Tag Archives: Science Vs

Omnireviewer (week of Apr. 2, 2017)

I’m going to see the Decemberists! In August. Which is ages away. Still, the ticket purchase has me spiralling back through the years to high school, when they were one of the few currently-relevant bands I was interested in. Still, my affection for them throughout my mid to late teens was based on the then-contemporary albums Picaresque, The Crane Wife and Hazards of Love. I’m not sure I ever checked out the four full lengths that bookend that trilogy, and I certainly hadn’t heard any of the EPs or miscellaneous singles. So, this week, I ran the discography. Normally, I’d lump all of these into one gigantic review. But given my aversion to paragraph breaks, I think that wall of text would stretch on a bit. So, to start the week’s reviews, here are my thoughts on every studio album, EP (excluding lives) and single that the Decemberists have released. In chronological order.

14 Decemberists-related reviews and 12 others, for a total of 26 reviews.

Music

The Decemberists: 5 Songs — By no means is this essential. It’s evidence that Colin Meloy has been Colin Meloy since the beginning of his career, but for the most part, the Decemberists’ debut EP is an expression of promise that’s not yet fulfilled. The songs I’m most likely to return to are “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist,” whose lyric is a vintage Meloy first-person narrative, and “Apology Song,” which was clearly intended as a bit of ephemera (it’s literally just Meloy apologizing to his friend for losing his bicycle) but turned out to be ome of the more skillful and witty early Decemberists songs. They’re very much a folk band at this point. The arrangements are simple. There are no bad songs here, but the first full-length represents a giant leap forward from this EP.

The Decemberists: Castaways and Cutouts — How typical of this band to give their debut full-length a title that sounds like an outtakes collection. Part of this band’s charm is the way that their songs focus on people who are in some way on the margins, sometimes for reasons beyond their control, but just as often because they’ve engaged (with relish) in some sort of shady deal or dubious practice. Castaways and Cutouts is where that really starts. It’s fitting that the key line in the album’s final song is “Calling all bedwetters and ambulance chasers.” Because they clearly all showed up, and they’ve been populating Decemberists albums ever since. The music on here is more ambitious by far than on the debut EP, but they’re yet to go all Fairport Convention/Jethro Tull. Still, even in this more subdued setting (relative to later albums), it’s obvious how awesome Jenny Conlee is. The accordion on this is just great.

The Decemberists: Her Majesty the Decemberists — I can tell this is going to be the Decemberists album that my opinion will be the most subject to change about. My initial impression is that it’s something like Beatles for Sale or Time and a Word: an album where the band has clearly honed their craft since the last one, but which is nonetheless not as consistent as what came before. However, I can’t honestly say that there are any particular songs on this that I’m especially ambivalent about. “Shanty for the Arethusa” has some lines that made me raise an eyebrow, but it’s also got some fantastic melodies. “Billy Liar” is a bit pat in the verses, but the chorus is glorious. And then there’s the fact that this album has “I Was Meant for the Stage” on it, which is a classic. I know it’s meant to be ironic, but it’s hard for me not to take it a bit seriously, given that it was my theatre kid friends who first introduced me to this band. I think Castaways and Cutouts is a bit better than this, but not by much.

The Decemberists: The Tain — Nobody could have known at the time, but this now seems like the moment when the Decemberists’ imperial phase started. (Retrospectively, it’s also the one reason why Hazards of Love shouldn’t have come as a surprise.) Not coincidentally, it is also the start of their fixation on the music of the English folk revival and its folk rock cousins. This turned out to be good look for the Decemberists, and one that they could mine a surprising variety of approaches from. Here, they veer towards the Jethro Tull side of the folk revival equation: the side that isn’t fully engaged in “revivalism,” and would just as soon adopt elements of the proto-metal that was floating about at the time. I’ve always loved music that contrasts heavy elements with acoustic elements, see also: Tull, Led Zeppelin, Opeth. Having access to both ends of the spectrum strikes me as a more likely way to capture a panoramic image of the human experience. Basically, The Tain marks the point where the Decemberists decided that regardless of their folky origins, they would be making massively ambitious music from here on out. I’m reminded of a couple lines from the album that precedes this “I was meant for applause/I was meant for derision.” The fact that the Decemberists followed Her Majesty with something as potentially divisive as this strikes me as another reason to doubt the ironic intent of that song.

