It was the kind of week where I took in large amounts of a small number of things. So, a mere 20 reviews, this time. Having finally caught up on my podcast subscriptions, I can at last binge on some other podcasts that I’ve been meaning to check out for a while. I started listening to two new ones this week that are both blowing my mind. But first, everything else.
Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Tarkus — When I was a kid, I wanted to be Keith Emerson when I grew up. I listened to this album for the first time in ages when the news broke that he’d died. I’m eternally frustrated that the second side is so patchy when the first is so good. So, let’s just focus on what everybody comes to this album for: the 20-minute title track, which is simply a classic. And it’s almost entirely Emerson that makes it so good. Every one of his solos is a perfectly thought out little architectural marvel. This track, as much as anything, is the reason why I’ve never understood people who gripe about long solos. Actually, if “Tarkus” has a flaw, it’s that the organ solos are so good that you kind of find yourself waiting for the next one when Greg Lake starts singing or, bless him, playing guitar. And it all ends with the most gloriously silly synth riff ever written. This record is both a definitive period piece and a (half) masterpiece. RIP, Keith.
Glenn Gould & Toronto Symphony Orchestra: Beethoven PIano Concertos 1 & 2 — This is a scratchy, barely listenable old thing taken from a 1951 CBC broadcast. Gould was only 18, and had already been a regularly-featured soloist with the TSO for four years. CBC had caught on that this kid’s performances needed a national audience. It would be four more years before Columbia Records caught on, signed him and lifted him to international prominence with his debut recording of the Goldberg Variations. So, as a document, this is super cool. As an actual recording, the early 50s radio broadcastiness of it makes things difficult, but Gould is great here. People tend to be split on his Beethoven. It’s like, the Bach is beyond reproach, the Mozart is best forgotten, and the Beethoven is somewhere in between. I like Gould’s Beethoven. (And some of his Mozart, if we’re being honest.) And by age 18, he already had that unique tone that I love him for.
Kate Bush: The Sensual World — This is Kate Bush’s version of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous. Both were renowned for work that they did at very young ages, and both were increasingly ignored as their music approached increasingly adult subject matter. The Sensual World isn’t as consistent as Hounds of Love or as experimental as The Dreaming, but it has some of Bush’s most thoughtful songwriting. The title track, “The Fog,” “Heads We’re Dancing,” and obviously “This Woman’s Work” are all among the best music she ever made, and she couldn’t have made it as a less mature artist. Of course, many years later, she’d pull the same trick again on Aerial to even greater effect.
Where to Invade Next — Michael Moore’s gotten soft. Considering that he’s Michael Moore, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I enjoyed this very much, because I think that the United States needs as many reminders as it can get that the American experience is not the default human experience. But at the same time, I wanted to cry for most of its duration, because there are so many places that get such obvious things so right, and so many people who would doubtless call them wrong. Giving kids healthy, good meals in schools like they do in France shouldn’t sound revolutionary. Neither should Italy’s eight weeks of annual paid vacation, or Iceland’s policies on gender equality. It’s enough to make even us smug Canadians hang our heads in shame.
Cucumber/Banana/Tofu: Episodes 1-5 (of all three) — This is Russell T Davies’ antidote for every austere, staid, Oscar-nominated movie about gay people you’ve ever suffered through. I didn’t see this on any year-end lists, and that is a travesty. Cucumber, Davies’s middle-aged spiritual sequel to Queer as Folk, is unbelievable television. It has more kinetic energy than anything I’ve seen in ages. If you’re not pulled in by the first episode, which, holy hell does that ever start in one place and end up in another, then you’re watching television wrong. And in case eight hours of drama about middle-aged gay dudes doesn’t appeal, there’s Banana, the nearly-as-brilliant companion piece which focuses on members of the younger supporting cast. Tofu, the series of 11-minute documentary shorts that rounds out the trilogy, is not very good. But that in no goddamn way should prevent you from watching the other two shows. Now I feel bad about some of the crap I’ve said to people about Davies’ Doctor Who scripts. He is a genius, and I hope he quits smoking so we get maximum years of prosperous creativity from him. Pick of the week.
Last Week Tonight: March 6, 2016 — “What sound does Ann Coulter make as she falls down the stairs?” is my new favourite line on this show. Well, second favourite. My new actual favourite is “Tonight we are talking about special taxing districts. So, hello people watching for the first time because of our Trump piece! And also, I presume, goodbye.”
Better Call Saul: “Gloves Off” — So far in this show, it’s been obvious that Jimmy McGill has a long way to go before he properly becomes Saul Goodman. But it hasn’t been that obvious that Mike Ehrmantraut is on a similarly lengthy journey. Jonathan Banks’s wonderful performance is outwardly the same in its mannerisms, regardless of whether he’s the ruthless “cleaner” of Breaking Bad or the regretful ex-cop in Better Call Saul. But this episode demonstrates that there’s a chasm between those two versions of the character.
QI: “Misconceptions” — The episode I watched last week was apparently Stephen Fry’s last episode filmed, but this is his last transmitted. Dear me. How will they get by without him.
Welcome to Night Vale: “Homecoming” + Bonus Episodes 1 & 2 — I like Night Vale best when the comedic horrors give way to a bit of humanity. I don’t necessarily mean that the show is best when it has long character arcs. I’m inclined to think the opposite. “Homecoming” does it right. It tells a typical Night Vale supernatural story, but one that has specific resonance for Cecil. And it’s basically self-contained, without depending too heavily on your knowledge of continuity for emotional investment. The bonus episodes are not written by Fink and Cranor, and both are excellent (the first is exceptional), indicating that a bit of new blood could really punch up the show. Come to think of it, I wonder what Night Vale would be like if it had a writers’ room the size of a sitcom? Would it lose what makes it singular? Or would it have the variety it sometimes lacks?
