Tag Archives: Pink Floyd

Omnibus (week of Aug. 6, 2017)

Greetings from Clarenville, NFLD! I was on a red eye flight last night and I am delirious and I don’t know what time it is. Anyway, I anticipate next week’s instalment being substantially less well populated to this one.

23 reviews.

Movies

Big Trouble in Little China — Good lord, what a thing. I wrote last week in my Dunkirk review about my favourite experiences in a movie theatre, and how that list is distinct from my favourite movies. I think this now joins the ranks of Mad Max: Fury Road and Avatar in the former category. I saw it at the Rio with a friend who is, I would imagine, a bit more inclined toward schlocky action than I am — and definitely more inclined towards John Carpenter. And the crowd that gathered for this was thoroughly in the tank for this movie — I daresay it was impossible not to have fun in that theatre. I doubt it would have struck me as anywhere near as entertaining if I’d watched it at home, because its value is a sort of value that I don’t see by default — I need other people to help bolster my enthusiasm. I don’t mean to suggest here that the movie itself is anything other that brilliant. It’s just not brilliant in a way I would have noticed on my own. The basic premise of the movie is “cast one white dude as the supposed hero, then have him be a hilariously useless dolt throughout.” This is a wonderful thing to watch, because Kurt Russell’s performance is completely committed: he’s John Wayne, loudly blundering through somebody else’s movie. He trips over his own dick in deeply white American fashion at the very beginning of the climactic battle scene and never regains his poise, while the movie’s huge ensemble of Asian martial artists flies through the air all around him. That’s the juxtaposition that makes the movie so satisfying: the fights are genuinely fantastic and a ton of fun to watch, but the story, characters and dialogue feel no need to live up to the seriousness of the choreography. I loved the shit out of this, and will be liberally repurposing the line “Hey, I’m a reasonable guy, but I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things” to my own ends.

Music

Pink Floyd: The Early Years 1965-1972 — I’ve really enjoyed hearing legendary BBC DJ John Peel as a beloved supporting character in this box set’s story. The fifth volume features his best moment yet, where his announcement to a live audience that “This is Radio One” is met with a huge cheer, his continuation “on medium wave” is met with an even bigger cheer, and his tossed off self-introduction, “And this is John Peel…” is met with a positive torrent of appreciation. “Ah, you blew it,” he tells them. “You did it all wrong.” This guy was everything good about public broadcasting. This single disc collection from around the time of Meddle, arguably the first great Pink Floyd album (though I’m not arguing that) is dominated by the 1971 Peel session in front of a live crowd. It contains a surpassingly good “Fat Old Sun,” which has been extended to include not just the classic guitar solo, but also an uncharacteristically blazing feature for Rick Wright on organ. “One of These Days” is preceded by Peel reporting to the audience that Roger Waters considers this instrumental to be a “poignant appraisal of the current social situation,” which is exactly the sort of thing his detractors would think he means sincerely. But Peel clearly recognizes the game Waters is playing which is “let’s see if I can make John Peel say something dumb and look like a knob on his own show.” Peel doesn’t fall for it. “Make what you will of that,” he says, with a nearly audible roll of his eyes. He also announces that Pink Floyd were evidently dissatisfied with their label’s release of “Embryo” on the Picnic sampler, because it was basically a demo. But he doesn’t explain why they continue to make it a major part of their live set. It’s not a good song, in any version. The session culminates in a complete live “Echoes,” which pales in comparison to the earthshaking Pompei recording (I understand that’s included on the following volume) but it’s still a lot of fun to hear the track through the ears of an audience who likely hasn’t heard it before. (Meddle wasn’t released until a month later.) That’s what I’ve enjoyed about listening to this set, and I imagine that’s part of what more casual fans might not understand about why a huge set of outtakes and curios like this appeals to me: listening to The Early Years isn’t like listening to an album, or even a live album. It’s like listening to an enormous, comprehensive, narration-free documentary about the creative development of Pink Floyd, and the relationship they had with their audience prior to their enormous celebrity. That’s a really compelling story to me, and it’s part of why the Peel sessions are such consistent highlights of the set. The only track on the disc not to come from the Peel session is a segment from the jams that led to the composition of “Echoes,” titled “Nothing, Pt. 14.” It’s an amusing listen primarily because it finds the band toying with the section of the song that would eventually be the leadup to its climax, but they clearly haven’t devised that climax yet. So, in retrospect it’s almost hilariously dissatisfying. But it really emphasizes what’s so impressive about “Echoes,” which is that it clearly is a collection of several initially unrelated ideas that have been massaged together in a way that works as a singular journey. It’s the moment when the fact that three quarters of the band are former architecture students is most clear. The sixth volume (the final one to be available on Apple Music) is both the most musically satisfying and least narratively interesting of the set. These effects both arise for the same reason, which is that all of the music included has been officially released in some fashion before. It’s unclear to me why the compilers of this set decided to include Obscured by Clouds in its entirety, since surely the vast majority of people interested in buying this would have it already. But it has been newly remixed, and has never sounded better. The thing that feels like it’s missing from this set more than anything is live performances of the Obscured by Clouds material. At this point, we’ve gotten to hear music from all of their other albums as performance pieces, but we don’t get a picture of what this stuff sounded like in concert. Presumably, including that would have taken the compilers over their cutoff line of January 1, 1973, and at that point the absence of Dark Side of the Moon material would seem unnatural. So, I get it, mostly. It’s just another one of those things that makes me hope we get another box set like this for the years from 1973-2014 — a far vaster span of time, but with only one more album than this box’s span. There’s no better way that this set could have ended than with the first digital audio release of Live at Pompeii. Aside from being a magnificent performance, and one of the best things in the Pink Floyd catalogue, the documentary film that the audio comes from is the defining document of the tail end of Pink Floyd’s relative obscurity. It finds them performing material from the whole of the transitional period this set documents: from “A Saucerful of Secrets” to “Echoes.” And it also finds them in the process of recording The Dark Side of the Moon, which would make them one of the biggest bands in rock history. This is narratively rich territory, and it’s a damn good live record, too. It’s beyond me why it was apparently included in the box set as an afterthought, because it might be the best thing in it. The Early Years 1967-1972 has been a joy to listen to. Even with all of the repeated performances of the same track, the ephemeral nature of many of the recordings, and early Pink Floyd’s tendency towards obscurantism, I never once found it tedious. (Okay, maybe once: on the Atom Heart Mother-focussed disc.) It is maybe the most vital collection of rock curios ever released.

Olivia Chaney: The Longest River — In preparation for the Decemberists concert (which as I’m writing this will be happening tonight) I thought I’d check out their opener’s solo material. To recap: Chaney is the lead singer of the Decemberists’ side project Offa Rex, whose first album was released earlier this year, is brilliant, and is an explicit tribute to the British folk revival. I love that album, but it does what it says on the tin. Going into this one, I didn’t quite know what to expect. And that worked out to my advantage, because The Longest River consistently surprised me in all the best ways. It’s a mix of original songs, traditional songs, covers, and an anomalous Purcell aria. Chaney performs all of them with real attention paid to the detail in the arrangements, which are mostly just guitar and piano (and the occasional Kronos Quartet cameo) but they are all thoughtful and complex. And the songs themselves are complex, too. I’ve listened to the gorgeous “Loose Change” more than a half-dozen times at this point and I still can’t anticipate where the phrases start and stop. But it’s a good kind of disorientation, and in the end you find yourself deposited back in the part of the song with the gorgeous riff. I’m reminded of Gabriel Kahane, though none of Chaney’s lyrics make me gag. The more obvious point of comparison would be Joni Mitchell, a singer with a similar range, precision, and virtuosity in her arrangements. But there’s something paradoxically more modern about Chaney’s inclusion of traditional songs and covers. The Longest River is a curio cabinet as much as a personal opus. And I mean that in a good way. I’ll be living with this for a while. It’s less immediate than The Queen of Hearts but I can see it having more legs.

Live events

The Decemberists, with Olivia Chaney: Live at the Orpheum — Occasionally, you travel in time. I went to this concert with the very friend who introduced me to the Decemberists in the first place. They were the most important band among my high school’s contingent of weird theatre kids, and therefore one of the first relatively current bands to join Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and their ilk in my regular rotation. I remember the first time I heard “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” It wasn’t the studio recording — it was at an impromptu sing-along in the swimming pool at a summer improv camp, with one of the instructors playing guitar on the poolside. There were probably fifty people in that swimming pool, and I was the only one who didn’t know the Decemberists. This was rectified by my present-day concertmate, posthaste. Listening to them now, I can’t help but see in them the same quality I see in most of my passionate obsessions from those days (and now, in a more muted way): a sort of effusive muchness that’s bound to alienate aesthetes with carefully cultivated tastes, while enthralling anoraks like me and my weird teenage friends. (“Drama kids in three-button vests,” Pitchfork called us. I rather like that.) Many of Colin Meloy’s song titles contain exclamation points (“July, July!” “O Valencia!” “Revenge!” “All Arise!”), and there’s a sense in which his entire career is an exclamation, namely: “let’s put on a show!” In the Decemberists, we saw our own self-indulgence reflected back at us, and they offered confirmation that unabashed pretension was a perfectly valid way to find joy in the world. So, this concert with this friend brought us full circle. Honestly I’d say it might have been my ideal Decemberists setlist if I’d already seen them before, which I hadn’t. This was a show that was really light on iconic classics. We got none of Picaresque, and only one track from the either of the first two albums. There was no “Mariner’s Revenge Song,” no “Sixteen Military Wives,” no “I Was Born for the Stage.” We did get “Crane Wife 3” and “O Valencia!” But for the most part, this was a set devoted to the stranger corners of the Decemberists’ catalogue — and the proggier corners. We got “The Island,” in all its Tull-aping glory. We got “The Queen’s Rebuke,” which was by no means the part of The Hazards of Love that I expected to hear. And most remarkably of all, we got The Tain in its entirety: all 18-and-a-half prog-fed minutes of it. That was the highlight of the show, and I’ve been struggling since the concert to think of an analogue for the weirdness and excitement of that moment in some other artist’s discography. Maybe if Paul McCartney announced he was going to do all of Ram. We also got a bunch of new stuff, which was nice. I could have done with fewer tracks from Beautiful/Terrible, which is the only Decemberists album I don’t especially care for. But their new “State of the Union” song, “Everything is Awful” is a scorcher, and a cathartic one at that. Its lyrical simplicity is new territory for Colin Meloy. If even he is lost for words, we must be in a rough spot, indeed. There was also a set from the Offa Rex album, which I adore, and more on which below. So basically it was a super weird set, and if this band weren’t tied up with so much nostalgia for me, it might have been my ideal Decemberists experience. But I really wanted to hear the stuff I loved when I was 16. Can you blame me? So, I feel as though I need to see them again, and next time I want the other two parts of “The Crane Wife,” “Leslie Anne Levine” and at least half of Picaresque. Finally, a word on Olivia Chaney. We wandered in about one minute into her opening set. I’ve been listening to The Longest River semi-obsessively over the past week, so I was basically just as excited for her as for the Decemberists. And she did not disappoint. She drifted between the harmonium, the keyboard and a hollow-body electric guitar, performing a set with the same far-flung variety as her album in the space of 30 minutes. Highlights included her gorgeous original “Loose Change,” which is a perfect song, and a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” which she is one of only a handful of people I would trust to sing. I was delighted to find that she’s also performing alongside the Decemberists during their set, doing a few tracks from The Queen of Hearts, which is one of the best albums of the year so far. Evidently this was the first show not to be explicitly billed as Offa Rex to include a set like this. I feel very privileged. I feel like I need to see the Decemberists again because we have unfinished business. I feel like I need to see Olivia Chaney again because she is a staggering musician and I think she’s on the verge of something. Occasionally, you travel in time. But it isn’t always easy to tell which direction you went in.

Television

Game of Thrones: “The Spoils of War” — Sure helps to clarify your loyalties, doesn’t it? I would have been entirely content to see Jaime and Bronn both perish in the flames of Daenerys’s new world order. Wonder how that’ll shake up. Anyway, this is more consequential than last week’s talky episode, and it’s definitely great to see some dragons roast some Lannisters. I’ll always prefer the talky episodes, but it wouldn’t be GoT without scenes like that. It strikes me that Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks are the perfect series to be watching in tandem right now, since GoT is offering satisfaction in such heavy doses, where Twin Peaks maintains its steadfast perversity. One or the other of them might drive me over the edge if not for the other. Maisie Williams is this week’s performance highlight. Arya has this wonderful way of saying something incredibly grave and then conjuring her most childlike side whenever somebody finds that amusing. It’s incredibly unsettling. The look of absolute glee when she uses her dagger to best Brienne in combat training is basically what I like about this show. “Who taught you to do that?” “No one.” Marvellous. I’m liking the way that the Daenerys/Jon partnership is shaping up. This episode finds Jon Snow offering the sort of advice to Daenarys that indicates how he and she need each other. That’s the plotline I’m most excited about right now. Also, just want to point out that last week I branded Littlefinger a chaos theorist, only to have Bran reiterate his prior thesis that “chaos is a ladder” this week. It’s the little things that make us feel like geniuses, isn’t it?

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 13 — Another frustrating instalment that I enjoyed in spite of myself. I love the music in the opening scene: it’s just alienating enough. The clear highlight here is Mr. C’s armwrestling match, but it is cold comfort given the fact that those detectives have completely failed to acknowledge the connection between Dougie Jones and Dale Cooper. He’s not waking up is he.

QI: “Next” — Well, Sandi Toksvig is delightful. I haven’t watched this since Stephen Fry left, only because I haven’t been in the mood, but it’s lovely to see it in good hands. And having both Ross Noble and Frankie Boyle is frankly a surfeit of wit.

Literature, etc.

