Tag Archives: Sampler

Omnibus (week of June 18, 2017)

Yeah, I changed the name. I never liked the old name. Onwards.

The second instalment of the NXNW segment aired yesterday on Radio 1, and it is a whole level weirder than the first. Basically, I tried to convince Sheryl MacKay that the central tenets of medieval alchemy are still alive and well and living in pop culture. Every so often I make something I’m really proud of. This second segment is for sure one of those. I’m at 1:22:34 in this podcast of the show.

Ran a 5K this morning. Boy oh boy were there a lot of people in that. You’ll see more podcasts here than there have been in weeks, because I figured even a 5K shouldn’t be approached with a totally cavalier attitude. Many kilometers were run, and many hours of audio accompanied them. If you’re new to this, this instalment is a bit closer to my usual approach than recent weeks have been: lots of podcasts, shorter reviews. 38 of them, to be precise.

Television

American Gods: “Come To Jesus” — After last time, I didn’t actually expect Jesus to be played for laughs. But there is honestly nothing funnier than seeing a whole herd of diverse Jesuses just milling about. Except for the bit where Wednesday refers to them collectively as “these assholes.” That’s funnier. This season finale is actually my least favourite episode of American Gods so far, but that’s a very relative thing to say. Mostly, I’m just mildly peeved that the story hasn’t gotten to a point where the supporting deities like Nancy and Czernobog are relevant to the story on a consistent basis. I’m as happy as I thought I’d be to see Nancy again, but it would have been nice to see him do more than offer exposition for another character. (I miss the story about tiger balls from the book.) Also, the somewhat overwrought segment where Wednesday reveals his real name to Shadow is the first sequence in the show that hasn’t worked for me. Partially it’s just the Michael-Bay-spinning-cameraness of it all, but mostly I just find it hard to accept that Shadow, or any portion of the audience, would be surprised to learn that a one-eyed god who goes by “Wednesday” would actually be Odin. (This is a problem the show inherits from the book.) On the other hand, this episode makes two substantial improvements on the book. One is in the relationship between Bilquis and the Technical Boy. I suppose it’s still possible that Technical will kill Bilquis at some point, but that moment was one of the most jarring parts of the book, and I’m very glad that she’s survived their first meeting. The other improvement is Kristin Chenoweth’s Easter, who is angrier, funnier and altogether more ruthless than her book analogue. I especially love the way she listens to her adorable messenger bunnies, only to invariably respond “oh, shit!” I realize that throughout these American Gods reviews, I’ve focussed an awful lot on the relationship between show and book. Probably that’ll subside next season, at which point I will have read the book substantially less recently. But I still think that American Gods is as compelling an act of adaptation as a show to be taken on its own merits. Between this and Hannibal, I think Bryan Fuller has confirmed himself as the master of the modern television adaptation. Benioff and Weiss wish they were this good. Season one of American Gods has been some of the best television of recent years. I can’t wait for the next season. Hope it’s longer.

Better Call Saul: “Lantern” — Sometimes I start to write these reviews before I’m finished watching the episode. Here is a brief passage from what I’d written before I watched through to the end. “Chuck. Is. Noxious. The writers of this show, and Michael McKean, should pat themselves on the back for creating such a convincing yet completely insufferable character. The thing that makes him so hard to take is a simple juxtaposition of two traits: he has no compassion at all, and he always perceives himself to have the moral high ground. This episode features one of the most painful scenes in the show so far, in which Chuck intentionally tries to hurt Jimmy, and feels entirely justified in doing so because Jimmy colours outside the lines. He feels no complicity in the rift between the two of them. This is the worst kind of person, and this is a kind of person who exists. I know these people and so do you. Chuck is scum. Chuck is irredeemable.” At the end of the episode, I softened my view rather dramatically. In his more loathsome moments, Chuck makes it easy to forget that he is not at the peak of mental wellness. In retrospect, he might be the highlight of this season, because of the way both McKean and the story emphasize his uncompromising cruelty and his struggle with mental illness at the same time. The show even gives us a handy yardstick by which to assess the reasonableness of our hatred for Chuck: Howard Hamlin. Since the season one reveal that he actually isn’t that bad, Howard has been one of the most sympathetic characters on Better Call Saul.  And even he would rather part with millions of his own hard-earned dollars than work with Chuck any longer. He has become genuinely impossible, and well and truly cruel. He was also in a lot of trouble. And he completely alienated his one-man support system, who to be fair, is a person with no small amount of flaws himself. I expected this episode to be all about Kim after last week’s cliffhanger. And while it is bittersweet to see her finally realizing that she needs to take time to breathe, her season arc basically ended with her car crash. This episode belongs to Chuck. But its subtext belongs to Jimmy. It’s easy to read Chuck’s suicide as a final “fuck you” to his brother. This is only a small part of an inevitably complex equation, but think about this: their last conversation consisted of Chuck telling Jimmy that he would always hurt people and he might as well embrace it. Then he kills himself. Meanwhile, Jimmy has alienated himself from the elder law practice that could have been his saving grace. (I’m delighted that Mrs. Landry is okay.) The path to Saul Goodman has never been clearer than it is now. Pick of the week.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Parts 3-7 — Okay, the internet was right. This Dougie Jones business needs to stop. At first, I was amused — not so much by Kyle McGlaughlin’s performance, which finds him working substantially below his pay grade, but by the constant way that everybody around him basically fails to acknowledge that there’s something really wrong. Particularly wonderful is Naomi Watts as his wife. The fact that she’s not more concerned really makes you wonder what kind of shit-for-brains asshole the real Dougie Jones was. I love the idea that this might not actually be that out of the ordinary. Suppose that’s what you get for marrying a homunculus. But after four episodes of this, I’m ready to have Coop back. I don’t even need to hear him talk about coffee and pie. I don’t even need a thumbs up. I just want him to be here so that the show has a central intelligence in it again who can start to put together the disparate threads that are remaining maddeningly allusive without him. In general though, I’ve really been enjoying this. I don’t have that much to say about it because it’s still got its cards super close to its chest. I’m definitely hoping that we’re not done with David Lynch’s modernized, expanded take on the Black Lodge. The sequences that take place there are truly terrifying, and among the most compelling television I’ve seen in recent times.

Doctor Who: “World Enough and Time” — Okay, now we’re cooking. This is classic Steven Moffat, operating in “hey here’s a fun idea” mode. In this case, the idea is that there’s a huge spaceship right by a black hole, so time works differently at one end of it and the other. The real storytelling masterstroke, though, is stranding the Doctor at the slow end of the ship, so that the situation seriously escalates before he’s able to formulate a plan. Aside from that, this is notable as a real return to Moffat’s signature horror. You could say that the monks constituted horror, as did the notion in “Extremis” that the entire universe is a projection and you cease to exist if you step outside of the beam. But nothing since “Listen” has really gone whole hog into horror territory the way that this does. The scene with the volume dials is one of the most disturbing things Moffat has ever written. And the patients in general, all on their way to becoming Cybermen, are terrifying in that existential way that the Cybermen manage to be when they’ve got a good writer behind them. (Unless that good writer is Neil Gaiman, in which case they still don’t work.) And all that good stuff happens even before we get the big reveal of John Simm. Which, I mean, we all knew he was going to be in this, but am I stupid for being INCREDIBLY FUCKING SURPRISED that character was him? Am I? Come on, be honest. This was an amazing episode: straightforwardly the best of the season. Can’t wait to see what comes next.

Games

King of Dragon Pass — So, the Steam summer sale is on, but I realized that I’m not actually even close to finishing the games I bought during the Steam winter sale. Because *some of us* like to go outside sometimes, amirite? At this point I think the Half-Life series is a lost cause for me. I was so terrible at the first one, and the story is so minimal, that I’m forced to conclude it is literally the opposite of what I appreciate in a video game. Moving on to King of Dragon Pass, then: another classic of an entirely different sort. This is dated, and its high fantasy aesthetic isn’t really my thing, but I’m compelled regardless. Basically, it’s a text-based resource management game with elements of choose-your-own-adventure. So, it’s kind of Sunless Sea before its time. Except that the writing isn’t anywhere close to that level. It has its moments, mind you. I quite like this: “Your men whooped with Orlanth and drank the Eight Known Drinks, so that your heads would hurt during the ceremony.” Also unlike Sunless Sea, its representation of women oscillates between fairly progressive and a bit, erm, medieval. But there’s enough in this to compel me. I’m particularly fond of the way that your progress is compiled into a document called “the Saga,” which actually reads a bit like an Icelandic saga, given that those stories basically are just lists of accomplishments. So far, this seems like the sort of thing I’ll probably play until I manage to beat it on the easiest setting and then I might put it aside. Still, it’ll probably grow on me.

Literature

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Lottery in Babylon” — A substantially simpler and more direct story than some of the others I’ve read recently. Still brilliant, and the way that Borges casually drops details into the framework of ideas that makes up the narrative reminds me once again of how much Neil Gaiman owes to him. Look at this bit: “A slave stole a crimson ticket; the drawing determined that the ticket entitled the bearer to have his tongue burned out.” This comes at a point in the story where it’s been established that owning tickets can result in terrible things happening to you as well as good things, but the specifics have been vague. Borges just drops this punishment into a sentence that’s actually a rumination on what’s supposed to happen in the case of the theft of a ticket. His narrator doesn’t make a big deal of it. That, more than anything in this story, gives the sense of a fully-formed world with defined parameters that are simply taken for granted. I continue to be astonished by this writer.

Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine, Volume 4: “Imperial Phase, Part One” — I don’t know how anybody reads this issue-by-issue. When the trade collections come out, I wolf them down in one sitting and I still feel like I need more. This is probably the most exciting collection so far from this perpetually exciting comic. The real showstopper is the the first issue in the collection, formatted as a (beautifully designed) fan magazine in which members of the Pantheon are interviewed by actual journalists (with Gillen filling the role of each god at the other end of a chat window). The best of them is Laurie Penny’s piece on Woden, who is self-evidently the shittiest god. Having read Penny’s piece on Milo Yiannopoulos, it just felt right. My favourite part of the story in this issue is the way that the Pantheon is forced to reorganize and rally behind their logical leaders, Baal and Urdr, in the absence of Ananke. The dynamics between all of these characters just keep getting more interesting. Persephone in particular is the best thing going on in this book right now. Love it.

Kelefa Sanneh: “The Persistence of Prog Rock” — An excellent piece on the contemporary reception of 1970s prog, with reference to David Wiegel’s recent book on the subject. I’m reminded that I need to eventually finish the books cited by Edward Macan, Bill Martin and Will Romano, though I think all of them (especially Romano’s) are quite bad. The most interesting idea raised here is that progressive rock was parochial. This is something that I struggle with. It definitely was parochial — the most recognized bands in the genre were such idiomatically British eccentrics that albums like Selling England by the Pound almost seem a bit Brexity in retrospect. On the other hand, that means that prog largely avoided the garish spectacle of cultural appropriation that a lot of other British rock proffered. The Rolling Stones and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers seem a hell of a lot more retrograde in retrospect than ELP does. And ELP, lest anybody forget, was the band whose use of classical music in their performances was meant to get the kids listening to “music that has more quality.” The mind reels. I sympathize with Lester Bangs’ distaste for this sentiment. But I’m not sure he ever really saw the other side of the coin. I’ll be reading Wiegel’s book very soon.

Music

Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner & James McAlister: Planetarium — Well, it doesn’t make it easy for us. Planetarium is enormously ambitious and enormously long. Every song on this gave me the sense that I’d definitely like it a lot more next time I listen to it. Honestly, that’s one of my favourite reactions to have to a piece of music, but this does meander a bit. I’m curious to know more about the process of this: I’m familiar enough with Stevens, Muhly and Dessner’s work (the latter only as a composer, admittedly — I’ve never liked the National) that I feel like it should be easier than it is to isolate their particular contributions. They seem to have genuinely merged into a many-headed beast. My personal highlights here are “Jupiter” and especially “Mercury,” which has a melody worthy of Carrie & Lowell. But I’ve now heard “Saturn” a few times and it has grown on me from the point of initially leaving me cold to the point where now I actually bring up Apple Music to listen to it specifically. And the 15-minute “Earth” hits my prog rock structural pleasure centres, but there’s too much in it to take in for me to assess it yet. I think this is really good. I’ll probably check back in about it when I listen to it a bit more.

Neil Young: Live at the Riverboat 1969 — Like the Canterbury House instalment of Neil’s archives series, this is most notable for his amusingly awkward, stoned audience banter. I wish I’d been at one of these early acoustic shows, but I wasn’t born until 21 years later. Anyway, I’m actually pretty happy to be moving past the pre-Crazy Horse segment of my quest to hear the Complete Neil Young. Solo acoustic guitar music gets tiresome.

Neil Young: Live at Fillmore East 1970 — Ah, now we’re talking. What’s most notable about this is how much it sounds like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Crazy Horse has always sounded really live in the studio. All the same, the presence of an audience makes “Cowgirl in the Sand” pop a bit more, with the band really trying to ratchet up the tension to keep them into it. I suspect 1970 is the year when things really get interesting. I’ve enjoyed my exploration of Buffalo Springfield and the late-60s limbo state from which the self-titled album emerged. But it’s with the foundation of Crazy Horse and Neil’s induction into CSNY that the phase of his career we know him for really began.

