Tag Archives: Jethro Tull

The Final Omnibus

“As we all know, there is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition.” — Jorge Luis Borges

Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having no steady job, and nothing particular to interest me in empirical reality, I thought I would begin writing reviews of everything I watched, read and listened to. It is a decision I have lived by relentlessly ever since.

Now it’s time to stop.

To the dozen or so of you who constitute my core audience, thank you. And don’t fret — there will be plenty more nonsense for you to read here on matthewjrparsons.com in the future. But the exhaustive reviewing project that’s currently called Omnibus (still known to its friends primarily as Omnireviewer) is over, as of this post.

But as longtime readers will attest, if Omnibus is to vanish it is only appropriate that it should vanish up its own ass. And so, I present the last missive of the Omnireviewer. Strap in. In all my years of blogging I have never been as self-indulgent as this.

One review.

Literature, etc.

Matthew Parsons: Omnireviewer/Omnibus — Some things are so self-explanatory that you can review them just by describing what they are. “A prog rock album with only one 44-minute long song,” for example. Or, “a graphic novel that intertwines a gay coming-of-age memoir with a character study of the author’s father by way of the literature that fascinates them both.” Some readers will look at these descriptions and say “yes, please,” and others are philistines. Regardless, the point is that these particular works are so obviously the thing that they are, which nothing else is, that to say more would be almost superfluous. Surely there has never been a clearer example of this than the present one: “A blogger writes reviews of everything he watches, reads, and listens to for nearly three years.” You’re no philistine if that premise makes you run for the hills. But even if it doesn’t, if you’ve spent any amount of time at all on the internet — better still, any amount of time at all around me — you know precisely what you are getting into. To say more would be pointless. STILL, I PERSIST.

Before we go any further, let’s dispense with the no-paragraph-breaks schtick. That’s a policy I instituted early on to prevent myself from writing too much. It never really worked.

So. Was Omnireviewer any good? No, not really. I believe it’s the home of some of my worst writing, in terms of the actual quality and readability of the prose. But assessing the quality of things was never quite the point of the enterprise, nor should it necessarily be the point of reviewing in general — except in cases so superlatively brilliant or awful that there’s little else to say. Generally, I prefer a more rhapsodic approach — drawing connections, parsing out meaning, converting subtext to text. And if in my explorations I should happen to touch on the success of a given thing, fine. Quality vs. success is a subtle but useful distinction. To me, the former implies that there’s an objective standard to which everything can be held. And while I do half-heartedly believe that, I don’t trust myself to be the arbiter of such things. Neither does anybody else.

But success is different. Success, to paraphrase the great British avant-gardist Cornelius Cardew, exists in relation to goals. To determine the success of a venture, you need to know something of the intention of the venturer.

So, if we’re going to establish whether Omnireviewer has been a success, we need to explore why I started writing it in the first place.

***

Of all the various magical accoutrements in the Harry Potter books, my favourite one as a kid was the Pensieve — Albus Dumbledore’s magical basin full of thoughts. “One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure,” Dumbledore explains in my nostalgic fave, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. “It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.” I have often described Omnireviewer as my Pensieve: the technique I use to evacuate my brain of all the swirling observations and analyses of trifling pop culture matters that threaten to crowd out what’s actually important. It’s an easily avoidable place where those observations and analyses can live permanently, so I don’t feel compelled to annoy my friends with them in bars. At least, not when they don’t ask me to.

All of this is true, and it is a large reason why I’ve continued to write Omnireviewer for nearly three years. But it isn’t the whole story. And the Pensieve isn’t the only valid pop culture analogue for this weird project. For a more honest one, we’ll have to look back a whole generation to another totemic childhood text:

Lucy_Blanket

Omnireviewer entered the world on November 1, 2015, but the context for it dates back more than a year prior to that. The circumstances that enabled this blog emerged in the summer of 2014. That summer, two extremely ordinary things happened. Firstly, I finished grad school, marking the end of twenty consecutive cycles of school/summer/school/summer etc. Suddenly, I was all too aware that my life was now FREE JAZZ — structure be damned. Exacerbating this anxiety was the small matter that I had graduated with a masters degree in journalism, and the universe was laughing at me. ONE SINGLE DAY after I turned in my thesis — in the form of a radio documentary — the Canadian Broadcasting Company cut 600 jobs. “Screw you, Parsons,” said the universe, “and everybody who shares your ludicrous ideas about how to make a living.” Just as all this was going on, a relationship I’d been in for seven years came to an end as well. Like every breakup, it seems inevitable in retrospect. But at the time it seemed impossible.

Unemployment; breakup. I bring up these two extremely ordinary things only because they are the first two misfortunes in my life that I couldn’t just smile my way through. I’m not sure why. Unemployment and a breakup are empirically no worse than things I’d been through previously. Maybe there just comes a time in a person’s life when the emotional warp drive has to give out and you’ve got to rely on just a regular engine. I dunno. But prior to 2014, I always prided myself on my ability to be happy in spite of things. Losing that was like falling out of the sky.

What helped me was work. In the uncomfortable grey zone between graduation and the start of my first contract, some friends of mine tried to start a magazine. They brought me into the fold as a writer, and even though it wasn’t really my project, I contributed as much writing to its embryonic form as anybody. What else was I going to do with my time? The magazine never properly launched. But if nothing else, it kept me from going off the deep end during the worst few weeks of my life.

And since the experience of writing for that vapourizing magazine was such a lifesaver, I proceeded to try that method ONE HUNDRED MORE TIMES. Even when my work situation started to pick up, I had to be constantly doing things to distract myself from the swirly void. A friend proposed an epistolary project where we assigned each other albums to listen to. I eagerly accepted. I took up cooking with the vigor of Hannibal Lecter. I started running. At work, I built a huge interactive story about dead composers, cheerfully spending twice as many hours on it as I got paid for. (It has since vanished into the digital wastes, mourned by no one, least of all me.)

Over the next three years, I would start, and swiftly abandon, a history of progressive rock. I would write 20,000 words about Jethro Tull in a single week. I would put together, and never submit, a book proposal. I would take a class about writing for comics. I would begin and struggle to complete a set of annotations for Moby-Dick. I would make two comedy podcasts with one of the guys who started the vapourizing magazine. I would make podcasts on my own, which reside on my hard drive to this day, waiting for their moment.

Yeah, I’ve been busy.

But as of November, 2015, I was not busy enough. So I filled my time the way we all do. I watched TV. I went to movies. And since I’m me, I also read voraciously, listened attentively to my favourite records dozens of times in a row, and listened to 30 or 40 podcast episodes per week. And the more time I spent on that, the more aware I had to become of how little time I was spending in gainful employment or meaningful social exchange. So I made up a game to put it out of my mind. The game was Omnireviewer. Every Sunday since then, I have released a report on the game, with the week’s score tallied up at the top of the post. 17 reviews. 23 reviews. 35 reviews. Here was a game I could win.

linus

***

Since keeping score was always such a big part of what this blog has been about, let’s look at some final statistics:

Total instalments of Omnireviewer/Omnibus: 143

Total reviews: 2,822
Average reviews per week: 20
Largest number of reviews in a single week: 38

Total words: 441,637
Average words per week: 3,088
Highest word count in a single week: 8,493

A few notes on these numbers:

  • Bear in mind that I sometimes clumped together whole seasons of television in one review. A large number of the reviews I have written on this blog have been for more than one episode of a show or podcast. So, as impressive as the number 2,822 may look, it is still deflated somewhat.
  • A cursory Google indicated that novels tend to range from 60,000 to 100,000 words, on average. If we split the difference and go with 80,000, my reviewing habit has stretched to the length of five-and-a-half novels in less than three years’ time.
  • In spite of everything I’ve written here so far, I am intensely proud of both of these stats.

Speaking of pride, shall we move on to the set of statistics that make me the proudest of all?

Ttotal page views: 2,146
Average page views per week: 15
Highest page views for a single post: 117
Lowest page views for a single post: 3

They say that if you do any one thing on the internet for long enough, you’ll eventually find an audience. I am just pleased as punch to have disproved that rule. The post that got 117 views — still paltry, by any reasonable standard — accidentally demonstrated the real way to find an audience on the internet. It only received such a substantially above average number of readers because I got retweeted by one of the post’s subjects, the food scientist and cookbook author J. Kenji Lopez-Alt.

By the way, the post that got only three views was 3,000 words long. That’s one reader per thousand words.

“Really don’t mind if you sit this one out.” — Jethro Tull

When I started this project, I started it for myself. I made it public only for the sake of accountability. The thing that makes me proudest of all is that I kept writing Omnireviewer for as long as I did in spite of the fact that nobody read it. The human mind is a cobweb ball of rationalizations and suppressed motives. I’ve never felt like I can be entirely sure when I’m just looking for attention. But surely, here is numerical proof that this project stayed true to its roots.

One final note on the statistics, that only slightly undercuts what I’ve said above: these numbers don’t account for the people who saw my reviews on the associated Tumblr account. In some cases, this was substantially more, but mostly it was not. The numbers also don’t account for the homepage, which got a significant bump on weeks when my site’s URL was read on the radio. In the interest of transparency, my homepage has been visited 7,163 times since I started Omnireviewer. What a pathetic number. I love it.

***

On the topic of the radio: the best thing to come out of this blog was a column that I’ve been doing on CBC Radio 1’s North by Northwest since June of last year. I pitched it as a recurring summer feature on the show, and it just never stopped. Since the beginning, that column has distilled the best of this blog into purposeful nuggets of meaning and connection. It is Omnireviewer at its most Pensieve-like.

In the written edition of Omnireviewer, anything might prompt a veiled exegesis on the disappointments and regrets of my life. The Beatles’ Help. Olivia Liang’s deeply relatable work of memoir-through-art-criticism The Lonely City. The death of Anthony Bourdain. Chris Gethard. Maria Bamford. In the written edition, the music of Brian Eno is not only ingenious, but kind and restorative. In the written edition, Alison Bechdel is a saint, because she confirms the value in reading your own life as literature, like I do — drawing connections, parsing out meaning, converting subtext to text.

But on the radio, it isn’t about me. It can’t be. A public radio audience requires you to put aside your self-indulgence in a way that a blog with 15 readers just doesn’t. And that made for a far superior version of this project. Many paragraphs ago, I asserted that Omnireviewer wasn’t very good. That’s true, at least of its original form. But its radio form is one of the things I’m proudest of in my entire career so far.

In my last radio column of 2017, I flirted more dangerously than usual with the masked confessional approach of the blog. But I’m glad I did. I finished it with a segment on Margo Price’s “Learning to Lose,” a heartbreaking duet with Willie Nelson that struck a chord with me immediately. I closed out my year in radio with the sentiment: “Maybe next year we’ll learn to win.” Three months later I got a job as the associate producer of North by Northwest. I ran around, waving my arms in the air and laughing like a maniac. The context for this blog collapsed in a heap.

