This week’s North by Northwest segment is a good one, I think. A few overlooked gems by eminent artists. And it’s always a pleasure to do a segment with Margaret Gallagher, who’s guest hosting this week. I’m at 10:25 in this podcast.
Cinquecento: Live at Christ Church Cathedral — This was a lovely evening at Early Music Vancouver’s Bach festival, so named for having a lot of Bach, but not only Bach. Cinquecento is a five-piece male vocal ensemble that specializes in the music of the 16th century. This concert, in the resonant acoustic of Burrard Street’s Christ Church Cathedral, focussed on the music of Reformation England. The program was a mix of Thomas Tallis (a name to know, but not a composer I’d really ever looked into), Christopher Tye (who I’d honestly never heard of at all), William Byrd (a favourite of mine) and an encore by Robert Parsons (no relation). Cinquecento sings with otherworldly accuracy and feeling — only the occasional siren from outside the thin shell of the church walls reminded us that we were in fact still participating in material reality. Particularly ethereal were the moments of these pieces when the polyphony gave way to unison singing, in the style of plainchant. It’s almost spooky how together they are in those moments. Funny how when you’ve experienced complexity on basically every musical front, from harmonic to technological, a handful of people singing in unison makes the world stop. It has taken me a long time to develop a taste for renaissance polyphony in more than short bursts. It seems to me that for all of the variation in compositional style between different composers and genres in this period, there isn’t a whole lot of variation in texture — and that’s what you hear first. Increasingly, I think that the way to hear this music is simply to surrender yourself to it, and the best way to do that is to hear it live, in a resonant space. It’s a rare thing that I say any music is better live. But I love hearing early music in concert. I should do it more. In terms of rep: the standouts among the Tallis selections were his “Lamentations of Jeremiah I” and the hymn “Te lucis ante terminum,” which contained the aforementioned world-stopping unison sections. But the real highlight, totally unexpectedly, was the Agnus Dei from Tye’s Mean Mass. I know nothing about this guy, and I wasn’t particularly moved by any of the other sections from this mass. A cursory Google doesn’t unearth any recordings, so I do hope I manage to encounter this music again. In any case, a wonderful concert.
Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 12 — “Crisco, you been selling your blood again?” As much as I complain about the lack of Dale Cooper in the new Twin Peaks, I tend to prefer episodes in which he has no part at all to the ones that focus on him as a monosyllabic husk of his former self. (Aside from that wonderful shot of Sonny Jim nailing him with a baseball.) This was a pretty fantastic episode, all things considered. I tend to enjoy the Gordon/Albert plotline, and here’s hoping that Tammy gets something to do now that she’s officially on the dangerous Blue Rose task force. But aside from those reliably enjoyable scenes (with one exception, in a moment), this also gives us generous doses of two characters who have been either largely or entirely absent for the bulk of the season. Audrey Horne’s return is as baffling as we had every reason to believe it would be, since Lynch and Frost seem hellbent on putting our favourite characters in situations so unfamiliar to us that they read as functionally different people. But at least we get Grace Zabriskie, stepping back into the role of Sarah Palmer for more screen time than in any prior episode. I love this performance, because unlike many of this show’s reintroduced characters, Sarah seems exactly like you’d expect her to, 25 years after the original series’ events. Which is to say, she seems similar to the way we’re used to her — but moreso. The intense trauma of what happened to her daughter has continued to eat away at her just like it was in the first place, and it’s been like that for decades, now. Zabriskie’s performance has always been one of the best in Twin Peaks. And here, she contorts herself into a person who seems like she hasn’t been calm since a third of a lifetime ago. But also there’s that scene where David Lynch ogles a comically sexed-up French woman. I mean, at least he’s being explicit about it. But I really wish this show was better about not being sexist. The last thing I wanted Lynch and Frost to do with a revived Twin Peaks was demonstrate what out-of-touch old men they are. For some, Twin Peaks’ attitude towards women is likely grounds for dismissal out of hand, and I understand that. Personally, I just wish that a show that’s so radical in so many ways could be a little less ass-backwards in that way.