The Decemberists: Picaresque — This is the one. The classic. The period album, where the period is the one that former indie kids associate with the Decemberists. The one you’d anthologize if that was a thing you did with albums. The masterpiece. To be fair, it’s also the album with nostalgia on its side. It was certainly the first Decemberists album I heard, and possibly the only one I heard for several years after. (I think I may have sat The Crane Wife out until after Hazards of Love came out.) I will forever associate it with my days as a weird theatre kid. It was one of relatively few albums that were current at the time that I could appreciate with the same intensity that my peers did. In retrospect, it seems like a gift of coincidence that this deliberately theatrical album came out at the very time when I was hanging out with the community theatre folk that this seems directly intended for. The slapped-together costumes and cardboard sets of the album cover and CD booklet were the world I was living in at the time. And I still love the Decemberists for glorifying the naïve overreach of small-time theatre. The whole album is infused with “let’s put on a show!” bonhomie. I remember my experience of that: it was always more about satisfying my own need for an expressive outlet — and for a community — than it was about satisfying the audience. Nothing teaches you the appeal of self-indulgence like community theatre. Except for Picaresque. Listening back to it now, it’s that rare thing that a) arrived in my life at the right time and b) is just as good or better now. There are songs on this, like “On the Bus Mall” and “The Bagman’s Gambit” that I don’t recall being nearly so enamoured with when I was 15. That’s reassuring. It convinces me that my love for this album and this band isn’t just a matter of nostalgia. For evidence of Colin Meloy’s undeniable virtuosity, you need look no farther than the opening track. “The Infanta” is probably peak Meloy, insofar as his defining characteristic is his huge vocabulary. I particularly love “Within sight of the baroness/Seething spite for this live largesse/By her side sits the baron, her barrenness barbs her.” It was the theatricality of the Decemberists that captured my attention when I first heard them. These days, it’s their literary quality. Meloy clearly just loves words. He loves big words, old words and rare words. But he doesn’t use them for obfuscation — just the opposite: Meloy’s vocabulary allows him to tell unfamiliar stories about unusual characters with incredible clarity. It’s impossible to listen to a song from Picaresque and come away from it without knowing what it was about. Google may come in handy in a few places, but you can ascertain everything you really need to from context. That’s about all I’ve got for generalities. If I were to take this review any farther, I’d need to start diving into specific songs. I’ll resist that, save to say that “16 Military Wives” is the definitive protest song of the George W. Bush era, and that “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is not just one of my favourite songs but also one of my favourite stories in any context. This is a classic of its time. Pick of the week.

The Decemberists: Picaresqueties — I hadn’t heard this collection of outtakes before, and while it’s a slight thing compared to the band’s previous EP, it’s worth hearing. “The Bandit Queen” is especially good. (Man, we’re already a fair way into this and I haven’t heard a bad song yet.)

The Decemberists: The Crane Wife — This reminds me a bit of Selling England by the Pound, not just because it’s a poignant album full of elaborate, beautiful story songs, but also because it’s the first time that the band’s playing is captured in an ideal light. Meloy’s songwriting excellence was always obvious, and the band’s arrangements were always a highlight of their albums. But The Crane Wife is the first album where it becomes clear that this band has chops. Like, serious chops. It’s a clear demonstration that the resources of a major label can actually make a difference to the product. This album’s popularity surprises me a little, given that it’s the proggiest thing in their catalogue up to this point (save for The Tain). “The Island” in particular is practically a Jethro Tull song. Its second section, with the Hammond organ and guitar picking, is a dead ringer for Thick as a Brick. Shortly after, Jenny Conlee uses a synth sound that’s almost identical to the one on A Passion Play and War Child. So there are signifiers here that appeal to me. But “The Island” isn’t the album’s highlight: that would be the title suite, which is neck-and-neck with “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” for my favourite thing this band has ever done. Lyrically, it’s restrained by Meloy’s standards. No dictionary words, here. But the storytelling is absolutely heartbreaking, and benefits enormously from its first-person perspective (like “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”). It was a canny decision to place the suite’s third part at the beginning of the album, because it adds poignancy to part one. Once we know how the story ends, the beginning becomes bittersweet. The smaller, standalone songs on this album don’t preoccupy me the way that the shorter tracks on Picaresque do, but it always surprises me how much I like them when I listen to the album start to finish. “When the War Came” and “Sons and Daughters” are particular favourites. The latter is good evidence that Meloy can write a good song with economy in mind, rather than his usual effusiveness. I love The Crane Wife. It’s very much the sound of a band at their peak.

