Tag Archives: Kate Bush

Omnibus (weeks of Dec. 10 & 17, 2017)

Hello again and Merry Christmas. As you’ll have gathered from the fact that I am here to write this, I am both alive and uninjured following my alpine adventure. What follows are reviews of the things I managed to take in before and since that adventure. I didn’t totally disconnect from pop culture in the mountains, but I did disconnect from thinking about it. If you want the definitive image of my last couple weeks, picture two snowsuited white men in a Mazda 3 singing along to this.

It strikes me that my two picks of the week are both at a pivotal moment in their history as texts. The first has been recently reawakened by the publication of a new book that I’m going to try and get to before New Year’s Eve. And the second has just reached its bittersweet conclusion after a run as one of the greatest achievements in podcasting. Read on.

10 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Philip Pullman: The Amber Spyglass — My 11-year-old self’s favourite book is still a masterpiece. Reading the first two instalments of His Dark Materials for the first time as an adult, I was struck by how similar an experience it was to what I remember feeling as a child. But reading The Amber Spyglass felt different. And I think the reason for that is because my first encounter with The Amber Spyglass actually changed the kind of person I was. When my well-meaning but not entirely in-the-know mother bought me these books, I was being raised, nominally, as a Christian. I went to church most weeks and learned Bible stories in Sunday school. For the rest of the week, it wasn’t really a concern. But the incontrovertible truth of the Bible and the inherent goodness of God were things I had been led to take for granted. So, reading this book, I could accept that the church depicted in its pages was corrupt and evil. Certainly, that was never in doubt. They tried to kill Lyra! Trying to kill any child is bad enough — but Lyra! Still, when they talked about Lyra’s coming role as the second Eve — a girl who would be likely to fall victim to the temptation of the serpent — I just thought they were wrong about her. They just don’t know Lyra well enough. Surely, she won’t fail the test like the first Eve did! She’s far too good for that. It wasn’t until the end of the book that I realized what Pullman was actually on about: that God himself was as evil and authoritarian as the church he begat, and that it was therefore best for Lyra to accept the temptation. For Pullman, original sin is something to be celebrated and Eve is a hero. All of humanity’s most admirable traits spring from that mythic moment in Eden, and the villain of Genesis is God. This hit me like a thunderbolt when I was 11. I didn’t immediately renounce my faith or anything, but it was one of the first moments in my life when I was made to recognize that received wisdom shouldn’t be accepted as a default. Reading it 16 years later, I had mostly forgotten the specifics of the plot. But this time, I read the book hoping for Lyra to fall. I think I can award Pullman a share of the credit for this transformation. Reading The Amber Spyglass with the benefit of 16 more years experience in the world made me admire other elements of it as well. Pullman dramatizes a “first contact” narrative in Mary Malone’s plotline, which is roughly analogous to the sorts of stories we hear from the early days of European colonialism — except that in Pullman’s telling, Malone comes to regard the strange creatures she encounters as her equals. It’s worth quoting here: “When she saw how they worked, not on their own but two by two, working their trunks together to tie a knot, she realized why they’d been so astonished by her hands, because of course she could tie knots on her own. At first she felt that this gave her an advantage — she needed no one else — and then she realized how it cut her off from others. Perhaps all human beings were like that. And from that time on, she used one hand to knot the fibers, sharing the task with a female zalif who had become her particular friend, fingers and trunk moving in and out together.” There is not enough YES in the world to express my feelings about this passage. Where Malone could easily have gone on thinking herself superior to the inhabitants of this new world, she instead has the self-awareness to recognize that their way of doing things has its own value that hers does not share. Would that people could always be like this. There are some complaints to be had about this book. Is Lyra sidelined for a good chunk of it? Yes. Is she in need of rescue by a cast of largely male characters? Yes. Is this frustrating? You bet, for a couple different reasons. But does it undermine her role as the primary hero of His Dark Materials, with the highest amount of agency? No, it does not. She is still the character whose decisions matter the most at the end of the book. She is still of cosmic importance in a way that Will, for instance, is not. I daresay the reason that Lyra is given a whole book to herself, before Will is even introduced, is that Eve is the hero in Pullman’s reading of Genesis. She is the originator of original sin, and therefore the single most laudable and important personage in the history of creation. That is the company into which Pullman thrusts Lyra. The reason we come to love her so much, and that we are so frustrated by the stretch of The Amber Spyglass that finds her drugged and comatose in a cave, is that Pullman himself has such obvious affection for her. This is also the reason why we can never accept Lord Asriel as a hero, in spite of the fact that he is a great leader on the right side of history. His indifference towards Lyra makes him a monster. Even the vile, murderous Mrs. Coulter does not commit this sin. And frankly, if there’s anything in The Amber Spyglass that isn’t entirely convincing, it’s the transformation of Mrs. Coulter from irredeemable villain to perversely doting mother. It’s an obvious attempt on Pullman’s part to cast her as a foil to Asriel: the monstrous, inhuman “white hat” vs. the humanized, tragically flawed “black hat.” But to Pullman’s credit, he realizes that both of these characters are so irredeemable in their respective ways (and also because they are both child murderers) that the only sensible ending for them both is to die horribly at the climax of a vast historical conflict they were on opposite sides of. Whatever the flaws of their plotlines — and Coulter’s in particular — their endings are perfect. And speaking of endings, all of my most vivid memories of The Amber Spyglass come from the last few chapters, after the cosmic war the entire trilogy has been building towards is over. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about His Dark Materials is that God literally dies in it, and that’s not even the climax of the story. The larger, more contextual story of His Dark Materials concerns the huge vortex of theological conflict that Lyra and Will find themselves drawn into. That narrative climaxes with the death of God. But the more crucial story in the trilogy, which may have even more importance within the story’s cosmology, is the story of Lyra and Will as the new Eve and Adam. And, of course, with Dr. Malone as the new serpent — a character I barely remember from my first readthrough, but who I’m now convinced is the second-best character in the trilogy. The smaller story of these three characters plays out quietly, intimately, and heartrendingly in the final chapters of the book. Pullman saves his most beautiful writing for after the cosmic war is over: all of the sound and fury of the war in Heaven is eclipsed by a simple, elegant story about marzipan, and a star-crossed young love affair of Shakespearean proportions. It is one of the great endings conceived by any novelist of our time, writing for people of any age. The Amber Spyglass is nearly perfect. It is exhibit A in sticking the landing at the end of a series. If I ever have kids, I really hope they read these books. But I would never force them to: Pullman taught me too much for that. Pick of the week.

Philip Pullman: Lyra’s Oxford, Once Upon A Time in the North & “The Collectors” — While I’m revisiting Pullman, I figured I may as well check out the three miniature books he’s written to tie into His Dark Materials before I move on to La Belle Sauvage. The first, Lyra’s Oxford, is a beautiful short story that demonstrates Pullman’s ability to write beautifully and movingly even when he doesn’t have a gigantic narrative canvas to work with. The story is low on continuity, though it relies on one’s familiarity with His Dark Materials for effect. The note the story ends on — the idea that Lyra and her daemon are being protected by Oxford itself, the city they call home — is much more effective when you know that Lyra is responsible for freeing the dead so that they can become part of everything. More than anything, Lyra’s Oxford is an illustration of the grace Lyra has received in return for her heroism and compassion in The Amber Spyglass. That makes it worthwhile. Also, I appreciate that there are only a couple of mentions of Will, as if her love for him was something very important that happened to Lyra, changed her, and now is over. That said, one of the most moving things in the book is a real photograph of a real bench in the botanic gardens at Oxford, where we are to assume, I suppose, that Lyra and Will still meet once a year in their separate worlds. The picture is shown on a postcard sent by Mary Malone, who jokes about what a crap postcard it is — because presumably these are just pictures taken by Pullman, or somebody working for him, of landmarks chosen for their narrative importance rather than their actual beauty. It’s a nice touch. Once Upon A Time In the North is a slightly more substantial read. Lee Scoresby was always the supporting character in His Dark Materials who seemed most likely to spin off. And indeed, this is a satisfying adventure story for him, with a substantial walk-on part for Iorek Byrnison. But the real heart of the story is more development of the relationship between Lee and his daemon Hester, which is probably the most colourfully rendered human/daemon relationship in the books. Rather than simply being a sort of emanation of her person, Hester is a snarky manifestation of his better judgement. Pullman knows well what Lee’s most memorable scene in the main trilogy is — his final stand in The Subtle Knife — and he’s sure to subtly evoke it just once. This is, among other things, the story of how Lee got his Winchester rifle. And because it’s Pullman, it cannot simply be a rollicking shoot ‘em up action story: it is also a political allegory for how demagogues hide their agendas behind hateful rhetoric. Philip Pullman: teaching kids the important shit since 1995. As for “The Collectors,” a short story available only as an audiobook read by Bill Nighy, it focuses on the specific element of the His Dark Materials universe that probably initially attracted me as a kid: namely its roots in the crusty yet oddly seductive world of British academia. I was a weird kid, and the culture of these head-in-the-cloud scholars that Lyra grew up with seemed nearly as romantic as the northern wastes where The Golden Compass’s adventure begins properly. It’s the most intimate of these three stories, consisting largely of a conversation between two art collectors, with its connections to the main trilogy existing mostly by implication. And perhaps unexpectedly, given all of this, it is also more straightforwardly horror-tinged than most of Pullman’s other writing. In this conversational setting, Pullman’s explanation of his version of the many-worlds theory comes off like something out of Borges — but horror Borges. So, basically China Miéville. I love that Philip Pullman can channel that. My only complaint is the recording: a better engineer might have rolled off some of Nighy’s natural sibilance. Funny how this is only an issue in audiobooks and never in the more professional echelons of podcasting. Taken together, these three stories really do enrich the world of His Dark Materials. I’m unspeakably excited to dive into the next proper novel.

Stephen King: On Writing — I bought it impulsively and it turned out to be one of the most useful books I’ve ever read. It is also approximately half autobiography. I came to this for good solid advice, and then suddenly he’s writing about how his wife’s poetry made him fall in love with her and suddenly I’m crying in the airport. THAT’S NOT WHAT I SIGNED UP FOR. Still, the autobiographical sections of the book are lovely illustrations of how a writer’s craft can interact with the rest of their life — without superseding it. That’s crucial. Of King’s many wise dictums, this may be the wisest: “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” As for the more practical section of the book, I was surprised to find myself seldom disagreeing with King and taking a lot of what he wrote to heart. I love King’s writing, but it’s really different from the more ornamented sort of prose that I usually admire. I somehow expected to find him dogmatically insistent upon simplicity and directness, like George Orwell. But he’s actually one of the least dogmatic writing teachers I’ve ever encountered. Mostly he just wants you to focus on the story. His thoughts on theme and symbolism are wonderful: don’t start with either of those things, but they’ll certainly help your readers make sense of the story if they arise naturally. I can see myself revisiting this periodically when my worst impulses as a writer start coming out again.

Movies

Lady Bird — A beautiful movie. Greta Gerwig’s story takes its name from its protagonist, but it could just as easily be called Sacramento. Lady Bird is a movie about the specific experience of growing up in that town: a hard place to be for a kid with a big sense of herself. Speaking as somebody who was once a highly performative small-town teenager with a penchant for weird music and theatre, this movie sooooo gets it right — the drama club scenes in particular. Those are the kids who are in drama club. And those are the songs they sing at auditions. And that’s the way they sing them. The thing that makes Lady Bird such a brilliant coming-of-age story is that it focuses on Lady Bird’s changing sense of her place in the world. Her character arc starts with shame: shame of where she’s from, shame of her class and the neighborhood she lives in, shame of her parents. Then, we see her try to escape from the life that causes her shame. We see her attempt this through theatre, through a deeply misbegotten relationship with another theatre kid, through an even more misbegotten relationship with an antisocial aesthete type, and finally by actually leaving. And finally we see her accept her circumstances. Much of what’s been written about this movie focuses on the relationship between Lady Bird and her mother, which is only appropriate since that’s actually the core of the movie. (And because Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf both give incredible performances.) But it’s the sense of place that jumped out at me more than anything: the sense that every human settlement is a network of connections and memories and regrets that have richness for the people who live there, whether they like the place or not.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi — Hey, this is fun! I never have much to say about Star Wars movies because it’s just not a franchise I feel a lot of attachment to. I get why others love it so much, but for me it’s just something that exists, and I’m not really engaged enough to have strong opinions one way or the other. I have opinions of middling strength. I liked The Force Awakens because it had a fun cast of loveable new characters romping through familiar story beats. I didn’t like Rogue One because it was dull, had a cipher for a main character, and Mads Mikkelsen was badly miscast. I can’t quite access the sort of adoration for this franchise that leads people to proclaim their childhoods ruined when it puts a foot wrong. I do, however, have some strong opinions about Rian Johnson movies. I think Brick and Looper are two of the most dazzling genre movies of the last two decades. And I think The Brothers Bloom is maybe the only Wes Anderson impression that’s actually worth anybody’s time. Among Star Wars movies, The Last Jedi is firmly in my upper echelon, along with the first two instalments of the original trilogy. But alongside Rian Johnson’s other work, I’d put it in the bottom half. I find it hard to credit the notion that anybody would find this more accomplished than Brick, with its virtuosic dialogue and flawless location shooting, or Looper, with its complex but comprehensible story and outstanding action. But it’s a good movie! You should go see it if you weren’t planning to.

