Greetings. What you don’t see represented here is the substantial amount of reading I did this week, mostly of New York Times features and things linked to in New York Times features. These sorts of things generally do not justify a review in my opinion, though there’s one I’ve started that will recieve one next week. I love the New York Times. I’m starting to love that paper the way people love bands.
Of my week’s reading, a not insubstantial part of it consisted of memorial pieces to the wonderful Anthony Bourdain, who I at some point, however briefly, wanted to be. When Bourdain had a conversation with somebody on television, he always ensured that the other person was the most important part of the scene. That’s in spite of the fact that Bourdain himself had a huge personality, a tremendous amount of expertise in his subject area, and an incredible ability to tell a story. He was the rare media figure who managed to have it both ways: he could be the show when the occasion called for it, and he could also be a conduit to focus our attention on people and places we wouldn’t otherwise have thought about.
Unrelatedly to all of this, there was a poignant quote from Bourdain in one of those pieces I read: “I will find myself in an airport, for instance, and I’ll order an airport hamburger. It’s an insignificant thing, it’s a small thing, it’s a hamburger, but it’s not a good one. Suddenly, I look at the hamburger and I find myself in a spiral of depression that can last for days.”
I see you, Tony. R.I.P.
CHVRCHES: Love is Dead — It’s fine. It’s CHVRCHES. I’m less enamoured of it than I was of their previous albums on a first listen or two. Particularly not the last one, which is still one of my go-tos when I feel the need for rousing pop. But Love is Dead has some great tracks, including and especially “Graffiti” and “Get Out.” The rest is likely to grow on me.
Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition — I first came to this shortly after it came out, and I was not feeling it. But it also struck me as an album that, one day, I would return to when curiosity struck and it might win me over. It did. Brown’s voice is the most batshit thing I’ve ever heard, and the beats on this, produced largely by Paul White (and in one case by the excellently monikered Black Milk) are the freakiest shit I’ve ever heard. Atrocity Exhibition is a difficult listen. It is ceaseless sensory overload. And yet the pieces seem to all fit together. Brown himself is an enthusiastically outspoken user of a wide range of intoxicants, and also seemingly an anxious depressive. His music is a manifestation of his inner life, and thus his lyrics, delivery, and the beats he raps over are self-consciously disorienting and bizarre. Imagine being a rapper and hearing the beat that would become “Downward Spiral.” Where do you even start with that? Still, for all his capacity to alienate, Brown is also a good hand with a hook. “Ain’t It Funny” and “Dance in the Water” are both likely to get stuck in your head in spite of their manifest abrasiveness. I love this. It’s grisly, depressive and freaky. It’s dark psychedelia for the 2010s.
Belle and Sebastian: If You’re Feeling Sinister — It’s got some nice tunes. Ultimately I’m happy that my way into Belle and Sebastian was the much more varied and professional The Life Pursuit, but I can see reasons other than nostalgia why this might strike some as superior. The lyrics are openly sentimental, but also clever. The characters in the songs are well-drawn, which is a rare thing in songs. The melodies are nice. I like it. I probably would have written it off if it had been the first thing I’d heard from this band. But as it stands I’ll put it into rotation and it’ll certainly grow on me.
Pusha-T: Daytona — I’m trying to warm up for the inevitably confusing experience of listening to ye, and this seemed like the way to do it. The frustration of being a Kanye fan is summed up neatly in “What Would Meek Do?” in which he has an embarrassing feature verse, but also builds the beat out of a moment in Yes’s “Heart of the Sunrise” that’s so insignificant it changes in every live version. I almost didn’t spot it. It’s genius. The man has the ears of a god, anyway. I enjoyed this a lot, though it went by awfully fast. I quite like its brevity, which makes it the right length to walk home to from most of the places I’m likely to be walking home from. I don’t have much to say about Pusha himself at this point. Further listens required. But I will register my initial approval here.