***

To me, Charlie Brown is not the hero of the Peanuts comics. It’s Linus — the would-be philosopher who stays positive in spite of his insecurities, which are made manifest in the blanket he cannot be parted from. Omnireviewer was a security blanket I wove to shield myself from the emptiness of my life. But unlike Linus, I’m not stuck in time. I can outgrow my compulsions. I don’t need my blanket anymore. Life is good. More to the point — life is good in spite of the fact that lots of specific things about it are not. At last, we’re back to where we started.

“God keep me from ever completing anything.” — Herman Melville

In the months to come, I’ll work on other things in my spare time. But not because I need to for my sanity — because there are things I want to make that I think people might enjoy. I’ll keep posting fun nonsense to this blog. Notes on Moby-Dick will return. I’m thinking about writing more short fiction. Maybe I’ll rank all the tracks on ABBA Gold. And I’m going to make some tweaks to those podcasts I alluded to earlier, and hopefully get them out in the world before too long. That’s what I’m going to do with the time I would have spent on Omnibus. I’m not convinced I could bring myself to do any of it if not for this blog. I’ve learned so much from doing this. I’ve made connections I never would have made. I’ve learned about the conditions under which I do my best and worst work. I got a job that I probably wouldn’t have gotten if not for this blog and the radio spots it inspired. And I have kept my head above water. I have nothing but warm feelings for this weird-ass thing I’ve been doing these past few years.

And so it comes to this. Omnireviewer has fulfilled its purpose, and fulfilled it better than I could ever have foreseen. Time now to set it adrift in the obscure internet sea where it has always resided and always will.

Pick of the week.

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Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 5, 2017)

Remember how last week I told you about how I was writing about Jethro Tull for a week? That got a bit out of hand. I was up until 3 a.m. three nights in a row. On the other hand, I learned I can write 22,000 words in a week and a half. No joke. Before we get to our 15 reviews (it’s a miracle I got through that much, considering), lemme just… here’s the link to the whole week of posts. There are 30 of them. If you’d rather the Reader’s Digest version, here are the posts that I think make up the spine of the whole thing:

This introductory post
This analysis of their two biggest radio hits
This interpretation of Thick as a Brick/personal manifesto
This exploration of empathy in Minstrel in the Gallery
This account of the response to A Passion Play
And finally, this last essay about Stormwatch

There we go. Now. To business.

Comedy

Mike Birbiglia: Thank God for Jokes — Birbiglia is for sure one of my favourite comics. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some things I’d change. He seems unable to do a special without a framing device now, which is fine given the extent to which he’s as much a storyteller as a comedian. But after this and My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, I feel like I can anticipate the beats to an uncomfortable degree. At this point it would be nice to hear him just tell jokes and stories in a linear fashion without constantly flashing back to his A-story. And I could do without the moments of earnestness he peppers throughout. I get that he’s trying for something bigger than just getting laughs, but it doesn’t really work here. That thread of the story is about the Charlie Hebdo shooting, and the line that’s supposed to carry the most weight is “I just love jokes.” It’s weird that he made it personal. I dunno, watch this and see if you agree. Because that is the full extent of my criticism. The material is really, really good and he’s becoming a better performer with every subsequent special. There’s even some top flight crowdwork in here with an audience member who feels like just a gift to a comedian, but of course you make your own luck.

Hannibal Buress: Comedy Camisado — I like Hannibal Buress a lot, but I think I like his delivery better than his material. I’ve seen one other special of his, Live from Chicago I think? I remember that material being a bit better than this, though his characterization of the media response to his Cosby bit is spot on.

Television

Last Week Tonight: “March 5, 2017” — I had decided not to watch this anymore and just to check out the YouTube segments from time to time, but a whole episode ended up flitting past my eye on the YouTube homepage and I figured, ah sure. As ever, it is more interesting than funny. A pandering Moonlight bit especially got on my nerves. And Oliver’s interview with the Dalai Lama is cute, but he didn’t get to the key point: what is actually going to happen, politically, to Tibet if he dies and the Chinese government appoints a new Dalai Lama who is loyal to them? I understand not wanting to break the mood of a fun interview with an adorable, lovely and really powerful world leader — but he travelled to India. Couldn’t he have pressed him just a little more???

Ways of Seeing: Episodes 1 & 2 — I’ve always meant to watch this, but left it until now because I had absolutely no idea how engrossing it would be. John Berger has what would now be considered No Television Presence, but it doesn’t matter at all because he’s interesting and lucid. That’s the standard by which worthiness should be judged in public broadcasting. The first episode of this is mostly remarkable for how obvious all of it is to a contemporary viewer. (Or maybe I’ve just read the Walter Benjamin essay that it’s based on. I know it’s his most famous, but I honestly can’t remember.) Berger’s argument about what happens when a painting becomes infinitely reproducible is in no way surprising, since we interact with reproduced images on a minute-by-minute basis, and anybody who’s paying attention should be able to determine the way in which its reproduction is manipulating its meaning. But that’s the thing, isn’t it — it’s only those who are paying attention. And that’s more the point of the first episode than actually explaining anything complex or surprising: it’s about increasing your cognisance of the presentation of images. The second episode is where things really pick up. This is the episode that argues that the traditional European nude exists not to show women being themselves, but rather women in the state of being seen. This is extremely penetrating, and Berger really makes his point by offering up a few selected exceptions to the rule, which are completely, electrifyingly different from the other images in a way I would absolutely not have detected without guidance. Or rather — without Berger’s ability to strip away the usual art criticism line about nudes being “a celebration of women” and allowing me to see the images as they are. However, Ways of Seeing shows its age in the second half of the episode, where Berger talks through these issues with, and I quote: “five women.” Wait, what? Who are these women? He seriously doesn’t even say who they are! Clearly they’re very smart and articulate, but but… who are they and why did you choose them for this program? “Five women.” Anyway. Also, why are there more glasses of wine on the table than people sitting around it? And why are you even drinking wine? Isn’t this the BBC?? What is going on!?!?! Is this the Twilight Zone?? What is happening? Berger! I don’t understnadddrkjf,namflkjfio^%&*()Mbkhjb

Movies

Get Out — The first great movie of the year. Here is what strikes me as particularly interesting about this: I think it’s the only comedic horror movie I’ve ever seen that isn’t primarily a parody. None of the comedy in the movie is derived from subverting horror movie tropes. Rather, the comedy and the horror actually come from the same place. Jordan Peele’s script (and crucially, the way he directs it) takes the experience of being a black person surrounded by white people and gets both comedy and horror out of it. This is because comedy and horror are both genres that stem from our natural responses to the absurd. When confronted with something that doesn’t make sense or seems wrong, we tend to either laugh or feel afraid. That’s the connection that Peele exploits to make this movie both scary and funny — and also to make a satirical (not parodic) point about microaggressions etc. It’s the same line traversed by Welcome to Night Vale, which is also not primarily a parody (though I suspect that stems as much from production ineptitude as from intentionality, but that’s a different review). Get Out is pitch perfect. Every shot, every beat in the editing, every performance is perfectly calibrated to ride that line between the horrifying and the (literally) hilarious. Calling it a horror movie is an oversimplification. But if we do lump it in with that category, it’s the best one I’ve seen in years. Yes, including It Follows. (Also, don’t watch the trailer. The trailer is full of spoilers. In this instance, spoilers are bad.) Pick of the week.

Games

Half-Life — So yeah. Still playing this. Didn’t switch to Source, because I heard it was buggier than the original. I’m progressing slowly because a) I’ve been writing about Jethro Tull all week and b) I’m terrible at video games, but I’m starting to enjoy this. I’ve read up a little on the ways it differs from previous shooters, and that does actually enhance the modern-day playing experience. You kind of have to take it as a bit of a relic. But I’m impressed by the verisimilitude of it all. It’s 100% first person so far, and at no point has my control over the character been halted to progress the story. The story happens incrementally around you as you proceed and is as much a matter of mood and atmosphere as actual writing. And yes, there isn’t a lot of story to speak of, but it’s still impressively unobtrusive. Plus, running around and shooting things (often the same things over and over, because I die constantly, even on easy mode) has therapeutic value for its almost Zen repetitiveness.

Literature, etc.

Philip Sandifer: “Haunt the Future” — This is a relatively brief and witty account of the way the “alt-right” repurposes Situationist tactics towards their own ends. It also contains very brief introductions to the neoreactionaries Mencius Moldbug and Nick Land who are horrifying, but oddly compelling.

Podcasts

Code Switch: “The Horror, The Horror: ‘Get Out’ and the Place of Race in Scary Movies” — This contains an extremely disquieting take on why the black character always dies first in a horror movie, and many other troubling things. On the other hand, Get Out sounds great.

Code Switch: “Ten Thousand Writers… and Two Intrepid Podcast Hosts” — I just remembered I listened to this a while back. It was good, I think? I seem to remember an interesting conversation with a guy who always gets invited to speak on the same writers’ panel about race. Mostly I’m disappointed in my recall.

Reply All: “Worldstar” — A complicated story of a complicated person. Q’s story strikes me as just another tale of the cheapening effect that the present-day iteration of the internet has on culture. But I’m inclined to see that narrative in basically everything.

Theory of Everything: “The Rainbows of Inevitability” — A dark look inside what Facebook knows about you and how it thinks it can use that information. Basically this is a bunch more reasons why Mark Zuckerberg is wrong about the world.

Radiolab: “Update: CRISPR” — CRISPR is terrifying. It’s official. It’s going to be used for evil. I feel like a ninny saying that, because obviously a cure for cancer would be nice, but holy shit the consent issues surrounding this are bewildering.

This American Life: “Vague and Confused” — The first story, with Sean Cole, about an island of private property off the coast of Honolulu, is super. It’s a source of constant amazement that TAL can do stuff like this on a weekly basis. More than I could ever keep up with. Pick of the week.

Crimetown: “The Ghost” — This story features a gangster killing another gangster’s pet wolf. That’s a real-life thing that happened. This show is so good.

All Songs Considered: “Alt-J, Elliott Smith, The New Pornographers, Girlpool, More” — The Alt-J song is great. The Magnetic Fields song is spectacular. Unmoved by the rest.

Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 19, 2017)

Oh, jeez, for the first time since I’ve been doing this I didn’t get it out on Sunday. Not that you care, of course, but I have standards. Usually. This week, I just completely forgot. Anyway, here it is. Also, I am happy that Moonlight won.

Movies

Manchester by the Sea — Yeah, I saw Manchester by the Sea again. It’s worth seeing a second time if you can handle it. On a repeat viewing, I found myself focussing much more on what a beautifully made clock it is. The pivotal scene that flashes back to Lee’s tragedy is particularly well directed and edited so that we simultaneously come to know what happened to him and understand why his present-day situation is so challenging. Also, I had forgotten about the actual best character in this movie: Otto the drummer. Keep at it, buddy. They’ll realize it’s the bassist’s fault soon enough.

