Tag Archives: QI

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.

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Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 11)

 

In case you’re one of the people who I don’t actually know who wanders through here from time to time, here is a link to my new, other, much more specific blog that you might like to check out. It is about Pink Floyd, progressive rock, and the way that societies make collective decisions about art.

For everybody else: 23 reviews.

Literature

Kurt Vonnegut: Slapstick — I think this may be Vonnegut’s most misunderstood book. This isn’t a broad satire of anything specific, though Vonnegut does snipe at his favourite targets from time to time: war, American exceptionalism, etc. This begs to be read not as a story but as a sort of self-therapy on Vonnegut’s part. It’s a way for him to express his grief about his sister’s death and his despair at the resulting loneliness. When you read it semi-psychoanalytically, it’s maybe the saddest book of Vonnegut’s career. If you try and read it only for its content, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. (Though, considering how direct Vonnegut is about the autobiographical nature of the story in the prologue, I’m not sure how anybody reads this any other way.) This is exceptionally companionable book during a sleepless night, and the most underappreciated thing that Vonnegut ever wrote.

Eric Lipton, David E. Sanger & Scott Shane: “The Perfect Weapon: How Russian Cyberpower invaded the U.S.” — I don’t usually include news pieces in this thing, but this New York Times feature is magnificent journalism. Its content is extremely disquieting, especially where the D.N.C.’s response to the initial discovery of its security vulnerabilities is concerned. But the construction of the piece is a thing to be marvelled at. Without sacrificing fairness or veering out of the somewhat austere voice that news should be presented in, the authors make careful note of the quiet poetry in certain elements of this story: the fact that the infamous filing cabinet from the Watergate burglary is sitting in the D.N.C.’s basement, or that the Russians sent a phishing email in which the bad link was to a fake Harvard paper called “Why American Elections Are Flawed.” The investigation is thorough, and the story is presented in a way that makes linear sense in spite of the many moving parts and their various aliases. I would likely not have taken the time to read this if I hadn’t subscribed to the Times. I am already glad that I did. This is top shelf.

Shirley Wu: “An Interactive Visualization of Every Line in Hamilton” — I confess that I find Wu’s actual analysis a little bit obvious throughout this feature, but having the data broken down in this interactive format is endlessly fascinating, and maybe my new favourite piece of Hamilton’s fan-made paratext. This allows you not only to look at visualizations of characters’ lines throughout the musical, but also to see where they are addressing each other directly, and when they make use of particular lyrical leitmotifs like “that would be enough” or “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” It makes certain observations simple, like the fact that Aaron Burr’s role is actually not much smaller than Hamilton’s, and also that Lin-Manuel Miranda almost never makes two characters sing together in duets. This is the lord’s work.

Gideon Lewis-Kraus: “The Great A.I. Awakening” — This is the best magazine feature I’ve read in a long time. It is impressive mostly because it has so much business to attend to throughout its length. It has to juggle a huge cast of characters, mostly computer scientists at Google. It has to touch on decades of history that are relevant to its story. It has to deal with the complexities of institutions, such that a relatively small service (Google Translate) can be at the forefront of innovation for a company. And, perhaps most dauntingly it has to explain complicated computer science concepts to a lay audience. Lewis-Kraus pulls it all off while also being funny. He is also neither alarmist nor boosterist where Silicon Valley is concerned, though he’s closer to the latter than the former. Also interesting is that I read this on the same day I started watching Battlestar Galactica. And in spite of Lewis-Kraus’s reassurances that A.I. in its current state is only here to help, there were many moments here where I found myself interjecting: “But Cylons.” Nonetheless, a fascinating read. Provided that Google doesn’t bring about the apocalypse in the next few years, I’d suggest that Lin-Manuel Miranda should learn to rap in about 100 more languages and consider this as the subject for his next musical. Look back at that list of all the business that Lewis-Kraus has to deal with in this feature and tell me it doesn’t play to LMM’s strengths.

Television

Planet Earth II: “Cities” — I had not expected this somewhat tangential finale to be the highlight of the series, but it absolutely was. The opening sequence features monkeys fighting over turf on rooftops, and it’s like something out of a Jackie Chan movie. Throw in adorable Torontonian raccoons and catfish who have learned to hunt pigeons, and you’ve got an incredible episode of television that also makes a compelling argument: the natural world is powerful enough to coexist with us in our modern environments if we only allow it to. This whole series has been some of the year’s best television, and this single episode is the one that makes this new instalment of Planet Earth the most distinct from its esteemed predecessor. Pick of the week.

QI: “Kinetic” & “Knowledge” — The “Knowledge” episode is one of the funniest of all, partially on account of its premise, which is that most facts turn out not to be true — and that therefore QI’s history is packed with falsehoods. Makes it disquieting to watch back episodes on YouTube. But what am I going to do, stop?

Battlestar Galactica: The Miniseries — Ooh, this is exciting. It’s been a long time since I binged a show, and I can feel a bender coming on with this one. This two-part backdoor pilot for the show that followed is mostly stunning television. Specifically, part one is outstanding throughout. The efficiency with which it introduces its world, setting and characters (that long take!) is really impressive, and the opening exposition sequence is genius. Let’s think about that for a second. If you haven’t seen it, just go watch the first five minutes of this. And note how much labour is done simply through the set design. The détante between the humans and the Cylons is explained through onscreen captions, but the interior set for the armistice station tells you exactly how the meetings between the two factions are supposed to work. There’s a long hallway with a big metal door on each side. The hallway widens a bit in the middle, and there’s a desk there, with a chair on each side. When a man walks through one of the doors and sits down at the chair on his side of the hallway, we know that the same thing is supposed to happen on the other side because of the symmetry of the set. This is brilliant. And the entire first episode, jumping as it does from character to character, is buoyant and propulsive, even when it turns into a war movie. The second part doesn’t fare quite as well. The first half hour introduces a moppetty child whose only function is to make a standard trolley problem a bit more emotionally wrenching, but it doesn’t work because the strings are so visible. It also introduces a sort of ostentatious philosophizing that I would like to go away, please. Mind you, the character most responsible for that becomes more interesting very quickly. So, a fabulous bit of television that flies off the rails halfway through. Sure hope this isn’t foreshadowing of anything.