Game of Thrones: “The Queen’s Justice” — Marvellous. This is Game of Thrones at its talkiest, most political, and best. The long-awaited meeting of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen is enough to make it classic. It’s a beautifully wrought bit of political drama in which two sympathetic characters are both right in conflicting ways, as are their sympathetic aides. Tyrion and Ser Davos are equally compelling as the two marquee names. In fact I daresay Liam Cunningham wins the scene with his spirited defence of Jon’s worthiness of the title King in the North. It’s nice to see somebody respectable offer a bit of resistance to Daenerys, too. She is glorious, to be sure, but she’s getting ostentatious, and she doesn’t see the whole picture. Nobody south of Winterfell has, yet. That scene is so good that it risks sucking the air out of everything that comes after. But then we get a pair of the best Cersei scenes ever. First, we watch her carry out truly gruesome revenge against her daughter’s killer. Then, in a scene I didn’t know I wanted, we watch her spar with Mark Gatiss, who brought all his considerable smugness to bear. We get Littlefinger the chaos theorist, advocating a model of decision making based on envisioning every branch in a tree of outcomes. We get Sam continuing to be abused in the way of all unpaid interns. And we get the magnificent Olenna Tyrell dying as she lived: with an acid tongue and an impeccable knowledge of her sparring partner’s pressure points. So far, this is my favourite season of Game of Thrones. If it keeps this up to the end, it may yet become a show I mostly like.
Ryan Lizza: “Anthony Scaramucci Called Me To Unload About White House Leakers, Reince Priebus, and Steve Bannon” — Even after Priebus got pushed out and made this piece into a previous version of the news (it happens so fast now), I felt I had to read this and I am not sorry I did. Scaramucci is a cartoon character. He is a man with absolutely no self-awareness. He refers to himself in the third person and calls himself “the Mooch.” He is making a concerted effort to come off as some kind of goon/kingpin hybrid and he ends up sounding like a sad man who thinks he’s in Goodfellas. Wild shit. Also, like an hour after I wrote this review, he got the boot. Awesome.
Chris Ware: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth — I am about three quarters of the way through this magnificent graphic novel. I daresay I’ve lingered longer on each page of this than I have with any other comic, thanks to Chris Ware’s complex and adventurous page layouts, resolutely quadrilateral-based, but with the panels of sequences arranged in pleasingly counterintuitive ways. And the art itself is basically the platonic ideal of comic art: cartoonish and expressive, with each panel limited in its colour palate, but with an almost schematic attention to the detail of structures and environments. Early in the book, Ware’s layouts are more ostentatious and formalist. Some take on the character of a flow chart, with narratives told through abstract series’ of cause and effect. But as the book proceeds, his approach becomes more direct, befitting the increasing drama of the story. Because for all of the novelty of Ware’s approach, for all of the virtuosity in his artwork, the story he is telling is a brutally sad and often cringeworthy tale of isolation and hardship. I’ll cover my thoughts on the story next week once I’m finished it. But it’s already pretty clear to me that this is soon to join the ranks of From Hell and Phonogram, my other favourite works in this medium.
James Parker: “The Whitest Music Ever” — LMAO where to even start. Firstly, I am grateful to Parker for reiterating the traditional critical line about prog rock in a mainstream publication. With a book like David Wiegel’s The Show That Never Ends on the market, which Parker is reviewing here, I was getting concerned that my love of prog no longer makes me a contrarian and THAT CANNOT STAND. Equally gratifying is the way in which Parker dismisses prog with the general sentiment “but just listen to it its so ugly!” This is by some margin the most defensible negative critique of the genre. It is super weird! Prog is often very unattractive music — fascinatingly so, to those of us who like it. Parker’s got a great line about “the tune” of a piece of music being “the infinitely precious sound of the universe rhyming with one’s own brain.” I find that unbelievably relatable. Except that I feel the universe rhyming with my brain when I listen to “Knots” by Gentle Giant, which Parker, reasonably enough, finds unlistenable. One man’s trash, etc. All the same, Parker’s surety that this music is intrinsically unlikeable carries an unpleasant implication: that those of us who claim to like it do so out of something other than the intuitive aesthetic attraction that draws everybody else to their favourite music. I.e. we are pretentious, and we would have fewer liabilities as cultural consumers if we were normal. That’s real shitty. Dan Fox puts it better than I could ever hope to: “The accuser of pretension always presumes bad intentions. Truth is, more often than not pretension is simply someone trying to make the world more interesting, responding to it the way they think is appropriate. It’s more likely that what you think is one person’s pretension is another’s good faith… To fear being accused of pretension is to police oneself out of curiosity about the world.” I can’t help but feel when I read a critique like Parker’s that I’m being beckoned back to my box. “Don’t enjoy weird shit; it’s unbecoming.” And while I absolutely agree with Parker that the elements of pop music that prog sometimes eschews, i.e. hooks and repetition (though his loathed Magma are plenty repetitious), are valuable and attractive, I don’t think that’s any reason to proclaim the genre “murder, artistically speaking.” It’s insufferably closed-minded to expect all music to conform to any one set of standards. And I don’t think that Parker’s self-acknowledged glibness is at all constructive. Rather, I think it only serves as virtue signalling for his own normalcy, which isn’t even a virtue. Am I being unfun? Probably. But this is bad criticism, and I don’t know how to say that without getting on my high horse. Finally, a word on prog’s whiteness. Prog is super white! This is by no means good, but I’m also not sure that its deliberate distance from the blues is a sin by default. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’m still of two minds about it. On one hand, you could look at prog’s disavowal of blues as a creepily Brexity refusal to engage with anybody’s culture save for these musicians’ own white, European culture. On the other hand, you can also look at it as a respectful reluctance to engage in cultural appropriation. Of all of the rock music to emerge from the U.K. in the late 60s, prog is the only subgenre whose musicians have consistently acknowledged, in their musical practice and in interviews, that blues does not belong to them and they don’t really have any business playing it. Which of these two interpretations seems more convincing probably depends on how charitable you feel towards the music in general, but I expect the truth involves a bit of both. Personally, I find prog’s enormous whiteness a hell of a lot more palatable than this bullshit.