Chris Ware: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth — This is one of the most emotionally exhausting works of fiction I have ever experienced. It’s a cathartic kind of exhaustion, but Chris Ware drives his protagonist (and his protagonist’s forebears in the long flashback sequences) to psychological places where not every reader will want to follow. There’s something extra effective about personal, heartfelt stories like this when they’re told in an aggressively formalist way. Christopher Nolan, to pick the other example who’s come up recently, has always made movies I like because he shows you human experience through the prism of complex story structures. This isn’t just cleverness: it changes the way you watch his movies by adding a layer of distance between you and the content of the story. You’re expected to fill that distance with your own ability to identify with the characters, and that makes a movie like Dunkirk especially devastating. Chris Ware takes that distancing technique to a level unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. His art is detailed in the way that a blueprint is detailed: everything you’d see if you were looking at a building or person in real life is accounted for in his drawing, but left cartoonish in its realization. And he’s not one to amplify the emotional impact of key moments with dynamic page layouts. His visual language is solidly rectangular. That in itself contributes a sort of austerity to the storytelling. Even splash pages are a bit of a indulgence for Ware, and he uses them very sparingly — including once at the book’s most shattering moment, when something truly awful happens to Jimmy’s grandfather as a child. There’s also a moment where a major plot twist near the end is communicated wordlessly through, basically, a flow chart. You get the point. Ware is extremely restrained and fussy. At first, the book’s general aesthetic of “Sunday funnies meets 19th-century carnival advertisements” just seems like a symptom of this formalism. But when the shattering moment I mentioned above happened, you realize that in fact, the event that precipitated the Corrigan family’s trend of worthless fathers (and thus Jimmy’s bad state throughout the story) took place at the Chicago World’s Fair. So, the fact that the story plays out in the garb of that event’s promotional materials takes on a new resonance. This is simultaneously one of the most affecting and most ingenious comics I’ve ever read. It’s a masterpiece. Now I’m gonna go lie down for a while. Pick of the week.

Franklin Foer: “When Silicon Valley Took Over Journalism” — Possibly the single most concise and effective expression of the devil’s bargain that the journalism industry made when they went to Facebook for an audience. Evidently Foer has a book coming out on this. Can’t wait. Do you know an editor with a Chartbeat addiction? Make them read this, then lock them in the basement.

John Lanchester: “You Are The Product” — Foer’s piece may be the most concise one about the perils of Facebook for the media, but this review of three recent books on the subject in the London Review of Books is the most complete feature-length discussion of how Facebook’s lack of a moral compass is affecting its users. I plan to read all of these books.

Thomas Ligotti: “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story” — This magnificent essay-that-is-not-an-essay reveals Thomas Ligotti to be several things I knew he was, as well as a few things I didn’t know he was. It reveals him to be a very good horror writer, which I knew he was. It reveals him to be completely crazy, which I suspected he was. But it also reveals him to have a sense of humour, which I didn’t know he had, and to have a facility for metafiction, which hasn’t been part of the stories I’ve read by him. That last observation makes this story scarier than many of his others for me, simply because there is nothing scarier to me than a story that transgresses its own boundaries. As for the essayistic element of this, there is much to learn from Ligotti’s straightforward discussion of the types of horror stories. As a producer of an occasionally horror-adjacent podcast, I have found myself in positions where I’ve butted up against my own insistence on what Ligotti calls the “realistic” model of horror writing, where an uncanny thing is found to exist in contrast to a fundamentally “real” and “normal” world. Having read this, I now understand why this doesn’t always work for me — because in stories like Ligotti’s the world is fundamentally skewed and unreal. And those are the kinds of stories that I like. Also, it’s hilarious to me that Ligotti has to literally reimagine himself as a passionate Italian from a bygone century to contemplate writing Gothically. This is very, very good.

Stephen King: The Gunslinger — As I’m writing this, I just got off a plane. On that plane, I read nearly this whole book. That is not something I normally do — my general ponderousness and tendency to get distracted makes me an abnormally slow reader. But now I think I know why people like Stephen King, at least in part: the pages fly by. This is the first thing I’ve read by King. I feel like I’ve always been just about to get into him, but I’ve always backed off before pulling the trigger, so to speak. I decided to dive right into the Dark Tower series because I’ve been reading reviews of the movie, which almost uniformly make the movie sound like hackneyed drivel, while also emphasizing that the books are as wonderfully strange as the movie fails to be. Fine, I’m in. This first instalment manages to simultaneously be incredibly thrilling and also feel like it’s mere setup. The book’s story is basically summed up by its first sentence: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” And then when the gunslinger catches up with the man in black, they talk, and more questions are raised than answered. The basic idea of this is a lot of fun: put Clint Eastwood in a fantasy story. What I’m most looking forward to in this series is the opportunity for genre fusions. Already we’ve got Jake, who is a secondary character from an entirely different kind of story — and I suspect we haven’t seen the last of him. Good fun.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Atomic Blonde,” “Insecure,” “Detroit,” & “A Guide to Stephen King” — Two weeks worth of this! Honestly, the Stephen King episode is the only one that I’m finding of practical value, but it’s just nice to listen to them talk.

Love and Radio: “Suitcase of Love and Shame” — Another absurdly intimate episode of Love and Radio. We get to listen in on an affair in real time. It’s a beautiful thing in which nobody comes out looking very good.

The Turnaround: “Katie Couric,” “Ray Suarez,” “Werner Herzog” & “Terry Gross” — The last four episodes of this show have all been interesting, although the climactic (what a concept) Terry Gross interview has a lot of overlap with the more comprehensive Longform interview. This has been a thoroughly enjoyable series, though I’ve cooled on it over time. I wouldn’t stand by my initial impression that it’s among the best radio of the year.

Planet Money: “Google is Big. Is That Bad?” — Yes.

A Piece of Work: “Samantha Gets High on Light” — I’m really impressed by how well the host and guests on this show manage to describe the experience of visual art in an invisible medium. This is a great new show; I’ve been totally enjoying it. Makes me want more podcasts about visual art. Pick of the week.

The Daily: Wednesday, August 9 — Nice to hear Carl Zimmer on this! Love that guy. And also it’s always a good way to get the latest Trump horrors put into context.

On the Media: “Shmashmortion” — A history of the politics of abortion from Brooke Gladstone. How can you go wrong? This is great stuff, and really emphasizes how artificial a debate it is.

Imaginary Worlds: “Evil Plans” & “Scott Snyder” — Been awhile since I’ve heard this. The Scott Snyder interview is fun, even though I had no idea who he was. It’s about how his own anxieties factor into the Batman stories he’s written.

Code Switch: “The U.S. Census And Our Sense Of Us” & “Who’s Your Great-Great-Great-Great Granddaddy?” — Two episodes that explore notions of identity and the labels we put on them. The one about genealogy is especially interesting.

Theory of Everything: “Illicit Objects” — A marvellous compendium of bite-sized stories about objects that people aren’t supposed to have. For having been produced by people who aren’t Benjamen Walker, it feels very ToE.

Mogul: “Cameo: Russell Simmons and Sophia Chang” — It’s a bit awkward to hear Russell Simmons proclaiming that he doesn’t think Chris Lighty committed suicide after the final full episode of this basically concluded that he did, and that the only reason people don’t want to believe that is the stigma against mental illness in the hip hop community. But at least Simmons seems to think that taboo is harmful.

Omnibus (week of July 30, 2017)

This week’s North by Northwest segment is a good one, I think. A few overlooked gems by eminent artists. And it’s always a pleasure to do a segment with Margaret Gallagher, who’s guest hosting this week. I’m at 10:25 in this podcast.

21 reviews.

Live events

Cinquecento: Live at Christ Church Cathedral — This was a lovely evening at Early Music Vancouver’s Bach festival, so named for having a lot of Bach, but not only Bach. Cinquecento is a five-piece male vocal ensemble that specializes in the music of the 16th century. This concert, in the resonant acoustic of Burrard Street’s Christ Church Cathedral, focussed on the music of Reformation England. The program was a mix of Thomas Tallis (a name to know, but not a composer I’d really ever looked into), Christopher Tye (who I’d honestly never heard of at all), William Byrd (a favourite of mine) and an encore by Robert Parsons (no relation). Cinquecento sings with otherworldly accuracy and feeling — only the occasional siren from outside the thin shell of the church walls reminded us that we were in fact still participating in material reality. Particularly ethereal were the moments of these pieces when the polyphony gave way to unison singing, in the style of plainchant. It’s almost spooky how together they are in those moments. Funny how when you’ve experienced complexity on basically every musical front, from harmonic to technological, a handful of people singing in unison makes the world stop. It has taken me a long time to develop a taste for renaissance polyphony in more than short bursts. It seems to me that for all of the variation in compositional style between different composers and genres in this period, there isn’t a whole lot of variation in texture — and that’s what you hear first. Increasingly, I think that the way to hear this music is simply to surrender yourself to it, and the best way to do that is to hear it live, in a resonant space. It’s a rare thing that I say any music is better live. But I love hearing early music in concert. I should do it more. In terms of rep: the standouts among the Tallis selections were his “Lamentations of Jeremiah I” and the hymn “Te lucis ante terminum,” which contained the aforementioned world-stopping unison sections. But the real highlight, totally unexpectedly, was the Agnus Dei from Tye’s Mean Mass. I know nothing about this guy, and I wasn’t particularly moved by any of the other sections from this mass. A cursory Google doesn’t unearth any recordings, so I do hope I manage to encounter this music again. In any case, a wonderful concert.

Television, etc.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 12 — “Crisco, you been selling your blood again?” As much as I complain about the lack of Dale Cooper in the new Twin Peaks, I tend to prefer episodes in which he has no part at all to the ones that focus on him as a monosyllabic husk of his former self. (Aside from that wonderful shot of Sonny Jim nailing him with a baseball.) This was a pretty fantastic episode, all things considered. I tend to enjoy the Gordon/Albert plotline, and here’s hoping that Tammy gets something to do now that she’s officially on the dangerous Blue Rose task force. But aside from those reliably enjoyable scenes (with one exception, in a moment), this also gives us generous doses of two characters who have been either largely or entirely absent for the bulk of the season. Audrey Horne’s return is as baffling as we had every reason to believe it would be, since Lynch and Frost seem hellbent on putting our favourite characters in situations so unfamiliar to us that they read as functionally different people. But at least we get Grace Zabriskie, stepping back into the role of Sarah Palmer for more screen time than in any prior episode. I love this performance, because unlike many of this show’s reintroduced characters, Sarah seems exactly like you’d expect her to, 25 years after the original series’ events. Which is to say, she seems similar to the way we’re used to her — but moreso. The intense trauma of what happened to her daughter has continued to eat away at her just like it was in the first place, and it’s been like that for decades, now. Zabriskie’s performance has always been one of the best in Twin Peaks. And here, she contorts herself into a person who seems like she hasn’t been calm since a third of a lifetime ago. But also there’s that scene where David Lynch ogles a comically sexed-up French woman. I mean, at least he’s being explicit about it. But I really wish this show was better about not being sexist. The last thing I wanted Lynch and Frost to do with a revived Twin Peaks was demonstrate what out-of-touch old men they are. For some, Twin Peaks’ attitude towards women is likely grounds for dismissal out of hand, and I understand that. Personally, I just wish that a show that’s so radical in so many ways could be a little less ass-backwards in that way.

Game of Thrones: “The Queen’s Justice” — Marvellous. This is Game of Thrones at its talkiest, most political, and best. The long-awaited meeting of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen is enough to make it classic. It’s a beautifully wrought bit of political drama in which two sympathetic characters are both right in conflicting ways, as are their sympathetic aides. Tyrion and Ser Davos are equally compelling as the two marquee names. In fact I daresay Liam Cunningham wins the scene with his spirited defence of Jon’s worthiness of the title King in the North. It’s nice to see somebody respectable offer a bit of resistance to Daenerys, too. She is glorious, to be sure, but she’s getting ostentatious, and she doesn’t see the whole picture. Nobody south of Winterfell has, yet. That scene is so good that it risks sucking the air out of everything that comes after. But then we get a pair of the best Cersei scenes ever. First, we watch her carry out truly gruesome revenge against her daughter’s killer. Then, in a scene I didn’t know I wanted, we watch her spar with Mark Gatiss, who brought all his considerable smugness to bear. We get Littlefinger the chaos theorist, advocating a model of decision making based on envisioning every branch in a tree of outcomes. We get Sam continuing to be abused in the way of all unpaid interns. And we get the magnificent Olenna Tyrell dying as she lived: with an acid tongue and an impeccable knowledge of her sparring partner’s pressure points. So far, this is my favourite season of Game of Thrones. If it keeps this up to the end, it may yet become a show I mostly like.

Literature, etc.

Ryan Lizza: “Anthony Scaramucci Called Me To Unload About White House Leakers, Reince Priebus, and Steve Bannon” — Even after Priebus got pushed out and made this piece into a previous version of the news (it happens so fast now), I felt I had to read this and I am not sorry I did. Scaramucci is a cartoon character. He is a man with absolutely no self-awareness. He refers to himself in the third person and calls himself “the Mooch.” He is making a concerted effort to come off as some kind of goon/kingpin hybrid and he ends up sounding like a sad man who thinks he’s in Goodfellas. Wild shit. Also, like an hour after I wrote this review, he got the boot. Awesome.

Chris Ware: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth — I am about three quarters of the way through this magnificent graphic novel. I daresay I’ve lingered longer on each page of this than I have with any other comic, thanks to Chris Ware’s complex and adventurous page layouts, resolutely quadrilateral-based, but with the panels of sequences arranged in pleasingly counterintuitive ways. And the art itself is basically the platonic ideal of comic art: cartoonish and expressive, with each panel limited in its colour palate, but with an almost schematic attention to the detail of structures and environments. Early in the book, Ware’s layouts are more ostentatious and formalist. Some take on the character of a flow chart, with narratives told through abstract series’ of cause and effect. But as the book proceeds, his approach becomes more direct, befitting the increasing drama of the story. Because for all of the novelty of Ware’s approach, for all of the virtuosity in his artwork, the story he is telling is a brutally sad and often cringeworthy tale of isolation and hardship. I’ll cover my thoughts on the story next week once I’m finished it. But it’s already pretty clear to me that this is soon to join the ranks of From Hell and Phonogram, my other favourite works in this medium.

