Tag Archives: Imaginary Worlds

Omnibus (week of Aug. 6, 2017)

Greetings from Clarenville, NFLD! I was on a red eye flight last night and I am delirious and I don’t know what time it is. Anyway, I anticipate next week’s instalment being substantially less well populated to this one.

23 reviews.

Movies

Big Trouble in Little China — Good lord, what a thing. I wrote last week in my Dunkirk review about my favourite experiences in a movie theatre, and how that list is distinct from my favourite movies. I think this now joins the ranks of Mad Max: Fury Road and Avatar in the former category. I saw it at the Rio with a friend who is, I would imagine, a bit more inclined toward schlocky action than I am — and definitely more inclined towards John Carpenter. And the crowd that gathered for this was thoroughly in the tank for this movie — I daresay it was impossible not to have fun in that theatre. I doubt it would have struck me as anywhere near as entertaining if I’d watched it at home, because its value is a sort of value that I don’t see by default — I need other people to help bolster my enthusiasm. I don’t mean to suggest here that the movie itself is anything other that brilliant. It’s just not brilliant in a way I would have noticed on my own. The basic premise of the movie is “cast one white dude as the supposed hero, then have him be a hilariously useless dolt throughout.” This is a wonderful thing to watch, because Kurt Russell’s performance is completely committed: he’s John Wayne, loudly blundering through somebody else’s movie. He trips over his own dick in deeply white American fashion at the very beginning of the climactic battle scene and never regains his poise, while the movie’s huge ensemble of Asian martial artists flies through the air all around him. That’s the juxtaposition that makes the movie so satisfying: the fights are genuinely fantastic and a ton of fun to watch, but the story, characters and dialogue feel no need to live up to the seriousness of the choreography. I loved the shit out of this, and will be liberally repurposing the line “Hey, I’m a reasonable guy, but I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things” to my own ends.

Music

Pink Floyd: The Early Years 1965-1972 — I’ve really enjoyed hearing legendary BBC DJ John Peel as a beloved supporting character in this box set’s story. The fifth volume features his best moment yet, where his announcement to a live audience that “This is Radio One” is met with a huge cheer, his continuation “on medium wave” is met with an even bigger cheer, and his tossed off self-introduction, “And this is John Peel…” is met with a positive torrent of appreciation. “Ah, you blew it,” he tells them. “You did it all wrong.” This guy was everything good about public broadcasting. This single disc collection from around the time of Meddle, arguably the first great Pink Floyd album (though I’m not arguing that) is dominated by the 1971 Peel session in front of a live crowd. It contains a surpassingly good “Fat Old Sun,” which has been extended to include not just the classic guitar solo, but also an uncharacteristically blazing feature for Rick Wright on organ. “One of These Days” is preceded by Peel reporting to the audience that Roger Waters considers this instrumental to be a “poignant appraisal of the current social situation,” which is exactly the sort of thing his detractors would think he means sincerely. But Peel clearly recognizes the game Waters is playing which is “let’s see if I can make John Peel say something dumb and look like a knob on his own show.” Peel doesn’t fall for it. “Make what you will of that,” he says, with a nearly audible roll of his eyes. He also announces that Pink Floyd were evidently dissatisfied with their label’s release of “Embryo” on the Picnic sampler, because it was basically a demo. But he doesn’t explain why they continue to make it a major part of their live set. It’s not a good song, in any version. The session culminates in a complete live “Echoes,” which pales in comparison to the earthshaking Pompei recording (I understand that’s included on the following volume) but it’s still a lot of fun to hear the track through the ears of an audience who likely hasn’t heard it before. (Meddle wasn’t released until a month later.) That’s what I’ve enjoyed about listening to this set, and I imagine that’s part of what more casual fans might not understand about why a huge set of outtakes and curios like this appeals to me: listening to The Early Years isn’t like listening to an album, or even a live album. It’s like listening to an enormous, comprehensive, narration-free documentary about the creative development of Pink Floyd, and the relationship they had with their audience prior to their enormous celebrity. That’s a really compelling story to me, and it’s part of why the Peel sessions are such consistent highlights of the set. The only track on the disc not to come from the Peel session is a segment from the jams that led to the composition of “Echoes,” titled “Nothing, Pt. 14.” It’s an amusing listen primarily because it finds the band toying with the section of the song that would eventually be the leadup to its climax, but they clearly haven’t devised that climax yet. So, in retrospect it’s almost hilariously dissatisfying. But it really emphasizes what’s so impressive about “Echoes,” which is that it clearly is a collection of several initially unrelated ideas that have been massaged together in a way that works as a singular journey. It’s the moment when the fact that three quarters of the band are former architecture students is most clear. The sixth volume (the final one to be available on Apple Music) is both the most musically satisfying and least narratively interesting of the set. These effects both arise for the same reason, which is that all of the music included has been officially released in some fashion before. It’s unclear to me why the compilers of this set decided to include Obscured by Clouds in its entirety, since surely the vast majority of people interested in buying this would have it already. But it has been newly remixed, and has never sounded better. The thing that feels like it’s missing from this set more than anything is live performances of the Obscured by Clouds material. At this point, we’ve gotten to hear music from all of their other albums as performance pieces, but we don’t get a picture of what this stuff sounded like in concert. Presumably, including that would have taken the compilers over their cutoff line of January 1, 1973, and at that point the absence of Dark Side of the Moon material would seem unnatural. So, I get it, mostly. It’s just another one of those things that makes me hope we get another box set like this for the years from 1973-2014 — a far vaster span of time, but with only one more album than this box’s span. There’s no better way that this set could have ended than with the first digital audio release of Live at Pompeii. Aside from being a magnificent performance, and one of the best things in the Pink Floyd catalogue, the documentary film that the audio comes from is the defining document of the tail end of Pink Floyd’s relative obscurity. It finds them performing material from the whole of the transitional period this set documents: from “A Saucerful of Secrets” to “Echoes.” And it also finds them in the process of recording The Dark Side of the Moon, which would make them one of the biggest bands in rock history. This is narratively rich territory, and it’s a damn good live record, too. It’s beyond me why it was apparently included in the box set as an afterthought, because it might be the best thing in it. The Early Years 1967-1972 has been a joy to listen to. Even with all of the repeated performances of the same track, the ephemeral nature of many of the recordings, and early Pink Floyd’s tendency towards obscurantism, I never once found it tedious. (Okay, maybe once: on the Atom Heart Mother-focussed disc.) It is maybe the most vital collection of rock curios ever released.

Olivia Chaney: The Longest River — In preparation for the Decemberists concert (which as I’m writing this will be happening tonight) I thought I’d check out their opener’s solo material. To recap: Chaney is the lead singer of the Decemberists’ side project Offa Rex, whose first album was released earlier this year, is brilliant, and is an explicit tribute to the British folk revival. I love that album, but it does what it says on the tin. Going into this one, I didn’t quite know what to expect. And that worked out to my advantage, because The Longest River consistently surprised me in all the best ways. It’s a mix of original songs, traditional songs, covers, and an anomalous Purcell aria. Chaney performs all of them with real attention paid to the detail in the arrangements, which are mostly just guitar and piano (and the occasional Kronos Quartet cameo) but they are all thoughtful and complex. And the songs themselves are complex, too. I’ve listened to the gorgeous “Loose Change” more than a half-dozen times at this point and I still can’t anticipate where the phrases start and stop. But it’s a good kind of disorientation, and in the end you find yourself deposited back in the part of the song with the gorgeous riff. I’m reminded of Gabriel Kahane, though none of Chaney’s lyrics make me gag. The more obvious point of comparison would be Joni Mitchell, a singer with a similar range, precision, and virtuosity in her arrangements. But there’s something paradoxically more modern about Chaney’s inclusion of traditional songs and covers. The Longest River is a curio cabinet as much as a personal opus. And I mean that in a good way. I’ll be living with this for a while. It’s less immediate than The Queen of Hearts but I can see it having more legs.

Live events

The Decemberists, with Olivia Chaney: Live at the Orpheum — Occasionally, you travel in time. I went to this concert with the very friend who introduced me to the Decemberists in the first place. They were the most important band among my high school’s contingent of weird theatre kids, and therefore one of the first relatively current bands to join Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and their ilk in my regular rotation. I remember the first time I heard “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” It wasn’t the studio recording — it was at an impromptu sing-along in the swimming pool at a summer improv camp, with one of the instructors playing guitar on the poolside. There were probably fifty people in that swimming pool, and I was the only one who didn’t know the Decemberists. This was rectified by my present-day concertmate, posthaste. Listening to them now, I can’t help but see in them the same quality I see in most of my passionate obsessions from those days (and now, in a more muted way): a sort of effusive muchness that’s bound to alienate aesthetes with carefully cultivated tastes, while enthralling anoraks like me and my weird teenage friends. (“Drama kids in three-button vests,” Pitchfork called us. I rather like that.) Many of Colin Meloy’s song titles contain exclamation points (“July, July!” “O Valencia!” “Revenge!” “All Arise!”), and there’s a sense in which his entire career is an exclamation, namely: “let’s put on a show!” In the Decemberists, we saw our own self-indulgence reflected back at us, and they offered confirmation that unabashed pretension was a perfectly valid way to find joy in the world. So, this concert with this friend brought us full circle. Honestly I’d say it might have been my ideal Decemberists setlist if I’d already seen them before, which I hadn’t. This was a show that was really light on iconic classics. We got none of Picaresque, and only one track from the either of the first two albums. There was no “Mariner’s Revenge Song,” no “Sixteen Military Wives,” no “I Was Born for the Stage.” We did get “Crane Wife 3” and “O Valencia!” But for the most part, this was a set devoted to the stranger corners of the Decemberists’ catalogue — and the proggier corners. We got “The Island,” in all its Tull-aping glory. We got “The Queen’s Rebuke,” which was by no means the part of The Hazards of Love that I expected to hear. And most remarkably of all, we got The Tain in its entirety: all 18-and-a-half prog-fed minutes of it. That was the highlight of the show, and I’ve been struggling since the concert to think of an analogue for the weirdness and excitement of that moment in some other artist’s discography. Maybe if Paul McCartney announced he was going to do all of Ram. We also got a bunch of new stuff, which was nice. I could have done with fewer tracks from Beautiful/Terrible, which is the only Decemberists album I don’t especially care for. But their new “State of the Union” song, “Everything is Awful” is a scorcher, and a cathartic one at that. Its lyrical simplicity is new territory for Colin Meloy. If even he is lost for words, we must be in a rough spot, indeed. There was also a set from the Offa Rex album, which I adore, and more on which below. So basically it was a super weird set, and if this band weren’t tied up with so much nostalgia for me, it might have been my ideal Decemberists experience. But I really wanted to hear the stuff I loved when I was 16. Can you blame me? So, I feel as though I need to see them again, and next time I want the other two parts of “The Crane Wife,” “Leslie Anne Levine” and at least half of Picaresque. Finally, a word on Olivia Chaney. We wandered in about one minute into her opening set. I’ve been listening to The Longest River semi-obsessively over the past week, so I was basically just as excited for her as for the Decemberists. And she did not disappoint. She drifted between the harmonium, the keyboard and a hollow-body electric guitar, performing a set with the same far-flung variety as her album in the space of 30 minutes. Highlights included her gorgeous original “Loose Change,” which is a perfect song, and a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” which she is one of only a handful of people I would trust to sing. I was delighted to find that she’s also performing alongside the Decemberists during their set, doing a few tracks from The Queen of Hearts, which is one of the best albums of the year so far. Evidently this was the first show not to be explicitly billed as Offa Rex to include a set like this. I feel very privileged. I feel like I need to see the Decemberists again because we have unfinished business. I feel like I need to see Olivia Chaney again because she is a staggering musician and I think she’s on the verge of something. Occasionally, you travel in time. But it isn’t always easy to tell which direction you went in.

Television

Game of Thrones: “The Spoils of War” — Sure helps to clarify your loyalties, doesn’t it? I would have been entirely content to see Jaime and Bronn both perish in the flames of Daenerys’s new world order. Wonder how that’ll shake up. Anyway, this is more consequential than last week’s talky episode, and it’s definitely great to see some dragons roast some Lannisters. I’ll always prefer the talky episodes, but it wouldn’t be GoT without scenes like that. It strikes me that Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks are the perfect series to be watching in tandem right now, since GoT is offering satisfaction in such heavy doses, where Twin Peaks maintains its steadfast perversity. One or the other of them might drive me over the edge if not for the other. Maisie Williams is this week’s performance highlight. Arya has this wonderful way of saying something incredibly grave and then conjuring her most childlike side whenever somebody finds that amusing. It’s incredibly unsettling. The look of absolute glee when she uses her dagger to best Brienne in combat training is basically what I like about this show. “Who taught you to do that?” “No one.” Marvellous. I’m liking the way that the Daenerys/Jon partnership is shaping up. This episode finds Jon Snow offering the sort of advice to Daenarys that indicates how he and she need each other. That’s the plotline I’m most excited about right now. Also, just want to point out that last week I branded Littlefinger a chaos theorist, only to have Bran reiterate his prior thesis that “chaos is a ladder” this week. It’s the little things that make us feel like geniuses, isn’t it?

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 13 — Another frustrating instalment that I enjoyed in spite of myself. I love the music in the opening scene: it’s just alienating enough. The clear highlight here is Mr. C’s armwrestling match, but it is cold comfort given the fact that those detectives have completely failed to acknowledge the connection between Dougie Jones and Dale Cooper. He’s not waking up is he.

QI: “Next” — Well, Sandi Toksvig is delightful. I haven’t watched this since Stephen Fry left, only because I haven’t been in the mood, but it’s lovely to see it in good hands. And having both Ross Noble and Frankie Boyle is frankly a surfeit of wit.

Literature, etc.

Chris Ware: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth — This is one of the most emotionally exhausting works of fiction I have ever experienced. It’s a cathartic kind of exhaustion, but Chris Ware drives his protagonist (and his protagonist’s forebears in the long flashback sequences) to psychological places where not every reader will want to follow. There’s something extra effective about personal, heartfelt stories like this when they’re told in an aggressively formalist way. Christopher Nolan, to pick the other example who’s come up recently, has always made movies I like because he shows you human experience through the prism of complex story structures. This isn’t just cleverness: it changes the way you watch his movies by adding a layer of distance between you and the content of the story. You’re expected to fill that distance with your own ability to identify with the characters, and that makes a movie like Dunkirk especially devastating. Chris Ware takes that distancing technique to a level unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. His art is detailed in the way that a blueprint is detailed: everything you’d see if you were looking at a building or person in real life is accounted for in his drawing, but left cartoonish in its realization. And he’s not one to amplify the emotional impact of key moments with dynamic page layouts. His visual language is solidly rectangular. That in itself contributes a sort of austerity to the storytelling. Even splash pages are a bit of a indulgence for Ware, and he uses them very sparingly — including once at the book’s most shattering moment, when something truly awful happens to Jimmy’s grandfather as a child. There’s also a moment where a major plot twist near the end is communicated wordlessly through, basically, a flow chart. You get the point. Ware is extremely restrained and fussy. At first, the book’s general aesthetic of “Sunday funnies meets 19th-century carnival advertisements” just seems like a symptom of this formalism. But when the shattering moment I mentioned above happened, you realize that in fact, the event that precipitated the Corrigan family’s trend of worthless fathers (and thus Jimmy’s bad state throughout the story) took place at the Chicago World’s Fair. So, the fact that the story plays out in the garb of that event’s promotional materials takes on a new resonance. This is simultaneously one of the most affecting and most ingenious comics I’ve ever read. It’s a masterpiece. Now I’m gonna go lie down for a while. Pick of the week.

Franklin Foer: “When Silicon Valley Took Over Journalism” — Possibly the single most concise and effective expression of the devil’s bargain that the journalism industry made when they went to Facebook for an audience. Evidently Foer has a book coming out on this. Can’t wait. Do you know an editor with a Chartbeat addiction? Make them read this, then lock them in the basement.

John Lanchester: “You Are The Product” — Foer’s piece may be the most concise one about the perils of Facebook for the media, but this review of three recent books on the subject in the London Review of Books is the most complete feature-length discussion of how Facebook’s lack of a moral compass is affecting its users. I plan to read all of these books.

Thomas Ligotti: “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story” — This magnificent essay-that-is-not-an-essay reveals Thomas Ligotti to be several things I knew he was, as well as a few things I didn’t know he was. It reveals him to be a very good horror writer, which I knew he was. It reveals him to be completely crazy, which I suspected he was. But it also reveals him to have a sense of humour, which I didn’t know he had, and to have a facility for metafiction, which hasn’t been part of the stories I’ve read by him. That last observation makes this story scarier than many of his others for me, simply because there is nothing scarier to me than a story that transgresses its own boundaries. As for the essayistic element of this, there is much to learn from Ligotti’s straightforward discussion of the types of horror stories. As a producer of an occasionally horror-adjacent podcast, I have found myself in positions where I’ve butted up against my own insistence on what Ligotti calls the “realistic” model of horror writing, where an uncanny thing is found to exist in contrast to a fundamentally “real” and “normal” world. Having read this, I now understand why this doesn’t always work for me — because in stories like Ligotti’s the world is fundamentally skewed and unreal. And those are the kinds of stories that I like. Also, it’s hilarious to me that Ligotti has to literally reimagine himself as a passionate Italian from a bygone century to contemplate writing Gothically. This is very, very good.

Stephen King: The Gunslinger — As I’m writing this, I just got off a plane. On that plane, I read nearly this whole book. That is not something I normally do — my general ponderousness and tendency to get distracted makes me an abnormally slow reader. But now I think I know why people like Stephen King, at least in part: the pages fly by. This is the first thing I’ve read by King. I feel like I’ve always been just about to get into him, but I’ve always backed off before pulling the trigger, so to speak. I decided to dive right into the Dark Tower series because I’ve been reading reviews of the movie, which almost uniformly make the movie sound like hackneyed drivel, while also emphasizing that the books are as wonderfully strange as the movie fails to be. Fine, I’m in. This first instalment manages to simultaneously be incredibly thrilling and also feel like it’s mere setup. The book’s story is basically summed up by its first sentence: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” And then when the gunslinger catches up with the man in black, they talk, and more questions are raised than answered. The basic idea of this is a lot of fun: put Clint Eastwood in a fantasy story. What I’m most looking forward to in this series is the opportunity for genre fusions. Already we’ve got Jake, who is a secondary character from an entirely different kind of story — and I suspect we haven’t seen the last of him. Good fun.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Atomic Blonde,” “Insecure,” “Detroit,” & “A Guide to Stephen King” — Two weeks worth of this! Honestly, the Stephen King episode is the only one that I’m finding of practical value, but it’s just nice to listen to them talk.

Love and Radio: “Suitcase of Love and Shame” — Another absurdly intimate episode of Love and Radio. We get to listen in on an affair in real time. It’s a beautiful thing in which nobody comes out looking very good.

The Turnaround: “Katie Couric,” “Ray Suarez,” “Werner Herzog” & “Terry Gross” — The last four episodes of this show have all been interesting, although the climactic (what a concept) Terry Gross interview has a lot of overlap with the more comprehensive Longform interview. This has been a thoroughly enjoyable series, though I’ve cooled on it over time. I wouldn’t stand by my initial impression that it’s among the best radio of the year.

Planet Money: “Google is Big. Is That Bad?” — Yes.

A Piece of Work: “Samantha Gets High on Light” — I’m really impressed by how well the host and guests on this show manage to describe the experience of visual art in an invisible medium. This is a great new show; I’ve been totally enjoying it. Makes me want more podcasts about visual art. Pick of the week.

The Daily: Wednesday, August 9 — Nice to hear Carl Zimmer on this! Love that guy. And also it’s always a good way to get the latest Trump horrors put into context.

On the Media: “Shmashmortion” — A history of the politics of abortion from Brooke Gladstone. How can you go wrong? This is great stuff, and really emphasizes how artificial a debate it is.

Imaginary Worlds: “Evil Plans” & “Scott Snyder” — Been awhile since I’ve heard this. The Scott Snyder interview is fun, even though I had no idea who he was. It’s about how his own anxieties factor into the Batman stories he’s written.

Code Switch: “The U.S. Census And Our Sense Of Us” & “Who’s Your Great-Great-Great-Great Granddaddy?” — Two episodes that explore notions of identity and the labels we put on them. The one about genealogy is especially interesting.

Theory of Everything: “Illicit Objects” — A marvellous compendium of bite-sized stories about objects that people aren’t supposed to have. For having been produced by people who aren’t Benjamen Walker, it feels very ToE.

Mogul: “Cameo: Russell Simmons and Sophia Chang” — It’s a bit awkward to hear Russell Simmons proclaiming that he doesn’t think Chris Lighty committed suicide after the final full episode of this basically concluded that he did, and that the only reason people don’t want to believe that is the stigma against mental illness in the hip hop community. But at least Simmons seems to think that taboo is harmful.

Omnibus (week of July 9, 2017)

Oh, but it’s a good one this week. We’ve got theatre, a pair of superhero blockbusters, some great new music, the start of a chapter-by-chapter rundown of a truly excellent episodic adventure game, and the most unexpected literary classic of recent years from a sports website. Also a metric tonne of podcasts. I’ve been procrastinating again.

32 reviews. Eat up.

Live events

The Merchant of Venice (Bard on the Beach) — Like The Winter’s Tale, this is not a play that I know well. I know it as Shakespeare’s most fraught play, since it is widely considered anti-Semitic. Given my lack of knowledge of the text itself, I can’t easily judge whether that’s the case, because this production is intensely sympathetic to Shylock. It paints him as a man who insists upon his own dignity in spite of the world’s hatred and disregard for him. It paints his ruthlessness as a symptom of the constant abuse he suffers at the hands of Christians. Mind you, that’s present in the play itself to the extent that it allows Shylock the interiority to know his own intentions and the reasoning for them. The “hath not a Jew eyes” is evidence enough that Shakespeare has some sympathy for Shylock. But that only makes it more perplexing that he goes on to ruin Shylock’s life and write him out of the last act. After watching what happens to Shylock in this production, it is almost viscerally unpleasant to watch the play as it refocuses on the foibles of newlyweds. This is probably intentional: director Nigel Shawn Williams makes clear in his notes that he is more interested in the play’s struggles for dignity and power than with its romances. He associates this theme of struggling for dignity with Shylock, Jessica, Portia and Antonio: the latter two of which I have a bit of trouble accepting — Antonio in particular. But nonetheless, it is the struggle between Antonio and Shylock that really soars in this production, thanks in very large part to excellent performances by Edward Foy and (especially) Warren Kimmel. Kimmel will also be performing in Mark Leiren-Young’s Shylock in September, and I’m going to get my tickets real quick. The lovers are less inspired. This is partially due to the decision to turn the males in these plotlines into insufferable nightlife dudebros, but it’s mostly because some of them really shout a lot more than they need to. Still, on the whole, I enormously enjoyed this. It’s probably my favourite of the three Bard productions I’ve seen so far.

Literature, etc.

Amanda Petrusich: “MTV News, Chance the Rapper, and a Defense of Negative Criticism” — Whither music criticism? “Pivot to video.” Sigh. This is a lovely piece about the importance of the sort of music writing that doesn’t depend on access. I feel it ties in slightly with what I wrote about the first episode of The Turnaround last week, particularly Petrusich’s last graf: “A funny thing about journalism is that it’s contingent upon the willful participation of a subject; a reporter always needs a reliable, talkative source. People agree to coöperate with journalists for reasons of self-promotion or, on rare occasions, moral obligation. But criticism doesn’t require its subject to acquiesce. For anyone accustomed to high degrees of control, this can seem, at first, like an affront. But well-rendered criticism confirms that the work is high stakes. This criticism can be illuminating and thrilling, and might offer an important vantage on a very private experience. It is, at least, less strangulating than a feedback loop of endless, bootless flattery.” Read the rest.

