This was one of those weeks where I watched a whole season of TV. It happens. But I still managed to get a bunch of podcasts in and some truly wonderful music. 25 reviews.
Blade Runner — The only other time I’ve watched Blade Runner was when I was probably 16. I’m not sure which cut I watched at the time, but it couldn’t have been the Final Cut, which I watched this time, because that didn’t come out until the next year. Regardless, I remembered liking it a lot, but that’s kind of all I remembered. This week, I watched the Final Cut with a friend, in a state of distraction and fatigue. Truthfully, a lot of the story and many of the themes slipped past me, given how little attention I was paying. But the result of this was a unique sort of viewing experience: I feel as though I watched Blade Runner as a painting. Without following the story or attempting to parse the characters’ motivations and identities, Blade Runner becomes a mystifying, entrancing procession of sensations and impressions. If it were possible to photoshop out all of the main characters from Blade Runner and mute all of the dialogue, I daresay it would still be a compelling art film. It would still be a fever dream of a future city: we would still see the magnificent towers occupied by the very privileged, the sweaty masses of pedestrians in the Tokyo-inspired lower quarters, the vast modernist step pyramids where authority lives, and the total dominance of advertising from the street level straight up to the rarified air of the police aircrafts. We would still have Vangelis’s abstract, improvisational score imparting a feel of creeping malaise. We would still see rooms filled with grotesque semi-sentient toys, and beams of golden light enrobing the figure of an owl with a curiously reflective iris. When my friend and I first tried to start the movie, we were disappointed to discover that her HDMI cable had reached the end of its lifespan. (“It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”) We rushed to London Drugs for a replacement, and since the store was just about to close, one of the employees in the home electronics section was indulging himself by playing Philip Glass’s score to Koyaanisqatsi over the speakers. A small moment of serendipity, this was. Koyaanisqatsi is an experimental film by Godfrey Reggio that was released the same year Blade Runner was. Inevitably, the music conjured up the film’s narrative-free imagery of late 20th-century cities in my mind, and it remained lodged there throughout the duration of Blade Runner. Maybe that’s part of why I saw it the way I did. Contained within Blade Runner is both a science fiction thriller about human identity and a sort of speculative Koyaanisqatsi. Where Reggio’s film is a study of then-contemporary urban malaise, conveyed through images and evocative music, Ridley Scott’s is the same thing for an imagined near future. The two films never struck me as being of a piece with each other before, but I doubt the connection will ever leave me now. I might watch Blade Runner again next week. I love this movie and I still don’t really know what it’s about.
Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 11 — Okay, so Shelly has abruptly become much less admirable in the show’s estimation. First, she jumps onto the windshield of a moving car, something no reasonably intelligent person would do, regardless of the circumstance. Then, she instantaneously forgets the moment of family crisis she’s trying to negotiate when her latest criminal boyfriend drops by. I mean, it’s not like she didn’t always have a thing for criminals, but that scene is super weird. One second she’s crying, embracing her off-the-rails daughter, and the next, she’s scampering away from that same daughter as fast as she can to go make out with Balthazar Getty. I am trying hard to maintain my view that Twin Peaks is intrinsically worthwhile by virtue of being unlike anything else on television, but it’s not making it easy. Mind you, if it were making it easy, it wouldn’t be unlike anything else on television.
Game of Thrones: “Stormborn” — Wow, this must be blazingly good for me to not hate it. I always hate the beginnings of GoT seasons. Now I’m actually looking forward to this show’s next episode. I don’t think that’s happened for about three seasons. That’s my highest possible praise for this show, so I’ll just leave it at that.
