Tag Archives: Samantha Bee

Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 13, 2016)

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

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

Live events

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

Music

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

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

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

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

Movies

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

Television

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

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

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

Literature, etc.

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

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

Games

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 6, 2016)

Here’s a fun game! Guess which reviews I wrote before armageddon, and which I wrote after!

22 reviews.

Television

Last Week Tonight: November 6, 2016 — Well, it survives the election by not being primarily about the election. But interestingly, it also announces itself as a “web video” in spite of the fact that it’s on television. Which is interesting, and demonstrates that Oliver has entirely embraced his role as the most viral comedian.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: “Post-Election” — First off, getting Lizzo to perform at the end of the episode where Samantha Bee’s natural enemy became the most powerful person in the country was a masterstroke. When everything is shitty, Lizzo. I dunno if she would have been there regardless, but it worked well as an ending to the episode. I admire Bee’s optimism in the face of the worst possible outcome. She closes the episode by echoing the most worthwhile sentiment in Clinton’s concession speech: “there is more work to do.” During the Bush administration, Jon Stewart was the comedic voice that held the right’s feet to the fire and kept progressive people sane. Of the available heirs to the throne, my money’s on Samantha Bee to do the same during the Trump administration.

Doctor Who: “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” — This is a mess. The story is boilerplate adventure serial nonsense and there are too many moments where an attempt at a heartstring-tugging catharsis falls totally flat because of bad acting or obvious manipulation. But there are positives. Firstly, the on-location shooting makes this one of the most visually distinctive early serials, and there are actually some really great shots in there. You know, between all of the crap edits that obscure cause and effect. Also, William Hartnell has thoroughly figured out his role at this point. He’s completely charming in this. He’ll never be one of my favourite Doctors, but he’s adorable when he gets to be a hero. For the first time, you can start to see the universal characteristics of the Doctor that would be expanded on in iterations I like better (Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker, Sylvester McCoy, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi). In this, you see the Doctor as a humanist, an ingenious man of action and a loveable weirdo. The one thing Hartnell doesn’t pull off is the scene where he bids Susan farewell, and that’s not his fault. That is quite simply one of the most completely bungled emotional beats in this show. It would have been so simple to just have Susan decide for herself to stay behind with David. Then, the Doctor could be forced to say goodbye in his way. And that is something you could see Hartnell pulling off brilliantly: trying to stay aloof while the emotions well up. As it stands, it looks like what it is: a presumptuous old man stranding his granddaughter on a foreign planet. A fitting end to a really not very good serial at all.

Movies

Mean Girls — It transpires that almost all of my Vancouver guy friends have moved away, and I now find myself in a social circle of almost entirely women. And, apart from occasionally feeling like the fly in the ointment, this is fine. It also means that I occasionally find myself in a room where a movie is playing that I didn’t necessarily feel like I’d ever watch. But when that movie is Mean Girls, there are no protests to be raised. Mean Girls is singularly brilliant. It’s astonishing the extent to which Tina Fey’s writing has maintained its aesthetic through this film, 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. This movie is joke dense to a level that would not become standard for at least another several years. (30 Rock premiered in 2006, but Fey was clearly ahead of the curve. On the other hand, Archer premiered in 2009.) The acting is uniformly fantastic, with the titular mean girls stealing the show. Rachel McAdams offers an uncanny performance as the queen bee we can all remember as part of our high school experience. And it’s hilarious to see Amanda Seyfried playing dumb when she’s been taking totally different roles since then. Also: I’m pretty sure I’ve never actually seen Lindsay Lohan in a movie before. She’s always just been a pop culture reference point — and specifically, one relating to drug abuse and lost innocence. So, to see her offering an actually very sympathetic performance in this movie was something of a welcome shock. Amy Poehler does that thing she does where she’s funny every time she’s in the frame, even if she’s not saying anything. But what’s really remarkable about this film is that it manages to conform to a standard comedic plotline while remaining honest to the realities of high school: Lohan’s character gradually becomes the very thing she detests, which is both narratively ripe and truthful to the experiences of adolescence. And if Tina Fey has a tendency to put the moral of the story in her own character’s mouth, at least that character is something of a feminist role model — and not at all a drug pusher. I completely enjoyed watching this, and I’m happy to have seen it in the company of a number of people for whom it appears to be a formative text: a quotable and relatable film that maintains its power twelve years on.

Music

Leonard Cohen: New Skin for the Old Ceremony — If there’s an upside to great artists dying (and let’s be fair, Cohen’s death is less sad than Bowie’s or Prince’s because he was 82), it’s that they get to be back in the conversation for a while. And that means I can listen to his music and talk to people about it with the benefit of a news hook, which is basically necessary. I’ve learned that I can’t just talk at people about Jethro Tull for no reason other than being obsessed. (Though nothing will, and nothing should, stop me from doing essentially that on this blog. You can opt out. And the fact that you haven’t is frankly bizarre.) So, I figured I’d give a spin to one of the classic Cohen albums that I hadn’t actually heard. New Skin for the Old Ceremony is firstly one of the best album titles ever. Think about it for a second. Good. Also, it seems to me on first listen to be essentially the equal of Songs of Leonard Cohen in terms of consistency (high, but not 100%), although it is more the stylistic cousin of the somewhat better Songs of Love and Hate. What I’m saying is it’s better than its “lesser classic” reputation would suggest. Also, this is the album on which Cohen seems to most embody Joni Mitchell’s characteristically dismissive description of Cohen as a “boudoir poet.” But that’s not a strike against the album. He puts aside some of his more existential questions here, but they’re replaced with compelling, intimate pictures of specific relationships. “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” is the obvious highlight in this sense. I reckon it’s not merely the most romantic song to have a blowjob reference in the third line, but possibly the most romantic song ever to be written about a one-night stand. Famously, it’s about Janis Joplin, and famously Cohen regrets having revealed that. But putting that indiscretion aside, “Chelsea Hotel” is one of many reasons I feel that Leonard Cohen is an effective model of non-toxic masculinity. There’s no sense of self-congratulation in this story, and Cohen emphasizes the value that he places on his lover’s entire self. That sort of thoughtfulness is rare enough in songs about long-time romantic partnerships, let along hookups. (If anybody reading this disagrees with me, I’d be interested to hear. Because I’ve been wrong about these sorts of things before.) The rest of the album stays the course. It’s not entirely about love and loss, but enough of it is that you come away from it feeling like those are the key themes. I’d say this is Cohen’s Blood on the Tracks, but frankly just about any Leonard Cohen album could be his Blood on the Tracks. Blood on the Tracks is Bob Dylan nicking Cohen’s schtick (and doing it better, but that’s not the point). Leonard Cohen was awesome. I hope the rest of the world is also spending some time with his records right now. Pick of the week. 

Literature, etc.

David Remnick: “Leonard Cohen Makes it Darker” — I read this just before Cohen died, so I kind of assumed that he was exaggerating the extent of his illness. He did, after all, say that he was. But regardless of any of that, this is a really fascinating portrait of Cohen at the end of his life. He seems happy, fulfilled and resigned. And he’s completely in possession of his faculties. It really highlights how Cohen’s lyrics are darker than his personality. This is a lovely companion piece to You Want it Darker, if only to add a touch of levity to Cohen’s final chapter.

Sala Suleri: “Meatless Days” — Suleri’s prose is truly wonderful, and her descriptions of food are worthy of the best authors in the “food writing” genre. Which is definitely not what this is. This is a memoir about childhood, and how food plays into how we see the world as we grow up. Lovely.

Philip Sandifer: TARDIS Eruditorum Volume 1: William Hartnell — I bought this ages ago and it’s taking me a ludicrously long time to get through, for reasons that have nothing to do with Sandifer. I just find it hard to dredge up the will to actually watch these dull old stories from the earliest days of Doctor Who. My enthusiasm for Sandifer’s writing is such that I’ll put myself through the dull-as-shit experience of watching a story written by Terry Nation, just so that I’ll be equipped to read Sandifer’s essay on that story. In this period at least, Sandifer’s TARDIS Eruditorum entries are often superior works of art to the television that they critique. I just read the book version of one of my favourite posts on Sandifer’s blog, which is on “The Rescue.” His observation of how clever it is to have a man in a rubber suit actually turn out to be a man in a rubber suit as opposed to being a monster is brilliant, makes watching “The Rescue” more fun, and is exactly the reason why I like reading Sandifer’s criticism.  But, since the next Doctor Who story that I haven’t seen is “The Romans,” for which I have exactly no enthusiasm, it’ll probably be another several months before I get any farther in this book.

Podcasts, etc.

Slate Election Day Special — This is the reason for the “etc.” in the heading. Slate did a clever thing here, by putting out updated editions of the same podcast (sort of) periodically throughout election day, adding and updating stories as they become relevant. It’s like a newscast, except more polished, more discretely packaged, and without the need for an anchor who can fill time, which has always been a stupid idea and is part of the reason why traditional broadcasting is largely so stupid.  This is definitely a format I could see working in other situations in the future. As for the content itself, Alison Stewart and Zoe Chace are both brilliant and covered the stories they chose with rigor and fairness. It was nice to hear Mike Pesca show up from time to time, since he’s got the fastest brain in the business. He was made for this sort of thing.

Fresh Air: “Trump And The White Working Class” — George Packer’s take on this election is hugely informed by his work on The Unwinding, which I haven’t read, but which sounds fascinating. He comes down mostly on the side that views Trump’s voters as disaffected, but his position is more nuanced than many who claim this, and he’s well aware of the extent to which the white working class does not actually make up Trump’s base.

A Point of View: “America Votes” — Adam Gopnik has been, along with Bob Garfield, one of my most treasured voices of reason in this election. This is possibly his most succinct summation of why Trump is awful. It’s ten minutes. Just listen to it.

On the Media: “Poor Judgement” — The final instalment of Brooke Gladstone’s poverty myths series takes the form of an OTM news consumer guide, which is a really good idea, because the media apparently cannot portray poverty in anything close to an accurate semblance. This series has been among the best radio of the year.

This American Life: “Master of Her Domain… Name” — I listened to this on November 8th. It has a story about how Hillary Clinton does not know how to use a computer. Then it has a story about a man making cat puns. Then it has a story about a police officer who was bested by a squirrel. Then the United States elected Donald Trump as their president.

On the Media: “Now What?” — This was the first podcast I listened to after the election of Donald Trump. It is the most difficult 17 minutes of radio I’ve listened to all year. On the Media has been one of my favourites, and possibly my very favourite show of 2016. Bob Garfield is a big part of that. His call to arms, where he implored reporters not to settle into familiar routines as Trump’s campaign went on — to acknowledge that he is a totally unique candidate and highlight his obvious unfitness for office at every opportunity — was one of very few moments in this election season where somebody said something that I thought made sense. His closing line was a killer: “The voters will do what the voters will do, but it must not be, cannot be because the press did not do enough.” And Brooke Gladstone has always been one of the most valuable people on the radio, because she’s one of the few who can explain to people how they’re processing information, so that they can then examine their own interface with the media and arrive at something closer to the truth. This was massively evident in the poverty myths series that just wrapped. So, hearing Garfield and Gladstone disagree so vehemently in this taped conversation with Katya Rogers about the future of the show is extremely disquieting. At the risk of infantilizing myself, there’s an element of “mom and dad are fighting” to this. It’s two people you’ve come to deeply trust, and who you take for granted will present a united front, not seeing eye to eye. At no point during this episode did I know whose side I was on. I kept listening, but I wanted it to stop. I think these next four years are going to be very bad. And when even the most reliably sane and measured source of analysis is existentially spiralling in the wake of the election, it seems like an indication that things might be worse than I thought. Pick of the week, if only because it’s the most preoccupying thing on the list.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The Election and Political Comedy” — This is either the last, second-last, or third-last pre-election, election-related podcast I will listen to. It’s just too painful to listen to missives from that more innocent time. *sniff. Also Glen Weldon doesn’t understand that John Oliver’s show doesn’t have any jokes on it, and that’s distressing.

The Heart: “Love, Harry” — One day I will go back through the entire archive of The Heart and Audiosmut. Because it is such engrossing radio. This extremely gutsy and vulnerable piece details the near-romantic relationship between the show’s host and one of its early producers. It feels like listening to something you’re not supposed to be listening to. I love it. And, as always, it has some of the best, most subtle, least ostentatious sound design in all of radio. I think it’s Kaitlin Prest who does the mixing? I don’t really know. But it is top shelf, always.

99% Invisible: “Ten Letters for the President” — Listening to this post-election is distressing. Because, it’s clear that President Obama’s dedication to reading a sample of the citizenry’s correspondence will not be continued by President Trump. Ruined my listening experience.

Code Switch: “A Muslim and Mexican Walk Into A Bar…” — It’s as good as you could expect from a clearly shell-shocked Code Switch team. It’s funny, for much of its duration. But I would have been just as satisfied, or more, if Gene Demby had just unloaded all of his fears and doubts into the microphone for 25 minutes.

