Tag Archives: Kurt Vonnegut

Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 11)

 

In case you’re one of the people who I don’t actually know who wanders through here from time to time, here is a link to my new, other, much more specific blog that you might like to check out. It is about Pink Floyd, progressive rock, and the way that societies make collective decisions about art.

For everybody else: 23 reviews.

Literature

Kurt Vonnegut: Slapstick — I think this may be Vonnegut’s most misunderstood book. This isn’t a broad satire of anything specific, though Vonnegut does snipe at his favourite targets from time to time: war, American exceptionalism, etc. This begs to be read not as a story but as a sort of self-therapy on Vonnegut’s part. It’s a way for him to express his grief about his sister’s death and his despair at the resulting loneliness. When you read it semi-psychoanalytically, it’s maybe the saddest book of Vonnegut’s career. If you try and read it only for its content, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. (Though, considering how direct Vonnegut is about the autobiographical nature of the story in the prologue, I’m not sure how anybody reads this any other way.) This is exceptionally companionable book during a sleepless night, and the most underappreciated thing that Vonnegut ever wrote.

Eric Lipton, David E. Sanger & Scott Shane: “The Perfect Weapon: How Russian Cyberpower invaded the U.S.” — I don’t usually include news pieces in this thing, but this New York Times feature is magnificent journalism. Its content is extremely disquieting, especially where the D.N.C.’s response to the initial discovery of its security vulnerabilities is concerned. But the construction of the piece is a thing to be marvelled at. Without sacrificing fairness or veering out of the somewhat austere voice that news should be presented in, the authors make careful note of the quiet poetry in certain elements of this story: the fact that the infamous filing cabinet from the Watergate burglary is sitting in the D.N.C.’s basement, or that the Russians sent a phishing email in which the bad link was to a fake Harvard paper called “Why American Elections Are Flawed.” The investigation is thorough, and the story is presented in a way that makes linear sense in spite of the many moving parts and their various aliases. I would likely not have taken the time to read this if I hadn’t subscribed to the Times. I am already glad that I did. This is top shelf.

Shirley Wu: “An Interactive Visualization of Every Line in Hamilton” — I confess that I find Wu’s actual analysis a little bit obvious throughout this feature, but having the data broken down in this interactive format is endlessly fascinating, and maybe my new favourite piece of Hamilton’s fan-made paratext. This allows you not only to look at visualizations of characters’ lines throughout the musical, but also to see where they are addressing each other directly, and when they make use of particular lyrical leitmotifs like “that would be enough” or “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” It makes certain observations simple, like the fact that Aaron Burr’s role is actually not much smaller than Hamilton’s, and also that Lin-Manuel Miranda almost never makes two characters sing together in duets. This is the lord’s work.

Gideon Lewis-Kraus: “The Great A.I. Awakening” — This is the best magazine feature I’ve read in a long time. It is impressive mostly because it has so much business to attend to throughout its length. It has to juggle a huge cast of characters, mostly computer scientists at Google. It has to touch on decades of history that are relevant to its story. It has to deal with the complexities of institutions, such that a relatively small service (Google Translate) can be at the forefront of innovation for a company. And, perhaps most dauntingly it has to explain complicated computer science concepts to a lay audience. Lewis-Kraus pulls it all off while also being funny. He is also neither alarmist nor boosterist where Silicon Valley is concerned, though he’s closer to the latter than the former. Also interesting is that I read this on the same day I started watching Battlestar Galactica. And in spite of Lewis-Kraus’s reassurances that A.I. in its current state is only here to help, there were many moments here where I found myself interjecting: “But Cylons.” Nonetheless, a fascinating read. Provided that Google doesn’t bring about the apocalypse in the next few years, I’d suggest that Lin-Manuel Miranda should learn to rap in about 100 more languages and consider this as the subject for his next musical. Look back at that list of all the business that Lewis-Kraus has to deal with in this feature and tell me it doesn’t play to LMM’s strengths.

Television

Planet Earth II: “Cities” — I had not expected this somewhat tangential finale to be the highlight of the series, but it absolutely was. The opening sequence features monkeys fighting over turf on rooftops, and it’s like something out of a Jackie Chan movie. Throw in adorable Torontonian raccoons and catfish who have learned to hunt pigeons, and you’ve got an incredible episode of television that also makes a compelling argument: the natural world is powerful enough to coexist with us in our modern environments if we only allow it to. This whole series has been some of the year’s best television, and this single episode is the one that makes this new instalment of Planet Earth the most distinct from its esteemed predecessor. Pick of the week.

QI: “Kinetic” & “Knowledge” — The “Knowledge” episode is one of the funniest of all, partially on account of its premise, which is that most facts turn out not to be true — and that therefore QI’s history is packed with falsehoods. Makes it disquieting to watch back episodes on YouTube. But what am I going to do, stop?

Battlestar Galactica: The Miniseries — Ooh, this is exciting. It’s been a long time since I binged a show, and I can feel a bender coming on with this one. This two-part backdoor pilot for the show that followed is mostly stunning television. Specifically, part one is outstanding throughout. The efficiency with which it introduces its world, setting and characters (that long take!) is really impressive, and the opening exposition sequence is genius. Let’s think about that for a second. If you haven’t seen it, just go watch the first five minutes of this. And note how much labour is done simply through the set design. The détante between the humans and the Cylons is explained through onscreen captions, but the interior set for the armistice station tells you exactly how the meetings between the two factions are supposed to work. There’s a long hallway with a big metal door on each side. The hallway widens a bit in the middle, and there’s a desk there, with a chair on each side. When a man walks through one of the doors and sits down at the chair on his side of the hallway, we know that the same thing is supposed to happen on the other side because of the symmetry of the set. This is brilliant. And the entire first episode, jumping as it does from character to character, is buoyant and propulsive, even when it turns into a war movie. The second part doesn’t fare quite as well. The first half hour introduces a moppetty child whose only function is to make a standard trolley problem a bit more emotionally wrenching, but it doesn’t work because the strings are so visible. It also introduces a sort of ostentatious philosophizing that I would like to go away, please. Mind you, the character most responsible for that becomes more interesting very quickly. So, a fabulous bit of television that flies off the rails halfway through. Sure hope this isn’t foreshadowing of anything.

Music

Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment: Surf — This is just pure joy. I’ve never quite heard this particular genre fusion: rap meets jazz and gospel in a mix that would rather relax then be aggressive. It’s super fun, and “Sunday Candy” is a masterclass in why everybody should love Chance the Rapper.

John Cale: Paris 1919 — I guess it was about time to give John Cale another shot. Years and years ago, I bought the set called The Island Years, which collected his albums Fear, Slow Dazzle, and Helen of Troy, plus some bonus material. I had high expectations for Fear, at least, given that it was one of his most acclaimed albums and featured notable contributions from Brian Eno. But I was thoroughly underwhelmed by all three records. They seemed to me like songwriter records, except that they were made by somebody who is definitely more of an experimental musician than a pop songwriter. Based on my recollection, the songs aren’t that interesting, either in their lyrics or their structures. So, I was never particularly inclined to check out the one John Cale album that most fans would recommend. How much better could it be? Well, as it turns out, a lot better. This is still not quite my thing, but it’s drastically different from the albums that came after in that it is a huge symphonic record rather than a stripped back art pop record. And that broader sonic palette (reminiscent of Procol Harum, but with a sense of irony) makes Cale’s pedestrian lyrics and taste for extremely basic chord progressions and song structures less important. If that seems like faint praise, it is. I don’t love this album. I think it’s fine. But by and large, John Cale’s solo career is one of those bodies of work that music nerds love for reasons I will never understand.

The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground — The first time I reviewed this album, I said this: “I’ve loved the first two Velvet Underground albums for years, but never got around to checking out this or Loaded. Apparently, Eno loves this album so much that he’s never owned a copy for fear of becoming overfamiliar. I do see the appeal, though I definitely prefer the debut. I love the first album as much for its noisy sonic adventures as for its songwriting, and that element sort of left the band with John Cale. Still good.” Reading that now, I’m reminded of the value of repeat listening. There was a time when listening obsessively to full albums was my default, but that gradually fell away as I stopped buying physical CDs. These days, the temptation is huge to just listen again and again to the one or two tracks on a given album that capture me initially. And the temptation is even bigger to dismiss albums like this one, that don’t make an immediate strong impression. But I’m glad I took it in mind to hear this again, because the second listen was astronomically more meaningful than the first. Now, I think that “I’m Set Free” might be Lou Reed’s most beautiful song, “The Murder Mystery” might be their most compelling extended experimental track, and the entire album is full of subtle gems. It’s an introverted record, unlike its two predecessors. Nothing here has the epic sweep of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” or “Venus in Furs.” But it’s the kind of thing that’s designed to sink in gradually. I think I need to consider whether writing this ridiculous blog encourages me to listen more broadly and less deeply. I like writing this blog, so occasionally I find myself listening to new stuff and things I haven’t heard before just to have something to write about. That takes away from the time I spend getting to really know an album. In any case, I’ll be listening to much more of this.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “This Is Us and Speechless” — Maybe it’s just because my personal pop culture experience of 2016 has revolved around music a lot more than around TV and movies, which remain the primary focus of this show, but I’m not getting as much out of PCHH as I used to. I have no intention of stopping, obviously. But I wouldn’t mind if this panel did tackle music once in awhile. Because All Songs Considered isn’t ultimately about discussion. It’s about playing music, usually. Anyway, this is fine.

