Tag Archives: EarthBound

Omnireviewer (week of May 22)

19 reviews. One of my favourite picks of the week ever (the first one).

Music

The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights — Based on the bits and bobs I’ve seen online, I’m not sure this is the best available document of the White Stripes’ live show. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s all one song into the next, into the next. And my understanding was that they could really play fast and loose (in both senses) with their material in a live setting, since it’s just the two of them and they’re basically telepathic. I will investigate further.

Pink Floyd: A Saucerful of Secrets — For my money, better than The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. I used to be astonished at how quickly the other members of the band, and especially Roger Waters, were able to fill the void left by Syd Barrett. But after reading some of Mark Blake’s book about the band, it’s clear that Waters always had rock star aspirations and wouldn’t soon settle for being just some bassist. It’s also clear that Richard Wright was the most musically knowledgeable member of the band from the start. If Barrett had been able to continue on in the band, I highly doubt that he would have continued to exert such creative dominance. But as it stands, he wasn’t able to continue on, and the people around him were more talented than anybody gave them credit for. I like Barrett’s music a lot, but this is my pick for the best early Pink Floyd album (certainly the best prior to Meddle), and it’s only partially because of “Jugband Blues.”  A final note: it is astonishing to hear the version of Pink Floyd that made “Interstellar Overdrive” and that will go on to make the bulk of More and Ummagumma gradually give way to the version of Pink Floyd that will make “Echoes” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” through the course of the title track’s 11 minutes.

Literature, etc.

Thomas Ligotti: “The Town Manager” — This is the second story of two in this collection that has reminded me of a favourite piece of internet media, which it predates. “The Town Manager” has all of the hallmarks of Welcome to Night Vale, including the dark humour. But, being Ligotti, the darkness ultimately wins out over the humour. It’s about a town that abides by the arbitrary dictates of a series of town managers and a barely-remembered town constitution that nobody has understood for decades. One suspects it is not Ligotti’s goal to write fiction that is #relatable, but “The Town Manager” fits the bill.

Thomas Ligotti: “Sideshow, and Other Stories” — A high-concept story, the premise of which is that Ligotti met another writer in a coffee shop and he gave him a sheaf of tiny stories. The framing device makes it — since we know who this guy is, his writing takes on deeper meaning. Nice.

Thomas Ligotti: “The Clown Puppet” — A bit dumb, honestly. I feel like creepy puppets have been played out since before this story was written. The prose is great, though, and it’s repetitiveness and sense of alienation remind me of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which is a very good thing to be put in mind of.

Television

Last Week Tonight: May 22, 2016 — Brilliant from start to finish. In the segment on Trudeau’s apologies for elbowgate (oh my god am I actually going to use that word in a blog post yes I am), Oliver and his writers demonstrate something they’ve demonstrated before, which is that they understand Canada better than our own comedians and indeed better than much of our media. The main segment on primaries and caucuses demonstrates what we all pretty much knew, which is that this system is madness, and it contains one of my favourite comedic tropes, which is a person explaining a concept factually but the concept is so arcane that it becomes absurd after a few lines. And his final segment on the leader of Chechnya contains the best joke to have been hand-delivered to them by a horrible tyrant: “we have completely lost our cat.”

Game of Thrones: “The Door” — Things are picking up, now. Obviously, the headline is Hodor and generally everything in the Bran plotline, which I’ve been excited about from the start, but there’s much more to love in this. Tyrion and Varys are working as characters again, and Varys gets one of his best moments ever, when he spouts a rather eloquent screed against fanaticism, only to be seriously unsettled by the possibility that the Red Priestesses actually have a power he’d never considered real. The Wall continues to benefit from the presence of characters we’re not accustomed to seeing there: Littlefinger is at his most loathable here, and Sansa’s just-frank-enough account of her rape by Ramsay is a satisfying expression of power on her part — though it doesn’t come close to justifying that plotline in the last season. Jorah and Daenerys get their best scene together, and it’s only slightly undercut by Daario standing there awkwardly. Considering how angry I was at this show four episodes ago, the fact that it’s won me over is a minor miracle. I would like to stop seeing Arya get beaten up, though.

Movies

La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game) — It is really great to have a public library in your city that lets you stream the bulk of the Criterion Collection. The Rules of the Game has been one of my favourite movies since I first saw it in a film studies class, at exactly the point in my life when seeing movies like The Rules of the Game in film studies classes would have the greatest impact. It contains what is still my favourite movie quote ever. Approximately translated: “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” That perfectly describes the way that everybody acts in this movie, and mostly in real life too, I think. Nobody in The Rules of the Game is evil. Self-interested, certainly. Inconsiderate, also. Myopic, certainly. But for the most part, the characters in this movie do what they feel is right. And when they don’t, they jump through hoops to justify their actions to themselves. And people still get hurt. The worst things that happen in the world don’t happen because humans are malicious; they happen in spite of the fact that they’re not. “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” There is only one other movie I can think of that recognizes this is true, and that is A Separation, which is the closest thing to a 21st-century Rules of the Game. If you’ve seen one and not the other, see the other. If you’ve seen neither, watch them both tonight.  