James Parker: “The Whitest Music Ever” — LMAO where to even start. Firstly, I am grateful to Parker for reiterating the traditional critical line about prog rock in a mainstream publication. With a book like David Wiegel’s The Show That Never Ends on the market, which Parker is reviewing here, I was getting concerned that my love of prog no longer makes me a contrarian and THAT CANNOT STAND. Equally gratifying is the way in which Parker dismisses prog with the general sentiment “but just listen to it its so ugly!” This is by some margin the most defensible negative critique of the genre. It is super weird! Prog is often very unattractive music — fascinatingly so, to those of us who like it. Parker’s got a great line about “the tune” of a piece of music being “the infinitely precious sound of the universe rhyming with one’s own brain.” I find that unbelievably relatable. Except that I feel the universe rhyming with my brain when I listen to “Knots” by Gentle Giant, which Parker, reasonably enough, finds unlistenable. One man’s trash, etc. All the same, Parker’s surety that this music is intrinsically unlikeable carries an unpleasant implication: that those of us who claim to like it do so out of something other than the intuitive aesthetic attraction that draws everybody else to their favourite music. I.e. we are pretentious, and we would have fewer liabilities as cultural consumers if we were normal. That’s real shitty. Dan Fox puts it better than I could ever hope to: “The accuser of pretension always presumes bad intentions. Truth is, more often than not pretension is simply someone trying to make the world more interesting, responding to it the way they think is appropriate. It’s more likely that what you think is one person’s pretension is another’s good faith… To fear being accused of pretension is to police oneself out of curiosity about the world.” I can’t help but feel when I read a critique like Parker’s that I’m being beckoned back to my box. “Don’t enjoy weird shit; it’s unbecoming.” And while I absolutely agree with Parker that the elements of pop music that prog sometimes eschews, i.e. hooks and repetition (though his loathed Magma are plenty repetitious), are valuable and attractive, I don’t think that’s any reason to proclaim the genre “murder, artistically speaking.” It’s insufferably closed-minded to expect all music to conform to any one set of standards. And I don’t think that Parker’s self-acknowledged glibness is at all constructive. Rather, I think it only serves as virtue signalling for his own normalcy, which isn’t even a virtue. Am I being unfun? Probably. But this is bad criticism, and I don’t know how to say that without getting on my high horse. Finally, a word on prog’s whiteness. Prog is super white! This is by no means good, but I’m also not sure that its deliberate distance from the blues is a sin by default. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’m still of two minds about it. On one hand, you could look at prog’s disavowal of blues as a creepily Brexity refusal to engage with anybody’s culture save for these musicians’ own white, European culture. On the other hand, you can also look at it as a respectful reluctance to engage in cultural appropriation. Of all of the rock music to emerge from the U.K. in the late 60s, prog is the only subgenre whose musicians have consistently acknowledged, in their musical practice and in interviews, that blues does not belong to them and they don’t really have any business playing it. Which of these two interpretations seems more convincing probably depends on how charitable you feel towards the music in general, but I expect the truth involves a bit of both. Personally, I find prog’s enormous whiteness a hell of a lot more palatable than this bullshit.

Movies

Snowpiercer — I don’t know why I didn’t see this sooner. This is a really good movie. The conceit of showing a revolution happening in a class-stratified train is one of those premises that is so elegant from the outset that you wonder why nobody did it long before. (I suppose the graphic novel came out in 1982, but that still seems curiously recent to me.) In execution, all it really has to do is make the journey from the back of the train to the front compelling and varied, which it is. Chris Evans is a bit of a cipher of a protagonist until near the end, when things get really complicated. But in the supporting cast we get John Hurt, Tilda Swinton (with some really great false teeth), Octavia Spencer and Ed Harris, so how can you go wrong. Good fun. The kind of movie I wish we saw more of.

Dunkirk — Seeing Christopher Nolan’s latest in an IMAX screening sits very near the top of my shortlist of great moviegoing experiences. Take note that this is a distinct list from my list of favourite movies, and even from my list of favourite movies I’ve seen in theatres. A movie need not be a masterpiece to be an incredible experience in a theatre. Some of the films I’d put on this list are masterpieces (Mad Max: Fury Road). Some are resolutely not (Avatar). Dunkirk is a truly great film, probably Nolan’s best. But my opinion of it is entirely contingent on the experience of seeing it in film projection, on an IMAX screen. The beauty of IMAX is that it nearly fills your field of vision, encouraging you to forget everything that lies beyond the edges of the screen. So, when Nolan puts his camera in an enclosed space, the hugeness of an IMAX screen makes the scene feel more claustrophobic, not less, because you feel that you’re in that space as well. And when that claustrophobic space, say, the galley of ship, gets hit by a torpedo and fills instantly with water, you feel like you’re going to die. That, in a nutshell, is why Dunkirk is a great film: Nolan understands that cinema is an experience as much as a narrative art form, and he uses his mastery of the craft to put the audience inside of one of the most traumatic and unprecedented chapters in the history of warfare. Nolan’s customary structural game, i.e. telling three intersecting stories in three different timespans, is the only thing serving as a reminder that what you’re seeing is a narrative construction. Nolan’s playing with timelines has been one of the most remarked-upon elements of the movie, which is understandable since it’s basically the only thing connecting this movie’s narrative approach to any previous Nolan film (namely Inception). But the real spark of ingenuity in Nolan’s three-story approach is that the stories in question encompass land, sea and air. Equally thrilling and stressful to the beach evacuation are the sequences of airborne battle, taking place over an impossibly long ocean horizon. This is filmmaking at its most spectacular and affecting. Dunkirk is too stressful to see in theatres twice. But you must see it. On the biggest screen possible. Pick of the week.

Games

Day of the Tentacle — It was on sale, and Rock Paper Shotgun called it the best adventure game of all time. It isn’t. It’s fine, but its dopey comedy tone is extremely trying. I played the remastered version of the game, which modernizes the interface and recreates the original’s pixel art as beautifully rendered cartoon animation, which still studiously maintains the detail of the original. The remaster offers the option to switch to the original version of the game, which I periodically did, just to see the difference. Seems to me that the remaster is faultless, but it can only do so much with the material at hand. Day of the Tentacle’s writing is full of silliness, but light on actual jokes. Its characters are not real characters but ‘types,’ which would be fine if the game did anything at all to undercut those types, but it doesn’t. It just rehearses them by rote. Day of the Tentacle is happy to risk being childish for the benefit of being funny, but it isn’t funny, so its childishness is insufferable. I suppose I shouldn’t gripe about that since it’s for children, after all. But one expects that children’s entertainment that attains this degree of acclaim would at least be admirable on a structural level to an adult. Nope. As for the puzzles, many are extremely clever and satisfying, especially when they involve the game’s time travel premise in their solutions. But just as often, the puzzles in Day of the Tentacle are maddeningly obtuse, in the manner of most point-and-clicks from this time period. In an effort to not spend hours and hours on this silly game that I wasn’t really enjoying, I made moderate use of a walkthrough for puzzle hints. I mention this because there are those who would say I haven’t really played the game if I haven’t arrived independently at all of the puzzle solutions. To those people I say: this review would be far less charitable if I had. This game is adequate. It’s no classic. The Myst games get a raw deal these days for the unfairness of their puzzles and their relative lack of story. But they at least provide an interesting space to explore and play amateur anthropologist. Give me Riven any day over this.

Music

Meredith Monk: Dolmen Music — A wonderful NPR feature on the best albums made by women reminded me that this is something I’ve always meant to check out. Monk is a fascinating composer whose work I’ve heard in bits and pieces in various contexts, but I’ve never sat down with a full album’s worth of her music. This is fabulous stuff, but for my money the first half, featuring music for solo voice and piano is more satisfying than the larger title track that makes up the second side. “Gotham Lullaby” is especially attractive. There’s something to be said for the sound of the human voice when it is divorced from the concrete meaning making of language. A wonderful discovery.

Pink Floyd: Zabriskie Point score — (How odd that the word “Zabriskie” comes up in two different contexts this week.) Noting that a substantial amount of The Early Years volume four contains outtakes from the sessions Pink Floyd did for Michelangelo Antonioni’s psychedelic odyssey (which I’ve never seen, but I’ve heard described by Karina Longworth), I figured I’d best hear the tracks that actually made it onto the soundtrack album. These are a rather astonishing and attractive sound collage called “Heart Beat, Pig Meat,” an unextraordinary acoustic number called “Crumbling Land” and an alternate version of “Careful With That Axe Eugene” retitled “Come in Number 5, Your Time Is Up” that is superior to the previous studio version but can’t touch the magnificent live recording on Ummagumma. But there’s more: four additional tracks made it onto the special edition from 1997. “Country Song” would sit nicely on Obscured by Clouds, the band’s most listenable soundtrack work. “Unknown Song” anticipates the midsection of the “Atom Heart Mother Suite,” i.e. the good part. “Love Scene (Version 6)” is a fairly bland blues jam of the sort that British rock bands were prone to do when nobody sternly told them not to. So far, all of these tracks have been full band credits, but the one remaining track, along with “Heart Beat” the crown jewel of the bunch, is a Richard Wright solo piano number. “Love Scene (Version 4)” finds Wright playing in his pleasingly unaffected fashion, exploring melodies over chords that sway gently to and fro. It’s a trifle, and I expect he thought nothing of it, but it feels like a candid photograph. I quite like it. It’s a mystery to me why all of this stuff wasn’t remastered for inclusion on The Early Years, considering that it’s probably the least familiar of all of Pink Floyd’s officially issued material. These tracks, plus the outtakes in the box set would make up a lost Pink Floyd album that’s superior to More. (Though none of the tracks with lyrics can compete with “Green is the Colour” or “Cymbeline,” both of which deserve to be on a better album.)

Pink Floyd: The Early Years 1965-1972 — Another week, another two volumes of this box set on Apple Music. Volume three focusses on 1969, the year of More and Ummagumma: albums that I mildly dislike, and half like, respectively. All the same, this volume demonstrates that for all the inconsistency in the band’s studio output at the time, they were nonetheless reaching a new peak of creative vibrancy. After a first disc that features some tepid outtakes from More and a couple of live performances that range from fine to good, the second disc gives us a complete recording of the band’s famous The Man and the Journey live show. It’s a conceptual piece, and so it risks coming off as a bit tedious or literal, but as a sound recording it seems mercifully abstract. This is a great performance — everything from the extended “Cymbaline” to the found-object piece “Work” is compelling. It’s tempting to listen in the manner of a trainspotter, locating bits of previous and upcoming pieces of music in this liminal, transitory performance. But you don’t have to listen like that. It sustains a simple listen for its own virtues. Volume four covers 1970, the year of Atom Heart Mother, and thus a problem year. So far, I have not been annoyed with the multiple instances of some key songs, like “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” or “Careful With That Axe, Eugene.” But the three complete versions of the “Atom Heart Mother Suite” on this volume are a bit much to bear. Two of the three feature no orchestra, which one might initially think would remove some of the problems with that misbegotten work. But the band declines to incorporate the melodic material that appears in the horns and strings in some other way, which makes the whole thing feel a bit insubstantial. You can’t win. The John Peel session that features a complete “Atom Heart Mother” is by and large a satisfying listen, but the brass band and choir assembled in lieu of the full orchestra/choir implement shit the bed as badly here as the ensembles on the record do. (Kind of puts a fine point on how bad the studio record is, doesn’t it?) Also, “Embryo” is a weirdly important song in Pink Floyd sets of this time period. It was not good enough to make it onto a proper album, but they play it at every show, seemingly. This volume also features the outtakes from the Zabriskie Point sessions, which are really fun. There’s definitely a full soundtrack album’s worth of music in there. Great stuff.

Podcasts

Radiolab: “Breaking News” — A terrifying tale from the precipice of a dystopia. The team tells the story of a new bit of technology that allows for convincing fake audio and video to be made of famous people. The video that they made with it isn’t actually all that convincing, but we’re fast approaching a point where it will be, I’m sure. Shudder.

A Piece of Work: Episodes 1-3 & 5 — A fun journey through the wonder and weirdness of modern art, with one of the stars of Broad City. What more could you want? The episode on Yves Klein’s monochromes, feat. Questlove, is the highlight. I’m really enjoying this, and it made me want to go look at pictures. I daresay that’s the goal.

The Turnaround: “Louis Theroux” — I kind of wish Jesse Thorn were as willing to challenge Jerry Springer and Louis Theroux as he was Audie Cornish. Because Springer, for all his self-awareness, hosts a trashy show, and Theroux sometimes stirs the pot for the sake of drama rather than understanding. Not one of my favourite episodes of this.

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Introducing… Showcase from Radiotopia” — This is such a good idea. The biggest problem with podcasting that isn’t a problem in broadcasting is that a show idea has to be infinitely self-sustaining, unless it’s something like S-Town or Mogul and has the support of a major player in the industry. So here’s a channel with the support of a major player in the industry, PRX, that focusses on smaller series with experimental approaches. I’m salivating.

99% Invisible: “Ways of Hearing” — John Berger would be proud. I’m counting this as an episode of 99pi, because that’s how I heard it. But it’s actually the first episode in Ways of Hearing, which is itself the first serial on Showcase from Radiotopia. Interestingly, this series on the social impact of digital recording is airing for the first time just as a CBC Radio series on the impact of electricity on music is airing again on Ideas. I’ve been avidly following that, but not reviewing it because it was co-produced by a friend of mine. (Regardless, it is a masterpiece. Listen to it.) This is more specific in its subject than that series and less sweeping in its scope, but it is so far very eloquent in its argumentation — even if that argumentation is basically that technology took something out of music, which is one of those arguments that’ll either be obvious or obviously wrong to you. Or perhaps not, because when I think about it, I’m not sure which side of that debate I land on. I’ll let this sit for a while before offering my final assessment. But I’ll definitely listen to the rest of the series. Oh, and the Jon Brion interview at the end of this is a very eloquent elaboration on a concept that is fairly central to my understanding of pop music: the notion that a song and a performance are two distinct things.

Reply All: “Long Distance, Part II” — An ending that befits the beginning. Wow, is this ever a thrill ride, considering that it started with Alex Goldman personally being the subject of a scam attempt. How wonderful that he works somewhere with the money to sent him across the world with a producer to find the guy who scammed him. Bracing, wonderful stuff.

