Tag Archives: Patricia Kopatchinskaja

Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 13, 2016)

So, I was just sitting in a restaurant next to what seemed like a second or third date. And the guy was trying to come off as being way less into video games than he obviously was. Like, the conversation about how he’s not really much of a gamer went on for a lot longer than it would have needed to if he actually wasn’t one.

Anyway, here are 20 reviews of things that are not video games and one comparatively long review of a video game that I didn’t even really think about all that much, honestly. Didn’t really even register.

Live events

A Tribe Called Red: Live at the Commodore — I’m not much of a dancer. Fortunately, in Vancouver you can go to a show like this and not worry too much about it. I wasn’t the only one. A Tribe Called Red is a phenomenon. And it seems to me that their live show is a better illustration of their basic musical thesis — that First Nations chanting and drumming works really well as an element of EDM — than their recordings. We Are the Halluci Nation is still one of my favourite records of the year, but it strikes me that genre fusion is easier when you are ostentatiously making a Work Of Art. Whereas, when you’re in front of a dance floor, on which people are dancing (or not, as the case may be), there’s another set of expectations at play. It’s perhaps a more workmanlike task, and the result was for me still less effective than listening to We Are the Halluci Nation (this was inevitable). But the fact that A Tribe Called Red can do as good a live set as this and get people moving is the ultimate proof-of-concept. And while they can’t just have Joseph Boyden show up from time to time in a live show to read about Chanie Wenjack, their social message remains intact through a clever video accompaniment composed entirely of culturally appropriative images. There were also kickass dancers onstage. A Tribe Called Red is one of the most inventive and skilled acts in the country. Saul Williams was a hell of an opener, too. Pick of the week. 

Music

Depeche Mode: Speak and Spell — I found myself unexpectedly in the mood for some plinky synthpop after hearing Yazoo’s “Only You” on an episode of This American Life. After discovering that the writer of that song was the creative force in early Depeche Mode, I decided on this as my poison. “Just Can’t Get Enough” isn’t a strong enough song to survive its overexposure, but everything else on this album is viscerally satisfying. Hits you right in the lizard brain. Plus, it’s so dated that it sounds exactly like modern music. It sounds a little bit like what I’d imagine a collaboration between Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream would sound like, provided Eno had his pop songwriter hat on. Really enjoyed this. I understand it’s drastically different from the music that Depeche Mode would become more esteemed for in the late eighties and nineties, so I’ll go on to check that out too. But this is definitely worthwhile in itself. “New Life” is endlessly repeatable.

Depeche Mode: Violator — This is objectively a better album than Speak and Spell, but it’s less what I was looking for at this very moment. This is a gritty, rock’n’roll electronica record. If I hadn’t come to Depeche Mode specifically for really 80s-sounding synthpop, I think I would have loved this immediately. I’ll probably listen again real soon. “Policy of Truth” and “Personal Jesus” strike me as the real highlights.

Justice: Woman — I’m tempted to say it’s Justice’s best album. Being more a fan of their second album than their first, this is probably going to be an easier opinion for me to arrive at than many. But this has the initial effect of making me want to listen to nearly all of its tracks on repeat. The three singles they released in advance are all album highlights, particularly “Safe and Sound,” which may be their most infectious track ever. Of the album tracks we’re now hearing for the first time, the highlights for me are “Chorus” (the least rock and roll track on an otherwise very rock and roll album), and “Heavy Metal” (which takes its gothic vibe from a tiny Bach paraphrase: very metal, indeed). This is up there with Coloring Book as one of the most purely joyful releases of 2016.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja & the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra: Death and the Maiden — This is the second time this year that Patricia Kopatchinskaja has sold me on a piece of music that I hadn’t previously cared much about. Schubert’s Death and the Maiden is obviously a masterpiece, but it’s never been one that I’m actually compelled to listen to. But Kopachinskaja’s imagination in interweaving the movements with adaptations of early music by Dowland and Gesualdo as well as the contemporary composer György Kurtág, emphasizes the most dramatic and existentially terrifying dimensions of Schubert’s piece, which has otherwise been rendered a bit tame by way of canonization. If there’s a downside, it’s simply that Kopatchinskaja’s playing is less prevalent here than on her excellent duets album or her wonderfully cracked recording of the Tchaikovsky concerto. But as a record in general, it is marvellous, and suffused with the particular idiosyncratic intelligence of an artist who is quickly becoming my favourite person in classical music.

