Tag Archives: rush

Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 2, 2016)

Just a reminder that my Tumblr exists. Okay, that’s that.

23 reviews.

Television

Last Week Tonight: October 2, 2016 — This has the unfortunate distinction of being the first episode of Last Week Tonight that I’ve watched after reading this extremely on-point parody of this show’s writing and John Oliver’s delivery. Obviously, the fact that it’s possible to make a parody of something does not itself make that thing bad; it only means that it’s possible to identify the tropes at play. That could mean that the thing being parodied is hackneyed or cliché (there is a reason there are a lot of buddy cop parodies), but it could equally mean that the subject of the parody simply has a distinctive voice (the reason that Weird Al’s “Dare to be Stupid” is such a good parody is that Devo is a good band, and Al wrote a song that’s worthy of them). But sometimes a parody can make the scales fall from your eyes so you can see a thing as it is. I have always been effusively positive about this show, but the John Oliver parody I linked above points out the fact that many of the jokes on Last Week Tonight aren’t actually jokes: they’re just lists of funny-sounding words, strung together into long sentences, which are then made the object of a comparison with a serious real-world person or thing. For instance, in this episode, Oliver ends a list of places Donald Trump gets his news with “the racist minotaur that talks to him in the one hour that he sleeps every night.” Every part of that phrase except for “racist” is entirely unmotivated by the context. The only reason for the big laugh that follows is that the phrase “racist minotaur” is funny at first… but should it be? Also, the latest in Oliver’s running gag of “alternate names for the 2016 election” is as follows: “what did I do to deserve this I always tried to be a good person is this because I stole candy once in 4th grade PLEASE STOP PUNISHING US 2016,” which, elaborate though it is, is still just finding a new sequence of words to say “the election is bad.” Also, at one point Oliver compares Hillary Clinton to “an over-confident sloth who has just learned that their credit card information has been stolen by a Ukrainian schoolboy,” except actually no, he doesn’t, because that line was from the parody BUT THE VERY FACT THAT FOR A SECOND YOU KIND OF BELIEVED IT SAYS SOMETHING about how formulaic the jokes on this show can get. (See what I did there? Mmmhmm.) Let me be clear: I still like this show. But when Oliver emphasizes (like Jon Stewart before him) that he’s a comedian and not an opinion journalist, it seems a bit pathetic to me, because he’s clearly more valuable for his skills in the latter domain than the former. The most genuinely hilarious moments on this show are in the clips that he chooses. The simple act of recontextualizing patently ridiculous moments on TV news in a comedy show, implicitly giving us permission to laugh at them, is valuable comedy — though Oliver is clearly not the only game in town in that respect. But the next time I hear somebody extol the calibre of the joke writing on Last Week Tonight, I am 85% less likely to nod in agreement.

Doctor Who: “Full Circle” — According to a recent Doctor Who poll, the best story that I haven’t seen is “Warrior’s Gate.” So, I figured I should just check out the whole trilogy that it’s the concluding entry in. Wow, it has been a while since I watched classic Doctor Who, and I had forgotten how much it demands of a modern audience. This is very difficult to take on a number of levels, just in terms of televisual grammar. You don’t get reaction shots where it seems clear that there should be a reaction shot, characters routinely make exclamations that reiterate something that’s just been shown onscreen, and the less said about the rubber monster suits, the better. But it has its appeal. Obviously it does, or else I wouldn’t have spent so many hours of my life watching old Doctor Who serials, most of which suffer these exact same problems. Ultimately, I never get tired of stories that paint a picture of a unique alien civilization at a turning point. And they are always at a turning point, because the Doctor is an agent of change, and his unexpected arrival (along with the TARDIS, his companions, and most importantly a film crew and a TV audience) must by necessity result in the forward motion of the plot. This is no “Ribos Operation,” but it is a perfectly competent iteration of that story. Also, Adric. Ugh.

Movies

Going Clear — This is fascinating, surprising and appalling. Each of the ex-Scientologists interviewed here has a compelling story about how they finally left the church. One can critique the extent to which the former high-ranking Scientologists are allowed to get away with the fairly terrible things they took part in. But the villain of this piece is Scientology itself, and to a lesser extent, its current leader, David Miscavige. L. Ron Hubbard is rightly portrayed as unsympathetic, but he is at least portrayed as sincere, and not merely power hungry like Miscavige. Best of all is the way that the documentary subtly equates the act of leaving the church with the moment of “going clear,” which is Scientology bullshit for having worked through your psychological issues by way of religious practices. A really wonderful documentary that, like Lawrence Wright’s book upon which it is based, seeks first to understand Scientology and its practitioners and only begins its critique once it is clear that something is very wrong.

Games

The Last Door: Season Two (Collector’s Edition) — There are fewer truly horrifying moments in this than there were in the first season (mind you, even the latter three episodes of that struggled to match the roomful of crows moment in the game’s pilot episode), but all in all this is a stronger game than its predecessor. The biggest and most profitable change is the introduction of an overworld map to each episode, which makes the whole thing feel bigger, more open and more exploratory. The pleasure of traipsing about a larger area is a benefit in itself, but the real payoff of this approach is that the game’s horror mythos can expand outwards beyond our central cast of characters. Superstitious seamen are aware of strange things lurking out in the fog. Secluded islanders know how the human mind can bring forth very real monsters. On that note, the story’s influences expand from Poe and Lovecraft to also include The Wicker Man, which the third episode is an extremely straightforward homage to (but without the awkward musical numbers and tonal inconsistencies). And the final episode features a satisfying set of near-callbacks to the first season, which must have been especially thrilling to people who played it more than… three days prior. In a sense, The Last Door works as a dark mirror image of one of my all-time favourite games: Meg Jayanth’s 80 Days. Both are tributes to fantastical 19th-century literature (I still stand by my assertion that there’s more Poe in this than Lovecraft, though this season certainly amps up the Cthulhu factor), both examine the world at a time when scientific and medical advances were butting heads with superstition and religiosity, and of course both of them tell their stories through a simple graphical interface with good writing (though it must be said that The Last Door could have used another round of copy editing). I dunno what it is about 19th century pastiches that makes for good games, but keep them coming.