On the Media: “Wrong Number” — A deeply unsatisfying post-election hour. But, to be fair, Brooke Gladstone knows that and directs listeners to the existentially terrifying podcast extra from earlier this week. Part of me feels like Nate Silver ought to have been made to sweat a bit more, but the rational part of my brain knows that he’s justified to say that Five Thirty-Eight’s predictions were within the margin of error. But frankly, if the margin of error can encompass such drastically different outcomes as American fascism vs. no American fascism, then my faith in data remains slightly shaken. Call me a plebe. Go ahead.

The Bugle: “Tony The Tiger: RIP” — This has its moments, but there are long stretches of laughlessness. I’m confident that Andy Zaltzman will reach equilibrium eventually, but the key is going to be finding collaborators that think he’s funny, as opposed to just a weird old dude who’s good at puns. Also, it is legitimately weird that this is a Radiotopia podcast now. Zaltzman doesn’t even seem to have a clue what that means. Or maybe he’s just being funny. Who can tell?

The Bugle: “ZERO DT” — It must be a good sign that I went on to listen to another episode of The Bugle right away after listening to the season premiere. However, it was mostly just because I needed to hear how these same two people reacted to Trump’s election. Short answer: not well. Longer answer: this is a better episode than the other one I listened to, even if Hari Kondabolu sounds like he’s been severely beaten in the interim. Which he sort of has. We all have.  

NPR Politics Podcast: “The Election of Donald Trump” — This is about all I need in terms of election wrapup, I think. Gonna try to not think about this too much until Trump takes office. For my own sanity.

Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 30, 2016)

Slow week for media consumption. This is partially because I’ve been busy, partially because I’ve been listening to fragments of albums rather that full ones or podcasts, and partially because I’ve been playing a fair bit of Sunless Sea, which I think has gotten pretty close to enough words expended on it on this blog. For now.

14 reviews.

Television

Last Week Tonight: October 30, 2015 — I’ve observed that I’m always more involved in Oliver’s long segments when they’re about stories that I’m not especially familiar with. And I was sort of familiar with the state of school segregation in modern America, thanks to This American Life’s staggeringly good two-parter “The Problem We All Live With.” So, my thoughts on this generally were that I knew most of what was discussed, and having just watched it, I can’t remember any of the jokes. This would seem to lend credence to the idea that Oliver is a better pundit than a comedian. Still, that clip of Joe Biden’s reaction to hearing about the Anthony Weiner emails is amazing.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: “President Obama” — The Obama segment isn’t the highlight of this, though watching the president laugh at Samantha Bee’s millennial impression is curiously satisfying. It’s the segment where Bee interviews Russia’s government-employed professional trolls that really steals the show. Also, I’m always happy to watch funny people getting angry about the Alt-Right.

Movies

A Nightmare on Elm Street — I enjoyed this a lot more than I expected to. I’ve generally steered clear of the classic slasher movies because they’re neither scary nor smart. But, firstly, this is the perfect thing for a Halloween movie night because it’s campy and full of incredible overacting (Nancy’s mom is amazing in every scene). And secondly, the premise of a killer who stalks people in their dreams to kill them in reality is truly, genuinely creepy — even if the execution doesn’t live up to the concept. Worthwhile.

Music

Buggles: The Age of Plastic — I was getting a haircut last weekend, and “Video Killed the Radio Star” came on the radio. Not being much of a haircut conversationalist, I actually listened to the song — for the first time, really. There’s a difference between “hearing” and “listening.” And I had it stuck in my head for several days. That’s not a thing that normally happens to me, but “Video Killed the Radio Star” is a different kind of infectious once you really listen to it. Because, it’s got so many moving parts in it, and every one of its dozen-or-so musical motives is a hook. It’s an enormously complex and fussy pop song, befitting an album called The Age of Plastic. And the lyric conjures a classic and still-relevant anxiety: what happens when the machines take over the things we care about? It’s a staggeringly good pop single. The rest of the album, which I figured it was about time I checked out (knowing the Buggles not just from this single but also from their befuddling tenure as members of Yes, during which they made an album I actually love) is less excellent, though “Living in the Plastic Age” is impressively detailed. Its dated production even manages not to chafe, given the obvious campness of the Buggles’ devotion to synths. After those two opening tracks, things go downhill, though not so far that I’m unlikely to listen again. The Buggles make a truly attractive sound. Trevor Horn is a really fantastic singer, and Geoff Downes’ keyboard-playing is like nobody else. The combination of his staccato attack on the electric piano with his symphonic approach to synths is instantly recognizable. This is a band that’s due for a widespread rediscovery, given that modern life has given credence to their obsessive anxieties about technological innovation.  

Yes: Drama — I couldn’t not follow up The Age of Plastic with this. It’s an extremely unusual entry in Yes’s discography, of course, but for my money it’s the creative equal of Going for the One. Having heard a Buggles album, it’s especially remarkable how much Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes’ sensibility comes out, here — and how compatible that sensibility is with the musical direction of Chris Squire, Steve Howe and Alan White during this period. Aside from “White Car,” which is literally just a Buggles song (only Horn and Downes play on it) the tracks that the Buggles brought to the table (“Run Through the Light” and “Into the Lens”) are essentially Buggles tracks where the bits that would be symphonic synth parts are instead performed by the most proficient band in rock music. That is self-evidently something worth hearing. The other tracks benefit from Horn’s straightforward lyrics (what Jon Anderson would have done with these songs is extremely hard to imagine) and Downes’ symphonic approach to synths, as opposed to Rick Wakeman’s soloistic approach. This lineup was clearly unsustainable, but the one album we have from them is one of progressive rock’s (and, I suppose, new wave’s) most treasurable anomalies.

Opeth: Blackwater Park — I gave up on Opeth after Heritage. Not because they quit metal, but because they abandoned a distinctive (I just about dare say unique) musical idiom in favour of bland throwbacks. There are plenty of bands out there who do ‘70s prog nostalgia, and that’s all well and good. But once you’ve established yourself as that rare band who can infuse an entirely different sort of music with the spirit of prog as opposed to its actual aesthetic and tropes, I feel like it’s almost a betrayal to start aping King Crimson. I haven’t heard Sorceress, and it’s possible that I’ll never listen to a new Opeth album again. But I’m no longer so disappointed by them that it’s painful to listen to them in their prime. And Blackwater Park is Opeth in their prime. It’s probably my favourite album of theirs, for the way that its songs effortlessly weave together the band’s two extremes: pastoral folk and growling death metal. It’s an album less interested in the middle ground than many of their others, and yet it coheres better than any of them. “The Drapery Falls” is the most obvious illustration of this, with the lighter side coming through in the details of even the track’s heaviest moments. (Think of the acoustic frills in the background of the song’s first heavy bit.) But it’s the driving aesthetic of each of the album’s main pieces (“Harvest” and “Patterns in the Ivy” being lovely in themselves, but less substantial), and that’s what makes it really work. “Dirge for November” has always left me a bit unmoved — more repetitious than the other tracks, and with less inspired material to repeat — but it’s the weak link among a staggeringly strong group of compositions. I didn’t get far in my exploration of metal. It took me a while to warm to it, and once I did I quickly found myself more interested in other things, like Mahler and Kanye. But Blackwater Park is objectively a masterpiece, and I imagine I’ll return to it periodically for the whole foreseeable future.

Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker — I’ve been listening to heavy metal lately. And yet the most gothic music I’ve heard in recent weeks is a gospel record by an 82-year-old poet. You Want It Darker finds Cohen sounding more vampyric than ever, and offering recitations that blur the line between talking to a lover with whom things are complicated and talking to a god with whom things are complicated. The title track is the clear highlight, both musically and lyrically. The instrumental track sets the tone immediately: it’s anchored by a choir, recorded distantly and with plenty of room noise. If you haven’t come to this record to pray, you may be in the wrong discography. Gospel organ and murky bass guitar complete the picture, and when you feel (yes, feel) the opening words of Cohen’s lyric, it’s clear that we’re in ritual territory. “If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game,” Cohen intones, and he continues in that vein for the next 35 minutes. It’s an album about fruitlessly seeking attention from personages who’d rather you left them alone. It’s an album about giving up on connecting with God and your fellow man. And the irony of all this is that any reasonable music fan would not want Leonard Cohen to disengage. His god may have abandoned him, but music geeks emphatically have not. It’d be good luck for us if he does in fact turn out to be a vampire. Pick of the week. 

Literature, etc.

Adam Gopnik: “Why Trump Is Different — And Must Be Repelled” — A fabulous analysis of Trump’s apparently not-yet-dead campaign, which is most notable for rigorously denying the condescending narrative that Trump supporters are to be pitied for they know not what they do. It’s part and parcel of the veneration of the “white working class,” a group that Gopnik is careful to point out is not at all monolithic: “The white working class built unions and raised children and fought wars—and lynched black people and supported Joe McCarthy. Sometimes those attitudes could be held together in a single personality. No group is invulnerable to bad causes. We should have no hesitation in calling deplorable attitudes deplorable—without imagining that those who hold them are deplorable people. They can be wrong without being bad. And, in any case, it would be good to balance the endless hand-wringing about the pathos of the Trump voter with some countervailing sense of the pathos, still larger, of the Clinton voter: the Latina motel cleaner in Nevada or the single mother in Brooklyn. No category of voters in a democracy is especially virtuous, none immune from evil.” That is a staggeringly good articulation of a thing that’s extremely easy to forget.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “EL VY’s Song Against Trump, New Conor Oberst, Kristin Hersh, More” — Great show. The Conor Oberst and Kristin Hersh tracks are particularly fantastic. I even went back and listened to that chunk of the show a second time. Hersh’s new double album is now on my list of stuff to check out, but it unfortunately also means I have another book to read this year, because they’re packaged together. Where will I find the time.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Roger Waters” — I could listen to Roger Waters talk all day. He’s that rare thing: an aging baby boomer rock star with a social conscious that hasn’t become an affectation. None of the requisite blandness or platitudes here. He’s passionate; he has wit. He knows the power of rhetoric and employs it advisedly. He’s earned his place as an intellectual among rock stars in a way that I’m not always convinced that people like Pete Townshend or Neil Young really have. He’s really earnest, but you can forgive him because he’s got a whole career’s worth of consequential activism behind him. There are a few moments that chafe, sure. Like his slightly condescending attitude towards the underprivileged children he brings onstage during “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2.” His heart’s in the right place, but it’s hard to avoid the sense that he’s using poor kids as props. On the other hand, his blatant refusal to allow the children of arena-owning executives onstage with him is quite charming. You can picture him flying off the handle: “They get everything! They don’t get to have this!” Naturally, it’s fascinating to hear Waters talk about his evolving thoughts on the dark times in Pink Floyd’s tenure. Interesting that he felt condescended to by David Gilmour and Rick Wright. I find that hard to picture, somehow, and I do wonder how much of it was insecurity on Waters’ part. Because, there’s no denying that for all his brilliance as a songwriter, builder of musical structures and concept artist, he was the least sophisticated musician in Pink Floyd by a fair margin. (Nick Mason wasn’t a great drummer, but he was a more distinctive drummer than Waters was a distinctive bassist.) And while he’s right to claim that writing an opera is a real challenge and a badge of honour, it’s super weird than anybody ever asked him to write music to a pre-existing opera libretto. It’s the exact opposite to the appropriate task. I think he’d probably be a great librettist. He’s the most sophisticated dramatist in rock music. Also, Maron is right to point out that this podcast is the appropriate venue for old rockers to read long poems. The one Waters brings out near the end of the episode is cringeworthy in places — Waters himself makes it clear that it’s “doggerel,” but he values it because it’s heartfelt — but it’s nice to have it out there. He clearly doesn’t want to talk much about the past. But Maron dances around his unwillingness with more grace than he can usually conjure. This isn’t as good an episode as the one with Margo Price, but Waters is a compelling guest.

Imaginary Worlds: “Caps Lock Harry” — This mini-season about Harry Potter is proving to be the best thing Eric Molinsky has done aside from his Cthulhu story. So far, he’s isolated two of the most fascinating things about the series: first the implications of the Sorting Hat’s logic on educational philosophy, and now the way that J.K. Rowling depicts Harry’s PTSD. I wasn’t one of the kids who got annoyed with Harry’s moodiness and anger in Order of the Phoenix, but I do recall wishing that the literal use of caps lock would go away. But it’s obviously much more meaningful to people who have experienced similar traumas to Harry. One of Molinsky’s guests has an absolutely heartwrenching personal analogy to the Mirror of Erised, which has always been one of the richest, saddest elements of the Harry Potter canon. But the whole episode is full of marvellous, moving stuff. Really outstanding. Pick of the week. 

Science Vs: “DNA and the Smell of Death” — Think it’s time to relegate this to sometimes-listen status. While this is notable for really making Dr. Arpad Vass look horrible — this is a scientist who claims not to understand the importance of replicability in studies — I confess to finally being sick of the tone of this show. I’ll listen to the season finale, and probably just drop in occasionally from there.