Games

EarthBound — Finally beat it. The fact that this game is a masterpiece really crept up on me. I was totally lukewarm on it at first. But in retrospect, its relatively innocuous opening chapters are a long con, designed to ease you into the game’s philosophy, which is basically that you cannot trust authority. The fact that this is such an obvious theme in a game intended for children, and that it is obvious without ever being stated outright, warms the cockles of my heart. In EarthBound, you play as a seemingly ordinary child called Ness. Pains are taken to establish the fact that Ness’s family is lower-middle class at best, and that their neighbours, the Minches, are wealthy. The Minches’ eldest son Pokey is an especially entitled little wanker who consistently anchors one of my favourite plot threads in the game, more on which in a moment. Ness’s family is loving, but his father is a lazy absentee who never appears in the game: he is only reachable by phone. (Possibly the saddest and most poignant moment in EarthBound is in the end credits: each of the characters’ names scroll across the screen, accompanied by an image of the character. But when “Dad” scrolls across the screen, the image is simply of a rotary telephone.) As the game pushes along, it isn’t only family and the trappings of wealth that get a raised eyebrow from EarthBound’s devs. It’s also the police, (Ness gets attacked by cops almost immediately when the game begins) organized religion (a cult paints an entire town blue as a matter of dogma), and consumer culture (you’re attacked by anthropomorphic records and coffee cups during a power outage in a department store). It’s power in all of its forms that EarthBound distrusts. In the final moments of the game’s last battle, Pokey appears again to gloat about how he’s able to ally himself with the powerful. One assumes that this is what he has learned from his privileged upbringing: associate with the powerful, regardless of morals and ethics. Throughout the game Pokey allies himself with a ridiculous but terrifyingly effective cult leader, a millionaire property developer under the influence of mind control, and Cthulhu. (Well, not technically Cthulhu, but more or less. The game goes full-bore Lovecraft at the end, more on which in a moment.) He’s an absolute weasel, he’s totally unrepentant, he’s allowed to get away with everything, and crucially, he is not redeemed. He’s just bad. A bad rich person, against whom an upright poor kid has to fight. In a summer where the biggest movie is about a clash between a soldier and a wealthy industrialist, it is incredibly refreshing to see something so openly sceptical of power. And the game’s best trick is that it reveals itself to be a dramatically different game than you thought you were playing right at the end, when your fight with an unknowable, incomprehensible consciousness takes on the tenor of Lovecraftian horror. But the game has prepared you for this by the end: no authority is worth taking at face value. Even the seemingly sedate narrative of a seemingly trustworthy little Nintendo game can turn on you. I think EarthBound is available on Wii U, or whatever that thing is called. So, parents: get this game for your kids. I honestly believe that it has the capacity to instil important values and make them better citizens. And beyond that, it’s just a grand old yarn. Pick of the week.

Kentucky Route Zero interludes: “Limits and Demonstrations,” “The Entertainment,” and “Here and There Along the Echo” — Like every fan of Kentucky Route Zero, I am anxiously awaiting the next, profoundly delayed, instalment. But unlike many Kentucky Route Zero fans, I had completely missed the fact that there are mini-games available for free that add depth to the main story. They’re not just trifles — It took me a couple of hours to get though all three. And they make substantial additions to the story’s canon. “Limits and Demonstrations” is in retrospect the first part of the game to make its metafiction explicit: this is a game about computer games, though the main story doesn’t quite make it there until Act 3. “The Entertainment” broadens Kentucky Route Zero’s engagement with the subprime mortgage crisis, which is somehow also a major recurring theme. It also contains a nice Waiting for Godot riff, as the bar patrons await the arrival of the entertainment. (When we meet the entertainment in Act 3, she explicitly quotes Beckett.) “Here and There Along the Echo” is certainly the most novel of the three — the entire game consists simply of a touchtone telephone that can only call one number. When you call that number, you’re faced with an inscrutable tree of menus read by an eccentric Southern gentleman who claims to represent “The Bureau of Secret Tourism.” The world of Kentucky Route Zero is so well defined that the devs can strip it down to a hotline and it’s still aesthetically recognizable. I can’t wait for Act 4.

Podcasts

The Heart: “Not the Right Time” — This is heavy stuff. It’s a first-person narrative about a woman having been sexually abused as a child. It’s beautifully produced, and exactly as hard to listen to as it’s meant to be. But it’s hard to judge this just yet, since it’s just the first episode of a mini-season that sounds like it will be very eventful, and very troubling to follow. I still will, though.

Reply All: “On the Inside, Part II” — So, at this point this actually is just Serial. And in spite of being less obsessive and rigorous than Koenig’s team’s production, it is entertaining me more than the second season of Serial did.

Fresh Air: “Marc Maron On Sobriety And His ‘Uncomfortable’ Comfort Zone” — I’ve heard Maron interviewing Terry Gross. Time for the opposite. What’s notable is how obviously Gross likes Maron: she wants the best for him and finds him excellent company, even though he can be overbearing. (I suppose interview subjects are allowed to be overbearing, but it still doesn’t speak well of them.) What’s also notable is how bad Maron’s TV show sounds like it is.

Fresh Air: “ Bryan Cranston” — I don’t know why Fresh Air is my favourite show to cook to, but that does seem to happen a lot. This is an old interview, but Cranston is such a charmer. A fun chat.

StartUp: “The Runway” — GOOGLE SPONSORS GIMLET NOW!?!?!? Ahem. This was lovely, and I liked that they broke it up into small vignettes. But in general, if you have to announce the structural gimmick at the start, you’re either not doing the gimmick right or you’re just generally not adventurous enough. I’ll go with the second one, with the provision that almost every podcast has the same problem. Somebody really needs to tear the walls of this medium down. And I say that as a devotee.

All Songs Considered: “A Conversation With Paul Simon” — On one hand, it’s cool to hear Bob Boilen basically do Song Exploder redux and just talk to an artist about one song. And the song is pretty good. On the other, it’s awkward to hear Paul Simon talk about studio practices that are a matter of course for any hip-hop producer as if they’re the most innovative thing in the world.

Criminal: “39 Shots” — This is the story of the time when leftist protesters got shot up by the Klan and the Klan was deemed not guilty on the grounds of self-defense. The most compelling and damning aspect of this is that the police were not there, in spite of them having issued the permit for the protest that was taking place, and saying they would be there to protect the protesters. As usual, Phoebe Judge does not try to influence your opinions directly. Nonetheless, it will disgust you.

Radiolab: “Coming Soon: More Perfect” — A show from Radiolab about the Supreme Court? Will Brooke Gladstone be involved? Because then I’m in.

99% Invisible: “Loud and Clear” — The story of why cassette tapes are still popular in prisons. There are so many interesting things in the world. At the best of times, 99pi reminds me of that. Plus, the Theory of Everything clip they play at the end is gold. I’m going to have to check that episode out. Pick of the week.