Snowpiercer — I don’t know why I didn’t see this sooner. This is a really good movie. The conceit of showing a revolution happening in a class-stratified train is one of those premises that is so elegant from the outset that you wonder why nobody did it long before. (I suppose the graphic novel came out in 1982, but that still seems curiously recent to me.) In execution, all it really has to do is make the journey from the back of the train to the front compelling and varied, which it is. Chris Evans is a bit of a cipher of a protagonist until near the end, when things get really complicated. But in the supporting cast we get John Hurt, Tilda Swinton (with some really great false teeth), Octavia Spencer and Ed Harris, so how can you go wrong. Good fun. The kind of movie I wish we saw more of.
Dunkirk — Seeing Christopher Nolan’s latest in an IMAX screening sits very near the top of my shortlist of great moviegoing experiences. Take note that this is a distinct list from my list of favourite movies, and even from my list of favourite movies I’ve seen in theatres. A movie need not be a masterpiece to be an incredible experience in a theatre. Some of the films I’d put on this list are masterpieces (Mad Max: Fury Road). Some are resolutely not (Avatar). Dunkirk is a truly great film, probably Nolan’s best. But my opinion of it is entirely contingent on the experience of seeing it in film projection, on an IMAX screen. The beauty of IMAX is that it nearly fills your field of vision, encouraging you to forget everything that lies beyond the edges of the screen. So, when Nolan puts his camera in an enclosed space, the hugeness of an IMAX screen makes the scene feel more claustrophobic, not less, because you feel that you’re in that space as well. And when that claustrophobic space, say, the galley of ship, gets hit by a torpedo and fills instantly with water, you feel like you’re going to die. That, in a nutshell, is why Dunkirk is a great film: Nolan understands that cinema is an experience as much as a narrative art form, and he uses his mastery of the craft to put the audience inside of one of the most traumatic and unprecedented chapters in the history of warfare. Nolan’s customary structural game, i.e. telling three intersecting stories in three different timespans, is the only thing serving as a reminder that what you’re seeing is a narrative construction. Nolan’s playing with timelines has been one of the most remarked-upon elements of the movie, which is understandable since it’s basically the only thing connecting this movie’s narrative approach to any previous Nolan film (namely Inception). But the real spark of ingenuity in Nolan’s three-story approach is that the stories in question encompass land, sea and air. Equally thrilling and stressful to the beach evacuation are the sequences of airborne battle, taking place over an impossibly long ocean horizon. This is filmmaking at its most spectacular and affecting. Dunkirk is too stressful to see in theatres twice. But you must see it. On the biggest screen possible. Pick of the week.