Movies

O Brother, Where Art Thou? — I’m not sure this isn’t my favourite Coen brothers movie. Usually, I’ll cite Fargo. But this film’s sheer verbosity makes it a bit more fun. There are lines in this movie that could only be from this movie. Lines like: “Say, uh, any a you boys smithies? Or, if not smithies per se, were you otherwise trained in the metallurgic arts before straitened circumstances forced you into a life of aimless wanderin’?” Or: “Well, Pete, I just figured it should be the one with capacity for abstract thought. But if that ain’t the consensus view, hell, let’s put her to a vote!” Or: “I’ll press your flesh, you dimwitted sonofabitch! You don’t tell your pappy how to court the elect ‘rate!” And speaking of Pappy O’Daniels, this is one of those movies with two stories: one about a group of protagonists, and one larger narrative that they find themselves unexpectedly crossing paths with. These days, the state election between O’Daniels and Homer Stokes almost reads as a cruel inversion of the recent catastrophe: an outsider candidate who claims to represent “the little man” but who is actually just a virulent racist loses the election to an uninspiring establishment figure. There’s a decisive moment in the middle of the film where Stokes seems to go from being a Bernie Sanders analogue to a Donald Trump analogue, so this film is in a sense a forecast of Hillary Clinton’s entire campaign — which gets most everything except the ending correct. But if we may put aside these comparisons for a moment, the election storyline in O Brother is one of the most classically absurdist Coen brothers plotlines ever to not be Burn After Reading. It shows a fictional electorate blindly stumbling into the better decision because of how much they love the music of an integrated folk band whose very existence is part of a harebrained scam. And the decision that they make is still clearly not a very good option: O’Daniels is comically insincere and probably corrupt. (Again, we’ve put aside the comparisons at this point. Lest anybody misunderstand.) But there’s a major difference between this and many other Coen comedies. To a certain extent it shares the nothing-happens-for-a-reason-and-the-universe-is-indifferent mentality of other films. (“Ve believe in nossing.”) But this movie goes out of its way to sow doubt in that. It essentially sympathizes with its rationalist protagonist, and assumes that we will as well. But even after all of the proto-Burn After Reading meaningless bullshit that’s happened by the end of the movie, it still goes out of its way to leave a supernatural interpretation open. The sight of the prophesied cow atop the cottonhouse is the most obvious tactic, but it’s also there in the implication that the old man on the railroad might be God and that the sheriff might be the Devil. (“The law. Well, the law is a human institution.”) Given that things do work out, relatively, for the best at the end of the movie, this suggestion that there may indeed be a benevolent force at work makes O Brother, Where Art Thou? maybe the Coens’ most optimistic movie.