Jon Bois: 17776 — If you’d told me in January that one of the highlights of my pop culture year would be a story about football that came from SB Nation, I… would probably have believed you but also been very surprised. This story of life in the inconceivably distant future is one of the most effortlessly, unassumingly funny, bittersweet and occasionally heartbreaking stories I’ve come across in a very long time. The fact that it’s so surprising and so totally different from anything else I’ve ever seen a major news/sports/culture publication do is only part of the appeal of this. Mostly, it just knows exactly what it is and follows through again and again. I’ll try not to spoil too much, because the novelty and element of surprise are nice. But a certain amount of spoilers are inevitable from here on out. Basically, 17776 is a story about a world where people stopped dying, stopped aging (or, stopped aging involuntarily at least), stopped getting sick, and invented a way to prevent all accidental death and injury. It envisions a world where the people who inhabit earth in the year 17776 are for the most part the same set of people who inhabit the earth now. Having arrived in a post-scarcity world, where even time is not scarce, humanity (particularly the American portion of it) now occupies itself with increasingly long, large-scale and absurd games of football. It is largely told from the point of view of three incredibly loveable protagonists, all of them space probes launched in the 20th and 21st centuries who have over time become sentient. It just took me 126 words to describe the premise of this thing. That should give you some sense of its amazing strangeness. Pioneer 9 is our real protagonist, and our audience surrogate. The story begins with Nine finally attaining sentience and having a whole lot of questions. Fortunately, their little sister (or big sister, depending how you think about it) Pioneer 10 is around to explain the new status quo. The third main character, the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) is the story’s masterstroke. You know that slacker dude you used to hang out with who also might be the smartest person in the world? That’s JUICE. Reading this trio’s banter is an unbelievable pleasure. Each of them is a perfectly defined character who is more than what they seem: more compassionate, more astute, wiser. Jon Bois is a weird writer with his own voice and a sensibility unlike anybody else, but he’s also got the basics down pat, and he knows how to write characters that provide a human throughline in a story that involves really quite a lot of talking about football. Okay, let’s touch on that. I have seen a total of two, maybe three football games in my life and my grasp of the rules is laughably rudimentary. But I ate up the sections of 17776 that are about the gameplay and logistics of future football games. As a work of speculative fiction, 17776 is very whimsical. But as a set of works of speculative football, it is impressively rigorous. Bois uses the premise of the story to propose several wonderful games of borderline Dadaist football, mostly with fields that stretch across several states. In one, the end zones are in Washington and New Mexico, but the field is still just the width of a normal football field, so you have no choice but to climb mountains, jump off cliffs, etc. if you want to move the ball. In another, Bois asks how a contemporary NHL game might evolve if it were allowed to continue nearly indefinitely. He devises a parody of commercial football so absurd that it may well be my new favourite fictional anti-cap parable. Here’s the moment when I fell in love with JUICE, as he explains his love for this game to Ten, lack of apostrophes and all: “this IS capitalism you donk. this is what its supposed to be, this is how it ends. if it isn’t there its only because it isnt there yet. its like youre staring at a cake in the oven and wondering if its gonna be a cake. things went the other direction in america and thank god for that. but capitalism deserves a zoo like this one. it’s a beast of the wild, as wild as any grizzly bear with fawn’s blood in its mouth. i think you see deeds and contracts and bureaucratic bloat and see that something went wrong. something was ALWAYS wrong y’all. i love it. i love to watch it. in a zoo, where it can’t hurt me.” Unspeakably brilliant. This is the same character who waxes nostalgic for Lunchables and spells “Wolverine” as “wolferine.” He’s the best. Jon Bois’ brain works in crazy ways. There are tossed off observations here that for other people would become the premises of whole stories. I’m thinking particularly of a moment where Al Capone and his brother are likened to Greek gods, and then Bois points out that they lived in a town called “Homer.” It’s infuriatingly clever. But we’re yet to touch on the single greatest thing about 17776, which is that it fashions from its premise an idea about humanity’s place in the universe and why we are drawn to aimless, arbitrary pursuits like playing and watching football. The “intermission” section of the story features Bois’ most beautiful writing. Through the mouthpiece of Ten, Bois offers a picture of humanity’s purpose and destiny that outstrips Star Trek by basically inverting it. The humans of 17776 are bittersweet creatures who long ago stopped striving. This is not fine, but there’s nothing to be done. So, they play football. As JUICE says, “the point of play is to distract yourself from play being the point.” As an obsessive consumer of a frankly unwise amount of pop culture, I feel that I can sympathize with the sports fan impulse that produced a sentiment like this. If we really have so much left to accomplish, and such a great destiny, shouldn’t we feel inconceivably terrible about wasting so much time? And even in a world where time is not a factor, it’s hard to look at a passive humanity as anything other than a failure. This is what these characters are grappling with. This is something that the very obsessive among us understand best, provided that the obsession in question is essentially non-generative and consumerist. 17776 is the saddest and most inspiring thing I’ve read this year. It is extraordinary. Also, it is the only work of fiction that will ever make you mourn for a light bulb. I’m serious, Bois turns a light bulb into the most important thing in the universe. This is what the internet was always supposed to be. We need more Jon Bois. Pick of the week.

Television, etc.

Pretty Good: “I Wish Everyone Else Was Dead” — Here is more Jon Bois. Pretty Good is a YouTube series he does “about stories that are pretty good.” This particular instalment is about 24, the single most fucked up show I have ever watched (and liked in spite of myself). 24 is a show that takes suspension of disbelief to an entirely new level. It makes you suspend your entire value system: your entire reality. Bois points to the ruthlessness with which the show kills its named characters and the ways that people die to make a very clever point about America’s Goliath complex and the tendency of the privileged to think themselves persecuted. It also really highlights how incredibly gruesome the show was by cutting together a bunch of its cruellest moments. Other highlights include insights about 24 as a form of post-9/11 wish-fulfilment (it in large part negates the war on terror) and its incredibly fraught relationship with the office of the president. It is frankly unfair that a sports writer should also be this insightful about television. Watch this.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 9 — Exactly the episode that we needed after last episode’s abstract freakout. This is the most classically Twin Peaks this series has felt since it returned, mostly because it actually features people figuring things out instead of people treading water as more and more inexplicable things transpire around them. Don’t misunderstand me: I really like the show in the latter mode as well. But now that we’re in the back half of this season, I am ready for things to start coming together. Is it foolish to expect that between Gordon and his FBI cohorts, Truman and his Twin Peaks deputies, and the trio of clownlike Buckhorn detectives, we may have enough investigative advances at hand here to bring the Dougie Jones plotline to an end next week? Because I am still very much in need of Dale Cooper in this show.

Movies

Spider-Man: Homecoming — Third time’s a charm. I grew up a Spider-Man fan, but my enthusiasm for the character flagged with each passing cinematic adaptation. I am far less fond of Sam Raimi’s trilogy (yes, even the second one) than most, and the Andrew Garfield franchise was DOA. But this! Oh, this! This movie is light on its feet! And it’s completely lacking in the ostentatious moralizing that defined previous incarnations! Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is every inch the clever misfit I want Spider-Man to be. The opening sequence of the movie, in which he excitedly vlogs his way through his initial encounter with the Avengers in Civil War, sets the tone of ecstatic joy that the bulk of the movie traffics in. This is what I’ve been missing in superhero movies. Even the last Guardians of the Galaxy sidelined its comic lead in a misbegotten daddy problems plot. (The closest we get to that here is in a plotline with Tony Stark, and frankly it’s him who’s got the daddy problems.) This movie just allows Peter Parker to be a goofy kid trying to get a date while also trying to save the day. Classic Spider-Man. Moreover, the stakes aren’t at the permanently escalating heights of the Avengers movies: this is primarily a movie about your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. He negotiates curfews with his super cool Aunt May. (Casting Marissa Tomei was a masterstroke: she’s the last person you’d expect to play that role, which revitalizes it completely.) He helps an old woman and gets a churro for his troubles. He raises the ire of a housing block by setting off a car alarm. I love all of this. And I really love the film’s brief excursion into the suburbs, which are not Spider-Man’s natural habitat. The film’s weak moments are its huge action setpieces, which feel like they could come from any other Marvel movie with any other combination of heroes and villains. But these are refreshingly far apart, and they’re enlivened by a Michael Keaton performance by Michael Keaton who continues to play wingèd super persons, even after having parodied himself for doing just that. Having the villain of the first movie for this Spider-Man be small potatoes like Vulcan was a great call. It further localizes Spider-Man as a non-international superhero, and a street level personality, without the gigantic platforms of a Tony Stark or a Steve Rogers. But as fun as Keaton and Tomei are, Homecoming’s best supporting performances come from its ensemble of convincingly teenage teenagers, from Peter’s crush Liz, the classic overachieving senior, to his would-be tormentor Flash (played by Tony Revolori; I kept hoping he’d get captured so I could shout “GET YOUR HANDS OFF MY LOBBY BOY!”). The movie’s absolute MVP is Jacob Batalon as Peter’s best friend Ned. This guy is so exactly the guy who should be Peter Parker’s best friend that I can’t believe anybody ever thought James Franco fit-for-purpose. I really hope Ned doesn’t turn out to be the Hobgoblin. There are too many delightful moments in this to get to. I haven’t mentioned Donald Glover, who plays straightman to Holland in one of the film’s funniest scenes. I haven’t mentioned Peter’s rapport with the strangely empathetic yet bloodthirsty AI who talks to him in his suit. All of it is good. This is now tied with Civil War for the title of my favourite Marvel movie. I still resent universes and franchise juggernauts, but every so often Marvel makes a movie good enough to make me forget about that.

Wonder Woman — Now that awkward moment after giving a great review to the SIXTH Spider-Man movie where you admit to having mixed feelings about the ONLY major superhero movie with a female protagonist. My general thoughts are that Wonder Woman is fantastic, Gal Gadot is fantastic, and the movie’s take on the character is solid. It makes her comical without undermining her power, and powerful without being stolid and bland like the other DC heroes are these days. But I wasn’t a big fan of the straightforward punch-em-up war movie that she finds herself in here. The third act is particularly bland. But fuck my opinion. This is utterly necessary. The acclaimed no-man’s land sequence is pretty magnificent, and should become a cultural touchstone, at least until we get a better Wonder Woman movie, which I trust we will.

Music

John Luther Adams/The Crossing: Canticles of the Holy Wind — Another lovely offering from new music’s poet of the elements. Though this choral piece is not entirely original — some of the best moments are also present in his wonderful piece for strings, Canticles of the Sky — it feels like a new direction for Adams, whose music does not generally revolve around voices. However, with the new national prominence of The Crossing, the extraordinary Philadelphia chamber choir who astonished even more thoroughly on Ted Hearne’s record from earlier this year, he’s got access to an ensemble with the chops for his often sustained and minimal music. But the choral medium alone isn’t the only new innovation here. Adams also takes advantage of the extraordinary voices at his disposal to write music that relies on the play of birdsong against silence. I’m not sure there’s anything else in Adams’ recent oeuvre that is as staccato and abrupt as “Cadenza of the Mockingbird,” nor can I think of anything he’s written that requires the same level of ostentatious virtuosity from the musicians. That said, it isn’t a highlight of the work. High voices imitating birds wears out its welcome more quickly than Adams thinks. And there are other weak points: “The Singing Tree,” with its ceaseless triangle tinkling crosses the line from a genuine conjuration of the majesty of nature to nature boy drum circle nonsense. My impression of this might change with repeated listens, but I generally come to Adams for music of peace and majesty (The Light that Fills the World for the former, the world-destroying magnificence of Become Ocean for the latter). Canticles of the Holy Wind presents a picture of nature not only in all its majesty, but also all its banality. This is a worthwhile thing to do, especially with access to as versatile an ensemble as The Crossing. But it makes for a rougher listen than some of Adams’ other music. Still, there is much to marvel at here, and I far prefer it to 2015’s percussion music recording with Glenn Kotche.

Offa Rex: The Queen of Hearts — This is as great as I’d hoped, though to be fair, the feature episode of All Songs Considered on this from a while ago dropped enough hints at its greatness that it was a relatively sure bet. I likely wouldn’t have listened to this if not for the Decemberists’ involvement, but it is much more Olivia Chaney’s album than it is theirs. Mind you, they sound great, and the notion that they’d be involved in an English folk revival… revival album is entirely in character. But I challenge you to not get a bit miffed when Colin Meloy starts singing on the his two vocal features. Chaney’s voice is an incredible instrument, but better still she knows what to do with it. On the title track, listen to how she gradually sings more and more with the lead guitar throughout the song, eventually harmonizing with it. And the best track has no Decemberists on it at all, as far as I can tell: Chaney’s harmonium-adorned rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Say what you like about the Roberta Flack version, and there is much good to be said. But Chaney’s version strips everything about the song, including the chord progression, down to the most basic possible version of itself. And the way she delivers the melismas at the ends of the lines is just chilling. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s “Sheepcrook and Black Dog,” which is the album’s best evocation of the more rock and roll side of the English folk revival. It even gestures towards Jethro Tull at times: shades of “No Lullaby” and “Velvet Green.” I’m still waiting for somebody to write something detailed about the provenance of each of these songs. I’d really like to do a deep dive into this, and listen to some of the 60s and 70s recordings of these, as well as earlier acoustic versions, if they exist. But some are obvious. For now I’m going to listen to “The Old Churchyard” again. One of my favourite albums of the year.

Steeleye Span: Hark! The Village Wait — Is it wrong to like this more than Liege and Lief? Because on first listen, I do. “The Dark-Eyed Sailor” and “Lowlands of Highland” are particularly attractive. It’s just old folk songs performed well, with electric instrumentation. It’s sort of undeniable. I can feel myself sinking into a British folk rock phase. Thanks, Offa Rex.

Games

The Dream Machine: Chapter 1 — I realized recently that the sixth and final chapter of this magnificent game came out two months ago! How did I not hear? In any case, it’s been long enough since I’ve played this that I think it’s wise for me to play it from the beginning again, which will be a pleasure anyway. I’m going to take this one chapter at a time, like I did with Kentucky Route Zero when the most recent episode of that came out. The first chapter of The Dream Machine isn’t really demonstrative of what’s great about it: it doesn’t really come alive until you encounter the dream machine itself. But its visual aesthetic is instantly impressive — the headline for The Dream Machine is that it’s a handmade point-and-click adventure game, where every image is constructed from cardboard, clay and found objects. That is astonishing in itself, though the built environments are better in episodes that aren’t so tied to the apartment complex that is the game’s primary setting. But visuals aside, on a second playthrough, it’s really clever how this episode plants seeds of the themes to come throughout its relatively simple story. Starting the game in a dream is an obvious, but profitable choice. Firstly, it establishes what the game’s primary modus operandi: namely, cardboard and clay constructions of dreams. Secondly, it offers a crash course in the psychology of our protagonist, Victor. Should you allow the conversation to drift in a particular direction, Victor’s wife Alicia will be kind enough to do the armchair psychoanalysis for you. Victor’s dream of a desert island is an escapist fantasy that allows him to get away from his doubts about the new life he’s about to embark upon in a new apartment with his expectant wife and regress to a situation where his own self is the most important thing in his world. And indeed, there are plenty of indications throughout this chapter that Victor Neff is a bit of a man-child, from his self-assurances that he’ll start up his music career again once the apartment is set up to the ever-present conversation options that imply he can sometimes be a bit of a selfish jerk to Alicia. This is very clever exposition, since The Dream Machine is shaping up to be a sort of delayed coming-of-age story for Victor. (Bear in mind that I’m yet to play the final chapter.) He’ll be spending subsequent chapters tramping through other people’s subconsciouses (including Alicia’s, which is teased in this chapter), which is as direct a way to learn empathy as exists. That’s what I love most about The Dream Machine: it doesn’t just contrive a roughshod frame narrative as an excuse to make you solve puzzles inside of dream worlds, it actually works as an arc for its protagonist as well. Throughout The Dream Machine, Victor finds the tools to get out of his own head by literally getting inside the heads of others. Having not played the final chapter yet, I can only conjecture, but I assume this will assuage some of his fears and doubts about starting a family. The appeal of this is coming back quickly. A couple of additional observations: another theme that first emerges near the end of this chapter is voyeurism. (The game’s tagline positions this front-and-centre: “an award-winning game about dreams and voyeurism.”) Alicia thought the camera above the bed was creepy. Just wait. Also, the dream sequence at the start of this is my first bit of evidence for a personal crackpot theory: that The Dream Machine is a long and detailed enactment of the Brian Eno song “On Some Faraway Beach.” I’ll develop this theory in later reviews, as I gather more evidence. But to start, I’ll just point out that the song is a work of deliberate escapism to a place where there are no other human souls around to care for or to rely on. And I’ll also mention that the devs confirmed their Eno fandom to me on Twitter. So that’s a start.

The Dream Machine: Chapter 2 — This is where things really get going. Mr. Morton’s dream is the first proper one in the game, but nonetheless one of the most abstract. Where subsequent dream sequences will convey something close to a possible physical space (though Edie’s dream deconstructs this observation and Willard’s contradicts it entirely), Morton’s takes place in an abstract world seemingly constructed entirely of the anxieties and traumas brought upon him by a lineage of flawed and obsessive forebears. We meet the three previous male members of the Morton lineage as huge stone heads, and we learn about their relationships to each other. We learn that our Mr. Morton was coddled by a sympathetic father as an antidote to the abuse he received from his grandfather. Victor doesn’t even know what’s going on yet and already the dream machine is teaching him about parenting. This theme will become less explicit in future episodes, but it behooves the game to lay its cards out at this early stage. In terms of gameplay, this is also where we get our first substantial puzzles, with the dream journal sequence, getting each statue to talk, and finding Mr. Morton. From the start, I thought that this game had some of the best puzzles I’ve ever encountered, if only because they are fair. A moderately skilled puzzle solver won’t get stuck very much in The Dream Machine, which is good, but the puzzles still require you to observe closely and think through possibilities. (I recall chapter five’s puzzles being several levels harder, but we’ll get there.) The only problem I had with the puzzles in this chapter, this time, was that it took me a while to realize (indeed, remember) that there were hatches on the sides of the statues. They’re hard to see, and it always sucks when your failure results from a design element being virtually invisible. But it’s a vanishingly minor quibble, and honestly, the meat of the game doesn’t really start until the next chapter. The first two chapters are thematic and narrative exposition and throat clearing. They’re wonderful, but the best is yet to come. Now, what you all came for: more evidence for my theory that this entire game is actually about the Brian Eno song “On Some Faraway Beach.” Only one piece this time, but it’s the first substantial one: the title of the song — phrased exactly that way, with the word “some” rather that “a” or whatever other article — is one of the key repeating phrases in Morton’s dream journals. This isn’t the last time it’ll be namechecked in the game. But, as I implied in the chapter one review, the game and the song do have a compelling thematic link. “Given the chance,” sings Eno, “I’ll die like a baby on some faraway beach.” This is Victor’s attitude at the start of the game: jealous of his unborn child, and wishing to revert back to a pre-adult state. I also see a hint of Mr. Morton in some subsequent lyrics: “Unlikely I’ll be remembered/as the tide brushes sand in my eyes I’ll drift away.” Morton was thrust into his family’s legacy from early childhood, against his will. Even in old age, he still was unable to come to terms with that legacy, or the extent to which it had eaten up his life. Morton dies childless, breaking the cycle and providing a useful negative role model for Victor. And Morton’s final wish is for his life’s work, and his family’s, to be destroyed. Better to be forgotten than to be remembered for something hideous.

The Dream Machine: Chapter 3 — I am remembering now that this is my least-favourite episode of The Dream Machine, though it is still, on balance, excellent. This is the episode where the puzzle structure is most obvious: complete three tasks for three different people, then complete three more tasks for those same three people to get to the endgame… the wires are on display here a little more than in other episodes. Plus, it contains fewer areas to explore than other chapters. But the puzzles themselves are delightful and the premise of the episode is solid. Here, Victor finds himself inside his wife’s recurring dream — and face to face with a gaggle of clones of himself, each of them one of Alicia’s subconscious impressions of a facet of Victor’s personality. In spite of the fact that nearly all of the characters in this chapter are clones of the player character, they’ve all been given different postures to reflect their different personalities. The dreamer’s resting position is looking up at the sky. The pompous one has his arms behind his back at all times. The player character just keeps slouching his way through the game. It’s the small details that make this game great. I especially love it once it turns into a detective story. Investigating Victor Eleven’s disappearance is a great opportunity for the writers to show different elements of the same story through the voices of very different characters. The conspiratorial busboy is the highlight of the episode, for me. You can tell from the way that others talk about him that he’s the sort of guy who’s always got a conspiracy theory, but it just so happens that this time he’s right. Psychoanalytically, this is a harder one to parse than the first two episodes. But I think my central contention that this game is about a man learning empathy pulls through, here. This is literally a case of Victor seeing himself as somebody else sees him. Fortunately for his ego, the person whose eyes he’s seeing through is somebody who loves him, and who also knows him well enough to know that he contains multitudes: hundreds of Victors who vary from moment to moment in intelligence, self-sufficiency, leadership, and the propensity for ambition, pretension, paranoia and good humour. Another person’s dream of Victor might have been more disillusioning. Also, boy, does this ever get creepy at the end. This is The Dream Machine’s equivalent of the mid-album slump, but we’re right on the precipice of some of my favourite moments in any adventure game. If memory serves, Chapter Four made me all verklempt last time. Alas, no further evidence for my crackpot Brian Eno theory in this one. Will report back.