Brooke Gladstone & Josh Neufeld: The Influencing Machine — I’m ashamed of not having read this earlier, given my line of work and my devotion to On the Media. But I was in the library the other day and picked up half by accident, and now I’ve read it. Gladstone is one of the most cogent explainers of complicated things we have in this world, and we should take her for granted at our peril. This book distils centuries of history in the way we process information en masse into a graphic format that’s readable in a couple of sittings. It’s a marvel. Still, Gladstone’s implication that our furor about the state of the media circa 2011 was just a continuity of affairs since the beginnings of collective communication seems pollyannaish today. It’s still worth a read, though there are other problems as well. The illustration is sometimes dissonant in unconstructive ways: for instance, depicting Brooke Gladstone as the statue of Saddam Hussein in Al-Firdos Square. Just because she’s the one talking and that’s what she’s talking about doesn’t make the two of them co-extensive with each other. That’s what the cartoon implies, which is obviously not what it means. These things are important. Scott McCloud, for instance, wouldn’t be so imprecise with his comics avatar, which works in a similar way. Given that I read a copy from my public library, I was gratified to see that a previous reader had made some cogent notes. Gladstone writes about Ray Kurzweil’s opinion that humanity has just over a 50% chance of making it through its hardest trials. She continues: “And he’s a glass-half-full kind of guy.” My predecessor has scribbled out the “and” and replaced it with “but.” Thank you, predecessor. I suspect you’re right. I enjoyed this. But it’s no match for the up-to-the-minute media analysis that Gladstone does on her show on a weekly basis.
A Trip to the Moon, The Astronomer’s Dream & The Eclipse — I went to a short program of films by George Méliès at the planetarium across the street from my apartment. Seeing Méliès screened on a dome-shaped screen in a planetarium is a whole thing — if ever there was an artist who looked out at the cosmos and envisioned it in art, it’s Georges Méliès. And the planetarium gives the opportunity to look out into models of the stars as we now know them to be. That juxtaposition of a dream of space travel with the contemporary reality of it was really powerful. Other elements of the presentation were less powerful, but I was honestly just there for the films. These were projected alongside fairly placid live music that brought out the movies’ dreamlike strangeness rather than their comic timing, but it worked reasonably well. All three of these shorts have aged remarkably well for films that will be a century and a half old in not too long. The Astronomer’s Dream is certainly the creakiest of the bunch, but it was 1898. Credit where credit’s due. The Eclipse is the latest of the three, and certainly the most technically accomplished, though not the best. It contains a wonderfully suggestive space ballet in which the sun and the moon have a thing, and it envisions a meteor shower composed of human women in white dresses. That shot may be one of the most beautiful and imaginative things in the history of film, though that’s a thought that passes through one’s mind relatively frequently when watching Méliès films. Something about the complete lack of cinematic grammar that existed when he was first making movies prompted a sort of aesthetic originality that few have ever matched. The presenters mentioned David Lynch as a contemporary reference point, and I can certainly see similarities. Though, Lynch’s dreamlike aesthetic is deliberate and fussy, whereas for Méliès it seems to have simply been his way of hooking viewers through novelty. That leaves A Trip to the Moon, the most familiar of Méliès’ films, and one of the best damn things ever. The most iconic shot is the one where a rocket lands in the man in the moon’s eye, but the one that received the most attention from this program’s presenters — and incidentally, the one that stuck out to me in a way it hadn’t before — is a shot of our wily astronauts, having just arrived on the moon, seeing Earth from afar. It’s a shot that imagines a moment that wouldn’t happen for more than fifty years — and the fact that Méliès thought to include it, however briefly, demonstrates his sublime eye for a poetic image. This is the only image that could have prepared us for how moving it turned out to be to see photographs of the Earth from space. Now, that moment in A Trip to the Moon stands as a historical signpost of human progress, both cinematic and exploratory: how great an achievement, and yet how far we’ve come. Old movies make me sentimental. I like it that way.
The Death of Stalin — Far from Armando Iannucci’s best work, but it’s got plenty of good stuff. Casting Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev was genius. My attention was slightly divided while watching it, which I imagine is not ideal for this movie. In fact, you know what, I’m just going to watch it again sometime and review it properly then.
Hot Rod — As much as The Death of Stalin does not play in a situation where you’re not quite paying attention, this movie almost certainly plays BEST in that situation. It is one instance after another of Andy Samberg getting hurt. It is actors taking words and making them into just sounds. It has the emptiest, most vapid love interest character maybe ever. Smartly, it never lampshades this, because that characterization is, in itself, the joke. Its best bits include a man aggressively giving high fives for no reason and a hapless AM radio host with a complicated tattoo. It is cleverer than it seems on the face of it, but still very stupid. It’s a good comedy.
