Tag Archives: On the Media

Omnibus (week of Jan 14, 2018)

I’ve had a big week for wasting time, and also a big week for getting stuff done that allows me to also listen to stuff simultaneously. You may enjoy the fruits of my labours below.

25 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Chris Onstad: Achewood — It’s been ages, but I went back to Achewood this week and fell right back in. I got the the end of 2004 in the comics, which was also the year when Onstad started writing in-character blogs as all of the major characters. I’m making my way through the first year of those now, because what’s a rabbit hole if you only go halfway down? The blogs are interesting because they’re less explicitly comedic than the strips are. They’re basically sincere character studies where every single character seems unique and well-rounded. That makes them a bit of a mixed bag. Ray’s blog, for instance, is intermittently insufferable because Ray is a rich asshole whose life is a fantasy from a men’s magazine. Seen from a third-person perspective, this is always funny. But when it comes straight from him, it can be rough going because he’s less ridiculous when seen through his own eyes. But the blog never drifts out of character, which is a testament to what a fantastic writer Chris Onstad is. Other characters fare better. I’m particularly fond of Pat’s blog, because Pat is the least sympathetic character in the strip, and thus the most likely to have a completely insufferable blog. So the very existence of the thing is a joke in itself. Also, it features a plotline in which Pat attempts to place the mailman under citizen’s arrest because in Pat’s crazed worldview, junk mail constitutes litter. Achewood is a marvel. It’s a whole universe. I love it.

Movies

The Shape of Water — I’ve always loved Guillermo del Toro as a visual stylist, but the only movie of his that really stuck with me for some time after I watched it was Pan’s Labyrinth. I think what I liked about it was that it presents a very simple metaphor about childhood trauma and takes for granted that you’ll pick up on it. So, it just focuses on telling a story and, even more crucially, presenting a cavalcade of memorable and distressing images. The Shape of Water is much the same. It is not a subtle movie. It finds del Toro wielding Michael Shannon like a bludgeon. More troublingly, it also finds him casting Octavia Spencer as a walking trope, which, ugh. That makes the movie’s central civil rights metaphor a tad less resonant. But all of the stuff that del Toro packs around that metaphor is really marvellous. Maybe the best light to see the movie in is as a tribute to the romances of golden-age Hollywood. Del Toro has always been a film geek first, a storyteller second. And this movie finds him geeking out not only about monster movies, which is his perpetual obsession, but also with musicals and melodrama. And look: there are days when I’m a chilly aesthete, and there are days when I’m totally on board for a musical monster melodrama. This hit me on one of the latter kinds of days.

Coco — I don’t much like to cry in public, so there were some uncomfortable moments in this. *sniff* Coco has one of the most satisfying narrative switcheroos I’ve seen in a while. If you’ve seen it, you know the one. It’s a late-game reveal that I genuinely did not see coming, which is also the element the film’s emotional impact hangs on. Where Inside Out’s effect comes from a sustained melancholy, Coco’s comes from a single surprise gut punch. And what a gut punch it is. I don’t like this quite as much as Inside Out or WALL-E, which remain my two favourite Pixar movies. (Were they this good when I was an actual child??) But Coco goes beyond those movies in a couple of ways. First off, it takes place partially in a convincing (according to my Mexican friend) version of small-town Mexico. Its visual style is a pretty brilliant amalgam of Mexican art and architecture with Pixar’s usual fantastical whimsy. Once the movie finds its way to the land of the dead, it really turns into a visual marvel. And it’s not just the setting — it gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that most of its characters are skeletons and can thus be deconstructed and rearranged at will. There’s a character in this, Hector, who is maybe the closest any animator has gotten to the genie in Aladdin in the past ten years. Story-wise, the tension that drives Coco is the same as in Ratatouille: there’s a kid who wants to be an artist but his family forbids it. But where Ratatouille portrays its protagonist’s family as mere philistines, Coco manages to find a reason why they act like they do that makes them sort of sympathetic. I think that points to a way that children movies have matured since I was a kid: there doesn’t have to be an obvious villain anymore. Coco does have a villain, but for the bulk of the movie the key antagonists are the hero’s own family, who basically have some version of his best interest at heart. This is much more subtle than The Lion King. This is charming. And I’ll note one final detail: the town it takes place in is called Santa Cecilia. Cecilia is the patron saint of music in Catholicism, and thus a significant symbolic figure in this story. Nothing’s an accident in a Pixar movie.

Music

Gustav Mahler/Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic Orchestra et al.: Symphony No. 3 — Man, it’s probably been five years since I listened to this. Famously long, obviously. But when you’re sitting at home with a glass of Petite Sirah (I am a caricature of myself) and a few open browser tabs, it flies right by. The scherzo is one of my favourite movements in Mahler’s whole oeuvre. I remember learning the offstage trumpet parts back when that was a sort of thing I did, and for all of their endurance challenges, they are some of the most satisfying orchestral excerpts I ever had to practice. There’s a haunting delicacy to that section that’s the sort of thing only Mahler can muster. This isn’t altogether one of my favourite Mahler symphonies, but even his lesser works are essential, to me. And that scherzo. Man oh man.

Bruce Springsteen: The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle — I think I prefer this to Darkness on the Edge of Town. I definitely prefer it to The River. Elements of it feel in retrospect like a warm-up for Born to Run, but it has an unexpected soul element that Springsteen wouldn’t really revisit after this. And I like that facet of this record. Much of the credit should likely go to David Sancious, a marvellous keyboardist who makes his final E Street Band appearance here, to be replaced by the equally brilliant but totally different Roy Bittan. Sancious is all kinds of funky throughout. “The E Street Shuffle” is a truly rollicking opener, and it’s the sort of thing that just wouldn’t fly on either of Springsteen’s next two albums. It’s got the requisite keen observational poetry, but it’s just too… fun for Born to Run or Darkness. Pete Townshend once said “When Bruce Springsteen sings, that’s not ‘fun.’ That’s fucking triumph.” It’s presumably those two albums, and Born to Run in particular, that he was talking about. The element of that classic style that E Street Shuffle is missing on about half of its songs is the profound romance — the seriousness. And while that makes it a less effective album, it also makes it a fundamentally different one, which can serve a different purpose in your rotation. On the other hand, if you’re worn out on “Jungleland” and “Backstreets,” “Incident on 57th Street” and “New York City Serenade” can easily fill in for them.

Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska — I can see myself coming to like this Springsteen album best of all. The guts it takes to make a record like this at that point in a career, I tell you. He’d just had his first major hit with “Hungry Heart,” and he comes back with an album of what were meant to be demos of almost unrelentingly bleak songs. But even that doesn’t quite get to the gutsiness of this release: try and think of a solo artist whose sound is more dependent on their band than Bruce Springsteen. The E Street Band is a way bigger part of their particular equation than, say, the Jimi Hendrix Experience was of theirs. And yet this album happened. Thank god Columbia Records had the guts to let it happen, too. Because, different as it is from everything else in his imperial phase, Nebraska has a delicate beauty that makes it stand up alongside Born to Run in terms of its ability to connect. Its palate of mostly acoustic guitar with a few ornamentations and a generous dollop of reverb reminds me of the first Bon Iver album, except made in 1982. My personal highlights are “Highway Patrolman,” which has a gorgeous melody and lyrics that compel you to actively listen to the story, and “Reason to Believe,” which may only feel as strong as it does because it’s positioned at the end of the album. After so many stories of hardship and wrongdoing, it’s nice to hear Springsteen sing about people’s tendency to keep their chin up in spite of it. I’m still processing this. I can tell I’ll be listening to it a lot.

Television

The Good Place: Every episode thus far — Look, I had some spare time this week, and not a lot of willpower to be productive. It’s been a dog’s age since I had a good long binge, so I binged on this. I am a big fan of Michael Schur, primarily because of Parks and Rec: a show that was one of television’s greatest joke factories, and also had a cast of characters it’s almost dangerously easy to get invested in. The Good Place is an astonishing show, but for neither of those reasons. The Good Place is the first television comedy I’ve watched entirely out of interest in the story. I’m not sure I’ve watched a show whose fundamental rules change as often as this one’s. Maybe Lost. But I’d wager that the twists-per-minute ratio of this show is even higher. I’m going to leave it there. If you’re thinking about watching this, watch it. Don’t read anything more about it, just watch it. If you don’t find it funny, just keep watching it. You will eventually realize there’s a sort of virtuosic storytelling at work here that is incredibly rare in TV comedy. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

Love and Radio: “The Machine” & “The Secrets Hotline, Vol. II” — The secrets episode is much the same as the first one, which is to say it’s a bunch of secrets told anonymously on an answering machine. It’s great. “The Machine” is a really great story about a guy who bulldozed a bunch of his town before committing suicide, and managed to be remembered as some kind of hero. Being the show that this is, nothing is allowed to be that simple. It’s great.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Levee Stream Live from New Orleans” — A live episode consisting of interviews taking place in the seat of a sawed-in-half Cadillac, this is the sort of thing that could only come from a collaboration including the Kitchen Sisters. New Orleans is a super cool place I really want to visit, and this is a great evocation of its contemporary culture.

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — The highlight of the slew of PCHH I listened to this week was their annual resolutions and predictions show, which I always love because they’re always so wrong except for Kat Chow. Good listening.

The Hilarious World of Depression: “Linda Holmes Leaves Law to Concentrate On Watching TV and It Works Out Great” — It’s always a shock when you learn about the difference between a person’s public-facing aspect and their private life. I’ve been following Linda Holmes’s work for NPR and as the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour for years, including during the period that she identifies during this interview as a mental health crisis. It was never less than amazing. I hadn’t listened to this show before, and I’m not sure it’s necessarily for me, but this is a really good conversation. Holmes’s story really demonstrates that there are gradations of depression and anxiety and that even the lower gradations need to be acknowledged and dealt with. Lovely stuff.

Beautiful Conversations with Anonymous People: “The Puppet Master” — This starts off as a pretty ordinary episode of Beautiful/Anonymous with a guest of middling interest. Then he laughs. And as soon as Chris Gethard hears this guy’s laugh, we’re off to the races. I listened to this on a train at seven in the morning. I had to keep pausing it because I was losing my shit. There’s nothing like listening to people laughing. And he really does turn out to be interesting later. Everybody is. That’s the point of this show.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Darren Aronofsky,” “Marc’s Family” & “Ta-Nehisi Coates” — These are all great episodes. Aronofsky turns out to be quite funny and engaging. He was a fan of Maron’s from way back in his struggling stand-up days. Also, Maron hasn’t seen the end of mother! He’s actually interviewing Darren Aronofsky about that movie without having seen it all. I love that. The episode of conversations between Maron and members of his family feels like some much-needed catch-up on the years of the podcast that I missed. And the Ta-Nehisi Coates interview is completely scintillating. Maron is enraptured with this guy, and Coates just loves how good he is at listening. It’s fabulous. Listen to that one.

The Organist: “How to Be in Two Places at Once: The Firesign Theatre in the US and Vietnam” — I am so glad this show exists. We need more arts and culture podcasts that are about long-form storytelling rather than conversation and criticism. I love those shows too, but I feel like Studio 360’s American Icons series has been cornering the market for long enough. I actually found a record by the Firesign Theatre in the five dollar bin at my local record store while I was digging for a gag gift recently. I did not pick it up, but it left me wondering about what it was. Apparently, they were a group of avant-garde comedians and sound artists who made records that had a substantial countercultural impact in their day. This is a good introduction to Firesign because it focuses not on the members of the troupe themselves, but on the people who listened to and understood the records in various contexts. Too often arts journalists default to interviewing the artists. The artists are arguably the least important people involved in a work of art. I will listen to this show a lot, I think.

Trump Con Law catch-up — The episode about whether or not you can prosecute a president is maybe the archetypal example of this show: it opens up the possibility that a thing you want to happen could happen, then shuts it down and makes you realize that it might not actually be a good idea anyway. I’m getting into this now, even if it kind of makes me even more fearful.

On the Media: “The End Is the Beginning” — Come for the retrospective on early third-wave feminism, stay for the tribute to the late Joe Frank — a radio producer I didn’t know and now am in love with.