The Decemberists: Always the Bridesmaid — I’m treating this like an EP, even though it’s a collection of three singles. Given that I’ve listened to a lot of Decemberists music in a short period of time, this was a welcome respite between two of their meatiest works, The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love. As Decemberists EPs go, it strikes me as the opposite of The Tain. Where that was a huge proggy epic, this is a collection of Decemberists songs working on the smallest scale they operate at. The Velvet Underground cover is inessential, but aside from that this is all gold. Musically, I’m particularly enamoured of the super catchy “Days of Elaine,” but the best lyrics are in “A Record Year for Rainfall.” That song joins “Sixteen Military Wives” in the ranks of Decemberists songs that seem more relevant now than ever. “In the annals of the empire/did it look this grey before the fall?”

The Decemberists: The Hazards of Love — This may be my second-favourite Decemberists album. I can’t quite tell whether my affection for it is a bit puffed up due to its unfairly mixed reception relative to The Crane Wife, but I really do think this belongs alongside the band’s very best works. Mind you, I’m always going to step up to defend an overreaching concept album. This is just another example of the spirit of theatricality and indulgence that the band celebrated in the album art of Picaresque. Storywise, it only makes as much sense as the average opera. But like the best operas, it trades more on the inner lives and relationships of its characters than on narrative cohesion. And while the characters are effectively cardboard cutout (and castaway) fairytale characters, their plights and scenarios are relatable enough for any receptive listener to graft their own inner life onto. More crucially, the music is outstanding. For a few years, The Tain must have seemed like a first step down a road ultimately not taken. But The Crane Wife cracked the door back open to some of the proggier tendencies on that EP. And Hazards represents a proper maturation of that side of the band’s sound. It’s the fullest flowering of their Anglophilia, with folk, prog and proto-metal all accounted for — plus a story that pulls from the same well as Narnia or Harry Potter: what happens when a normal human stumbles into a world of fantasy? For my money, parts one and four of the title suite, “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid,” “The Rake’s Song” and “Annan Water” are all among the best songs in the catalogue. Again, it owes a lot to Jethro Tull. But it isn’t a pastiche. More than anything, it feels like the band arrived independently at the formula for Thick as a Brick or A Passion Play, by way of some of the same sources. For my tastes, it doesn’t get much better than that.

The Decemberists: The King is Dead — I implied earlier that the Decemberists’ imperial phase was coextensive with their obsession with the British folk revival. That turns out to be a bit unfair. This is a sharp left from Hazards of Love, and whether that has anything to do with its lukewarm reception is a fool’s game to try and suss out. But the band is definitely not relying on British models, here. It’s Americana all the way through. But this isn’t entirely outside of the band’s wheelhouse: the early albums had a whiff of American folk about them. Just, with a bigger vocabulary. And besides, this is just another folk tradition that foregrounds story and character, which has always been what Colin Meloy is most interested in. True, the characters on The King is Dead are undefined everypeople, rather than children of the Spanish monarchy or infanticidal rakes. But this album strikes me as having essentially the same goals and modes of connection as all of the ones that came before. It’s just doing it with a drastically different sonic palette and set of reference points. Taken in context of the discography, it has the feel of a “wings of wax” album, in the sense that they may have flown too close to the sun on Hazards of Love and this finds them once again on the ground. (See Let it Be following the White Album and Beggars Banquet following Satanic Majesties for archetypal examples.) But listening to it, I got the sense that Meloy is successfully having his cake and eating it too: he’s still doing what he’s always done, but differently enough to appease those who felt that Hazards was a bit much. This is certainly my favourite new discovery I’ve made through the course of this survey. For my money, it’s superior to the two early albums and belongs in the same category as the three that directly precede it. I find “January Hymn” especially poignant, but then I would.

The Decemberists: Long Live the King — The first set of non-album tracks since Picaresqueties to actually feel like outtakes. Always the Bridesmaid is awesome and Crane Wife has a bunch of fantastic outtakes (more on which shortly). But this EP is definitely a bunch of songs that weren’t good enough for The King is Dead. No shame in that, and I’d certainly classify it as inessential rather than bad. It’s a curiosity. Worth a go if you like The King is Dead, which I sure do.