The Gist: “A Video Came Thoreau Might Play” — Walden, a game sounds like an interesting concept, but I feel like regardless of its distinctive subject matter I wouldn’t be able to help comparing it with Firewatch, which is too awesome to compare to anything. We’ll see.

Ear Hustle: “The SHU” — This is a rough listen. Solitary confinement is a brutal practice, and one that it’s a miracle doesn’t leave a person irreparably broken. Stories worth knowing, though.

Longform: “Maggie Haberman” — This is one of the most astonishing interviews I have ever heard. During the course of this conversation, Maggie Haberman, NYT White House reporter, reports a story. Like, she talks about her job at the same time as she does it. And moreover, she acts as if this is simply not unusual. It’s disquieting, actually. I feel concerned for her. I think she’s forgotten how to be human. I am reminded of the words of the immortal Malcolm Tucker: “This is a fucking husk. I am a fucking host for this fucking job.” Come for the niche interest process story and stay for the bizarre fucking implicit psychodrama. Pick of the week.

Omnibus (week of July 24, 2017)

This was one of those weeks where I watched a whole season of TV. It happens. But I still managed to get a bunch of podcasts in and some truly wonderful music. 25 reviews.

Movies

Blade Runner — The only other time I’ve watched Blade Runner was when I was probably 16. I’m not sure which cut I watched at the time, but it couldn’t have been the Final Cut, which I watched this time, because that didn’t come out until the next year. Regardless, I remembered liking it a lot, but that’s kind of all I remembered. This week, I watched the Final Cut with a friend, in a state of distraction and fatigue. Truthfully, a lot of the story and many of the themes slipped past me, given how little attention I was paying. But the result of this was a unique sort of viewing experience: I feel as though I watched Blade Runner as a painting. Without following the story or attempting to parse the characters’ motivations and identities, Blade Runner becomes a mystifying, entrancing procession of sensations and impressions. If it were possible to photoshop out all of the main characters from Blade Runner and mute all of the dialogue, I daresay it would still be a compelling art film. It would still be a fever dream of a future city: we would still see the magnificent towers occupied by the very privileged, the sweaty masses of pedestrians in the Tokyo-inspired lower quarters, the vast modernist step pyramids where authority lives, and the total dominance of advertising from the street level straight up to the rarified air of the police aircrafts. We would still have Vangelis’s abstract, improvisational score imparting a feel of creeping malaise. We would still see rooms filled with grotesque semi-sentient toys, and beams of golden light enrobing the figure of an owl with a curiously reflective iris. When my friend and I first tried to start the movie, we were disappointed to discover that her HDMI cable had reached the end of its lifespan. (“It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”) We rushed to London Drugs for a replacement, and since the store was just about to close, one of the employees in the home electronics section was indulging himself by playing Philip Glass’s score to Koyaanisqatsi over the speakers. A small moment of serendipity, this was. Koyaanisqatsi is an experimental film by Godfrey Reggio that was released the same year Blade Runner was. Inevitably, the music conjured up the film’s narrative-free imagery of late 20th-century cities in my mind, and it remained lodged there throughout the duration of Blade Runner. Maybe that’s part of why I saw it the way I did. Contained within Blade Runner is both a science fiction thriller about human identity and a sort of speculative Koyaanisqatsi. Where Reggio’s film is a study of then-contemporary urban malaise, conveyed through images and evocative music, Ridley Scott’s is the same thing for an imagined near future. The two films never struck me as being of a piece with each other before, but I doubt the connection will ever leave me now. I might watch Blade Runner again next week. I love this movie and I still don’t really know what it’s about.

Television

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 11 — Okay, so Shelly has abruptly become much less admirable in the show’s estimation. First, she jumps onto the windshield of a moving car, something no reasonably intelligent person would do, regardless of the circumstance. Then, she instantaneously forgets the moment of family crisis she’s trying to negotiate when her latest criminal boyfriend drops by. I mean, it’s not like she didn’t always have a thing for criminals, but that scene is super weird. One second she’s crying, embracing her off-the-rails daughter, and the next, she’s scampering away from that same daughter as fast as she can to go make out with Balthazar Getty. I am trying hard to maintain my view that Twin Peaks is intrinsically worthwhile by virtue of being unlike anything else on television, but it’s not making it easy. Mind you, if it were making it easy, it wouldn’t be unlike anything else on television.

Game of Thrones: “Stormborn” — Wow, this must be blazingly good for me to not hate it. I always hate the beginnings of GoT seasons. Now I’m actually looking forward to this show’s next episode. I don’t think that’s happened for about three seasons. That’s my highest possible praise for this show, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Downton Abbey: Season 5 — Once you start a season of Downton it is impossible not to finish it that week. I defy anybody to try. Here is the season where everybody’s moral clarity, however misbegotten, gets shot to hell. The situation with Edith’s illegitimate daughter is an absolute minefield. While the constant scenes of her getting turned away by the unknowing foster mother of her illegitimate child get trying, the denouement of that plotline makes everybody a victim. Edith herself is the victim of the social strictures of her time that would see her scandalized if her pregnancy had been revealed, and the foster mother is deprived of the child that she raised because of her inferior class. When Cora finds out, even she is unable to maintain her usual consistency of ethics: she’s deeply offended that Violet and Rosamund kept the secret from her, but once she knows she claims it’s “not their secret to tell,’ even to Robert who by rights has an equal claim to the knowledge as Cora. But of course she’s right to feel he can’t know. Because he’s an ass-backwards jerk. That ought to be the reasoning Cora offers. And he is awfully insufferable this season. One of Downton’s perverse delights is watching as Robert’s way of life is eroded gradually in ways he finds unacceptable and unjust. His misplaced anxiety about his wife’s fidelity is a clever way for the show to demonstrate the extent to which his grip is slipping. But it’s also a clear indication of how much he takes Cora for granted. Elizabeth McGovern walks a fine line in scenes with her would-be illicit lover Simon Bricker: never once implying that she actually wants to have an affair, but happy to be appreciated for once. Meanwhile, Mary maintains her steadfast code of self-interest and remains basically sympathetic due to the extent to which her being that way flies in the face of convention. I’m quite the fan of how this season makes it even clearer that she’s the second coming of her grandmother, with all of the wit and imperiousness that entails. As for her suitor Lord Gillingham, holy smokes what a dolt. I never tire of scenes in which he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that he is no longer involved with Mary. I have no particular wishes for how the relationships on this show are to turn out, but I’m very happy to see that guy get thrown over. And on the note of Mary’s similarity to Violet: Maggie Smith continues to be the best part of this show, if only because her total insincerity offers a comment on the proceedings that’s in line with those of us who find ourselves watching Downton half in spite of ourselves. Her storyline with Cousin Isabel, and their mutually unexpected reinvigorated romantic prospects is probably the most consistently amusing thing in this season. As for historical context, the first Labour government gives rise to hopes and fears alike among the servants. For Carson, whose identity and what prestige he has is based entirely on the continuing prosperity of the aristocracy, it seems catastrophic. But for Daisy, who still has her life ahead of her, it seems like an opportunity to do something more with her life. It’s an interesting exploration of the double bind that the serving staff are in: reliant upon the class structure for their livelihoods, but held back by it in larger measure. Also, now that we’re well into the inter-war period, I suppose there need to be some anti-Semites in the show. Clever of Fellowes to have Rose fall for Atticus before she knows of his Jewish heritage. That prevents the unpleasant sense that she’s fetishizing his otherness the way she did with her previous suitor, who was black. Altogether, I think this is one of the stronger seasons of the show, if only because it focusses in on its characters and their lives more than contriving schemes and implausible happenstances to elicit drama. But I honestly would have been pretty much satisfied even if it were just nine hours of Lord Grantham getting called “Donk” by a small child.

Music

Buffy Sainte-Marie: Illuminations — One of the great underrecognized classics of the era. This is the album where Buffy Sainte-Marie leaves folkiedom behind in favour of a very idiosyncratic and not-to-be-pigeonholed rendition of psychedelia. She’s cited Morton Subotnick as an influence in the past, probably the only songwriter I’ve ever seen that remark from. And the electronic filigree that links this album’s songs together has Silver Apples of the Moon’s influence all over it. Except it never outstays its welcome. One of the best things about the rock music of the late 60s and early 70s is the fact that all of these musicians were listening to avant-garde classical music, but had the impulse to fold its aesthetic into their music rather than its spirit, which didn’t necessarily always prioritize sounding good. I have no problem with that, but it’s nice to hear the legacy of Subotnick colliding with something I actually love. And the songs themselves are outstanding. “God is Alive, Magic is Afoot” is fun because it’s not a Leonard Cohen cover, but rather a setting of a poem that he himself did not set to music. How lovely it is that we have in the world a song that can be credited to Cohen/Sainte-Marie. The music is pleasingly simplistic: Sainte-Marie has cottoned onto the chant-like character of the text and made that the central inspiration for her music. Among the originals, my favourites are “Better to Find Out for Yourself,” “The Dream Tree,” “Keeper of the Fire” and “Poppies.” The first and third of these feature some of Sainte-Marie’s most aggressive singing. One reason I love her early records so much is because she offers such a compelling alternative to more conventionally pretty folk voices of the time, like Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. She has that sweet, lyrical character in her voice as well, and it comes out gorgeously on “The Dream Tree.” but that’s only one facet of the voice. “Better to Find Out for Yourself” finds her folding wolf calls into the ends of her phrases and “Keeper of the Fire” is a flat-out hard rock vocal performance with an imitation guitar solo in the voice as well. This is a classic, visionary, haunting album and I am constantly appalled by its overlookedness.

Pink Floyd: The Early Years 1965-72 — Oh man, the audio portion of this box set is on Apple Music now! (Except for the last volume, because they still have to entice me to buy the set somehow. As if the hours of video footage weren’t enough.) This is astonishingly entertaining for a vast set of outtakes and rarities. I’ve gotten through the first two volumes, and I am having a Grand Old Time. Let us go into detail, shall we? Volume one, focussing on the period from 1965 through 67, is the only one in the bunch to entirely predate Syd Barrett’s replacement with David Gilmour. It runs the gamut from bracing to boring, but there’s less of the latter than you might think. It’s in four sections. The first is a set of recordings from 1965, while the band was still calling itself the Tea Set, and had a second guitarist. The sound is excellent, but the same can’t be said of the songs, which find Syd Barrett in the throes of a rhythm and blues obsession that will have long abated by the time Pink Floyd actually releases a record. The performances are surprisingly good, though. Already, this is a band that’s more concerned with how they play than what they play. The second part is a collection of the band’s singles, B-sides, and a few unreleased tracks. Of these, the singles and B-sides are familiar but welcome here as part of the broader picture of this band at this time. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn proves to be a very narrow window through which to view these artists. The unreleased tracks include a few new mixes of familiar tracks, including a “Matilda Mother” with different, funnier lyrics. “There was a boy whose name was Jim / His friends they were very good to him / They gave him tea and cakes and jam / And slices of delicious ham.” God, I love that. But probably the highlight of the volume is the new stereo mixes of the famous unreleased tracks “In the Beechwoods” and especially “Vegetable Man” and “Scream Thy Last Scream.” These last two are in fact among Syd Barrett’s finest songs and in a just world would have become two sides of a single, or maybe showed up on A Saucerful of Secrets in place of, I dunno, “Corporal Clegg” and “See-Saw.” It seems they’ve been regarded as unfortunate symptoms of Barrett’s decline over the years. But with these new mixes, they stand revealed as two of the best early Pink Floyd songs. The second disc of volume one, consisting of the other two parts, is a less triumphant affair. It does feature the archeological diamond of a full live set with Syd Barrett, though the vocals are missing from the mix and only audible through distant mics. Still, it sounds like Syd was having a bad night vocally, so maybe that’s not such a bad thing. It’s weird to hear him sing “Set the Controls” to begin with — let alone so out of tune. And the instrumentals like “Interstellar Overdrive” and the unrecorded “Reaction in G” are as compelling as the band’s early fans would have you think. Volume one finishes with an unused free improvisational film score made for the experimental filmmaker John Latham. This is not great. It’s one of those things that it’s nice to have, just because we’ve all known that it exists for so long. I imagine it’s kind of like finally getting to see the pyramids in person. Except, if the pyramids were shitty. Because this is Pink Floyd doing a sort of free improvisation that they were a bit out of their depth to attempt. Their best semi-improvisational pieces, “Interstellar Overdrive” and especially the sublime “A Saucerful of Secrets” are based around concrete structures, as opposed to just noodling. AMM could make noodling sound good. So could King Crimson. Not Pink Floyd. Still, it’s a pleasure to experience. Volume two is simultaneously worse than volume one and more narratively compelling. It focusses on 1968, a rough year for the band in many ways, though it did see the release of one of my idiosyncratic faves in their catalogue, A Saucerful of Secrets. But for all of their success as an albums band that year, the first section of this disc proves they were creatively spent as a singles band. If Barrett’s “Apples and Oranges” had proven a disappointing follow-up to “See Emily Play,” then Wright’s “It Would Be So Nice” and especially Waters’ “Point Me At The Sky” prove completely unworthy. Their engine of ingenious psychedelic pop was irreparably broken. It now seems obvious that the only feasible direction was towards the very avant-garde. The BBC sessions that close out volume two (one of which delightfully comes with John Peel’s intros and extros intact) finds the band seemingly in denial of this, as they focus on performing their singles. We do, mercifully, get a rather good live “Saucerful of Secrets,” though it is inexplicably retitled “The Massed Gadgets of Hercules.” I say “inexplicably” because the album had already come out when the session was recorded — it can’t have been an early title. Am I wrong? In any case, volume two of this box is endlessly fascinating from an anthropological perspective, in large part because of how bad it is. Can’t wait to hear the rest.

