Tag Archives: Radiolab

Omnibus (week of April 1, 2018)

“Get it together, Parsons,” I said to myself. “Clean your damn apartment and get your 5K back under a non-embarrassing time.” That is why I listened to 34 podcast episodes this week. (That’s a conservative number — there are a few shows I don’t review, and I frankly can’t remember which of those I listened to this week.) Below, you’ll find them nicely compressed into a manageable 21 reviews, plus an additional three for the things I got through this week that aren’t podcasts.

Also, if you would like to hear me blindside Sheryl MacKay with a whack-a-doo theory that even I don’t completely subscribe to, you’ll find that at 1:21:58.

24 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Scott McCloud: Making Comics — I just turned in my final assignment in that comics class I’ve been taking, and I figured I may as well finish the course reading. Better late than never. We weren’t obliged to read Making Comics in its entirety, but I did because why the hell not. Scott McCloud is not only a good teacher and a perceptive analyst of the medium in which he works. He’s also one of the funnest media critics out there. In case you’re unfamiliar: this is a guy who makes works of serious, penetrating comics criticism — that are themselves comics. His ability to demonstrate concepts by example is unmatched, and his books of comics criticism are themselves among the most formally innovative comics I’ve encountered. Understanding Comics remains his masterpiece, because its focus is broad enough that it doesn’t really age. Making Comics contains some stuff about webcomics that feels ancient now. But when he sticks to the basics of the comics form, regardless of medium, McCloud is a fountain of practical advice here. If you’ve ever wondered what fundamentals you should keep in mind when working simultaneously with words and pictures, this is the book for you. Pick of the week.

Music

John Luther Adams/JACK Quartet: Everything That Rises — John Luther Adams either captivates me or leaves me cold. (No Alaska pun intended.) This did the latter. It is one of his more high-concept works, based on just intonation. It is also one of his more dissonant pieces, which isn’t something I look to him for. Don’t get me wrong, he can do what he wants: but I’ve always enjoyed the side of JLA that puts you in a trance, then takes you somewhere. This piece definitely takes you somewhere — up, in keeping with the title. But it foregoes the trance in favour of a calculating raised eyebrow. Not for me, I’m afraid.

Kyle Craft: Full Circle Nightmare — I loved Dolls of Highland. I had some concerns about its consistent portrayal of women as evil magic temptresses, but there was enough self-effacing humour throughout that I could give him the benefit of a doubt. It also helps that Kyle Craft’s music scratches a huge itch for me: huge sounding rock with bombastic vocals and a turn of phrase you can sink your teeth into. And that itch is almost equally scratched on this new record. But at this point I’m thinking he needs to find something new to sing about. This whole “women: can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em” thing is not sustainable. Still, when it’s good it’s good. I’m particularly fond of the new direction on the semi-psychedelic “Belmont (One Trick Pony).” This feels like one of those albums that may or may not be the second-last one by its artist that I ever hear. Stay tuned.

Podcasts

It’s Been A Minute: “Momofuku Chef David Chang’s ‘Ugly Delicious’ Food” & “Zach Braff and Alex Blumberg on ‘Alex, Inc.’” — I’m finding that I get a lot more out of this show’s Tuesday edition, where Sam Sanders talks with an interesting person, than I do out of its Friday wraps. Maybe it’s just that I don’t feel the need for any more “making sense of the news” in my life, because that is a thing that the entire media is trying to do now. But the Tuesday shows are really good, because Sanders is fun to listen to and seemingly fun to talk to as well. The David Chang interview is great fun, as they usually are. Sanders is good at talking about intersections of race and culture, and Chang is a thoughtful guy on that subject. The episode focussing on Alex, Inc. is really something — mostly because it’s great fun hearing Alex Blumberg pretend that he likes the milquetoast sitcom that ABC made out of his game-changing podcast. To Sanders’ credit, he manages to have an interesting conversation with Blumberg and Zach Braff that touches on both of their wheelhouses without the whole thing coming off the rails.  

Code Switch catch-up — Of the last four episodes, the two most recent are the most essential. “The Road to the Promised Land, 50 Years Later” is a bit jarring because it consists largely of news reports for actual NPR — like the radio. You don’t realize how different that tone is from NPR podcasts until you hear it on an NPR podcast. But the story of how Martin Luther King’s assassination reverberates half a century later is fascinating and well told here. For something a bit more podcast-native, the Amara La Negra interview is an energetic discussion of Afro-Latinx identity

Reply All: “A Pirate In Search of a Judge” — A lesser instalment of “Super Tech Support,” which nonetheless includes some amusing banter. Also: has anybody compiled the Breakmaster Cylinder bits into a supercut? Please somebody do that. I think there’s an argument to be made that whoever they are, they’re doing the most innovative audio storytelling in the podcast space — and they’re doing it in the last two minutes of somebody else’s show. (Unless, of course, P.J. Vogt is Breakmaster Cylinder, which I find quite plausible.)

In Our Time: “Augustine’s Confessions,” “Hildegard of Bingen” & Roman Slavery” — Melvyn Bragg is in his glory when he gets to talk about Christianity. The Augustine episode is accordingly excellent. The episode on Roman slavery is a good summation of a thing that you probably don’t think about very much. But it’s the repeat episode about Hildegard that’s the real standout in this run. Being a music person, I have always mostly thought of her as the composer of the most beautiful music from the Middle Ages. And I’ve always been passingly aware of her status as a great polymath, contributing to theology, literature, medical research and brewing techniques. (She penned the earliest surviving writings on the use of hops in beer. She didn’t like them. Fair enough.) But this episode focuses on her role in the church of her time: a woman who was respected not so much because she was a genius, though she clearly was, as because she claimed to receive visions from God. It’s tempting for us now to look at Hildegard as a woman who overcame the social stigmas of her time by being exceptional and working hard, but really even that wasn’t enough. She was allowed to give sermons not because she was a good sermonizer, but because the church saw her as a direct channel to God, so they made an exception. A sad thing. That’s a great episode. You should listen to it.

Fresh Air: “The Evolution of Artificial Intelligence” & “Madeleine Albright” — Two interviews about big important things, one of which features a big important person. Listen to the Madeleine Albright one. When she talks about the problems with Trump’s foreign policy, it’s probably worth considering what she has to say.

Radiolab: “Rippin’ the Rainbow an Even Newer One,” “Border Trilogy” parts 1 & 2 — The update to the mantis shrimp story is good for my sense of nostalgia about the old Radiolab, but the first two instalments of their series on the border are both challenging my general sense that this show’s best days are behind it. Every so often they pull out a classic, and so far this is one. Basically, it poses the question of how well-meaning policies can result in migrants dying in the desert, possibly by the thousands. It is the new Radiolab — the au current, political Radiolab — at its best.

The Gist: “Clinging to Guns Is Our Religion” — This is a gun control debate between a moderate liberal and a moderate conservative. It is as scintillating as that sounds.

Bullseye: “Andrew W.K. & Bill Hader” — Here are two people I’m not super interested in, having conversations I enormously enjoyed. Andrew W.K. in particular is a person who you just know will have a good chat with Jesse Thorn. And he did. Note that this is also the episode with Thorn’s review of It’s Too Late to Stop Now by Van Morrison, which led me to make one of the weirdest pieces of radio that I personally have ever made. (See top of page.)

Desert Island Discs: “David Byrne” — Wow, he’s in a good mood. Like, a suspiciously good mood. But as we all know, he’s got great taste in music and he’s an interesting guy. I really need to read his book. Good listening.

The Daily: “Wednesday, Apr. 4, 2018” & “Friday, Apr. 6, 2018” — Oddly, I find myself more inclined to listen to news shows when they are meta-stories about the media. These are two episodes of The Daily that examine TV news in different ways. One demonstrates how Fox News played a role in the revitalization of Trump’s anti-immigration policies, and the other examines how the takeover of local media by larger corporations leads to a lack of editorial freedom. Both are great, the latter is likely the one that will remain relevant by the time you read this. Damn, the world is cray.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Love, Simon” & “Roseanne and What’s Making Us Happy” — I will watch neither of these things, but I did enjoy the chats. Linda Holmes and Stephen Thompson had an interesting exchange about Roseanne. That is my review of this week’s Pop Culture Happy Hour episodes; I hope you have enjoyed it.

The World According to Sound: “Idea of North” — I intend to go back and hear this show’s full archives at some point, which shouldn’t be hard since the episodes are a minute and a half long. But for now I will follow their series on great radio they think I should hear. I have never heard Glenn Gould’s “The Idea of North,” which is a travesty because I work at CBC Radio and I am literally looking at a three-CD set of Gould’s radio work right now. It’s right there on my shelf. Maybe this is the week.

Song by Song: “Hang On St. Christopher” — I’m looking forward to hearing these two give their take on Frank’s Wild Years, because I know from previously that it isn’t either of their favourite. On the other hand, it has always been my favourite. I think it is a masterpiece that stands head and shoulders above its two immediate predecessors. It is simultaneously weirder and more polished than Rain Dogs, and it contains Waits’ most theatrical music. That’s the mode I like him best in. This episode gives a good summation of why it’s so theatrical and why it’s necessary nonetheless to consider it as an album rather than the soundtrack to a misbegotten live show.

Imaginary Worlds: “Visions of Philip K. Dick” — I actually didn’t know that Philip K. Dick spent his final years having either religious experiences or a form of paranoid psychosis. That is interesting. This is interesting. The audio of Dick talking in Paris during that time is captivating. Listen at least for that. It’s right at the start.

Constellations: “anna friz – air can break your heart” — Okay, time to get frank about this show. The thing that’s good about it is that it highlights audio makers who are working largely outside the confines of what’s considered “radio.” Much of what’s featured here falls more easily under the category of “sound art.” This is good. I want this sort of thing to find its way into my podcast feed, between all the NPR and roundtable chat shows. But the fact is that a lot of this material is fairly obscure and alienating, and in presenting it without comment at the start of the episode, and only offering a bare minimum of context from the artist afterwards (the audio equivalent of a brief “artist’s statement” on a website or brochure) doesn’t necessarily present it in its best light. As a listener, I want to hear work like this week’s piece — an abstract mix of ambient sound and muted speech — addressed in a way that’s slightly more playful. Because however much I enjoy it on its aesthetic merits, it still leaves me with questions like “what?” and “why?” And I’d like to hear those questions answered conversationally, with frankness and humour. I want to hear the hosts engage these artists on the level that their listeners are coming into this at: with respect and curiosity, but also occasional good-natured bewilderment. I want a proxy — somebody to step in and have a human conversation in this art world’s rarified air. The fact that this show doesn’t do this strikes me as a missed opportunity. TL;DR: Constellations is doing good work, but I wish it were less precious about the good work it’s doing.