Tig Notaro: Tig Notaro LIVE & Happy to be Here — “Good evening, hello! I have cancer! How are you?” is probably one of the best jokes ever told. It’s almost unfair that Tig Notaro’s career was given such a boost by Tig Notaro LIVE, which is the set where she abandons all of her previous material to give a detailed explication of the absolutely terrible year she’d been having, which included not only her cancer diagnosis, but a terrible digestive disease, a breakup, and the tragic death of her mother. It doesn’t work because it’s “vulnerable” or “intimate” or any of the other reasons people are likely to give, which have nothing to do with comedy. It works because Tig Notaro is an expert at reading the room. By that, I don’t mean that she gives the crowd what they want. Rather, she uses their displeasure to her advantage. The funniest part of LIVE is when Notaro suddenly pivots from her cancer material straight back into the sort of absurdist observational comedy she would have done otherwise. Suddenly the jokes, which are funny in their own right, are hilarious because of the perversity of her telling them in this context. It’s a very good set. However, when I say it’s unfair that this set is the one that propelled Notaro to another level, that’s because she is an equally good if not better comic when she is dealing with totally quotidian subject matter. This year’s Netflix special Happy to be Here has very little talk of personal misfortune in it because, by the looks of it, Notaro’s life is pretty great now. The most significant thing to have changed between the two sets is Notaro’s marriage to the actor Stephanie Allynne, who sounds like she’s basically Karl Pilkington. Don’t meow at the kitten, Stephanie cautions Tig. You don’t know what you’re saying to her. Happy to be Here contains much of this domestic material, and it’s all great. But the thing that makes it an outstanding special is an extended bit about the Indigo Girls where Notaro uses the same sublime ability to take advantage of her audience’s annoyance that she does throughout LIVE. It’s worth watching for that alone. Pick of the week.
Love and Radio: “Counter Melody” — This is the story of a resentful obsessive who has a stupid idea about what the “enigma” in Enigma Variations is, and it ruined his life. It’s good.
In the Dark: “Punishment” & “The Trials of Curtis Flowers” — This is getting better and better. My question with journalism like this is often, how is it so easy for journalists to explain the weakness in the case of the prosecution, yet so difficult for defence lawyers? This goes some way towards answering that question, by demonstrating that the prosecutor did everything in his power to ensure an unfair trial. Listen from the beginning of the season. It’s well worth it.
Out of the Blocks: “Steal This Podcast” — This is a fun deconstruction of how an episode of this show is made. They go into a lot of detail about how to interview, and a fair bit about how to structure the tape you get from an interview. I do wish they’d talked a bit more about the design elements and the process of writing the music. But it’s still edifying, both as a listener and a producer.
Theory of Everything: “The Fake in the Crowd” — This episode of Benjamen Walker’s series on fakeness opens the door to the possibility that nobody advocating for any cause is actually who they are. This is clearly not true, but it’s a dangerous and fascinating idea because it’s the basis for a worldview where you can trust literally nothing.
The Daily: “Charm City” — This five-part series about race and policing in Baltimore follows one family through three generations and tracks the changes in black Baltimoreans’ relationship with law enforcement decade by decade. It’s magnificent journalism. The Daily is so good. The New York Times is so good.
Caliphate: “The Briefcase” — Speaking of the New York Times being very, very good, this is maybe the most affecting episode of Caliphate yet. In it, Rukmini Callimachi finds a briefcase full of documents that yield a great deal of information, and it traces back to one particular member of ISIS. The team tries to track him down, and only finds his family. And in that family, intense shame for what this man has gotten himself into. The story they tell about his childhood and how he came to his extremist views is the most penetrating single detail this series has offered about the process of radicalization so far. Pick of the week.
WTF with Marc Maron: “Anthony Bourdain from 2011” — Bourdain and Maron have a lot in common. But Maron seems to have escaped the darkness to an extent that Bourdain didn’t manage. This is a good conversation if you’re looking to understand Bourdain’s self-destructive side, which I imagine lots of people are right now.
Fresh Air: — “Anthony Bourdain,” “The Life and Death of Robin Williams/’Jessica Jones’ Star Krysten Ritter,” “Tig Notaro” & “Ronan Farrow” — The Bourdain remembrance is a Dave Davies interview and not a Terry Gross interview, but it’s still worthwhile. Though, there are a few moments that would appear to disprove the assertion in a few appreciations written this week that Bourdain didn’t repeat himself in interviews. If you want one audio interview to commemorate Anthony Bourdain, go with Maron. As for the rest of these, the interview with Dave Itzkoff about his new Robin Williams biography is well worthwhile, as is the Ronan Farrow episode. That last one doesn’t just focus on his Weinstein investigations, but his entire crazy life as a genius prodigy and son of celebrities. The Tig Notaro episode is fine, though there’s a weird moment where Terry Gross almost tries to defend Louis C.K. in spite of obviously finding him repulsive. It comes out of nowhere and is super weird and I don’t know why she felt compelled to do that, especially with Notaro seeming as viscerally uncomfortable as she is.