You Must Remember This: “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” Parts 1-4 — I confess that my first impression of this was “why is this a podcast and not a book?” It is essentially just Karina Longworth reading a script, with no tape save for a few quick movie clips, and the unexpected presence of Nate DiMeo in the role of Charles Manson. But then I just got lost in how good it is. This is the sort of cultural history that I am a complete sucker for. The first episode is Longworth’s summary of everything that was set to go rotten in American counterculture in the late 60s, and it’s enthralling. Manson is a lens by which Longworth examines the dark side of the hippie movement — and not just the extreme dark side that culminated in a cult and several murders, but the more mundane dark side that resulted in the mainstreaming of outlaw culture. There was a segment of Flower Power that never meant to stop at mere resistance: there would be open rebellion. And, as Ian Anderson once observed, there was something more than vaguely fascist about that segment of counterculture. That’s all baked into Longworth’s narrative, but seen through the lens of Los Angeles as opposed to the more familiar (to me) London narrative, and through the lens of psychedelic film as opposed to the more familiar (to probably most people) psychedelic music narrative. Which is not to say that Longworth ignores the musical connections in the story. The third episode, which I understand is widely regarded as the crown jewel of the 12-part series, is the heartbreaking story of how Charles Manson broke Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. If you only feel like committing to one episode of Manson brutality, make it that one. I’m sure there will be others that equal it for me, but that’s really good radio.
Limetown: Season 1 — Yeah, I binged the whole season. It’s short. Many thoughts. First off, choosing the title of the final episode of Serial season one as the title of the first episode of your fictional Serial riff is ballsy. But Limetown lives up to the affectation. This is as convincing an impression of actual radio as Night Vale isn’t. And, I know they don’t bear comparison. And, I know they probably get compared more than they should, simply by virtue of being two of the three most buzzy fictional podcasts out there. (I will never listen to The Message, by the way. I’m sure it’s fine, but I don’t want to live in a world where all of the successful podcasts are fucking branded.) But truthfully, if Night Vale had this level of aesthetic verisimilitude, it would be a better podcast. Anyway, this had me emotionally invested and in suspense from the first minute. And from the second episode on, it is terrifying. I’ve talked before about how horror games are scarier to me than horror movies because they implicate you in the story. I think the same goes for audio, which forces you to paint the picture in your head, while maintaining the pace and the sense of inevitability of a movie. Plus, there’s even a bit of subtle metafiction in here: listen through earbuds, and you’ll know what it’s like to have people talking directly into your head. I’m eagerly awaiting the second season. Orson Welles would be proud. Pick of the week.
The Heart: “Ghost: Emily” — The best episode of the season so far. Several people discuss their animosity towards their partners’ exes. Of course, this being The Heart, it’s not played for laughs. It’s thoughtful and has plenty of that thing they do where half of the story is in the mix — things spoken aloud are separate in space from things left unsaid. Really good.
All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Sturgill Simpson, Beth Orton, Julianna Barwick, Damien Jurado, More” — Wasn’t feeling this quite as much as the last few, but hoo boy does that Heron Oblivion track ever hit that perfect 1967 sweet spot.
Theory of Everything: “Paris” — Benjamen Walker is really good at talking about the stuff that insufferable lefty arts people talk about without actually coming off as insufferable. Using that gift, he has become one of the great storytellers of the decline of modern cities — first by demolishing the sharing economy in “Instaserfs,” then by railing against the commodification of all space in “New York After Rent,” and now by exploring the chasm between the Paris of memory and the Paris of today.
99% Invisible: “The Giftschrank” — There are actual rooms in German libraries where they keep the dangerous literature. This is basically an account of what kinds of literature were considered dangerous at various points in time — courtesy of Sam Greenspan, who it is always good to hear from.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: American Crime” — Linda Holmes is in New York, talking to culture people! Danielle Henderson is great, and I would love to hear her on this show again. But I will not be watching American Crime.
The Memory Palace: “Homesteading” — DiMeo reigns it in, this week. A tight six minutes, and a tiny, charming story. It really is a bit too slight to be memorable, but I prefer this to the occasional bloat of recent episodes.
Reply All: “Milk Wanted” — Breast milk is apparently really expensive. Trust a Reply All producer (Phia Bennin, who is wonderful) to find out the internet repercussions of that.
All Songs Considered: “Iggy Pop & Josh Homme Talk ‘Post Pop Depression’” — Iggy Pop is one of the wittiest people in rock, and he and Josh Homme make a good double act. I intend to listen to the album, but I can’t have it be the first Iggy Pop album I listen to. Hell, I haven’t even heard Fun House.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr., Kanye, and Gilmore Girls” — Daoud Tyler-Ameen is a very clever interviewer and I would love to hear him do his own podcast. His interview with Leslie Odom Jr. really demonstrates that Lin-Manuel Miranda is not the only super smart person involved in Hamilton. I agree with Sean Rameswaram that all of the people who gave overwhelmingly positive reviews to The Life of Pablo the day after its release should be fired. And I’ve been told to watch Gilmore Girls by enough people, now including Daisy Rosario and Linda Holmes, that I probably will.