Tag Archives: Game of Thrones

Omnireviewer (week of May 29)

16 reviews. It’s been busy.

Music

Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial — I won’t say I love all of it. But I will say that “Vincent,” and “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” are up there with “Blackstar,” “Freedom” and ‘Animal Rites” as my favourite tracks of the year. This is guaranteed to grow on me in a big way. I can already recognize that it’s something really special. I may have my own idiosyncratic faves of the year so far — including John Congleton, Tim Hecker and David Bowie (atypical to the extent that I’m probably in the minority in thinking that Blackstar is one of his best albums) — but I’m happy to predict that for years to come, we’ll still be talking about Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of DenialPick of the week.

Jethro Tull: Nightcap: The Unreleased Masters — I can’t believe I’ve never listened to this. The first disc of this collection contains the music from the Chateau D’Herouville (nicknamed Chateau D’Horrible by the band) that predates A Passion Play but was never released. I won’t pretend it’s excellent — the best cuts made it onto A Passion Play, and the rest is mostly marginal. I suspect that these sessions are regarded more highly by people who don’t like A Passion Play as much as I do. Still, it’s got some worthwhile snippets and is absolutely fascinating as a document for geeks like me. The second disc contains some stuff I’d heard as bonus tracks on the second-most recent re-releases of the studio albums, and a bunch of stuff I hadn’t. The outtakes from the ‘70s are so close to album-calibre it’s almost painful. Some of the ‘80s stuff has its appeal too, but by the time we’re getting to Rock Island castoffs, things are getting dire.

Jethro Tull: Roots to Branches — Another album I can’t believe I’ve never heard. This is known among Tull fans, specifically those of us with an affinity for their proggier stuff, as the one really worthwhile ‘90s Tull album. Naturally, I really like it. There are problems: the digital keyboards are corny, and Anderson’s lyrics are not what they once were — in fact, they’re appallingly self-serious in places. But it’s definitely one of the good ones. It isn’t in the league of Songs From the Wood, for instance, but I’d put it about even with The Broadsword and the Beast.

Television

Game of Thrones: “Blood Of My Blood” — Well, Arya’s plotline has gone well off the rails. King’s Landing isn’t as fun when Cersei’s not in most of the scenes. And Sam’s father is introduced as yet another intransigent fuckhead without a shred of self-knowledge. Basically, this feels like all of the plotlines that weren’t good enough for last week’s awesome episode stuck together. It’s still not actually bad, though, and I remain thoroughly turned-around on this season.

Archer: “Deadly Velvet, Part 1” — Huh, I’m actually excited to see the end of this story, as opposed to just hearing the rest of the jokes. Archer is good, but I would like to see these writers do a different show soon.

Games

HyperBound — I’ll confess, a major part of why I wanted to play EarthBound in the first place is because I wanted to play this hack of it. I first heard about HyperBound in Anna Anthropy’s awesome games manifesto The Rise of the Videogame Zinesters. Essentially, it is a game that’s very unlike EarthBound, but which uses EarthBound as its building blocks. In HyperBound, Ness is not Ness, but rather a nameless amnesiac (ah, amnesia — always the most useful adventure game trope) who must travel through a number of towns gathering evidence about his former life. The principal new mechanic is quite ingenious: early in the game, you meet a doctor who will allow you to undertake a procedure to regain your memories. (The gameplay during the procedure feels like reverse Eternal Sunshine, but made of EarthBound sprites.) You can undergo the procedure whenever and however many times you like, but it has a slim chance of working. The more you’ve explored, the more likely it is to work. When it doesn’t work, it causes brain damage, which manifests as glitches in the game. (Much as EarthBound is a very reflexive game, HyperBound is a very reflexive hack.) For me, there are two problems with this. One is simply that I enjoyed EarthBound far more than I expected to, so playing this kind of makes me wish I was just playing EarthBound. (I had half expected to like it more than EarthBound, crazy as that sounds.) HyperBound eliminates the element of EarthBound that I found occasionally trying, the combat, and maintains the exploratory element that I enjoyed the most. But by the end of EarthBound, I had begun to appreciate the challenge of the combat, and it helped to break up gameplay. Now I miss it. But comparing the two games in this way is kind of moot: HyperBound’s goal isn’t to modify EarthBound, it’s to tell a substantial interactive story using the materials of another. Which leads me to my second issue: HyperBound doesn’t do as much to subvert EarthBound as I’d personally like. It’s not uncommon to encounter characters who speak the same dialogue as they did in the original version, and the tone of the original is replicated almost obsessively. There’s an opportunity here, given that this is effectively a mashup, to use the systems of meaning established in EarthBound for different purposes, thereby explicitly undermining them. The fact that HyperBound is so reluctant to take this approach is a bit disappointing to me. But, all of this is me refusing to take HyperBound on its own terms, which is terribly rude. It is spectacularly accomplished as a hack, and the intentional use of glitches is properly clever. Now that I’m done with this, I think it’s time for my second playthrough of Undertale. Now there’s a game that undermines EarthBound.