The Dream Machine: Chapter 4 — This isn’t the most formally inventive chapter of The Dream Machine; that’s chapter five (bearing in mind that I still haven’t played the final chapter). But it may be my favourite. This is the point where the segments between dream sequences start to really work. The sequence of puzzles that allows you into Edie’s dream is ingenious, and by far the hardest thing in the game so far. It took me ages to figure out the first time. But as with the previous two chapters, the main event is the dream sequence itself. Edie’s dream is my favourite in the game’s first five chapters. The kind old lady’s mind, as Mr. Morton tells us in chapter one, is not as sharp as it once was. And indeed, her memories are literally fraying around the edges. The people she once knew, and the person she once was, are aloof spectres in her subconscious. The fragility and mutability of the dream is moving in itself, but it’s made deeper by what we learn about Edie’s life from the tableaus that we see in each room of her dream apartment. And again, the focus is on family. Edie spent her younger years in a not entirely happy marriage with a very pious man. Her husband, whoever he was — his dream self is a fading cipher from Edie’s past — has parental issues to match Mr. Morton’s. The bulk of this dream deals with the end of life and the death of Edie’s mother-in-law, a stern and ruthless figure who haunts her so much that the dream machine takes on her form. The most telling moment occurs in the bathroom of the dream apartment, which Edie’s subconscious has repurposed as a memorial for two late family members: Edie’s mother-in-law, and her child, who presumably died in infancy. When you shoehorn Edie’s younger, spectral self into this room along with the ghost of the mother-in-law, they stand together by the child’s grave. And the latter says “Sin brings forth death.” Which is, just, an incredibly shitty and unkind thing to say. And it’s the kind of thing that sticks with you, because it prompts guilt. And, in one of the game’s very best images, we see that Edie’s elderly self is tethered to her memories by the image of her mother-in-law. So, if it’s guilt and regret that are keeping her in this decaying, dilapidated mental space, perhaps it is best to let go. The ending of chapter four is the most affecting moment in the first five chapters of The Dream Machine, because it finds Edie drifting away from her memory palace, presumably losing that part of herself forever — but also losing the trauma that comes with those memories. It is perhaps the most gentle and loving portrayal of a person with dementia I’ve seen in a work of fiction. And as with everything in The Dream Machine, it has profound emotional consequences for Victor. His final exchange with Edie is the closest thing he has to a specific moment of epiphany. He realizes, with Edie’s help, that he’s doing something extraordinary for the sake of his family. It isn’t just the implicit nature of dreams that’s helping Victor to accept the forthcoming new phase of his life as a father, it is also the explicit threat that the machine poses to his family. This is the moment when all of Victor’s character development in the first three episodes comes to a head. For the first time he realizes consciously that something has changed inside him. And the fact that this change is finally expressed among the detritus of Edie’s regrets — all of which are risks for Victor: the risk of a child’s death, of a failed marriage, and of not escaping your own lineage — just heightens the effect. And Edie caps it all off with yet another explicit Brian Eno reference: “We’re just sandcastles, Victor. I’m sure some part of me will reform on some faraway beach somewhere down the line. Perhaps we’ll meet again there.” Edie, in the end, is alone. Her bridge club can hardly substitute for the relationships that, for better or worse, defined her earlier life. Victor started this story dreaming of some faraway beach where he could be alone and life could be simple. Now, with Edie’s bittersweet farewell, he sees the lonely side of that fantasy and he’s ready to return to reality. If memory serves, chapter five is less explicitly concerned with Victor’s character arc, which is fine. Putting this crucial moment at the end of chapter four allows the devs one episode to just indulge in some intense formalism before getting back to the story’s main thrust. But unless chapter six unseats it, this right here is the defining chapter of The Dream Machine.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: St. Vincent, Mogwai, Benjamin Clementine, My Bubba, More” — This finds Bob Boilen in a distractingly mellow mood, frankly. I’m all for chill, but Boilen’s side of this mix is very very chill. I came to hear the new St. Vincent song, which is very lovely but doesn’t really offer any insights about what a hypothetical forthcoming St. Vincent album might sound like. The standout here, if only for its total commitment to its own weirdness, is the Benjamin Clementine track. I didn’t know this guy, and I can’t say I’m entirely sold on the basis of the track they played here — it’s really overwrought, though possibly intentionally so. But it is definitely not like anything else, and considering that my favourite music from last year included John Congleton and Let’s Eat Grandma, I’m sort of starving for that right now.

The Daily: July 11-12 — I have been meaning to check out this new trend of daily news podcasts for a while, and this seemed to be the one. NPR’s entry into the budding canon sounds like a newscast, which is not a thing I like or see the point of. And I’m aware of The Outline World Dispatch. I may in fact have neglected to review an episode or two of it, but I am generally fond of it. However, the New York Times’ rendition of this evolving new form is the clear current gold standard. Michael Barbaro is a personable and smart host, and the one-two story format serves the listener well. The two episodes I heard this week dealt with the Donald Trump Jr. emails, and was a great way to get my head around that story. There is an element of “behind the story” to Barbaro’s approach here, which is welcome given the extent to which the Times is a major player in the way that events have transpired with this. Other stories about the devastation of Mosul and the reintegration of thousands of rebel fighters into Colombian society make it reassuringly clear to me that this is not going to be all Trump all the time, or even all American federal politics all the time. And thank god, because there’s a whole world out there. This is one of the great innovations in the recent history of podcasts, and shame on the world’s public broadcasters for letting a newspaper perfect it first.

Love and Radio: “The Boys Will Work It Out” — WOW this is something. Our main character is a prolific author of Lord of the Rings slashfic and an enthusiastic sexual roleplayer as Elijah Wood. Through the magic of radio, we’re even treated to an enactment of one of those fantasies with Elijah Wood and Dominic Monaghan soundalikes. Listen advisedly.  

StartUp: “Building the Perfect Cup of Coffee” — Worth listening to for the delight of hearing a cup of coffee described as “plump without being… portly.” But man, has this season of StartUp ever evaporated on impact. This is one of the shows that kicked my obsession with podcasts into high gear. First there was Radiolab and 99pi, then there was season one of StartUp. Amidst that company, Serial doesn’t even register. The thrill of listening to Gimlet coalesce in real time was and is one of the glories of the medium. And I enthusiastically stayed onboard for season two, the Dating Ring season, which I idiosyncratically consider season one’s equal. Season three’s non-serialized format didn’t do much for me, but Lisa Chow brought the show back in magnificent fashion for season four, the story of the fall and rise of Dov Charney. The lesson here ought to be that this show is best when it’s serialized, and particularly good when it’s serialized in real time. I’d gladly listen to another season in the vein of season two, about a company that is in the midst of its startup struggles. But failing that, I think I might have to reduce this show to sometimes food status.

Criminal: “The Procedure” — A marvellous entry in the “crimes of conscience” category of Criminal episodes. This is about a network of clergy who would help women safely get abortions in places where they were illegal. Wonderful stuff.

The Sporkful: “Why Lefties Buy Less Soup” — Aww, I thought it was going to be about why liberals buy less soup. That would have been interesting. Still, a fun episode, though I remember most of this from the introduction of The Flavor Bible, which posits that flavour is the result of a confluence of factors above and beyond mere taste. Visual stimuli and social context, just to give two examples, also affect your experience of food. Also I am SO HAPPY to hear that Dan Pashman favours the inside-out pizza folding technique. I do this as well, and it is so good that I feel like I am constantly surrounded by idiots: outside-in folding assholes who are just rubbing bread all over their tastebuds instead of the delicious cheese and sauce alternative that’s RIGHT THERE on the other side of the slice. THANK YOU, Dan.

Home of the Brave: “The Continental Divide, Part Two” — I am so conflicted about these “talking to Trump voters” stories. On the one hand, you can trust Scott Carrier not to be condescending or self-abnegating, both of which are death in these contexts. But even if the conversations are civil, which these are, how do you make headway with a person who constructs reality in a way that’s entirely different from you? On one hand, I can accept that a guy who’s been involved in fracking for decades knows more about it than I do. Much more. But I’m also inherently suspicious of that person’s perspective, because the practice is normalized for him. I know this territory very well, given that I am a current, self-identified coastal elite who nonetheless grew up in a blue-collar oil town where everybody is delusional about climate change. Where I grew up, the notion that the Alberta oil sands are somehow sinister is laughable. It’s not because anybody especially takes pride in the industry — though in these divided times, that pride appears to be taking root retroactively, as a defense mechanism. It’s because the oil sands are normal. When I talk about the negative impact of the oil industry with friends and family from Fort McMurray, I may as well be telling them that shoes are evil, because the collective impact of all our human stomping is making the earth uninhabitably small. Global shrinking. It’s a ridiculous notion because shoes are too normal to be harmful. I’m getting off topic. My point is that Carrier is right to think that the two sides of divided America need to be able to talk to each other, but I don’t actually know what he or I is supposed to learn from that exchange. Ultimately I still think that systematic learning and teaching that can be expressed in statistics, research and reasoned argument in both academic and media spheres is the way to draw conclusions about the world. And the fact that at least two of the people Carrier interviewed expressed doubts about the value of education relative to the value of their specific lived experiences makes me crazy. Anecdotal experiences are valuable, but if you shape your worldview around them in opposition to the best available information (which happens every time poverty comes up in this program), you’re just wrong. And I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with that.

The Heart: “People Who Need People” — Lovely. This rerun is The Heart at its simplest: a relationship forms in the crucible of a difficult moment of somebody’s life. That’s the whole of it. But it’s worth revisiting in light of recent events in the characters’ lives.

The Turnaround: Episodes 2-6 — Okay, I’ve fallen into this in a big way. In spite of my previously-stated doubts about the necessity for so many interviews of artists in the world, I do think interviewing in general is an absolutely fascinating craft, and this is the deepest dive into it that I’ve heard, though Longform is often about interviewing also. Let’s take these one at a time. Susan Orlean’s interview is most notable because she’s so completely different from Jesse Thorn in the product she’s trying to make. She can go down rabbit holes with very little hope of getting anything useable because ultimately interviewing is an exploratory process for her. She’s learning what the story is as she goes. The Marc Maron episode is one of the highlights for basically the opposite reason: he’s probably the closest of all of the interview subjects so far to Thorn’s method. And this actually made me realize that Maron has a way of getting around the arts interview pitfall that I identified in my last post on this show (i.e. that there’s no way for the journalist’s insight to factor into an interview without making the guest superfluous). Maron goes into every interview with an idea of why people are the way they are and why they do what they do. And in the interview, he takes the opportunity to present an artist with his impression of them and have them either confirm or deny it. Or, more likely, just to complicate and deepen it. It’s a way he has to get past the branding. That’s valuable, and I guess it’s what makes Maron my favourite interviewer of artists. Audie Cornish is probably the guest on this program whose work I am least familiar with (Pop Culture Happy Hour notwithstanding), just because I’m Canadian and we have our own daily news programs up here. But her episode is the highlight of The Turnaround so far. It gets a bit contentious when Thorn presses her on the supposed dispassionate delivery of NPR hosts, and she kind of schools him. It obviously affected Thorn’s thinking profoundly, because he brings up that moment in nearly all of the other interviews. The Larry King episode is the least valuable, partially because he’s the worst interviewer on the show and partially because Thorn lets him get sidetracked from the topic of interviewing. But, I mean, he’s Larry King. What are you going to do? And then there’s Brooke Gladstone, who is simply the most valuable person in the entire American media. Hearing her talk extemporaneously is incredible because she is preternaturally gifted with the ability to put complicated ideas in a logical sequence. It’s really similar to listening to Reza Aslan talk. The only reason it’s not the best episode of the show is that she did a longer interview on Longform a while back that covers some of the same ground. The Turnaround is some of the most fascinating radio of the year. Can’t wait for the rest of it. Pick of the week.

WTF with Marc Maron: “GLOW Writers & Creators” — A nice nuts and bolts process sort of interview with some folks Maron worked with on GLOW. I haven’t really had room for TV binges in my media consumption schedule lately, but once I do this will be among the top priorities.

99% Invisible: “Repackaging the Pill” — A design story that is also about undermining the paternalism of the mid-20th-century medical profession. Nice stuff.

Reply All: “Minka” — Sruthi Pinnamaneni is so valuable on this show, which is very silly very often. It’s always refreshing to have her come in and do a real, reported story about something very consequential — in this case, nursing homes and how terrible they are.   

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Spider-Man: Homecoming and Tour de Pharmacy” — I am so onboard with Audie Cornish when she says she’d trade this incarnation of Spider-Man for the Tobey Maguire movies. Also man oh man, you can pretty much be certain that when Andy Samberg does something, this show will make note of it. Maybe it just seems that way. But if they talk about a comedy, there’s a pretty solid chance it’ll either involve Samberg or Paul Feig. That probably says more about the world than about this show.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Presidential Immunity” — Oh man, I guess it might be impossible to sue the president. That sounds really bad and I hope it doesn’t stay that way.

Judge John Hodgman: “Live in Chicago at Very Very Fun Day 2017” — The couple at the centre of the main case here didn’t turn out to be the best: one has a tendency to show instead of tell, which works for the live audience, but not the podcast audience. And the other is a jerk. The swift justice segment is better.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Book of Dune” — I never really got Dune. I recall having read it the summer that I read 20 novels at my boring summer job. And I just found it a bit of a slog. (I also ready Paradise Lost twice that summer, so, one man’s trash etc.) But I never stopped to think about the influence of real-world religions, and especially Islam, on the text. I wouldn’t have known enough to notice it. So, this is a fun crash course in Frank Herbert’s relationship with Islam, including a discussion of its classic “white saviour” narrative. I wonder how (and if) Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation will reckon with that? Maybe by not casting a white person as Paul? I’m not even sure that would be enough, since it’s still a story about a high-born outsider saving a marginalized people. I guess we’ll see. Anyway, it’s bound to be an improvement on the available adaptations. I don’t think I ever actually finished the TV series, and the David Lynch movie is infamous. (Personally, I think it has its charms, but it’s been a while so maybe it’s worse than I remember.) In general, I’m inclined to believe that the best version of Dune is the one that exists inside of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s head. And even that is almost certainly much better than the movie he would actually have made.

Ear Hustle: “Looking Out” — The warden is already my least favourite character. But hey, good on him for approving a story even though he thought it was bad. This is the lighter side of Ear Hustle, so far. But I guess that’s part of the prison experience too?

On The Media: “Three-Dimensional Chess” — Good decision to focus a large part of this episode on Raqqa and Mosul, in the week of the Don. Jr. email scandal. America is only part of the world.

Omnibus (week of July 2, 2017)

Greetings! Here’s the latest radio segment. I’m at 27:27. It didn’t occur to me until sometime after we’d taped it that a theme connecting the three things I talk about could be “uncharted territory” — both in the sense that all of these things come from media that I hadn’t covered on the show yet (movies, games and podcasts) and in the sense that each one of them deals with characters who are attempting the seemingly impossible. I dunno how I missed that. Anyway, it’s out there now.

29 reviews.

Live Events

The Winter’s Tale (Bard on the Beach) — Far and away the better of the two mainstage productions at Bard this year. This production has one big setpiece at the end of the first act, and aside from that they just do the play. Which is all I want out of life. The production itself doesn’t really have its own premise: it’s just sort of set in a pretty-looking, abstractly ahistorical Sicily and Bohemia. The story plays out of its own devices. The setpiece, by the way, is “exit, pursued by a bear.” Since this is the only Shakespeare play whose best-known quote is a stage direction, that moment has to pay off. We paid to see a bear, and a man exiting pursued by it. This production employs a wonderful and impressively large puppet for the bear. Aside from a couple of adorable, simpler, sheep puppets, that’s the only bit of complex stagecraft employed here. Lovely of director Dean Paul Gibson to just let the rest of the play exist. The Winter’s Tale is the first Shakespeare play I’ve seen on stage or film without having read the script first. Frankly, its unfamiliarity to all but the most enthusiastic Shakespeareans is probably part of what makes The Winter’s Tale easy to stage straightforwardly. Save for the bear, there are no memes in this play. No “to be or not to be,” or “double, double, toil and trouble,” or even “O, that way madness lies.” Nothing to emphasize or undercut, in anticipation of the audience’s familiarity. I feel like this was a good introduction to the play, and I enjoyed the story quite a lot in spite of certain structural oddities. Namely, the first half of this is straightforwardly a tragedy and the second half is straightforwardly a comedy. The comedic half took the edge in this production because Bard’s company has an excellent roster of clowns, with Ben Elliot especially standing out as Autolycus the pickpocket. But the first half packed enough clout that by the end of the play, I hadn’t forgotten the tragedies that befell the characters in the early story. So, when the story ends on the note of “a sad tale’s best for winter” — which a casual perusal of the script just now finds not to be the case in Shakespeare’s original — it feels like an earned moment. I totally enjoyed this. Now to read the play.

Movies

The Beguiled — So far, this is second only to Get Out in my personal 2017 movie sweepstakes. Sofia Coppola’s rethink of an evidently somewhat dated Clint Eastwood vehicle from the ‘70s is a brilliantly twisted exploration of what happens when toxic masculinity meets the more discreet consequences of patriarchy. But that makes it sound deathly boring, which it isn’t. Rather, it’s a tense and thrilling coiled snake of a movie with uniformly wonderful performances and some of the most beautifully composed shots outside of Wes Anderson’s filmography. The premise is simple: a seminary school full of women loyal to the south is shaken by the arrival of a rather dashing but grievously injured Union soldier at their doorstep. Nicole Kidman particularly stands out as the matriarch of the seminary: the decision maker who is wise enough to be slightly more resistant to the northerner’s charms than her younger charges, but who is nonetheless afflicted with the loneliness of war. But Colin Farrell is a match for her. He never allows his charming soldier character to seem like a deliberate temptor or sly devil. Rather, he behaves politely and graciously, and efficiently manipulates each of the women around him differently. Coppola’s best decision in the whole movie is to never have the camera cast suspicion on Farrell, nor to allow his performance to attract suspicion intentionally. Instead, a sceptical audience will come to distrust him simply because of the fraught nature of this setup. And then, about halfway through, when a cataclysmic event changes the movie drastically, we’re made to think differently of him once again. Never once does the movie lose sight of the fact that this man has just come from a brutal, traumatizing war. And never once does it lose sight of the fact that the women in it are deeply subject to social iniquity. The exploration of the resulting power dynamic in the film’s third act is totally riveting. And it contains maybe the single most jaw-dropping smash cut to black since The SopranosPick of the week.

Music

Fairport Convention: Liege & Lief — I’ve been really enjoying the tracks from the upcoming Olivia Chaney/Decemberists collaboration, which have been slowly coming out over the past months. (The record is due out this week.) So I figured I should finally get informed about the British folk revival that inspired it and the bulk of the Decemberists catalogue. I’ve been aware of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, the Pentangle and all the rest of them for ages, largely because Jethro Tull flitted on the edges of that scene. And I’ve heard assorted songs of all of these bands. But never a full album, that I can remember. So, Liege & Lief, the most acclaimed of the bunch. I have to say I’m underwhelmed. There’s a lot of great stuff on this, but there’s nothing that reaches out and grabs me the way that the tracks from the Offa Rex record have, or even the way that the select tracks from the Pentangle have. This is a clear case where I need to hear more of this sort of thing before I can really appreciate this album specifically. So, I’ll do that, and report back then.

Literature, etc.

John Hermann: “Why the Far Right Wants to be the New ‘Alternative’ Culture” — A persuasive though fairly basic account of the appeal of the specious “alternative” label to Trump supporters and assorted Nazis, from my favourite analyst of the internet. Hermann has toned his voice down since moving from the Awl to the Times, but he’s still always worth reading.

Jorge Luis Borges: “A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain” — Much like “The Approach to Al Mu’tasim,” this is a quite simple iteration of Borges’s central notion that a story can entail an essay about fictional books. One of the things that I love most about him is that he knows his strengths and he knows his voice. Borges is a genius for premises, but he knows that if he were to actually try and write any of the books he describes here, they would be subject to the same muted and occasionally negative criticisms that he levels on them. Far better to simply state the premises outright. If the central idea is the whole point, why belabour it?

James Errington: Centuries of Sound — Errington’s blog was featured on the A.V. Club this week, and I’m delighted by this. It feels like old school, pre-social internet fare, except with impressive professionalism. Basically, Errington is making a mixtape for every year of recorded sound. He’s in the nearly prehistoric phase of the project at the moment, dealing with Edison phonographs and all that. But he started out with a two-hour mix of music and sound from 2016 as a proof-of-concept, and boy what a thing it is. If you care to relive the trauma of that year, with a newfound awareness of just how inseparable from that context all of the music is, I highly recommend it. I’ll be making an effort to catch up on this so that I can follow Errington’s progress as he goes along.

Harold Bloom: Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human — I revisit this every time I partake in a new Shakespeare play. Or so I thought, but as it turns out I never read the entry on Cymbeline, which I rectified this week before turning to his chapter on The Winter’s Tale, which is genuinely new to me. Bloom’s take on modern literary criticism and theatre has its obvious problems, but I am an absolute sucker for his readings of the texts themselves, and particularly of the way he never fails to see the whole future of culture in Shakespeare. He even manages to hear a magnificent insight in the mouth of one of Cymbeline’s least memorable characters: “Through Posthumus, I hear Shakespeare observing that the action of our lives is lived for us, and that the desperate best we can do is to accept (“keep”) what happens as if we performed it, if but for ironic sympathy with ourselves. It is another of those uncanny recognitions in which Shakespeare is already beyond Nietzsche.” I’m also quite amused by Bloom’s suggestion that the openly comical second half of The Winter’s Tale was designed specifically to infuriate the trite moralizer Ben Johnson. Indeed Bloom, usually a deeply melancholy critic, never seems happier than when he’s writing about the great knave of The Winter’s Tale, Autolycus. I’ve now read enough Bloom that I’ve started to regard him as a literary character, and though he is a problematical one (to borrow his preferred form of that word), I seem to wish him happiness nonetheless. I continue to stubbornly find him essential reading on Shakespeare.

Alex Ross: “The Occult Roots of Modernism” — “As an orchestra plays Wagner, the women fall to worshipping a giant phallus.” Man oh man, there was something in the water in the late 19th century. This is a wonderful feature about Joséphin Péladan, the occult lunatic/charlatan who took Paris by storm and inspired and collaborated with artists from Eric Satie to Ferdinand Hodler. He also wrote novels, one of which contains the scenario quoted above. Ross’s feature is a great reminder that beneath the supposed rationality and distance of the modernists there lay an irreducible weirdness of a spiritual sort. I’m particularly gratified to see Ross contextualize Schoenberg in this light. People often characterize him as a chilly mathematician, at least after he abandoned his passionate atonal idiom for the twelve-tone method. But numbers meant something different to Schoenberg than they do to the rest of us: he was a devotee of Kabbalistic number symbolism. It’s that sort of thing that fascinates me so much about the art of this period.

Games

King of Dragon Pass — Okay, I’m done my first playthrough. It ended badly. And, more out of frustration than disappointment, I think I may not return to this. Given that the game is almost entirely text-based, I thought I could expect something substantially more story driven than this actually is. The truth is that it’s much more a simulation/resource management game than an interactive story. There is a story, of course, and there are even characters who behave consistently. But in general, the choices you make are not a matter of where you want the narrative to go, but rather what’s best to stay afloat. Contrast this with Sunless Sea, for which this is a clear forerunner. In Sunless Sea, there are storylines to pursue, and these are fully integrated with the resource management and stat boosting tasks that are that game’s form of “progress.” And it goes without saying that Sunless Sea has better writing and worldbuilding, but credit where it’s due: King of Dragon Pass does a more than passable pulp fantasy novel impression. I realize that I frequently make this same perverse complaint, where I play a game and get frustrated by the “game” elements. This is why I suspect I’ll always feel like a tourist in this medium. It is not where I live. But that’s fine. Also, I think I got this for a dollar. So, no harm done. I hear The Dream Machine’s finally finished. That sounds like it’ll suit my mood a bit better.

Podcasts

The Truth/Theory of Everything: “Influencers” — The issue I often have with The Truth’s stories is that they’re just so on the nose. But Benjamen Walker’s particular kind of on the nose is a kind that I like a lot. This is a really fun story that touches not just on the president’s acrimony towards the media, but also on the ludicrousness of the idea that social follower counts connote influence. It’s also about the fact that the most well-intentioned in our society are often the least able to ascertain what’s really going on. A worthy crossover.

It’s Been A Minute: “They’re Still Here” — Two things can be true: Sam Sanders and his panelists are wonderful, and this show is overproduced. I don’t tune into podcasts for a parade of segments. I’m entirely comfortable with conversations dragging on a bit, but I’m not fond of the whiplash that the format introduces into this show. This is the point where I’ll duck out of this for a while and wait for it to find its footing. Still, it’s promising.

