Tag Archives: Hey Rosetta!

Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 8, 2015)

I’m adding a new feature, this time around. Each week, I will choose two things I particularly loved as my “picks of the week.” Due to the preponderance of podcasts in these reviews, one will always be a podcast, and the other will be something else. I won’t prioritize new things for my picks of the week, necessarily. It’s just a matter of what hit home the most on a particular day. So, it’s totally possible (and indeed, very likely) for a pick of the week to be a 40-year-old rock album. 29 reviews, this week:

Music

Van Der Graaf Generator: The Least We Can Do Is Wave to Each Other — You know how sometimes you’re listening to a song and you ask yourself, “Is this a good song?” and the answer is “no, it really isn’t.” But then you ask yourself “am I enjoying myself, though?” and the answer is “yeah I think I am!” That happens a lot on this album.

John Luther Adams/Glenn Kotche: Ilimaq — Adams is probably my favourite living composer. Become Ocean floored me; the subsequent recording of chamber strings music didn’t. This piece of percussion music, brilliantly performed by Wilco’s Glenn Kotche, falls somewhere in between. It’s not a masterpiece on the order of Become Ocean, Four Thousand Holes, or The Light that Fills the World, but it’s lovely, evocative, tense, etc.

Wilco: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — Listening to Glenn Kotche play John Luther Adams made me want to listen back to Wilco’s masterpiece. This is still a basically perfect album. It sounds chaotic in places, but when you listen to the details you realize that it’s actually a meticulous approximation of chaos. In fact, I’m not sure I can name a rock album that’s more detail-obsessed in its production. The way that “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” gradually coagulates from noise into a song is genius. And Kotche’s playing is outstanding. I was listening.

Max Richter/Antonio Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, Recomposed — At the risk of appearing heretical (oh, who am I kidding; I love appearing heretical) Richter’s remake of The Four Seasons is better than the original. These Vivaldi concertos are possibly the most moth-eaten body of work in the repertory, and for all of their objective virtues, I do not understand how anybody could legitimately prefer them to Richter’s clever, gorgeous, modern interpretations. I know it doesn’t have to be a competition. But I’m making it one. And Vivaldi’s lying knocked out at the edge of the ring.

Yes: Drama — This is comfort food to me. It’s one of those albums that I know every contour of so well that when I listen to it, it just snaps into the grooves in my head. It tends to get overlooked by Yes fans because Jon Anderson isn’t on it. And while that becomes a worthwhile critique when it happens again in 2011, in 1980 Anderson’s absence was exactly what Howe, Squire and White needed to go in the direction that felt natural. Also, I love that Yes and the Buggles basically made an album together. There aren’t many less likely collaborations out there, let alone ones that result in good music.

Hey Rosetta! Seeds — This comes recommended by the guy I went to the concert with last week. While I confess that I liked them better live (not a given for me; I tend to like most bands better on record), this has decent songs and great performances. And fantastic bass playing.

Movies

Crimson Peak — Sometimes I like my horror lavish, gothic and Victorian. This scratched that itch, but I’ve essentially forgotten it already.

Spectre — Fabulous. Christoph Waltz is no Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes is certainly no Judi Dench. And overall, this isn’t as good as Skyfall. But the Daniel Craig era of James Bond movies is still pretty much the bar for contemporary action franchises to clear. Marvel Studios can only aspire. A significant quibble: the entire London-based plotline with M and Moriarty is crap. This movie uses the threat of government surveillance (how am I already sick of this trope when it’s still a real-world problem?) to paper over the fact that the same ethical questions that have been posed about Jack Bauer apply equally to James Bond. But these days, I’m trying not to let things like this ruin my moviegoing experience. I believe I’m succeeding admirably.

Television

In the event of binge-watching, I won’t hold myself to writing reviews of every episode. Because, who wants that? We’ll just check in every week, like with books.