On the Media: “The System is Rigged” — One of the best episodes of On the Media this year. And it has been a great year. For On the Media. It brings together the two best elements of the year’s coverage: Bob Garfield’s critiques of how the media covered Trump during the primaries, and Brooke Gladstone’s series on poverty myths. Gladstone’s piece is the clear highlight here, including such great writing as the line where she characterizes the story of the modern American safety net as “the narrative equivalent of ‘boom-SPLAT.’” Brilliant, sad, upsetting stuff.

Reply All: “In the Tall Grass” — I guess everything has to be about the election now. I’m not being spiteful, it just appears to be true. In keeping with that, Reply All highlights a useless app that promises to bring the country together, and a cartoonist’s efforts to reclaim his cartoon frog from hateful trolls. As election-related journalism goes, it’s admirably non-exhausting.

Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 23, 2016)

Ooh, some good stuff this week. Also a few pans. Pans! Imagine. 26 reviews.

Games

Thomas Was Alone — After watching Charlie Brooker’s video games special, I was reminded of the occasional joys of a game where you mostly just jump. But I need my jumping to be mediated through several layers of metacritique and accompanied by a cast of colourful characters with actual personalities, because I am me. I had deleted this from my iPad for space, but I downloaded it again, not intending to reply the full game, but then I remembered how the puzzle mechanics pull you in, and how the gradual, minimalistic storyline eventually ends in staggering, sad catharsis, and I just had to play to the end. It’s marvellous, obviously. It’s one of the most seamless integrations of mechanics and story that I’ve seen in a non-IF context. Braid comes to mind as another, but Thomas Was Alone didn’t inherit Braid’s smugness. This game’s masterstroke is how it uses basic platformer mechanics to enrich characterization. When you need to use two different characters’ unique abilities in tandem to help them both reach their destinations, it doesn’t just feel like solving a clever puzzle (though it is that), it feels like you’re watching relationships form. That’s remarkable. This second time through, I had some minor quibbles. Occasionally the narration can be a bit overbearing. The spoken text in this has a delicate balance to strike: it can’t be so twee that it’s annoying, yet it also needs to be whimsical enough to mark a contrast with the rather terse written text that appears at the beginnings of certain levels to tell the larger story of what’s going on outside the narrative we’re seeing. Usually, the narration strikes that balance pretty well. But occasionally it veers into too-twee territory. Most of the time, I felt like a slightly different read of the same script might have done the trick. It’s such a minor thing. The larger issue is that the emotional climax of the story happens quite some time before the end of the game. Without spoiling anything, there’s a story event about 80% of the way through that paves the way for a really cool new mechanic that defines the late stages of gameplay. But from that point on, the story can’t match up with what came before. It would have been an easy storytelling problem to overcome: just a couple of strategically-placed evocations of the characters from early in the game might well have done the trick. But I also think it would have been wise to minimize the narration in those late phases, so that the game can accelerate to a close rather than drift into one. Altogether, I still love this game, though. Any game that’s mostly jumping that can compel me to play through to the end, twice, is a very good game.

Sunless Sea: Zubmariner — This arrived at just the right time. Sunless Sea is the only vast sandbox game that I’ve ever gotten into. I do like a game that lets me explore, but preferably in the service of a linear story. (Firewatch has kind of become my ideal in this sense.) This game is pretty much as close as I get to Skyrim. And while I haven’t actually played Skyrim, I’ll wager that Sunless Sea is even vaster, on account of the fact that it is so dominated by text: the densest medium. So, this is probably the only game that I’ve poured more than a half-dozen-or-so hours into since childhood. Clearly, it’s much too big and deep for me to have turned over every rock and scrutinized every crevice for searing enigmas and extraordinary implications (gosh, this game’s jargon is so infectious). But, I had put enough time into it that I’d seen the entire map and I had a general sense of what each locale is like. There’s still plenty to uncover after you’ve reached that point, but without the thrill of exploration the game does lose something. Zubmariner is a godsend because it not only introduces several new ports with new premises, characters and stories; it introduces an entirely new and mysterious map to explore. Sure, it’s an addition grafted onto the old map, but it still feels new. And the new ports that I’ve discovered so far (less than half of them, I think) are all among the most interesting in the game. I should specifically mention the underwater settlement of Scrimshander, my current favourite. Scrimshander is a settlement made of bones, where they are so obsessed with the recording, archiving and interpretation of history that they demand that nobody may leave Scrimshander without leaving something behind for posterity: a memory, a bit of your personality, a body part… It seems that the larger story in Scrimshander, which I’ve barely scratched the surface of, will turn out to be a purposeful interrogation of the Great Man model of history, in which you can choose to search the archives for either great heroes or telling patterns. That’s a whole level wonkier and more specific (and also more directly satirical) than anything on the surface of the Unterzee. (Well, except for Pigmote Isle, perhaps. That one was always a tad unsubtle.) One thing that’s great about this game being text-based is that it can actually go to places like this: where archiving and scholarship are as much part of your adventure as fighting and smuggling. And since it all happens in an imaginary world made of well-placed words, one type of adventure is just as vibrant and exciting as the next. This expansion is just what I needed to get pulled back into Sunless Sea’s warped magnificence.

Movies

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 & 2 — I honestly can’t even remember which Harry Potter movies I’ve seen and which I haven’t, but I was sure I hadn’t seen these two. And, thrown into a fit of nostalgia by The Cursed Child, I figured I’d check them out. After all, even if they sucked, at least there’s Alan Rickman. Part 1 is massively slow, and a bit superfluous. One of the most egregious downsides of massive franchises is that studios can make as many movies as they like and people will dutifully turn up. Still, Part 1 has some really excellent moments. The animated segment telling the parable of the three brothers is brilliant. Also, if there’s one good reason why the seventh book should have been split into two films, it’s to offer the three leads — all of whom, remember, were small children when the franchise began — a chance to do a proper three-hander, without being bolstered by the staggeringly prestigious supporting cast who has been there since the start. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and especially Emma Watson all acquit themselves quite well, here. Plus, Rickman’s not the only late icon who makes an appearance: it’s nice to see Richard Griffiths as well, if only for a few frames. The second film is the better one by miles, obviously. There are still problems, like Professor McGonagall locking the entirety of Slytherin house in the dungeons. Seems like a civil liberties infraction. But then, Slytherin has always been one of the biggest problems with the Harry Potter canon. As has been frequently observed, it’s a house for evil children. That will tend to cause storytelling issues. There are moments of moviemaking nonsense, like Malfoy grabbing Harry’s hand as he flies above on a broomstick, to suddenly being on his back in the next shot. But all of this is more than compensated for by the magnificent handling of Snape’s memories in the pensieve, and Harry’s final encounter with Dumbledore, in the bright white King’s Cross Station in his head. I have only just realized that both here and in the book, Dumbledore is essentially Alan Moore in this scene. First off, there’s his famous quote (and also J.K. Rowling’s most powerful benediction at the end of the series) “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.” That’s pure Alan Moore. And then, when Harry asks him directly the question that the audience is already thinking (this sort of thing happens a lot in these movies), namely whether what’s happening is actually real or only in his head, Dumbledore rejects his premise: certainly, it’s in his head, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. That’s also pure Alan Moore. I doubt somehow that Moore would have time for the Harry Potter books, but that’s his loss. The movies are certainly the lesser iteration of the story, but it’s nice they exist for a quick trip back into that world now and then. And they do boast the most staggering array of overqualified supporting actors this side of Game of Thrones.

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World — I expected more from this. First off, there are a couple of segments where I think Werner Herzog is labouring under a totally misguided premise. The whole bit about internet addiction has a slight tinge of daytime television about it. Herzog seems to be implying, by putting this chapter alongside other stories of how the internet has changed the world, that this is a new phenomenon, when it’s quite obvious from the interviews that it’s really no different from any other addiction. Gambling addiction in particular comes to mind. Addiction is age-old. Implying that this is a new human grievance brought on by the internet seems almost willfully ignorant. Plus, when Herzog talks about gamers wearing diapers so they can “avoid losing points by going to the bathroom,” it’s clear that he believes all video games are Pong. The other segment I thought was an odd choice is one about a family who were forced to confront disturbing images of their deceased daughter, who had been decapitated in a car accident, by emails from random malicious strangers. This is awful, certainly. But it’s a bizarre way to approach the cruelty of anonymous strangers on the internet. Saying “the internet can sometimes be bad, like in this one extreme example!” is not super effective when we’re constantly bombarded by horrifying stories of the online abuse suffered by women and people of colour as a matter of routine. What Herzog has put forth here isn’t the exception: it’s the sad, sad rule. But there’s much to love, here. The film opens with incredible panache. One plausible origin story of the internet is related to us by Computer-Science-Regis-Philbin (Leonard Kleinrock) accompanied by the Rheingold overture. Really, putting the Rheingold overture at the beginning of anything tends to make it feel momentous, but the combination of Kleinrock’s incredible charisma and Herzog’s sense of what details will pop out make it a really great opening scene. The segment featuring Ted Nelson is quite wonderful. He’s a computer scientist who conceived of a version of the internet before there was such a thing and is struggling even now to make it work, in spite of the World Wide Web’s indomitable presence. (Popular guy, lately. He cropped up in Kentucky Route Zero as well. Sort of.) But this scene is too short. Nelson gets to outline his vision in extremely broad strokes, and then we never hear from him again. I could have done with more of this kind of stuff — visions of internets past and future and possible and improbable — and less of the sort of stuff where Herzog asks people if the internet dreams of itself. That’s a question that sounds interesting until you think about it, and then it doesn’t sound that interesting. It definitely sounds very Herzog, which leads me to wonder if he’s just playing into the schtick at this point. Of the responses to that question that were included, exactly one of them is interesting, because it’s grounded in computer science, and offers a compelling argument that the World Wide Web is the internet dreaming of itself. But the fact that Herzog got that response seems like random good fortune considering that the rest of his interview subjects treat the question like the imprecise thought that it is. I think the biggest problem with this movie is that Herzog insists on looking at the internet as A Thing That’s Here Now, and it’s Doing Stuff To Us, as opposed to something that we made and continue to make. Herzog is good at thinking about the stuff that exists outside of us and in spite of us and that we can’t control. But the internet is not a grizzly bear. And as much as we probably can’t control it, we do shape it because we are it. “What is the internet doing to us” is a less interesting question than “what should the internet be?” And Herzog doesn’t seem plugged in enough to realize that this is a question that’s even possible to ask.

The Girl on the Train — I didn’t hate it. But it’s not very good. For a thriller, it’s pretty dull for the bulk of its running time. It really only picks up once the penny drops and the events that the movie has been obscuring become clear. That’s an odd thing: to be more engaged once you know everything. The acting’s hit and miss. Emily Blunt alone is hit and miss. She’s made to look extremely rough, like you’d expect such an extreme alcoholic to, but the performance feels mannered, and the moments where she really cuts loose don’t hit home like they should. They’re more pathetic than sad. Haley Bennett ranges from quite good to “Did Jennifer Lawrence forget how to act??” And Justin Theroux gives a reasonable performance, only to throw it away at the end with some deeply unconvincing, erm, twitching. I don’t think that’s a spoiler. Honestly, the best part of this movie is watching consummate professional Allison Janney do marvellous things with extremely limited material. She plays the detective. You know, the detective. That role. And she can make implications and cast aspersions without even saying anything. I’m always happy when she shows up in stuff. I wish somebody would give her a lead role in something I want to watch. (Though, after this I may go and watch Tallulah, just for the acting.)

Literature, etc.

Karen Page & Andrew Dornenburg: The Flavor Bible — Yeah, I bought the meaty one. And I immediately made a delicious meal of ginger-glazed salmon with fresh tarragon and broiled grapefruit. Both Flavor Bibles have proven themselves to be spectacular reference books that make cooking more fun, and in a few cases easier. I’ve never felt this confident in just selecting a couple of vegetables and a few spices and serving them together, uncomplicatedly. I haven’t looked at the intro yet. I’ll do that when I finish slogging through the one in the vegetarian edition, which is useful but quite dull — unlike the vegetarian meals I’ve made using that book, which were not dull at all. For vegetable-inclined omnivores such as myself, it really is worth having both.

Natalia Ginzburg: “He and I” — An essay anthologized in Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, a book that I love very much and would recommend to literally everybody. Ginzburg’s essay is a fascinating glimpse into a marriage — her marriage, to a man who seems like a bit of a condescending shit, but who must have something going for him, because Ginzberg seems to mostly like him. Basically, it’s about how people in relationships can be different from each other, which is both extremely obvious and an extremely huge concept to take on in a short essay. But Ginzberg manages, because she’s able to describe the differences between her and her husband with great specificity. I really enjoyed this. Go buy The Art of the Personal Essay. It’s got everything.

Wole Soyinka: “Why Do I Fast?” — Soyinka is a fascinating figure: a literary pioneer whose experiments took place while he was in solitary confinement during the Nigerian Civil War. This essay about a practice he would occasionally undertake during that period — fasting in protest — is staggeringly visceral. This is not the last of his work I’ll read.

