Tag Archives: Hamilton

Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 2, 2016)

Just a reminder that my Tumblr exists. Okay, that’s that.

23 reviews.


Last Week Tonight: October 2, 2016 — This has the unfortunate distinction of being the first episode of Last Week Tonight that I’ve watched after reading this extremely on-point parody of this show’s writing and John Oliver’s delivery. Obviously, the fact that it’s possible to make a parody of something does not itself make that thing bad; it only means that it’s possible to identify the tropes at play. That could mean that the thing being parodied is hackneyed or cliché (there is a reason there are a lot of buddy cop parodies), but it could equally mean that the subject of the parody simply has a distinctive voice (the reason that Weird Al’s “Dare to be Stupid” is such a good parody is that Devo is a good band, and Al wrote a song that’s worthy of them). But sometimes a parody can make the scales fall from your eyes so you can see a thing as it is. I have always been effusively positive about this show, but the John Oliver parody I linked above points out the fact that many of the jokes on Last Week Tonight aren’t actually jokes: they’re just lists of funny-sounding words, strung together into long sentences, which are then made the object of a comparison with a serious real-world person or thing. For instance, in this episode, Oliver ends a list of places Donald Trump gets his news with “the racist minotaur that talks to him in the one hour that he sleeps every night.” Every part of that phrase except for “racist” is entirely unmotivated by the context. The only reason for the big laugh that follows is that the phrase “racist minotaur” is funny at first… but should it be? Also, the latest in Oliver’s running gag of “alternate names for the 2016 election” is as follows: “what did I do to deserve this I always tried to be a good person is this because I stole candy once in 4th grade PLEASE STOP PUNISHING US 2016,” which, elaborate though it is, is still just finding a new sequence of words to say “the election is bad.” Also, at one point Oliver compares Hillary Clinton to “an over-confident sloth who has just learned that their credit card information has been stolen by a Ukrainian schoolboy,” except actually no, he doesn’t, because that line was from the parody BUT THE VERY FACT THAT FOR A SECOND YOU KIND OF BELIEVED IT SAYS SOMETHING about how formulaic the jokes on this show can get. (See what I did there? Mmmhmm.) Let me be clear: I still like this show. But when Oliver emphasizes (like Jon Stewart before him) that he’s a comedian and not an opinion journalist, it seems a bit pathetic to me, because he’s clearly more valuable for his skills in the latter domain than the former. The most genuinely hilarious moments on this show are in the clips that he chooses. The simple act of recontextualizing patently ridiculous moments on TV news in a comedy show, implicitly giving us permission to laugh at them, is valuable comedy — though Oliver is clearly not the only game in town in that respect. But the next time I hear somebody extol the calibre of the joke writing on Last Week Tonight, I am 85% less likely to nod in agreement.

Doctor Who: “Full Circle” — According to a recent Doctor Who poll, the best story that I haven’t seen is “Warrior’s Gate.” So, I figured I should just check out the whole trilogy that it’s the concluding entry in. Wow, it has been a while since I watched classic Doctor Who, and I had forgotten how much it demands of a modern audience. This is very difficult to take on a number of levels, just in terms of televisual grammar. You don’t get reaction shots where it seems clear that there should be a reaction shot, characters routinely make exclamations that reiterate something that’s just been shown onscreen, and the less said about the rubber monster suits, the better. But it has its appeal. Obviously it does, or else I wouldn’t have spent so many hours of my life watching old Doctor Who serials, most of which suffer these exact same problems. Ultimately, I never get tired of stories that paint a picture of a unique alien civilization at a turning point. And they are always at a turning point, because the Doctor is an agent of change, and his unexpected arrival (along with the TARDIS, his companions, and most importantly a film crew and a TV audience) must by necessity result in the forward motion of the plot. This is no “Ribos Operation,” but it is a perfectly competent iteration of that story. Also, Adric. Ugh.


Going Clear — This is fascinating, surprising and appalling. Each of the ex-Scientologists interviewed here has a compelling story about how they finally left the church. One can critique the extent to which the former high-ranking Scientologists are allowed to get away with the fairly terrible things they took part in. But the villain of this piece is Scientology itself, and to a lesser extent, its current leader, David Miscavige. L. Ron Hubbard is rightly portrayed as unsympathetic, but he is at least portrayed as sincere, and not merely power hungry like Miscavige. Best of all is the way that the documentary subtly equates the act of leaving the church with the moment of “going clear,” which is Scientology bullshit for having worked through your psychological issues by way of religious practices. A really wonderful documentary that, like Lawrence Wright’s book upon which it is based, seeks first to understand Scientology and its practitioners and only begins its critique once it is clear that something is very wrong.


The Last Door: Season Two (Collector’s Edition) — There are fewer truly horrifying moments in this than there were in the first season (mind you, even the latter three episodes of that struggled to match the roomful of crows moment in the game’s pilot episode), but all in all this is a stronger game than its predecessor. The biggest and most profitable change is the introduction of an overworld map to each episode, which makes the whole thing feel bigger, more open and more exploratory. The pleasure of traipsing about a larger area is a benefit in itself, but the real payoff of this approach is that the game’s horror mythos can expand outwards beyond our central cast of characters. Superstitious seamen are aware of strange things lurking out in the fog. Secluded islanders know how the human mind can bring forth very real monsters. On that note, the story’s influences expand from Poe and Lovecraft to also include The Wicker Man, which the third episode is an extremely straightforward homage to (but without the awkward musical numbers and tonal inconsistencies). And the final episode features a satisfying set of near-callbacks to the first season, which must have been especially thrilling to people who played it more than… three days prior. In a sense, The Last Door works as a dark mirror image of one of my all-time favourite games: Meg Jayanth’s 80 Days. Both are tributes to fantastical 19th-century literature (I still stand by my assertion that there’s more Poe in this than Lovecraft, though this season certainly amps up the Cthulhu factor), both examine the world at a time when scientific and medical advances were butting heads with superstition and religiosity, and of course both of them tell their stories through a simple graphical interface with good writing (though it must be said that The Last Door could have used another round of copy editing). I dunno what it is about 19th century pastiches that makes for good games, but keep them coming.