BoJack Horseman: Season 1 — As with Hannibal a while back, I endured the rough patches early in the first season because I’ve heard it gets way better. It already has, actually. At first, I laughed most at the dumb, cartoony sight gags. Which is fine, because why else would one watch cartoons? But as the characters got fleshed out (as much as they ever do — they’re resolutely stock characters, albeit well-played ones) I started to get invested in the ongoing story as well. Then, the last two episodes totally sold me. Also, Ira Glass jokes are never not funny.

Lost: Season 1, Episodes 1-4 — I’ve decided to start rewatching Lost alongside a fabulous new essay series called Lost Exegesis by Jane Campbell of Eruditorum Press (a group blog I read religiously but don’t review because that would be insane). I have several observations, re. the show. Firstly, I remember thinking that the pilot was overrated, and that is not in fact the case. I persist in the contrarian belief that the show got more interesting as it got more complicated, but this is so well made that I don’t care that none of my beloved mythology is in place yet. Secondly, the first episode (if not necessarily the show as a whole) would have been better if Jack had died at the end as originally planned. I mean, what a bait and switch. Third, at this stage, Sawyer is basically a very bad first draft of Rustin Cohle. Fourth, “Walkabout” is still one of the finest episodes of television ever made. And finally, Shannon and Boone are still stupid, stupid characters.

Doctor Who: “Sleep No More” — Mark Gatiss is not one of my favourite Doctor Who writers, but this is one of his better scripts. If I’m not mistaken, this is the first time that Doctor Who has done a found-footage horror story. And, to be clear, found-footage horror is a tired genre that should go slump off into a corner and never be heard from again. But Doctor Who has a unique ability to revitalize the genres it collides with — usually with metafiction, as it is here. As to the premise of the episode: the idea of a treatment that substitutes for sleep is something I’ve always dreamed of. Daydreamed of. Whatever. And the idea that this treatment would inevitably create monsters seems to follow. But the fact that those monsters are literally made of the stuff that collects in the corner of your eye when you sleep is super dumb. This is still probably my… fourth favourite episode of this season. Also, both this and Stasis (which I’m still playing, for some reason) take place in space stations orbiting Neptune. Funny how I’ve never seen “orbiting Neptune” as a story setting before and then it comes up twice in a few weeks.

Literature, etc.

Bit of a comics-heavy week, reading-wise. Still loving Good Night and Good Riddance, but I needed a diversion from that unwieldy tome.

Matt Fraction/Fábio Moon: Casanova, Volume 2 “Gula” — Along with Kieron Gillen, Fraction is my favourite writer in comics right now. I wasn’t 100% sold by the first trade collection of Casanova, but as ever, I was pulled in by the compulsive belief that it would get better. And it did. This second volume is a really solid bit of science fiction. It’s got a staggering twist ending that isn’t just played for the shock of it: it has serious consequences for the characters. I hope Fraction and DeConnick’s television production company at least considers adapting this.

Roger Stern/Tom Lyle: Starman #6 — My trivia team won at that nerd bar, again. We got a big ol’ stack of ‘80s comics, two apiece. The exciting one was a first printing of an issue of V for Vendetta. I didn’t take that. After all, I got the Klingon phrasebook last time. Fair is fair. Anyway, I picked this one because its Bowie-esque title made me favourably disposed to it. And, oh my god am I ever glad I did. It’s a DC comic about a hapless, reluctant superhero with fairly indistinct powers. (Wikipedia tells me he got them when he was hit by a bolt of energy from a satellite. OF COURSE.) The villains in this are a shadowy cabal that’s actually known as “the Power Elite.” It’s advertised as a crossover with several other heroes, including Green Lantern and several I’ve never heard of, but their appearances all basically boil down to Starman saying “Hey look! It’s that superhero! Okay, bye!” The story starts with the Sydney Opera House falling down, and Starman musing “How do you… hold up… a building?!” So, that gives you the jist of the actual comic, but what I really enjoyed were the ads. There’s an Atari ad in this, and one for Nintendo’s Bubble Bobble. Also, there’s an ad for something called a telephone role-playing game, which is a thing I didn’t know ever existed. And the classifieds page has an ad with the headline “BE TALLER,” another that promises to help you make your own stink bombs with household items if you send them two dollars, and ads for two separate companies that purport to sell real shark teeth. The letters page contains a fan letter entreating the writers to “keep thinking about those little things, like going to the bathroom.” This comic is terrible, obviously. But I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Charles Schulz: Peanuts (October/November 1964) — Throughout October of 1964, Charles Schulz wrote a series of Peanuts strips where Lucy convinces Linus to run for school president. In the end, he blows it because he uses his last speaking opportunity to raise awareness of the Great Pumpkin. What’s really amazing about this is how much better it works as a whole than as separate four-panel strips. Some Peanuts strips barely have jokes, let alone punchlines. But when you piece it together into a full narrative, the character beats make it start to feel like a sitcom. This is great. I love Peanuts. And it’s all online.