Uncivil: “Song” — Basically, “Dixie,” the song widely regarded as the anthem of the Confederacy, was written by a white Yankee. Except actually no, it wasn’t, because it was probably taught to him by a black man. It’s a complicated, compelling story and if you want it in detail, this episode is the place to be.

Longform: “Zoe Chace” — Chace is one of my favourite This American Life producers, but the story of how she got there is pretty familiar. You just get an internship to get your foot in the door and do everything you can to stay there forever. That’s the gist of this, though it’s a good conversation because she’s good at talking.

Theory of Everything: “Utopia (part ii)” & “False Flags” — The second utopia episode features an attempt at utopia that seems to be falling apart less than the attempts in the first episode. But that’s because nobody there regards it as a utopia. So that’s interesting. But it’s “False Flags” that really caught my attention. Benjamen Walker merges his argument about the increasing prevalence of conspiracy theories with an amusing fictional vignette about him getting yelled at in the airport. That’s what I come to this show for.

The Daily: “Special Episode: The Year in Sound” — This is largely Barbaro-less: a collage of mostly Trump-adjacent sound bites from a completely insane year. Remember Scaramucci? I had completely forgotten about that guy. What kind of a year lets you forget that Anthony Scaramucci was in the White House for, what was it, a week?

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Secrets,” episodes 1 & 2 — This new series from Radiotopia’s rotating exhibition space is not particularly experimental or innovative, but both of these episodes have told really compelling stories. The first is about an undercover cop, and the second is about a wildlife photographer who faked his photos. Start with either.

Home of the Brave: “Two More Stories About Mountains” — The first of these two guest stories is an interview with Scott Carrier, with added music. But it’s the second that knocked me flat. “The Ascent to K-2” is a story by Joe Frank, who was still alive when Carrier released this episode, but who died shortly after. I became aware of him thanks to On the Media, and heard my first full piece of his thanks to this. This is an intensely odd narrative about the strangest (totally made up) attempt to climb K-2 that has ever been undertaken. It is radio storytelling at its oddest and best. Pick of the week.

The Turnaround: “The Turnaround with Dick Cavett” — Ah, I forgot how much I enjoy hearing Jesse Thorn interview people about interviewing. Cavett is good fun, and he taught me a new word. I’m going to paraphrase my favourite part of this interview. Cavett says, I think the lack of a sense of humour is the ultimate lack. It is un-human and inhuman. Thorn says, I wonder if the president finds anything funny. I’ve never seen him laugh at something funny. Cavett says, oh no, he’s a born clodpate. CLODPATE! I love it. Great stuff.

99% Invisible: “Mini-Stories: Volume 4” & “Thermal Delight” — This might be my favourite batch of mini-stories yet, but “Thermal Delight” came and went from my brain. To be fair, I was in the heat of cooking at the time, and sometimes that happens. It’s nobody’s fault but mine.

Code Switch: “This Racism Is Killing Me Inside” — This is about weathering, which is one of the most unsettling effects of racism. If you want to know more, you should listen to this episode. This should be a show you listen to always.

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Omnibus (week of Jan. 7, 2018)

I was recently in a room that contained nearly all of the people who read this blog. (Hey guys!) I sometimes reflect that it is an act of madness to continue writing thousands of words per week on a blog whose audience numbers in the low dozens. But here we are.

13 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage — Having re-read His Dark Materials in its entirety in anticipation for this, along with all of its supplemental novellas, Audible-exclusive short stories etc., I am happy to announce that I am by no means disappointed with La Belle Sauvage. However, I may have approached it with slightly too much enthusiasm, egged on by the good reviews. Surely, I thought, if the critics love it this much, I’ll love it more. But here’s the thing: La Belle Sauvage feels very much like the first book in a trilogy. Specifically, it feels like The Golden Compass. Pullman’s original trilogy of novels about Lyra and company gained steam as they went along. There’s little hint of the cosmic warfare and tragic romance of The Amber Spyglass in the Arctic adventure story of The Golden Compass. And what shreds of it exist in that first book aren’t obvious until you finish the last. It seems to me that Pullman might be pulling something similar in the trilogy that will make up The Book of Dust. This book is a fairly straightforward adventure story, and it takes place in a much smaller geographical space than The Golden Compass did. But there are hints and suggestions here, particularly near the end of the book, that the fantastical multiverse of the first trilogy may have even more facets and mechanics than we’d been led to believe. And there are also seeds being planted about the trilogy’s themes. Where His Dark Materials was about the virtue of human curiosity and progressive values, The Book of Dust looks like it’s going to tackle the nature of consciousness. But it’s not there yet. The closest that La Belle Sauvage comes to Pullman’s acclaimed critique of religion and authority in his previous work comes in a slightly heavy-handed plotline about a government organization that encourages children to narc on their parents and teachers for being inadequately pious. This is an early incarnation of the fearsome theocracy we see in His Dark Materials, which has yet to consolidate its power. All the same, Pullman paints it with a far thicker brush than in his other books and once or twice he comes off as didactic, which he never has before. Still, his powers of description are as sharp as ever, and he leads his characters through one setting after another that comes straight to life the same way that Bolvangar did in The Golden Compass or the land of the dead did in The Amber Spyglass. As a child, I was determined to go to university in large part because of the way Pullman described Oxford in his books. Fifteen years later, La Belle Sauvage made me wonder whether I might like to run a pub in my retirement. Its main characters can’t compete with Lyra and Will, but how could they. It’s a fantastic yarn, and I have no doubt that it’ll balloon outwards into something really special in the next two books. If The Subtle Knife is any indication of where Pullman’s going next, it’ll be terrifying.

Music

Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run — I grew up listening to music from my parents’ generation. I expect this had something to do with my own somewhat perverse interpretation of what it means to be rebellious, which was to act like an alien who arrived in Fort McMurray, Alberta from Jupiter, by way of Edwardian London and subsequently Haight-Ashbury circa 1967. All teenagers have their affectations. Mine were just really specific. As part of my effort to distance myself from my actual circumstances, which were that I came from an upwardly-mobile family in the nice part of a shabby little oil town, I consciously avoided all of the music that my peers enjoyed. After all, they all came from those same sorts of families. Strange, then, that it was the music of the authority figures in my life — parents, music teachers, etc. — that transported me farthest away: classical music, and rock from about 1965-80. Soon enough, I found myself exploring corners of those idioms that my elder gatekeepers hadn’t ever seen. Beethoven and Chopin at age 12 led to Stockhausen and Ligeti at 16. Pink Floyd and the Beatles in middle school led to Van Der Graaf Generator and Captain Beefheart by junior high. This music was the score to my teenage years, which were a long-term piece of bad performance art. (As is this blog. Some of our worst impulses follow us around forever.) It occurred to me at some point during my first full listen through Born to Run this week that Bruce Springsteen’s music is custom made for the purpose I used Stockhausen and Beefheart for back then. Born to Run is a hymnal of anthems about escape. It’s an outlet for youthful energy with nowhere to go. It’s a reasonably accurate portrait of me at age 17. (Only psychologically, though. Even today, I can barely drive. Wendy would not have got to Thunder Road with me behind the wheel.) It is also a record I wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to at that age. If I had, I would have thrown it away in embarrassment if anybody found out. Why have I only come around to this a decade after it was actually relevant to me? I have a theory: the last thing that would have served my need for escape in my Fort Mac days is music about the need to escape. Back then, I didn’t choose music that I could identify with. I listened to music that had as little to do with me as possible: deliberately alienating music like John Cage and Jethro Tull, or music with seemingly cosmic significance like Mahler or Yes. I have only come to listen to music on the basis of its resonance with my own life within the last few years. (Therein lies the basis for my late 2017 obsession with Margo Price, my early 2016 obsession with John Congleton, and my perpetual need to listen to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports. Take from each of these what you will.) It took a long time for me to fully shake off my aversion to any music that reminded me of my own mundane circumstances. And in that time, those circumstances changed. Now, when I listen to Born to Run, I don’t especially sympathize with Springsteen’s characters and their youthful restlessness. But I remember feeling that way. The boundless romanticism of this music makes me realize that my former perversity, the impulse that would have led me to reject Springsteen at the time, was born of the very same romanticism that he’s expressing on this record. Sub out Springsteen’s chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected, velvet-rimmed suicide machines for a carpeted basement floor and a pair of headphones pumping out harpsichord music, and you’ve got a perfect image of me exactly ten years ago. I expect that a similar substitution exists for nearly everybody. Pick of the week.

Bruce Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town — Somewhere in the gap between the release of Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, Bruce Springsteen was the age I am now. Maybe that has something to do with why my initial thoughts on this album are so much less clear than my initial thoughts on Born to Run. Darkness is famously less optimistic than its predecessor, and those who connect with it really connect with it. That’s clear from a cursory look through remarks in various online fan communities. It’s also clear from some of the retrospective reviews in professional outlets. When this album was repackaged with a slew of bonus material as The Promise a few years back, Pitchfork gave it an 8.5 and an actually quite insightful review that characterizes it as an album “about grim acceptance and pressing on in the face of doubt.” That’s very accurate. If Born to Run is a dream of a far-off Utopia, Darkness on the Edge of Town is a diary about making the best of it after you’ve given up on that dream. It isn’t until one album later that Springsteen will ask “is a dream a lie if it don’t come true,” but the spirit of that inquiry is here in spades. I like most, if not all of the songs on this, but the one I find myself revisiting obsessively is the title track, which suggests that even after Utopia has faded from view, it doesn’t stop some of us from lingering in the liminal spaces where we used to catch a glimpse of it. Wanting is a key concept in Springsteen, and he’s never written a verse more eloquent about it than “Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost / I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost / For wanting things that can only be found / In the darkness on the edge of town.” This is going to be a grower.

Bruce Springsteen: The River — This is a hard album to pin down. In spite of their drastically different subject matter, Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town share a relatively consistent aesthetic, thanks to the amazing E Street Band. Their huge sound on those albums, with Clarence Clemons’ saxophone in the fore, and a mix of piano, organ and glockenspiel sitting alongside the guitars in the central texture, is an obvious forerunner of totally over-the-top artists like Meat Loaf and Arcade Fire. And that sound is present on The River, in tracks like “Hungry Heart” and some of the ballads — “I Wanna Marry You” in particular. But the overall impression is like a more polished Exile on Main St., where the band is willing to experiment in public. It’s a huge album, clearly, at nearly an hour and a half. And it contains a handful of songs that rival the emotional high points of the previous two albums for poignancy: “The River,” “Wreck on the Highway,” and especially “Drive All Night,” which feels a bit like “Darkness on the Edge of Town” stretched out to twice its length and with twice as much regret. But The River is too big of a thing to have even a shadow of a thesis statement about on one listen. I’ll figure it out next time. But first, let’s address the elephant in the room, namely “Cadillac Ranch.” This is a song that I did not know was by Bruce Springsteen. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s cover of this song was the score to an unpleasant episode in my youth wherein my classmates and I were taught, nay, forced to line dance by the physical education curriculum of the province of Alberta. Too bad, because Springsteen’s original would be an irresistibly energetic bit of country rock if it didn’t retraumatize me. What a fine pile of weird memories this Springsteen binge has dredged up.

Podcasts

Code Switch catch-up — I am nearly caught up on this now, after having been backed up by two months. One does not miss an episode of Code Switch, because to do so is to miss an opportunity to be a slightly better, or at least more knowledgeable, person. Their year-end wrap up really puts the final nail in the coffin of 2017 being remembered as anything but a dung heap. It’s great.

The Memory Palace: “On the Shores of Assawompset” & “John C. Calhoun from the Opposite Side of the Line that Divides the Living from the Dead” — Two good ones. “On the Shores of Assawompset” is one of Nate DiMeo’s periodic episodes that pokes holes in colonial narratives. These are always appreciated, and you should listen to this if you’d like some clarity on the truth of the relationship between the pilgrims and the natives of the land they came to. The John C. Calhoun episode is more lighthearted, but still manages to tie in with pre-Civil War slavery narratives. This show really isn’t like anything else.