99% Invisible: “Airships and the Future that Never Was” & “Making it Rain” — 99pi is 300 episodes old. (Well, 301, actually. But I’m only just getting to both of those episodes.) It seems appropriate to me that in spite of the show’s substantial growth in terms of both audience and staff, the 300th episode should be a return to the early days, when it was just Roman Mars making elegant, miniature stories about design. Even the subject matter, airships, is nostalgic. It’s a good episode. “Making it Rain” is good too, but less singular. While I have come to really enjoy all of the producers on this show, their presence has the effect of making 99pi sound more like public radio and less like the trailblazing independent podcast that it started off as. That’s how I’d summarize the trajectory of this show: as it’s gotten bigger, it has become less distinctive — even as its stories have become more ambitious. I’m not likely to stop listening anytime soon, not when this show pulls off stuff like the recent two-parter about the Bijlmer. But ultimately, I think Roman Mars’s greatest accomplishment hasn’t been 99pi itself, but leveraging its success into the formation of Radiotopia, which remains the most consistent, satisfying and surprising podcast collective out there. Quite a throne to maintain in these times. On that note, here are the rest of the Radiotopia shows I listened to this week. This next one is something I never would have heard if not for 99pi, which would be unconscionable.  

Theory of Everything: “This Is Not A Drill (False Alarm! part i)” — This new mini-season from Benjamen Walker is justly receiving heavy promotion across the Radiotopia stable of podcasts, and if you haven’t checked it out yet, you must. It begins with a straightforward account of what it was like to be in Hawaii during the cruise missile false alarm, then continues into a scrambled retelling of both “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Then it gets straight into the question at the heart of the series: how can Benjamen Walker continue making a show that’s neither fully fact nor fully fiction in the era of Fake News? I know people who have been vexed by this show’s blend of real and fake. I’ve never been one of them. I tend to think that the people who are the angriest about stuff like this, the Onion and so forth, are actually mostly angry at themselves for their own credulousness. For my part, I am delighted that podcasting’s most protean paranoiac is about to dive into the nature of reality itself in 2018. Hear this. Pick of the week.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti — Celebrating 99 Years” — This story about the great counterculture icon and champion of the Beat poets, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, seems like it’ll be a good warmup for the Kitchen Sisters’ “The Keepers” series about archivists. I’m really looking forward to that. This is nice, though I confess that Ferlinghetti’s own poetry doesn’t do much for me.

This is Love: “A Private Life” & “What Are We Going To Do” — This is Love is proving to be a lovely show, though rather cute. These have thus far been rather positive stories. Even when they flirt with heartbreak, each episode manages to spin the story into something uplifting. That’s fine, but I hope (he says, realizing what a sadist he sounds like) that this show finds its way to the darker side of its subject matter at some point as well.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Deadly Force” — This is a slighter but more direct exploration of a topic that Radiolab went in depth about a few months back. I think I prefer this version.

The Memory Palace: “Junk Room” — This feels like a throwback to the episodes Nate DiMeo made for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I really enjoyed in spite of not having been to any of those exhibits. This episode is about one of the weirdest collections of art in Washington D.C.: a room where the states all sent statues of two of their greatest figures. That’s subject matter that allows DiMeo to do what he’s great at: writing beautifully about figures who have been left out of popular history, and asking why Confederate leaders keep getting included instead.

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Omnibus (weeks of Feb. 18 & 25, 2018)

If you are one of my seven regular readers, you’ll have noticed that last weekend was the first one since the beginning of this blog when I did not post an Omnibus, save for that time I was in the mountains. My apologies. Things have been busy. In any case, here are two weeks of reviews, with only one week’s worth of picks of the week, because honestly there’s not enough here to justify doubling it.

Also, I don’t want to talk about the Oscars.

19 reviews.

Comedy

Maria Bamford: Live at the Vogue — I love Maria Bamford. She is flat-out my favourite comedian right now. I love how convincing her characters are, and how quickly she can switch between them. I love how she interrupts herself and barely whispers some of her punchlines. I love how she interprets her own inner monologue as conversation. There’s nobody like her. Seeing her live was fantastic, but also a reminder that we are used to seeing our favourite comics in a highly edited and curated fashion. This was a selection of familiar material from Old Baby and unfamiliar stuff that ranges from instantly classic to bits I think could do with some paring back. In the first category: a bit about sexual roleplay involving intractable social problems (gentrification, living wage, human trafficking). In the second, a long bit where Bamford pits herself against her mother to see who is better at living by the Bible’s teachings. (Though I must say that Bamford’s account of the closest thing she had to a religious revelation is intensely satisfying: it is Nick Nolte coming out of the brush with a comically oversized submarine sandwich.) A great show, but also a reminder that live comedy is live comedy — even when it’s the best comedian in the world.

John Mulaney: New in Town — Mulaney does this thing I love where he establishes the details of a premise, then immediately takes it in a direction you didn’t think of. I guess that’s just what comedy is, but it’s really exposed here. There’s a bit about Mulaney encountering a wheelchair on its side on the street, with nobody in it. “That’s not a good thing to see,” he says. “Something happened there.” Pause. “You hope it’s a miracle.” Marvellous. I’ve watched this a couple times before. There’s a joke here and there that hasn’t aged well, but on the whole this is one of my favourite stand-up specials.

Movies

Call Me By Your Name — Of this year’s Best Picture nominees, this was the only one that I neither actively wanted to see nor actively wished to avoid. I can’t believe how much I loved it. You’ve likely heard people talk about the story of this film: a gay love story with a big age gap. And you might have heard comment on Timothée Chalamet’s brilliant, understated performance that will inevitably fail to win him an Oscar against Gary Oldman’s prosthetic jowls. But what makes the movie great is its ambiance. It is shot largely outdoors, entirely on-location in the Italian countryside, on glorious 35mm. Its exteriors are set in bright, verdant groves and by lakesides in the light of the romantic summer moon. Its interiors are set in airy country homes with studies lined by shelves of leather-bound books. It is soundtracked by the sublimely elegant music of John Adams, Bach, Ravel, Satie, and Sufjan Stevens. Magnificent food is seldom far from the centre of the frame. It is a movie about people with good taste — a movie that isn’t ashamed of its own aspiration to present things as straightforwardly beautiful. There’s nothing arch or cynical in Call Me By Your Name. It is a warm and glamourous sensory experience with a genuine emotional core and a brain. Also, the supporting actor category is a sham without Michael Stuhlbarg. Pick of the week.

Black Panther — We all expected it to be in the top tier of Marvel movies, and it is. There are quibbles to be had, i.e. it’s nice to see Andy Serkis’s actual face for once, but did we really need to see so much of it when Michael B. Jordan is the main villain? Almost everything else is glorious. Specifically, Wakanda is the most well-illustrated setting in the MCU thus far. The architecture, the clothes, the ceremony, the technology — every element makes Wakanda feel more real than the renditions of actual cities that other Marvel movies take place in. The cast is uniformly outstanding. Much has already been made of Jordan’s performance, and Chadwick Boseman is all kinds of regal. But my favourite performance in this movie by a million yards comes from Letitia Wright as T’Challa’s quippy little sister and science consultant. I loved Wright in Russell T. Davies’ Cucumber as well, so I hope we see her in many more gigantic productions in the coming years. Also, I am 100% there for more superhero movies in which different ideas of how to behave in the world are pitted against each other. This is an action movie that actually has time to discuss the relative merits of isolationism and interventionism — and to do so in the context of life for black people in modern America. Let’s have more of that, please. I have perhaps said this about too many movies for it to be meaningful anymore, but this time I mean it: if we must sit through this endless cavalcade of superhero blockbusters, I want more of them to have this kind of singular vision.

It — Being an adaptation of only half of a gigantic and famously discursive novel, this is about as good as it can be. Fundamentally, what is good about King’s novel makes it virtually unfit for adaptation: it is good not in spite of its various blind alleys and rabbit holes, but because of them. A big Hollywood movie has no choice but to pare the story down to its basics. So we get a tale of seven children, with variously well-established backstories, waging war against an evil shape-shifting clown. It’s a fine story, but it is a sliver of the rich tapestry King offers in the book. It is also deeply concerned with its familiar iconography: there is a much, much higher concentration of Pennywise here than there is in the book, and he appears in his famous clown form a far greater percentage of the time. Fine. There’s still got another whole movie to go, and since that one will focus on these seven characters’ adult selves, there’s still time for this franchise to hone in on the most fascinating element of the book: the fact that the real enemy is memory.

Music

Rued Langgaard/Berit Johansen Tange: Piano Works Vol. 3 — My coworkers and I have been obsessed with the criminally overlooked Danish composer Rued Langgaard since the new music director of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra name-dropped him in an interview I did. Honest to god, this composer is the very best of all the forgotten composers I’ve come across in my classical music writing career. Every single piece of his I’ve heard is brimming with personality and excitement. None of it sounds even remotely like anybody else’s music. Ten years from now Langgaard will be the new Mahler. So, I was shocked to hear that one of my colleagues was deeply disappointed in this recording of some of his shorter works for solo piano. I have never heard a disappointing Langgaard piece. But here we are: most of this is only okay. Some of it is beautiful: particularly the chorale-like Shadow Life and the frenetic As a Thief in the Night. But much of it is a bit academic — not a trait I had previously associated with Rued Langgaard. I think this marks the end of my honeymoon with this composer. I still love him — but not unconditionally. It had to happen. Also, Berit Johansen Tange plays all of this with maximum conviction. She’s not afraid to get deranged when necessary. Props.

Literature, etc.