Television

Last Week Tonight: October 23, 2016 — Another good week, with only a couple of jokes that didn’t land. The segment on the third debate is particularly good, which is a remarkable thing to say given how completely worn out I am from hearing the same horrible sound bites from that debate again and again. Also, I think this might be the first time that Oliver doesn’t introduce an interstitial with “And now, this.” Don’t know why I felt compelled to make that observation. But here we are.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: “United Nations” — Incredible. Bee’s segment on Catholic-run hospitals is as revealing as John Oliver’s best semi-investigative segments, but with the added touch of actually featuring original interview footage with women who have been denied medically necessary late-term abortions by Catholic hospitals. It’s harrowing. And then there’s an interview with Madeleine Albright. This is great.

Nathan Barley — I really wanted to like this. I would really love for it to be an ahead-of-its-time critique of vapid internet personalities and proto-tech bros (this is the concept of the show that was pitched to me in an excellent episode of Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything called “The Future,” which you should check out because it’s better than the actual show), but it’s actually really obvious, and doesn’t have much to say except that sometimes people who are seen as fashionable are also stupid. Big news. I’m having second thoughts about watching more Black Mirror, if this is what Charlie Brooker thinks constitutes satire. I think this show would have been better if it made the sceptic Dan Ashcroft (a wonderful, pre-Boosh Julian Barratt) a stronger, more present protagonist, and made the show’s titular fashion-conscious scenester idiot more of a thing that happens to him. Like with Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby. The story of a well-meaning sceptic who becomes embroiled in the very world he’s trying to stave off in spite of his best efforts is a better story than the one told here. On the other hand, you do get to see a bunch of future stars in small roles, which is cool. Noel Fielding shows up to do the Noel Fielding thing. Ben Whishaw is hilarious in a role with almost no lines. And Benedict Cumberbatch himself shows up as a fully-formed, wonderful actor with obvious leading man potential, and he’s in two scenes. So that’s fun.

Music

Ghost: Meliora — This was exactly what I hoped for it to be: totally over-the-top, gothic, theatrical metal with an underlying pop sensibility. It has essentially hit the perfect formula to lure me back to a genre that I thought I was done with. It’s fun, trope-aware, and definitely taking the piss. But it’s also a really solid metal album with great riffs and good playing from the band of masked persons who stand alongside the face paint-wearing, self-styled Satanic pope who sings lead vocals. “Cirice” is the obvious highlight on first listen, with its suspenseful acoustic opening, and its well-deployed vocal hooks (yes, hooks), but I’m also already quite taken with “Majesty” and the final track, “Deus in Absentia.” Admittedly, that last one works better as a finale to the album than it does on its own. This is one of those cases where the band knew it was okay to go (even more) over the top at the very end, because what came before seems to call for it. (See also: Supertramp’s Crime of the Century, the Chemical Brothers’ Further, Mahler’s third symphony.) Maybe it’s just because it seems seasonal, but I’ve been really getting a charge out of Meliora this week. At this rate, it’s likely to end up one of my favourite albums of the year. Didn’t see that coming. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

WTF with Marc Maron: “Margo Price” — This is instantly classic WTF. Right at the start of the conversation, Maron says it directly: “I like you.” And Margo Price says it back: “I like you too.” That’s the key, on this show. And here are two people with some common hardships to talk about and a similar sense of the world. Price is a lot of fun, and she’s got great stories. Plus, listening to this made it clear that there really isn’t anything on Midwest Farmer’s Daughter that’s not based on Price’s own life experiences. Which is distressing. But at least she could channel it all into great songs. This is an engrossing conversation that could also act as proof-of-concept for WTF if you haven’t gotten into it. Listen to this. It’s super. Pick of the week.

In the Dark: “The Truth” — As a conclusion to In the Dark, this doesn’t hit quite as hard as last week’s episode, but it does manage to sink a few more nails into the coffin of the Stearns County sheriff’s office’s reputation. Which is all you can ask. This has been a pretty good podcast, based on a truly extraordinary investigation. I’m pretty excited about the future of APM Reports.

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist,” parts 15 & 16, plus Sinatra rerun — It’s a really good thing that Longworth employs somebody to mix the audio now. Because, even if it is still just music playing underneath talking, at least the music isn’t edited in such a distracting, ostentatious way, like it is in the older episodes that have been replayed in this series. There’s a moment in the Sinatra rerun where the same brief segment of a very recognizable Gershwin piano piece plays again and again, and it is infuriating. This series has been incredible on average. At its best, and the final two episodes are among its best (along with the episodes on Dorothy Parker and Lena Horne), it is staggering. I’m undecided whether I prefer it to the Charles Manson season or not, but I did really love it. 

Theory of Everything: “Honeypot” — This series on surveillance is already one of my favourite things that Benjamen Walker has done. It’ll be nice when he manages to get out in the world a bit more, for a bit of sonic variety. But I’m always on board for the episodes where Walker turns a critical eye towards the emerging future of the internet. His sharing economy series is the reigning champion, but considering how terrified I am about online surveillance, this could easily surpass it. And I’m really wondering what he’s working up to with that fake midroll ad spot. Funny that Andrew Calloway from the “Instaserfs” series showed up in this one: he’s got a new podcast out, and DMed me on Twitter to listen to it. I haven’t. I will. I wonder if it’s part of an elaborate fiction devised by Benjamen Walker…? Nah, that’s just paranoid.

In Our Time: “Plasma” — I think maybe I should steer clear of science on this show. Science researchers talking on the radio like they talk to each other has limited appeal compared to the same thing done by historians or English professors.

The Memory Palace: “In Line” — A short one, but affecting. It’s about the circumstances that led to the Voting Rights Act, and how familiar they still seem today. More interestingly, isn’t it notable how Radiotopia is putting its funding model front and centre in this pledge drive (nearly over, go support it) just when the wheels look like they’re coming off of Gimlet? (I don’t think they actually are, mind you, but they’ve had their trials front-and-centre, lately.) DiMeo even comments specifically on the lack of venture capital backing Radiotopia. Hmm.

The Bugle: “Buglemas Eve – a final preview” — The relaunch had already happened by the time I listened to this, but I’m glad I did, because these snippets make me more confident that it’ll go on being funny with these guest hosts. And Wyatt Cenac! Seriously, this is going to be an embarrassment of comedic riches.

This American Life: “Seriously?” — I had no idea that “patriotic correctness” was a thing. Also, this is most notable for its first act, produced by Ira himself, where he talks to his Republican uncle about the things he believes that are factually untrue. It is frustrating beyond compare, no doubt moreso for Ira himself, because it didn’t used to be like this. There was a time when the two sides of the political spectrum merely had a conflict of values. Now, there’s an entire side of the discourse (and it really is mostly just that one side) that contests even the demonstrable facts. This is one of those things that you can basically only listen to and despair.

The Heart: “Helen Breger’s Last Kiss” — A charming story about an elderly woman’s love and sex life. What better ode could there be to a recently-departed grandparent?

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Great Halloween Candy Debate with Mallory Ortberg” — PCHH live episodes are always great. They’re funnier in front of an audience. I have to say, I laughed harder at the segment on Halloween candy than I have at some actual comedy podcasts in recent weeks. The three core members are especially on their respective A-games here, with Glen Weldon providing some classic Weldonisms, including a description of Tootsie Rolls as Madame Tussauds’ elegant turds. I generally agree with their assessments, though I think I’m less enthusiastic about candy in general. There’s just something about listening to people talk about food, though. This honestly rivals The Sporkful at it’s most gleefully frivolous. Really fun.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Sorting Hat” — It’s possible that this hit me at exactly the right time, considering my current wave of Cursed Child-induced Potter nostalgia. But I think this is one of the best episodes of Imaginary Worlds. Hogwarts’ four houses are one of the most compelling elements of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world, partially for the problems they pose. I’ve always felt that Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff were the only houses with properly specific, house-like identities, because Gryffindor and Slytherin are essentially narrative constructs: one is for protagonists, one is for antagonists. And that opens up the oft-stated issue of Slytherin being a house for evil people. However, listening to this, it was interesting to hear other fans’ take on this: people who self-identify as Slytherins, for instance. That demonstrates to me that I must be at least slightly wrong. Besides, Snape’s a Slytherin. (Sidenote: Slytherin and Gryffindor make up the same approximate yin-yang as Snape and Dumbledore, don’t they? The good within the bad; the bad within the good.) Plus, there’s a fan’s in-universe theory about why the Sorting Hat chooses to put Harry, Hermione and Ron in Gryffindor as opposed to Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff respectively. And that theory gets at a much deeper notion of the value of education than I expected to come into this at the beginning. Really nice.

New Yorker: Out Loud: “Beyond Citizen Kane” — Somehow, I came to the New Yorker’s defunct short-form podcast before I ever listened to their much-beloved New Yorker Radio Hour. I’ll get there. But this is about Orson Welles and it has Alex Ross on it, so how was I not going to listen? I’ve made a note to watch F for Fake. My Welles experience is too limited, it seems.

This American Life: “Will I Know Anyone at This Party?” — One of the most rage-inducing things I’ve heard during this rage-inducing election. The main attraction is a great story by Zoe Chace about St. Cloud, Minnesota, where conservative America’s racist panic over immigration (which, as Ira points out, doesn’t even make sense given the falling immigration rate) has been bubbling over for a few extra years. There’s tape in this of people saying things that are… hard to forgive. It’s not even the racism itself that’s so galling; it’s the fact that many of the people saying these things believe wholeheartedly that they aren’t racist. Even an elected representative who outspokenly opposed his own constituents’ call for a moratorium on Somali immigrants (honest to god) says things like “I know these people! They’re good people! They’re not racist, they’re just…” and then he tries to defend them. But they’re obviously, totally racist. They may be good people in many other respects, but they do not understand what constitutes racism, and why it’s wrong. That’s what’s really great about this story: it demonstrates specifically how these kinds of views made it into the mainstream of the Republican party from out of the fringes. I know plenty of people like this myself, coming from a conservative part of Canada (relatively speaking). Some of the most thoughtful, generous and kind-hearted people that I know are also pretty racist. And it doesn’t come out in their interactions with specific individuals of other races; but it does come out in the policies they support because they’ve been made to perceive a larger problem. One that doesn’t exist. This episode gets into all of this, and also has Neil Patrick Harris singing in character as Paul Ryan. It is great, important radio, but it is not my pick of the week because right now I feel like I don’t need this as much as I need Marc Maron shooting the shit with Margo Price. It’s November in the year of an American election. We’ve got to stay sane somehow.

99% Invisible: “McMansion Hell” — Primo 99pi. If you didn’t support the Radiotopia fundraiser, feel bad. Then listen to this hilarious episode about tacky, tasteless gigantic homes and feel worse. Then go to the blog that it was inspired by and laugh more.

Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 9, 2016)

Whole bunch of fun stuff this week, including separate entries for each instalment of Kentucky Route Zero that I replayed. Also, an additional recommendation: don’t let a bit of rain stop you from running the seawall. Did that this afternoon, with a bunch of podcasts lined up, and it was a highlight of my week. 31 reviews.

Television

All Aboard the Starliner: The Making of Full Circle — I am not about to become the sort of person who watches the special features on old Doctor Who DVDs. But it seems I have indeed watched this one, so why deny it. It’s most fun to watch Christopher Bidmead and Lalla Ward, two people I quite admire, slag off Matthew Waterhouse mercilessly. But it’s also nice to hear the story of how Bidmead encouraged Andrew Smith, the very young writer of this story.

Last Week Tonight: October 9, 2016 — Firstly, this is fine. Secondly, the bit about the, ahem, “spray-tanned Furby eating KFC and screaming at a gold star family” is exactly the sort of non-joke that I wrote about last week that I wish this show would stop doing. Finally, the quality of the argumentation in the Guantanamo segment proves my earlier point about Oliver being most valuable as a pundit.

Doctor Who: “State of Decay” — It’s really wonderful the extent to which K-9 is seen as a joke even within the show at this point. In this story, he becomes weaponized, in the most ironic way possible. Love that. Altogether, this is a less worthwhile story than the previous one. It’s attempt to rationalize vampires is clumsy, and aside from the crackling scenes of the Doctor conversing with the rebels, this is a bit dull. No matter. I’m really only watching this to have the necessary context for the next story, which I suspect I will completely adore.

Full Frontal With Samantha Bee: October 5, 2016 — I think this just found its way onto my weekly viewing list, which currently only contains Last Week Tonight, a show that I’m becoming less enamoured of by the second. For better or worse, John Oliver tends to comment on current events from above the fray: the closest thing to righteous indignation that he can conjure is bemusement. Whereas Sam Bee is right in the shit, getting publicly angry on behalf of us less clever people, just like Jon Stewart used to do. I feel a bit dumb for not having watched this regularly. The episodes I’ve seen are the best satire of the year.