Music

Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment: Surf — This is just pure joy. I’ve never quite heard this particular genre fusion: rap meets jazz and gospel in a mix that would rather relax then be aggressive. It’s super fun, and “Sunday Candy” is a masterclass in why everybody should love Chance the Rapper.

John Cale: Paris 1919 — I guess it was about time to give John Cale another shot. Years and years ago, I bought the set called The Island Years, which collected his albums Fear, Slow Dazzle, and Helen of Troy, plus some bonus material. I had high expectations for Fear, at least, given that it was one of his most acclaimed albums and featured notable contributions from Brian Eno. But I was thoroughly underwhelmed by all three records. They seemed to me like songwriter records, except that they were made by somebody who is definitely more of an experimental musician than a pop songwriter. Based on my recollection, the songs aren’t that interesting, either in their lyrics or their structures. So, I was never particularly inclined to check out the one John Cale album that most fans would recommend. How much better could it be? Well, as it turns out, a lot better. This is still not quite my thing, but it’s drastically different from the albums that came after in that it is a huge symphonic record rather than a stripped back art pop record. And that broader sonic palette (reminiscent of Procol Harum, but with a sense of irony) makes Cale’s pedestrian lyrics and taste for extremely basic chord progressions and song structures less important. If that seems like faint praise, it is. I don’t love this album. I think it’s fine. But by and large, John Cale’s solo career is one of those bodies of work that music nerds love for reasons I will never understand.

The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground — The first time I reviewed this album, I said this: “I’ve loved the first two Velvet Underground albums for years, but never got around to checking out this or Loaded. Apparently, Eno loves this album so much that he’s never owned a copy for fear of becoming overfamiliar. I do see the appeal, though I definitely prefer the debut. I love the first album as much for its noisy sonic adventures as for its songwriting, and that element sort of left the band with John Cale. Still good.” Reading that now, I’m reminded of the value of repeat listening. There was a time when listening obsessively to full albums was my default, but that gradually fell away as I stopped buying physical CDs. These days, the temptation is huge to just listen again and again to the one or two tracks on a given album that capture me initially. And the temptation is even bigger to dismiss albums like this one, that don’t make an immediate strong impression. But I’m glad I took it in mind to hear this again, because the second listen was astronomically more meaningful than the first. Now, I think that “I’m Set Free” might be Lou Reed’s most beautiful song, “The Murder Mystery” might be their most compelling extended experimental track, and the entire album is full of subtle gems. It’s an introverted record, unlike its two predecessors. Nothing here has the epic sweep of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” or “Venus in Furs.” But it’s the kind of thing that’s designed to sink in gradually. I think I need to consider whether writing this ridiculous blog encourages me to listen more broadly and less deeply. I like writing this blog, so occasionally I find myself listening to new stuff and things I haven’t heard before just to have something to write about. That takes away from the time I spend getting to really know an album. In any case, I’ll be listening to much more of this.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “This Is Us and Speechless” — Maybe it’s just because my personal pop culture experience of 2016 has revolved around music a lot more than around TV and movies, which remain the primary focus of this show, but I’m not getting as much out of PCHH as I used to. I have no intention of stopping, obviously. But I wouldn’t mind if this panel did tackle music once in awhile. Because All Songs Considered isn’t ultimately about discussion. It’s about playing music, usually. Anyway, this is fine.

A Point of View: “Holes in Clothes” — Presumably, right now Adam Gopnik is thinking “I was clearly so insightful about Trump… I wonder if I can get people to listen to me talk about jeans with holes in them?” And the answer is obviously yes. And his take is neither stodgy or vapid. This is a slight thing, but proof that Gopnik is a worthwhile voice, even when he’s tackling current affairs from an oblique angle.

Homecoming: “PINEAPPLE” — This continues to be dark and beautiful, but I’m not feeling myself pulled in by the suspense in the same way that I did with, for instance, Limetown. Possibly it’s in part because the story comes in such small bits, and possibly it has something to do with the MANDATORY documentary segments at the ends of the episodes. But this feels slight to me. I imagine it’ll grow on me. Maybe I’ll try a few episodes at a time, next I listen. I am behind, after all.

On the Media: “Imagine That” — OTM’s public existential crisis continues apace, but they’re still doing great work on topics like digital security. If the segment on Pizzagate is somewhat underwhelming, that’s only because OTM’s former reporter Alex Goldman has already covered the hell out of it elsewhere.

Too Much Information: “On Four Lions, Comedy, Radio and Idiots” — Firstly, it’s weird to hear Benjamen Walker do a straight interview. He’s in a strangely good mood here, grunting affirmatively at most of what Chris Morris says. But then, Benjamen Walker is clearly a huge fan of Chris Morris. And with good reason: Chris Morris is the comedian equivalent of Benjamen Walker. Everything is tediously researched. Nothing is sacred. Most of what’s called “progress” isn’t. They’re two peas in a pod. Interesting.

Theory of Everything: “Useful Idiots” — Holy bonkers. The final segment of this episode connects Jeremy Bentham to Putin’s key advisor by way of Grigory Potemkin. And after some cursory verification, I don’t think I’m being fucked with. This show is valuable as much for its tendency to breed scepticism as anything. I have often felt compelled to make sure that something on this show that seems fake is actually fake, and vice versa, because I fear being made a credulous fool. But that final interview here (starts at 16:50) seems like the real thing. And it is earthshaking. Pick of the week.

Bullseye: “John Cale & TJ and Dave” — This is really why I listened to Paris 1919 this week: the live version of the title track that Jesse Thorn plays a snippet from here is infectious. The interview is great, though it does hue rather closely to the best-known elements of Cale’s career: meeting Lou Reed, getting kicked out of the Velvet Underground, producing the Stooges, etc. The TJ and Dave segment isn’t as funny as you’d like, but it’s vulnerable. Bullseye is a pop culture interview show done mostly right, in that the focus never really moves too far away from the sensibility of its host. It’s not trying to be for everyone. But also, it’s just so cool, sometimes. And I find that offputting, frankly. That’s why I listen so seldom. On the other hand, I can wholeheartedly recommend the one segment from the episode after this one that I did listen to: Jesse Thorn’s love letter to 19th-century paintings of cows. Magnificent.

