Tag Archives: Pop Culture Happy Hour

Omnibus (week of Feb. 11, 2018)

This is both late and somewhat halfhearted. I apologize. Things have been pleasingly busy. Only one pick of the week, since it’s a small one.

Nine reviews.

Music

Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band: Live 1975-85 — This live set is a perfect capper to Springsteen’s golden age. Its 40 songs (!) represent all seven studio albums he’d released up to this point, plus an assortment of oddities and covers, like his classic rendition of Tom Waits’ “Jersey Girl,” a song that sounds genuinely strange in Waits’ voice, but which works perfectly for the more romantic Springsteen. The only downside is that the set starts too strong and never quite rises to the level of its opening. The acoustic rendition of “Thunder Road” from 1975 is one of the greatest live reinventions you’ll ever hear. I can’t say it better than I did in my column on North by Northwest from a few weeks ago, so just scrub to 2:00:57 in this podcast and kindly ignore the fact that I said pathetic fallacy when I meant dramatic irony. Other highlights include Bruce’s top-shelf storytelling on “Growing Up” and “The River.” He’d be great on The Moth. Also, the slightly amped-up renditions of songs from Nebraska are satisfyingly different from the album versions, and work better than you’d think in a huge arena. I think I actually prefer this version of “Johnny 99,” just for Springsteen’s more dramatic vocal delivery. It’s a fabulous live album. It’ll live on my phone for a while, I’m sure.

Kanye West: 808s & Heartbreak — Like many people, I strongly disliked The Life of Pablo when it first came out. But it’s possible that I just wasn’t ready for it and I’ll revisit it in two years and think it’s a masterpiece. Because that’s how the entire world seems to have responded to this album. These days, auto-tuned, performatively vulnerable rappers are a dime a dozen. But Kanye did it first, and now that we’ve all realized the extent of this album’s impact, we can basically all agree that he did it best, right? Before this week, I had never heard 808s from start to finish. (I think there are still a couple Kanye albums I haven’t listened to straight through, which I will likely rectify in the coming weeks.) I’m not sure it isn’t my second-favourite Kanye album after My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. For all his occasional lapses of lyrical taste, Kanye West is one of the greatest musicians in modern hip hop. And this album gives him an opportunity to show off his musicianship in a different light than any of his other albums — because it contains more self-imposed restrictions than any of his other albums. Most obviously, of course, he does not rap on it. But it also builds on a very specific musical aesthetic, based around the sound of the TR-808 drum machine. The economy of this album points ahead to Yeezus at times, and at others the cinematic sweep of it points to Fantasy. Those two future approaches come close to converging in a single piano line on “Welcome to Heartbreak,” an economical thing that over the course of a very long four bars, only uses five notes. It looped and looped in my head for a whole day, earlier this week. For me the other highlight is “RoboCop,” which contains some of the most florid, melodic musical material on any of Kanye’s records, and lyrics that approach Morrissey levels of hangdog irony. I love it. I love every song on it. Pick of the week.

Television

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 3, episodes 9-13 — Let me paraphrase a joke that made me laugh and laugh. “I took a career aptitude test once. It said I should be either an unlicensed barber or a police informant. And now look at me: I’m both.” I don’t know how anybody can write this stuff. Honest to god, I cannot remember anything about the story of this season, and I just finished watching it. But I laughed and laughed like a maniac. It is good television.

Podcasts

99% Invisible: “Border Wall” & “Making a Mark: Visual Identity with Tom Geismar” — The border wall episode is a nice collection of mini-stories dealing with that topic. And the Tom Geismar episode is a good example of a “Roman Mars does an interview” episode of 99pi, which I do generally enjoy.

Song by Song catch-up — I dunno, I like “Blind Love.” It’s amazing how much of this I’ve listened to given that I didn’t even like it at first.

Code Switch catch-up — The Valentine’s Day episode is properly contentious. Seek ye out that one. It is here.  

In Our Time: “Cephalopods” & “Fungi” — So I just learned that some cephalopods can change colour but can’t see colour. Thank you, BBC, for making me sad. Also, the thing that links these two episodes together, aside from being interesting discussions of the natural world, is that neither of their panels can agree on a single pronunciation of their subject. KEFF-ah-lo-pod? SEFF-ah-lo-pod? FUN-jie?

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Winter Olympics” & “Black Panther and What’s Making Us Happy” — I have no television, and therefore will likely pass the Olympics by entirely. But Black Panther, whoo boy, am I ever in.

Desert Island Discs: “Christopher Nolan” — He does not have interesting taste in music, it turns out. His picks are all film scores, save for one Radiohead song he tried and failed to get the rights for when he was making Memento (“Paranoid Android”) and the blandest, weirdest pick for a song by his late, lamented former supporting actor David Bowie (“Loving the Alien”). But the interview is good: I always like hearing from artists who value order and discipline over chaos.

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Omnibus (week of Feb. 4, 2018)

Happy Family Day. 13 reviews, one of which is basically just a link. But it’s a link you should click.

Literature, etc.

Herman Melville: Moby-Dick — Hey, look over here.