Crimetown: Three bonus episodes — I remain mixed on this show and uncertain whether I’ll be back for season two. It depends on the city they choose to explore, I suppose. But these bonus episodes tell some good stories. The most eminently recommendable is also the one I’d be most cautious to recommend: “Courtney” is about a woman who fell into an abusive relationship with a powerful predator while she was a minor. It’s harrowing stuff, but she’s allowed to tell her own story and if you’re not concerned about the potential triggers it’s worth hearing. It also stands alone pretty well, so you don’t necessarily need to have heard the whole of season one. And I’m not sure I’d recommend that you do that unless you’re a pathological true crime consumer.

Imaginary Worlds catch-up — The biggest news in the three episodes of this I listened to is that Eric Molinsky will be opening the new year with a series on Doctor Who. I don’t know what to anticipate. I really liked his series on Star Wars and Harry Potter, but those are franchises I have limited engagement with, at least insofar as I have no idea what their respective fandoms are on about these days. But Doctor Who is a thing I love dearly — it’s probably the one franchise that falls under Molinsky’s aegis that I’d call myself obsessed with. I wonder if I’ll still get something out of this show when I’m deeply familiar with the subject matter. In any case, I’ll listen with interest. As for these episodes, two of the ones I listened to deal with The Expanse, which I’ve neither read nor seen and don’t have much interest. But that’s part of the appeal of this show: I can get a sense of what something like The Expanse is on about without spending more than an hour. The update of Molinsky’s episode on The Force Awakens that deals with The Last Jedi is interesting, but once again I’m baffled at why anybody feels it is such a radical departure from the previous films. It is a perfectly adequate, safe, blockbuster with some really great scenes with Luke and some really nonsense scenes with Benicio del Toro. It’s Star Wars. Get over yourselves. Sorry, I have to be a jerk sometimes.

Constellations catch-up — Again, not quite caught up. But there was some good stuff in there: Aleksandra Bragoszewska’s “Coarse and Janky” is a lovely portrait of outsider artists doing what they believe in. Craig Desson’s “06-30-24” is an elegant bit of dreamlike sound art about his MacBook. Apparently he’s a bit Adam Curtis fan. It shows, and that’s good.

More Perfect: “The Architect” & “Justice, Interrupted” — “The Architect” is an updated episode from the previous season and “Justice, Interrupted” is a mini-episode about a thing I’d read about before: the constant interruption of the female Supreme Court justices by the male ones. It’s a good episode, but it’s pretty straightforward by this show’d complicated standards. I can’t wait for the season finale, though.

StartUp: “StartupBus Part 1: Monday” — Insufferable. This show has been on the skids for some time, and while I have tentatively high hopes for the next season, which will be serialized in the vein of this show’s three best seasons, I will not be listening to the remaining four episodes of “StartupBus.” Serialized it may be, but I’ve seldom heard a podcast that reminds me more of the godawful contrivances of reality TV. Basically, one of the show’s producers gets on a bus with a bunch of random strangers who are all on that bus to start companies within the span of a weeklong trip. The StartupBus is a machine built to generate needless conflict, narrative and otherwise. It is full of buzzword spouting delusional people with no calling and no passion. I hate it. I wish it didn’t exist. Do not listen to this.

On the Media: “Outrage Machine” — Worth it for Bob Garfield’s interview with Michael Wolff, the author of Fire and Fury, who defends himself reasonably well against charges of having misled his sources. Also for Brooke Gladstone’s one-year-later follow up interview with Masha Gessen, who was on the show previously to talk about her rules for surviving autocracies. How are we doing at “believing the autocrat,” asks Gladstone? (Not well, but he doesn’t make it easy.)

In Our Time: “Moby-Dick,” “Beethoven” & “Hamlet” — Melvyn Bragg’s final run of the year includes three episodes on huge things. I listened to these one after the other and it’s definitely the most fun I had doing dishes this week. Bragg is clearly enjoying himself in all of these episodes, especially given that the topics at hand are relatively well understood by lots of his listeners, probably. So he can facilitate a discussion that basically asks, “we know how this thing is, but why is it like that?” I’m fondest of the Moby-Dick episode, probably because I’m least familiar with that topic. (I haven’t read Moby-Dick, but I’ve reread the first chapter at least a dozen times. It is one of my favourite things in all of literature. I dunno why I’ve never gotten any farther. Sheer intimidation, probably.) By the same token, the Beethoven episode is the weakest, simply because I can’t accept one of Bragg’s panelists’ take at face value. I’ve listened to Beethoven for hundreds and hundreds of hours. And while I find him deeply inspiring, I cannot accept that his music is fundamentally about overcoming adversity. The idea of instrumental music being about anything at all strikes me as wrong, as it did Leonard Bernstein. But that’s just me, and disagreeing with things is part of what makes this show fun. The Hamlet episode is great, particularly for some of the details about the play’s development from its early versions, which I’ve never read. (Nobody has.) I really love this show. Even when it’s about stuff that I know a little about, I never feel like it’s condescending to me. It is one of a precious handful of public radio shows that always proceeds under the assumption that its audience isn’t dumb. Pick of the week.

Omnibus (weeks of Dec. 10 & 17, 2017)

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

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

10 reviews.

Literature, etc.

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

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

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

Movies

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

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

Music

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

Omnibus (week of Dec. 3, 2017)

An early and paltry instalment, because I am off to the mountains tomorrow and will not be blogging for a short while. The next omnibus might not come out until Christmas Eve, because I just don’t see myself doing much reading/watching/listening until I’m back on the 18th. Anyway, we’ll play it by ear. Please nobody assume I’m dead if I don’t post a blog next week. I mean, I may well be dead. But don’t assume that based solely on my blog.

I am halfway through some things that I will deal with when I’m fully through them. For now, eight reviews.

Music

The Rolling Stones: Black and Blue — Two tracks shy of irredeemable. Remember how I was listening through the full Stones catalogue a few weeks ago? And I was going to get up to Tattoo You? Well, “Hot Stuff,” the first track on this album, threw a wrench in that. Because it took me weeks to get past that point. Black and Blue is a lazy album of riffs searching for songs, along with the occasional bit of embarrassing cultural appropriation. (“Cherry Oh Baby” is a lowlight in this band’s catalogue, which is as full of dubious moments as it is of genius ones.) The only songs on this that rise above the level of “fine” are “Memory Motel” and “Fool to Cry.” Even the latter of these is blighted with the unfortunate fact that everybody in the song calls Mick Jagger “daddy.” It’s charming in the first verse when it’s actually his daughter. Then it gets creepy. There are other songs that are okay, like “Hand of Fate” and “Crazy Mama.” But altogether, this is an album by a band that sounds like a spent force. Still, the genre crossovers are a step forward to Some Girls, the reputation of which makes even more sense now that I know how dumb and boring this band got in the years immediately preceding it. “Memory Motel” may be the only song I ever revisit.

Neil Young: Hitchhiker — You may remember that I was planning to listen to Neil Young’s entire catalogue before the end of 2017. So much for that project. But I was reminded of that goal recently, since Neil opened up his full archive of released recordings and films (temporarily) for free in high resolution. If you haven’t seen that yet, holy crap. Anyway, speaking of Neil Young being an obsessive self-archivist, this release from earlier this year is a pretty wonderful unreleased album from 1976. Like most of Neil’s famous unreleased albums (Homegrown, the first Chrome Dreams), its songs mostly found their way onto other albums, but some in drastically different forms. “Powderfinger” is particularly striking as an acoustic number. The whole record is satisfying listening, but that track is essential. The more familiar electric version on Rust Never Sleeps and the even louder version on Weld are classics of the Neil Young catalogue. But this version makes it clear that, riffs and solos or no, it’s one of the man’s most accomplished pieces of songwriting.

The Chemical Brothers: Come With Us — Every Chemical Brothers album is a feast of several different kinds of endorphins. They hit me right in the part of my brain that craves a particularly wakeful type of psychedelia: there’s nothing hazy or stoned about their music. It is fanciful and euphoric, but rendered with sublime clarity. Two tracks on Come With Us demonstrate this perfectly. One is “Pioneer Skies,” which is one of their most aggressively Beatles-reminiscent tracks: the drums in the opening minute are almost like a loop of Ringo’s solo in “The End,” and the synth sound is seemingly an intentional reference to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” The other is “My Elastic Eye,” for which I have no similarly convenient reference point, but it’s a bizarre collision of toy instrument sounds, processed voices, and a truly awesome synth bass. Tracks like this make me feel like the Chemical Brothers have studied and learned from the legacy of my favourite 60s/70s British rock music, from the psychedelia whose aesthetic they frequently crib to the bizarre juxtapositions of Roxy Music. Plus, it has an incredibly propulsive opening one-two-three punch. I can’t imagine how anybody could start this up and not want to keep listening. This album may be my second-favourite of theirs next to Further, which will always have an advantage for being my gateway drug. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc.

Liz Pelly: “The Problem with Muzak” — Spotify is evil. This piece illustrates why. Part of the argument that I particularly connect with deals with Spotify’s tendency to feed the easiest, most “chill” music to its listeners while ignoring anything potentially difficult. And look: I identify with the hordes of Spotify users who tune into the endless supply of chillout playlists to assuage anxiety and stress. But do you really want to hand over the authority for your anxiety remedy to a huge evil company? Here’s a better idea: hand it over to Brian Eno instead. Here is a sample from the piece, which I think demonstrates the problem with music platforms more broadly these days as well (public radio very much included): “One independent label owner I spoke with has watched his records’ physical and digital sales decline week by week. He’s trying to play ball with the platform by pitching playlists, to varying effect. ‘The more vanilla the release, the better it works for Spotify. If it’s challenging music? Nah,’ he says, telling me about all of the experimental, noise, and comparatively aggressive music on his label that goes unheard on the platform. ‘It leaves artists behind. If Spotify is just feeding easy music to everybody, where does the art form go? Is anybody going to be able to push boundaries and break through to a wide audience anymore?'”

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: Eight-episode catch up — There is no better accompaniment to an afternoon of chores than a whole bunch of this show. The recent highlights are the episode on Lady Bird, which features Linda Holmes characterizing a love interest in the movie as “a hole into which you shovel your energy, never to be seen again,” and the episode on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which is that rare episode of this show where everybody hates the thing they’re talking about. So much fun.

Theory of Everything: “CthulhuCon (revisited)” & “Utopia (part i)” — “CthulhuCon” is a really great piece from Benjamen Walker’s previous show that features a few fantastic factual readings about H.P. Lovecraft interspersed with a fun fictional story in which Walker fails to find the secret convention he’s sure must exist. The start of the “Utopia” series is promising, though it doesn’t sound like it’s going to be especially optimistic.

Love and Radio: “44 Years” & “WWCD?” — “44 Years” is a harrowing story from a man who spent that amount of time in solitary confinement. It’s a sort of story you’ve heard before, but it can’t hurt to hear it again, because this is a thing that still happens and it’s brutal. “WWCD?” is classic Love and Radio. It documents a pivotal moment in the life of a “publicly traded person.” The notion of a publicly traded person is nightmarish, and this plays out in a suitably horrifying fashion. He never comes off as “not a human,” but holy hell does he have some screwed up ideas.

On the Media: “A Reckoning in Our Own House” — If there’s any show that can be counted on to report on its own news organization in a satisfactory manner, it’s this one. That said, much of the heavy lifting on the John Hockenberry situation was done by Brian Lehrer, whose show is extensively excerpted here. He doesn’t get satisfactory answers from WNYC management, who are as cagey as anybody else when probed with hard questions. But he does at least ask the right questions, and asks them a sufficient number of times.

Home of the Brave: “Ski Lesson” — A short, beautiful, diaristic story in which Scott Carrier teaches his son an important life lesson on a chair lift. It’s from 1992, proving that Scott Carrier has been Scott Carrier for a very long time. Do take ten minutes and hear this. Pick of the week.

Omnibus (week of Nov. 26, 2017)

You know, I think this is actually a pretty strong instalment. Usually this blog just sort of is what it is. God knows nobody reads it. At least, not on days when I’m not on the radio. And obviously I don’t care, or I wouldn’t have been doing it every week for two years. But sometimes I think maybe it’s pretty good. This is one of those. For what it’s worth.

Three picks of the week, since I only did one last time. 15 reviews.