Dream of a Rarebit Fiend — Funny how sometimes silent shorts from 1906 just come up in conversation, isn’t it? Anyway, I watched this again for the first time since undergrad film studies, and it totally holds up. Holds up since my undergrad, holds up since 1906. Watching super early film is like watching a magic show. It really reconnects you with the basic miracle of the medium as equal parts art form and technological marvel. It’s easy to take that for granted these days. Interestingly, another movie that came up randomly in conversation on the same night was Hugo, which I love primarily because it is the only modern movie (when seen in 3D, at least) that has ever been able to reconnect me with the basic wonder that movies exist like early film does. I wish it would return to theatres. I’d love to see it there again.

I Am Not Your Negro — As good as I expected, and another outstanding entry in the most interesting category at this year’s Oscars. Since Life, Animated and Fire at Sea look to have no chance, Best Documentary Feature is a win-win-win situation. I Am Not Your Negro takes an approach that I am increasingly drawn to in documentary, which is that it takes a spoken text (in this case, not an original one, but one drawn from the writing of James Baldwin) and lays it over archival footage. There is no reporting in this documentary, as there is in 13th and especially O.J.: Made in America. But its goals are different: namely to illustrate and gloss the argument and storytelling of James Baldwin: one of the most powerful of all American writers. The film’s greatest asset is Baldwin’s unparalleled command of language, both in his written work (read here by Samuel L. Jackson) and in his extemporaneous speech in interviews and assorted television appearances. It’s second-greatest asset is director Raoul Peck’s Adam Curtis-like facility for pairing Baldwin’s outpourings of language with striking and often counterintuitive images. When you think about what Baldwin’s much-planned, never written book Remember This House could have been like — a critical account of America told through the stories of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. — it’s gutting that the book doesn’t exist. But this film fills the gap as well as anybody could manage. Pick of the week.

La La Land — I’m writing this just after this movie lost Best Picture to the much nobler and more interesting Moonlight. And while I’m mostly feeling sorry for Warren Beatty for having to deal with that whole situation, I’m sort of sad for the people involved with this movie as well. Not super sad, though. La La Land is a virtuosic piece of filmmaking, with plenty of the sort of showy, ostentatious cinematography that made me fall in love with Emmanuel Lubezki, who apparently didn’t do anything this year, because it is now the law that he must always win the Oscar for cinematography. However, it is also incredibly boring for most of its duration, and it somehow made me hate both Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling who are both actors that I really like. It starts strong, with an incredible opening number that occurs before either of the leads make an onscreen appearance, and it ends strong with a virtuosic fantasy sequence. But the entire middle of the movie is pablum with weak songs, shitty dancing and poorly drawn characters. Basically, I didn’t like this. But don’t interpret that as a refutation of nostalgia or romance, because I’m in favour of both of those things. They just need to be more subtly employed than they are here.

Games

Half-Life  — I got this as part of a bundle of all of the Half-Life games and DLC during the Steam Winter sale. I bought it purely out of love for the Portal games, and general curiosity about the other franchise that Valve is known for. So far, the game possesses the same dour sense of humour, but without the same emphasis on writing. I am generally optimistic about liking this, in spite of it being basically just a standard first-person shooter, which isn’t the sort of thing I tend to enjoy. It is also insufferably buggy, though, so I may well switch to Half-Life: Source before I next check in. I was bound and determined to play through the most authentic Half-Life experience, but if I’m going to constantly get stuck at the tops of ladders, unable to move at all, I’d rather sacrifice period accuracy for a bit of convenience.

Music

Max Richter: Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works — Max Richter’s strongest music is among my favourite of recent years. I’m particularly fond of his album The Blue Notebooks and his recomposition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which I still submit is superior in every way to the original. I know it isn’t a contest, but I’m just saying. It’s true. But Richter is by no means a sure bet. At his worst, he makes ersatz movie music passed off as self-sufficient art. This album of music from his ballet score Woolf Works contains more of that that I’d like. It’s broken into three sections, inspired by three separate Virginia Woolf novels: Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. Of these, the Dalloway music is the worst by far, consisting almost entirely of grandiose crescendi. The Waves is more subdued, but still veers off into crass emotional manipulativeness toward the end. Fortunately, Richter’s modular synth-based music for Orlando is in itself worth the price of admission. Using the classic form of a theme and variations, Richter reflects the transformations of Woolf’s protean novel through the gradual development of a single theme — and by processing recordings of acoustic instruments into something else entirely. Woolf Works contains both poles of Richter’s work: the very worst and best that he’s capable of. It isn’t a modern masterpiece, but you should definitely check out the Orlando section because that, at least, is fantastic.

Jethro Tull: Stand Up — More research for a bunch of upcoming writing. This isn’t a Tull album I revisit frequently, and I can’t honestly say that I agree with the consensus that it’s one of their best. I see the appeal: it’s tremendously heterogeneous and experimental while still hewing largely towards the general shape and sound of heavy late-60s rock. But it feels immature to me in a way that the following record, Benefit, doesn’t — even though I have to say I like Benefit less. “A New Day Yesterday” defines the problem. The titular line, “it was a new day yesterday but it’s an old day now” is one of those pleasantly meaningless koan-like lyrics that the 60s are so good for. But for the rest of the song, it feels like Anderson is just using words to fill space, which is something that the Ian Anderson of Aqualung, let along the Ian Anderson of Thick as a Brick or Minstrel in the Gallery, would never do. And for what purpose is the space being filled? Essentially, a blues jam. Granted, it’s a blues jam with a magnificent riff and a flute solo, which distinguishes it from other blues jams. But it’s nothing special in a way that later Tull would never be nothing special. There are moments that strike me this way throughout the album. Essentially all of the heavy stuff is better on live albums. But there’s also plenty to love. “Fat Man” isn’t the most body-positive song in the Tull canon, but it is melodically irresistible, and I love that there are balalaikas in it. “Jeffrey Goes to Leicester Square” points the way towards similarly whimsical bits of nicely arranged fluff like “Mother Goose” and “Ladies.” And “Reasons for Waiting” proves that even with a deep familiarity of the Tull canon, your expectations of Ian Anderson can still be confounded. It’s just a simple, pretty love song, and it actually works. Imagine. Not a favourite, but I do understand why it is venerated by many.

Jethro Tull: Songs from the Wood — This is a classic. I’ll say no more because I have far too many words coming up shortly on One Week // One Band. But this is in my top five Tull albums, for sure, which means it’s probably also in my top 20 albums ever.

Literature, etc.

George Saunders: “Escape from Spiderhead” — Upon reading the raves about Saunders’ new novel, I figured I should check out a short story to see if it might be my sort of thing. It is. This is a pretty standard sci-fi set up: something a young Vonnegut might have come up with. But it is distinguished by the brutality of its conclusion and the florid brilliance of its language. I still like his Trump rally thing better, but this is great and he’s obviously a writer I’m going to be into.

Podcasts

Fresh Air: “James Baldwin/I Am Not Your Negro” — I would have been just as happy to hear a full rerun of Terry Gross’s interview with Baldwin, but Raoul Peck is really insightful about how Baldwin reframed a generation’s thinking. I can’t wait to see I Am Not Your Negro.

You Must Remember This: “Jean Harlow Flashback (Dead Blondes Part 3)” — This is You Must Remember This at its most You Must Remember This. Karina Longworth’s love for Hollywood doesn’t just stem from a love of movies: it’s also a love of the sort of lurid gossip that it inspires. She’s really good at capturing the tone of that gossip while also being careful to contextualize it as dubious or outright false. Jean Harlow’s life story is dramatic as all hell, and gives Longworth the opportunity to say something like “But if they could see beneath the glamorous exterior, they’d have known that Harlow was slowly going to seed.” (I’m paraphrasing out of laziness, but it’s something like that.) This is the kind of extremely dramatic writing that keeps me coming back. Pick of the week. 

The Memory Palace: “Met Residency #4 (A Portrait)” — Easily the best of Nate DiMeo’s pieces for the Met so far. At first, it feels like it might be too specific to his Met residency to really have resonance for the rest of us who just found it in our feeds this week. But there’s a flip part way through where the story turns into something else, and it suddenly becomes much more compelling.

Chapo Trap House: “President Wario” — This may be the first episode I’ve heard with only the original three Chapos. It feels a bit like nothing new, at this point. There is a certain amount of gasping, head-in-hands incredulity at the continuing awfulness of Donald Trump, but I can get that anywhere. But there’s at least a wonderful reading series at the end, about a conservative who stands up for everything that’s good in the world by telling two uncouth twenty-somethings not to say “fuck” on a plane.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Our Oscars Preview” — No “should wins” for Manchester by the Sea? Alriiiiight. Anyway, these Oscars are going to be a fiasco.

A Point of View: “The Spectre of Populism” — I agree with John Gray insofar as I believe that the ineffectiveness of political centrism is the cause for the current swing to the far right that is overtaking Europe and North America. I’m not sure I agree with him on much else.

Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 5, 2017)

24 reviews!

Live events

Run the Jewels: Live at the PNE Forum — In the middle of what was, by Vancouver standards, a snowstorm, Run the Jewels played a show in basically a huge barn. I honestly couldn’t be bothered to make the metaphor subtler. Near the end of the show, El-P assured us all that we weren’t crazy to believe that the world outside that room was batshit insane. But Killer Mike reminded us that there’s a community of people, some of whom were gathered in that huge barn, with whom we can at least commiserate. The latest Run the Jewels record is angry and resistant, which is the only thing that a Trump era Run the Jewels record could possibly be. But I can think of worse things for a Run the Jewels live show to be in 2017 than a locus of understanding and warmth.

Music

Danish String Quartet: Adès/Nørgard/Abrahamsen — A stunning disc, with music by one modern composer I knew I loved (Abrahamsen), one that I wasn’t sure I loved (Adès) and one that I’d never heard (Nørgard). Adès’s Arcadiana is my favourite work here, and in particular the sixth movement, inspired by Elgar. Abrahamsen’s preludes are trifles in themselves, but they add up to a lot when combined. The neoclassical finale is a hoot. The Danes play all of this with extreme subtlety and seeming ease. Between this and their folk album, they’ve basically confirmed themselves as my favourite string quartet of their generation.

William Basinski: The Disintegration Loops —This five-hour long set of pieces is maybe the most depressing music I’ve ever heard. Half ambient music, half concept art, The Disintegration Loops depends on you knowing at least something about the method by which the music was produced to get the full effect: this music is the sound of tape loops playing over and over until they’re so decrepit that they barely produce sound anymore. There’s no good way to put the effect of it into words. It’s like death, rot, wasting diseases and the collapse of civilization made into music. Particularly affecting is loop 2.2, on the second volume of the collection, which starts off as a moodily stagnant snippet of what can barely be called melody and disintegrates to an extent that every repetition contains near-silences. The continual rotation of the tape in spite of its degradation sounds like failure in spite of effort. The fact that the tapes were finished on September 11, 2001 has become a crucial part of this music’s paratext, but its effect goes well beyond the events of that day. The Disintegration Loops manages to evoke just about every negative, undesirable abstraction ever conceived by a human, and it does so by almost prosaically simple means. Its elegance is as undeniable as it is dreadful, and I will likely listen to it many more times in spite of it making me feel sick. Pick of the week.