Tom Waits: Frank’s Wild Years — My favourite Tom Waits album. To me, it strikes a perfect balance between the freaky cabaret music on Rain Dogs just before it and the crunchy aggro of Bone Machine shortly after. “Innocent When You Dream” is one of the most heartbreaking songs ever, made moreso by its comedic drunken ugliness. This is a man who hit bottom and smashed through into a dark, parody underworld where nothing seems real but everybody’s still behaving like nothing’s wrong. The same goes for the demented Kander and Ebb pastiche “I’ll Take New York,” which finds Waits at his most openly parodic and nightmarish. The best thing about it is that there’s nothing dark in the lyric. It’s a pitch perfect impression of Kander and Ebb’s civic boosterism. But it’s refracted through the lens of the demented calliope music that is one of Waits’ most profitable standbys. And even when Waits is working on a slightly less heightened level, like on “Temptation” or “Cold Cold Ground,” both among his best songs, he still sounds like he’s living in a pocket universe where the rules of reality are a bit different from our own. This is one of those rare albums that suspends reality. I love it.

Tom Waits: Small Change — I am generally more of a fan of Tom Waits’s post-Swordfishtrombones albums than his 70s material. I like the complex irony of those later albums. It’s like there’s a dark mirror planted somewhere near the year 1980, and Waits stepped through and became a gurning, grotesque reflection of what he was before. But there’s a time and a place for Waits’s more sincere early music. The time is 2:00am and the place is staggering home drunk. Or, in the absence of these conditions, you can simply imagine yourself in that state and it still kind of works. I had previously only known Waits’s earlier music through my longtime favourite Heartattack and Vine and a scattering of tracks from before it. This is my first listen to Small Change, and it is a heck of a lot better than Heartattack. There’s not a single song on this that I didn’t love immediately. While Waits is lacking his later derangement here, he still has the unique wit of a self-romanticizing drunk hobo. “Step Right Up” is a distillation of all of the most familiar slogans in cheap advertising and straightforward swindling into a song. It is substantially virtuosic, and it helps to clarify the difference between Waits’s early novelty songs and his later ones like “Cemetery Polka.” In “Step Right Up” (and also “The Piano Has Been Drinking”) Waits is letting the audience in on a joke he’s come up with. He’s performing a routine. In “Cemetery Polka,” there’s a joke somewhere, but it’s hard to parse and we feel alienated because of it. It’s entirely possible that we’re the brunt of the joke. But most of the album is made up of the sad, lovelorn ballads that Waits is so good at during this period. “Tom Traubert’s Blues” is the clear highlight, with its ripped-off chorus (from “Waltzing Matilda”) taking on more heft in this context than in its original one. It is one of Waits’ great pictures of modern despair and displacement, and one of his very best songs. The same goes for “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” and “Invitation to the Blues.” This immediately struck me as a brilliant album. I expect to be back to it as frequently as its ultra-specific mood will permit. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc.

Chris Onstad: Achewood — I have read up to April of 2002 in this wonderful, absurd, very funny and often poignant web comic. Evidently I am still a long way off from the good stuff, but I am already very into this world. Ray and Roast Beef are yet to become the central characters (I know enough to know that they eventually will) and Philippe is the current highlight. He is so adorable that it can only be hilarious to see him subjected to the capricious whims of the Achewood universe. Great stuff.

John Errington: Centuries of Sound — I’m trying to catch up with this blog, which includes mixes for every year of recorded sound. It’s a great premise, and the very early years are super interesting, though the mixes are understandably short and abstract. The first of them features a few reconstructed recordings of Édouard-Léon Scott, who made a machine that could record indications of sound in soot. They were never meant to be played back, because Scott couldn’t conceive of such a thing, but of course we’ve found a way. Errington’s mix includes a documentary by Studio 360 about how that came to be. It’s actually crazy to hear, however scrappily, the sound of a voice from 1860 — the voice of a person who might not have thought that such a thing was possible.

Podcasts

The Nod: “Greetings, My Brothas” — Okay, now this is good. There’s something about hearing people laugh at a funny thing that makes it funnier, and these two laughing at a YouTube conspiracy theory about the Jay-Z/Solange elevator incident is start-to-finish hysterical.

Mogul: “How Heavy It Was,” “August 30, 2012” & Uncle Murda cameo — Mogul is a beautiful thing. These last two episodes (I’m not going to deal too much with the cameo, fun though it is) just clinch the whole thing. What I love about this is that the show subtly frames its narrative as a low-key true crime story that culminates in a contested suicide ruling. But the narrative proceeds inexorably to the conclusion that Chris Lighty’s death probably was what it seemed like. The chief contribution of Mogul to the story of Chris Lighty is bringing the mental illness he suffered to light. That’s part of what makes it so vital: it addresses a death that’s regarded as a mystery by framing it in terms of the evidence that nobody wants to talk about. This is so good, and I have become very fond of Reggie Ossé. I don’t know how an Ivy League educated lawyer can be so warm and likeable. The Combat Jack Show has a new subscriber.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Dunkirk,” “Girls Trip” & “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” — I’m liking the new format. Of these episodes, the only one that convinced me to see something was the Dunkirk one, because I was genuinely on the fence prior to this. The other two amount to a “not for me” and a “this sounds awful.”

The Turnaround: “Anna Sale” & “Reggie Ossé (Combat Jack)” — I really admire Jesse Thorn for not cutting the moments in these interviews when his guests don’t know what his question means. Because I can absolutely relate to that. Anna Sale’s interview is a bit rough, since it was the first for this show, but it’s still edifying enough. The Combat Jack episode is a series highlight, though. I’m happy Thorn included him, since there aren’t likely to be any other specialists in a subject area on this show. (Unless you count Brooke Gladstone, but “media” isn’t really a niche.) Since Mogul’s been coming out, I’ve been amazed at how easy it seems for Combat to talk with huge hip hop stars. Turns out, there’s value in being a bit of an insider. He’s a known enough quantity that these artists are comfortable talking to him. But that’s not to say that craftsmanship and intent don’t enter into what Reggie Ossé does. He’s always thinking in broader terms to what just about any generalist interviewing a rapper would be thinking. He’s interested in hearing their take on life in general, rather than just about their art. That’s valuable. Have I done a complete about-face on my opinion of interviewing artists since I started listening to this show? Yes? I dunno. I’m very confused about my own value system. But I know I enjoyed these shows.

Code Switch: “What’s So Wrong With African Americans Wearing African Clothing?” & “What’s Good? Talking Hip-Hop and Race With Stretch and Bobbito” — A pair of preview for shows I’m not super interested in. The Stoop covers interesting territory, but I’m not sold on the hosts. And I’m suspicious of the extent to which NPR is getting in on the personality-driven podcast bandwagon with the Stretch and Bobbito show. Probably I’m wrong.

Theory of Everything: “Private Ear” — I can’t help but feel like the guy this story is about — an aural reconstructor of secret spaces who uses the memories of prisoners as his guide — is a bit dodgy. But it’s very much like this show to introduce me to an artist (because this is what he is, mostly) who works so far outside of the expected arenas.

99% Invisible: “The Trials of Dan and Dave” — ESPN is getting into podcasting, and they’ve already got the Roman Mars bump. Imagine. This is a fun story that’s not really all about the sports, which as far as I know is the 30 For 30 trademark. Nice stuff.

This American Life: “Break-Up” — It’s pretty rare for me to listen to anything from a show’s back catalogue these days. But this is the episode that made Starlee Kine’s career. As a steadfast mourner of Mystery Show, I felt it was necessary to finally hear the famous story where Kine works through her bad breakup with the assistance of one Phil Collins. As a Genesis fan, it’s doubly interesting to hear Collins tell the story of how his first divorce precipitated his transition from being a jazz fusion drummer in his non-Genesis career to an international pop star on the back of several heartrending ballads. This all strikes a personal chord for me, because I went through a shit breakup that was scored by the music of Phil Collins’s one-time bandmate, Peter Gabriel. There was a while there where I obsessed over Gabriel’s Us album for very similar reasons to the ones Kine cites for her love for “Against All Odds.” I am Starlee Kine in the Upside-Down. T’was ever thus.

99% Invisible: “El Gordo” — Ah yes, a story in which only one person in a town does not win the lottery. The world is quite marvellous, you know that?

The Memory Palace: “Elmer McCurdy Rides Again and Again” — It was only a matter time before our greatest author of historical prose poems attempted a rhyming couplet story. It is a mixed affair. Mostly I like it, but I halfway feel that the gimmick gets in the way of a genuinely marvellous story, in which an embalmed human body is mistaken for a wax sculpture and ends up on the set of The Six Million Dollar Man. Still good.

Criminal: “A Bump In The Night” — A terrifying story of a woman who hears sounds in the night that turn out to be something. It ends unsatisfyingly, but so do most things in life.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “The Emoluments Clauses” — The most interesting thing about this is the fact that the emoluments clauses of the constitution have been considered so obscure that they’re not even in textbooks, and Trump is the first president so unconventional that he requires them to be taken into consideration. Everything is bad.

The Daily: July 24-28 — My first full week of listening to The Daily reveals it to be a genuinely excellent way to keep on top of the biggest stories, at least as they pertain to American federal politics. I have generally preferred this show when it contains at least one segment that takes place outside of the U.S.A. But there are some genuinely confusing and terrifying things happening in the White House on a week by week basis, so what are they to do? Regardless, this is one of the best shows to launch in recent years, and a genuine innovation.

Reply All: “Long Distance” — The best episode of Reply All for some time. And it’s not like it’s been in a slump. Some schlub who didn’t know what he was getting into tried to scam Alex Goldman and ended up the subject of a piece of playful yet ruthless investigative journalism. Goldman’s imperiousness is hysterical here, and the fact that he doesn’t reveal the consequence of the story at the start is much appreciated. I feel compelled to be coy about this and not spoil it. Listen to it. It is magnificent. Pick of the week.

Song by Song: “Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen), Small Change, Tom Waits” — I came across this Tom Waits song randomly at work, having never listened to Small Change. (You’ll note from above that I have since listened to the full album and had quite the response.) It is a beautiful thing, and I figured I’d take the opportunity to sample this podcast that’s going through his songs in order, one by one. It could do to be longer, honestly. It feels a bit slim. Fun that they’ve got Jeffrey Cranor, though. Not sure I’ll be back to this.

Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 20, 2016)

Do you ever listen to podcasts at 1.5X speed? Pro-tip: do that. You can listen to more podcasts that way.

27 reviews.

Television

QI: “Keys,” “Jumpers” & “Jobs” — If I am not mistaken, I have watched three episodes (in a random batch of six) of QI in the past two weeks that all reference bungee jumping.

Fleabag: Episodes 1-3 — Watched on the recommendation of the panel on Pop Culture Happy Hour. I’m really enjoying this, even if my snootiest, least charitable self wants to believe that I had it pegged as a Louie-esque-difficult-person-dramedy-with-an-occasionally-cloying-indie-sensibility right from the start. The important thing is not that it happens to fall into an increasingly identifiable box, but that it’s brilliantly executed and succeeds at being both sensitive and hilarious at the same time. Also, it’s always nice to see a show that succeeds without having a big, pitchable marquee concept (“women’s prison show” or “washed-up cartoon horse”). How would you summarize Fleabag? “A young woman deals with grief?” Yawn. Yet, I’d love to see more of this sort of thing. Television producers take note: “show with ordinary, real-life story, interesting characters, and good jokes” might actually be an elevator pitch worth paying attention to.

Movies

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them — Well, I went to a movie theatre and was pleasantly diverted for a couple of hours, so I guess that’s a win. But this is not a very good movie. Aside from just being sort of superfluous in general (also, five movies!?!? that’s far too many movies), it has some problems even when taken entirely on its own terms. The plotline suffers from the sense that groundwork is constantly being laid for later things. Jon Voight shows up pointlessly about three times, and will presumably be important later. Also, in the end, the focus turns to a thing called the Obscurus, which is a big evil repression monster, but the bulk of the movie is just people running around chasing other, unrelated escaped monsters. Those plotlines don’t sit easily together, and I think Rowling should have just picked a thing. Story concerns aside, there are also character concerns. Namely, the two main characters are both ill-conceived ciphers. Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander is fun to watch in the way that Eddie Redmayne is usually fun to watch, but he has to state outright that he has the tendency to annoy people because he is never seen to do that thing. Anyway, this is genuinely weak in most respects, but also strangely hard to dislike. It’s nice to be back in the wizarding world, even though the absence of Great British Character Actors A through Z makes this feel like a drastically different thing, tonally. (The cast here is fine, but the thing that makes the Harry Potter movies occasionally more than workmanlike is that particular species of British acting proffered by Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, Michael Gambon, Robbie Coltrane, Helena-Bonham Carter, and tons more. Nothing of the sort here — by design, clearly. But I do miss that.) If there’s one silver lining to an American-set wizarding world franchise, it’s that modern fantasy’s least subtle left-wing allegorist has been unleashed on a country that just elected Donald Trump. This is not necessarily a winning formula, but I’ll hold out hope that future instalments could be interesting. Also thievery platypus.

I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House — This is my kind of horror. The premise is classic pulp fodder: a young hospice nurse moves into a house to care for a senile author who used to write horror novels, and the house turns out to be haunted. But this film takes a dramatically more ambitious approach to this material than you might expect. It is slow and contemplative, with deliberately artificial performances and artfully framed static shots. The bulk of the script is delivered in voiceover, pairing enigmatic images with obtuse, circuitous discussions of themes rather than exposition. It’s a movie that actively challenges you to figure out what it’s really about, given that its story is so basic and told at such a slow, deliberate pace. I’m not entirely sure what the answer to that is. There’s lots in there about the act of looking, but I’m not quite sure what to make of that. Seems like something I might be able to parse on a second viewing, when I’m not preoccupied with the curry I’m eating. And there will be a second viewing. This is that kind of movie.