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Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 17)

18 reviews. I am beginning to feel like a human again.

Movies

The Jungle Book — I liked this way more than the critical consensus! The casting is universally marvellous, it handles its substantial tonal shifts with grace, and it is absolutely beautiful to look at — 3D notwithstanding. Could we please just be done with 3D? My major complaint is pretty minor, actually. The movie shoots its most effective sequence in the foot by insisting on maintaining an iconic song from the original animated film. The entire scene with Christopher Walken’s gigantic King Louie is magnificent and sinister — but if it’s going to have a song in it, it really should have been a proper Disney villain song. Something in the vein of “Be Prepared.” But still, they insisted that this drastically different take on the character sing the same song, for some reason. It’s a major tonal misstep during an important sequence. After all, King Louie represents an approximate halfway point between Mowgli’s beloved jungle and the man village that beckons to him regardless. If Louie were less obsessive and maniacal, turning him down would actually be a major decision for Mowgli. And, even with “I Wanna Be Like You” excised from the movie proper, Walken would still get to sing it in the end credits. All that aside, if Disney is going to keep reliving past glories indefinitely, we can’t ask for much better than this.

Literature, etc.

Kalefa Sanneh: “The Rap Against Rockism” — This was cited in another, shorter thing I read (see below), and I couldn’t remember if I’d actually read it or just everything that came after it. So, I had another bash, and still can’t recall if that was my first or second time through. It’s doubtless a magisterial piece of criticism, but it’s been effectively built on so thoroughly and satisfyingly by other writers that it’s hard to actually see it as dazzling. Still, if you’re unfamiliar with the tiring but still relevant Rockism v Poptimism debate, do have a skim.

Katherine St. Asaph: One Week // One Band, Kate Bush — I joined Tumblr! And I immediately found a blog that will now consume my life. The idea is that every week, a different writer takes a deep dive into a different artist’s catalogue, in Tumblr’s requisite short (okay, medium) chunks. St. Asaph’s Kate Bush series focusses specifically on The Red Shoes, which she rightly believes is not the worst Kate Bush album, like everybody insists on saying. This is really good, really fun music writing that you owe it to yourself to check out, along with the rest of the blog. Like most of the internet, it could have used a proofread, but you know. Small potatoes.

Music

Kate Bush: The Dreaming — Probably the best Kate Bush album, and for a long time my favourite. These days, I tend to prefer the more direct pleasures of Hounds of Love, but there’s nothing like this in the right mood. For an album so intentionally strange, it has a surprising visceral effect. “Suspended in Gaffa” kills me every time. And St. Asaph’s writing (see above) ensures that I will never hear “Get Out of My House” the same way again.

Prince: Purple Rain — First off, a shout out to Minnesota Public Radio for doing God’s work the day Prince died. Prince spent the last twenty years of his life trying to get all of his music off of the internet, quite successfully, really. So, on a day when everybody wanted to listen to Prince on the internet but couldn’t, The Current provided an essential service by playing the bulk of the back catalogue. People who worked with, knew, or just met Prince called in with stories between cuts, and it was moving to hear the DJs gradually realize that it wasn’t just Minnesota that had tuned in to mourn with them, but also the entire internet. This was the first time I’d really sat down and listened to a bunch of Prince — one of those artists who I’d always figured I’d get into eventually, but never put in the time. I heard a fair bit of the ‘80s stuff on MPR, including this whole album, which is a marvel, obviously. Prince was a virtuoso in every sense: he’s like Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix and Paul McCartney rolled into one person — at least in the sense that he possessed all of those artists’ best traits. He didn’t sound like any of them. “Let’s Go Crazy,” “The Beautiful Ones,” and of course the title track, are classics. It’s tempting to write something along the lines of “it’s too bad that Prince had to die for me to finally get into him,” but that’s not actually what happened. I just needed somewhere to hear his music online. Thank you MPR. Prince would be happy to know that I’ve since purchased this, and will surely listen to it many more times.

Games

EarthBound — I’m making extremely gradual progress through this massive, difficult game that’s clearly meant to be played for more than a couple hours a week. But I’m really starting to enjoy it now. The combat gets more exciting once you have multiple party members to control and strategize with, and a wider variety of items and spells. Story-wise, it continues to be a bit lighter than I expected. But, here’s something interesting: this game is really anti-authority. Looking at screencaps, you might expect it to be pretty innocuous. But, in this game, policemen are corrupt at best and violent towards children at worst, organized religion is an absurdity and an evil to be defeated, the wealthy are openly spiteful and unscrupulous, and your father is a lazy absentee. I’m expecting all of this to come to a head at some point. If the world of EarthBound is, as many have said, a Japanese take on contemporary America, they must think it’s a pretty dire place. And, of course, they’re right.

Comedy

Josh Gondelman: Physical Whisper — There’s some gold in this, and some stuff that’s sort of whatever. The absolute best moment comes at the end of a story about an interaction with a homeless man in a train station. You should listen to this for that story alone.

Television

Archer: “Deadly Prep” — JETHRO TULL JOKE! They did a Jethro Tull joke! Ahem. This was fine. Some funny moments with Lana and Malory, and a bit of actual pathos in Archer’s story. That is all.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: “Kimmy Goes Roller Skating!” — I’m going to put this in the most white dude fashion I know how: there some, ah, there’s some race stuff in this that I’m unsure about. And in addition to being kind of eeeeeee, that stuff is also the unfunniest element of this premiere episode, which I honestly didn’t enjoy very much. I’m honestly shocked that I only watched one episode in the last week. I will finish the season, and I imagine it’ll pick up. There’s no way that a show as good as it was in its first season is worn out already. I hope.