The Lost Mind of Dr. Brain — Every so often, I revisit a game from my youth for sheer nostalgia purposes — and not because I think it may have stood the test of time. My childhood was full of edutainment titles, and hoo boy is this ever a game that an overly conscientious parent gets for their kid. It has effectively no story, just a premise: Dr. Brain accidently transferred his brain into a rat and you have to get it back by solving logic puzzles. The rat does silly voices while you solve the logic puzzles. What’s astonishing is that there’s also a character who talks to you directly about the various intelligences you’re developing in solving the puzzles. There’s no attempt to mask the game’s educational objectives. Frankly, this seems like exactly the sort of thing that I would have loved at age six. What that says about the adult I grew into, I’m not sure.

Music

Rush: Hemispheres — Don’t you love that album in a great band’s discography that’s clearly awesome but you haven’t fully gotten to know it yet? This is certainly in my top three Rush albums, but I came to it late, so I haven’t played it nearly as many times as Permanent Waves or Moving Pictures. It is very much a sunset album: it’s the logical conclusion of what they started with 2112 and A Farewell to Kings, and they would soon head in a different direction. The switch they made on Permanent Waves, seemingly made as much out of exhaustion as artistic conviction, led to the best music of their career. But that fact does not negate the excellence of their final masterpiece in their previous idiom. Hemispheres is a prog album in the 1972 mould, and deserves a place just a few rungs below Close to the Edge in that genre’s pantheon. Specifics: “La Villa Strangiato” is particularly strong, of course, and contains career-best playing from Alex Lifeson, the group’s most undersung member. The mythos that underpins the title track is both fascinating and a little bit bogus, but it wouldn’t be Rush without that quality. And let’s not talk about the politics of “The Trees.” Mostly, let’s not talk about it because I’m still having trouble figuring out if there’s irony involved. Irony has never been Neil Peart’s first priority, and I’m not sure I trust him to deploy it expertly. There’s lots to chew over in this, but it is all accompanied by brilliantly thought-out music and incredible playing. It’s definitely worth a listen for anybody who knows Rush mostly through the singles.

Literature, etc.

Annie Correal: “Want to Work in 18 Miles of Books? First, the Quiz” — I love the idea of a book quiz being part of a hiring process at a bookstore. I love the idea of a bookstore with snooty curmudgeons stalking the aisles. I love the idea of short-term employment at a bookstore bequeathing “instant New Yorker” status on a newcomer. I suppose if I’m ever in NYC again, I should stop by the Strand.

Robert Sullivan: “The Hamilton Cult” — A truly wonderful and provocative essay in Harper’s that stops far short of “debunking” Hamilton, but uses historiography to contextualize it as an example of “Great Man” history. Sullivan argues that the historical Alexander Hamilton was a drastically different beast from the theatrical creation first portrayed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. That isn’t surprising in itself, of course. What is notable is the extent to which certain (non-Chernow) Hamilton biographers feel that what’s celebrated about Hamilton in Hamilton is a long way from what Hamilton himself would have considered his legacy. I think that this historically-minded bit of history (which, once again, does not suggest that Hamilton isn’t a great piece of theatre) combined with Aja Romano’s Vox feature that casts Hamilton as fanfic (thus putting a finer point on why the issues Sullivan raises are not actually problems) would make for the most compelling mini-bibliography of Hamilton criticism you could want.

Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine, vol. 4 “Rising Action” — The best volume of this extraordinary comic so far. Not sure it tops Phonogram volume 3 for the Gillen/McKelvie 2016 sweepstakes, but it brilliantly lives up to its title. It’s true that this has a proliferation of fight scenes that isn’t generally this comic’s speed, or mine, but it manages to pack in a tremendous density of plot, regardless. One particular staggering turning point near the end of this arc leaves me with absolutely no clue what’s going to happen next. But in spite of that development, I’m still wondering if WicDiv is gearing up to be a modern day Ring cycle, in which the era of gods comes to an end. If that is the case, we are clearly approaching Götterdämmerung with great speed. What that means for pop music and modern culture is anybody’s guess. Pick of the week. 

William Blake: Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion — Oh good god what is even happening who are these people is this guy just that guy by another name what is an emanation and why are all the people also places… Basically, I started reading a prophesy by a madman this week, and it is proving to be hard going. Will report back.

Podcasts

On the Media: “The Poverty Tour” — It takes more than facts and figures to properly debunk a myth that has become a mainstream narrative. It takes a rigorous interrogation of the means by which the myth was propagated in the first place. Enter Brooke Gladstone. This first instalment of a series on poverty myths focusses on a welfare advocate who has been fighting a losing battle with the media for decades. It feels like a framing device, which leads me to wonder how Gladstone will integrate and undermine media representation in the stories she tells about the impoverished in the coming weeks. I am very much looking forward to this. If it sticks the landing to the extent that I’m hoping it will, it will pair up with Bob Garfield’s various features on Trump to make On the Media the most clarifying current affairs program of this confounding year.

The Gist: “Who Called Off the Pretension Police?” — Funny, as always, but the main conversation is a bit disappointing. You may listen to this thinking that you’ll hear a thoughtful discussion of how pretension came to be socially accepted and, well, not pretentious. And it is a thoughtful discussion, but they never quite make it there, and I was left wondering how and why Pesca perceived a change at all. Skippable.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Magnificent Seven and Fleabag” — Oh man, I guess I need to watch Fleabag. When Glen Weldon recommends something this heartily, I know it will be worth a look. Aside from that, I’m already starting to miss Linda Holmes. I feel like maybe she wouldn’t have presided over a segment on The Magnificent Seven, about which there is comically little to say.