Downton Abbey: Season 5 — Once you start a season of Downton it is impossible not to finish it that week. I defy anybody to try. Here is the season where everybody’s moral clarity, however misbegotten, gets shot to hell. The situation with Edith’s illegitimate daughter is an absolute minefield. While the constant scenes of her getting turned away by the unknowing foster mother of her illegitimate child get trying, the denouement of that plotline makes everybody a victim. Edith herself is the victim of the social strictures of her time that would see her scandalized if her pregnancy had been revealed, and the foster mother is deprived of the child that she raised because of her inferior class. When Cora finds out, even she is unable to maintain her usual consistency of ethics: she’s deeply offended that Violet and Rosamund kept the secret from her, but once she knows she claims it’s “not their secret to tell,’ even to Robert who by rights has an equal claim to the knowledge as Cora. But of course she’s right to feel he can’t know. Because he’s an ass-backwards jerk. That ought to be the reasoning Cora offers. And he is awfully insufferable this season. One of Downton’s perverse delights is watching as Robert’s way of life is eroded gradually in ways he finds unacceptable and unjust. His misplaced anxiety about his wife’s fidelity is a clever way for the show to demonstrate the extent to which his grip is slipping. But it’s also a clear indication of how much he takes Cora for granted. Elizabeth McGovern walks a fine line in scenes with her would-be illicit lover Simon Bricker: never once implying that she actually wants to have an affair, but happy to be appreciated for once. Meanwhile, Mary maintains her steadfast code of self-interest and remains basically sympathetic due to the extent to which her being that way flies in the face of convention. I’m quite the fan of how this season makes it even clearer that she’s the second coming of her grandmother, with all of the wit and imperiousness that entails. As for her suitor Lord Gillingham, holy smokes what a dolt. I never tire of scenes in which he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that he is no longer involved with Mary. I have no particular wishes for how the relationships on this show are to turn out, but I’m very happy to see that guy get thrown over. And on the note of Mary’s similarity to Violet: Maggie Smith continues to be the best part of this show, if only because her total insincerity offers a comment on the proceedings that’s in line with those of us who find ourselves watching Downton half in spite of ourselves. Her storyline with Cousin Isabel, and their mutually unexpected reinvigorated romantic prospects is probably the most consistently amusing thing in this season. As for historical context, the first Labour government gives rise to hopes and fears alike among the servants. For Carson, whose identity and what prestige he has is based entirely on the continuing prosperity of the aristocracy, it seems catastrophic. But for Daisy, who still has her life ahead of her, it seems like an opportunity to do something more with her life. It’s an interesting exploration of the double bind that the serving staff are in: reliant upon the class structure for their livelihoods, but held back by it in larger measure. Also, now that we’re well into the inter-war period, I suppose there need to be some anti-Semites in the show. Clever of Fellowes to have Rose fall for Atticus before she knows of his Jewish heritage. That prevents the unpleasant sense that she’s fetishizing his otherness the way she did with her previous suitor, who was black. Altogether, I think this is one of the stronger seasons of the show, if only because it focusses in on its characters and their lives more than contriving schemes and implausible happenstances to elicit drama. But I honestly would have been pretty much satisfied even if it were just nine hours of Lord Grantham getting called “Donk” by a small child.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Illuminations — One of the great underrecognized classics of the era. This is the album where Buffy Sainte-Marie leaves folkiedom behind in favour of a very idiosyncratic and not-to-be-pigeonholed rendition of psychedelia. She’s cited Morton Subotnick as an influence in the past, probably the only songwriter I’ve ever seen that remark from. And the electronic filigree that links this album’s songs together has Silver Apples of the Moon’s influence all over it. Except it never outstays its welcome. One of the best things about the rock music of the late 60s and early 70s is the fact that all of these musicians were listening to avant-garde classical music, but had the impulse to fold its aesthetic into their music rather than its spirit, which didn’t necessarily always prioritize sounding good. I have no problem with that, but it’s nice to hear the legacy of Subotnick colliding with something I actually love. And the songs themselves are outstanding. “God is Alive, Magic is Afoot” is fun because it’s not a Leonard Cohen cover, but rather a setting of a poem that he himself did not set to music. How lovely it is that we have in the world a song that can be credited to Cohen/Sainte-Marie. The music is pleasingly simplistic: Sainte-Marie has cottoned onto the chant-like character of the text and made that the central inspiration for her music. Among the originals, my favourites are “Better to Find Out for Yourself,” “The Dream Tree,” “Keeper of the Fire” and “Poppies.” The first and third of these feature some of Sainte-Marie’s most aggressive singing. One reason I love her early records so much is because she offers such a compelling alternative to more conventionally pretty folk voices of the time, like Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. She has that sweet, lyrical character in her voice as well, and it comes out gorgeously on “The Dream Tree.” but that’s only one facet of the voice. “Better to Find Out for Yourself” finds her folding wolf calls into the ends of her phrases and “Keeper of the Fire” is a flat-out hard rock vocal performance with an imitation guitar solo in the voice as well. This is a classic, visionary, haunting album and I am constantly appalled by its overlookedness.