Better Call Saul: “Klick” — That is possibly the best final shot Vince Gilligan has given us since Hank discovered Leaves of Grass in the bathroom. If last week’s episode had more in the way of plot fireworks, this week’s finale gave us the clearest picture yet of Jimmy and Chuck’s respective, and differently problematic sets of ethics. There’s no rule Jimmy won’t bend given a good reason or a sufficiently difficult alternative, but he’d do anything for the people he loves. Chuck will follow the letter of the law with pedantic accuracy, but his immense capacity for spite causes him to act with shocking cruelty towards his own brother. This has been an outstanding season of television. I can’t wait for the next one. Pick of the week.

Last Week Tonight: April 18, 2016 — People who watch clips of this on YouTube rather than whole episodes miss some really great stuff, i.e. a truly horrifying montage of documentary promos from WCBS 2 News. At least once, watch the whole show. Really.

Podcasts

StartUp: “Almost Famous” — A little dull. I feel like this is retreading familiar beats from previous seasons, even though it’s a total change of format. But on the other hand, since it isn’t serialized anymore, I guess I don’t have to worry about spending a whole season with this less-than-interesting story. It’s fine, not great.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Mindy Project and Romantic Comedies” — These are two topics that are not especially interesting to me, but I always love hearing Linda Holmes talk about romantic comedy. It’s one of her especially shimmering areas of specialization. This also has some truly choice Audie Cornishisms. I should really start listening to the All Things Considered podcast.

This American Life: “Middle School” — This show is at its best when it handles mundane stories. This episode details stuff that happens all over America (and Canada) every weekday, but which nobody in the adult world really pays attention to. It couldn’t be more relevant, in the sense that middle school affects everybody, whether they’re a child or a parent, or just a former child. But what I love most about this is, as with all of the best TAL, there’s no sense of “import” to it. It’s fun, full of pathos, and delves into a huge part of modern life. Pick of the week.

The Bugle: “Sick Bugle” — Their second episode after a long time away (and an even longer time of me being away from them) was delayed by the illness of international superstar John Oliver. So instead, we get a compilation of all of the best stuff from previous Aprils. Which is just what I needed to start loving this again. As comedy podcasts in the venerable subgenre of “two guys talking” go, this is head and shoulders above absolutely everything else. What’s consistently amazing about it is that international superstar John Oliver is actually the slightly less funny of the two hosts.

All Songs Considered: “Sturgill Simpson Talks About His ‘Guide To Earth’” — I’m conflicted about whether or not I’ll listen to Sturgill Simpson, and moreover, I can’t decide whether I’d go with the new one, or that really acclaimed one from a year or two ago. We’ll see. In any case, I’ve heard a few of the songs now, so when it’s on a bunch of year-end lists, I’ll be able to say, “eh, alright.”

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Comedian Josh Gondelman” — I have to know what that story is that Linda likes so much, so I’m going to go listen to his album. See above.

On The Media: “On Shakespeare” — I love when Brooke Gladstone becomes this kind of media critic. She’s less interested in news critiques than in understanding the transmission of information. And, no information has been more complicatedly transmitted than Shakespeare. This starts off with a fairly familiar survey of the bunk theories about Shakespeare not having written Shakespeare, and mercifully, it doesn’t entertain any of them. But it goes on to tell the fascinating story of Delia Bacon, the originator of the Baconian theory (named for Francis Bacon, no relation). Then it tells the story of a production of Love’s Labours Lost in Afghanistan during a lull in Taliban power. Both of those are stories I’d never heard and they are really interesting.

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.

Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 3)

What a week. I’ve been off work, and getting a bunch of necessary things done: a bunch of cleaning, a bunch of writing — also a bunch of running and a certain amount of riding the bus to pubs, bonfires, etc. So, a lot of music and a lot of podcasts. But there have also been many hours of sitting around, regathering my sanity, and innumerable cups of tea. Thus the television, the game, and the reading.

The result of all that is, I think, my largest Omnireviewer post yet. (I’m not going to take the time to verify that.) There are 35 reviews here, and that’s with me having grouped a number of things together (and still excluding Radiotopia reviews for Podquest reasons). Counting every episode, album etc. as one would give me the shattering total score of 42. (Which is a lovely coincidence, considering that Douglas Adams makes two appearances here.)

In recognition of this large, large number, I have allowed myself to choose three picks of the week: one podcast and two others. But frankly, even if it had been a normal week, I would have been tempted to do the same. The first two picks of the week you’ll come to are things that I believe should be and will be talked about for years. This hasn’t just been a week of cultural gluttony: it’s been a week where I’ve come across a number of really astonishing things in a short period of time. And frankly, for all the time it’s taken, I think it’s also inspired me to get more done.

We’ll begin with something I watched a week ago, which seems like a strangely long time.

Television

Horace and Pete: episodes 9-10 — (I despise the concept of spoiler warnings, but I’m willing to concede that the finale of Horace and Pete is probably best unspoilt. After all, this show was released as a complete surprise for the explicit reason that C.K. didn’t want the hype machine to affect the way that people saw the show. I think that was wise. This is therefore the only spoiler warning you’ll ever see on my blog.) Louis C.K.’s critique of American values ends two ways. In the first way, Pete dies tragically and Horace decides to change his attitude after an encounter with a supernaturally nice woman played by Amy Sedaris. The story fades to black over the strains of Paul Simon’s “America.” We are reminded that regardless of the divisions in American society (divisions that have been shown to date back decades, to when Uncle Pete was vehemently anti-Gerald Ford), and regardless of the tragedies that befall individuals, America soldiers on. This ending has every property of a TV finale, except for the fact that it doesn’t actually end there. The other way that Horace and Pete ends finds Horace killed by Pete, and Pete completely mad. It fades to black over the strains of the now familiar (but suddenly more bitter than sweet) theme song, also by Paul Simon. In this version of the ending, America doesn’t survive — not in any form worth respecting, anyway. Sylvia abandons Horace and Pete’s to be forgotten, and rebuilds her life around something entirely different. She wipes it all out, just like Kurt the nihilist barfly always said should happen to the whole country. I’m not sure there’s any internally consistent metaphor in either of these endings — for all of its speechifying, Horace and Pete isn’t message fiction. It’s subtler than that. But I think that the fact that there are two endings present (and I do think that it’s meant to be read as a double-ending — consider that C.K. has never signposted where reality stops and fantasy begins in this show) basically sums up C.K.’s centrism and his belief that it’s never so simple as the ideologues say it is. Lots of political artists working in pop fields have tried to champion the centre. I’m never convinced. I’m still not. But Horace and Pete is the first interesting piece of explicitly centrist political art that I’ve seen. It succeeds where the Coen Brothers have often failed, and where South Park has actually made me angry. It’s the best TV of the year. I know it’s only April, but I don’t see anything unseating it. Its many imperfections only enrich it. Pick of the week.