Music

Led Zeppelin: Houses of the Holy — I dunno what possessed me to listen to this just now. It’s been like five years since I even thought about listening to Led Zeppelin. But this is still awesome. Either this or Physical Graffiti is my favourite Zep album. They’re a bit more elaborate than the more celebrated first four, and I like that. There are clunkers on Houses of the Holy (“The Crunge,” “Dancing Days”), but the best bits are sublime rock and roll. “The Rain Song” is one of their very best. It finds Jimmy Page elaborating on a few very simple ideas, including one of the most delicate acoustic riffs he ever devised (that syncopated thing in the sixth measure). The song’s slow build, from John Paul Jones’s elaborations of the harmony on Mellotron through John Bonham’s brushes, to the point where the band kicks into full electric mode, is to my ears a major refinement of the same idea in “Stairway to Heaven.” (Yeah, “The Rain Song” is better than “Stairway to Heaven.” Fight me.) “Over the Hills and Far Away” might be my favourite of the band’s major singles. Perhaps it’s a bit clichéd, but don’t blame Led Zeppelin for that. Blame the second-best guitarist at your high school. The one who was better than the dude who could only play “Smoke On the Water,” but not as good as the girl who could play “Eruption.” It’s a song where Jimmy Page’s abilities as a producer are really becoming obvious. Listen to the way the acoustic guitar starts off dead centre of the stereo image, as a matter-of-fact statement of the song’s musical material, then splits into a wide open binaural image on the second time through. It would sound hollow in the long term, but then Robert Plant comes in dead centre and holds it all together. Lovely stuff. And that little ten-note riff that Page brings in just before the outro is one of the loveliest tossed-off moments in the band’s catalogue. My other highlights are “No Quarter” and “The Song Remains the Same,” which is the best thing in the world when you need a sudden jolt of energy. I’d forgotten how much I like this.

Kate Bush: 50 Words for Snow — This album came out when I lived in Edmonton and it immediately became a winter tradition. It’s an album I can only bear to listen to when there’s snow on the ground. I’ve been living in Vancouver for a few years now, and the opportunity to get a good, full listen to this in the proper surroundings hasn’t really surfaced. And Christmases at home in Fort McMurray don’t lend themselves to a lot of deep listening in general. I seem to listen to it most frequently on the train to the airport, weirdly. But I can’t make it through the whole thing on that ride. Even if the train were travelling very slow indeed, this is quite simply not the city for it. But this year — hark! — we have snow in Vancouver! Not much of it, mind, but enough to make this album feel at least vaguely à propos. It is certainly Kate Bush’s most underrated album, though I can understand why it wouldn’t hit home for some listeners. No other music in her catalogue is this spare and spacious. Songs stretch on two or three times longer than her average — more, in the case of the 13-minute “Misty.” But if you’re willing to put in the time, you’ll find that 50 Words for Snow’s slow pace is never without purpose. Take “Wild Man.” It’s probably the most accessible track on the album, with something resembling a rousing chorus. Still, it clocks in at over seven minutes and it stretches on for more than two minutes past its climax. But those final two minutes give Bush’s protagonist — a mountain explorer who has just helped the Yeti avoid detection by the locals — time to process what she’s just been through. A rare thing in pop music. That ability to use musical structure to express meaning is one of the biggest reasons why Kate Bush is my favourite songwriter. The album’s crown jewel, of course, is “Misty.” The basic idea of the song is so simple and so perfect that it seems truly strange that it hadn’t been done before. Maybe it had. But the premise “a woman has sex with a snowman then wakes up to find he’s gone, leaving only a puddle on the bed” was a new one for me. But the beauty of the song is that Bush makes the whole thing feel like a normal, slightly melancholy human interaction (“so cold next to me”). That, and the fact that it contains some of the most beautiful music she’s ever written. I’m thinking specifically of the piano line that first appears at 2:26, and only once more (with strings) in the song’s whole 13-minute duration. That’s nearly as perversely withholding as the Sibelius violin concerto, which uses its gorgeous melody only twice in about 17 minutes, give or take a couple depending on the performance. In both cases, the restrained use of such beautiful material gives the same effect of fleeting euphoria giving way to melancholy. It’s a glorious construction. There are less effective tracks here. “Snowed in at Wheeler Street” never quite makes me believe in the supposed eternal love of its two protagonists, even though both Bush and her esteemed duet partner Elton John both give deeply committed performances. And I’ve never really gotten “Among Angels,” which is a fairly austere way to end the album. Clearly Bush sees something in the song that I don’t, because she also used it as an encore at her Before the Dawn shows. I hope to get it eventually. But this album’s high points (“Misty,” “Wild Man,” “Snowflake”) are some of the best in Bush’s catalogue, and therefore quite simply among my very favourite music.

Podcasts

On the Media: “Power Trip” — Worth hearing for Brooke Gladstone’s forthright take on WNYC’s own struggle to deal with revelations of sexual abuse in its workplace culture and Bob Garfield’s attempt to have a frank conversation with a far-right lunatic without having said far-right lunatic hang up on him. (He fails.)

All Songs Considered: “The Year In Music 2017,” “What Makes A Great Album Last” & “Poll Results: Listeners Pick The Best Albums Of 2017” — I haven’t been following this show all year, which means I haven’t really been following new music. There’s lots here that’s new to me, and I doubt I’ll actually check out very much of it. As great as the albums by SZA and Lorde sound, I just can’t keep on top of everything. Still, it’s nice to hear Bob Boilen, Robin Hilton and their associates summing up the year. It wasn’t a year full of stuff I connect with especially. It is what it is. Also, nice to be reminded of Reflection a year later. I should check out the seasonal editions as well.

The Heart: Five-episode catch up — Little did I know when I started this run of five episodes backed up in my feed that they’d be the last five episodes of this wonderful show as we know it. And they’re five episodes that demonstrate many facets of the show that make it great. “Signature Research” is a brief, gutting childhood story from a producer who hadn’t made a radio story prior to this one. The Heart has always been great about giving new voices a platform. “God + The Gays” is a deeply personal story from one of The Heart’s staffers about how her sexuality and her religious upbringing bounced off each other. The Heart has always been, quite simply, the best show about the intersection of sexuality and everything else in life. “Man Choubam (I Am Good)” is an expression of a very specific conflict in a very specific person’s life. The Heart has always known that the very personal and very specific are interesting and worthwhile, whether they intersect with broader concerns or not. “An Announcement” is a functional rather than complete episode, existing to inform us of the show’s coming hiatus. But it’s still full of personality and life. The Heart always is. And finally, “Dream” is the most adventurous and sonically beautiful thing I’ve heard in months. The Heart has always been the best sounding, subtlest and most technically masterful podcast in production. I’ve learned a lot from this show, about life, and other people’s experiences of the world, and also about how radio can sound when it’s made by someone with an open mind. Its whole catalogue, taken together, is one of the crown jewels of the medium. It’s a sad loss, but I’m looking forward to hearing what Kaitlin Prest, Mitra Kaboli and company will be up to in the next year. Pick of the week.

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Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 1, 2017)

I’m beginning to put together my belated year-end list, as per tradition. Part of that involves going through a bunch of stuff I meant to get to when it actually still was 2016 that I didn’t. So, a bit of that here. Not sure any of it will make the list. But there’s a fair bit of good music here. And lots of other things. 29 reviews.

Television

Doctor Who: “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” — More than anything, this demonstrates how Steven Moffat writing Doctor Who is pure joy in basically any configuration. This is a purposefully slight, silly romp with virtually no consequences either held over from or contributing to past and future episodes of the show, and yet it kind of made my week. It’s a bittersweet reminder that this show, under this writer, is still pretty damn good even when it’s spinning its wheels. I say bittersweet because this is the last year when we’ll get to see it. Anyway, Moffat’s take on the Superman/Lois Lane situation is exactly what you’d think it would be, in the sense that it cranks the farce up to eleven (Twelve? Joke credit Sachi Wickramasinghe). And that’s basically what this is: a farcical reinterpretation of Superman. The story belongs to the new characters, Grant (our Clark Kent) and Lucy (our Lois Lane). The Doctor just sort of gets to be there — which is basically the only way to do a standalone Doctor Who story at this point. The Doctor’s plotline is too continuity-heavy for anybody to be able to just jump on board at Christmas. But there are some Easter eggs (Christmas eggs?) that I think are worth noting. Think about this: Moffat’s final season will surely clue up some lingering Twelfth Doctor plotlines, even if Capaldi stays on. The last line spoken before his era properly began was Eleven’s final line: “I will always remember when the Doctor was me.” I’ve always thought that was a bit of a limp exit. But the Doctor seems to be keeping his promise: not only is he mourning River Song (primarily an Eleventh Doctor companion), but he seems to be trying to cope with his grief by attempting to contact Amy and Rory with his huge New York time antenna. Maybe series ten will focus on legacy and remembrance in some way. That would be a good theme for Moffat to go out on. For most writers it would be bombastic. But I think if anybody’s earned it, it’s this guy.

Sherlock: “The Six Thatchers” — I never thought that one of the best episodes of Sherlock would be one solely credited to Mark Gatiss. And I never thought that Mark Gatiss would produce my favourite episode of television in a week also featuring a new episode written by Steven Moffat. Yet here we are. This is a marvellous, tightly-wound episode that manages a huge amount of business with remarkable grace and poetry. This story continues (and supposedly concludes) Mary’s story from last season, at first in the guise of a new and self-contained case for Sherlock to solve regarding the smashing of Margaret Thatcher busts (satisfying in itself). And it does this while never forgetting about the show’s new status quo, in which Sherlock is primarily motivated by Moriarty’s final plot. It incorporates a wonderfully obtuse pairing of a man who meets death in Baghdad with footage of sharks, which comes full circle in the episode’s climactic scene. That will be the brainworm of this episode: the thing that sticks for the longest. It contains typically wonderful performances from its leads (and I’m including Amanda Abbington in that: she’s the best part of this) and an absolutely stunning series debut from director Rachel Talalay, who seems to have become Steven Moffat’s virtuoso of choice: the person he goes to when he needs something really complicated taken care of (i.e. the last two season finales of Doctor Who). Sherlock has always been a deliberately stylized sort of show, but Talalay gives this an artful elegance that it has occasionally lacked in the hands of other directors. The scene in the aquarium, and all of the visual references to it that play out subtly in other scenes are brilliantly deployed. There’s one moment where it’s done with just a hint of shimmery blue light on Sherlock’s face. Another director might have cut away to a shot of the shark tank, which would have been fine, but this is so much less intrusive. It’s a non-hamfisted way to portray the looming spectre of death. And that’s a difficult thing to pull off. So, incidentally, is killing off your best supporting character, and the one female character to have ever held any real purchase over the show’s major story arcs. And they don’t pull it off, because there’s no real way to do that because it’s both a bullshit trope and an obvious net loss for the show. But I won’t cry foul just yet because if they can keep finding ways to bring back Andrew Scott’s Moriarty, I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of Mary yet. Even if she is actually dead. Which, I repeat, would be a bad thing. But let’s think about that a bit more when the season’s over. If I have one other complaint about this, it’s that for the second season premiere in a row, Gatiss has glossed over what was supposedly a game-changing plot twist in the preceding season finale. In “The Empty Hearse,” he blithely declined to reveal the true means by which Sherlock survived the events of “The Reichenbach Fall.” And now, he allows Sherlock’s status as the murderer of Charles Augustus Magnussen in “His Last Vow” to be brushed away in the cold open (though, who’s to say how permanent that will turn out to be). There’s an argument to be made that Magnussen’s death was rendered essentially moot by the return (in some form) of Moriarty and the events of “The Abominable Bride.” And certainly that’s the argument that Mycroft would make. But this is becoming a concerning pattern, and if this season ends with a huge twist like the last two, I might find myself a bit sceptical of this show’s ability to solve its own puzzles. Still, none of that seems especially important given what a fabulous story “The Six Thatchers” is in itself.