Day of the Tentacle — It was on sale, and Rock Paper Shotgun called it the best adventure game of all time. It isn’t. It’s fine, but its dopey comedy tone is extremely trying. I played the remastered version of the game, which modernizes the interface and recreates the original’s pixel art as beautifully rendered cartoon animation, which still studiously maintains the detail of the original. The remaster offers the option to switch to the original version of the game, which I periodically did, just to see the difference. Seems to me that the remaster is faultless, but it can only do so much with the material at hand. Day of the Tentacle’s writing is full of silliness, but light on actual jokes. Its characters are not real characters but ‘types,’ which would be fine if the game did anything at all to undercut those types, but it doesn’t. It just rehearses them by rote. Day of the Tentacle is happy to risk being childish for the benefit of being funny, but it isn’t funny, so its childishness is insufferable. I suppose I shouldn’t gripe about that since it’s for children, after all. But one expects that children’s entertainment that attains this degree of acclaim would at least be admirable on a structural level to an adult. Nope. As for the puzzles, many are extremely clever and satisfying, especially when they involve the game’s time travel premise in their solutions. But just as often, the puzzles in Day of the Tentacle are maddeningly obtuse, in the manner of most point-and-clicks from this time period. In an effort to not spend hours and hours on this silly game that I wasn’t really enjoying, I made moderate use of a walkthrough for puzzle hints. I mention this because there are those who would say I haven’t really played the game if I haven’t arrived independently at all of the puzzle solutions. To those people I say: this review would be far less charitable if I had. This game is adequate. It’s no classic. The Myst games get a raw deal these days for the unfairness of their puzzles and their relative lack of story. But they at least provide an interesting space to explore and play amateur anthropologist. Give me Riven any day over this.
Meredith Monk: Dolmen Music — A wonderful NPR feature on the best albums made by women reminded me that this is something I’ve always meant to check out. Monk is a fascinating composer whose work I’ve heard in bits and pieces in various contexts, but I’ve never sat down with a full album’s worth of her music. This is fabulous stuff, but for my money the first half, featuring music for solo voice and piano is more satisfying than the larger title track that makes up the second side. “Gotham Lullaby” is especially attractive. There’s something to be said for the sound of the human voice when it is divorced from the concrete meaning making of language. A wonderful discovery.
Pink Floyd: Zabriskie Point score — (How odd that the word “Zabriskie” comes up in two different contexts this week.) Noting that a substantial amount of The Early Years volume four contains outtakes from the sessions Pink Floyd did for Michelangelo Antonioni’s psychedelic odyssey (which I’ve never seen, but I’ve heard described by Karina Longworth), I figured I’d best hear the tracks that actually made it onto the soundtrack album. These are a rather astonishing and attractive sound collage called “Heart Beat, Pig Meat,” an unextraordinary acoustic number called “Crumbling Land” and an alternate version of “Careful With That Axe Eugene” retitled “Come in Number 5, Your Time Is Up” that is superior to the previous studio version but can’t touch the magnificent live recording on Ummagumma. But there’s more: four additional tracks made it onto the special edition from 1997. “Country Song” would sit nicely on Obscured by Clouds, the band’s most listenable soundtrack work. “Unknown Song” anticipates the midsection of the “Atom Heart Mother Suite,” i.e. the good part. “Love Scene (Version 6)” is a fairly bland blues jam of the sort that British rock bands were prone to do when nobody sternly told them not to. So far, all of these tracks have been full band credits, but the one remaining track, along with “Heart Beat” the crown jewel of the bunch, is a Richard Wright solo piano number. “Love Scene (Version 4)” finds Wright playing in his pleasingly unaffected fashion, exploring melodies over chords that sway gently to and fro. It’s a trifle, and I expect he thought nothing of it, but it feels like a candid photograph. I quite like it. It’s a mystery to me why all of this stuff wasn’t remastered for inclusion on The Early Years, considering that it’s probably the least familiar of all of Pink Floyd’s officially issued material. These tracks, plus the outtakes in the box set would make up a lost Pink Floyd album that’s superior to More. (Though none of the tracks with lyrics can compete with “Green is the Colour” or “Cymbeline,” both of which deserve to be on a better album.)
Pink Floyd: The Early Years 1965-1972 — Another week, another two volumes of this box set on Apple Music. Volume three focusses on 1969, the year of More and Ummagumma: albums that I mildly dislike, and half like, respectively. All the same, this volume demonstrates that for all the inconsistency in the band’s studio output at the time, they were nonetheless reaching a new peak of creative vibrancy. After a first disc that features some tepid outtakes from More and a couple of live performances that range from fine to good, the second disc gives us a complete recording of the band’s famous The Man and the Journey live show. It’s a conceptual piece, and so it risks coming off as a bit tedious or literal, but as a sound recording it seems mercifully abstract. This is a great performance — everything from the extended “Cymbaline” to the found-object piece “Work” is compelling. It’s tempting to listen in the manner of a trainspotter, locating bits of previous and upcoming pieces of music in this liminal, transitory performance. But you don’t have to listen like that. It sustains a simple listen for its own virtues. Volume four covers 1970, the year of Atom Heart Mother, and thus a problem year. So far, I have not been annoyed with the multiple instances of some key songs, like “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” or “Careful With That Axe, Eugene.” But the three complete versions of the “Atom Heart Mother Suite” on this volume are a bit much to bear. Two of the three feature no orchestra, which one might initially think would remove some of the problems with that misbegotten work. But the band declines to incorporate the melodic material that appears in the horns and strings in some other way, which makes the whole thing feel a bit insubstantial. You can’t win. The John Peel session that features a complete “Atom Heart Mother” is by and large a satisfying listen, but the brass band and choir assembled in lieu of the full orchestra/choir implement shit the bed as badly here as the ensembles on the record do. (Kind of puts a fine point on how bad the studio record is, doesn’t it?) Also, “Embryo” is a weirdly important song in Pink Floyd sets of this time period. It was not good enough to make it onto a proper album, but they play it at every show, seemingly. This volume also features the outtakes from the Zabriskie Point sessions, which are really fun. There’s definitely a full soundtrack album’s worth of music in there. Great stuff.