Greg Rucka & J.H. Williams III: Batwoman Elegy — The second full comic we’ve had to read in the comics writing class I’m taking. Lovely stuff. Superhero comics are not normally my speed, and there were indeed some stumbling blocks for me here: I am really not that interested in action scenes, even when they are as characterful and motivated as they are in this. And I’m definitely not interested in reading about any more grotesque, Lewis Carroll-inspired villains. (When will people be done with grotesque Lewis Carroll? Just let him be whimsical.) But Kate Kane is a brilliant character whose out-of-costume storyline is really compelling. In superhero stories, there’s always a central question of why this person feels compelled to operate outside the conventional justice and security apparatus of the state. Kane’s answer to that question is simple and possibly the most sympathetic of all: don’t ask, don’t tell. That in itself is a masterstroke. And Williams’ art is a wonder to behold. My one other encounter with him, in Sandman: Overture, found him in maximum psychedelic mode. He’s less over-the-top here, but still deeply artful and inventive — sometimes, it must be said, at the cost of clarity. But when it’s so pretty to look it, who cares. I’m surprised at how happy I am to have read this.

Kris Straub: Broodhollow, Book I — More required reading for comics class. This is a good fun webcomic with elements of comedy, horror and character drama all thrown together without jostling in the slightest. I am on the fence about it in general because I find the story so completely reliant on tropes (exposition on a therapist’s couch, outsider finds his way into a creepy little town, secret society with weird robes, things happening that might be all in the protagonist’s head, menacing businessperson, people forgetting the bad things that happen to them — Stephen King’s had the last word on that one) that there’s not much that’s memorable in it. But the execution is outstanding to the extent that I almost think that critiquing the story is beside the point. Straub is willing to just show our main character silently walking home after a supernatural encounter in a state of complete shock, and have that be a whole page of the comic. He’s a master of serialized comic storytelling, where each miniature strip (because it is very nearly a comic strip) is a complete unit in itself, aside from being an integral part of a larger whole. It’s good comics. It’s a pedestrian story told so well that it doesn’t matter. Almost. It kind of matters. This is mostly good.

Podcasts

Theory of Everything: “Time Travellin’ Trump” — Theory of Everything is surely the only podcast where you could ever get a story about Donald Trump inheriting a time travel ring invented by Nikola Tesla and using it to affect football outcomes.

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Secrets” episodes 4-6 — I can’t help but feel like I committed to this mini-series for the sake of committing. But I’m happy I stuck it out for the last episode, which is the story of two whistleblowers who went on the run from MI5. This has been mixed. Showcase in general has been mixed. I guess that’s the point.

Song by Song: “Downtown Train” — I’m happy they like this one. “Downtown Train” is one of Tom’s best, and the music video, which I’d never seen before, is gold.

Imaginary Worlds: “Travelling in the TARDIS” & “Behind the Daleks” — I’d listen to more of this mini-series on Doctor Who, but alas it is over. Focussing the three episodes on the Doctor, the companions and the Daleks respectively was a good idea, but there are so many specific avenues this could have taken. Hopefully Eric Molinsky revisits this in the future.

On the Media: “Blame it on the Alcohol” & “Back to the Future” — Brooke Gladstone’s special on alcohol in the media is a good time, and the episode on youth movements in politics is really great context for the Never Again movement. Listen to On the Media. Do it regularly.

Constellations: “karen werner – swimming through butterflies” & “jeff emtman – dream tapes” — “Swimming Through Butterflies” might be my favourite thing I’ve heard on this show so far. It’s the story of a scientist walking through a forest full of butterflies — that’s all that happens — but it’s accompanied by elegant cello playing that puts you inside the experience in a way that nat sound couldn’t. “Dream Tapes” is inscrutable and not for me.

The Memory Palace: “Hercules” & “Big Block of Cheese” — Two brilliant and utterly contrasting episodes of this magnificent show. “Hercules” tells the story of one of George Washington’s slaves. Nate DiMeo tells the story in a way that sheds the largest possible amount of light on Hercules’ humanity and the inhumanity of Washington’s slave ownership. It’s deeply moving and brilliantly written. “Big Block of Cheese” is a hysterical story about a man who wanted to become a notable American and did, for the stupidest reason. Pick of the week.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law — “The Tenth Amendment” & “The Poisonous Tree” — “The Poisonous Tree” is the highlight among these two. I confess that I always enjoy this show but my retention of its stories is limited. I blame myself.

Beautiful Conversations with Anonymous People: “Sober Mathematician” — This guy is a bit too much of a Chris Gethard fanboy for it to be an entirely authentic interaction. I did enjoy hearing about his sobriety story, though. Gethard is a very good sounding board for people to tell those stories.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “The Mardi Gras Indians — Stories from New Orleans” — A selection of stories about one of the most fascinating musical traditions in America. I really enjoyed this, and I can’t wait for this new series by the Kitchen Sisters about archivists to get underway.

Radiolab: “Smarty Plants” & “The Curious Case of the Russian Flash Mob at the West Palm Beach Cheesecake Factory” — I’m always down for a Radiolab story where Robert Krulwich takes the lead. Thus, “Smarty Plants” is fun. I am almost never down for a quick turnaround political story on Radiolab. Thus, “The Curious Case” is exactly the reason why this is no longer one of my top tier podcasts.

Omnibus (week of Jan. 21, 2018)

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

24 reviews.

Literature, etc.

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

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

Music

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

Movies

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

Television

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnibus (week of Dec. 31, 2017)

Still not done La Belle Sauvage. I read like half of it in a day and haven’t picked it up since, because computer games. But not just any computer games. One of the best computer games I’ve played in a while. Also, I’ve barely listened to podcasts since November, so I had some catching up to do. This week’s podcast reviews are in clumps, since there were six or seven episodes of some shows that I had to get to. Read on.

Seven reviews.

Games

Night in the Woods — I was so hungover on New Year’s Day. It’s not something that happens to me much these days, but I woke up around noon and immediately decided (realized, really; I’m not sure it was a decision) that I would be spending the day drinking tea and playing computer games. Night in the Woods was the perfect thing to have on hand for an occasion like this. It is a largely mundane (not a pejorative) story of a 20-year-old woman named Mae who returns to her increasingly impoverished hometown after dropping out of college. (She is also an adorable cartoon cat. All of the characters in the game are cartoon animals, but this goes entirely unremarked upon throughout.) Something happened to Mae in college that she’s unwilling to talk about, even to herself. And she did something in high school that makes some of the people in this town inclined to keep her at arm’s length. Both of these things are sources of suspense in the game, and you’ll get no satisfaction on those counts until the bitter end. But — and here’s the bit where I part company with most of the reviews of this game, even the positive ones — the actual story of this game is a fairly minor part of why I love it. The slow start of Night in the Woods has been much remarked upon. The story doesn’t really get going in earnest until about halfway through. The first half of the game is basically a succession of days where you can guide Mae in her aimless explorations of the tiny industry town that isn’t quite like she remembers it. Fully half of the game is devoted to giving you time to discover the little details hidden away throughout the town and to develop relationships with major and minor characters alike. It’s like if half of Ocarina of Time took place in a bigger, constantly changing version of Kakariko Village. (In fact, it’s almost like Majora’s Mask, a big chunk of which takes place in a big, constantly changing town.) To me, this is ideal. At the best of times I play games at a languid pace. With a New Year’s Day hangover, doubly so. Here is a game that is specifically designed for that sort of gameplay. To illustrate specifically how much I loved exploring the nooks and crannies of this game: HowLongToBeat suggests that a “leisurely” playthrough of the main story of Night in the Woods should take about 10 hours. It took me 23. I played for about 10 hours on New Year’s Day, and I was just getting to the bit with a story. Honestly, I like that early part of the game better. Possum Springs, the game’s setting, is a beautifully realized little place, full of characters and details that feel intensely true to life. You could do a full playthrough of this game just focussing on finding all of the town’s history with industry and unions and that would be fascinating in itself. As I played Night in the Woods, I had a list of people that I made sure to check in with at every opportunity: Mr. Chazokov, your old high school teacher, now an amateur astronomer; Pastor Kate, a big-hearted social activist going to war with the town council; Lori, an alienated teenager you can take under your wing; and even vanishingly minor personalities like the dude who writes bad poems while fishing in the underground tunnel. With a setting as well-drawn as this one, the game almost doesn’t need a story at all. And the fact that the whole place feels like it’s crumbling under the weight of globalization, automation, and the waning power of unions makes these characters’ situations feel all the more resonant. Once the story proper begins, I’m inclined to think the game loses a bit of steam, but not much. For a game that draws the mundane details of life with such engaging clarity, it’s almost a disappointment to learn that there actually is something happening here. But, without spoiling anything, I’ll say that what’s happening does tie in satisfyingly to one of the game’s two thematic throughlines, which swirl around each other like a double helix. That’s the labour and poverty throughline. The other is depression throughline, which is handled with real finesse as well, though I’m tempted to feel it’s been overemphasized in the coverage of Night in the Woods. That could just be because it’s very much a theme that comes through in the game’s character elements, whereas I was much more engaged with it as an exploration of place. In any case, there’s a hell of a lot going on in this game, it has all the heart in the world, and I haven’t even talked about its incredible cast of supporting characters and writing that rivals the best in the industry. If I’d played it two days earlier, it would have booted Tacoma off my year-end list. Pick of the week.  

Television, etc.

Pretty Good — After putting together my year-end list, which involved at least an hour of getting sucked back into Jon Bois’s awesome mixed-media thing 17776, I went down a Jon Bois rabbit hole. Pretty Good is his series of 13 short documentaries (functionally 12, though, since one has been removed) about “stories that are pretty good.” Being a sports writer, most of them revolve around sports in some way, which is a thing I don’t know anything about or connect with. But like 17776, Bois’s sports-related short films are things you come to for the calibre of the storytelling rather than because you had a vested interest in the subject at hand. He’s one of the internet’s great storytellers, and he makes things that could only exist in an internet world because they are so much more detailed and niche than you could possibly get away with in broadcast media. This is a guy who is totally willing to spend several minutes on a parenthetical about the price of lawn chairs, which is not relevant to the story at hand. If it’s interesting, it finds its way in. Bois also has that rarest of things on YouTube: a distinctive personal aesthetic. Pretty Good makes use of footage from Google Earth, not just for functional story purposes, but also as a way to fill space. It doesn’t feel weird any more than it feels weird to hear glockenspiel in Bruce Springsteen songs. It’s just there because that’s what that guy does. The entire series is worth watching, but I specifically recommend three episodes: the one about Larry Walters’ flight over Los Angeles in a lawn chair suspended by helium weather balloons, the one about 24 as a sad American nightmare, and the one about the time Georgia Tech beat Cumberland in a football game with a score of 222 to nothing. This last one contains more stop-motion than I’ve ever seen in a video produced by only one person. It is also a very convincing psychological horror story that happens to be about a sporting event. Jon Bois’s projects are what I want the internet to be like. Bless SB Nation for letting him do whatever he wants.