Arts and Ideas: “Canada 150: Sydney Newman and British TV; Vahni Capildeo; Shubbak Festival 2017” — This is well worthwhile for the Sydney Newman segment alone. What I love about this is that without necessarily meaning to, the BBC has broadcast the perfect Canadian arts story here. They’re probably just trying to localize Canada’s 150th as something with relevance to British audiences, so they chose a Canadian figure with a huge influence on British television. But what they’ve actually done is tell an iconically British story about the BBC itself that’s all about how an exodus of Canadian talent to the U.K. helped define British television, while completely impoverishing Canada itself of similar talent. The story of Sydney Newman is the story of the rise of British television and the perpetual shittiness of Canadian television. Happy Canada Day.

Reply All: “Friends and Blasphemers” — P.J. Vogt tells the story of how Russia killed LiveJournal, and Alex Goldman is mortified to reveal the writings of his 21-year-old self on that platform. Good thing I don’t ever write anything on the internet to be embarrassed of later.

Imaginary Worlds: “World War EVE” — This is a fun story about a world I knew nothing about. It also manages to say what’s specifically extraordinary about EVE as a virtual world, distinct from others like World of Warcraft. (I love the idea that EVE has a whole in-universe news reporting infrastructure.) Which is all to say that there’s just enough explanation in this for a neophyte. I’m consistently impressed by Eric Molinsky’s ability to walk this fine line. One of the key things that makes this show work is the extent to which he’s a curious semi-outsider to the cultures he explores. He assumes a position that isn’t so far outside of the culture that he’s required to offer condescending explanations, but he also manages not to alienate me by assuming a higher calibre of specialized geek knowledge than I have.  

Homecoming: “Season Two: Coming Soon” — “Hum three ascending notes into your phone” is what the first season of this was missing. Just, some weirdness to detract from the portentousness of it all. Also, Chris Gethard’s in it now. Looking forward.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “The Spending Clause” — One of the most consistently fascinating things about the history of law is how tiny, seemingly inane things have huge consequences later on. Like weak beer, for instance. This is good stuff.

On The Media: “The American people elected a fighter” — Sometimes the only thing that keeps me going through the news cycle of the Trump era is Bob Garfield’s essays about what a catastrophe it all is. This is a good one.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Pop Culture Summer Stories And ‘Playing House’” — The Playing House segment contains a frank discussion of these writers’ decision to deal with an illness that affected their lives in their show. That’s great, but the real reason to hear this is more live stuff. The summer stories segment features Glen Weldon at his most curmudgeonly and Stephen Thompson as his most adorable.

On The Media: “What Ails America” — This starts with a segment where Stephen Marche explains how Canada is better than the U.S. because we’re less patriotic up here. It’s a nice idea, and I’d certainly love to live in that version of Canada, but he’s wrong and we don’t. Canadian patriotism is a bit of a joke, sure. But it does exist. We don’t know what we’re celebrating, but we sure love to go through the motions. And since we’re so uncertain about what patriotism is supposed to look like, we look abroad (mostly south) for cues. And today, Canadian conservatives are gradually cottoning on to the Trump/UKIP/National Front model of patriotism, i.e. nativism. And yet we’re still getting this barrage of American stories about how this is not happening in Canada, when it is. Marche cites the gigantic defeat of Kellie Leitch in the Conservative leadership race as supporting evidence for his insufferable neoliberal smugness. But it’s not just Kellie Leitch up here. It’s Stephen Harper’s divisive campaign in the last election, it’s the clowns in Alberta’s Wildrose Party (and whatever they’re about to morph into), and it’s the Rebel: a Canadian version of Breitbart that has a small readership but that we should ignore at our peril. Canada is not a liberal paradise. It is slow-motion America. But it’s not Bob Garfield’s fault that he doesn’t know that; he doesn’t live here. I dunno what Marche’s excuse is.

StartUp: “Ask Alex” — This is most notable for featuring Alex Blumberg’s take on the upcoming ABC sitcom where he’ll be played by Zach Braff. Evidently, he and Gimlet have no input into this and will not see much money from it because they made a mistake that they’ll not be making again. Still, I can’t help but think he must be happy he can say he had no input. The trailer for Alex, Inc. looks absolutely dire. It looks like a gag gift somebody really rich made for Blumberg’s birthday.

Mogul: “Rice Pilaf” — The story of the signing of Warren G and the resulting confrontation between Chris Lighty and Suge Knight. Mogul is completely thrilling. I won’t describe this, I’ll just say go listen from the beginning. This is second only to S-Town in my 2017 podcast sweepstakes thus far. Pick of the week.

The Memory Palace: “The Taking of Tom Sawyer’s Island” — Nate DiMeo tells the story of a left-wing youth protest at Disneyland, and manages not to undermine their correctness when he points out that they were also ridiculous and willfully misunderstanding the point of Disneyland. He’s especially good at evoking both the wonder and the extreme creepiness of Disneyland itself. Lovely stuff.

The Turnaround: “Ira Glass” — This is Jesse Thorn interviewing Ira Glass about interviewing. That’s obviously going to be worthwhile for those of us interested in that craft. But there’s one especially great moment in it that got me thinking. Thorn and Glass are talking about Terry Gross, when Thorn accidentally draws the interview to a momentary halt by starting to exposit about something Glass said about Gross and how it reflects on his own practice on This American Life. Glass’s whole project, Thorn says, is trying to get his guests to offer examples. They’ll want to answer in an intellectual, theoretical way, and Glass tries to pull examples out of them so that what they say can fit as part of a story. Thorn finishes his analysis, and Glass is simply left with nothing to say. He comments, jokingly, that he has no illustrative example to give, because Thorn has just analyzed the situation with total accuracy and tied it up with a nice little bow. Thorn’s solo trip is possibly the closest that this episode gets to defining what’s great about This American Life. The rest of it is brilliant at exposing elements of how it is made, but that is a completely different question. And that leads me to a conclusion that I’ve been threatening to reach for some time: interviewing creative people is not actually a very good way to try and understand creative products. (I will henceforth use the term “art,” though I suspect Ira Glass would be uncomfortable hearing This American Life referred to as such. However, his role in this interview, as an “artist” who is creating something is exactly analogous to any interview with a songwriter, filmmaker, etc.) I am an arts journalist myself. I don’t do a lot of interviewing these days, but when I did I always found myself wanting to do the thing that Thorn does in this interview that leaves Glass with nothing more to say. If you’ve heard or seen a lot of a given artist’s work and you’re a reasonably clever interpreter of art, as anybody who gets a job as a radio host should be (and Thorn is), then you already know what the artist wants to communicate. The most valuable thing you can do, in my view, is to unspool the meaning that you derive from the art itself. Art is condensed meaning. A journalist’s job should be to un-condense it. As an interviewer you can ask an artist what they mean by their art, but they’re not obligated to tell you, nor are they guaranteed to even know. You can also just offer up your analysis freely during the course of the interviewer, but the only question that could really be leading towards is “do you agree with that?” which is not really a question at all. You’re plunging headlong towards that exact same moment Thorn had with Glass. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been faced with putting together an interview piece where the format precluded me from offering any insight of my own, even though the artist I interviewed had nothing to say. Granted, this is at least partially a result of me not being a very good interviewer. But in my defence, what interests me above all else is what art means. And I don’t think that the fact I can’t get at that in an interview is entirely my fault, because I’ve never heard anybody else do it either. I’ve heard plenty of great interviews that get into the process by which art is produced or the human stories that lead artists to make it. These are both much more suitable ground to cover in interviews. Song Exploder is the gold standard for process stories about art. And a number of interviewers including Marc Maron, Terry Gross and, yes, Jesse Thorn are very skilled at getting artists to talk about the lives that led them to make what they make. But those stories don’t get me any closer to understanding art: they make me understand people. They’re not arts stories, really; they’re just normal human interest stories. And honestly, I’m not convinced that famous artists are actually more interesting or better storytellers than any other random people. I’m not sure that WTF would be any worse a show if Maron just interviewed whoever happened to be walking past his garage instead of comics and musicians and the president. It would definitely be less popular. And that, ultimately, is what I suspect the real motive is for most arts journalists to want to do interviews rather than focussing on analysis: this is an industry that places the ultimate premium on the “get.” If you can have a big name on your show, or get a big profile in your magazine — maybe shoot a bit of video that’ll autoplay as people scroll down their feeds and pull in those coveted attention economy eyeballs — people will take notice. This is fine, but it doesn’t really contribute to the discourse in my view. And those interviews are boring as often as they’re exciting. This is why I sometimes skip ahead to the ending of episodes of Bullseye, the “Outshot” segment where Thorn just takes a moment to exposit on something he likes. These are always great because Thorn is clever and funny and has great taste, and I’d rather hear him be that way without anybody else in the room to distract from it. So yeah, this is probably a really idiosyncratic take, but I genuinely think we should have fewer arts interviews in the world. I don’t mean to denigrate the entire practice, because as I’ve said I find some value in much of it. (And yes, I’m acutely aware that I’m currently a regular contributor to a regional radio show that mostly consists of interviews with artists. But I’m safe in that case, because I genuinely believe that show is brilliant — in large part because it isn’t about the “get,” it’s about the stories.) I think people who interview artists as their main bread and butter shouldn’t necessarily stop in their tracks, but they should have a long, hard think about why it’s a worthy use of their time. I realize this has not been a review of this episode. If anything, it’s a review of Jesse Thorn’s other show, Bullseye. So I’ll quickly say that I think The Turnaround is a fantastic idea, because it does focus on craft and process so much. And this was a great first episode that obviously got me thinking about some stuff.

Mogul: Cameos and exclusives — This week we got three tiny episodes of Mogul, which are all a lot of fun. One featuring Maseo is pretty straightforward, but it’s fun to hear him and Reggie Ossé talk about clothes. The Fat Joe exclusive has him telling a great story about getting shot. But the extra bit of Warren G’s interview is the highlight of the three, because it involves Chris Lighty locating Warren’s missing sister.

Arts and Ideas: “Thinking: Food” — This is virtuoso radio. By that, I mean Matthew Sweet makes a prawn cocktail while interviewing three writers. This is really what I love about the BBC. Sweet is a bubbly and approachable host who is nonetheless not afraid to assume a certain amount of familiarity on the listener’s part with the works of David Hume. This is the only interview about food that you’re likely to hear this week that contains the sentiment “we can talk about the moral element in a bit, but I do want to stick with aesthetics for now…”

99% Invisible: “The Pool and the Stream” — A globetrotting design story about the kidney-shaped swimming pool from Avery Trufelman. Very nice stuff. The script is really good in this one. I love the way it ties the opening back in at the end.

On the Media: “It’s the End of the World and We Know It” & “Apocalypse, Now” — Bob Garfield is away this week so we get to step away from the tornado for a while and let Brooke Gladstone do some big thinking for us. The main episode is about science fiction’s recent turn towards intense pessimism in the age of climate change. It’s depressing, but compelling. And there’s a great extra in the feed right before it featuring Gladstone’s interview with Ben Winters, whose books deal with a more sudden but less deniable threat to humanity. Both are worth your time.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Baby Driver and When Auteurs Meet Film Franchises” — This is as essential as this show gets. The live segment about auteurs and franchises features Glen Weldon at his very very best, and Stephen Thompson trying in a wonderful way to follow him. I’ve got to see Baby Driver stat.

Code Switch: “The Supreme Court Decides In Favor Of A Racial Slur… Now What?” — This is crazy. It’s the story of a guy who tried to register his band’s name as a trademark, but it was denied because it’s a racial slur. (It was a reclamation effort, but good god, why trademark it?) So he appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. And he won, so now people can trademark racial slurs. Because there is never any middle ground. Ugh.

Omnibus (week of June 18, 2017)

Yeah, I changed the name. I never liked the old name. Onwards.

The second instalment of the NXNW segment aired yesterday on Radio 1, and it is a whole level weirder than the first. Basically, I tried to convince Sheryl MacKay that the central tenets of medieval alchemy are still alive and well and living in pop culture. Every so often I make something I’m really proud of. This second segment is for sure one of those. I’m at 1:22:34 in this podcast of the show.

Ran a 5K this morning. Boy oh boy were there a lot of people in that. You’ll see more podcasts here than there have been in weeks, because I figured even a 5K shouldn’t be approached with a totally cavalier attitude. Many kilometers were run, and many hours of audio accompanied them. If you’re new to this, this instalment is a bit closer to my usual approach than recent weeks have been: lots of podcasts, shorter reviews. 38 of them, to be precise.

Television

American Gods: “Come To Jesus” — After last time, I didn’t actually expect Jesus to be played for laughs. But there is honestly nothing funnier than seeing a whole herd of diverse Jesuses just milling about. Except for the bit where Wednesday refers to them collectively as “these assholes.” That’s funnier. This season finale is actually my least favourite episode of American Gods so far, but that’s a very relative thing to say. Mostly, I’m just mildly peeved that the story hasn’t gotten to a point where the supporting deities like Nancy and Czernobog are relevant to the story on a consistent basis. I’m as happy as I thought I’d be to see Nancy again, but it would have been nice to see him do more than offer exposition for another character. (I miss the story about tiger balls from the book.) Also, the somewhat overwrought segment where Wednesday reveals his real name to Shadow is the first sequence in the show that hasn’t worked for me. Partially it’s just the Michael-Bay-spinning-cameraness of it all, but mostly I just find it hard to accept that Shadow, or any portion of the audience, would be surprised to learn that a one-eyed god who goes by “Wednesday” would actually be Odin. (This is a problem the show inherits from the book.) On the other hand, this episode makes two substantial improvements on the book. One is in the relationship between Bilquis and the Technical Boy. I suppose it’s still possible that Technical will kill Bilquis at some point, but that moment was one of the most jarring parts of the book, and I’m very glad that she’s survived their first meeting. The other improvement is Kristin Chenoweth’s Easter, who is angrier, funnier and altogether more ruthless than her book analogue. I especially love the way she listens to her adorable messenger bunnies, only to invariably respond “oh, shit!” I realize that throughout these American Gods reviews, I’ve focussed an awful lot on the relationship between show and book. Probably that’ll subside next season, at which point I will have read the book substantially less recently. But I still think that American Gods is as compelling an act of adaptation as a show to be taken on its own merits. Between this and Hannibal, I think Bryan Fuller has confirmed himself as the master of the modern television adaptation. Benioff and Weiss wish they were this good. Season one of American Gods has been some of the best television of recent years. I can’t wait for the next season. Hope it’s longer.

Better Call Saul: “Lantern” — Sometimes I start to write these reviews before I’m finished watching the episode. Here is a brief passage from what I’d written before I watched through to the end. “Chuck. Is. Noxious. The writers of this show, and Michael McKean, should pat themselves on the back for creating such a convincing yet completely insufferable character. The thing that makes him so hard to take is a simple juxtaposition of two traits: he has no compassion at all, and he always perceives himself to have the moral high ground. This episode features one of the most painful scenes in the show so far, in which Chuck intentionally tries to hurt Jimmy, and feels entirely justified in doing so because Jimmy colours outside the lines. He feels no complicity in the rift between the two of them. This is the worst kind of person, and this is a kind of person who exists. I know these people and so do you. Chuck is scum. Chuck is irredeemable.” At the end of the episode, I softened my view rather dramatically. In his more loathsome moments, Chuck makes it easy to forget that he is not at the peak of mental wellness. In retrospect, he might be the highlight of this season, because of the way both McKean and the story emphasize his uncompromising cruelty and his struggle with mental illness at the same time. The show even gives us a handy yardstick by which to assess the reasonableness of our hatred for Chuck: Howard Hamlin. Since the season one reveal that he actually isn’t that bad, Howard has been one of the most sympathetic characters on Better Call Saul.  And even he would rather part with millions of his own hard-earned dollars than work with Chuck any longer. He has become genuinely impossible, and well and truly cruel. He was also in a lot of trouble. And he completely alienated his one-man support system, who to be fair, is a person with no small amount of flaws himself. I expected this episode to be all about Kim after last week’s cliffhanger. And while it is bittersweet to see her finally realizing that she needs to take time to breathe, her season arc basically ended with her car crash. This episode belongs to Chuck. But its subtext belongs to Jimmy. It’s easy to read Chuck’s suicide as a final “fuck you” to his brother. This is only a small part of an inevitably complex equation, but think about this: their last conversation consisted of Chuck telling Jimmy that he would always hurt people and he might as well embrace it. Then he kills himself. Meanwhile, Jimmy has alienated himself from the elder law practice that could have been his saving grace. (I’m delighted that Mrs. Landry is okay.) The path to Saul Goodman has never been clearer than it is now. Pick of the week.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Parts 3-7 — Okay, the internet was right. This Dougie Jones business needs to stop. At first, I was amused — not so much by Kyle McGlaughlin’s performance, which finds him working substantially below his pay grade, but by the constant way that everybody around him basically fails to acknowledge that there’s something really wrong. Particularly wonderful is Naomi Watts as his wife. The fact that she’s not more concerned really makes you wonder what kind of shit-for-brains asshole the real Dougie Jones was. I love the idea that this might not actually be that out of the ordinary. Suppose that’s what you get for marrying a homunculus. But after four episodes of this, I’m ready to have Coop back. I don’t even need to hear him talk about coffee and pie. I don’t even need a thumbs up. I just want him to be here so that the show has a central intelligence in it again who can start to put together the disparate threads that are remaining maddeningly allusive without him. In general though, I’ve really been enjoying this. I don’t have that much to say about it because it’s still got its cards super close to its chest. I’m definitely hoping that we’re not done with David Lynch’s modernized, expanded take on the Black Lodge. The sequences that take place there are truly terrifying, and among the most compelling television I’ve seen in recent times.

Doctor Who: “World Enough and Time” — Okay, now we’re cooking. This is classic Steven Moffat, operating in “hey here’s a fun idea” mode. In this case, the idea is that there’s a huge spaceship right by a black hole, so time works differently at one end of it and the other. The real storytelling masterstroke, though, is stranding the Doctor at the slow end of the ship, so that the situation seriously escalates before he’s able to formulate a plan. Aside from that, this is notable as a real return to Moffat’s signature horror. You could say that the monks constituted horror, as did the notion in “Extremis” that the entire universe is a projection and you cease to exist if you step outside of the beam. But nothing since “Listen” has really gone whole hog into horror territory the way that this does. The scene with the volume dials is one of the most disturbing things Moffat has ever written. And the patients in general, all on their way to becoming Cybermen, are terrifying in that existential way that the Cybermen manage to be when they’ve got a good writer behind them. (Unless that good writer is Neil Gaiman, in which case they still don’t work.) And all that good stuff happens even before we get the big reveal of John Simm. Which, I mean, we all knew he was going to be in this, but am I stupid for being INCREDIBLY FUCKING SURPRISED that character was him? Am I? Come on, be honest. This was an amazing episode: straightforwardly the best of the season. Can’t wait to see what comes next.

Games

King of Dragon Pass — So, the Steam summer sale is on, but I realized that I’m not actually even close to finishing the games I bought during the Steam winter sale. Because *some of us* like to go outside sometimes, amirite? At this point I think the Half-Life series is a lost cause for me. I was so terrible at the first one, and the story is so minimal, that I’m forced to conclude it is literally the opposite of what I appreciate in a video game. Moving on to King of Dragon Pass, then: another classic of an entirely different sort. This is dated, and its high fantasy aesthetic isn’t really my thing, but I’m compelled regardless. Basically, it’s a text-based resource management game with elements of choose-your-own-adventure. So, it’s kind of Sunless Sea before its time. Except that the writing isn’t anywhere close to that level. It has its moments, mind you. I quite like this: “Your men whooped with Orlanth and drank the Eight Known Drinks, so that your heads would hurt during the ceremony.” Also unlike Sunless Sea, its representation of women oscillates between fairly progressive and a bit, erm, medieval. But there’s enough in this to compel me. I’m particularly fond of the way that your progress is compiled into a document called “the Saga,” which actually reads a bit like an Icelandic saga, given that those stories basically are just lists of accomplishments. So far, this seems like the sort of thing I’ll probably play until I manage to beat it on the easiest setting and then I might put it aside. Still, it’ll probably grow on me.

Literature

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Lottery in Babylon” — A substantially simpler and more direct story than some of the others I’ve read recently. Still brilliant, and the way that Borges casually drops details into the framework of ideas that makes up the narrative reminds me once again of how much Neil Gaiman owes to him. Look at this bit: “A slave stole a crimson ticket; the drawing determined that the ticket entitled the bearer to have his tongue burned out.” This comes at a point in the story where it’s been established that owning tickets can result in terrible things happening to you as well as good things, but the specifics have been vague. Borges just drops this punishment into a sentence that’s actually a rumination on what’s supposed to happen in the case of the theft of a ticket. His narrator doesn’t make a big deal of it. That, more than anything in this story, gives the sense of a fully-formed world with defined parameters that are simply taken for granted. I continue to be astonished by this writer.

Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine, Volume 4: “Imperial Phase, Part One” — I don’t know how anybody reads this issue-by-issue. When the trade collections come out, I wolf them down in one sitting and I still feel like I need more. This is probably the most exciting collection so far from this perpetually exciting comic. The real showstopper is the the first issue in the collection, formatted as a (beautifully designed) fan magazine in which members of the Pantheon are interviewed by actual journalists (with Gillen filling the role of each god at the other end of a chat window). The best of them is Laurie Penny’s piece on Woden, who is self-evidently the shittiest god. Having read Penny’s piece on Milo Yiannopoulos, it just felt right. My favourite part of the story in this issue is the way that the Pantheon is forced to reorganize and rally behind their logical leaders, Baal and Urdr, in the absence of Ananke. The dynamics between all of these characters just keep getting more interesting. Persephone in particular is the best thing going on in this book right now. Love it.

Kelefa Sanneh: “The Persistence of Prog Rock” — An excellent piece on the contemporary reception of 1970s prog, with reference to David Wiegel’s recent book on the subject. I’m reminded that I need to eventually finish the books cited by Edward Macan, Bill Martin and Will Romano, though I think all of them (especially Romano’s) are quite bad. The most interesting idea raised here is that progressive rock was parochial. This is something that I struggle with. It definitely was parochial — the most recognized bands in the genre were such idiomatically British eccentrics that albums like Selling England by the Pound almost seem a bit Brexity in retrospect. On the other hand, that means that prog largely avoided the garish spectacle of cultural appropriation that a lot of other British rock proffered. The Rolling Stones and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers seem a hell of a lot more retrograde in retrospect than ELP does. And ELP, lest anybody forget, was the band whose use of classical music in their performances was meant to get the kids listening to “music that has more quality.” The mind reels. I sympathize with Lester Bangs’ distaste for this sentiment. But I’m not sure he ever really saw the other side of the coin. I’ll be reading Wiegel’s book very soon.

Music

Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner & James McAlister: Planetarium — Well, it doesn’t make it easy for us. Planetarium is enormously ambitious and enormously long. Every song on this gave me the sense that I’d definitely like it a lot more next time I listen to it. Honestly, that’s one of my favourite reactions to have to a piece of music, but this does meander a bit. I’m curious to know more about the process of this: I’m familiar enough with Stevens, Muhly and Dessner’s work (the latter only as a composer, admittedly — I’ve never liked the National) that I feel like it should be easier than it is to isolate their particular contributions. They seem to have genuinely merged into a many-headed beast. My personal highlights here are “Jupiter” and especially “Mercury,” which has a melody worthy of Carrie & Lowell. But I’ve now heard “Saturn” a few times and it has grown on me from the point of initially leaving me cold to the point where now I actually bring up Apple Music to listen to it specifically. And the 15-minute “Earth” hits my prog rock structural pleasure centres, but there’s too much in it to take in for me to assess it yet. I think this is really good. I’ll probably check back in about it when I listen to it a bit more.