Code Switch: “Audie and the Not-So-Magic School Bus” — Nice to hear Audie Cornish on Code Switch finally. This is a bit odd in the sense that it’s a behind-the-scenes look at a story that Cornish did on All Things Considered, but they don’t play the actual story. I suppose I could go find it, but it would have been nice if they could have played at least a little bit more than the one tiny clip that they used. Still, this is a really interesting trip through the history of busing and school segregation.

99% Invisible: “Plat of Zion” — The best 99pi in ages. (I think I probably say that a lot. But I honestly don’t remember another episode this year that’s as good as this one.) This is a discussion of the urban planning of Salt Lake City, Utah, which is seen by Mormons as having been divinely revealed. This is maybe the single greatest urban planning story in American history, on account of simply being so crazy. I love it.

Crimetown: Episodes 4-5 — This turned out to be really bingeable. This show is built around incredible interviews with charismatic mobsters, of various degrees of regretfulness. It is so fun to listen to these complicated people talk. Gimlet doesn’t hit it out of the part every time, these days. But this one is destined to be one of the crown jewels in their stable.

Imaginary Worlds: “Working On the Death Star” — I guess now this podcast is also doing Star Wars every year? Whatever. This is fun. Hearing serious people talk about non-serious things is always fun. And in this episode, a prosecutor and a judge argue about the legality of the Galactic Empire’s labour practices, and an economist argues that the Rebel Alliance might have been wrong to blow up the Death Star, because it would throw the galaxy into economic disarray, which would have dire consequences even for those with no enthusiasm for the Empire itself.

StartUp: “Anger” — This is a fairly elegant solution to the problem that Dov Charney won’t talk on the record about the shit he did that got him fired. Lots of other people will. This is a details-heavy episode with lots of contractual talk, but the drama never flags. I’ve actually really warmed to this season of StartUp since I started hating Charney. Lisa Chow has always been more of a reporter and less of a personality than some of her fellow Gimlet hosts, which is greatly to her credit. Even when she’s stretched to her limit by an extremely complicated subject such as Charney, who is occasionally openly hostile to her, she doesn’t make the story about her for more than a couple of minutes. It’s kind of amazing. This season is a real return to form for this show.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and La La Land” — I think I’ll actually sit Rogue One out. Maybe I’ll watch it when it’s on Netflix. But I’m not giving money to Disney for a bad Star Wars movie. I’ll give them money for the good ones. I was more enthusiastic about La La Land before I listened to this, but the panel kind of threw cold water on that as well. What can you do. 

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 (week of Nov. 13, 2016)

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

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

Live events

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

Music

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

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

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

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

Movies

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

Television

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

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

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

Literature, etc.

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

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

Games

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 6, 2016)

It was the kind of week where I took in large amounts of a small number of things. So, a mere 20 reviews, this time. Having finally caught up on my podcast subscriptions, I can at last binge on some other podcasts that I’ve been meaning to check out for a while. I started listening to two new ones this week that are both blowing my mind. But first, everything else.

Music

Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Tarkus — When I was a kid, I wanted to be Keith Emerson when I grew up. I listened to this album for the first time in ages when the news broke that he’d died. I’m eternally frustrated that the second side is so patchy when the first is so good. So, let’s just focus on what everybody comes to this album for: the 20-minute title track, which is simply a classic. And it’s almost entirely Emerson that makes it so good. Every one of his solos is a perfectly thought out little architectural marvel. This track, as much as anything, is the reason why I’ve never understood people who gripe about long solos. Actually, if “Tarkus” has a flaw, it’s that the organ solos are so good that you kind of find yourself waiting for the next one when Greg Lake starts singing or, bless him, playing guitar. And it all ends with the most gloriously silly synth riff ever written. This record is both a definitive period piece and a (half) masterpiece. RIP, Keith.

Glenn Gould & Toronto Symphony Orchestra: Beethoven PIano Concertos 1 & 2 — This is a scratchy, barely listenable old thing taken from a 1951 CBC broadcast. Gould was only 18, and had already been a regularly-featured soloist with the TSO for four years. CBC had caught on that this kid’s performances needed a national audience. It would be four more years before Columbia Records caught on, signed him and lifted him to international prominence with his debut recording of the Goldberg Variations. So, as a document, this is super cool. As an actual recording, the early 50s radio broadcastiness of it makes things difficult, but Gould is great here. People tend to be split on his Beethoven. It’s like, the Bach is beyond reproach, the Mozart is best forgotten, and the Beethoven is somewhere in between. I like Gould’s Beethoven. (And some of his Mozart, if we’re being honest.) And by age 18, he already had that unique tone that I love him for.

Kate Bush: The Sensual World — This is Kate Bush’s version of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous. Both were renowned for work that they did at very young ages, and both were increasingly ignored as their music approached increasingly adult subject matter. The Sensual World isn’t as consistent as Hounds of Love or as experimental as The Dreaming, but it has some of Bush’s most thoughtful songwriting. The title track, “The Fog,” “Heads We’re Dancing,” and obviously “This Woman’s Work” are all among the best music she ever made, and she couldn’t have made it as a less mature artist. Of course, many years later, she’d pull the same trick again on Aerial to even greater effect.

Movies

Where to Invade Next — Michael Moore’s gotten soft. Considering that he’s Michael Moore, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I enjoyed this very much, because I think that the United States needs as many reminders as it can get that the American experience is not the default human experience. But at the same time, I wanted to cry for most of its duration, because there are so many places that get such obvious things so right, and so many people who would doubtless call them wrong. Giving kids healthy, good meals in schools like they do in France shouldn’t sound revolutionary. Neither should Italy’s eight weeks of annual paid vacation, or Iceland’s policies on gender equality. It’s enough to make even us smug Canadians hang our heads in shame.

Television

Cucumber/Banana/Tofu: Episodes 1-5 (of all three) — This is Russell T Davies’ antidote for every austere, staid, Oscar-nominated movie about gay people you’ve ever suffered through. I didn’t see this on any year-end lists, and that is a travesty. Cucumber, Davies’s middle-aged spiritual sequel to Queer as Folk, is unbelievable television. It has more kinetic energy than anything I’ve seen in ages. If you’re not pulled in by the first episode, which, holy hell does that ever start in one place and end up in another, then you’re watching television wrong. And in case eight hours of drama about middle-aged gay dudes doesn’t appeal, there’s Banana, the nearly-as-brilliant companion piece which focuses on members of the younger supporting cast. Tofu, the series of 11-minute documentary shorts that rounds out the trilogy, is not very good. But that in no goddamn way should prevent you from watching the other two shows. Now I feel bad about some of the crap I’ve said to people about Davies’ Doctor Who scripts. He is a genius, and I hope he quits smoking so we get maximum years of prosperous creativity from him. Pick of the week.