A Point of View: “Holes in Clothes” — Presumably, right now Adam Gopnik is thinking “I was clearly so insightful about Trump… I wonder if I can get people to listen to me talk about jeans with holes in them?” And the answer is obviously yes. And his take is neither stodgy or vapid. This is a slight thing, but proof that Gopnik is a worthwhile voice, even when he’s tackling current affairs from an oblique angle.

Homecoming: “PINEAPPLE” — This continues to be dark and beautiful, but I’m not feeling myself pulled in by the suspense in the same way that I did with, for instance, Limetown. Possibly it’s in part because the story comes in such small bits, and possibly it has something to do with the MANDATORY documentary segments at the ends of the episodes. But this feels slight to me. I imagine it’ll grow on me. Maybe I’ll try a few episodes at a time, next I listen. I am behind, after all.

On the Media: “Imagine That” — OTM’s public existential crisis continues apace, but they’re still doing great work on topics like digital security. If the segment on Pizzagate is somewhat underwhelming, that’s only because OTM’s former reporter Alex Goldman has already covered the hell out of it elsewhere.

Too Much Information: “On Four Lions, Comedy, Radio and Idiots” — Firstly, it’s weird to hear Benjamen Walker do a straight interview. He’s in a strangely good mood here, grunting affirmatively at most of what Chris Morris says. But then, Benjamen Walker is clearly a huge fan of Chris Morris. And with good reason: Chris Morris is the comedian equivalent of Benjamen Walker. Everything is tediously researched. Nothing is sacred. Most of what’s called “progress” isn’t. They’re two peas in a pod. Interesting.

Theory of Everything: “Useful Idiots” — Holy bonkers. The final segment of this episode connects Jeremy Bentham to Putin’s key advisor by way of Grigory Potemkin. And after some cursory verification, I don’t think I’m being fucked with. This show is valuable as much for its tendency to breed scepticism as anything. I have often felt compelled to make sure that something on this show that seems fake is actually fake, and vice versa, because I fear being made a credulous fool. But that final interview here (starts at 16:50) seems like the real thing. And it is earthshaking. Pick of the week.

Bullseye: “John Cale & TJ and Dave” — This is really why I listened to Paris 1919 this week: the live version of the title track that Jesse Thorn plays a snippet from here is infectious. The interview is great, though it does hue rather closely to the best-known elements of Cale’s career: meeting Lou Reed, getting kicked out of the Velvet Underground, producing the Stooges, etc. The TJ and Dave segment isn’t as funny as you’d like, but it’s vulnerable. Bullseye is a pop culture interview show done mostly right, in that the focus never really moves too far away from the sensibility of its host. It’s not trying to be for everyone. But also, it’s just so cool, sometimes. And I find that offputting, frankly. That’s why I listen so seldom. On the other hand, I can wholeheartedly recommend the one segment from the episode after this one that I did listen to: Jesse Thorn’s love letter to 19th-century paintings of cows. Magnificent.

Code Switch: “Audie and the Not-So-Magic School Bus” — Nice to hear Audie Cornish on Code Switch finally. This is a bit odd in the sense that it’s a behind-the-scenes look at a story that Cornish did on All Things Considered, but they don’t play the actual story. I suppose I could go find it, but it would have been nice if they could have played at least a little bit more than the one tiny clip that they used. Still, this is a really interesting trip through the history of busing and school segregation.

99% Invisible: “Plat of Zion” — The best 99pi in ages. (I think I probably say that a lot. But I honestly don’t remember another episode this year that’s as good as this one.) This is a discussion of the urban planning of Salt Lake City, Utah, which is seen by Mormons as having been divinely revealed. This is maybe the single greatest urban planning story in American history, on account of simply being so crazy. I love it.

Crimetown: Episodes 4-5 — This turned out to be really bingeable. This show is built around incredible interviews with charismatic mobsters, of various degrees of regretfulness. It is so fun to listen to these complicated people talk. Gimlet doesn’t hit it out of the part every time, these days. But this one is destined to be one of the crown jewels in their stable.

Imaginary Worlds: “Working On the Death Star” — I guess now this podcast is also doing Star Wars every year? Whatever. This is fun. Hearing serious people talk about non-serious things is always fun. And in this episode, a prosecutor and a judge argue about the legality of the Galactic Empire’s labour practices, and an economist argues that the Rebel Alliance might have been wrong to blow up the Death Star, because it would throw the galaxy into economic disarray, which would have dire consequences even for those with no enthusiasm for the Empire itself.

StartUp: “Anger” — This is a fairly elegant solution to the problem that Dov Charney won’t talk on the record about the shit he did that got him fired. Lots of other people will. This is a details-heavy episode with lots of contractual talk, but the drama never flags. I’ve actually really warmed to this season of StartUp since I started hating Charney. Lisa Chow has always been more of a reporter and less of a personality than some of her fellow Gimlet hosts, which is greatly to her credit. Even when she’s stretched to her limit by an extremely complicated subject such as Charney, who is occasionally openly hostile to her, she doesn’t make the story about her for more than a couple of minutes. It’s kind of amazing. This season is a real return to form for this show.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and La La Land” — I think I’ll actually sit Rogue One out. Maybe I’ll watch it when it’s on Netflix. But I’m not giving money to Disney for a bad Star Wars movie. I’ll give them money for the good ones. I was more enthusiastic about La La Land before I listened to this, but the panel kind of threw cold water on that as well. What can you do. 

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Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 4, 2016)

Okay, I’ve given up on links, by and large. If you want the multimedia experience, go to the Tumblr. I’ve beefed that up a bit in terms of embedding things. These posts, on the other hand, will remain austere walls of text. Because there needs to be a place for austere walls of text.

Literature, etc.

Alex Ross: “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming” — How amazing a magazine do you have to be when your classical music columnist writes this piece? That is, of course, almost cruelly reductive: Ross is as much an expert on Theodor Adorno and Thomas Mann as he is on Gustav Mahler and Alban Berg — at least partially because you can’t be that much of an expert on Mahler and Berg without being an expert on Adorno and Mann (he says, and slumps shamefully in his chair). Ross gets closer to a key element of Trump’s election than any other commentator I’ve read: how our contemporary media (social and otherwise) is essentially designed to make Trump happen. Adorno saw this coming from more than half a century away. Fascinating.

Anne Midgette: “Martha Argerich is a legend of the classical music world. But she doesn’t act like one.” — This WashPo profile of Argerich reveals her to be exactly the sort of person you’d expect to play like that. She’s always been one of my favourite pianists, with her debut recording being a particular classic. (Check out that Prokofiev. Seriously.) Her ferocious, spontaneous style of playing is more exciting than anybody else in the classical piano world, and it seems that she has led her life in the same way. It’s strangely gratifying to learn that. So many classical musicians today are dull careerists whose playing you couldn’t pick out of a crowd. This is the real thing.

Kurt Vonnegut: Slapstick — Yeah, I was planning on devoting my fiction time for the rest of the year to Jerusalem, but I occasionally get a hankering for Vonnegut. It’s best to heed these hankerings, or I spend the rest of my reading time wishing I was reading Vonnegut. I only started this a couple hours ago, so I’m only about a quarter through (one thing I love about Vonnegut is how quickly I can get through his books) but I’m already sinking into the familiar rhythms. It’s similar to Hocus Pocus, and Galápagos, the last two Vonnegut novels I read, in that it’s narrated in first person from the aftermath of a disaster of some kind. Already, the strange details about how the world is now, in this aftermath, are starting to be explained. I imagine the penny will continue to drop slowly. I know how this game works. The thing that is intriguing me more than anything is Vonnegut’s promise in the (extraordinary) introduction that this is the closest thing he’ll ever write to an autobiography. And considering that this comes right after Breakfast of Champions (my favourite) in his corpus, maybe he’s got a few unexpected tricks in store for the final act of this one.