Podcasts

Radiolab catch-up — Ah well, I guess I’ll keep listening to Radiolab. I caught up completely this week, and I was totally into the episodes they did where they answered listener questions. It almost seemed like a return to an earlier version of Radiolab where they managed to fit more than one story into an episode. I always liked that format for this show. Anyway. They’ve saved themselves from unsubscription.

Song by Song catch-up — This has really grown on me over the course of its journey through Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs. The secret is that they really need compelling guests to bring something new to the conversation. The episodes I listened to featured Eric Molinsky from the excellent Imaginary Worlds podcast and Jon Ronson, who wrote Lost at Sea, which is one of my favourite nonfiction collections. Hearing Molinsky talk about the notion of continuity in Waits’s catalogue and Ronson talk about what he (and Bruce Springsteen) meant to a kid who really wanted to get the hell out of Cardiff, really made me want to revisit some of these songs. And I did. And they’re great.

99% Invisible catch-up — I have at times become fatigued with the juggernauts of the podcast world (see esp. Radiolab), and this show is no exception. But it never takes long to convince me once again of why it’s awesome. The six episodes I listened to this week are all gems, especially the two about design in the movie industry. Roman Mars’s interview with Annie Atkins about her work designing things that may never be seen by the audience of a movie (and also the Mendl’s box from The Grand Budapest Hotel, which had a spelling error on it that needed to be corrected in post) is riveting stuff. But the best episode is actually a feature from The Organist, a podcast by McSweeney’s and KCRW that I am now subscribed to. It’s a story about the history of radio advertising, told by a veteran radio advertiser. It’s really something. You’ll never hear Jefferson Airplane the same way again once you hear Grace Slick hawking Levi jeans. Pick of the week.

Reply All catch-up — The last few episodes of this of the year are good fun. I always love their year-end wrap-ups, where they revisit stories and people from episodes gone by. And the Yes Yes No episode about Antifa, in which Alex Goldman tries to explain “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo” on the radio is really something.

Code Switch catch-up — I’m not quite caught up yet, but the live episode with Hari Kondabolu was awesome, and the one about Mary Hamilton, a civil rights activist who fought for the right to be addressed as “Miss” is a classic.

Omnibus (week of Dec. 24, 2017)

Hey there. If you’re on the homepage right now, you may or may not be able to see an in-progress version of my year end list. Ignore that. Very soon now, I will be publishing the complete one in its place. Meanwhile, a characteristically paltry Christmas selection of four reviews. As is traditional for weeks like this, the picks of the week go to two non-podcasts.

Television

Doctor Who: “Twice Upon A Time” — The Capaldi era, and more crucially the Moffat era, got a good send off. Nobody’s going to argue that “Twice Upon A Time” is Steven Moffat’s most brilliant Doctor Who story, or even in the top ten. But there is enough brilliance here to remind us that on the whole, Moffat’s Doctor Who has been epochal television. Moffat has spent his last stint on the show (series 10) rehashing the reasons why Doctor Who is great — not why his version of Doctor Who was great, mind, but why the show is an institution worth preserving. And why the Doctor is a character deserving of their iconic status. It hasn’t been his best run on the show, certainly. In general, I’m inclined to think Moffat peaked in series 8, save for the unspeakably brilliant two-part series 9 finale. These two series, plus the full run of Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor that preceded them, leave series 10 feeling a little bit like Goats Head Soup. But as victory laps go, series 10 did a lot right. It felt like a benediction from a version of the show that had naturally run its course. And “Twice Upon A Time” is the natural culmination of that. Moffat has always been in dialogue with the history of the series he’s helming. What more direct way is there to literalize that dialogue than to have the most recent Doctor be able to converse with the earliest version of himself? (David Bradley is to be commended for playing the First Doctor as a character, rather than simply imitating the tics and mannerisms of the late William Hartnell. He does what works for the story. So does Moffat, for that matter. Hartnell’s Doctor, and the writing for him, wouldn’t translate straightforwardly to modern television. Which is, of course, the source of much of the humour in the episode. Not all of that humour lands, but I’m quite fond of the moment when Bill shuts down the Doctor’s insistence that they simply ignore his former self’s racism and sexism. It feels like a tacit approval on Moffat’s part of the segment of fandom that insists on holding him to a high standard on this. Because his track record is less than perfect.) Aside from the premise of having Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor share the limelight with the First Doctor, the best and most Moffaty idea in this story is the way that the famous Christmas truce of 1914 factors into its resolution. Moffat’s previous Christmas specials have repurposed elements of the Christmas tradition ranging from A Christmas Carol (whose implicit time travel elements worked into Doctor Who to produce one of the show’s staggering masterpieces) to Santa Claus (meh). The Christmas truce is one of the most fitting Christmas stories to repurpose in this show. It is an illustration of humanity’s ability to be good and kind rather than simply vile and monstrous. This story’s denouement is striking because the Doctor doesn’t actually save Mark Gatiss’s captain by removing him from harm’s way: he simply adjusts the timeline a little so that he’d be saved by the mercy and goodness of humanity that managed to seep out even in a context of intense and senseless violence. It’s a brilliant summation of everything this show has come to stand for over its 50-plus years, and of the way it has come to articulate that worldview over the last seven. As for the future, I shan’t decide what my hopes are until I’ve seen Broadchurch. But the look on Jodie Whitaker’s face when she first sees her reflection is a thing of beautiful, childlike wonder. We’ve seen that look on many faces before: Patrick Troughton’s, Tom Baker’s, David Tennant’s… Wherever the show goes, story-wise, I’m enormously excited to get to know 13. “Twice Upon A Time” is a perfectly good episode of television, which represents the end of one of the greatest runs on any television show ever. I came to love Doctor Who because of Steven Moffat. Now I just love Doctor Who. Geronimo. Pick of the week.

Music

Björk: Utopia — I like parts of it. But for most of this album, I can’t help but feel a broad divide between what Björk and her co-producer Arca are doing in the music bed and what Björk is doing vocally. The lyrics are some of her most prosaic, and she phrases them semi-improvisationally over the music in a way that suggests melody wasn’t one a main priority during the writing process. This is fine, but it doesn’t make it easy. After the brilliant, raw directness of Vulnicura, this feels like a return to the weeds of Biophilia — but with mercifully less dubstep and more flutes. So, let’s call it a… B-minus?

Barbara Hannigan & Ludwig Orchestra: Crazy Girl Crazy — There are several levels of “why bother being this good” at play here. Barbara Hannigan could easily have settled for being merely one of the great sopranos of our time. But no: she has to also be a trailblazer for contemporary music, daring to learn the heretofore unlearned scores of composers who write vocal challenges few but her could rise to. This is the version of Hannigan that brought us last year’s best classical recording: let me tell you by Hans Abrahamsen. But even that isn’t enough for her. She’s also got to be a brilliant conductor. And since she can both conduct and sing, she clearly has to do them both at the same time. In music that’s crazy hard to begin with. Crazy Girl Crazy is Hannigan’s first disc as a conductor, and indeed her first disc as a conductor/singer. It contains a selection of music from the 20th century that all feels like it’s at the core of Hannigan. We get Luciano Berio’s Sequenza III, a piece for unaccompanied voice that shows off her crazy chops and her ability to inject drama into even the most potentially baffling scores. We get a new arrangement of music from Gershwin’s Girl Crazy that Hannigan leads and sings with Gershwin’s romanticism in mind as much as his jazz background. And sandwiched between them, we get a lush, romantic reading of Alban Berg’s beautiful Lulu Suite. Hannigan has been the soprano of choice for the role of Lulu for years now. Hearing her take on the orchestral music from that opera just confirms that she owns that piece as thoroughly as any musician owns any piece of music. The Ludwig Orchestra, a young ensemble that makes its recording debut here, plays skillfully, and with all of the intensity of an orchestra that’s not sick of making music yet. It’s a performance that makes you hope this orchestra and Hannigan have a long relationship ahead of them. It deserves the Grammy. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

Radiolab: “A Match Made in Marrow” — I got so behind on Radiolab that I almost considered using that as the out I’ve been looking for. This show isn’t what it was. But I started listening to this because it was the only thing downloaded on my phone, and goddamnit it’s pretty good. It’s the story of a very non-religious person becoming a Christlike saviour to a very religious persona and trying to reconcile this. I dunno. Maybe I’ll give them a few more episodes.

Omnibus (week of Oct. 29, 2017)

A rather sparsely populated instalment, this week. I’ve been out and about, and I’ve been to a few concerts I haven’t written about yet. There’s a big new music festival on in Vancouver and I’m taking in as much of it as I can. I’ll recap that here next weekend, and probably on North by Northwest as well. Look forward to some weird shit.

Meanwhile, there’s a new episode of Mark’s Great American Road Trip, and it’s one that I’ve been looking forward to people hearing since the day we mapped out the main story. It is several things at once, including a critique of the “white saviour” narrative, a Western, and a retelling of a classic folktale. But I’ll leave the explaining at that, because Nick would quite rightly prefer you to see it as a dumb comedy where trucks explode because internet.

13 reviews.