The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain — Every so often, I revisit a game from my youth for sheer nostalgia purposes — and not because I think it may have stood the test of time. My childhood was full of edutainment titles, and hoo boy is this ever a game that an overly conscientious parent gets for their kid. It has effectively no story, just a premise: Dr. Brain accidently transferred his brain into a rat and you have to get it back by solving logic puzzles. The rat does silly voices while you solve the logic puzzles. What’s astonishing is that there’s also a character who talks to you directly about the various intelligences you’re developing in solving the puzzles. There’s no attempt to mask the game’s educational objectives. Frankly, this seems like exactly the sort of thing that I would have loved at age six. What that says about the adult I grew into, I’m not sure.


Rush: Hemispheres — Don’t you love that album in a great band’s discography that’s clearly awesome but you haven’t fully gotten to know it yet? This is certainly in my top three Rush albums, but I came to it late, so I haven’t played it nearly as many times as Permanent Waves or Moving Pictures. It is very much a sunset album: it’s the logical conclusion of what they started with 2112 and A Farewell to Kings, and they would soon head in a different direction. The switch they made on Permanent Waves, seemingly made as much out of exhaustion as artistic conviction, led to the best music of their career. But that fact does not negate the excellence of their final masterpiece in their previous idiom. Hemispheres is a prog album in the 1972 mould, and deserves a place just a few rungs below Close to the Edge in that genre’s pantheon. Specifics: “La Villa Strangiato” is particularly strong, of course, and contains career-best playing from Alex Lifeson, the group’s most undersung member. The mythos that underpins the title track is both fascinating and a little bit bogus, but it wouldn’t be Rush without that quality. And let’s not talk about the politics of “The Trees.” Mostly, let’s not talk about it because I’m still having trouble figuring out if there’s irony involved. Irony has never been Neil Peart’s first priority, and I’m not sure I trust him to deploy it expertly. There’s lots to chew over in this, but it is all accompanied by brilliantly thought-out music and incredible playing. It’s definitely worth a listen for anybody who knows Rush mostly through the singles.

Literature, etc.

Annie Correal: “Want to Work in 18 Miles of Books? First, the Quiz” — I love the idea of a book quiz being part of a hiring process at a bookstore. I love the idea of a bookstore with snooty curmudgeons stalking the aisles. I love the idea of short-term employment at a bookstore bequeathing “instant New Yorker” status on a newcomer. I suppose if I’m ever in NYC again, I should stop by the Strand.

Robert Sullivan: “The Hamilton Cult” — A truly wonderful and provocative essay in Harper’s that stops far short of “debunking” Hamilton, but uses historiography to contextualize it as an example of “Great Man” history. Sullivan argues that the historical Alexander Hamilton was a drastically different beast from the theatrical creation first portrayed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. That isn’t surprising in itself, of course. What is notable is the extent to which certain (non-Chernow) Hamilton biographers feel that what’s celebrated about Hamilton in Hamilton is a long way from what Hamilton himself would have considered his legacy. I think that this historically-minded bit of history (which, once again, does not suggest that Hamilton isn’t a great piece of theatre) combined with Aja Romano’s Vox feature that casts Hamilton as fanfic (thus putting a finer point on why the issues Sullivan raises are not actually problems) would make for the most compelling mini-bibliography of Hamilton criticism you could want.

Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine, vol. 4 “Rising Action” — The best volume of this extraordinary comic so far. Not sure it tops Phonogram volume 3 for the Gillen/McKelvie 2016 sweepstakes, but it brilliantly lives up to its title. It’s true that this has a proliferation of fight scenes that isn’t generally this comic’s speed, or mine, but it manages to pack in a tremendous density of plot, regardless. One particular staggering turning point near the end of this arc leaves me with absolutely no clue what’s going to happen next. But in spite of that development, I’m still wondering if WicDiv is gearing up to be a modern day Ring cycle, in which the era of gods comes to an end. If that is the case, we are clearly approaching Götterdämmerung with great speed. What that means for pop music and modern culture is anybody’s guess. Pick of the week. 

William Blake: Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion — Oh good god what is even happening who are these people is this guy just that guy by another name what is an emanation and why are all the people also places… Basically, I started reading a prophesy by a madman this week, and it is proving to be hard going. Will report back.


On the Media: “The Poverty Tour” — It takes more than facts and figures to properly debunk a myth that has become a mainstream narrative. It takes a rigorous interrogation of the means by which the myth was propagated in the first place. Enter Brooke Gladstone. This first instalment of a series on poverty myths focusses on a welfare advocate who has been fighting a losing battle with the media for decades. It feels like a framing device, which leads me to wonder how Gladstone will integrate and undermine media representation in the stories she tells about the impoverished in the coming weeks. I am very much looking forward to this. If it sticks the landing to the extent that I’m hoping it will, it will pair up with Bob Garfield’s various features on Trump to make On the Media the most clarifying current affairs program of this confounding year.

The Gist: “Who Called Off the Pretension Police?” — Funny, as always, but the main conversation is a bit disappointing. You may listen to this thinking that you’ll hear a thoughtful discussion of how pretension came to be socially accepted and, well, not pretentious. And it is a thoughtful discussion, but they never quite make it there, and I was left wondering how and why Pesca perceived a change at all. Skippable.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Magnificent Seven and Fleabag” — Oh man, I guess I need to watch Fleabag. When Glen Weldon recommends something this heartily, I know it will be worth a look. Aside from that, I’m already starting to miss Linda Holmes. I feel like maybe she wouldn’t have presided over a segment on The Magnificent Seven, about which there is comically little to say.

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist” Parts 6-8, plus Chaplin rerun — This continues to be outstanding, and Longworth did in fact outdo the excellent Dorothy Parker episode with her (functional) two-parter on Charlie Chaplin during wartime, and subsequently the blacklist era. I’d urge anybody who is on the fence about committing to this extremely long series to listen to the Chaplin episodes first. They don’t require a huge amount of background knowledge, and they’re a more fascinating way in than the first two episodes of this, which are a bit slow by comparison to what comes next. But, you’ve got to take time setting up the pieces in a game this complex. The Reagan episode is fascinating too, and portrays him as essentially two-faced during this period, maintaining a public face of political balance while naming names to the FBI behind closed doors. Marvellous.