Television

Last Week Tonight: November 13, 2016 — Well, after all of those shit opening jokes characterizing the 2016 election as various species of can’t-it-be-over-yet, Oliver gets a punchline. Because yeah, this is worse. And, for all of the crap I’ve said about Oliver over the past few weeks (which I stand by) I feel the need to defend him against those who have written him off for failing to prevent Trump’s rise. Because that’s obviously not the point. The point is to write good, prescient jokes — which is something that you can rightly critique him for not always doing. But Oliver was one of the first to treat Trump as a threat worth joking about rather than implicitly a joke. And now that the worst has happened, Oliver is goal-oriented. Rather than encouraging the sharing of the episode, which he can usually pass off as a sort of righteous-minded quasi-activism (only last week, for instance), Oliver basically acknowledged that such minuscule acts are empty virtue signalling and only play into the echo chamber problem that got us here. Instead, he highlighted a number of organizations that you can donate actual money to which will work to mitigate some of Trump’s inevitable atrocities. And in terms of messaging, Oliver hits a home run by imploring his viewers to remember that this is not normal. The worst thing that can possibly happen at this point is for Donald Trump to be viewed as an ordinary political figure. The season’s end fell in an appropriate place, given Oliver’s ongoing rhetorical war with the man who has just become the most powerful person in the world. The outro montage is a bit damp, though. You can’t just say “Fuck 2016” over and over and expect it to be funny or cathartic. You need to write jokes. At the beginning of Oliver’s third season, I thought Last Week Tonight was the best thing on TV. Now it frustrates me immensely. But I still think that it’s valuable on balance and I’ll keep tuning in next year.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: November 14, 2016 — Even on the most high-minded comedy shows, it’s sometimes the dumb jokes that work best. “Eerie R.N.C. Pubis,” indeed.

QI: “Danger,” “Jeopardy” & “Jumble” — I was planning on doing some work this Saturday evening. Even made sure I had no plans because, important things to do. Instead, I mainlined three episodes of QI. I have no regrets.

Literature, etc.

Dan Fox: Pretentiousness: Why It Matters — Yeah, I’m reading a book about why it’s not bad to be pretentious. Laugh it up, folks. It’s very short and I’m almost finished it, so expect a report back soon. For now, I’ll just say that the central argument — that pretentiousness need not be dismissed as a symptom of elitism when it can just as easily be a side-effect of a healthy, open mind — is only about a quarter of what’s going on here. There is historical context o’plenty, including a short history of notions of authenticity in acting — professional pretentiousness. It’s well worth reading, as I think Fox’s arguments tie into some of what’s wrong in contemporary politics, and certainly what’s wrong with the media. It’s also well worth checking out Steven Poole’s Guardian review of the book, which takes its argument in a couple of new directions. More when I’m done.

Alan Moore: Jerusalem — Speaking of things I’ve just started reading, but not of things that I am likely to finish any time soon, there’s this. I am eleven pages into Alan Moore’s 1200-page literary epic and already thinking “what have I done.” It is entirely readable thus far, but its sheer bricklikeness is causing me inertia. Perhaps I’ll really put some time into it over Christmas. Until then, I foresee progress being slooooowwwww.