Podcasts

Ear Hustle: “Cellies” — This podcast is a beautiful idea. It’s also staggeringly ambitious. I can only imagine the logistical nightmare it must be to produce a podcast in prison. But these are stories that don’t get told. And when they do, they sure aren’t told by the inmates themselves. This premiere episode introduces some fun characters, including two brothers who ended up as cellmates and nearly drove each other out of their minds. I’m also rather endeared by Earlonne Woods’ resistance to his non-incarcerated co-host’s attempts to apply relationship metaphors to cellmates. He ought to know what metaphors are and aren’t apt. This is the most promising addition to Radiotopia since Song Exploder.

The Pitch: “Babyscripts” — Not for me. This has a solid premise that’s basically guaranteed to yield drama: it’s basically Dragons’ Den. But I’m just not interested enough in business to be interested in these kinds of conversations. Worth a shot if you are.

StartUp: “Life After Startup” — A catch-up session with some of the people in previous StartUp episodes. Most notably, we revisit Dating Ring, the company followed in the show’s underrated second season. I really found the ending of that season heartbreaking, so it’s good to know that even though the business didn’t pan out, the founders are living happy lives these days.

Imaginary Worlds: “Imagining the Internet” — It’s a common refrain among science fiction critics that the internet is the modern technology that the genre failed most egregiously to predict. But this provides a corollary to that view by, in part, bringing Mark Twain into the fold. One highlight of this is hearing the actor who does the readings adopt the personas of their respective authors. I’m especially struck by how similar his Twain is to the genius voice actor that I brought in to do Twain at the end of the last episode of the Syrup Trap Pod Cast. I guess he’s just a voice that people have a sense of.

In Our Time: “The American Populists” — A pleasingly contentious conversation about the short-lived party that briefly promised to offer a real alternative to the Democrats and the Republicans. So no, it’s not about Donald Trump. Trust In Our Time to remind you that history is worth knowing about, and it doesn’t always have to be covered with explicit reference to current events to be relevant.

Love and Radio: “Relevant Questions” — A middling episode of one of the best shows around, so quite good. It’s about the first polygraph operator to speak out against its use. But he’s not straightforwardly heroic, even if he sees himself that way. It’s got a twist that’s done cleverly, in a similar way to the twist in “A Girl of Ivory,” but that’s not a comparison that does this any favours because that episode was a classic. Still, pretty great.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Wonder Woman And The Tony Awards” — Okay, I’ll see Wonder Woman. I was kind of going to anyway, in spite of my serious superhero fatigue. This is different. Man, the Tonys seem to have nothing for me this time around.

Radiolab: “The Gondolier” — This is a good story by the standards of recent Radiolab episodes, but I can’t help but hear the Love and Radio episode that could have been. It’s a story about a person who was touted internationally as “Venice’s first female gondolier,” which turned out to be super wrong because he’s a trans man. That last sentence is almost a spoiler, because this episode actually treats Alex, the main character, as a woman for a portion of its duration, in accordance with the reporters’ misunderstanding of his gender identity. The media has traditionally been Alex’s enemy, and this is supposed to provide an antidote to that. I’m not at all the person to judge how it succeeds at that, but I do feel like this is a case where the Love and Radio approach of cutting out the reporter’s voice altogether would be useful. I’d love to hear the version of this story that’s just Alex telling his own story. But Radiolab’s gonna Radiolab, so we have to have a certain amount of ponderous processing and deconstruction. It’s fine.

Home of the Brave: “The Continental Divide” — One of the things I really like about Home of the Brave is that Scott Carrier will sometimes release one of these brief missives in between proper radio projects. I sympathize with his inability to talk to people who disagree with him right now, but I admire his decision to give it another go.

Fresh Air: “Jay Z” — An old interview, from just after the release of Decoded. Terry Gross sounds slightly uncomfortable interviewing Jay Z because she kind of thinks he’s sexist. But Jay is charming and indulgent, even if he does get super defensive when Gross actually brings up sexism. Mostly a very good interview.

This American Life: “Say Anything” — The bulk of this is taken up by a tape that a guy made for his suicidal friend, without ever intending for it to end up on radio. It’s very affecting. But the real highlight is a list of fears written by a developmentally disabled man. It is both funny and insightful. A cameo from Jonathan Goldstein is always appreciated as well.

Fresh Air: “Roxane Gay” — A marvellous interview about Gay’s new book, which sounds like a deeply insightful, really rough read. She’s one of those articulate people you’ve just got to be thankful for.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin” — To some extent, this is shameless self-promotion for GLOW, the new show he’s in. But it sounds like a really great show, and I’m always in for an Alison Brie interview. She is completely charming. I didn’t realize that I knew Betty Gilpin, but her American Gods performance is really hilarious and the way she describes it as a wilful misunderstanding of the tone of the whole show is amazing. A good listen.

It’s Been A Minute: “Hey Y’all” — I’m reservedly excited about this. I love Sam Sanders. He’s always been one of my favourite guests on Pop Culture Happy Hour and I miss him on the NPR Politics Podcast. I just hope it doesn’t keep explaining ordinary idioms like “it’s been a minute” to me.

Sampler: “Introducing The Nod!” — Thank god Gimlet found something for Brittany Luse to do. She’s brilliant, and she was always above Sampler. Looking forward.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Sofia Coppola” — This has its moments, and Maron clearly admires and understands Coppola’s filmmaking. But did he have to talk about her dad so much? Surely she’s sick of that. In any case, Sofia Coppola is a genius and I can’t wait to see The Beguiled.

99% Invisible: “You Should Do A Story” — A roundup of miscellaneous stories that didn’t become full episodes. It’s worth hearing for a few simple descriptions of household design solutions from specific places.

The Heart: “Doing Time” — I heard an interview with Kaitlin Prest on a great podcast I don’t review called The Imposter where she said that the launch of Ear Hustle and the themed episodes Radiotopia did for its launch resulted in a hurried finish to the “No” season, which doesn’t actually come off in the last episode, but it sucks. In any case, this brushed-up episode from the back catalogue is perfectly fine.

Code Switch: “What To Make Of Philando Castile’s Death, One Year Later” — This won’t help you process the acquittal of Philando Castile’s killer, but it does feature an interview with a friend of Castile’s that is heartbreaking.  

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Pardon Power” — Is this presidency really so unprecedented that we’re entertaining the notion that a sitting president could pardon himself? Guys this is not normal.

The Gist: “Scaachi Koul on Surviving the Trolls” — Scaachi Koul is one of the funniest and best writers about sexism and racism. If you don’t read her on Buzzfeed, what are you even doing. I’m really looking forward to reading her book. This interview isn’t one of Mike Pesca’s best moments, but it is plenty good on Koul’s part. He gets all tone policey and she doesn’t let him get away with it. Satisfying in a way.

StartUp: “How To Invent A New Sport” — This is about a guy who made a new version of basketball. The best part is the story of a pitch meeting in China. Listen for that alone.

The Gist: “Do Radicals Change the World?” — Jeremy McCarter is familiar to me from the Hamiltome, but this new book doesn’t sound like something I’ll especially enjoy. I’ll take China Mieville’s 1917 book, thanks. He’s got no doubts that radicals change the world.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “GLOW And Lena Waithe” — Hmm, here are two shows that make me wish there was more time in a day. I’m finding it hard to commit to the idea of watching GLOW and Master of None. The former has a bunch of people I love involved, but I’m not sold on the hype. And Master of None sounds like it’s got a slow first season and a killer second. That’s a stumbling block. You’d never think it from reading this blog sometimes, but I’ve got to be judicious in my choices. Even I only have so much time to allot to this stuff.

It’s Been A Minute: “Likes Don’t Matter” — I don’t know how to feel about this. Part of me wants to think that it’ll find its legs, but it’s also totally clear that this has been given dry run after dry run, so it’s already got a fair bit of mileage behind it. Sam Sanders is one of the cleverest, most magnetic people at NPR. But this feels kind of forcedly colloquial to me. I liked Sanders a lot on the NPR Politics Podcast, where they had a mandate to really get into the grains of it, because Sanders was the guy who could inject a bit of air into the proceedings. He was as good at talking politics as the rest of the panel, but also funnier. In a less explicitly focussed situation, I’m not sure what to make of him anymore. I’ll keep listening, because I really do think he’s great. But I have reservations.

Beef And Dairy Network: “Gareth Belge” — Ahh, I like this. I like this show a lot. This features a hilarious segment about how cows act as body doubles for actors more than you’d know. That’s this show in a nutshell. Beautiful.

Mogul: Episodes 1 & 2 — I resisted this at first because it came out initially on Spotify, and I’m dead set against windowing in the podcast world. But I had to hear this story. It is magical. It is the story of Chris Lighty, the powerful hip hop executive: how he rose to prominence and how he died. Combat Jack hosts (going by his birth name here, Reggie Ossé), and he brings a level of expertise on this topic that probably nobody else in the world could top. The joy of listening to this is not just in the character-driven story of Lighty, nor is it even in the brilliantly rendered history of hip hop’s evolution. It’s in Ossé’s intense engagement with the material. I’ve always known somebody would make a podcast like this sometime — a show that deals with the history of music in a story-driven, audio rich way. Song Exploder isn’t quite it. This is it. I’ve been waiting for this. If you have any interest at all in hip hop or in knowing something about the music of the last forty years, check this out. It’s a beautiful thing. Pick of the week.

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Omnireviewer (week of Aug. 21, 2016)

33 reviews! Holy smokes!

Television

Deadwood: Season three, episodes 10-12 — Okay, so Deadwood doesn’t get a series finale with the intentionality of The Wire and The Sopranos (whose finale was a piss-take anyway; a beautiful piss-take). But I’m not convinced that the lack of an ending actually compromises the show all that much. Deadwood’s a show about a continuing process: the formation of a community. It’s also a show about its own genre, and a critique of the classic western movie value of rugged individualism. It isn’t so much a show with tightly woven, neat narrative arcs. In that sense, it may be one of the most discursive shows ever on television. Even Orange is the New Black, discursive as it can be, walks a traceable line from the beginnings to the ends of its seasons. Deadwood doesn’t so much walk from one place to another as it, to borrow a word from a favourite character, perambulates. These final three episodes of the show are three more hours of time spent in an interesting place, populated by interesting people. The people have changed gradually, along with their community. Regardless of whether that’s the point where the show was meant to end up or not, it’s a fine place to leave off. Deadwood is one of the best series in the history of television. I’ll watch it again for sure.

Last Week Tonight: August 21, 2016 — The chartered schools segment is a bit joke-light, but segments about Ryan Lochte and getting Trump out of the race compensate, mostly.

Comedy

David Cross: Making America Great Again — Does it make me a really good person that I thought all of these jokes were very very obvious? I think it does. This is an okay special. But I really don’t think that most of the people who’ll be inclined to watch it on Netflix will come away with their views challenged, and they probably won’t laugh much either. Because, when you laugh at, for instance, a great bit by Louis C.K., you’re laughing because he’s helping you see a thing in a way you hadn’t been able to see it before, because it was counterintuitive until it was communicated in a certain way. (“People have to do their favourite thing!”) David Cross has a few of those moments. There’s a completely brutal, absolutely wonderful bit about guns in schools that is a real highlight. But depending on who you are, most of these jokes will either make you very angry, or make you feel validated. That’s what Facebook does, and I hate Facebook. Comedy for the age of the viral mill. 

Music

The Tragically Hip: Fully Completely — Definitely not as good as Day For Night. I understand that this is the album where the Hip “broke through,” but they still sound a bit like a very good pub band on this. A very good pub band with several obvious hits in their set and extremely high-calibre lyrics, but still. “Nautical Disaster” is in a different universe to this music. I’ll still probably listen to it a bunch, because it’s compelling nonetheless. And I do have this one very large caveat to my general indifference: “Wheat Kings” is glorious. It tells a bittersweet story by way of small images, and it ties that story inextricably to its setting. And it does all of this in three verses and a minimalistic chorus. The band always plays beautifully in these acoustic ballads, and Downie’s voice delivers pathos without ever stepping over the line into indulgence. “Wheat Kings” easily eclipses the rest of the album, but that’s not so much an indictment of Fully Completely as a demonstration of this particular song’s power.

The Knights: The Ground Beneath Our Feet — I like it when a classical disc is programmed around an idea. This live recording by a new music ensemble I hadn’t heard before is based around the concept of the concerto grosso — a form where a small group of instruments is pitted against a larger group. It’s a broad enough notion that it can encompass a huge range of musical styles. The record is divided into halves that can roughly be characterized as “old stalwarts” and “proper new music.” The oldest of the stalwarts is Bach, whose Concerto for Violin and Oboe is well played here. I wonder why they didn’t go for Corelli, given his importance to the concerto grosso as a genre. Nonetheless, in this setting, Bach shines. It may be simply the company he’s keeping on this record, but it occurs to me that he’s got a more modern sensibility than many composers who came after. It’s got to do with his working within rule structures rather than prioritizing a personal idiom. Compared to, say, Beethoven, he’s a glib hipster. Historically, the next figure on the program is Stravinsky, whose Dumbarton Oaks concerto is an absolute gem that I’d never heard before. I’ve always loved Stravinsky’s neo-classical works, for similar reasons to why I love Bach. There’s something unforced about both of those bodies of work, but still beautiful. The other stalwart is the ubiquitous new music god Steve Reich, whose Duet for Two Violins and Strings finds him in a meditative mood. It’s quite wonderful. As for the proper new music, we’ve got two collaborative compositions. The first, by Brooklyn Rider’s Colin Jacobsen (whose music I adored on A Walking Fire) and the santur virtuoso Siamak Aghaei, is a double concerto for their two instruments. It has its moments, but it’s the weak point of the disc by a long shot. The second, the disc’s title track, is collaboratively composed (semi-improvised?) by various members of the ensemble. It’s based on a ground bass by the obscure Italian Baroque composer Tarquino Merula (get it? Ground beneath our feet?) and when it picks up, it’s absolutely thrilling and often ridiculous and stupid, which are characteristics I like in new music. This is the kind of disc that I really love from classical-derived ensembles these days. It devotes half of its running time to traditional but not overplayed selections from the rep, and the other half to taking risks. Whether the risks pay off or not is almost beside the point, though I’d say that about half of the new material on this disc is really good. I don’t review all of the classical music I listen to on this blog, because I listen for work, and a lot of the time I don’t make it through the whole disc. But I have heard a bunch of classical recordings from this year, and this is one of the standouts.