The Decemberists: What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World — Ah, well, we had to come to it eventually. After such prolonged ebullience on my part, I’m hesitant to actually say it outright: this is disappointing. Not shatteringly disappointing, or anything, but it’s certainly the only Decemberists full-length I discovered this week that I’m not super excited to return to. It seems I’m not alone in my muted response. Still, does anybody else feel like critics are generally more inclined to chastise an artist for overambition than underambition? Because I was paying attention to that sort of thing when Hazards of Love came out, and it seemed clear to me that it was an unpopular album among those sorts of people. And having read up on the critical appraisal of this one (also not an enormously popular album), the backlash seems substantially less vitriolic. I wish this were the sort of album that bands got chastised for. Because to me, there is very little here that catches the ear, lyrically or musically, in the way that basically every song from the previous four (five? six?) albums did. There are exceptions. Musically, “Make You Better” is a brilliant, hooky pop song with the unexpected development of an Adrian Belew impression from guitarist Chris Funk. Lyrically, “The Singer Addresses His Audience” is as wonderfully arch as Colin Meloy gets, and it’s the one song on the album whose lyrics I immediately felt compelled to listen to. And, by the way, I take Meloy’s point. The song is basically a preemptive (and might I add, slightly defensive) retort to reviews like this one. And I agree with Meloy that it’s only right for his band to change. I was happy to hear them transition into full-on prog on Hazards of Love. I was delighted by how naturally they sunk into the groove of Americana on The King is Dead. But I’m only happy with changes that expand and refocus the band’s ambition, which is what I love them for. Terrible/Beautiful pares it back. I hope their next album is, I dunno, a movie.

The Decemberists: Florasongs — Not much to say that I didn’t already say about What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. These songs are outtakes from that album, and sound like it. This is the least essential Decemberists studio release.

The Decemberists: Miscellaneous singles, B-sides and outtakes — I did make a real effort for true completion here. I’m defining that as “every finished studio recording by the Decemberists, plus one or two unfinished ones.” There are songs that fall into that box but don’t appear on any of the previously discussed releases. As far as I can tell, this is a complete list of them: the John Denver cover “Please Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk this Christmas),” the Her Majesty-era B-sides “Everything I Try to Do, Nothing Seems to Turn Out Right” and “Sunshine,” the Crane Wife bonus tracks “Culling of the Fold,” “After the Bombs,” “The Perfect Crime #1/The Day I Knew You’d Not Come Back,” “The Capp Street Girls” and “Hurdles Even Here,” “One Engine” from the Hunger Games soundtrack, and “Sleepless” from the charity compilation Dark Was the Night. If anybody reading this knows of tracks I’ve missed, I’d be much obliged to know. This is an album’s worth of additional material from this band, most of it worthwhile. The Crane Wife outtakes are the most essential, and I do mean essential. “After the Bombs,” “Culling of the Fold” and “Hurdles Even Here” are all as good as some of the tracks that made the album. “After the Bombs” also serves well as a postscript to the album, given that “Sons & Daughters” ends with a lyric about bombs. “The Perfect Crime #1/The Day I Knew You’d Not Come Back” has some wanky horns that do it no favours, but it’s still the sound of a band in their prime, having a good time in the studio. That’s not nothing. The rest of this is ephemera, but it’s good ephemera, particularly the Hunger Games track, weirdly. As a final note on this topic, I feel as though I plunged rather suddenly into negativity towards the end of this. But to be clear, I definitely don’t think that it’s over for this band. One rough album does not a career ruin. But even if this body of work was all we’ll get, it’s pretty damn impressive. Of everything I listened to this week, let me list what I consider essential: Castaways and Cutouts, Her Majesty the Decemberists, The Tain, Picaresque, The Crane Wife and its outtakes, Always the Bridesmaid, The Hazards of Love, The King is Dead, “One Engine,” “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” and “Make You Better.” That’s a staggering batting average, and I’m in no way sick of this band, even after listening to their entire output in the space of a week. (As I post this, I’m listening to The King is Dead again.)