Last Week Tonight: March 6, 2016 — “What sound does Ann Coulter make as she falls down the stairs?” is my new favourite line on this show. Well, second favourite. My new actual favourite is “Tonight we are talking about special taxing districts. So, hello people watching for the first time because of our Trump piece! And also, I presume, goodbye.”

Better Call Saul: “Gloves Off” — So far in this show, it’s been obvious that Jimmy McGill has a long way to go before he properly becomes Saul Goodman. But it hasn’t been that obvious that Mike Ehrmantraut is on a similarly lengthy journey. Jonathan Banks’s wonderful performance is outwardly the same in its mannerisms, regardless of whether he’s the ruthless “cleaner” of Breaking Bad or the regretful ex-cop in Better Call Saul. But this episode demonstrates that there’s a chasm between those two versions of the character.

QI: “Misconceptions” — The episode I watched last week was apparently Stephen Fry’s last episode filmed, but this is his last transmitted. Dear me. How will they get by without him.

Podcasts

Welcome to Night Vale: “Homecoming” + Bonus Episodes 1 & 2 — I like Night Vale best when the comedic horrors give way to a bit of humanity. I don’t necessarily mean that the show is best when it has long character arcs. I’m inclined to think the opposite. “Homecoming” does it right. It tells a typical Night Vale supernatural story, but one that has specific resonance for Cecil. And it’s basically self-contained, without depending too heavily on your knowledge of continuity for emotional investment. The bonus episodes are not written by Fink and Cranor, and both are excellent (the first is exceptional), indicating that a bit of new blood could really punch up the show. Come to think of it, I wonder what Night Vale would be like if it had a writers’ room the size of a sitcom? Would it lose what makes it singular? Or would it have the variety it sometimes lacks?

You Must Remember This: “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” Parts 1-4 — I confess that my first impression of this was “why is this a podcast and not a book?” It is essentially just Karina Longworth reading a script, with no tape save for a few quick movie clips, and the unexpected presence of Nate DiMeo in the role of Charles Manson. But then I just got lost in how good it is. This is the sort of cultural history that I am a complete sucker for. The first episode is Longworth’s summary of everything that was set to go rotten in American counterculture in the late 60s, and it’s enthralling. Manson is a lens by which Longworth examines the dark side of the hippie movement — and not just the extreme dark side that culminated in a cult and several murders, but the more mundane dark side that resulted in the mainstreaming of outlaw culture. There was a segment of Flower Power that never meant to stop at mere resistance: there would be open rebellion. And, as Ian Anderson once observed, there was something more than vaguely fascist about that segment of counterculture. That’s all baked into Longworth’s narrative, but seen through the lens of Los Angeles as opposed to the more familiar (to me) London narrative, and through the lens of psychedelic film as opposed to the more familiar (to probably most people) psychedelic music narrative. Which is not to say that Longworth ignores the musical connections in the story. The third episode, which I understand is widely regarded as the crown jewel of the 12-part series, is the heartbreaking story of how Charles Manson broke Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. If you only feel like committing to one episode of Manson brutality, make it that one. I’m sure there will be others that equal it for me, but that’s really good radio.

Limetown: Season 1 — Yeah, I binged the whole season. It’s short. Many thoughts. First off, choosing the title of the final episode of Serial season one as the title of the first episode of your fictional Serial riff is ballsy. But Limetown lives up to the affectation. This is as convincing an impression of actual radio as Night Vale isn’t. And, I know they don’t bear comparison. And, I know they probably get compared more than they should, simply by virtue of being two of the three most buzzy fictional podcasts out there. (I will never listen to The Message, by the way. I’m sure it’s fine, but I don’t want to live in a world where all of the successful podcasts are fucking branded.) But truthfully, if Night Vale had this level of aesthetic verisimilitude, it would be a better podcast. Anyway, this had me emotionally invested and in suspense from the first minute. And from the second episode on, it is terrifying. I’ve talked before about how horror games are scarier to me than horror movies because they implicate you in the story. I think the same goes for audio, which forces you to paint the picture in your head, while maintaining the pace and the sense of inevitability of a movie. Plus, there’s even a bit of subtle metafiction in here: listen through earbuds, and you’ll know what it’s like to have people talking directly into your head. I’m eagerly awaiting the second season. Orson Welles would be proud. Pick of the week.

The Heart: “Ghost: Emily” — The best episode of the season so far. Several people discuss their animosity towards their partners’ exes. Of course, this being The Heart, it’s not played for laughs. It’s thoughtful and has plenty of that thing they do where half of the story is in the mix — things spoken aloud are separate in space from things left unsaid. Really good.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Sturgill Simpson, Beth Orton, Julianna Barwick, Damien Jurado, More” — Wasn’t feeling this quite as much as the last few, but hoo boy does that Heron Oblivion track ever hit that perfect 1967 sweet spot.

Theory of Everything: “Paris” — Benjamen Walker is really good at talking about the stuff that insufferable lefty arts people talk about without actually coming off as insufferable. Using that gift, he has become one of the great storytellers of the decline of modern cities — first by demolishing the sharing economy in “Instaserfs,” then by railing against the commodification of all space in “New York After Rent,” and now by exploring the chasm between the Paris of memory and the Paris of today.

99% Invisible: “The Giftschrank” — There are actual rooms in German libraries where they keep the dangerous literature. This is basically an account of what kinds of literature were considered dangerous at various points in time — courtesy of Sam Greenspan, who it is always good to hear from.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: American Crime” — Linda Holmes is in New York, talking to culture people! Danielle Henderson is great, and I would love to hear her on this show again. But I will not be watching American Crime.

The Memory Palace: “Homesteading” — DiMeo reigns it in, this week. A tight six minutes, and a tiny, charming story. It really is a bit too slight to be memorable, but I prefer this to the occasional bloat of recent episodes.

Reply All: “Milk Wanted” — Breast milk is apparently really expensive. Trust a Reply All producer (Phia Bennin, who is wonderful) to find out the internet repercussions of that.