Podcasts

The Heart: “Ten Foot Pole” — Okay, this is getting great. On one hand, there’s the always-present discomfort about being entertained by somebody else’s real-life horror story, but this continuing series about a woman coming to terms with her childhood sexual abuse is the most gripping thing I’ve heard in awhile. In this episode, she actually talks to the man who abused her, though she doesn’t tell him who she is or bring up the abuse. Nonetheless, the conversation turns out to be shocking in its resonance. The Heart is a fantastic podcast, always, but I think this might be the most meaningful thing it’s ever done. And of course, it sounds amazing. These folks are the best audio editors at Radiotopia. (Alongside The Truth, maybe, but when have they had a story this good?)

StartUp: “Kitchen Confidential” — I’m starting to get sick of hearing the same story, week after week. Which is an ironic thing to say, given that this is the first season of StartUp to feature a different story every week, as opposed to one serialized narrative. But in focussing on the same moment in each of their subject companies’ developments — the “make or break” moment, to use the parlance of a superior podcast — they’re retreading the same narrative ground, again and again. A return to serialized seasons would be much appreciated at this point.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Live at Vulture Festival” — Okay, so their topical link to Vulture is pretty tenuous, but this is a fun listen. Linda and Glen are at their funniest in a live setting, and Stephen Thompson and Audie Cornish are both very thoughtful here. Cornish on pop culture and politics makes this worthwhile in itself.

Reply All: “On The Inside, Part III” — This is getting really awesome. The fact that Reply All is a show about the internet that employs a journalist with Sruthi Pinamaneni’s investigative chops ought to make every other internet-focussed media enterprise cower with shame.

On The Media: “Kidnapped” — A marvellous hour devoted to journalists who have been kidnapped reporting in war zones, especially in Syria. There are some extraordinary stories here. What’s particularly enraging is the fact that the systemic breakdown of journalism as an industry that hires reporters full-time can be linked to the problem: if you’re a freelancer, you’re incentivized to behave in really risky ways, like sneaking over borders and such. That, and many other aspects of this story make me want to throw things.

Love and Radio: “Another Planet” — Unlike most episodes of this show, this features a number of different characters, all telling the story of a single place: an abandoned gas station that was turned into an unofficial shelter and cultural centre for a community of (mostly) homeless people. But, like most episodes of this show, it doesn’t start out telling you that’s the story you’re hearing. The lede is always buried in Love and Radio, and that is why I love it so much. Also, Tim Robbins is in this for some reason.

Theory of Everything: “Analogue Time” — I think I prefer the 99pi version of the cassette tape story, but this pairs it with two other stories about technological change, including an account of why Benjamen Walker’s Radiotopia Live segment won’t work on the radio, and a reflection on David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Part of what I love about this show is its ability to find thematic resonances between little bits and pieces of things. It sort of scratches the itch that I’ve had since Radiolab changed format and started devoting whole episodes to single stories.  

Strangers: “The Son, The Goddess, and Leopoldo” — Here’s a good yarn. A boy born into a coven of lesbian witches travels America with his radical leftist mother and helplessly witnesses her abuse by a man who seemed to define everything she believed in. (So much abuse, this week.) It’s told in first-person by the son himself, and it twists and it turns and it twists. It’s appalling at times, but it’s one of those stories that’s so good you don’t pause it to do something else. I don’t listen to Strangers enough. Pick of the week.

Code Switch: “Can We Talk About Whiteness?” — Speaking as a really, really white person, it’s great to hear some smart people actually tackle the concept of whiteness head-on. It’s also a bit strange that the first episode of a podcast about race hosted by people of colour is about white people, but they lampshade that from the outset and who am I to say, anyway. This is really promising. I’m really looking forward to hearing more of this.