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist” Parts 6-8, plus Chaplin rerun — This continues to be outstanding, and Longworth did in fact outdo the excellent Dorothy Parker episode with her (functional) two-parter on Charlie Chaplin during wartime, and subsequently the blacklist era. I’d urge anybody who is on the fence about committing to this extremely long series to listen to the Chaplin episodes first. They don’t require a huge amount of background knowledge, and they’re a more fascinating way in than the first two episodes of this, which are a bit slow by comparison to what comes next. But, you’ve got to take time setting up the pieces in a game this complex. The Reagan episode is fascinating too, and portrays him as essentially two-faced during this period, maintaining a public face of political balance while naming names to the FBI behind closed doors. Marvellous.

The West Wing Weekly: “In Excelsis Deo (with Richard Schiff)” & “Memorial Day Special (with Melissa Fitzgerald)” — Okay, I see the point of this now. It is still definitely for fans of The West Wing, but it’s also about acting in general, and about public service. Richard Schiff’s episode is one of the best conversations I’ve heard on a podcast in a long time. He gets choked up a couple of times when the emotions from the run of the show come flooding back. You realize that he’s immensely committed as an actor — not in the bullshit methody way, but in the sense that he really takes the job seriously, so much that he always wants to be actively involved in finessing the scripts and the finished product. It made me want to go back and watch “In Excelsis Deo” again. I might just. And the episode with Melissa Fitzgerald is a nice tag. The fact that she went from being on The West Wing to being in public service herself gives her a unique perspective on this episode. This is really great stuff and I will certainly listen to more.

Reply All: “Very Quickly to the Drill” — One of the best episodes of this show, maybe ever. The depth of Google AdWords scamming is both unsurprising and totally fascinating. The highlights of this episode are the two more detailed stories near the end, which mirror each other in terms of intentions. On the dark, awful side of the mirror, there are locksmiths. Shady, horrible scamming locksmiths whose scheme has become so prevalent that it has essentially split into cartels. On the other side, there is an international organization that claims it can find your lost wedding ring, and while it has every red flag associated with a horrible scam, it isn’t one. This is great.

StartUp: “Introducing Season 4” — I am very excited for the next Gimlet-focussed episode of this show. I’m surprised to hear that tape off the top of this trailer that says that listeners have plateaued in recent months. I think Gimlet’s shows have been great lately. Science Vs and Heavyweight are both great additions. And StartUp itself looks like it might be back to the standards of its first two seasons (yeah, I liked the Dating Ring season a lot) pretty soon. Relax, Gimlet! You are fine.

In the Dark: Episodes 1-4 — I am a sucker for that moment in serialized documentary storytelling where a huge development in a seemingly cold story changes everything, right in the middle of the reporting process. (Think of the final episode of The Jinx.) In this show, it happens between the trailer and episode one. Providence got us off to a good start. Knowing from the outset who the guilty party is allows host Madeleine Baran to focus specifically on how law enforcement got the case of Jacob Wetterling’s abduction so completely wrong. On the other hand, I kind of wish we got to hear the show that she’d been intending to make before the big revelation happened. I wonder how much would have changed. Still, it’s probably only me who obsesses that much over how the telling of a story affects the story itself (I’ve been listening to Hamilton too much, and also watching Doctor Who). This is compelling true crime, very much in the vein of Serial season one, but without its obsessive attention to tiny details (again, mitigated by the fact that the case is closed) and presumably with a proper ending. I’ve got to say, serialized true crime isn’t really where my head’s at right now, so this hasn’t been the thing I look forward to most in my feed. But it’s quality reporting on a story that seems to have had a huge impact on how abductions are handled. When Baran gets to the part about the national consequences, I expect my attention to be more thoroughly peaked.

Science Vs: “Zika” — This taught me some stuff I didn’t know, but I definitely like this show better when it chooses topics where the science is relatively definitive. A substantial part of the value of this show is its ability to take a simple statement and say TRUE or FALSE. Since the science is still very much in progress regarding the spread of Zika, this is less compelling than the episodes about guns or organic food.

Love and Radio: “A Girl of Ivory” — One of the things I like best about this extraordinary show is the extent to which it is more interested in understanding people than critiquing them. I have written before about how the structure of Love and Radio implicitly empowers its subjects by letting virtually the whole story be governed by their perspective. This episode employs a truly clever little bait and switch that benefits greatly from familiarity with that structure. You hear three people talking, and you know that the story is building up to something because for the first several minutes of the podcast, there’s no conflict. But, you can’t know what the twist is going to be, because there’s no narrator to ramp up the tension, as would be normal in most similar narratives. The moment when the penny drops is quite staggering and left me wearing a wide-eyed expression of shock for about half of my morning run. Also, regarding the title: it appears to be a reference to the old myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, in which a sculptor creates a woman out of stone and falls in love with her. Bearing that myth in mind while listening to this will lift several of its subtler themes into starter relief. Brilliant. A corker of a start to the season. Pick of the week. 

The Memory Palace “Canali” — Nate DiMeo returns to space! This is a nice one, not a great one. But the story that DiMeo tells here is compelling in itself. For a substantial chunk of time, the world thought there were canals on Mars. DiMeo puts a face on that conviction by focussing his story on the man who was most responsible for researching those canals, which don’t exist.

Code Switch: “Who is a Good Immigrant, Anyway?” — A nuanced trio of pieces on the movement to change the face of the pro-immigration movement. It makes a compelling case that even America’s centre-left politicians have got this one wrong: not all felons deserve to be barred from the country for good.