Stephen King: It (audiobook) — At last, I’ve gotten through all 45 hours of this behemoth. I’ll start by praising the audiobook. The TV actor Steven Weber does a bang-up job bringing the dozens of characters in King’s sprawling narrative to life: many of whom in both child and grown-up forms. He seems to particularly relish Richie Tozier, who obsessively does voices himself. Frankly, Richie’s variously-offensive stereotyped characters get really annoying after a while, but that’s King’s fault for writing it that way. Weber’s commitment is commendable. As for the book itself, I’m comfortable saying that it’s one of the most extraordinary works of popular fiction I’ve read in a long time. There are elements of it that are dated, offensive, or simply a bit dumb, but they’re drowned out the same way that “Rocky Raccoon” is drowned out on the White Album. It is so sprawling, ambitious and heterogenous that its most flawed moments can easily recede from your mind when you consider the whole. Except one. You may have heard about the controversial child orgy in It? It is just as icky as you think. King has responded to criticism of this scene by saying: “it’s fascinating to me that there has been so much comment about that single sex scene and so little about the multiple child murders.” That only serves to demonstrate that he doesn’t understand the problem. Child murders are terrible, but they are a thing that happens. Fiction is a perfectly good way to try and work through that fact. But that sex scene, which involves eleven-year-old children, is both explicit and completely arbitrary. The whole time it was happening, all I could think was “Man, you didn’t have to do this! Why did you do this?!?” I like Stephen King, and I think he is a decent person. But this one moment is really very bad. Since we’ve gone straight into the negatives, so is his general treatment of his one substantial female character. But all of this is a preface that will allow me to enthuse in more general terms about the rest of the book. In On Writing, King has some very convincing things to say about theme. Basically, he thinks you should write your story, and then figure out what it’s ‘about.’ Once you’ve figured that out, keep it in mind while you edit, and work to emphasize it. It is a strong book because King clearly knows what it is about. It is about memory: about the way we selectively recall our pasts, forgetting things for our own sanity. It’s about how the memories we choose to suppress can continue to subconsciously inform our lives, and how they can come back to hurt us suddenly and unexpectedly. Most of the time when horror is about something in this way, the metaphor is personified by the monster. (See Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s endless cavalcade of beasts, each reflecting an element of high school life.) It doesn’t work that way, though. The shapeshifting Pennywise is a marvellous, terrifying creation, but he is not materially a representation of memory or suppression. Instead of baking his theme into his monster, King bakes his theme into the book’s structure. Throughout the novel, we flash back and forth in time, learning about a group of children’s brave stand against Pennywise in 1958, and simultaneously about their adult selves’ return to Pennywise’s domain to finish what they started in 1985. And as we learn more about the events of 1958, we begin to become wiser than our protagonists’ adult selves, who remember none of this, and are thus walking blindly into a danger they can intuit but cannot understand. King’s metaphor of choice for their amnesia is the phenomenon where you forget your nightmares almost immediately, only recalling them in vague detail much later in the day when they can’t disturb you anymore. Pennywise is aware of all this, but he ties into a different theme in the book: belief. His power, like the power of many childhood story characters, comes from people believing in him and believing him powerful. Still, though: Pennywise knows the importance of memory to this story, and he ties the two key themes together in one of the book’s most powerful lines: “Come on back and we’ll see if you remember the simplest thing of all — how it is to be children, secure in belief and thus afraid of the dark.” Maybe it’s just me, but I feel that the book is most powerful in these moments: the moments where Stephen King indulges in a bit of autocritique. I particularly love one moment with the young Stan Uris: a skeptical, bullied, Jewish boy who later claims that he’s fine with being scared, but can’t abide being dirty. He can’t abide things that present an offense to how he thinks about the world. He can’t find the words to express it to his friends, but the thought crosses his mind: “It’s offense you maybe can’t live with because it opens up a crack inside your thinking, and if you look down into it you see there are evil things down there, and they have little yellow eyes that don’t blink, and there’s a stink down there in that dark and after a while you think maybe there’s a whole other universe where a square moon rises in the sky, and the stars laugh in cold voices, and some of the triangles have four sides, and some have five sides and some have five raised to the fifth power of sides. In this universe there might grow roses which sing. Everything leads to everything, he would have told them if he could. Go to your church and listen to your stories about Jesus walking on the water, but if I saw a guy doing that I’d scream and scream and scream. Because it wouldn’t look like a miracle to me. It would look like an offense.” This passage is what this book is capable of at its best. It sprawls because it goes deep: deep into the history of its setting and characters, deep into the moments that change people’s lives, deep into the parts of our communities and minds that we don’t want to think about. That we’d rather forget.

Alison Bechdel: Fun Home — I have always wanted to write a book like this: a book that approaches real life as a subject for literary criticism. But unlike mine, Alison Bechdel’s early life actually justifies that approach. Fun Home tells the story of her relationship with her distant father, a complicated aesthete living in a tiny Pennsylvania town, who died young in a probable suicide. This is a man who spent his free time obsessively remodelling a dilapidated old mansion to old world splendor: a mansion that served as the family home. Immediately, you know this guy has to be interesting. The other major story element is Bechdel’s coming-of-age story, leaving home and discovering her own sexuality. The two stories entwine with one another and prop each other up. But the real connective tissue in Fun Home is the mutual obsession that Bechdel and her father have with classic literature. Each chapter revolves around a different work of literature that resonates with Bechdel’s story: the myth of Icarus and Daedalus as told by Ovid in Metamorphoses, Camus’s A Happy Death, a side-by-side reading of The Great Gatsby and The Portrait of a Lady, In Search of Lost Time, The Wind in the Willows, The Importance of Being Earnest, and finally — because that’s not enough of a reading list — Ulysses. This is the perfect kind of story to tell as a graphic novel. Again and again, Bechdel allows her expressive, beautiful cartoons to tell the surface-level story of her life with her parents, and reflects on this literature in the text that runs parallel. Never has a book that muses at length about Joyce been so staggeringly moving. It’s easily in my top five comics. Maybe top three. Read it immediately. Pick of the week.

Theatre

The Old Trout Puppet Workshop: Jabberwocky — I’ve wanted to see a production by the Old Trout Puppet Workshop since way back in high school, when I was a marginal contributor to a puppetry company myself. I dunno why I never did. I now live even farther away from them than I did back then. But this show was a marvellous entrée into their weird world. Jabberwocky is a cheap and janky-looking production that was clearly engineered to show all of its seams, and that’s what makes it so compelling. From the very start, the four members of the on-stage company make you feel like you’re witnessing something that will barely hold together. And then, within the context of that aesthetic, they tell a story that just knocks you flat. It’s a reinterpretation of the famous Lewis Carroll poem — specifically just that poem, and none of the Alice-related material surrounding it. So, it really is working with a bare minimum of source material. Essentially, the story of “Jabberwocky” is: a father warns his young son to beware of a terrifying monster, that young son impetuously goes off to slay that monster, and he succeeds and makes his father happy and proud. The Old Trouts have rethought this elementally simple story as a parable on how we shunt off all of our hopes and dreams for ourselves onto our children. It is a multi-generational retelling of “Jabberwocky” in which nobody gets to slay the Jabberwock. It is brilliant storytelling, brilliant theatre, and a brilliant reinterpretation of a too-familiar story.

Television

The Chris Gethard Show: “Whatever Happens, Happens” & “Bring It Home” — I like this show because I like Chris Gethard, but I sometimes wish he’d spend less time talking about how he wants to break the format of a TV talk show and more time just getting on with it. Still, there are great moments in these episodes: Nick Kroll staring down the camera, a cameo appearance by a goat, and a recurring bit in which Ira Glass wanders around the studio, alone.