Jonathan Franklin: “Lost at sea: the man who vanished for 14 months” — I went into this Guardian feature half expecting an adventure story about a man showing nature who’s boss. Needless to say, that is not what it is. Being marooned for more than a year is not fun. The Martian is not a realistic movie. But this is still a hell of a story.

Javier Grillo-Marxauch: “The Lost Will and Testament of Javier Grillo-Marxauch” — This is a massive post on Grillo-Marxauch’s blog about the experience of working on the first two seasons of Lost. I remember meaning to read it when he first published it in March, but now that I’m re-watching the show, I have to. It’s a fascinating story, but here is what I really love: “While a lot of the accounts of Lost’s creation hinge on the question of whether we knew what the island was… few people ever ask if we knew the characters or had their stories worked out in advance. I find that curious.” Also, learning that David Fury was initially against the twist in “Walkabout” (which I resolutely refuse to spoil) is really something.

Kelly Sue DeConnick/Valentine De Landro: Bitch Planet, Volume 1 “Extraordinary Machine” — Kieron Gillen’s The Wicked and the Divine and Phonogram are among my favourite ongoing comics because they seem like they’re being made with me specifically in mind. I love Bitch Planet for the exact opposite reason: it doesn’t give a shit about pandering to me. Which, great. I’m over-served by the culture anyway. Pick of the week.

Mike Grell/Hannibal King/Elliot S. Maggin/John Koch: Secret Origins #38 — This is the other comic I won at the nerd bar. It’s from 1989 and it’s got two stories: one about Green Arrow, and the other about his sidekick, Speedy, who I’d never heard of. I have no opinions about either of them. Bog standard pulpy nonsense. Though there is a moment where Green Arrow takes down a couple of marijuana farming hippies. Took me a while to realize that they were actually supposed to be bad guys. The ads in this one are just as wonderful as in Starman #6. There’s one for Campbell’s soup with a variety of puzzles, like connecting the dots to find “the first thing you need for making a bowl of soup” — a can opener. There’s an ad for a Nintendo football game featuring an actual NFL quarterback playing the game on a couch with a gap-toothed child wearing Coke bottle glasses. These craven ad agencies and their shameless wish-fulfilment fantasies. Oh, and the back of the issue has an ad for this.

Podcasts

StartUp: “The Secret Formula” — Oh boy! Gimlet Media’s giving us a peek behind the curtain again. This is an inside look at the production of the new Gimlet show, Surprisingly Awesome. I was rough on Surprisingly Awesome last week, and I’ll probably keep being rough on it. But hoo boy, did it ever improve from the initial pass. This is a fascinating listen — possibly even for people who aren’t radio producers.

The Allusionist: “Spill Your Guts” — I wonder if Zaltzman is really going to co-host with all 12 of the other Radiotopians before getting back to regular, scheduled Allusionist episodes? (This was fine.)