The Heart: “My Everything, My Bear” — The Diaries season has been less hard-hitting than much of what The Heart has done, but this is one to go out on. It’s a story of two genderqueer people and how the dramatically different way that the world looks at them affects their relationship. It’s the kind of story that The Heart does really well, and that no other show in mainstream podcasting would ever do. It’s why The Heart is essential.

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Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 27)

My best of 2015 list will be ready by, oh let’s say the end of January. That’ll give me time to finish Three Moments of an Explosion and see Star Wars. In the meantime, I took advantage of the holidays to take in all sorts of fun stuff. And since podcasts make up a comparatively small amount of it, I’ve taken the liberty of awarding my picks of the week to two non-podcasts. Here are this week’s 27 reviews.

Television

Doctor Who: “The Husbands of River Song” — Well. In two consecutive episodes, my two favourite supporting characters in Doctor Who get marvellous sendoffs. The comedy in this plays wonderfully, but it’s the character drama between the Doctor and River that really sells this. That scene at the dinner table midway through really got me, though I’m not sure if it was the script and performances or just Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll playing in the background. Even if the resolution is a bit of a deus ex meteors and everybody ends up a bit in meteors res, it’s still a delightful romp. My only regret is that this is the first and last time we’ll see Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston in these roles together. Because they are every bit the pair that Kingston and Matt Smith were. Lovely.

Deadwood: Season 1, episodes 11-12 — Firstly, I’ve really been enjoying Todd VanDerWerff’s essays on Deadwood from his days at the AV Club. In spite of being bundled up into sets of three episodes, they’re among his best writing: up there with his Sopranos reviews and the few seasons of Mad Men that he covered. Anyway, these last two episodes of Deadwood’s first season are outstanding. If the second season keeps the pace of these last three episodes, I’ll be a happy viewer. But I’m going to take a break from this before diving into that season, to watch Mildred Pierce as part of an ongoing Todd Haynes pilgrimage. But I’m really looking forward to seeing how the second season manages to be more acclaimed than the first.

QI: “Merriment” — Bill Bailey is dressed like Paul McCartney on the Sgt. Pepper’s cover!

The Graham Norton Show: “David Beckham, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega & Kylie Minogue” — I could not love Carrie Fisher more. Also, why don’t more late night talk shows have multiple guests at once? Not many shows could give us David Beckham and John Boyega fighting with toy lightsabers and narrowly missing Kylie Minogue’s head.

Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee: “President Barack Obama” — Certain parts of this are a bit stagey, as you’d expect. But I’m always quite impressed by Obama’s ability to play himself in stuff. Really, though, you should watch this to see a president in a frame of mind where he doesn’t feel the need to pitch messages all the time. It’s not the Marc Maron interview, but it’s in the same vein and it’s got some funny moments.

Doctor Who: “The Eleventh Hour” — This was the first piece of media I consumed in 2016. It’s a great start, really. To my year, and to the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who. By the end of this episode, any attentive viewer has Moffat’s game pegged, at least on a metafictional level: Amy is introduced as a diegetic insert of a Doctor Who fan, so we can assume even at this point that her story will be about what it means to love Doctor Who. As fresh starts go, this is one of the greats.

Sherlock: “The Abominable Bride” — And so would this be, if it hadn’t turned out to be something else entirely. I shall say no more, because spoilers. I will say this: I love that Benedict Cumberbatch plays a substantially different Sherlock in Victorian garb than he does in the modern stories. The other characters in Sherlock have always been fairly consistent with their portrayals in Conan Doyle. But the moody sociopathy of Cumberbatch’s modern Holmes is straight out of contemporary anti-hero television. It was a canny choice by Cumberbatch (and by Moffat and Gatiss) to strip back that element of his character and allow this Holmes to be the dour Victorian eccentric that he started off as. I had as much fun watching this as I’ve ever had watching Sherlock, no doubt partially because Moffat and Gatiss write Victorian witticisms with spectacular aplomb. But somehow, I’m left wondering if the fun that I had actually reflects the quality of the episode. There’s a sort of messy gratuitousness to this that almost matches that insane wedding episode from the last season. Still, there are enough bon mots and meta-critiques in this that I remain quite positively disposed to it.

Music

Frank Sinatra: Nothing But The Best — This is a compilation of Sinatra’s best singles for Reprise, which is not where he did his best work. His earlier Capitol recordings are the real reason he’s a legend. But still, there something about this more relaxed version of Sinatra that’s just better for putting on and pottering about doing other things. You can’t do that with In The Wee Small Hours, because it’ll make you cry all over your laundry.

Hawkwind: Hall of the Mountain Grill — I’ve never actually gotten around to listening to a full Hawkwind album, but the recent death of Lemmy seemed like it necessitated a spin of this. It took me back to a time when I was discovering music like this regularly. In spite of never having heard it, this fits right into the established grooves in my brain. “You’d Better Believe It” is a serious jam. More Hawkwind to follow, probably.

Caroline Shaw/Roomful of Teeth: Partita for 8 Voices — There’s something about vocal music that has the capacity to inspire sheer, giddy joy more easily than other idioms. I’d heard the Passacaglia from this spectacular piece many times, but I figured it was time I checked out the other three movements. They’re playful and emotive and hold the hell out of your attention. Roomful of Teeth is a vocal ensemble unlike any other and Shaw, being a member, knows what they’re capable of. She takes full advantage of the group’s technical capacities to the point where listening to the music becomes both an emotional experience and something like watching a really impressive high-wire act. A Pulitzer is not praise enough. Pick of the week.

Lou Harrison/Dennis Russell Davies et al: Symphony No. 3 & Grand Duo for Violin and Piano — Why Lou Harrison’s music isn’t at the centre of the repertory by this point is a mystery to me. His third symphony is one of the loveliest and most accessible pieces from late 20th-century America. If the classical music world made sense, conductors would be scrambling to put out full Harrison cycles rather than more goddamned Mozart.