Jethro Tull: Aqualung — I’m doing a bit of remedial listening for my upcoming week on Jethro Tull for One Week // One Band. I say “remedial” because this album is the one classic Tull album that I haven’t really given its due in terms of listening time over the years. Ironic, perhaps, since it’s their most popular by a mile. The thing that always kept me at arm’s length was the recording quality. If I remember the story correctly, this was recorded in the sanctuary of a big church that had been converted into a studio (and Led Zeppelin were in the nicer studio in the basement), so the whole record sounds sort of distant and hazy. Well, I just listened to Steven Wilson’s 40th anniversary remix, and it definitely goes some distance towards correcting this. It’ll never sound as perfect as Thick as a Brick, or even the three earlier albums, but it’s nice to have a version of the album that allows the material on it to be shown in the best light. And every time I listen to this, the material is a lot better than I remember.

Laurie Anderson: Big Science — One of my favourite discoveries of the year. Laurie Anderson has always been on my radar as “that performance artist who also made pop albums.” Given that resoundingly positive impression, what took me so long to actually listen to this? We’ll never know. Big Science is funny, scary, and addictive. Anderson is a captivating presence, chilly and affectless to the point of coming off like a deadpan comedian at times. Anderson’s spoken word pieces are just that: spoken word pieces. They’re performance-dependent, and the drama comes from the hearing of them. In “From the Air”: listen to how she times the lines “We are going down; we are all going down… together.” Instant pathos, only to be undercut by “And I said, uh oh. This is gonna be some day,” and the refrain: “Stand by.” The best tracks on this album make me remember how much I love language. Just, in general. “Your eyes. It’s a day’s work just looking into them.” I mean, it’s a miracle that we have an infrastructure like language to express meaning in that way. Obviously, “O Superman” is the highlight. The way that it manages to bring together its two main themes in the end is outstanding. To crib ever so slightly from Isaac Butler’s understanding of this song (see below), somebody is sitting alone, listening to the phone ring. It’s their mom. She leaves a concerned message. It rings again. And then things really get going. It’s unclear to both the listener and the protagonist of the song who is actually speaking. (“And I said okay: who is this really?”) But it’s clear that this is a person who knows something very frightening and is trying to deliver a warning. (The use of a vocoder even makes it sound like a deliberately disguised phone voice.) And at the end, the most chilling part of the song, the protagonist is alone once more, nostalgic for home and mother — except that the language and sentiment of the mysterious caller has infected the nostalgia so that the protagonist is wishing to be held in her mother’s “military arms.” There’s almost no better expression of anxiety in all of music: the kind of generalized, non-specific anxiety that something very bad is going to happen, and even a retreat into the past won’t save you. I can’t wait to dive deeper into this.

Literature, etc.

Isaac Butler: “Here Come the Planes” — This is an outstanding essay that uses a piece of pop culture to help understand the cultural magnitude of a major world event, namely the attacks on the World Trade Centres. The fact that the cultural artifact in question, Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” predates that event by twenty years only makes the argumentation more interesting. Thought processes like this are the reason I’m a pop culture obsessive. I just wish I could express mine so eloquently.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Season 2, episodes 9-17 — Within this set of nine episodes, this show rises to one of its highest points and sinks into meandering nonsense remarkably quickly. “Pegasus” is one of the best single episodes of the series, managing to totally alter the status quo (albeit briefly), and the “Resurrection Ship” two-parter is completely thrilling. And then, in short order, we get “Black Market” and “Sacrifice,” which feature some of the most ludicrous and unmotivated character developments we’ve seen so far, and bespoke plotlines that feel like they belong in some other show (CSI and 24 respectively). I confess, I’m concerned. I was ready to be one of the weirdos who thought that the back half of BSG is actually good. But I don’t think this is even the point where most fans feel it drops off. Here’s hoping it picks up in the next few. Also, R.I.P. Richard Hatch.

Games

The Silent Age — First off, if the title is a Bowie reference, it isn’t noticeably borne out in the game itself. Which is fine. Secondly, it’s always fun to see that there are devs out there intent on continuing the legacy of Hugo’s House of Horrors. It’s incredible how similar an experience this is to that 1990 title, at least in the fundamentals. That isn’t a slight — I always loved that game as a kid. Long live point-and-clicks. (Or, well, I guess Hugo was parser-based, but it’s functionally the same.) The Silent Age is admirable as much for its straightforwardness as anything. Narratively, it’s an unabashed cookie-cutter time travel potboiler, and it doesn’t try to play with or deconstruct the tropes, aside from a quick throwaway line about a certain plot twist that “reads like bad science fiction.” It’s interesting to play a game that’s basically sincere after having been through so many super-meta adventure games. This is one of those games where the story is essentially a mode of conveyance for puzzles. And the puzzles themselves are reminiscent of ones from early adventure games as well, given that they’re largely sets of obstacles placed between you and a fairly obvious goal. Turn this valve, and that formerly flooded room drains, revealing a handgun that you can use to shoot out the power of a huge fan, allowing you to pass through and rummage around in the tool kit on the other side for a pair of wire cutters that will allow you to cut the power supply to some poor welder’s torch, thus distracting him so that you can grab his wrench, which will help you unbolt a trapdoor. That sort of thing. The one thing that sets it pleasantly apart is that its protagonist, Joe, is an unassuming janitor whose inner monologue puts him constantly two steps behind the player. Thus he always seems surprised when a puzzle solution that he ostensibly devised works out. This was routinely amusing to me. It’s a fun game, seemingly devised to cater more to those of us who crave the familiar rhythms of these sorts of games than to anybody looking for something especially preoccupying or innovative. Nothing wrong with that.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Super Bowl Thoughts, From ‘Overdog’ Tom Brady To Sparkly Lady Gaga” — For the third year running, I seem to have watched the Super Bowl. I still do not understand the rules of football or how you win or what they’re doing. But I enjoy cooking and eating decadent food and being in the presence of people in an enthusiastic frame of mind. However, I actually do understand enough to know what Stephen Thompson, Gene Demby and Linda Holmes are talking about in this episode, and I know enough to be distinctly unpleased with this Super Bowl’s outcome. But at least there was Lady Gaga. And nachos. Nachos make everything better.

The Gist: “The Business of Corporate Protest” — I was making an omelette while I listened to this, so I wasn’t giving it my full attention. But Pesca’s spiel about why niceties are a good thing to definitely not ignore in national politics caught my attention and is therefore probably worth your time. My omelette turned out great, by the way.

Crimetown: “A Deal With the Devil” — A great instalment, with a rather pleasing parallel narrative that contrasts three different ways to get out of the mob: to take witness protection, to gradually go straight, or to go to jail. Of course, the fourth one is to get killed, and there’s a bit of that in there too. This is probably my favourite episode of this show so far, which is interesting given that I’ve generally been more inclined towards the ones that deal with the office of the mayor. But this is just so beautifully self-contained. It almost works as a narrative on its own.

The Memory Palace: “The Rose of Long Island” — Nate DiMeo has a large back catalogue of episodes about women who lived their lives running counter to the expectations and strictures of their time. This is one of the most complex of those stories, because it ends with its protagonist doing something that is about as anti-anti-establishment as it gets. The complexity makes it more beautiful, and DiMeo’s writing is profoundly sensitive and lovely.

On the Media: “The Ties That Bind” — Brooke Gladstone is away, but this is quite good for an all-Bob Garfield episode. Highlights include Garfield’s boss (politely) chastising him on the show, and Garfield’s piece on the present state of media concentration (which is much, much worse in today’s supposedly post-fragmentation world than it ever was before the internet). It’s lovely to hear my favourite media criticism source tackle my favourite media-related issue. And I’m grateful to Garfield for pointing me towards Jonathan Taplin’s upcoming book Move Fast and Break Things, about how Facebook, Google and Amazon are ruining everything. Sounds like my kind of book.

Reply All: “Storming the Castle” — Alex Goldman’s interview with Longmont Potion Castle sheds a bit of light on him, the same way that “Shine On You Crazy Goldman” did on P.J. Vogt. But it’s not especially entertaining. Longmont is funny in the right context, but he clearly hasn’t thought through his reasons for doing what he does enough to actually talk meaningfully about it.

99% Invisible: “The Eponymist” — This is a set of two stories by The Allusionist’s Helen Zaltzman, with guest appearances by Roman Mars, both dealing with eponyms. I, like Roman, would also listen to a podcast that was just this every week. This reminded me that I like The Allusionist. I should listen to it more.

On the Media: “#PresidentBannon” — I do not understand Steve Bannon at all. I know I hate him, but I definitely do not understand him. “Facts get shares; opinions get shrugs?” Can a top aide in the Trump administration seriously believe this?

Chapo Trap House: “Our Values Are Under Attack” — Bit of a limp one. Tim Heidecker operates on a similar level of insincerity and insideriness as the Chapos, but he’s politically not super informed. The Chapos need to be able to talk politics without explaining things. That’s why Matt Taibbi and Adam Curtis were better guests than Heidecker.

Longform: “Ezra Edelman” — Edelman is admirably eloquent for a person who so obviously doesn’t want to talk about O.J. anymore, or himself, ever. But there’s nothing here that you don’t get from watching the film itself. O.J.: Made in America is one of those creations that just lays it all out on the table. After eight hours of that, what else is there to say?

The Heart: “The Beloved” — A lovely personal narrative produced by the person whose narrative it is. This is at once an exploration of a unique gender identity, a guided meditation, and a bit of total smut. It’s The Heart.

You Must Remember This: “Dead Blondes” Parts 1 & 2 — Mostly it’s just nice to be listening to this again. These two stories of, what else, dead blondes are relatively slight in themselves, but I have confidence that Karina Longworth will gradually build to something close to a grand theory of blondeness in old Hollywood. Even if she doesn’t though, it’s fun to hear her tell sleazy gossipy stories.

Theory of Everything: “Doomed to Repeat” — Once again, the preparation of eggs prevented me from paying full attention to a show. But this time, it was Chinese-style eggs and tomatoes with sesame oil and Shaoxing rice wine served on steamed rice. No mere omelette. But Benjamen Walker will always manage to cut through my attention to another task, and this exploration of how targeted advertizing changed drastically over the last few years (and yes, may have contributed to Trump winning the election) is fascinating stuff. But slightly less fascinating than the tangy sauce and scallions that I finished off the dish with.