Literature

Dan Fox: Pretentiousness: Why It Matters — I can’t remember the last time I read a book that felt this much like it was written specifically to connect with me. This monograph by Dan Fox is a stunning defense of thinking and behaving in ways that contravene convention. It is by no means a refutation of populism, but rather a love letter to broad-mindedness. Fox notes the obvious point that the word “pretentious” is generally used in a derogatory fashion: to put somebody back in their place when they’re perceived to have overstepped a social boundary. But he argues persuasively that the act of overstepping social boundaries — which necessitates a certain amount of pretense or pretending (to the throne, even) — is inherently praiseworthy. And he has some choice words for those who prefer the epithet “elitist,” too. He cites a Guardian columnist who literally professed hatred — hatred — for a pair of flashily-dressed young people he saw randomly at a contemporary art exhibit. And he tears that columnist apart for what he rightly calls “cheap, them-versus-us populism.” He continues: “It speaks to an ugly intolerance for difference, to an expectation that people must share the same aesthetic tastes and appearances and that if they don’t they must be complicit members of an elitist racket hell-bent on excluding ‘ordinary’ people from its world. Those ‘ordinary’ people, it is assumed, could not possibly be interested in complex ideas and conversant in different forms of visual literacy.” Boom. That quote alone is reason enough for everybody in the media to read this book. There’s a personal anecdote in the postscript about how Fox grew up in a time and place when a young person could be introduced to the films of Kenneth Anger and the music of John Cage by way of the public broadcaster. Makes one wistful, frankly. There’s a quote near the end of the book that I consider words to live by: “To fear being accused of pretension is to police oneself out of curiosity about the world.” Open-mindedness is an ideal among ideals. Fox doesn’t quite go there in his book but I think if more people were devoted to the cultivation of a broad base of knowledge, as opposed to fearing or resenting the same in others, societies would be stronger, less divided, and make better decisions as an electorate. Pretentiousness is not the enemy. Quite the opposite. Pick of the week.

Alanna Bennett: “The Harry Potter Fandom Is At A Crossroads” — This is a fascinating portrait of a fandom growing up. The really interesting thing about the Harry Potter fandom right now is that they (we? I would include myself, if I weren’t so obviously less invested than the superfans referred to here) learned about social justice in part from Harry Potter, and now they find themselves butting heads with J.K. Rowling herself when she does boneheaded, offensive things like trying to fictionalize Native American culture. This is fascinating. About halfway through, I stopped to reread the first chapter of The Philosopher’s Stone. (It’s all I could get on iBooks; my own copies have been packed away in boxes in my hometown for years.) And I suddenly understood the fans in this story even more. It sort of all came rushing back: even at that early stage, writing for young children and nowhere close to the height of her powers, J.K. Rowling wrote the most compelling characters in modern children’s literature and was brilliant at conveying a sense of place. As soon as Albus Dumbledore appears for the first time, sucking the light from the streetlamps of Privet Drive, you’re forced to think of modern Britain as a hiding place for another whole, glorious world. It’s a magical book. With that in mind, it’s easy to see how so many fans have had more trouble than I have accepting the mediocrity of Rowling’s post-Deathly Hallows Potter projects. I’ll reread these books just as soon as I can get into those boxes.  

Music

Kate Bush: The Dreaming — I think I’ve returned to considering this my favourite Kate Bush album. I gave it a listen this week in anticipation of her new live album, which has nothing from this on it. And holy smokes, this is the most intricate songwriting, maybe ever. There’s a tempting narrative about Kate Bush that suggests that the directness she embraced on Hounds of Love was the result of lessons learned from the critical and commercial failure of The Dreaming. But that’s ridiculous — why on earth would she care? I think that a better reading is simply that The Dreaming represented the furthest possible extension of this kind of songwriting. There’s no out-dreaming The Dreaming, so Bush took a different approach. Both albums are masterpieces. But this is the more virtuosic by far.

Pink Floyd: Cre/Ation: The Early Years 1967-1972 — God, I want that 27-disc box set so bad I could curl up in a ball. This paltry two-disc sampler only makes me lust after it more, because so much of it is exactly what I’ve been wishing for from Pink Floyd for ages. It is only the very nerdy among us who are interested in hearing an early version of “Echoes” that consists almost entirely of the triple-time bit that comes right before the final reprise on the album version, but I am extremely nerdy. I want to hear every miniscule step in the evolution of this band. I suppose I’ll have to wait for it to gradually find its way onto streaming services. Because I do not have the wealth to indulge this obsession. Still though, for a two-disc sampler, this is really a lot of fun.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “Guest DJ: The Politics and Passions of Roger Waters” — “I know I sound like a crazy person, but I’m not. I’m actually a wise man.” He’s not wrong, on either count. Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton are simply not the people to interview Roger Waters. He is far too given to extraordinary statements and long rants for a pair of music broadcasters to handle. Marc Maron managed, somehow. But this is a mess.

Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything: “Targeted” — I can’t quite tell if Walker’s story about giving his son a stuffed Pepe is true. If so, that was a dumb move. The segment about facial recognition software is as disquieting as anything in this series so far.

All Songs Considered: “What Was It Like To See Pink Floyd In 1966? Joe Boyd Knows” — This is the highlight of the three parts of this show’s Pink Floyd week. Joe Boyd has a unique perspective on the band, given that he was right there in the early days, but his recollections aren’t necessarily coloured by having been involved beyond that. I will say that I think he gives Rob Chapman’s argument in the book A Very Irregular Head a bit too much credence. Chapman is probably right to argue that the narrative about Barrett declining because he took too much acid is too simple. But considering the extremity of his post-Floyd condition, Chapman’s assertion that his behaviour was part of a grand conceptual art project is patently ridiculous, and clearly born from an impulse towards hagiography. That aside, this is a nice interview. I do wish that Boilen had chosen to play some of the previously unreleased stuff from the box set instead of just returning to the iconic songs. That’s what the box is for, after all. Ah, well.

99% Invisible: “Space Trash, Space Treasure” — A fascinating look at the necessity of cleaning up the junk we keep leaving in space. But the really fascinating part is an interview with a professor who responds to the moniker “Dr. Space Junk” about why we should also consider leaving some of it there for anthropological reasons.

Code Switch: “Everyone Is Talking To Barry Jenkins But Our Interview Is The Best” — I need to see Midnight so bad. This is one of Gene Demby’s best interviews, partially because of how much he obviously loves the movie, but also because of how much he openly identifies with elements of the story and the filmmaker’s perspective. I think this show is really successfully walking a tonal tightrope where it acknowledges some of the tropes of thinkpiece journalism — but still does it, because the alternative is being dumb.

Reply All: “Flash!” — One of the most lacklustre episodes of Reply All in a while. The Yes Yes No segment is as funny as usual, but the story of a lost tortoise ad on Craigslist ends up being exactly as boring as it sounds.

Science Vs: “Antidepressants” — The subject matter of this is fascinating, but there is a recurring Hamilton reference that defines what I find grating about this show. There’s a thing in mental health research called the Hamilton scale, and every time but one that it is referenced here, a sample from Hamilton is used. A reference. Is not. A joke. And I know it may be a little much to expect top-notch humour from a science podcast, but this kind of thing is so much a part of its aesthetic that I think I’m out at this point. That was the last straw. Never thought it would be Hamilton.

A Point of View: “In Praise of Prophets of Doom” — A wonderfully curmudgeonly defence of dissatisfaction from Howard Jacobson. I tend to be a rather optimistic sort, though I have my particular doomy moments. It’s vindicating to hear something like this in a world that often feels full of mindless boosters for things that aren’t making our lives better.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Musicals and Politics” — This almost made me feel better about politics. What’s most incredible about this rundown of political musicals (aside from the regrettable absence of any Kander and Ebb) is not so much that there’s such a preponderance of them, long before Hamilton. It’s that Hamilton still stands head and shoulders above them all. It’s not just that there are no other musicals that have engaged so thoroughly in the political process, it’s that there are barely any other works of art that have done that. Save a few by Aaron Sorkin.

99% Invisible: “The Shift” — I’ll listen to sports stories when they’re on 99pi. That said, this is really the same story as the earlier one about basketball: innovations in the game make it less exciting and provoke a backlash. Still, fun.

On the Media: “Debunking the AIDS ‘Patient Zero’ Myth” — A quick story about how horribly Gaëtan Dugas was treated by the media: he did not give the world AIDS. That’s the Coles Notes version.

StartUp: Season 4, episodes 4-6 — Dov Charney is a compelling character, but this isn’t popping out of the headphones for me. I appreciate the return to serialized storytelling (I remain one of the few staunch defenders of StartUp season two) but I can’t help but think that this show is now suffering by comparison to its more consistent Gimlet stablemates. (I have not been reviewing Heavyweight because of an upcoming thing I’m doing, but informally: it is one of my favourite new shows of the year.) We’ll see how this ends.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Doctor Strange and Moonlight” — I wish the rest of the panel had given Kat Chow a bit more space to say her piece on Doctor Strange. It does sound like a fun movie that I’d like to see, but the whitewashing is some serious bullshit. Moonlight on the other hand sounds like something I am going to love unreservedly. Can’t wait.

99% Invisible: “Reverb” — Ooh, this is some great 99pi. I was aware of Wallace Sabine before, because the story of his minuscule acoustic measurements is incredible, but I was unaware that his formula has become obsolete in our increasingly quiet world. There’s also apparently a technology that simulates different reverbs in the same sized room using microphones and speakers distributed around the walls and ceiling. I would love to experience that.

Reply All: “Hello?” — The premise “P.J. and Alex open their phone lines to anybody for 48 hours” was bound to result in something bonkers, but this is far longer and more bonkers than you could possibly expect. A meandering, borderline pointless, destined classic of this amazing podcast. Pick of the week.

Code Switch: “Want Some Gravy With Those Grievances?” — The Code Switch team plays phone messages from people who are dreading Thanksgiving dinner because they have family members who voted for Trump. It is what it is.

Theory of Everything: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” — Benjamen Walker’s speculative story behind the appalling image (which I missed on election day) of Trump spying on Melania’s vote is a brilliant way of working Trump into his surveillance season. I mean, there are other more obvious ways. But why go the obvious route? I love the approach Walker is taking right now, of just continuing to do his show and respond to current events, but through the lens of surveillance. This series is going to get awesome eventually. It’s already great.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “ Romantic Comedies With Kumail Nanjiani” — Nanjiani and Linda Holmes talking about rom coms is great. Throw in a markedly less enthusiastic Steven Thompson and a MUCH less enthusiastic Glen Weldon, and you’ve got… almost gold. Yellow-tinged silver.

99% Invisible — “Dollar Store Town” — Audibly a shorter version of a longer, more visual documentary. Still, the fact that there is a town in China where they manufacture  nearly all of the worthless tchotchkes sold in American dollar stores is amazing.

Omnireviewer (Pink Floyd stamps edition)

Next month, the UK’s Royal Mail is releasing 10 commemorative Pink Floyd stamps, in honour of the band’s 50th anniversary. Because I don’t feel like I’ve been emphasizing the “omni” part of Omnireviewer lately, I am going to review them.

First off, I’ll say that insofar as postage is still a necessary thing, a set of Pink Floyd stamps is a good idea. It’s a good idea for a couple of reasons: firstly because Pink Floyd looms gigantic in British (and global) culture,  but also because they have a more memorable canon of iconography than maybe any other band. In fact, this set of stamps serves equally to commemorate the work of Storm Thorgerson, the late master of album design, as it does to commemorate the band. You know an image is indelible when you can literally fit it onto a postage stamp and it retains its impact.

But, two steps back, Royal Mail hasn’t just chosen to feature Pink Floyd’s recorded legacy; they’ve also devoted four of the ten stamps to their live shows. Another good decision: Pink Floyd’s knack for live spectacle was a crucial part of their aesthetic. So, the broad strokes are solid, and I’ll just say outright that I am essentially favourably disposed to these postage stamps.

But, as per Omnireviewer tradition, we must take them one by one. Here goes.

Studio album stamps

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn — This is a good stamp. Pink Floyd’s debut is a slightly dated record, and not really one of the ones that their contemporary legacy rests on. (I personally prefer the follow-up, A Saucerful of Secrets, but I confess that’s the kind of wilful perversity that leads people to use Linux or vacation in Reno.) But really, we ought to take this more as a commemoration of the band’s beginnings than of the music itself. Piper is the only album the band made under the leadership of the late Syd Barrett. Barrett’s legacy doesn’t stop at this album — it also encompasses two of the best psychedelic rock singles of the period (“Arnold Layne” and especially “See Emily Play”), two excellent solo albums, a significant contribution to A Saucerful of Secrets, and a plethora of outtakes and B-sides that are never less than interesting. Considering that Barrett succumbed to mental illness only a couple of years into his musical career, he remains a staggeringly important cult figure. As for the image itself, this is the only Pink Floyd album cover that pre-dates the band’s relationship with Storm Thorgerson and the Hipgnosis design studio. So, it’s understandably a less memorable image than later album covers. But there’s a good story behind it: the picture was taken with a prism lens, thus its kaleidoscopic look. The photographer was a fellow called Vic Singh, and he got the lens as a gift from George Harrison. Incidentally, the Beatles had been recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the adjacent studio to Pink Floyd when they were recording this debut. Piper is mighty historical, and thus mighty stamp-worthy. Grade: A-

Atom Heart Mother — This is an okay stamp. I’m on the record for my opinion that Atom Heart Mother is a lousy rock album. That doesn’t necessarily preclude it from postage stamp greatness, though. On the one hand, if Royal Mail wanted to feature another pre-fame, pre-Dark Side of the Moon album, the clear choice would be Meddle: an album that critics, fans and the band members themselves all revere. Atom Heart Mother, by contrast, is bloated and meandering and has only one song, “Fat Old Sun,” that would find its way into future live setlists. On the other hand, this album cover (Storm Thorgerson, this time) is a classic. Thorgerson himself claims to have loved the image because “it was just so cow.” I can’t argue with that. Also, it’s far better than the Meddle cover, which I didn’t realize was a close-up of a human ear until years after I first heard the record. So, let’s split the difference between an unworthy album and a fabulous image. Grade: B

The Dark Side of the Moon — This is a great stamp. My earlier remark about an image retaining its impact when it’s shrunk down to the size of a postage stamp really mostly just applies to this. There’s a reason that Dark Side‘s album cover is one of the most memorable in history, and it’s a reason that would be familiar to anybody who knows the principles of flag design. (Thank you, Roman Mars.) Like a great flag, the image on the cover of Dark Side is so simple that its details can be ascertained from a distance or in miniature. It is design perfection — so much so that all attempts to vary it, even Thorgerson’s own, are inevitably tepid. And the record itself, of course, is the stuff of legends. It is rock at its most mimetic. It was practically a postage stamp already. Grade: A+