Planet Money: “OMG TPP” — It says something about the team on Planet Money that they were able to put together a coherent episode about the TPP in a day. I now know something about it, whereas I didn’t before.

The Moth: “Jon Ronson & Mica Truran” — Jon Ronson is an autolisten. I’d actually heard the story he tells here before, on This American Life, but it was different hearing him tell it in a live audience situation. Plus, we learned that his wife says things to him at parties like “Make your smalltalk more… general.” Come for Ronson, stay for Mica Truran’s actually much more personal and meaningful story.

99% Invisible: “Fountain Drinks” — See? Even drinking fountains are interesting. And nobody had to claim they weren’t to help me through this. Also, Radiotopia being what it is right now, there was an episode of Song Exploder tacked onto the end of this (the one on tUnE-yArDs’ “Water Fountain”). And it was an excellent episode of Song Exploder about an excellent song that I am going to listen to again right now. (I’m back. Holy crap, that video.)

This American Life: “Transformers” — Sean Cole is one of my favourite TAL producers. His story about a young man coming out to his parents, and then that man’s mom coming out to him is worth listening in itself. The rest is fine.

In Our Time: “P vs. NP” — Look at me, listening to more of this. This episode is about an almost incomprehensibly complicated mathematical problem that nobody’s ever solved. It is a totally fascinating topic, and absolutely the kind of thing that almost every radio show in the world would toss aside immediately because confusing and because boring. I admire the sheer audacity with which In Our Time tackles this — not that it’s entirely successful. One sometimes wishes Robert Krulwich were around to lend clarity. Still, this may be the first show I’ve ever listened to where the host asks the guests for clarification not because he fears the listeners won’t understand, but because he himself is having trouble. I love that. I could get used to Melvyn Bragg, though I still think he could use a Red Bull or six before going to studio. All the same, there are moments of dour wit, here. When a guest explains to Bragg that “broadly speaking, exponential means hopelessly impractical,” Bragg replies: “Yes, broadly hopeless, right.” I’m beginning to delight in this, but it remains a somewhat knowingly perverse delight.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Lorne Michaels” — Michaels is astonishingly patient with Maron as he obsesses over a misbegotten SNL audition in 1995. That’s not an observation; that’s just a summary of this podcast. This is what we know to expect from Maron, but not necessarily what you’d expect from Michaels. If you’ve never heard WTF, this will show you what it’s all about, and why it’s so great on its best days. Pick of the week.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Live at the Howard Theatre” — Audie Cornish’s thoughts on horror movies are identical to my own. Glen Weldon’s thoughts on sports are similar to, though more dramatic than, my own. Linda Holmes’s delight in people getting trivia questions wrong resembles my own. Stephen Thompson’s rage at never getting trivia questions right himself is exactly my own. Also, Fred Armisen’s there.

The Memory Palace: “Artist in Landscape” — Gorgeous. Gorgeous and longer than usual. And sad. So sad. Listen to The Memory Palace. Just, listen to all of it.

Reply All: “The Rainbow Pug” — There was a time when StartUp and 99pi were undoubtedly my favourite podcasts. I think that recently, it’s shifted to The Memory Palace and Reply All. On the latter of which, this week, P.J. Vogt gets angry about a woman not being able to get her dog back from a shelter, and Alex Goldman tries to solve the problem. Reply All is possibly the most playful journalism outlet, full stop.

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Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 1, 2015)

If for some reason you make a habit of reading these, you’ll quickly realize that I like everything. You’re unlikely to see any real hatchet jobs here. I just like to enthuse about things, mostly. Here are your 32 reviews for the week:

Music

Vulfpeck: Thrill of the Arts — It’s funk produced with the minimalist precision of Krautrock. The arrangements are one unconventional decision after another. The choice to minimize the role of the drum kit at times is a weirdly good one. And the lyrics are brilliantly nonsensical. One of those unexpected pleasures.