All Songs Considered: “The Worst Songs Of All Time?” — This is a lot of fun. Hearing Carrie Brownstein talk about music she hates is just great. “No Rain” by Blind Melon is “sitting on a couch with bad posture.” Talking about music doesn’t get any better than that.

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.

Omnireviewer (week of May 15)

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

Events

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

Music

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

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

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

Television

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

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

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

Comedy

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

Movies

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

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

Literature, etc.

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

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

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnireviewer (week of May 8, 2016)

A round 20.

Movies

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

Television

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

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

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

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

Music

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

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

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

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

Literature, etc.

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnireviewer (week of May 1, 2016)

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

Music

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

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

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

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

Television

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

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

Literature, etc.

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 24, 2016)

24 reviews, mostly of the audio persuasion, as I’ve been doing things and need things I can do at the same time as those things. The music takes it, this week. Of the five things I reviewed in that category, four blew my mind.

Television

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 2, episodes 2-6 — Okay, it’s picking up. There’s a moment in the second episode where Jane Krakowski and Anna Camp’s characters accidentally foreground their own passive aggression, and it is one of the funniest things this show has ever done. It’s all in the performances, too. This cast is so good that it can even prop up episodes where the writing isn’t up to par. Also, the concept of being excommunicated from the Apple Store made me laugh very hard.

Last Week Tonight: April 24, 2016 — The best they’ve done in a while. The presence of Lin-Manuel Miranda was always going to make me like it more, but the entire Puerto Rico segment is masterful.

Game of Thrones: “The Red Lady” — Oh, look what’s back. I wasn’t excited for this premiere, having outright loathed all but one (okay, maybe two) episodes of the (inexplicably Emmy-winning) fifth season. And the opening was not auspicious. Starting at the Wall was inevitable, but that plotline has been boring me for what feels like several seasons at this point. And having Ramsay Bolton, the most unwatchable character in prestige television, in the second segment felt like death. And when Brienne shows up to give a much needed infusion of characters I like into an otherwise plodding first third of the episode, it mostly seemed to indicate the extent to which Gwendoline Christie is a class act in a show that doesn’t deserve her anymore. Same goes for Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage, Iain Glen, Jonathan Pryce, Liam Cunningham and Emilia Clarke. Really, I’m in this for two reasons now: most prominently because I’m deeply susceptible to the sunk costs fallacy, but also because the cast remains mostly incredible and fun to watch. Hopefully that’ll get me through to the end of this interminable, bleak, dull, self-serious, water-cooler-moment-manufacturing, needlessly brutal, pedestrian drama.

Archer: Season 7, episodes 4 & 5 — Robo-Barry is always funny, Malory got her first solo plotline, and Krieger has facemasks (and hand replicas) of all of the other characters. So, episode four was great. Episode five, also great, but it’s the first of a two-parter, so I’m withholding judgement.

Movies

Anomalisa — This is going to take some time to process. It’s definitely very good. But, it’s also fairly unlike the other Charlie Kaufman movies that I love. There’s one moment of metafictional awareness here, and it is really something. But mostly, this movie is interested in telling a story that travels in a straight line. It’s a good enough story that the main character seems real and comprehensible, even as he behaves in completely unacceptable ways. Really, though, the reason to see this is the animation. It’s amazing to me that this was originally made for radio. It’s easy to see how that would have worked. The central conceit — the main character hears everybody (including Dame Joan Sutherland) as having the same voice except for one woman — is a radio conceit. But in this movie, the stop-motion animation dazzles as much as the script. I constantly found myself wondering how certain shots were done. I’m sure that’s not what the filmmakers intended me to be thinking, but it does go to show what an accomplishment this is on a purely technical level.

Super Troopers — The same person who I saw Anomalisa with this week also wanted to watch Super Troopers, which leaves me confused about his character. This movie makes 2002 look like a really long time ago. For one thing, that was apparently a time when comedies could have the premise “X, but funny!” Today, comedies aren’t defined by jokes; they’re built on premises and they happen to have jokes in them. All comedy is high-concept, and all comedy is working on some level of irony. But Super Troopers isn’t at all. And it’s not aping the style of anything in particular. It’s not a cop movie parody. It’s just a movie about some funny cops. In 2016, post Hot Fuzz (which was made all the way back in 2007, somehow), this is comedy from another planet. It is not a good movie.