Neil Young: Live at the Riverboat 1969 — Like the Canterbury House instalment of Neil’s archives series, this is most notable for his amusingly awkward, stoned audience banter. I wish I’d been at one of these early acoustic shows, but I wasn’t born until 21 years later. Anyway, I’m actually pretty happy to be moving past the pre-Crazy Horse segment of my quest to hear the Complete Neil Young. Solo acoustic guitar music gets tiresome.

Neil Young: Live at Fillmore East 1970 — Ah, now we’re talking. What’s most notable about this is how much it sounds like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Crazy Horse has always sounded really live in the studio. All the same, the presence of an audience makes “Cowgirl in the Sand” pop a bit more, with the band really trying to ratchet up the tension to keep them into it. I suspect 1970 is the year when things really get interesting. I’ve enjoyed my exploration of Buffalo Springfield and the late-60s limbo state from which the self-titled album emerged. But it’s with the foundation of Crazy Horse and Neil’s induction into CSNY that the phase of his career we know him for really began.

Podcasts

Ear Hustle: “Cellies” — This podcast is a beautiful idea. It’s also staggeringly ambitious. I can only imagine the logistical nightmare it must be to produce a podcast in prison. But these are stories that don’t get told. And when they do, they sure aren’t told by the inmates themselves. This premiere episode introduces some fun characters, including two brothers who ended up as cellmates and nearly drove each other out of their minds. I’m also rather endeared by Earlonne Woods’ resistance to his non-incarcerated co-host’s attempts to apply relationship metaphors to cellmates. He ought to know what metaphors are and aren’t apt. This is the most promising addition to Radiotopia since Song Exploder.

The Pitch: “Babyscripts” — Not for me. This has a solid premise that’s basically guaranteed to yield drama: it’s basically Dragons’ Den. But I’m just not interested enough in business to be interested in these kinds of conversations. Worth a shot if you are.

StartUp: “Life After Startup” — A catch-up session with some of the people in previous StartUp episodes. Most notably, we revisit Dating Ring, the company followed in the show’s underrated second season. I really found the ending of that season heartbreaking, so it’s good to know that even though the business didn’t pan out, the founders are living happy lives these days.

Imaginary Worlds: “Imagining the Internet” — It’s a common refrain among science fiction critics that the internet is the modern technology that the genre failed most egregiously to predict. But this provides a corollary to that view by, in part, bringing Mark Twain into the fold. One highlight of this is hearing the actor who does the readings adopt the personas of their respective authors. I’m especially struck by how similar his Twain is to the genius voice actor that I brought in to do Twain at the end of the last episode of the Syrup Trap Pod Cast. I guess he’s just a voice that people have a sense of.

In Our Time: “The American Populists” — A pleasingly contentious conversation about the short-lived party that briefly promised to offer a real alternative to the Democrats and the Republicans. So no, it’s not about Donald Trump. Trust In Our Time to remind you that history is worth knowing about, and it doesn’t always have to be covered with explicit reference to current events to be relevant.

Love and Radio: “Relevant Questions” — A middling episode of one of the best shows around, so quite good. It’s about the first polygraph operator to speak out against its use. But he’s not straightforwardly heroic, even if he sees himself that way. It’s got a twist that’s done cleverly, in a similar way to the twist in “A Girl of Ivory,” but that’s not a comparison that does this any favours because that episode was a classic. Still, pretty great.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Wonder Woman And The Tony Awards” — Okay, I’ll see Wonder Woman. I was kind of going to anyway, in spite of my serious superhero fatigue. This is different. Man, the Tonys seem to have nothing for me this time around.

Radiolab: “The Gondolier” — This is a good story by the standards of recent Radiolab episodes, but I can’t help but hear the Love and Radio episode that could have been. It’s a story about a person who was touted internationally as “Venice’s first female gondolier,” which turned out to be super wrong because he’s a trans man. That last sentence is almost a spoiler, because this episode actually treats Alex, the main character, as a woman for a portion of its duration, in accordance with the reporters’ misunderstanding of his gender identity. The media has traditionally been Alex’s enemy, and this is supposed to provide an antidote to that. I’m not at all the person to judge how it succeeds at that, but I do feel like this is a case where the Love and Radio approach of cutting out the reporter’s voice altogether would be useful. I’d love to hear the version of this story that’s just Alex telling his own story. But Radiolab’s gonna Radiolab, so we have to have a certain amount of ponderous processing and deconstruction. It’s fine.

Home of the Brave: “The Continental Divide” — One of the things I really like about Home of the Brave is that Scott Carrier will sometimes release one of these brief missives in between proper radio projects. I sympathize with his inability to talk to people who disagree with him right now, but I admire his decision to give it another go.

Fresh Air: “Jay Z” — An old interview, from just after the release of Decoded. Terry Gross sounds slightly uncomfortable interviewing Jay Z because she kind of thinks he’s sexist. But Jay is charming and indulgent, even if he does get super defensive when Gross actually brings up sexism. Mostly a very good interview.

This American Life: “Say Anything” — The bulk of this is taken up by a tape that a guy made for his suicidal friend, without ever intending for it to end up on radio. It’s very affecting. But the real highlight is a list of fears written by a developmentally disabled man. It is both funny and insightful. A cameo from Jonathan Goldstein is always appreciated as well.

Fresh Air: “Roxane Gay” — A marvellous interview about Gay’s new book, which sounds like a deeply insightful, really rough read. She’s one of those articulate people you’ve just got to be thankful for.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin” — To some extent, this is shameless self-promotion for GLOW, the new show he’s in. But it sounds like a really great show, and I’m always in for an Alison Brie interview. She is completely charming. I didn’t realize that I knew Betty Gilpin, but her American Gods performance is really hilarious and the way she describes it as a wilful misunderstanding of the tone of the whole show is amazing. A good listen.

It’s Been A Minute: “Hey Y’all” — I’m reservedly excited about this. I love Sam Sanders. He’s always been one of my favourite guests on Pop Culture Happy Hour and I miss him on the NPR Politics Podcast. I just hope it doesn’t keep explaining ordinary idioms like “it’s been a minute” to me.

Sampler: “Introducing The Nod!” — Thank god Gimlet found something for Brittany Luse to do. She’s brilliant, and she was always above Sampler. Looking forward.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Sofia Coppola” — This has its moments, and Maron clearly admires and understands Coppola’s filmmaking. But did he have to talk about her dad so much? Surely she’s sick of that. In any case, Sofia Coppola is a genius and I can’t wait to see The Beguiled.

99% Invisible: “You Should Do A Story” — A roundup of miscellaneous stories that didn’t become full episodes. It’s worth hearing for a few simple descriptions of household design solutions from specific places.

The Heart: “Doing Time” — I heard an interview with Kaitlin Prest on a great podcast I don’t review called The Imposter where she said that the launch of Ear Hustle and the themed episodes Radiotopia did for its launch resulted in a hurried finish to the “No” season, which doesn’t actually come off in the last episode, but it sucks. In any case, this brushed-up episode from the back catalogue is perfectly fine.

Code Switch: “What To Make Of Philando Castile’s Death, One Year Later” — This won’t help you process the acquittal of Philando Castile’s killer, but it does feature an interview with a friend of Castile’s that is heartbreaking.  

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Pardon Power” — Is this presidency really so unprecedented that we’re entertaining the notion that a sitting president could pardon himself? Guys this is not normal.

The Gist: “Scaachi Koul on Surviving the Trolls” — Scaachi Koul is one of the funniest and best writers about sexism and racism. If you don’t read her on Buzzfeed, what are you even doing. I’m really looking forward to reading her book. This interview isn’t one of Mike Pesca’s best moments, but it is plenty good on Koul’s part. He gets all tone policey and she doesn’t let him get away with it. Satisfying in a way.

StartUp: “How To Invent A New Sport” — This is about a guy who made a new version of basketball. The best part is the story of a pitch meeting in China. Listen for that alone.

The Gist: “Do Radicals Change the World?” — Jeremy McCarter is familiar to me from the Hamiltome, but this new book doesn’t sound like something I’ll especially enjoy. I’ll take China Mieville’s 1917 book, thanks. He’s got no doubts that radicals change the world.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “GLOW And Lena Waithe” — Hmm, here are two shows that make me wish there was more time in a day. I’m finding it hard to commit to the idea of watching GLOW and Master of None. The former has a bunch of people I love involved, but I’m not sold on the hype. And Master of None sounds like it’s got a slow first season and a killer second. That’s a stumbling block. You’d never think it from reading this blog sometimes, but I’ve got to be judicious in my choices. Even I only have so much time to allot to this stuff.

It’s Been A Minute: “Likes Don’t Matter” — I don’t know how to feel about this. Part of me wants to think that it’ll find its legs, but it’s also totally clear that this has been given dry run after dry run, so it’s already got a fair bit of mileage behind it. Sam Sanders is one of the cleverest, most magnetic people at NPR. But this feels kind of forcedly colloquial to me. I liked Sanders a lot on the NPR Politics Podcast, where they had a mandate to really get into the grains of it, because Sanders was the guy who could inject a bit of air into the proceedings. He was as good at talking politics as the rest of the panel, but also funnier. In a less explicitly focussed situation, I’m not sure what to make of him anymore. I’ll keep listening, because I really do think he’s great. But I have reservations.

Beef And Dairy Network: “Gareth Belge” — Ahh, I like this. I like this show a lot. This features a hilarious segment about how cows act as body doubles for actors more than you’d know. That’s this show in a nutshell. Beautiful.

Mogul: Episodes 1 & 2 — I resisted this at first because it came out initially on Spotify, and I’m dead set against windowing in the podcast world. But I had to hear this story. It is magical. It is the story of Chris Lighty, the powerful hip hop executive: how he rose to prominence and how he died. Combat Jack hosts (going by his birth name here, Reggie Ossé), and he brings a level of expertise on this topic that probably nobody else in the world could top. The joy of listening to this is not just in the character-driven story of Lighty, nor is it even in the brilliantly rendered history of hip hop’s evolution. It’s in Ossé’s intense engagement with the material. I’ve always known somebody would make a podcast like this sometime — a show that deals with the history of music in a story-driven, audio rich way. Song Exploder isn’t quite it. This is it. I’ve been waiting for this. If you have any interest at all in hip hop or in knowing something about the music of the last forty years, check this out. It’s a beautiful thing. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of June 11, 2017)

It strikes me that we’ve got a few new readers since the radio segment started. (Listen for another one coming up this weekend!) So, I figured it might be a good time to casually restate the premise of this blog.

Basically, I write discursive blurbs, which I charitably refer to as reviews, about every podcast episode, album, movie, comic, short story, novel, nonfiction book, television episode, concert, art exhibit, feature article, comedy special and video game that passes through my life. The idea was to put all of my unformed thoughts about the massive amount of media I consume into one easily avoidable place so that I wouldn’t feel compelled to talk so damn constantly. Didn’t work. But I’m having fun, and now I’m doing this on the radio also!

I have a few tentative guidelines for myself that I established at the start of this project. I generally don’t review:

  • Stuff made by people I know, or people who people I know know. I’m doing this for fun, not to make my life awkward.
  • Fragments. If I listen to a single song on the way to the grocery store, no. If I listen to a whole album walking home from work, yes. If I watch a John Oliver segment on YouTube, no. If I watch a full episode of Last Week Tonight, yes.
  • Blog posts/articles/essays etc. This accounts for a lot of what I read in any given week. But actually reviewing that stuff seems needlessly far down the rabbit hole, even for me.

For things that will take me more than a week to get through (i.e. books and games), I’ll give them a mention when I start them, review them when I’m finished them, and give updates periodically in between. That’s unless the book or game breaks down logically, like episodic games or collections of short stories. In that case, I’ll review each part. Also, in the event of binging on anything serialized (esp. TV and podcasts), I will often cover multiple episodes in one review. You’ll see a lot of that in this week’s podcasts section, because I had fallen behind on a few favourites.

Not everything I review will be new, nor will it all even be new to me. I revisit old favourites as frequently or more than I seek out new favourites — especially where music’s concerned. But I’ll only review something in an Omnireviewer post once. Subsequent revisitations will occur anonymously.

Finally, none of what I’ve said above constitutes “rules.” By which I mean: I reserve the right to break them at my convenience.

Other things you should know: I also post my reviews on Tumblr, where they come with better formatting, videos, audio embeds, links, and all that good stuff. But every Sunday I gather all of the week’s reviews here, where I sort by medium but leave them as austere walls of text. So, pick your poison. The Sunday omnibus posts are also the home of my picks of the week. I award two of these per week, one to a podcast and one to something else. (This is the rule that I break most frequently. Sometimes I can’t help awarding three.)

Finally, consider this your one and only spoiler warning. I am categorically against the idea of spoiler warnings, because I’m dubious on the idea that it’s possible to spoil something. (I am overstating my case for effect. But only by a little.) In general, I’m told that these reviews are more valuable to those who are already invested in the thing in question. So, I tend to spoil away, in the interest of parsing my own reactions to what I’ve seen. I promise if there’s ever something that is obviously better unspoilt, I will not spoil it. But I can only think of a handful of examples. You’ve been warned.

This week, we’ve got 28 reviews, including a gigantic podcast catch-up (this is how you know I’ve been running a lot), two weeks’ worth of television (I shamefully didn’t finish my reviews last week) a bit of literature, and an odyssey through the music of Tool, who I also saw live on Thursday. Let’s start with Tool, shall we?

Music

Tool: Lateralus — With this, possibly only my second or third ever full listen to Lateralus, I am properly excited to see Tool live. That’s happening in three days, as I write this. There’s no good reason why I haven’t listened to this album more. 10,000 Days was my way into Tool, and I didn’t get around to anything else by them until near the tail end of my first metal phase. So, Lateralus has gotten short shrift from me in spite of being objectively much better than 10,000 Days and generally one of the best metal albums ever. Tool sounds unlike any other metal band, and not just for the reasons that get trotted out endlessly, like the odd time signatures — though they are a few levels odder than most prog metal bands’ metric adventures. Tool sounds different because there’s a transparency to the way they write for and record their instruments. This is heavy music, and it has its moments of crushing chords and big loud climaxes. But in general, Tool’s music is made up of four distinct musical lines being performed by four musicians with the highest possible premium placed on clarity. Every decision that went into this record — from the choices of guitar and bass tones (fairly restrained, in general) to Adam Jones’s preference for melodic lines over chords in the guitar, to the way that Maynard James Keenan’s voice is mixed so you can understand every word — demonstrates a commitment to clarity above all else. That’s rare, if not unique in heavy metal. The result is metal that beckons you to come to it, rather than bowling you over with an unavoidable flood of sound. (My favourite metal band, Opeth, can serve as a useful corollary. Blackwater Park is a flood of a record, if ever I’ve heard one.) Lateralus is an overwhelming album, but it isn’t overwhelming in a visceral way. It isn’t Mahler symphony overwhelming. It’s intellectually overwhelming, like listening to Glenn Gould play Bach. There really is something Baroque about Tool, and I don’t mean “baroque” in the sense of it meaning “needlessly complicated.” What I mean is that, like the artists of the Baroque, Tool seems to strive towards a rational ideal of beauty that provokes an intense emotional response from having been so perfectly wrought. The title track is the obvious apex of this, given its famous reliance on the Fibonacci sequence, which is associated with the Golden Mean, and therefore beauty itself. Throw in lyrics that touch on alchemical themes of boundless self-improvement and you’ve got one of the most classically ambitious metal songs ever. This ties in with something that has surprised me in my recent rediscovery of the last two Tool records: they constantly undermine their image as a band obsessed with the dark and grotesque. Sure, there are lyrics and videos that support that notion of the band. But Lateralus is a striving, nearly celebratory record in a lot of places — a piece of art that seeks to find the best way to be human, and through its intense discipline, demonstrates one possible answer. Even in a song with a title like “Schism,” the key line is “I know the pieces fit.” That’s very hopeful. And if they undermine themselves through striving and celebration on Lateralus, they do it again on 10,000 Days with intimacy. The “Wings for Marie” songs are as human as anything in this genre. I feel as though Tool is falling into place for me at the perfect moment. This is going to be a good concert. But I’ve still got some cramming to do, because I haven’t heard any of the early stuff at all.

Tool: Ænima — After the fawning encomium I just wrote about Lateralus, it kind of sucks to come back to this, which is a very good album that I’d be super happy to hear some stuff from at tomorrow’s concert. But it’s definitely not Lateralus. One of the downsides of writing about everything you watch, read and listen to is that you get really good at intellectualizing specifically why you like something. And I determined that the thing that sets Lateralus apart and makes it a metal album that I would put in my top tier of metal albums is its clarity and transparency — and also its latent hopefulness. Realizing that and framing it in writing makes it difficult not to judge other Tool albums by those incredibly specific standards, which is a terrible way to judge anything and basically means that I’m no longer taking non-Lateralus Tool albums on their own terms. So, listening to Ænima and finding it to be a level louder, more distorted, more opaque and more cynical was naturally disappointing. But I think it’ll grow on me. I’m already fairly fond of “Stinkfist,” “Forty-Six & 2” and “Third Eye.” Though, in the case of the latter, I could do without Bill Hicks. I really don’t like Bill Hicks, because he thought that having a point was the same as having a joke. And that ties in with the one thing I really don’t think will ever grow on me about Ænima, which is the smugness of it. Maynard Keenan is extremely convinced of his moral rectitude, here. He spends a lot of time putting down people that aren’t him. I prefer him in learning and growing mode. This is a solid, and extremely ambitious metal album, but its magnificent successor doesn’t do it any favours.

Tool: Opiate — In an effort to effectively cram for tomorrow evening’s Tool concert without ruining the setlist for myself, I looked at the setlist.fm entry for their latest show, and scrolled past the actual setlist as fast as I could to just see the album breakdown. Looks like it won’t be an issue that I’ve never heard Undertow, but this even earlier EP will surprisingly be represented. I’d say it’s more promising than good, but hearing them play music from this alongside stuff from Lateralus and 10,000 Days is going to be awesome.

Live events

Tool: Live at Rogers Arena — I’ve deliberately left some time between this concert and this review, because I wanted to avoid having the post-concert glow affect my assessment. Let’s begin with some general observations. Firstly, Tool puts on an amazing show. The musicianship is second-to-none, and the spectacle is Pink Floyd calibre. In fact, this show made a case for Tool being the closest thing to a modern-day Pink Floyd. (The standard point of comparison between Tool and classic prog rock tends to be the mathy, mid-70s output of King Crimson. But the spectacle, psychedelia, catharsis and mood painting of their live show evokes a hybrid of Pink Floyd’s Wall period and their pre-Dark Side avant-guardism. All fed through the lens of heavy metal, of course.) Through the course of the show, I found myself switching back and forth between concentrating on the details of the music and just getting lost in the H.R. Giger-in-the-summer-of-love visuals that were projected onto the vast screen behind the band. I’m sure there are those who feel like this kind of spectacle is a cop-out and that bands like Tool should just grow some charisma. But this is a band whose lead singer has taken lately to standing in the darkness at the back of the stage and never emerging from the shadows. Watching the band themselves is clearly not supposed to be the point of this show. (For what it’s worth, it was never the point of a Pink Floyd show, either.) The setlist was basically pretty solid. I confess that I enjoyed the material from Aenima a lot more in a live setting. They even solved the biggest problem with “Third Eye” by excising Bill Hicks altogether. That made it substantially less smug than its studio counterpart, and it turned out to be one of the best songs of the night. I would have liked to hear more from Lateralus. They started the show with a triple shot from that album: “The Grudge,” followed by “Parabol/Parabola” and “Schism.” But they didn’t return to it afterwards. I would have really loved to hear the title track, and maybe “The Patient.” But we did at least get two of the best songs from 10,000 Days, a very underrated record in my opinion. “Jambi” is one of my two or three favourite Tool songs, and has been since it came out when I was sixteen. It was massively cathartic to hear it live, even if Maynard James Keenan’s voice did give out in the middle of a line. He’s getting older, but he still sounds great. It would have been nice to have him a bit higher in the mix, but given his onstage place in the shadows, I wouldn’t want to impinge on the whole self-abnegating thing he’s got going on. “The Pot” gave an opportunity to hear him a bit more clearly, and even though it’s been transposed down, it was still a powerful vocal performance. (And it was fun to remember the summer I spent stocking shelves on the night shift of a grocery store, when “The Pot” would be the only song that ever came on the radio that I liked.) But the aural portion of the evening really belonged to the instrumental trio. Danny Carey is a godlike drummer. His solo, backed by a ⅞ arpeggio pattern on a modular synth he just happened to have on hand, was one of the grooviest, most musical parts of the evening. And the frontline of guitarist Adam Jones and bassist Justin Chancellor is less like a lead/accompaniment relationship than like the two hands of a pianist playing a Bach fugue. The show’s second half was needlessly brief; they needn’t have taken an intermission. (Though its twelve-minute duration, marked by a countdown clock projected on the screen, seemed pleasantly arbitrary.) But this is quibble territory. Again, Tool puts on a great show. Allow me a broader observation: there were a whoooole lot of dudebros at this concert. Which is not to say that there were no women. Women represented a small but enthusiastic component of the audience. But there was a particular type of dude who seemed prevalent at this concert that I didn’t see so many of at the other metal concerts I’ve been to, which were both Opeth concerts. I’m talking about rowdy dudes. Drunk, shouting dudes. There were people who were drunk and shouting at the Opeth concerts too. (Full disclosure, I got kicked out of one of those before Opeth even started, for being under 18 and standing in the wrong place.) But I got the sense that there are a lot of introverts at Opeth concerts, and that’s their release. The vibe at the Tool show was a lot different. It was kind of aggro. Not aggressive. Just aggro. There’s a difference. I get the vague sense that there were probably people at that show who really love Richard Dawkins and really hate feminists. The presence, real or imagined, of this kind of people at the show made for a moment of cognitive dissonance for me. I had somehow expected Tool fans to be quiet, thoughtful people because the Tool music that I love the most (Lateralus and 10,000 Days) is thoughtful music, the aggression of which belies a deeper commitment to discipline and contemplation. But the Tool fans I observed at this show were a mix of Lateralus personified (these folks are not unlike the Opeth fans) and Aenima personified. Aenima, while undeniably accomplished, is not a record I especially identify with. And I couldn’t help but think as I looked around me, heard snippets of conversation, and realized that the one woman seated in the row in front of me had seemingly been forced out of her seat, that Aenima might not be a great album to have in your DNA. Aenima has many sides, and it reveals a different side of itself on every listen. But one of its sides is smug, self-righteous pseudo-intellectual, dudebro stoner rock. Concerts have a way of making you step outside your own idiosyncratic relationship with a given piece of music. They have a way of making you hear music through the ears of others. And sometimes it doesn’t sound as good that way. Maybe that’s why I don’t go to many concerts. I really do prefer to think of music as a thing that only exists in my own head. That way it can be anything I want. Solipsism aside, this was a great show.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” — A masterpiece. I’m hard-pressed not to say that this is my favourite Borges story I’ve read so far, but I won’t go that far. The only reason for that is I definitely need to read it again, because it is both longer and denser than any other Borges story I’ve read. Where my other favourite Borges story, “The Library of Babel,” is basically one self-contained thought experiment, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is several thought experiments shoved into one incredible story. Most notably, of course, there’s the idea of a civilization that so radically adheres to Berkeleyan idealism that they deny the existence of empirical reality. This big thought experiment leads to many smaller contentions, my favourite of which is the idea that, for this civilization, groups of things don’t come in specific amounts — they only acquire amounts once they’ve been counted by somebody. But there’s more to this than just that one thought experiment. There’s also the idea that if a cadre of people invented a fictional country or planet with enough detail, it could actually come into being. (I especially like the way Borges relates this to the origins of Rosicrucianism, which apparently owes its existence to an older, fictional order of that same name.) Those two ideas are basically the same idea, actually: ideas are potentially more powerful than empirical reality. The ending of this story, which I won’t spoil because it’s amazing and I want everybody to go read this, really drives that home. It’s hard to believe that this was written in 1940 — Borges has effectively predicted the world of alternative facts and the sense of unreality in which we currently live. Pick of the week.