Pink Floyd: The Early Years 1965-72 — Oh man, the audio portion of this box set is on Apple Music now! (Except for the last volume, because they still have to entice me to buy the set somehow. As if the hours of video footage weren’t enough.) This is astonishingly entertaining for a vast set of outtakes and rarities. I’ve gotten through the first two volumes, and I am having a Grand Old Time. Let us go into detail, shall we? Volume one, focussing on the period from 1965 through 67, is the only one in the bunch to entirely predate Syd Barrett’s replacement with David Gilmour. It runs the gamut from bracing to boring, but there’s less of the latter than you might think. It’s in four sections. The first is a set of recordings from 1965, while the band was still calling itself the Tea Set, and had a second guitarist. The sound is excellent, but the same can’t be said of the songs, which find Syd Barrett in the throes of a rhythm and blues obsession that will have long abated by the time Pink Floyd actually releases a record. The performances are surprisingly good, though. Already, this is a band that’s more concerned with how they play than what they play. The second part is a collection of the band’s singles, B-sides, and a few unreleased tracks. Of these, the singles and B-sides are familiar but welcome here as part of the broader picture of this band at this time. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn proves to be a very narrow window through which to view these artists. The unreleased tracks include a few new mixes of familiar tracks, including a “Matilda Mother” with different, funnier lyrics. “There was a boy whose name was Jim / His friends they were very good to him / They gave him tea and cakes and jam / And slices of delicious ham.” God, I love that. But probably the highlight of the volume is the new stereo mixes of the famous unreleased tracks “In the Beechwoods” and especially “Vegetable Man” and “Scream Thy Last Scream.” These last two are in fact among Syd Barrett’s finest songs and in a just world would have become two sides of a single, or maybe showed up on A Saucerful of Secrets in place of, I dunno, “Corporal Clegg” and “See-Saw.” It seems they’ve been regarded as unfortunate symptoms of Barrett’s decline over the years. But with these new mixes, they stand revealed as two of the best early Pink Floyd songs. The second disc of volume one, consisting of the other two parts, is a less triumphant affair. It does feature the archeological diamond of a full live set with Syd Barrett, though the vocals are missing from the mix and only audible through distant mics. Still, it sounds like Syd was having a bad night vocally, so maybe that’s not such a bad thing. It’s weird to hear him sing “Set the Controls” to begin with — let alone so out of tune. And the instrumentals like “Interstellar Overdrive” and the unrecorded “Reaction in G” are as compelling as the band’s early fans would have you think. Volume one finishes with an unused free improvisational film score made for the experimental filmmaker John Latham. This is not great. It’s one of those things that it’s nice to have, just because we’ve all known that it exists for so long. I imagine it’s kind of like finally getting to see the pyramids in person. Except, if the pyramids were shitty. Because this is Pink Floyd doing a sort of free improvisation that they were a bit out of their depth to attempt. Their best semi-improvisational pieces, “Interstellar Overdrive” and especially the sublime “A Saucerful of Secrets” are based around concrete structures, as opposed to just noodling. AMM could make noodling sound good. So could King Crimson. Not Pink Floyd. Still, it’s a pleasure to experience. Volume two is simultaneously worse than volume one and more narratively compelling. It focusses on 1968, a rough year for the band in many ways, though it did see the release of one of my idiosyncratic faves in their catalogue, A Saucerful of Secrets. But for all of their success as an albums band that year, the first section of this disc proves they were creatively spent as a singles band. If Barrett’s “Apples and Oranges” had proven a disappointing follow-up to “See Emily Play,” then Wright’s “It Would Be So Nice” and especially