The West Wing Weekly: “In Excelsis Deo (with Richard Schiff)” & “Memorial Day Special (with Melissa Fitzgerald)” — Okay, I see the point of this now. It is still definitely for fans of The West Wing, but it’s also about acting in general, and about public service. Richard Schiff’s episode is one of the best conversations I’ve heard on a podcast in a long time. He gets choked up a couple of times when the emotions from the run of the show come flooding back. You realize that he’s immensely committed as an actor — not in the bullshit methody way, but in the sense that he really takes the job seriously, so much that he always wants to be actively involved in finessing the scripts and the finished product. It made me want to go back and watch “In Excelsis Deo” again. I might just. And the episode with Melissa Fitzgerald is a nice tag. The fact that she went from being on The West Wing to being in public service herself gives her a unique perspective on this episode. This is really great stuff and I will certainly listen to more.

Reply All: “Very Quickly to the Drill” — One of the best episodes of this show, maybe ever. The depth of Google AdWords scamming is both unsurprising and totally fascinating. The highlights of this episode are the two more detailed stories near the end, which mirror each other in terms of intentions. On the dark, awful side of the mirror, there are locksmiths. Shady, horrible scamming locksmiths whose scheme has become so prevalent that it has essentially split into cartels. On the other side, there is an international organization that claims it can find your lost wedding ring, and while it has every red flag associated with a horrible scam, it isn’t one. This is great.

StartUp: “Introducing Season 4” — I am very excited for the next Gimlet-focussed episode of this show. I’m surprised to hear that tape off the top of this trailer that says that listeners have plateaued in recent months. I think Gimlet’s shows have been great lately. Science Vs and Heavyweight are both great additions. And StartUp itself looks like it might be back to the standards of its first two seasons (yeah, I liked the Dating Ring season a lot) pretty soon. Relax, Gimlet! You are fine.

In the Dark: Episodes 1-4 — I am a sucker for that moment in serialized documentary storytelling where a huge development in a seemingly cold story changes everything, right in the middle of the reporting process. (Think of the final episode of The Jinx.) In this show, it happens between the trailer and episode one. Providence got us off to a good start. Knowing from the outset who the guilty party is allows host Madeleine Baran to focus specifically on how law enforcement got the case of Jacob Wetterling’s abduction so completely wrong. On the other hand, I kind of wish we got to hear the show that she’d been intending to make before the big revelation happened. I wonder how much would have changed. Still, it’s probably only me who obsesses that much over how the telling of a story affects the story itself (I’ve been listening to Hamilton too much, and also watching Doctor Who). This is compelling true crime, very much in the vein of Serial season one, but without its obsessive attention to tiny details (again, mitigated by the fact that the case is closed) and presumably with a proper ending. I’ve got to say, serialized true crime isn’t really where my head’s at right now, so this hasn’t been the thing I look forward to most in my feed. But it’s quality reporting on a story that seems to have had a huge impact on how abductions are handled. When Baran gets to the part about the national consequences, I expect my attention to be more thoroughly peaked.

Science Vs: “Zika” — This taught me some stuff I didn’t know, but I definitely like this show better when it chooses topics where the science is relatively definitive. A substantial part of the value of this show is its ability to take a simple statement and say TRUE or FALSE. Since the science is still very much in progress regarding the spread of Zika, this is less compelling than the episodes about guns or organic food.

Love and Radio: “A Girl of Ivory” — One of the things I like best about this extraordinary show is the extent to which it is more interested in understanding people than critiquing them. I have written before about how the structure of Love and Radio implicitly empowers its subjects by letting virtually the whole story be governed by their perspective. This episode employs a truly clever little bait and switch that benefits greatly from familiarity with that structure. You hear three people talking, and you know that the story is building up to something because for the first several minutes of the podcast, there’s no conflict. But, you can’t know what the twist is going to be, because there’s no narrator to ramp up the tension, as would be normal in most similar narratives. The moment when the penny drops is quite staggering and left me wearing a wide-eyed expression of shock for about half of my morning run. Also, regarding the title: it appears to be a reference to the old myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, in which a sculptor creates a woman out of stone and falls in love with her. Bearing that myth in mind while listening to this will lift several of its subtler themes into starter relief. Brilliant. A corker of a start to the season. Pick of the week. 

The Memory Palace “Canali” — Nate DiMeo returns to space! This is a nice one, not a great one. But the story that DiMeo tells here is compelling in itself. For a substantial chunk of time, the world thought there were canals on Mars. DiMeo puts a face on that conviction by focussing his story on the man who was most responsible for researching those canals, which don’t exist.

Code Switch: “Who is a Good Immigrant, Anyway?” — A nuanced trio of pieces on the movement to change the face of the pro-immigration movement. It makes a compelling case that even America’s centre-left politicians have got this one wrong: not all felons deserve to be barred from the country for good.

The Heart: “My Everything, My Bear” — The Diaries season has been less hard-hitting than much of what The Heart has done, but this is one to go out on. It’s a story of two genderqueer people and how the dramatically different way that the world looks at them affects their relationship. It’s the kind of story that The Heart does really well, and that no other show in mainstream podcasting would ever do. It’s why The Heart is essential.


Omnireviewer (week of Sept. 18, 2016)

22 reviews. A few tenuously related ones off the top.

Live events

Del the Funky Homosapien: Live at the Alexander — This guy is a genius. There was a moment in this show right after he did “If You Must,” a song about the necessity of personal hygiene, when Del’s DJ/manager Domino started playing a track from the second Deltron 3030 record. Del was either caught off guard or experienced a moment of sublime inspiration, because instead of doing the standard lyrics of that track, he just started freestyling about hygiene some more. But — and this is what blew my mind — he still managed to work the freestyle into the fictional narrative of the Deltron records. I was previously aware of Del’s ability to freestyle in-universe, but the idea that he can synthesize two completely unrelated pre-existing elements from his catalogue at a moment’s notice is staggering. All the same, I must confess that there is limited appeal in a show that starts at midnight on a Monday, with a very Monday-seeming crowd. I listened to Deltron 3030 on the way home and I kind of enjoyed it more than the show. Mind you, this is not uncommon for me. I saw Roger Waters do The Wall with its full theatrical production, and I’m sure it was one of the best live shows anybody has ever put on. Still wasn’t as good as listening to the record. I think I just have to accept that this is an idiosyncrasy of my engagement with music. The added value that other people get from the spontaneity and communal feel of a live show adds distance for me. When it’s just me and the record, I can get lost. At a show, the obligation to be present in the moment for the whole experience keeps me from sinking into the music like I normally do. Of course, none of this reflects poorly on Del. I’d love to see him again, in fact, if only for those transcendent freestyles.

