29, this week! Back on track! It’s been one of those weeks where there’s a lot of cleaning and cooking, and even a bit of running, so there are inevitably also lots of podcasts. Also, many other interesting and unexpected things.
Umberto Eco: “Ur-Fascism” — Read it. I had never read anything by Eco, but when he died, this came highly recommended by two bloggers I enjoy. It contains some interesting personal nuggets and, most interestingly, a list of features that tend to be present in various forms of fascism. So, it’s a very useful essay if you’re looking to call somebody an evil fascist on grounds that aren’t totally specious.
Peter Hince: “Being Queen’s Roadie was One Intense, Rewarding Job” — This is an excerpt from a book that’s probably insufferable by a quarter of the way through. But, a free excerpt won’t hurt anybody. It doesn’t contain a lot of revelations; these things never do. Basically, Freddie Mercury was a handful. Hince’s reveries can get a bit self-indulgent — like your uncle who was in a band, once. He’s a bit of a prick, really. It’s still kind of fun, and Hince saw and heard Queen’s shows from angles that nobody else did. It’s worth a read if you’re a Queen fan, which you probably are. You couldn’t pay me to read the whole book, though. On the other hand…
Will Romano: Mountains Come Out Of The Sky — This is a fairly straightforward history of progressive rock. I’m reading it for a project I’m hoping to start sometime in the not too distant future. I’ve been reading it for ages. It’s the same every time: I borrow it from the library, read one measly chapter, renew it three times thinking I’ll get further, then I have to return it. The reason for this is simple: this book is dismal. Romano doesn’t know how to write sentences. He has nothing interesting to say about the music or the culture that it came out of. And he rehashes tired truisms from prog fandom about how vacuous everything else was. I’m committed to finishing it for one reason: Romano interviewed everybody, and gets some interesting quotes here and there which may prove useful to me. But seriously, this is dire. Every time I pick it up it lights a fire under me to write something like this, except good. I’m working on it.
John Cavanagh: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn — An early entry in the 33⅓ series, and not the strongest I’ve read, but still a really good insight into the making of Pink Floyd’s debut album. Cavanagh (what is it with Cavanaghs?) made me realize the influence of Roger Waters, even at this early point in the band’s history. I was always sort of stupefied that a guy who started off as just some bassist eventually wrote The Wall. My impression was that Waters only stepped up his contribution because Syd Barrett’s absence from the third album onwards made it necessary. That’s clearly not true. He always had designs on rock stardom.
Pink Floyd: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn — Specifically, after finishing the book, I listened straight through the three-disc 40th anniversary edition that has the album in both mono and stereo forms (maybe it’s because I grew up with it, but I don’t hate the stereo mix as much as most Floyd fans, though the mono is certainly better overall) plus all of the associated singles and B-sides. It’s a top-notch set, and absolutely worthwhile for anybody that likes the album. Which I do, clearly. But I will say that parts of it have aged better than others. “See Emily Play” remains a 10/10 pop single, “Astronomy Domine” is as good a four-minute distillation of psychedelic rock as you’ll find, and perhaps surprisingly, the ten-minute, mostly atonal jam track “Interstellar Overdrive” still works, in spite of being more firmly of its time than anything else on the record. I’m more hesitant about “Flaming” and “The Gnome.” There is only so much tweeness I am willing to accept in my psychedelia. And, as far as songwriting goes, I’m inclined to believe that Syd Barrett was better once he’d abandoned that aesthetic on his comparatively dark solo albums.
Pink Floyd: Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London — I can’t believe I’d never heard this. This is the half-hour recording Pink Floyd made as the score to the bizarre-looking movie of the same name, which I will likely watch, maybe sometime. But the version of “Interstellar Overdrive” on this is far better than the version that made it onto Piper, though it lacks the state-of-the-art EMI mixing and mastering. And “Nick’s Boogie” is dank af.
Jethro Tull: War Child — Just as Jethro Tull is one of the most underestimated bands ever to skirt the borders of the classic rock canon, War Child is the most overlooked of their many masterpieces of the 70s. This was the first Tull album not to be made up of just one gigantic song since Aqualung three years prior. But the “bigness” of Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play continue here. That may alienate some listeners, but I think it’s very artfully done. Dee Palmer’s rock orchestral arrangements are maybe second only to George Martin’s, and the glockenspiels, accordions and tablas that the band employs on “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day” make it one of the best recordings of Jethro Tull’s career — and not just one of Ian Anderson’s best songs. This album is full of moments that I find sort of chilling, like the soprano sax melody that opens the title track, or the line in “Skating Away” about being the only one in the audience. My only complaint is that “Two Fingers” is a bit of a weak ending, and not nearly as good as the simpler version recorded as “Lick Your Fingers Clean” during the Aqualung sessions. It’s the only song on the album that’s let down by its arrangement, and it’s right at the end. But up to there, War Child is a classic and one of my favourite albums.
Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London — Okay, it didn’t take me as long to get around to this as I thought it would. This is an absolute pleasure. It’s an arty sort of documentary about Swinging London that has a sense of humour about itself and never disappears up its own ass. This, in spite of the fact that it was actually made during the period of Swinging London, and not in retrospect. Usually, I find there’s a certain inevitable self-seriousness to nonfiction that speaks on behalf of a contemporary counterculture. (That’s one of the reasons why I couldn’t get into On The Road.) This isn’t like that at all. It’s mostly verité footage over relevant music, with relatively little speech. What speech there is is mostly stoned people talking out their asses, but you get the sense that the film neither endorses what they’re saying, nor does it hold them in disdain. (Okay, maybe it holds Andrew Loog Oldham in disdain, but the wanker deserves it.) There’s a moment near the beginning where the camera’s shooting a guy playing trombone in a sequence making fun of the pomp and ceremony of the changing of the guard, and the camera keeps zooming in and out as the trombonist moves his slide. It’s surprisingly funny, and establishes the camera as a really engaging, likeable narrator. The last third of the movie revolves more around interview footage and is far less interesting than what came before, but there are worthwhile tidbits. Julie Christie is remarkably indulgent of Peter Whitehead, the obviously eccentric man making the film. A young Michael Caine reveals himself to be very sexist. And Mick Jagger’s actually fairly thoughtful at times. If you’re going to watch a movie about psychedelic culture in the 60s, this is not as good a choice as Performance, but more worthwhile than Easy Rider.
A Serious Man — The best part of this movie is a scene where the main character, a physics professor, is arguing with his student’s father in his driveway. The father is threatening to sue the professor for defaming his son — the professor claims that his student tried to bribe him in exchange for a passing grade, which is almost certainly true but we can’t know for sure. So, the professor says, okay I’ll pretend like this never happened, but your son still fails. And the father says that unless his son passes, he’ll sue the professor — not for defamation, now, but for taking money. Aha, says the professor, so he did leave the money! “This is defamation,” says the father. The professor reasonably points out that this doesn’t make any sense: either he left the money or he didn’t. “Please,” says the father. “Accept the mystery.” This is, of course, a Schroedinger’s cat scenario. The cat can’t actually be simultaneously dead and alive, but we accept the mystery because the math checks out. And, Schroedinger’s cat and the associated math is the very topic of the failed exam that all of this is about. The Coens structure the movie so that this is an obvious and easy connection to make, and their main character sees it too — which is part of what spurs on his crisis of faith. Yes, this movie is thematically based around a three-way allegory comparing faith, physics and bribery. Like Burn After Reading and O Brother, Where Art Thou, it deserves to be much more highly regarded. Pick of the week.
Deadwood: Season 2, episodes 3-6 — The abysmally-titled but excellent episode “Requiem for a Gleet” features not just one, but two moments that must rank high on my list of great TV scenes: the shot of five people at Al’s bedside after his medical ordeal (the nature of which is only marginally spoiled by the episode’s title), and the scene where E.B. fails miserably to trick Alma out of her gold claim. The latter is borderline Shakespearean in its wit. E.B. is an idiot, but a wonderfully loquacious one in the vein of Polonius. And, the way that Alma turns the tables and manages to unsettle him rather than the other way around recalls Shakespeare’s cleverest heroines: Beatrice and Rosalind. Also, the character of Francis Walcott, who shows up this season to stir the pot, feels like a prototype of Vee from Orange is the New Black: another ill-intentioned interloper in a show’s second season. We’ll see which of them turns out to be more dangerous, but as of episode six, I’m leaning heavily towards Walcott. He basically just turned into Hannibal.
Last Week Tonight: February 22, 2016 — Sometimes satire doesn’t make me laugh, but instead makes me say “yes, that is correct; good job liberal America.” I don’t think that’s good satire. That’s what the Hollywood whitewashing segment did — not that it isn’t something worth talking about. It’s just that everybody’s talking about it already, and this segment didn’t frame the issue in a new way, or make me laugh. (Except for the bit about Idris Elba dressing like French Waldo. That was gold.) The rest of the episode is wonderful. I have a limitless tolerance for John Oliver fact-checking Republican talking points when actual journalists won’t, and the segment on abortion laws works by sheer accumulation of examples.
Better Call Saul: “Cobbler” — “You think I’d be caught dead driving that thing? It looks like a school bus for six-year-old pimps.” Michael Mando as Nacho is becoming one of my favourite performances in this show. The story is becoming as frustrating-in-a-good-way as Breaking Bad was. You see what Jimmy’s capable of at every turn, but you can also predict his every backslide into criminality. He’s undone by his own self-image.
Lost: “The Moth” — Not to be confused with the podcast discussed below. Charlie is one of the most appealing characters in Lost because of Dominic Monaghan’s performance, but his story is appallingly written. This episode, with its hamfisted symbolism and its rock and roll clichés, is the show’s first proper stinker. It’s one of the obvious points to go to illustrate the failings of this supposedly “best” season of Lost. Also, this is the first I’ve noticed it, but Naveen Andrews’ accent is really bad, isn’t it?