Literature, etc.

Lois Tyson: Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide — You may have realized that there are never any books or stories in Omnireviewer these days. I mean, I’ve been busy. But I’ve also been catching up with a lot of my favourite bloggers (whose work I don’t review because of my rabbit-hole rule, see Omnireviewer no. 1). And I’ve been reading this. Tyson’s prose is engaging and she takes on the explicit role of a teacher throughout, and not just a scholar. It’s trivial to breeze through a chapter on a long bus commute. I’ve done so on three commutes, now: one each devoted to the chapters on psychoanalysis, Marxism and feminism. The really great thing about this is how the chapters are structured. Each one starts with a series of simple explanations of the given theory’s terms and premises (sign-exchange value, materialist feminism, etc.) with even-handed accounts of the debates within these scholarly communities, and concludes with a practical application of each theory to The Great Gatsby: a short, good book that everybody has read. I have no specific need for these theories in my own work at the moment, but I do hope to do some of the sort of writing where they could be useful in the near future. I’d recommend this to anybody who wants to sharpen their criticism chops.

Tom Scocca: “Gawker Was Murdered By Gaslight” — I find many defences of Gawker’s ethics a little dubious, but there’s no arguing with Scocca when he says that the publication’s practices don’t really have anything to do with why it is ceasing to exist. The fact that we’re living in a world where journalism outfits have no legal defence against powerful rich people with vendettas makes me very uncomfortable.

Nick Denton: “How Things Work” — Denton comes off as a bit compromising in Scocca’s piece, but here he gets to be an idealist. Not a kind of idealist I like, mind you. The idea that Gawker’s goal was to “reduce the friction between the thought and the page” troubles me. There should be things that keep you from saying exactly what you think in public forums. Lots of things. People’s unfiltered thoughts are dangerous garbage. But I understand Denton’s impulse towards radical freedom of information in principle, even if it was practiced poorly. Plus, the site’s ahead-of-the-curve realization that a form of intensely critical journalism was needed to cover the new powerbrokers in Silicon Valley is a major moment in the culture of the internet. Which, of course, only makes the source of its demise more ironic and troubling.

Joseph and Amanda Boyden: “For Gord Downie, Seven Love Songs” — I mean, it’s a bit gushy. It’s a bit like rock criticism of old, where the subject is to be idolized and venerated. But, come on. The Boydens are friends of the Hip. They deserve to wax grandly poetic in public for a few thousand words. I think I’m done reading about the Hip now.

Jorge Luis Borges: The Book of Imaginary Beings — I found this for six bucks at one of my favourite used bookstores (MacLaod’s on Pender; seriously, it’s the best shop wander in the city) and figured what the hell. Trust Borges to elevate the encyclopaedia to literary status. This is literally what it says on the cover: an alphabetical listing of fictional beasts from various cultures. Most are described in Borges’s own prose, translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, working with Borges himself, but some are simply extracts from the prose of local experts. It’s not meant to be read from cover to cover, so I won’t. I’ll just keep it around and pick through it occasionally. A few highlights so far: the entry on the Squonk of Pennsylvania is excerpted from a guidebook by William T. Cox, which is the source for the Genesis song of the same name. Borges’s entry on the Golem focusses in a fascinating way on the idiosyncrasies of Kabbalistic magic. Also, there is apparently a fictional monkey in northern China that is only about four inches tall, jet black, and likes to drink India ink. It is described as waiting patiently with one forepaw resting on the other, until a person is finished writing, and then it drinks whatever ink is left in the inkwell, resting satisfiedly afterwards. Adorbs.  

Thomas Ligotti: “Teatro Grottesco” — It is good/terrible to be back in the world of Ligotti. The title story from the collection I’m reading proves not only to have the most demonstrative and catchy title, but also to be one of the highlights of the book. I’d place it alongside “The Red Tower” as the best I’ve read so far. It’s a story about weird art, written by one of the great weird artists. And, though it doesn’t obsess over its own structure as much as “The Red Tower” does, it is equally concerned with concepts and processes. Several pages are just the protagonist agonizing over what logical process could bring down the nebulous force called the Teatro, and it’s fascinating and horrifying. There’s not much to say about this without explaining the mystery away, so I’ll just encourage you to read it when it’s dark and shitty and you want to feel unsettled. Pick of the week.

Games

Pokémon Go — I don’t get it. I really don’t. It’s possible that I’m just doing it wrong, but I found so few Pokémon during the half-day I spent periodically doing this thing that I have very little inclination to continue. I have no prejudice against “casual games,” but I do tend to prefer when games are discrete units of experience with beginnings and endings, like movies. They fit into my life better that way, because I can decide that I’m going to devote X hours to them, and then be done forever. (Regular readers will know that I’m especially predisposed to games that only take a few hours to beat. I like my games to be as much like movies as possible.) Games with the potential to expand outward into the rest of my life are more inconvenient than anything. I don’t think I’m going to get into this.

Podcasts

Theory of Everything: “pass” — I’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating. It’s a not entirely comedic monologue about what happens when the self-driving cars become self-aware. Walker is a really good writer, and I’m just as happy for him to do stuff like this as I am to hear him do docs.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch” You’re Listening To Delilah” — This is worthwhile just to hear the rapport between Linda Holmes and David Greene, whose show I have never heard because I am neither American nor a morning person. I have also never heard Delilah’s radio program, which is one of those funny artefacts that’s just as much a part of a place as an old road or a gaudy neon sign. This interview is really great, though, because it demonstrates why she’s exactly the right person to be doing this job, and it also puts her opposite Greene, who gets to be a radio listener in the context of this piece, as well as a radio personality. Fun.

99% Invisible: “Photo Credit” — The best episode of 99pi in a while. Lucia Moholy took iconic photographs of Bauhaus architecture and Walter Gropius, like a shit, denied her any credit for years. This contains some basic context about the Bauhaus, a diversion into copyright law as applied to photographic images, and also Nazis. Fantastic.

The Heart: “The Big House” — The memoir of a dominatrix brought to life. This doesn’t even really need to have a narrative arc to be fascinating. It’s a glimpse inside a world most people will never see, for our own various reasons.

All Songs Considered: “Bon Iver, the White Stripes, Ed Harcourt, Lambchop, More” — I’ve always resisted Bon Iver, but I really liked this track, I’ve got to say. I may even listen to the album. I was also super into the tracks by LVL UP and Lambchop. I want to like the instrumental, percussion-heavy track from Thor and Friends but I actually thought it was pretty bland. Good episode altogether, though.

The Gist: “The ‘80s Really Were the Best” — Were they, though? Both host and interviewee are very nostalgic for the original Ghostbusters, and I cannot figure out why the hell anybody still gives that movie the time of day. But I can listen to Pesca talk about anything.

Planet Money: “Oil,” episodes 3-5 — My podcast feed is obsessed with fracking, these days. This series was a wonderful, wild venture, and the contextual stories about the invention of fracking (by accident, no less) and how oil got into all of our consumer products are just as interesting as the tale of two intrepid NPR producers trying (and failing) to make a profit off of 100 barrels of oil. The mini-series finale is a lovely speculative exploration of how history might have unfolded differently if there were no fossil fuels. It is in itself a really great podcast episode that I think everybody should hear.

On The Media: “Bob’s Grill” parts 1-4 — This is a brilliant concept for an ongoing series of mini-episodes: Bob Garfield grilling people in the media who’ve been shitty. It isn’t uniformly great listening, but it’ll scratch the itch. These four focus on Judith Miller, who misreported on the alleged presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Hunter Moore, a revenge porn enabler who is the honest to god scum of the earth, James O’Keefe, a gotcha videojournalist who habitually distorts quotes and manipulates footage, and ExxonMobil’s Richard Keil, who denies that Exxon funds climate change denial. Garfield is adequately hard on Miller and Keil, but he doesn’t corner O’Keefe as thoroughly as I’d like. The real disappointment is Hunter Moore, whose very existence seems to depress Garfield so thoroughly that he can’t tear into him adequately.  

Code Switch: “Struggling School, Or Sanctuary?” — This is a crossover with Embedded, a podcast I likely won’t listen to, because I hate “ostentatious journalism,” even when the reporting is solid. But this story of a low-performing school in a predominantly black suburb that got closed down is a real heartbreaker. I’m reminded of This American Life’s two-parter about Harper high school. It’s not quite that good, but worth a listen.

The Sporkful: “Beyond Pot Brownies” — Dan Pashman and Jad Abumrad getting high together was not something I knew I needed in my life. But, there you go. Pashman’s key point in this episode are that in order for weed edibles to provide a good eating experience, in tandem with the intoxication experience, you need to be able to eat a full serving of whatever the weed’s baked into and not go out of your mind. It makes you wonder if some point in the future, weed edibles will become something like beer or wine, as opposed to being like tequila shots: you consume them for both halves of the experience, the taste and the high. I’m not super sure what Abumrad and the other Radiolab staffers are doing here. There’s a great moment when Jad gets too high and the sound design goes all Jad, to the point where I halfway thought he must have done it. The credits proved me wrong, alas. Maybe the Radiolab folks are just infamous stoners in the WNYC building?

This American Life: “The Incredible Case of the P.I. Moms” — Holy moly. This is honest to god the most enthralling radio I’ve heard in weeks. I love a lot of shows for a lot of reasons, but I really understand why TAL maintains its radio dominance: it can string you along like nothing else. This is a twisting, turning, film noir of a story about a horrible person who tried to make a reality show by committing crimes and staging stings — with a troupe of “soccer moms” who doubled as P.I.s. It’s amazing. I heard Ira Glass speak one time and he said that storytelling is as simple as saying what happens, and then what happens next, and then what happens next. This story could serve as proof-of-concept for that idea. Pick of the week.

Radiolab: “Playing God” — A good week for the juggernauts. This is a deep dive into the ethical considerations involved with hospital triage. It’s a collaboration with the New York Times, and their reporter Sheri Fink, who wrote that book about the hospital in Hurricane Katrina that I’ve been meaning to read since it came out. This hour asks the impossible questions that Radiolab always does at its best, and tells engaging stories. It’s got some great original music. It also has an incredible line from Robert Krulwich at the very end. It’s their best of the year for sure, not counting every episode of More Perfect

Sampler: “Paul F. Tompkins, The Mayor of Podcastland” — I listened to this in the hopes that it would make Paul F. Tompkins’ massive offering in the medium of podcasts more approachable and comprehensible. It didn’t, but I did get a great interview with Paul F. Tompkins, and that’s not nothing.

The Gist: “The Year Nirvana Lost Out to Bryan Adams” — Mike Pesca should not sing Hamilton parodies. But he should definitely keep talking to this music critic, who I’ve heard on this show a couple of times now, and he’s always great. And at least Pesca’s a bit less religious about fucking Ghostbusters this time around.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Stranger Things Creators The Duffer Brothers” — I am beyond excited to finally watch this series. Next week.

99% Invisible: “On Average” — Man, I feel like it’s two years ago. This week, I’ve listened to two great new 99pi episodes, and the other best shows of the week are This American Life and Radiolab. This piece on why designing things for “the average person” is a bad idea should serve as a parable for anybody making anything ever. But, even as a straightforward piece of journalism, it’s a remarkable story about how a seemingly good idea got way out of hand.

Code Switch: “Nate Parker’s Past, His Present, And The Future of ‘The Birth of a Nation’” — A nuanced, complex discussion of whether or not Nate Parker’s very righteous movie about a slave rebellion ought to functionally expunge his past as an alleged rapist. And, nuanced and complex as it is, it mercifully comes to a conclusion nonetheless. The answer is no. No it shouldn’t.

All Songs Considered: “The Beatles are Live And Sounding Better Than Ever” — Giles Martin is as much a gentleman as his father. And he’s also doing God’s work by cleaning up old live Beatles records. I can’t wait to hear the new Hollywood Bowl reissue. Even considering that those years are not my favourite part of the Beatles’ career, it’s really exciting to have these recordings back, and sounding good.

Reply All: “Making Friends” — This is a lovely story of a person who is living on a fine line between mental illness and a healthy imagination. She has four imaginary friends who help her through her life. She belongs to a community of people who have these so-called “tulpas” (a great, great word), but she’s also trying to exist within the institutions of conventional human society (for example, marriage). One thing I love about Reply All is that, being focussed on the internet and the communities that form there, it covers a vast swathe of humanity. All of the strange, wondrous, troubling corners of modern human experience are fair game on this show.

Theory of Everything: “revolutionary slogans will be written by the winners” — The story of a definitely totally real drinking contest between Guy Debord and Mitt Romney. There’s only one podcast that could happen on.

Science Vs: “Organic Food” — Here’s another issue with this new show that I desperately want to love: when the science is inconclusive, it makes for frustrating radio. I’m going to keep listening to this, though, because its best moments are truly great.