Rush: Grace Under Pressure — I tend to make a lot of the first music I listen to in a given year. This time, I finished 2015 off with what was once the first side of this (with “Headlong Flight” thrown in for good measure — the perfect song to end a great year). On the walk home after midnight, side two rang in 2016. Given that this is one of the darkest Rush albums, I’m choosing to interpret my choice as a cautionary tale: I’d best not initiate any nuclear wars this year.

Rush: Permanent Waves — A perennial favourite. I love Permanent Waves so much that I have trouble listening to any other Rush album without immediately following it up with this.

The Chemical Brothers: Surrender — This really feels like Daft Punk in places. Which certainly isn’t a bad thing, but given the choice between psychedelia throwbacks (more prominent on both Dig Your Own Hole and Further) and French house, I’ll go with the former every time. “The Sunshine Underground” is a jam, though.

Literature, etc.

David Cavanagh: Good Night and Good Riddance — Finished! God, I loved this. Maybe it ended a little abruptly, but it’s such a minor problem in the face of everything that comes before that I don’t actually care at all. More shall be said about this in my year-end list, I’m sure. (Fated to be more of a “year-beginning list,” it would seem.)

China Miéville: “The Dusty Hat” — Do you ever read something, or see something that you don’t understand and that makes you like it more? It sort of pulls you in by its sheer incomprehensibility? That doesn’t happen to me all that much, but when it does, the thing in question often becomes an all-time favourite. It happened with Mulholland Drive, At Swim-Two-Birds, Trout Mask Replica, and a bunch more I’m forgetting. On first read, “The Dusty Hat” is very much like those things were. It has far and away the most adventurous and best prose of the stories in Three Moments of an Explosion so far and is immensely imaginative in its details. (A particular favourite: “I was glad I didn’t have a cat or a dog because I thought they’d die from being in the room with him.”) Overall, I kind of don’t know what even happened in this story. But I definitely enjoyed it more than any of the others in this collection, with the possible exception of “The Buzzard’s Egg” — which was immediately comprehensible and thus in a strange way less promising. If I remember, I plan to read this again right when I finish the book. Pick of the week.

China Miéville: “Escapee” — One of the pleasures of Three Moments of an Explosion is these little tiny stories of fewer than five pages, which often follow the larger stories like “The Dusty Hat.” This one’s an outline for a movie trailer — the second one of those in the book — for a movie about a man with a large hook embedded in his back. I actually wouldn’t mind seeing that movie, provided it were written by Miéville and directed by Robert Rodriguez.

Movies

Captain Phillips — My impression from the reviews was that this was only okay and mostly notable for being super Oscary and having a great performance by Barkhad Abdi. Both of those things are true, but I thought this was terrific overall. Paul Greengrass is a meat and potatoes director, who just gets out of the way of the story. That approach makes this totally gripping. The screenplay flags in scenes that aren’t ruthlessly procedural and full of people making decisions, i.e. the very beginning of the movie, where we meet Phillips’s family, and the quick pep talk he gives to his crew about a half-hour in. It would have been a better film with those two scenes removed altogether. But once the action starts, there are no weak points. Near the end of the movie, Tom Hanks’s performance is so good that I almost understand why he’s so esteemed.

The Hunting Ground — I watched this at a New Year’s Eve gathering. Yeah, I say “gathering” advisedly, because this is not a documentary you watch at a “party.” It is appalling, and not especially surprising to anybody who pays attention to these things. It is worth seeing. There are moments in this where a simple fact will appear onscreen as an intertitle, with seven or eight studies cited as sources for that fact. Those moments are surprisingly powerful, and bolster the personal narratives related by survivors of campus sexual assault, which are really difficult to take.

Vertigo — Yeah, I’d never seen Vertigo. It’s great, obviously. Maybe a little dated. It has a particular sort of expository writing that you don’t see much of anymore. Plus, Jimmy Stewart is definitely an actor from the 50s. And his character is probably the most conspicuous private eye in cinema history. Seriously dude, there’s no way she doesn’t see you there behind that pillar. It’s stuff like that that kept me at arm’s length, a bit. I suppose you’ve got to approach these old masterpieces on their own terms, but there are plenty of movies older than this that I find completely fresh and immediate even today: The General, Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, Sunset, tons more. On first viewing, the fact that this has now surpassed Kane in the estimation of the world’s critics (as per the last Sight and Sound poll) seems totally ridiculous to me. But I certainly wouldn’t argue with anybody who claims that Bernard Hermann’s score is the best in film history. Favourite line: “I’ve been right here all the time putting olive oil on my rubber plant leaves.”

Games

Undertale — Okay. So, if my last note on this made it seem like I’d finished the game… I hadn’t. I assumed I was close enough that I could basically offer a final assessment, but at the very last minute, Undertale turns into something dramatically different from and stranger that what it sets you up to think it is. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that the ending of Undertale is a complex metafiction of the sort that never fails to pull me in. I’ve seen these themes explored more effectively in other games (to say which ones would almost be a spoiler), but this is going to stick with me for a bit. Last week, I had this pegged as “worthwhile.” Now, I daresay it’s closer to essential. I had it pegged for a pick of the week until I got blown away by “The Dusty Hat.” Interestingly, they’re both things I don’t entirely understand.