Sampler: “Magic and Tonic” — This is a perfectly entertaining show, but I honestly don’t see who’s going to tune in (I have decided that this is still an appropriate expression to use about podcasts) regularly to hear a show that’s about other shows. Brittany Luse is great, though. I’ll check out her other show when I catch up with my damn subscriptions.
On the Media: “Bernie Sanders is Running for President” — That title was supposed to be a joke, because the episode aired in January, months after Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy. But since I’m listening to it a full month after that, I guess it’s… funnier? Not much to say, except that once I catch up with my damn subscriptions, I might add OTM to my list of shows that I listen to every episode of, because it’s the most consistently intelligent show available that relates to news.
The Moth: “Moth GrandSLAMs: Life and Death” — I tuned in for Neil Gaiman, and ended up consistently bored throughout all four stories. Oh well. One episode closer to having caught up with my damn subscriptions.
Radiolab: “I Don’t Have To Answer That” — Politics stories on Radiolab are almost sure to be good, and completely certain not to be extraordinary. There’s no good reason that Radiolab, with its capacity for bold aesthetic choices and esoteric storytelling, should be the show to do this story. Hell, Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield work just down the hall. This is fine. It’s good. But I miss the version of Radiolab that would take on the questions nobody else could.
Serial: “5 O’Clock Shadow” — Okay, now this is starting to pick up. This episode has a detailed outline of a military mission and great tape from people who were there. It’s also the first episode that has really sold the confusion over Bergdahl’s motives to me. Having heard his complaints about his platoon, I have no idea why he thought such dramatic measures were necessary.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Grease: Live, and Musicals on TV” — Even as a person with a relatively high tolerance for musicals, all of the stuff they talk about on this episode sounds dire to me.
All Songs Considered: “Shearwater, Lily & Madeleine, Eskimeaux, More” — Nothing on this really stuck out, but I love when Lars Gotrich comes around, because he has some magical way of finding the sort of strange and marginal music that I want in my life.
Fresh Air: “Original ‘Cabaret’ Emcee Joel Grey” — Grey’s a complicated guy. There’s a lot of drama in his life story, which he’s been keeping under wraps for a long time, considering that he only came out publicly as a gay man last year. This is a good interview. It’s hard not to think that Grey was a bit of a jerk to his ex-wife, but there were compromising circumstances.
Theory of Everything: “After Work” — Benjamen Walker checks back in with the unpaid intern he “hired” to try and make a living in the sharing economy back in the three-part “Instaserfs” series. This is great; I love how the two of them use their relationship as a metaphor for the actual sharing economy, and this episode turns that on its head, a bit. As ever, Walker’s intense skepticism about “progress” in the world of labour is much appreciated.
99% Invisible: “The Yin and Yang of Basketball” — This is a story about design solutions to seeming injustices built into the game of basketball. It’s real genius lies in the fact that it’s not important to understand what a three-point shot is, for example. I have no idea what that is, and if they’d tried to explain it, I guarantee I would have tuned out.
Imaginary Worlds: “Noble Effort” — This is actually an episode of 99pi from back when Molinsky was a freelancer without his own podcast. It’s a very, very good episode of 99pi, about the work of the man who drew the backgrounds and landscapes for the Looney Toons, and was thus at least halfway responsible for their brilliance.
Radiolab: “Hard Knock Life” — Robert Krulwich got Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Hamilton fame, to write music about the mating rituals of beetles. This is essentially why we need Robert Krulwich in the world.
99% Invisible: “Miss Manhattan” — The best episode of 99pi since “Structural Integrity.” Before there were supermodels, one woman posed for nearly every sculptor in America. It’s a great story, and Avery Trufelman is an incredible storyteller. Just go listen to it. Pick of the week.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The 2016 Grammy Awards” — I saved so much time by just listening to this and not watching the Grammys. I hate the Grammys. But everything Kendrick Lamar touches turns to gold, so at least there’s that.
Serial: “Hindsight” Parts 1 & 2 — The more that this season of Serial stays focussed on Bergdahl himself, rather than going madly off in every contextual direction, the more I like it — which is to say that this two-parter is one of the highlights of season two. I realize that this is an argument against the very thing that I’ve previously claimed makes Serial such a positive cultural force in the past, but I just can’t deny that personal narratives mean more to me than the granular details that Sarah Koenig and Dana Chivvis are so good at parsing.
Reply All: “The Line” — This is a story about doubt in the Mormon church, as expressed online, that neither condescends to Mormons, nor does it gloss over the fact that their doctrine doesn’t make sense. It is very deft and very moving, and once again does that thing that I love so much about Reply All where it switches effortlessly back and forth between being “important public radio” and being people with microphones shooting the shit.