Live events

Roger Waters: Us + Them Tour, Rogers Arena, October 29, Vancouver — This was a great concert marred by an embarrassing incident midway though. I went to this Roger Waters show (my third) with a friend who shall remain anonymous because of the dishonest behaviour she and I exhibit in this story. This was the second of two dates Waters played at Rogers Arena, and it was nowhere close to a full house. So at intermission, we scarpered from our cramped upper bowl seats to a row of luxurious, unspoken-for seats on the opposite side of the lower bowl. We weren’t the only ones. The lower bowl was mysteriously much fuller throughout the second half. Anyway, the second half of this show starts with one of the coolest effects I’ve seen at any concert that isn’t The Wall. (I feel fine spoiling it since this was the last show of the tour.) Sirens wail, red lights flash, and an apparatus descends from the ceiling right over the middle of the crowd. Gradually, it extends itself upwards until it stands revealed as a set of screens in the familiar shape of the Battersea Power Station from the iconic Animals album cover, complete with diminutive inflatable pig. The band starts playing “Dogs.” “Dogs” is my third-favourite Pink Floyd song, after “Echoes” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” neither of which were on this program. Just as the cool ambient midsection was starting, we were approached by one of Rogers Arena’s discourteous miserable jobsworths and told to return to our original seats. (I’d had to shift places to accommodate some of my fellow cheaters, and I suppose it gave us away.) It took us the entire duration of the instrumental to return to our original seats, and the whole affair left a sour taste. I guess we got what we had coming, but about a hundred others didn’t. I have outlined this mostly because I feel like if we’d gotten away with it, I would be OVER THE MOON about this show, as opposed to merely satisfied. Consider it disclosure. The Us + Them tour is a response to the presidency of Donald Trump, delivered largely through the messages of two albums, released four decades apart from each other. One of these is Waters’ latest solo effort, Is This The Life We Really Want?, a not especially strong but very blatant album released earlier this year. The other is Animals, a classic Pink Floyd album that is 40 years old this year. Waters and co. play neither of these in their entirety, and indeed the critique of Trump bleeds through into songs from The Wall and The Dark Side of the Moon (from which the tour takes its name) as well. But that two-album axis makes up the thematic spine of the show. It’s worth pondering why Waters didn’t choose to just do all of Animals, rather than three quarters of it. I have a theory about this which is probably wrong: “Dogs” and “Pigs” are ferocious songs aimed at the powerful. You don’t need to do any twisting or mapping to relate them very straightforwardly to the politics of today. (And indeed the projections during these songs were the show’s most blatant — a double-edged sword in the case of “Pigs,” during which the illustrations of Trump veered into misogyny, transphobia, and fat shaming.) But the other centrepiece track of the album, “Sheep,” is more complicated. It is about the powerless masses, and it envisions a world where they overthrow their oppressors. The question is: who are the powerless masses in this scenario? I’m fairly sure that many of Trump’s voters would place themselves in that category, probably rightly in lots of cases. In in the 2016 election, they did enact a profound upheaval of the status quo — albeit an upheaval that has led to an ass-backwards, reactionary administration. Could it be that Waters sees this parallel between Trump’s base and the “demented avengers” of his song as well? I could see him not wanting to go there. That said, there’s a Trump-era reading of “Sheep” to be had in which it becomes a revenge fantasy — a bit of idle speculation about what could happen in America if wealth continues to buy power. I think something along those lines could have worked. And just think how affecting “Pigs on the Wing 2” would have been in the wake of that rendition of “Sheep”: “You know that I care what happens to you, and I know that you care for me too.” The new material did come off better in concert than on record, which I expected to be the case. But it’s a tough sell to put large chunks of an unfamiliar, middling record in a show largely consisting of massively acclaimed rock classics. This became a particular problem in the encore, during which Waters decided to do a song they hadn’t ever played before, in honour of the tour’s end: “Wait For Her,” which is actually three songs on the album: “Wait For Her,” “Oceans Apart” and “Part of Me Died.” It was nice to hear Waters talk a bit about what these songs mean to him and why he wanted to play them live at least once. But after the slog that was their nine-minute duration, even “Comfortably Numb” struggled to get the crowd’s energy back up. (Again, I’d likely be more charitable if I hadn’t been recently chastised for my seat swapping indiscretion.) But once lead guitarist Dave Kilminster cracked out his album-perfect rendition of the first solo (and a more freewheeling take on the extended second one), all was forgiven. The band in general is fantastic this time around, with Kilminster continuing to be a consummate pro at impersonating David Gilmour, and at knowing when’s the time to cut loose. And having both singers from Lucius as backing vocalists is frankly an embarrassment of riches. I was a bit worried at the outset of their rendition of “The Great Gig In The Sky,” which they started off singing in unison, but it turned out to be a highlight of a musically magnificent show. For all of its problems, the Us + Them tour has a vision and clear thematic raison d’etre, which is more than can be said of 2006’s Dark Side of the Moon tour — and much, much less than can be said of 2010’s fabulous, life-changing Wall. It is an often beautiful, completely unsubtle work of political performance art by a performer who has been the top name in that field for going on fifty years.

Music

The Beatles: Help! — I daresay this is the most underappreciated Beatles album. (There’s no such thing as an underappreciated Beatles album, but it’s relative.) I hear you yelling about With the Beatles, or Please Please Me. And while those are certainly a rung below this in terms of mass appreciation, I think it ought to be obvious to anybody that they’re much poorer. Listening to Help! this week, I realized for the first time how much of the human experience is reflected in these 12 originals and two covers. This is especially remarkable given that all but two of these songs are love songs, and one of those two is “Act Naturally,” which is essentially a love song by omission. The other is of course the title track, which, like many Beatles songs, seems less remarkable than it might if it were less familiar. Considering what a vast preponderance of early Beatles songs, and pop songs in general, are love songs, it’s remarkable in itself that John Lennon would think to compose a song about something else. (I suppose it has a precedent in “I’m A Loser,” but that’s got nothing on this.) Clearly, the ideas in this song were important to him. “Help!” is a song about realizing your need for other people — not a sexual or romantic need, but a general sense of requiring the presence of others for your wellbeing. This is by no means a radical insight on my part; the key virtue of Lennon’s lyrics is their straightforwardness. But once that song is over, we’re catapulted into a succession of 12 love songs and one song about Ringo being a sad, lonely movie star. (I love “Act Naturally.” I daresay it’s the band’s best ever use of Ringo’s thoroughly unremarkable pipes.) And on this listen, it still hit me as remarkably varied and insightful. These songs aren’t specific in the way that, say, Kate Bush songs or Gord Downie songs are. They broadly conform to the standard pop music rule that your listener should be able to map their own experiences onto the lyrics without stretching too much. But each song is specific to a particular facet of a universal experience. “I’ve Just Seen A Face” gives us maybe the best musical expression of the first blush of infatuation. “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” gives us the anguish of secret, unrequited love. “Another Girl” gives us a first-person, aggressor’s eye view of a callous breakup. And “Yesterday” treads on the most fertile territory of all: missing somebody. But what it contributes to the pool of ideas established by eminent forebears like “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and “I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)” is the conflation of a lost love with a lost moment in time. “Yesterday” isn’t a song about wanting a person back in your present-day life: it’s explicitly a song about wanting to go back to the point in time when you were together. It’s a subtle difference, but it gestures at a profound truth, which is that a single change in your life can make the difference between everything being fantastic and everything being awful. From the latter vantage point, it’s hard to conceive of a remedy, so we dream of time travel. I could go on. I like every song on this album and love most of them. George Harrison hasn’t come into his own as a songwriter yet, and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” only works in context. (After “Yesterday,” there’s nothing like a silly, happy ‘50s cover.) But the weaker moments are shallow troughs among some of the most satisfying pop music ever. Pick of the week.

Bon Iver: 22, A Million — I have nothing to add to my initial review of this, in which I enthused about it and chastised myself for misunderstanding the first two Bon Iver records (which I still have not revisited). But I’ll say this — I listened to it three times in one day this week. It’s been very autumn in Vancouver, lately. In the best way. Aside from the one day of torrential rain, it has been my favourite kind of weather: chilly, still, bracing. Walking around in that while listening to this was a highlight of my week. I keep having new favourite songs on it.

Television

The Chris Gethard Show: “Fight For The Fish” — Look, I’ve been busy. I can’t commit to anything that threatens to eat up my life nine hours at a stretch. Ergo, Chris Gethard. The longer I watched this episode, the more surprised I was to find I was still watching it. It is essentially a wrestling match, fought for the custody of Gethard’s fictional companion the human fish, who is actually just a guy in swimming goggles. Jon Hamm is there for some reason. It’s very strange, and definitely the episode of this show that treads most fully on the side of weird alt-comedy and there’s comparatively little space for Gethard’s humanity to shine through the weirdness. Chris Gethard is awesome, but I’m mixed on this show.

Podcasts

More Perfect: Three-episode catch-up — Specifically, “The Gun Show,” “The Heist” and “Enemy of Mankind.” The first of these is a history of readings of the second amendment, which is exactly the sort of summary that I’m sure puts a lot of people off this show, but the only thing I can tell you to do is listen and find out for yourself how interesting this stuff is. A member of the New York Times Podcast Club (an awesome Facebook group you should join if you’re a podcast geek) mentioned that it’s kind of wrong to talk about the Black Panthers’ role in gun rights as if it’s a forgotten story. Aside from that, it’s a good episode. “The Heist” is slight but fun: a follow up to this show’s crowning glory, “The Political Thicket,” in which we learn that most of Felix Frankfurter’s papers are missing from the National Library. “Enemy of Mankind” is already looking like this season’s equivalent of “The Political Thicket,” since its subject seems almost unapproachably broad at first. It is about the SCOTUS’s ability to decide cases from outside the United States’ borders. It deals with the history of human rights law, and also pirates. It’s a fantastic episode of radio and I’d recommend it as the second-most worthy starting point in this show. “The Political Thicket” is still their finest hour.

Nocturne: “Interloper” — An episode about a guy who likes trespassing. This is one of those things you should listen to if you’re in the mood for a slice of life, but not necessarily if you’re in the mood for a good story. “This is a thing that happens” is a perfectly okay raison d’etre for a podcast episode, but your mileage may vary.

Fresh Air: “Technology’s ‘Frightful Five’” — Okay, this interview was all well and good until Terry Gross and Farhad Manjoo start talking about the cameras he has running in his house all the time. Sure, Manjoo: you’re an insightful observer of the impact of big tech companies on modern life, BUT YOU’RE RAISING YOUR CHILDREN IN THE FUCKING PANOPTICON. Don’t do that! I’m not even exaggerating. At one point he’s like “I tell my son ‘don’t start a fight with your sister because I’ll know.’” Panopticon! Also, when Gross asks him actually why he does this, he says it’s because he doesn’t have time to spend with his kids, so he wants their childhood to be recorded somewhere. Gross is like “so, you aren’t raising your kids, but you still want to watch them grow up on TV sometime.” Which Manjoo seems to think is a bit uncharitable, but it’s also EXACTLY WHAT HE SAID. This is a hilarious, weird interview.