Omnireviewer (week of May 15)

Ah man, I came so close to a clean sweep of my categories, this week. If I’d only listened to some classical music and played a video game. In any case, 26 reviews, many of which contain multiple items within them. Good week.

Events

Vancouver Art Gallery: MashUp — I went to this exhibition on the last day before it ends, and left completely fried. All four floors of the VAG were devoted to this century-spanning show, with a different period on each, in reverse order. For two floors, I read more or less all of the curators’ text and stopped to look at everything on display. But at some point on floor three, amidst the Warhols and the Rauschenbergs, I got overwhelmed and couldn’t take it in anymore. This is a show I wish I’d been to see at least twice. The three hours I spent were not nearly enough to process everything on display. But I’m really happy to have seen it at all. It leant context to some figures that I’m particularly fascinated by, like John Cage, Luigi Russolo, Marcel Duchamp, Guy Debord and Brian Eno. Predictably, I was especially fascinated by the room devoted to My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, in which the videos for “America is Waiting” and “Mea Culpa” were playing on repeat, alongside a display of works that were influential to Eno and Byrne as they were producing the album. The curators admirably didn’t shy away from pointing out the culturally imperialistic elements of the album, but also presented it as a key text in the history of mashup, which it definitely is.

Music

Kanye West: The Life of Pablo — Okay, it’s growing on me. (It has also changed substantially since last I heard it, and the mix doesn’t sound like amateur hour anymore, so there’s that.) I am still bothered by the sheer extent of the asshat that Kanye’s willing to be here: that Taylor Swift line is unforgivable. Kanye’s verses on Pablo are even more mean-spirited than Yeezus, but they’re also more frequently stupid. However, a lot of the beats are nearly Dark Fantasy calibre. “Famous,” in spite of the aforementioned unforgivable line, is one of the best beats in Kanye’s catalogue, and “Ultralight Beam” is one of his best songs, full stop. Chance’s verse is the best on the album by a country mile. I’m reminded of Nicki Minaj on Dark Fantasy. “Waves” is a solid pop tune with something interesting to say about the permanence of great art. Now that Pablo is something resembling finished, it has the makings of a decent Kanye album. But there are still enough head-shaking moments (the outro of “30 Hours?”) that I think it’ll ultimately be regarded as one of his lesser works.

Jack White: Blunderbuss & Lazaretto — I loved Jack White’s bit on Lemonade so much that I needed more. These solo albums are maybe a bit less idiosyncratic than the best White Stripes albums, but they’re no less good. It’s interesting to hear what White does backed by a band of musicians as capable as he is. (That’s not a knock on Meg White — she shaped the White Stripes as much as Jack did, even if only by forcing Jack into a corner.) You might expect White to get lazy when provisioned with the relative freedom of working with ace session musicians and playing a bunch of instruments himself. (Giving an artist total freedom is castrating them, Peter Gabriel once said. Maybe he learned that from Eno.) But White maintains his discipline, writing great songs and only reaching for the studio magic juice when it will serve the track. Blunderbuss is the one that feels more familiar to me as a White Stripes fan, but it still goes madly off in many more directions than any other Jack White project I’ve heard. “Sixteen Saltines” is practically vintage, while the almost barrelhouse piano that starts “Hypocritical Kiss” sounds like nothing I’ve heard from White before. “Take Me With You When You Go” is as good as anything on a White Stripes album. Lazaretto is solid modern blues rock — from possibly the only living artist who can honestly claim that label. “Alone In My Home” is so unexpectedly joyous that I almost didn’t finish my first listen through, in favour of just hitting repeat on that one. And I don’t even think it’s the best track on the album. I love both of these, and I feel like they fill a hole — just as I suspect I’m nearing my lifetime saturation point for Led Zeppelin, I have another rootsy rock and roller to obsess over. And one with a more modern sensibility.

The White Stripes: full catalogue — Hey, I had some spare time and a trial period on Tidal. (I’m becoming less hostile to Tidal, but when I inevitably sign up for the cheap version and don’t get this glorious hi-def sound, I’ll be pissed.) There were a few first listens here. In fact, it’s possible that White Blood Cells and Elephant were the only ones I’d heard before. I thought I’d heard Icky Thump all the way through, but not much of it sounded familiar. In any case, this is a serious body of work. The debut is a tad too punky for my liking, but the basics are in place. If nothing else, it features a very interesting selection of covers, marking the Whites as people with good taste from the start. De Stijl is a huge leap forward, and an album I can see myself returning to frequently. “Truth Doesn’t Make A Noise” is maybe the first great White Stripes song. White Blood Cells is the album that converted me, and still my pick for their best. I’ve always thought of Elephant as more of the same but not as good. Which is to say, still pretty good. Get Behind Me Satan was one of the biggest surprises here. It is certainly a larger, more elaborate-sounding album than the ones before it, but it’s a needed change of pace, and I think I may prefer it to Elephant. And finally, Icky Thump. If I had heard this all the way through I would damn well have remembered. It’s the most elaborate White Stripes album by a fair margin, and a sort of stepping stone to the sort of music Jack White would do on his solo albums. But there’s not a hint of dilution, here. The raw energy in tracks like “Icky Thump” and “Conquest,” and the Jimmy Page by way of Adrian Belew guitar squalls on “300 MPH Torrential Outpour Blues” are not the sorts of things you hear on an album by a band that’s past their prime. It’s a hell of a swansong, and probably my second-favourite of their releases. This is a really fun discography to mainline. I highly recommend gulping it all down in a week. You’ll have so much energy. I can’t wait to check out the lives and B-sides.

Television

Last Week Tonight: May 15, 2016 — Not among his funniest, but the standing invitation to Donald Trump’s alter-ego is a lovely little throw of the gauntlet.

Game of Thrones: “Book of the Stranger” — Okay, I asked for Daenerys to be allowed to do something, and as “doing things” goes, that is a fairly substantial thing. Actually, all of my complaints about the season thus far were at least partially rectified this time around, with Tyrion getting some actual story and a bit of decent writing, and the Wall finally getting interesting thanks to Jon and Sansa being reunited. Brienne continues to be the best thing in any given scene — my two favourite parts of this big, eventful episode are her confrontation with Melisandre and her lustful (I think?) glance across the table at Tormund. I’ll say this though:, killing off Ramsey Bolton won’t be enough. I’ll only forgive Game of Thrones when he gets retconned out of the universe.

Archer: Season 7, episodes 7 & 8 — “What are you all doing here?” “Lunch?” “It’s 5:30!” “Dunch?” I laughed very hard at most of these episodes. Archer in ordinary mode is still a very funny thing.

Comedy

Zach Galifianakis: Live at the Purple Onion — I think it’s good, but I didn’t actually laugh that much. Galifianakis is a really good joke writer who doesn’t seem interested in thinking in a straight line. The piano plunking, the characters and the crowd work are a deliberate structural choice that allows him to string together unrelated jokes. The jokes are good, but I can’t decide if the whole is greater or less than the sum of its parts.

Movies

Primer — Oh good god. If it weren’t for YouTuber LondonCityGirl’s illustrated explanation, I would be 70% clueless. This is an outstanding movie for those of us who like movies to be puzzles, and I do. That’s one of the reasons that time travel is my favourite SF trope. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite as intentionally obscure as this movie. Having basically figured it out, with YouTube’s help, I now think this is one of the most ingenious hard(ish) science fictions I’ve ever seen. Without spoiling anything crucial, the key here is that the time travel mechanic enables an unprecedented amount of duplicity. The things that go wrong go wrong not because the machine doesn’t work as expected, but because people trick each other. Also, I love that this story clearly originated with the time travel mechanic. You don’t see that very much. Most people who write genre fiction use particular tropes because they already have a basic story and some themes in mind. This is obviously a story derived from the set of rules that its time machine imposes. If Brian Eno wrote a sci-fi movie, it might well be much like Primer.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier — Figured I’d catch up before Civil War. I hate cinematic universes because I want my stories to have endings. But as they go, Marvel’s universe is pretty good. This is far better than its pedestrian predecessor, and I’m actually hard-pressed to think of an MCU movie that I prefer to this. Maybe the first Avengers. The secret is the incursion of spy movie tropes into a blockbuster superhero movie, which is becoming a genre unto itself. The more that directors can play with genre to offset expectations, the better these movies will be. The Russos seem to be doing that best, at this point.

Literature, etc.

Kurt Vonnegut: Hocus Pocus — One of only two Vonnegut novels out of the ten I’ve read that I haven’t enjoyed. (The other is Player Piano, which is practically juvenalia.) There are occasional great lines, but so many of Vonnegut’s attempts at aphorism fall flat in this that I started to wonder if it might be intentional. One of the book’s key themes is that rhetoric (“verbal hocus pocus”) can be used to make people think illogically. So, when Vonnegut makes a statement that takes the basic form of a dark joke, but doesn’t seem to be based on anything true, it’s tempting to read redemptively and assume that he’s just offering concrete examples of the sort of fallacy he’s critiquing. But I’ve never seen Vonnegut go in for that particular kind of subtlety before, so I don’t honestly think that’s what’s happening here. Not good. But hey, they can’t all be masterpieces.

Elizabeth Alsop: “The Future Is Almost Now” — This Atlantic piece posits that science fiction is becoming more and more interested in the near future rather than the far future. It’s worth a look for anybody interested in the genre, or anybody just generally paranoid.

Kieron Gillen/Jamie McKelvie: Phonogram vol. 3 “The Immaterial Girl” — Absolutely marvellous. Gillen and McKelvie’s music fantasies are among the best contemporary literature, in or out of comics. Nobody has reckoned with the material effects of music and pop culture on people’s lives more incisively than they have in Phonogram and The Wicked and the Divine. And while the latter of those remains the easier one to recommend, this concluding arc of Phonogram is the best expression of their general thesis that music is never just music, but rather one of the forces that most powerfully animates human society. These are broad generalities, but to describe what they do here in any detail would likely make it seem trite. So instead, I’ll just urge you to read Gillen and McKelvie’s work. Start by catching up with WicDiv, then read the three collected editions of Phonogram in this order: 2, 1, 3. If you have ever been a superfan of anything, you will appreciate every panel in these volumes. If the thing you are a superfan of is music, you will have a new favourite comic. Possibly two. Pick of the week.

Thomas Ligotti: “Purity” — This is the first story in his collection Teatro Grottesco, which I managed to find at Pulpfiction, my absolute favourite bookstore in Vancouver, when I could not find it anywhere else, in physical or digital form. I needed to be shook up a bit, and I had heard that Ligotti was the man for the job. He has already begun. This story is properly creepy, with bits of mundane imagery taking on a grotesquerie that they simply ought not to have. Much is left unsaid, but it is all totally clear. And to boot, the story strongly reminded me of one of the creepiest things I’ve ever read, Michael Lutz’s Twine story “My Father’s Long, Long Legs.” A very promising start.

Podcasts

Now that my Podquest submission has had cold water poured on it gently, Radiotopia reviews will resume as usual.

On The Media: “Trending Topics” — It’s nice to hear a treatment of the Facebook trending topics scandal that actually gets to the root of the problem, which is that today’s tech giants have far too much control over the dissemination of information. Whether stories get traction by way of algorithms or human intervention, the kind of thing that’s likely to get huge on Facebook is not necessarily the kind of thing that people most need in their media diets. It’s also incredible to hear about the conservative economist who advocated for government intervention in monopolies (which may be a term that meaningfully applies to Facebook) in order to repair the free market. This episode also features a discussion with the New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan that is interesting for its frankness about the Times’s shortcomings, but also interesting for the extent to which Bob Garfield allows it to be a straightforward valediction. I suppose not everyone needs to be afraid of him. But if he’s in softball mode during that segment, he roars back into righteous indignation mode in his final essay about the media’s sudden elevation of Donald Trump to legitimacy. To Garfield, talking to Trump about tax policy is “like asking Charles Manson about his driving record.” It is one of the best things that has been written about Trump since this whole boondoggle began, and I can’t recommend it enough. Even if you skip the rest of the episode to get to those last three or four minutes it’s worth your time. Pick of the week.

All Songs Considered: “The 1975, SOAK Covers Led Zeppelin, A Home Demo From My Morning Jacket” — A consistently interesting episode, but not one with a lot of songs I feel likely to return to — with the notable exception of Gaelynn Lea’s studio recording of the song she won the Tiny Desk Concert with. That is a remarkable piece of music.

On The Media: “How the ‘Fake News’ Gets Made” — Oh good, journalists can make funny things. This is Brooke Gladstone interviewing a bunch of satire writers and producers, all of whom came from journalism. So basically, you get Bob Garfield at his best in the main episode and Gladstone close to her best in this podcast extra.

This American Life: “Promised Land” — This episode of This American Life begins with Ira Glass singing an “I wish” song, and continues with pieces by Starlee Kine and the late David Rakoff. It is what public radio is for. Kine’s story about how her overprotective mother wouldn’t let her kids go to Disneyland (in spite of them living in L.A.) but would take them to the Disneyland Hotel twice a year is exactly the kind of story you want to hear from Starlee Kine, and Rakoff’s piece about fasting and not finding enlightenment is exactly the kind of story you want to hear from David Rakoff. Then it ends with a story from Hillary Frank from The Longest Shortest Time, a parenting podcast that I do not intend to listen to. But this story is absolutely riveting. You know when your friend says, “I heard the craziest conversation on the bus,” and then tells the best story you’ve heard all day? This is that story, except the best one ever. This is light on reporting for TAL, but it’s mercilessly consistent.