Music

Steve Hackett: Voyage of the Acolyte — This album didn’t connect with me during my most prog-obsessed phase, so it’s a bit odd that it’s hitting me now. It’s a subtle thing, to be fair. (Except for the bits where it’s not.) But it is as typical a prog album as you’re likely to find. The comparative focus on Hackett’s virtuosity as a guitarist makes it almost proggier than the later Peter Gabriel-fronted Genesis albums. It isn’t entirely consistent, but “Ace of Wands” is a classic prog instrumental and “Shadow of the Hierophant” is actually beautiful, and I don’t use that word lightly. The melody is sublime, Sally Oldfield’s voice is perfect for the material, the way the flute comes in and restates the secondary melody of “Ace of Wands” ties everything up in a nice bow, and the album ends with a huge crescendo. Everything you could want. It’s amazing that Tony Banks doesn’t like this album. It’s also amazing that Banks tried to keep Hackett’s “After the Ordeal” off of Selling England. It’s appalling that Banks would slag either of those things off in interviews. No wonder Hackett left the band.

Solange: A Seat at the Table — A subtle, righteous album that I won’t pretend I didn’t constantly compare with her sister’s record from earlier this year. Which is a terrible thing to do. Asking A Seat at the Table to be Lemonade is like asking Led Zeppelin IV to be Madvillainy. But truth be told, I’m not dying to hear this a bunch more times the way that I have been with certain other albums. Still, very very good.

Television

Last Chance To See: Episodes 5 & 6 — This is a magnificent series. Mark Carwardine’s genuine excitement and affection for the endangered animals that he and Stephen Fry go looking for is absolutely contagious. And if Fry in his voiceover is a less profound and slightly less witty companion than his predecessor Douglas Adams, he’s nonetheless an extremely companionable screen presence. This show does as much to convey the wonders of the animal kingdom as Planet Earth or Life from the BBC Natural History Unit, but with a more elegiac tone and a focus on human threats and conservation efforts. I completely enjoyed it, and it has inspired me to add the BBC Radio version of the Adams/Carwardine original to my list of things to check out. This is on Netflix, at least in Canada. Watch it. It’s wonderful.

Planet Earth II: Episodes 1-5 — It’s got all the stuff that became familiar by the end of the first Planet Earth. Same storytelling, same incredible footage. David Attenborough still does that thing where he figures if his sentences are pretty enough I won’t notice he’s doing an awkward transition. Attenborough still hilariously talks about the film crew in the behind the scenes segments the exact same way he talks about animals. Glibness aside: this is outstanding, and it’s making me slightly regret writing so effusively about Last Chance to See. That series is truly excellent and worth your time, but Planet Earth — both instalments of it — is among the most virtuosic filmmaking ever done. There are events captured here that are so momentary, so hidden, and so infrequent that it’s astonishing it even makes sense. There’s a sequence in the grasslands episode where a mouse climbs to the top of a blade of tall grass, has to dodge an approaching barn owl, and falls off of the blade of grass, into the frame of another shot. The whole thing is seen from several different angles. Surely there’s a certain amount of fakery at play here, but the amount of (quality, beautiful) footage that they must have had to shoot to tell complete, engaging stories must be gigantic. Will wonders never cease? No. No they won’t. That’s why people still make nature documentaries. It’s still got one more chance to be pick of the week. It would be, this week. But…

Movies

Manchester by the Sea — This made me have every feeling I am capable of. I’m not sure that I have ever in my life been so pulled in by a movie with so little artifice. This is very much one of those movies that feels like dropping in on a period in somebody’s actual life. There’s nothing stylized about it. The framing of every shot is beautiful, but understated. The music is ever-present, but never ostentatious. Casey Affleck gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the protagonist, Lee, yet it’s the very opposite of the “big” performances that have seized the Academy’s attention in recent years. Even the jokes (which exist) are timed in the way that real people with good timing time their jokes in conversation, rather than like actors who have studied the script. It is, in other words, the opposite of nearly every movie I like. So why did it make me respond like this? I think it’s because it tells a story that is genuinely gutting without a smidgen of what we’d often call “emotional manipulation.” (Okay, maybe the Albinoni is a bit manipulative, but it’s in the saddest scene, so…) It’s the story of a naturally aloof person who has had something so horrifying happen to him that his only response is to completely cut himself off from the world he’s known. The movie itself takes a hint from its protagonist and declines to be openly expressive, opting instead to just be sad. It’s telling, I think, that a movie so focussed on its main character should be titled after its setting instead: you might think that a film called Manchester by the Sea would focus more on the community around him. But aside from Lee’s nephew and a short but shattering performance from Michelle Williams as his wife, it really doesn’t. As far as I can tell, it’s called that because Manchester-by-the-Sea is the place from which Lee can’t escape. Why is Lee miserable? Manchester-by-the-Sea. The name of the town is as much a metonym for Lee’s personal tragedy as Wall Street is for high finance. There’s an alternate universe where Manchester by the Sea is a horror movie: a haunted house story about what happens when you force a person to live in a place that’s full of ghosts. And to make matters worse, he’s saddled with the care of a nephew who is just in the process of becoming the person that Lee wishes he could still be. This is a profound film. It’s a paradigm-shifting dissertation on what hides behind the facades of difficult, impenetrable people. And while half of me will be rooting against it come Oscar season in favour of Moonlight, which is the nobler picture and the one whose victory has the greater potential to cause positive change in the film industry, I really think this is one of the best movies in recent years. Looking back briefly through my favourite movies of 2014 and 2015, only Mad Max: Fury Road, Carol, and The Grand Budapest Hotel can compete. I would have watched five more hours of this. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

In The Dark: “Update: A Sentencing, A Demand, No Closure” — This epilogue to In The Dark doesn’t especially further the investigation’s key findings so much as put a final button on the personal side of the story, which is that many people’s lives were ruined by Jacob Wetterling’s murderer, and that said murderer is as much of a cold monster as you would expect him to be. It’s not especially enlightening, but it is compassionate, and that’s just as important in investigative journalism.

The Memory Palace: “Peregrinar” — The hundredth episode of The Memory Palace! It’s hard to imagine how much work could go into a show like this: the time spent researching so that there can be details to colour the story, and the time spent finessing the prose so it sticks in your head. And all for a show that’s much shorter on average than most podcasts. But it’s a counterintuitive process that results in a profoundly worthwhile product. This episode is a firmly middle-of-the-pack instalment about Cesar Chavez’s campaign for worker’s rights. Which means it’s still going to be one of the best things I hear this week.  

Radiolab: “Alpha Gal” — Welcome back to ye olde Radiolab. It’s been awhile since I felt like all of the old gears were working this well in tandem: This is a personal story about a person who loves food. (The interview that most of this is drawn from was done by Dan Pashman, which is a good start.) But it’s also a science story about how an extremely unlikely instigator started making people allergic to red meat. Everything you want from this show. Except for a multi-story format, which I still miss.

All Songs Considered: “Run the Jewels, Flaming Lips, John Prine, More” — This is an old as balls episode of All Songs but I still hadn’t heard this RTJ single, so I’ve kept it in my feed while I catch up. This is one of the good ones, and not just because of the three eminent artists in the title. There’s also a great track by Laura Burhenn.

Love and Radio: “Upper Left” — Like so many stories on this show, this starts off seeming like it’s going in one direction and then abruptly goes in another. It’s the story of a woman who tries to explore her sexuality and ends up a member of a Scientology-like organization that tries to silence dissent and bilk women out of their money. Only on Love and Radio would that be a “lighthearted” episode.

Love and Radio: “Doing the No No” — This is one of the best episodes of Love and Radio. It’s not the emotional rollercoaster of “The Living Room” or “Greetings From Coney Island.” And it’s not the intensely controversial sort of thing that they did with “A Red Dot.” But it features a character who is dealing with something that will horrify people at least until they hear him talk: making transgenic organisms as art. He is wilfully transgressive, but also extremely thoughtful and not entirely unsympathetic. Which makes it all the more compelling when the story takes a typically Love and Radio-style turn more than halfway through its duration.

Census: “talking about sex on facebook” — This guy contacted me on Twitter to listen to his podcast, and months later when I finally get to it, he seems to still have only made one episode. Well, anyway, it’s fine. It’s alternately funny and intense and it’s frank. But it doesn’t seem to fill much of a gap in my podcast feed. There’s nothing here that some combination of The Heart and Love and Radio doesn’t do better.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Younger” — Linda Holmes talks to a millennial! I have no interest in Younger. But I am always happy to hear people talk about why the tropes associated with millennials are dumb.

The Gist: “It’s Much Bigger Than O.J.” — The whole reason to listen to The Gist is that Mike Pesca almost never has the same angle on a story or interview as anybody else. I’ve heard a couple of interviews with Ezra Edelman about his masterful O.J. Simpson documentary series, but none of them were recorded after the election and focussed on the parallels between O.J. supporters and Trump voters. Super interesting.