Radiolab: “Father K” & “Oliver Sacks: A Journey From Where to Where” — “Father K” is one of my least favourite episodes this show has ever done. It’s about a Christian Arab candidate for Brooklyn city council whose key strategic hurdle is convincing Muslim Arabs in the community that he will represent them in a way they’ve never been represented before, while also not alienating the white members of the constituency. It continually raises the false equivalency that by standing up for the politically underrepresented Arabs in his riding, he is doing the same thing as his white opponents are when they play to their base. Aside from that, it’s also just dull. The Oliver Sacks episode is nice, but still nothing special. I’m listening to Radiolab out of sheer inertia right now. The more time Jad spends on More Perfect, the better.

StartUp: “New Money” & “The Grand Challenge” — As I’m writing this, I don’t even remember what “New Money” was about. Oh right, cryptocurrency. Man, I’m looking forward to this getting back to a serialized format. “The Grand Challenge” is fun, though. I’m looking forward to hearing the next instalment of this two-parter on self-driving cars.

Love and Radio: “Photochemical” & “Murdertown, USA” — Two very Love and Radio episodes of Love and Radio. “Photochemical” begins with a remix of itself, and proceeds to tell the story of a person who is sexually attracted to photo booths. And “Murdertown, USA” is about a guy who collects stuff made by serial killers. If you want to know what this show does, these two episodes will tell you. They’re also quite good, though neither is a classic, by this show’s standards.

Theory of Everything: “Iron and Lies (Wisconsin part II)” & “Bad Science” — The second half of Benjamen Walker’s Wisconsin duology isn’t as good as the first (no Mathilde, this time), but it does meander through some fascinating American kitsch. “Bad Science” is a live episode featuring one of my favourite recurring characters in any podcast: Chris the fake Washington insider. Nice stuff.

The Combat Jack Show: “Return Of RZA & Mathematics” — I was always going to check this out, but figured I’d wait until somebody I know and love showed up. RZA it is. Combat Jack is a really good host and RZA and Mathematics are both fascinating individuals, but there’s a certain amount of lifestyle brand hokiness to the modern incarnation of the Wu-Tang Clan that comes out in this. Still worth a listen. Nobody else talks like RZA.

All Songs Considered: Two recent episodes — Specifically, the mix with MGMT and Courtney Barnett, and the feature on Margo Price. The mix has some great tunes, especially the track from A Ghost Story, which I haven’t seen. But I feel the need to check out Susanne Sundfør as well, because that album sounds like madness. And then we get Ann Powers interviewing Margo Price, which was always going to be a good time. Also: there’s a new Margo Price album! I, for one, am enthusiastic about this. Pick of the week.

Omnibus (week of Oct. 1, 2017)

So, I know y’all are here to read my compulsive ramblings about stuff that other people make, but I’ve recently got off my ass and made something myself. It’s a horror-tinged comedy podcast about a fictionalized version of Mark Zuckerberg, as he traverses all 50 states of America, trying to prevent A VERY BAD THING from happening to Facebook. It is called Mark’s Great American Road Trip, and you can learn more about it here and subscribe to it here.

I’m making this show with Nick Zarzycki, the creator of the tech satire site Gawken and the guy I used to make the Syrup Trap Pod Cast with. He writes, I make sound nice. We have been working on one version of this show or another for a stupidly long time, and I am very happy that it now exists. We’ve got some crazy storylines on deck for the first chunk of this show’s existence, and I really think it’s going to turn out to be one of the strangest and most specific fiction podcasts made thus far. If you think that might be up your street, subscribe. There’s an introduction and a full episode waiting for you in the feed right now. And if does turn out to be up your street, you’d be doing us a huge favour by rating and reviewing it in Apple Podcasts, and also singing its praises wherever praises can be heard.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled babble. It’s one of those instalments where neither pick of the week is a podcast because there are two much more deserving non-podcast choices. Also, there is a surprising amount of Rolling Stones music. 

30 reviews.

Movies

The Thing — This is a great movie to watch in a group. I actually haven’t ever seen it any other way. The last time I watched The Thing was at a double feature in my high school’s theatre. I remember that it underwhelmed me, probably only because we’d watched The Shining immediately before. I liked it a whole lot more this time around. The gore effects are very of their time, but that somehow doesn’t make them any less visceral. Also, having watched both Alien and Blade Runner recently, it’s pretty clear that this owes a massive debt to the former, and is at least on the same wavelength as the latter, which came out the same year. From Alien, it gets its premise of “people are trapped in an incredibly isolated place with a terrifying monster.” But it adds to that a story mechanic that defines Blade Runner, which is uncertainty about who is human and who isn’t. The Thing’s use of this mechanic for suspense more so than theme prefigures another Blade Runner-adjacent franchise: the modern Battlestar Galactica. If you combine the existential questioning of Blade Runner’s Replicants with the uncanniness and subterfuge of the Thing, you’ve basically arrived at Cylons. Definitely a classic.

Blade Runner — This was the second time I’ve watched this in the past few months, because the last time I was super tired and spaced out and couldn’t follow the story. I watched it like a gorgeous moving painting. This time I focussed more, because I’m super excited about the sequel. And it dawned on me, two viewings later than one might expect, that Blade Runner is one of the best movies ever made. Its visual style and production design is the real star — it is maybe the most distinct and immersive visual style in any movie that isn’t made by Terry Gilliam (and I suspect that Brazil owes a conscious debt to this). But the final cut of Blade Runner (presumably the best one) is also a beautifully subtle and assured piece of storytelling. The way the movie twins the stories of Rick Deckard and Roy Batty is a thing of beauty — both of them are essentially the heroes of their own simultaneously-occurring movies. Both of them are searching for something and both are forced to ponder the nature of humanity for different reasons. And that’s what makes their final rooftop confrontation, and Roy’s death, so meaningful. (Well, that and a truly remarkable performance from Rutger Hauer, who makes Roy quite possibly my favourite movie villain. His only competition is Albert Spica from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. But Michael Gambon makes no attempt to humanize that motherfucker.) The subtlety with which this cut of the movie implies that Deckard is a replicant is also masterful — the fact that the unicorn dream is never explicitly discussed is of course necessary for the plot, but it’s also admirably trusting of the audience to put two and two together. And Vangelis’s music is one of the glories of film scoring. It should feel dated but it doesn’t, because it doesn’t sound like anything else from this period that we can associate it with. It is specific to the hazy, dreamlike world of this movie. A couple of much-needed rewatches in the past couple months have me rethinking the list of my top ten movies that I’ve been carrying around in my head for the last few years. This may yet make the cut. Pick of the week.

Napoleon Dynamite — I spent Thanksgiving with some lovely friends who were aghast at my having never seen this movie. Frankly I’m surprised I hadn’t seen it also. My friends in high school were not so much people as collections of references from this movie. Of course, I didn’t know that then. Napoleon Dynamite is an unlikely hybrid of the first two Wes Anderson movies, except dumb. It takes its lowbrow hucksters plotline from Bottle Rocket and its high school redemption story from Rushmore. Its listless performances and static framing are straight from Anderson’s playbook. So are the characters’ senses of loss and alienation. But the similarities end there. Napoleon Dynamite is a shaggy, deeply weird movie whose jokes all give the uncanny feeling that they’re funny because they’re referencing something, except they’re not. Maybe that’s because I’ve lived the past thirteen years in a world where “Tina, you fat lard, come get some dinner” is a thing people say, and I am only now learning it’s from something. Still, the humour of this movie is extremely difficult to pin down and I don’t know if I liked it or not. I laughed. I can’t tell if I laughed in spite of myself or not.

Television

The Blue Planet: Episodes 1-3 — Firstly. Now that we’ve got that out of the way: The Blue Planet is extraordinary and fascinating, but what’s really remarkable is how far camera technology has come since 2001. This precedes the first Planet Earth, let alone its astonishing 2016 follow-up. And while it is beautiful, it is markedly less beautiful than either of those. I am beyond excited for Blue Planet II, which will be arriving in the next couple of months. I have no doubt that it will be even more astonishing than this is. All that said, this is pretty damn astonishing, and the episode about the deep sea is particularly great. The farther you get from the sun, the more fucked up the lifeforms on this planet get. The anglerfish in particular seems like the creation of a mad god. Without David Attenborough’s authoritative voiceover, the deep sea episode of this series would seem like David Lynch adapting H.P. Lovecraft. It’s awesome.

Literature, etc.

Anna Weiner: “The Millennial Walt Disney” — This week in “things that made me scream into a pillow,” a story about a young entrepreneur who is opening locations of a strange institution called “The Museum of Ice Cream,” which is neither a museum not an ice cream shop but a place you can go to take good Instagram pictures of yourself. I hate this about people my age. I hate it I hate it I hate it I hate it I hate it I hate it. This is apocalyptic craziness and you’d be best advised to read it the way you’d read a story by Thomas Ligotti. These are bad, bad times.

Stephen King: The Waste Lands — Before I actually picked up my first Stephen King novel a couple of months ago, I didn’t understand the appeal. This, after all, was the author of the Haunted Car Book, and also the Haunted Dog Book. If these premises put me off before, they no longer do. Because the one truly terrifying monster in the Dark Tower series thus far is… a pink monorail. Here is a man who can frighten with any set of tools. The Waste Lands is far and away my favourite Dark Tower novel so far, and probably one of the best adventure page-turners I’ve ever read. Where The Drawing of the Three was essentially a break from the story begun in The Gunslinger — a semi-contrived set of hoops to jump through that introduces some crucial new pieces to the board but doesn’t actually move them anywhere — The Waste Lands really sets our characters off on a journey. It’s the first time in the series where the size of the story is really evident. The Dark Tower is no longer dreamlike and free-associative, but driving and purposeful. And it arrives at this point without sacrificing any of its Wonderland-esque uncanniness. In fact, this volume establishes that the gunslinger’s world, which has famously “moved on,” is several orders of magnitude stranger and more diverse than we could previously have suspected. We only got glimpses of this world before: a desert and a bizarre technological ruin in The Gunslinger; a beach full of monsters in The Drawing of the Three. This book serves us up our first real glimpse of society in this world: a small town of gentle elderly folk, and a raving mad city of brutal killers, haunted by the ghosts of dead machines. The weird wrongness of the world King establishes here reminds me of the deep sea creatures in the nature documentaries I’ve been watching — you get the sense that the place itself, let alone everybody in it, has lost its mind. Without spoiling too much, there’s a moment somewhere in the book’s outstanding final hundred pages where one of its characters contemplates the aforementioned monstrous pink monorail and realizes what a crazy story he’s in. “Welcome to the fantasy version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Even Stephen King thinks this book is nuts. I love it. I’ve never read anything like it. Pick of the week.