Wish You Were Here — This is an alright stamp. Wish You Were Here is one of the really great Pink Floyd albums, and its cover is recognizable enough that you can fill in the details in your head. But it doesn’t have the exquisite simplicity of the Dark Side of the Moon cover, so if you don’t know what you’re looking at — and presumably some people won’t — you might not be able to quite make it out. But I do like the way that the Queen’s silhouette and the price fit into the cover’s white border. And again, it’s a really great album well worth celebrating. Grade: B+

Animals — This isn’t a very good stamp. Before anybody starts yelling, let me assure you that I agree Animals is a masterpiece. It’s probably my favourite Pink Floyd album. But what do you see when you look at that stamp? You see a power plant. What you don’t see, because it is far too small, is the tiny pig flying between the smokestacks. Thorgerson’s Animals cover is one of the great rock and roll sight gags, but it depends on scale: the smallness of the pig, relative to the hugeness of the power plant, is part of what makes it funny. It’s a tiny little out-of-place thing in an otherwise ordinary image. Even the CD copies of Animals are less visually effective than the original vinyl (he grumbles, like a man twice his age). Royal Mail could easily have chosen The Wall as their pick from this period of the band’s discography. It’s a more familiar album, a simpler image (it doesn’t get much simpler than white bricks) and that ink-splattery lettering is just awesome. To be fair, Animals is a classic that has never quite gotten its due. But this is not the right context to try and fix that. Grade: C-

The Endless RiverThis is a bad stamp. 2014’s The Endless River is not only a bad album, though it is that, it is also more an afterword than a proper final chapter. It is a collection of doctored outtakes from 1994’s The Division Bell, which was assumed to be the final Pink Floyd album for more than twenty years. So, The Endless River is a proper Pink Floyd album only in the sense that Opel is a proper Syd Barrett album, or You And I is a proper Jeff Buckley album — which is to say that it isn’t. It’s worth a listen as a curio, but it’s certainly not something that deserves to be commemorated in this way. On the other hand, The Endless River was made as a tribute to the band’s late keyboardist Richard Wright, so the stamp could be taken as a similar tribute to the most quietly important member of Pink Floyd. But, a far better tribute, and a more worthwhile nod to the band’s lengthy denouement, would have been to simply re-issue the Division Bell stamp that Royal Mail put out in 2009. It’s a great album, an openly valedictory one, and it had actual hands-on involvement from both Richard Wright and Storm Thorgerson, who both passed away prior to The Endless River. This is the most substantial misstep in an otherwise impressive body of philatelic work. Grade: D-

Live show stamps

UFO Club, 1966 — This is a lovely stamp. The Pink Floyd’s early shows (they wouldn’t drop the definite article until a year later) feature one of the defining pieces of Swinging London imagery: the swirling oil patterns of Mark Boyle’s psychedelic light show. Boyle’s approach was simple: he just put various oils and alcohols between two clear slides and let a projector lamp warm them up until they spread, changed colour and were cast across the band as pastel light. It doesn’t get much more 1966 than this. Grade: A

The Dark Side of the Moon Tour, 1973 — This is a lacklustre stamp. No doubt this tour was a major turning point in the band’s history, but this isn’t a particularly interesting photograph, is it? The biggest missed opportunity in the live show stamps is the lack of one of the greatest bits of Pink Floyd iconography: a giant inflatable pig. Instead of this rather dull shot of the band themselves (and indeed, in lieu of the Animals stamp), Royal Mail should have put out a stamp from the Animals tour, featuring a close-up of the pig they used to fly over the audience. This is the most superfluous of all ten stamps. Grade: B-

The Wall Tour, 1981 — This is an excellent stamp. For one thing, it’s a nod to the second-most influential visual artist to work with Pink Floyd, the cartoonist Gerald Scarfe. He drew the magnificent, disquieting gatefold for The Wall album, and also headed up the animation team for the film adaptation and the live show. This specific image of marching hammers, projected onto the massive wall that made up the live show’s set is maybe the single most iconic image associated with Pink Floyd that isn’t on an album cover. The tiny, black trenchcoated Roger Waters at the foot of the wall offers a sense of scale. It’s a fitting tribute to the show that set a new standard for rock spectacle. Grade: A+

The Division Bell Tour, 1994 — This is a fine stamp. The Division Bell tour was as excellent a farewell as fans could have asked for. The PULSE concert film captured the show at Earl’s Court, so we can all see that it was one of the greatest rock spectacles ever, in terms of scale. It can’t compete with The Wall for ingenuity, but the massiveness of the show, combined with the excellence of the performances (by the band members themselves and the additional personnel they toted along) made it great. The image projected on the circular screen in this shot is from the “High Hopes” video, directed by Storm Thorgerson, in some of the last work that he did with the band. A nice final salvo. Grade: A-

Conclusions

Again, insofar as stamps are still a thing, this is a lovely tribute. I would personally sub out The Wall for AnimalsThe Division Bell for The Endless River, the Animals tour for the Dark Side tour, and I’d accept Atom Heart Mother and Wish You Were Here with reservations. But it’s a lovely set, altogether. Average grade: B+ (Technically, it was a B, but general goodwill incited me to bump it up.)

Oh my god I just reviewed postage stamps. Somebody save me from myself.

Omnireviewer (week of May 22)

19 reviews. One of my favourite picks of the week ever (the first one).

Music

The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights — Based on the bits and bobs I’ve seen online, I’m not sure this is the best available document of the White Stripes’ live show. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s all one song into the next, into the next. And my understanding was that they could really play fast and loose (in both senses) with their material in a live setting, since it’s just the two of them and they’re basically telepathic. I will investigate further.

Pink Floyd: A Saucerful of Secrets — For my money, better than The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. I used to be astonished at how quickly the other members of the band, and especially Roger Waters, were able to fill the void left by Syd Barrett. But after reading some of Mark Blake’s book about the band, it’s clear that Waters always had rock star aspirations and wouldn’t soon settle for being just some bassist. It’s also clear that Richard Wright was the most musically knowledgeable member of the band from the start. If Barrett had been able to continue on in the band, I highly doubt that he would have continued to exert such creative dominance. But as it stands, he wasn’t able to continue on, and the people around him were more talented than anybody gave them credit for. I like Barrett’s music a lot, but this is my pick for the best early Pink Floyd album (certainly the best prior to Meddle), and it’s only partially because of “Jugband Blues.”  A final note: it is astonishing to hear the version of Pink Floyd that made “Interstellar Overdrive” and that will go on to make the bulk of More and Ummagumma gradually give way to the version of Pink Floyd that will make “Echoes” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” through the course of the title track’s 11 minutes.

Literature, etc.

Thomas Ligotti: “The Town Manager” — This is the second story of two in this collection that has reminded me of a favourite piece of internet media, which it predates. “The Town Manager” has all of the hallmarks of Welcome to Night Vale, including the dark humour. But, being Ligotti, the darkness ultimately wins out over the humour. It’s about a town that abides by the arbitrary dictates of a series of town managers and a barely-remembered town constitution that nobody has understood for decades. One suspects it is not Ligotti’s goal to write fiction that is #relatable, but “The Town Manager” fits the bill.

Thomas Ligotti: “Sideshow, and Other Stories” — A high-concept story, the premise of which is that Ligotti met another writer in a coffee shop and he gave him a sheaf of tiny stories. The framing device makes it — since we know who this guy is, his writing takes on deeper meaning. Nice.

Thomas Ligotti: “The Clown Puppet” — A bit dumb, honestly. I feel like creepy puppets have been played out since before this story was written. The prose is great, though, and it’s repetitiveness and sense of alienation remind me of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which is a very good thing to be put in mind of.

Television

Last Week Tonight: May 22, 2016 — Brilliant from start to finish. In the segment on Trudeau’s apologies for elbowgate (oh my god am I actually going to use that word in a blog post yes I am), Oliver and his writers demonstrate something they’ve demonstrated before, which is that they understand Canada better than our own comedians and indeed better than much of our media. The main segment on primaries and caucuses demonstrates what we all pretty much knew, which is that this system is madness, and it contains one of my favourite comedic tropes, which is a person explaining a concept factually but the concept is so arcane that it becomes absurd after a few lines. And his final segment on the leader of Chechnya contains the best joke to have been hand-delivered to them by a horrible tyrant: “we have completely lost our cat.”

Game of Thrones: “The Door” — Things are picking up, now. Obviously, the headline is Hodor and generally everything in the Bran plotline, which I’ve been excited about from the start, but there’s much more to love in this. Tyrion and Varys are working as characters again, and Varys gets one of his best moments ever, when he spouts a rather eloquent screed against fanaticism, only to be seriously unsettled by the possibility that the Red Priestesses actually have a power he’d never considered real. The Wall continues to benefit from the presence of characters we’re not accustomed to seeing there: Littlefinger is at his most loathable here, and Sansa’s just-frank-enough account of her rape by Ramsay is a satisfying expression of power on her part — though it doesn’t come close to justifying that plotline in the last season. Jorah and Daenerys get their best scene together, and it’s only slightly undercut by Daario standing there awkwardly. Considering how angry I was at this show four episodes ago, the fact that it’s won me over is a minor miracle. I would like to stop seeing Arya get beaten up, though.

Movies

La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game) — It is really great to have a public library in your city that lets you stream the bulk of the Criterion Collection. The Rules of the Game has been one of my favourite movies since I first saw it in a film studies class, at exactly the point in my life when seeing movies like The Rules of the Game in film studies classes would have the greatest impact. It contains what is still my favourite movie quote ever. Approximately translated: “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” That perfectly describes the way that everybody acts in this movie, and mostly in real life too, I think. Nobody in The Rules of the Game is evil. Self-interested, certainly. Inconsiderate, also. Myopic, certainly. But for the most part, the characters in this movie do what they feel is right. And when they don’t, they jump through hoops to justify their actions to themselves. And people still get hurt. The worst things that happen in the world don’t happen because humans are malicious; they happen in spite of the fact that they’re not. “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons.” There is only one other movie I can think of that recognizes this is true, and that is A Separation, which is the closest thing to a 21st-century Rules of the Game. If you’ve seen one and not the other, see the other. If you’ve seen neither, watch them both tonight.  

Games

EarthBound — Finally beat it. The fact that this game is a masterpiece really crept up on me. I was totally lukewarm on it at first. But in retrospect, its relatively innocuous opening chapters are a long con, designed to ease you into the game’s philosophy, which is basically that you cannot trust authority. The fact that this is such an obvious theme in a game intended for children, and that it is obvious without ever being stated outright, warms the cockles of my heart. In EarthBound, you play as a seemingly ordinary child called Ness. Pains are taken to establish the fact that Ness’s family is lower-middle class at best, and that their neighbours, the Minches, are wealthy. The Minches’ eldest son Pokey is an especially entitled little wanker who consistently anchors one of my favourite plot threads in the game, more on which in a moment. Ness’s family is loving, but his father is a lazy absentee who never appears in the game: he is only reachable by phone. (Possibly the saddest and most poignant moment in EarthBound is in the end credits: each of the characters’ names scroll across the screen, accompanied by an image of the character. But when “Dad” scrolls across the screen, the image is simply of a rotary telephone.) As the game pushes along, it isn’t only family and the trappings of wealth that get a raised eyebrow from EarthBound’s devs. It’s also the police, (Ness gets attacked by cops almost immediately when the game begins) organized religion (a cult paints an entire town blue as a matter of dogma), and consumer culture (you’re attacked by anthropomorphic records and coffee cups during a power outage in a department store). It’s power in all of its forms that EarthBound distrusts. In the final moments of the game’s last battle, Pokey appears again to gloat about how he’s able to ally himself with the powerful. One assumes that this is what he has learned from his privileged upbringing: associate with the powerful, regardless of morals and ethics. Throughout the game Pokey allies himself with a ridiculous but terrifyingly effective cult leader, a millionaire property developer under the influence of mind control, and Cthulhu. (Well, not technically Cthulhu, but more or less. The game goes full-bore Lovecraft at the end, more on which in a moment.) He’s an absolute weasel, he’s totally unrepentant, he’s allowed to get away with everything, and crucially, he is not redeemed. He’s just bad. A bad rich person, against whom an upright poor kid has to fight. In a summer where the biggest movie is about a clash between a soldier and a wealthy industrialist, it is incredibly refreshing to see something so openly sceptical of power. And the game’s best trick is that it reveals itself to be a dramatically different game than you thought you were playing right at the end, when your fight with an unknowable, incomprehensible consciousness takes on the tenor of Lovecraftian horror. But the game has prepared you for this by the end: no authority is worth taking at face value. Even the seemingly sedate narrative of a seemingly trustworthy little Nintendo game can turn on you. I think EarthBound is available on Wii U, or whatever that thing is called. So, parents: get this game for your kids. I honestly believe that it has the capacity to instil important values and make them better citizens. And beyond that, it’s just a grand old yarn. Pick of the week.

Kentucky Route Zero interludes: “Limits and Demonstrations,” “The Entertainment,” and “Here and There Along the Echo” — Like every fan of Kentucky Route Zero, I am anxiously awaiting the next, profoundly delayed, instalment. But unlike many Kentucky Route Zero fans, I had completely missed the fact that there are mini-games available for free that add depth to the main story. They’re not just trifles — It took me a couple of hours to get though all three. And they make substantial additions to the story’s canon. “Limits and Demonstrations” is in retrospect the first part of the game to make its metafiction explicit: this is a game about computer games, though the main story doesn’t quite make it there until Act 3. “The Entertainment” broadens Kentucky Route Zero’s engagement with the subprime mortgage crisis, which is somehow also a major recurring theme. It also contains a nice Waiting for Godot riff, as the bar patrons await the arrival of the entertainment. (When we meet the entertainment in Act 3, she explicitly quotes Beckett.) “Here and There Along the Echo” is certainly the most novel of the three — the entire game consists simply of a touchtone telephone that can only call one number. When you call that number, you’re faced with an inscrutable tree of menus read by an eccentric Southern gentleman who claims to represent “The Bureau of Secret Tourism.” The world of Kentucky Route Zero is so well defined that the devs can strip it down to a hotline and it’s still aesthetically recognizable. I can’t wait for Act 4.