Doctor Who: “Warrior’s Gate” — Oh, I like this a lot. Mostly. Romana doesn’t quite work here, in spite of it being her swan song. Lalla Ward may be slightly to blame: you couldn’t blame her for having one foot out the door, considering everything. But there are story problems as well. She’s forced to be mysterious rather than whimsical and she’s also robbed of her competency once she’s captured. Annoyingly, this would have been easy enough to fix: just have her accompany the freighter crew out of curiosity rather than suspicion, and allow her to find her own way to escape rather than having Adric rescue her. She wouldn’t even necessarily appear credulous; she could just do what the Doctor always does and take a risk with relative confidence that she’ll find her way out of any tight spot that arises. This alternative also leaves Adric with nothing to do, which is a bonus. But aside from all of this, “Warrior’s Gate” is fabulous. I haven’t seen the show this abstract since the first episode of “The Mind Robber,” which this bears some obvious aesthetic similarities to. And, “episode one of ‘The Mind Robber’ stretched out to a full story” is a pretty decent brief. And the fact that time travel actually plays a role in the story makes it feel like my favourite bits of the new series. It’s weird and arty, and a bit austere. If this entire season could have kept up the pace and the tone of this and “Logopolis,” it would be one of the high points of the classic series.

Cabaret (televised broadcast of the Sam Mendes production) — I was recently defending my opinion that there are good musicals other than Hamilton (though only a handful that I really love) and I realized that my opinion of Cabaret, always a favourite, is entirely based on the film adaptation. That movie is brilliant, but it excises most of the songs. So, I figured I’d scour YouTube for a filmed theatrical production and I found this. Holy shit. Everything that was implied in Joel Grey’s performance as the Emcee is made as explicit as possible in Alan Cumming’s. Where Joel Grey says “Ladies and gentlemen,” Alan Cumming says “Ladies and gentlemen.” This is that rare thing where two performers make something so completely different out of a piece that they can’t meaningfully be judged against each other. Part of the beauty of Joel Grey’s leering creep is that you can never quite tell whose side he’s on. Alan Cumming’s emcee is so aggressively of the counterculture that he couldn’t possibly be aligned even slightly with fascism. He’s a one-man middle finger to Hitler. The other thing that this made clear is that Cabaret’s best songs are in fact in the movie. Kander and Ebb’s other masterpiece, Chicago, isn’t as dramatically satisfying or profound as this, but it’s got better tunes, on balance. Still, Cabaret is a classic. Pick of the week.

Games

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 1 — I’ve decided to replay the first three acts of Kentucky Route Zero before approaching act four, because this is so enormously dense that I couldn’t possibly remember everything that’s important. It turns out to be built for second playthroughs. As far as I know, it’s probably built for fourth playthroughs. Kentucky Route Zero is brilliant at offering up tantalizing little thematic threads that you can pull on but you can’t quite connect with each other. Right from the beginning of this, it’s clear that there’s metafiction at play: Joseph’s computer in the first scene is foreshadowing of how that character will recur in the third act, and of the idea that computer programs will form a central element of the story. I’m fairly convinced that the three people in the basement of Equus Oils, who appear again in “Limits and Demonstrations,” are also serving as an element in this set of themes. When they first appear, they are playing a game, the rules of which are unclear. So is the player when they first encounter these characters. Next time we see them, they are surveying weird art. So is the player, at every point during Kentucky Route Zero. Indeed, the entire notion of watching, listening to and examining things is central, here. There are tape recorders strewn around, and televisions that become games when moss grows on them (more foreshadowing). Soon enough, we’ll be watching theatre in “The Entertainment” and hearing music in the pub in Act Three. Also, the theme of hardship stemming from economic recession is immediately obvious, with the power to Equus Oils having been shut off, and the Márquezes having fallen on hard times. It’s tempting to try and tie these threads together in some cogent fashion. But there’s part of me that resists the idea of forming one unified theory of Kentucky Route Zero’s story. It seems like it ought to be bigger than that. Like a David Lynch movie or a Virginia Woolf novel, it need not be pinned down by the need to answer the question “what does it mean?” Still, as I play through the next three acts and the interstitial features between them once more, I’m going to see if any connections come to me unbidden.

Kentucky Route Zero: “Limits and Demonstrations” — It’s worth noting that this computer game is as good an art exhibit as I’ve ever seen in Vancouver. The first time I played through “Limits and Demonstrations,” I had already been through the first three acts of the main game. So, it didn’t strike me just how much explicit foreshadowing there is in this. It also didn’t strike me the extent to which the three characters you accompany through this exhibit are mirrors of Lula, Donald and Joseph. I still do not know entirely what to make of this, but it certainly adds a layer to Kentucky Route Zero’s pre-existing sense of performativity. And these characters only seem to appear when there is metafiction afoot. I’ll follow these thoughts up when I get through Act 2 for the second time.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 2 — I had really meant to make this playthrough of the first three acts a quick one, just to refamiliarize myself before playing Act 4, but it’s impossible not to immerse yourself in this. Even the bits that I remember really clearly, I still feel compelled to go through in detail. (I did give the Secret Tourism locations along the Echo a miss, this time, though.) Just wandering through the Museum of Dwellings, observing the structures and listening to what people say is satisfying. And the format of having that entire segment take place in past tense, from the perspective of the people Conway and Shannon talk to rather than by Conway and Shannon themselves is a brilliant little method of distancing. It also gives us a broader picture of the world where this is taking place: each of the people living here is having similar problems to the characters we know better, like Joseph and Weaver. I’m also particularly intrigued by the scene that takes place in the storage locker. The idea that there was once a church here, but that everybody stopped coming, and now the janitor is keeping it alive by posting pictures of the congregation on the wall and playing tapes of the sermon is pretty rich. It’s a facsimile of a thing: a digital representation of reality, much like the cave systems in William Crowther’s Adventure — the first adventure game, and a key reference point in Kentucky Route Zero Act 3. I think this is overall my least favourite of the first three acts, but I still love the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces, with its BBQing organist and its floor full of bears.

Kentucky Route Zero: “The Entertainment” — This is my favourite of the three interludes Cardboard Computer has released so far, though it lacks the high-concept gusto of “Here and There Along the Echo.” I’ll never forget the first time I played this and gradually realized what was going on: that the scene before me was in fact a play, that there was an audience present, and that I was an actor. This second time through, one of the first things I saw when I started looking around was the lighting rig above the stage. I can’t recall whether my first experience was similar, but of course I wouldn’t have known what to make of it anyway. It’s interesting to note that this sort of faux-Iceman Cometh old-time bar setting seems to be in the air again, these days. This captures the same sort of misguided nostalgia for a time and place that wasn’t actually any good that Horace and Pete does. And, to boot, they are both essentially theatrical productions taking place inside a different medium. I’m not sure where to follow that train of thought to next, so I’ll use it as a segue to discuss the most interesting thing about “The Entertainment,” which is its ostentatious, explicit theatricality. And the fact that it’s story is presented as a play is undercut by the fact that some of the characters are later seen in a non-theatrical context: this bartender will later show up in this bar again, but as a real character and not an actor. Similarly, Lula Chamberlain and Joseph Wheatree are credited as the play’s set designer and adapted playwright, respectively. I have written before about how it’s probably best to resist interpretations of Kentucky Route Zero that attempt to wrestle it into internal consistency. But “The Entertainment” makes it tempting to go against that. If anybody has a plausible explanation of how this bar can exist both as a play within a game and as a diegetic locale in that same game, I’m all ears. Bonus points for explaining how Lula and Joseph can exist both inside of this story and outside of it.

Music

John Coltrane: Meditations — My favourite Coltrane album by a mile. The strange noisiness of “The Father And The Son And The Holy Ghost,” with Pharaoh Sanders and Rashied Ali squeaking and banging as hard as they can, would be hard to appreciate in isolation. But, that track along with the other free sections of this recording only make up half of the yin yang. This record also features some of McCoy Tyner’s most beautiful playing on record, and Coltrane himself at his simplest and most direct. It demands to be listened to from beginning to end, because without each of its segments to prop each other up, it loses its integrity completely. But, when approached on its own terms, it is a timeless classic. Too bad it broke up Coltrane’s core quartet. But, he had other business to attend to anyway. (Also, I listened to this while reading Blake, and it paired rather nicely — two examples of unorthodox spirituality expressed in occasionally bewildering ways.)

Chance the Rapper: Acid RapColouring Book was definitely a step forward from this, but it’s a mostly great record with its own merits. It isn’t as straightforwardly joyful as its successor, but that’s not a bad thing necessarily. He is definitely much more stoned on this one, and a bit less grown up. But it’s a good record that I’ll return to — albeit probably a bit less frequently than Colouring Book.

Live events

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra/Karina Canellakis & Karen Gomyo: Live, Oct. 15 — Bless me father, for I have sinned. It’s been… two years since my last symphony concert. Quite frankly, the VSO is yet to convince me that paying for a ticket to hear them live will reliably be a more worthwhile experience than staying home and listening to a recording of the Concertgebouw in the same rep. But when a friend invites me to go I’ll happily attend, especially when the Berg Violin Concerto is on the program. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of the 20th century, and essentially the only work from the Second Viennese School that I would recommend unreservedly to anybody who’s interested in classical music. (Check out Isabelle Faust’s recording with Claudio Abbado. The ending is heartstopping.) Karen Gomyo played the solo part with all of the expressiveness that Berg wrote into it, and she tackled the technical bits with substantial derring-do. Karina Canellakis is a really solid conductor who possesses the clarity that all of the most acclaimed conductors in recent history seem to lack. But that didn’t stop the orchestra from struggling with parts of the Berg. Most of it came off okay, but the glorious ending of the piece was compromised by the band not playing together. There were even some issues in Mozart’s Magic Flute overture — including outright wrong notes in the violins during the slow opening. But Canellakis took it at the fast clip that it needs to stay aloft, and once it got going, I really enjoyed it. It never gets old, the Magic Flute overture. One of those rare pieces that survives overexposure. The second half of the program was Rachmaninov 2, so they were starting from a deficit. Rachmaninov all blends together for me. I like the third concerto, but for the most part he’s one of the surest composers to make my eyes glaze over. Which they did, about halfway through the first movement, and I didn’t check back in until the third, which I thought Canellakis conducted brilliantly. She restrained the orchestra enough for the bulk of the movement that the huge romantic climaxes felt properly cathartic. And the final movement is a jolly romp that it’s hard not to like. Interestingly, this was very much a “clap between the movements” kind of crowd, which I always find reassuring, because traditions are stupid and I prefer the company of people who are either ignorant or irreverent of them. I noticed more young people around than I usually see at classical shows. That’s nice. The friend I went with even ran into some folks she knows who are also our age. Guess they ought to program more Berg. This was fun. If I get a chance to hear Canellakis conduct live again, I’ll go for sure. My general standard of success for a night out at live entertainment is whether or not it was as good as seeing a decent movie. This was. Chalk it up as a win.

Podcasts

The Gist: “Rapid Response: The Town Hall Debate” — Pesca is a public discourse poet. I didn’t watch the second debate because there are limits to how successfully I can remain sane. But this essentially confirms my suspicions: that the format would make it a complete shambles and that nobody would say anything new. Okay, now onto a longer podcast recap of this same inane thing…

NPR Politics Podcast: “The Second Presidential Debate” — I have to say, the panel on this podcast is doing god’s work by making it so I don’t have to actually sit through these godawful debates. They tell me what happened, offer a bit of analysis, resist total partisanship, and also don’t act like Trump isn’t a buffoon whose campaign is well off the tracks. It’s what anybody needs to stay informed and also sane.

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist” parts 9-11, plus Lena Horne rerun — The Lena Horne piece is an absolute highlight of this show, partially because it corrects the major issue with most episodes, which is the absence of tape. I love You Must Remember This, and I love Karina Longworth, but I’m sometimes frustrated by the fact that she thinks she can write a script and read it over music and that’s radio. It obviously doesn’t stop me from listening, but when I heard the Lena Horne episode, which has a great deal of archival tape of Horne telling her own story, it made me wish that the show would be like this more often. Podcasts aren’t audiobooks. Fortunately, You Must Remember This is an excellent enough audiobook that I don’t mind when it calls itself a podcast.

99% Invisible: “Project Cybersyn” — A lovely story that ties Chilean socialism in with nationalized design. In general, 99pi tends to position its stories as stories in themselves, as opposed to sub-narratives of larger stories. It’s nice to see a staunchly design-oriented story that ties into a political narrative that is larger than itself.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Trump v GOP” — I don’t foresee myself ever having anything much to say about this podcast, but I will continue forcing myself to go through the motions of reviewing it each time. I have principles. I will say this: I was really sceptical of this podcast’s claims in its early advertising to be a functional one-stop shop for political coverage. I still don’t believe there’s such a thing, and the very suggestion of it is a little bit dangerous. But having started to listen fairly regularly, it definitely comes closer than any other source of election news that I come across.

In The Dark: Episodes 5-7 — This really picked up for me in the sixth episode, where the story went broader and started getting into the national consequences of Jacob Wetterling’s disappearance, such as the very first sex offenders registry. It keeps the momentum through the seventh episode, which moves backwards to explain how the narrative of “small town cops who’ve never seen this sort of thing before are in over their heads” is bunk. Because, it turns out, the very police department that mishandled the Wetterling case so badly had mishandled a bunch of other cases in the past and failed to adequately debrief. This is nearly over, I assume, but it has become quite dazzling.

