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