Shameful illegalities

Hamilton, bootlegged on video — Oh, I know. Don’t condescend to me. I don’t have a million dollars. Anyway. Hamilton is a marvel. The staging is brilliant, and never overbearing or too devoted to spectacle. The cast is uniformly outstanding, every one of them reaching the heights of their cast album performances live as well. Particularly outstanding were Renée Elise Goldsberry, flawlessly rapping the show’s most technically and psychologically complicated verses in “Satisfied,” and Leslie Odom Jr., who possesses the best singing voice in a cast full of them. But to continue our discussion of whether music is better experienced through one-on-one record spins or in more social settings, I watched this with a couple of mutually Hamilton-obsessed friends. And while I always relish the opportunity to trawl through a big, dense thing like Hamilton with others who have thoughts about it, there is also the possibility that the presence of others will disabuse me of deeply-held notions and precious illusions. I’ve always been on the fence about the moment in the show’s final number where Eliza sings about the orphanage she founded in her husband’s memory. With the chorus singing “the orphanage” in the background, it has always bordered on saccharine. But I’ve always put it under the category of “earned” sentimentality. I can usually just ride the tide of emotions from Hamilton’s death through the end of the show without being bothered by a bit of treacle. But this time, a rather unsentimental friend piped up at that point: “that’s kind of silly.” And she’s right. It is kind of silly. And it does detract from the finale of a show that has not misstepped like that at any prior point in its running time. And now I’m going to have to acknowledge that every time I hear it. Ah, well. Hamilton still gets a 99 average.

Literature, etc.

Lin-Manuel Miranda & Jeremy McCarter: Hamilton: The Revolution — As a book, it’s merely fine. The Hamiltome, as it is exclusively to be called, tells the story of Hamilton’s production and workshopping prior to its Broadway premiere, from the perspective of Jeremy McCarter, who was intimately involved in the process himself. It has a tendency to allow its chapters to become prose poems in praise of the various geniuses involved with the musical’s production — all of whom are eminently deserving of praise, to be clear. The issue is just that McCarter’s priorities don’t always seem to be what’s going to interest the reader, so much as a self-imposed obligation to extol every single person in the cast and crew. On the other hand, there are glorious moments. It is fascinating to read about Chris Jackson’s attempt to reconcile his character (George Washington) as a slave owner and a liberator alike, and having to give up. All the same, we shall eagerly await a less authorized critical history of Hamilton. But in the meantime, the Hamiltome is the single most essential element of the Hamilton paratext. Simply having access to excellent photographs from the production, alongside an authoritative full libretto and Miranda’s annotations (in a beautifully designed package, I should add) is worth the price of admission. I tore through this in the two days prior to watching the bootleg, listening to the cast album as I went, and it’s the most satisfying cultural experience I’ve had since the first time I listened to the Hamilton cast album. If you love the show, you should own this book.


Deltron 3030: Deltron 3030 — I stand by my original assessment that this record is a magical incantation. Everywhere you turn, Del is equating rap with computer code, and he relates technology to magic in the very first verse on the record (following from Arthur C. Clarke, one might observe). The notion that rap is magic, and can exert a force of will on the world is pervasive on Deltron 3030. It’s so obviously an incantation that it almost seems a banal observation to me now. What’s more interesting is trying to determine what specific change Del is hoping will take place. Let’s look first at what his character, Deltron Zero, is trying to do. (One of the key axioms of alchemy is “as below, so above,” so we can conjecture that there might be some relation between the aims of Del’s fictional self and his real-world self.) Deltron Zero is trying to topple huge, shady corporations. This is as tall an order in the Deltron universe as it is in modern America. And judging by the current state of things, this particular occult aim wasn’t wholly successful for Del. However, eleven years into the album’s mounting cult popularity, Occupy Wall Street happened. Let’s call it a weak and deferred magical consequence. (Perhaps if Event 2 had been a stronger sequel, we’d be watching Trump vs. Sanders right now.) Also, if bringing down the government is on the table as an objective, it took eight years and, um, the process of democratically electing a new president, but the leadership of America did in fact change to be more congruent with Del’s worldview once his album had become a classic. So, yeah. Deltron 3030 is a successful magic spell, designed to establish the Obama presidency. Now you know.

L.A. Salami: Dancing With Bad Grammar — Really on the fence about this. On one hand, Salami’s obviously super talented, considering that he only started writing songs a couple years ago. On the other, he maintains a welcome sense of irony throughout most of this, but occasionally nosedives into cringeworthy sincerity of the “nothing’s any good anymore!” persuasion. It’s sonically diverse, but without being especially adventurous in musical terms. And it’s just such a damn slog. God it’s long. My goodwill was running low by the time I got to the end of it, three days after I started. I guess we can chalk it up to a promising debut. Don’t know that I’ll return to it much, except for “Going Mad as the Street Bins,” which is awesome. So is “My Thoughts, They Too Will Tire,” actually. Really reminds me a lot of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” — not least because both feature many variations of their respective titles at the ends of verses, but never actually do a proper title drop. He’s clever. I have high hopes for his next album.

A Tribe Called Red: We Are The Halluci Nation — Oh man, this is good. I haven’t heard either of the first two Tribe Called Red albums, but this seemed like the time to jump onboard. There’s no need to point out how well powwow music and EDM work together. That’s been ascertained o’plenty. The thing I love about this is just how much sonic variety there is in it. Lack of same is oftentimes what alienates me from dance music. There’s some powerful rapping on here, especially from Leonard Sumner, but also from Shad. There’s Tanya Tagaq, doing her thing. Putting her in an EDM context limits her ability to show expressive range in her throat singing, but it also highlights her ability to use her voice as a rhythmic instrument. There are drum machines, but there are also whole tracks where the percussion has a beautifully acoustic feel. “Maima Koopi” has some seriously powerful drums. I could go on. Love this. A Tribe Called Red has been one of the most talked about acts in Canada for a while, but this makes it clear that they’re also one of the best. Pick of the week.