Music

The Rolling Stones: Some Girls — The consensus best post-Exile Stones album is in my view better than many pre-Exile Stones albums. I daresay I’d put it ahead of Beggars Banquet. Far from being the sound of the Stones catching up with the times, Some Girls is the sound of the Stones imposing themselves on the times. Nobody’s going to mistake “Miss You” for a track by an actual disco artist, or “Shattered” for a song by a punk band. Because if there’s one thing the Rolling Stones cannot do, it is not sound like the Rolling Stones. Even when they’re cribbing bits from other musical idioms, they still play loose rock and roll, and that’s what makes this album great. It’s the sound of a band challenging themselves to do new things and rediscovering their own identity in the distance between their own idiom and others. I like that Ronnie Wood at least got to play on one classic Stones album. Because he’s a good guitarist with a distinctive sound, and he meshes with Keith Richards better than Mick Taylor, a better instrumentalist, ever did. I particularly love his solos on “Beast of Burden” and the little fills between lines of the title track. Wood’s defining contributions to the band will always be as a live player, since the vast bulk of the band’s classic material predates his time in the band. But Some Girls gives him material that’s worthy of him for the only time on a studio record. (Maybe I shouldn’t say that, since I haven’t actually heard Tattoo You. But judging by other latter-day Stones music I’ve heard, it seems like a safe generalization.) Favourite tracks: “Beast of Burden,” “When the Whip Comes Down,” “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).”

The Rolling Stones: The Rolling Stones — Ohhhh boy the 10-hour Rolling Stones mono box set is on Apple Music. We’re doing this. My enthusiasm for the Stones comes in waves. I’ve barely listened to them since my last period of intense obsession in grad school, and suddenly I want nothing more out of life than track after track of Mick yelping at me between squalls of loud guitar. I guess I just feel a real need for very analogue music in my life right now. I’m honestly not quite sure which among the pre-Aftermath Stones albums I’ve heard, but I’m certain I haven’t heard any of them more than once. Which is probably unfair to some of them, but this isn’t one. It’s the U.K. version of their debut record. (The U.S. version, titled England’s Newest Hit Makers, is not included in the mono box, presumably because it only contains one track that this doesn’t. “Not Fade Away” is thus relegated to a bonus disc at the end. Still, the box includes both versions of Aftermath, when the U.S. version of that also only has one unique track. Whatever the logic, what matters is that absolutely everything released in mono is here. My most compulsive self rejoices.) It’s amazing to think of how successful this was in its time, given that it has zero tracks that have become Rolling Stones classics. There’s an alternate history where they were also-rans. I imagine that as I progress through this set, it’ll become clear when specifically that alternate history became untenable. I suspect it’s somewhere around Out Of Our Heads, but it might be sooner. I think my favourite track is probably their rendition of “Route 66,” which features a close to fully-formed sounding Keith Richards, and which also emphasizes the interplay between him and Brian Jones that makes the early recordings so great, and that they wouldn’t attain again until Ronnie Wood joined the band. In general, it’s not a classic, but it’s good fun, and if it had one track as good as “Please Please Me” it might stand up to the Beatles debut. Also, it seems like a missed opportunity to put “Now I’ve Got A Witness” before “Can I Get a Witness” in the running order. A minor point.

The Rolling Stones: 12×5 — I don’t know if I think this is an improvement on the first album or not. It has more originals but at this point Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are not anywhere near as good at writing songs as the R&B songwriters they cover. That’s ultimately what separates early Beatles from early Stones: on the early Beatles albums, you kind of wait out the covers in anticipation of the next Lennon/McCartney track. The same can’t be said of Jagger/Richards. Not yet. I’ll keep you posted about when in my perusal of the Stones mono box set I first encounter a classic track. This one almost has one in “Time is on My Side,” but it isn’t the more familiar version. Soon. I’ll take “Under the Boardwalk” as my favourite track, because it cracks open the window to an alternate version of Mick Jagger who honed his voice around an ideal of sweetness rather than grit. His instrument contains both facets, but only one could emerge victorious.

The Rolling Stones: The Rolling Stones No. 2 — Ah! We have a classic track. It’s the second version of “Time is on My Side.” That guitar intro makes it. I’m not sure if it’s just that I’m really starting to get into this mid-sixties shuffley rock feel after three albums, but this sounds like the point where the band really starts to swagger. “Down the Road Apiece” is a fabulous boogie track with the fantastic Ian Stewart on piano. Probably my favourite deep cut so far in the catalogue. Also, hearing the band that hasn’t yet written “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” do a song called “I Can’t Be Satisfied” is delicious. I suppose this is bit of a rarity, given that 12×5 was the “second album” of choice for the CD releases. But this is superior (and, by and large, a totally different album) to its American counterpart, owing to songs that were recorded a few months after the latest track on 12×5, which was rushed out to the American market before the hometown crowd got their second LP. Okay. Now onto the American album that’s got most of these same songs. What a befuddling discography.

The Rolling Stones: The Rolling Stones, Now! — At some point during this marathon, we were always going to have to address Mick Jagger’s fake black blues singer voice. It is very distasteful and it comes out in more explicit form in these early recordings than it does in the late 60s and early 70s classics. The influence is still there at that point, but it’s just that: an influence, not an impression. The spoken intro to “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” is the second-most egregious example of this that I’ve taken note of, aside from in “Goin’ Home” from Aftermath. Anyway. This is basically The Rolling Stones No. 2, but a bit better because it’s got “Heart of Stone” and “Little Red Rooster.” By this time, the Jagger/Richards songwriting team is starting to seem like it might amount to something after all. It’s the first album to have two acknowledged Stones classics on it (those two). At this point, each successive release is becoming increasingly solid and consistent. This is very much a “we’re nearly there” album. Also, it’s hard not to do a double-take hearing Mick Jagger sing the line “here come old flat top” in 1965. (It’s a Chuck Berry song. There was a lawsuit. Berry and Lennon settled out of court.)

The Rolling Stones: Out of Our Heads (U.S. version) — Here we have the most gigantic leap forward in the Stones discography with the possible exception of Satanic Majesties to Beggars Banquet, which wasn’t so much a leap forward as a total refocus. At long last, the originals match the calibre of the covers — mostly because the covers can’t really reflect the changes in contemporary music of the time, whereas Jagger and Richards have definitely been listening to Dylan. The folk influence and the baroque pop of “Play With Fire” (my favourite song in the catalogue up to this point) point forward to Aftermath. And “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” spelled out the death knell for the skiffle-influenced lilting rock and roll that was once the British Invasion’s default feel. There’s not a hint of anything so effete as “swing” in “Satisfaction.” Four to the goddamn floor. I don’t actually like it very much, but when you hear it in the context of the Rolling Stones’ full early discography, there’s no denying it’s a watershed moment. There’ll be hints of that old shuffle feel straight through the catalogue, but “Satisfaction” is the moment when you can hear that this band will eventually do “Brown Sugar” and “Street Fighting Man.” This is such a good album that I’m actually super glad the next thing in this mono box is a different version of it.

The Rolling Stones: Out of Our Heads (U.K. version) — The American labels’ habit of putting more singles on the albums than the British ones didn’t do the Beatles any favours — it just demoted some of their great album cuts. But the American Stones albums up to this point are often better, if only because the inclusion of the singles amps up the ratio of originals to covers, which by this time is a good thing. This British version of Out of Our Heads starts and finishes stronger than its American counterpart, with a blistering cover of “She Said Yeah” and Mick Jagger’s thesis statement “I’m Free.” But it doesn’t have “Play With Fire,” “The Spider and the Fly” or “Satisfaction,” which makes it feel less like a transition to the Stones’ classic period than just more of the same. Also, I always get a kick out of that moment in “I’m Free” where Charlie Watts suddenly loses track of the beat. It’s such a weird moment to make it to record.

The Rolling Stones: December’s Children (And Everybody’s) — Wow, that’s a very 60s title. It’s almost shocking really, from a band who always presented as the slightly chilly, cynical gadflies who wouldn’t follow the hippie trends for the sake of it. (This notion will disintegrate when we get to Satanic Majesties, about which my feelings are complicated.) It’s a mixed bag, containing tracks from a span of two years, and it doesn’t even try to cohere. However, it does contain two hitherto unheard tracks that stand out: the slightly mawkish but irresistible “As Tears Go By,” and the tremendous bolt of energy that is “Get Off of My Cloud.” This latter track is in my view a new high bar for the band. I don’t see the appeal of “The Singer Not the Song,” frankly. A relatively inessential part of the Stones’ rise.

The Rolling Stones: Aftermath (U.K. version) — Here we fucking go. This is so astronomically better than any previous Stones album it’s almost hard to believe. Exile On Main Street is the Stones album that’s most famously exploratory and sprawling, but Aftermath almost feels like a very early rehearsal for that. It’s almost twice as long as Out Of Our Heads, and five times as diverse. Presumably, this is the album that earned Brian Jones his reputation as the band’s sonic explorer: his dulcimer, organ, and koto playing pulls the band at last into the mid-sixties. Plus, this is the first album with no covers. It is the album where the Rolling Stones cement themselves as creators of original music. Alas, it is also the album where they take up the mantle of “massively problematic cultural institution.” (It’s possible that these two phenomena are not unrelated.) Right off the bat, we get “Mother’s Little Helper,” which has a guitar sound the like of which hasn’t been heard from this band before, and a great riff too. Also, it is is both sexist and dismissive of mental illness. Next up is “Stupid Girl,” one of the album’s lesser tracks, so its misogyny isn’t quite so hard to reconcile. Then comes “Under My Thumb,” and we’re three for three in the “dodgy attitudes towards women” category. Even “Lady Jane” presents a shameless cad as a romantic figure — though this last example is richer and more complex than the others. Jagger often reads as a parody of lunkheaded chauvinism from a modern perspective. “Lady Jane” is an unlikely prototype for “Tumbling Dice” in this way. And while it seems unlikely that Jagger is in on his own joke, “Lady Jane” has a barely perceptible whiff of insincerity about it that shields it from being quite as retrograde as “Under My Thumb.” And it isn’t just sexism that rears its head on Aftermath: Jagger’s borderline minstrel show vocal performance in “Goin’ Home” is one of the most embarrassing moments on any classic album. But I’m going to stop this now. The problems on Aftermath should be obvious to anybody with half a brain, and they shouldn’t be glossed over. But they are large flaws on a wonderfully inventive near-masterpiece of a record that is essential listening for anybody remotely interested in 60s rock music. If “Out of Time” doesn’t give you a huge charge, I don’t think there’s any hope that you’ll ever like this band. This is also the point where I can finally comment knowledgeably about the quality of the mono remasters that I’ve been listening to so far, having spun the stereo iTunes master many times. In general, I prefer the mono mixes, as is the case with the Beatles and basically all other music from this period and prior. But there are certain instances where the stereo mixes’ very artificial separation of instruments between the two channels highlights details that fall by the wayside here. Specifically, I like the way the fuzz bass on “Flight 505” comes out in the stereo mix better. There are other minor examples, but I still think the mono is the way to hear these records. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the next few sound in this format.

