good Riddance, because that might be a bit too much rock and roll reading material in too little time. But you can count on Terry Gross to curate a fascinating conversation, so this podcast will hold me over until I’ve actually got an appetite to read this book.

StartUp: “Words About Words From Our Sponsors” — As an episode of StartUp this is as good as usual. As a status update on Gimlet Media, it’s perplexing. Apparently, the plan is to introduce a new revenue stream by making branded podcasts in collaboration with companies. It seems clear that Gimlet will handle that without treading into any ethical murky areas, but I just don’t understand the idea of branded podcasts. I mean, you can listen to anything you want. So who’s going to listen to half-hour ads? I fully expect to be proven wrong in short order, but I don’t think I could ever enjoy a branded podcast. It’s not a matter of principle — I just think that when there are so many great podcasts out there, I’m always going to choose the ones that are passion projects, not ads.

Radiolab: “Birthstory” — Radiolab is always at its best when covering really complex stories. When stories are simple, they always end up trying too hard to imbue them with universal themes. This story is massively complex and has hundreds of moving parts. It starts off dealing with the circumstances that convene to prevent gay couples in Israel from having children via surrogacy, and it ends up detailing the circumstances that lead women in Nepal to become surrogates for pay. This episode, produced by Molly Webster, is extraordinary not just for its fascinating and important story, but also for its clarity and organization. Most shows would make a total hash of this. I was all set to make this pick of the week, until the end music faded down and Jad Abumrad came roaring back in with one of his superfluous thinky closing monologues. “In a way, this story is about dreams.” Oh, give me a break. If you stop listening to this when the actual produced story ends, it is 100% awesome.

99% Invisible: “Fixing the Hobo Suit” — Once again, Roman Mars introduces me to another podcast that I feel compelled to add to my rotation. Eric Molinsky’s Imaginary Worlds seems right up my street. This story about how and why superhero costumes have gotten so much less cringeworthy is fantastic, and apparently he does similarly nerdy things on a bi-weekly basis. We’ll see if I can fit it in.

On The Media: “The Language of Terror” — After international tragedies, the media people I most want to hear from are Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield. You can trust them and their producers to keep their heads and present clear lines of reasoning while TV gets totally histrionic and people start shouting tirades of bigotry at each other on Facebook. This show is really, really not just for news junkies and media types. It’s useful to anybody who wants to be able to parse news coverage in a way that keeps them more informed.

Fugitive Waves: “Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake” — This is a decent way to passively spend 20 minutes. There’s nothing here that provides more insight into Nick Drake than even the most casual fan would already have. But there are some nice remembrances of him, and a few (scrappily recorded) extracts from a live covers project that sounds like it might have been good. Anyway, this vapourized upon impact.

Live events

King Crimson: Live at the Vogue — *breathes deeply*

I nearly didn’t go to this concert. It was a matter of principle. The whole idea of a version of King Crimson that exists specifically to play the back catalogue is anathema to the basic concept of King Crimson, to me. I’m all for playing the old favourites, but every version of King Crimson should focus on developing its own music, and until now all of them have. Still, when it came down to crunch time, I just couldn’t not buy a ticket. It’s King Crimson.

Here’s how that went down.

When I entered the Vogue, I was told very sternly by the bouncer not to take any photos whatsoever — before, during or after the show. Which is a shame, because the setup — with three drum kits across the front of the stage and a Long & McQuade’s worth of guitars, basses, pedals, reed instruments and miscellany on a riser across the back — was the most #prog thing I’ve seen in my life.

On either side of the stage were giant white signs again entreating the audience to take absolutely no photographs at all from this point forward. I sat in the hall for nearly an hour before the show, because I’m like that. A soundtrack of placid Frippertronics burbled along as dudes in Magma t-shirts name-dropped Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt. This is a room full of older versions of me.

Just as the show was about to start, Fripp’s familiar voice rang out over the PA, with just one more reminder: no photography. Ah, Fripp, you curmudgeonly so-and-so. Never change.