Neil Gaiman, J.H. Williams III & Dave Stewart: The Sandman: Overture — It has been long enough since I read the original run of Sandman that I can’t reliably say how this stacks up against it. What I will say is this: on Gaiman’s part, it is a big ambitious story that I enjoyed very much. But the star of this collection is J.H. Williams III, whose art is maybe the most astonishing comic art I’ve ever seen. I haven’t actually encountered him before, though I’ve meant to read Promethea for ages. At no point in this book is there a page with anything resembling a conventional panel layout. The story is told through dense, fluid drawings that take up full pages, folding time and space into each other in a more dreamlike fashion than I remember any artist managing in the original run of Sandman. The worlds of Sandman: Overture are full of impossible staircases, cities made of light, and non-linear time. (There’s also a fabulous riff on the gatefold design of the Dark Side of the Moon album cover.) Gaiman’s real accomplishment here is just giving Williams the seeds of ideas for crazy stuff to draw. It is visual storytelling of an incredibly virtuosic standard. Don’t read it if you haven’t read the rest of Sandman. But it’s definitely another reason why you should read Sandman if you haven’t.

Television

American Gods: “A Murder of Gods” — So hey, America sucks. It really does! One of the things I’m loving about American Gods is how little patriotism there is in it. I actually like Neil Gaiman’s more pro-America passages in the novel, because they’re always about rinky-dink, out-of-the-way bits of Americana like roadside attractions and diner food. But the time has come and gone for Gaimanesque whimsy in tales of modern America. Bryan Fuller and Michael Green know this well, so they created a new version of Vulcan, the god of fire. And through him, they offer an extremely blunt but completely identifiable critique of American militarism and gun culture, with a side order of labour exploitation. It’s a fantastic sequence, and it resonates nicely with the brutal opening of the episode, in which immigrants crossing the border are gunned down by vigilantes whose weapons bear the inscription “Thy kingdom come.” Another great addition to the show’s cast: Jesus. Best of all, the most notable thing he does in this episode is die. Clever. Don’t worry, I have a feeling he’ll be back. I’m not sure this episode works for me as well as “The Secret of Spoons” or “Git Gone” on a scene-by-scene basis. But it might be the most focussed episode of the series so far, thematically. This is an episode about prayer: the reasons people do it, what people get out of it, and what the gods they pray to get out of it. Prayers to Vulcan are particularly disturbing at this point. (“Every bullet fired in a crowded movie theater is a prayer in my name. And that prayer makes them want to pray even harder.”) But this show’s attitude towards faith is not wholly critical. We unexpectedly meet Salim again in this episode, and his attitude towards prayer is one of the more beautiful and uncynical sentiments in the show. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the relationships between Salim, Laura and Mad Sweeney evolve. Last week, I noted that it was a good idea to have Laura and Sweeney in a scene together. This week confirms that, indeed, it is a good idea to have them share an entire plotline. And making Salim a series regular, and the third in their motley posse, can only be good. This show. I tell ya.

Doctor Who: “Empress of Mars” — Okay, I mean, it has problems. The Doctor’s plan to crash the ice cap down on everybody is total nonsense, and I’m a little miffed that a character got to say something to the effect of “Hey, don’t judge British imperialism on the basis of one bad apple!” But basically this is a fun, silly story of exactly the sort I tend to dislike in really good seasons, but which seems to be what I’m into this year. I like the Victrola horn on the Victorian spacesuits. I like how dumb and B-movie-like they continue allowing the Ice Warriors to be. I don’t really like much else, but it was fun watching this dance in front of my eyes for an hour. Evidently, my standards are dropping. By Gatiss’s standards, it’s fine. Take from that what you will.

American Gods: “A Prayer For Mad Sweeney” — Beautiful. Here’s the point where the makers of American Gods finally focus in on the sweetest moment of Gaiman’s novel, thus producing a marvellous corollary to last week’s particularly dark and cynical instalment of American Gods. This contains maybe the most outwardly pro-American utterance in the show so far: the idea that in America, you can be whoever you want. It’s a statement that has an element of truth in it, and is all the same pleasantly simple to problematize. Thankfully, even in its more charitable moments, American Gods maintains its troubled attitude with the country at its heart. I’ve been asserting for weeks that this show is surpassing its source material, and I continue to think so. However, the one thing that Neil Gaiman always brings to the table that Bryan Fuller does not is a sort of heartstring-tugging expressiveness. Think of Dream’s wake in Sandman, basically any random page in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, or “I wanted to see the universe, so I stole a Time Lord and ran away.” American Gods, the novel, has less of this than much of Gaiman’s work, but the segment about Essie Tregowan, the clever Irish woman who uses her wits and her abiding belief in the Irish legends of the fairyfolk to make her way in America, is the one moment in the novel that reflects that side of Gaiman. It is a beautiful story, with a heartstopping ending. Fuller, Michael Green and screenwriter Maria Melnik need not really do much with the story to make it resonate in exactly the way it does in the book. But of course, they do make alterations, because they’re pros who don’t mind working for their living. And the changes made do generally fall under the category of “Bryan Fuller complicated formalism.” But the formal idea at the core of this adaptation — the Essie Tregowan story is also the story of Mad Sweeney’s arrival in America, and the relationship between those characters resonates through time with the relationship between Sweeney and Laura — actually heightens the emotional resonance of Gaiman’s powerful original. Pablo Schreiber’s Sweeney gets to take this opportunity to reflect on the way that his present-day travelling companion is in some way connected, if only in his own head, to the brave woman who believed in him centuries earlier. Which, of course, complicates the fact that he was responsible for her death. The moment where we see Sweeney decide to resurrect Laura, voluntarily giving up the lucky coin that’s his whole reason for travelling with her to begin with, is one of the best in the series so far. So is the moment right after that, where Laura punches him and sends him flying. This is Emily Browning’s best episode so far, with her double-casting as both Essie (renamed “MacGowan,” for some reason) and Laura showing her range, but also the distinct personality she’s drawing on in this show. It was a good decision to leave the other main characters out of this episode altogether. There’s no Shadow here, and Wednesday is only around by implication: Sweeney talks to his messenger crows. Ian McShane would needlessly take up oxygen in this episode if he were in it. But, to its credit, this episode picks two characters and runs with them. Even Selim gets dismissed at the start of the episode, so we can really focus on Laura/Essie and Sweeney. (But given where Selim’s off to, I’m sure we’ll see him again.) This is, by my estimation, the third stone cold classic episode of this show, which is only seven episodes old. A couple of final notes: for those fascinated by the character of Mad Sweeney, I highly recommend Flann O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds. It’s a complicated, many-headed beast of a novel, but one of the many things going on in it is an interpolation of O’Brien’s own English adaptation of Buile Shuibhne, the old Irish tale in which Sweeney first appears. At Swim-Two-Birds bears comparison to American Gods in the sense that it also explores the impact, or lack of impact, of old stories on contemporary life. And both novels choose Mad Sweeney as one of their points of reference. Also, here is the start of a whack-a-doo theory. This episode uses the song “Runaround Sue” by Dion, which is a fantastic song, first of all. What a voice. It’s also the lesser known single of a singer known for a song called “The Wanderer.” “The Wanderer” is also a moniker for Wotan in Wagner’s Ring cycle. (Wotan is the Germanization of Odin.) I dunno where I’m going with this. But if Dion makes another musical appearance, I daresay it’ll be with respect to Mr. Wednesday, and it’ll be “The Wanderer.”

Better Call Saul: “Slip” & “Fall” — “Slip” is an endgame preparation episode without any particularly outstanding scenes. It’s nice to see Jimmy threaten to sue the guy who keeps refusing him his community service hours, but that’s a fairly straightforward play without any of the specific manipulative genius that makes watching his best schemes so much fun. And while I appreciate the time taken to build suspense for Nacho’s switch-up of Don Hector’s pills, this plotline is ever so slightly straining my credulity at this point. I can always get behind a byzantine Jimmy scheme because it’s part of his personality. And Mike’s schemes usually have an elegant simplicity to them. But “scheming Nacho” is a difficult thing to pin down, and around the time he disconnects the restaurant’s AC, I started to think maybe this was going a little too far down the rabbit hole. But “Fall” recovers completely. It does this amazing thing where it has one scene involving Kim, a car, and the audience’s sudden and intense anxiety — but then, nothing bad happens. And then it invokes the same combination at the end of the episode, in a basically unrelated situation with no cause/effect relationship with the earlier car mishap, and pays it off. It’s a weird sort of half-application of the Chekhov’s gun principle. That sustained sense of dread that something’s going to happen to Kim is excruciating. She’s probably the TV character that I’m most emotionally invested in. This position that the writers have consistently put her in, where she does everything right but she’s at constant risk of being pulled off the rails by the people around her is such a good source of tension, and Rhea Seehorn is consistently incredible. Also, sometimes I’m not sure I’m supposed to love Howard as much as I do, but I definitely still love Howard. I love how willing he is to think people will be reasonable, even when all of the evidence suggests that they are innately unreasonable people. The scene of him starting to plan Chuck’s retirement party before he’s even opened the envelope he wrongly assumes contains Chuck’s resignation is a magnificent penny drop moment, because we as the audience know Chuck well enough to realize that Howard is wrong before he does. Also, back on the subject of byzantine schemes, I don’t think this show has ever come up with anything on the level of Jimmy’s manipulation of poor Irene. The whole sequence of this adorable old granny becoming isolated gradually is somehow the funniest thing Better Call Saul has ever done.

The Simpsons: “Itchy and Scratchy and Marge” — A classic. This is one of my favourite Simpsons episodes because it’s such a wonderful bit of metafiction. It’s ostensibly a parody of the idea that cartoons (and television more broadly) can exert a negative influence on children — a criticism that The Simpsons came in for in spades during the Bartmania of 1990. (As below, so above. I’ll elaborate on next weekend’s NXNW segment.) And it certainly demonstrates why violence and conflict are necessary for good TV storytelling (the declawed Itchy and Scratchy segment is one of the episode’s best moments). But it goes further than that. This episode could have just stopped at the contention that television requires an unsavoury element to be compelling. But instead, it goes on to suggest that a world without compelling television might actually be better. Speaking as a person who has reviewed five-and-a-half hours of television so far this week (and more to come), I wonder if maybe that’s true. Certainly, the very best part of this episode is the sequence in which Springfield’s bleary-eyed children step away from their screens and reintegrate with the real, tangible world in front of them. This isn’t even played for laughs. It’s just a beautiful mini-ballet, scored with Beethoven’s sixth. That segment is the lynchpin of the episode for me. The episode’s critique of censorship, its discussion of what constitutes art and what you should be able to show on television is all beautifully undermined by the idea that maybe we put too much emphasis on those questions anyway, and we should probably just go outside — children and compulsive bloggers alike. I might even take my own advice. But first I’ve got Twin Peaks to review.

Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces — Alright, one more thing before I move on to the new series. I only just learned of the existence of this meticulously constructed collection of outtakes from Fire Walk With Me. And while “outtakes from Fire Walk With Me” might not sound like a promising premise, I actually enjoyed watching this disjointed set of barely related scenes more than I enjoyed Fire Walk With Me. It actually feels a lot more like Twin Peaks than Fire Walk With Me does. That’s partially because it actually features the bulk of the returning cast, whose scenes were largely cut from the movie. But it’s also because it shares television’s tendency to juggle plotlines and throw unrelated scenes one after the other. Fire Walk With Me is very much a movie, focussing first on the Theresa Banks investigation, and then the final days of Laura Palmer. The movie is so focussed on these two stories that the stuff that doesn’t pertain to either of them but still made the final cut (e.g. the infamously confusing scene with David Bowie as Phillip Jeffries) really feel like they shouldn’t be there. But The Missing Pieces fleshes out the narratives that were only tantalizingly suggested in the original movie, particularly where Bowie’s character is concerned, and also with respect to Agent Cooper’s status in the Black Lodge. The “sequel” element of Fire Walk With Me was always subjugated to the “prequel” element. The Missing Pieces shifts the needle ever so slightly in the other direction, setting up what I assume will be the starting point of the new series, albeit with the passage of 25 years. And while the continuity-heavy stuff is the real highlight, it’s also well worth watching The Missing Pieces for the smaller moments. The stuff involving Truman, Andy, Hawk and Lucy never really gets off the ground, but that’s really the only stuff that isn’t great. There’s some lovely stuff with Norma and Ed. There are a few extra scenes for Kiefer Sutherland’s overeager toehead, who I really enjoy. (He even gets to meet Coop, who is unimpressed as all get out.) There’s an extended scene with Frank Silva and Michael J. Anderson as BOB and the Man From Another Place, just being creepy and laughing backwards. And best of all, there’s some incredible moments with the Palmers. Sarah’s constant smoking causes her a hilariously choreographed problem in one of the best mother/daughter scenes in the movie. And best of all, there’s a scene where Leland tries to teach his wife and daughter to introduce themselves in Norwegian, ending in the whole family laughing hysterically, in a way that’s both genuine and creepy in a way that only David Lynch can conjure out of actors. I love Grace Zabriskie so much in this scene. The say she makes Sarah sort of half try to say her name with a Norwegian accent just kills me. Basically, this seems like it should be the definition of superfluous. But it’s super not. For all its inevitable disjointedness, this is top-flight Twin Peaks, on par with the good parts of the TV series and superior to the movie from which these scenes are outtakes.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Parts 1 & 2 — Wow, Bob, wow. I know that I absolutely loved this, but I have no idea what to make of it. The fact that it spends most of its duration on new characters in places that aren’t Twin Peaks is both gutsy and a bit of a callback to the less successful elements of Fire Walk With Me. And the fact that Kyle McLaughlin is primarily being tapped to play Coop’s evil doppelganger and the taciturn version of good Cooper who appears in the Red Room is, at this point, making me long for the return of the cheery version of that character we know and love. But I’m burying the lead, which is that Twin Peaks in 2017 WORKS. David Lynch can still direct, and it is possible to convey the alienating strangeness of the original series’ best moments in the context of modern prestige television. The surreal elements are what’s working best for me as of yet, with the sequence in the Red Room with the electric arm tree (if ever there were a way to compensate for the absence of Michael J. Anderson, it is this) and its doppelganger emerging as an early highlight. But I’m going to reserve judgement about this, because it’s holding its cards so close to its chest that I basically have nothing to say about it yet. Except that it’s good and that I’m entirely willing to contemplate the notion that it will be straightforwardly the best iteration of Twin Peaks we’ve seen so far. If you’re farther along than me, don’t tell me otherwise. Please.

Doctor Who: “The Eaters of Light” — A modest highlight of a middling season. It is kind of remarkable that this is the first time in the new series’ history that a classic writer has been invited back. But Rona Munro is a good choice, given that her first Doctor Who story turned out to be the very last Doctor Who story until the TV movie. And what a story it was! “Survival” is an idiosyncratic favourite of mine, from a period in the show’s history that I wish more new fans would check out. It’s a high bar to clear, even given the extent to which the general standard of Doctor Who has risen in the new series. And I’m inclined to think that it does not clear that bar. But that’s not what anybody should be concentrating on. We should think about what it is, not what it isn’t. And what it is is a story about a light-eating alien monster that inserts itself into the story of the massacre of the Ninth Legion. That is a thing that only Doctor Who can do, and it is the sort of thing that makes me remember that Doctor Who is always a good idea and always has been, even during the bits of its history where it isn’t quite so inspiring. Still, big ‘splody Moffat story coming up! My hopes are undimmed.

Podcasts

Code Switch binge — One of my periodic catch-up sessions. I listened to the one about Master of None (which is sounding distressingly like a show I need to make time for), one about the Japanese Americans who effectively exiled themselves to Utah to avoid the internment camps during WWII, a fascinating episode on what the hosts call racial imposter syndrome, and best of all, an episode about the way that white DJs have co-opted black identities for various bullshit reasons. This last episode is actually maybe the best episode of Code Switch. Maybe I’m just saying that because I’m a music geek and I’m really interested in how something as abstract as sound can come to mean very specific things. But this is probably one of the best pieces of music journalism I’ve encountered in the last year or more. And I consume a metric boatload of the stuff. That episode is called “Give it Up For DJ Blackface!” Extremely worth your time.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Real Twin Peaks” & “Do the Voice” — Eric Molinsky’s Twin Peaks episode is interesting enough, but it’s not subject matter that he’s able to wring the best material out of, like Harry Potter or H.P. Lovecraft were. On the other hand, his audio drama collaboration with The Truth, “Do the Voice,” is pretty marvellous. I’ve always been dubious about The Truth. I admire its tendency towards experimentation, and I love that its short-form stories allow it to be a bit of a storytelling laboratory. But I just never like the writing. Surprisingly, Molinsky has turned out one of the best scripts I’ve heard on The Truth, in spite of not being primarily a fiction writer, to my knowledge. It helps that the premise of the episode is based on a cartoon show, which allows for a certain amount of contrivance in the dialogue. Worth a listen.

Crimetown: Post-season bonus episodes — The episode about the soundtrack is worth it specifically to hear Rosaleen Eastman’s awesome cover of “Rhode Island is Famous for You” in full. The live episode is fun, but in general I’m still suspicious of this show’s attitude towards the charm of gangsters and the charisma of the life. We do get one moment in there where a former gangster explains how his family background led him down the pipeline to a life of crime. But there’s a disconcerting sense here, and throughout Crimetown, that regardless of those circumstances, these ex-mobsters’ recollections of their tenures in organized crime are filled with wistfulness and nostalgia as much as regret for the lives they ruined — or ended. I’m not okay with that. But it is finally addressed in the bonus episode about Ralph DiMasi, an armoured car robber in the Patriarca crime organization who the producers allow to reminisce fondly about his crimes in front of the microphone, only to undercut him with an interview of one of his victim’s wives. If Crimetown season one had been that circumspect all the time, I’d be more likely to tune in for season two. As it stands… jury’s out.

The Heart: “No,” episodes 2-4 — This is some pretty brave radio, right here. The Heart is always intimate, and it always pushes against the boundaries of social taboos, but in this series, Kaitlin Prest has exposed her own most uncomfortable, sometimes traumatic moments in the interest of talking about consent. And it isn’t just a piece about the consent breaches that we call rape, or sexual assault. (Though, there’s a really thoughtful discussion in the fourth episode about why somebody might or might not choose to use those labels.) It’s also about the ones that fall into what Prest calls “grey areas.” The third episode is radio that, speaking as a cisgendered straight dude, every man should hear. That’s the one where Prest interviews people, mostly men, who’ve perpetrated consent breaches of one type or another with varying levels of remorse and subsequent understanding. One of these interviews, without going into detail here, is a masterclass in negation and defensive bullshit. It’s good to have a model for how not to be. Listen to the whole series. Pick of the week.

Radiolab: “The Radio Lab” — Aww, this is fun. For Radiolab’s 15th birthday, they go right back to the early days of the show. And then they fast-forward to the days that were early but also good. I actually have heard the episode that they play at the end of this — the one they say people probably haven’t heard. I think this may actually be my third time through it, in fact. I tend to be a little hard on Radiolab in these reviews, because I do think it’s a little past its prime. But the reason I hold it to such a high standard is that it was the first radio I ever really listened to, and it blew my mind. I don’t mean the first podcast I ever listened to, by the way. I mean, before I went to grad school for journalism and somebody told me about Radiolab, I’d pretty much never listened to radio in any form. I think it may also have been before I discovered podcatcher apps, so I was listening to the show on my laptop, with huge headphones and a long cord plugged into it on the kitchen table while I did my dishes. (Still how I do a fair amount of my podcast listening.) And while the episode about time may have fallen off of iTunes a while ago, I’m certain that it was on their website when I initially binged the bulk of the back catalogue. And to be perfectly honest, listening back to it now, I like this version of Radiolab better than the one that exists today. I like the sense of untethered curiosity about difficult questions, and I like the bonkers sound design. That old version of Radiolab still feels like mad science. There is even today nothing that sounds like it. On the other hand, it’s hilarious to hear the version of the show that existed before Robert Krulwich joined up. Jad Abumrad sounds ponderous, insufferable, and unbelievably stoned. This is well worth a listen, if only to demonstrate why this show was once the very best in nonfiction audio storytelling.

Memory Palace binge — I could listen to this show forever. This catch-up session found me listening to an episode about the U.S. Camel Corps (which existed), one of Nate DiMeo’s Met residency episodes about a room in the museum that he doesn’t like (which contains the memorable line “If you have to be a floor, be a dance floor”) and a year-later rebroadcast of “A White Horse,” DiMeo’s beautiful tribute to the oldest gay bar in America for the week after the Pulse nightclub shootings. But the highlight of this clump of episodes was “Cipher, or Greenhow Girls,” a story about the Confederate spy Rose O’Neale Greenhow and her daughter. This is one of those episodes where DiMeo isolates and fleshes out a historical character about whom little is known (the daughter, not the mother). It’s quite beautiful, and the last line is breathtaking.

Fresh Air: “David Sedaris,” “Giancarlo Esposito Of ‘Better Call Saul’” and “Former Vice President Joe Biden” — Three great interviews by the radio host that Marc Maron called ”the industry standard.” Esposito is the highlight of the three, if only because interviews with David Sedaris are easy to come by. Hearing about Esposito’s family (his mother sang with Leontyne Price!!!) is really fascinating, and hearing him talk about inventing the character of Gus is maybe even more fascinating. Honestly, it’s just fun to hear him talk out of character. It isn’t just the hint of a Chilean accent that distinguishes Gus’s speech from Esposito’s own — it’s the care and intensity with which every word is spoken. Esposito is not a cold person. Not remotely. This David Sedaris interview sticks out from the pack because of the book he’s promoting, which is a collection of his diaries. So, there’s more of his life even than usual on the table. As for Biden, he’s charming and soulful, but still very much a politician.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Judicial Legitimacy” & “The Appointments Clause and Removal Power” — Okay, so this promises to make the Trump administration a bit less head-spinning, if not any less horrifying. The premise of learning about the constitution through the lens of a president who is challenging it in heretofore unseen ways is a good one for a podcast. I confess some of the details of these first two episodes slipped past me because I was on a particularly tiring run at the time. But I’m legitimately excited about this.