All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace: Episodes 2 & 3 — This three-part documentary on the way that ideas from computer science won an unwarranted psychic victory over humankind is one of the most astonishing pieces of documentary filmmaking I’ve ever seen. The third episode is especially haunting. The filmmaker, Adam Curtis, is both a lucid guide through some fairly complex ideas, and a spectacular aesthete. The documentary is effectively a work of collage, with lengthy clips from news footage, satire programming and previous documentaries all given entirely new meaning by way of clever juxtaposition with Curtis’s voiceover and musical choices. And the actual story in the third episode, where a computer scientist and a geneticist collaborate to justify a concept of humans as machines — all while horrible violence is playing out in the African nations where the materials for computer technology are mined — is a thing of intense power. I would almost recommend the third episode as a standalone television masterpiece to anybody who feels they only have an hour to spare. But I’d much sooner suggest watching all three parts of this. It will change the way you think about the legacy of modern technology. I will say, though, that there’s something almost unacceptably perverse about using music from West Side Story over footage of the Rwandan genocide. I’m sure that to most people it slipped right past. But I find that slightly tasteless. It’s a vanishingly minor point. Pick of the week.

Charlie Brooker’s 2016 Wipe — I think I’m over my Charlie Brooker phase. There are maybe about three good lines in this (aside from those given to Philomena Cunk who, as usual, is the funniest thing in the world), and aside from that there’s just a whole lot of rote reiterations of how awful 2016 was, without any attempt to offer a new take. However, it is a good way of recalling some of the smaller bits of weirdness that happened this year, like The Great British Bake Off leaving the BBC. And, the Trump rap that concludes this is strangely cathartic. Also, apparently Jeremy Corbyn supporters have their knickers in a twist about this? Seriously? He comes off better than any other politician in the country in this. Or maybe I’m just naturally attracted to leftist political figures with absolutely no clue how to court an electorate.

Cunk on Christmas — “Scientists now believe that 80% of all burps occur at Christmas, threatening to put a hole in the Oz-wan layer at precisely the moment the sky is full of vulnerable reindeer.” Philomena Cunk is an amazing character because she’s not just a generic buffoon, she’s a very specific type of buffoon, whose buffoonery has a sort of fanciful logic to it.This isn’t one of her best specials, but I did plenty of laughing, and it isn’t even Christmas anymore. “Merry Christmas. And a very new year.”

Battlestar Galactica: “Act of Contrition” — There are some bits of this where the televisual language hasn’t aged well, i.e. the rocket’s eye view in the first scene where all the pilots get killed. That’s a shot that should only be used for comedy. But that sort of thing is made up for with things like the way that Starbuck’s attempts to suppress painful memories is conveyed through editing. Story wise, this focusses on one of my favourite threads in the show so far: Starbuck’s grief and guilt. She even throws a bit of heat on what’s going on with the two Adamas, who are among my least favourite characters — at least when they’re in scenes together. 

Games

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: Part 3 — I so badly wanted to love this, but I confess that I found it tedious in a way that I didn’t find the first two parts, in spite of the substantial mechanical improvements made for this third part. Let me spoil just a bit of the game in order to demonstrate why I find it simultaneously brilliant and frustrating. Sorcery 3’s key mechanic is a set of beacons distributed throughout the map that you can shine anywhere in a 360 degree radius, and all of the area within the beacon’s beam is cast back in time by hundreds of years. Basically, there are two layers to the game’s map, one of which can only be exposed in fragments. One thing that you can use a beacon to do is reconstruct a little seaport town that’s been gone for presumably centuries. That allows you to hitch a ride across the lake with some fishermen from a bygone time. But if you happen to steer the boat outside the beam of the beacon, it vanishes into the mists of time along with its crew, leaving you to struggle in the cold water. Here’s what I love about this: it’s not just that any given point on the map can take two possible forms, one past and one present. It’s that the act of crossing the threshold has consequences in itself. This is soooo complex, and I admire Inkle very much for attempting it. On the other hand, this mechanic means that you might not discover the consequences of a choice you make on one edge of the map (namely, where to shine a beacon) until you’re already halfway across the map from that beacon. And without the benefit of foresight, you’re likely to have things happen like boats disappearing from under you quite a lot when you mess with the beacons a lot. This led me to rewind my game and replay the same sequences of events a lot more that I would consider optimal, just to find a particular outcome that would allow me to accomplish the game’s key task: killing seven serpents before you find your way to the map’s exit. The open-world concept of this game seems to indicate that Inkle learned some stuff from making 80 Days and incorporated it here. But where 80 Days’ story moves you relentlessly into new territory, even when you’re purposely biding your time, Sorcery 3 forces you to traverse the same parts of its open world again and again. It is immensely tiresome, and at some point I started looking forward to finishing the game. Never a good sign. I still hold out hope that the fourth part might synthesize the strongest points of the second and third parts. We’ll see soon enough.

Music

Kate Bush: The Kick Inside: — The fact that this is a) one of the most auspicious debuts in pop history and b) definitely not one of the best Kate Bush albums speaks volumes. Bush would really come into her own when she started producing her own albums, in the period when she’s stopped playing live and her label started ignoring her. The Kick Inside finds her instead filling the not entirely befitting role of ingénue: a bona fide pop phenomenon, coming off of the success of a masterful, chart-topping debut single, and having been graciously ushered into “the system.” The result is a good album, but one that doesn’t yet have Bush’s creative DNA in every note, the way that The Dreaming does. The Kick Inside is very much a rock album, in the same way that the second Peter Gabriel album is a rock album. Both of those solo records have the feel of being a band record, because a lot of the same musicians are present throughout. I think that’s kind of a defining trait of rock albums: “made by bands.” Whereas both Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush would gravitate towards more of a revolving door sort of approach to sessions on their artier, poppier records: using what musicians seem necessary at any given time. That doesn’t preclude frequent collaborators on both of their parts, but the sense that there’s such a thing as a Kate Bush Band vanished after Lionheart and didn’t really return until her live shows with the KT Fellowship. That makes the first two Kate Bush albums (and particularly this one, because Lionheart just isn’t very good) really compelling period pieces. And if you focus in on the songwriting specifically, regardless of arrangements, performances and all of the other territory that’s often occupied by producers, it’s incredible the extent to which Bush started as she meant to go on. Her songs are already defined by incredible specificity: “James and the Cold Gun” comes to mind immediately. As does “Wuthering Heights,” which is of course one of the best songs ever, period. Though for my money, the remixed and extended version with the alternate vocal on the compilation The Whole Story is better than the version that appears on the album. You can hear the guitar solo a little better, it goes on for a little longer, and Bush’s voice has gotten a little fuller by that time. (It comes from around the time of Hounds of Love, I believe.) Still, the strengths of the song lie in the song itself, and that doesn’t change from version to version. It’s a fun game to try and decide where the phrases begin and end. Is the chorus three repeating measures in four? Or is there a measure in two on the lyric “…home, I’m so…” and then a measure in six before it repeats? I wrote recently about Syd Barrett’s intuitive mode of songwriting, which is also characterized by odd phrasing. But frankly, the sheer naturalness of Bush’s oddly-phrased debut single puts “Arnold Layne” to shame. Also, consider the lyric in the chorus: “Heathcliff, it’s me, Cathy; I’ve come home! Let me in your window!” That is the entire chorus of a hit song. How is it possible to turn that into the chorus of a hit song? Anyway, this album is great. And it’s unbelieveable that Bush was 19 when it came out. And still, it feels like she’s being held back by everybody else in the room.

Bon Iver: 22, A Million — I’ve always kind of hated Bon Iver. His first album — the one that every beard-having, flannel-inclined person thinks is the best thing ever — inspired more intense resentment in me than any other album not made by Arcade Fire. As far as I can remember, not having heard it since it came out, For Emma, Forever Ago is mawkish and sentimental, and it’s slathered in an affected lo-fi aesthetic that calls more attention to its log-cabin origin story than to the mediocre music that it doesn’t quite manage to hide. Bon Iver, Bon Iver was not so much a step in the right direction as a massive overcorrection: a grandiose, fussy record of the type that I’m generally inclined towards, but the meticulous production seemed to be attempting to mask the same thing that For Emma’s self-mythologizing was: a lack of basic musical material. So, I wasn’t planning to listen to this at all, until “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” unexpectedly knocked me flat on All Songs Considered. And having listened to this third album in its entirety, I’m wondering if I haven’t gotten Justin Vernon completely wrong from the very beginning. I can’t quite put my finger on why I like this so much more than his first two albums, and naturally I resent myself slightly for having confessed this to myself. It’s strangely important to me to hate Bon Iver. But this album is so delicate, and so concerned with its fragile surfaces, which always threaten to come apart at any moment, that it offers the immediate impression that those surfaces are the whole product. Nothing is being disguised here. Vernon is simply offering a thin film of gorgeous sounding music: more a sound collage than a collection of songs. And this observation, laid on top of my specific objections to Vernon’s first two albums (namely that he uses aesthetics to mask a lack, rather than as an end in themselves) makes me think that I’d best go back and reconsider his earlier work as well. It’s possible that my entire distaste for the first two Bon Iver albums came about because I was mistaking a painter of frescoes for an architect. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the songs must be the point for an artist with roots in acoustic folk. But that’s an assumption, and possibly a wrong one. In any case, regardless of whether my opinions of the first two records change, 22, A Million is absolutely brilliant.

Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 3 — I don’t want to say I’m underwhelmed by this. I do think it has a fairly sizable mid-album slump, from “Stay Gold” (probably the weakest track they’ve ever done) through “Everybody Stay Calm.” But the five tracks prior to that run and the three tracks after are up to RTJ2 standards, more or less. It’s going to take more than one listen to sink in, clearly. What’s important is that there’s more Run the Jewels. We’ve heard enough from this duo to know how they work, and know what we should expect from them. But that doesn’t mean that they’re anything close to played out. It means they’ve hit their stride. I’ll report back when I figure this out a bit more.

Huerco S: For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have) — This kind of thing is the reason I like Pitchfork’s year-end list. I didn’t hear this mentioned anywhere else this year, yet here it is. It’s a nice bit of ambient music that I’m happy to have heard, though I can’t say it captured my attention to the same extent as some of the year’s other ambient releases by, for instance, Nonkeen, and especially Tim Hecker. I do admire Huerco S for having the guts to just cut his tracks off at the end rather than always fading. It almost makes the music come off more like a work of art you’d see in a museum than something performative. It’s like he’s saying, “Here, look at this for a while.” And then he opens a cupboard, and the thing exists in front of your eyes for a duration of time. Then he closes the cupboard. The music doesn’t have anywhere to go, it just is a thing, and it could conceivably keep being that thing for any arbitrary amount of time. Nice.

Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition — Oh god I don’t know what I think of this. Brown’s lyrics are great, and the production is the exact kind of unhinged that I find compelling. But that voice is just nails on a chalkboard. When Danny Brown raps in his lower, more human sounding register, like in “Tell Me What I Don’t Know,” I’m totally onboard. And I think that his high register could work as excellent seasoning, like in his guest verse on RTJ3. But he uses it on most of this album, and I kind of find it a bit much. When it works, it really works, though. “Ain’t it Funny” is probably my favourite track, and that’s got Brown’s helium voice all over it. Anyway, this is well worth hearing, but I don’t think anybody is necessarily guaranteed to like it. That’s a good thing.

Podcasts

Fresh Air: “Best of: 2016 Pop Culture Wrap-Up” — This TV critic really likes Better Call Saul. So do I, to be clear, but he’s made it his best show of the year two years running. That seems a little much. This is interesting, overall, but it’s also a reminder that pop culture podcasts are better at pop culture discussion than public radio interview juggernauts. This is neither as fun, nor as thoughtful as Pop Culture Happy Hour’s year end episodes. Still fine.

99% Invisible: “Mini-Stories: Volume 1” — This is a lot of fun, and also notable for containing the sound of Roman Mars laughing, which is disorienting. I’m always happy to listen to these “peek behind the curtain” sorts of podcast episodes. I think the highlight is Sam Greenspan’s mini-story about a place called Circleville, which was laid out on a circular pattern rather than a grid, making everybody miserable and resulting in a process of “squaring” that resulted in presumably a billion puns. (Roman picks the low-hanging fruit by gleefully proclaiming the city “Squaresville.”) Looking forward to volume 2. Also, groovy handpan music at the end. Nice.