Radiolab: “Breaking News” — A terrifying tale from the precipice of a dystopia. The team tells the story of a new bit of technology that allows for convincing fake audio and video to be made of famous people. The video that they made with it isn’t actually all that convincing, but we’re fast approaching a point where it will be, I’m sure. Shudder.
A Piece of Work: Episodes 1-3 & 5 — A fun journey through the wonder and weirdness of modern art, with one of the stars of Broad City. What more could you want? The episode on Yves Klein’s monochromes, feat. Questlove, is the highlight. I’m really enjoying this, and it made me want to go look at pictures. I daresay that’s the goal.
The Turnaround: “Louis Theroux” — I kind of wish Jesse Thorn were as willing to challenge Jerry Springer and Louis Theroux as he was Audie Cornish. Because Springer, for all his self-awareness, hosts a trashy show, and Theroux sometimes stirs the pot for the sake of drama rather than understanding. Not one of my favourite episodes of this.
Showcase from Radiotopia: “Introducing… Showcase from Radiotopia” — This is such a good idea. The biggest problem with podcasting that isn’t a problem in broadcasting is that a show idea has to be infinitely self-sustaining, unless it’s something like S-Town or Mogul and has the support of a major player in the industry. So here’s a channel with the support of a major player in the industry, PRX, that focusses on smaller series with experimental approaches. I’m salivating.
99% Invisible: “Ways of Hearing” — John Berger would be proud. I’m counting this as an episode of 99pi, because that’s how I heard it. But it’s actually the first episode in Ways of Hearing, which is itself the first serial on Showcase from Radiotopia. Interestingly, this series on the social impact of digital recording is airing for the first time just as a CBC Radio series on the impact of electricity on music is airing again on Ideas. I’ve been avidly following that, but not reviewing it because it was co-produced by a friend of mine. (Regardless, it is a masterpiece. Listen to it.) This is more specific in its subject than that series and less sweeping in its scope, but it is so far very eloquent in its argumentation — even if that argumentation is basically that technology took something out of music, which is one of those arguments that’ll either be obvious or obviously wrong to you. Or perhaps not, because when I think about it, I’m not sure which side of that debate I land on. I’ll let this sit for a while before offering my final assessment. But I’ll definitely listen to the rest of the series. Oh, and the Jon Brion interview at the end of this is a very eloquent elaboration on a concept that is fairly central to my understanding of pop music: the notion that a song and a performance are two distinct things.
Reply All: “Long Distance, Part II” — An ending that befits the beginning. Wow, is this ever a thrill ride, considering that it started with Alex Goldman personally being the subject of a scam attempt. How wonderful that he works somewhere with the money to sent him across the world with a producer to find the guy who scammed him. Bracing, wonderful stuff.
The Gist: “A Video Came Thoreau Might Play” — Walden, a game sounds like an interesting concept, but I feel like regardless of its distinctive subject matter I wouldn’t be able to help comparing it with Firewatch, which is too awesome to compare to anything. We’ll see.
Ear Hustle: “The SHU” — This is a rough listen. Solitary confinement is a brutal practice, and one that it’s a miracle doesn’t leave a person irreparably broken. Stories worth knowing, though.
Longform: “Maggie Haberman” — This is one of the most astonishing interviews I have ever heard. During the course of this conversation, Maggie Haberman, NYT White House reporter, reports a story. Like, she talks about her job at the same time as she does it. And moreover, she acts as if this is simply not unusual. It’s disquieting, actually. I feel concerned for her. I think she’s forgotten how to be human. I am reminded of the words of the immortal Malcolm Tucker: “This is a fucking husk. I am a fucking host for this fucking job.” Come for the niche interest process story and stay for the bizarre fucking implicit psychodrama. Pick of the week.