All Songs Considered: “Iggy Pop & Josh Homme Talk ‘Post Pop Depression’” — Iggy Pop is one of the wittiest people in rock, and he and Josh Homme make a good double act. I intend to listen to the album, but I can’t have it be the first Iggy Pop album I listen to. Hell, I haven’t even heard Fun House.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr., Kanye, and Gilmore Girls” — Daoud Tyler-Ameen is a very clever interviewer and I would love to hear him do his own podcast. His interview with Leslie Odom Jr. really demonstrates that Lin-Manuel Miranda is not the only super smart person involved in Hamilton. I agree with Sean Rameswaram that all of the people who gave overwhelmingly positive reviews to The Life of Pablo the day after its release should be fired. And I’ve been told to watch Gilmore Girls by enough people, now including Daisy Rosario and Linda Holmes, that I probably will.

Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 27, 2016)

I’ve been writing about Pink Floyd, and thus listening to and reading about Pink Floyd a hell of a lot. Hopefully the fruits of these labours will be visible soon. But you can’t rush these things. Speaking of Pink Floyd and Rush, let’s begin with Genesis, and continue with 29 other things, for a total of 30! That’s the most in ages. Well done, Parsons. Thank you, Parsons.  

Music

Genesis: A Trick of the Tail — You know when a song you haven’t thought about for years comes to mind unbidden and you have to listen to it? That happened to me with “Squonk,” just now. I never expected that to happen with “Squonk.” But it did prompt me to listen through this entire album, which I haven’t heard for ages. This is like homemade macaroni and cheese straight out of the oven to me. People consider it a miracle that Genesis managed to make an album this good immediately after Peter Gabriel’s departure. But those people might not have a firm grasp on the power dynamic in Genesis: it was never Peter Gabriel’s band. Tony Banks and Michael Rutherford were at least as influential. Without Gabriel, they did lose a certain amount of the darkness that made The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway so delicious. But that’s not objectively a bad thing. I think it’s telling that fans of Genesis’ prog output tend to love this album and dislike, say, Duke. Because both of those albums are basically pop albums. The difference is that Trick is a pop album wearing a prog aesthetic: Hans Christian Andersonesque fables in the lyrics and semi-acoustic pastoralism in the music. Whereas Duke is a modern-sounding pop album mostly made up of love songs. But they’re both full of pop hooks. Really, Genesis was always more of a pop band than their prog contemporaries, even when their frontman was a guy who wore flower costumes. Maybe that’s why their music has such comfort food potential.

Pink Floyd: assorted early singles and unreleased tracks — I listened to all of the most notable tracks from the Barrett era that aren’t on Saucerful or the Piper special edition. Namely: “It Would Be So Nice,” “Julia Dream,” “Point Me At The Sky,” “Careful With That Axe Eugene” (the less-familiar studio version), “Vegetable Man,” “Scream Thy Last Scream,” “One in a Million,” “Reaction in G” and “Sunshine.” Together, they make a nice, if disjointed, early Floyd mini-album. Seldom has there been a band whose castoffs and curios are quite so interesting. I think it’s undeniable that Pink Floyd got better towards the mid-70s, but they were never again so radical as they were when Barrett was around. (An aside: the “Point Me At The Sky” single is apparently the rarest of all Pink Floyd releases. It is also the first track with a Gilmour/Waters songwriting credit. It also features the line “If you survive ‘til 2005…” What I’m saying here is that they really should have played it at their 2005 reunion show. That’s a huge missed opportunity. Sure, nobody would have known it. But, considering that it was the first time in decades that Gilmour and Waters shared a stage, it would have had such sentimental value.)

Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon — It turned 43 on Tuesday, so I figured may as well. I always feel like a hipster when I say stuff like this, but I really don’t think that Dark Side is one of the best Pink Floyd albums. Wish You Were Here and Animals are both more up my street where the mid-70s stuff is concerned, and The Wall is stronger thematically, if not musically. But I sure do see the appeal: it’s got a directness to it that other Pink Floyd albums don’t have. I played a couple of songs from this album with the band I was in back in high school, Sundog One. Every time I listen to it, there’s a parallel version running in my head of how it would sound if the band were still together, playing these songs. I imagine that sounds terribly sentimental, and I suppose it is, but it’s also just a fun exercise. I like to imagine that Sundog would have gotten more playful with time. We’d do “Us and Them” as a twangy campfire song with a harmonica solo in lieu of the saxophone, and “Any Colour You Like” would be flat-out disco. *Sigh.* Maybe someday.

Syd Barrett: Opel — Everything that improved in Barrett’s songwriting after he left Pink Floyd (or, was forced out by necessity) is counterbalanced by the way his solo albums are seemingly produced to highlight his “madness” rather than his genius wherever possible. This is more of a problem on The Madcap Laughs than on Barrett and it’s hard to discern why, considering that both were produced by Barrett’s friends (Roger Waters, David Gilmour and others on the first, Gilmour alone on the second). You’d think they’d want Syd to get a sympathetic hearing, and not seem like a freak show exhibit. In any case, Opel is an odds-and-sods collection from an artist whose music is chaotic even in a more polished state. It isn’t an easy listen, and you get the sense that some of it should have been kept in the vault for the sake of Barrett’s reputation. But like everything he ever did, it’s got some intensely haunting moments, and others of intense joy. The alternate take of “Golden Hair” is among the former (and also as good a setting of a literary poem as any composer ever made), and the version of “Octopus” (here called “Clowns and Jugglers”) featuring Soft Machine is very much the latter. Worth hearing at least once.

Literature, etc.

Mark Blake: Comfortably Numb: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd — I continue to be distracted from David Day’s annotated Alice, but I promise it is very good. This is something I picked up from the library for research, which I likely won’t be finishing this time around, but it’s a really great book. Like all rock music from the pre-punk era, Pink Floyd has inspired some truly dodgy writing. But Blake is a class act, with a real sense for storytelling. He starts at the end, nearly, with the band’s reunion at Live 8 in 2005. And he uses the absence of one member at that reunion, Syd Barrett, to transition to the band’s origins — and to set the scene for oncoming tragedy. Blake gets great recollections from band members and associates in original interviews. This makes a great pairing with Nick Mason’s Inside Out, which, being a memoir, can’t lay claim to accuracy. Both are entertaining reads.