This American Life: “Kid Logic 2016” — Marvellous. The great thing about This American Life’s structure is that the specificity of their themes. These are all stories about kids using comprehensible logic to arrive at the exact wrong conclusions. And it is hilarious. It starts with Jonathan Goldstein asking children what they think the tooth fairy does with all the teeth, continues with a reading by Michael Chabon, and also contains contributions by Howard Chackowicz (unmediated, for once, by Goldstein) and Alex Blumberg. I laughed more times during this than during most comedy podcasts.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Casey Affleck” — So, the sexual harassment allegations (which warrant a Google for those unconcerned about triggers) cast a pall over this otherwise engaging conversation. I didn’t actually know about any of that until Maron mentioned it at the start of this interview. In any case, Affleck is clearly a smart, grounded person with a level of devotion to his craft that isn’t surprising, given his incredible performance in Manchester by the Sea. I continue to love that movie, but Affleck’s past is distasteful enough that I think this is the last interview with him that I’ll listen to.

In Our Time: “The Gin Craze” — One of the most fun, least consequential episodes of this show that I’ve heard. Melvyn Bragg has a surprising amount of fun talking about drunkenness. The best stuff in the podcast comes after the actual radio show ended, however. And it’s always amusing to hear Bragg wheedle his guests about why they did or didn’t bring up such a thing during the actual show. Delicacy isn’t his strong point. That’s why I love him.

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “8-bit Sounds” — Twenty Thousand Hertz is a welcome addition to the “about ten minutes” club: miniature stories about a very specific topic. This particular one is about how a set of extremely stringent limitations resulted in the production of some of the most iconic sounds of all time. If they heard this, Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel would both be proud of the sound designers and composers responsible for the sounds of early video games.

All Songs Considered: “Poll Results: All Songs Considered Listeners’ Favourite 100 Albums of 2016” — I have been generally amenable to all of the massively hyped albums of 2016 except for the Radiohead record. I like “Burn the Witch” and “Sleepwalking” well enough, but I imagine that twenty years from now we’ll look at A Moon Shaped Pool as Radiohead’s Goat’s Head Soup: the moment we knew they didn’t have much fight left in them. And yet, NPR Music’s listeners rated it the number one album of the year, so what do I know. This is a fun listen with a ton of great music, but it’s better to just stick with the end that’s got Ann Powers and Stephen Thompson on it, because their taste is way more interesting than a horde of randoms (one of whom was me).

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “The Mystery Hum and its Government Coverup” — This episode about a mysterious, ever-present hum in Windsor, Ontario really only needs to mention that such a thing exists to be good. But now I really want to hear the whole season of Serial that discovers what it actually is.

The Gist: “Bob Boilen: Tiny Desk, Big Effect” — The Bob Boilen interview is nothing much, but Pesca’s spiel about confirmation bias implicit in the universal dubbing of 2016 as the Worst Year Ever is essential. (Starts at 19:40.) Bits of 2016 were intractably awful, sure. And tons of people that everybody loves did in fact die. But Pesca thinks rationally: we just don’t hear about all of the people who could have died but didn’t, because they didn’t die. We didn’t hear about the relative lack of ebola, because a lack isn’t a story. It’s a good way to go into 2017: knowing that there are certain things that happened in 2016 that will make the world materially worse, but also not pretending that only bad things ever happen.

A Point of View: “The Shape Of Our Time” — A somewhat lightweight essay from Adam Gopnik about the difference between nationalism and patriotism. Still, not unworthy of ten of your Earth minutes.

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “The Sound of Extinction” — This episode about the sounds that we lose over time focusses on modern sounds, like the sound of dial-up internet, or Big Ben. And that’s lovely. But I’m reminded of the composer and acoustic ecologist R. Murray Schafer, who has devoted his life to the preservation of what he calls the natural soundscape. It would be interesting to hear a second part of this that deals more with the concerns of acoustic ecology. But I really liked this.

Radiolab: “Lose Lose” — I can deal with sports stories when it’s Radiolab, plus Mike Pesca, plus Chuck Klosterman. That’s just about the only permutation that works. This is fine, but not a season highlight by any stretch.

Code Switch: “Obama’s Legacy: Diss-ent or Diss-respect?” — If this first part is any indication, this three-part series on President Obama’s legacy might be one of the best things Code Switch has ever done. Just hearing a lowlight reel of the racist bullshit that Obama had to put up with from his professional colleagues, let alone the right-wing media, is enough to make a powerful point about specifically why he has become a divisive figure. But it’s also interesting to hear a take on how Obama was so different from previous visions of a Jesse Jacksonesque possible first black president. Looking forward to parts two and three.

Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men: “The Strangest Podcast Of Them All” — Oh, this is a very good thing. I don’t know if it’s specifically the kind of very good thing that I need in my life, since I am really not that invested in the X-Men. But I’m clearly invested enough to have read two of Jay and Miles’s favourite story arcs, namely those by Grant Morrison and Joss Whedon. Whether I return to this or not is entirely down to how fatigued I become with my usual selection of podcasts, and how in need of new stuff I am.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Sherlock, Carrie Fisher, George Michael, and Debbie Reynolds” — I mutedly disagree with Glen Weldon on Steven Moffat’s supposed tendency to use women as plot devices in his shows, buuuuut the episode of Sherlock that they’re actually discussing here doesn’t really help me back up my opposition. I also disagree that Sherlock’s 90-minute episodes are too much. It seems to me like the only way to fit in all of the plotline that’s necessary and also have the very necessary scenes that are mostly just banter. The banter is crucial, and it wouldn’t survive if these episodes were cut down to an hour. The in memoriam segment is lovely, especially where Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds are concerned. Maybe I should watch Postcards from the Edge? Definitely I should watch Singing in the Rain.

Fresh Air: “Lin-Manuel Miranda” — It’s nice to hear Miranda talk in a bit more detail than in other interviews about the impact of Stephen Sondheim on him as an influence and a mentor. As far as I’m concerned, they are not just the two best musical theatre songwriters of their respective generations, they’re also the two best songwriters ever to have emerged from Broadway. Also cool to hear him apparently reference Code Switch. I suppose he’s not necessarily referring to the podcast specifically, but it kind of seems like he is. Somewhere, Gene Demby squealed with delight.

Chapo Trap House: “No Future feat. Adam Curtis” — This focusses on Adam Curtis’s latest documentary, HyperNormalization, which I haven’t seen yet. There is a mindblowingly subtle moment in this where Curtis is explaining what Ayn Rand meant when she said that she wouldn’t die, but rather that the world will die. He explains that when you’re a nutjob individualist narcissist of Rand’s capacity, the world seems to actually be inside your head. So, death actually means the end of the world. At this point in the interview, which has thus far been a pretty standard, lo-fi conversation between three people, the producer edits in a snippet of “Don’t Stop Believing.” Because (spoiler for the most infamous television finale ever ahead) this is what happens, probably, at the end of The Sopranos. Tony dies, and the world ends. Journey is silenced mid-phrase. The Sopranos didn’t actually come up in conversation here, mind you. It’s just a lovely little illustration of the idea, for the benefit of the people who will be able to discern what’s going on. Very clever. Plus, Curtis has a brilliant critique of modern liberal activism that is tied up in the inadequacies of social media. It goes something like this: social media is great at organizing people and allowing them to do things, but it’s terrible at fostering the kinds of complex discourse that leads to viable ideas for how to run a country. So, when Mubarak was overthrown (a wonderful idea in principle), the populace that did the overthrowing was left without a clear idea of what was to happen next. But, as usual, the reactionary right had an idea. And in this case, it came in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, and soon enough we’re back at square one. Silicon Valley has constructed social media platforms not in accordance with any way that ideas have traditionally flowered, but with contemporary, vapid notions of management. Mark Zuckerberg wants to “connect people.” He assumes, like many managers I’ve known, that if the infrastructure is in place for people to talk to each other, that’s enough to bring change in the world. It’s not. Change requires ideas. Ideas aren’t born out of platforms that privilege the simple. I’ll be watching HyperNormalization very soon. And I’ll definitely be listening to more Chapo Trap House. I will not, however, be following them on Twitter. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 18, 2016)

Merry Christmas! I got you 13 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Janet Malcolm: “Yuja Wang and the Art of Performance” — This is an outstanding rejoinder to the shitty critics who have made a career of telling Yuja Wang that she can’t dress that way. It is very Janet Malcolm, in the sense that you feel like at least a few of the people she interviewed (not Wang) are scared of her. But aside from being delightful in all of her usual ways, she also demonstrates here that she knows something about classical music — or at least, she has made sufficient inroads to write about it as a facet of modern culture (which is challenging, because by and large it is not one). There’s a brilliant moment partway through this where Malcolm describes the contrast between seeing Wang perform in one of her famously dramatic dresses versus in a more conventional one, and it ought to be a “case closed” moment for any critic who’s still trying to convince readers that Wang’s style isn’t a key part of her artistry. Lovely stuff.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Season 1, episodes 1-3 — The first episode of this season, “33,” is almost a classic. The premise is a brilliant one to employ this early in the series. (To be clear, for those just tuning in, it’s not the actual first episode; there’s a miniseries that precedes the first season.) It’s a basic idea: the Cylons are attacking every 33 minutes, so the crew is massively sleep deprived. Seeing them in this state so early in our relationships with them is telling for us viewers. I do have a concern, though: the plotline in the second half of the episode deals with a civilian ship called the Olympic Carrier that could pose a threat, so the crew has to decide whether or not to potentially kill a small number of civilians to eliminate a threat to a larger one. It is, if I’m not mistaken, the second trolley problem in as many episodes. And there have only been three at this point. Uh-oh. “33” is still a solid 8/10 episode, though. I’d say the two that follow it fare a bit worse. “Bastille Day” in particular makes a noble attempt to deal with the ethics of violent revolution, but confuses it by having our violent revolutionary demand that an election be held, which seems to signal tacit approval of the democratic system he had previously tried to overthrow (presumably in favour of a different sort of democratic system, but that’s a bit beside the point). Overall, though, this show is off to a great start. I actually feel a bit silly not giving it my pick of the week, but frankly the below-reviewed programme took up so much more of my week that it seems only right.

Downton Abbey: Season 1 — Well, I’m home for Christmas, and what better way to kill some time in a small town with one’s mother than watch the English aristocracy wistfully while away their final glory days? I feel deeply conflicted about the messaging of this show: it takes for granted that we’ll be able to at least empathize with Lord Grantham’s belief that the cultivation and maintenance of a great house is a suitable raison d’etre. It is not. The aristocracy that is portrayed here as being at best an ideal of elegance worth striving for and at worst a little bit out of touch was in fact intensely socially poisonous. This wouldn’t even warrant saying in most decent company, but that belies the popularity of this show. So, why is it so popular — even among people who would normally find it (and the fact that it’s written by a Tory peer) something close to offensive? And more to the point, why am I so completely in love with every goddamned second of it? Two things. Firstly, it’s just really good. The acting is completely wonderful, and the characterization is swift and effective. The plotlines are the stuff of soap operas, and I’m always in for that, provided that I’m not watching an actual soap opera. I have standards, thank you. And the show is good enough about including enough elements of the period’s counterculture that you can read against its grain and think of the ostensible heroes of the show as uncannily sympathetic villains. The social change-adjacent narratives can be slightly overcooked: at one point, a commoner traipses into Downton, points his finger and yells something like “Things are changing! Soon, you’ll all be down in the muck with us!” But who’s complaining. Also, I have to marvel at this show’s mastery of televisual language. The very first episode of this season is brilliant about introducing the goings-on about the house, using the exact same trick that Battlestar Galactica’s first episode used to show us around the battlestar: tracking shots. We see the operations of the downstairs, where the service lives and works, and we learn how that part of the house is laid out in relation to the more opulent upper floors. We only see our ostensible (but dubious) protagonist, Lord Grantham, several minutes into the episode, descending a staircase from behind — moments after having seen countless maids and footmen hurriedly ascending a staircase from their world to his. It’s lovely symmetry, and brilliantly efficient storytelling. As for characters, Maggie Smith’s dowager countess is the obvious highlight, and she kills me in every scene. (“No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else’s house!”) But I’m also a big fan of Carson the butler, and Mary the insufferable daughter. That last performance is a thing of incredible complexity. Michelle Dockery makes Mary intensely unlikable in her less considerate moments, but still makes us root for her because we understand why she feels compelled to act in such perverse, counterintuitive ways. This is a really lovely series in almost every way except for being completely ass-backwards in its opinion of its characters. I love it, I love it, I love it. Pick of the week.