Games

Pony Island — I’ve always thought that there’s nothing scarier than metafiction. Borges speculated (pretty sure it’s Borges, though I can’t place the citation off the top of my head) that the reason for this is that when we see the characters in a story becoming aware of their unreality, it attunes us to the idea that we may also be unreal and thus trapped in an infinite regress of fictions all the way down. (It’s notable that this idea can be seen as either horrifying or absurdly hilarious, accounting for metafiction’s twin strong suits of horror and comedy.) But I’m not entirely sure that it works quite the same way in metafictional games. In fact, the anxiety that the most effective metafictional horror games play off of is almost the inverse of what Borges suggests. Rather than beginning to suspect one’s own unreality as the reader of a metafictional story does, the player of a metafictional game may begin to suspect that the characters in the game are more real than they initially seemed. (Spoilers ahead for both Pony Island and Undertale. But, you should really mostly be concerned about the Undertale ones, because Pony Island is far less effective and very derivative — at least in its themes.) If Pony Island is disquieting, it is so primarily because it shows you a basic arcade game interface that gradually reveals itself to be able to do things it shouldn’t be able to do. It takes advantage of the fact that our PCs are astronomically more advanced than arcade games to portray an arcade game that’s uncanny and occult. What’s that Asimov aphorism? Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic? Then, what’s a modern PC but a magic (and/or haunted) arcade cabinet? I digress: the thing that makes Pony Island’s scariest moments scary is that the characters inside the arcade game (e.g. literally the Devil) gradually appear to have greater capacities than they should, given that they’re in an arcade game. They begin to appear real. The opposite of Borges’ anxiety about self-aware literature. Conceptually, it is genuinely horrifying. And the reason I’ve gone into this much detail about how I think it works is that this sort of thing in games generally has a shattering impact on me. Metafictional horror in video games is one of very few sets of tropes in media that can actually keep me up at night. And if I’m tuned into this on such a fundamental level, you might expect that any iteration of those tropes should prove preoccupying for me, almost without regard for everything else in the game. But it didn’t work in Pony Island. And I think it didn’t work because I’ve seen all of these tricks before. So, I’ve learned something about myself: these tropes need to be employed in a surprising way if I’m going to be affected. For reference, there are two older games which, when combined, account for everything that should be scary in Pony Island. Obviously, there’s Undertale, the most frightening moment of which is recreated nearly verbatim here. More on that in a second. But there’s also The Uncle Who Works For Nintendo, the monster of which manifests as glitches in the game’s interface — moments where the game appears to be able to do more than it had initially seemed it could. (And aside from merely coming first, that game also has some social commentary going on that Pony Island doesn’t remotely attempt. Which is fine. I’m just saying: TUWWFN has more plates spinning.) Anyway, the most frightening moment in Undertale is also probably one of my top five most frightening moments in all fiction. And that’s the moment at the end of the standard, neutral story that you’re most likely to get on your first time through where the primary antagonist shuts down the game. That moment nearly coincides with the game’s most clever reveal, which is that “saving” is an in-universe superpower possessed by your character, and not a mere administrative task you perform as a player. The thing that’s horrifying here is that the game’s final boss is becoming aware of the organizational infrastructure that exists just outside of the story. He knows about saving, and that it’s possible to shut down the game — and he’s learned to do those things, in order to turn the tables on you. For a moment, he appears terrifyingly real. (Would this be a weird place to quote Hamlet? Nah, couldn’t be bothered, anyway.) There’s nothing nearly this sophisticated going on in Pony Island. There are moments where the game appears to have the capacity to shut itself down. And there’s a sort of internal consistency to the logic of this, much like in Undertale. But I didn’t detect any further twist on the trick. So, I wasn’t discomfited in the least. Which is actually really disappointing. Anyway, as reviews go, I feel like this has been a very idiosyncratically negative one. I’m sure than most of these concerns are of absolutely zero consequence to most of the people who will play this game. So, aside from all this, Pony Island is good. I do think that the premise of “video game haunted by literally the Devil” is a bit limp. But the gameplay is completely fantastic, both in its action sequences and its puzzles. Both are challenging, but never unfair. And at six bucks, it’s a hell of a deal. So, if you happen to have read this far without having played Pony Island, I guess I… recommend it???

Podcasts

The Gist: “The Autopsy” — Okay, I guess I’m still listening to election wrap-ups. I said I’d stop, but it’s what all of my favourite news-hooked podcasts are talking about, so I guess I’ll just cede a portion of my sanity and continue. This is terrifying, because it doesn’t focus on why Trump won like everything else, but on what his early presidency will actually be like. Sample horror: Newt Gingrich could be in the cabinet, and he’s expressed interest in reinstating HUAC. Smile into the abyss.

Code Switch: “Apocalypse Or Racial Kumbaya? America After Nov. 8” — Good lord, were we ever so optimistic as to even ask the question? These panelists, speaking before the election, express the thought that America will inevitably be in a better place in four years after having been forced to reckon with the racism of this campaign. I wonder if they took the possibility of a Trump win into account at all???