Comedy

Louis C.K.: 2017 — I have a theory about this special. My theory is that it is Louis C.K.’s challenge to himself to see how brilliantly he can perform sub-par-to-average material. He’s got a bunch of jokes that aren’t as good as in his previous specials, and he wants to see if he has the chops to elevate them by being more performative than he ever has before. There are characters, pantomime and silly voices in this special and it feels like C.K. is honing a very specific part of his toolkit in a controlled environment, i.e. on mediocre jokes, to see what happens. It’s possible that I’m being overly charitable. But this is a guy who is constantly working to move himself forward. So I wouldn’t be surprised if, say, Todd Barry mentions in an interview that Louis told him about a concept for a show where he only does his weakest material and tries not to bomb. This is the worst Louis C.K. special. That’s why I’m working so hard to justify it. But the fact that there’s something in there to help me do that is evidence that it still isn’t all bad.

Podcasts

Judge John Hodgman: “DNA NDA” — One twin wants to know for sure whether they’re identical. The other does not. This is great because it walks a fine line between remaining lighthearted and exploring the somewhat troubled relationship between these two brothers. It also features a sleep-deprived but rather amusing bailiff Jesse Thorn, whose presence on this show is invaluable. He’s almost a psychopomp: guiding us into the unfamiliar and oddly-reasoned world of Judge Hodgman. Very nice.

Criminal: “Wildin” — A sad story of a kid who spent six months in a federal detention centre after having crossed the border into America and made a life there. The saddest part of the story is an interview where a teacher mentions how after Wildin’s arrest, a huge chunk of her class stopped coming to school for fear that ICE was out to get them.

Science Vs: “Acne” — God, I don’t know why I came back to this show. The premise is gold, but the jokes are beyond insufferable: they’re almost not jokes. I know they’re not supposed to be good, but that’s no excuse. I see the next one’s about climate change, so I’ll probably listen to that. But I’m going to be selective from here on out.

Strangers: “Claire Obscure” — This is one of the hardest podcast episodes to listen to that I’ve ever encountered. It’s a story about a woman who was sexually abused by her father as a child, and it only gets more extreme from there. Lea Thau is one of relatively few people who could tell this story. She’s empathetic and feels no need to make the story her own, or to make it mean something larger. It’s simply a story about a person’s intense trauma, delivered with no purpose except to acknowledge that these things happen. People like Claire’s father exist. This is appalling, and I don’t know if I can straightforwardly recommend it. But it is definitely a good thing that should have been made. Pick of the week.

Science Vs: “Climate Change… the Apocalypse?” — And just as I suspected I might never listen to this show again, it does this really great episode. This isn’t asking the question “is climate change real?” Because if you have one-third of a brain you know it is and you’re sick of the conversation. This is basically a history of the evolving consensus on climate change. It goes into details like the debate over whether rising temperatures and increasing carbon content in the air are related. And it puzzles over how the future might turn out, given that we can’t predict how humans will respond to the crisis. Great stuff.

Arts and Ideas: “Monks, Models and Medieval Time” — I wish I’d heard this before I listened to S-Town. It’s a talk by Seb Falk about astrolabes and other medieval timepieces, and how their existence is counterevidence to the claim that the medieval ages were a time of dogma and darkness. Or, at least, that they were entirely that. I mean, Falk also goes into how these timepieces were used to determine the time of the month when the planets were in the proper alignment for effective bloodletting. So, you know.

Longform: “Hrishikesh Hirway” — I don’t listen to Song Exploder regularly, but I admire Hirway’s accomplishment very much. And this interview reveals that he’s a deeply self-aware sort of person, with a certain ambivalence towards his own success as a podcaster. He’s also a tireless workaholic. I hope he’s actually as bad at time management as he claims to be, because that means there’s hope for me. Also, the idea that Marc Maron was a major inspiration for Song Exploder is something I never would have thought of.

Code Switch: “Changing Colors In Comics” — This is a fascinating look at a deeply frustrating industry. Given that the only recent superhero comic I’ve read (and disliked, but that’s beside the point) is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther, it’s easy to forget that the industry is a morass of whiteness. Glen Weldon (who sounds soooo happy to be here) does a great job of contextualizing those fuckheaded remarks from Marvel’s VP sales about people not wanting diversity. The interviews here are fantastic, and I really want to go to Amalgam Comics in Philly. Though, I don’t see myself going to Philly anytime in the near future.