Music

Prince: Sign ‘O the Times — I was unaware that Prince invented Quasimoto. And yet, there’s Prince, pitched up into an alter-ego, right there on “Housequake.” I read this described somewhere (the AV Club, I think) as a “one-man White Album.” I can’t put it any better than that. It’s even got clear Lennon moments (the title track) and McCartney moments (“Starfish and Coffee”) This doesn’t have the massive hooks that Purple Rain does, but it’s a way better album. Purple Rain’s dated drum sound and synths are nowhere to be heard. It’s kind of amazing that an album so obviously intended to be an index of its own cultural moment (a sign of the times), could have dated so much better than other music of its time. This is almost an hour and a half long and there is nothing on it that isn’t good. Many tracks are basically perfect. “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” is one of the most infectious things I’ve ever heard.

Beyoncé: Lemonade (visual album) — Music videos have always been a place for weird, avant-garde, non-linear, symbolic filmmaking to break the mainstream. To some extent, that’s why Alan Parker’s The Wall is ultimately a less compelling work of art than the album it’s based on: it’s too devoted to fleshing out a story that’s told in brief tableaus on the album. You want meaning to be suggested, rather than stated outright. That’s why the animated segments work best. It’s also why Lemonade is something very close to a masterpiece. And while it may seem a bizarre choice, The Wall isn’t the worst point of comparison for Lemonade — at least for somebody with my specific, limited set of reference points. They’re both personal conceptual opuses apparently created to help deal with an emotional wound. They’re both works that are likely to be called “self-indulgent” by uncharitable critics. They both channel personal narratives in the service of broader social insights. And both have visual elements that attempt to expand the forms and styles of music videos in their respective times to (near) feature length. But while The Wall is ham-fisted (hammer-fisted?) Lemonade leaves space for interpretation, possibly out of conflicting needs for privacy and self-expression. Even if some of it is pretty direct (Beyoncé flinging her wedding ring at the camera and singing “you’ll lose your wife” could really only be directed at one person), it mostly operates according to song logic, rather than movie logic. Which makes it strange that, in the end, Lemonade still gives you a better sense of the wound it was constructed to help heal than The Wall does. I imagine I’ll get a better sense of the music itself once I listen to the album in audio-only form, but this is really something. Pick of the week.

Moon Hooch: NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert — I haven’t been so unexpectedly bowled over by a group since I heard the Motion Trio play Michael Nyman music on three accordions. These guys have energy to burn. It is essentially EDM played on two saxophones and a drum kit. It must be seen and heard to be believed.

Kyle Craft: Dolls of Highland — Welcome to the concept of glam country. Lyrically, Craft is a blend of southern mysticism and Dylanesque oblique romanticism. Musically, he’s halfway between the Band and the Spiders from Mars. He has a way with a melodic hook, and holy smokes, that voice is like a fire alarm. I love it. “Lady of the Ark” and “Pentecost” have had a few weeks to grow on me, and those singles are, predictably, the most immediate songs on the album. But this is going to be one I’ll come back to. Between this and Until the Horror Goes, it’s turning out to be a good year for rock debuts.

The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground — Spun in preparation for the new Brian Eno album, which has a cover of “I’m Set Free.” I’ve loved the first two Velvet Underground albums for years, but never got around to checking out this or Loaded. Apparently, Eno loves this album so much that he’s never owned a copy for fear of becoming overfamiliar. I do see the appeal, though I definitely prefer the debut. I love the first album as much for its noisy sonic adventures as for its songwriting, and that element sort of left the band with John Cale. Still good.

Podcasts

Imaginary Worlds: “Economics of Thrones and Starships” — THIS is the reason I’m into genre fiction. The fact that the paratext of a show like Game of Thrones or Battlestar Galactica can be this interesting — i.e. their worlds can serve as hypotheticals for economic thought experiments — almost makes the question of whether the shows are any good moot. This might be my favourite episode of Imaginary Worlds aside from the Cthulhu one, which doesn’t really bear comparison to other episodes.

All Songs Considered: “Remembering Prince, The Utopian” — While I was listening to Ann Powers exposit on why she loves Prince, I thought of something. She talked about how his live shows were rituals, rather than just spectacles. That made me think of how incredible the opening of the Purple Rain album is. The start of “Let’s Go Crazy” is a secularization, and a humanization of the traditional funeral mass: “Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” First off, what a way to start an album. But also, I’ve been reflecting on how extraordinary it was to hear that for the first time on the day Prince died. And not only that, but to hear it on the radio, along with a community of people who were hearing it at the same time, albeit in many different places. It’s still a gathering of sorts, to get through this thing called life. When Bowie died, he left us an album that was meant to play like a message from beyond the grave. (“Look up here, man, I’m in heaven,” etc.) Prince did the same thing by accident, thirty years in advance.