Music

Margo Price: All American Made — I think I speak for every single human on the planet when I say that 2017 suuuuuuuuuucked. Like, on a universal level, and also seemingly on a personal level for a whole bunch of people I know. I mean, lots of great things happened this year. But big chunks of it were confusing and disappointing, and perhaps some of us have been wishing we’d made different choices. It is what it is. We all end up there sometimes. Never fear. Margo Price has a new album, and it’s even better than the first one. All American Made isn’t a Sad, Dark, Personal Album in the vein of Blood on the Tracks, Tonight’s the Night or Blue. Hell, Price wrote these songs after breaking a 15-year losing streak in the music industry. And she co-wrote a bunch of them with her husband, who she seems rather fond of. This isn’t an exorcism. Musically, it’s even pretty peppy, aside from the ballads. But Price realizes the same thing that all of the greatest country songwriters have realized, which is that there is no catharsis in the world like a straightforward description of a bad thing happening. Or, a straightforward description of a shitty state of mind you’ve found yourself in — see the outstanding heartstring tugger “Learning to Lose,” featuring a very 84-year-old-sounding Willie Nelson. I believe (here begins the hot take segment of the review) that bleak, doleful country music is more relevant today than ever. The social role of songs like “Learning to Lose” is to reassure you that disappointment, rejection, loneliness and failure are normal facets of the human experience that everybody goes through. That they aren’t specific to you. This is crucial now that we live in a world where everybody can so easily airbrush the worst bits of their lives out of their public identities on Facebook and Instagram. These platforms have caused us to perceive life as a game that can be won or lost on an ongoing basis. And they have also made it really easy — and socially necessary — to lie and cheat at that game. We must always be winning, even when we are not. So, where do you turn for a quick hit of catharsis when it seems like everybody else is busy following their bliss? You turn to lonesome, dejected country music, soaked in whiskey and regret. On the day before the day before the new year, many of us will be looking back on a dubious 363 days. Margo gets it. She’s the most honest songwriter to emerge in the last couple years, and she’s exactly the one we need. Pick of the week.

Margo Price: Weakness (EP) — Since the title track is also on All American Made, this is mostly worth it for “Paper Cowboy,” the rare Margo Price recording where the focus is squarely on the band, which is amazing. Seriously, Luke Schneider’s pedal steel playing is next-level.

Queen: Sheer Heart Attack — I rewatched Baby Driver last week (conveniently forgetting at the start that it’s got Kevin Spacey in it) and I was plunged into a world of “Brighton Rock” on repeat. Seldom has a song that only has one repetition of its chorus been more addictive. (Is it really a chorus if it only happens once? Yes it is. Because it sounds like one. “Oh rock of ages, do not crumble” are not words you just throw into a verse or a bridge.) The clear next phase in this obsession was to revisit this album, which remains my most neglected classic Queen album, mostly as a consequence of how I experienced Queen at first. As a prog-obsessed teenager, Queen II was my go-to, with A Night at the Opera getting the secondary nod almost by default, just because it’s “the classic.” But with a few more years behind me, I’m willing to entertain the notion that Sheer Heart Attack is stronger than either. Sure, it’s got an uneven second half. The run of “Misfire,” “Bring Back That Leroy Brown” and “She Makes Me (Stormtroopers in Stilettos)” is markedly less magnificent than the rest of the disc, with the second of those being virtually the only Freddie Mercury novelty song that fails to amuse me. But I’m not sure Queen ever made an album that didn’t have a couple dogs on it. In retrospect, Queen II has more lacklustre tracks than that. And for all that album’s musical intricacy and wonderment, it is couched in a high-fantasy aesthetic that I find less compelling at 27 than I did at 15. Sheer Heart Attack’s greatest improvement over its predecessor is its adoption of surrealism and introspection in place of Queen II’s ogres and fairy fellers. I still love those songs, but Sheer Heart Attack keeps you at arm’s length just a little bit less. Aside from “Brighton Rock,” which belongs in everybody’s top five Queen songs, my highlight is the three-parter formed by “Tenement Funster,” “Flick of the Wrist” and “Lily of the Valley.” The middle part of the trilogy is what really holds it up: “Flick of the Wrist” is Queen’s entire ethos in three minutes. The way Mercury’s piano (absent throughout “Tenement Funster”) arrives suddenly, elegantly tossing off a bit of filigree before the vocal begins, is a masterstroke. And the moment when the Queen choir kicks on on “Don’t look back! Don’t look back!” is as dramatic and satisfying as they get. But the other two bits should get their due as well: “Tenement Funster” may be my favourite Roger Taylor track, simply because it is the most Roger Taylor track. And “Lily of the Valley” is a sort of refinement of “Nevermore” from Queen II, which has a lovely melody but very overwrought lyrics. To my ears this still leaves three classics in “Killer Queen,” “Now I’m Here” and “Stone Cold Crazy,” the latter of which sounds about four years ahead of its time. Bottom line, Queen is everything that’s good about rock music from the ‘70s, and this is maybe their best album.

Morton Feldman/Marc-André Hamelin: For Bunita Marcus — One of my favourite “classical” (terrible word) releases of the year. Every time Hamelin records something that isn’t stupidly technical — like his amazing Haydn recordings — the classical music chattersphere makes that the lede. And, fair enough. But in the case of this beautiful late piece by Morton Feldman, the set of demands placed on the performer are no less extraordinary than those of Alkan or Godowsky, though the piece is technically simple even by ordinary standards. The performer of For Bunita Marcus must play extremely sparsely populated music, very quietly, for well over an hour. I can hardly conceive of the presence of mind it must take to maintain the atmosphere. Hamelin is both an artist and a stuntman, and this is as much a stunt as anything he’s ever played. It’s also as much of an artistic accomplishment as he’s ever put to record. Also: in his liner notes, which I ignored the first time I heard this and only just read this week, Hamelin compares this music to Borges’s story “The Library of Babel,” which is an irresistible germ of a thought, given that I coincidentally finished the Ficciones last week. I’m not entirely sure what he’s on about, but certainly both Borges and Feldman are offering two attempts to visualize and quantify the infinite — or, in Borges’ case the finite but inconceivably vast. Maybe in Feldman’s case as well. This is great music for when you need to leave the small things behind.

Max Richter: The Blue Notebooks — Richter is either a genius or a charlatan, except he’s definitely a genius. I don’t like everything he’s done, but his best music (this, the Vivaldi recompositions, parts of Sleep) are modern classics that deserve to stand alongside the music of William Basinski and Tim Hecker. Mind, he’s a lot less spiny than either of them. If you felt emotionally manipulated at the beginning or end of Arrival, it’s Richter’s fault. “On the Nature of Daylight” is one of his simplest, most direct and (dare I say) poppiest pieces of music, so it makes sense that it should find a home in the movies. That track is a highlight of The Blue Notebooks, but it isn’t the highlight: that’s “Shadow Journal,” a dark, slow-moving piece with trancey electronics and reverb-laden harp and strings. You can’t quite call it ambient; it’s too structured for that. But it is spectacular mood music. So is the rest of this. It’s definitely the place to start if you’re looking for an introduction.

Movies

Andy and Jim: The Great Beyond — This is a magnificent documentary about a terrible man who was massively acclaimed for doing a thing badly. Andy and Jim confirms my theory that Jim Carrey’s performance as Andy Kaufman is horseshit. It is 100% based on the front-of-camera Andy Kaufman, with no attention paid or insight sought out into Kaufman’s actual character. Regardless of how deeply Jim Carrey descended into method acting hell to play Kaufman, his interpretation of the character is fundamentally misguided and has a lot more to do with the neuroses and tics of Jim Carrey than those of Andy Kaufman. Carrey’s Kaufman, for instance, simply can’t accept that Jerry Lawler is a person worth befriending. Where the real Kaufman (as illustrated in one presumably difficult to film segment of Man on the Moon) was a firm friend of the wrestler in real life and only condescended to him for show, Carrey’s Kaufman is a dick to him even when the cameras aren’t on. This is borderline emotional abuse, given that Jerry Lawler played himself in Man on the Moon and was therefore subjected to ruthless taunting by a cheap facsimile of his deceased friend. It’s no wonder he punched Carrey for real. Who among us hasn’t wanted to do the same? The reason Andy and Jim is a great documentary is that it lays bare the extent to which Jim Carrey’s performance was a semi-conscious attempt to outrun his own pathologies. He expresses a need to be “absent” from himself. That’s what acting really is to him: an escape from being a person he doesn’t like. And Man on the Moon seemed to offer a unique opportunity to up the ante on this escape by playing a real person who famously didn’t break character (even though this is untrue and exaggerated in the film). I don’t know what Jim Carrey thinks of this documentary. I don’t know what the director of this documentary thinks of Jim Carrey. Regardless, it’s a fascinating portrait of a violently needy person letting his worst impulses lead him by the nose.

Literature, etc.

Philip Pullman: The Subtle Knife — I vaguely recall liking this better than The Golden Compass as a kid. And I was right. Smart little fucker, I was. The Golden Compass is a sublime adventure story with one of the best protagonists in children’s literature. But The Subtle Knife is where Philip Pullman starts to tip his hand that what he’s really writing is an epic on a cosmic scale. This is where the elements of His Dark Materials that I really love start to come out: the multiple universes, the questions of free will and destiny, the rumblings of a great war to come. If there’s a weak point, it’s simply that Pullman has to introduce and develop the character of Will, which means we get less Lyra per page than in The Golden Compass. But Will is a more than acceptable secondary protagonist, and a great foil for Lyra. The early scenes of the two of them trying to cooperate in spite of their drastically different upbringing are fabulous. Also, The Subtle Knife turns up the horror by several degrees. The Golden Compass contained some truly horrifying scenes, particularly the reveal of the first severed child Lyra encounters. (Wonderful how Pullman normalizes the fact that people have daemons so successfully that when she finds something that would look to us like a normal child, it’s appalling.) But The Subtle Knife’s spectre attacks and the general atmosphere of Cittàgazze wouldn’t be out of place in The Dark Tower. Speaking of King, one thing Pullman doesn’t get enough credit for is the way he writes action. I’ve been reading King as well, so it sticks out to me that Pullman and King are equally adept at writing tense action sequences. The one where Lee Scoresby and Hester die is a) heartbreaking, but also b) a hell of a gunfight. Anyway, I’ve been finished this for a few days now and I just got The Amber Spyglass out of the library. I am as excited to crack it open as I was when I was 11 and finishing The Subtle Knife for the first time. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

In Our Time: “Picasso’s Guernica” & “The Picts” — These are two episodes that together illustrate why this weird, unvarnished, slightly stuffy talk radio show is one of my favourite podcasts. The Guernica episode is just a full-on, firing-on-all-cylinders episode of this show, where every professor on the panel has something different to offer and Melvyn Bragg organizes the discussion so you see the subject from multiple sides in only an hour. He gets into not only Picasso’s painting itself, but also the actual bombing of Guernica itself and the political situation that let Picasso to make the painting at all. He gets into the impact of reportage from Guernica on Picasso’s approach. He even manages to fit in a bit of the continuing story of Guernica in more recent times, i.e. its presence at the United Nations. The episode about the Picts is an entirely different sort of affair, because it is live in front of an audience, and it is a celebration of the show’s 20th anniversary. It is so demonstrative of this show’s sensibility that when faced with celebrating a milestone, they obviously just decided to do what they were going to do anyway, which was talk about the Picts. I love that. I also love how transparent Bragg gets in this episode, where he doesn’t even try to hide the fact that he’s attempting to lead his panelists into saying a specific thing. At one point Bragg explains about a general in a decisive battle: “Completely unexpectedly, after winning battles for 30 years, he was not only defeated but killed, and that changed everything.” And then he turns to a member of his panel: “Can you say that more elaborately than I did please. With more scholarship.” And his panelist proceeds to do so, brilliantly. Why mask the process, when forthrightness yields both results and punchlines?  

Fresh Air: “Margo Price” & “Comic Patton Oswalt” — Two fantastic interviews with people who make brilliant, vulnerable art. Also, Margo brought her guitar. So, listen to that one.

On the Media: “About that Nazi Next Door” — A good interview about a distressing reaction to a distressing New York Times story about a white nationalist. What this show is for.