99% Invisible: “Guano Island” — This is one of those episodes of 99pi that really makes me think about how it relates to the show’s design-oriented premise. But it’s a great story about how the United States gradually stuck its toe into the murky swamp of imperialism (the European kind, where you claim new territories, as opposed to the kind that the actual foundation of America was based on). Who knew it had anything to do with bird shit?

Homecoming: “MANDATORY” — An intriguing start to a series that promises to be at least one of the best produced fiction podcasts ever. And certainly the most ostentatiously prestigious. I mean, Catherine Keener. David Cross. Amy Sedaris. Ross from Friends. Tadd Dameron. The story hasn’t really got rolling yet, so it’s most interesting to focus on the format, which relies heavily on scenarios that diegetically justify the presence of microphones — though not exclusively. Eli Horowitz is careful to point out in the interview after the show that they didn’t tie themselves in knots to justify the very existence of the story in this format. Which is wise. But about that aftershow. I get that it’s a big advertising opportunity to partner with Apple. But I fear that eventually putting an interview segment after every episode — in the actual episode, mind you; packaged together with it — will feel like too many peeks behind the curtain for a show that is trying to be suspenseful. I may turn out to be wrong. Anyway, this is really promising. I’ve got the next few episodes cued up in my feed for pretty soon.

Crimetown: Episodes 1-3 — If Homecoming demonstrated instant promise, then its Gimlet stablemate Crimetown forced me to start binging immediately. This is my favourite of the new slate of Gimlet shows that came out in the last month, by miles. And that’s in spite of it being part of the slightly overcrowded genre of true crime. I’ve read comparisons to The Wire already, and those are indeed more apt comparisons than that more obvious Serial ones would be. This is a story about a corrupt mayor, sure. But it’s also a story about how crime becomes a defining element of a city’s culture. And with a promise to cover a different city in every season, it’s got an endlessly renewable premise that makes it one of the most exciting new podcasts of the year.

Undone: “Disco Demolition Night” — The clear underdog of Gimlet’s fall season. This story in itself is quite good, and would be a highlight in any given episode of This American Life. But the premise of the show seems to lack focus, and I can’t muster up the enthusiasm to listen to more of this until there’s another topic I’m especially interested in. Not one of those podcasts that sells itself by simply existing.

Reply All: “Voyage Into Pizzagate” — Is it possible that this is the most ludicrous of all of the lunatic fringe’s conspiracy theories? The fact that it’s not a question I can immediately answer is distressing in itself. This is Alex Goldman in On the Media mode, trying to figure out how the internet, and specifically Reddit, made it possible for a shockingly large number of people to believe something patently ridiculous in the absence of any evidence at all. Really, really good. Angry-making, but good.

Fresh Air: “NYT Exec. Editor On The New Terrain Of Covering Trump” — A fantastic interview with the editor of the paper that Donald Trump has essentially declared his mortal enemy. I like him. He clearly thinks a lot about what words mean. I’ve recently gotten myself a digital subscription to the Times and it was a very very good decision, and you should do that too. Or whatever other newspaper. But the Times, though.

All Songs Considered: “The Year In Music 2016” — First off, I’d halfway like to hear Stephen Thompson and Ann Powers take over as hosts on this show. It’s not that I don’t love the dynamic between Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton, but these two just have more to say. They represent the really insightful side of NPR Music, as opposed to just having their ear to the ground and having great taste, which is what makes Boilen and Hilton effective on this show, at least in terms of selecting music to feature. Secondly, there is a lot of great music in this episode, and it is as good a wrap-up for the painful, confusing year that was 2016 as you’re likely to find. It really does exemplify my feeling that music, more than maybe any other art form, is the means by which we take our own temperature. The music of 2016 is going to be super meaningful in the future, just like the music of 1967 or ‘77 is now. I’m really happy that Boilen closed it all out with Let’s Eat Grandma. They’re one of the most promising new acts of the year, and they are one of relatively few who managed to be brilliant in a way that doesn’t constantly remind you of the shitty historical context in which the art was made. Which, I mean, is definitely a thing that art should do. But it’s nice that there’s at least something out there that’s weird and awesome and totally from its own world. I love Let’s Eat Grandma. And I wouldn’t have heard them if not for this show, which is one of my favourite personal discoveries of the year. Pick of the week.

StartUp: “Suits” — Yeah, I have no sympathy left for Dov Charney. I mean, I hope that somebody learns from his better decisions and incorporates certain of his ethical principles into their own businesses. But I couldn’t care less if Charney gets back on his feet at the end of this story.

Omnireviewer (week of May 15)

Ah man, I came so close to a clean sweep of my categories, this week. If I’d only listened to some classical music and played a video game. In any case, 26 reviews, many of which contain multiple items within them. Good week.

Events

Vancouver Art Gallery: MashUp — I went to this exhibition on the last day before it ends, and left completely fried. All four floors of the VAG were devoted to this century-spanning show, with a different period on each, in reverse order. For two floors, I read more or less all of the curators’ text and stopped to look at everything on display. But at some point on floor three, amidst the Warhols and the Rauschenbergs, I got overwhelmed and couldn’t take it in anymore. This is a show I wish I’d been to see at least twice. The three hours I spent were not nearly enough to process everything on display. But I’m really happy to have seen it at all. It leant context to some figures that I’m particularly fascinated by, like John Cage, Luigi Russolo, Marcel Duchamp, Guy Debord and Brian Eno. Predictably, I was especially fascinated by the room devoted to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, in which the videos for “America is Waiting” and “Mea Culpa” were playing on repeat, alongside a display of works that were influential to Eno and Byrne as they were producing the album. The curators admirably didn’t shy away from pointing out the culturally imperialistic elements of the album, but also presented it as a key text in the history of mashup, which it definitely is.

Music

Kanye West: The Life of Pablo — Okay, it’s growing on me. (It has also changed substantially since last I heard it, and the mix doesn’t sound like amateur hour anymore, so there’s that.) I am still bothered by the sheer extent of the asshat that Kanye’s willing to be here: that Taylor Swift line is unforgivable. Kanye’s verses on Pablo are even more mean-spirited than Yeezus, but they’re also more frequently stupid. However, a lot of the beats are nearly Dark Fantasy calibre. “Famous,” in spite of the aforementioned unforgivable line, is one of the best beats in Kanye’s catalogue, and “Ultralight Beam” is one of his best songs, full stop. Chance’s verse is the best on the album by a country mile. I’m reminded of Nicki Minaj on Dark Fantasy. “Waves” is a solid pop tune with something interesting to say about the permanence of great art. Now that Pablo is something resembling finished, it has the makings of a decent Kanye album. But there are still enough head-shaking moments (the outro of “30 Hours?”) that I think it’ll ultimately be regarded as one of his lesser works.

Jack White: Blunderbuss & Lazaretto — I loved Jack White’s bit on Lemonade so much that I needed more. These solo albums are maybe a bit less idiosyncratic than the best White Stripes albums, but they’re no less good. It’s interesting to hear what White does backed by a band of musicians as capable as he is. (That’s not a knock on Meg White — she shaped the White Stripes as much as Jack did, even if only by forcing Jack into a corner.) You might expect White to get lazy when provisioned with the relative freedom of working with ace session musicians and playing a bunch of instruments himself. (Giving an artist total freedom is castrating them, Peter Gabriel once said. Maybe he learned that from Eno.) But White maintains his discipline, writing great songs and only reaching for the studio magic juice when it will serve the track. Blunderbuss is the one that feels more familiar to me as a White Stripes fan, but it still goes madly off in many more directions than any other Jack White project I’ve heard. “Sixteen Saltines” is practically vintage, while the almost barrelhouse piano that starts “Hypocritical Kiss” sounds like nothing I’ve heard from White before. “Take Me With You When You Go” is as good as anything on a White Stripes album. Lazaretto is solid modern blues rock — from possibly the only living artist who can honestly claim that label. “Alone In My Home” is so unexpectedly joyous that I almost didn’t finish my first listen through, in favour of just hitting repeat on that one. And I don’t even think it’s the best track on the album. I love both of these, and I feel like they fill a hole — just as I suspect I’m nearing my lifetime saturation point for Led Zeppelin, I have another rootsy rock and roller to obsess over. And one with a more modern sensibility.