Sampler: “Mother Podcast” — This is Sarah Koenig on Sampler, which is a reason to listen to Sampler. It’s awkward at the start, because Brittany Luse insists on saying a bunch of the gushy stuff that should have been consigned to the intro while Koenig is actually in the room, which puts Koenig in the uncomfortable position of having to react to fervent praise in public. It gets better from there, but not by much. The concept for the episode must have seemed solid: here are a bunch of podcasts that have been born in the post-Serial world — “Look what thou hast wrought, Koenig!” But Koenig doesn’t seem much more than bemused at the clips Luse subjects her to. For all her staggering success, Koenig doesn’t belong to the crazy world of podcasting that virtually all of the Gimlet staff does — even those who had prominent public radio careers previously. She’s a reporter. Playing her clips from Hello From the Magic Tavern is pretty counterintuitive, improv background or no. Not good.

Bullseye: “Maria Bamford & Wanda Sykes” — That’s a hell of a double bill. These are the kinds of interviews with comics that you want to hear. Bamford is charming and has an uncanny ability to find the humour in terrible, uncommon things that have happened to her. Sykes is super sharp and a great storyteller. The best talk radio I’ve heard in awhile.

99% Invisible: “Separation Anxiety” — And, we’re back! During my Radiotopia reviewing hiatus, 99pi continued to interest me casually but not blow me away. This episode is about trash disposal in Taipei, and also San Francisco. I recently listened to a bonus interview with Roman Mars for Radiotopia supporters, and one thing he mentioned that I was happy to hear him mention is the fact that many episodes of 99pi don’t really have stories — they just explore an idea for a while in a logical fashion. That’s kind of what this episode does, and I so appreciate that there’s a show that has the guts to do that. I’m all for storytelling, but it’s also a dogma among media producers. There are other ways to impart information in an entertaining fashion.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Robot Uprising” — There are apparently people, or at least one person, who advocates for robot’s rights on the basis that the same justifications are used to deny the humanity of black people are being used to deny the humanity of robots. Eric Molinsky is rightly confused by this idea — surely, robots actually aren’t human? But he doesn’t push quite hard enough. There are times on this show where I feel like Molinsky is offering a sort of menagerie of strange worldviews without taking any of them to task. Still fun, though.

Invisibilia: Season 2 trailer — I think it’ll be good, but this show can be awfully cloying at times. They don’t even totally avoid it in this three-minute trailer.

The Memory Palace: “Open Road” — I’m so glad to get to review The Memory Palace again. I love this show so goddamn much. Anyway, this is about the Green Book, the guide for black motorists in pre-Civil Rights America. It is the second Radiotopia treatment of this topic in just a few months, after 99pi’s, but I think I prefer this approach. Just a gorgeous, semi-imaginary story with beautifully-drawn imagery. Really nice.

On The Media: “Ghosts” — Collectively, the episodes of On The Media I listened to this week did me more good than anything else this week. This special episode on the uses and misuses of collective memory demonstrates just how thoughtful this show can be. It isn’t hemmed in by the news cycle; there’s so much more it can do.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Money Monster and Eurovision” — I’m really shocked at how little they trashed Money Monster. I mean, I know it’s called Pop Culture HAPPY Hour, but that movie does not look okay. Also, Glen Weldon’s enthusiasm for Eurovision is one of the few moments where he can honestly be described as “adorable.”

Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 3)

What a week. I’ve been off work, and getting a bunch of necessary things done: a bunch of cleaning, a bunch of writing — also a bunch of running and a certain amount of riding the bus to pubs, bonfires, etc. So, a lot of music and a lot of podcasts. But there have also been many hours of sitting around, regathering my sanity, and innumerable cups of tea. Thus the television, the game, and the reading.

The result of all that is, I think, my largest Omnireviewer post yet. (I’m not going to take the time to verify that.) There are 35 reviews here, and that’s with me having grouped a number of things together (and still excluding Radiotopia reviews for Podquest reasons). Counting every episode, album etc. as one would give me the shattering total score of 42. (Which is a lovely coincidence, considering that Douglas Adams makes two appearances here.)

In recognition of this large, large number, I have allowed myself to choose three picks of the week: one podcast and two others. But frankly, even if it had been a normal week, I would have been tempted to do the same. The first two picks of the week you’ll come to are things that I believe should be and will be talked about for years. This hasn’t just been a week of cultural gluttony: it’s been a week where I’ve come across a number of really astonishing things in a short period of time. And frankly, for all the time it’s taken, I think it’s also inspired me to get more done.

We’ll begin with something I watched a week ago, which seems like a strangely long time.

Television

Horace and Pete: episodes 9-10 — (I despise the concept of spoiler warnings, but I’m willing to concede that the finale of Horace and Pete is probably best unspoilt. After all, this show was released as a complete surprise for the explicit reason that C.K. didn’t want the hype machine to affect the way that people saw the show. I think that was wise. This is therefore the only spoiler warning you’ll ever see on my blog.) Louis C.K.’s critique of American values ends two ways. In the first way, Pete dies tragically and Horace decides to change his attitude after an encounter with a supernaturally nice woman played by Amy Sedaris. The story fades to black over the strains of Paul Simon’s “America.” We are reminded that regardless of the divisions in American society (divisions that have been shown to date back decades, to when Uncle Pete was vehemently anti-Gerald Ford), and regardless of the tragedies that befall individuals, America soldiers on. This ending has every property of a TV finale, except for the fact that it doesn’t actually end there. The other way that Horace and Pete ends finds Horace killed by Pete, and Pete completely mad. It fades to black over the strains of the now familiar (but suddenly more bitter than sweet) theme song, also by Paul Simon. In this version of the ending, America doesn’t survive — not in any form worth respecting, anyway. Sylvia abandons Horace and Pete’s to be forgotten, and rebuilds her life around something entirely different. She wipes it all out, just like Kurt the nihilist barfly always said should happen to the whole country. I’m not sure there’s any internally consistent metaphor in either of these endings — for all of its speechifying, Horace and Pete isn’t message fiction. It’s subtler than that. But I think that the fact that there are two endings present (and I do think that it’s meant to be read as a double-ending — consider that C.K. has never signposted where reality stops and fantasy begins in this show) basically sums up C.K.’s centrism and his belief that it’s never so simple as the ideologues say it is. Lots of political artists working in pop fields have tried to champion the centre. I’m never convinced. I’m still not. But Horace and Pete is the first interesting piece of explicitly centrist political art that I’ve seen. It succeeds where the Coen Brothers have often failed, and where South Park has actually made me angry. It’s the best TV of the year. I know it’s only April, but I don’t see anything unseating it. Its many imperfections only enrich it. Pick of the week.

Last Week Tonight: April 3, 2016 — Sometimes I play dumb iPhone games while I watch things, and then I don’t have much to say about them. Sorry.

Better Call Saul: “Fifi” — I love that there are no simple relationships in this show. Kim and Chuck, for instance. They’ve always been friendly, and we’ve even seen Chuck be totally supportive of Kim. But she’s not important enough to him that he won’t throw her under the bus to get at Jimmy. In other plotlines, it remains very interesting to see Jimmy’s story continue in low-rent Mad Men mode while Mike’s slowly turns into Breaking Bad. Saul Goodman, dodgy criminal defender, still seems a long way off. But Mike the Cleaner is fast approaching.

Archer: Season 7, episodes 1 & 2 — Archer remains Archer. I think unless this season really breaks new ground midway through, it’ll be my last. Archer is good comfort food: the rhythms of it are that predictable by this point. But it used to make me laugh like a maniac and it doesn’t anymore.

Doctor Who: “Planet of Giants” — A while back, before I was even writing these reviews, I decided to start watching classic Doctor Who from the beginning. Lest you think me completely insane, I’m not doing this because I enjoy badly-written, poorly-paced, obviously low-budget sci-fi television from the 60s. Clearly, it’s been a slow process, since I haven’t watched a single First Doctor serial since Omnireviewer began. The reason I’m doing this, really, is because I’m reading an excellent book by Phil Sandifer on early Doctor Who as a British cultural artifact, which demands a certain amount of familiarity with the show itself. (More on that below.) Yes, I’m watching television to prepare for the higher pleasure of reading scholarly essays about it. I am completely well-adjusted. Anyway, “Planet of Giants” is probably my favourite story up to this point in the series’ run. It’s still pretty bad in a lot of ways. The characters are all meant to be smart but they’re all constantly acting dumb for plot reasons. When the TARDIS lands, it’s immediately obvious to the audience that they’ve all shrunk, but the characters take half an episode to figure out what’s going on. There’s a lot of that. On the other hand, the sets are delightful. Seeing Susan and the Doctor stranded in a sink is hilarious. And the fact that the normal-sized people have their own plotline that has a direct impact on the TARDIS crew’s plotline without the two groups ever meeting is legitimately clever. Don’t misunderstand me: mid-60s Doctor Who is bad TV by modern standards. But it is profoundly interesting, and you can totally see how it would soon grow into a show with lasting value. (The Second Doctor is my personal favourite from the classic series.)

Literature, etc.

Philip Sandifer: TARDIS Eruditorum, Volume One — This is the first collected edition of essays from Sandifer’s incredible TARDIS Eruditorum blog. This volume covers the William Hartnell years of the show. It is idiosyncratic and literary enough to be far more engaging than your standard scholarly article, but it’s also far more thoughtful than what you’ll find on most TV recapping/review sites. I’ll be honest, it’s basically my benchmark for great cultural criticism (along with Chris O’Leary’s Pushing Ahead of the Dame). The book version is substantially expanded, and I’d recommend it specifically to anybody who’s trying to get through the full classic series. At the very least, it will ensure that after the show’s frequent shitty instalments, you will at least be prepared to read something interesting about it. This week, I read the essay on “Planet of Giants,” and the subsequent two essays on relevant book tie-ins that I will never read. Part of the appeal of TARDIS Eruditorum is that it can give you a sense of the vastness of Doctor Who’s extended universe without you actually having to put yourself through any of it. (Though I must say, Sandifer makes a compelling case for The Time Travellers as a solid science fiction novel…)

David Day: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded — Day’s book is exactly what I wanted it to be: a volume of fascinating and not entirely convincing conspiracy theories about hidden meanings in classic children’s literature. First off, there are hidden meanings in Alice; that much is clear upon even the most cursory reading. But some of Day’s most compelling interpretational moments hinge on incredibly thin textual evidence — thus my remark about conspiracy theories. Here’s my personal favourite. Near the beginning of the book, Day gives an actually totally convincing analysis of the specific way in which Alice forgets her multiplication tables at the beginning of the book — she’s just ceased to express them in base 10. This checks out, and it’s amazing. She gradually establishes a pattern which continues as she expresses values in increasing bases, but when she reaches base 42 (in uncanny anticipation of Douglas Adams), the pattern collapses. Day then falls over himself to find examples of the number 42 throughout the text. (The playing-card gardeners Alice meets have a total value of 14, and there are three of them. 14 x 3 = 42. A stretch, certainly.) But, when the end of the book comes around and the Knave of Hearts is on trial for stealing the Queen’s tarts, the King invokes Rule Forty-Two: “the oldest rule in the book.” Day suggests that the book in question is not the King’s book of law — because surely the oldest rule in that book would be number one. Alice even says as much. The book in question is Alice itself, with this being a callback to the logical collapse that resulted from Alice’s attempt at multiplication tables in base 42 at the beginning of her adventure. And, upon invocation of this rule, Alice’s dream collapses upon itself — literally like a house of cards — and she wakes up. I love this. This makes Alice a better book, regardless of whether it’s intentional. And maybe it is. Not all of Day’s notes are this interesting; a lot of it relies on paralleling Wonderland characters with Oxford higher-ups of Carroll’s time. One even suspects that Day really wanted to write a book solely about Wonderland and Oxford, but was coerced into including other elements for the sake of general interest. Perhaps that isn’t fair. Also, Day is quite eager to dismiss the popular accusation that Carroll was a pedophile, though he does offer a compelling (or perhaps just comforting) argument that he would likely not have ever acted on this tendency. Still, I’d totally recommend Day’s book to anybody who wants to re-read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with some significant added value. And Alice is worth re-reading, regardless. This time through I noticed something that evaded me the two or three times I read it as a child: not a single one of Wonderland’s characters are “generic eccentric” in the way they tend to be portrayed in adaptations. Every one of them has their own peculiar way of thinking and speaking. The Hatter is not the Caterpillar is not the Mock Turtle. And Alice herself is a marvellous protagonist: we spend a great deal of time, particularly early in the book, inside her head as she attempts to find reason in Wonderland’s madness. And we become accustomed to her way of thinking, which is unique in itself. This was great.

Music

Killer Mike: R.A.P. Music — In retrospect, this is basically a Run the Jewels album where El-P doesn’t rap (much). The element that I missed most from the more familiar Run the Jewels records when I listened to Fantastic Damage last week was the preponderance of synth leads and basses, which are here in spades. The opening of “Don’t Die” is basically what I love most about El-P. And as much as I love him as a rapper, I found a full album of him a bit much to take. Mike, on the other hand, I could listen to for pretty much any amount of time. I love when he gets conspiratorial. “Reagan” is a hell of a thing. I think I like this as much as the first Run the Jewels album.