The Rolling Stones: Aftermath (U.S. version) — I don’t know why this was even included in the mono box. The American version of Aftermath is confounding: eleven minutes shorter, and missing some of its British counterpart’s best tracks. (What is Aftermath without “Out of Time?”) The only track unique to this version is “Paint It, Black,” which is admittedly a much better opening than “Mother’s Little Helper.” I am always surprised at how effective that track is considering the extent of its overexposure. “Paint It, Black” is still haunting. It may be the Rolling Stones track that depends the least on whether you actually like the Rolling Stones. Certainly, I remember loving this song before I acquired the taste. “I see a red door and I want it painted black” is a line so far above Mick Jagger’s statistical average that I don’t even know what to think. This is one of those rare songs where he seems to have gotten outside of himself. It’s a relief to not be listening to him sing about his lack of respect for women. Plus, the arrangement is killer: the sitar is the obvious point of attention, but the seven-note guitar line that comes midway through each verse (e.g. after “I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes) is the touch that really makes it. Aside from “Paint It, Black,” though, this is a hatchet job of the British Aftermath. For one thing, eliminating “Out of Time,” “Take It Or Leave It,” “What to Do” and “Mother’s Little Helper” (a musically outstanding song, in spite of its problems) means that a greater percentage of the album’s running time is taken up by “Goin’ Home.” If you’re going to eliminate eleven minutes of Aftermath, it should be these eleven. On one hand, I admire the Stones and their record labels for committing to a track this long and this formless. It’s a statement of ambition. But listening to a group of not very distinguished musicians jamming on a half-baked blues tune is not fun. Anyway, this version of Aftermath is a weird experience I won’t partake in again.

The Rolling Stones: Between the Buttons (U.K. version) — I might actually like this better than Aftermath. It is less sprawling, less adventurous, and ultimately less important to the band’s development. But it’s charming in a way that other Stones records aren’t. This is the album where the band’s posh side comes out, and is immediately subjected to lacerating satire. “Cool, Calm & Collected” has a music hall element that is more familiar as part of the Beatles’ sound. But where Paul McCartney inhabits that music naturally, Mick Jagger creeps around its edges and only ironically sticks the occasional toe in. Same goes for “Something Happened to Me Yesterday,” a song I don’t entirely understand my own affection for. (Though it might have something to do with Keith Richards’ first lead vocal performance. He is my favourite Stone by a mile, so maybe it’s a Pavlovian response.) Here is a music hall song that is seemingly about a drug trip. What the hell is that about? Anyway, “She Smiled Sweetly” is one of my very favourite Rolling Stones songs, and this album is fantastic. I will say, this is the rare album that I actually prefer the American version of. “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together” are among the band’s best singles (and their singles during this art pop period are unassailable) and they fit in well on this album and give a hooky jolt. I miss “Back Street Girl” on that version of the album, but “Please Go Home” isn’t much of a loss. Still, should’ve been “Yesterday’s Papers” that got the chopping block. It’s the album’s least exciting song, and the fact that it opens the British version might be the primary strike against that version. Also, this is astronomically better in mono. The stereo mix of Between the Buttons is super hacky.

The Rolling Stones: Flowers — I’d never heard this collection of singles and oddments for the American market before. On one hand, it’s hard to understand the necessity of another American disc containing “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together” so soon after Between the Buttons brought those same two songs to the States. But that’s a bit moot, because I frankly like this collection of songs better than either of the primary albums associated with the Stones’ art pop phase. (Yes, even better than Aftermath.) If I were to recommend one album from prior to the Stones’ imperial phase, this might well be it. It has everything: gorgeous acoustic ballads (“Ruby Tuesday,” “Back Street Girl”), spirited rock and roll (“Let’s Spend the Night Together”), weird quasi-psychedelia (“Mother’s Little Helper,” and the marvellous single “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing In the Shadow?”), credible R&B (“Out of Time,” a half-decent cover of “My Girl”) and a pair of Aftermath outtakes that would have been album highlights (“Ride On, Baby” and “Sittin’ on a Fence”). These last two were both songs I’d never heard before, and “Sittin’ on a Fence” strikes me as one of the great hidden gems of the Stones catalogue. Flowers is the best collection of songs from my second-favourite phase in this band’s career (after the classic early 70s albums). If only it had “19th Nervous Breakdown.” A note on the mono: “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby” is one of the rare tracks that I prefer in stereo. The mono version is an indiscernible mass of noise. Stereo separation, even too much of it, does it good.

The Rolling Stones: Their Satanic Majesties Request — This is an album that I’d like to be able to mount a more spirited defence of than I’m actually going to. This is the moment in the Rolling Stones’ career where they did outright psychedelia for one album, then immediately reverted to gritty rock and roll. Frankly, I think psychedelia is a fundamentally better kind of music than gritty rock and roll, and I wish the Stones were better at it than they are. But I agree with this album’s harshest critics that this is a moment where it didn’t pay for the Stones to leave their lane. The incremental experimentation of the albums before this did wonders for them. Much later, their flirtation with modern styles on Some Girls would work as well. But this album finds the Stones fundamentally altering their way of doing things. This is a sound collage as much as an album of songs, and that is not something this band excels at. Still, I don’t understand the critics who see this as a post-Pepper bandwagon jump, because this album has as much to do with Sgt. Pepper as it does with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens. Where Pepper was meticulous, this is loose and jangly. I have a taxonomy of psychedelia that I personally find useful: psychedelic albums are either “Peppers” or “Pipers,” the latter category named for Pink Floyd’s debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Peppers are meticulous, fussy and colourful. Pipers are messy, experimental and spontaneous. This album is very much a Piper. Also, it has some classic songs on it. “She’s a Rainbow” is straight up one of my favourite Stones songs, and “The Lantern” features the arrival of the dirty, simplistic guitar fills that I love Keith Richards for. “2000 Man” is fun too. The rest of the album is deeply unconvincing, but worth a listen just because of what an anomaly it is.

John Congleton and the Nighty Nite: Until the Horror Goes — Turns out this is still awesome. I went so hot and cold on this last year that I remember having a small crisis about whether to put it on my year-end list at all. (I did, and placed it very high.) Sometimes I think it’s a bit adolescent in its worldview, i.e. nothing has meaning. But in a world as horrifying as the one we’re currently living in, it feels more comedic than it used to. I hereby renounce my reservations. This is one of the best albums of the decade.

Podcasts

Reply All: “Is That You, KD?” — After last week’s reported story, they deserve a Yes Yes No double-header. Hearing Alex Blumberg explain something to P.J. Vogt and Alex Goldman for a change is delightful.

On The Media: “After Vegas” & “More Human Than Human” — Brooke Gladstone’s post-crisis reality checks are always appreciated, and this week’s full episode touches on the Las Vegas shooting, country music, and Blade Runner. Terrible weeks are often good weeks to listen to On The Media.

The Daily: Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017 & Friday, Oct. 6, 2017 — I tuned in to catch up on Las Vegas and Harvey Weinstein. The world is bad.

The Outline World Dispatch: “Google’s algorithm & AI’s heritage” — This podcast is good for daily tech news. It’s also really wise not to try and compete with The Daily or NPR’s Up First (which I’ve never heard and don’t feel like I need to hear) by actually covering the major stories. I should listen more, and I may yet do so.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Battle of the Sexes and What’s Making Us Happy,” “The Princess Bride And Remembering Tom Petty” & “Blade Runner 2046” — Three fun episodes. I must say, the transition to a bi-weekly schedule has not at all blunted my love for this show, the dynamic of which is still the most amiable in the pop culture panel show space. The retrospective on The Princess Bride is especially strong.

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “Level Up” — This story about sound design in video games was something I wanted in my life at this specific moment, and it’s good fun. It’s particularly fun to hear the elements of a game’s soundscape isolated into foley, environments, voices and music.

The Gist: “Facebook’s Data Monopoly” — I will be reading Franklin Foer’s book as soon as I damn well can. This interview is a good companion to his piece in the Atlantic adapted from the book, because Mike Pesca asks challenging questions.

Radiolab: “Driverless Dilemma” — At the start of this episode, Jad apologizes for how over-the-top the sound design in the old episode they play is. I like that old version of Radiolab better, honestly. I wish they’d still do that sometimes. This is a quite terrifying update of a story about the trolley problem, in which it seems that self-driving cars will constantly be subjected to the trolley problem and will likely tend to sacrifice the life of the rider rather than the several potential victims outside of the car. Scary stuff, and good stuff too.

More Perfect: Season two, episodes 1-3 — I have consistently been enjoying More Perfect more than Radiolab for the last two years. This season’s opening salvo is powerful stuff, particularly in the second episode, which focusses on a terrible decision just before the Civil War that introduced legal language that continues to define the state of race relations in the United States to this day. Looking forward to more.

Fresh Air: “The Platinum Age of TV” — This interview with Fresh Air’s own TV critic David Bianculli is surprisingly personal, and very good. Bianculli has one of the great critic stories about why this medium means something to him. His mother died when he was very young, and in the worst stages of his illness, she took refuge in the rise of the Kennedys. When J.F.K. was assassinated, she was asleep. Bianculli’s father bade him to remove the TV from her room and take it into his. She couldn’t know the news until the whole family was there to help her deal with it. In the meantime, Bianculli watched news coverage of the Kennedy assassination in his room, alone. The power of this medium made itself clear very early in his life. This is lovely stuff.