More Perfect catchup — This is shaping up to be one of the best shows of the year, with a second season that eclipses the first by a fair margin. The fearless complexity that’s been missing lately in Radiolab is here in spades, and so is the musical sound design. And the stories themselves are the sort of thing that’ll make you stop doing the dishes from time to time and just stand in the middle of your kitchen. Of the three episodes I listened to this week, the one about Citizens United stands out. Go listen.

Beautiful Conversations with Anonymous People: “Black Cloud of a Husband” — The best episode of this show that I’ve heard so far, and a truly enthralling story. This time, Chris Gethard’s anonymous caller is a newly single mother who has been through what sounds like a hellish marriage and lived to tell the tale. She’s in therapy and seems to be moving past her trauma, which makes this feel less exploitative than it otherwise could. (Though I’ve never actually felt this show is exploitative, really. The anonymity helps, but mostly I feel that Chris Gethard always keeps his callers’ best interest in mind, or tries to as best he can.) But the story of this woman’s relationship with her husband, which she now sees with 20-20 hindsight, is an incredible thing to listen to. Gethard hardly has to do anything. She just has a story to tell and wants to get it out. This is a good starting place for this show. If you don’t like this, you’ll never be won over. Pick of the week.

Constellations: “ellie gordon-moershel – anatomy of the road” & “janet rogers – broken english” — “Anatomy of the road” is a dull, predictable bit of drama in itself, but I can imagine it going somewhere interesting in its continuation. Apparently that will happen. “Broken english” is more fun, on account of its basically being music. I’m all for the line between music and talk radio being blurred.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Right to Dissent” & “Criminal Justice and the POTUS” — Two great, disquieting episodes of a forever disquieting show about how everything is changing for the worse because the most powerful man in the world is a baby with no understanding of the system he’s at the head of. The criminal justice episode is particularly good, because it references Trump’s response to the Central Park Five to help understand his current stance on criminal justice, which is deplorable.

StartUp: “The Race for a Driverless Future” — It’s been a long time since I listened to the first part of this two-parter, but I remember it was more fun than this. If this show were continuing with this episodic approach, it would be gone from my feed.

Omnibus (week of Oct. 1, 2017)

So, I know y’all are here to read my compulsive ramblings about stuff that other people make, but I’ve recently got off my ass and made something myself. It’s a horror-tinged comedy podcast about a fictionalized version of Mark Zuckerberg, as he traverses all 50 states of America, trying to prevent A VERY BAD THING from happening to Facebook. It is called Mark’s Great American Road Trip, and you can learn more about it here and subscribe to it here.

I’m making this show with Nick Zarzycki, the creator of the tech satire site Gawken and the guy I used to make the Syrup Trap Pod Cast with. He writes, I make sound nice. We have been working on one version of this show or another for a stupidly long time, and I am very happy that it now exists. We’ve got some crazy storylines on deck for the first chunk of this show’s existence, and I really think it’s going to turn out to be one of the strangest and most specific fiction podcasts made thus far. If you think that might be up your street, subscribe. There’s an introduction and a full episode waiting for you in the feed right now. And if does turn out to be up your street, you’d be doing us a huge favour by rating and reviewing it in Apple Podcasts, and also singing its praises wherever praises can be heard.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled babble. It’s one of those instalments where neither pick of the week is a podcast because there are two much more deserving non-podcast choices. Also, there is a surprising amount of Rolling Stones music. 

30 reviews.

Movies

The Thing — This is a great movie to watch in a group. I actually haven’t ever seen it any other way. The last time I watched The Thing was at a double feature in my high school’s theatre. I remember that it underwhelmed me, probably only because we’d watched The Shining immediately before. I liked it a whole lot more this time around. The gore effects are very of their time, but that somehow doesn’t make them any less visceral. Also, having watched both Alien and Blade Runner recently, it’s pretty clear that this owes a massive debt to the former, and is at least on the same wavelength as the latter, which came out the same year. From Alien, it gets its premise of “people are trapped in an incredibly isolated place with a terrifying monster.” But it adds to that a story mechanic that defines Blade Runner, which is uncertainty about who is human and who isn’t. The Thing’s use of this mechanic for suspense more so than theme prefigures another Blade Runner-adjacent franchise: the modern Battlestar Galactica. If you combine the existential questioning of Blade Runner’s Replicants with the uncanniness and subterfuge of the Thing, you’ve basically arrived at Cylons. Definitely a classic.

Blade Runner — This was the second time I’ve watched this in the past few months, because the last time I was super tired and spaced out and couldn’t follow the story. I watched it like a gorgeous moving painting. This time I focussed more, because I’m super excited about the sequel. And it dawned on me, two viewings later than one might expect, that Blade Runner is one of the best movies ever made. Its visual style and production design is the real star — it is maybe the most distinct and immersive visual style in any movie that isn’t made by Terry Gilliam (and I suspect that Brazil owes a conscious debt to this). But the final cut of Blade Runner (presumably the best one) is also a beautifully subtle and assured piece of storytelling. The way the movie twins the stories of Rick Deckard and Roy Batty is a thing of beauty — both of them are essentially the heroes of their own simultaneously-occurring movies. Both of them are searching for something and both are forced to ponder the nature of humanity for different reasons. And that’s what makes their final rooftop confrontation, and Roy’s death, so meaningful. (Well, that and a truly remarkable performance from Rutger Hauer, who makes Roy quite possibly my favourite movie villain. His only competition is Albert Spica from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. But Michael Gambon makes no attempt to humanize that motherfucker.) The subtlety with which this cut of the movie implies that Deckard is a replicant is also masterful — the fact that the unicorn dream is never explicitly discussed is of course necessary for the plot, but it’s also admirably trusting of the audience to put two and two together. And Vangelis’s music is one of the glories of film scoring. It should feel dated but it doesn’t, because it doesn’t sound like anything else from this period that we can associate it with. It is specific to the hazy, dreamlike world of this movie. A couple of much-needed rewatches in the past couple months have me rethinking the list of my top ten movies that I’ve been carrying around in my head for the last few years. This may yet make the cut. Pick of the week.

Napoleon Dynamite — I spent Thanksgiving with some lovely friends who were aghast at my having never seen this movie. Frankly I’m surprised I hadn’t seen it also. My friends in high school were not so much people as collections of references from this movie. Of course, I didn’t know that then. Napoleon Dynamite is an unlikely hybrid of the first two Wes Anderson movies, except dumb. It takes its lowbrow hucksters plotline from Bottle Rocket and its high school redemption story from Rushmore. Its listless performances and static framing are straight from Anderson’s playbook. So are the characters’ senses of loss and alienation. But the similarities end there. Napoleon Dynamite is a shaggy, deeply weird movie whose jokes all give the uncanny feeling that they’re funny because they’re referencing something, except they’re not. Maybe that’s because I’ve lived the past thirteen years in a world where “Tina, you fat lard, come get some dinner” is a thing people say, and I am only now learning it’s from something. Still, the humour of this movie is extremely difficult to pin down and I don’t know if I liked it or not. I laughed. I can’t tell if I laughed in spite of myself or not.

Television

The Blue Planet: Episodes 1-3 — Firstly. Now that we’ve got that out of the way: The Blue Planet is extraordinary and fascinating, but what’s really remarkable is how far camera technology has come since 2001. This precedes the first Planet Earth, let alone its astonishing 2016 follow-up. And while it is beautiful, it is markedly less beautiful than either of those. I am beyond excited for Blue Planet II, which will be arriving in the next couple of months. I have no doubt that it will be even more astonishing than this is. All that said, this is pretty damn astonishing, and the episode about the deep sea is particularly great. The farther you get from the sun, the more fucked up the lifeforms on this planet get. The anglerfish in particular seems like the creation of a mad god. Without David Attenborough’s authoritative voiceover, the deep sea episode of this series would seem like David Lynch adapting H.P. Lovecraft. It’s awesome.

Literature, etc.

Anna Weiner: “The Millennial Walt Disney” — This week in “things that made me scream into a pillow,” a story about a young entrepreneur who is opening locations of a strange institution called “The Museum of Ice Cream,” which is neither a museum not an ice cream shop but a place you can go to take good Instagram pictures of yourself. I hate this about people my age. I hate it I hate it I hate it I hate it I hate it I hate it. This is apocalyptic craziness and you’d be best advised to read it the way you’d read a story by Thomas Ligotti. These are bad, bad times.

Stephen King: The Waste Lands — Before I actually picked up my first Stephen King novel a couple of months ago, I didn’t understand the appeal. This, after all, was the author of the Haunted Car Book, and also the Haunted Dog Book. If these premises put me off before, they no longer do. Because the one truly terrifying monster in the Dark Tower series thus far is… a pink monorail. Here is a man who can frighten with any set of tools. The Waste Lands is far and away my favourite Dark Tower novel so far, and probably one of the best adventure page-turners I’ve ever read. Where The Drawing of the Three was essentially a break from the story begun in The Gunslinger — a semi-contrived set of hoops to jump through that introduces some crucial new pieces to the board but doesn’t actually move them anywhere — The Waste Lands really sets our characters off on a journey. It’s the first time in the series where the size of the story is really evident. The Dark Tower is no longer dreamlike and free-associative, but driving and purposeful. And it arrives at this point without sacrificing any of its Wonderland-esque uncanniness. In fact, this volume establishes that the gunslinger’s world, which has famously “moved on,” is several orders of magnitude stranger and more diverse than we could previously have suspected. We only got glimpses of this world before: a desert and a bizarre technological ruin in The Gunslinger; a beach full of monsters in The Drawing of the Three. This book serves us up our first real glimpse of society in this world: a small town of gentle elderly folk, and a raving mad city of brutal killers, haunted by the ghosts of dead machines. The weird wrongness of the world King establishes here reminds me of the deep sea creatures in the nature documentaries I’ve been watching — you get the sense that the place itself, let alone everybody in it, has lost its mind. Without spoiling too much, there’s a moment somewhere in the book’s outstanding final hundred pages where one of its characters contemplates the aforementioned monstrous pink monorail and realizes what a crazy story he’s in. “Welcome to the fantasy version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Even Stephen King thinks this book is nuts. I love it. I’ve never read anything like it. Pick of the week.

Music

The Rolling Stones: Some Girls — The consensus best post-Exile Stones album is in my view better than many pre-Exile Stones albums. I daresay I’d put it ahead of Beggars Banquet. Far from being the sound of the Stones catching up with the times, Some Girls is the sound of the Stones imposing themselves on the times. Nobody’s going to mistake “Miss You” for a track by an actual disco artist, or “Shattered” for a song by a punk band. Because if there’s one thing the Rolling Stones cannot do, it is not sound like the Rolling Stones. Even when they’re cribbing bits from other musical idioms, they still play loose rock and roll, and that’s what makes this album great. It’s the sound of a band challenging themselves to do new things and rediscovering their own identity in the distance between their own idiom and others. I like that Ronnie Wood at least got to play on one classic Stones album. Because he’s a good guitarist with a distinctive sound, and he meshes with Keith Richards better than Mick Taylor, a better instrumentalist, ever did. I particularly love his solos on “Beast of Burden” and the little fills between lines of the title track. Wood’s defining contributions to the band will always be as a live player, since the vast bulk of the band’s classic material predates his time in the band. But Some Girls gives him material that’s worthy of him for the only time on a studio record. (Maybe I shouldn’t say that, since I haven’t actually heard Tattoo You. But judging by other latter-day Stones music I’ve heard, it seems like a safe generalization.) Favourite tracks: “Beast of Burden,” “When the Whip Comes Down,” “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).”