John Congleton and the Nighty Nite: Until the Horror Goes — This lived up to all my hopes and nightmares. The lead single, “Until It Goes,” was an immediate favourite a couple of weeks ago — one of those songs I can listen to a dozen times a day and still want more. But, having listened to the album a few times now, I think it’s possible that every other song on the album is as good or better than that one. Congleton writes huge, hooky anthems that wouldn’t be out of place on an Arcade Fire album. But instead of filling those anthems up with the usual lyrical platitudes, he gives us a guided tour of a mind that’s been considering some of modern life’s darker questions and not coming up with any reassuring answers. And he clothes his nihilistic mock anthems in nightmarish sonic garb — moaning, wheezing synths; heavy guitars; incessant drum beats and dissonant, automatic vocal harmonies. The final effect is more Brian Eno than Win Butler. High praise, I know. It’s Here Come the Warm Jets filtered through Videodrome. This anxiety-ridden, jumpy, loud, electronic-y rock and roll is exactly the catharsis I want in 2016. A masterpiece. My favourite album of the year so far, narrowly edging out Bowie. Pick of the week.

Darq E Freaker: ADHD — Purchased on the strength of “Venom,” which floored me in NPR’s Austin 100. I love “Venom” much more than the rest of this EP, for reasons I can’t entirely quantify. Alas, this is far too “dance music” for me. Ah, well. Gotta take risks.

Roxy Music: Roxy Music — Reading David Sheppard’s Eno biography really put a fine point on the extent to which Roxy Music shared a cultural moment with King Crimson. Listening to this now, it almost seems like an alternate version of In the Court of the Crimson King where Robert Fripp and Peter Sinfield were more conventionally “cool.” I suppose their analogues in terms of influence would be Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno. So, I guess that’s actually true. When I hear the dinner party nat sound that starts the album I always picture Ferry — working class, posing — dressed in a white suit just a tad too dazzling, and drinking champagne, trying to fit in. “Oh, by the way, I’ve brought my cross-dressing synthesizer friend.” In any case, it’s gradually dawned on me that this is a really good album — at least as good as For Your Pleasure. It’s really interesting to hear music made by two geniuses who don’t really know anything about music or their instruments, but anchored by a virtuoso guitarist of at least David Gilmour calibre. Phil Manzanera roars out of the gate on this. He must be one of the most underrated musicians in rock. One or the other of this and For Your Pleasure would likely make my top 10 of the 70s.

Henryk Górecki/David Zinman, Dawn Upshaw & the London Sinfonietta: Symphony No. 3 “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” — I think I gave this one listen in my undergrad and decided it was overrated. But now, with the impending release of the adaptation listed below, I figured I’d give it another shot. I’m still lukewarm on much of it. I can understand why it’s so beloved, but the best bits are overexposed in movies, etc., and a lot of the less familiar moments are also less memorable. Not a favourite, but good music.

Colin Stetson: Sorrow — I feel like I need to take this review in steps. (1) Adapting, arranging and remaking classical pieces is a good idea — and indeed, necessary for the tradition’s continued vitality. The thing that the classical music community has the most wrong is their reverence for the composer’s intentions above all else. There’s even a famous conducting textbook called The Composer’s Advocate, as if to suggest that a person who is actually present in the room when the music is made could somehow be less important than the person who wrote the road map. That is bullshit beyond measure. Literally every other “high art” form has moved past that. Shakespeare’s plays are most frequently performed in modern fashions, reflecting the director’s taste rather than the period of their composition. In literary criticism, Barthes proclaimed the death of the author 50 years ago. And yet, classical music circles are still crowded with ass-backward pedants who insist that the composers of the great symphonies must have the final say on their works. Even the notion of listening to a single, isolated movement rather than the whole work is considered sacrilege by some, because these pieces are regarded as holy texts rather than what they are: nothing more or less than indexes of their cultures. If this mothballed philosophy is allowed to continue for long, classical music will slink off to a corner and die, and nobody will miss it. I sure as hell won’t. So, when somebody like Max Richter or Colin Stetson comes along and offers an entirely new take on a work from this world, it is to be welcomed. (2) The works that most require this treatment are the ones held in the highest esteem. There’s plenty of music out there by living composers that hasn’t yet found the audience it deserves in its original form. And there’s plenty of overlooked music from past centuries. That stuff needs its first hearing before it’s given a reevaluation. So: rewrite The Four Seasons. Because I don’t give a fuck about it anymore, and neither should you. I don’t care if it’s a masterpiece; it’s broken. We broke it with overexposure. It’s not good anymore. Max Richter’s rewrite is better than Vivaldi’s original by default, because it’s new. (3) If there is a single work from the notoriously neglected late 20th-century repertoire that needs a similar treatment, it’s the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. This piece became something close to a fad in the early 90s. Zinman’s recording sold a million copies. It’s in every movie. So, reworking Górecki is a solid idea. God’s work, really. (4) Colin Stetson’s adaptation is not very good. The parts that work best are the bits where it’s just him on multitracked saxes and other reeds. But, when the drums and guitars come in, things go off the rails. Stetson is clearly aiming for post-rock, but he hits much closer to “new age.” The third movement even borders on cheesy gothic metal territory, at times. The original symphony didn’t necessarily traffic in restraint, but this turns everything up to 11, and entirely lacks the self-awareness to critique its own kitschiness. The shimmery production doesn’t help matters. I do like bits of the second movement, but by and large this is a pretty damp effort. (5) I want there to be more like this. There are sure to be pedants who will dislike this on principle. I agree with them that it’s bad. But I also think they are idiots. They are boring zombies without insight of their own, mindlessly puking up rote recitations of concert hall orthodoxy. They are eating the necrotic bits off of a body that isn’t even quite dead yet. They are the enemy. It probably seems like I’m setting up a strawman to beat down. I am not. I have talked to these people. They are vile. (6) Colin Stetson, I applaud you. Do more of this. May it appeal to me more next time.

Tim Hecker binge: Virgins, Harmony in Ultraviolet, Mirages and Radio Amor — Tim Hecker’s got a new album out. I haven’t gotten around to it yet, but in anticipation, I figured I’d check out some of the catalogue. Virgins blew me away when it first came out, but it’s taken until now to listen through the other three albums I’ve had sitting on my shelf for some time. None are as good as Virgins, because they’re just not as confrontational. Virgins has some of the characteristics of Eno’s ambient music, but it definitely isn’t that: it’s a huge, commanding presence that dares you to ignore one second of it. That’s in spite of the fact that it has very little in the way of melody, and even less in the way of a beat. It’s also better than the other albums because it is a more seamless hybrid of live and electronic sounds. Virgins sounds present partially because it is largely composed of sounds that happened in a room at some point, rather than imaginary sounds that only ever existed on a computer. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But an album like Harmony in Ultraviolet, while good, pales in comparison to Virgins because the latter is so much more fascinatingly imperfect. Harmony, Radio Amor and Mirages are all generally more “ambient” than Virgins is, but all of them have an abrasiveness that prevents them from ever really fading into the background. Mirages is the best of the three, maintaining a bittersweet mood throughout, with implied harmonies and textures that seem to break apart as they form. Still: it’s homogenous compared to Virgins. I’m really looking forward to hearing Love Streams, because it sounds like Hecker is continuing to explore the electroacoustic direction he went in on Virgins. More on that next week, I’m sure.

Gonzales: Solo Piano — I have a gut response to Chilly Gonzales that I’m not proud of. It goes something like: “he’s not as clever as he thinks he is.” That’s never a good way to think about an artist. An artist is as clever as they are. How clever they think they are shouldn’t enter into the equation, even when they tout it constantly. Whether or not they live up to their own pronouncements is in the eye of the beholder. And, hearing this album for the first time, it’s hard to justify that kind of antipathy. These are intentionally simple, slight little pieces for the passive entertainment of whoever’s around. The recording itself is delightfully idiosyncratic: every imperfection in the specific piano that Gonzales is playing is amped up, from the heavy key click to the weird overtones in the high end. I like this. And I’d wager just about everybody would like it at least a little bit. Give it a shot.

NPR Music: The rest of the Austin 100 — If you didn’t download this when you had the chance, at least go and stream it. You’ll discover at least a few things you’ll like.

Games

EarthBound — Having exhausted my Steam purchases from the Christmas sale, it’s nearly time for me to embark on my second (and inevitably, third) playthrough of Undertale. But first, I figured I’d check out the acclaimed, weird little game that so much of it apparently riffs on. So far it is charming, innocuous, unexpectedly self-aware, and has too much RPG combat in it. I will persist, because enough interesting people seem to love this game that I feel like there must be more to it.

Podcasts

Reply All: “A Simple Question” — P.J. Vogt’s description of the inescapability of Verizon’s Fios advertizing in New York City is one of the best writing moments on this show so far. This show also features some of the best tape from a city council meeting that I’ve ever heard. Basically, Verizon is awful and this story is fantastic.

On the Media: “We Gotta Try Harder” — Those watching American politics in a state of confusion and despair should listen to OTM. It will mitigate against the confusion. The despair, alas, is inevitable. Here, though, Gladstone takes on Ghanaian journalism as well. I wish she’d pushed a bit harder in her conversation with the undercover journalist who has influenced policy and exposed crime in that country. He’s pretty astonishing, but only one ethics question? Come on, Brooke. Give the people what they want.

All Songs Considered: “A Conversation with Explosions In The Sky” — Nah, I’m not going to listen to this album. They say they were trying to make a “love it or hate it” record that nobody will think is only okay, but everything I’ve heard from it so far has been completely middle of the road. Maybe if people are still into it at the end of the year.

Sampler: “Crimble Bramble” — I think I’ve found the appeal of Sampler: when there are guests on the show from my favourite podcasts, and they’re there to talk about their favourite podcasts, it’s going to be interesting. This helped everything fall into place about P.J. Vogt and Alex Goldman. The fact that they listen to so many comedy podcasts says a lot about why Reply All is the way it is.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The Real Housewives of Potomac” — I really like Brittany Luse. The fact that I listened to this right after an episode of Sampler is just a coincidence, but I think the podcast gods are telling me to listen to For Colored Nerds. I will not, however, be watching The Real Housewives of Potomac.

Serial: “Present for Duty” — This season of Serial has been neither the most valuable radio I’ve heard in the past months, nor among the most interesting. But this episode, which poses the question: “Did American soldiers die searching for Bowe Bergdahl?” is very good. Honestly, I think that the best presentation of this story would have been a two-part (maybe three-part) episode of This American Life. Broadly, it would have focussed on the details in the first and last episodes of the season, with a few of the asides in the intervening episodes incorporated in truncated form. Koenig and her team should have been allowed to do the same amount of investigation and reporting that went into these 11 episodes, but made to tell the story in a more focussed way. Because, the tiny details of this story just aren’t as compelling as the details of season one’s story. Military bureaucracy is not as interesting as investigating possible alibis. By and large, Serial season two is a miss. It told some interesting stories, but it weighed them down with a lot of stuff that I just don’t think is important to know about Bergdahl, and which certainly isn’t interesting. All the same, they’re apparently done a chunk of season three already. Maybe it’ll work better. I’m not not looking forward to it.

On the Media: “Is This Food Racist?” — Having also heard the first episode of The Sporkful’s “Other People’s Food” series at the time of writing this (see below), I’m glad that Brooke Gladstone invited Dan Pashman on, if only to explicitly call bullshit on chef Rick Bayless for his total ignorance of white privilege. Not just his own privilege, mind, but the very concept of it. Disquieting.

The Sporkful: “Other People’s Food” — This is a five-part series that I can’t recommend highly enough. Dan Pashman explores how what we think about people affects how we think about their food. There are things in here that you likely won’t have thought about if you’re white and dumb, like me. Like, Americans aren’t willing to pay more than 30 bucks for Chinese food, and when they do, it’s shitty American-style Chinese food. But, they’ll pay a hundred dollars for great Japanese food. That’s in episode two. In episode three, Pashman eats apple pie with Joe McNeil of the Greensboro Four, who helped spark the movement that desegregated restaurants in the south. You should check this out. This is a few commutes worth of fun, thoughtful radio. Pick of the week.

Desert Island Discs, Archive 1991-1996: “Brian Eno” — Bless the BBC for making this archive available. This is what it says it is: notable people come on and play the records they’d take to a desert island. The podcast edition keeps the talking and shortens the music for rights reasons, which might actually make it better. Eno says he’s avoided choosing any records that he had something to do with, which certainly limits things. But it’s a good insight into just how omnivorous he’s always been.

Welcome to Night Vale: “The List” and “The Monolith” — Generally, I don’t like when Night Vale does continuity, but “The List” is based around one specific continuity reference that is unpredictable enough to be really clever. Really, though, I’m not even close to caught up with this, and I’m already feeling like it’s been on autopilot for a while. I keep listening in the hopes that something new will happen, and sometimes it does — like in the two specials I listened to a few weeks back. But by and large, this is all starting to feel the same.

Desert Island Discs: “Gloria Steinem” — Something a little more contemporary, now. This was weird. The interview was good, but not as good as Terry Gross’s from months ago, and it touches on several of the same topics. And given that this is not an interview with a musician, as the archival Eno episode was, the music really doesn’t seem to fit. I dunno about this. Let’s try one more, from the archive and see how that goes.