Never change. What an odd thing to say to the most volatile and restless rock musician this side of David Bowie. But is he still? What shall we make of this new, seven-person King Crimson repertory company?

The most compelling new feature of this lineup is not actually the three drummers (though that’s certainly novel), it’s the absence of Adrian Belew. I adore Belew, lest anybody misunderstand. I saw his trio play in Edmonton a few years back and it’s still one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to (much better than this one, as it turns out). But Belew had been a major creative force in King Crimson for longer than anybody who isn’t Robert Fripp deserves to be, and it was threatening to force the band into stagnation.

Still, even with Belew gone, the only members of this lineup who haven’t been in at least one previous lineup of King Crimson are Bill Rieflin and Jakko Jakszyk — the latter of whom has been involved in Crimson side-projects (and projeKcts) for so long that he may as well have been. There is no way around it: for the first time ever, King Crimson is touring as a nostalgia act.

This isn’t in itself a bad thing. I’ve seen legacy tours that have knocked me flat. But this version of King Crimson has some issues. Firstly, you can’t hear anything through the drums. Fripp’s playing in particular was so obscured that there were times when I caught myself wondering “is he playing a solo right now?” Same goes for Tony Levin.

But the larger problem is that this band plays like consummate professionals who don’t give a shit. (Except for Pat Mastelotto. He gives all the shits, and was by far the most interesting musician onstage to listen to.) There’s no commitment to the big moments in songs like “Epitaph,” and “Level Five.” This King Crimson sounds bored, a lot of the time. I’m tempted to blame the mix, but there were moments that came off gorgeously: I’m thinking mainly of “Starless” and “21st Century Schizoid Man.” So, it seems like the problem is just that they were on autopilot for most of the show.

A lot of the time, I found myself missing Belew in spite of myself. His real value to the band was his ability to play the wild card. He’s a disciplined musician, but he also knew how to keep the band on their toes: keep them from becoming complacent.

Complacent. What an unfortunate word to resort to when describing the most volatile and restless rock band this side of Radiohead. But there you go.

On the other hand, Mel Collins was actually wearing crimson suspenders. Well played, Mel Collins.

Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 1, 2015)

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

Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Live events

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

Movies

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

Television

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

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

Literature, etc.

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

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

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

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

Games

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnireviewer (Week of Oct. 25, 2015)

I read, watch and listen to a whole lot of stuff. Usually, I have thoughts on that stuff. Oftentimes, those thoughts are not substantial enough to justify a proper essay, and I don’t have time for that anyway. To wit, here is the premise of Omnireviewer: if I read, watch or listen to it, I will review it in a few sentences. Every Sunday, I will compile the previous week’s reviews in a post like this one.

Before we begin, a few guidelines. Here are some things I generally won’t review:

  • Stuff made by people I know, or people who people I know know. I’m doing this for fun, not to make my life awkward.
  • Every bit of music I listen to for work. My job involves listening to a LOT of music. I’ll review it if it’s especially interesting or new, but I won’t hold myself to this.
  • Fragments. If I listen to a single song on the way to the grocery store, no. If I listen to a whole album walking home from work, yes. If I watch a John Oliver segment on YouTube, no. If I watch a full episode of Last Week Tonight, yes.
  • Blog posts/articles/essays etc. This accounts for a lot of what I read in any given week. But actually reviewing that stuff seems needlessly far down the rabbit hole, even for me.

For things that will take me more than a week to get through (i.e. books and games), I’ll give them a mention when I start them, review them when I’m finished them, and give updates periodically in between. That’s unless the book or game breaks down logically, like episodic games or collections of short stories. In that case, I’ll review each part.

Not everything I review will be new, nor will it all even be new to me. I revisit old favourites as frequently or more than I seek out new favourites — especially where music’s concerned. But I’ll only review something in an Omnireviewer post once. Subsequent revisitations will occur anonymously. In general, if I don’t mention that I’ve seen/read/heard something before, I probably haven’t.