The Rolling Stones: The Rolling Stones — Ohhhh boy the 10-hour Rolling Stones mono box set is on Apple Music. We’re doing this. My enthusiasm for the Stones comes in waves. I’ve barely listened to them since my last period of intense obsession in grad school, and suddenly I want nothing more out of life than track after track of Mick yelping at me between squalls of loud guitar. I guess I just feel a real need for very analogue music in my life right now. I’m honestly not quite sure which among the pre-Aftermath Stones albums I’ve heard, but I’m certain I haven’t heard any of them more than once. Which is probably unfair to some of them, but this isn’t one. It’s the U.K. version of their debut record. (The U.S. version, titled England’s Newest Hit Makers, is not included in the mono box, presumably because it only contains one track that this doesn’t. “Not Fade Away” is thus relegated to a bonus disc at the end. Still, the box includes both versions of Aftermath, when the U.S. version of that also only has one unique track. Whatever the logic, what matters is that absolutely everything released in mono is here. My most compulsive self rejoices.) It’s amazing to think of how successful this was in its time, given that it has zero tracks that have become Rolling Stones classics. There’s an alternate history where they were also-rans. I imagine that as I progress through this set, it’ll become clear when specifically that alternate history became untenable. I suspect it’s somewhere around Out Of Our Heads, but it might be sooner. I think my favourite track is probably their rendition of “Route 66,” which features a close to fully-formed sounding Keith Richards, and which also emphasizes the interplay between him and Brian Jones that makes the early recordings so great, and that they wouldn’t attain again until Ronnie Wood joined the band. In general, it’s not a classic, but it’s good fun, and if it had one track as good as “Please Please Me” it might stand up to the Beatles debut. Also, it seems like a missed opportunity to put “Now I’ve Got A Witness” before “Can I Get a Witness” in the running order. A minor point.

The Rolling Stones: 12×5 — I don’t know if I think this is an improvement on the first album or not. It has more originals but at this point Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are not anywhere near as good at writing songs as the R&B songwriters they cover. That’s ultimately what separates early Beatles from early Stones: on the early Beatles albums, you kind of wait out the covers in anticipation of the next Lennon/McCartney track. The same can’t be said of Jagger/Richards. Not yet. I’ll keep you posted about when in my perusal of the Stones mono box set I first encounter a classic track. This one almost has one in “Time is on My Side,” but it isn’t the more familiar version. Soon. I’ll take “Under the Boardwalk” as my favourite track, because it cracks open the window to an alternate version of Mick Jagger who honed his voice around an ideal of sweetness rather than grit. His instrument contains both facets, but only one could emerge victorious.

The Rolling Stones: The Rolling Stones No. 2 — Ah! We have a classic track. It’s the second version of “Time is on My Side.” That guitar intro makes it. I’m not sure if it’s just that I’m really starting to get into this mid-sixties shuffley rock feel after three albums, but this sounds like the point where the band really starts to swagger. “Down the Road Apiece” is a fabulous boogie track with the fantastic Ian Stewart on piano. Probably my favourite deep cut so far in the catalogue. Also, hearing the band that hasn’t yet written “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” do a song called “I Can’t Be Satisfied” is delicious. I suppose this is bit of a rarity, given that 12×5 was the “second album” of choice for the CD releases. But this is superior (and, by and large, a totally different album) to its American counterpart, owing to songs that were recorded a few months after the latest track on 12×5, which was rushed out to the American market before the hometown crowd got their second LP. Okay. Now onto the American album that’s got most of these same songs. What a befuddling discography.

The Rolling Stones: The Rolling Stones, Now! — At some point during this marathon, we were always going to have to address Mick Jagger’s fake black blues singer voice. It is very distasteful and it comes out in more explicit form in these early recordings than it does in the late 60s and early 70s classics. The influence is still there at that point, but it’s just that: an influence, not an impression. The spoken intro to “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” is the second-most egregious example of this that I’ve taken note of, aside from in “Goin’ Home” from Aftermath. Anyway. This is basically The Rolling Stones No. 2, but a bit better because it’s got “Heart of Stone” and “Little Red Rooster.” By this time, the Jagger/Richards songwriting team is starting to seem like it might amount to something after all. It’s the first album to have two acknowledged Stones classics on it (those two). At this point, each successive release is becoming increasingly solid and consistent. This is very much a “we’re nearly there” album. Also, it’s hard not to do a double-take hearing Mick Jagger sing the line “here come old flat top” in 1965. (It’s a Chuck Berry song. There was a lawsuit. Berry and Lennon settled out of court.)

The Rolling Stones: Out of Our Heads (U.S. version) — Here we have the most gigantic leap forward in the Stones discography with the possible exception of Satanic Majesties to Beggars Banquet, which wasn’t so much a leap forward as a total refocus. At long last, the originals match the calibre of the covers — mostly because the covers can’t really reflect the changes in contemporary music of the time, whereas Jagger and Richards have definitely been listening to Dylan. The folk influence and the baroque pop of “Play With Fire” (my favourite song in the catalogue up to this point) point forward to Aftermath. And “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” spelled out the death knell for the skiffle-influenced lilting rock and roll that was once the British Invasion’s default feel. There’s not a hint of anything so effete as “swing” in “Satisfaction.” Four to the goddamn floor. I don’t actually like it very much, but when you hear it in the context of the Rolling Stones’ full early discography, there’s no denying it’s a watershed moment. There’ll be hints of that old shuffle feel straight through the catalogue, but “Satisfaction” is the moment when you can hear that this band will eventually do “Brown Sugar” and “Street Fighting Man.” This is such a good album that I’m actually super glad the next thing in this mono box is a different version of it.

The Rolling Stones: Out of Our Heads (U.K. version) — The American labels’ habit of putting more singles on the albums than the British ones didn’t do the Beatles any favours — it just demoted some of their great album cuts. But the American Stones albums up to this point are often better, if only because the inclusion of the singles amps up the ratio of originals to covers, which by this time is a good thing. This British version of Out of Our Heads starts and finishes stronger than its American counterpart, with a blistering cover of “She Said Yeah” and Mick Jagger’s thesis statement “I’m Free.” But it doesn’t have “Play With Fire,” “The Spider and the Fly” or “Satisfaction,” which makes it feel less like a transition to the Stones’ classic period than just more of the same. Also, I always get a kick out of that moment in “I’m Free” where Charlie Watts suddenly loses track of the beat. It’s such a weird moment to make it to record.

The Rolling Stones: December’s Children (And Everybody’s) — Wow, that’s a very 60s title. It’s almost shocking really, from a band who always presented as the slightly chilly, cynical gadflies who wouldn’t follow the hippie trends for the sake of it. (This notion will disintegrate when we get to Satanic Majesties, about which my feelings are complicated.) It’s a mixed bag, containing tracks from a span of two years, and it doesn’t even try to cohere. However, it does contain two hitherto unheard tracks that stand out: the slightly mawkish but irresistible “As Tears Go By,” and the tremendous bolt of energy that is “Get Off of My Cloud.” This latter track is in my view a new high bar for the band. I don’t see the appeal of “The Singer Not the Song,” frankly. A relatively inessential part of the Stones’ rise.

The Rolling Stones: Aftermath (U.K. version) — Here we fucking go. This is so astronomically better than any previous Stones album it’s almost hard to believe. Exile On Main Street is the Stones album that’s most famously exploratory and sprawling, but Aftermath almost feels like a very early rehearsal for that. It’s almost twice as long as Out Of Our Heads, and five times as diverse. Presumably, this is the album that earned Brian Jones his reputation as the band’s sonic explorer: his dulcimer, organ, and koto playing pulls the band at last into the mid-sixties. Plus, this is the first album with no covers. It is the album where the Rolling Stones cement themselves as creators of original music. Alas, it is also the album where they take up the mantle of “massively problematic cultural institution.” (It’s possible that these two phenomena are not unrelated.) Right off the bat, we get “Mother’s Little Helper,” which has a guitar sound the like of which hasn’t been heard from this band before, and a great riff too. Also, it is is both sexist and dismissive of mental illness. Next up is “Stupid Girl,” one of the album’s lesser tracks, so its misogyny isn’t quite so hard to reconcile. Then comes “Under My Thumb,” and we’re three for three in the “dodgy attitudes towards women” category. Even “Lady Jane” presents a shameless cad as a romantic figure — though this last example is richer and more complex than the others. Jagger often reads as a parody of lunkheaded chauvinism from a modern perspective. “Lady Jane” is an unlikely prototype for “Tumbling Dice” in this way. And while it seems unlikely that Jagger is in on his own joke, “Lady Jane” has a barely perceptible whiff of insincerity about it that shields it from being quite as retrograde as “Under My Thumb.” And it isn’t just sexism that rears its head on Aftermath: Jagger’s borderline minstrel show vocal performance in “Goin’ Home” is one of the most embarrassing moments on any classic album. But I’m going to stop this now. The problems on Aftermath should be obvious to anybody with half a brain, and they shouldn’t be glossed over. But they are large flaws on a wonderfully inventive near-masterpiece of a record that is essential listening for anybody remotely interested in 60s rock music. If “Out of Time” doesn’t give you a huge charge, I don’t think there’s any hope that you’ll ever like this band. This is also the point where I can finally comment knowledgeably about the quality of the mono remasters that I’ve been listening to so far, having spun the stereo iTunes master many times. In general, I prefer the mono mixes, as is the case with the Beatles and basically all other music from this period and prior. But there are certain instances where the stereo mixes’ very artificial separation of instruments between the two channels highlights details that fall by the wayside here. Specifically, I like the way the fuzz bass on “Flight 505” comes out in the stereo mix better. There are other minor examples, but I still think the mono is the way to hear these records. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the next few sound in this format.

The Rolling Stones: Aftermath (U.S. version) — I don’t know why this was even included in the mono box. The American version of Aftermath is confounding: eleven minutes shorter, and missing some of its British counterpart’s best tracks. (What is Aftermath without “Out of Time?”) The only track unique to this version is “Paint It, Black,” which is admittedly a much better opening than “Mother’s Little Helper.” I am always surprised at how effective that track is considering the extent of its overexposure. “Paint It, Black” is still haunting. It may be the Rolling Stones track that depends the least on whether you actually like the Rolling Stones. Certainly, I remember loving this song before I acquired the taste. “I see a red door and I want it painted black” is a line so far above Mick Jagger’s statistical average that I don’t even know what to think. This is one of those rare songs where he seems to have gotten outside of himself. It’s a relief to not be listening to him sing about his lack of respect for women. Plus, the arrangement is killer: the sitar is the obvious point of attention, but the seven-note guitar line that comes midway through each verse (e.g. after “I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes) is the touch that really makes it. Aside from “Paint It, Black,” though, this is a hatchet job of the British Aftermath. For one thing, eliminating “Out of Time,” “Take It Or Leave It,” “What to Do” and “Mother’s Little Helper” (a musically outstanding song, in spite of its problems) means that a greater percentage of the album’s running time is taken up by “Goin’ Home.” If you’re going to eliminate eleven minutes of Aftermath, it should be these eleven. On one hand, I admire the Stones and their record labels for committing to a track this long and this formless. It’s a statement of ambition. But listening to a group of not very distinguished musicians jamming on a half-baked blues tune is not fun. Anyway, this version of Aftermath is a weird experience I won’t partake in again.

The Rolling Stones: Between the Buttons (U.K. version) — I might actually like this better than Aftermath. It is less sprawling, less adventurous, and ultimately less important to the band’s development. But it’s charming in a way that other Stones records aren’t. This is the album where the band’s posh side comes out, and is immediately subjected to lacerating satire. “Cool, Calm & Collected” has a music hall element that is more familiar as part of the Beatles’ sound. But where Paul McCartney inhabits that music naturally, Mick Jagger creeps around its edges and only ironically sticks the occasional toe in. Same goes for “Something Happened to Me Yesterday,” a song I don’t entirely understand my own affection for. (Though it might have something to do with Keith Richards’ first lead vocal performance. He is my favourite Stone by a mile, so maybe it’s a Pavlovian response.) Here is a music hall song that is seemingly about a drug trip. What the hell is that about? Anyway, “She Smiled Sweetly” is one of my very favourite Rolling Stones songs, and this album is fantastic. I will say, this is the rare album that I actually prefer the American version of. “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together” are among the band’s best singles (and their singles during this art pop period are unassailable) and they fit in well on this album and give a hooky jolt. I miss “Back Street Girl” on that version of the album, but “Please Go Home” isn’t much of a loss. Still, should’ve been “Yesterday’s Papers” that got the chopping block. It’s the album’s least exciting song, and the fact that it opens the British version might be the primary strike against that version. Also, this is astronomically better in mono. The stereo mix of Between the Buttons is super hacky.