Movies

World of Tomorrow — Here’s one of the two animated shorts that everybody said got egregiously snubbed at the Oscars. I haven’t seen Bear Story, so I can’t say. But this was adorable! And really dark. And adorable! The story and writing are only okay, really. It’s not top-shelf science fiction. But the really clever thing is how it uses audio that’s clearly just random babbling of an actual child as a key part of its dialogue. It’s only 17 minutes long, and it’s on American Netflix, so if you have access to that, just go watch it.

Television

Deadwood: Season 2, episodes 7-12 — The back half of this season is, no question, some of the best TV I’ve ever seen. A few highlights: at pretty much exactly halfway through the series, Al Swearengen and Alma Garrett finally have their first scene together. It’s insane that those two characters have gone so long without actually meeting, but it’s a canny decision because it makes that scene feel really momentous — so much so that when Al emerges from Alma’s room, E.B. asks him, “Have we a new pope?” What a line. Then there’s the ending of the episode “Amalgamation and Capital,” which, without spoiling anything, brings several ongoing storylines to their separate conclusions so that they all combine to have one specific consequence. It’s the kind of showy storytelling that I don’t think TV saw again until Breaking Bad. And frankly, Deadwood has better dialogue. There’s Timothy Olyphant’s performance in the following episode. He’s a scary dude when he’s angry, but he’s heartbreaking when faced with tragedy. And, of course, there’s the arrival of George Hearst, a character who’s been talked about so often that you feel like it should be a momentous event when he actually gets to Deadwood. But the show undercuts it by sending E.B. Farnum to meet him in a state of gastrointestinal distress. This is now my favourite poop joke: “Allow me a moment’s silence, Mr. Hearst, sir. I am having a digestive crisis, and must focus on suppressing its expression.” Deadwood is a show that everybody should watch. I am dreading the third season, because I’ve heard about how badly cancellation threw the ending into disarray. But the two seasons I’ve watched so far are essential. Pick of the week.

Last Week Tonight: February 28 — The main reason this isn’t pick of the week is that you’ve almost certainly watched it anyway. (And also Deadwood.) I never wanted John Oliver to cover Donald Trump. I admired him for saying that he wasn’t interested in Trump on Colbert. Basically, the thing I love most about Last Week Tonight is that it focusses on topics that aren’t necessarily part of the news cycle at any given time and manages to find the relevance and humour in them. And covering Trump is the opposite of that. But Oliver’s right: ignoring him won’t help. As I write this, Trump is trouncing Ted Cruz on Super Tuesday. And the key insight that Oliver brought to the conversation is that Trump’s greatest asset is his name. Not necessarily the actual word “Trump,” although that helps. But, the Trump brand has massively positive connotations for many people, in spite of Trump’s actually pretty dodgy leadership. So, the best mode of attack is to strip him of his damn name. Make Donald Drumpf again, indeed.

Better Call Saul: “Amarillo” — Okay. I’m just going to take a moment to rain on the parade. I still love this show, and this was a good episode. Things are picking up. But I started thinking about where the points of tension are in this story. And they’re basically, “Will Jimmy screw up his hard-won new career, and ruin his promising new relationship?” And, putting aside the fact that we know from Breaking Bad that the answer is yes, I feel like I’ve seen this story before. That’s not a knock, though. Actually, it’s nice to see such skilled TV craftspeople making something so simple. Not everything has to be Deadwood.

QI: “Messy” — Stephen Fry’s leaving QI? My god, I hadn’t heard! I’m disconsolate.

Podcasts

Criminal: “Hastings” — This is a story about a day when an eighth-grader brought a gun to school and tried to fire it. It’s told by three people who were there: the principal and two former students, now grown. It’s refreshing to hear a story like this told with so much attention paid to the experience of the survivors and so little paid to the sensational details of the (potential) shooter’s life, mental health, etc. Criminal tends to be a show that I appreciate more than I love, but it could be that I just haven’t heard a bunch of the best episodes.

Fugitive Waves: “A Secret Civil Rights Kitchen” — A lovely, slight little story about a woman who used her phenomenal cooking abilities for social good. Like all Kitchen Sisters stories, it’s beautifully produced. Listen to this to find out if Fugitive Waves will be for you. And then, even if it’s not, go listen to “Waiting for Joe DiMaggio.”

Radiolab: “K-poparazzi” — Really great. This is presented as a counterpart to the story about Gary Hart: both ask the question, “how much do we want to know about our public figures?” But instead of focussing on American politics, this one focusses on K-pop. I kind of wish they’d tightened both stories up and added a third, so it could be a classic Radiolab themed triptych. But then, my attitude towards Radiolab is always mediated by misty nostalgia.

99% Invisible: “The Green Book” — A new producer! Nice. I love how 99pi can find a way to present just about any story as being about a design solution. The Green Book was a travel guide designed to help black people travel through the United States in relative safety during the years of Jim Crow. The last edition was published shortly after the Civil Rights Act was passed, but it’s still enormously informative of that time.

On the Media: “Spotlight on ‘Spotlight,’ the Movie” — This made me even more glad that Spotlight won Best Picture. Robby Robinson and Sacha Pfeiffer’s devotion to truth in storytelling obviously extends even to their own story. Brooke Gladstone doesn’t push Robinson too hard on why he and the Globe didn’t break the Catholic Church child abuse story earlier, because she doesn’t need to. The movie explores that side of the story just as deeply as it explores the journalistic process. I loved this interview, but mostly I just love Spotlight.

The Heart: “Ghost: Alex” — This didn’t work for me. The Heart’s previous forays into fiction/semi-fiction have worked because they relied principally on a third-person narrator, which is a familiar format for a podcast. This is just a straight-ahead radio drama, and while I adore that format, the writing and acting feels forced. I would have preferred if Kaitlin Prest had remained present throughout. Maybe that’s just me.

The Memory Palace: “Overland” — Hey, there’s humour in this! I love The Memory Palace, but I’m not sure I’ve ever actually heard humour in it before. I’ve also never heard Led Zeppelin in The Memory Palace before. Nice.

Reply All: “Zardulu” — This might be the best episode Reply All has ever made. It’s best not to know too much about this going in. I’ll just tell you that it involves a conspiracy, a number of enigmas, some head scratchers, and Justin Trudeau getting threatened by the Sasquatch. I’ll also tell you that I am now halfway convinced that nothing is real. Pick of the week.