Podcasts

The Heart: “Not the Right Time” — This is heavy stuff. It’s a first-person narrative about a woman having been sexually abused as a child. It’s beautifully produced, and exactly as hard to listen to as it’s meant to be. But it’s hard to judge this just yet, since it’s just the first episode of a mini-season that sounds like it will be very eventful, and very troubling to follow. I still will, though.

Reply All: “On the Inside, Part II” — So, at this point this actually is just Serial. And in spite of being less obsessive and rigorous than Koenig’s team’s production, it is entertaining me more than the second season of Serial did.

Fresh Air: “Marc Maron On Sobriety And His ‘Uncomfortable’ Comfort Zone” — I’ve heard Maron interviewing Terry Gross. Time for the opposite. What’s notable is how obviously Gross likes Maron: she wants the best for him and finds him excellent company, even though he can be overbearing. (I suppose interview subjects are allowed to be overbearing, but it still doesn’t speak well of them.) What’s also notable is how bad Maron’s TV show sounds like it is.

Fresh Air: “ Bryan Cranston” — I don’t know why Fresh Air is my favourite show to cook to, but that does seem to happen a lot. This is an old interview, but Cranston is such a charmer. A fun chat.

StartUp: “The Runway” — GOOGLE SPONSORS GIMLET NOW!?!?!? Ahem. This was lovely, and I liked that they broke it up into small vignettes. But in general, if you have to announce the structural gimmick at the start, you’re either not doing the gimmick right or you’re just generally not adventurous enough. I’ll go with the second one, with the provision that almost every podcast has the same problem. Somebody really needs to tear the walls of this medium down. And I say that as a devotee.

All Songs Considered: “A Conversation With Paul Simon” — On one hand, it’s cool to hear Bob Boilen basically do Song Exploder redux and just talk to an artist about one song. And the song is pretty good. On the other, it’s awkward to hear Paul Simon talk about studio practices that are a matter of course for any hip-hop producer as if they’re the most innovative thing in the world.

Criminal: “39 Shots” — This is the story of the time when leftist protesters got shot up by the Klan and the Klan was deemed not guilty on the grounds of self-defense. The most compelling and damning aspect of this is that the police were not there, in spite of them having issued the permit for the protest that was taking place, and saying they would be there to protect the protesters. As usual, Phoebe Judge does not try to influence your opinions directly. Nonetheless, it will disgust you.

Radiolab: “Coming Soon: More Perfect” — A show from Radiolab about the Supreme Court? Will Brooke Gladstone be involved? Because then I’m in.

99% Invisible: “Loud and Clear” — The story of why cassette tapes are still popular in prisons. There are so many interesting things in the world. At the best of times, 99pi reminds me of that. Plus, the Theory of Everything clip they play at the end is gold. I’m going to have to check that episode out. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 20, 2016)

18 reviews. I’d like to think I’m making up for the comparatively small number with extra thoughtfulness, this week. Or maybe not. It occurs to me that a lot of what I write here is complete nonsense to anybody who doesn’t have near identical cultural touchstones to me. Therefore, to those of you who actually read this: thank you for your substantial feat of empathy.

Television

Horace and Pete: Episodes 2-5 — I think we’d better start with episode three, in which two people have a conversation, and that is all. Horace and Pete was already becoming a testament to the power of good writing and good acting presented straightforwardly, but that episode took it to another level altogether. Laurie Metcalf, an actress that I’ve never seen in anything before, opens the show with a ten-minute monologue in a single close-up shot. And even when Louis C.K.’s character enters the picture, it doesn’t get much more complicated than that. It’s just two people, telling each other captivating stories that they each have personal reasons to be particularly captivated by. It’s electrifying. Metcalf’s performance is completely staggering, in the same way that Alan Alda, Edie Falco and Steve Buscemi’s performances are staggering in other episodes. C.K. himself is a less technically able actor, and it’s occasionally bizarre to see him playing opposite people who are obviously much more accomplished than him, but in general he knows what he can and cannot do. The other episodes aren’t quite as good as the third one. But then, none of them take quite such a big swing. This is a really good show, that expanded its remit from the political theatre of its premiere remarkably quickly. Pick of the week.

Last Week Tonight: March 20, 2016 — This was brilliant, don’t get me wrong. But I’m beginning to become concerned that John Oliver is obsessing over the same ludicrous shit that everybody else is. When his show premiered, I had stopped watching Jon Stewart because I was starting to get tired of Stewart’s particular preoccupations — which is to say, the preoccupations of daily television news. Then Oliver came along and explained net neutrality with dingo metaphors. I’m hoping that version of Last Week Tonight doesn’t get forgotten in favour of being merely the most authoritative source of humourous Trump debunking.

Better Call Saul: “Bali H’ai” — One of my two favourite episodes of Better Call Saul. (The other is “Marco.”) The moment at the beginning where Kim stays home a little later specifically to hear Jimmy sing to her over voicemail is one of the sweetest moments ever to appear on this show. So much is communicated in that scene, about both characters. Rhea Seehorn is becoming one of my favourite supporting players on television right now. It’s really something to watch the longing play out on her face as a partner from a rival firm offers her a job she knows she can’t take. Plus, we have another intrusion of Breaking Bad into the Mike’s Better Call Saul plot. It comes in a gloriously creepy moment that also features some of Jonathan Banks’s best work in his role so far. Even Patrick Fabian impresses this week, with almost no screen time. He’s doing a great job of making Howard not be a cruel, cold bastard, even when he’s acting punitively. If the third episode of Horace and Pete were less brilliant, this would be the pick of the week.

Music

Madvillain: Madvillainy — You know when you love an album so much you try not to listen to it too much so it stays fresh? That’s how this album is with me. It’s absolutely one of my favourite rap albums, but I don’t actually know it that well because I want it to stay surprising. When I listen to this, I get the sense that MadLib and I are essentially the same person, except he’s a talented hip hop producer and I’m a hack radio writer. But this is basically what the inside of my head sounds like, complete with bits of Frank Zappa and Gentle Giant flying around. MF Doom, on the other hand, is very much unlike the inside of my head, because there is literally no other human who thinks like him.

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — There is no other album about which there is so little left to be said.

The Beatles: Revolver — Except maybe this one. All the same, I think I can say some things. Revolver seems to be the internet’s consensus favourite Beatles album. I have no metric to measure this, but I get the sense that Gen Xers picked this as their Beatles album in opposition to the boomers’ reverence for Sgt. Pepper. And while neither of those are my favourite (I’d pick the White Album, Abbey Road, Rubber Soul, and Magical Mystery Tour over both), I’m going to have to decisively side with the boomers on this one. Revolver has some of the best songs in the Beatles canon (“Eleanor Rigby,” “She Said She Said,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” “For No One” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”). But for an album that’s consistently touted as maybe the single greatest utterance of a generation, it has a lot of relative duds. “Taxman” is an early iteration of mid-70s fatass popstar syndrome — wherein most of England’s biggest stars were living in tax exile making bland, safe music. “Love You To” is a culturally appropriative misguided experiment that lacks the lyrical and melodic brilliance of Pepper’s similar (but equally problematic) “Within You Without You.” “Here, There And Everywhere” marks the first appearance of the saccharine Paul McCartney that the world would come to resent, post-Beatles. “Yellow Submarine” is fine. Everybody stop hating on “Yellow Submarine.” “Good Day Sunshine” is musical plain yogurt. It’s all subjective, of course. But during four of Revolver’s 14 tracks, I always find myself wondering who crowned this one king.

Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here — More boomer music! This used to be my favourite album from Pink Floyd’s most revered period (Dark Side through The Wall). These days I tend to lean towards Animals. But Wish has a certain appeal for being the most loosely constructed of the post-Dark Side albums. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is the most obvious illustration of this — that opening goes on for at least one chorus longer than it probably needs to. But economy isn’t the concern here, nor should it have been. It’s the slow burn that makes the song. And the whole album benefits from the feeling that the band has time to kill. It would have been a mistake for Pink Floyd to follow up Dark Side with another ruthlessly focussed album. Wish You Were Here is the final statement from the free, jammy psychedelic band that Pink Floyd was before they hit it big. From here on out, the albums meander less and less. And that is both a gain and a loss.

NPR Music: the Austin 100 — This is a six-hour, 100-song playlist of music from artists playing at this year’s SXSW, compiled by Stephen Thompson, who will not shut up about it on the two podcasts he’s on that I listen to. Having very much enjoyed All Songs’ SXSW coverage, I figured I may as well check out the giant heap of music that they’ve made available for download. And you know what: good decision. There’s a huge range here, much of which falls under the valuable category of “stuff I don’t really want to explore further, but am glad I heard once.” Just when you think it’s going to be a bunch more indie rock and songwritery stuff, alphabetical order gives you back-to-back Chynna Rogers (kickass rap) and CONAN (metal, obvs). You can download all 100 songs for free until the end of March and you should, because why wouldn’t you?

Literature, etc.

David Sheppard: On Some Faraway Beach — I’ve had David Sheppard’s Brian Eno biography on my phone for ages, having only gotten through a couple of chapters. Early this week, the third chapter became my commute entertainment of choice. It’s fantastic, and as much a look into the London experimental music scene — including notables like Cornelius Cardew, Gavin Bryars and Michael Nyman — as it is into Eno’s formative years. It’s fun to see how the approach that made Eno one of my creative heroes — Sheppard summarizes it as “create parameters, set it off, see what happens” — basically originated with John Cage, and was circulating around the experimental circles that Eno stumbled into. The line from Cage to Eno is an obvious one to draw, but what’s cool is seeing how everybody else who caught on to it (including Americans like La Monte Young and Steve Reich) was using it to make a sort of “art music,” and Eno was the only one to realize he could use it to produce pop albums.

Games

SOMA — Finished, at last. This did what I wanted it to, namely: to offer me a detailed world to wander around in as part of a linear story, and to occasionally scare the willickers out of me. SOMA really wants to be a thoughtful game, and sometimes it is. But the existential questions that are its thematic bread and butter are too hypothetical to be especially preoccupying. “Are digital copies of ourselves still ourselves?” Ehh. It’s worth noting that this is close to the same question that animated the first storylines of Swamp Thing, and that comic really started getting good when Alan Moore stopped worrying about it. (It’s also worth noting that there’s a famous philosophical thought experiment colloquially known as “Swampman” that offers almost the same hypothetical as Swamp Thing, but which was apparently conceived some time after Swamp Thing began. In any case, both of these iterations of this idea are more sophisticated that their expression in SOMA.) These days, I’m disinclined to grapple with such abstract notions. Give me Bioshock: Infinite. That game’s hypotheticals are beginning to look like the daily news. Altogether, I’d say SOMA was very much a video game. It was fun while it lasted, but it won’t be lingering with me for long, and I certainly won’t ever play it again.

The Dream Machine: Episodes 1-3 — This is more my speed. First off, it’s amazing that somebody made a stop-motion point-and-click game with clay models. Aesthetically, The Dream Machine is the most distinctive game I’ve played since… I dunno, FEZ? It’s so beautifully presented that the apartment building where most of the game’s real-life segments take place is just as vibrant as its fanciful dream sequences. The puzzles, such as they are, are intuitive and don’t disrupt the flow of the story. The writing is clear and refreshingly non-stylized, and all of the characters have distinct voices — even in the third episode, where they literally all look the same. It’s not quite Kentucky Route Zero, but what is?

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: More SXSW coverage — The tail end of All Songs’ SXSW late night dispatches found Bob Boilen invigorated by an environment that most people, including apparently everybody else involved in NPR Music, would find exhausting. But the team’s tenacity paid off in this week’s proper episode of All Songs, which features some really fantastic discoveries that I’ll probably check out more from. I am so excited for that John Congleton album. Pick of the week.

On the Media: “Party People” — I can’t say I have any better an understanding of who the hell these people who support Trump are after listening to this, but it was certainly interesting to hear more about how ineffective the campaign finance system is — to the point where it’s almost hard to think of it as evil anymore. Just inept.

In Our Time: “Bedlam” — I continue to be equally fascinated by this show’s existence as its content. It’s refreshing — almost shocking, really — to hear Melvyn Bragg respond to a guest’s meandering answer to a question with “that was an excellent survey, but can you just give me the answer?” He’s totally artless and I kind of love him for it. The actual content of this episode is horrifying and fascinating.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Glen Weldon’s ‘The Caped Crusade’” — Fun! I will say, I find that as a culture critic, Weldon can be a bit on the orthodox side for my Phil Sandifer-inclined tastes. He has a tendency to recite the standard narratives of cultural history, rather than offering the sorts of counterintuitive arguments I tend to enjoy. But it sounds like in this book he’s really gone out of his way to put the most toxic parts of nerd culture under a microscope. I fully intend to read Weldon’s Superman book, having enjoyed the Amazon preview some time ago. This new Batman one may have to wait, but I’ll probably get there because Weldon is good company, in podcast and printed form.

On The Media: “Gawker, Hulk Hogan, and the First Amendment” — Bob Garfield is the best. This is a case study in why he and Brooke Gladstone are a great team. This is the sort of straightforward, umbrance-driven story that he would be way more into than her. Meanwhile, she’s probably off thinking about how Marshall McLuhan would have critiqued Twitter. It’s the perfect arrangement.

Reply All: “Good Job, Alex” — You know what’s something you can’t do on public radio? Be the main character in your own story. Thank god there are podcasts, because the Vogt/Goldman double act has never been funnier than in this, where Goldman tries to solve a problem and Vogt makes fun of him mercilessly.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “SXSW Wrap and Songs That Changed Our Lives” — This arrived just in time for me to reach peak NPR SXSW ‘16 coverage. After hearing Bob Boilen and co. geek out about the music at SXSW, it was nice that this offered Stephen Thompson, Katie Presley and Audie Cornish the opportunity to talk about it more broadly, as a phenomenon. And honestly, after hearing about the masses of sweaty people and the pace of it all, I think I might not bother ever going. I’ll just experience it vicariously through NPR.