This American Life: “The Sun Comes Up” — A basic, bare-bones series of interviews with Americans from various backgrounds reacting to the news of Trump’s election. It’s the best thing TAL could have done this week. The highlights are the saddest segments, alas: a Mormon woman petitions for gender equality within her religion, supports Hillary Clinton, and gets ostracized; and a black British TAL producer phones his mom to talk about their immigration status. It’s not an earthshaking hour of radio, but it’s exactly what you want This American Life to be the week after Donald Trump’s election.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Lin-Manuel Miranda” — If anybody can get Marc Maron singing, it was always going to be Lin-Manuel Miranda. This is a great chat, with both of them seeming at-ease. Must help that they’re fans of each other, and they know they’re fans of each other. It’s especially great to hear Miranda’s stories of finding himself in the school play. And it’s gratifying to see that somebody who was obviously so precocious has turned out so normal.

The Gist: “The Liberal Hegemony of Pop Culture” — Mike Pesca has a knack for finding reasonable voices on the right. And honestly, listening to reasonable voices on the right is probably important right now. Because as much as I think that voting for Trump was a morally wrong thing to do — no grey area there — it’s probably not right to write off all of those voters as people. Which is what Ross Douthat is accusing virtually all of pop culture of doing. I definitely don’t agree with that, but I can muster a certain amount of sympathy for his case in the abstract. That’s about as much as I’m willing to budge at this very moment.

Radiolab: “One Vote” — This is a fantastic episode, with three great stories (multiple stories per episode has always been my preferred mode of Radiolab) about the extent to which a single vote counts. And it survives the election (which hadn’t happened yet) right up to the point where Robert Krulwich talks about how decisive the difference between male and female voters is. And certain metrics would now seem to undermine the point he’s subtly trying to make. It’s a quibble, and it’s not even really his fault. This is good Radiolab.

All Songs Considered: “Guest DJ Nick Mason On Pink Floyd’s Early Years” — Inevitable nitpick: Bob Boilen mistakes an actual flute for a Mellotron in this episode. But at least he has the forethought to play “The Grand Vizier’s Garden Party” while he’s actually got Nick Mason in the studio. Admirably, Mason doesn’t even seem that embarrassed.

Code Switch: “Another Black President Says Goodbye To Washington” — Chris Jackson is a wise fellow. The way that he’s chosen to think about Washington’s resignation gives him a legitimately unique perspective on how we ought to respond to the election result. And as for Hamilton, I’m sure whoever plays Washington next will be at the top of their profession but Chris Jackson was the perfect choice for the role and his interpretation is one of the strongest in a strong bunch.

Imaginary Worlds: “Dumbledore’s Army” — This mini-season about Harry Potter is maybe the best thing Eric Molinsky has ever done. (Except that semi-fictional Cthulhu thing. That was amazing.) Between this series and The Cursed Child, I’ve recently come to realize exactly how much Potter nostalgia I have. We all kind of marinade in shit-talk about J.K. Rowling, and her various indiscretions in storytelling (the house elves being “happy slaves”; the probably-accidental-but-still-regrettable anti-Semitic caricatures who work at Gringotts). But hearing about people who have used Harry Potter as a springboard for various causes, and as a way to deal with trauma has brought back all of the warm feelings I once had for these stories. I may even re-read a couple favourites within the next year. I haven’t read any of the original seven novels since they came out. Easily rectified. Pick of the week. 

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Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 10)

Back to sanity, with 22 reviews.

Music

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

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

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

Live events

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

Movies

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

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

Television

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

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

Literature, etc.

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

Games

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcast-adjacent things

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

Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 13, 2016)

19 reviews. Back in normal person territory.