Imaginary Worlds: “Magical Thinking” — A wonderful consideration of the storytelling pitfalls and opportunities associated with magic. This episode splits fictional approaches to magic into two camps, which Patrick Rothfuss calls “poetic” and “scientific” magic, the idea being that in the latter category, the magic is defined by a Dungeons and Dragonsesque set of strictures, whereas in the former it is allowed to exist essentially unexplained. My favourite example of “poetic” magic is actually from an ostensibly SF narrative, not a fantasy one: the sonic screwdriver from Doctor Who. These days, the rule about whether or not the sonic can do something is basically, if it would cheapen the story for it to be able to do that, then it can’t. On the other hand, if it could potentially get the story past a boring obstacle set up by another element of the plot, then it definitely can. In other words, the story dictates the specifics of the magic, and not the other way around. The other way around, where the story sort of emerges from the magic system’s specific set of cans and can’ts (haha cants) is totally valid too — and it’s worth noting that it’s an approach that really jives with the creative approaches I admire most in music. Specifically, the rule-based approach of Brian Eno. But I’ve come to deeply admire writers like Steven Moffat, whose respect for consistency (and canonicity) is limited to whether or not it improves the story in his head. Well, look! This episode spun out a nice set of thoughts, didn’t it? Gold star.

All Songs Considered: “Solange, Gillian Welch, Cuddle Magic, More” — The talk outweighs the music on this episode, which Solange handily wins (though, as Robin Hilton will tell you, it’s not a competition). The most interesting thing to happen on this episode is Bob Boilen outright hating a song that Hilton chose, which I’m not sure I’ve ever heard happen before. The sticking point was Boilen’s contention that the guitar solo is dead. And, rocker though I am at heart, I can’t easily disagree. In the past… twenty years, I can only name a handful of really distinctive guitar soloists (not guitarists, mind you, but soloists specifically) with something to say through the medium of guitar solos. I’m thinking of Johnny Greenwood, Jack White and St. Vincent specifically. The era of proliferation of great guitar soloists has certainly ended. But, the existence of those three artists, and I’m sure many others I’m not thinking of right now, demonstrates to me that there’s still potential in the guitar solo. Basically, I come down more on Boilen’s side than Hilton’s, in the sense that I think we’re past the era where guitar solos should be the norm in any specific kind of music. We’re in an era where they must only be employed advisedly.

The Memory Palace: “The Met Residency Episode M2: One Bottle, Any Bottle” — These episodes for the Met do suffer a bit when you’re not actually at the Met, looking at the things that DiMeo is talking about. Not just because of the fact that you don’t know what they look like: in this episode, DiMeo actively conjures the mystique of the place, and the value judgements implicit in having an object occupy space there — space, where the listeners themselves are presumably standing also. It’s still a nice bit of radio, but inconsequential out of context.

StartUp: “Diversification of Worry” — Okay, so I definitely just typed out and backspaced a really angry, unfair screed about the cancellation of Mystery Show. Basically, I think we can trust Alex Blumberg’s judgement when he assures us that there’s only so much he can say about the situation without it being harmful. He could be protecting Starlee Kine as much or more than he’s hiding his own (mistaken?) decision making process. So, I don’t think we can expect to hear much more, and we probably shouldn’t get up in arms about it. That said, I don’t know why Blumberg didn’t make more of an effort to get out in front of the story and not seem like the guy who cancelled a beloved show without telling anybody until the show’s host told the world on Facebook (while Blumberg all the while vaunted an air of “transparency” around his company). But that’s not what concerns me most. What concerns me most is the notion that we may have witnessed the outer limit of the art that can feasibly be produced within the confines of a venture-backed company concerned with its revenue targets. I can only assume that Mystery Show was super expensive (Nick Quah breaks this down a bit in his most recent issue of the Hot Pod newsletter, which is well worth a subscription if you’re interested in the podcast biz). And given the company’s obvious need to not have gigantic expenditures with low returns, it makes sense that Mystery Show was untenable. But the thing is, it was so good. One of the best podcasts ever. Blumberg doesn’t deny that. So, perhaps this is a limitation of his business model — a limitation that might not have existed in the public radio world that he left to start Gimlet. And I wonder if Mystery Show could have survived had it been developed for a publicly-funded platform — any such platform that could offer a podcast with an idiosyncratic release schedule. Maybe that would have presented a whole different set of problems. But I do think this is evidence that companies like Gimlet are not the future of podcasting. They can only be a part of it. Public media is irreplaceable, because we can’t afford to have any more Mystery Shows get canned.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “A Fall Movie and Television Preview” — This is always one of my favourite episodes of the year, because Glen Weldon is always so obviously wrong about what television will be a ratings success. Also, I am now massively looking forward to a season of great movies. Manchester by the Sea is at the top of my list, but there’s a bunch of stuff mentioned here that I hadn’t heard about, and will check out.

On The Media: “Personal Responsibility” — Gladstone’s series on poverty myths is off to a wonderful start, with an instalment on maybe the most pernicious — and certainly the most ruthless — myth of all: that poor people are lazy. It ties a profile of a present-day poor single mother to a larger narrative about the gradual erosion of welfare, culminating in Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms, the consequences of which are only beginning to show themselves now.

Science Vs: “Forensic Science” — The bad jokes are really starting to bother me. It’s a shame, too, because this is a really solid show in every other respect. I may have to demote it to an occasional listen. We’ll see how I feel after the second half of this two-parter.

This American Life: “My Undesirable Talent” — This features two incredible stories: one about a gentlemanly Mormon with a gambling addiction who became an accomplished thief, and one about a black Californian kid of Ugandan parents who convinced an entire liberal arts college that he was actually from Uganda. He did the accent and the whole bit. That second story is the real highlight. It’s hysterically funny, for one thing, and for another, it has a lot to say about African-American identity. I always say I should listen to this show more. I should listen to this show more.

The Sporkful: “Who is this Restaurant For?” Parts 1-4 — A nice compliment to Pashman’s earlier “Other People’s Food” series, this drills down on the specific issue of restaurants sending signals to people of various races, to either intentionally welcome them, or covertly ward them away. The first and last episodes are the highlights, the former because of Code Switch’s Kat Chow, whose expertise in talking about race and culture gets the series off to a reassuring start, and the latter because W. Kamau Bell is really funny. Recommended.

Theory of Everything: “Burning Down the Panopticon” — Firstly, I am fascinated to see the long game that Walker is playing with these non-existent ad spots. Secondly, one of my favourite modes for Theory of Everything is the mode where it engages directly with difficult thinkers like Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault. So, I quite enjoyed this. Another of my favourite modes for Theory of Everything is when Benjamen Walker expresses extreme wariness of a facet of modern life. Surveillance is certainly a facet worth being wary of. So, this mini-series is sure to be a winner.

StartUp: “You Can’t Wear a Suit Here” — It’s hard to stay angry at Alex Blumberg. It’s also hard to say just how willing his subordinates are to paint him in a negative, or even nuanced light when they’re tasked with telling a story in which he is a character. I have no doubt that he means well, but having myself worked in creative jobs where it felt like the person who was supposed to be giving me feedback had checked out in favour of stuff that doesn’t directly relate to the product we’re ostensibly making, I found myself siding with Eric Mennel on this one, even though the story takes pains to show him as a person who is juggling as much as anybody at Gimlet. And I promise that this isn’t about Mystery Show. BUT. Everybody at Gimlet seems to think of Blumberg as a person who has more optimism than practicality. Maybe that’s why he saw fit to greenlight a show that pretty obviously would be both incredible and extremely unprofitable. In any case, next episode, it looks like we’ll really get a look at what everybody thinks of him. Or, as much of a look as we can be afforded, given that anything can be edited out.

Reply All: “Boy in Photo” — Outstanding. This is Reply All in “Zardulu” mode — where they take a seemingly unimportant internet phenomenon and do investigative journalism until they find something resembling the real story. And this one has layer after layer after layer — in spite of the fact that there’s really nothing of consequence at its centre. It’s just a great story about a whole bunch of ordinary people, who were thrust into a really narrow, specific spotlight because of the internet’s inherent weirdness. Reply All is very seldom less than great, but some weeks I love it more than anything, and this is one of them. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of Jun. 19, 2016)

23 reviews.

Movies

The Nice Guys — Seldom have I been so totally entertained. This is a big, rompy action comedy that just allows itself to be that thing. It’s trope aware, but most of the humour in this doesn’t come from undercutting the tropes: it comes from great, great iterations of those tropes. There are physical comedy setpieces in this that are so beautifully intuitive you wonder why you’ve never seen it done before. Both leads are good; Ryan Gosling is fabulous — and unexpectedly dextrous at physical comedy. We knew he could deliver a joke from The Big Short. But jokes aren’t the primary comedic currency of The Nice Guys. It says something about both Shane Black and Ryan Gosling that the move can get laughs from pratfalls in 2016. Also, this movie corrected a problem I’ve been seeing in a bunch of movies (mostly by the Coen Brothers): it’s got dumb comedy liberals in it, who stage vacuous protests about social ills they don’t adequately understand — but it also has comedy conservatives who monologue villainously about American exceptionalism. In a Coen Brothers movie, the monologuing villain would have been subbed out for some variant of the plainspoken cowboy, who espouses moderate views and good old-fashioned common sense — as if that’s what the liberals are fighting against. And yet it doesn’t feel like South Park-esque false equivalency. It’s nice to see a movie that calls out its comedy liberals for being dumb — because, in this movie, they really are very dumb — without actually siding against them or their cause. Go see this movie! The reviews are lukewarm, but they don’t take into account how much fun it is.

Finding Dory — I was an actual child, or something like it, when Finding Nemo came out. (Though old enough to be mighty annoyed by all of my friends constantly going “Mine! Mine!” like those damned seagulls.) My memories of its details are hazy, so this movie didn’t really have many nostalgia points going in. But it’s really cute (the frequent flashbacks featuring a saucer-eyed baby version of Dory, voiced by a seven-year-old, are almost too adorable) and it’s got some great sight gags. I imagine as soon as the words “camouflaging octopus” were spoken in a meeting, a hundred animators began seizing with joy. Ellen DeGeneres is fantastic, obviously. Also, there is a character in this — Gerald the sea lion — who is not identifiable as a Disney character. He comes straight from the dankest part of the internet. (Oh! And apparently Adrian Belew wrote the music for the opening short! It does not consist entirely of noisy guitar squalls. The man contains multitudes.)

Television

Orange is the New Black: Season 4, episodes 1-4— This season is enormously hyped, but so far it seems to be playing its cards close to its chest. I will withhold judgement until things explode. (Speaking of withholding: going three full episodes without Sophia was a masterstroke. Makes her eventual return feel super momentous.) For now, it’s just great to have these characters around again.

Last Week Tonight: June 19, 2016 — A marvellous episode that breaks Brexit down probably exactly enough for most non-British people to understand. (Were it not for Slate’s Political Gabfest, I would have been clueless going in.) It also boasts an excellent shorter segment on the Dickey Amendment, which lends clarity to how the NRA can be so effective yet so small.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: June 20, 2016 — The thing that Full Frontal has that Last Week Tonight doesn’t are Bee’s remote pieces. John Oliver used to be great at those too, on The Daily Show — and I know he’s done a couple on LWT, the Snowden one being especially great — but he’s mostly put them away in favour of just sitting at his desk. He can do a lot from that desk, to be fair. But when Bee visits a Cherokee tribal court to learn about how white people can pretty much do whatever they want on native land and take no responsibility, you’re reminded of why it’s good for satirists to get out in the world a bit.

Game of Thrones: “Battle of the Bastards” — As hour-long episodes of nothing but brutal violence go, this is extremely well deployed. It is essentially a whole episode of wish fulfilment, in the sense that the worst people in the show (the masters, Ramsay) suffer gruesomely at the hands of the most noble (Daenerys, Jon, Sansa). And while my feelings about Ramsey’s demise are more relief than satisfaction, I will confess that his particular battle tactics in this episode were marvelously in keeping with his entire brutal character. As big ‘splody episode nines go, it isn’t “Baelor,” and it certainly isn’t “Blackwater.” But it isn’t bad.

Games

The Walking Dead: Michonne: “In Too Deep” — I don’t think I’ll ever tire of Telltale. To some extent, all of their games are the same, but only in the sense that they share all of their mechanics. Those mechanics can be used to tell dramatically different kinds of stories. In fact, within the Walking Dead universe alone, we’ve seen a bunch of different kinds of stories. I’m not familiar with Michonne’s character having never read the comics and not having made it that far into the show. But this game’s opening does a brilliant job characterizing her efficiently. In fact the fight that starts this episode might be the most ingenious one in the series so far, because of the way it invokes backstory as it proceeds. Looking forward to the two remaining episodes — and really looking forward to season three in the fall.

Literature, etc.

Thomas Ligotti: “My Case for Retributive Action” — Ligotti is really good at tying the stakes of his stories to specific traits of their narrators. He did it brilliantly in “Sideshow,” and here he does it in a more straightforward setting. Our narrator has a nervous condition. He is very clearly unwell. The story wouldn’t be very effective without that little bit of knowledge. But given that, it’s really disconcerting. Loved this.