Ghost: Popestar — This EP from the delightfully playful Swedish metal band is really a stealth single. The original that starts it off, “Square Hammer,” is one of the most addictive metal tracks I’ve heard. It’s just a solid pop single played by a solid metal band. And the video is an instant classic. The rest of the EP is composed of covers, which are always going to feel less substantial. But, first off, the songs they selected for this are just a great bunch of songs. I hadn’t heard any of them, so I listened to the originals first and I had a grand old time. “Missionary Man” by Eurythmics is especially wonderful (again, the video is incredible). Ghost’s performances of these tracks honour the originals. This EP is really just “Square Hammer” and company, but it’s a fun listen. And it’s got great cover art that reminds me of Roger Dean at his best in terms of visual style, and Storm Thorgerson at his best in terms of concept. Two cathedrals play chess. Amazing.

Vulfpeck: Live at Bonnaroo — There are rough moments in this set, but it mostly only serves to demonstrate what champs these guys are. Theo Katzman is the MVP in a live setting. Shit, can that guy sing. Also, live, you realize that Jack Stratton, in spite of being the guy with the vision, is definitely the least accomplished musician in the band (a parallel to Lin-Manuel Miranda, perhaps). He’s also probably the most important, but it’s more a matter of big thinking than great playing. Can’t wait for the new album; dying to see them live.


The Memory Palace: “Haunting” — There’s a trend happening on this show, of Nate DiMeo relying more on archival tape to aid his storytelling. It’s a welcome addition. There was never anything wrong with the narration/mood music format of The Memory Palace, but it makes sense that if DiMeo is going to plunder history for stories, he should plunder it for raw material as well. The story itself is typically lovely, and notable for being discursive off the top. The main character doesn’t come around until halfway through. Really great.

The Bugle: “A Bugle update” — I confess that it’s probably an odd time to jump onboard with The Bugle, given that it has so recently imploded. But I’ve heard just enough of the old Bugle to know that Andy Zaltzman is the MVP, and the now-absent John Oliver was mostly there to laugh and groan at him. It’s not impossible that the new version of the show, with a rotating second chair of people like Wyatt Cenac and Helen Zaltzman will actually excel the original. We shall see.

Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!: “Chris Thile” — Wow, this is shlock. I came for Chris Thile (who doesn’t even play), and because this show has been advertised at me on who knows how many other NPR properties. It’s basically QI for dads. It is missing nearly 100% of QI’s wit, and rather than having the questions be absurdly hard ones that occasionally somebody will know, which is fun, they make them easy enough that people are unlikely to lose. Not listening again.

Welcome to Night Vale: Episodes 61 & 62 — “BRINY DEPTHS” is the perfect median Night Vale episode, in the sense that it mostly just hits the same familiar beats as every other episode, but then it provides a sublime moment near the end that makes you want to keep listening. That moment involves the whole of Night Vale being revealed as sleeper cell agents placed in the city to spy on each other. But the good bit is that after they’re activated, Cecil observes that they can no longer be secret agents. Now, they can only be themselves. Lovely. “Hatchets” expands one of the early series’ best jokes — a newspaper’s new media strategy is to kill bloggers with hatchets — farther than it needed to be expanded. It’s not bad, though. It offers a combination that I love, of horror and comedy both focussing their energy on technology. See this, and oh I guess also this.

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist” episodes 1-4, plus Bogart rerun — This is maybe even better than the Charles Manson season. God, is it ever dense, but it does that thing that Karina Longworth is so good at, where it demonstrates how the movies weren’t just shaped by the society that birthed them, they shaped that society right back. The story of the blacklist and the Hollywood Ten is enough to make even a centrist boil over with anger, and Longworth is delighting in the telling of it. I can’t wait to get further into this, though I don’t know how she’ll beat the story of Dorothy Parker (who is, incidentally, one syllable and about half the political spectrum away from being my mother).

Theory of Everything: “You are so Pretentious” — Dan Fox is trying to reclaim the word “pretentious,” which sounds like a public service specifically for me. He has a book out about this. I think I might read that.

The Allusionist: “The Key part II: Vestiges” — A nice capper for what’s been a lovely two-parter. The first episode focussed on how languages are preserved. This one focusses on how they’re lost — and how they’re recovered. Great stuff. Also, it’s got original music that’s quite good.

The Heart: “Mortified” — Leave it to The Heart to select an excerpt from my least-favourite Radiotopia show that makes it look great. This is hysterical, and the only reason I’m not seeking out the full episode is that I’ve listened to enough Mortified to know that the other segments won’t live up to this. Still. Long live The Heart.

Code Switch: “Warning! This Episode May Trigger Debate” — The topic of trigger warnings is almost guaranteed to lead to shitty debate. This is far and away the most useful discussion of the topic I’ve heard — topping even On The Media, who did a decent job as well.

The Gist: “How Filmmakers Faked the Moon Landing Inside Real NASA” — Pesca can be abrasive, but I love him for it. The segment at the end of this where he delivers a straightforwardly Gen-X entreaty to millennials to for God’s sake choke back their principles and vote Clinton — and he’s accompanied by a hard leftist millennial who translates his rant for younger ears — is as definitive of this show as you’re going to get. The feature interview is amazing — Operation Avalanche has been recommended to me before. Now that I know it was filmed inside NASA with only the barest hint of authorization, I will certainly see it.

Imaginary Worlds: “Fantasy Maps” — The great thing about this episode doubles as the great thing about this podcast, which is that it helps us to see how nerd culture helps to define and symbolize larger issues in society. The maps published with fantasy novels are apparently becoming so thoughtful that they take into consideration the notion that maps are drawn in accordance with biases. Any map drawn within a xenophobic culture, for instance, is sure to place that culture’s geographic home as its centre. This is a thing that happens in real life, and it is now apparently being reflected in fantasy. Interesting.