In Our Time: “Hannah Arendt” — A really fantastic hour of radio, offering an introduction to a figure so complex that it’s not even clear exactly what discipline she belongs to. Melvyn Bragg and his panel spend their allotted time summarizing the salient points of Arendt’s most important books, particularly The Origins of Totalitarianism, and they push straight past the reductive mischaracterizations of Arendt that resulted from the misunderstanding of some of her pithier slogans. They also discuss the opposition that she faced for things like her ironic treatment of the Eichmann trial, and they’re willing to entertain the notion that she may in fact have been wrong to take that approach as a writer. It’s lovely stuff, and I’ll certainly be seeking out Arendt’s work myself, like every panicked liberal seems to be doing right now. Pick of the week.

Code Switch: “Oscars So Black… At Least, In Documentaries” — Ava DuVernay is the best. This just reinforces the extent to which I need to watch 13th, and also I Am Not Your Negro. I’m still in the tank for O.J.: Made in America, but this seems like a pretty stacked category.

99% Invisible: “Usonia 1” — Ah, I love a good meaty architecture story on this show. This is about the moment in Frank Lloyd Wright’s career when he switched for a moment from making big, beautiful extravagant homes for rich people to designing a home that would cost the equivalent of $85,000 today. Could somebody please start thinking like this again?

Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 15, 2017)

A modest 20 reviews, because I’m binge-watching again. By the way, there’s never been a better time to follow me on Tumblr, because tomorrow marks the start of my customary late-January week of reflection on the stuff I liked from the past year. I’ll be counting back from 30, finishing next Saturday. But if you abstain from Tumblr, never fear, because as usual I will post an omnibus of all 30 on this site.

Television

Sherlock: “The Final Problem” — You know, it wouldn’t be so disappointing if it weren’t probably the last episode. There are good things here, not least of which is an opportunity for Mark Gatiss to play Mycroft at the moment when the condescension finally wears too thin to bother. I never thought I’d say this, but between his performance in this episode and his script for the first one, Gatiss is the best thing about Sherlock season four. But there are other clear weak points here. After two weeks of brilliant directing from a couple of the best in the Mofftiss-adjecent stable, first-timer Benjamin Caron turns in a mixed effort, including a really dumb-looking take on the classic “guys jump out of windows to escape an exploding building” shot, a bit where Sherlock swoops down into the camera like Batman, and a shot of Watson passing out while the camera spirals about. This all feels like it belongs in some other show. It’s worth noting that I’m not one of the people who has been disappointed by the James Bond-esque action in this season. Honestly, I didn’t remember it not being there before. The way the action has been handled is still very much in the visual universe of this show. But there are amateurish moments in this episode, to an extent that we haven’t seen since the first season. Okay, now a plus: Moriarty’s back for a final bow, and he’s dancing to Queen. “Do you like my boys? This one’s got more stamina, but he’s less caring in the afterglow.” That entire scene is sublime. Andrew Scott is brilliantly over the top. Alright, now back to the negatives. This episode worked really hard to show Sherlock having become “a good man.” But in having him act in a conventionally human fashion in pretty much every situation, rather than ever being ethically compromising or cold, the writers seem to have lost track of the fact that we know he’s a good man, and the beauty of this version of the character is that we continue to feel that way even when he makes decisions that we wouldn’t make. If they wanted me to sympathize with Sherlock to the degree that I normally do during the course of an episode, they should have made his evil sister put him in situations that would emphasize the areas where his character is weak, as opposed to ones where he’ll be forced to act honourably. In fact, this was the wrong approach entirely to the villain of this episode. Eurus shouldn’t have been a calculating arch-manipulator who uses humans as lab rats; she should have been somebody who knows Sherlock’s worst attributes and wishes to put them on display. She should have tried to demonstrate to him the extent to which he is fundamentally lacking in empathy, only to have John Watson reaffirm his value. That would have been a character beat to end the show on. I could say more, like how I wish there’d been more jokes, or how bits of this were legitimately scary in a way that Moffat scripts haven’t been for a while, but the details will largely fade into the background with this one, in the face of how bizarrely these two writers misinterpreted the appeal of their protagonist in the final episode of their show. Mary’s closing monologue is an obvious attempt to paper over that (final) problem, but the thing is that in this particular reinterpretation of the Sherlock Holmes corpus, it does matter what kind of people Holmes and Watson are. The adventures themselves account for a certain amount of what’s great about this show, but if the true motivations of the characters really mattered as little as Mofftiss are explicitly trying to tell us in that speech, then I wouldn’t have spent the previous hour and a half being so pissed off about why Sherlock’s being portrayed in this light. I think I’ll leave it there. Sherlock, at its best, was a huge achievement in television storytelling. However, it was infrequently at its best and it unfortunately didn’t end there. I mean, I guess it still could. But after this season, I can’t say I’m that interested in more.

Downton Abbey: Season 3, episodes 1-5 — I’ve been trying to decide what it is about this series that keeps me coming back in spite of literally everything about it. I think part of it is that it’s the only thing with a sense of humour as dry as I require. More shade is thrown and with greater subtlety in this show than basically any other. Only in this show could the line “a great many noses will be out of joint” serve as very nearly a cliffhanger.  This season is more like a straightforward soap opera than the show has ever been. But the presence of Cora’s mother, a truculent American bulldozer with about as little respect for the Edwardian aristocracy as I have, is extremely refreshing. Whether or not it comes off in the end, the idea to have a character in the show to whom it is necessary to justify the function of Downton is a very clever idea. Surely Julian Fellowes is entirely aware that he’s got people in the audience like me. Also, I quite like the organ arrangement of the meditation from Thaïs that’s played right before Edith’s almost-wedding. Wonder where I can find sheet music for that?

Games

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: Part 4 — Last we checked in, I was hopelessly stuck and wandering around a part of the map that there was literally no way out of with the items that I had. I was worried that this would be the bit where I stopped enjoying myself, but I’m actually glad that I got to spend a bit of time in that area because it’s one of the best parts of the game so far. Basically, just outside the huge castle that you’re trying to get into is a complex of stone towers that were once a great college of magic. They’ve been left in a state of dilapidation in recent years, but they’ve still got dangerous magic around them. That’s the best concept in this game so far: an abandoned magical college full of traps and impossible rooms. That would be a good game in itself. Anyway, I never did find a proper way out of there. But I did find an elegant way to die, which is the only way that you can really go back and make your choices again. So that turned out not to be an annoyance at all, but rather a lovely excursion away from the main plot. Having gotten back to the main plot, I swiftly realized how much I’m not used to having to think through simple puzzles in order to finish games. I died nine times within the game’s very last section, in the big castle I spent hours trying to get into last week — all because I failed to see one extremely obvious way to solve the problem that kept happening. Anyway, this is just another example of me wanting games not to be games, because I’m bad at them. If you’re not, I think you probably ought to play this. The fourth instalment is good enough to justify the sometimes tedious schlep through the first three.

NORTH — Nothing special. For two bucks and an hour of your time, it’s good value. But while this game is to be commended for its attempt to win the player’s empathy for a refugee, it doesn’t have a lot to say about the specifics of that experience. It sets its narrative in a hazy, purposely abstract city populated by anguished deformed ghouls. And while its visual style is completely wonderful and gets across a sense of loneliness and alienation that befits its theme, NORTH falls flat in that it doesn’t take the extra step and establish more acute consequences for its central character’s decision to flee to this place. NORTH deals in generalities. You learn that your character has moved to a place that distrusts his religion, will only allow him to do the most menial and dangerous work, and doubts that he was even persecuted at all in his home country. This all rings true, but the structure of the game is such that all of these hurdles are jumpable, and there’s no sense here that the character suffers the sort of sustained discrimination and hate from his fellow citizens that are presumably the attitudes this game is trying to combat. Rather, he is simply made to live in a rather stylish dystopian surveillance state. (Perhaps one that surveils him more closely than others, but even that is not entirely clear.) So basically, this game is really good at inspiring empathy for an isolated person who has been forced to move far from home, but its attempts to generalize the refugee experience to the point of abstraction make it substantially less powerful than it wants to be.

Movies

HyperNormalisation — Before we discuss the content of this troubling, mesmerizing masterpiece, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that the BBC has (at least in this instance) figured out what a public broadcaster should do on the internet. For context, this is a three-hour web-exclusive documentary by the BBC’s weirdest longstanding contributor, Adam Curtis. It covers the 40-year story of how the world got to a point where obviously horrible things can happen routinely (suicide bombings, Trump, Putin) while most people continue to think the world is still normal. So basically, it is extremely ambitious and engages in exactly no handholding. Oh, you don’t know who Andrei Tarkovsky is? Fucking Google it. We have the world at our fingertips. We shouldn’t insist that documentarians, broadcasters and journalists fill us in on shit like that. If Curtis took the traditional broadcasting approach, HyperNormalisation would be nineteen tedious hours long. By circumventing basic explanatory parentheticals and trusting his audience’s intelligence and curiosity, Curtis is able to present three hours of pure analysis and evaluation. Less time spent explaining equals more time spent synthesizing. This is easier to do when the documentary is open in one of many browser tabs and easily rewindable than if it’s on BBC Two. Many legacy media outlets, public and not, have looked at the internet primarily as a threat, and of course they’re not wrong. But they are damn well wrong to react to that threat by making themselves more similar to the vapid sorts of web-native operations that command competitively-sized audiences to their broadcast platforms. The internet was once the proud home of the stuff that’s too weird and difficult for what used to be called mainstream media. The BBC’s release of HyperNormalisation exclusively on their iPlayer feels like a beautiful glimpse into an alternate universe where legacy media joined the party where the cool, smart kids were. It’s an acknowledgement that the internet offers the opportunity to do exactly what they’ve always done, except smarter and more niche. Meanwhile, two browser tabs over, there are National Post headlines shouting at me to click on them so that Facebook will see them as profitable and display them more prominently so that more people will click on them and see ads on the National Post website and not learn a damn thing from the article and then do it all again and again until they’ve spent half the running time of HyperNormalisation consuming the media equivalent of marshmallows and feeling a bit sick. So, it’s appropriate that towards the end of its staggering exploration of how everything became fake, HyperNormalisation asserts that we know the world less well than ever because we view it through the simplified, personalized lens of algorithmically-curated social feeds. The Wikipedia synopsis actually sums up the effect of this better than I probably could: “The American Left’s attempt to resist Trump on the internet had no effect. In fact, they were just feeding the social media corporations who valued their many additional clicks.” There’s more on social media in this, particularly as it applies to the fruitless revolutions in Egypt during the Arab Spring and on Wall Street during the Occupy movement. But it’s actually expressed with even more clarity in Curtis’s interview on Chapo Trap House, which I recommend. Putting my usual hobby horse aside for a moment, this documentary is tremendously clever in its structure. It begins with stories in New York and Damascus, and continues symmetrically mapping the gradual dissolution of politics into a false narrative-making machine through America and the Middle East. There are quick asides to the U.K. and Russia, but this is mostly a story about the U.S., Syria, and most compellingly, Libya. The figure who is the lynchpin of Curtis’s entire sprawling argument is Muammar Gaddafi: a cartoonish lunatic who wasn’t responsible for much that the U.S. (knowingly wrongly) accused him of, but who was deranged enough to take responsibility anyway. Curtis traces Gaddafi’s transformation from America’s handmade bogeyman that let them conveniently remain allied with Syria through the Gulf War, into a political intellectual and friend of the West after 9/11, and subsequently into an enemy again when the U.S. allied itself with the Libyan rebels. This strand of Curtis’s narrative alone makes it clear that reality hasn’t been tremendously important in American politics for a long time. The documentary was released before the election of Trump, but this makes that completely unthinkable event look inevitable in retrospect. Pick of the week.