Love and Radio: “Deep Stealth Mode” — This is actually an episode of Here Be Monsters that’s making a guest appearance in Love and Radio’s feed. I’ve never listened to Here Be Monsters, but it sounds like it’s basically just Love and Radio made by different people. This is a story of a mother raising a transgender daughter whose consciousness of her gender became obvious when she was three years old. In classic Love and Radio style, the narrative stays in the tape the whole time: it’s just the mother and the daughter. No host or interviewer. It’s a lovely little story, and probably more relevant than the one I’ve chosen as pick of the week, but relevance isn’t everything. Let’s call it “recommended.”

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Oscars Omnibus 2016” — It’s possibly more fun listening to this with the benefit of hindsight. The lack of outright dismissiveness towards The Revenant is appreciated. I get it, awards momentum makes things tiresome. But it’s a skillfully made movie, and this panel recognizes that. On the other hand, Bob Mondello’s dislike of Spotlight is totally beyond me. Doesn’t matter now, though, does it?

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The 2016 Oscars” — Basically a continuation of the above. Nice to have Gene Demby on here to offer some insight into the problems with the Chris Rock monologue.

99% Invisible: “Norman Doors” — This is actually a video, but the audio from it showed up in my feed anyway. It does really work better with the visual element. Mostly it’s just cool to see Roman Mars show up as a Vox reporter’s audio spirit guide. But I’m also a fan of any instance where he gets to gripe about bad design. (I.e. his TED talk.)

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Breakthroughs by Car Seat Headrest, The Coathangers, Big Thief, More” — Oh my god that Car Seat Headrest song is incredible. The full version is nearly twice as long as the video edit and that’s what you need to hear. Stream it here. Do it. A show that starts there and ends with Tim Hecker has got to be good. Actually, it’s probably the best All Songs I’ve ever heard.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Music From M. Ward, Nothing, Marissa Nadler, a Chat with Mitski & More” — There hasn’t been a song on these last two episodes of All Songs that hasn’t been awesome. I’ve already gone back and listened to huge chunks of these shows. Now I have to try and remember to actually check out the records when they come out. My highlights here are “Pentecost” by Kyle Craft, “Girl From Conejo Valley” by M. Ward, and “Your Best American Girl” by Mitski.

On The Media: “FiveThirtyEight Explains Super Tuesday” — Listening to statisticians talk about Super Tuesday was almost as depressing as Super Tuesday itself.

Imaginary Worlds: “Imagining Wonder Woman” — Wonder Woman has the most interesting real-world origin story of any superhero, bar none. Can Superman claim to be created by a renegade polyamorous psychologist with a whips and chains fetish, as a vision of a feminist utopia? No he cannot. This is fascinating.

99% Invisible: “Mojave Phone Booth” — Actually a Snap Judgement story, this is the tale of the man who discovered a phone booth in the middle of the desert and how it became a precursor to social media. Really good.

Serial: “Trade Secrets” — Again, we venture into the weeds, and again I can’t keep myself apprised. Presumably, the reason Serial was the breakout podcast is that it was exciting. Not that this is a virtue in itself, but I do think that’s a reasonable statement of causation. So, in a sense, it’s sad to see it descend into something so eye-glazingly boring. On the other hand, maybe it reflects admirably on the team’s principles: don’t just be fun, be important. Can you tell I’m conflicted about this season? Every time I sit down to write one of these blurbs, I tie myself in knots. This is the sort of thing I’m quick to say should exist in the world, yet I’m basically listening to it out of inertia at this point.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Downton Abbey and Nostalgia as a Genre” — I came so close to starting Downton Abbey. I even made it about five minutes into the premiere. But now that I know how swiftly it went south, I think I may sit this one out. As for the podcast, I love when Barrie Hardymon and Audie Cornish come around. But for some reason, this episode doesn’t seem as interested in speaking to people who haven’t seen the thing they’re talking about. Still fine. But that’s usually one of the reasons that I prefer this show to the likes of Pop Rocket, which is more insidey. Just saying.

All Songs Considered: “The 2016 Tiny Desk Contest Winner” — Gaelynn Lea is awesome. I love that NPR chose somebody with such an idiosyncratic sound as their winner. Frankly, finding talent like this is the entire reason why public broadcasters should still be in the music business. I could not love All Songs Considered more than I do this week. In fact, let’s give the three episodes I reviewed here a collective, honourary pick of the week. But Reply All is still the best podcast episode I listened to this week, no question.

And with that, I got my listen later playlist on Stitcher down to zero for the first time in months. Thank you, dishes. Thank you, running.

Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 24, 2016)

20 reviews, and I seem to be gradually getting back on track with podcasts. Only 26 episodes to go before I’m caught up with my subscriptions. Also, I finally finished Three Moments of an Explosion and can now finally begin writing up my favourites of 2015. So, you know, look for that eventually. These things take time.

Literature, etc.

China Miéville: “Listen the Birds” — There are two or three tiny stories in Three Moments of an Explosion that are formatted as scripts for movie trailers. The trailer is a medium that Miéville is particularly adept at, it turns out. Because, a trailer introduces a premise and a sense of mystery or suspense, and leaves you with lingering uncertainties, so that you might like to see the film. And that’s kind of the same way that Miéville’s stories work. I don’t mean to say that they end unsatisfyingly, but there’s a sense in which resolution is sort of beside the point. The stories in Three Moments are all sort of like trailers, actually. But of the ones that actually go for that explicitly, this is far and away the best. I’d love to see the trailer produced. It would take a profound genius to actually make the movie, though.

China Miéville: “A Mount” — Occasionally, a writer manages to reproduce my own thought processes on the page, with added clarity and purpose. This guy does it an awful lot, including here. It makes me very, very jealous.

China Miéville: “The Design” — The final story in the collection, and one of the most remarked-upon in reviews. It is one of the most simple stories in its telling, but one of the most beautiful for the relationship between its narrator and its protagonist. It also contains one of the most beautiful sentences I’ve read recently, which will not spoil the wonderful premise of the story by my quoting it here: “I sat alone in the kitchen, in a world in which beautiful, elegantly wrought secrets lie hidden less than an inch from sight.”