Doctor Who: “The Ribos Operation” — The first classic Doctor Who story that I’ve watched a second time. I think there’s an argument to be made that this is not only one of the most brilliant and non-dated episodes of the classic series, but that it is the best possible starting point for new viewers. The writing is solid, of course; this is Robert Holmes we’re talking about. But it’s also one of the most self-aware stories in the classic series, where the comedy lands most successfully. It introduces an awesome new companion who, in spite of the Doctor constantly being a dick to her, holds her own and is a boss. It takes place in a few easily-rendered locales, so the sets aren’t too embarrassing. And most crucially, the acting is great all around. Every actor in this serial knows exactly what kind of story they’re in, namely a silly quasi-medieval space caper with terrible monster puppets, and they seem to appreciate both its ridiculousness and its brilliance. That is everything you can hope for from classic Doctor Who. This is amazing, and if you haven’t ever seen the classic series, watch this. I’m not saying you’ll love it, but if you don’t, I doubt there’ll be anything much for you in the rest of the series.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 3, episodes 1-8 — I didn’t love the second season of this because the jokes weren’t landing for me. But they sure are in this season. I’m uncertain about some of the ongoing jokes, like the caricatures of campus leftism who are seemingly the sole denisons of Columbia University. But Maya Rudolph as Dionne Warwick is a thing to behold, and there are jokes in this that I can’t believe anybody could come up with. “You know what yuppies eat? Ice cream that tastes like lavender.” “No! That’s a smell!” Love it. I’ll probably finish it in a couple days.  

Music

The Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Deluxe Edition) — The latest instalment in my increasingly tortured attempt to listen to every Stones album up to Tattoo You in order. I like Some Girls, but I feel like those who call it the best post-Exile Stones album undervalue Goats Head Soup. And the bonus material on this deluxe edition that I decided to check out for god knows what reason is fairly strong, but only by the standards of a band that was already on its downward slide.

Bruce Springsteen: Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. — This is maybe the clearest demonstration of “early promise” ever recorded. Compared to its successor, The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, which remains one of my favourite Springsteen albums, this is Wordy As Hell. And while Bruce’s best songs will always be a bit hyperverbal, this is a bit much. For the only time in his career, Bruce’s lyrics are more clever than they are meaningful. I still like it, and “Spirit in the Night” is particularly essential. It’ll probably grow on me.

Bruce Springsteen: Born in the U.S.A. — This marks the point where I’ve heard every studio album from the Boss’s heyday. This week, I listened to the records that are commonly thought to bookend that period: this and Asbury Park. I deliberately saved them for last because I had a feeling that they were going to be the ones I liked least, and I was right. That said, neither one of them are outright bad. I find Born in the U.S.A. a bit slick. The title track, regardless of its universal misinterpretation, is a cliché. So is “Glory Days.” But weirdly, I like “Dancing in the Dark.” That chorus has three iconic lines in a row “You can’t start a fire without a spark/this gun’s for hire/even if we’re just dancing in the dark.” That’s skill, right there. And the smaller songs on this are really great, especially “Darlington County” and “My Hometown.” Now I’ll just round this whole binge off with the live set, and commence repeat listening.

Podcasts

Slow Burn — This series from Slate about the weirdest, freakiest details of the Watergate scandal is a great binge listen, and it’s done now, so get to it. The main idea is that it took Watergate a long time to find its way into the public consciousness, no matter how shattering an event it seems now. The show is a reflection on a state of scandal that resembles the current political craziness, but in a pre-internet age. It’s a bit wonky — this is Slate, after all. But listen to the first episode, which is about a woman who was forcibly tranquilized to keep her from talking, and see if you’re not hooked.

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — The Grammys will always disappoint Stephen, an Eagles victory will always delight Gene, and Roxane Gay will always be a fantastic chat. Darkest Hour sounds dire. Over and out.

More Perfect: “One Nation Under Money” — The second season finale keeps up the pace. This, as much as any other episode of More Perfect, made me understand a debate that I didn’t know was happening. Essentially, it is about the legal and ethical knots that America ties itself into when lawyers try to win cases by making everything about money. That is a vast oversimplification, but like all of the best things Jad Abumrad is involved with, it cannot be summarized easily. More Perfect is the best thing he’s done in a long time, and this is a great episode of it. Pick of the week.

Omnibus (week of Jan. 21, 2018)

A big week for podcasts, a small week for everything else. Also, if you’d like to hear me try and make a connection between a prototypical sound recording from 1860 and a Bruce Springsteen song, you are cordially invited to scrub to 2:00:57 in this podcast.

24 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Herman Melville: Moby-Dick — This is happening. I’m putting my whole reading list on hold for this, and I have no regrets so far. For now, I will only signpost that I’ve started it. I guarantee I will have lots to say about it at some point, but who knows when and in what form that will come. In any case: I have started reading Moby-Dick. Pick of the week.

Adam Gopnik: “The Corrections” — This is a long essay I found thanks to a link in a shorter essay I found thanks to the fact that I’m reading Moby-Dick. (By the way, I’m reading Moby-Dick.) Gopnik wrote it in 2007, which was actually a fairly long time ago, and it contains some blasé sexism that I suspect Gopnik would regret nowadays. Or, maybe I should say — it contains some blasé acceptance of the sexism in James Bond movies, but it adds up to the same. Also, it hails from a time when DVDs were dominant and people watched movies with director’s commentaries. (I do miss director’s commentaries.) Still, it’s a good piece of criticism. The subject is essentially alterations being made to established texts — like the abridged version of Moby-Dick, or Apocalypse Now: Redux. The Moby-Dick bit is the best. I’ll quote his conclusion here and leave you to read the rest should you see fit: “…when you come to the end of the compact ‘Moby-Dick’ you don’t think, What a betrayal; you think, Nice job — what were the missing bits again? And when you go back to find them you remember why the book isn’t just a thrilling adventure with unforgettable characters but a great book. The subtraction does not turn good work into hackwork; it turns a hysterical, half-mad masterpiece into a sound, sane book. It still has its phallic reach and point, but lacks its flaccid, anxious self-consciousness: it is all Dick and no Moby.”

Music

Barbara Hannigan: Tiny Desk Concert — What a perfect choice for the tiny desk. Hannigan is maybe the most exciting artist in classical music, full stop. And in this miniature set, she sings four weird German art songs by Alexander Zemlinsky, Alma Mahler, Hugo Wolf, and Arnold Schoenberg, which are all captivating. I would say I’d like to hear more art songs at the tiny desk, but frankly most art songs bore me to tears. It takes an expert curator with sublime musicianship to bring this off. It’s great.