David Bowie: Young Americans — In his book on John Peel, David Cavanagh refers to this as “the sound of [Bowie] cruising through black America in a limousine, occasionally slowing down to shed a few more parts of himself by the roadside.” I can’t do any better than that.

David Bowie: Station to StationYoung Americans was an only-half-successful experiment, but if it led to the insight that produced Station to Station, it was entirely worthwhile. This is my favourite Bowie album save for Low, and some days Hunky Dory. On the other hand, after listening to this and Young Americans in direct succession, my headphones are now coughing out thick clouds of cocaine. So, that’s inconvenient.

The Beatles: Rubber Soul — I just realized that my listening today has included soul of both plastic and rubber persuasions. Aside from that, what’s there to say about this? For years, it was the earliest Beatles album I cared to listen to. I’ve since developed a taste for the early stuff. But I still think this marks the point where they went from being a good little band to being the Best Band Ever. Not my favourite band, mind. But if you want to say to me that the Beatles are objectively the greatest band in history, I’ll tend not to argue with you.

Ted Hearne: The Source — First off, the track “We called for illumination at 1630” is one of the most staggering things I’ve heard recently. It’s an instant classic that everybody should hear. Most of the rest of this deeply unorthodox oratorio is less excellent than that. I sure respect Hearne’s political engagement (the oratorio’s text is drawn from the Manning leaks, among other primary sources). But it all feels a bit earnest to me: a bit austere and serious, as if to say, “This is important! DO NOT SMILE.” Still, it feels wrong to dismiss this on one listen. Accusing a work that deals with Chelsea Manning and the war in Afghanistan of being overly serious is admittedly somewhat perverse. I do wish more composers would try stuff like this. And that one track. Holy smokes. Listen to it now.

Eve Egoyan/Linda Catlin Smith: Thought and Desire — This is the first I’ve heard of Linda Catlin Smith’s music. It’s quite static, and at times there isn’t much to latch onto as a listener. Each of the nocturnes, chorales and miscellaneous compositions on this disc of piano music is essentially a sequence of slow moving but very rich chords without melodies stringing them together. Shades of Satie and Brian Eno. I listened while I worked, and eventually found myself really getting into it. I find the last twenty minutes boring, but the first forty are lovely. Egoyan’s releases are always worth hearing, because she plays music that nobody else does, and plays it well. Even if this isn’t quite as enthralling as some of her previous discs, these are still world premiere recordings and I value that inherently.

Mr. McFall’s Chamber: Solitudes — Who knew there was such a thing as Finnish tango? In any case, this is an album that takes that style as its jumping off point, and proceeds to do my favourite thing for contemporary classical albums to do: be completely enthralling while containing music written almost entirely by people I’ve never heard of. There’s nearly an hour of music by composers I don’t know, compared with less than ten minutes of music by composers I do. That seems about the right ratio. Olli Mustonen’s Toccata and Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Dedication are particular highlights. And the playing!

The Chemical Brothers: Further — I’ve already written at length about how happy this album makes me on Two Matts, the blog I co-write with Matt Meuse. It was one he assigned me, knowing full well I’d be into it. But he might not have guessed that I’d still be listening to it semi-obsessively several weeks later.

Live events

Hey Rosetta! Live at the Vogue — I’ve only done this a couple of times: that thing where you go to a concert by an artist you’ve barely heard of. But the friend I went with has seen them eight or nine times, so he was well-prepared to give me the lowdown on these folks beforehand. Plus, the concert turned out to be a good way in. Hey Rosetta! is a great live band for a couple of reasons. First, they play and sing brilliantly. Not a given, as we know. It’s the bands whose execution is solid that you want to see live. Secondly, their songs can get a bit anthemic. You want to be in a crowd of people, listening to some of those songs. I’m especially glad to have been at this specific show because Yukon Blonde was the opening act, and the two bands did their 2015 election anthem “Land You Love” for the first time live as an encore. Lovely moment, there. Plus, the lighting design was clever: twenty-or-so incandescent bulbs were distributed across the stage on stands. At times, the stage lights would go off completely, leaving the band lit solely by those bulbs. Wonderful. Time to listen to some Hey Rosetta! albums.