Reply All: “The Grand Tapestry of Pepe” — The most entertaining listen of the week. I’m going to put it out there that it’s important for anybody interested in contemporary politics to be aware of the alt-right, even if they thrive on exposure. And this is a better (and more vague) introduction than the extremely bizarre explainer on Hillary Clinton’s website is. Within the course of a single Yes Yes No, Alexes Blumberg and Goldman and P.J. Vogt plumb the shallows of the right-wing internet’s id. And Alex Blumberg, in his bumbling way, hits on a really fundamental truth of the internet, which is that ironic hate is almost congruent with real hate. (He comes close to independently coining Poe’s Law.) This is funny and great. Pick of the week.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Emmy Awards, Hari Kondabolu and Alan Moore” — Worth hearing for the Alan Moore interview alone. For a magician with skulls on his mantelpiece, he is a very warm person. Also, the fact that Grease beat Lemonade at the Emmys is a travesty. Where’s Kanye when you need him?

Science Vs.: “Hypnosis” — The most notable thing about this is that Jonathan Goldstein stops by to read a CIA report, and goes out of character with no explanation. His very presence puts strain on verisimilitude.

Things I loved in 2015: Nos. 5-1

After much suspense, here are my top five things of 2015, including what I recognize is a hopelessly idiosyncratic number one that nobody who reads this will ever check out. But I’ve tried to be honest with myself about what I got the most enjoyment out of this year, and there’s really nothing that compares. Here are five incredible things:

No. 5 — Mad Max: Fury Road

Here is how fight scenes in movies generally work: there are two sides, the two sides fight, and one of them wins.

In Mad Max: Fury Road, there’s a scene where Max and Furiosa fight over a truck. They don’t know each other, and neither one necessarily wants to kill the other, but they both need the truck and they’ll do what they have to do.

There are a few complications. Firstly, Max is chained to Nux: an unconscious man who wants both combatants dead. There are five women standing by, who have nothing against Max, and who Max is not attempting to harm. Nonetheless, they need Furiosa to win. They aren’t trained fighters, so if they’re going to contribute they need to work together and be crafty. Also, Furiosa has one arm, though it’s doubtful whether this is actually an encumbrance for her.

Midway through the fight, the hostile unconscious man wakes up.

There are so many moving parts, here. Eight people, two gradations of combat expertise (Max, Furiosa and Nux as opposed to the other five), three separate allegiances (Max to himself, Furiosa and the five women to their own cause, and Nux against them all), and a chain holding two key combatants together.

The entire movie’s like that. Plots and motivations occur in miniature over the course of the extended chase scene that the whole movie basically is. I’ve never seen anything like it.

When I started writing this, I told myself I wouldn’t use this movie as a stick to beat other action movies with, but screw it. The reason Mad Max: Fury Road is the first proper action movie to get nominated for Best Picture in my lifetime is that it’s the only one that’s remotely deserved it. The entire genre seems lazy and vapid by comparison.

Self-evidently the best movie of the year.

No. 4 — Sunless Sea

Since this is the only game on the list, indulge me in a few extra words.

If 2014 was the year when I rediscovered video games, 2015 was the year when I realized the limits of my own tastes. Of 2015’s most notable games, there were many that I either had no interest in, didn’t love, or couldn’t runFortunately, the one game that I really adored this year is so vast that you can (and I did) spend a tremendous amount of time with it and be consistently enthralled. Sunless Sea, for the unfamiliar, is a game that’s approximately equal parts text adventure and roguelike. (I am now the kind of person who knows what that sentence means.)

In the game, you’re the captain of a vessel on a vast underground ocean. You’re living in a version of the 19th century where London was sold to a consortium of devils, fell far beneath Earth’s surface, and became a hilarious Lovecraftian parody of itself. As a captain hailing from this Fallen London, you spend the game making journeys of various lengths from home to a huge number of other creepy, surreal ports, and back. Your journeys from place to place allow you to freely explore the “Unterzee” in your craft, in a beautifully designed top-down view. But when you make port, the story is told entirely through text, aside from a few very expressive illustrations.

This ingenious design choice means that the game’s many stories can take some incredible turns. In Sunless Sea, it’s possible for the writers to include an island where time collapses: they just need to write all of their sentences in different tenses.

Sunless Sea has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention for its inclusiveness: there are characters of all races, genders and sexualities, and the game makes no impositions on your own character’s particular traits or background, or with whom you seek out relationships. (I play as a genderfluid poet, though I am neither of those things.)

It’s also gotten well-deserved attention for the superlative quality of its writing. Oftentimes, when we say that a game’s well-written, we’re grading on a very steep curve. Not here. Sunless Sea boasts top-flight comedic prose, and when the story turns dark or frightening, the writing shifts to adapt. The game speaks in a consistent, stylized voice, right down to the format of the names of characters: the Alarming Scholar; the Irrepressible Cannoneer; the Tireless Mechanic. It’s that attention to detail that makes Sunless Sea so convincing.

But, its real genius is that, rather than allowing itself to be governed by a single narrative throughline, Sunless Sea sets up hundreds of intertwined story threads for you to pull on depending on what interests you at any given time. I can see myself returning to this game for years to come. In a year where there was almost nothing in this medium of interest to me, Sunless Sea made me glad to live in a time when people can make a thing like this.

(If you’re considering shelling out for this, try the browser-based game Fallen London first. It’s not as immersive, but it’s free and features the same style of storytelling.)

No. 3 — Lin-Manuel Miranda: Hamilton: An American Musical

I once made the mistake of trying to sell a friend on Hamilton by calling it “a hip hop musical about America’s first treasury secretary.”

To be fair, that is how Hamilton tends to be sold. They hook you with the novelty of “history through rap.” But that one-liner does Hamilton a tremendous disservice. This isn’t a novelty; it’s the greatest work of musical theatre since Sondheim was at his peak.

There’s a point to telling the story of Alexander Hamilton by way of hip hop — I mean, as opposed to choosing some other story. First off, Lin-Manuel Miranda (the MacArthur genius who built this thing from the ground up) saw a classic hip hop narrative in the story of Hamilton: an immigrant who made it to George Washington’s inner circle through sheer grit and ingenuity.