Downton Abbey: Season 2, episodes 1-6 — The opening of the first episode is as skilled as the series premiere: look at the way that characters are reintroduced with fanfare: we hear Maggie Smith before we see her, and when we do, she’s right in the middle of the frame, and the camera pushes in slowly. Ah. Lovely to see her again. Bates emerges from a train, into a pool of exhaust — cane first, then the rest of him. Everybody gets their grand entrances. This is still excellent though so far, not quite as good as the first season. To his credit, Julian Fellowes’ decision to set the first two seasons in the pre-war years and WWI respectively ensured that they would go off into usefully divergent directions. The second season may be slightly less good, but it would be a lot more less good if it were simply more of the same. My biggest complaint with this show so far (at least in terms of craft; in terms of ethics, I’m still not remotely on board) is that it’s villains are straight out of melodrama. Thomas and O’Brien seem to never be given anything else to do but scheme. And Mrs. Bates is almost comically truculent. Frankly, I’d rip them all out of the series if I could, and give all their screen time to Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes.

Games

Super Mario Run — Nope. Played the free bit, and I’m not going to be forking over 14 of my hard-earned Canadian dollars for more of this. It’s certainly better constructed than your average mobile running game, but it still feels more like the cheap free-to-plays that usually have the word “run” in their titles than like a Mario game. (And for that matter, it’s a lot less fun than the Rayman auto-runners.) This is what it feels like to live in a world where Apple eats everything. If Mario’s going to have a new life on iOS, he’d damn well better behave like he did on Nintendo devices rather than like any old character in a crap iPhone game. And here, he does not. Dire.

Music

Kate Bush: Before the Dawn — A lovely Christmas gift, of the sort that we’ve all gotten used to not getting anymore because music is something you subscribe to for nine bucks a month. Kate Bush made the characteristically Kate Bush decision to not allow this on streaming services, and I’m rather glad to have the physical copy, since it’s full of photos of the shows that this three-disc set comes from: Bush’s massively acclaimed 2014 run of shows at the Hammersmith Apollo — her first live dates in 35 years. How like her to return to live performance only when she had a specific concept to execute, rather than just because live shows are what musicians do. One of the many things I love about her is that she’s done everything on her own terms since… oh, the last time she was playing concerts, I imagine. This is made up of theatrical performances of Bush’s two largest conceptual pieces, “The Ninth Wave” and “A Sky of Honey”: the second halves of Hounds of Love and Aerial, respectively. (Plus a seven-song prologue and a couple encores.) Listening to the audio from these without the visuals is a less-than-complete experience, but I do respect Bush’s reasoning that presenting them effectively as radio plays (oftentimes with the audience mixed out completely) could be more honest to the theatrical experience than a concert film would be. (Plus, we know that the footage exists. It’ll come out eventually.) Bush’s voice sounds brilliant throughout — even in the pre-recorded “And Dream of Sheep,” which may have been more difficult to get right than any of the live stuff, given that Bush recorded it while floating in a tank of water. Her instrument has darkened and lost a bit of its flexibility, but she makes up for it with renewed expressiveness in this live setting. At times, I feel that the tracks hue a bit too closely to the album versions, especially given the lack of audience sound at times. I was dying to hear “Running Up That Hill” with a guitar playing the synth line, like in the performance floating about with David Gilmour. But no dice: the dated preset from the album makes its appearance just where you’d expect. Fine. But when the tracks are allowed to expand a bit, like “King of the Mountain” and “Waking the Witch” are, it’s a glorious thing. If there’s anything at all to complain about it’s just that the conceit of the show prevents certain records from getting their fair representation. Even outside of the major pieces, the album is dominated by Hounds of Love and Aerial, with a couple Red Shoes tracks thrown in, plus one from The Sensual World and my least favourite song on 50 Words for Snow. I would have sacrificed one or two of the spare Aerial tracks for something more from 50 Words, which I think is terribly underrated — “Wild Man,” maybe, or even “Misty.” And I would have axed a Red Shoes track (though I think that album’s underrated too) for something from Never for Ever, or The Dreaming. Or maybe the title track from The Sensual World. But overall, this is a wonderful document of what sounds like it was a monumental live event. And I confess that this live version of “A Sky of Honey” has sold that music to me more effectively than its studio counterpart, which I never quite understood. (And the new song “Tawny Moon” is a good addition, and legitimately brilliantly sung by Bush’s son, Albert McIntosh.) I only hope this isn’t the last we see released from these shows. I do want to know what the staging was like, in motion.

Podcasts

Radiolab: “Bringing Gamma Back” — Breaking science news! This episode about a new study that finds mice with Alzheimer’s can be treated with light, of all things, is astonishing. But it also has the distinct aroma of something that is going to be a non-story when the results of the human trials come out. Call me a sceptic, but I learned this kind of thinking from Radiolab’s WNYC stablemates at On the Media.

Crimetown: “Gerald and Harold” — I have generally enjoyed the episodes of this show that focus on Buddy Cianci more than the ones more broadly about organized crime. But this is a good one because it focuses on the conflict between ratting out your fellow mobster and thus breaking a sacred code (that helps keep you alive) and other aspects of your life: i.e. the possibility of your innocent brother going to prison.

On the Media: “Spy vs. Spy” — The best part of this was just getting a quick refresher of what was actually in that massive New York Times piece about the Russian hacks. It’s a lot to take in after one go.

Radiolab: “It’s Not Us, It’s You” — The follow-ups at the end of this, particularly the one for their “Gray’s Donation” episode, are great. But I don’t know why they feel the need to repeat the call to action to donate again and again in a podcast episode. It’s not radio. I get that this is basically an episode with that purpose, but come on. Say it once at the beginning and once at the end. On the other hand, it’s telling that Radiolab can actually put together an episode like this and make it reasonably compelling.

The Memory Palace: “Promise” — This is basically Karina Longworth’s blacklist series in extreme miniature. It’s the story of Hazel Scott, the massively talented pianist who spanned jazz and classical and overcame the intense social biases of her time, only to be labelled a threat by McCarthy and his goons, and find that her career had disappeared. It’s heartbreaking and a reminder of what happens when a nation institutionalizes the vilification of difference. Pick of the week.

Code Switch: “Hold Up! Time For An Explanatory Comma” — I’ve always sort of wondered how much the members of the Code Switch team imagine themselves to be writing for a white audience. I suppose, given that it’s an NPR property, they’re inevitably going to be writing for a white audience. But as a white dude listening to this show, I’m constantly wondering how much they feel they need to condescend to me. I mean, I know who Tupac is. But what don’t I know??? I probably don’t even know what I don’t know!!! It’s nice to hear them address this, even if they are quite conflicted.

The Heart: “That Smell” — Oh, man; oh jeez. Once again, I’m too bashful to properly engage with The Heart in words. I’ll just do my usual thing and say it’s excellent, powerful, pathbreaking, and that you should listen to it. But you should heed the content warning, although who are you if that actually makes you queasy?

Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 20, 2016)

Do you ever listen to podcasts at 1.5X speed? Pro-tip: do that. You can listen to more podcasts that way.

27 reviews.

Television

QI: “Keys,” “Jumpers” & “Jobs” — If I am not mistaken, I have watched three episodes (in a random batch of six) of QI in the past two weeks that all reference bungee jumping.

Fleabag: Episodes 1-3 — Watched on the recommendation of the panel on Pop Culture Happy Hour. I’m really enjoying this, even if my snootiest, least charitable self wants to believe that I had it pegged as a Louie-esque-difficult-person-dramedy-with-an-occasionally-cloying-indie-sensibility right from the start. The important thing is not that it happens to fall into an increasingly identifiable box, but that it’s brilliantly executed and succeeds at being both sensitive and hilarious at the same time. Also, it’s always nice to see a show that succeeds without having a big, pitchable marquee concept (“women’s prison show” or “washed-up cartoon horse”). How would you summarize Fleabag? “A young woman deals with grief?” Yawn. Yet, I’d love to see more of this sort of thing. Television producers take note: “show with ordinary, real-life story, interesting characters, and good jokes” might actually be an elevator pitch worth paying attention to.

Movies

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them — Well, I went to a movie theatre and was pleasantly diverted for a couple of hours, so I guess that’s a win. But this is not a very good movie. Aside from just being sort of superfluous in general (also, five movies!?!? that’s far too many movies), it has some problems even when taken entirely on its own terms. The plotline suffers from the sense that groundwork is constantly being laid for later things. Jon Voight shows up pointlessly about three times, and will presumably be important later. Also, in the end, the focus turns to a thing called the Obscurus, which is a big evil repression monster, but the bulk of the movie is just people running around chasing other, unrelated escaped monsters. Those plotlines don’t sit easily together, and I think Rowling should have just picked a thing. Story concerns aside, there are also character concerns. Namely, the two main characters are both ill-conceived ciphers. Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander is fun to watch in the way that Eddie Redmayne is usually fun to watch, but he has to state outright that he has the tendency to annoy people because he is never seen to do that thing. Anyway, this is genuinely weak in most respects, but also strangely hard to dislike. It’s nice to be back in the wizarding world, even though the absence of Great British Character Actors A through Z makes this feel like a drastically different thing, tonally. (The cast here is fine, but the thing that makes the Harry Potter movies occasionally more than workmanlike is that particular species of British acting proffered by Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, Michael Gambon, Robbie Coltrane, Helena-Bonham Carter, and tons more. Nothing of the sort here — by design, clearly. But I do miss that.) If there’s one silver lining to an American-set wizarding world franchise, it’s that modern fantasy’s least subtle left-wing allegorist has been unleashed on a country that just elected Donald Trump. This is not necessarily a winning formula, but I’ll hold out hope that future instalments could be interesting. Also thievery platypus.

I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House — This is my kind of horror. The premise is classic pulp fodder: a young hospice nurse moves into a house to care for a senile author who used to write horror novels, and the house turns out to be haunted. But this film takes a dramatically more ambitious approach to this material than you might expect. It is slow and contemplative, with deliberately artificial performances and artfully framed static shots. The bulk of the script is delivered in voiceover, pairing enigmatic images with obtuse, circuitous discussions of themes rather than exposition. It’s a movie that actively challenges you to figure out what it’s really about, given that its story is so basic and told at such a slow, deliberate pace. I’m not entirely sure what the answer to that is. There’s lots in there about the act of looking, but I’m not quite sure what to make of that. Seems like something I might be able to parse on a second viewing, when I’m not preoccupied with the curry I’m eating. And there will be a second viewing. This is that kind of movie.

Literature

Dan Fox: Pretentiousness: Why It Matters — I can’t remember the last time I read a book that felt this much like it was written specifically to connect with me. This monograph by Dan Fox is a stunning defense of thinking and behaving in ways that contravene convention. It is by no means a refutation of populism, but rather a love letter to broad-mindedness. Fox notes the obvious point that the word “pretentious” is generally used in a derogatory fashion: to put somebody back in their place when they’re perceived to have overstepped a social boundary. But he argues persuasively that the act of overstepping social boundaries — which necessitates a certain amount of pretense or pretending (to the throne, even) — is inherently praiseworthy. And he has some choice words for those who prefer the epithet “elitist,” too. He cites a Guardian columnist who literally professed hatred — hatred — for a pair of flashily-dressed young people he saw randomly at a contemporary art exhibit. And he tears that columnist apart for what he rightly calls “cheap, them-versus-us populism.” He continues: “It speaks to an ugly intolerance for difference, to an expectation that people must share the same aesthetic tastes and appearances and that if they don’t they must be complicit members of an elitist racket hell-bent on excluding ‘ordinary’ people from its world. Those ‘ordinary’ people, it is assumed, could not possibly be interested in complex ideas and conversant in different forms of visual literacy.” Boom. That quote alone is reason enough for everybody in the media to read this book. There’s a personal anecdote in the postscript about how Fox grew up in a time and place when a young person could be introduced to the films of Kenneth Anger and the music of John Cage by way of the public broadcaster. Makes one wistful, frankly. There’s a quote near the end of the book that I consider words to live by: “To fear being accused of pretension is to police oneself out of curiosity about the world.” Open-mindedness is an ideal among ideals. Fox doesn’t quite go there in his book but I think if more people were devoted to the cultivation of a broad base of knowledge, as opposed to fearing or resenting the same in others, societies would be stronger, less divided, and make better decisions as an electorate. Pretentiousness is not the enemy. Quite the opposite. Pick of the week.