Waters’ “Point Me At The Sky” prove completely unworthy. Their engine of ingenious psychedelic pop was irreparably broken. It now seems obvious that the only feasible direction was towards the very avant-garde. The BBC sessions that close out volume two (one of which delightfully comes with John Peel’s intros and extros intact) finds the band seemingly in denial of this, as they focus on performing their singles. We do, mercifully, get a rather good live “Saucerful of Secrets,” though it is inexplicably retitled “The Massed Gadgets of Hercules.” I say “inexplicably” because the album had already come out when the session was recorded — it can’t have been an early title. Am I wrong? In any case, volume two of this box is endlessly fascinating from an anthropological perspective, in large part because of how bad it is. Can’t wait to hear the rest.
Tom Waits: Frank’s Wild Years — My favourite Tom Waits album. To me, it strikes a perfect balance between the freaky cabaret music on Rain Dogs just before it and the crunchy aggro of Bone Machine shortly after. “Innocent When You Dream” is one of the most heartbreaking songs ever, made moreso by its comedic drunken ugliness. This is a man who hit bottom and smashed through into a dark, parody underworld where nothing seems real but everybody’s still behaving like nothing’s wrong. The same goes for the demented Kander and Ebb pastiche “I’ll Take New York,” which finds Waits at his most openly parodic and nightmarish. The best thing about it is that there’s nothing dark in the lyric. It’s a pitch perfect impression of Kander and Ebb’s civic boosterism. But it’s refracted through the lens of the demented calliope music that is one of Waits’ most profitable standbys. And even when Waits is working on a slightly less heightened level, like on “Temptation” or “Cold Cold Ground,” both among his best songs, he still sounds like he’s living in a pocket universe where the rules of reality are a bit different from our own. This is one of those rare albums that suspends reality. I love it.
Tom Waits: Small Change — I am generally more of a fan of Tom Waits’s post-Swordfishtrombones albums than his 70s material. I like the complex irony of those later albums. It’s like there’s a dark mirror planted somewhere near the year 1980, and Waits stepped through and became a gurning, grotesque reflection of what he was before. But there’s a time and a place for Waits’s more sincere early music. The time is 2:00am and the place is staggering home drunk. Or, in the absence of these conditions, you can simply imagine yourself in that state and it still kind of works. I had previously only known Waits’s earlier music through my longtime favourite Heartattack and Vine and a scattering of tracks from before it. This is my first listen to Small Change, and it is a heck of a lot better than Heartattack. There’s not a single song on this that I didn’t love immediately. While Waits is lacking his later derangement here, he still has the unique wit of a self-romanticizing drunk hobo. “Step Right Up” is a distillation of all of the most familiar slogans in cheap advertising and straightforward swindling into a song. It is substantially virtuosic, and it helps to clarify the difference between Waits’s early novelty songs and his later ones like “Cemetery Polka.” In “Step Right Up” (and also “The Piano Has Been Drinking”) Waits is letting the audience in on a joke he’s come up with. He’s performing a routine. In “Cemetery Polka,” there’s a joke somewhere, but it’s hard to parse and we feel alienated because of it. It’s entirely possible that we’re the brunt of the joke. But most of the album is made up of the sad, lovelorn ballads that Waits is so good at during this period. “Tom Traubert’s Blues” is the clear highlight, with its ripped-off chorus (from “Waltzing Matilda”) taking on more heft in this context than in its original one. It is one of Waits’ great pictures of modern despair and displacement, and one of his very best songs. The same goes for “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” and “Invitation to the Blues.” This immediately struck me as a brilliant album. I expect to be back to it as frequently as its ultra-specific mood will permit. Pick of the week.