Reply All: “Fog of Covfefe” & “Black Hole, New Jersey” — I think it’s possible that Reply All brings more joy into my life than any other podcast. I just really enjoy listening to Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogt talking to each other. Wonder what Sruthi Pinemeneni’s up to? Been awhile since we’ve heard from her, so probably something complicated. In any case, the two hosts can easily fill the time with segments, if need be. “Fog of Covfefe” is a deep dive into the Twitter overdrive that was covfefe night, dressed up as a Yes Yes No. Two notes. One: it’s nice to see that Google Docs, in which I’m currently typing this, still does not recognize covfefe as a word. Yes, language is fluid and subject to serendipity, but there must be standards. Thank you, Google Docs. And two: I’m happy that Yes Yes No still exists after Alex Blumberg’s audible discomfort with being perceived as a Luddite in the phishing episode. “Black Hole, New Jersey” is a somewhat anticlimactic Super Tech Support episode. I still had fun.

All Songs Considered: “Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly And Bryce Dessner On Creating ‘Planetarium’” — Nico Muhly is a really clever guy. He has as much of a handle on what this project is actually about as Sufjan Stevens does, even though Stevens is the guy who had to make it explicit through lyrics. The snippets of the album that are featured here are more promising than what I’d heard previously. Now I’m actually kind of excited to hear it.

Desert Island Discs: “Rick Wakeman” — Rick Wakeman was my first childhood idol. I know, I know, it’s a weird idol to have. But something about the image of a guy with waist-length hair in a sequined cape playing an implausible number of electronic keyboards just made me think “that’s what I want to be.” I even dressed up as him for Halloween. My obsession has abated over the years. With the occasional exception of The Six Wives of Henry VIII, I can’t tolerate any of his solo albums. And his post-Going For The One contributions to Yes have tended to be lukewarm as well, I’d wager. (It’s mostly been live shows, though his digital keyboard sounds do appear on the Keystudio record, and are the worst thing about it.) But I continue to admire Wakeman for his wit and warmth, and there’s plenty of that here. His choices of records are made mostly for autobiographical significance, one suspects, though Verdi’s anvil chorus does seem like something he’d hold up as a musical ideal.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Warriors vs Warriors” — A very short but very lovely story about the Golden State Warriors’ tradition of playing periodic basketball games against the San Quentin Warriors, a team made up of San Quentin inmates. Particularly amusing is a short interview with an inmate who cheers on the Golden State Warriors just for variety.

The Moth: “The Moth’s 20th Anniversary Special” What’s with podcasts and birthdays this week? Anyway, it’s been awhile since I listened to The Moth, but whenever I return to it I’m pleasantly surprised by how entertaining its low-rent premise is. The three stories told here in front of live audiences are all wonderful. I’m particularly fond of the second, told by Jessi Klein, which is about how a breakup became much much more difficult than it would otherwise have been because of Google. It’s funny, she’s funny, and the rest of the episode is fun too.

99% Invisible: “In the Same Ballpark” — Another sports story! But actually it’s an architecture story, so I enjoyed myself just fine.

Omnireviewer (week of April 30, 2017)

Hey, remember last week when my post only had seven reviews in it and was super short? Prepare yourself. This one’s 6000 words. Also, I decided to allocate my two picks of the week to non-podcasts, because podcasts aren’t making up such a staggering preponderance of these reviews, these days. Never fear, this will likely be a temporary state of affairs. Incidentally, this was another week when I would gladly have given out more than two picks of the week, but I failed to exercise restraint last week and I’m not making it a trend. No sir.

29 reviews.

Games

Sunless Sea — It is with intense satisfaction that I would like to report that after 130 hours of playing this over the course of two years (and seven dead captains, to boot) I have completed the main story of Sunless Sea! By “main story,” I mean the ambition called “Your Father’s Bones,” which you can choose at the start of a game. (This ambition has a narrative hook: you’re looking for the final resting place of your departed father. Whereas the other starting ambitions are essentially opportunities to explore freely while amassing fictional money or items that will eventually allow you to end your game with a win if you choose. So, the Father’s Bones option seems like a “main story” to me.) I confess that playing through this ambition was very much a “journey not the destination” sort of experience. The ending of the story is entirely fine, and beautifully written. But the true appeal of this storyline is in the subplots you have to follow while collecting a series of rare items. True, a fair chunk of the quest falls under the category of that hoary old video game trope “find X things.” But seldom does a quest to find things result in such rich storytelling. I got to know my ship’s gunnery officer a bit, and realized he’d built munitions for some truly shady people. I aided in my chef’s training and watched as he prepared a meal for a retinue of the living drowned. I hunted a ship crewed entirely by spiders. And it was all expressed through, bar none, the best written prose in the industry. I say this every time I write about this game, but Sunless Sea and its sister title Fallen London are the only games I’ve played with a distinctive and sure-handed approach to language that rivals literature. The humour, terror, characterization and poignancy of the various stories contained within this game all arise from the writers’ ingenious and idiosyncratic use of English. It’s a thing to behold. I will likely put aside Sunless Sea for a while now (and perhaps take up Fallen London in a more serious way), but I’m sure I’ll return to it at some point. I still feel as though I’ve only made a cursory survey of many of its moving parts. I don’t understand the full significance of the island of mute exiles in the north. I don’t understand why the locals at Mutton Island, just off the coast of London, suddenly started acting so weird. And I definitely don’t understand where the terrifying artificial sun in the corner of the map came from. Plus, I haven’t really dove into (excuse the pun) the excellent Zubmariner expansion, which has a starting ambition of its own. I think I’ll make it my goal to finish at least one more ambition in Sunless Sea before the sequel, Sunless Skies comes out. I never tire of this game, and I increasingly love the parts of it that annoyed me at first — namely the long, slow trips from port to port — best of all. While these moments can become extremely stressful under certain circumstances, they are usually fairly placid. This lends a contemplative element to a game that otherwise serves up plot pretty swiftly. Like baseball, I suppose. For a game that is so concerned with (and so effective at simulating the experience of) abject terror, it can feel curiously therapeutic to play. Sunless Sea is for me the most magnificent escape into an alternate universe that gaming has ever offered. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Pick of the week.

Television

Bill Nye Saves the World: Season 1, episodes 1-3 — It was Bill Nye who first made me want to be a scientist. It is crucial to note at this juncture that I am not a scientist, and in fact have a tenuous understanding at best of many very basic scientific concepts. However, when I was about eight or nine, when Bill Nye the Science Guy was nearing the end of its run, I wanted nothing more than to be a madly gesticulating, eccentric, bowtied fellow in a lab full of Tesla coils and beakers of colourful fluid. It was only partially the whimsical aesthetic of the show that pulled me in: it was just as much the spirit of joyful curiosity about the way the world works. The Nye Labs point-and-click adventure Stop the Rock! likely had an even more formative influence. That game let you actually explore Nye Labs. The wonder! The part of me that got sucked into early Radiolab is a part that was probably put there by Bill Nye. So I feel a tremendous amount of goodwill towards this guy. And basically, I think his new show is good. Certainly it’s noble. But by focussing specifically on the controversial global issues that require us all to have a better understanding of science that we do, he gives up something really crucial about the science communication work he’s done in the past: he loses sight of the sheer mad joy of understanding as an end in itself. Yes, it’s true that science is crucial to helping us navigate the biggest challenges we face. But that’s only one side of it, as far as I’m concerned. The other is that it’s just better by definition to know more about the world than you do. And that experience of joy in knowledge is essential to winning people over onto the side of science. I’d like to see Nye do a show that is similarly aimed at adults, but which balances topics of substantial-to-massive contemporary importance (alternative medicine, climate change) with scientific topics that are complex but maybe not quite so tied into the nightly news. When I was a kid, Bill Nye taught me about things I’d never heard of before, from underwater life to plate tectonics. I kind of still want him to do that. And also talk about climate change! We should never shut up about climate change. But… also fun new science facts. And the celebrity guest appearances can go. The not-famously-charismatic Steve Aoki’s guest spot is so arbitrary I kind of enjoyed it in spite of myself. But why Zach Braff is in the first episode, I’ll never understand.

American Gods: “The Bone Orchard” — Hugely, enormously promising. Like, “maybe this will be better than the book” promising. There are so many blazingly good sequences in this first episode that it almost seems ostentatious. The casting is flawless, with Ian McShane being a particularly obvious but magnificent choice for Mr. Wednesday and Ricky Whittle offering a harder, colder Shadow than the one in the book. A good choice, since it gives him a direction to move in. The look of the show is much more similar to Hannibal than I’d expected. Clearly Bryan Fuller is in the habit of bringing his own aesthetic to stories originated by others. Shadow’s dreamworld is rich and hallucinatory. I’m particularly fond of the way the ceiling of his cell breaks open to reveal Laura. And the entire ending sequence with the Technical Boy is brilliantly creepy in a way that only tech-based horror can be. The way that the Technical Boy forms out of weird claymation is the sort of bizarre, entrancing choice that is making me feel like this might actually kick the book up a notch. It’s really trying to be its own thing. But there are standout segments straight from the book as well. Shadow’s first conversation with Wednesday on the plane is a delight, and gives McShane the opportunity to be as gruff as we Deadwood fans are used to seeing him, but with an unfamiliar note of whimsy. Likewise, the bar fight with Mad Sweeney plays out almost exactly as in the book, and the gradual escalation from coin tricks to full-on brawling is as satisfying in this medium as that one. But the appeal of this so far is definitely not the basic joy of seeing a familiar work of fiction play out onscreen. It’s the much more complicated thing of seeing a familiar work of fiction get filtered through another auteur’s sensibility. I didn’t expect so much stylized gore, nor so many scenes with the dialogue almost entirely re-written. These are indications that Bryan Fuller (and, I suppose Michael Green, who is ostensibly an equal partner in this) will be making this his own. This is going to be so great.

Doctor Who: “Knock Knock” — Again, the best thing about this episode is the riffing on Doctor Who as a cultural force. “Oh, you’re the Doctor?” “Yes.” “Cool!” So, that’s a theme that’s continuing. But man, this was pretty blah. I enjoyed it in the sense that it was good performers filmed well while saying witty lines. But as horror stories rooted in the confused dynamic between a parent and child go, it’s sure not “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.” I like seeing Bill just go about her life outside the TARDIS, but we don’t get much of that before the generic haunted house story starts up. Competent. Not great. The weakest of the season so far, by a substantial distance.

Better Call Saul: “Sabrosito” — I should have mentioned last week how satisfying it is to see Patrick Fabian’s Howard Hamlin gradually transition into a really wonderful comic performance. His fence-climbing antics last time around were a highlight, but this week all he has to do to get a laugh is say “well that is a shame” in the most transparently ingratiating tone of voice possible. I really like this character. Fring’s plotline in this is notable mostly for his final speech to his employees at Los Pollos, which is a terrible speech. Intentionally so, obviously. It really drives home the point that Fring is intensely cynical: he knows he can anticipate a certain amount of critical thinking on the part of the people he associates with in the drug business. And certainly on the part of the cops. But employees at a fast food restaurant? Nah, they’ll buy anything. I’m not sure we’ve seen this from him before. It’s the only time he’s been less than completely convincing in his cover, but he knows he only has to be convincing enough. And he is. Jimmy’s plotline only surfaces halfway through the episode, once we’re through with Fring and Hector Salamanca. (Mark Margolis is continuing to add depth to this character, which both makes him fun to watch in this show, and deepens the tragedy of his barnstorming mute, wheelchair-bound performance in Breaking Bad.) I do wish that this story would move a little faster. I’m enjoying the Mike/Gus side of this season, but I feel as though the emphasis on that is slowing down progress on the story that has always fascinated me the most, which is anything involving Jimmy and Kim. Still, this is great.

Comedy

Maria Bamford: Old Baby — This is the best comedy special I’ve seen since about three Louis C.K. specials ago. I will repeat none of the bits, because the trailer for this proves that they are not funny out of context. I will say that Bamford has the perfect mix of three characteristics I like in a comic: jokes that frame the familiar in a new way, a delivery that complicates and deepens the writing itself, and uncommon life experiences to draw on. Regarding the second-last one of those, Bamford’s characters are hilarious, particularly when they’re her parents. And regarding the last, Bamford’s experience with mental illness is (silver linings) a fruitful source of material for her. I’m underselling this by making it tediously abstract. But I’m not about to explain comedy, here. This is on Netflix. Go watch it now. Pick of the week.

Movies

The Road Forward — The opening film of this year’s DOXA festival, this is a musical semi-documentary by Marie Clements, one of our local visionaries. It uses a gigantic storytelling toolbox including songwriting, music video, interviewing, visual symbolism and archival footage to tell a vast, nuanced story. The story is about the untold history of First Nations activism on the West coast of Canada. And it would be a hell of a story, even told straightforwardly. There are stories here, like the origins of the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood and the Indian Constitution Express movement, that are the sorts of incredible tales that inevitably prompt white people such as myself to say things like “how was I never taught this?” (Which is a sentiment that the film pokes fun at once or twice.) It’s moving, important and enormously ambitious. Its flaws are flaws it shares with virtually all movie musicals and some music videos: a certain ostentatious theatricality keeps it slightly at arm’s length (this started life as a theatre piece). But it’s still something I think every Canadian should see, not out of a sense of duty, but because it features contributions from a huge number of really great artists, with Clements at the top of the pile.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in his Labyrinth” — I’ve decided not to read this Borges collection in order, but rather to skim through and read the ones whose titles or first sentences jump out at me. The first sentence of this story is as follows: “‘This,’ said Dunraven with a vast gesture that did not blench at the cloudy stars, and that took in the black moors, the sea, and a majestic, tumbledown edifice that looked much like a stable fallen upon hard times, ‘is my ancestral land.’” I’m in. This is a fairly restrained application of Borges’s genius, but it’s definitely Borges. (One thing I recall from my long-ago reading of “The Garden of Forking Paths” is that it’s about a labyrinth. Sounds like this will be a theme.) Again I’m curiously reminded of Neil Gaiman. A cursory Google (and the slightest bit of common sense) reveals that Gaiman is a fan of Borges. And this story about stories feels like the sort of thing that wouldn’t be out of place in Sandman. Basically, one man tells a friend a story about a man who hid away in a labyrinth. And another man ponders the story, finds it insufficient and tells another version that’s more convincing based on the same facts. Simple, direct, ingenious. And also fable-like. Borges’s recurring motifs of labyrinths and libraries appeal to me on an aesthetic level as well as a thematic one. This is going well.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Borges and I” — An extremely short, vaguely troubling autobiographical sketch that finds Borges negotiating the difference between his public and private personas. This is part of The Maker (AKA Dreamtigers), and I think I’ll probably hold off on reading any more of that until I get a copy of the complete text. (My complete fictions collection dogmatically refuses to include the poems in The Maker, which are apparently crucial to its flow.) But this is a lovely little observation. If it’s any indication of what The Maker is like in general, it seems like the sort of thing I’ll enjoy more once I’ve got a better sense of what made Borges into the public figure he describes here. Perhaps I’ll focus on the earlier stories.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Garden of Forking Paths” — You know, it’s possible that I hadn’t actually read this like I’ve been saying I have this whole time. Having read it now, it’s clear to me that the reason I was familiar with it is primarily because of the extraordinary way that Borges poses a thought experiment that prefigures hypertext literature decades before its actual invention. This is definitely something I’d read about this story. But the story itself seems unfamiliar to me. Maybe I just read it in a different translation? I dunno. I can’t imagine it would have made such a weak impression. This is deservedly a classic. Not as mindbending as “The Library of Babel,” but it’s also spinning more plates. It’s got a narrator with a motivation, a framing device, and an espionage plot all surrounding the main event, which is clearly the conversation about the labyrinthine novel that is effectively hypertext. One of the things I love most about the Borges stories I’ve read so far is they’re very short, and thus make rereading a completely non-daunting proposition. Future rereads of this will likely find me trying to decide why Borges decided to place this idea in this particular story. What difference does it make that the narrator learned the secret of his ancestor’s novel during the course of an act of espionage? How does the detective story connect with the metafiction? I’m sure somebody could explain this to me, but I’m just as happy to figure it out at my own damn pace.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Circular Ruins” — This is the one Neil Gaiman cited as a favourite. It’s a good one, with a fantastic premise and a twist ending that renders this much better upon re-reading, or at least re-considering. The premise is that there’s a place with gods who will allow you to imagine a person into existence. The detail with which Borges describes this process makes this a good read on the first time through. But really it’s about the ending.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” — This is second only to “The Library of Babel” in my survey of Borges thus far. This is ingenious for so many reasons: 1) Its form, which is a sort of academic memorandum complete with all of the resentfulness and spite for one’s rivals that those can often contain. 2) Its premise, which is that a 20th-century author made it his life’s goal to write Don Quixote (i.e. writing the exact same novel as Cervantes, word for word, but arriving at it independently and centuries after Cervantes already wrote it). This is wonderfully absurd and highlights a side of Borges that I don’t hear talked about that much, namely that he’s really funny. 3) The way that Borges chases this premise down several compelling rabbit holes. (This is a similar approach to the one he takes in “The Library of Babel,” which is perhaps why I like it so much.) Borges’s narrator analyses the content of Menard’s Quixote alongside the content of Cervantes’ original (which, remember, is exactly the same) and finds them to be entirely different works by virtue of their authors’ differing contexts and intents. Borges manages to be both instructive on how context is crucial to criticism (and the nature of criticism is explicitly discussed in the text) and he also satirizes this very same approach by way of reductio ad absurdum. This is outstanding. So far, reading Borges has felt like coming home.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Deutsches Requiem” — A slightly less effective Borges story, though that might be an unfair judgement on my part, because it just doesn’t have the specific things I’ve loved about the few Borges stories I’ve read so far. It’s not a premise-driven story, it’s a character-driven story. And the character is, apparently, the ultimate Nazi. I’m not going to lie, I picked this one out because I love the Brahms piece it’s named after. Not a highlight of my Borges reading thus far. But here’s a miscellaneous note I haven’t been able to work into any of my previous Borges reviews: I’m really reminded of China Miéville in a few of these stories. Neil Gaiman has been the modern reference point I’ve gone back to again and again when discussing Borges, but Miéville shares Borges’s gift for the mindblowing premise. Some of the stories from Three Moments of an Explosion could practically be Borges stories. I’m thinking particularly of “A Second Slice Manifesto,” in which Miéville describes an art movement that exposes new sides to classic works of representational painting by imagining a “slice” down a certain point in the image, revealing cross-sections of people and buildings that were whole in the original picture. That’s damn close to Borges in “Pierre Menard” mode.

Farhad Manjoo: “Can Facebook Fix Its Own Worst Bug?” — This piece about how Facebook is handling its post-election flail is not encouraging. A couple of choice excerpts: “For the typical user, Cox explained when I met him on a morning in October at MPK20, News Feed is computing the relative merits of about 2,000 potential posts in your network every time you open the app. In sorting these posts, Facebook does not optimize for any single metric: not clicks or reading time or likes. Instead, he said, ‘what you really want to get to is whether somebody, at the end of the day, would say, ‘Hey, my experience today was meaningful.’’” This is notable because I have never once felt this way on Facebook. The lack of meaningful interactions with people or content is the basis of my entire objection to the news feed. It promotes (and thus encourages the production of) the content equivalent of marshmallows: you consume them because they’re there and they have a sort of outward appeal. But you never actually enjoy yourself and eventually you start feeling shitty and resenting all the marshmallows you ate and the source where you got them. (This is Facebook’s shit to take responsibility for, but it’s also on every news organization and producer of web content to not fall into the trap and reject what value they have.) The piece then goes on to detail Facebook’s moderately successful efforts to combat clickbait — efforts that were predicated on a logic that I cannot imagine applying universally: “Facebook’s entire project, when it comes to news, rests on the assumption that people’s individual preferences ultimately coincide with the public good, and that if it doesn’t appear that way at first, you’re not delving deeply enough into the data.” Evidently, Facebook’s internal method for fixing problems is as pig-headedly metrics-focussed as it has forced the entire rest of the world to be. This piece is fascinating, and leaves me with more of a sense of Mark Zuckerberg’s good intentions than I had before, but absolutely zero faith in his (and his company’s) ability to fix the problems they’ve caused, let alone the ones they set out to remedy from the beginning.

Music

Neil Young: Neil Young — So I thought to myself, how deep should this deep dive go? Shall I make a detailed survey of the early material from Neil’s time in Buffalo Springfield — or rarer still, the Squires? Shall I finally listen to those other two CSNY albums? No, I decided. This will be a survey of Neil’s solo career, with that defined as any album that has his first and last name on it as a principal artist. Crazy Horse albums count, as does anything he released with ad-hoc bands like the Stray Gators and the Shocking Pinks. And Pearl Jam. I won’t obligate myself to listen to every live and archival release, though I’ll likely check out some, because the ones I’ve heard are among Neil’s best work, and albums like Rust Never Sleeps and Time Fades Away make the secondary designation normally afforded to live albums sort of inapplicable in Neil’s case. By my count, these guidelines will still find me listening to at least forty albums. So, we begin a fair ways from the beginning, actually, with the self-titled album. At this point, he’s already written and recorded classics like “I Am A Child” and “Mr. Soul.” He was five years past his earliest recordings. But this marks the start of Neil Young as “Neil Young” as opposed to “guy in band.” And it’s… well, it’s an anomaly, but it’s a compelling one. This is one of those albums like Jethro Tull’s This Was that feels like the start of an alternate history that forked a different way in our reality. (Maybe I’ve been reading too much Borges.) It’s the album that finds the now-anointed godfather of grunge sounding like a well-heeled young folkie with aspirations towards glossy marketability. The arrangements on this have a similar feel to the ones on Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter in the way that they never just leave the singer alone. This isn’t bad by definition. Far be it from me to criticize polish while being a huge prog fan. But Neil is an artist who feels more radical by far when he’s being noisy and sloppy and spontaneous. With this much fuss applied, he sounds a bit MOR. (To use his own nomenclature, I prefer Neil in the ditch.) “The Old Laughing Lady” suffers particularly from its arrangement, which almost works — until the midsection with the wordless backing vocals comes around. I could live with the little electric piano riff in 5/4 that breaks up the verses, but I don’t understand what that wordless midsection has to do with the rest of the song. It’s empty bloat, and it would be profitably excised on the Unplugged album years later. “The Loner” fares better, if only because it’s familiar enough that it seems unfathomable without its arrangement. The less familiar tracks range from hidden gems (“Here We Are in the Years”) to unmemorable instrumentals (“The Emperor of Wyoming”) to “The Last Trip to Tulsa,” which is the one truly unvarnished performance on the album but isn’t necessarily one of Neil’s best lyrics. Neil Young has its undeniable pleasures, but it’s best heard as a piece of Neil’s history. This polished side of him wouldn’t vanish outright after this: it would continue to marvellous effect in his work with CSNY and to blockbuster effect on Harvest. But immediately afterwards, the radically unvarnished side of Neil would come to the fore and mark the point where it’s clear that he’s a real creative force.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere — If Neil’s self-titled debut represented his introduction to us as something other than “guy in band,” Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is where Neil Young arrives as a legend. This is a hell of an album, and though I’d heard the majority of it before (because more than half of it is on the Decade compilation), this was my first time through the whole thing. Crazy Horse is the kind of band I ought to hate, being who I am. But their committed sloppiness feels less like the result of laziness than like a progressive musical experiment. This is the point where noise becomes a major part of Neil Young’s sound. This is the album that starts the thread of Neil’s career that will climax on Rust Never Sleeps and go gloriously over the top on Weld. “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand,” both feature sprawling jams where Neil strains at the very edges of his extremely limited technique as a lead guitarist and they set the template for all great Crazy Horse jams to come. The shorter songs are all excellent, especially “Cinnamon Girl,” obviously. And the title track is maybe the most Canadian song ever recorded. This is also the album that makes it clear we can never know what to expect from Neil Young. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is as unlike the debut as it is possible to be. And within a year of this album, Neil would join CSNY and go back to making radically structured music, albeit of an entirely different persuasion from on his first solo record. This is already an exciting ride. But Neil’s next solo album is his first proper masterpiece.