Alanna Bennett: “The Harry Potter Fandom Is At A Crossroads” — This is a fascinating portrait of a fandom growing up. The really interesting thing about the Harry Potter fandom right now is that they (we? I would include myself, if I weren’t so obviously less invested than the superfans referred to here) learned about social justice in part from Harry Potter, and now they find themselves butting heads with J.K. Rowling herself when she does boneheaded, offensive things like trying to fictionalize Native American culture. This is fascinating. About halfway through, I stopped to reread the first chapter of The Philosopher’s Stone. (It’s all I could get on iBooks; my own copies have been packed away in boxes in my hometown for years.) And I suddenly understood the fans in this story even more. It sort of all came rushing back: even at that early stage, writing for young children and nowhere close to the height of her powers, J.K. Rowling wrote the most compelling characters in modern children’s literature and was brilliant at conveying a sense of place. As soon as Albus Dumbledore appears for the first time, sucking the light from the streetlamps of Privet Drive, you’re forced to think of modern Britain as a hiding place for another whole, glorious world. It’s a magical book. With that in mind, it’s easy to see how so many fans have had more trouble than I have accepting the mediocrity of Rowling’s post-Deathly Hallows Potter projects. I’ll reread these books just as soon as I can get into those boxes.  

Music

Kate Bush: The Dreaming — I think I’ve returned to considering this my favourite Kate Bush album. I gave it a listen this week in anticipation of her new live album, which has nothing from this on it. And holy smokes, this is the most intricate songwriting, maybe ever. There’s a tempting narrative about Kate Bush that suggests that the directness she embraced on Hounds of Love was the result of lessons learned from the critical and commercial failure of The Dreaming. But that’s ridiculous — why on earth would she care? I think that a better reading is simply that The Dreaming represented the furthest possible extension of this kind of songwriting. There’s no out-dreaming The Dreaming, so Bush took a different approach. Both albums are masterpieces. But this is the more virtuosic by far.

Pink Floyd: Cre/Ation: The Early Years 1967-1972 — God, I want that 27-disc box set so bad I could curl up in a ball. This paltry two-disc sampler only makes me lust after it more, because so much of it is exactly what I’ve been wishing for from Pink Floyd for ages. It is only the very nerdy among us who are interested in hearing an early version of “Echoes” that consists almost entirely of the triple-time bit that comes right before the final reprise on the album version, but I am extremely nerdy. I want to hear every miniscule step in the evolution of this band. I suppose I’ll have to wait for it to gradually find its way onto streaming services. Because I do not have the wealth to indulge this obsession. Still though, for a two-disc sampler, this is really a lot of fun.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “Guest DJ: The Politics and Passions of Roger Waters” — “I know I sound like a crazy person, but I’m not. I’m actually a wise man.” He’s not wrong, on either count. Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton are simply not the people to interview Roger Waters. He is far too given to extraordinary statements and long rants for a pair of music broadcasters to handle. Marc Maron managed, somehow. But this is a mess.

Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything: “Targeted” — I can’t quite tell if Walker’s story about giving his son a stuffed Pepe is true. If so, that was a dumb move. The segment about facial recognition software is as disquieting as anything in this series so far.

All Songs Considered: “What Was It Like To See Pink Floyd In 1966? Joe Boyd Knows” — This is the highlight of the three parts of this show’s Pink Floyd week. Joe Boyd has a unique perspective on the band, given that he was right there in the early days, but his recollections aren’t necessarily coloured by having been involved beyond that. I will say that I think he gives Rob Chapman’s argument in the book A Very Irregular Head a bit too much credence. Chapman is probably right to argue that the narrative about Barrett declining because he took too much acid is too simple. But considering the extremity of his post-Floyd condition, Chapman’s assertion that his behaviour was part of a grand conceptual art project is patently ridiculous, and clearly born from an impulse towards hagiography. That aside, this is a nice interview. I do wish that Boilen had chosen to play some of the previously unreleased stuff from the box set instead of just returning to the iconic songs. That’s what the box is for, after all. Ah, well.

99% Invisible: “Space Trash, Space Treasure” — A fascinating look at the necessity of cleaning up the junk we keep leaving in space. But the really fascinating part is an interview with a professor who responds to the moniker “Dr. Space Junk” about why we should also consider leaving some of it there for anthropological reasons.

Code Switch: “Everyone Is Talking To Barry Jenkins But Our Interview Is The Best” — I need to see Midnight so bad. This is one of Gene Demby’s best interviews, partially because of how much he obviously loves the movie, but also because of how much he openly identifies with elements of the story and the filmmaker’s perspective. I think this show is really successfully walking a tonal tightrope where it acknowledges some of the tropes of thinkpiece journalism — but still does it, because the alternative is being dumb.

Reply All: “Flash!” — One of the most lacklustre episodes of Reply All in a while. The Yes Yes No segment is as funny as usual, but the story of a lost tortoise ad on Craigslist ends up being exactly as boring as it sounds.

Science Vs: “Antidepressants” — The subject matter of this is fascinating, but there is a recurring Hamilton reference that defines what I find grating about this show. There’s a thing in mental health research called the Hamilton scale, and every time but one that it is referenced here, a sample from Hamilton is used. A reference. Is not. A joke. And I know it may be a little much to expect top-notch humour from a science podcast, but this kind of thing is so much a part of its aesthetic that I think I’m out at this point. That was the last straw. Never thought it would be Hamilton.

A Point of View: “In Praise of Prophets of Doom” — A wonderfully curmudgeonly defence of dissatisfaction from Howard Jacobson. I tend to be a rather optimistic sort, though I have my particular doomy moments. It’s vindicating to hear something like this in a world that often feels full of mindless boosters for things that aren’t making our lives better.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Musicals and Politics” — This almost made me feel better about politics. What’s most incredible about this rundown of political musicals (aside from the regrettable absence of any Kander and Ebb) is not so much that there’s such a preponderance of them, long before Hamilton. It’s that Hamilton still stands head and shoulders above them all. It’s not just that there are no other musicals that have engaged so thoroughly in the political process, it’s that there are barely any other works of art that have done that. Save a few by Aaron Sorkin.

99% Invisible: “The Shift” — I’ll listen to sports stories when they’re on 99pi. That said, this is really the same story as the earlier one about basketball: innovations in the game make it less exciting and provoke a backlash. Still, fun.

On the Media: “Debunking the AIDS ‘Patient Zero’ Myth” — A quick story about how horribly Gaëtan Dugas was treated by the media: he did not give the world AIDS. That’s the Coles Notes version.

StartUp: Season 4, episodes 4-6 — Dov Charney is a compelling character, but this isn’t popping out of the headphones for me. I appreciate the return to serialized storytelling (I remain one of the few staunch defenders of StartUp season two) but I can’t help but think that this show is now suffering by comparison to its more consistent Gimlet stablemates. (I have not been reviewing Heavyweight because of an upcoming thing I’m doing, but informally: it is one of my favourite new shows of the year.) We’ll see how this ends.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Doctor Strange and Moonlight” — I wish the rest of the panel had given Kat Chow a bit more space to say her piece on Doctor Strange. It does sound like a fun movie that I’d like to see, but the whitewashing is some serious bullshit. Moonlight on the other hand sounds like something I am going to love unreservedly. Can’t wait.

99% Invisible: “Reverb” — Ooh, this is some great 99pi. I was aware of Wallace Sabine before, because the story of his minuscule acoustic measurements is incredible, but I was unaware that his formula has become obsolete in our increasingly quiet world. There’s also apparently a technology that simulates different reverbs in the same sized room using microphones and speakers distributed around the walls and ceiling. I would love to experience that.

Reply All: “Hello?” — The premise “P.J. and Alex open their phone lines to anybody for 48 hours” was bound to result in something bonkers, but this is far longer and more bonkers than you could possibly expect. A meandering, borderline pointless, destined classic of this amazing podcast. Pick of the week.

Code Switch: “Want Some Gravy With Those Grievances?” — The Code Switch team plays phone messages from people who are dreading Thanksgiving dinner because they have family members who voted for Trump. It is what it is.

Theory of Everything: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” — Benjamen Walker’s speculative story behind the appalling image (which I missed on election day) of Trump spying on Melania’s vote is a brilliant way of working Trump into his surveillance season. I mean, there are other more obvious ways. But why go the obvious route? I love the approach Walker is taking right now, of just continuing to do his show and respond to current events, but through the lens of surveillance. This series is going to get awesome eventually. It’s already great.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “ Romantic Comedies With Kumail Nanjiani” — Nanjiani and Linda Holmes talking about rom coms is great. Throw in a markedly less enthusiastic Steven Thompson and a MUCH less enthusiastic Glen Weldon, and you’ve got… almost gold. Yellow-tinged silver.

99% Invisible — “Dollar Store Town” — Audibly a shorter version of a longer, more visual documentary. Still, the fact that there is a town in China where they manufacture  nearly all of the worthless tchotchkes sold in American dollar stores is amazing.

Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 17)

18 reviews. I am beginning to feel like a human again.

Movies

The Jungle Book — I liked this way more than the critical consensus! The casting is universally marvellous, it handles its substantial tonal shifts with grace, and it is absolutely beautiful to look at — 3D notwithstanding. Could we please just be done with 3D? My major complaint is pretty minor, actually. The movie shoots its most effective sequence in the foot by insisting on maintaining an iconic song from the original animated film. The entire scene with Christopher Walken’s gigantic King Louie is magnificent and sinister — but if it’s going to have a song in it, it really should have been a proper Disney villain song. Something in the vein of “Be Prepared.” But still, they insisted that this drastically different take on the character sing the same song, for some reason. It’s a major tonal misstep during an important sequence. After all, King Louie represents an approximate halfway point between Mowgli’s beloved jungle and the man village that beckons to him regardless. If Louie were less obsessive and maniacal, turning him down would actually be a major decision for Mowgli. And, even with “I Wanna Be Like You” excised from the movie proper, Walken would still get to sing it in the end credits. All that aside, if Disney is going to keep reliving past glories indefinitely, we can’t ask for much better than this.

Literature, etc.

Kalefa Sanneh: “The Rap Against Rockism” — This was cited in another, shorter thing I read (see below), and I couldn’t remember if I’d actually read it or just everything that came after it. So, I had another bash, and still can’t recall if that was my first or second time through. It’s doubtless a magisterial piece of criticism, but it’s been effectively built on so thoroughly and satisfyingly by other writers that it’s hard to actually see it as dazzling. Still, if you’re unfamiliar with the tiring but still relevant Rockism v Poptimism debate, do have a skim.

Katherine St. Asaph: One Week // One Band, Kate Bush — I joined Tumblr! And I immediately found a blog that will now consume my life. The idea is that every week, a different writer takes a deep dive into a different artist’s catalogue, in Tumblr’s requisite short (okay, medium) chunks. St. Asaph’s Kate Bush series focusses specifically on The Red Shoes, which she rightly believes is not the worst Kate Bush album, like everybody insists on saying. This is really good, really fun music writing that you owe it to yourself to check out, along with the rest of the blog. Like most of the internet, it could have used a proofread, but you know. Small potatoes.

Music

Kate Bush: The Dreaming — Probably the best Kate Bush album, and for a long time my favourite. These days, I tend to prefer the more direct pleasures of Hounds of Love, but there’s nothing like this in the right mood. For an album so intentionally strange, it has a surprising visceral effect. “Suspended in Gaffa” kills me every time. And St. Asaph’s writing (see above) ensures that I will never hear “Get Out of My House” the same way again.

Prince: Purple Rain — First off, a shout out to Minnesota Public Radio for doing God’s work the day Prince died. Prince spent the last twenty years of his life trying to get all of his music off of the internet, quite successfully, really. So, on a day when everybody wanted to listen to Prince on the internet but couldn’t, The Current provided an essential service by playing the bulk of the back catalogue. People who worked with, knew, or just met Prince called in with stories between cuts, and it was moving to hear the DJs gradually realize that it wasn’t just Minnesota that had tuned in to mourn with them, but also the entire internet. This was the first time I’d really sat down and listened to a bunch of Prince — one of those artists who I’d always figured I’d get into eventually, but never put in the time. I heard a fair bit of the ‘80s stuff on MPR, including this whole album, which is a marvel, obviously. Prince was a virtuoso in every sense: he’s like Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix and Paul McCartney rolled into one person — at least in the sense that he possessed all of those artists’ best traits. He didn’t sound like any of them. “Let’s Go Crazy,” “The Beautiful Ones,” and of course the title track, are classics. It’s tempting to write something along the lines of “it’s too bad that Prince had to die for me to finally get into him,” but that’s not actually what happened. I just needed somewhere to hear his music online. Thank you MPR. Prince would be happy to know that I’ve since purchased this, and will surely listen to it many more times.