Kairo — There are basically two things I’m looking for in a video game: a great story, and/or an interesting world that I can explore freely. If a game doesn’t have at least one of those things, I’m unlikely to be that interested. Steam has been recommending Kairo to me for ages, but I’ve been hesitant because it seemed like a game with no discernable story and a very minimal sort of environment with lots of puzzles. (I’m queasy about puzzles.) But it was on sale for a dollar this week, so why not. Turns out, it’s kind of the platonic ideal of a game. By that, I don’t mean that I’m blown away. More “pleasantly satisfied,” really. But you could easily point to Kairo to demonstrate what’s valuable about video games, and why they’re unique from every other medium. Kairo has nothing in it that could be done in a movie or a novel or a radio play. It’s purely the experience of “play” that makes up the content of Kairo. You explore and interact with your surroundings, and if you see something that suggests a story might have taken place here at some point (and you do) you can certainly surmise about it, but you’re not actually part of it. Kairo doesn’t require narrative conventions to make you feel stuff. Instead, it keeps a firm hold on its pacing and mood to make you feel by turns placid, proud and creeped out. Considering that it’s the most abstract game I’ve ever played aside from possibly Tetris (or SPL-T, I guess), it’s enormously effective. If you like this sort of thing, grab it while it’s still a dollar and spend a pleasant afternoon.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 1 — Yeah, there’ll be more games than usual in the near future, since I can’t control myself during the Steam holiday sale. I’ve been meaning to play this for ages, but I’ve been waiting for the much-delayed Acts 4 and 5 to come out so I can down it in one big gulp. But then, you know, Steam sale. Kentucky Route Zero is the kind of game that I’m obviously going to like, in exactly the way that Kairo wasn’t that. It’s text-based to the point that it’s basically a Twine story with graphics — gorgeous, moody graphics. It’s mysterious and uncanny without being outright scary (which will almost certainly make it more preoccupyingly frightening to me in the end). And it wears its structural gimmicks on its sleeve. This was made for me. My favourite moment so far was something I stumbled upon by accident: an area where you can’t actually do anything except watch two men push a broken airplane down a road. It’s like something out of Beckett. Seems to bear no relation to anything, but it’s been sticking with me. I can tell already that this is going to be one of those games where the actual gameplay is only half of the interactive experience and the other half is trying to work out what the hell it all means. To be fair, we shouldn’t hold a game in higher esteem for being this way: this is a kind of interaction that comes attached to every medium. There’s a quote I heard once but can’t quite place — I think it might be Hitchcock — something like “the most important act in a movie is the fourth one, where you’re talking about it on the drive home from the cinema.” In that sense, all fiction is interactive fiction, Kentucky Route Zero is not significantly more interactive than Vertigo, and is thus fundamentally different from Kairo. I don’t know where this game is going. But I’m super excited about it.

Podcasts

Mortified: “Boys DO Cry (w/ special guest CHVRCHES)” — It was the “special guest CHVRCHES” bit that sold me, but the two stories of sensitive teenage boyhood are worth the price of admission. (What a strange expression to use about a free podcast. Never mind, I’m done with this.)

99% Invisible: “Bone Music” — In the Soviet Union, western pop records were bootlegged on exposed x-rays. They sound ghostly and ethereal. This podcast tells the story (which includes an interview with Nikita Khrushchev’s son) and also plays sound from some of the records. It’s produced in collaboration with the Kitchen Sisters. So basically, everything about this makes it worth a listen.

Serial: “Escaping” — The first really interesting episode of this season. And, it’s interesting because of the tape of Beau telling his own story. Looks like we’ll have less of Koenig explaining stuff from here on out, which in general is a good thing.

Radiolab: “The Fix” — Stories about addiction can get a bit heavy, and Radiolab can sometimes take heavy stories and make them oppressively bleak. But this isn’t like that. It’s interested in the personal stories of addicts, but it’s more interested in the story of how our perception of addiction has prevented us from taking known medical steps that can help some addicts recover.

A breakdown of the Rush 40th anniversary tour setlist

I saw Rush in Vancouver on Friday night and it one of the best concerts I have ever seen. Like, top three, at least. Unlike most of my favourite bands from the 70s, Rush’s live gigs have actually improved as they’ve aged. I should say: I’m making that judgement purely on the basis of live albums and concert films. Being a Rush superfan of a younger vintage, this was my first time seeing them live. And since it looks like it may also be my last, I figured I’d recap the setlist and work out exactly how close my one Rush live experience came to being the Platonic ideal of a Rush concert.

I suppose a spoiler warning would be apropos? I mean, I’m sure they switch out songs from their setlist, but if you’re seeing Rush later in the tour and you want the entire conceit of the concert to be a surprise (evidently you haven’t read the big Rolling Stone feature — do that), maybe don’t read on.

The premise of the R40 show is that the band moves backwards in time, from their most recent album to their 1975 debut, choosing at least one song from the majority of their albums. As they play, a crew of technicians constantly changes the sets behind them to reflect the looks of Rush stage shows through the years — from the dryers of recent tours, to the Marshall stacks of the 70s, to the single amplifier on a chair of their high school dance band days.

It’s an openly nostalgic approach, suitable to a big farewell tour. But, the fact that they have the guts to start their set with a bunch of new songs showcases how much more rocket sauce they’ve got than most of their contemporaries. To wit, let’s take this album by album. The following is based on the setlist at the Vancouver concert I attended, on July 17, 2015.

2012: Clockwork Angels

Rush_Clockwork_Angels_artwork

My take: As far as I’m concerned, Clockwork Angels is a better album than 2112. As we’ll see, that’s partly a matter of me just not liking 2112 that much, but also: Clockwork Angels is very, very strong. If we accept that bands in their fourth decade of existence should be allowed to just make the kind of music that they make, even if it is somewhat anachronistic (pun?), then we can’t ask for better than this. A near masterpiece.
The R40 selections: “The Anarchist,” followed by “Headlong Flight” with a brief drum solo
My picks: I would have started the set with “Headlong Flight” instead of “The Anarchist.” Sure, it doesn’t have a crushing riff right off the top, but it’s a far better song — one of Rush’s best ever. Plus, there’s poetry to starting your 40th anniversary set with a song that’s centred around the line “I wish that I could live it all again,” then proceeding to travel backwards through your catalogue. My second pick would have been “The Garden,” though it would have been weird at this point in the setlist. Basically, well played.