Finally, none of what I’ve said above constitutes “rules.” By which I mean: I reserve the right to break them at my convenience. And now, here are my reviews of the 28 things I read, watched or listened to since Sunday, October 25:

Movies

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night — I’m not one of those people who gorges on horror movies around Halloween, because most of my favourite horror movies aren’t the Halloween kind of horror movies. I don’t scare easy, so I tend to prefer horror of a more existential persuasion — the kind that finds its way into your dreams and changes you for a while. (See especially Davids Lynch and Cronenberg.) This is not that kind of movie. This is a vampire movie, totally Halloween-ready. But totally, totally unconventional. Best to go into it knowing as little as possible. But, if you’ve seen it: that scene with the disco ball? Seriously.

Television

Doctor Who: “The Woman Who Lived” — This season of Doctor Who hasn’t been hitting it out of the park for me. I adored the last season, and I think Peter Capaldi is as good an actor as ever played the Doctor. But the scripts so far this year have been bland: even Steven Moffat’s, and to me he’s the best writer in all the land. Strange then, that Catherine Treganna — best known for her work on Torchwood, which I don’t especially like — should write the first really good episode of the season. It’s no “Listen,” or “Kill the Moon,” but Maisie Williams playing a jaded immortal was always going to be a winning concept.

QI: “A Medley of Maladies” — The brilliance of QI is that the humour often veers into territory that you’d be embarrassed to enjoy if it were stand-up, but it’s packaged alongside fascinating obscure trivia to make you feel less dumb. Any episode with Ross Noble is bound to be a gem.

Music

Peter Hammill: Nadir’s Big Chance — I’ve been meaning to listen to this for years, and somehow didn’t get around to it until now. This is the album where the lead singer of Van Der Graaf Generator allegedly invented punk rock in 1974. If that sounds a bit outlandish to you, you’re right. But there are places where he comes surprisingly close. More importantly, this is fantastic. Possibly second only to In Camera in Hammill’s solo catalogue.

Philip Glass: Solo Piano — This is a collection of three separate pieces of music that all feature a two-note repeating pattern in the left hand. One might think it would get old, but it’s actually hypnotic in the way that Glass is at his best. His piano playing is pretty scrappy in places, but it’s always nice to hear recordings where that feels beside the point.

Wilhelm Kempff: Brahms Klavierstücke, Op. 116-119 — It was about time I sat down and listened to Brahms’s final piano pieces all the way through. The famous Eb-major intermezzo was always a favourite, but all of these pieces are gems. It’s perfect mood music — a mellow old scotch in harmony and counterpoint. I can see this joining my other favourite solo piano music (Debussy’s preludes, Beethoven’s late sonatas, Bach’s partitas) within a few listens. Kempff’s 1963 recording is deservedly a classic. I’ll be checking out his Beethoven next, for contrast.

Jethro Tull: Peel Sessions, 1968-69 — A revisit, inspired by a book I’ve been reading (see below). These recordings really highlight what Mick Abrahams brought to the table. For all that Martin Barre added to the band, Abrahams plays most of these early songs better. Ian Anderson’s vocal performance on “Stormy Weather” is borderline minstrelsy, though. This is not a pun; this is an allegation of casual racism, lest anybody misunderstand. These things happen with white blues bands. I still love this, though.

Neil Young: Time Fades Away — An old favourite of mine. It’s hard to reckon why Young still hates this album and refuses to reissue it. Is he even listening? He may have been out of his head at the time, but his band has never sounded better. “Last Dance” is not one of Young’s best songs, but it is one of his very best tracks. It’s all in the performance. The fakeout at the end is one of my favourite moments on a rock live album. Also, how is this not in every list of best album covers ever?

Literature, etc.

China Miéville: “The Rope is the World” — This is from his short story collection Three Moments of an Explosion, which I’ve been really enjoying. Miéville’s writing sometimes borders on poetry in its density. In this story about elevators into the atmosphere, he coins words on the fly with no explanation. It forces you to think through their likely etymology, lest you lose the plot entirely. I can see how some readers might be frustrated by that, but I find it fun.