Thomas Ligotti: “Our Temporary Supervisor” — This actually builds on ideas in the previous story, particularly the mysterious corporation/governing body called the Quine Organization. I tend not to be a fan of world-building and continuity in short-form narratives, but the Quine Organization, being a shadowy company with a stranglehold over the citizens of whatever fictional nation this is set in, offers a particularly interesting set of tropes with which to tell labour-related parables. I understand Ligotti went back to that well in his collection My Work is Not Yet Done, which would also have sufficed as a title for either of these stories. I wonder if Q. Org makes an appearance?

Peter Henderson: “Back to the Drawing Board” — This Maisonneuve feature (which I read because I was, and am, trying to convince myself to subscribe) tells two stories of artistic obsession. One is about the animator Richard Williams, best-known for Who Framed Roger Rabbit? He spent years and years on his would-be masterpiece The Thief and the Cobbler, only to have it taken away from him by a studio who couldn’t handle the blown deadlines any longer. The other is about Garrett Gilchrist, a struggling filmmaker who abandons all potentially lucrative work to try and piece together a complete version of Williams’ film from what scraps remain. It’s a fabulous pair of yarns that also encompasses much of animation history. I may subscribe to Maisonneuve yet.

Music

Yes: Close to the Edge — I don’t think I’ve ever gone longer between listens of this album than just prior to this time through. It really feels like an old friend. For a lot of years, I sort of wore myself out on this Yes album. Even my beloved Tales From Topographic Oceans got less play, because you just don’t have the time to listen to an 81-minute-long record quite so frequently as a 37-minute one. But now that it no longer feels overfamiliar, all of its original impact came roaring back. The title track is one of the most perfect album sides ever made — and not perfect in the meticulous sense that people wrongly associate with Yes. The best moments of “Close to the Edge” are organized chaos — five people making music together in a room, playing fast and loose within a predetermined structure. There are moments here that, in spite of having heard them hundreds of times, made me gasp aloud on the bus, or tear up a bit behind my sunglasses: the first entry of Jon Anderson’s voice, just for a beat, a cappella; the moment at the end of Steve Howe’s opening guitar solo where finishes on nine sixteenth-notes in unison with Bill Bruford’s snare drum; Anderson’s repeated refrain “I get up, I get down,” gradually ascending to a climax just before Rick Wakeman’s church organ solo; Chris Squire’s dissonant bass note, just before the final “seasons will pass you by.” It’s a masterpiece. If there’s anything wrong with this album, it’s just that the first side is so complete in itself that the second side seems superfluous. Which isn’t to say it’s not good — “And You And I” would have been the best track on a couple other great Yes albums. “Siberian Khatru” isn’t a personal favourite, but this lineup of Yes never rocked harder. Close to the Edge is one of the best records of the 70s, in any genre. If prog rock’s not your thing, then you obviously won’t be into this. But any outright malice you may hear expressed towards Close to the Edge can only be born of blind prejudice. Pick of the week.

Peter Gabriel: “I’m Amazing” — Peter Gabriel has never been known for the timeliness of his records. When Up was released in 2002, reviewers pointed out that it had been in development since the early days of industrial music and marked it down as DOA: Dated On Arrival. (Taken in retrospect as an album divorced from history, it works a lot better. It’s one of my favourite records ever, actually.) Yet here’s Gabriel releasing a new track about Muhammed Ali, shortly after his death. It’s decent. Neither a classic, nor an embarrassment. It’s got some African vocal samples near the end that demonstrate how Gabriel still hasn’t quite wrapped his head around the notion of cultural appropriation, in spite of his famously good intentions. But it’s fine. What’s really interesting is that “I’m Amazing” has apparently been in the vault for years, which is why Gabriel was able to get it out so comparatively quickly after Ali died. This suggests that Gabriel may not be the notorious procrastinator, or the anti-prolific elder statesman that some of us have pegged him as. We know that he records a lot more than he releases. This is the first glimpse behind the curtain, and it’s not that bad. What other interesting experiments are locked up in that vault?

Justice: Audio, Video, Disco — I’d say it’s self-evidently better than their debut, if that weren’t obviously untrue on account of how few people agree with it. But I was way more swept up in this than I was in Cross, which I also liked. It’s probably just on account of how proggy it is. But I also think that it has a greater wealth of melodic invention than their debut record, which is important to me in dance music.

Podcasts

The Gist: “Chuck Klosterman is Wrong! (He Says.)” — I had meant to check out The Gist since hearing Brooke Gladstone refer to Mike Pesca as one of the smartest people she’d ever worked with on the Longreads podcast. Now I see why. This is two acclaimed abstract thinkers talking abstractly, and neither one is obviously smarter than the other. Pesca is less insufferable, though.

The Memory Palace: “A White Horse” — A beautiful, timely, sentimental (in the absolutely most tolerable and completely earned way) tribute to gay clubs as safe spaces. DiMeo has the ability to harness the emotional power of language moreso than probably anybody outside of hip hop. This week, he used that power in service of a mourning community. I don’t want to paint him as saintly, or anything like that, because that would be crass. But this is beautiful, and you can definitely spare ten minutes to hear it.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “O.J.: Made in America and a Television Quiz” — Okay, that settles it. I’m watching O.J.: Made in America as soon as I’m done Orange is the New Black. Gene Demby has some really interesting context to offer about Simpson’s troubled relationship with his race. This is one of many times when this show has tipped me over the edge and encouraged me to check out something I was only halfway planning to.

Radio Diaries: “Majd’s Diary: Two Years in the Life of a Saudi Girl” — This is outstanding. It completely proves the value of first-person narratives as journalism. Majd is a fabulous narrator of her own life. It’s really wrenching to hear the conflict she feels between wanting to be a successful scientist and an independent woman and hoping her family (particularly its male members) can accept that decision. Great radio. Pick of the week.

On The Media: “Never Again, Again” — I’ve got to confess, this was kind of noise to me this week. We’ve reached the point in Orlando coverage where it’s just turned into the same depressing stew of narratives that surfaces after every similarly atrocious act of violence. And those narratives tend to be either self-evident or obviously bullshit to me. As for Brexit, that story has me totally lost at this point. Maybe another podcast about it will help…

Slate’s Political Gabfest: “The ‘Brexit Pursued by a Bear’ Edition” — I confess, the episode title had a lot to do with my decision to listen to this. I don’t tune in very often because Emily Bazelon is kind of the only member of the panel I enjoy listening to. And she’s not here this week. So, mm. The Orlando segment provoked a similar reaction from me as OTM’s. The Brexit segment, however, was invaluable. The Economist’s David Rennie is as level-headed a guide through the whole sordid affair as you could ask for. By the time this review is posted, the vote will be in, and you will be depressed. But if you’re still clueless about why it even happened, go back and check this out.

Invisibilia: “The New Norm” — I was mixed on the first season of Invisibilia. On one hand, the stories were really moving in a lot of cases. On the other hand, the show’s voice (not the hosts’ voices, mind you — I’m speaking abstractly, here) can be cloying. This episode displayed both sides, right from the top. The opening segment, about the first McDonald’s in Russia, is spectacularly forced in its attempt to introduce the episode’s theme. But the story of the southern oil rig where employees were encouraged to set aside their macho bullshit and open up to each other is totally compelling. I anticipate another mixed season.

StartUp: “From the Cell to the Sell” — The second part didn’t disappoint. This story of a drug dealer turned startup founder is the high-water mark of StartUp’s third season so far, and given my prior frustrations, I expect it to remain so.

This American Life: “Tell Me I’m Fat” — This is an astonishing and provocative hour of radio that brings up stuff I’ve never even thought about. Lindy West is at the centre of it, reading segments of her new book Shrill, which sounds fantastic. She puts forth the view that fat people (that is her preferred term) shouldn’t be obligated to lose weight, but rather should find a way to be happy as they are. The showstopper, though, is Elna Baker, who tells the story of successfully losing half her body weight, along with a good chunk of her identity. The way she talks about how her relationship to the world changed along with her weight is viscerally distressing, as is the way she talks about the surgery she had to remove her excess skin.

The Gist: “Brexit Stage Right” — I came for Pesca’s take on Team Leave (yeah, they’d already left, but I was still confused) and stayed for his interview with Big Freedia. Pesca is respectful without being deferential, and treats Freedia with engaging irreverence.

Omnireviewer (week of Jun. 12, 2016)

29 reviews. A week of awesome music. Mostly.

Music

The Punch Brothers: The Phosphorescent Blues — Come to think of it, I listened to this when it first came out, loved it, and never listened to it again. Well, now I’ve listened to it again. It’s more ambitious and more polished than Who’s Feeling Young Now? but it’s also a bit slicker than anything they’ve done before. Drums make their first appearance, and there’s a general sense that when they’re not doing ten-minute prog tracks, they’re trying to be bluegrass Coldplay. Maybe that sounds like a dig, but bluegrass Coldplay sounds like a more appealing proposition to me than regular Coldplay. The lyrics’ obsession with smartphones, and whether or not we’re still capable of connecting, or living in the moment is a bit cliched, and the Punch Brothers don’t really have anything meaningful to add to the discussion (nobody does), but that’s not what anybody wants from any band, or shouldn’t be, at least. I don’t like this as much as Who’s Feeling Young Now? but “Familiarity” and the midsection of “Julep” are selling points for this band in themselves.

IQ: The Seventh House — It’s been a long time since I listened to anything like this. I really only ever listened to neo-prog when I was at my most prog-obsessed, maybe ten years ago. These days, I tend to think of prog as a moment — a moment that lasted from about 1969 to 1977 — and my exploration of it tends to go deep into that time period, rather than broadly across others. It’s not that I think nothing of value has been done in prog since then. But there’s a point where it became a “genre,” with tropes of its own to be imitated, rather than a dispersed music that takes cues from elsewhere. And that point was around the beginning of IQ’s career. Still, I really enjoyed The Seventh House. I remember hearing “The Wrong Side of Weird” on ProgArchives years ago, and loving it, and it totally holds up. Prog may have been a moment, but neo-prog of IQ’s vintage was too. Bands like IQ and Marillion come very much from the same context as new wave, and it’s fun to hear a take on prog that shares that characteristic directness with the Smiths or Joy Division. Yes, I know The Seventh House was made in 2000, but it’s quantifiably different from the nostalgic symphonic prog that younger bands were making at that time. Given the choice between IQ and a band like the Tangent, whose music is far more similar to classic 70s prog, I’ll take this.

Big Big Train: Folklore — Speaking of. Big Big Train is very much on the Tangent side of that line. I won’t say there weren’t parts of Folklore that I liked. I’ll probably listen to parts of it again. (I know there are prog fans out there who’ll tell you that you can’t get a handle on a prog album on the first listen, and I think that’s true for the really good stuff. Certainly, I’m still finding new angles in Relayer hundreds of listens in. But this is not Relayer.) It’s got some great playing, nice orchestrations that aren’t overbearing, good singing, the whole bit. But part of the reason that I like prog better than lots of other kinds of music is that I want to form relationships with the musical personalities involved in the records I listen to. I don’t love Steve Howe for his technical facility; I love him because his playing is weird and singular. I love how he can evoke Wes Montgomery and Carl Perkins within the same phrase, and how he uses the lap steel for symphonic effects with no reference to the country music it’s normally found in. I couldn’t give you that kind of description of any of the instrumentalists in Big Big Train. It mostly feels like prog by numbers to me.

Let’s Eat Grandma: I, Gemini — Holy shit. This is so weird. So, so weird. It’s also one of the best albums I’ve heard this year. If you’d told me last year that the best psychedelic record in years would be made by a pair of teenagers… well, I’d likely have believed you because I’m credulous. But I would have been mighty taken aback. There are parts of this that remind me of early Pink Floyd, other parts that bring Captain Beefheart to mind, a bit of Tom Waitsy sinister calliope music. But for the most part, there are very few reference points that make any sense for this music. It is very much it’s own thing, and the fact that the people who made it are so young is astonishing. Odd that two of my favourite albums of 2016, this and the John Congleton record, should be explicitly tied to horror. Just having that kind of year, I guess. But while Congleton’s horror is thought through and intellectual, Let’s Eat Grandma traffics in a more liminal sort of horror — you can almost tell what it’s about, but the fact that you can’t quite makes it more distressing. This album meanders, and winds and strolls along. It makes no compromises to anything as glum as “focus.” I love it. I can’t even adequately describe it because I can’t really process it fully. Anyway. Pick of the week.  

Justice: Cross — It’s loud and lo-fi, but it’s pretty rock and roll. And I like my dance music to be at least a little bit rock and roll. “DVNO” is irresistible; Uffie is insufferable. I suspect I may prefer their less acclaimed second album, but I enjoyed this. We shall see.

The Beatles: Abbey Road — When it comes down to it, I’m a White Album man. But I think Abbey Road is probably objectively the strongest Beatles album. Also, it is possible that I am the only Beatles fan who thinks that “Octopus’s Garden” is the best track on side one. The combination of that childlike vulnerability and that staggeringly good guitar solo gets me every time.