2007: Snakes and Arrows

Snakes and arrows

My take: It’s uneven, but there’s a lot to like. I can’t say I listen to it much. In retrospect, it seems like an early indication that Rush was still a band capable of making an album as good as Clockwork Angels turned out to be. In itself, though, it’s nothing earthshaking.
The R40 selections: “Far Cry” and “The Main Monkey Business”
My picks: They could have left it at “Far Cry.” My second choice from this album would have been “The Way the Wind Blows,” but one track would have cut it. Still, can’t say I was bored.

2002: Vapor Trails

album_vapor_front-600x600

My take: Not a favourite. I admire it more for its emblematic status as Rush’s comeback record after their tragedy-induced hiatus than for its music.
The R40 selection: “One Little Victory”
My pick: I have to say, as much as I don’t love the album as a whole, I do like “One Little Victory.” I was kind of hoping to hear it, if only because of its significance to the band’s story: it’s the song that made Rush realize that they could still be Rush. Without it, they might not have hit 30, let alone 40. Geddy even acknowledged as much in his preparatory remarks.

1996: Test for Echo

Test for echo

My take: This is a very boring album.
The R40 selections: Nothing
My pick: Skipping this was the right choice. I mean, the acoustic version of “Resist” that they did on the Vapor Trails tour would have been fine, but if it means less music from Permanent Waves or A Farewell to Kings, no.

1993: Counterparts

Rush_Counterparts

My take: Counterparts is great. In the well-populated set of “good Rush albums,” it’s solidly in the middle of the pack.
The R40 selection: “Animate”
My pick: “Leave That Thing Alone.” I love “Animate,” and I’m not complaining. But I would have liked to hear a more substantial showcase for Geddy’s bass playing. I realize that they’ve played “Leave That Thing Alone” recently. But remember, I didn’t see that tour.

1991: Roll the Bones

Rush_roll_the_bones

My take: See Snakes and Arrows. Uneven, but occasionally great. The harbinger of a better album to come.
The R40 selection: “Roll the Bones”
My pick: Yup, that was the right choice. I’ve always hated that awful rap verse for marring an otherwise fantastic song. But they solved that problem, this time round. All it took was a lip-synching Peter Dinklage. Who knew.

1989: Presto

EP_presto_rush_1989

My take: Very nearly a bad album.
The R40 selection: Nothing
My pick: Rightly skipped. “The Pass” would have been fine. But, as with “Resist,” it’s not preferable to more cuts from their better albums.

1987: Hold Your Fire

Rush-Hold-Your-Fire-Cover

My take: I like synthpop Rush far more than the fan consensus. There’s some awful music on this (“Tai Shan” is the worst track Rush ever recorded), but far more of it is very good. We’ve already covered two albums I like far less than this. There will be more, yet.
The R40 selection: Nothing
My pick: “Force Ten.” My one real disappointment at this concert was that they skimped on the 80s material. I’m sure it’s because their last tour was heavy on it. But again: I wasn’t there. “Force Ten” is one of Rush’s best songs. So is “Time Stand Still.” Would have been nice to hear one.

1985: Power Windows

Power Windows

My take: One of Rush’s strongest, most consistent albums. The fact that this isn’t universally acclaimed as a masterpiece is early-onset rockism in action. Let them play synths, for god’s sake. The songs are as good as ever.
The R40 selection: Nothing
My picks: “Mystic Rhythms.” “Grand Designs.” “The Big Money.” Anything. I would have gladly sacrificed a 70s cut for a song off Power Windows.

1984: Grace Under Pressure

Grace under pressure

My take: Another masterpiece. It’s not the warm embrace that some other great Rush albums are, but when I’m in the mood for weightier fare, this is my go-to.
The R40 selection: “Distant Early Warning”
My pick: Yeah, that’s the one. I actually didn’t anticipate how happy I would be to hear this song. I guess there’s a reason it’s on a million live albums. It kills.

1982: Signals

Signals rush

My take: It’s a bit of a comedown after the miraculous stylistic transition that happened between 1978 and 1981, but it has some of their best songs. (I’m quickly realizing that almost every Rush album has some of their best songs. The problem with the weaker ones is usually just inconsistency.)
The R40 selections: “Losing It” and “Subdivisions”
My picks: “Subdivisions” was a given. I assume that my lack of prior experience with Rush concerts has something to do with how badly I wanted to hear the hits. But also, “Subdivisions” is a song that every Rush fan in the world seems to identify with personally. I’m no exception. “Losing It” wouldn’t have been my choice for a second Signals cut — that would have been “The Analog Kid” — but having the track’s original violinist Ben Mink drop by for “Losing It” made it totally worth it.

1981: Moving Pictures

rush_moving-300x300

My take: Deserving of every accolade lavished upon it. My top five Rush albums fluctuate, but my top three are solid, and this is one of them. The hits never get old, and the album tracks are — say it with me — among the best Rush songs.
The R40 selections: “Tom Sawyer” and “YYZ”
My picks: If we’re going to do the Big Hit/Album Cut combo, I would have gone with “Limelight” and “Red Barchetta” over these two. The latter is actually perfect. Few songs can match it for sheer catharsis — in the lyrics and music alike. And “Limelight” would have been as great an opener for the second half as “Tom Sawyer” — and I’m a sucker for that guitar solo. But, I must admit, “YYZ” is a showstopper.

1980: Permanent Waves

Rush_Permanent_Waves

My take: The best Rush album. A flawless masterpiece, and the greatest transitional album ever made. After years of willful obscurantism (which often yielded fabulous results), Permanent Waves is the sound of the band opening themselves up to anybody willing to listen, without changing their driving ethic in the slightest. This album is the warm embrace that Grace Under Pressure isn’t.
The R40 selections: “The Spirit of Radio,” “Natural Science” and “Jacob’s Ladder”
My picks: I could not have reasonably expected Rush to play more than half of my favourite album, but they did and it was fantastic. Incidentally, those would have been exactly my three picks. “The Spirit of Radio” was the highlight of the concert. Such a pleasure to see that the band still enjoys playing that song. It is, after all, one of the most perfect rock songs ever composed.