Music

Jethro Tull: Bursting Out — Now, naturally, I would say this. But this is one of the best live albums ever. If you’re trying to convince somebody why live albums are worthwhile, and why they were such a big deal in the ‘70s, this is possibly the very best one. I’d put it at number two on my personal live list, edging out Yessongs and Magma’s Live/Hhaï by a fraction and losing out only to Gentle Giant’s Playing the Fool. By the height of prog rock in the ‘70s, the studio recording had long supplanted the live performance as the platonic ideal of a piece of music. (Think of a Beatles song. You’re thinking of the record, not a live track.) Since then, as music has become increasingly producer driven and recordings have become fussier and fussier and piled with more layers of artifice (by no means a value judgement; it’s just true), live records have become increasingly superlative as live performances inevitably come to resemble the records more and more. But the ‘70s represents an interesting transitional phase, where albums were becoming increasingly elaborate, but they were still basically made by people who played instruments. So, live performances from this period are a hybrid between the profoundly expressive act that music making always is, and the thrill of watching a series of stunts. Jethro Tull is one of the bands that succeeded most consistently in existing at that intersection. The performances on this live record are unique to the studio versions because the studio versions are irreproducibly complex. Instead, they are compelling reinterpretations of the material for a different setting. This is a kind of record that I don’t think we’ll ever see again. And that’s fine. But thank god we have this one.  

Igor Stravinsky/John Eliot Gardiner, Ian Bostridge, Bryn Terfel, etc: The Rake’s Progress — I used to listen to this a bunch back in music school but man, it’s been a while. It came up at work recently, and I figured it was about time to revisit this. This is one of those recordings that seems like the platonic ideal of the opera in question. (Mind you, it’s also the only Rake I’ve listened to more than once. There’s a reason for that, though.) Gardiner treats the material with the unsentimentality that it begs, and that matter-of-factness allows the score itself to express its own natural beauty. And the singing is absolutely peerless. Bostridge and Terfel are two of the best singers of their generation, both at their very best here. Terfel’s Nick Shadow is very much a classic Bryn Terfel characterization: a touch of the clown, but threatening nonetheless. Along with Anne Sofie von Otter’s bearded lady, he breathes life into a story that isn’t always naturally invigorated by Stravinsky’s compulsively austere music. That’s especially relevant in the first act, because this opera famously takes a while to get going. Act two has a lot of great stuff in it, but it’s the third and final act that’s the real masterpiece. Honestly, I’d recommend that any classical music fan take the 55 minutes to listen to act three and the short, brilliant epilogue to hear Stravinsky at the absolute height of his abilities in neoclassical mode. It’s Stravinskian music clothed in Mozartean garb, and the three scenes of act three show three distinctly different takes on that concept. The auction scene is total chaos that must take untold hours of rehearsal. The graveyard scene is creepy and muted, and a magnificent two-hander for the singers in the leading roles (Terfel and Bostridge are unspeakably entertaining together). And the final scene in the madhouse is the best of all. Stravinsky does something really clever here. The Rake has gone insane and believes himself to be Adonis. Stravinsky’s music seems to support that delusion, as it’s suddenly filled with ambrosia, and the distance between the beauty of the music and the reality of the Rake’s madness makes the scene gloriously sad. The epilogue is two and a half minutes of Stravinsky’s most addictive music. I love this. Listen to this.

Podcasts

Welcome to Night Vale: “worms…” — The episodic plot of this episode gradually melted away into the larger story arc, but it’s fine. I do think Hiram McDaniels is played out as a character, but I know he sticks around for at least twenty more episodes, and probably more. One of the most pronounced weak points of Welcome to Night Vale is that they don’t know when things are played out. Their continuity is a crutch that they use in place of new jokes, because they think they can (and perhaps they actually can?) rely on their fan base to be delighted at the mere mention of the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home, or the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex. Which, granted, are both fun combinations of words. But the novelty wears off when the thing they’re attached to doesn’t actually have anything new to contribute to the story. For a show about the mysterious and unknowable, Night Vale sure does rely an awful lot on familiarity as a positive trait in itself. If I space out my listening enough (and my increasing behindness should indicate that I do), I can tolerate it. But after listening to three episodes last week (even though one of which was “Voicemail,” which is one of the few to break the structural mould) I’m already starting to get sick of this again.

Chapo Trap House: “Better Call Saul Alinsky” — The Chapos are joined by MST3K’s Bill Corbett to talk about the single most hilariously misguided and offensive documentary of recent times: Dinesh D’Souza’s Hillary’s America. I am so happy they watched it so I don’t have to.

Love and Radio: “No Bad News” — This is about a hypnotist who stopped watching the news and ended up treating Uday Hussein because he had no idea what was going on in the world. It is less frustrating (in the good way) than many episodes of Love and Radio but that may just be because of the hypnotist’s soothing voice, which probably made me more amenable to his self-enforced ignorance.

Theory of Everything: “Entrapment” — Excellent, but particularly excellent for the segment from ten years ago, in which a younger, more naïve Benjamen Walker tells a story about his cell phone ruining his relationship. Oh, for the days when the most insidious invasion of privacy that your cell phone could manage was a butt dial.

Theory of Everything: “The Twentieth of January” — Firstly, the novel they’re talking about in this is real. There actually is a spy novel from 1980 about a Republican president who gets elected in spite of having no political experience and an amount of wealth that’s inconsistent with his image as a populist. And then a British intelligence agent reveals a plot by the Russians to influence the election. That much of this episode — the part that describes the plot of the novel — is entirely true. But just finding this book and noting its similarity to our contemporary shit cyclone wouldn’t be enough. So Benjamen Walker and his guest Josh Glenn spin a bizarre conspiracy theory that the book is one of the few that Donald Trump has actually read, and that it was given to him by the KGB. That’s the beauty of this show. It would never squander the knowledge of a weirdly prescient espionage thriller on mere reportage. It takes it several steps further.

Code Switch: “Obama’s Legacy: Did He Remix Race?” — A fine conclusion to the trilogy, with some really excellent tape from the poet Richard Blanco, who read at Obama’s inauguration. The best part is hearing the panel take apart the optimism of Obama’s farewell address, look at it from a few different angles, and not quite be able to come to a decision on it.  

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: DJ Khaled” — So, I listened to this at 1.5X, and I’m not sure I’ve ever been more entertained. But even at regular speed, I’m sure Khaled’s explanation of why it’s important to have a lot of pillows will delight you.

The Sporkful: “The Great Office Coffee Election” — This is fun. WNYC voted on what the new free office coffee was going to be, so Dan Pashman obviously had to make a Sporkful out of it.

Song Exploder: “Solange – Cranes in the Sky” — First off, I’m confused about how Hrishikesh Hirway was able to isolate the drums and bass from this track if the stems went missing. Did they find them after the fact? But in any case, this is really illuminating. Basically, Solange took an instrumental that she couldn’t do much with except loop and built a song on top of it that actually has direction and manages to go somewhere because of her skill with harmony. I love this show because it focusses in on the craftsmanship of music. That’s especially useful with music like this, where it intersects so perfectly with a big social conversation. The vast preponderance of criticism about A Seat at the Table has focussed on Solange’s social message, as well it should. But there’s space to recognise that Solange is both very thoughtful about feminism and race and she is very good at making music. Pick of the week.

The West Wing Weekly: “What’s Next? featuring Lin-Manuel Miranda” — Worth it for the lines about Yo-Yo Ma alone.

The Gist: “The 12-Step Program of Highly Effective People” — Nick Thune is a funny fellow. I saw him live last year, and was pretty impressed. This is a good conversation that gets into the craft of his comedy a bit, and gets to why he resists tightening up his set to just the lines that get the biggest laughs. I respect him for that. I found him entertaining to listen to, even when the punchlines were spread a fair way apart. Mike Birbiglia can get away with this too.

Criminal: “In Plain Sight” — It’s been so long since I listened to Criminal. I really should go back and listen to the whole archive. This is an incredible show. It reminds me as much of Reply All as anything, because it takes a really broad view of its premise. Anything that could ever have been interpreted as criminal is fair game. So, this story of two slaves escaping so that they could have a proper marriage in a church — an escape that involves a pretty insane disguise — is the sort of thing you can rely on this show for. Lovely.

The Memory Palace: “The Presidency of William Henry Harrison, or Back in the Saddle” — One of the really slight ones. It’s nice, and a good tie-in for inauguration day, but not one of the episodes that’ll sell you on this show.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Young Pope & Hell or High Water” — Here’s one of the episodes that makes me want to watch both of the things they’re talking about. The Young Pope in particular sounds exactly weird enough to be just what I want out of life.

Omnireviewer (week of May 29)

16 reviews. It’s been busy.

Music

Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial — I won’t say I love all of it. But I will say that “Vincent,” and “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” are up there with “Blackstar,” “Freedom” and ‘Animal Rites” as my favourite tracks of the year. This is guaranteed to grow on me in a big way. I can already recognize that it’s something really special. I may have my own idiosyncratic faves of the year so far — including John Congleton, Tim Hecker and David Bowie (atypical to the extent that I’m probably in the minority in thinking that Blackstar is one of his best albums) — but I’m happy to predict that for years to come, we’ll still be talking about Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of DenialPick of the week.

Jethro Tull: Nightcap: The Unreleased Masters — I can’t believe I’ve never listened to this. The first disc of this collection contains the music from the Chateau D’Herouville (nicknamed Chateau D’Horrible by the band) that predates A Passion Play but was never released. I won’t pretend it’s excellent — the best cuts made it onto A Passion Play, and the rest is mostly marginal. I suspect that these sessions are regarded more highly by people who don’t like A Passion Play as much as I do. Still, it’s got some worthwhile snippets and is absolutely fascinating as a document for geeks like me. The second disc contains some stuff I’d heard as bonus tracks on the second-most recent re-releases of the studio albums, and a bunch of stuff I hadn’t. The outtakes from the ‘70s are so close to album-calibre it’s almost painful. Some of the ‘80s stuff has its appeal too, but by the time we’re getting to Rock Island castoffs, things are getting dire.