Last Week Tonight: April 3, 2016 — Sometimes I play dumb iPhone games while I watch things, and then I don’t have much to say about them. Sorry.

Better Call Saul: “Fifi” — I love that there are no simple relationships in this show. Kim and Chuck, for instance. They’ve always been friendly, and we’ve even seen Chuck be totally supportive of Kim. But she’s not important enough to him that he won’t throw her under the bus to get at Jimmy. In other plotlines, it remains very interesting to see Jimmy’s story continue in low-rent Mad Men mode while Mike’s slowly turns into Breaking Bad. Saul Goodman, dodgy criminal defender, still seems a long way off. But Mike the Cleaner is fast approaching.

Archer: Season 7, episodes 1 & 2 — Archer remains Archer. I think unless this season really breaks new ground midway through, it’ll be my last. Archer is good comfort food: the rhythms of it are that predictable by this point. But it used to make me laugh like a maniac and it doesn’t anymore.

Doctor Who: “Planet of Giants” — A while back, before I was even writing these reviews, I decided to start watching classic Doctor Who from the beginning. Lest you think me completely insane, I’m not doing this because I enjoy badly-written, poorly-paced, obviously low-budget sci-fi television from the 60s. Clearly, it’s been a slow process, since I haven’t watched a single First Doctor serial since Omnireviewer began. The reason I’m doing this, really, is because I’m reading an excellent book by Phil Sandifer on early Doctor Who as a British cultural artifact, which demands a certain amount of familiarity with the show itself. (More on that below.) Yes, I’m watching television to prepare for the higher pleasure of reading scholarly essays about it. I am completely well-adjusted. Anyway, “Planet of Giants” is probably my favourite story up to this point in the series’ run. It’s still pretty bad in a lot of ways. The characters are all meant to be smart but they’re all constantly acting dumb for plot reasons. When the TARDIS lands, it’s immediately obvious to the audience that they’ve all shrunk, but the characters take half an episode to figure out what’s going on. There’s a lot of that. On the other hand, the sets are delightful. Seeing Susan and the Doctor stranded in a sink is hilarious. And the fact that the normal-sized people have their own plotline that has a direct impact on the TARDIS crew’s plotline without the two groups ever meeting is legitimately clever. Don’t misunderstand me: mid-60s Doctor Who is bad TV by modern standards. But it is profoundly interesting, and you can totally see how it would soon grow into a show with lasting value. (The Second Doctor is my personal favourite from the classic series.)

Literature, etc.

Philip Sandifer: TARDIS Eruditorum, Volume One — This is the first collected edition of essays from Sandifer’s incredible TARDIS Eruditorum blog. This volume covers the William Hartnell years of the show. It is idiosyncratic and literary enough to be far more engaging than your standard scholarly article, but it’s also far more thoughtful than what you’ll find on most TV recapping/review sites. I’ll be honest, it’s basically my benchmark for great cultural criticism (along with Chris O’Leary’s Pushing Ahead of the Dame). The book version is substantially expanded, and I’d recommend it specifically to anybody who’s trying to get through the full classic series. At the very least, it will ensure that after the show’s frequent shitty instalments, you will at least be prepared to read something interesting about it. This week, I read the essay on “Planet of Giants,” and the subsequent two essays on relevant book tie-ins that I will never read. Part of the appeal of TARDIS Eruditorum is that it can give you a sense of the vastness of Doctor Who’s extended universe without you actually having to put yourself through any of it. (Though I must say, Sandifer makes a compelling case for The Time Travellers as a solid science fiction novel…)

David Day: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded — Day’s book is exactly what I wanted it to be: a volume of fascinating and not entirely convincing conspiracy theories about hidden meanings in classic children’s literature. First off, there are hidden meanings in Alice; that much is clear upon even the most cursory reading. But some of Day’s most compelling interpretational moments hinge on incredibly thin textual evidence — thus my remark about conspiracy theories. Here’s my personal favourite. Near the beginning of the book, Day gives an actually totally convincing analysis of the specific way in which Alice forgets her multiplication tables at the beginning of the book — she’s just ceased to express them in base 10. This checks out, and it’s amazing. She gradually establishes a pattern which continues as she expresses values in increasing bases, but when she reaches base 42 (in uncanny anticipation of Douglas Adams), the pattern collapses. Day then falls over himself to find examples of the number 42 throughout the text. (The playing-card gardeners Alice meets have a total value of 14, and there are three of them. 14 x 3 = 42. A stretch, certainly.) But, when the end of the book comes around and the Knave of Hearts is on trial for stealing the Queen’s tarts, the King invokes Rule Forty-Two: “the oldest rule in the book.” Day suggests that the book in question is not the King’s book of law — because surely the oldest rule in that book would be number one. Alice even says as much. The book in question is Alice itself, with this being a callback to the logical collapse that resulted from Alice’s attempt at multiplication tables in base 42 at the beginning of her adventure. And, upon invocation of this rule, Alice’s dream collapses upon itself — literally like a house of cards — and she wakes up. I love this. This makes Alice a better book, regardless of whether it’s intentional. And maybe it is. Not all of Day’s notes are this interesting; a lot of it relies on paralleling Wonderland characters with Oxford higher-ups of Carroll’s time. One even suspects that Day really wanted to write a book solely about Wonderland and Oxford, but was coerced into including other elements for the sake of general interest. Perhaps that isn’t fair. Also, Day is quite eager to dismiss the popular accusation that Carroll was a pedophile, though he does offer a compelling (or perhaps just comforting) argument that he would likely not have ever acted on this tendency. Still, I’d totally recommend Day’s book to anybody who wants to re-read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with some significant added value. And Alice is worth re-reading, regardless. This time through I noticed something that evaded me the two or three times I read it as a child: not a single one of Wonderland’s characters are “generic eccentric” in the way they tend to be portrayed in adaptations. Every one of them has their own peculiar way of thinking and speaking. The Hatter is not the Caterpillar is not the Mock Turtle. And Alice herself is a marvellous protagonist: we spend a great deal of time, particularly early in the book, inside her head as she attempts to find reason in Wonderland’s madness. And we become accustomed to her way of thinking, which is unique in itself. This was great.