Movies

The Zero Theorem — You know you’re truly in love with an artist when you even enjoy the works of theirs that you can objectively identify as bad. This is how I am with Terry Gilliam. I’m on record stating that my favourite movie is Brazil, and that remains true on all the days when it is not Mulholland Drive or Velvet Goldmine. Then there are the Gilliam movies that are basically accepted as good, which I believe are masterpieces: 12 Monkeys, The Fisher King, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. There are the misunderstood gems, Tideland and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, both brilliant. And so it goes, on down to Brothers Grimm and Jabberwocky, neither of them any good at all, both of which I like in spite of myself. The question with The Zero Theorem was never “will I like it,” but rather “which of those categories will it fit into?” Turns out, it’s the one with Tideland and Parnassus. Nobody likes this, but it’s great. Gilliam’s satire continues to be a hilariously blunt instrument, and his gender politics are extremely suspect, but this is an enthralling movie. It probably helps that it’s the most similar thing he’s done to Brazil. It’s full of signs and boxes and advertisements you should read but can’t, because everything goes by too fast. It’s got David Thewlis as a cut-rate Michael Palin and Christoph Waltz as a big-budget Jonathan Pryce. It’s got women wearing outlandish things on their heads. I was never not going to like this.

Television

Doctor Who: “The Zygon Invasion/Inversion” — Well, the season got off to a slow start, but we’re sure as hell into the thick of it now. This two-parter was completely magnificent. Still not quite as good as last season’s high points (which were, incidentally, also written by the two writers credited here), but damn good. Between his Doctor Who work and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, Peter Harness is quickly becoming my second-favourite writer associated with Doctor Who. And if “space ISIS” isn’t quite as good a premise as “the moon’s an egg,” at least we got Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman both giving their best-ever performances on the show.

Last Week Tonight: November 1, 2015 — Nothing here that will set the world ablaze. No dingo babysitters. But it’s always nice to hear somebody say “hey, maybe we should focus on actual present-day news instead of talking about an election that’s a year away” and then doing that thing.

Literature, etc.

David Cavanagh: Good Night and Good Riddance — This continues to be fantastic, and really lent some clarity to the rise of punk rock. While I’ve become considerably more amenable to punk in recent years, I still have some lingering skepticism. But, when you see on a show-for-show basis how boring music was in 1975-76 (LOTS of Eagles and other Eaglesy bands on the radio), you begin to understand. Also, Cavanagh cleverly notes how many of the artists on certain Peel shows from this period were living in tax exile. Sort of puts a nice fine point on things, doesn’t it?

China Miéville: “The Buzzard’s Egg” — This is one of the best stories I’ve gotten to in this collection so far. Miéville’s stories live and die on the novelty of their premises, and this premise is really something: an army of ruthless imperialists conquer peoples and take their land by stealing their idols, thus rendering their prayers useless. Piquant, no? And Miéville’s chosen just the right narrator to offer a window into that world.

Alex Bilmes: Noel Gallagher interview for Esquire — I don’t really like Oasis. I’ve never listened to a full Oasis album. But I love interviews with Noel Gallagher. And this one is gigantic. Bilmes has the restraint to say his piece at the beginning, and then just give the people what they want, which is 6,500 words of Noel being garrulous and abrasive. Sample: “Hard work and a fucking filthy tongue, that’s what I inherited from my mum. She taught the Nineties how to swear. And what’s the word, stoicism? Yeah, she was hardcore. She didn’t give a fuck.”