But also, by telling this story by these means — and, crucially, with a multi-racial cast — Miranda is able to drive home one of the most important ideas in modern America: that the content of history depends entirely on who gets to tell the story.

Hamilton isn’t just a great musical. It’s also a more insightful historical narrative than the film and television industries have been able to muster for some time.

No. 2 — The Memory Palace


My favourite song of the year isn’t even a song; it’s an episode of The Memory Palace.

I can listen to “Craning” over and over, and it never loses its impact. It has specific turns of phrase that get lodged in my head for days. I take notice of a new detail every time. I can’t listen to it when there are people around because I can’t be sure I won’t cry.

“Craning” is about the launch of Apollo 11, but that doesn’t begin to cover what it does. No summary of any episode of this show can actually reflect the experience of listening to it. Nate DiMeo, the guy who made this podcast with no assistance until a couple of weeks ago, is the best writer in podcasting. Nobody can match his ear for an effective phrase, or his ability to imagine details in tiny moments in history. At the launch of Apollo 11, L.B.J. isn’t just there; he’s there in a blue suit and no sunglasses, “just that Hill Country squint.”

I’m going on about this one episode, but that’s just the one that hit me specifically. Nearly all of them are brilliant. You might enjoy the story about the first American woman to file a patent. Or, the one about the turbulent relationship between an ornithologist and his aristocratic wife. Or, the one about men who went mad from inhaling toxic gasses in the factories where they worked.

Something from The Memory Palace will hit you, and it won’t stop spinning around in your head for a while.

No. 1 — David Cavanagh: Good Night and Good Riddance: How Thirty-Five Years of John Peel Helped to Shape Modern Life

good night good riddance

My favourite kind of non-fiction tells a huge story through a narrow lens. David Cavanagh’s second book is the best example of that I’ve ever seen.

The story he’s telling is the story of counterculture in England between the late ’60s and the early ’00s. Hippies, punks, indie kids, goths, rappers. It’s a story of political radicalism and incremental social change. It’s the story of how modern Britain came to be a place whose margins are strangely intertwined with its mainstream.

The lens that he tells it through is the BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel.

It is impossible to communicate what a masterstroke this approach is without throwing up your hands and saying “just read it.” The various incarnations of Peel’s radio show were all kaleidoscopic showrooms for the deepest, strangest music from out of England and elsewhere. So, Cavanagh just picked 265 of Peel’s shows from across more than three decades, and used them as a map to trace the path of British culture.

Cavanagh is as compelling a tour guide as you could hope for, tying each show in with the day’s news, the politics of the BBC, Peel’s personal life, and the state of the music industry.

I’m not selling this. I couldn’t possibly. Go to Amazon and read the free excerpt right now. They give you the whole introduction. No music geek — no person interested in culture in any capacity — will not love this.

Nothing else I consumed this year inspired, informed and entertained me like Good Night and Good Riddance. I feel like I need to find something else like this immediately, but I also know that it doesn’t exist.

Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 6)

A week full of lovely things, really. 22 lovely things.


The year-end lists are coming out, so I was going to spend the week going through the stuff I missed. But then I got waaay more obsessed with this first one than I’d anticipated. It’s nearly embarrassing, but actually no it isn’t at all.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Hamilton, An American Musical — They made a hip hop musical about the establishment of America’s national bank. Just when you thought Broadway was all superfluous Disney adaptations. This is incredible for so many reasons. It shifts seamlessly from convincing hip hop to straight-ahead showtunes about arcane political processes. And that’s not the only tonal shift it manoeuvres: it’s incredible how this flits back and forth between funny and tragic, arch and sincere, and from straight-ahead storytelling to meta-commentary. It is totally self-aware about its own unlikely subject matter, but it doesn’t let that self-awareness get in the way of its story, which you can get lost in to an extent that you seldom see in works of musical narrative. Unlike most cast albums, this works brilliantly as a bespoke object. As a concept album, it has a narrative thrust that keeps you listening to the words, even when the music threatens to beguile you away from the piece’s themes. And it’s bewilderingly allusive: it’s well worth listening to this with the Genius annotations (some of which come straight from Lin-Manuel Miranda himself) within arm’s reach. Miranda has everything. It’s not just that he can rap and sing and write a catchy hook and verses that lodge in your head, he also has something interesting to say about Alexander Hamilton as a historical figure and about how who tells the stories from history affects how we think about it. There are nothing but good things to say about this. I don’t care if you like musicals or not, listen to Hamilton. Pick of the week.

Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly — If it seems perverse to give pick of the week to a musical rather than what looks increasingly like the consensus best album of 2015, know that it’s only because I’m totally obsessed with Hamilton right now. To Pimp a Butterfly is as good as everybody says it is, and I would imagine that out of the two, it’s what I’ll be coming back to more frequently in 2016. If only to figure out what he’s on about. This is some seriously challenging stuff.

Africa Express/Terry Riley: In C Mali — I’m a huge fan of California minimalism in general, and Terry Riley specifically. But, his most famous piece, In C, was never one that I found myself listening to very much. Until I heard it played on African instruments when this thing came out earlier this year. Then I listened and I listened and I listened. Nice to revisit again after a few months.

CHVRCHES: Every Open Eye — Here’s something I’m not seeing on nearly enough year-end lists. CHVRCHES’ music is pure catharsis and people who don’t like it hate joy. This album is significantly better (or at least more consistent) than their first, which critics were all about. What gives? “Make Them Gold” is a clunker of a single, if we’re being honest, but the rest of the album is perfect pop.


Deadwood: “Reconnoitering the Rim” — I don’t know where this show is going, but damn, Ian McShane can act.

QI: “Marriage and Mating” — Why am I reviewing an episode of QI? Tell you what, I’m not.

BoJack Horseman: “Hank After Dark” — According to my own rules, I’m not technically obligated to review this, since it’s my second time watching it in the course of this blog — and, in fact, in a fairly short span of time. I just felt obligated to pop back in and reiterate that this is one of the best episodes of comedy television I’ve ever seen. Okay? Okay.