Music

Killer Mike: R.A.P. Music — In retrospect, this is basically a Run the Jewels album where El-P doesn’t rap (much). The element that I missed most from the more familiar Run the Jewels records when I listened to Fantastic Damage last week was the preponderance of synth leads and basses, which are here in spades. The opening of “Don’t Die” is basically what I love most about El-P. And as much as I love him as a rapper, I found a full album of him a bit much to take. Mike, on the other hand, I could listen to for pretty much any amount of time. I love when he gets conspiratorial. “Reagan” is a hell of a thing. I think I like this as much as the first Run the Jewels album.

John Congleton and the Nighty Nite: Until the Horror Goes — This lived up to all my hopes and nightmares. The lead single, “Until It Goes,” was an immediate favourite a couple of weeks ago — one of those songs I can listen to a dozen times a day and still want more. But, having listened to the album a few times now, I think it’s possible that every other song on the album is as good or better than that one. Congleton writes huge, hooky anthems that wouldn’t be out of place on an Arcade Fire album. But instead of filling those anthems up with the usual lyrical platitudes, he gives us a guided tour of a mind that’s been considering some of modern life’s darker questions and not coming up with any reassuring answers. And he clothes his nihilistic mock anthems in nightmarish sonic garb — moaning, wheezing synths; heavy guitars; incessant drum beats and dissonant, automatic vocal harmonies. The final effect is more Brian Eno than Win Butler. High praise, I know. It’s Here Come the Warm Jets filtered through Videodrome. This anxiety-ridden, jumpy, loud, electronic-y rock and roll is exactly the catharsis I want in 2016. A masterpiece. My favourite album of the year so far, narrowly edging out Bowie. Pick of the week.

Darq E Freaker: ADHD — Purchased on the strength of “Venom,” which floored me in NPR’s Austin 100. I love “Venom” much more than the rest of this EP, for reasons I can’t entirely quantify. Alas, this is far too “dance music” for me. Ah, well. Gotta take risks.

Roxy Music: Roxy Music — Reading David Sheppard’s Eno biography really put a fine point on the extent to which Roxy Music shared a cultural moment with King Crimson. Listening to this now, it almost seems like an alternate version of In the Court of the Crimson King where Robert Fripp and Peter Sinfield were more conventionally “cool.” I suppose their analogues in terms of influence would be Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno. So, I guess that’s actually true. When I hear the dinner party nat sound that starts the album I always picture Ferry — working class, posing — dressed in a white suit just a tad too dazzling, and drinking champagne, trying to fit in. “Oh, by the way, I’ve brought my cross-dressing synthesizer friend.” In any case, it’s gradually dawned on me that this is a really good album — at least as good as For Your Pleasure. It’s really interesting to hear music made by two geniuses who don’t really know anything about music or their instruments, but anchored by a virtuoso guitarist of at least David Gilmour calibre. Phil Manzanera roars out of the gate on this. He must be one of the most underrated musicians in rock. One or the other of this and For Your Pleasure would likely make my top 10 of the 70s.

Henryk Górecki/David Zinman, Dawn Upshaw & the London Sinfonietta: Symphony No. 3 “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” — I think I gave this one listen in my undergrad and decided it was overrated. But now, with the impending release of the adaptation listed below, I figured I’d give it another shot. I’m still lukewarm on much of it. I can understand why it’s so beloved, but the best bits are overexposed in movies, etc., and a lot of the less familiar moments are also less memorable. Not a favourite, but good music.

Colin Stetson: Sorrow — I feel like I need to take this review in steps. (1) Adapting, arranging and remaking classical pieces is a good idea — and indeed, necessary for the tradition’s continued vitality. The thing that the classical music community has the most wrong is their reverence for the composer’s intentions above all else. There’s even a famous conducting textbook called The Composer’s Advocate, as if to suggest that a person who is actually present in the room when the music is made could somehow be less important than the person who wrote the road map. That is bullshit beyond measure. Literally every other “high art” form has moved past that. Shakespeare’s plays are most frequently performed in modern fashions, reflecting the director’s taste rather than the period of their composition. In literary criticism, Barthes proclaimed the death of the author 50 years ago. And yet, classical music circles are still crowded with ass-backward pedants who insist that the composers of the great symphonies must have the final say on their works. Even the notion of listening to a single, isolated movement rather than the whole work is considered sacrilege by some, because these pieces are regarded as holy texts rather than what they are: nothing more or less than indexes of their cultures. If this mothballed philosophy is allowed to continue for long, classical music will slink off to a corner and die, and nobody will miss it. I sure as hell won’t. So, when somebody like Max Richter or Colin Stetson comes along and offers an entirely new take on a work from this world, it is to be welcomed. (2) The works that most require this treatment are the ones held in the highest esteem. There’s plenty of music out there by living composers that hasn’t yet found the audience it deserves in its original form. And there’s plenty of overlooked music from past centuries. That stuff needs its first hearing before it’s given a reevaluation. So: rewrite The Four Seasons. Because I don’t give a fuck about it anymore, and neither should you. I don’t care if it’s a masterpiece; it’s broken. We broke it with overexposure. It’s not good anymore. Max Richter’s rewrite is better than Vivaldi’s original by default, because it’s new. (3) If there is a single work from the notoriously neglected late 20th-century repertoire that needs a similar treatment, it’s the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. This piece became something close to a fad in the early 90s. Zinman’s recording sold a million copies. It’s in every movie. So, reworking Górecki is a solid idea. God’s work, really. (4) Colin Stetson’s adaptation is not very good. The parts that work best are the bits where it’s just him on multitracked saxes and other reeds. But, when the drums and guitars come in, things go off the rails. Stetson is clearly aiming for post-rock, but he hits much closer to “new age.” The third movement even borders on cheesy gothic metal territory, at times. The original symphony didn’t necessarily traffic in restraint, but this turns everything up to 11, and entirely lacks the self-awareness to critique its own kitschiness. The shimmery production doesn’t help matters. I do like bits of the second movement, but by and large this is a pretty damp effort. (5) I want there to be more like this. There are sure to be pedants who will dislike this on principle. I agree with them that it’s bad. But I also think they are idiots. They are boring zombies without insight of their own, mindlessly puking up rote recitations of concert hall orthodoxy. They are eating the necrotic bits off of a body that isn’t even quite dead yet. They are the enemy. It probably seems like I’m setting up a strawman to beat down. I am not. I have talked to these people. They are vile. (6) Colin Stetson, I applaud you. Do more of this. May it appeal to me more next time.