Movies

Don’t Think Twice — I’ve been meaning to watch this since it came out, and was reminded of it on Chris Gethard’s last podcast. I confess, I have a personal stake in this because I feel as though it outlines an alternate timeline version of my life. It’s about a troupe of 20/30-something improv comedians on the precipice of either breakout fame or the need to give up entirely. I was an improv kid in high school, and I can attest to the accuracy of this movie’s portrayal of adult improvisers. When you spend so much of your time on an art form that demands constantly saying yes to everything and essentially ignoring your god-given impulse control, it can cause you to act really strangely in social situations. I gave improv up after high school, studied classical trumpet, and was never spontaneous again, thank Jesus. But I know people who kept going with it, and they were increasingly difficult to associate with because improv makes your brain work in a weird way, like you’re constantly on a mild stimulant. Mike Birbiglia (who directed this and wrote the bits that aren’t actually improvised) understands this, and in that sense, Don’t Think Twice is a fascinating movie to watch. The casting is flawless, with Keegan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs standing out in particular as two very different kinds of people that improv attracts. Key is the hyper-performative show-off whose sense of self depends on the attention of others. (I was this.) Jacobs is the team player who believes in the art, and the slightly mystical notion of “group mind” that it’s based on. Birbiglia’s best decision as a writer was to take these two archetypes and put them in a relationship. The personal drama in the film springs from the same personality differences that make its two central characters such different presences onstage. Birbiglia and Gethard flesh out other important elements in the troupe’s collective psyche. Birbiglia plays the flipside of Key’s character: the one whose hunger for attention goes unsatisfied and makes him an insecure man-child. And Gethard plays, seemingly, his younger self: a person who can’t find purchase in the world around him, and takes solace in an increasingly untenable dream. (If you don’t like movies about sad creatives, give this one a miss.) The problems I have with the movie are the same problems I have with Birbiglia’s stand-up. He’s a fantastic storyteller, but he always has a theme in mind and he’s completely unwilling to let it arise naturally. His impulse is always to use the most obvious metaphor. For example: he establishes at the beginning of the movie that the first rule of improv is to say yes. When you negate something a teammate says onstage, it’s called “blocking” and it’s the most basic error in the improv book. Near the end of the movie, Birbiglia has a relationship come to an end during an improv scene — in which the breaker-up blocks the break-upee. It’s too much, and in a movie about spontaneity, it really exposes the strings in a way that takes you out of the experience. This sort of thing happens a lot: an audience member will shout something to the troupe for the purpose of showing the movie audience how the characters are feeling, or an improv scene will ham-fistedly reflect on the goings-on offstage. But the contrivances in the story can be mostly forgiven because of how real the characters feel. I suspect this is a movie that plays a lot better for people who have some experience with improv. Watch it if that describes you, or if you like any of the actors in it, because it’s worthwhile for the performances alone.

Television

Doctor Who: “The Romans” — I enjoyed this more than I expected to, given my lack of enthusiasm for a) historically-focussed episodes of Doctor Who, and b) the William Hartnell era in general. But for all its manifold flaws, there are some charming things in this. First off, Hartnell himself is finally playing the Doctor as a character that’s identifiably the same as his future, more famous incarnations. You need only look at his gleeful expression when he realizes his role in the burning of Rome to recognize that Hartnell, for all his manifold flaws, invented this character in a way he’s not always given credit for. He’s flubbing his lines as much as ever, but he’s so charming in this. This version of the Doctor, the gleefully Rome-burning one, comes back in many a future “geronimo,” “would you like a jelly baby,” and “oh, brilliant!” It’s also marvellous to have Vicky around instead of Susan, because she was always a problematic character to say the least. Maureen O’Brien plays Vicky as intelligent, curious and brave — three things that Susan was manifestly not, in spite of the characters’ assertions that she was. I’m quite a fan of Nero being portrayed as a bumbling idiot whose key purpose is to get fucked with by the Doctor, who is in a particularly playful mood this time around. I am less fond of Nero’s tendency to chase Barbara — the show’s longest-standing female character — around his palace in a clear attempt to commit some form of sexual violence. That last bit aside, I have basically just enumerated all of the redeeming qualities in this story, which very much remains television from the 60s that is mostly of historical interest.

The Good Place: “The Burrito” — I’m still waiting for this show to repeat itself. This takes place almost entirely in settings we haven’t seen before, and introduces another whole mechanic into the show’s cosmology: an ageless judge played by Maya Rudolph — my second-favourite guest appearance in this show so far, after Maribeth Monroe as Mindy St. Clair. She can spin a line like nobody else. Still, I find myself much more interested in the twists and turns of the story itself than I do in the show’s larger thematic concerns or, crucially, the jokes. To a certain extent I think The Good Place is the first sitcom I’ve watched where the jokes aren’t always funny but it doesn’t matter. There’s a perfect example in this episode. Near the beginning, Jason comes up with the loony idea that perhaps the burrito sitting before the group is in fact the judge they’ve been looking for. Tahani replies: “Don’t be so bloody ridiculous. Judges aren’t food, judges are serious people who wear long silk nightgowns and big white powdered wigs.” In a Tina Fey show, that would not pass muster. It’s a moment where, according to the rhythms of a single camera, non-laugh track sitcom, there should be a joke, and that line fills the space — not especially well. But you don’t really need to laugh during this scene, because, crazy as it sounds, you’re actually caught up in the question of what is actually going on with that burrito. And Eleanor refocusses the conversation on that pretty much immediately afterwards. It’s a very distinctive comedy that can make you care about the identity of a burrito more than you care about the jokes.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “Viking’s Choice: The Year In Cathartic Screams And Meditative Drones,” “New Year, New Mix: Typhoon, Lucy Dacus, Anna Burch, More” & “New Mix: David Byrne, Sylvan Esso, Nils Frahm, More” — I always love the year-end Viking’s Choice episode with Lars Gotrich, but the MVP of these three episodes of All Songs is definitely the most recent of them. It features a David Byrne track, co-written with Brian Eno (I’m already salivating), an appearance from Tom Huizenga to talk about Nils Frahm (whose new album sounds more promising than his last, which I did like), and a beautiful track by Darlingside, who I hadn’t heard of but whose album I will 100% check out. Likewise for Typhoon. Mostly I’m writing this to remind myself what to listen to later.

Imaginary Worlds: “Brain Chemistry” & “Doctor Who?” — “Brain Chemistry” is a collaboration with The Truth that I liked well enough, though I never especially like The Truth. This is about a guy who gets cryogenically frozen and wakes up as nothing but a brain. Listen if that sounds like a fun premise. The real attraction, though, is the first episode of Eric Molinsky’s Doctor Who mini-series. It’s very 101, but for most people that’ll be necessary. Also Molinsky does something here that he’s done before, which I always love: he focuses in on the reception of a piece of fiction rather than its making, and he finds people whose reception of that fiction is unique in some way. The best part of this episode features an interview with a trans man and his wife about how the Doctor’s constant state of change gave them a language to use in reference to his transition. It’s lovely stuff, and I’m looking forward to seeing what more specific topics Molinsky dives into.