Games

EarthBound — I’m making extremely gradual progress through this massive, difficult game that’s clearly meant to be played for more than a couple hours a week. But I’m really starting to enjoy it now. The combat gets more exciting once you have multiple party members to control and strategize with, and a wider variety of items and spells. Story-wise, it continues to be a bit lighter than I expected. But, here’s something interesting: this game is really anti-authority. Looking at screencaps, you might expect it to be pretty innocuous. But, in this game, policemen are corrupt at best and violent towards children at worst, organized religion is an absurdity and an evil to be defeated, the wealthy are openly spiteful and unscrupulous, and your father is a lazy absentee. I’m expecting all of this to come to a head at some point. If the world of EarthBound is, as many have said, a Japanese take on contemporary America, they must think it’s a pretty dire place. And, of course, they’re right.

Comedy

Josh Gondelman: Physical Whisper — There’s some gold in this, and some stuff that’s sort of whatever. The absolute best moment comes at the end of a story about an interaction with a homeless man in a train station. You should listen to this for that story alone.

Television

Archer: “Deadly Prep” — JETHRO TULL JOKE! They did a Jethro Tull joke! Ahem. This was fine. Some funny moments with Lana and Malory, and a bit of actual pathos in Archer’s story. That is all.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: “Kimmy Goes Roller Skating!” — I’m going to put this in the most white dude fashion I know how: there some, ah, there’s some race stuff in this that I’m unsure about. And in addition to being kind of eeeeeee, that stuff is also the unfunniest element of this premiere episode, which I honestly didn’t enjoy very much. I’m honestly shocked that I only watched one episode in the last week. I will finish the season, and I imagine it’ll pick up. There’s no way that a show as good as it was in its first season is worn out already. I hope.

Better Call Saul: “Klick” — That is possibly the best final shot Vince Gilligan has given us since Hank discovered Leaves of Grass in the bathroom. If last week’s episode had more in the way of plot fireworks, this week’s finale gave us the clearest picture yet of Jimmy and Chuck’s respective, and differently problematic sets of ethics. There’s no rule Jimmy won’t bend given a good reason or a sufficiently difficult alternative, but he’d do anything for the people he loves. Chuck will follow the letter of the law with pedantic accuracy, but his immense capacity for spite causes him to act with shocking cruelty towards his own brother. This has been an outstanding season of television. I can’t wait for the next one. Pick of the week.

Last Week Tonight: April 18, 2016 — People who watch clips of this on YouTube rather than whole episodes miss some really great stuff, i.e. a truly horrifying montage of documentary promos from WCBS 2 News. At least once, watch the whole show. Really.

Podcasts

StartUp: “Almost Famous” — A little dull. I feel like this is retreading familiar beats from previous seasons, even though it’s a total change of format. But on the other hand, since it isn’t serialized anymore, I guess I don’t have to worry about spending a whole season with this less-than-interesting story. It’s fine, not great.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Mindy Project and Romantic Comedies” — These are two topics that are not especially interesting to me, but I always love hearing Linda Holmes talk about romantic comedy. It’s one of her especially shimmering areas of specialization. This also has some truly choice Audie Cornishisms. I should really start listening to the All Things Considered podcast.

This American Life: “Middle School” — This show is at its best when it handles mundane stories. This episode details stuff that happens all over America (and Canada) every weekday, but which nobody in the adult world really pays attention to. It couldn’t be more relevant, in the sense that middle school affects everybody, whether they’re a child or a parent, or just a former child. But what I love most about this is, as with all of the best TAL, there’s no sense of “import” to it. It’s fun, full of pathos, and delves into a huge part of modern life. Pick of the week.

The Bugle: “Sick Bugle” — Their second episode after a long time away (and an even longer time of me being away from them) was delayed by the illness of international superstar John Oliver. So instead, we get a compilation of all of the best stuff from previous Aprils. Which is just what I needed to start loving this again. As comedy podcasts in the venerable subgenre of “two guys talking” go, this is head and shoulders above absolutely everything else. What’s consistently amazing about it is that international superstar John Oliver is actually the slightly less funny of the two hosts.

All Songs Considered: “Sturgill Simpson Talks About His ‘Guide To Earth’” — I’m conflicted about whether or not I’ll listen to Sturgill Simpson, and moreover, I can’t decide whether I’d go with the new one, or that really acclaimed one from a year or two ago. We’ll see. In any case, I’ve heard a few of the songs now, so when it’s on a bunch of year-end lists, I’ll be able to say, “eh, alright.”

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Comedian Josh Gondelman” — I have to know what that story is that Linda likes so much, so I’m going to go listen to his album. See above.

On The Media: “On Shakespeare” — I love when Brooke Gladstone becomes this kind of media critic. She’s less interested in news critiques than in understanding the transmission of information. And, no information has been more complicatedly transmitted than Shakespeare. This starts off with a fairly familiar survey of the bunk theories about Shakespeare not having written Shakespeare, and mercifully, it doesn’t entertain any of them. But it goes on to tell the fascinating story of Delia Bacon, the originator of the Baconian theory (named for Francis Bacon, no relation). Then it tells the story of a production of Love’s Labours Lost in Afghanistan during a lull in Taliban power. Both of those are stories I’d never heard and they are really interesting.

Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 6, 2016)

It was the kind of week where I took in large amounts of a small number of things. So, a mere 20 reviews, this time. Having finally caught up on my podcast subscriptions, I can at last binge on some other podcasts that I’ve been meaning to check out for a while. I started listening to two new ones this week that are both blowing my mind. But first, everything else.

Music

Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Tarkus — When I was a kid, I wanted to be Keith Emerson when I grew up. I listened to this album for the first time in ages when the news broke that he’d died. I’m eternally frustrated that the second side is so patchy when the first is so good. So, let’s just focus on what everybody comes to this album for: the 20-minute title track, which is simply a classic. And it’s almost entirely Emerson that makes it so good. Every one of his solos is a perfectly thought out little architectural marvel. This track, as much as anything, is the reason why I’ve never understood people who gripe about long solos. Actually, if “Tarkus” has a flaw, it’s that the organ solos are so good that you kind of find yourself waiting for the next one when Greg Lake starts singing or, bless him, playing guitar. And it all ends with the most gloriously silly synth riff ever written. This record is both a definitive period piece and a (half) masterpiece. RIP, Keith.

Glenn Gould & Toronto Symphony Orchestra: Beethoven PIano Concertos 1 & 2 — This is a scratchy, barely listenable old thing taken from a 1951 CBC broadcast. Gould was only 18, and had already been a regularly-featured soloist with the TSO for four years. CBC had caught on that this kid’s performances needed a national audience. It would be four more years before Columbia Records caught on, signed him and lifted him to international prominence with his debut recording of the Goldberg Variations. So, as a document, this is super cool. As an actual recording, the early 50s radio broadcastiness of it makes things difficult, but Gould is great here. People tend to be split on his Beethoven. It’s like, the Bach is beyond reproach, the Mozart is best forgotten, and the Beethoven is somewhere in between. I like Gould’s Beethoven. (And some of his Mozart, if we’re being honest.) And by age 18, he already had that unique tone that I love him for.

Kate Bush: The Sensual World — This is Kate Bush’s version of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous. Both were renowned for work that they did at very young ages, and both were increasingly ignored as their music approached increasingly adult subject matter. The Sensual World isn’t as consistent as Hounds of Love or as experimental as The Dreaming, but it has some of Bush’s most thoughtful songwriting. The title track, “The Fog,” “Heads We’re Dancing,” and obviously “This Woman’s Work” are all among the best music she ever made, and she couldn’t have made it as a less mature artist. Of course, many years later, she’d pull the same trick again on Aerial to even greater effect.

Movies

Where to Invade Next — Michael Moore’s gotten soft. Considering that he’s Michael Moore, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I enjoyed this very much, because I think that the United States needs as many reminders as it can get that the American experience is not the default human experience. But at the same time, I wanted to cry for most of its duration, because there are so many places that get such obvious things so right, and so many people who would doubtless call them wrong. Giving kids healthy, good meals in schools like they do in France shouldn’t sound revolutionary. Neither should Italy’s eight weeks of annual paid vacation, or Iceland’s policies on gender equality. It’s enough to make even us smug Canadians hang our heads in shame.

Television

Cucumber/Banana/Tofu: Episodes 1-5 (of all three) — This is Russell T Davies’ antidote for every austere, staid, Oscar-nominated movie about gay people you’ve ever suffered through. I didn’t see this on any year-end lists, and that is a travesty. Cucumber, Davies’s middle-aged spiritual sequel to Queer as Folk, is unbelievable television. It has more kinetic energy than anything I’ve seen in ages. If you’re not pulled in by the first episode, which, holy hell does that ever start in one place and end up in another, then you’re watching television wrong. And in case eight hours of drama about middle-aged gay dudes doesn’t appeal, there’s Banana, the nearly-as-brilliant companion piece which focuses on members of the younger supporting cast. Tofu, the series of 11-minute documentary shorts that rounds out the trilogy, is not very good. But that in no goddamn way should prevent you from watching the other two shows. Now I feel bad about some of the crap I’ve said to people about Davies’ Doctor Who scripts. He is a genius, and I hope he quits smoking so we get maximum years of prosperous creativity from him. Pick of the week.

Last Week Tonight: March 6, 2016 — “What sound does Ann Coulter make as she falls down the stairs?” is my new favourite line on this show. Well, second favourite. My new actual favourite is “Tonight we are talking about special taxing districts. So, hello people watching for the first time because of our Trump piece! And also, I presume, goodbye.”

Better Call Saul: “Gloves Off” — So far in this show, it’s been obvious that Jimmy McGill has a long way to go before he properly becomes Saul Goodman. But it hasn’t been that obvious that Mike Ehrmantraut is on a similarly lengthy journey. Jonathan Banks’s wonderful performance is outwardly the same in its mannerisms, regardless of whether he’s the ruthless “cleaner” of Breaking Bad or the regretful ex-cop in Better Call Saul. But this episode demonstrates that there’s a chasm between those two versions of the character.

QI: “Misconceptions” — The episode I watched last week was apparently Stephen Fry’s last episode filmed, but this is his last transmitted. Dear me. How will they get by without him.

Podcasts

Welcome to Night Vale: “Homecoming” + Bonus Episodes 1 & 2 — I like Night Vale best when the comedic horrors give way to a bit of humanity. I don’t necessarily mean that the show is best when it has long character arcs. I’m inclined to think the opposite. “Homecoming” does it right. It tells a typical Night Vale supernatural story, but one that has specific resonance for Cecil. And it’s basically self-contained, without depending too heavily on your knowledge of continuity for emotional investment. The bonus episodes are not written by Fink and Cranor, and both are excellent (the first is exceptional), indicating that a bit of new blood could really punch up the show. Come to think of it, I wonder what Night Vale would be like if it had a writers’ room the size of a sitcom? Would it lose what makes it singular? Or would it have the variety it sometimes lacks?

You Must Remember This: “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” Parts 1-4 — I confess that my first impression of this was “why is this a podcast and not a book?” It is essentially just Karina Longworth reading a script, with no tape save for a few quick movie clips, and the unexpected presence of Nate DiMeo in the role of Charles Manson. But then I just got lost in how good it is. This is the sort of cultural history that I am a complete sucker for. The first episode is Longworth’s summary of everything that was set to go rotten in American counterculture in the late 60s, and it’s enthralling. Manson is a lens by which Longworth examines the dark side of the hippie movement — and not just the extreme dark side that culminated in a cult and several murders, but the more mundane dark side that resulted in the mainstreaming of outlaw culture. There was a segment of Flower Power that never meant to stop at mere resistance: there would be open rebellion. And, as Ian Anderson once observed, there was something more than vaguely fascist about that segment of counterculture. That’s all baked into Longworth’s narrative, but seen through the lens of Los Angeles as opposed to the more familiar (to me) London narrative, and through the lens of psychedelic film as opposed to the more familiar (to probably most people) psychedelic music narrative. Which is not to say that Longworth ignores the musical connections in the story. The third episode, which I understand is widely regarded as the crown jewel of the 12-part series, is the heartbreaking story of how Charles Manson broke Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. If you only feel like committing to one episode of Manson brutality, make it that one. I’m sure there will be others that equal it for me, but that’s really good radio.

Limetown: Season 1 — Yeah, I binged the whole season. It’s short. Many thoughts. First off, choosing the title of the final episode of Serial season one as the title of the first episode of your fictional Serial riff is ballsy. But Limetown lives up to the affectation. This is as convincing an impression of actual radio as Night Vale isn’t. And, I know they don’t bear comparison. And, I know they probably get compared more than they should, simply by virtue of being two of the three most buzzy fictional podcasts out there. (I will never listen to The Message, by the way. I’m sure it’s fine, but I don’t want to live in a world where all of the successful podcasts are fucking branded.) But truthfully, if Night Vale had this level of aesthetic verisimilitude, it would be a better podcast. Anyway, this had me emotionally invested and in suspense from the first minute. And from the second episode on, it is terrifying. I’ve talked before about how horror games are scarier to me than horror movies because they implicate you in the story. I think the same goes for audio, which forces you to paint the picture in your head, while maintaining the pace and the sense of inevitability of a movie. Plus, there’s even a bit of subtle metafiction in here: listen through earbuds, and you’ll know what it’s like to have people talking directly into your head. I’m eagerly awaiting the second season. Orson Welles would be proud. Pick of the week.