Jethro Tull: Roots to Branches — Another album I can’t believe I’ve never heard. This is known among Tull fans, specifically those of us with an affinity for their proggier stuff, as the one really worthwhile ‘90s Tull album. Naturally, I really like it. There are problems: the digital keyboards are corny, and Anderson’s lyrics are not what they once were — in fact, they’re appallingly self-serious in places. But it’s definitely one of the good ones. It isn’t in the league of Songs From the Wood, for instance, but I’d put it about even with The Broadsword and the Beast.

Television

Game of Thrones: “Blood Of My Blood” — Well, Arya’s plotline has gone well off the rails. King’s Landing isn’t as fun when Cersei’s not in most of the scenes. And Sam’s father is introduced as yet another intransigent fuckhead without a shred of self-knowledge. Basically, this feels like all of the plotlines that weren’t good enough for last week’s awesome episode stuck together. It’s still not actually bad, though, and I remain thoroughly turned-around on this season.

Archer: “Deadly Velvet, Part 1” — Huh, I’m actually excited to see the end of this story, as opposed to just hearing the rest of the jokes. Archer is good, but I would like to see these writers do a different show soon.

Games

HyperBound — I’ll confess, a major part of why I wanted to play EarthBound in the first place is because I wanted to play this hack of it. I first heard about HyperBound in Anna Anthropy’s awesome games manifesto The Rise of the Videogame Zinesters. Essentially, it is a game that’s very unlike EarthBound, but which uses EarthBound as its building blocks. In HyperBound, Ness is not Ness, but rather a nameless amnesiac (ah, amnesia — always the most useful adventure game trope) who must travel through a number of towns gathering evidence about his former life. The principal new mechanic is quite ingenious: early in the game, you meet a doctor who will allow you to undertake a procedure to regain your memories. (The gameplay during the procedure feels like reverse Eternal Sunshine, but made of EarthBound sprites.) You can undergo the procedure whenever and however many times you like, but it has a slim chance of working. The more you’ve explored, the more likely it is to work. When it doesn’t work, it causes brain damage, which manifests as glitches in the game. (Much as EarthBound is a very reflexive game, HyperBound is a very reflexive hack.) For me, there are two problems with this. One is simply that I enjoyed EarthBound far more than I expected to, so playing this kind of makes me wish I was just playing EarthBound. (I had half expected to like it more than EarthBound, crazy as that sounds.) HyperBound eliminates the element of EarthBound that I found occasionally trying, the combat, and maintains the exploratory element that I enjoyed the most. But by the end of EarthBound, I had begun to appreciate the challenge of the combat, and it helped to break up gameplay. Now I miss it. But comparing the two games in this way is kind of moot: HyperBound’s goal isn’t to modify EarthBound, it’s to tell a substantial interactive story using the materials of another. Which leads me to my second issue: HyperBound doesn’t do as much to subvert EarthBound as I’d personally like. It’s not uncommon to encounter characters who speak the same dialogue as they did in the original version, and the tone of the original is replicated almost obsessively. There’s an opportunity here, given that this is effectively a mashup, to use the systems of meaning established in EarthBound for different purposes, thereby explicitly undermining them. The fact that HyperBound is so reluctant to take this approach is a bit disappointing to me. But, all of this is me refusing to take HyperBound on its own terms, which is terribly rude. It is spectacularly accomplished as a hack, and the intentional use of glitches is properly clever. Now that I’m done with this, I think it’s time for my second playthrough of Undertale. Now there’s a game that undermines EarthBound.

Podcasts

The Heart: “Ten Foot Pole” — Okay, this is getting great. On one hand, there’s the always-present discomfort about being entertained by somebody else’s real-life horror story, but this continuing series about a woman coming to terms with her childhood sexual abuse is the most gripping thing I’ve heard in awhile. In this episode, she actually talks to the man who abused her, though she doesn’t tell him who she is or bring up the abuse. Nonetheless, the conversation turns out to be shocking in its resonance. The Heart is a fantastic podcast, always, but I think this might be the most meaningful thing it’s ever done. And of course, it sounds amazing. These folks are the best audio editors at Radiotopia. (Alongside The Truth, maybe, but when have they had a story this good?)

StartUp: “Kitchen Confidential” — I’m starting to get sick of hearing the same story, week after week. Which is an ironic thing to say, given that this is the first season of StartUp to feature a different story every week, as opposed to one serialized narrative. But in focussing on the same moment in each of their subject companies’ developments — the “make or break” moment, to use the parlance of a superior podcast — they’re retreading the same narrative ground, again and again. A return to serialized seasons would be much appreciated at this point.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Live at Vulture Festival” — Okay, so their topical link to Vulture is pretty tenuous, but this is a fun listen. Linda and Glen are at their funniest in a live setting, and Stephen Thompson and Audie Cornish are both very thoughtful here. Cornish on pop culture and politics makes this worthwhile in itself.

Reply All: “On The Inside, Part III” — This is getting really awesome. The fact that Reply All is a show about the internet that employs a journalist with Sruthi Pinamaneni’s investigative chops ought to make every other internet-focussed media enterprise cower with shame.

On The Media: “Kidnapped” — A marvellous hour devoted to journalists who have been kidnapped reporting in war zones, especially in Syria. There are some extraordinary stories here. What’s particularly enraging is the fact that the systemic breakdown of journalism as an industry that hires reporters full-time can be linked to the problem: if you’re a freelancer, you’re incentivized to behave in really risky ways, like sneaking over borders and such. That, and many other aspects of this story make me want to throw things.

Love and Radio: “Another Planet” — Unlike most episodes of this show, this features a number of different characters, all telling the story of a single place: an abandoned gas station that was turned into an unofficial shelter and cultural centre for a community of (mostly) homeless people. But, like most episodes of this show, it doesn’t start out telling you that’s the story you’re hearing. The lede is always buried in Love and Radio, and that is why I love it so much. Also, Tim Robbins is in this for some reason.

Theory of Everything: “Analogue Time” — I think I prefer the 99pi version of the cassette tape story, but this pairs it with two other stories about technological change, including an account of why Benjamen Walker’s Radiotopia Live segment won’t work on the radio, and a reflection on David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Part of what I love about this show is its ability to find thematic resonances between little bits and pieces of things. It sort of scratches the itch that I’ve had since Radiolab changed format and started devoting whole episodes to single stories.  

Strangers: “The Son, The Goddess, and Leopoldo” — Here’s a good yarn. A boy born into a coven of lesbian witches travels America with his radical leftist mother and helplessly witnesses her abuse by a man who seemed to define everything she believed in. (So much abuse, this week.) It’s told in first-person by the son himself, and it twists and it turns and it twists. It’s appalling at times, but it’s one of those stories that’s so good you don’t pause it to do something else. I don’t listen to Strangers enough. Pick of the week.

Code Switch: “Can We Talk About Whiteness?” — Speaking as a really, really white person, it’s great to hear some smart people actually tackle the concept of whiteness head-on. It’s also a bit strange that the first episode of a podcast about race hosted by people of colour is about white people, but they lampshade that from the outset and who am I to say, anyway. This is really promising. I’m really looking forward to hearing more of this.

All Songs Considered: “The Worst Songs Of All Time?” — This is a lot of fun. Hearing Carrie Brownstein talk about music she hates is just great. “No Rain” by Blind Melon is “sitting on a couch with bad posture.” Talking about music doesn’t get any better than that.

Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 21, 2016)

29, this week! Back on track! It’s been one of those weeks where there’s a lot of cleaning and cooking, and even a bit of running, so there are inevitably also lots of podcasts. Also, many other interesting and unexpected things.

Literature, etc.

Umberto Eco: “Ur-Fascism” — Read it. I had never read anything by Eco, but when he died, this came highly recommended by two bloggers I enjoy. It contains some interesting personal nuggets and, most interestingly, a list of features that tend to be present in various forms of fascism. So, it’s a very useful essay if you’re looking to call somebody an evil fascist on grounds that aren’t totally specious.

Peter Hince: “Being Queen’s Roadie was One Intense, Rewarding Job” — This is an excerpt from a book that’s probably insufferable by a quarter of the way through. But, a free excerpt won’t hurt anybody. It doesn’t contain a lot of revelations; these things never do. Basically, Freddie Mercury was a handful. Hince’s reveries can get a bit self-indulgent — like your uncle who was in a band, once. He’s a bit of a prick, really. It’s still kind of fun, and Hince saw and heard Queen’s shows from angles that nobody else did. It’s worth a read if you’re a Queen fan, which you probably are. You couldn’t pay me to read the whole book, though. On the other hand…

Will Romano: Mountains Come Out Of The Sky — This is a fairly straightforward history of progressive rock. I’m reading it for a project I’m hoping to start sometime in the not too distant future. I’ve been reading it for ages. It’s the same every time: I borrow it from the library, read one measly chapter, renew it three times thinking I’ll get further, then I have to return it. The reason for this is simple: this book is dismal. Romano doesn’t know how to write sentences. He has nothing interesting to say about the music or the culture that it came out of. And he rehashes tired truisms from prog fandom about how vacuous everything else was. I’m committed to finishing it for one reason: Romano interviewed everybody, and gets some interesting quotes here and there which may prove useful to me. But seriously, this is dire. Every time I pick it up it lights a fire under me to write something like this, except good. I’m working on it.

John Cavanagh: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn — An early entry in the 33⅓ series, and not the strongest I’ve read, but still a really good insight into the making of Pink Floyd’s debut album. Cavanagh (what is it with Cavanaghs?) made me realize the influence of Roger Waters, even at this early point in the band’s history. I was always sort of stupefied that a guy who started off as just some bassist eventually wrote The Wall. My impression was that Waters only stepped up his contribution because Syd Barrett’s absence from the third album onwards made it necessary. That’s clearly not true. He always had designs on rock stardom.

Music

Pink Floyd: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn — Specifically, after finishing the book, I listened straight through the three-disc 40th anniversary edition that has the album in both mono and stereo forms (maybe it’s because I grew up with it, but I don’t hate the stereo mix as much as most Floyd fans, though the mono is certainly better overall) plus all of the associated singles and B-sides. It’s a top-notch set, and absolutely worthwhile for anybody that likes the album. Which I do, clearly. But I will say that parts of it have aged better than others. “See Emily Play” remains a 10/10 pop single, “Astronomy Domine” is as good a four-minute distillation of psychedelic rock as you’ll find, and perhaps surprisingly, the ten-minute, mostly atonal jam track “Interstellar Overdrive” still works, in spite of being more firmly of its time than anything else on the record. I’m more hesitant about “Flaming” and “The Gnome.” There is only so much tweeness I am willing to accept in my psychedelia. And, as far as songwriting goes, I’m inclined to believe that Syd Barrett was better once he’d abandoned that aesthetic on his comparatively dark solo albums.