Constellations: “joan schuman – walking in bad circles” — Of all the podcasts I listened to while I was cooking this week, this is the one that probably got the rawest deal. Always listen to Constellations through headphones, folks. It’s the only way it works. All the same, I really like the phrase “walking in bad circles,” which makes up a significant part of this short piece.

Criminal: “The Choir” — A deeply affecting story about Lawrence Lessig, of internet law fame, and the way he dealt with a horrifying instance of childhood abuse by a predator. This is one of the heavy episodes of Criminal, which I can sometimes find hard to take. I like when this show does light subject matter, because it shows the flexibility of their premise, which is basically “crime!” But this one’s good.

The Memory Palace: “The Prairie Chicken in Wisconsin: Highlights of a Study of Counts, Behaviour, Turnover, Movement and Habitat” & “The Nickel Candy Bar” — The Memory Palace has a few kinds of stories that it does often. One of them is “driven, iconoclastic woman from a bygone time defies the norms of her era.” This is a good kind of story, and the first of these two episodes is a particularly good iteration of it. It also incorporates elements of another Memory Palace standby: the environmental parable. So, it is altogether one of the most Memory Palace episodes of The Memory Palace, and that is a good thing. “The Nickel Candy Bar” is a lovely thing with a bit more structural adventurousness than usual. It starts with one story, abruptly transitions to another, brings them together, then undercuts the whole thing. Marvellous.

Bullseye: “Rian Johnson & The Go! Team” — The Rian Johnson interview is what makes this worthwhile. He’s a charming and funny guy, and this conversation really drives home the thing I’ve been saying about The Last Jedi all this time: it’s just a Star Wars movie. A very good but totally ordinary and in no way groundbreaking or unusual Star Wars movie. The only exception to this that Johnson and Jesse Thorn get to is that the reveal about Rey’s parentage reverses the franchise’s reliance on bloodlines for narrative importance. Granted, that’s not a small thing. But it’s only one thing in a whole movie full of things that strongly resemble everything else about Star Wars.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: Four-episode catch-up — I’ll be seeing The Florida Project ASAP, but I believe I’ll give Mrs. Maisel a miss. This panel wasn’t hot on Phantom Thread, which doesn’t surprise me, but I’m quite certain I’ll like it more than them. I’m prepared for it not to be There Will Be Blood or The Master. But I’ll like it. I’m 90% sure. Will I watch The Good Doctor? No I will not.

Reply All: “Apocalypse Soon” & “The Bitcoin Hunter” — Okay, now I’m starting to want more bespoke stories and fewer segments on this show. “Apocalypse Soon” is a fine and deeply entertaining episode. Anything that finds Alex Blumberg giggling about a meme is okay by me. And “The Bitcoin Hunter” is a captivating Super Tech Support that does everything you want a Reply All story to do. But I want more Sruthi Pinnamaneni.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “House of Night – The Lost Creation Songs of the Mojave People” — This is the story of two men who recorded and archived hundreds of Mojave songs. Being a Kitchen Sisters piece, it’s full of amazing archival tape and sounds great. But the story is compelling in itself. I always love how the Kitchen Sisters foreground the way that recordings and archives don’t just document, but can actually affect the course of history. In this case, a recording of a mostly forgotten song helped to save the Ward Valley and Colorado River from development by proving the longstanding Mohave connection to that land.

Theory of Everything: “Utopia (part iii)” — Instead of reviewing this I will tell a story about something that happened to me as I was listening to it. I started it on my lunch break, at which point I went out for a salad. As I sat and ate, I had a realization of a kind that I frequently have: that somebody I know has been trying to get my attention. In this case, it was a co-worker, and she was about to give up completely and leave me to my lunch when I looked up and saw her. Little did I know, this was not the whole story. The next day, a different co-worker came up to me and told me that he’d been waving at me and calling my name in that same restaurant at that same time, to no avail. He was just about to walk up to me and tap me on the shoulder when I noticed my other co-worker standing in the line. Two separate people tried and failed, or nearly failed, to get my attention while I listened to this. I guess it must be good.

Radiolab: “The Voice in Your Head – A Tribute to Joe Frank” — Oh god, how I wish I could dive into this guy’s archive for free. Joe Frank is a radio innovator I had never heard of until a few weeks ago, and I can already see how his work informs so much of what I love in radio. This features Jad Abumrad, Brooke Gladstone and Ira Glass talking about him, but aside from those three I see a huge debt to Frank in Nate DiMeo’s work, and even more so in Jonathan Goldstein’s. I could even see Kaitlin Prest being an acolyte of his. The stories they play here are outstanding and I will definitely be buying some of his pieces from his website (this is how he operated, even in a post-podcast world). This made me want to go make radio immediately. Pick of the week.

Beautiful Conversations with Anonymous People: “Boy Crazy” — This is a lighter episode of Beautiful/Anonymous, and also a lesser one. The caller is a 21-year-old artsy college student with some insecurities. The thing that makes the conversation work when it works is that Chris Gethard really relates to her, having been in much the same situation himself. But it’s awkward and meandering in a way that these conversations usually avoid being. I mostly enjoyed this. But the appeal of this format is that it isn’t always going to work. Really, the appeal of anything Chris Gethard does is that it isn’t always going to work.

Fresh Air: “Paul Thomas Anderson On ‘Phantom Thread’” — P.T.A. seems like a decent fellow. I’m prepared to basically enjoy Phantom Thread without being over the moon about it. But hearing the director talk about working once again with Daniel Day-Lewis and Jonny Greenwood makes me remember how much I love this guy’s work and everybody in his orbit.

99% Invisible: “Speech Bubbles: Understanding Comics with Scott McCloud” — Coincidentally, I just started a class on writing for comics. I read Understanding Comics a few years ago, and it blew my mind. McCloud is a very clever guy, and hearing him talk with Roman Mars is fun because they both get angry about bad design.

Song by Song: “Gun Street Girl, Rain Dogs, Tom Waits” — Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer are the only two guests so far in the Rain Dogs episodes who haven’t really worked. You need pop culture geeks for a show like this, and as much as I love Criminal, Phoebe Judge manifestly isn’t that. Lauren Spohrer may be slightly more so, but this isn’t a very enlightening conversation.