Chris Onstad: Achewood — I have read up to April of 2002 in this wonderful, absurd, very funny and often poignant web comic. Evidently I am still a long way off from the good stuff, but I am already very into this world. Ray and Roast Beef are yet to become the central characters (I know enough to know that they eventually will) and Philippe is the current highlight. He is so adorable that it can only be hilarious to see him subjected to the capricious whims of the Achewood universe. Great stuff.
John Errington: Centuries of Sound — I’m trying to catch up with this blog, which includes mixes for every year of recorded sound. It’s a great premise, and the very early years are super interesting, though the mixes are understandably short and abstract. The first of them features a few reconstructed recordings of Édouard-Léon Scott, who made a machine that could record indications of sound in soot. They were never meant to be played back, because Scott couldn’t conceive of such a thing, but of course we’ve found a way. Errington’s mix includes a documentary by Studio 360 about how that came to be. It’s actually crazy to hear, however scrappily, the sound of a voice from 1860 — the voice of a person who might not have thought that such a thing was possible.
The Nod: “Greetings, My Brothas” — Okay, now this is good. There’s something about hearing people laugh at a funny thing that makes it funnier, and these two laughing at a YouTube conspiracy theory about the Jay-Z/Solange elevator incident is start-to-finish hysterical.
Mogul: “How Heavy It Was,” “August 30, 2012” & Uncle Murda cameo — Mogul is a beautiful thing. These last two episodes (I’m not going to deal too much with the cameo, fun though it is) just clinch the whole thing. What I love about this is that the show subtly frames its narrative as a low-key true crime story that culminates in a contested suicide ruling. But the narrative proceeds inexorably to the conclusion that Chris Lighty’s death probably was what it seemed like. The chief contribution of Mogul to the story of Chris Lighty is bringing the mental illness he suffered to light. That’s part of what makes it so vital: it addresses a death that’s regarded as a mystery by framing it in terms of the evidence that nobody wants to talk about. This is so good, and I have become very fond of Reggie Ossé. I don’t know how an Ivy League educated lawyer can be so warm and likeable. The Combat Jack Show has a new subscriber.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Dunkirk,” “Girls Trip” & “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” — I’m liking the new format. Of these episodes, the only one that convinced me to see something was the Dunkirk one, because I was genuinely on the fence prior to this. The other two amount to a “not for me” and a “this sounds awful.”
The Turnaround: “Anna Sale” & “Reggie Ossé (Combat Jack)” — I really admire Jesse Thorn for not cutting the moments in these interviews when his guests don’t know what his question means. Because I can absolutely relate to that. Anna Sale’s interview is a bit rough, since it was the first for this show, but it’s still edifying enough. The Combat Jack episode is a series highlight, though. I’m happy Thorn included him, since there aren’t likely to be any other specialists in a subject area on this show. (Unless you count Brooke Gladstone, but “media” isn’t really a niche.) Since Mogul’s been coming out, I’ve been amazed at how easy it seems for Combat to talk with huge hip hop stars. Turns out, there’s value in being a bit of an insider. He’s a known enough quantity that these artists are comfortable talking to him. But that’s not to say that craftsmanship and intent don’t enter into what Reggie Ossé does. He’s always thinking in broader terms to what just about any generalist interviewing a rapper would be thinking. He’s interested in hearing their take on life in general, rather than just about their art. That’s valuable. Have I done a complete about-face on my opinion of interviewing artists since I started listening to this show? Yes? I dunno. I’m very confused about my own value system. But I know I enjoyed these shows.
