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.
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.
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.
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.
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.