Tim Hecker binge: Virgins, Harmony in Ultraviolet, Mirages and Radio Amor — Tim Hecker’s got a new album out. I haven’t gotten around to it yet, but in anticipation, I figured I’d check out some of the catalogue. Virgins blew me away when it first came out, but it’s taken until now to listen through the other three albums I’ve had sitting on my shelf for some time. None are as good as Virgins, because they’re just not as confrontational. Virgins has some of the characteristics of Eno’s ambient music, but it definitely isn’t that: it’s a huge, commanding presence that dares you to ignore one second of it. That’s in spite of the fact that it has very little in the way of melody, and even less in the way of a beat. It’s also better than the other albums because it is a more seamless hybrid of live and electronic sounds. Virgins sounds present partially because it is largely composed of sounds that happened in a room at some point, rather than imaginary sounds that only ever existed on a computer. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But an album like Harmony in Ultraviolet, while good, pales in comparison to Virgins because the latter is so much more fascinatingly imperfect. Harmony, Radio Amor and Mirages are all generally more “ambient” than Virgins is, but all of them have an abrasiveness that prevents them from ever really fading into the background. Mirages is the best of the three, maintaining a bittersweet mood throughout, with implied harmonies and textures that seem to break apart as they form. Still: it’s homogenous compared to Virgins. I’m really looking forward to hearing Love Streams, because it sounds like Hecker is continuing to explore the electroacoustic direction he went in on Virgins. More on that next week, I’m sure.

Gonzales: Solo Piano — I have a gut response to Chilly Gonzales that I’m not proud of. It goes something like: “he’s not as clever as he thinks he is.” That’s never a good way to think about an artist. An artist is as clever as they are. How clever they think they are shouldn’t enter into the equation, even when they tout it constantly. Whether or not they live up to their own pronouncements is in the eye of the beholder. And, hearing this album for the first time, it’s hard to justify that kind of antipathy. These are intentionally simple, slight little pieces for the passive entertainment of whoever’s around. The recording itself is delightfully idiosyncratic: every imperfection in the specific piano that Gonzales is playing is amped up, from the heavy key click to the weird overtones in the high end. I like this. And I’d wager just about everybody would like it at least a little bit. Give it a shot.

NPR Music: The rest of the Austin 100 — If you didn’t download this when you had the chance, at least go and stream it. You’ll discover at least a few things you’ll like.

Games

EarthBound — Having exhausted my Steam purchases from the Christmas sale, it’s nearly time for me to embark on my second (and inevitably, third) playthrough of Undertale. But first, I figured I’d check out the acclaimed, weird little game that so much of it apparently riffs on. So far it is charming, innocuous, unexpectedly self-aware, and has too much RPG combat in it. I will persist, because enough interesting people seem to love this game that I feel like there must be more to it.

Podcasts

Reply All: “A Simple Question” — P.J. Vogt’s description of the inescapability of Verizon’s Fios advertizing in New York City is one of the best writing moments on this show so far. This show also features some of the best tape from a city council meeting that I’ve ever heard. Basically, Verizon is awful and this story is fantastic.

On the Media: “We Gotta Try Harder” — Those watching American politics in a state of confusion and despair should listen to OTM. It will mitigate against the confusion. The despair, alas, is inevitable. Here, though, Gladstone takes on Ghanaian journalism as well. I wish she’d pushed a bit harder in her conversation with the undercover journalist who has influenced policy and exposed crime in that country. He’s pretty astonishing, but only one ethics question? Come on, Brooke. Give the people what they want.

All Songs Considered: “A Conversation with Explosions In The Sky” — Nah, I’m not going to listen to this album. They say they were trying to make a “love it or hate it” record that nobody will think is only okay, but everything I’ve heard from it so far has been completely middle of the road. Maybe if people are still into it at the end of the year.

Sampler: “Crimble Bramble” — I think I’ve found the appeal of Sampler: when there are guests on the show from my favourite podcasts, and they’re there to talk about their favourite podcasts, it’s going to be interesting. This helped everything fall into place about P.J. Vogt and Alex Goldman. The fact that they listen to so many comedy podcasts says a lot about why Reply All is the way it is.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The Real Housewives of Potomac” — I really like Brittany Luse. The fact that I listened to this right after an episode of Sampler is just a coincidence, but I think the podcast gods are telling me to listen to For Colored Nerds. I will not, however, be watching The Real Housewives of Potomac.