The Heart: “Ghost: Emily” — The best episode of the season so far. Several people discuss their animosity towards their partners’ exes. Of course, this being The Heart, it’s not played for laughs. It’s thoughtful and has plenty of that thing they do where half of the story is in the mix — things spoken aloud are separate in space from things left unsaid. Really good.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Sturgill Simpson, Beth Orton, Julianna Barwick, Damien Jurado, More” — Wasn’t feeling this quite as much as the last few, but hoo boy does that Heron Oblivion track ever hit that perfect 1967 sweet spot.

Theory of Everything: “Paris” — Benjamen Walker is really good at talking about the stuff that insufferable lefty arts people talk about without actually coming off as insufferable. Using that gift, he has become one of the great storytellers of the decline of modern cities — first by demolishing the sharing economy in “Instaserfs,” then by railing against the commodification of all space in “New York After Rent,” and now by exploring the chasm between the Paris of memory and the Paris of today.

99% Invisible: “The Giftschrank” — There are actual rooms in German libraries where they keep the dangerous literature. This is basically an account of what kinds of literature were considered dangerous at various points in time — courtesy of Sam Greenspan, who it is always good to hear from.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: American Crime” — Linda Holmes is in New York, talking to culture people! Danielle Henderson is great, and I would love to hear her on this show again. But I will not be watching American Crime.

The Memory Palace: “Homesteading” — DiMeo reigns it in, this week. A tight six minutes, and a tiny, charming story. It really is a bit too slight to be memorable, but I prefer this to the occasional bloat of recent episodes.

Reply All: “Milk Wanted” — Breast milk is apparently really expensive. Trust a Reply All producer (Phia Bennin, who is wonderful) to find out the internet repercussions of that.

All Songs Considered: “Iggy Pop & Josh Homme Talk ‘Post Pop Depression’” — Iggy Pop is one of the wittiest people in rock, and he and Josh Homme make a good double act. I intend to listen to the album, but I can’t have it be the first Iggy Pop album I listen to. Hell, I haven’t even heard Fun House.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr., Kanye, and Gilmore Girls” — Daoud Tyler-Ameen is a very clever interviewer and I would love to hear him do his own podcast. His interview with Leslie Odom Jr. really demonstrates that Lin-Manuel Miranda is not the only super smart person involved in Hamilton. I agree with Sean Rameswaram that all of the people who gave overwhelmingly positive reviews to The Life of Pablo the day after its release should be fired. And I’ve been told to watch Gilmore Girls by enough people, now including Daisy Rosario and Linda Holmes, that I probably will.

Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 14, 2016)

21 reviews — not all of which are from this week, I confess. I forgot some stuff a while back. But! The live things are both from this week! Look at me, doing things! Leaving my apartment!

Live events

Robert Lepage: 887 — There’s no way to properly unpack this performance in a few words immediately after the fact. So I’ll just kind of describe what it is. It’s Robert Lepage onstage, talking about memory: the neurological phenomenon of memory, his childhood memories, the process of memorization. Along the way, he explores the origins of theatre (for him personally and in general), he remembers his father, and he reflects on Quebec nationalism and the FLQ. Onstage with him is a set so ingenious in its design that I’m not even going to try to describe it. But this isn’t really a show about spectacle. Mostly, it’s just Lepage talking to you, telling you a story, being a companionable guide through history and memory. It’s like an episode of The Moth combined with a TED talk inside a magical realist diorama. Some of the themes Lepage plays with in this don’t seem like they should necessarily connect, but they do, and never in ways that seem forced. And there are about a thousand different plot threads hanging at any one time, but it’s never hard to follow. He just strings you along. It is deft and haunting and you should take any opportunity that arises to see it. Pick of the week.

Nick Thune: Live at the Biltmore — I’m going to try to get out to more live comedy. I always love it, when it’s somebody I know won’t bomb. Thune is great. I’d say about three quarters of his jokes landed with the crowd. There’s some chaff in his set right now, but the good bits are really good. Generally, the darker he goes, the better he gets. It says something about the way this guy’s head works that his best line came in a bit about watching a man contemplate suicide on the edge of a bridge. Apparently, that bit did not go over in Antwerp. Live comedy, hey?

Literature, etc.

Susan Fast: Dangerous — I actually read this a few weeks ago and never wrote it up for some reason. This is the 100th volume in the 33⅓ series. Fast’s thesis is that Michael Jackson’s Dangerous is his most mature work: this version of Jackson is not an artist past his prime, but an artist embracing adulthood in a way that the media never gave him credit for, and embracing his blackness in spite of the media’s accusations that he was abandoning it. It’s an outstanding and entertaining little book, and I highly recommend reading it and listening to the album simultaneously. You’ll appreciate the music more for having read this.

Music

Michael Jackson: Dangerous — I suppose I also neglected to write this up. Basically, I’m with Susan Fast on this. It’s a dreadfully underrated album. “Jam” might well be my new favourite MJ song, and tracks like “Remember the Time” and “Who Is It” are delightfully complex. I confess, I can’t deal with the ballads — especially not “Heal the World,” and I suspect this is my liability rather than the song’s — but the impact of the album as a whole is staggering. It isn’t the one-disc hit parade that Thriller was, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s challenging and ambitious, and that makes it maybe even more awesome.

Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks — If I’m being honest, it’s probably my favourite Dylan album. His band sounds blandly professional compared to the kickass Nashville session players on Blonde on Blonde, but the lyrics are the best of his career and so are the vocal performances. The songs on Blood on the Tracks are direct enough to be comprehensible, but they still maintain a tantalizing bit of mystery. The perfect example of this is my absolute favourite Dylan song, “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.” It tells a straightforward story with four fully fleshed-out characters (the title trio with the addition of Big Jim, the ill-fated rich dude) but it leaves out crucial information at the last minute, forcing the listener to dig through the lyric for clues as to what exactly took place. In a particularly wonderful touch, the most important clue is in the second line of the song. I love Blood on the Tracks. It’s one of the rock ‘n’ roll warhorses of the boomer generation that most deserves its reputation.

Julia Wolfe: Anthracite Fields — I’ve listened to this in bits and pieces at work a bunch of times. This was my second listen straight through. I dunno. I love the first movement, but this thing that new music people are doing now where they compose to librettos constructed from scraps of found writing (see also Ted Hearne’s The Source, and a while back, John Adams’ Doctor Atomic) is starting to wear thin for me. We get it: it’s a postmodern age. I’m tired. I just want to hear songs. Musically, there are parts of this that I love. But this is nowhere near as compelling as its two immediate predecessors in the list of Pulitzer winners.

Kate Bush: The Whole Story — I don’t generally love compilations, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve put this on to hear the alternate version of “Wuthering Heights” at the beginning and just let it play. No songs here are less than excellent.

Elvis Costello/Brodsky Quartet: The Juliet Letters — This is likely not the best Elvis Costello album to start with. But I happened to have a copy lying around that I got for free, so may as well. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. A string quartet has the same homogeneity as a punk band, so this format makes perfect sense, and should be explored further, by people who share Costello and the Brodsky’s aversion to “crossover” music. The songs with music written by members of the quartet really emphasize what a nimble vocalist Costello is. His own material doesn’t always make the same demands on him. It remains to be seen whether I’ll listen to this a second time, but I’m glad I heard it once.

Kanye West: The Life of Pablo — I stole this album and so should you. Tidal exclusives cannot become a thing. Shitty distribution methods aside: when Yeezus came out, I thought of it as Kanye’s White Album, given that Fantasy is clearly his Sgt. Pepper. I’m going to revise that. Yeezus is now Kanye’s Magical Mystery Tour — a good, but somewhat slight and incidental work between two more substantial ones. The Life of Pablo is a perfect analogue for the White Album: troubled production, bloat, songs in various stages of incompletion upon release, lack of focus. But where the actual White Album manages to use all of those things to its advantage in the end, making a unified aesthetic out of its heterogeneity, The Life of Pablo just kind of feels like a slog to me, on first listen. There are moments I loved, and I clearly need to listen to it more than once to process it. (As did all of the reviewers who wrote it up the day after its surprise release. WHY must everything happen NOW?) Still, I loved both of Kanye’s last two albums immediately. At the moment, I think this is his worst album since 808s and Heartbreak. That may change.

Television

Last Week Tonight: February 14, 2016 — Oh, thank god he’s back. He managed to cover Scalia’s death in a way that was funny but not tasteless and also not needlessly deferential to a person who materially harmed many lives. He brought out the comedy in the horrible irony that voter ID proponents routinely commit voter impersonation in state legislatures. And, he curated an extravaganza devoted to a New Zealand MP getting hit in the face with a dildo. I love this show so much.

The Art of the Deal: The Movie — I’m going to call this television for arbitrary reasons. This is one of those internet things where the fact of its existence is more relevant than the thing itself. It’s pretty funny, though. Watch it before it has no more caché.

Better Call Saul: “Switch” — It’s the switch that makes the whole thing. That moment with the switch. I don’t even know what to think. Also, I love how adept this show is becoming at creating idiotic, white, suburban petty criminals whose downfall is their entitlement. I don’t know what this show is planning on doing to that guy with the Hummer, but it’s going to be so satisfying.

Deadwood: “A Lie Agreed Upon” (Parts 1 & 2) — The two-part premiere of the second season provides the Swearengen/Bullock showdown we’ve all been waiting for, Al’s greatest closing benediction thus far, and Anna Gunn. This is clearly going to be a good season.

Podcasts

The Memory Palace: “The Wheel” — Longer isn’t necessarily better for The Memory Palace. And, as much as I love this show, I’ve also begun to become aware of some of DiMeo’s ticks as a writer. He likes to hone in on particular evocative phrases and adopt them as recurring motifs. Sometimes, it works brilliantly, like “she let her mind wander” in the episode about Margaret Knight. But “they could take the boat” doesn’t have quite the same poetic resonance in this story. It is a heck of a story, though — the tale of Robert Smalls’ incredible escape from slavery during the Civil War. And the anecdote that DiMeo tacks on the end is perfect. DiMeo doesn’t hit it out of the park every time, but there are wonderful moments in every episode of The Memory Palace.

Reply All: “In The Desert” — This is both an excellent mystery story and a very amusing example of P.J. Vogt knowing exactly how to piss off Alex Goldman. This podcast is amazing.

Reply All: “Apologies to Dr. Rosalind Franklin” — How like Reply All to turn an oversight into a fun story. I have to say, though: it seems a bit pedantic to me that somebody listened to Goldman’s story about diversity in tech workplaces and honed in on the fact that he neglected to mention Dr. Franklin alongside Watson and Crick in an aside that really didn’t have much to do with the story at hand. But she does deserve more credit, so whatever.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Super Bowl Snacks” — Two takeaways from this. One: I could have Superbowled more committedly. Two: I need to start listening to The Sporkful, which I’ve known for some time.

99% Invisible: “The Ice King” — People used to ship American lake ice all the way to India. That is completely amazing, and this is a great story. Plus, the sources for it are sufficiently obscure that this feels like a genuine public service from 99pi. I would never have heard about this otherwise.

On The Media: “Common Sense” — A nearly two-month old episode of OTM, but one that I knew I still had to listen to. It’s so nice to hear that there are people willing to casually call bullshit on the arguments in opposition of gun control.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Harper Lee and To Kill A Mockingbird” — I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only person who gets a lump in their throat at the mere mention of Boo Radley.

On The Media: “Brooke on the Longform Podcast” — Brooke Gladstone is the greatest. She’s one of the few people that journalism can’t do without. This is the first I’ve heard her talk about her own work rather than other people’s, and is absolutely essential listening for anybody interested in the media. It’s great to hear her talk about the differences between her sensibility as an OTM host and Bob Garfield’s. She’s more interested in how people process information, whereas Garfield mostly likes to take umbrage with specific instances of journalistic misconduct. That’s why it’s important to have both of them: Garfield delivers what a lot of people presumably go to a media criticism show for — confrontation and reckoning. But Gladstone’s the one who’ll teach you how to read the news intelligently. This is a lovely bit of insight into how she thinks. I guess I also need to start listening to Longform. Pick of the week.