The White Stripes: full catalogue — Hey, I had some spare time and a trial period on Tidal. (I’m becoming less hostile to Tidal, but when I inevitably sign up for the cheap version and don’t get this glorious hi-def sound, I’ll be pissed.) There were a few first listens here. In fact, it’s possible that White Blood Cells and Elephant were the only ones I’d heard before. I thought I’d heard Icky Thump all the way through, but not much of it sounded familiar. In any case, this is a serious body of work. The debut is a tad too punky for my liking, but the basics are in place. If nothing else, it features a very interesting selection of covers, marking the Whites as people with good taste from the start. De Stijl is a huge leap forward, and an album I can see myself returning to frequently. “Truth Doesn’t Make A Noise” is maybe the first great White Stripes song. White Blood Cells is the album that converted me, and still my pick for their best. I’ve always thought of Elephant as more of the same but not as good. Which is to say, still pretty good. Get Behind Me Satan was one of the biggest surprises here. It is certainly a larger, more elaborate-sounding album than the ones before it, but it’s a needed change of pace, and I think I may prefer it to Elephant. And finally, Icky Thump. If I had heard this all the way through I would damn well have remembered. It’s the most elaborate White Stripes album by a fair margin, and a sort of stepping stone to the sort of music Jack White would do on his solo albums. But there’s not a hint of dilution, here. The raw energy in tracks like “Icky Thump” and “Conquest,” and the Jimmy Page by way of Adrian Belew guitar squalls on “300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues” are not the sorts of things you hear on an album by a band that’s past their prime. It’s a hell of a swansong, and probably my second-favourite of their releases. This is a really fun discography to mainline. I highly recommend gulping it all down in a week. You’ll have so much energy. I can’t wait to check out the lives and B-sides.

Television

Last Week Tonight: May 15, 2016 — Not among his funniest, but the standing invitation to Donald Trump’s alter-ego is a lovely little throw of the gauntlet.

Game of Thrones: “Book of the Stranger” — Okay, I asked for Daenerys to be allowed to do something, and as “doing things” goes, that is a fairly substantial thing. Actually, all of my complaints about the season thus far were at least partially rectified this time around, with Tyrion getting some actual story and a bit of decent writing, and the Wall finally getting interesting thanks to Jon and Sansa being reunited. Brienne continues to be the best thing in any given scene — my two favourite parts of this big, eventful episode are her confrontation with Melisandre and her lustful (I think?) glance across the table at Tormund. I’ll say this though:, killing off Ramsey Bolton won’t be enough. I’ll only forgive Game of Thrones when he gets retconned out of the universe.

Archer: Season 7, episodes 7 & 8 — “What are you all doing here?” “Lunch?” “It’s 5:30!” “Dunch?” I laughed very hard at most of these episodes. Archer in ordinary mode is still a very funny thing.

Comedy

Zach Galifianakis: Live at the Purple Onion — I think it’s good, but I didn’t actually laugh that much. Galifianakis is a really good joke writer who doesn’t seem interested in thinking in a straight line. The piano plunking, the characters and the crowd work are a deliberate structural choice that allows him to string together unrelated jokes. The jokes are good, but I can’t decide if the whole is greater or less than the sum of its parts.

Movies

Primer — Oh good god. If it weren’t for YouTuber LondonCityGirl’s illustrated explanation, I would be 70% clueless. This is an outstanding movie for those of us who like movies to be puzzles, and I do. That’s one of the reasons that time travel is my favourite SF trope. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite as intentionally obscure as this movie. Having basically figured it out, with YouTube’s help, I now think this is one of the most ingenious hard(ish) science fictions I’ve ever seen. Without spoiling anything crucial, the key here is that the time travel mechanic enables an unprecedented amount of duplicity. The things that go wrong go wrong not because the machine doesn’t work as expected, but because people trick each other. Also, I love that this story clearly originated with the time travel mechanic. You don’t see that very much. Most people who write genre fiction use particular tropes because they already have a basic story and some themes in mind. This is obviously a story derived from the set of rules that its time machine imposes. If Brian Eno wrote a sci-fi movie, it might well be much like Primer.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier — Figured I’d catch up before Civil War. I hate cinematic universes because I want my stories to have endings. But as they go, Marvel’s universe is pretty good. This is far better than its pedestrian predecessor, and I’m actually hard-pressed to think of an MCU movie that I prefer to this. Maybe the first Avengers. The secret is the incursion of spy movie tropes into a blockbuster superhero movie, which is becoming a genre unto itself. The more that directors can play with genre to offset expectations, the better these movies will be. The Russos seem to be doing that best, at this point.

Literature, etc.

Kurt Vonnegut: Hocus Pocus — One of only two Vonnegut novels out of the ten I’ve read that I haven’t enjoyed. (The other is Player Piano, which is practically juvenalia.) There are occasional great lines, but so many of Vonnegut’s attempts at aphorism fall flat in this that I started to wonder if it might be intentional. One of the book’s key themes is that rhetoric (“verbal hocus pocus”) can be used to make people think illogically. So, when Vonnegut makes a statement that takes the basic form of a dark joke, but doesn’t seem to be based on anything true, it’s tempting to read redemptively and assume that he’s just offering concrete examples of the sort of fallacy he’s critiquing. But I’ve never seen Vonnegut go in for that particular kind of subtlety before, so I don’t honestly think that’s what’s happening here. Not good. But hey, they can’t all be masterpieces.

Elizabeth Alsop: “The Future Is Almost Now” — This Atlantic piece posits that science fiction is becoming more and more interested in the near future rather than the far future. It’s worth a look for anybody interested in the genre, or anybody just generally paranoid.

Kieron Gillen/Jamie McKelvie: Phonogram vol. 3 “The Immaterial Girl” — Absolutely marvellous. Gillen and McKelvie’s music fantasies are among the best contemporary literature, in or out of comics. Nobody has reckoned with the material effects of music and pop culture on people’s lives more incisively than they have in Phonogram and The Wicked and the Divine. And while the latter of those remains the easier one to recommend, this concluding arc of Phonogram is the best expression of their general thesis that music is never just music, but rather one of the forces that most powerfully animates human society. These are broad generalities, but to describe what they do here in any detail would likely make it seem trite. So instead, I’ll just urge you to read Gillen and McKelvie’s work. Start by catching up with WicDiv, then read the three collected editions of Phonogram in this order: 2, 1, 3. If you have ever been a superfan of anything, you will appreciate every panel in these volumes. If the thing you are a superfan of is music, you will have a new favourite comic. Possibly two. Pick of the week.

Thomas Ligotti: “Purity” — This is the first story in his collection Teatro Grottesco, which I managed to find at Pulpfiction, my absolute favourite bookstore in Vancouver, when I could not find it anywhere else, in physical or digital form. I needed to be shook up a bit, and I had heard that Ligotti was the man for the job. He has already begun. This story is properly creepy, with bits of mundane imagery taking on a grotesquerie that they simply ought not to have. Much is left unsaid, but it is all totally clear. And to boot, the story strongly reminded me of one of the creepiest things I’ve ever read, Michael Lutz’s Twine story “My Father’s Long, Long Legs.” A very promising start.

Podcasts

Now that my Podquest submission has had cold water poured on it gently, Radiotopia reviews will resume as usual.

On The Media: “Trending Topics” — It’s nice to hear a treatment of the Facebook trending topics scandal that actually gets to the root of the problem, which is that today’s tech giants have far too much control over the dissemination of information. Whether stories get traction by way of algorithms or human intervention, the kind of thing that’s likely to get huge on Facebook is not necessarily the kind of thing that people most need in their media diets. It’s also incredible to hear about the conservative economist who advocated for government intervention in monopolies (which may be a term that meaningfully applies to Facebook) in order to repair the free market. This episode also features a discussion with the New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan that is interesting for its frankness about the Times’s shortcomings, but also interesting for the extent to which Bob Garfield allows it to be a straightforward valediction. I suppose not everyone needs to be afraid of him. But if he’s in softball mode during that segment, he roars back into righteous indignation mode in his final essay about the media’s sudden elevation of Donald Trump to legitimacy. To Garfield, talking to Trump about tax policy is “like asking Charles Manson about his driving record.” It is one of the best things that has been written about Trump since this whole boondoggle began, and I can’t recommend it enough. Even if you skip the rest of the episode to get to those last three or four minutes it’s worth your time. Pick of the week.

All Songs Considered: “The 1975, SOAK Covers Led Zeppelin, A Home Demo From My Morning Jacket” — A consistently interesting episode, but not one with a lot of songs I feel likely to return to — with the notable exception of Gaelynn Lea’s studio recording of the song she won the Tiny Desk Concert with. That is a remarkable piece of music.

On The Media: “How the ‘Fake News’ Gets Made” — Oh good, journalists can make funny things. This is Brooke Gladstone interviewing a bunch of satire writers and producers, all of whom came from journalism. So basically, you get Bob Garfield at his best in the main episode and Gladstone close to her best in this podcast extra.

This American Life: “Promised Land” — This episode of This American Life begins with Ira Glass singing an “I wish” song, and continues with pieces by Starlee Kine and the late David Rakoff. It is what public radio is for. Kine’s story about how her overprotective mother wouldn’t let her kids go to Disneyland (in spite of them living in L.A.) but would take them to the Disneyland Hotel twice a year is exactly the kind of story you want to hear from Starlee Kine, and Rakoff’s piece about fasting and not finding enlightenment is exactly the kind of story you want to hear from David Rakoff. Then it ends with a story from Hillary Frank from The Longest Shortest Time, a parenting podcast that I do not intend to listen to. But this story is absolutely riveting. You know when your friend says, “I heard the craziest conversation on the bus,” and then tells the best story you’ve heard all day? This is that story, except the best one ever. This is light on reporting for TAL, but it’s mercilessly consistent.