Code Switch: “The ‘R-Word’ In The Age Of Trump” — In which Kat Chow gets called out by a listener for not calling Trump racist. But… institutions like NPR are huge beasts that can sometimes force you to work against your better judgement. Fortunately, there’s such a thing as Code Switch, where conversations like this can happen publicly.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “The 4th Amendment and the Border” — “The border” is not a line, legally speaking. It is a space of up to 100 miles wide. Who knew?

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Secrets #3 – Broken Dreams” — A man hides his unemployment from his father for months. A good story, but the weakest of this series so far. I am not very invested in this, I’ll confess. But I’m too far in now to quit.

Omnibus (week of Jan 14, 2018)

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

25 reviews.

Literature, etc.

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

Movies

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

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

Music

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

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

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

Television

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnibus (week of Dec. 3, 2017)

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

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

Music

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

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

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

Literature, etc.

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

Omnibus (week of Nov. 12)

The long-awaited North by Northwest segment on ISCM World New Music Days is here, and can be found at 1:21:50 of this podcast. Back to business as usual in the December instalment. Meanwhile, here are this week’s 14 reviews.

Movies

Lantouri — I saw this with a friend at the Cinémathèque, which is doing a series on contemporary Iranian cinema. Since, like many people, I know only one Iranian filmmaker, I figured why not. Should be a lovely afternoon out. Holy shit was this ever something. It’s the third feature film of Reza Dormishian, who is apparently one of the bright lights of his generation in Iranian cinema. If Lantouri is any indication, he’s also one of the most skilled directors in the world, in the idiom of EXTREMELY INTENSE FILMS. It’s the story of a Tehran street gang (sort of), and their leader’s increasingly creepy infatuation with a steely journalist. It opens as a talking heads-heavy fake documentary, but becomes increasingly cinematic as the story ramps up. That’s a clever device, because Dormishian can get his themes and social critiques on the table at the start, and then proceed to just tell a story, having established a framework of ideas at the outset. And that latter part of the movie, when the documentary element begins to wane, tells a story that’s so unrelentingly tense that you may stop breathing. Dormishian charts the course of his protagonist Pasha’s non-relationship with the reporter Maryam in a sort of fractured, alinear way where you see key moments taking place from multiple perspectives. It’s a tricky dance, but as information gradually accretes, we start to understand Pasha as a monster. The film’s turning point comes in a scene where you know exactly what is going to happen, because you’ve already seen it from a distance. But you don’t know when. The suspense comes from certainty rather than uncertainty. And it is almost unbearable. The same can be said for nearly the whole final act of the movie. Definitely watch this, but only when you’re in the mood for something sort of grim, and totally unrelenting. Pick of the week.

Logan — Wow, this is a very sad X-Men movie. And maybe the best X-Men movie. I never expected to say that about a movie that doesn’t have Magneto in it, but here we are. Wolverine has never been the most interesting part of this universe to me. I’m far more interested in the conflict of values between Charles Xavier and Magneto. But the Wolverine we see in this film is different from the one we see in the other films. Not entirely different, mind: Hugh Jackman is clearly playing the same man as he is in every other sardonic appearance in the X-franchise. But this movie’s iteration of Logan/Wolverine sits on a far-out promontory of the island that is that character. There’s always been a hint of the Man With No Name about Wolverine, and more than a hint of Dirty Harry. But in this movie, Hugh Jackman melts the brooding asshole from the previous films down and pours him into a patently Clint Eastwood-shaped mould. The same goes for Xavier, who is finally a character worthy of Patrick Stewart’s talents. Logan’s degenerating Professor X is its most tragic element. All of this could only work in the film that’s designed to retire Wolverine forever. Or, at least the Hugh Jackman version of him. The reality of contemporary blockbuster cinema is that you cannot put characters in situations that risk breaking the universe, and therefore the prospects for further profit from endless sequels. Logan has no qualms about pushing continuity to its breaking point, and in doing so it gives us a glimpse of what genre cinema has sacrificed in the era of the cinematic universe. There’s a lot of power in seeing a familiar character in an unfamiliar setting. Writers of fanfic and tie-in novels have known that for decades. Logan is what that concept looks like when you pour a hundred million dollars into it. I’d be immensely more enthusiastic about superhero movies if more of them were like this.

Literature

Brooke Gladstone: The Trouble With Reality — This very brief book, which was written and published with furious speed after the election of Donald Trump, is an outstanding synthesis of thinkers from Hannah Arendt to Philip K. Dick about the way demagoguery distorts reality. But I wish I’d read it when it came out. Troublingly, I feel as though I’ve already apprehended much of what Gladstone writes here by osmosis as this weird bad year has rocketed along. I say troublingly because I also feel I’m becoming inured to the notion that the world is being controlled by people whose live in a different reality from me. The most useful thing in Gladstone’s book is a spirited ending in which she entreats us to actually fight against this: to arm yourself with information that will allow you to at least understand the reality of others. Still, it feels like a rallying cry from a previous version of the world — a version that didn’t know how baffling this new phase was going to be.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” — I’m finding the stories in the Artifices more varied, but also a bit less ambitious than the ones in The Garden of Forking Paths. This one is a fun examination of how a particular story (of Borges’s invention) might have come to be. But it’s a slight thing. None of the tiny little stories in this collection have quite managed to pack the wallop of equally brief stories like “The Library of Babel” or even something like “The Circular Ruins.” I’m not complaining; this is still brilliant, and Borges still comes off like a fantastically interesting dinner companion who has some thoughts to share with you in a collegial and friendly manner. I love that.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Secret Miracle” — Now we’re cooking. Aside from “Death and the Compass,” which was one of the first Borges stories I read, this is probably my favourite story in the Artifices so far. What I particularly love about it is that it’s a story about a man’s very personal inner experience: its resolution involves a thing happening that, by definition, only one person could possibly know about. But Borges still approaches the story like a literary critic writing a biographical sketch. There’s an element of satire here, I think: Borges’s narrator is a critic so penetrating that he is actually aware of his subject’s complete inner life. Surely there are critics out there who believe this of themselves sincerely. But it’s easy to miss the satire, if indeed it is satire, because Borges doesn’t focus on it. He just tells the story, largely from the third-person omniscient perspective of the protagonist. And that story is sufficiently affecting that the meta-narrative, for once in Borges’s career, seems beside the point. Marvellous.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Three Versions of Judas” — And here we have an account of a heretical theologian’s notion that God’s human incarnation wasn’t Jesus, but Judas. The thing I love most about Borges is that he comes up with incredible premises for sprawling books, but knows those premises are ultimately worthier than their execution would be. So he summarizes them in four or five pages. This is one of the most complex things he’s ever distilled, and it never seems undercooked.