Pink Floyd: Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London — I can’t believe I’d never heard this. This is the half-hour recording Pink Floyd made as the score to the bizarre-looking movie of the same name, which I will likely watch, maybe sometime. But the version of “Interstellar Overdrive” on this is far better than the version that made it onto Piper, though it lacks the state-of-the-art EMI mixing and mastering. And “Nick’s Boogie” is dank af.

Jethro Tull: War Child — Just as Jethro Tull is one of the most underestimated bands ever to skirt the borders of the classic rock canon, War Child is the most overlooked of their many masterpieces of the 70s. This was the first Tull album not to be made up of just one gigantic song since Aqualung three years prior. But the “bigness” of Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play continue here. That may alienate some listeners, but I think it’s very artfully done. Dee Palmer’s rock orchestral arrangements are maybe second only to George Martin’s, and the glockenspiels, accordions and tablas that the band employs on “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day” make it one of the best recordings of Jethro Tull’s career — and not just one of Ian Anderson’s best songs. This album is full of moments that I find sort of chilling, like the soprano sax melody that opens the title track, or the line in “Skating Away” about being the only one in the audience. My only complaint is that “Two Fingers” is a bit of a weak ending, and not nearly as good as the simpler version recorded as “Lick Your Fingers Clean” during the Aqualung sessions. It’s the only song on the album that’s let down by its arrangement, and it’s right at the end. But up to there, War Child is a classic and one of my favourite albums.

Movies

Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London — Okay, it didn’t take me as long to get around to this as I thought it would. This is an absolute pleasure. It’s an arty sort of documentary about Swinging London that has a sense of humour about itself and never disappears up its own ass. This, in spite of the fact that it was actually made during the period of Swinging London, and not in retrospect. Usually, I find there’s a certain inevitable self-seriousness to nonfiction that speaks on behalf of a contemporary counterculture. (That’s one of the reasons why I couldn’t get into On The Road.) This isn’t like that at all. It’s mostly verité footage over relevant music, with relatively little speech. What speech there is is mostly stoned people talking out their asses, but you get the sense that the film neither endorses what they’re saying, nor does it hold them in disdain. (Okay, maybe it holds Andrew Loog Oldham in disdain, but the wanker deserves it.) There’s a moment near the beginning where the camera’s shooting a guy playing trombone in a sequence making fun of the pomp and ceremony of the changing of the guard, and the camera keeps zooming in and out as the trombonist moves his slide. It’s surprisingly funny, and establishes the camera as a really engaging, likeable narrator. The last third of the movie revolves more around interview footage and is far less interesting than what came before, but there are worthwhile tidbits. Julie Christie is remarkably indulgent of Peter Whitehead, the obviously eccentric man making the film. A young Michael Caine reveals himself to be very sexist. And Mick Jagger’s actually fairly thoughtful at times. If you’re going to watch a movie about psychedelic culture in the 60s, this is not as good a choice as Performance, but more worthwhile than Easy Rider.

A Serious Man — The best part of this movie is a scene where the main character, a physics professor, is arguing with his student’s father in his driveway. The father is threatening to sue the professor for defaming his son — the professor claims that his student tried to bribe him in exchange for a passing grade, which is almost certainly true but we can’t know for sure. So, the professor says, okay I’ll pretend like this never happened, but your son still fails. And the father says that unless his son passes, he’ll sue the professor — not for defamation, now, but for taking money. Aha, says the professor, so he did leave the money! “This is defamation,” says the father. The professor reasonably points out that this doesn’t make any sense: either he left the money or he didn’t. “Please,” says the father. “Accept the mystery.” This is, of course, a Schroedinger’s cat scenario. The cat can’t actually be simultaneously dead and alive, but we accept the mystery because the math checks out. And, Schroedinger’s cat and the associated math is the very topic of the failed exam that all of this is about. The Coens structure the movie so that this is an obvious and easy connection to make, and their main character sees it too — which is part of what spurs on his crisis of faith. Yes, this movie is thematically based around a three-way allegory comparing faith, physics and bribery. Like Burn After Reading and O Brother, Where Art Thou, it deserves to be much more highly regarded. Pick of the week.

Television

Deadwood: Season 2, episodes 3-6 — The abysmally-titled but excellent episode “Requiem for a Gleet” features not just one, but two moments that must rank high on my list of great TV scenes: the shot of five people at Al’s bedside after his medical ordeal (the nature of which is only marginally spoiled by the episode’s title), and the scene where E.B. fails miserably to trick Alma out of her gold claim. The latter is borderline Shakespearean in its wit. E.B. is an idiot, but a wonderfully loquacious one in the vein of Polonius. And, the way that Alma turns the tables and manages to unsettle him rather than the other way around recalls Shakespeare’s cleverest heroines: Beatrice and Rosalind. Also, the character of Francis Walcott, who shows up this season to stir the pot, feels like a prototype of Vee from Orange is the New Black: another ill-intentioned interloper in a show’s second season. We’ll see which of them turns out to be more dangerous, but as of episode six, I’m leaning heavily towards Walcott. He basically just turned into Hannibal.

Last Week Tonight: February 22, 2016 — Sometimes satire doesn’t make me laugh, but instead makes me say “yes, that is correct; good job liberal America.” I don’t think that’s good satire. That’s what the Hollywood whitewashing segment did — not that it isn’t something worth talking about. It’s just that everybody’s talking about it already, and this segment didn’t frame the issue in a new way, or make me laugh. (Except for the bit about Idris Elba dressing like French Waldo. That was gold.) The rest of the episode is wonderful. I have a limitless tolerance for John Oliver fact-checking Republican talking points when actual journalists won’t, and the segment on abortion laws works by sheer accumulation of examples.

Better Call Saul: “Cobbler” — “You think I’d be caught dead driving that thing? It looks like a school bus for six-year-old pimps.” Michael Mando as Nacho is becoming one of my favourite performances in this show. The story is becoming as frustrating-in-a-good-way as Breaking Bad was. You see what Jimmy’s capable of at every turn, but you can also predict his every backslide into criminality. He’s undone by his own self-image.

Lost: “The Moth” — Not to be confused with the podcast discussed below. Charlie is one of the most appealing characters in Lost because of Dominic Monaghan’s performance, but his story is appallingly written. This episode, with its hamfisted symbolism and its rock and roll clichés, is the show’s first proper stinker. It’s one of the obvious points to go to illustrate the failings of this supposedly “best” season of Lost. Also, this is the first I’ve noticed it, but Naveen Andrews’ accent is really bad, isn’t it?

Podcasts

Sampler: “Magic and Tonic” — This is a perfectly entertaining show, but I honestly don’t see who’s going to tune in (I have decided that this is still an appropriate expression to use about podcasts) regularly to hear a show that’s about other shows. Brittany Luse is great, though. I’ll check out her other show when I catch up with my damn subscriptions.

On the Media: “Bernie Sanders is Running for President” — That title was supposed to be a joke, because the episode aired in January, months after Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy. But since I’m listening to it a full month after that, I guess it’s… funnier? Not much to say, except that once I catch up with my damn subscriptions, I might add OTM to my list of shows that I listen to every episode of, because it’s the most consistently intelligent show available that relates to news.

The Moth: “Moth GrandSLAMs: Life and Death” — I tuned in for Neil Gaiman, and ended up consistently bored throughout all four stories. Oh well. One episode closer to having caught up with my damn subscriptions.

Radiolab: “I Don’t Have To Answer That” — Politics stories on Radiolab are almost sure to be good, and completely certain not to be extraordinary. There’s no good reason that Radiolab, with its capacity for bold aesthetic choices and esoteric storytelling, should be the show to do this story. Hell, Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield work just down the hall. This is fine. It’s good. But I miss the version of Radiolab that would take on the questions nobody else could.

Serial: “5 O’Clock Shadow” — Okay, now this is starting to pick up. This episode has a detailed outline of a military mission and great tape from people who were there. It’s also the first episode that has really sold the confusion over Bergdahl’s motives to me. Having heard his complaints about his platoon, I have no idea why he thought such dramatic measures were necessary.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Grease: Live, and Musicals on TV” — Even as a person with a relatively high tolerance for musicals, all of the stuff they talk about on this episode sounds dire to me.

All Songs Considered: “Shearwater, Lily & Madeleine, Eskimeaux, More” — Nothing on this really stuck out, but I love when Lars Gotrich comes around, because he has some magical way of finding the sort of strange and marginal music that I want in my life.

Fresh Air: “Original ‘Cabaret’ Emcee Joel Grey” — Grey’s a complicated guy. There’s a lot of drama in his life story, which he’s been keeping under wraps for a long time, considering that he only came out publicly as a gay man last year. This is a good interview. It’s hard not to think that Grey was a bit of a jerk to his ex-wife, but there were compromising circumstances.

Theory of Everything: “After Work” — Benjamen Walker checks back in with the unpaid intern he “hired” to try and make a living in the sharing economy back in the three-part “Instaserfs” series. This is great; I love how the two of them use their relationship as a metaphor for the actual sharing economy, and this episode turns that on its head, a bit. As ever, Walker’s intense skepticism about “progress” in the world of labour is much appreciated.

99% Invisible: “The Yin and Yang of Basketball” — This is a story about design solutions to seeming injustices built into the game of basketball. It’s real genius lies in the fact that it’s not important to understand what a three-point shot is, for example. I have no idea what that is, and if they’d tried to explain it, I guarantee I would have tuned out.

Imaginary Worlds: “Noble Effort” — This is actually an episode of 99pi from back when Molinsky was a freelancer without his own podcast. It’s a very, very good episode of 99pi, about the work of the man who drew the backgrounds and landscapes for the Looney Toons, and was thus at least halfway responsible for their brilliance.

Radiolab: “Hard Knock Life” — Robert Krulwich got Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Hamilton fame, to write music about the mating rituals of beetles. This is essentially why we need Robert Krulwich in the world.

99% Invisible: “Miss Manhattan” — The best episode of 99pi since “Structural Integrity.” Before there were supermodels, one woman posed for nearly every sculptor in America. It’s a great story, and Avery Trufelman is an incredible storyteller. Just go listen to it. Pick of the week.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The 2016 Grammy Awards” — I saved so much time by just listening to this and not watching the Grammys. I hate the Grammys. But everything Kendrick Lamar touches turns to gold, so at least there’s that.

Serial: “Hindsight” Parts 1 & 2 — The more that this season of Serial stays focussed on Bergdahl himself, rather than going madly off in every contextual direction, the more I like it — which is to say that this two-parter is one of the highlights of season two. I realize that this is an argument against the very thing that I’ve previously claimed makes Serial such a positive cultural force in the past, but I just can’t deny that personal narratives mean more to me than the granular details that Sarah Koenig and Dana Chivvis are so good at parsing.

Reply All: “The Line” — This is a story about doubt in the Mormon church, as expressed online, that neither condescends to Mormons, nor does it gloss over the fact that their doctrine doesn’t make sense. It is very deft and very moving, and once again does that thing that I love so much about Reply All where it switches effortlessly back and forth between being “important public radio” and being people with microphones shooting the shit.