Sampler: “Mother Podcast” — This is Sarah Koenig on Sampler, which is a reason to listen to Sampler. It’s awkward at the start, because Brittany Luse insists on saying a bunch of the gushy stuff that should have been consigned to the intro while Koenig is actually in the room, which puts Koenig in the uncomfortable position of having to react to fervent praise in public. It gets better from there, but not by much. The concept for the episode must have seemed solid: here are a bunch of podcasts that have been born in the post-Serial world — “Look what thou hast wrought, Koenig!” But Koenig doesn’t seem much more than bemused at the clips Luse subjects her to. For all her staggering success, Koenig doesn’t belong to the crazy world of podcasting that virtually all of the Gimlet staff does — even those who had prominent public radio careers previously. She’s a reporter. Playing her clips from Hello From the Magic Tavern is pretty counterintuitive, improv background or no. Not good.

Bullseye: “Maria Bamford & Wanda Sykes” — That’s a hell of a double bill. These are the kinds of interviews with comics that you want to hear. Bamford is charming and has an uncanny ability to find the humour in terrible, uncommon things that have happened to her. Sykes is super sharp and a great storyteller. The best talk radio I’ve heard in awhile.

99% Invisible: “Separation Anxiety” — And, we’re back! During my Radiotopia reviewing hiatus, 99pi continued to interest me casually but not blow me away. This episode is about trash disposal in Taipei, and also San Francisco. I recently listened to a bonus interview with Roman Mars for Radiotopia supporters, and one thing he mentioned that I was happy to hear him mention is the fact that many episodes of 99pi don’t really have stories — they just explore an idea for a while in a logical fashion. That’s kind of what this episode does, and I so appreciate that there’s a show that has the guts to do that. I’m all for storytelling, but it’s also a dogma among media producers. There are other ways to impart information in an entertaining fashion.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Robot Uprising” — There are apparently people, or at least one person, who advocates for robot’s rights on the basis that the same justifications are used to deny the humanity of black people are being used to deny the humanity of robots. Eric Molinsky is rightly confused by this idea — surely, robots actually aren’t human? But he doesn’t push quite hard enough. There are times on this show where I feel like Molinsky is offering a sort of menagerie of strange worldviews without taking any of them to task. Still fun, though.

Invisibilia: Season 2 trailer — I think it’ll be good, but this show can be awfully cloying at times. They don’t even totally avoid it in this three-minute trailer.

The Memory Palace: “Open Road” — I’m so glad to get to review The Memory Palace again. I love this show so goddamn much. Anyway, this is about the Green Book, the guide for black motorists in pre-Civil Rights America. It is the second Radiotopia treatment of this topic in just a few months, after 99pi’s, but I think I prefer this approach. Just a gorgeous, semi-imaginary story with beautifully-drawn imagery. Really nice.

On The Media: “Ghosts” — Collectively, the episodes of On The Media I listened to this week did me more good than anything else this week. This special episode on the uses and misuses of collective memory demonstrates just how thoughtful this show can be. It isn’t hemmed in by the news cycle; there’s so much more it can do.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Money Monster and Eurovision” — I’m really shocked at how little they trashed Money Monster. I mean, I know it’s called Pop Culture HAPPY Hour, but that movie does not look okay. Also, Glen Weldon’s enthusiasm for Eurovision is one of the few moments where he can honestly be described as “adorable.”

Omnireviewer (week of May 1, 2016)

Another week of good, or at least interesting music. And some other things. 18 reviews.

Music

Brian Eno: The Ship — Eno has been doing ambient music for a long time now. It’s only natural that it would start to seem paint-by-numbers at some point. The 21-minute title track of this album is perfectly fine music, but it has little to recommend it over other ambient music. Eno’s musical offspring have long started to outstrip him. Compared to Tim Hecker’s latest release, for instance, The Ship is pretty unadventurous. Perhaps it’s not a fair comparison, but there was a time when Eno’s ambient music was equally interesting as a backdrop and as a focussed experience: I’m thinking particularly of Music for Airports and On Land, but also some of his collaborations with people like Harold Budd and Daniel Lanois. This doesn’t hold up to scrutiny quite so well. There are a lot of string and wind samples that sound like presets on a high-end workstation keyboard. In a piece of music this minimal, everything comes down to timbre. So, the use of dodgy samples is bothersome. The second half of the album, “Fickle Sun,” fares better. In fact, it’s pretty great. Eno’s singing voice sounds essentially the same as ever, but he’s gotten better at recording it. And the Velvet Underground cover at the end doesn’t feel tacked on. It actually works. And Eno sounds distinctly like he’s singing his favourite song. But I must admit, I’m a bit let down that Eno felt the need to make a concept album. (And, if you read his notes on the album on his website, it does seem clear that that’s what this is.) I’ve always particularly admired Eno for his devotion to pure process. His art isn’t oversignified: it just is. It is simply a thing that resulted from him using a certain method. The Ship is about things. Specific things. And that disappoints me. To be clear, this is the idiosyncratic response of a person who has thought about Eno enough to love him for very idiosyncratic reasons. Good on him for not being the same kind of artist he always was. After all, it’s not like Eno hasn’t made a career out of confounding expectations. It would be wrong and strange to hold him to my particular standards. Half of The Ship is very good music. Let’s leave it at that.

Moon Hooch: Moon Hooch — This is extraordinary. These guys have found a plausible way to make modern dance music with acoustic instruments, and without entirely leaving behind their roots in jazz and funk. This studio album doesn’t quite have the insane verve of their Tiny Desk Concert, and I suspect their full sets are absolute madness, but I still really enjoyed this.

Timo Andres: Shy and Mighty — I have been underwhelmed by Andres before, but this album of music for two pianos is everything I love about modern post-minimalist music. It isn’t dogmatically minimalist in the way that some classic Steve Reich is (though I frequently love that music), it just takes the sound and rhythms of minimalism and runs with it. I’m reminded of Bryce Dessner’s Music for Wood and Strings, which came out substantially after this, but also defines the sort of music I most want to hear from today’s composers. It is also possibly the most listenable grad school thesis ever produced.

Gentle Giant: The Power and the Glory — Of the really classic Gentle Giant albums (by my estimation, from Octopus through Interview), this is the one that I’ve neglected over the years. The simple reason for that is that it was the one I didn’t have on CD as a kid. But it’s actually nice to have one masterpiece by one of your favourite bands that you aren’t overfamiliar with. Because The Power and the Glory still surprises me, and also it’s blatantly one of the best Gentle Giant albums. Possibly the very best one. Derek Shulman’s voice was never more extraordinary — he’s in his high register for nearly the full album, but still maintains the timbre of a rock baritone. The rhythm section has their work cut out for them, with all of the metric shifts in this music, but they manage to be not mere timekeepers and actually imbue the music with some groove. Gary Green reaches his studio apex here, though his guitar solos always pop more in a live setting. And, Kerry Minnear even deigns to take a proper organ solo in “Playing the Game,” which proves that he could have been Keith Emerson if he’d wanted, but he’d rather emulate Glenn Gould in a rock band. Really, Power is one of the undersung gems of the entire prog rock canon. It’s even the right kind of concept album: a vague story of a despot with just enough of a narrative to hang a set of anti-authority sensibilities on. I stopped midway through an episode of On The Media to listen to this again, and realized that it really is the prog album you want to listen to in primary season. Really puts the “progressive” in progressive rock, for once. Also, “Cogs in Cogs” is possibly the best distillation of prog you’ll find in under four minutes. Pick of the week. (Didn’t I tell you that a 40-year-old rock album would take this prize at some point?)

Television

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 2, episodes 7-13 — Oh, much better. This season was backloaded with all of the good episodes. It’s mostly the small jokes that I love. (“Sup.” “Sup.” … “Sup.” “Soup?”) But, there are great ongoing plotlines here as well. The seventh episode features one of the best stories on the show so far, complete with machinations of the unscrupulous wealthy. Jane Krakowski and Anna Camp are hilarious together in every scene. And once Tina Fey shows up to do battle with herself as two different sides of the same character, the season really cooks. The season finale is wonderful for all of the reasons that this show is, at the best of times. Without getting earnest, and without abandoning joke density for as much as a minute, the show allows Kimmy to have a minor epiphany and grow as a person. Like The Ship, half of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s second season is very good.  