Ben Grossblatt/Alex Fine: How to Speak Klingon — A few friends and I have been going to pub trivia around Vancouver for a year or so. There’s a nerd bar here called the Storm Crow that’s becoming a favourite for its fairly challenging questions and its Cthulhu altar. This was a first place prize, and it is frankly ridiculous that I’m even reviewing it. It is a children’s board book with buttons that make sounds. It is not a serious thing. That said, it is better than it needs to be. Wookiepedia tells me that in addition to this most minor of Star Trek credits, Grossblatt has also written peripheral fiction pertaining to Star Wars. And the illustrator, Alex Fine, did covers for Newsweek when Newsweek still had covers. So, they’re not hacks. This provides useful phrases for various contexts in Klingon society. Like, on public transportation, it teaches you the phrase for “I don’t have exact change and await my just and devastating punishment.” Or, at the office: “There are no bad ideas, only ideas meriting death.” Or, at karaoke: “Hold me closer, tiny dancer.”

Games

Stasis: Howlongtobeat.com tells me it should take me about five hours to beat this game. Reviewers imply that they played it in an afternoon. I’ve played for nine hours over the course of two weeks, and I don’t feel like I’m nearly done. I’m really bad at this, aren’t I?

Podcasts

The Allusionist: “Criminallusionist” — Radiotopia cross-promotion continues. I’m beginning to wonder if this is a straightforwardly good thing or not. The bulk of this is just a full episode of Criminal, and while that’s nothing to complain about, I did actually tune in for The Allusionist. Maybe this is how Marvel Comics fans feel when they complain about big crossover events?

This American Life: “The Heart Wants What It Wants” — The major highlight of this is Shankar Vedantum’s story about men who were conned into paying for love letters from fictional women. The key takeaway is that I should probably start listening to Vedantum’s Hidden Brain, although do I really have time for another podcast? (Evidently yes, as we shall see.)

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “A Conversation with Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)” — I will likely not read Career of Evil, but the structural gimmick sounds fun (much of the novel is narrated by the murderer, but you don’t actually know which of the suspects is doing the narrating). This is one of my favourite things about listening to tons of podcasts: it helps me keep track of what’s going on in the cultural world without my having to actually take in ALL of it. (Though you can see I’m trying.)

Surprisingly Awesome: “Mold” — I’ve expressed ambivalence towards “wonder surrogacy” before, in other media. That’s where there’s a person in the text itself whose role it is to express wonder, interest or enthusiasm in the hopes that the audience will join in. This new podcast has wonder surrogacy baked into its premise. Provided that the topics covered continue to have the same hidden depths as they find in mold, there will always be one host whose job boils down to saying “isn’t that interesting?” At the worst of times, this approach strikes me as desperate. Surely it’s better to just say interesting things and get on with it than to be constantly trumpeting your own appeal. In this premiere episode, it’s fine. But I will remain vigilant.

In Our Time: “Utilitarianism” — This is BBC Radio 4. This is a very austere production with no music, no tape, seemingly no editing, and no obvious enthusiasm. This is a man mumbling disinterestedly into a microphone, trying to coax the history of a major branch of philosophy from a panel of sleepy professors. This condescends not a whit to its audience, and makes no compromises. In fact, it seems to be ignoring its audience altogether. I will probably listen to more of this.

Reply All: “Shine On You Crazy Goldman” — P.J. Vogt drops acid at work. P.J. Vogt is quickly becoming the most interesting podcast host. Matt Lieber is a Pink Floyd reference.

The Memory Palace: “no. 116,842” — The Memory Palace always makes me get all watery at inopportune moments. DiMeo has this uncanny ability to wrest meaning out of a phrase by repeating it: in this case, “let her mind wander.” See also, “Mary Walker would wear what she wanted.”

The Memory Palace: “Craning” — Every time I hear a really good episode of The Memory Palace, it makes me want to go back and listen to this one again. I must have heard it ten or twelve times, now. It is my favourite nine minutes of audio I’ve heard this year. It’s a landscape of Cape Canaveral on the morning Apollo 11 launched, wrought with incredibly fine brushstrokes — right down to the spectators camping out in station wagons, overnight, with the tailgates open for the feet of tall children in sleeping bags. There are more perfect turns of phrase here than I’ve ever heard in a radio piece. Throw in some meditative music, and this is a total sucker punch. I can’t account for why this has such an effect on me. That’s probably why I love it so much.