The Moth: “Facing The Dark” — It’s been ages since I listened to The Moth. This episode contains some of what often turns me off about it, namely a compulsive need to have perfectly self-sufficient stories conclude with a homily. The second story here is the best one, precisely because it doesn’t do this. It’s told by a neurologist who tries to understand her father’s trauma from the Holocaust through her study. You wouldn’t think it would be a funny story, but it is. John Turturro shows up after to tell a really remarkable story about his family, but it suffers from concluding homily syndrome, which ends the episode on a sour note. I’m happy I listened to this, because I’ve been meaning to revisit some shows I’ve put aside. But, this show remains difficult to recommend to the majority of my deeply unsentimental friends.

Longform: “Brian Reed” — The host who interviews Reed (entirely about S-Town, obviously) here knows him a bit, and has some insights to share about him. He is apparently a person with a remarkable ability to “meet you where you’re at.” That’s why S-Town is as good as it is. The best that can be said of Reed’s involvement in that story is that he didn’t fuck it up. And appearing to be at cross-purposes with the people around you is a surefire way to fuck it up. This is a fascinating interview, and I highly recommend it as a piece of post-S-Town listening.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “S-Town and Chewing Gum” — I’m with Glen Weldon on S-Town, obviously. I do see the ethical concerns levelled by Margaret Willison (and others), but I’m sticking to my concept of the show as being fundamentally John B. McLemore’s attempt to have his life novelized. This is idiosyncratic, I understand. But to the extent that he was aware of his own charisma and the extent that he gives good tape (and the Longform interview with Brian Reed indicates that he was), I feel like he really did know that he’d be the central character of this narrative. That goes a fair ways towards assuaging what doubts I might have momentarily had. Which, to be fair, weren’t many.

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Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 20, 2016)

Do you ever listen to podcasts at 1.5X speed? Pro-tip: do that. You can listen to more podcasts that way.

27 reviews.

Television

QI: “Keys,” “Jumpers” & “Jobs” — If I am not mistaken, I have watched three episodes (in a random batch of six) of QI in the past two weeks that all reference bungee jumping.

Fleabag: Episodes 1-3 — Watched on the recommendation of the panel on Pop Culture Happy Hour. I’m really enjoying this, even if my snootiest, least charitable self wants to believe that I had it pegged as a Louie-esque-difficult-person-dramedy-with-an-occasionally-cloying-indie-sensibility right from the start. The important thing is not that it happens to fall into an increasingly identifiable box, but that it’s brilliantly executed and succeeds at being both sensitive and hilarious at the same time. Also, it’s always nice to see a show that succeeds without having a big, pitchable marquee concept (“women’s prison show” or “washed-up cartoon horse”). How would you summarize Fleabag? “A young woman deals with grief?” Yawn. Yet, I’d love to see more of this sort of thing. Television producers take note: “show with ordinary, real-life story, interesting characters, and good jokes” might actually be an elevator pitch worth paying attention to.

Movies

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them — Well, I went to a movie theatre and was pleasantly diverted for a couple of hours, so I guess that’s a win. But this is not a very good movie. Aside from just being sort of superfluous in general (also, five movies!?!? that’s far too many movies), it has some problems even when taken entirely on its own terms. The plotline suffers from the sense that groundwork is constantly being laid for later things. Jon Voight shows up pointlessly about three times, and will presumably be important later. Also, in the end, the focus turns to a thing called the Obscurus, which is a big evil repression monster, but the bulk of the movie is just people running around chasing other, unrelated escaped monsters. Those plotlines don’t sit easily together, and I think Rowling should have just picked a thing. Story concerns aside, there are also character concerns. Namely, the two main characters are both ill-conceived ciphers. Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander is fun to watch in the way that Eddie Redmayne is usually fun to watch, but he has to state outright that he has the tendency to annoy people because he is never seen to do that thing. Anyway, this is genuinely weak in most respects, but also strangely hard to dislike. It’s nice to be back in the wizarding world, even though the absence of Great British Character Actors A through Z makes this feel like a drastically different thing, tonally. (The cast here is fine, but the thing that makes the Harry Potter movies occasionally more than workmanlike is that particular species of British acting proffered by Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, Michael Gambon, Robbie Coltrane, Helena-Bonham Carter, and tons more. Nothing of the sort here — by design, clearly. But I do miss that.) If there’s one silver lining to an American-set wizarding world franchise, it’s that modern fantasy’s least subtle left-wing allegorist has been unleashed on a country that just elected Donald Trump. This is not necessarily a winning formula, but I’ll hold out hope that future instalments could be interesting. Also thievery platypus.