Television

Cucumber/Banana/Tofu: episodes 6-8 of all three, plus “The Screwdriver” — One thing I didn’t bring up in my pick of the week entry for this last time is that while Cucumber is a showcase for Russell T Davies: idiosyncratic stylist, Banana is a showcase for a number of different writers as well. Sue Perkins and especially Charlie Covell do magnificent work as guest writers on this show. So, even when Davies stops writing Cucumber, I really hope that he keeps doing Banana. I touched on this last week, but it bears expanding on: every time there’s a movie about LGBTQ people that manages to capture the attention of a mainstream audience (i.e. one that includes ignorant straight dudes such as myself) it is almost without fail a joyless slog. So, an LGBTQ anthology show with a sense of fun, that tells a different story every week and highlights the work of LGBTQ writers, is just something that needs to exist. I don’t think there’s anybody better to oversee it that Russell T Davies, but Banana could easily have a continued life once he moves on from it. I really love these shows, and I think it’s a dreadful shame that they’ve been so overlooked. I can’t urge you enough to watch them. (Although, since I am ostensibly reviewing things on this blog, I will say that I felt that the much-hyped sixth episode of Cucumber was the weakest of the lot, and the one time when the show crossed the line into self-indulgence and soapy plot contrivance. It’s a minor quibble. Nothing’s perfect.)

Last Week Tonight: March 13, 2016 — Nothing much to say except “yes.” And “ha!” And “yes.” And if you stay until the end of the credits, you get to see Rich Sommer try to eat a computer.

Better Call Saul “Rebecca” — Easily the season’s best episode yet. Jimmy and Mike’s plots are more amusing than substantial, but sidelining those characters gives us a chance to get to know both Chuck and Kim a bit better. Both are wonderful characters played by brilliant actors. What’s really interesting is seeing them explicitly linked in the way that they treat Jimmy. Given that Chuck has so much more experience in this regard and that they’re apparently comparing notes now, I’m fairly certain that Chuck will end up being a key factor in Jimmy and Kim’s inevitable breakup. Come to think of it, that could be an intentional play on Chuck’s part. The opening seems to suggest that Jimmy somehow drove a wedge between Chuck and his former wife. Revenge?

Horace and Pete: Episode 1 — Oh, I’m going to like this. Louis C.K. is explicitly going in for a critique of American values, and that is a ride I want to go on. But he’s not leaping feet-first into Kevin Smith polemical territory — there’s a division of labour here. Supporting characters are allowed to talk politics explicitly, but the main contest of old values vs. new values takes place in the A plot, with no explicit references to parties or primaries or Donald Drumpf. The first episode is structured around mirroring the supporting characters’ political arguments with the main characters’ family struggle. There aren’t any neat A to B comparisons to be made, because Louis C.K. has more subtlety than that. But this is essentially political theatre, and C.K. is setting himself up to be for the centre-left what the Coen brothers are for the centre-right. And I guess he can just work with whoever he wants now? Seriously, Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, Edie Falco, Jessica Lange and Rebecca Hall in the same show? With a theme song by Paul Simon? On the internet? It’s possibly that C.K.’s imperial phase has only just started. Very excited to catch up on this and see where this goes.

Movies

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot — What the hell was this? Okay, look. Normally, I’m all about that thing where you don’t worry about whether you’re making a comedy or a drama. None of the best TV seems to care, after all. (See three out of four shows listed above.) But I feel like when you’re telling a true story about a recent war, you need to make a decision. There were some good lines in this, and some good performances. Tina Fey is great in this. But holy hell does the script go every which way. Really not very good.

Music

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Teodor Currentzis, MusicAeterna, et al.: Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto & Stravinsky Les Noces — I don’t give a shit about the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Really, I can’t even tell you how little I’d normally care to hear another recording of this mouldy, overdone repertory warhorse. And it frustrates me to no end that people keep recording it when there are actual living composers writing music (and needing money). And it frustrates me to no end that I basically can’t tell the difference between any of those recordings. So, if you’re going to record this piece, I will almost certainly not care. This recording made me care. It is a totally insane interpretation, with a seat-of-your-pants spontaneity to it such that Currentzis’ orchestra sometimes struggles charmingly to keep up with Kopatchinskaja. I’m sure that there will be many classical fans and critics who will meet it with tut-tuts of disapproval. But to me, this is the standard to which we should hold classical musicians. The question shouldn’t be “how well do these musicians offer us the standard reading of this piece,” but “how do these musicians make this piece new?” Classical musicians should be expected to go back to the score and interpret it afresh every time — like Glenn Gould did, and the late Christopher Hogwood. Every other approach is lazy. This came across my desk a while ago. I wouldn’t have taken it out of the shrink wrap if not for Stravinsky’s Les Noces. But, as fantastic as Currentzis’ Stravinsky is, it’s the Tchaikovsky that sells this. That is something I thought I’d never say. Maybe this whole classical music thing has a future after all. Pick of the week.

Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels — Their second album has been one of my favourites for ages, but I was yet to hear the first. This needed to be rectified. I like this a lot, but there’s nothing on this that hit me quite like “Close Your Eyes,” “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” or “Crown.” But El-P is a hell of a producer, and both he and Killer Mike take some fantastic verses.

Literature, etc.

A week of reading excellent writing on the internet. Also David Day’s Alice annotations, but you know about that already.

Hasit Shah: “Poor Lonely Computer: Prince’s Misunderstood Relationship With The Internet” — A glorious longread from NPR Music, this doubles as a rare inside look into Prince’s exclusive Paisley Park concerts and an exploration of digital copyright law. It’s totally ingenious, and Shah knows exactly who to talk to to make the points he wants to make.

Nitsuh Abebe et al.: “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music is Going” — This New York Times Magazine feature is a completely over-the-top surfeit of awesome. Instead of limiting their impressive stable of staff and guest writers to the 200ish word blurbs that are standard in these kinds of lists, the NYT lets fly with a collection of op-ed style pieces and full-on reported features. (I realize now that the entire issue of the print edition is devoted to this one feature. Nice.) Of particular note are the long pieces about hip-hop group The Internet and session drummer Matt Chamberlain. And Marlon James’ long analysis of Kendrick’s “The Blacker the Berry” takes the final prize. Plus, my perpetual favourite Caroline Shaw made the list! This is no mere, vapid listicle. This is a proper thing.

Kieron Gillen: “The New Games Journalism” — If these Omnireviewer posts have taught me anything about myself, it’s that I’ll never be a “gamer.” I just don’t have the damn time. But I do love games as a medium, and I’m fascinated (and frequently disgusted and appalled) by gaming culture. And if there’s anybody associated with that culture who I trust to be interesting about it, it’s Kieron Gillen. This is an essay he wrote three years before launching Rock, Paper, Shotgun, which is essentially a manifesto arguing that a writer’s personal experience with a game is more important in writing than the mechanics of the game itself. That makes it basically transferrable to every discipline, and I’d encourage anybody who writes about the arts to check this out. In terms of its specificity to games journalism, though, Gillen manages to coin the wonderful phrase “travel journalism to imaginary places.” (Also, Gillen uses the line “just saying it could even make it happen” from Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” to justify his enterprise, as if his essay is a sort of incantation. That seems to me like a precursor to the idea that music is magic — the premise of Gillen’s Phonogram.)

Games

SOMA — It’s been ages since I played this, because it got too scary. I can handle jumpscares and things chasing me down dark corridors. But when unknown consciousnesses start trying to talk to me through monitors, the willies come on something fierce. I think I’m close to the end of the game now, but I wanted to check in here a bit in advance to gripe about a truly godawful bug that forced me to do one of the game’s scariest chapters twice. There’s a moment where you need to use an item to unlock a door and it’s supposed to be automatic, but it just… doesn’t happen. After some Googling, I found that others had this same problem, and when they reloaded their save files from the previous chapter, it works. But that entails having to traverse the darkness of the ocean floor, teeming with anglerfish, for a second time. And my nerves have their limits.

Podcasts

I’m suspending Radiotopia reviews in case I decide to enter Podquest.