The Mountain Goats: The Sunset Tree — We interrupt this Neil Young binge for yet more erudite early-2000s indie rock. (Because the full Decemberists catalogue wasn’t enough.) I’ve meant to properly get into the Mountain Goats since I heard “Heel Turn 2” on Welcome to Night Vale. (I understand they’re working on a podcast together now? I’m curious.) This was apparently something of a breakthrough for them, though they have more acclaimed albums that predate this than postdate it. Still, The Sunset Tree served its purpose. I’m hooked. “This Year,” which I’m told is a very famous song in certain circles, is exactly what I needed right now. “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me” is one of those lyrics that seems obvious in retrospect, except that nobody wrote it before. Other highlights include “Dance Music,” which belongs to a niche subgenre I’m particularly fond of, namely songs with really chipper music and really dark lyrics. I’m also a big fan of “Dilaudid,” with its string arrangement and escalating vocal performance from John Darnielle. I need a few more listens for this to sink in, but this is definitely a band I’m going to listen to now.

Shugo Tokumaru: Toss — I’ve gotta say, it doesn’t live up to the promise of “Lita Ruta,” which is still my favourite song of the year so far. (Provided we don’t count cantatas based on Supreme Court decisions as “songs.”) Unlike In Focus? which is the other full Tokumaru album I’ve heard, this is really uneven. It is also sparser and simpler on balance than In Focus? is, and I’m not sure simplicity suits Tokumaru. Naturally, the best parts of the album are almost dizzyingly complex, with “Lita Ruta” being the clear winner but the first track, “Lift,” is glorious as well, as is the magnificently-titled “Cheese Eye.” This album is apparently the first time Tokumaru has gone out of his way to work with a variety of other instrumentalists, which makes for an album which is at times extremely timbrally diverse, but I would have preferred if it stayed that way for its whole duration. If I’m going to listen to this guy, I want total sensory overload. Honestly, there’s still enough great stuff on it that I’m confident in calling it one of my favourite albums of the year so far, but I suspect that has more to do with how badly I’ve fallen off the music discovery wagon than anything.

Podcasts

Crimetown: Episodes 16 & 17 — Good episodes. The problem with this season has just been lack of focus. If they’d just found a way to really hone in on two narrative threads: Buddy Cianci and the Patriarca crime family, this would have been great. And I suppose everything does tie back to that to a certain extent, but this feels like it’s really gone everywhere. But this focusses on Cianci, which makes it feel of a piece with the season’s arc as I’d originally perceived it. Still, I have other problems. In their promo for the big party they’re holding to celebrate the end of the season, the hosts of this say something to the effect of “by the end you won’t be sure who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.” Except yes I will. The ones who committed or were implicated in murders for business reasons are the bad guys. That’s pretty clear to me. I wish it were clearer to the people who make this show. (To be fair, cops and government officials are often also the bad guys. But my point is that Crimetown sometimes can’t resist saying “look how great these criminals are!” And I wish they wouldn’t.)

All Songs Considered: “Todd Rundgren On Technology, Creativity And His New Song With Trent Reznor” — Rundgren’s a good interview. You can tell somebody’s a good interview when they’re even interesting on All Songs Considered. Can’t say the song does anything for me. But I’ve always meant to check out Rundgren’s catalogue, especially A Wizard, A True Star. So maybe it’s time.

StartUp: Season 5, episodes 1-3 — I wish they’d stick to serialized seasons. The Dov Charney season was one of the undersung wonders of last year’s podcasts, and probably journalism in general. The first episode of this is a story of one businessman’s foray through “the surprisingly cutthroat world of toys.” I’m honestly kind of sick of journalism that starts from the premise of “look how interesting this seemingly mundane thing is!” So that didn’t work for me. But the two-parter on Friendster is really solid. What a catastrophe. It concludes with a comparison of the way Friendster was managed with the way Facebook was managed, and that really drives home the point that Friendster was the biggest idea of the early millennium, deployed by the wrong people.

You Must Remember This: “Barbara Loden (Dead Blondes Part 12)” — I’m starting to feel similarly about this as I am to Crimetown, though to a much lesser degree. The beginning of this season promised a point would be made about “blondeness” in Hollywood, and it hasn’t really come to that. This is still a good story about a compelling historical person, and how she was misrepresented by her powerful husband, Elia Kazan. But I’m hoping that Karina Longworth finds a way to tie everything together in the last episode of this series the way she almost did in the Barbara Payton episode several weeks ago.

Judge John Hodgman: “Live From the London Podcast Festival” — Nice stuff, but the highlight by far is a moment where the hosts of No Such Thing As A Fish argue over whether the existence of a conspiracy theory counts as a fact. The conspiracy theory in question? That the Titanic was sunk by time travellers who all wanted to see the last moments of the Titanic and thus all arrived at the same time, causing it to sink. This is bonkers in itself, but I won’t spoil the best moment of this exchange. I’ll just say that somebody definitely doesn’t understand the concept of a bootstrap paradox.

All Songs Considered: “The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy & Olivia Chaney Talk About New Collaboration, Reimagining British Folk” — ALERT ALERT NEW DECEMBERISTS sort of. Offa Rex is a side project where the Decemberists cover old British folk tunes (the sort of ones that inspired the band’s trilogy of bona fide classics: Picaresque, The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love) with the brilliant Olivia Chaney on vocals. God, can she ever sing. And the arrangements are so ‘60s I can barely contain myself. I will be listening to this album in full as soon as I can, and I am overjoyed to see that Chaney will be joining the Decemberists at the August tour date I’m seeing here in Van. Also, I feel like I’ve been a right dickwad about Bob Boilen’s interviewing, lately. This is a really fun conversation and Bob really keeps it frothy, pointing out Meloy’s mispronunciations of things and everything. Nice stuff.

Reply All: “The Secret Life of Alex Goldman” — The payoff to the “P.J. hacks Alex’s phone” arc. This is actually really fantastic in spite of Alex Goldman having a really boring life, because 1) Goldman and Vogt have a compelling enough dynamic that they can talk about nothing and still be fun and 2) there turn out to be broader implications. Reply All can spin gold out of very thin material.

Imaginary Worlds: “Healing Through Horror” — I’d like to hear more episodes of this show that deal with horror, especially modern horror, but this isn’t really a highlight. This features two people who have both used horror as a means of escaping trauma, but their reasoning for why this is helpful to them is more obvious and less compelling than the episode that deals with this same thing with respect to Harry Potter. Seriously, that Harry Potter series was really great.

On The Media: “Rewriting the Right” — Nice to see OTM explaining the American right. Because god knows I would never understand it otherwise. I’m only half snarking. This trip through the horrible odyssey of right-wing think tanks and their campaigns to influence academia and policy is truly horrifying and I feel bad now.

Imaginary Worlds: “Designing BoJack’s World” — This features an interview with the cartoonist who was hand-picked (with no animation experience) by the creator of BoJack Horseman to design the show’s aesthetic. Given that this show’s host is a former animator himself, this is really interesting. BoJack is the adult cartoon that I feel gets the most out of its choice of idiom. All of the character drama would play out fine in a live-action dramedy, but the animation allows not only for great sight gags, but also for the sense that this is a bizarre and alienating world — a great mood to strike in a narrative about show business.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Summer Movie Preview 2017” — I, too, am looking forward to Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.

Omnireviewer (week of March 26, 2017)

I listened to 35 podcast episodes this week. For interested parties, you can generally be sure that I’m living well when my podcast intake is especially high. This week I did a lot of running, a lot of cooking and a lot of cleaning. Thus, a lot of podcasts. That said, this week also marked the first time in several years that I’ve felt compelled to just sit down and listen to a podcast while doing nothing else. That is because seven of the 35 podcast episodes I listened to this week are among the best podcast episodes ever made. If you travel in these circles, you already know what I mean. If not, read on.

This was going to be a full post of nothing but podcasts and one album. I decided to do yet another review of a game I occasionally dip into just so I’d have something worthy to offer my second pick of the week. But it’s been an auditory sort of week, broadly speaking.

30 reviews. (Because a bunch are lumped together.)

Music

William Basinski: A Shadow in Time — The second Basinski piece I’ve heard, after The Disintegration Loops. This is entirely different and on the whole, less conceptual than The Disintegration Loops. This doesn’t entirely work in its favour, since a big part of The Disintegration Loops’ appeal comes from its premise. The fact that you’re listening to audiotape fading away is part of what makes it so sad. The closest thing A Shadow in Time has to a conceptual hook like that is its first track’s dedication to David Bowie. But it’s hard to relate the dedication to the content of that track, which is basically a less effective version of the kind of music on The Disintegration Loops. And regardless, it is by far the lesser of the two tracks on this album. The title track is monumental, producing vast waves of electronic sound that build and collapse in on themselves in succession. It reminds me of nothing more than John Luther Adams’ vast orchestral masterpiece Become Ocean. High praise, from me.

Games

Sunless Sea — For those who are following my gaming exploits, I have decided that Half-Life is not for me. That doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t finish it, but I’m putting it aside for now. Somebody once told me that my problem is I want games to be books. I can’t really contradict that. And Half-Life is nothing like a book. It has many positive attributes that I can objectively recognize, but it ultimately comes down to how good you are at firing pretend guns at pretend monsters whose presence is the result of the one genuine story event in the early game, which happens essentially at the very beginning. This is neither the kind of thing I tend to appreciate, nor the type of thing I am remotely good at. So, even on easy mode, Half-Life has been mostly a mixture of boredom and frustration. That was a realization from about two weeks ago. This week, I cleansed my palate with Sunless Sea, which is as much like a book as any game I’ve ever played. A very fancy book. Every time I revisit this, I’m astonished at how much I haven’t discovered. I know there are whole branches of lore, and whole organizing principles of the gameworld that I’m not familiar with because I’ve spent relatively little time playing the sister title Fallen London. I will eventually rectify this, because the world that these games take place in is one of my very favourite imaginary worlds. As far as I can tell, it is unique in its mode of expression, which I might characterize as unyielding, glib understatement in the face of abject terror. I’m constantly curious about the larger forces at play in this game’s byzantine geopolitics and theology, and I’ll probably take up Fallen London again in an effort to find some of that out. But for now, I’m going to focus on actually finishing Sunless Sea’s main quest. Because at my glacial rate of progress, the sequel will be out by the time I manage that. (Seriously, Sunless Skies is going to be awesome.) Pick of the week.

Podcasts

Shittown (S-Town) — If you have not heard S-Town, do not read this. It’s best to go in knowing nothing. My purpose here is not to convince you to listen to it, it’s just to process it for myself and others who already have. But you should definitely listen to it right now. S-Town is among the very, very best work ever done in the podcast medium. (I will henceforth call it Shittown, because I see no need to demure.) Shittown is the story of a man who lived his life as a character in a story, and who actually found somebody to tell the story. It is other things aside from that, but it is that more than it is anything else. A weird tic of mine is that I usually find myself more fascinated with the telling of a story and the person doing the telling than I am with the people the story is about. Not so with the story of John B. McLemore. Like Hamlet (yeah, I’m pulling out the big guns), McLemore exerts such a magnetic pull over his own narrative that he overtakes the role normally occupied by the storyteller. And even though McLemore answers Hamlet’s existential question with a definitive “not to be,” thus removing himself as an agent in Brian Reed’s radio story two-sevenths of the way through, he continues to exert the same pull in death as he had in life. It’s as if he constructed his own life like an elaborate clock, inserted Reed as the final cog, wound it and, by drinking cyanide, finally set it off. He was the author of his own demise, but also the author of his own characteristically secular afterlife. If my clock metaphor seems laboured or obvious, I can’t wholly take the blame. Shittown itself is full of obvious, overtly literary metaphors, a fact that Reed lampshades in the first episode, noting that McLemore knows he couldn’t resist the symbolic valences of his potentially unsolvable hedge maze. Shittown is full of obvious metaphors because McLemore filled his life with obvious metaphors. Reed’s job is basically to transcribe the ongoing novel that this extraordinary, complicated person fashioned out of his own life. In Shittown, Reed plays Nick Carraway to John’s Jay Gatsby. John even cultivates a Gatsbian isolation from the members of his community, and is rumoured to be fairly well off. And by leaving his affairs in disarray upon his death, by spreading rumours of buried treasure, and by leaving countless relationships in states of tension and irresolution, he ensured that the story of his death’s aftermath would be as complicated and compelling as everything that had come before. In emphasizing McLemore as the author of his own story, I don’t mean to take anything away from Brian Reed’s accomplishment, which is substantial. It may be a new high bar for audio nonfiction. I can’t think of another show that’s so willing to completely divorce itself from traditional journalistic methods of story organization. (What even is the story of Shittown? Nothing happens throughout its entire duration that is unusual enough to warrant reporting in itself.) Love and Radio is the closest thing I can think of, but even that show is frequently confined to the studio. It couldn’t hope to introduce us to somebody like Uncle Jimmy, the sunny-dispositioned relation whose communication is hampered by a bullet that’s been lodged in his brain for 20 years. But even this emphasizes the extent to which Shittown succeeds on the basis of its astonishingly good tape and the people on the other end of Reed’s microphone. Woodstock, Alabama is a stranger-than-fiction town with implicit metaphors baked in. John B. McLemore was a stranger-than-fiction man who saw the metaphors and cast himself as the tragic outcast protagonist of the story that he was clearly living in. Brian Reed knew to hit record. Pick of the week.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Reza Aslan” — This is aggravating. I love Aslan, but Maron’s habit of just saying things without questioning whether they’re right makes a fool of him multiple times here, and not in an endearing way. It has its moments, as even the weakest of Maron’s episodes do. But fundamentally, a Marc Maron interview with Reza Aslan isn’t a good idea. I should have known better.

Judge John Hodgman: “In-lawful Gathering” — My newfound love for this show continues. The highlight of this episode is a introverted husband who is clearly being tortured by his family’s tradition of eating with 20 extended family members five nights a week. This poor fellow’s basic nature is at odds with his goal, here. On one hand, he’d love to simply enumerate the evidence that this is a terrible and very strange practice that’s killing him slowly. On the other, he definitely does not want to say anything bad about anybody. That would be unthinkable. This is worth it just to hear this guy attempt to walk that impossibly fine line.

The Heart: “Bathroom Bill” — A heartbreaking, mutedly hopeful story about the effect of Washington state’s proposed bathroom bill on one young trans girl and her mother. The bill didn’t pass, but it came stupidly close and shocked this story’s pseudonymous narrator out of her blue state complacency. It’s a story from the podcast How To Be A Girl, which has also been featured on Love and Radio. It’s staggering stuff, and definitely unlike anything else being made adjacent to public radio. Listen to this, it’s really beautiful.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Memes, Fads, Advice, and Neil Gaiman” — I want more Guy Branam on this show. I don’t like Pop Rocket all that much, but he’s very funny and brings out the best in the three main panelists, who I don’t think are always necessarily operating at full funny capacity. Also, do they have an intern doing their packaging right now? There’s a retake left in an ad, and there’s no extro with credits and theme music. Not that I care, but what an odd thing. I only bring it up because it really points out how familiar the rhythms of these shows become. When it changes, it’s kind of like listening to a familiar album and for some reason the tracklist is backwards.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Beauty and the Beast & SXSW” — I’m sad that Katie Presley’s only ever on this show around SXSW. She should have her own show. Between her appreciation of “the erotic potential of the Beast,” the angry experimental music of Moor Mother, and her fellow panelists’ bemusement about Moor Mother, she is a welcome monkey wrench in this episode.

Love and Radio: “La Retirada, Part Three” — This is easily the best instalment of this fascinating series about a family that found themselves embroiled in a drug cartel. This part deals with the particulars of being in the witness protection program. That’s a story I’m not sure I’d heard before. This would have been a great episode of Love and Radio, even if this was all there was to it.

The Memory Palace: “A Washington Monument” — One of the best episodes in a while. Nate DiMeo asks you to imagine an alternative to the Washington Monument that actually exists, and it is a truly outstanding alternative. Much better than the current one. Also, I love hearing DiMeo stumble and “um” his way through his promo copy. It makes this show feel more intimate than others.

Radiolab: “Shots Fired: Parts 1 & 2” — Best thing Radiolab’s done since “The Rhino Hunter.” This two-parter about police shootings in Florida contains some extremely disturbing tape of violence. But the most distressing moments all come in interviews with the surviving family members of the victims. Both episodes are essential, and they each demonstrate a different facet of the topic at hand. The first examines implicit bias as a motivator for police violence, and the second examines how good information can turn bad in a matter of minutes and lead to tragic results. Horrifying.

Crimetown: “The Network” — Thank god Buddy Cianci is back soon. This show has gone too far adrift. In the next season, they need to either aggressively tell one story, or just abandon their format altogether.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Sam Phillips, Sun Records, and the Acoustics of Life” — This is one of the podcasts on the Radiotopia network that I’ve unfairly neglected. The Kitchen Sisters Present (a more unwieldy but also more descriptive title than the original Fugitive Waves) feels on the one hand radical and singular and on the other like good-old fashioned public radio. The reason for this, as far as I can tell, is that it never allows itself to stay bolted to the studio. I really don’t mind podcasts that are largely studio based, with phoner interviews etc. But they’re definitely becoming the norm, even among podcasters with public radio backgrounds and approaches. The Kitchen Sisters’ work is a large monument to the dying art of going places while holding microphones. I owe it to myself and them to hear more of their catalogue. This episode about Sam Phillips resonates with their methods because Phillips was a guy who started off doing the very same thing: going out into the world with a tape recorder and capturing sound. The fact that he later became famous for his work in a studio is almost a moot point because the studio he opened operated on a philosophy of allowing the whole world to come inside. It’s a compelling and unusual look at a life’s work that’s normally thought about exclusively in terms of legacy: “the man who invented rock and roll,” etc. This isn’t that. It’s a lot more interesting than that.

Code Switch: “The 80-Year Mystery Around ‘Fred Douglas’ Park” — A tiny little thing about how an iconic abolitionist’s name has been misspelled in his namesake park for ages. I like these little podcast extras showing up in my feed. More shows should do six-minute or less mini episodes.

Homecoming: “Final Season One After Show: Season Two?” — Catherine Keener is charming and I am definitely looking forward to the return of this show.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Dave Chappelle and CHiPs” — Wow, these Chappelle specials sound like a disaster. But maybe I’ll go back and watch the old ones now. Stephen Thompson is a bit overzealous as a substitute host, I think. But I still like him.

99% Invisible: “The Falling of the Lenins” — I’m not sure what’s up with 99pi right now. I’ve enjoyed a number of their recent shows, but I miss the days when they had focussed design angles to every episode. This is a political story, and not only that, it’s one that doesn’t add much to what I learned about Ukraine’s history from the newspaper coverage after Putin annexed Crimea. I hesitate to suggest that 99pi should stay in its wheelhouse, because the sanctuary churches episodes were pretty good, I thought. But these sorts of stories just aren’t the sort of thing they can reliably do.

Code Switch: “A Bittersweet Persian New Year” — More than anything, this made me hungry. Also, Persian New Year is a thing I knew nothing about, so, two counts of time well spent.

On the Media: “It’s Just Business” — Come for the segment on coal miner photo-ops, stick around for the bit on ISPs selling your browsing data, and then maybe sit out the true crime thing. That’s less pressing.

Imaginary Worlds: “Beyond the Iron Curtain” — Russian science fiction sounds crazy. I will likely not read any of what’s mentioned here. But I love the story explaining socialist realism. That’s fun.

Reply All: “Favour Atender: The Return” — A repeat episode with a small extra segment. But it’s mostly worth it for the amazing extro by Breakmaster Cylinder, who I am at this point 90% sure is PJ Vogt.

All Songs Considered: “Sufjan Stevens, Gorillaz, Perfume Genius, More” — That Gorillaz song with Noel Gallagher is terrible. It’s one platitude after another. Dire. Don’t understand how anybody could like it. On the other hand, the tracks by Perfume Genius, the Family Crest and especially Hippo Campus are all fantastic. I’m on the fence about the Sufjan Stevens/Nico Muhly/Bryce Dessner/James McAlister collaboration. I’ll definitely listen to the album when it comes out, but I’m not sure I’ll like it. Much as I want to.

You Must Remember This: “Jayne Mansfield (Dead Blondes Part 9)” — What a weird liminal figure Jayne Mansfield was. This is basically the story of how an actress of the immediately post-Marilyn Monroe era found herself obsolete in the hippie era. Stories from this transitional period in time are always fascinating to me because it’s a reminder of how quickly the culture can do an about-face. That’s why I love Mad Men. It’s why I loved the Charles Manson season of You Must Remember This. And it’s why I’m looking forward to this horrible period in history that we’re living in being over so that we can at least begin to process it by way of similar narrative constructions.

Crimetown: “Bonus Episode: Cat and Mouse Part II” — I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with this show’s attitude towards murderers. It’s essentially the same as Martin Scorsese’s attitude in Goodfellas, which is basically that they’re terrible but also unspeakably glamorous. But Scorsese is dealing with actors who are only pretending to be murderers. This show features tape of interviews with actual murderers. It’s a genre-wide problem, mind you. But the glib, tough-guy approach to talking to mobsters sometimes strikes me as a bit tasteless.

The Gist: “Step Away From the Screen” — Leggings, Mike? You’re basking in the opportunity of a slow news day and you decide to talk about leggings? Even the interview isn’t especially compelling. Anyway.

99% Invisible: “Manzanar” — Well, there’s mention of a plaque, at least. The stories 99pi has been doing lately are important stories, but they’re important stories that should fall to news reporters to tell. Not 99% Invisible. The legacy of the Japanese internment camps is extremely important to remember in America’s current political climate. So, newspapers should definitely send reporters out there. But when this show is at its best, I find a different sort of value in it. It tells important stories that don’t necessarily have any resonance with the current news cycle at all. It tells important stories that are not matters of life and death, but just about how people can make life a little better by thinking a little harder. That’s a worthy task, and it gained this show a big following. I miss that.

Code Switch: “Sanctuary Churches: Who Controls the Story?” — A complex account of the balancing act that the new sanctuary movement faces: be public about your actions as an open protest of the government, or be quiet out of respect for the privacy of those who seek sanctuary?

The Memory Palace: “Roots and Branches and Wind-Borne Seeds” — This is proof that any story can be told well. Nate DiMeo foregrounds the fact that there is no drama in the story he has to tell, and by foregrounding it, he introduces a new thematic layer to the narrative. Nice.

Crimetown: “Renaissance Man” — This is what I’m talking about. If this season had laser focussed on Buddy Cianci and Raymond Patriarca, it could have been glorious. I cannot believe that Buddy Cianci was the mayor of a major city. I cannot believe he got reelected. There is much in the world to shake one’s faith in democracy. Add this to the list.

Criminal: “Rochester, 1991” — This is an absolutely horrifying story of a person who ended up, first, in an abusive relationship and second, on the wrong side of the law. What this woman has been through is unthinkable. It’s not easy to listen to, but it does have something of a happy ending, so that’s not nothing.