Code Switch: “What’s So Wrong With African Americans Wearing African Clothing?” & “What’s Good? Talking Hip-Hop and Race With Stretch and Bobbito” — A pair of preview for shows I’m not super interested in. The Stoop covers interesting territory, but I’m not sold on the hosts. And I’m suspicious of the extent to which NPR is getting in on the personality-driven podcast bandwagon with the Stretch and Bobbito show. Probably I’m wrong.
Theory of Everything: “Private Ear” — I can’t help but feel like the guy this story is about — an aural reconstructor of secret spaces who uses the memories of prisoners as his guide — is a bit dodgy. But it’s very much like this show to introduce me to an artist (because this is what he is, mostly) who works so far outside of the expected arenas.
99% Invisible: “The Trials of Dan and Dave” — ESPN is getting into podcasting, and they’ve already got the Roman Mars bump. Imagine. This is a fun story that’s not really all about the sports, which as far as I know is the 30 For 30 trademark. Nice stuff.
This American Life: “Break-Up” — It’s pretty rare for me to listen to anything from a show’s back catalogue these days. But this is the episode that made Starlee Kine’s career. As a steadfast mourner of Mystery Show, I felt it was necessary to finally hear the famous story where Kine works through her bad breakup with the assistance of one Phil Collins. As a Genesis fan, it’s doubly interesting to hear Collins tell the story of how his first divorce precipitated his transition from being a jazz fusion drummer in his non-Genesis career to an international pop star on the back of several heartrending ballads. This all strikes a personal chord for me, because I went through a shit breakup that was scored by the music of Phil Collins’s one-time bandmate, Peter Gabriel. There was a while there where I obsessed over Gabriel’s Us album for very similar reasons to the ones Kine cites for her love for “Against All Odds.” I am Starlee Kine in the Upside-Down. T’was ever thus.
99% Invisible: “El Gordo” — Ah yes, a story in which only one person in a town does not win the lottery. The world is quite marvellous, you know that?
The Memory Palace: “Elmer McCurdy Rides Again and Again” — It was only a matter time before our greatest author of historical prose poems attempted a rhyming couplet story. It is a mixed affair. Mostly I like it, but I halfway feel that the gimmick gets in the way of a genuinely marvellous story, in which an embalmed human body is mistaken for a wax sculpture and ends up on the set of The Six Million Dollar Man. Still good.
Criminal: “A Bump In The Night” — A terrifying story of a woman who hears sounds in the night that turn out to be something. It ends unsatisfyingly, but so do most things in life.
What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “The Emoluments Clauses” — The most interesting thing about this is the fact that the emoluments clauses of the constitution have been considered so obscure that they’re not even in textbooks, and Trump is the first president so unconventional that he requires them to be taken into consideration. Everything is bad.
The Daily: July 24-28 — My first full week of listening to The Daily reveals it to be a genuinely excellent way to keep on top of the biggest stories, at least as they pertain to American federal politics. I have generally preferred this show when it contains at least one segment that takes place outside of the U.S.A. But there are some genuinely confusing and terrifying things happening in the White House on a week by week basis, so what are they to do? Regardless, this is one of the best shows to launch in recent years, and a genuine innovation.
Reply All: “Long Distance” — The best episode of Reply All for some time. And it’s not like it’s been in a slump. Some schlub who didn’t know what he was getting into tried to scam Alex Goldman and ended up the subject of a piece of playful yet ruthless investigative journalism. Goldman’s imperiousness is hysterical here, and the fact that he doesn’t reveal the consequence of the story at the start is much appreciated. I feel compelled to be coy about this and not spoil it. Listen to it. It is magnificent. Pick of the week.
Song by Song: “Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen), Small Change, Tom Waits” — I came across this Tom Waits song randomly at work, having never listened to Small Change. (You’ll note from above that I have since listened to the full album and had quite the response.) It is a beautiful thing, and I figured I’d take the opportunity to sample this podcast that’s going through his songs in order, one by one. It could do to be longer, honestly. It feels a bit slim. Fun that they’ve got Jeffrey Cranor, though. Not sure I’ll be back to this.