Television

Mildred Pierce: Parts 4-5 — In its last two parts (which aired together on HBO), Mildred Pierce finally becomes one of those Todd Haynes works that makes you go, as Marc Maron put it, “Shit, I’ve gotta reckon with this.” Now that Veda’s grown up into an entirely different actor (Evan Rachel Wood), she’s an amazing character. Still deeply frustrating, but in a good way. Without revealing too much, there is a scene in this in which we watch several people listening to the radio, and it is the most compelling moment in the entire series. Mildred Pierce is a flawed television program, but since there are only five episodes, and two of them are these excellent ones, I’d recommend it for sure. Pick of the week.

QI: “Medieval and Macabre” — Apparently, Air Singapore has “corpse cupboards” on their planes to store people who die in-flight.

Doctor Who: “Paradise Towers,” episode 1 — It’s been a while since I sat down with some ropey old classic Doctor Who. This is unambiguously fantastic. Much of it looks like a crap 80s video, but the premise is super and the acting is frequently hilarious — and not in the way that classic Doctor Who sometimes is, where you expect that the actors aren’t in in the joke. As a general rule, the McCoy era is one of my favourites. For all of its shortcomings in terms of production (let me reiterate that this looks completely terrible), the writing was more consistently sharp than in any other era and its taxpayer-funded anti-Thatcherism is a wonder to behold. There will be more to say specifically when I’ve finished the serial. But for now, suffice it to say that it’s one of the funniest stories I’ve seen that isn’t “City of Death” or “The Ribos Operation.”

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “New Music From Ray LaMontagne, Lucius, A Bowie Cover From Glen Hansard, More” — This is essential for Hansard’s “Ashes to Ashes” cover alone. It’s at the beginning. Just start listening to this episode to hear it, then keep it going, because there’s a bunch of awesome, huge sounding pop on it by people like Lucius and Theo and the Get Down Stay Down. I’d heard of neither of them, but loved both.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Giant Foam Finger: How Do You Choose Your Favourite Team?” — This is PCHH’s occasional sports themed edition. I listen to these not because I’m a sports person at all, but mostly just because they show up in my subscriptions. I do enjoy them, though, because it’s not “sports people talking sports” — it’s an NPR music guy and the lead blogger for Code Switch talking sports. (Everybody go check out Code Switch. It’s NPR’s blog about race and culture, and it’s really good.) Stephen Thompson and Gene Demby are such culturey types that they’re more interested in sports as a phenomenon than as an actual thing with its own mechanics to discuss. This one’s basically about the concept of fandom, which I’m totally on board with. So basically, this is the proof that there’s nothing Pop Culture Happy Hour can do to lose me.

Fresh Air: “From ‘Lost’ To HBO’s ‘Leftovers’ Show Creators Embrace The Unknown” — Damon Lindelof is a thoughtful guy, but I’m still not going to watch The Leftovers. No matter how much awesome, moody Max Richter music there is in it.

Slate’s Culture Gabfest: “Lazarus Edition” — I think I’m just about through my Bowie mourning podcast playlist. (Though you may have noticed that I’m not reviewing any music lately. That’s because it’s still pretty much non-stop Blackstar.) This is the perfect example of how this podcast is less fun than PCHH. Everybody present has smart, interesting things to say — especially Carl Wilson: the best music journo in all the land. But they don’t seem to have any interest in what the others are saying, or what it says about those people’s tastes and personalities. This is fine. It’s really only ever fine.

All Songs Considered: “Our Top Discoveries At globalFEST 2016” — A solid 8/10 for picking interesting music from all over the world. About a 5/10 for having anything interesting to say about it.

The Memory Palace: “Below, from Above” — This starts off as “Nate DiMeo does 99% Invisible,” which actually works really well. But no podcast except this one could conjure the labour and misery of working for weeks at a time at the bottom of the East River, building the Brooklyn Bridge. Also, it’s nice to hear that DiMeo has been able to hire another producer the help out with the audio. The more time DiMeo can spend writing, the better. 

Song Exploder: “MGMT — Time to Pretend” — I don’t know this band, but the snippet at the end of the last episode pulled me in. This is fun. It’s especially interesting to see how the final version of the song evolved from an earlier version that the band made on a crap laptop in college.

99% Invisible: “The Fresno Drop” — This is a story about how credit cards started with an experiment in Fresno. It goes through a bunch of different early iterations of credit cards and why they worked and didn’t. It’s a lot more interesting than I’m making it seem. But if you listen to this show, you’ve learned by now that everything in the world is interesting.

The Heart: “The Wrath of the Potluck” — A charming, funny story of a dude getting what he wants at exactly the wrong moment. As always, trying to write about The Heart is making me bashful. Just, everybody go listen to an episode of The Heart.

99% Invisible: “Fish Cannon” — I think I’d heard about the Salmon Cannon on John Oliver, but I didn’t know about the opposition from anti-dam activists who claim that it’s treating a symptom of a larger problem. Really interesting. Although, Roman Mars does this thing sometimes where he starts an episode talking about a totally different thing than the episode is about, and when the episode is about shooting fish out of cannons, you wonder why he wouldn’t lead with that.

Reply All: “Raising the Bar” — I love this show’s “Yes Yes No” segment, and I also love how frequently “Yes Yes No” involves Alex Blumberg wading unknowingly into the most horrible, hateful parts of the internet and subsequently feeling dirty and awful about humanity. But the actual story in this episode is one of Reply All‘s best: the tale of why Twitter’s only black engineer in a leadership position quit. It’s for all the reasons you might expect, by the way, but this story (reported by the brilliant Alex Goldman) dives into the actual math of diversity in workplaces and emerges with an incredibly compelling conclusion. Pick of the week.

Reply All: “PSA: Hidden Trove” — Even when these guys don’t have a story and they’re just telling you about a thing they used to make for a couple of minutes, they’re still entertaining.

Serial: “The Captors” — I love that there is now a popular platform whereby a great journalist can go into way more detail on a story than journalists are normally afforded. But I can’t say that the details of Bowe Bergdahl’s story are interesting me as much as Adnan Syed’s. I’m sort of waiting for the part where he gets home and finds himself the subject of intense controversy. I guess it’s weird that I find that more interesting than the story of how he survived captivity, but I’m really starting to feel like the part of the story that takes place in Afghanistan has run its course, now. All the same, I got more out of this episode than the previous one because the Haqqani network is really interesting and I didn’t know anything about it.

Serial: “Announcement: New Schedule” — It’s no “PSA: Hidden Trove,” but what is?