Reply All: “Decoders” — I don’t know any other show that so fearlessly oscillates between very serious and very silly. First, Goldman and Vogt take the time to demonstrate how the debate over cracking the San Bernardino’s shooter’s iPhone is founded on false pretences. Then, they talk to Adam West. Love it.

Radiolab: “On the Edge” — Listening to figure skating is more compelling than you’d think. This is an interesting story with a great main character, figure skating iconoclast Surya Bonaly. It turns out to be a bit of a shaggy dog joke in the end. But hey: I listened to half and hour of radio about figure skating. Didn’t see that coming.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Summer Movie Preview” — My god, what a dire wasteland of a few months it’s going to be for movies. Thank god for Swiss Army Man.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Julia Louis-Dreyfus/Louis CK” — Maron’s two-part 700th episode extravaganza is a good distillation of why he’s earned his place in the pantheon of podcasting. He’s audibly nervous in his conversation with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but as with many great Maron interviews, the nervousness comes from a place of reverence — justified reverence. And while it’s not one of his best — Louis-Dreyfus seems perplexed that she’s found herself on a podcast, having a somewhat dubious understanding of what they are — it’s still an entertaining hour and a half. The second part with Louis CK, on the other hand, is totally essential, because it’s the most in-depth he’s gone on the making of Horace and Pete. Maron and CK have a compelling dynamic to begin with, but when CK is this excited to talk about something, it really adds something. This was released as two separate episodes. Both are worthwhile, but at least go listen to the Louis CK interview. Unless you haven’t watched Horace and Pete. In which case, plop down your 30 bucks for that, watch it, and then double back here. Maron talks about how Horace and Pete forced CK to listen more. On that note, I’ve never heard Maron listen to anybody so intently without interjecting. Normally, that wouldn’t be an asset on this podcast, but this is electrifying. Pick of the week.

StartUp: “Gaming the System” — Now I get why they did this as a two-episode slow burn. The company turned out to be something that everybody’s heard of. I love that. Now I’m really excited for this season. And the look-ahead to next week’s show is a great teaser.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’” — A slight, effective little segment on a thing that you cannot avoid hearing everybody’s thoughts on this week. These are thoughts you might be glad you heard.

This American Life: “In Defence of Ignorance” — Aw man, Ira’s so sick. But he soldiers through! This is a really good episode of This American Life. Sean Cole is one of my favourite radio producers. He’s the only person who could do a piece on psychological research and have it be hilarious. But the other two segments, both about people who suffer for knowing things that others don’t, are equally wonderful. Also, there’s Vulfpeck in this! Yay, Vulfpeck!

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Another Round’s Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton” — Linda Holmes really should have started this by telling us what Another Round is all about. Because, speaking as a large podcast nerd (see above, see below), I did not know this show. It does sound wonderful, though.

The Sporkful: “Comic Maria Bamford Risked Her Life For Ice Cream” — God, I love Maria Bamford. Probably one of my top three current comedians. Also, this is the first time I listened to The Sporkful while eating, and I think that is the way I will continue to do it, because this show makes me so hungry. I think if I ever met Dan Pashman, my stomach would immediately start growling as soon as he started talking. I’m becoming conditioned that way.

All Songs Considered: “Moon Hooch, Summer Cannibals, PUP, More” — Oh my god, Moon Hooch. If I ever get to be involved in a live show of any kind, with musical guests, I want to bring in Moon Hooch and the Motion Trio, and then have them play together. That is my new goal in life.

Reply All: “1000 Brimes” — An Email Debt Forgiveness day special that doesn’t match last year for volume, but has some very uncanny stories.

A belated reaction to Book Riot’s MaddAddam dream cast

I’m about three-quarters of the way through Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam right now, and it is the most exciting thing in my life. I’m becoming inordinately excited about HBO’s upcoming Darren Aronofsky-helmed TV adaptation of Atwood’s entire dystopian trilogy, to the point where it cannot possibly live up to my expectations. (The world building of Game of Thrones meets the storytelling density of The Wire meets the visual symbolism and character depth of The Sopranos…)

So, a few months late, I happened upon Book Riot’s MaddAddam dream cast, written by Josh Corman. Needless to say, I have some thoughts on his casting choices. Check out the Book Riot post, then read on:

(Oh, and I guess there might be spoilers ahead. Be warned.)