Game of Thrones: “Home” — Alright, I got angry too early last week. This episode is pretty fantastic, actually. But there’s no reason it shouldn’t have been the first episode of the season. I’m especially enjoying the King’s Landing plot. If this entire season could just be the struggle between the Lannisters and the High Sparrow’s army, that would suit me fine. (Though that may just be my particular love for Jonathan Pryce talking.) Meanwhile, Bran is back, and I’m actually fairly excited to find out where that’s going.

Literature, etc.

Kurt Vonnegut: Hocus Pocus — This continues to be one of the lesser Vonnegut novels I’ve read, and I’ve read all but four, not counting this one. But, I just read a three-page chapter with an allegory involving being trapped in an elevator that was so perfect, and came with such an unexpected punchline that I was suddenly reminded why I love Vonnegut more than most other novelists. (That said, Joseph Heller’s blurb about this being Vonnegut’s best novel is insane. But then, Vonnegut though Heller’s best novel was Closing Time.)

Lois Tyson: Critical Theory Today — Given that I write about art for a living, I have always felt compelled to understand critical theory better than I do. I’m in this weird position where I have a masters degree, yet I still feel like my education is the equivalent of two professional programs: one that taught me the trade of making music with an acoustic instrument, and another that taught me how to write words on factual topics that I can sell and that can get me contracts and (theoretically) jobs. So, I don’t have an especially solid grounding in theory. And I’m interested in theory. Tyson’s book has the reputation of being a relatively simple survey of the major currents in theory — a starting point, after which you might better understand the works of the major theorists — and the previous edition of it is available for free online. I’m going to dive into this. So far, it is eminently comprehensible. So, that’s a good start.

Podcasts

Planet Money: “Lance Armstrong and the Business of Doping” — Telling the story of Lance Armstrong’s doping ring with a business angle is a masterstroke. This is the best episode of Planet Money that I’ve heard.

StartUp: “Pirate Needs Pirate” — I listened to this at the grocery store right across the street from the old Pirate Joe’s location that this episode is about. That little coincidence probably makes me favourably disposed to it from the outset. But it really is a pretty great story. It follows the owner of Pirate Joe’s south to a proper Trader Joe’s location, and captures the experience of surreptitiously purchasing in bulk for resale. That’s more fun than it sounds. And it’s got a fantastic main character. This is really great radio. Pick of the week.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Silicon Valley and Bob’s Burgers” — This contains the first interview I’ve heard Stephen Thompson do, and I would like to hear that more often. The second segment of this show is Thompson’s interview with Loren Bouchard, the creator of Bob’s Burgers. Rather than just talk about the show broadly, they dive into the dodgy territory of television merchandising and why the Bob’s Burgers cookbook had to actually be good. Worth hearing for that segment alone.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Remembering Prince” — Almost missed this! Glad I didn’t miss this. Still, there’s only so much you can say about Prince, and as far as NPR’s concerned, Ann Powers basically said it all on All Songs last week.

On The Media: “In The Shadows” — This episode tells the story of how America arrived at the two-party, one candidate per party system of presidential elections. If you’re not interested in that, who are you?

All Songs Considered: “Suuns, Autolux, Adult Jazz, Mutual Benefit, Let’s Eat Grandma” — It’s nice that they let John Congleton sit in, but they really ought to let him do a proper guest DJ episode. In the meantime, the indisputable highlight of this show is “Rapunzel” by the wonderfully-named group Let’s Eat Grandma, two friends who are all of 16 and 17 years old. It’s a haunting, complex, piano-driven piece of music with wonderful lyrics about being named Rapunzel and not identifying with the fairy tale character at all. It’s brilliant, and I can’t wait to hear more.

On The Media: “A Face in the Crowd” — I haven’t listened to Sara Fishko in ages. In this OTM podcast special, she dives into the movie A Face in the Crowd, which is now being touted as a prophecy of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. I should listen to Fishko more often.

Imaginary Worlds: “Humans: New & Improved” — Molinsky tackles transhumanism. Between this and the previous episode on economics in genre fiction, he has essentially proved the material impact that genre fiction has on legitimate, real-world discourses. And the transhumanists he talks to are just normal folk!

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Free Comic Book Day and Keanu” — It’s that time of year again! It remains to be seen whether I’ll take in Free Comic Book Day, this time. It also remains to be seen whether I’ll see Keanu. But I’ve never listened to this show to help me make decisions.

On The Media: “The Centre Cannot Hold” — This and the previous full episode of OTM taken together do an incredible job explaining the strained status quo of America’s two-party system. These two hours of radio might be the best contextual journalism done in this primary season. Also, Brooke Gladstone uses Mozart (I think it’s Mozart?) as a punchline here, and it’s brilliant. There’s nothing funnier than the most elegant music ever composed being juxtaposed with contemporary American politics.

Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 10)

Back to sanity, with 22 reviews.

Music

Tim Hecker: Love Streams — I expected to love this, and I did love it, but It’s certainly not what I expected. Tim Hecker is interesting: from what I’ve heard, he spent his early career making a number of very similar, very static albums. But over his last two albums, he has become an artist with the capacity to surprise. Love Streams is pure ear candy. I loved it immediately. No resistance. It’s still abstract and meandering, and fairly abrasive in parts. But there’s a sweetness in this album that has been nowhere near a Tim Hecker album before. It’s partially the choir. But even when the choir’s not around, there’s a general sense of consonance here that’s basically the polar opposite of the music on Virgins, which remains the darkest and strangest album of Hecker’s career. And that consonance makes the moments where the music is ripped apart by noise all the more compelling. Really good. Up there with Bowie, Congleton and Kopatchinskaja as my favourite music of the year so far. Pick of the week.

Tim Hecker: Ravedeath, 1972 — I went into this expecting it to be a departure from Hecker’s early stuff, towards the heterogeneity of Virgins. It’s not that. It’s merely the best of Hecker’s pre-Virgins albums. That’s not nothing, but I think that Love Streams proves that we’ve been dealing with a fundamentally different (and more interesting) Tim Hecker since 2013. I am far more excited about the prospect of hearing what he does in the coming years than I am about completing my survey of his back catalogue.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja: Take Two — After being blown away by Kopatchinskaja’s totally bonkers take on the Tchaikovsky concerto, I figured I should check her out in a more conventional setting for her: namely, playing a 70-plus-minute programme of fragmentary duets with musicians of all stripes in modern and early repertoire. This disc isn’t the sort of thing that anybody is likely to obsess over who isn’t a contemporary musician themself. In fact, maybe the presence of this alongside Tim Hecker in these reviews marks a division: two figures making music that would inevitably be described as “difficult” by somebody without a preexisting interest. But in Hecker, we find a person with roots in techno, making music that is as immersive as it is abstract — and which is accepted by the indie music press far more so than the classical music community. In the sort of modern music that Kopatchinskaja plays, we often find a sort of austerity or high conceptualism, even when it is presented with the intention of playfulness. Heinz Holliger comes especially to mind. But Kopatchinskaja is the real thing. She provides a throughline on this otherwise head-spinning set of diverse pieces. She might be the best musician ever at the task of bringing out the latent fun in inaccessible music. (The fact that she defines “serious art” as “the art where you always fall asleep” must help. She venerates pop artists for their polyvalent tendencies in her fascinating and sympathetic liner notes.) And to top it off, the disc ends with a suitably heretical performance of the Bach Chaconne with improvised accompaniment on harpsichord. Just because something is perfect the way it is doesn’t mean you should do it that way every damn time. Kopatchinskaja is without a doubt my favourite living violinist, and I could see this CD becoming a favourite of mine with repeated listens. But that would require me to listen to it again, and that’s always the question, isn’t it?

Live events

Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent: Live at the Chan Centre — This was a performance of Orlando di Lasso’s masterpiece, Lagrime di San Pietro, which is probably tied with the Monteverdi Vespers for my favourite large work written before Bach’s time. The final motet, “Vide Homo,” that Lasso appended to the end of the preceding 20 madrigals, is one of the great moments in the whole history of Western music. I can’t pretend to fully understand it; my grasp of pre-tonal theory is shaky at best. But here’s what I know: it comes after 20 numbers sung in Italian, set to words from a single sacred poem. Those 20 numbers gradually go through each of the established musical modes codified by the church. (By mode, I mean a kind of scale. It’s like a “key,” before they invented keys.) And then, in that final number, the language switches from the vernacular Italian to the sacred Latin, the speaker switches from the narrative voice and that of Saint Peter to the words of Christ, and the music is suddenly no longer based on one of the sanctioned church modes — it is entirely unearthly music, reflecting the voice of Christ. You don’t have to be religious to recognize that this is pretty damn extraordinary. It’s also a gigantic penitential guilt trip, composed by a man who feared deeply for the fate of his immortal soul. Lagrime is serious business, and deserving of serious adulation. All the same, this was one of those concerts that I went to for the rep, but left in awe of the musicians. Herreweghe conducted his singers with restraint befitting such an austere piece of music, and his Collegium sang with some of the most astounding blend and sensitivity that I’ve heard in live choral singing. Two curtain calls and an encore. Really astonishing. If you can hear this group live, do.