I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House — This is my kind of horror. The premise is classic pulp fodder: a young hospice nurse moves into a house to care for a senile author who used to write horror novels, and the house turns out to be haunted. But this film takes a dramatically more ambitious approach to this material than you might expect. It is slow and contemplative, with deliberately artificial performances and artfully framed static shots. The bulk of the script is delivered in voiceover, pairing enigmatic images with obtuse, circuitous discussions of themes rather than exposition. It’s a movie that actively challenges you to figure out what it’s really about, given that its story is so basic and told at such a slow, deliberate pace. I’m not entirely sure what the answer to that is. There’s lots in there about the act of looking, but I’m not quite sure what to make of that. Seems like something I might be able to parse on a second viewing, when I’m not preoccupied with the curry I’m eating. And there will be a second viewing. This is that kind of movie.

Literature

Dan Fox: Pretentiousness: Why It Matters — I can’t remember the last time I read a book that felt this much like it was written specifically to connect with me. This monograph by Dan Fox is a stunning defense of thinking and behaving in ways that contravene convention. It is by no means a refutation of populism, but rather a love letter to broad-mindedness. Fox notes the obvious point that the word “pretentious” is generally used in a derogatory fashion: to put somebody back in their place when they’re perceived to have overstepped a social boundary. But he argues persuasively that the act of overstepping social boundaries — which necessitates a certain amount of pretense or pretending (to the throne, even) — is inherently praiseworthy. And he has some choice words for those who prefer the epithet “elitist,” too. He cites a Guardian columnist who literally professed hatred — hatred — for a pair of flashily-dressed young people he saw randomly at a contemporary art exhibit. And he tears that columnist apart for what he rightly calls “cheap, them-versus-us populism.” He continues: “It speaks to an ugly intolerance for difference, to an expectation that people must share the same aesthetic tastes and appearances and that if they don’t they must be complicit members of an elitist racket hell-bent on excluding ‘ordinary’ people from its world. Those ‘ordinary’ people, it is assumed, could not possibly be interested in complex ideas and conversant in different forms of visual literacy.” Boom. That quote alone is reason enough for everybody in the media to read this book. There’s a personal anecdote in the postscript about how Fox grew up in a time and place when a young person could be introduced to the films of Kenneth Anger and the music of John Cage by way of the public broadcaster. Makes one wistful, frankly. There’s a quote near the end of the book that I consider words to live by: “To fear being accused of pretension is to police oneself out of curiosity about the world.” Open-mindedness is an ideal among ideals. Fox doesn’t quite go there in his book but I think if more people were devoted to the cultivation of a broad base of knowledge, as opposed to fearing or resenting the same in others, societies would be stronger, less divided, and make better decisions as an electorate. Pretentiousness is not the enemy. Quite the opposite. Pick of the week.

Alanna Bennett: “The Harry Potter Fandom Is At A Crossroads” — This is a fascinating portrait of a fandom growing up. The really interesting thing about the Harry Potter fandom right now is that they (we? I would include myself, if I weren’t so obviously less invested than the superfans referred to here) learned about social justice in part from Harry Potter, and now they find themselves butting heads with J.K. Rowling herself when she does boneheaded, offensive things like trying to fictionalize Native American culture. This is fascinating. About halfway through, I stopped to reread the first chapter of The Philosopher’s Stone. (It’s all I could get on iBooks; my own copies have been packed away in boxes in my hometown for years.) And I suddenly understood the fans in this story even more. It sort of all came rushing back: even at that early stage, writing for young children and nowhere close to the height of her powers, J.K. Rowling wrote the most compelling characters in modern children’s literature and was brilliant at conveying a sense of place. As soon as Albus Dumbledore appears for the first time, sucking the light from the streetlamps of Privet Drive, you’re forced to think of modern Britain as a hiding place for another whole, glorious world. It’s a magical book. With that in mind, it’s easy to see how so many fans have had more trouble than I have accepting the mediocrity of Rowling’s post-Deathly Hallows Potter projects. I’ll reread these books just as soon as I can get into those boxes.  