The Rolling Stones: Flowers — I’d never heard this collection of singles and oddments for the American market before. On one hand, it’s hard to understand the necessity of another American disc containing “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together” so soon after Between the Buttons brought those same two songs to the States. But that’s a bit moot, because I frankly like this collection of songs better than either of the primary albums associated with the Stones’ art pop phase. (Yes, even better than Aftermath.) If I were to recommend one album from prior to the Stones’ imperial phase, this might well be it. It has everything: gorgeous acoustic ballads (“Ruby Tuesday,” “Back Street Girl”), spirited rock and roll (“Let’s Spend the Night Together”), weird quasi-psychedelia (“Mother’s Little Helper,” and the marvellous single “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing In the Shadow?”), credible R&B (“Out of Time,” a half-decent cover of “My Girl”) and a pair of Aftermath outtakes that would have been album highlights (“Ride On, Baby” and “Sittin’ on a Fence”). These last two were both songs I’d never heard before, and “Sittin’ on a Fence” strikes me as one of the great hidden gems of the Stones catalogue. Flowers is the best collection of songs from my second-favourite phase in this band’s career (after the classic early 70s albums). If only it had “19th Nervous Breakdown.” A note on the mono: “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby” is one of the rare tracks that I prefer in stereo. The mono version is an indiscernible mass of noise. Stereo separation, even too much of it, does it good.

The Rolling Stones: Their Satanic Majesties Request — This is an album that I’d like to be able to mount a more spirited defence of than I’m actually going to. This is the moment in the Rolling Stones’ career where they did outright psychedelia for one album, then immediately reverted to gritty rock and roll. Frankly, I think psychedelia is a fundamentally better kind of music than gritty rock and roll, and I wish the Stones were better at it than they are. But I agree with this album’s harshest critics that this is a moment where it didn’t pay for the Stones to leave their lane. The incremental experimentation of the albums before this did wonders for them. Much later, their flirtation with modern styles on Some Girls would work as well. But this album finds the Stones fundamentally altering their way of doing things. This is a sound collage as much as an album of songs, and that is not something this band excels at. Still, I don’t understand the critics who see this as a post-Pepper bandwagon jump, because this album has as much to do with Sgt. Pepper as it does with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens. Where Pepper was meticulous, this is loose and jangly. I have a taxonomy of psychedelia that I personally find useful: psychedelic albums are either “Peppers” or “Pipers,” the latter category named for Pink Floyd’s debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Peppers are meticulous, fussy and colourful. Pipers are messy, experimental and spontaneous. This album is very much a Piper. Also, it has some classic songs on it. “She’s a Rainbow” is straight up one of my favourite Stones songs, and “The Lantern” features the arrival of the dirty, simplistic guitar fills that I love Keith Richards for. “2000 Man” is fun too. The rest of the album is deeply unconvincing, but worth a listen just because of what an anomaly it is.

John Congleton and the Nighty Nite: Until the Horror Goes — Turns out this is still awesome. I went so hot and cold on this last year that I remember having a small crisis about whether to put it on my year-end list at all. (I did, and placed it very high.) Sometimes I think it’s a bit adolescent in its worldview, i.e. nothing has meaning. But in a world as horrifying as the one we’re currently living in, it feels more comedic than it used to. I hereby renounce my reservations. This is one of the best albums of the decade.

Podcasts

Reply All: “Is That You, KD?” — After last week’s reported story, they deserve a Yes Yes No double-header. Hearing Alex Blumberg explain something to P.J. Vogt and Alex Goldman for a change is delightful.

On The Media: “After Vegas” & “More Human Than Human” — Brooke Gladstone’s post-crisis reality checks are always appreciated, and this week’s full episode touches on the Las Vegas shooting, country music, and Blade Runner. Terrible weeks are often good weeks to listen to On The Media.

The Daily: Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017 & Friday, Oct. 6, 2017 — I tuned in to catch up on Las Vegas and Harvey Weinstein. The world is bad.

The Outline World Dispatch: “Google’s algorithm & AI’s heritage” — This podcast is good for daily tech news. It’s also really wise not to try and compete with The Daily or NPR’s Up First (which I’ve never heard and don’t feel like I need to hear) by actually covering the major stories. I should listen more, and I may yet do so.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Battle of the Sexes and What’s Making Us Happy,” “The Princess Bride And Remembering Tom Petty” & “Blade Runner 2046” — Three fun episodes. I must say, the transition to a bi-weekly schedule has not at all blunted my love for this show, the dynamic of which is still the most amiable in the pop culture panel show space. The retrospective on The Princess Bride is especially strong.

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “Level Up” — This story about sound design in video games was something I wanted in my life at this specific moment, and it’s good fun. It’s particularly fun to hear the elements of a game’s soundscape isolated into foley, environments, voices and music.

The Gist: “Facebook’s Data Monopoly” — I will be reading Franklin Foer’s book as soon as I damn well can. This interview is a good companion to his piece in the Atlantic adapted from the book, because Mike Pesca asks challenging questions.

Radiolab: “Driverless Dilemma” — At the start of this episode, Jad apologizes for how over-the-top the sound design in the old episode they play is. I like that old version of Radiolab better, honestly. I wish they’d still do that sometimes. This is a quite terrifying update of a story about the trolley problem, in which it seems that self-driving cars will constantly be subjected to the trolley problem and will likely tend to sacrifice the life of the rider rather than the several potential victims outside of the car. Scary stuff, and good stuff too.

More Perfect: Season two, episodes 1-3 — I have consistently been enjoying More Perfect more than Radiolab for the last two years. This season’s opening salvo is powerful stuff, particularly in the second episode, which focusses on a terrible decision just before the Civil War that introduced legal language that continues to define the state of race relations in the United States to this day. Looking forward to more.

Fresh Air: “The Platinum Age of TV” — This interview with Fresh Air’s own TV critic David Bianculli is surprisingly personal, and very good. Bianculli has one of the great critic stories about why this medium means something to him. His mother died when he was very young, and in the worst stages of his illness, she took refuge in the rise of the Kennedys. When J.F.K. was assassinated, she was asleep. Bianculli’s father bade him to remove the TV from her room and take it into his. She couldn’t know the news until the whole family was there to help her deal with it. In the meantime, Bianculli watched news coverage of the Kennedy assassination in his room, alone. The power of this medium made itself clear very early in his life. This is lovely stuff.

Omnibus (week of Sept. 24, 2017)

Only 12 reviews, because again I watched half a season of Battlestar Galactica. I am now finished Battlestar Galactica. I have thoughts. Read on.

Movies

Pearl Jam: Let’s Play Two — I have a friend who’s really into Pearl Jam. You can read about that here. I am not a Pearl Jam fan, but to a certain extent I have cultivated the ability to appreciate other people’s obsessions by osmosis. What I jerk I’d be if I hadn’t! Many of my favourite musicians, filmmakers and writers are the sorts of artists who alienate general audiences while playing to a fervent cult of devotees (see Terry Gilliam, China Miéville, Rush). Far be it from me to judge my fellow anoraks. Devotion to these kinds of artists runs deeper than devotion to universally acclaimed artists. Other people not liking the thing you love makes that thing seem more specifically aimed at you. Pearl Jam doesn’t fit this category as comfortably as, say, Rush, who have had scorn heaped on them by critics and casual listeners alike. But they do strike me as a band that breeds obsession in a large few more so than casual enthusiasm in a small many. Being on the outside of this fandom, I would never have enjoyed this on my own. But with Sachi, I could possibly watch it the way I sometimes watch sports: cluelessly, but with a vicarious sense of somebody else’s enthusiasm. Sometimes that’s enough. Also, Sachi is the person responsible for my only recently abating obsession with Doctor Who. You never know. Pearl Jam might be the next thing. Probably not, I figured. I was basically right. My sports analogy above is less figurative than it might seem, seeing as how watching this concert documentary entails watching quite a lot of baseball, and moreover quite a lot of watching Eddie Vedder watch baseball. The premise of the film is that Pearl Jam’s 2016 concert at Wrigley Field was a major event in Chicago’s cultural life, given that it happened during the course of the Cubs’ first triumphant World Series in over a century. It interleaves footage from the concert with documentary footage about the Cubs’ miraculous year, Vedder’s longstanding devotion to the team, and the overlap between Pearl Jam’s Chicago-based fandom (who regard Vedder as a hometown hero) and Cubs fans. It’s a bit contrived. There’s a thesis statement in there somewhere about unconditional devotion, but it gets buried beneath a pile of tenuous connections and thematic leaps. On the other hand, the concert footage is beautifully shot, and finds the band giving a super-energized performance. I have no idea if this is just normal for them or if they really pulled out the stops for a show that was meant to be special (and that they knew would become a permanent document). I knew none of these songs going in (I’d heard a couple but that’s not the same) and I left with a couple of distinct favourites and a vague memory of bunch of other stuff that all blended together into a passionate, energetic rock ‘n’ roll blur. The distinct favourites were “Go,” a near-metal track with an infectious heavy riff and some serious shredding from Mike McCready, and “Better Man,” a ballad that begins with uncharacteristic delicacy and has a bittersweet chorus where the major-key openness of the music clashes with the sad resignation of the lyrics. These are good songs. So is “Corduroy,” with its wordless singalong outro. Love me a good wordless singalong outro. I have not been converted to the church of Pearl Jam. But I suppose I get it a little more now. Baseball, on the other hand, continues to befuddle me.