Music

George Harrison: All Things Must Pass — I had to listen to this to make certain of my assertion last week that I prefer RAM. I do. But still. This is two-thirds a classic. The other third, the “Apple Jam” that makes up the final LP of this triple album (it’s almost like he had something to prove) is the sort of aimless blues jamming that’s probably the reason nobody listens to Eric Clapton anymore. But for the two LPs where Harrison focusses on songs, he barely puts a foot wrong. I’ve never been a huge fan of “My Sweet Lord,” but “What is Life” might well be the best single a Beatle ever put out as a solo artist. And of the eighteen tracks on those first two-thirds of the album, I daresay ten are classics. “Wah Wah” is impossible to only listen to once. “Isn’t It A Pity” is so good that it’s on the album twice. “The Ballad of Frankie Crisp (Let it Roll)” is a song awaiting its rightful place in a Wes Anderson movie. I could go on. The most notable thing about the overall feel of All Things Must Pass is how completely different it is in approach to the Beatles records. Where John assembled a small band to play his songs straightforwardly and Paul insisted on doing everything himself — both of which were approaches with precedent in the Beatles catalogue — George called up everybody he knew and jammed. And while this partially resulted in the album’s tedious third LP, it also made for a rollicking, spirited album that has more in common with Blonde on Blonde or (dare I say it) Exile on Main St. than with Sgt. Pepper. A classic.

Cat Stevens: Tea for the Tillerman — So I watched Rushmore again this week. You don’t need to hear any more of my opinions on Wes Anderson. Go back here. But there’s a Cat Stevens song in that movie that I love. I’ve had this experience before (i.e. in Extras), so I figured I’d finally decide once and for all if I’m a Cat Stevens person or not. I don’t think I am. This, which the internet tells me is his most acclaimed album, is nice. But there are only a few tracks that have melodies that can match the great ones that leapt out at me initially. The title track is beautiful enough that it’s short duration is almost painful. “Father and Son” is lovely. But I’m mostly left cold.

Cat Stevens: Matthew & Son — That song from Rushmore that I love so much is on here (“Here Comes My Baby”) so I figured I’d give it a shot to make absolutely sure I’m not a Cat Stevens fan. And I’m not. But I do also love “Matthew & Son.” The rest of this is reeeeeeeeeally dated. And I’m a person who actually likes 60s pop.

Podcasts

Fresh Air: “Lou Reed: A Life” — A great interview about one of the pop music legends who most belongs on NPR. That might seem odd given that Lou Reed is all sex and drugs all the time, but he also had more explicit ties to the fine art world than just about any other rock star. Both sides are discussed here. Really nice.

The Sporkful: “The Last Sporkful Thanksgiving Special Ever” — What I love about Dan Pashman is that he’s thought about food as a cultural phenomenon so much that he can see past the trend stories that foodies are all about. In short, he doesn’t want to put horseradish in the mashed potatoes. A lesser food podcast would fall right into the trap that Pashman explicitly avoids here, which is failing to acknowledge that Thanksgiving is meant to be a tradition — not a showcase for avant-garde culinary showmanship. It isn’t even Thanksgiving in my country and I still really enjoyed this.

Showcase from Radiotopia: “The Polybius Conspiracy” Episodes 4-7 — So, I’ll confess something up front. I didn’t know that this was partially fictional until I read that it was. Which was after I’d finished the whole thing. I’m not mad about this. I hardly could be, as the co-creator of Mark’s Great American Road Trip (though I will say that mistaking that show for nonfiction is a whole level dumber than what I’ve done here). I actually really love stories and shows that sit on the precipice between fact and fiction (see also: Theory of Everything, the dearly departed WireTap). And I’m saddened by the prospect that this is increasingly frowned-upon territory in a world where people are actively trying to fuck with your sense of reality for their own political or financial betterment. So, I really don’t mind that I was misled. It’s a harmless misunderstanding. But I can’t help but think that the fictional component of this story — the bit about the character Bobby, and the people he associates with — was only compelling to me with the understanding that it’s something that actually happened. As an invented narrative, it strikes me as unimaginative. I’m beginning to feel as though the semi-factual nature of this podcast was intentionally downplayed to compensate for a half-cooked story. Ah, well. On to the next thing.

You Must Remember This: “Boris & Bela” Parts 3-6 — This is turning out to be a really fun little season of this show. Telling the stories of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in tandem is a great idea, since their trajectories were so completely different and therefore illustrate different tendencies in the same industry at the same time. I’m looking forward to the thrilling conclusion.

Pop Culture Happy Hour catchup — Comfort food, in audio form. I was talking with a friend about this recently. I’m not sure what it is about this that makes it so soothing, but I feel lighter when I listen to this — moreso even than when I’m listening to comedy shows like Judge John Hodgman or Stop Podcasting Yourself. It’s a beautiful thing.

Omnibus (week of Oct. 22, 2017)

Happy Halloween. I’ve got a couple of CBC things out this week, both focussed on spooky stuff. Firstly, my piece on a filmmaker who has made a horror experience for VR headsets was featured on the national program The Story From Here, which is certainly nice. You can hear that piece at 8:15 of this podcast. Do stick around for the story about learning the Mi’kmaq language; it is great and much more important than my Silly Documentary About Screaming. Also, if you really want to go deep, you can see some very embarrassing video of me during the VR experience here.

Also, yesterday’s instalment of my usual pop culture column was a Halloween spook fest that I facetiously titled “SERIOUS HALLOWEEN,” because this time of year is altogether too silly, and nobody can rectify this but me. That’s at 1:22:04 of this podcast.

Now, here’s a fairly slight instalment of Omnibus. I’ve been busy. 12 reviews.

Movies

Loving Vincent — This is the world’s first fully oil painted movie, done entirely by hand. The movie makes sure to tell you this in an intertitle right at the start, because the gimmick is the point. What else could the point be? Surely not the story, which is rendered in such awful dialogue that it actually obscures the fact that Vincent van Gogh’s life was profoundly interesting. But really, even the gimmick lets us down, because while the film’s environments are ripped straight from van Gogh’s magnificent canvasses, its characters are painted with a level of realism that feels completely out of place. It is horribly obvious in places that the painted frames of this film are meticulous recreations of filmed footage. I halfway think that a film like this is actually impossible to pull off, because the central question it poses to its filmmakers is: how would movement work inside of a van Gogh painting? I frankly don’t see how it could. Perhaps somebody with a heck of a lot more visual imagination than me could think of a way. But now we know for sure that it doesn’t work the same way as it does in traditional film footage. This is a worthy experiment, but it isn’t a remotely good movie.