Movies

Eye in the Sky — This movie is too movie. Its plot is an extended trolley problem (the single most cliched plot element in political thrillers) wherein the ethics of killing one to save many are… not so much debated endlessly as merely fretted over endlessly. As always in these scenarios (see especially the equally problematic but far better executed 24), the arguments given against such an action are never backed up with a philosophy or clear ethics. In Eye in the Sky, the people making objections come off as cowardly, indecisive, political, or sentimental to the point of not being able to do their jobs. And that’s not just a political objection from me, it’s a fundamental storytelling problem as well. If you’re going to make a movie that’s about people repeatedly not firing a rocket and talking about why, you had damn well better offer a compelling ethical difference. Otherwise the whole movie is just an extended sequence of “I’m going to do this thing!” “Oh, no you’re not!” And that is basically what Eye in the Sky is. None of the roles in this movie are particularly demanding on their actors, but I would be remiss not to mention that the lamented Alan Rickman is once again far better than the movie he’s in.

High Rise — Okay. So, this is a movie that was made specifically to cater to certain aesthetic tastes that define me. It’s basically Roeg and Cammel’s Performance meets Lindsay Anderson’s …if meets A Clockwork Orange with a heavy dollop of Brazil. It is openly anti-capitalist, and based on the same source material (J.G. Ballard’s eponymous novel) as one of my favourite classic Doctor Who stories, “Paradise Towers.” When a movie is carrying all of the same cultural baggage that I am, it is honestly kind of hard for me to tell whether or not it’s good. Certainly it’s brutal. (Brutalist, even.) Certainly it doesn’t make sense in a way that seems very intentional. But it also has a sense of fun about its total bleakness, some truly great lines, the only Tom Hiddleston performance I’ve found convincing outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Jeremy Irons in the exact kind of role people should always cast Jeremy Irons in. When it gets a wide release, you should probably see it if you’re not squeamish. I’m not saying you’ll like it — I’m saying I have absolutely no idea if it’s any good or not, so you should just go see for yourself. I loved it.

Television

Last Week Tonight: April 10, 2016 — There is a joke in this about getting a credit check to work at a fireworks store that is one of the cleverest things I’ve heard in many months. This show gets a lot of credit for “destroying” things. But maybe it doesn’t get enough for sharp writing.

Better Call Saul: “Nailed” — “Sometimes the good guys win,” he says. Hoo boy. The scene where Chuck makes his allegations about Jimmy in Kim’s presence is probably the best scene this show has ever done. And it’s surrounded by other incredible scenes: the Mesa Verde hearing, Jimmy’s schoolyard video shoot, Mike’s heist, Kim telling Jimmy euphemistically to burn the evidence, and the whole sequence with Lance the copy guy. By sheer accretion of perfect scenes, this is probably the best episode of Better Call Saul. I still think I prefer “Rebecca” and “Marco” for their relative focus. But holy hell is this season drawing to a rollicking conclusion.

Literature, etc.

Kurt Vonnegut: Hocus Pocus — I usually devour Vonnegut novels. This one is taking me a while to get into. It’s got an intriguing setup and already a few great aphorisms, but the only other time I’ve been this uninvested in the early chapters of a book by Vonnegut was when I read his dodgy first novel Player Piano. I find it odd that critics of the time treated Hocus Pocus as a return to form, considering that his previous two novels were Galapagos and Bluebeard, both of which are really strong in my opinion. Bluebeard especially. I’m sure I’ll like this better once I’m halfway through it or so.

Games

EarthBound — “Peaceful Rest Valley ahead. Proceed through cave.” I’m starting to really enjoy this. I do wish there were a few puzzles, or choices to be made, and a bit less RPG combat. But it’s witty and unassuming in a way that’s really refreshing for a game from this period. And wandering around the towns, talking to people and reading billboards is actually a lot of fun. Call it the anti-Zelda.

Podcasts

StartUp: Season 3 Teaser — Well, I’m sad that they’re not doing another serialized story. On the other hand, focussing on the make-or-break moments of various companies’ early lives is a solid premise for a season. It worked when The Heart did it with relationships. Looking forward to this.

Imaginary Worlds: “Becoming Godzilla” — This feels slight after the Cthulhu episode, but any story about a guy spending months of his life building a Godzilla suit is going to have a certain amount of charm. (Also, that’s ELP low in the mix at the start. A tribute to Emerson, I assume. Though, for a show about a giant monster, one would think “Tarkus” would have been a better choice than “Toccata.”)

This American Life: “For Your Reconsideration” — Wow, it’s been a long time since I listened to TAL. I should never have been away so long. First, there’s a story about a previous TAL story being wrong — not their fault; there was a fake, peer-reviewed study — and they manage to make the wrongness of it into a more interesting story than the first one. Plus, they excerpt the best bits from a fascinating, high-stakes, 60-minute conversation from the podcast Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People. I suspect that the full conversation would have killed me to listen to, but the moments included here, with commentary from TAL’s editor, are gold. There was a moment in there that made me fist-pump as I was walking down the sidewalk.

On the Media: “Rolling In It” — Okay, I guess that great outtake from last week did make their main hour. No matter. This is still amazing. If you want to understand the Panama Papers as a media phenomenon, here’s your thing.

Bullseye: “Ellie Kemper & Glen Weldon” — This is a heck of a set of guests. Two fabulous conversationalists. Kemper is apparently as fun in real life as she is on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. And it’s fun to hear Weldon in a non-PCHH context. Jesse Thorne is a little ingratiating during Kemper’s interview, but he’s also done his homework for both of these interviews. He’s probably the closest thing there is to my ideal pop culture interview show host. I’d still really like to hear a show where the host goes deep into textual analysis with the creator of the thing there for verification, and this is not that. But you can’t fault a notepad for not being a treehouse.

Welcome to Night Vale: “Antiques” — I can’t tell if “Antiques” was actually substantially better than the episodes that preceded it, or if I was just in the right mood. But every segment of this was really funny: especially the one about the child with the very long tongue who distresses Cecil very much. But also the premise of a bunch of antiques escaping from the antique shop is great. It’s Night Vale by numbers, but it’s the best that Night Vale by numbers gets.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: The National Covers The Grateful Dead, Free Cake For Every Creature, More” — Nothing here jumped out and made me want to buy, but I’ve listened to that Dawg Yawp track a couple times. Appalachian folk with sitar. Imagine.

Reply All: “Baby King” — The “Yes Yes No” segment continues to be better than the story it follows. However, this story about a company that made GIFs before there was a grammar and syntax for them is fascinating, and concludes with a lovely bit of reflection by Alex Goldman on the fragility of the internet.

WTF With Marc Maron: “David Simon” — Maron isn’t entirely aware of the extent to which he is not Simon’s intellectual equal, but he facilitates a really interesting conversation and allows Simon to get angry about the things we all want him to get angry about: capitalism, the drug war, etc. And you don’t hear a lot of Simon taking, these days. That in itself makes this worth a lot. Simon is enthralling.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Ta-Nehisi Coates on Black Panther” — The best interview I’ve heard in ages. Turns out, Ta-Nehisi Coates is as incisive on comics history and nerd culture as he is on race. Audie Cornish gives him plenty of room to be massively thoughtful about both. It is so cool to hear him say that his introduction to the wonders of language came through hip-hop, Marvel Comics and Dungeons and Dragons. Honestly, that really is a trifecta of inspiration that you could expect to produce a MacArthur genius. Pick of the week.

On The Media: “That NPR Thing” — This is useful context for those of us who live outside the reach of any NPR member stations, for whom NPR is effectively a podcasting company. Because, here’s the thing: NPR is not a podcasting company. And NPR’s top brass are becoming openly hostile to their company’s own efforts in that form. This also contains a fascinating doc about movie novelizations. Super interesting.

Podcast-adjacent things

Cast Party — After months of thinking “oh yeah, I should really check that thing out sometime,” I finally did. This is that thing that was advertised non-stop on Radiolab and Reply All for a few weeks back when it happened. It’s a live performance by a bunch of amazing podcasts, including those two, The Truth, and Invisibilia. Sometimes, Cast Party reminds you that podcasters aren’t necessarily performers. Reply All, my favourite podcast of this bunch, isn’t served well by having its two charmingly neurotic hosts spotlit and stared at. They pull it off, but you get the sense that they’d rather be alone in a dark studio. Their story is great — most of these are — but there’s an overall sense of “you had to be there” surrounding this. If you’ve been on the fence about whether to shell out the dollars, consider the amount of goodwill you have towards these shows, then consider that it isn’t very good, then decide against it.