Music

The Mountain Goats: All Hail West Texas — The second album in my Mountain Goats journey after The Sunset Tree. This has some outstanding songs on it, particularly “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” which is one of those beautiful-fantasy-meets-unpleasant-reality stories that I seem to love so much. It’s the specificity that makes it: this song is about two very particular kids with a very particular dream for their future. This is what is good about these songs in general. The note on the front cover gives as accurate a sense of what the music is like as any prose description could: “fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys.” The songs in general are character songs and story songs in the vein of the Decemberists, but without that band’s whimsy and artifice. Where Colin Meloy’s lyrics caper and prance, John Darnielle’s simply tread quickly and frequently turn corners. This difference resonates with Darnielle’s choice of an aggressively D.I.Y. aesthetic: where the Decemberists’ story songs are clothed in elaborate arrangements full of bouzouki and accordion, Darnielle simply recorded this whole album (minus the cheap keyboard construction “Blues in Dallas”) with an acoustic guitar and a Panasonic boom box. It is probably the most aggressively lo-fi thing I have ever actually enjoyed. And that’s all because the songs themselves are so fussily constructed. It is both easier and more essential to focus on the lyrics of this album than it is on The Sunset Tree, because there is nothing else of note going on. Frankly I find that a bit exhausting and I need to listen again to register the four or five songs that just slipped past me altogether. But I liked this. I don’t think there’s anything on it that I like as much as “Up the Wolves” or “Dilaudid,” but it won me over in spite of being a type of album that I pathologically do not like, namely an unprofessional-sounding one.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: The Face of the Enemy, Season 4.5 and The Plan(A reminder that I don’t do paragraph breaks on this site, even though I should. Here is an alternative for you.) Let me say two things. Firstly, I think that the fourth season of Battlestar Galactica is on balance the weakest one. Secondly, this has nothing to do with the way that the story ended. (Spoilers ahoy, and do bear this in mind because you need to watch Battlestar Galactica. It is one of the best shows ever. And it is definitely something I think is best viewed unspoilt.) I really liked the ending of Battlestar Galactica, probably for many of the same reasons why others hate it. I’ll cop to a certain perversity that leads me to feel this way about virtually every controversial TV finale, from Lost to How I Met Your Mother. But before we get to everything I love about BSG’s final salvo, let’s touch on what sucks about season four. (I’ll deal with the whole season, though this week’s viewing only accounts for the latter half.) The biggest problem with season four is that it follows up the biggest pair of twists the show has ever dealt (Starbuck’s resurrection and the reveal of four of the final five Cylons) with a series of time-biding miniature story arcs that hinder the show’s forward momentum. BSG saunters, rather than hurtles towards its ending. The first offender is the Demitrius plotline, in which an increasingly crazed Starbuck searches for Earth in a sewage tanker with an increasingly mutinous crew. Mad prophet isn’t a good look for Starbuck. I don’t see why she couldn’t have been made to face her destiny with a leveller head and a continuing penchant for self-destruction. And this went on for eight, long episodes. And if spiritual enlightenment looks weird on Starbuck, it looks perversely terrible on Gaius Baltar — terrible to the point that I actually think it was a really interesting end state for the character. But the road to that point leads through some very rocky scenes of Baltar with a harem of extremely dumb female acolytes. I suppose that a large crew of unquestioningly devoted young women would be the sort of thing that would facilitate enlightenment for Baltar, but this development strains credulity in a way that certain more controversial reveals do not. Baltar’s ascension from loathed, treasonous turncoat to revered holy man seems like it happens by showrunner fiat sometime during the writing of the season three finale. We didn’t get to see how his followers came to worship him and find each other: by the time we meet them, they’re already organized enough to rescue and shelter Baltar after the trial. Without more background on who they are and why they feel the way they do, none of this makes any sense to me at all. It doesn’t help that Head Six vanishes for a long stretch of this plotline. Baltar’s not interesting without Head Six, regardless of what she is. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. And then there’s Gaeta’s uprising. Completionist that I am, I watched the Gaeta-focussed web series The Face of the Enemy in its proper place in the narrative. My heart bleeds for those who did not, since Felix Gaeta’s character arc is hard enough to sympathize with even having seen this essential bit of context. It’s hard to credit the transformation of one of the show’s most mild-mannered — compromising, even — characters into an extremist. I get that losing his leg took a serious toll. But this, as much as Baltar’s deification, strikes me as an example of BSG not remaining true to its characters. More than that, however, I object to Tom Zarek’s role in the uprising. This character has always been a bit troublesome, as he falls straight into the trope of idealistic revolutionaries being completely self-serving under the mask. This plot arc provides him with his most direct route to power yet — leveraging the fleet’s hate and resentment for their new Cylon allies. Any shred of principles that might have previously existed and made the character interesting are gone once Zarek allies with Gaeta. Speaking of that scene, it features some of the series’ most ham-fisted writing: “People know something has to be done. The world is frakked. It’s upside down and somebody’s gotta turn it right side up.” Do furtive revolutionary conversations like this ever actually rely on such overdramatic generalities, I wonder? You get the idea. It’s an uneven season. But at its best, it draws on all of the elements that made the first three seasons of the show great. (Yes, all three. I’m not sure season three isn’t my favourite.) Something I’ve always appreciated about Battlestar Galactica is that, for a show about a war with robots who are indistinguishable from humans, it does not really dive into the well of “what it means to be human.” (This is good because Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing has already had the last word on that subject in genre fiction.) The Cylons have never taunted the humans with the prospect that they are in some way “the same.” In fact, possibly the greatest broad masterstroke of this series has been making the Cylons explicitly distinct from humans: a separate culture, defined by their differences from the humans whose form they take. I can understand why most viewers prefer the first two seasons of this show, because it is governed by the tension implicit in not knowing who’s a Cylon. (And I confess, I thoroughly enjoyed the trips back to that era of the show offered in Razor and especially The Plan.) But the main thrust of the last two seasons is equally interesting for close to the opposite reason. Where the first two seasons rely on the uncanny similarity between Cylons and humans as its narrative engine, the latter two relies on establishing the unique culture, mythology and spirituality of the Cylons as a species unto themselves. Season four doubles down on this distinction in Saul Tigh’s storyline. Tigh has always strained credulity ever so slightly, because it’s hard to believe that somebody as competent as Bill Adama would place so much trust in somebody as incompetent as Tigh. Nonetheless, he’s always been one of my favourites because of his loyalty — which is presumably the one thing he’s got going for him. Tigh’s decision to continue living as what he’s always considered himself to be, a colonial officer, after learning he’s a Cylon emphasizes the show’s general feeling that you are what you think you are — the culture in which you find yourself has more bearing on your identity than any nebulous fundamental category like human or Cylon. And cylon culture is a foreign concept to Tigh. The other four of the final five don’t walk such a straight path, but there’s an argument to be made that the reason for that is less that they don’t feel human than simply that they feel unsafe in a way that Tigh doesn’t. Considering that this is the season that features an uneasy alliance between humans and cylons, it does a lot of work to maintain this fundamental cultural distinction between the two societies. Much of this comes down to the Galactica itself, and its contrast with the Cylon basestar that now travels with the fleet. There was never a moment in this show where I ceased to marvel at the set design of the basestar interior. While the deliberately disorienting editing of the early scenes in this setting gradually faded as we became familiar with it, the captivating strangeness of the liquid-based interface and the cascading projections of red characters never failed to make me feel uneasy. Of course, the thing that makes the Cylons unsettling is their uncanny organicism in spite of being machines. This follows through into their technology: think of the raiders that splat into messes of blood and meat when they’re hit, or the humanoid figure in a tub that powers the basestar. The Cylons’ tech is more “human” than the humans’ is, and that makes it uncanny and inhuman. This is why the plotline about Galactica breaking down and being repaired with organic Cylon goo is my favourite thing in the leadup to the finale. As a story idea, the notion of the end of Galactica as we know it is the only thing in the final episodes that really feels like a story that belongs in a series’ final stretch. From the very beginning, it was the Galactica’s resolutely analogue setup that kept it safe. The fact that it is a blunt, dumb chunk of metal, subject entirely to the whims of the people who control it made it a symbol of humanity, because it is beholden to humanity. The Cylons, by contrast, cannot even trust their basestar not to jump light years away unexpectedly, due to the unpredictable nature of the hybrid. Watching Galactica gradually turn into a semi-organic ship with living tissues holding its frame together and a hybridized Sam Anders plugged into the CIC is the most perverse thing the show has ever done. It feels like the end of an era for the characters, and that gives the last few episodes the gravity they need. It’s worth noting that the basestar, with its touch interfaces and unpredictable AI core in the form of the hybrid, feels much more like modern computer technology than Galactica does. 21st-century humans arguably have as much in common with the Cylons as we do with the humans of the fleet. And that is what makes the finale’s epilogue so convincing. Far more than when it aired in 2008, we are living in a world where BSG’s technology doesn’t seem farfetched. But it’s not because of the robots we build, like the ones shown in the final montage set to Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower.” It’s because we are living in a state of increasing symbiosis with machines that are increasingly artificially intelligent. We’re not building Cylons. We’re becoming them. It may prove to be a distinction without a difference. Okay, so we’ve come to it. The ever-contentious finale of Battlestar Galactica. The episode where the show’s primary remaining mysteries — the resurrection of Starbuck and the nature of Head Six and Head Baltar — are resolved by revealing that they are all angels. Truthfully, I don’t even feel like this development actually requires any justification. It is so totally in keeping with the show’s general attitude towards spirituality and esoteric beliefs that I actually find it genuinely shocking how many people think it’s a cop out. BSG has always traded on visions and premonitions as a key part of its story. And it has never made any effort to rationalize these away — there’s no tenable way to believe that, for instance, Roslin’s visions are mere drug hallucinations, when they inevitably come true. The presence of angels in the universe of this show is entirely in keeping with the rest of it. God is canon in Battlestar Galactica, and always has been. I can understand how fans of big, militaristic sci-fi shows might wish for a more rational explanation. Like maybe Baltar is insane with remorse for his treachery and Head Six is the hallucination he’s conjured to punish himself. To me that’s the province of more pedestrian shows, like Dexter. (By the way, if there’s one controversial finale I will not defend, it is Dexter’s. That was bullshit.) Also Fight Club. But more to the point, the show has firmly established that there’s a real supernatural element that lives alongside all of the classic SF trappings. Why resort to banal rationality to clue up a mystery? Surely if there’s ever been a narrative that justifies a deus ex machina ending — the most literal one since Ancient Greece — it’s Battlestar Galactica. In my view, the controversy surrounding this ending is the result of a misreading of the entire series that preceded it. Battlestar Galactica season four is the show in microcosm: flawed, weird, enormously ambitious, and dazzling. When all’s said and done, BSG is one of the crowning glories of its medium. Finally: “And you think there’s some kind of meaning in these musical notes,” says Adama. “I dunno,” replies Starbuck, “I’m just groping, mostly. Looking for patterns, trying to see what comes to me.” Remind me to make this the epigraph of the book about Rush I’m eventually going to write. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc.

Stephen King: The Waste Lands — I’m exactly halfway through. So far, it’s easily my favourite of the first three Dark Tower novels. The Gunslinger existed primarily to introduce Roland and his quest. The Drawing of the Three existed primarily to do the same for a small cast of supporting characters. (Though it told a damn good yarn along the way.) But The Waste Lands is the first novel in the series to really feel like it’s focussed on pushing the series’ larger narrative substantially forward. Structurally, this first half of the book has been less contrived than the first two, which are both organized into distinct set pieces, and which both wear their structures on their sleeves. There are no three doors in The Waste Lands — just a natural succession of strange and unpredictable story events. I will say this: my favourite sequence in The Dark Tower so far is still the bit of The Drawing of the Three that focusses on Eddie. This one hasn’t quite hit that standard yet, but if it keeps pace it’ll be better than the second novel on average. Will report back.

Podcasts

The Daily: Monday, Sept. 25, 2017 — This is a great summary of the background behind the N.F.L. protests, which is something I needed because as a non-sports person, I am missing most of the context.

This American Life: “White Haze” — Zoe Chace is maybe the best producer on this show right now. She is so good at talking to people who are obviously horrible and trying to actually understand them. Her look at the Proud Boys (even the name makes me shudder) in this episode is fascinating. Pick of the week.

Criminal: “The Gatekeeper” — Criminal’s true story about fictional crime stories. It’s an interview with the New York Times Book Review’s crime columnist about what attracts her to this genre. She’s fun.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Movie Roundup: The LEGO Ninjago Movie, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, And Mother!” — I’m with Linda Holmes on mother! Glen Weldon is frustrated by how Darren Aronofsky is explaining away all of the ambivalence in his weird movie. I sympathize, because as I said in my review, allegories are banal. But I do think there’s one layer of this movie that Weldon hasn’t gotten to, which is the incredibly arch layer that casts doubt on the validity of the allegory at all. I made an addendum to my review of mother! while I listened to this. The original review ended: “It’s entirely possible that I’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole in my attempts to justify the ways of Aronofsky to man. The real truth is just that I enjoyed the hell out of this movie, and I want it to be more than a banal Biblical allegory. In any case, mother! is completely bonkers crazy and you’ll probably feel a little cracked at the end. Good enough for me.” I added this, in response to Weldon’s remarks: “BTW when I used the phrase “justify the ways of Aronofsky to man” in the last paragraph of this I was paraphrasing Paradise Lost which draws a connection to Aronofsky’s own Biblical allusions and by explaining that here like this I am doing the same thing Aronofsky’s been doing when he for some reason explains all of the symbolism in his weird movie and I am doing it in the context of an ostensibly comedic rhetorical device which is what this movie is. God am I ever a genius.” I dunno what I was on about there. Maybe I’ve lost the plot.

On the Media: “OTM live at the Texas Tribune Festival” — Two interviews, one with a pair of journalists, one with a pair of politicians, both on the topic of how Trump’s lack of regard for the truth affects the way they do their job. Worth checking out.

Code Switch: “Befuddled by Babies, Love And Ice Pops? Ask Code Switch” — This show is doing an advice segment now, which is good because they are rather excellent at sorting through complex stuff. The segment about tensions between the families of a soon-to-be-married couple, over the cultural representation in the ceremony, has got some solid advice.

Mogul: “Mogul Live!” — Mogul’s victory lap has officially outstayed its welcome. It is one of the best shows of the year, but these bonus episodes are starting to feel thin. This live show is too long by half.

99% Invisible: “Ponte City Tower” — This is about the changing perception of one particular high rise in Johannesburg after apartheid. It’s nice. Also, I have to say, I quite admire the elegant way this show has started incorporating midroll ads (the kind of ads that happen in the middle of an episode as opposed to at the start or end — they are more profitable for podcasters). They air the story in one piece like always, then throw an extra bit after the ads. Clever, and unobtrusive.