Desert Island Discs, Archive 1991-1996: “Douglas Adams” — There’s a moment in this where the interviewer, Sue Lawley, is asking Adams about his enthusiasm for computers. He goes on for a bit, and then she basically says “But do you really think they’ll replace the human brain?” And then you remember what 1994 was like. (I do, barely.) This is fun, but I do wish that rather than doing a straight-ahead biographical interview with interspersed records, they’d really dive into what the records mean to the person, in their life and in their creative work. This show seems like a (surprisingly long-lived) missed opportunity to really dig into music as an index for culture at large. It’s still kind of fun, and I’ll probably listen to more. But basically, meh. Also, Adams references that he was working on a Hitchhiker screenplay at the time. How amazing that it didn’t come out until eleven years later, only once Adams was quite substantially deceased.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Weezer, The Jayhawks, Colin Stetson, More” — I’ve heard almost no Weezer in my life, and when I heard this Weezer track, even I was like “wow, that’s Weezer.” Both of these hosts like that Colin Stetson thing more than me, but I really am glad they made space for it. It’s certainly interesting, if nothing else.

On the Media: “Behind the Panama Papers” — OTM is so good that first-rate material like this doesn’t even make it into their full shows. The most interesting thing about this is Gerard Ryle’s take on why the Panama Papers weren’t front-page news in America.

Radiolab: “Cellmates” — Ah! The Radiolab of old! For the first time in ages, Robert Krulwich is the key storyteller, with Jad Abumrad just sitting back and leaning into the role of comedically sceptical buzzkill. Plus, the mix is insane and has some great music in it. And crucially, the story is about a scientific insight (okay, theory) with implications so cosmic that no other show would touch it. I’m still going with The Sporkful for my podcast pick of the week, but I’d love to hear more like this.

Surprisingly Awesome: “Circle of Fifths” — Disappointment was inevitable. For all that I’ve railed against this show’s assumption that things are mostly boring, the circle of fifths actually is boring. At least to anybody who’s gone to music school, which, granted, is a small number of people. I really don’t know why I listened to this. But: they seem to have toned down the fake boredom significantly since last I listened. That’s promising, and indicates that I may eventually come to like this show in some form.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Batman V Superman and Pop Culture Objects” and “Best Bad Movies and a Quiz” — Thank you Chris Klimek, for helping me decide to be one of the twelve people who doesn’t see Batman v Superman. And, per the second episode: aww, they’re all so happy to have Trey Graham back. So am I, actually. But that quiz was not very entertaining. Ehh.

All Songs Considered: “What Song Changed Your Life?” — Bob Boilen isn’t the sort of person whose book I’d necessarily read. Basically, he’s a companionable guy with really good taste — the perfect tour guide through new releases. But not a writer. Still, I’m glad to have heard this extract from Your Song Changed My Life, even if it does tread willfully along the standard lines of a late 60s musical coming-of-age. (The song that changed Boilen’s life is “A Day in the Life,” because of course it is.) I fanboyed a little when he told the story of his first time in an NPR studio, at the invitation of a young up-and-coming producer named Ira Glass.  

Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 21, 2016)

29, this week! Back on track! It’s been one of those weeks where there’s a lot of cleaning and cooking, and even a bit of running, so there are inevitably also lots of podcasts. Also, many other interesting and unexpected things.

Literature, etc.

Umberto Eco: “Ur-Fascism” — Read it. I had never read anything by Eco, but when he died, this came highly recommended by two bloggers I enjoy. It contains some interesting personal nuggets and, most interestingly, a list of features that tend to be present in various forms of fascism. So, it’s a very useful essay if you’re looking to call somebody an evil fascist on grounds that aren’t totally specious.

Peter Hince: “Being Queen’s Roadie was One Intense, Rewarding Job” — This is an excerpt from a book that’s probably insufferable by a quarter of the way through. But, a free excerpt won’t hurt anybody. It doesn’t contain a lot of revelations; these things never do. Basically, Freddie Mercury was a handful. Hince’s reveries can get a bit self-indulgent — like your uncle who was in a band, once. He’s a bit of a prick, really. It’s still kind of fun, and Hince saw and heard Queen’s shows from angles that nobody else did. It’s worth a read if you’re a Queen fan, which you probably are. You couldn’t pay me to read the whole book, though. On the other hand…

Will Romano: Mountains Come Out Of The Sky — This is a fairly straightforward history of progressive rock. I’m reading it for a project I’m hoping to start sometime in the not too distant future. I’ve been reading it for ages. It’s the same every time: I borrow it from the library, read one measly chapter, renew it three times thinking I’ll get further, then I have to return it. The reason for this is simple: this book is dismal. Romano doesn’t know how to write sentences. He has nothing interesting to say about the music or the culture that it came out of. And he rehashes tired truisms from prog fandom about how vacuous everything else was. I’m committed to finishing it for one reason: Romano interviewed everybody, and gets some interesting quotes here and there which may prove useful to me. But seriously, this is dire. Every time I pick it up it lights a fire under me to write something like this, except good. I’m working on it.

John Cavanagh: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn — An early entry in the 33⅓ series, and not the strongest I’ve read, but still a really good insight into the making of Pink Floyd’s debut album. Cavanagh (what is it with Cavanaghs?) made me realize the influence of Roger Waters, even at this early point in the band’s history. I was always sort of stupefied that a guy who started off as just some bassist eventually wrote The Wall. My impression was that Waters only stepped up his contribution because Syd Barrett’s absence from the third album onwards made it necessary. That’s clearly not true. He always had designs on rock stardom.

Music

Pink Floyd: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn — Specifically, after finishing the book, I listened straight through the three-disc 40th anniversary edition that has the album in both mono and stereo forms (maybe it’s because I grew up with it, but I don’t hate the stereo mix as much as most Floyd fans, though the mono is certainly better overall) plus all of the associated singles and B-sides. It’s a top-notch set, and absolutely worthwhile for anybody that likes the album. Which I do, clearly. But I will say that parts of it have aged better than others. “See Emily Play” remains a 10/10 pop single, “Astronomy Domine” is as good a four-minute distillation of psychedelic rock as you’ll find, and perhaps surprisingly, the ten-minute, mostly atonal jam track “Interstellar Overdrive” still works, in spite of being more firmly of its time than anything else on the record. I’m more hesitant about “Flaming” and “The Gnome.” There is only so much tweeness I am willing to accept in my psychedelia. And, as far as songwriting goes, I’m inclined to believe that Syd Barrett was better once he’d abandoned that aesthetic on his comparatively dark solo albums.

Pink Floyd: Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London — I can’t believe I’d never heard this. This is the half-hour recording Pink Floyd made as the score to the bizarre-looking movie of the same name, which I will likely watch, maybe sometime. But the version of “Interstellar Overdrive” on this is far better than the version that made it onto Piper, though it lacks the state-of-the-art EMI mixing and mastering. And “Nick’s Boogie” is dank af.

Jethro Tull: War Child — Just as Jethro Tull is one of the most underestimated bands ever to skirt the borders of the classic rock canon, War Child is the most overlooked of their many masterpieces of the 70s. This was the first Tull album not to be made up of just one gigantic song since Aqualung three years prior. But the “bigness” of Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play continue here. That may alienate some listeners, but I think it’s very artfully done. Dee Palmer’s rock orchestral arrangements are maybe second only to George Martin’s, and the glockenspiels, accordions and tablas that the band employs on “Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day” make it one of the best recordings of Jethro Tull’s career — and not just one of Ian Anderson’s best songs. This album is full of moments that I find sort of chilling, like the soprano sax melody that opens the title track, or the line in “Skating Away” about being the only one in the audience. My only complaint is that “Two Fingers” is a bit of a weak ending, and not nearly as good as the simpler version recorded as “Lick Your Fingers Clean” during the Aqualung sessions. It’s the only song on the album that’s let down by its arrangement, and it’s right at the end. But up to there, War Child is a classic and one of my favourite albums.

Movies

Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London — Okay, it didn’t take me as long to get around to this as I thought it would. This is an absolute pleasure. It’s an arty sort of documentary about Swinging London that has a sense of humour about itself and never disappears up its own ass. This, in spite of the fact that it was actually made during the period of Swinging London, and not in retrospect. Usually, I find there’s a certain inevitable self-seriousness to nonfiction that speaks on behalf of a contemporary counterculture. (That’s one of the reasons why I couldn’t get into On The Road.) This isn’t like that at all. It’s mostly verité footage over relevant music, with relatively little speech. What speech there is is mostly stoned people talking out their asses, but you get the sense that the film neither endorses what they’re saying, nor does it hold them in disdain. (Okay, maybe it holds Andrew Loog Oldham in disdain, but the wanker deserves it.) There’s a moment near the beginning where the camera’s shooting a guy playing trombone in a sequence making fun of the pomp and ceremony of the changing of the guard, and the camera keeps zooming in and out as the trombonist moves his slide. It’s surprisingly funny, and establishes the camera as a really engaging, likeable narrator. The last third of the movie revolves more around interview footage and is far less interesting than what came before, but there are worthwhile tidbits. Julie Christie is remarkably indulgent of Peter Whitehead, the obviously eccentric man making the film. A young Michael Caine reveals himself to be very sexist. And Mick Jagger’s actually fairly thoughtful at times. If you’re going to watch a movie about psychedelic culture in the 60s, this is not as good a choice as Performance, but more worthwhile than Easy Rider.

A Serious Man — The best part of this movie is a scene where the main character, a physics professor, is arguing with his student’s father in his driveway. The father is threatening to sue the professor for defaming his son — the professor claims that his student tried to bribe him in exchange for a passing grade, which is almost certainly true but we can’t know for sure. So, the professor says, okay I’ll pretend like this never happened, but your son still fails. And the father says that unless his son passes, he’ll sue the professor — not for defamation, now, but for taking money. Aha, says the professor, so he did leave the money! “This is defamation,” says the father. The professor reasonably points out that this doesn’t make any sense: either he left the money or he didn’t. “Please,” says the father. “Accept the mystery.” This is, of course, a Schroedinger’s cat scenario. The cat can’t actually be simultaneously dead and alive, but we accept the mystery because the math checks out. And, Schroedinger’s cat and the associated math is the very topic of the failed exam that all of this is about. The Coens structure the movie so that this is an obvious and easy connection to make, and their main character sees it too — which is part of what spurs on his crisis of faith. Yes, this movie is thematically based around a three-way allegory comparing faith, physics and bribery. Like Burn After Reading and O Brother, Where Art Thou, it deserves to be much more highly regarded. Pick of the week.

Television

Deadwood: Season 2, episodes 3-6 — The abysmally-titled but excellent episode “Requiem for a Gleet” features not just one, but two moments that must rank high on my list of great TV scenes: the shot of five people at Al’s bedside after his medical ordeal (the nature of which is only marginally spoiled by the episode’s title), and the scene where E.B. fails miserably to trick Alma out of her gold claim. The latter is borderline Shakespearean in its wit. E.B. is an idiot, but a wonderfully loquacious one in the vein of Polonius. And, the way that Alma turns the tables and manages to unsettle him rather than the other way around recalls Shakespeare’s cleverest heroines: Beatrice and Rosalind. Also, the character of Francis Walcott, who shows up this season to stir the pot, feels like a prototype of Vee from Orange is the New Black: another ill-intentioned interloper in a show’s second season. We’ll see which of them turns out to be more dangerous, but as of episode six, I’m leaning heavily towards Walcott. He basically just turned into Hannibal.

Last Week Tonight: February 22, 2016 — Sometimes satire doesn’t make me laugh, but instead makes me say “yes, that is correct; good job liberal America.” I don’t think that’s good satire. That’s what the Hollywood whitewashing segment did — not that it isn’t something worth talking about. It’s just that everybody’s talking about it already, and this segment didn’t frame the issue in a new way, or make me laugh. (Except for the bit about Idris Elba dressing like French Waldo. That was gold.) The rest of the episode is wonderful. I have a limitless tolerance for John Oliver fact-checking Republican talking points when actual journalists won’t, and the segment on abortion laws works by sheer accumulation of examples.

Better Call Saul: “Cobbler” — “You think I’d be caught dead driving that thing? It looks like a school bus for six-year-old pimps.” Michael Mando as Nacho is becoming one of my favourite performances in this show. The story is becoming as frustrating-in-a-good-way as Breaking Bad was. You see what Jimmy’s capable of at every turn, but you can also predict his every backslide into criminality. He’s undone by his own self-image.

Lost: “The Moth” — Not to be confused with the podcast discussed below. Charlie is one of the most appealing characters in Lost because of Dominic Monaghan’s performance, but his story is appallingly written. This episode, with its hamfisted symbolism and its rock and roll clichés, is the show’s first proper stinker. It’s one of the obvious points to go to illustrate the failings of this supposedly “best” season of Lost. Also, this is the first I’ve noticed it, but Naveen Andrews’ accent is really bad, isn’t it?

Podcasts

Sampler: “Magic and Tonic” — This is a perfectly entertaining show, but I honestly don’t see who’s going to tune in (I have decided that this is still an appropriate expression to use about podcasts) regularly to hear a show that’s about other shows. Brittany Luse is great, though. I’ll check out her other show when I catch up with my damn subscriptions.

On the Media: “Bernie Sanders is Running for President” — That title was supposed to be a joke, because the episode aired in January, months after Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy. But since I’m listening to it a full month after that, I guess it’s… funnier? Not much to say, except that once I catch up with my damn subscriptions, I might add OTM to my list of shows that I listen to every episode of, because it’s the most consistently intelligent show available that relates to news.

The Moth: “Moth GrandSLAMs: Life and Death” — I tuned in for Neil Gaiman, and ended up consistently bored throughout all four stories. Oh well. One episode closer to having caught up with my damn subscriptions.

Radiolab: “I Don’t Have To Answer That” — Politics stories on Radiolab are almost sure to be good, and completely certain not to be extraordinary. There’s no good reason that Radiolab, with its capacity for bold aesthetic choices and esoteric storytelling, should be the show to do this story. Hell, Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield work just down the hall. This is fine. It’s good. But I miss the version of Radiolab that would take on the questions nobody else could.