99% Invisible: “Butterfly Effects” — An original, Sam Greenspan-produced story about how bad design might have decided a federal election. This is what this podcast is for. 99pi is a continuous act of validation for Roman’s “beautiful nerds.” Because, when everything in the world is so inherently interesting, how can you not want to learn everything about it? How can you not be a nerd? In a sense, the premise of 99pi is the opposite of the premise for the new Gimlet podcast, Surprisingly Awesome. Where the latter takes for granted that some things are boring, 99pi is interested in everything, and trusts that you are too. No wonder surrogacy, here.

The Moth: “Hand Transplant, DNA, and a Backwards Heart” — And, we’re back. Janna Levin’s story of love and astrophysics is structurally a thing of beauty. I’m a sucker for recurring motifs that develop thematically through the course of a narrative. (See: The Memory Palace, and also most everything by Beethoven.) The other two stories are less interesting, but not by much.

The Heart: “Kaitlyn+Mitra” — This two-parter about the intimate business partnership of The Heart’s two founders could have been a little inside baseball, but they invited their audience in by literally inviting the audience to a big event — a wedding, of sorts. The Heart is so good. For one thing, it’s one of the best-sounding podcasts on Radiotopia, along with The Truth and 99pi. For another, it cares not a whit about taboos. And was that Brian Eno’s slowed-down Pachelbel I heard in there? Clever.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ and Things We Meant to Do” — And now, a proper episode of PCHH. Pop culture panel shows are a dime a dozen, but this is far and away the best of the major ones. Every episode sounds like what it hopefully actually is, which is four people who really like talking to each other talking about stuff they like. I generally find this panel more insightful than Slate’s, and it’s actually funnier than the less structured and less censored Pop Rocket from Maximum Fun. This episode is a pretty standard instalment. And that is just fine. This is a podcast I almost always listen to the day it comes out, because I can rely on it to be good company on a commute or a run, even when the topics at hand aren’t that interesting to me.

Radiolab: “Staph Retreat” — You know you listen to too many podcasts when you hear two separate accounts of Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in the same week, entirely by coincidence. This is the better one, by the way. As you’d expect. Honestly, Radiolab lost me for a while. Between the reduced presence of Robert Krulwich, the less ambitious sound design and the increased focus on the sort of current affairs stories that other shows like This American Life already do, I felt like this show had somewhat lost its distinctiveness. But between this and “The Rhino Hunter” from September, it looks like they’re back on top.

Surprisingly Awesome: “Free Throws” — More wonder surrogacy, but this time, Adam Davidson is essentially a perfect surrogate for me, because this is a sports story, and neither he nor I could care less about sports. But, even given this optimal situation, in which both Davidson and I come around to the interest of free throws in the end, they cap it off with an ending in which Davidson’s wonder far exceeds my own, and the perfect surrogacy is broken. This is the key risk of this kind of storytelling: if the audience isn’t completely analogous to the surrogate, they need to engage their empathy in order to feel the intended effect. And people are (or at least, I am) bad at engaging their empathy when the stakes are zero. I’ll keep tuning in to this, because it really is entertaining on a moment-for-moment basis. But I distrust this structure.

Welcome to Night Vale: “The September Monologues” — I do like it when Night Vale plays with the format. I suppose some of what I said last week might make it sound like I don’t. But the real problem is when there’s too much focus on long-term storytelling and worldbuilding, and not enough on just making the episode at hand work. This is one of the best episodes I’ve heard, if only for the brilliant monologue by Steve Carlsburg. I always figured Cecil was just being a jerk about him. And that weather gag is genius.