Reza Aslan: No God But God — I’m about two-thirds of the way through, and already recommending it to everyone I know. I was always amazed by Aslan’s eloquence in interviews. He could basically talk into a microphone for several hours, transcribe it, and that would be a decent book. But he’s way more of a craftsman than that. He structures his chapters around an introductory anecdote or parable, told in prose worthy of the best living novelists. Each of these stories helps situate you before he transitions into his always-lucid argumentation. It’s an ingenious structure. I’ll have more to say about the content itself when I’m finished the book.

David Cavanagh: Good Night and Good Riddance — I bought this as soon as I finished the Kindle sample. Good God, is this ever exactly what I want to read right now. In case you haven’t read the Guardian’s shimmering platinum review, this book is a deep dive into the life’s work of the BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel, with whom I am not directly familiar, being 25 and Canadian. But his show was clearly a force in a number of consecutive countercultures. And Cavanagh’s a dazzling writer. I’ll be putting a couple of other books down for a while, to tuck into this.

Games

Stasis — After reading so many rave reviews, I confess to being a little disappointed. There are bright spots in this: parts of it are genuinely terrifying, and exploring a post-catastrophe civilization riddled with biological horrors is never not going to be fun. But, the voice acting leaves much to be desired, the writing is weak at best, the villain is of the moustache-twirling variety, and the backstory just introduced a hackneyed love quadrangle that I assume was supposed to make me feel something but didn’t. By the time I finish this, I may like it better.

Podcasts

(These will always come at the end, because I listen to a lot of them — commutes, runs and dishes, you know — and I listen to several of the same ones every week. It may get dull for you, even if it never does for me.)

Welcome to Night Vale: “Rumbling” — My general opinion of Night Vale is that it’s a great idea with some great writing and some great jokes, but it has structural issues. This instalment foregrounds some of those issues. Cecil Baldwin, who I generally like a lot as a character and slightly less as a host, oscillates back and forth between phoning it in and overselling every joke. The choices of background music seem arbitrary. Still, this is tying up threads of a major plot arc, and I can forgive a bit of sluggishness while the show adjusts to a new status quo.

The Allusionist: “Vocables” — I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts from the Radiotopia network, lately. They’ve got a fundraising campaign on, and they’re going big. This is apparently the first of several planned crossover events where Helen Zaltzman will collaborate with hosts of other Radiotopia shows, which is satisfying in itself for podcast geeks like me. This week, it’s Hrishikesh Hirway from Song Exploder. So, language geekiness collides with music geekiness and I couldn’t be happier.

The Truth: “Starburst” — I loved this. I won’t spoil it by describing it too much. It’s a radio play about a jerk magazine writer at a comic con, but it quickly veers off in a truly unpredictable direction. The really notable thing about it is how The Truth’s pristine, elaborate sound design feeds into the story to become a structural element. I’ve never heard that before in the episodes of this show that I’ve listened to. It’s only fifteen minutes long. It’s well worth your time. Also, people who are interested in nominating things for Hugos should nominate this for a Hugo.

This American Life: “The Night in Question” — I love a good conspiracy theory. And here’s one with political implications, to boot. This is about how most of Israel questions the official narrative about the assassination of their prime minister 25 years ago. It’s gripping in exactly the way that Serial gets too much credit for being.

On The Media: “Truth(ish)” — Where Jon Stewart was always a comedian who also happened to be a media critic, Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield are media critics who also happen to be funny. If you were one of the people who watched Stewart’s Daily Show as much for the sanity as for the humour, you need to be listening to this. If the West Wing pastiche that opens this episode doesn’t sell you on the entire show, you’re unlikely to be into it at all.

Fugitive Waves: “WHER: 1000 Beautiful Watts” — The Kitchen Sisters’ radio storytelling can be a bit on the slow, meditative side for my taste, but they have a great ear for interesting characters. In this two-parter, they interview the women (and a couple of the men) who kept the first all-woman radio station in the United States running. It also contains an infuriating yet funny clip of one of the first female radio announcers trying to ward off the explicit advances of her male guest while maintaining on-air decorum. Worth a listen.