You Must Remember This: “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” parts 5-12 — This series tells an enormous story with such finesse. I haven’t got much to add to what I said last week, except that it continues as brilliantly as it starts. Longworth makes late 60s Hollywood seem extremely rotten. She emphasizes that Manson was part of a larger counterculture that was becoming poisonous by 1969, but that studios were still falling over themselves to monetize. And her detour into the post-Manson life of Roman Polanski is just as disturbing as the murder narrative. Seriously, what a wretched creep. I have quibbles, as you do. I wish Longworth wouldn’t do silly voices when she reads quotes. She should either get an actor, like she often does, or read the quotes straight. I wish she wouldn’t use the phrase “and/or” so much — and in her tagline, no less. But altogether, this is a unique and wonderful use of the podcast medium to tell really dense, resonant stories. I can’t recommend it enough. Pick of the week.

Radiolab: “Debatable” — Okay, now we’re back in the territory that I like Radiolab to occupy. The question here is basically “How do you engage in debate when the very structure of debate is designed to exclude you?” The answer that this episode’s protagonist Ryan Wash comes up with is “Always debate the structure of debate.” I loved this. As a sidebar, if you want to get really mad, go read the comments on this and “The Cathedral” on the Radiolab site. I agree with some of them that Radiolab isn’t what it used to be, but those aren’t the episodes to gripe about. How typical of the internet that the episodes that prompt so much bullshit are one that engages with systemic racism and another that features an indie game. If there are two things that internet fuckwits hate, it’s challenging racism and indie games.  

On the Media: “Print is Back, Back Again” — This episode gives us the actual, not that pessimistic state of the publishing industry, an inside look at Amazon’s super weird bricks-and-mortar location, and the knowledge that used books are sometimes sold by the foot as decorative objects in particular colours. Really good.

Imaginary Worlds: “Why They Fight” — I probably will not watch Batman v. Superman. But it’s cool to hear Molinsky parse the relationship between those two characters in terms of D&D character alignments. God, but I’m a nerd.

All Songs Considered: SXSW coverage — This encompasses All Songs’ hour-long preview of little-known artists they’re excited to see in Austin and their nightly debriefs after full days of, presumably, sensory overload. It’s fun to hear Bob Boilen and co. in this environment, which is presumably where they would all like to spend their entire lives. They do a great job of capturing the vibe of the place. One of these years, I’ll go.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Hamilton” — At last. I’ve been looking forward to the PCHH panel seeing Hamilton about as much as they were probably looking forward to seeing Hamilton. If you’re in any way remotely skeptical about this universally and justly beloved high-water mark of human creativity this ought to allay any doubts. As Lin-Manuel Miranda himself put it on Twitter, these guys really went in. Linda Holmes reveals how Hamilton calls back to every great Broadway musical ever (though she skips the Jesus Christ Superstar homage, maybe intentionally), and Gene Demby does the same with its references to much of the history of rap. I am so glad that all four of them loved it so much, because this is one of those cases where I’m totally okay with the hive mind. As far as I’m concerned, anybody who doesn’t like Hamilton stands revealed as a charlatan. This episode is also the perfect example of why I like PCHH so much better than Slate’s Culture Gabfest. This is both more analytically incisive than their episode on Hamilton, and also much funnier.

Reply All: “Earth Pony” — This is both named after and most notable for its magisterial “Yes Yes No” segment. The main segment is a fairly unremarkable but basically fun bit about a fictional, but nonetheless successful political prognosticator. But it’s that “Yes Yes No” featuring Jason Mantzoukas in the role of Alex Blumberg that really sells this. It might be the best that segment has ever been.

Serial: “Thorny Politics” — Oh no, now Trump’s involved. Two things I’ve loved in this season have been the actual narrative of Bergdahl’s life, capture and imprisonment; and the political ramifications of his release. This, therefore, is one of the best episodes of the season, focussing as it does on the latter of the two.