Serial: “5 O’Clock Shadow” — Okay, now this is starting to pick up. This episode has a detailed outline of a military mission and great tape from people who were there. It’s also the first episode that has really sold the confusion over Bergdahl’s motives to me. Having heard his complaints about his platoon, I have no idea why he thought such dramatic measures were necessary.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Grease: Live, and Musicals on TV” — Even as a person with a relatively high tolerance for musicals, all of the stuff they talk about on this episode sounds dire to me.

All Songs Considered: “Shearwater, Lily & Madeleine, Eskimeaux, More” — Nothing on this really stuck out, but I love when Lars Gotrich comes around, because he has some magical way of finding the sort of strange and marginal music that I want in my life.

Fresh Air: “Original ‘Cabaret’ Emcee Joel Grey” — Grey’s a complicated guy. There’s a lot of drama in his life story, which he’s been keeping under wraps for a long time, considering that he only came out publicly as a gay man last year. This is a good interview. It’s hard not to think that Grey was a bit of a jerk to his ex-wife, but there were compromising circumstances.

Theory of Everything: “After Work” — Benjamen Walker checks back in with the unpaid intern he “hired” to try and make a living in the sharing economy back in the three-part “Instaserfs” series. This is great; I love how the two of them use their relationship as a metaphor for the actual sharing economy, and this episode turns that on its head, a bit. As ever, Walker’s intense skepticism about “progress” in the world of labour is much appreciated.

99% Invisible: “The Yin and Yang of Basketball” — This is a story about design solutions to seeming injustices built into the game of basketball. It’s real genius lies in the fact that it’s not important to understand what a three-point shot is, for example. I have no idea what that is, and if they’d tried to explain it, I guarantee I would have tuned out.

Imaginary Worlds: “Noble Effort” — This is actually an episode of 99pi from back when Molinsky was a freelancer without his own podcast. It’s a very, very good episode of 99pi, about the work of the man who drew the backgrounds and landscapes for the Looney Toons, and was thus at least halfway responsible for their brilliance.

Radiolab: “Hard Knock Life” — Robert Krulwich got Lin-Manuel Miranda, of Hamilton fame, to write music about the mating rituals of beetles. This is essentially why we need Robert Krulwich in the world.

99% Invisible: “Miss Manhattan” — The best episode of 99pi since “Structural Integrity.” Before there were supermodels, one woman posed for nearly every sculptor in America. It’s a great story, and Avery Trufelman is an incredible storyteller. Just go listen to it. Pick of the week.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The 2016 Grammy Awards” — I saved so much time by just listening to this and not watching the Grammys. I hate the Grammys. But everything Kendrick Lamar touches turns to gold, so at least there’s that.

Serial: “Hindsight” Parts 1 & 2 — The more that this season of Serial stays focussed on Bergdahl himself, rather than going madly off in every contextual direction, the more I like it — which is to say that this two-parter is one of the highlights of season two. I realize that this is an argument against the very thing that I’ve previously claimed makes Serial such a positive cultural force in the past, but I just can’t deny that personal narratives mean more to me than the granular details that Sarah Koenig and Dana Chivvis are so good at parsing.

Reply All: “The Line” — This is a story about doubt in the Mormon church, as expressed online, that neither condescends to Mormons, nor does it gloss over the fact that their doctrine doesn’t make sense. It is very deft and very moving, and once again does that thing that I love so much about Reply All where it switches effortlessly back and forth between being “important public radio” and being people with microphones shooting the shit.

Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 17, 2016)

It was a week of trains, busses and airplanes. That explains why there are more podcasts and stories than usual, and also why some of the reviews barely reviews at all. Regardless, there are 23 of them:

Movies

The Revenant — I was expecting this to be a joyless slog, and most of the people I went with seemed to come away from it with that impression. It is possible that I am a monster, because I actively enjoyed this from start to finish. It’s the second most visually stunning movie I’ve seen this year (next to another film with Tom Hardy in a supporting role). My initial reaction to the first few shots of this was “Well, here comes another year in which Roger Deakins will not win an Oscar.” But even through this movie is super dark, I found it totally thrilling. Part of that is just the effect of Emmanuel Lubeski’s long takes, but it’s also that the movie really puts you on DiCaprio’s character’s side — not through characterization, but just by making you a witness to his willpower and ruthlessness. I’m almost ashamed of how badly I wanted Tom Hardy’s character to bite it by the end. This is a big, messy, gorgeous, ambitious, singular sort of movie and you should see it in whatever format costs the most. Pick of the week.

Television

Mildred Pierce: Part 3 — It’s a rare moment in scripted television where there’s a fist-in-the-air moment that comes out of the intricacies of front-of-house restaurant management. In this, that moment comes courtesy of an actress named Mare Winningham, who I don’t think I’ve ever seen in anything but is my new favourite person. (Oh, wait. Apparently I’ve seen her in Torchwood and 24. I feel bad now.) Mildred’s daughter Veda is still intolerable and every scene with her in it is a slog. (I wonder if the direction “furiously plays the Can-Can” appeared in the screenplay anywhere?) Also, aside from Mare Winningham and Melissa Leo’s characters, Mildred lives in a universe of awful people. Truly terrible people. I am not one of those dummies who can’t watch anything that’s got unlikeable characters in it, but this is toeing the line, even for me.

QI: “Menagerie” — The average number of legs for an animal, when you take into account all of the animals is approximately none.

Literature, etc.

China Miéville: “Covehithe” — I’ve mentioned a bunch of times before how Mieville’s greatest strength is his premises. But the flipside of being able to come up with limitless unpredictable premises is the ability to make them not seem ridiculous. This is a story about decommissioned oil rigs coming to life and walking ashore to take their revenge. It’s a brilliant thought, but it shouldn’t work in a story that’s not played as broad satire. But Miéville makes it work through brilliant description, making the live oil rigs into impressively scary monsters. This seems to have been one of the stories from this collection that made the largest impression on the critics, and I can see why. Though I can’t say it’s one of my favourites.

China Miéville: “The Junket” — In which China Miéville impersonates a smug, mediocre magazine writer. He’s still fun when he’s slumming. Also, as usual there’s a clever structural trick. Miéville’s narrator talks about a controversial, fictitious movie for half the story without ever revealing its title or subject matter. When the penny drops, so much becomes clear.

China Miéville: “Four Final Orpheuses” — One of the shortest stories in the book: too short to make much of an impression. But the idea of posing alternate theories about why Orpheus looked back is a good one. Because it’s never made any sense.

China Miéville: “The Rabbet” — Nightmare-inducingly scary. Miéville doesn’t reveal his premise until about halfway through, so to say too much would be spoiling it. But this is definitely one of my favourite stories in the collection, even if it isn’t one of the most accomplished. Just because it’s so damn frightening.

Podcasts

Fresh Air: “David Bowie” — Not really a very good interview. It’s 2002, and Bowie isn’t in the mood to talk — especially not about the 30th anniversary of Ziggy Stardust, which is what he’s there to talk about. It’s a half-hour of Bowie rejecting the premises of Terry Gross’s questions, and Gross never quite catching on to the game he’s playing.

StartUp: “Disorg Chart” — Lisa Chow tries really hard to put Alex Blumberg’s feet to the fire in this, but he’s still her boss and it shows. Time for StartUp to move on to another new company. I don’t understand the people who actually think this show is better when it focusses on Gimlet. This mini-season has been fine, but the Dating Ring season is the best thing this show has done so far.

Sampler: Trailer — Normally I would think this is a bad idea. Shows that just stitch together bits of various podcasts the producers like have been done before by companies that shall remain nameless, and it’s dumb. But I already love Brittany Luse as a host, and I suspect she has sufficiently left-field taste that I’ll discover some crazy stuff through this that I’ll want to subscribe to. Or, maybe I’ll discover some crazy stuff that I definitely won’t want to subscribe to, but am glad I at least heard once. A sort of All Podcasts Considered, you might say. I am tentatively excited for this.

Reply All/Radiolab: “The Cathedral” —  Firstly, it’s about time Reply All got a plug on Radiolab. It’s been a better show than Radiolab for a year. This is a story about the making of That Dragon Cancer, a game that’s famous in some circles, about dealing with having a one-year-old son with cancer. The game sounds more emotionally draining than I’d like to deal with. But hearing the story of its development, and the story of how the family who made it dealt with their loss, is totally worthwhile. Sruthi Pinnamaneni is one of my favourite radio producers anywhere. I liked this enough that I listened to both cuts: the Reply All cut and the Radiolab cut. Which one you should listen to depends on whether or not you feel you need a crash course in the concept of “grown-up” video games. If so, go with Radiolab. If not, go with Reply All. However, the best line comes from Abumrad: “How do you finish a game where you don’t have many choices and you can’t win?” Pick of the week.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Comedian John Mulaney” — Audie Cornish is good at talking to funny people, and John Mulaney is one of the funniest. That is my review of this podcast.

The Heart: “Samara+Kelsey” — I’ve really enjoyed this season of The Heart. They’re technically incredible radio producers with an ear for great characters. But it’s kind of difficult to describe what makes it good. Just go listen to this, and you’ll either like it or not.

99% Invisible: “Best Enjoyed By” — News you can use, from 99pi. Basically, the dates on groceries aren’t related to food safety. Didn’t we kind of know that, though?

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “American Idol and People We’re Pulling For” — Two panelists I’d never heard before! This show does have new tricks!

Reply All: “Perfect Crime” — This is another of those clever things that only Reply All can do, where they tell a story that doesn’t actually have anything to do with their stated intent of making “a show about the internet,” but then present it in a way that says something to a web-steeped audience. This is ostensibly a story about an off-Broadway play that nobody likes, but it’s actually a story about our need for validation, on- and offline.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Hateful Eight and the Evolving Theatrical Experience” — I love this podcast because it always forces me to pause it and talk to myself. Regarding The Hateful Eight, I’m totally on-board with Linda Holmes’s reservations regarding the treatment of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character, but I’m confused by the fact that everybody on the panel seemed to find this movie a brutal slog of the “accomplished but difficult” persuasion. I don’t think Tarantino means for the violence to be difficult to watch, certainly. He takes a perverse delight in cinema violence. I normally don’t, but in Tarantino films (with some very notable exceptions) his delight tends to rub off on me. That was mostly the case with The Hateful Eight, which I found tremendous good fun. And as for “the evolving theatrical experience,” I felt the need to rush in and offer the “millennial perspective”: I don’t think that whole idea of the home movie experience getting better and better and thus cinemas becoming obsolete is really valid anymore. I know too many people who watch movies mostly on their computers to buy that.

Fresh Air: “Critics Pick The Best Film & Television of 2015” —  Yeah, I’ve got a lot of catching up to do with podcasts. The time has come to for god’s sake start running again. I recovered from my cold weeks ago, and my rolled ankle months ago, so really. Come on, Parsons. Anyway, when that eventually happens, there’ll be a lot of obviously old episodes of things showing up here. But for now there’s just this, which is really not that interesting and I’d skip it if I had my time back.  

Fresh Air: “Jennifer Lawrence” — I downloaded this before I learned Joy was bad. But Gross doesn’t dwell on it too much, and Lawrence is a totally fascinating person to listen to. She’s in a more businesslike mood here than we’re used to seeing her on late night shows, and whatnot. Because, I mean, it’s NPR. That makes it really worth listening to because she gets more of an opportunity to be thoughtful than she does elsewhere.

Radiolab: Year-end specials #2-4 — I have too many podcasts backed up to actually listen to these producer-chosen reruns, but I did scan through them to at least see which episodes the producers picked as their favourites: “Guts,” “The Bad Show,” and “Galapagos.” Of those, “The Bad Show” is certainly among my favourites. I can’t believe nobody picked “Inheritance,” “Stochasticity” or “Lost & Found” though. Those are three of the most sublime hours of radio ever made.

Song Exploder: “Courtney Barnett — Depreston” — I hadn’t loved a lot of what I’d heard of Courtney Barnett’s much-admired first album. But the thing about Song Exploder is that it really makes you pay attention. Isolating the vocal on this really brings out the (actually really obvious) fact that the lyrics are incredible. I think I’ll check out the rest of the album.

Theory of Everything: “Holy War” (parts I and II) — I really do appreciate that there’s someone as radical and willing to be divisive as Benjamen Walker in Radiotopia. If not for his incredible skill, he’d seem like the sort of person who would be kept away from mainstream podcast networks at all costs. That’s why I love him. This two-part speculative fiction satire of America’s Christian right is one of the outright angriest things he’s ever written, but Walker also actually engages with the specific faiths of his characters, especially in the second half. His critique of Christian America is stronger than his critique of religion more broadly — near the end of the first part, things veer uncomfortably close to Richard Dawkins new atheist territory, though he does pull back at the last minute. I used to sort of consider ToE just basically WireTap methadone. But stuff like this and “New York After Rent” would never have flown on that show. Benjamen Walker is more heretical than Jonathan Goldstein ever was.

Bullseye: “John Cleese and Dee Dee Penny” — I should really listen to more Bullseye. Damn, this is a good show. As for this specific episode: Cleese can be a real dick sometimes, but he’s in a good mood here. Jesse Thorn pulls great clips to facilitate the conversation, and they dive into Cleese’s early years. It’s amazing to hear how tentative his first steps into comedy were. He was on track to be a lawyer. Imagine. I admit I kind of spaced out during bits of the Dee Dee Penny interview. But I love some of the tracks Thorn pulls.