1978: Hemispheres

hemispheres-cover-s

My take: This one rounds out my usual top three. It’s the culmination of the band’s fruitful dalliance with full-on progressive rock in the vein of Yes and Genesis — music I quite love, and which populated the band’s pre-show/intermission playlist. After this, Rush would go on to become the first genuine post-progressive rock band, using the insights of the progressive movement to produce a new and idiosyncratic sort of ambitious rock music for the 80s. But here, they prove that they can do straight-up prog as well as anybody.
The R40 selection: the prelude from “Cygnus X-1 Book 2,” with a drum solo
My pick: “La Villa Strangiato” was one of my top picks for the concert, but I can’t say I’m disappointed that they took the less predictable route. Neil’s (spectacular) drum solo was clothed in psychedelic synth pads reflecting the mood of “Cygnus X-1,” and it served as a bridge between that epic’s two parts. So, basically a 15-minute “Cygnus” medley in reverse. Nobody ought to complain about that.

1977: A Farewell to Kings

Rush_A_Farewell_to_Kings

My take: This is another of those inconsistent albums with many masterful songs. I’m a big fan of this version of Rush — the proggy version. But they’d do it better one year later.
The R40 selections: An excerpt from “Cygnus X-1 Book 1,” “Closer to the Heart,” “Xanadu”
My picks: “Xanadu” is second only to “La Villa Strangiato” in terms of excellent prog from Rush. An absolute highlight of the show. The extension of “Cygnus” back to its origins here was much appreciated. I could have lived without “Closer to the Heart.” As much as I generally love Rush’s singles, this one doesn’t connect with me at all. The lyric is borderline offensive in its elitism (more of which, shortly) and the riff isn’t one of their strongest. It would be a good sing-along moment if Geddy’s tessitura didn’t make it impossible for at least half (oh, who are we kidding — most) of the audience to sing. The title track would have been a welcome surprise. Still, “Xanadu” and part one of “Cygnus” are the best music this album has.

1976: 2112

Rush_2112

My take: Look, I get it. I do. “2112” is a song about an oppressed young man in a dystopian future who finds freedom in rock and roll and whose dreams are crushed by malevolent authority figures. I understand why it struck a chord. But it’s bullshit. It could have been a lot more troubling, had young Neil more fully processed his reading of Ayn Rand. But, as it stands, “2112” is a high school persecution fantasy set to occasionally interesting hard rock. And, the less said about the other songs, the better.
The R40 selection: Excerpts from “2112,” including the overture, “The Temples of Syrinx,” “Presentation” and “Grand Finale”
My pick: Okay, let’s be reasonable. There’s no way you can’t represent 2112 on a Rush 40th anniversary tour. And most of that audience was losing their minds at this point in the show. So, I’ll concede that this isn’t a skippable album. I would have been content for them to be finished after “The Temples of Syrinx,” though.

1975: Caress of Steel

rush caress

My take: One of my least favourite Rush albums. It marks a decisive turn towards prog, but it is still basically nondescript hard rock in bigger bottles.
The R40 selection: “Lakeside Park”
My pick: “Bastille Day.” It’s the only halfway decent track — and it’s worth noting that “Headlong Flight” improved vastly on the formula set out in this song. (Listen to the way that they both switch in and out of half time.) I would have foregone this album altogether, were it not for the clever conceit of this part of the concert. After “2112,” the band leaves the stage, as if to end the show. Then, Eugene Levy shows up via video, in character as a tacky club announcer. He informs the audience that the headliner will be along shortly. But first — there’s an opening act: a young band whose career is already on the skids, and who badly need to hire some additional band members if they’re going to make it. The R40 show is taking us back to Rush’s infamous “Down the Tubes” tour of 1975-76, where they played small venues for indifferent audiences. Had 2112 failed to connect, it would have been the end of the road. Thus, when the band shows up to play “Lakeside Park,” after having gone through all of the classic tracks they made after surviving this difficult phase, the song takes on an emblematic significance, similar to “One Little Victory.” It’s not so much that it’s a good song, but it was a nice touch.

1975: Fly by Night

Rush_Fly_by_Night

My take: By now, you’ll realize that early Rush is not my bag. But this is my favourite of their first four albums by a significant margin.
The R40 selection: “Anthem”
My pick: “By-Tor and the Snow Dog.” I’d ditch “2112” for this, but that’s just me. “Anthem” has more half-digested Randianisms, but it’s a fun tune, at least.

1974: Rush

rush-cover-s

My take: Rush’s debut album doesn’t offer any indication that this band would one day produce transcendent music like “Xanadu,” “The Spirit of Radio” or “Headlong Flight.” But it’s a fun little period piece with some good riffs.
The R40 selections: “What You’re Doing” and “Working Man”
My pick: At this point in the concert, nobody’s complaining about anything Rush chooses to play. They’ve more than proven themselves one of the best live acts ever. They’ve demonstrated that their entire 40-year catalogue contains worthwhile music. And, right in this moment, in the midsection of “Working Man,” Alex Lifeson is shredding with reckless abandon over Geddy Lee’s breakneck bassline while Neil Peart beats time between impossible fills. They are beyond restraint, because they are above restraint. They are better than restraint. And when the last chord ends, the audience is not applauding Rush’s fortitude or the fact that they’re beating the odds at 40 years running. They’re applauding in appreciation for what is genuinely one of the best shows anybody will ever see.

I’m not going to tally up the score. It seems irrelevant, somehow. I saw Rush. It was awesome. The end.