Television

And Then There Were None: episodes 2 & 3 — I wish I’d seen trailers for this, if only to know if they contained Miranda Richardson saying “Trust in God. But perhaps also we should lock our doors.” This is fabulous in a Lord-of-the-Flies-for-grownass-Brits sort of way. Even small details like watching these characters go from eating elaborately prepared lobster hors d’oeuvre to eating tinned meat are somehow satisfying. I had absolutely no idea how this was going to turn out, but there’s a lovely poetry to it. This will end up being one of those bits of television that not a lot of people in this part of the world actually watch, but that is regarded as a treasure by those who do. I don’t know how faithful it is to Agatha Christie’s original, but if it does follow the story at least approximately, I 100% understand why she’s so revered. This is beautiful narrative clockwork. Also, I wasn’t hugely convinced of Burn Gorman’s performance in Torchwood, but I sure love him here. At some point, he emerges as a real standout among the cast. Which is a real trick in this cast. Watch this. It is astonishing in every single scene.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: June 13, 2016 — I’ve been meaning to watch Samantha Bee’s show since the beginning, but I only just got around to it. I always liked her on The Daily Show because in the face of insane injustices, you could count on her to be a vessel for righteous anger. John Oliver will never be that. And after the senseless, ludicrous tragedy in Orlando, that is exactly the comedic sensibility that is required. Bee’s merciless attack on Florida’s asshat governor Rick Scott is the most meaningful thing in comedy this week, and I urge everybody to watch it by whatever means necessary.

Last Week Tonight: June 12, 2016 — Oliver may not be capable of the level of sheer rage necessary to properly address the shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, but he is capable of generating pathos, and he did so reasonably well in his opening segment. Still, he loses the week in comedy, because Sam Bee was willing to tackle it head-on (albeit with an extra day to prepare). Which is not to say this isn’t a great episode of Last Week Tonight. They all are. But a show like this has to tap into the national mood, and that mood was basically just being sad and angry about a horrible tragedy. And they kind of missed. To be fair, they owned up to that fact. But it still feels weird.  

Game of Thrones: “No One” — Plenty of needless brutality in this one, and not just one but two military strategies that don’t make a lick of sense. Other than that, it’s perfectly fine. I’d put it at about average for the season, which is shaping up to be quite good.  

Literature, etc.

John Herrman: The Content Wars — In Herrman’s post of predictions for 2015, he wrote that “in 2015, notable (choose your definition) publications will declare their intentions to go fully distributed — or some other term that means the same thing — effectively abandoning their websites and becoming content channels within Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest or Vine or Instagram.” Mercifully, that hasn’t happened as of 2016. But it still feels like something that could be in the future and, mark me, it will be the end. On the other hand, there’s also this quite canny prediction: “GamerGate will return under different names in multiple venues. Its agents will not be GamerGaters or even necessarily know what GamerGate is, but they will behave almost indistinguishably.” Hello from the recent past, Hugo fascists! Also, this entire blog features an incredibly amusing selection of robot gifs that become weirdly threatening in context. Also: “There will be a backlash not against podcasts but against the podcasting voice, which is really an extension of Ira Glass voice [30 seconds of post-rock] which is a mutation of NPR voice.” I love Ira and a lot of the other people Herrman’s probably talking about (Alex Blumberg), but that backlash would actually be really nice to see. A bit more idiosyncrasy in public radio-mode podcasting would be great. I nominate P.J. Vogt and Benjamen Walker as potential ways into a new approach. Here is another quote that I like, from a different post: “A new generation of artists and creative people ceding the still-fresh dream of direct compensation and independence to mediated advertising arrangements with accidentally enormous middlemen apps that have no special interest in publishing beyond value extraction through advertising is the early internet utopian’s worst-case scenario.” And yet, it has come to pass. When I get to the end of this blog, I’ll do something more than just copy quotes. But again, if you happen to be an editor of a substantial web content enterprise who is reading my blog for some reason, go read Herrman’s instead.

Matt Fraction/Gabriel Bá: Casanova, Volume 3 “Avaritia” — I feel like I could have used a refresher before I started reading this third volume. But I totally enjoyed it, insofar as I had a clue what was happening. Gabriel Bá’s art is absolutely astounding. Every so often in this book, somebody experiences a time paradox and starts… fluctuating? I don’t even know how to describe it. God knows how Fraction expresses it in his scripts. But the way that Bá devises to illustrate it, a sort of psychedelic cubist freakout where giant lips and eyes protrude from a haze that envelops the character, is genius. Casanova is great fun. And the final chapter of this volume has a fantastic payoff to a story arc that’s been going since the beginning. I’ve got the next volume sitting right here, still in the shrinkwrap. I was going to read more Ligotti before I get going on that, but I hear volume four is sort of a soft reboot of the story and that sounds like something I could really enjoy right now, so…

Matt Fraction, Michael Chabon, Fábio Moon & Gabriel Bá: Casanova: Acedia Volume 1 — This is very much the new Matt Fraction we know from Sex Criminals going back to his old property. Acedia is far and away the most straightforward arc of Casanova, and I would highly recommend it as a starting point for anybody wanting to get into this — certainly moreso than Luxuria, which is both the least satisfying and most confusing arc. It’s called “volume 1” rather than “volume 4” for a reason. The key difference between this and previous arcs is that the story in Acedia takes place entirely in one timeline, which simplifies things immensely. It’s nice to see that this is something that’s possible with Casanova, but I can’t help but miss the craziness of realities converging, like it was in Avaritia. Also, Michael Chabon’s backup stories to each issue are quite perfunctory, and one feels that they were only included in this trade collection for the potential sales value of having his name on the cover. Backup stories don’t belong in trades. I’m with Kieron Gillen on that. Still, this is a good story, and a compelling new direction for the comic. I’m looking forward to the continuation of this arc.

Podcasts

The Heart: “Salt in the Wound” — A quiet denouement to the “Silent Evidence” season. It’s just Tennesee Williams talking over the events of the series with Kaitlin Prest — a format we don’t normally hear in The Heart. It serves its purpose, which is just to unpack the last three episodes, but it also reveals new information about yet another traumatic experience Williams suffered while she was making the story. It’s appalling, as many elements of this series have been. But it never loses that ray of hope, either. Again, I can’t recommend this series highly enough.

Reply All: “On the Inside, Part IV” — I’ve been effusively positive about this series for its entire run thus far but I have to say, while I was listening to this part, I couldn’t help but think… why this story? When Sarah Koenig decided to relitigate Adnan Syed’s case on Serial, that was because there were innumerable serious problems with his trial and and a relatively convincing counternarrative to be unearthed. I don’t know that the same thing applies here. Where in Serial, you heard Koenig become more and more doubtful of Syed’s guilt (if not exactly convinced of his innocence), in this series Sruthi Pinnamaneni seems to become more and more convinced that Paul Modrowski did in fact murder somebody, and thus that justice was carried out properly. So… what’s the story? The farther we’ve gotten from the standard Reply All internet story of an inmate who writes a blog, the more I’ve been forced to wonder what the point even is. I’m looking forward to a new story next week.

StartUp: “Happy Ending” — Winning the Gimlet sweepstakes for the first time in months, StartUp introduces us to a drug dealer every bit as enterprising as the fictional ones in The Wire. This fellow, who is now running a company that means to hire ex-cons as personal trainers, is charisma personified. The story doesn’t brush away the fact that he was involved in an illegal trade that materially hurts a lot of people, but it also doesn’t paint him as a villain. This is far and away the best story of this season, provided next week’s conclusion doesn’t let me down.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping and Making Music Funny” — I will likely not see Popstar. But I think it’s about time I watched Spinal Tap.

On the Media: “Sad!” — Bob Garfield’s essay from a few weeks ago on how the press tacitly legitimizes Trump was a masterpiece of media criticism, but I’m not sure I totally agree with him that the press needs to become actively partisan where Trump is concerned. On the other hand, I’m not totally convinced by Paul Waldman’s claim that traditional, old-fashioned shoe leather reporting and fact checking is the best way of dealing with Trump. Trump, as we know, exists outside the concept of truth. But here’s the thing: I don’t think it’s necessarily partisan for a journalist to behave in the way that Garfield suggests they should: by calling Trump out for racism and misogyny. We do possess reasonably stable definitions of those two behaviours, and I believe that people in general think that they are Bad Things (even as many of them fail to acknowledge those behaviours in themselves). So, it ought to be possible to make a factual statement that “Donald Trump is racist,” and to hold him accountable for that. Partisanship need not enter into the conversation. That small semantic quibble aside, Bob Garfield continues to be the public personality with whom I find the most common ground on Trump. Gone are the days when I thought him to be merely an equal horror to Ted Cruz’s theocratic raving. This hour of radio (edited by Brooke Gladstone, but featuring Garfield as the sole host — a canny decision in this instance) demonstrates why.

Code Switch: “Re-Remembering Muhammad Ali” — This is a discussion of what was missing in the coverage of Ali’s death. In being that, it is also an excellent remembrance of Ali.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: 2016 Tony Awards” — God, I wish I’d watched the Tonys. Glen Weldon’s right that we may well see a Hamilton backlash soon, but when it happens it’ll be empty hipsterism, because there’s nothing in the text to justify a backlash. Hamilton remains the most unimpeachable work of art since Abbey Road.

More Perfect: “The Political Thicket” — I am loving this. I dare say it’s my favourite political journalism anybody’s doing right now — insofar as On The Media is a media show rather than a politics show. This second episode is better than the first one. It tells this incredible story of how the Supreme Court completely changed because of one decision, which Jad Abumrad illustrates brilliantly with archival tape. Seriously, it contains his best sound design moment in years, probably. This is the best argument for long-view journalism that I’ve heard in a long time. The world today will make more sense once you listen to this, even though it tells a story that happened decades ago. Magnificent. Pick of the week.

All Songs Considered: “A Conversation With Paul McCartney” — This is fun, but it also illustrates a problem that I have with arts journalism in general, which is that the people who do it lose track of their opinions when an actual artist is present. I’ve toyed with the idea in the past that we should just stop interviewing artists altogether. Anybody who wants to get into arts writing probably knows enough about it to write compellingly without having to ask an artist what their work means. Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton just take for granted that the listener to this won’t think twice when they imply that McCartney’s career has been wholly worthwhile for six decades. But everybody would think twice when faced with that. Why are interviewers forced to ignore orthodoxies like “Paul McCartney’s solo work is patchy” when they ask their questions?

Reply All: “Friendship Village” — 120984957918379 19345734579171 39847896823151 168038645120 6857906565452210 6874121968595 9874848 649521062128 976218 0954021089510 951098500736587654 0687052180321084052 9945256889 0968408155094 987304267 0987450854098521220842 9765385659765764 0968740524 0987524210845240 7656 098732109842109684510 654524 09875135578952197970 741741455 0865118518410 984189748951984 0984984954954 9849809849512 98409 984984984984

99% Invisible: “The Blazer Experiment” — This is a great example of how a design angle can be used to tell a really huge story. This is basically the story of the British and American police forces and their respective relationships to the citizens they police. That story naturally includes a lot of branding. It’s not the most direct, incisive journalism about the police that we’ve seen in the past couple of years, but it adds context to the current controversies over policing.

All Songs Considered: “The Tallest Man On Earth, Lisa Hannigan, LP, More” — Nothing leapt out, musically and Bob and Robin are spouting platitudes this week. Oh, well. Sometimes you miss. On the other hand, I’d have never heard Let’s Eat Grandma’s album from this week without this podcast to point me there.

Code Switch: “How LGBTQ People of Color Are Dealing With Orlando” — Well, they had to address it somehow. And it happens that these producers/hosts are tapped into the best American writers about race, so they have plenty of people to call up. More than anything, this emphasizes the extent to which Code Switch is a welcome addition to the NPR podcast offering. They’ve had to deal with both this and Ali, right at the start of their podcast’s run. I do hope that they can double back to doing episodes that aren’t so explicitly news-hooked, but it’s great to see right at the beginning that they’re capable of responding thoughtfully to current events. (I mean, of course they are; they’re NPR journalists. But the show is still demonstrating what it can do, and impressively so.)

Reply All: “Vampire Rules” — Exactly what we all needed after “On the Inside.” A Super Tech Support about a suspicious Tinder photo, followed by a Yes, Yes, No about Hillary Clinton. I love Reply All. I love it as much for this dumb stuff as I do for Sruthi Pinnamaneni’s awesome investigative stuff.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Year Without a Summer” — I’ve heard the story of how Mary Shelley got the idea for Frankenstein over and over, but I hadn’t realized how the climate (literally) of that time links Frankenstein’s ideas to our current early-stage eco-apocalypse. Interesting.

More Perfect: “Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl” — I had heard this story before on Radiolab, and I think it’s one of their better political stories. It sits at that uncomfortable crossroads between a law that’s been really effective on the macro level, and one personal injustice that threatens to overturn the whole thing. I still think that the work this team has been doing on new episodes of More Perfect is better. There’s nothing like processing contemporary issues through the lens of history.