Serial: “Present for Duty” — This season of Serial has been neither the most valuable radio I’ve heard in the past months, nor among the most interesting. But this episode, which poses the question: “Did American soldiers die searching for Bowe Bergdahl?” is very good. Honestly, I think that the best presentation of this story would have been a two-part (maybe three-part) episode of This American Life. Broadly, it would have focussed on the details in the first and last episodes of the season, with a few of the asides in the intervening episodes incorporated in truncated form. Koenig and her team should have been allowed to do the same amount of investigation and reporting that went into these 11 episodes, but made to tell the story in a more focussed way. Because, the tiny details of this story just aren’t as compelling as the details of season one’s story. Military bureaucracy is not as interesting as investigating possible alibis. By and large, Serial season two is a miss. It told some interesting stories, but it weighed them down with a lot of stuff that I just don’t think is important to know about Bergdahl, and which certainly isn’t interesting. All the same, they’re apparently done a chunk of season three already. Maybe it’ll work better. I’m not not looking forward to it.

On the Media: “Is This Food Racist?” — Having also heard the first episode of The Sporkful’s “Other People’s Food” series at the time of writing this (see below), I’m glad that Brooke Gladstone invited Dan Pashman on, if only to explicitly call bullshit on chef Rick Bayless for his total ignorance of white privilege. Not just his own privilege, mind, but the very concept of it. Disquieting.

The Sporkful: “Other People’s Food” — This is a five-part series that I can’t recommend highly enough. Dan Pashman explores how what we think about people affects how we think about their food. There are things in here that you likely won’t have thought about if you’re white and dumb, like me. Like, Americans aren’t willing to pay more than 30 bucks for Chinese food, and when they do, it’s shitty American-style Chinese food. But, they’ll pay a hundred dollars for great Japanese food. That’s in episode two. In episode three, Pashman eats apple pie with Joe McNeil of the Greensboro Four, who helped spark the movement that desegregated restaurants in the south. You should check this out. This is a few commutes worth of fun, thoughtful radio. Pick of the week.

Desert Island Discs, Archive 1991-1996: “Brian Eno” — Bless the BBC for making this archive available. This is what it says it is: notable people come on and play the records they’d take to a desert island. The podcast edition keeps the talking and shortens the music for rights reasons, which might actually make it better. Eno says he’s avoided choosing any records that he had something to do with, which certainly limits things. But it’s a good insight into just how omnivorous he’s always been.

Welcome to Night Vale: “The List” and “The Monolith” — Generally, I don’t like when Night Vale does continuity, but “The List” is based around one specific continuity reference that is unpredictable enough to be really clever. Really, though, I’m not even close to caught up with this, and I’m already feeling like it’s been on autopilot for a while. I keep listening in the hopes that something new will happen, and sometimes it does — like in the two specials I listened to a few weeks back. But by and large, this is all starting to feel the same.

Desert Island Discs: “Gloria Steinem” — Something a little more contemporary, now. This was weird. The interview was good, but not as good as Terry Gross’s from months ago, and it touches on several of the same topics. And given that this is not an interview with a musician, as the archival Eno episode was, the music really doesn’t seem to fit. I dunno about this. Let’s try one more, from the archive and see how that goes.

Desert Island Discs, Archive 1991-1996: “Douglas Adams” — There’s a moment in this where the interviewer, Sue Lawley, is asking Adams about his enthusiasm for computers. He goes on for a bit, and then she basically says “But do you really think they’ll replace the human brain?” And then you remember what 1994 was like. (I do, barely.) This is fun, but I do wish that rather than doing a straight-ahead biographical interview with interspersed records, they’d really dive into what the records mean to the person, in their life and in their creative work. This show seems like a (surprisingly long-lived) missed opportunity to really dig into music as an index for culture at large. It’s still kind of fun, and I’ll probably listen to more. But basically, meh. Also, Adams references that he was working on a Hitchhiker screenplay at the time. How amazing that it didn’t come out until eleven years later, only once Adams was quite substantially deceased.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Weezer, The Jayhawks, Colin Stetson, More” — I’ve heard almost no Weezer in my life, and when I heard this Weezer track, even I was like “wow, that’s Weezer.” Both of these hosts like that Colin Stetson thing more than me, but I really am glad they made space for it. It’s certainly interesting, if nothing else.

On the Media: “Behind the Panama Papers” — OTM is so good that first-rate material like this doesn’t even make it into their full shows. The most interesting thing about this is Gerard Ryle’s take on why the Panama Papers weren’t front-page news in America.

Radiolab: “Cellmates” — Ah! The Radiolab of old! For the first time in ages, Robert Krulwich is the key storyteller, with Jad Abumrad just sitting back and leaning into the role of comedically sceptical buzzkill. Plus, the mix is insane and has some great music in it. And crucially, the story is about a scientific insight (okay, theory) with implications so cosmic that no other show would touch it. I’m still going with The Sporkful for my podcast pick of the week, but I’d love to hear more like this.

Surprisingly Awesome: “Circle of Fifths” — Disappointment was inevitable. For all that I’ve railed against this show’s assumption that things are mostly boring, the circle of fifths actually is boring. At least to anybody who’s gone to music school, which, granted, is a small number of people. I really don’t know why I listened to this. But: they seem to have toned down the fake boredom significantly since last I listened. That’s promising, and indicates that I may eventually come to like this show in some form.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Batman V Superman and Pop Culture Objects” and “Best Bad Movies and a Quiz” — Thank you Chris Klimek, for helping me decide to be one of the twelve people who doesn’t see Batman v Superman. And, per the second episode: aww, they’re all so happy to have Trey Graham back. So am I, actually. But that quiz was not very entertaining. Ehh.

All Songs Considered: “What Song Changed Your Life?” — Bob Boilen isn’t the sort of person whose book I’d necessarily read. Basically, he’s a companionable guy with really good taste — the perfect tour guide through new releases. But not a writer. Still, I’m glad to have heard this extract from Your Song Changed My Life, even if it does tread willfully along the standard lines of a late 60s musical coming-of-age. (The song that changed Boilen’s life is “A Day in the Life,” because of course it is.) I fanboyed a little when he told the story of his first time in an NPR studio, at the invitation of a young up-and-coming producer named Ira Glass.