Aaron Paul as Jimmy/Snowman: Well, we’re used to seeing him as a feckless, brooding underachiever. So, that’s a point in his favour. But Snowman-the-Jimmy is more sardonic than Jesse Pinkman. I’m not sure Paul can divest himself of his sincerity to the extent required for him to match the Snowman in my brain.
My suggestion – Evan Peters: I confess that I’ve only seen Peters in one role – Quicksilver in the latest X-Men. There’s a teensy bit of overlap between the two characters: Quicksilver is basically the world’s most efficient slacker, after all. That role proved that he can bring the wit and the unlikely charm required for Jimmy. And, I just get the feeling based on reading his other credits (seemingly dominated by a bunch of roles on American Horror Story) that he can bring the vulnerability as well.

Paul Dano as Glenn/Crake: A million times, yes. This is so perfect that I’ll be disappointed if HBO casts anybody else.

Rinko Kikuchi as Oryx: Yeah, she’ll do. I liked her well enough in Pacific Rim. I can’t help but think that there must be somebody better out there. But, presumably because of the paucity of visible film and TV roles for Asian women, I haven’t the slightest clue who that person could be.

Anna Kendrick as Ren: I dunno. I can’t see Kendrick playing a character who suffers as much as Ren does. Corman writes that “Kendrick’s winning smile would make Ren’s fear all the more gripping,” but I suspect it would mostly just put a damper on what a shitty deal Ren gets in this story.
My suggestion – Emilia Clarke: It’s a pipe dream, I know. Game of Thrones will almost certainly be raging on when MaddAddam hits our screens, rendering Clarke woefully unavailable. But seriously, how perfect would she be? She could sell the dickens out of Ren’s fear and hurt. And who knows? Maybe the GoT showrunners will kill Dany off brutally next season so she can play Ren. We can only hope.

Ellen Page as Toby: Sorry, no. Even if she looked her age, she’d still look about 10 years too young. Plus, Toby is supposed to be a hard-shelled woman with a soft interior. Page’s calling card is the opposite: unthreatening, but with a steely resolve. I love her, but uh-uh.
My suggestion – Elizabeth Moss: Okay, I know she’s only five years older than Page. But somehow, I see this working. Atwood makes quite a lot of Toby’s unastounding appearance in the books, and we know from Mad Men season one that Moss can be made to look plain, with a certain amount of ingenious costume and makeup design. And, she’s flat out just one of the best actresses working today. She’s good at playing tough, intelligent characters. And I think she’d really shine in scenes with Toby and Zeb. Speaking of…

Chad Coleman as Zeb: Ooh, I like this. I totally wouldn’t have thought of it, since it’s been a while since I watched The Wire, and The Walking Dead isn’t really my thing. But this man has roguish charm to burn. And I suspect he could bring the requisite danger to Zebulon – every bit as important as the snark.

So, there’s my thoughts on the roles that Book Riot cast. But, while we’re playing this game, let’s do a few more. The MaddAddam trilogy is filled with vibrant supporting players. So, who should get the call for those?

Jeffrey Wright as Adam One: It’s all in the voice. Wright is capable of some seriously mellifluous tones. As far as I can tell from having read eleven-twelfths of the trilogy, Adam One’s defining traits are not so much charisma and wisdom, like you’d expect from a leader of a religious movement. It’s more a sort of brazen imperviousness and ruthless devotion to enacting his ends. He’s not a pastor; he’s an activist. I can see Wright pulling this off with marvellous aplomb.

Gillian Jacobs as Amanda: I envision Jacobs’ performance in this as basically a sincere version of her high school anarchist persona that crops up from time to time in Community. I think she could do that. And I think it would work. And, I think she has the range to pull off Amanda’s catatonia in the later parts of the story. And, I think she’d be brilliant alongside Emilia Clarke.

Constance Shulman as Pilar: She plays Yoga Jones in Orange is the New Black. It’s easy enough to picture her lovingly tending bees, but things would really get interesting when she’s pitted against Coleman’s Zeb in a chess match on the HealthWyzer premises. The thing about Shulman is that she’s a reassuring presence, but she can also totally rewire your impressions of a character in the course of a single scene so that she’s suddenly not reassuring anymore.

This was fun. God, I can’t wait for this show.