Television

The Chris Gethard Show binge — I fell down a Chris Gethard hole. I’ve never seen this before, but this week I watched a semi-random handful of episodes. Specifically and in order of viewing: s02e09, s01e03, s01e06; public access episode 105, s02e01 and s02e08. Normally I have problems with this kind of wacky alt comedy, and I have some problems with this as well. If it’s only funny because it’s weird, it’s probably not going to be funny to me. But Gethard makes up for the occasional lapse into alienating anti-comedy by being deeply, actively compassionate towards everybody around him all the time. Even in this fairly short random survey of the show, issues of mental health come up semi-regularly, and it’s pretty clear that Gethard sees it as part of his job to help people who are feeling awful feel a little bit better by being an idiot on television. This is lovely. Of the episodes I’ve seen, I would most highly recommend s02e09 featuring Paul Scheer and Jason Mantzoukas and a dumpster containing an INCREDIBLE surprise, s01e03 featuring Seth Meyers and a full contingent of cast members having not slept for 36 hours, and s02e08 which has Maria Bamford so you can’t possibly need to know anything else. Pick of the week. 

Music

Roger Waters: Is This The Life We Really Want? — Oh dear. At the time of writing, I’m going to see Roger Waters tonight, which is very exciting. I’ve seen him twice before and both times have been highlights of my concert going life. But hearing this has left me slightly concerned. I generally don’t mind Waters’ political sermonizing, because he couches it in memorable turns of phrase and has a real knack for taking huge issues and making them personal — usually with elements from his own life. Far from being self-indulgent, this is in my view the specific reason why The Wall and The Final Cut work so well. And even when he steers clear of the specifically personal, he can oftentimes embed an obvious social critique within a narrative framework that makes you look at it in a new way. I’m thinking particularly of the wonderful conclusion of “Amused to Death,” in which a team of alien anthropologists happens upon the wreckage of human society and can only conclude that we consumed our way to extinction. There isn’t a whole lot of that on Is This The Life We Really Want? The entire album is approximately as straightforward as the title. He’s never beat around the bush, but this time around he’s as subtle as a bullet to the kneecap: “Picture a shithouse with no fucking drains/picture a leader with no fucking brains.” The album isn’t without musical merit, and there a few good lines here and there. Still, I can’t see myself revisiting this very much. And I say that as an avid fan of Waters as a solo artist, as well as in Pink Floyd. Still, I bet these lyrics will kill in concert. Will report back.

Podcasts

You Must Remember This: “Bela & Boris” parts 1 & 2 — Oh, this is fun. One of my favourite shows is back for a spooky season about the early sound era’s two most iconic Hollywood monsters. Love it. So far we’ve focussed primarily on Bela Lugosi, who is creepy in ways that nobody knew. The highlight of these two episodes is Lugosi’s terrible dating advice for Boris Karloff, advice almost certainly written for him to say on air by a publicist. Can’t wait for more.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “War Powers” — This show always makes me feel like we’re all going to die.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: Six-episode catch-up — Marvellous stuff. I love this show even more now that they’ve brought in a wider variety of guest panelists. And the interviews included in this span of episodes are gold, particularly Linda Holmes’ conversation with Tom Hanks. What a likeable fellow he is, and Holmes has some fantastic questions for him. I halfway want to read his short story collection. Anyway, I don’t have any very specific thoughts on this, but it’s an absolute pleasure to listen to a whole bunch of episodes in a row. Do that when you get a chance.

The Sporkful: “As Hot Chicken Gets Hotter, Who Benefits?” — The Sporkful tackles race again, while Dan Pashman eats very spicy food. What more do you want? I’ll tell you what I want: I want some hot chicken. I want it worse than I ever knew I could want a food I’ve never had.

Showcase from Radiotopia: “The Polybius Conspiracy” episodes 1-3 — This is a fun serialized conspiracy show about a haunted video game. But it’s also a vaguely troubling exploration of somebody’s story who is either delusional or a fraud. I’m enjoying it but I feel compelled to withhold judgement until the end.

The Decision: Episodes 1 & 2 — I heard about this on Pop Culture Happy Hour, and it sounded so fun that even my aversion to sports couldn’t stop me from checking it out. Basically, the host Alex Kapelman is looking for a new NBA team to cheer for because the Knicks suck. So, he’s invited fans of every team in the league to pitch him on why he should switch allegiances. The first episode of this introduces the premise with help from the great Linda Holmes, and the second features the always clever Gene Demby on why the 76ers are the team to switch to. I don’t know if I can bring myself to listen to all of this, but I will say that as an avowed non-sports fan, I appreciate how these two episodes talk about sports as a cultural phenomenon rather than a mechanical obsession.

Beautiful Conversations With Anonymous People: “Hiding In A Storage Space” — This is what initiated my deep dive into The Chris Gethard Show. I was aware of this podcast from This American Life, which played an edited version of a really extraordinary episode where Gethard helps his anonymous caller get out of a terrible rut. I’ve meant to listen to this since then, but only just got to it. I picked an episode at random and wasn’t disappointed. I should say, the premise of this is that an anonymous caller phones in and Gethard is obligated to talk to them for one hour until the line closes. This episode’s caller is a dude who seems to be going through some pretty typical mid-life dude shit, which Gethard calls him on. But he doesn’t check his compassion at the door, and I think it’s safe to say he helps the guy realize some stuff. I’ll return to this for sure.

The Heart: “A Woman on the Road is Alone” & “Darqness” — The former episode is a quite lovely feature from a show called Bitchface which sounds like it’s worth another look. The latter is a profile of a dance music collective in Portland that aims to make a safe space for queer and trans people of colour. These are both great.

In Our Time: “Feathered Dinosaurs” — Way back in grade four, when I was eight years old, I was in a program at my school that required students to do independent study projects in addition to the usual curriculum. In retrospect, I think that might have been a pretty formative element of my childhood. More than anything else in school, it was the program that made me realize that life is more fun when you know things. My very first independent study project was on the feathered dinosaurs whose fossils were revolutionizing palaeontology in the 1990s. Folks knew about this stuff long before, but I think my childhood coincided approximately with the moment when the idea of birds evolving from dinosaurs entered the popular consciousness. I was captivated. Honestly, I haven’t thought about them much since then, but this episode of BBC’s always wonderful panel show served as both an excellent trip down memory lane and an update on how the field is doing these 20 years later. (Lots has changed.) The panel is great fun, and you can almost hear Melvyn Bragg beaming as he interviews them. I suppose even he has an inner child, buried somewhere beneath all that acuity. Fuck, I love dinosaurs. Pick of the week.