Lost: “White Rabbit” — Reasons I don’t understand people who like the first season of Lost best: (1) Shannon and Boone are unwatchable; (2) Sawyer is a prick — and not in a way that any reasonable person should find charming, although the show sure seems to sell him like that; (3) it’s galling to see Jack take such a large role in the story when you know he was supposed to die in the first episode in what would have been the most brilliant bait-and-switch in television history, had the writers followed through. Jack’s story has more “it’s so hard to be a handsome rich hero dude” than I’d like. We wouldn’t have had to sit through that if they’d just done the right thing and killed the handsome rich hero dude. And that cliff dangle is ridiculous. I still basically like this, though. The hallucinatory manifestation of Jack’s daddy issues is properly creepy.

Literature, etc.

Alejandro Jodorowsky/Moebius: The Incal — A very thoughtful birthday present from some wonderful friends. I think I’m going to enjoy this. So far, Moebius is impressing more than Jodorowsky, whose writing has a lot of sci-fi clichés, and the juxtaposition of text and image sometimes seems arbitrary and lacks clarity. But this is a good yarn with some damn pretty pictures.

China Miéville: “Dreaded Outcome” — Here’s a narrator that Miéville can really sink into: a jargon-dropping therapist. I put this story down right at the point where a massive twist happens, then when I picked it back up, I didn’t even recognize it. This is good.

Lucas Adams: “An Illustrated Account of the Great Maple Syrup Heist” — This short comic about a thing that honest to god actually happened will make you very excited about the Jason Segal movie that Sony Pictures is honest to god going to make about it.


Pop Culture Happy Hour: “A Conversation with Trevor Noah” — I haven’t gotten around to watching any of Trevor Noah’s Daily Show, but I think I will now. In this interview with Linda Holmes (who should really do more hour-long podcast interviews; she’s fantastic) he proves to be refreshingly circumspect. There’s an awkward moment near the end when he’s talking about “things you’re not supposed to say,” but at least he’s willing to own up to his mistakes and learn as he goes.

Imaginary Worlds: “Origin Stories” — The superhero origin story imagined as a psychological necessity. Excellent.

Song Exploder: “Wilco – Magnetized” — This is my favourite song on the new Wilco album by a fair margin, so it’s great to hear it exploded. I love that Glenn Kotche’s drum part was inspired by Jeff Tweedy’s son’s drumming. But I still kind of think he’s just imitating Ringo.

On The Media: “Lies, Lies, Lies” — No tragedy this time, except for Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. On The Media is a really dark show, sometimes. Throughout this episode, you realize gradually that the demonstrable truthfulness of a statement doesn’t really have that much to do with whether or not people are swayed by it. Let us all collectively shudder.

Serial: “DUSTWUN” — Back into the weeds we go. Look, I love Serial, and I love Sarah Koenig’s journalism. But this is one of those situations where it can be difficult to keep the thing itself separate from the phenomenon of the thing. The response to season one of Serial was huge and weird and bad. I remember it being compared to True Detective which is just wrong. Serial is not a fictional detective show; it’s real journalism about people who exist out in the world. The widespread disappointment in the ending of the season was naive and ruthless — you can’t just end a true story however you want. And while I’m a devoted listener to a great many non-fiction podcasts, some of which tell serialized stories, it’s distressing to me that the story of Adnan Syed ended up being fetishized by people in the same way that I fetishize, say, Doctor Who. So, Serial: the breakout podcast phenomenon is a thing I have very mixed feelings about. BUT, Serial: the longform non-fiction storytelling project is a thing I really love. So, this new season is properly exciting — especially given that it’s about a story that got international TV news coverage, and now we’ll get a totally new lens on it. Instead of people filing stories in a day, we’ll get one of the most ruthlessly detail-oriented journalists in the world, plus her team of producers, PLUS screenwriter Mark Boal (of Hurt Locker fame and Zero Dark Thirty infamy) all on the case and making no compromises to time. And if that last line is any indication, the next episode is going to be a corker. Let’s all keep our heads, though. This is actually happening. Pick of the week.

Reply All: “I Love You, I Loathe You” — Reply All is that rare podcast that focuses on fussy, meticulous, reported stories but can also pull off just having its hosts banter with each other for a whole episode. In that sense, it may be the “most podcast” of all podcasts: it combines the pre-taped public radio approach of shows like This American Life and On The Media (where both hosts once worked) with the podcast-native approach of people talking to each other into microphones with little adornment (à la Stop Podcasting Yourself, etc). There’s no reported story in this episode of Reply All, but it was still fantastic and still Reply All. This is Gimlet’s best podcast and it would take something staggering for them to top it. (Jonathan Goldstein, perhaps.)

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Creed, Men Crying At Movies, and Visceral Responses” — I find I seldom have much to say about regular episodes of PCHH, but don’t be fooled: I love this show. It will likely take a slot on my year-end roundup of best podcasts for its sheer reliability in delivering insight and joy. And Gene Demby sounds so happy to be back.

The Moth: “Amir Baghdadchi & Dameon Wilburn: StorySLAM Favourites” — Two outstanding, riotously funny stories about travel, both distinguished more for the quality of the telling than by the story itself.

99% Invisible: “Pagodas and Dragon Gates” — These days, there are good episodes of 99pi, and “fine” episodes of 99pi. This is one of the good ones. It’s about why San Francisco’s Chinatown looks like it does architecturally, in spite of the fact that pagodas and dragon gates were long out of fashion in China when those structures were built in Chinatown. It’s more of a story than you might anticipate.

StartUp: “Pitch Perfect 2” — Alex Blumberg is absolutely pathological about playing that tape of him bombing a pitch over and over. This is super interesting, and I’m so happy that Gimlet has a new partner who shares Blumberg and Matt Lieber’s vision. I can’t wait to hear their new shows — especially Jonathan Goldstein’s. That guy is a master.

Fresh Air: “Historian Mary Beard Tackles Myths about Ancient Rome” — Research about antiquity is catnip to me. This interview (with Dave Davies, filling in ably for Terry Gross) contains such wonderful tidbits as Caligula hating being called Caligula, because it was a diminutive nickname from his childhood — “Bootikins,” essentially.