This American Life: “The Call Was Coming from the Basement” — The story of a woman getting attacked by a rabid raccoon is perhaps not Alex Blumberg’s very best work. But David Sedaris’s story about hanging out in a morgue makes up the difference.

The Memory Palace: “Butterflies” — This podcast might just have the best writing for the ear that I’ve ever heard. Nate DiMeo is basically a spoken word artist for history nuts. This is a particularly sweeping and ambitious story, at more than twice the normal length (it’s 20 minutes long). It’s a story about humans screwing themselves. Those stories are always relevant.

Fresh Air: “Gloria Steinem” — Steinem is a hero and has some great stories. Hearing her talk about the circumstances she encountered in media at the beginning of the women’s movement is fascinating: editors feeling that one editorial saying “women are equal” needed to be counterbalanced by another saying “no they’re not,” etc. Terry Gross asks some unexpected questions and gets some truly wonderful moments of radio out of it. There’s a reason Marc Maron calls her the “industry standard.”

Meet the Composer: “Ingram Marshall” — This is the first episode of Meet the Composer that I’ve listened to that’s about a composer I’d never heard of. And, I’ll certainly be looking into Ingram Marshall’s music further. So, mission accomplished, there. But the great thing about this show is that every episode incorporates at least one tangential discussion of an element of music history for context. This time around, we hear about the legacy of gamelan in Western music: from Debussy to the Canadian composer Colin McPhee, who transcribed gamelan music for two pianos and performed it with Benjamin Britten. That you’ve got to hear.

99% Invisible: “War and Pizza” — Most of what’s in our grocery aisles started off as military technology. That is a tidbit I can now file away and impress somebody with later. This is why I love 99% Invisible.

Reply All: “The Law That Sticks” — A somewhat procedural episode of Reply All. You should listen to it, because the law it’s about is properly disturbing. But it feels like that’s the main reason the producers think you should listen to this episode, also. Basically, not one of their most fun episodes, but worth hearing.

The Moth: “Kimya Dawson & Kevin Haas” — It’s fine. Kept me amused during my run. Sometimes The Moth knocks me flat. Not this time.

Theory of Everything: “The Things We Do For Money” — ToE’s cross-promotion game has been strong since the start of the Radiotopia fundraising campaign. Last time, Roman Mars helped tell the long-view story of podcasting, and this time Jonathan Mitchell from The Truth reconstructed a radio play by Walter Benjamin. (I know.) I don’t mind people asking for money when they do it in a way that’s this clever.

Welcome to Night Vale: “The Retirement of Pamela Winchell” — Oh, look, it’s picking up already.

Live events

Welcome to Night Vale: Live at the Chan Centre — I waffled on whether to go to this. Night Vale is scrappy at the best of times: their live episodes even more so. Plus, I’m about twenty episodes behind. But then I thought, eh, what are the chances of the most popular comedy/horror podcast coming through your town on Halloween? And I bit the bullet, ditched my plans and went. (I tried to convince my friends to come with, but it went down kind of like this.)

Gosh, but this was a whimsical experience. The story was a fluffy, whimsical romp. The musical guest was a whimsical sort of musical guest, of the harmonium/glockenspiel/ukulele-playing variety. And the audience sure was whimsical. I mean, it was Halloween, to be fair. But one gets the feeling that some of those people might dress like that year-round. Good on ‘em.

This live show lacks the bloat of some of the others I’ve heard. Cecil carried the bulk of the story, with a brief appearance from Carlos being the only significant guest spot. The story was mercifully continuity-light, considering how much listening I have to do before I’m caught up. It just told a story and got done with it, which is what I wish Night Vale would do more often. Cecil was in top form. Everything was in its right place and made me glad I decided to go. Plus: kidding aside, that whimsical musician, Eliza Rickman, is completely fantastic.

But even in a live setting, Disparition’s background music still doesn’t make a lick of narrative sense.