Music

Kate Bush: The Dreaming — I think I’ve returned to considering this my favourite Kate Bush album. I gave it a listen this week in anticipation of her new live album, which has nothing from this on it. And holy smokes, this is the most intricate songwriting, maybe ever. There’s a tempting narrative about Kate Bush that suggests that the directness she embraced on Hounds of Love was the result of lessons learned from the critical and commercial failure of The Dreaming. But that’s ridiculous — why on earth would she care? I think that a better reading is simply that The Dreaming represented the furthest possible extension of this kind of songwriting. There’s no out-dreaming The Dreaming, so Bush took a different approach. Both albums are masterpieces. But this is the more virtuosic by far.

Pink Floyd: Cre/Ation: The Early Years 1967-1972 — God, I want that 27-disc box set so bad I could curl up in a ball. This paltry two-disc sampler only makes me lust after it more, because so much of it is exactly what I’ve been wishing for from Pink Floyd for ages. It is only the very nerdy among us who are interested in hearing an early version of “Echoes” that consists almost entirely of the triple-time bit that comes right before the final reprise on the album version, but I am extremely nerdy. I want to hear every miniscule step in the evolution of this band. I suppose I’ll have to wait for it to gradually find its way onto streaming services. Because I do not have the wealth to indulge this obsession. Still though, for a two-disc sampler, this is really a lot of fun.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “Guest DJ: The Politics and Passions of Roger Waters” — “I know I sound like a crazy person, but I’m not. I’m actually a wise man.” He’s not wrong, on either count. Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton are simply not the people to interview Roger Waters. He is far too given to extraordinary statements and long rants for a pair of music broadcasters to handle. Marc Maron managed, somehow. But this is a mess.

Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything: “Targeted” — I can’t quite tell if Walker’s story about giving his son a stuffed Pepe is true. If so, that was a dumb move. The segment about facial recognition software is as disquieting as anything in this series so far.

All Songs Considered: “What Was It Like To See Pink Floyd In 1966? Joe Boyd Knows” — This is the highlight of the three parts of this show’s Pink Floyd week. Joe Boyd has a unique perspective on the band, given that he was right there in the early days, but his recollections aren’t necessarily coloured by having been involved beyond that. I will say that I think he gives Rob Chapman’s argument in the book A Very Irregular Head a bit too much credence. Chapman is probably right to argue that the narrative about Barrett declining because he took too much acid is too simple. But considering the extremity of his post-Floyd condition, Chapman’s assertion that his behaviour was part of a grand conceptual art project is patently ridiculous, and clearly born from an impulse towards hagiography. That aside, this is a nice interview. I do wish that Boilen had chosen to play some of the previously unreleased stuff from the box set instead of just returning to the iconic songs. That’s what the box is for, after all. Ah, well.

99% Invisible: “Space Trash, Space Treasure” — A fascinating look at the necessity of cleaning up the junk we keep leaving in space. But the really fascinating part is an interview with a professor who responds to the moniker “Dr. Space Junk” about why we should also consider leaving some of it there for anthropological reasons.

Code Switch: “Everyone Is Talking To Barry Jenkins But Our Interview Is The Best” — I need to see Midnight so bad. This is one of Gene Demby’s best interviews, partially because of how much he obviously loves the movie, but also because of how much he openly identifies with elements of the story and the filmmaker’s perspective. I think this show is really successfully walking a tonal tightrope where it acknowledges some of the tropes of thinkpiece journalism — but still does it, because the alternative is being dumb.

Reply All: “Flash!” — One of the most lacklustre episodes of Reply All in a while. The Yes Yes No segment is as funny as usual, but the story of a lost tortoise ad on Craigslist ends up being exactly as boring as it sounds.

Science Vs: “Antidepressants” — The subject matter of this is fascinating, but there is a recurring Hamilton reference that defines what I find grating about this show. There’s a thing in mental health research called the Hamilton scale, and every time but one that it is referenced here, a sample from Hamilton is used. A reference. Is not. A joke. And I know it may be a little much to expect top-notch humour from a science podcast, but this kind of thing is so much a part of its aesthetic that I think I’m out at this point. That was the last straw. Never thought it would be Hamilton.

A Point of View: “In Praise of Prophets of Doom” — A wonderfully curmudgeonly defence of dissatisfaction from Howard Jacobson. I tend to be a rather optimistic sort, though I have my particular doomy moments. It’s vindicating to hear something like this in a world that often feels full of mindless boosters for things that aren’t making our lives better.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Musicals and Politics” — This almost made me feel better about politics. What’s most incredible about this rundown of political musicals (aside from the regrettable absence of any Kander and Ebb) is not so much that there’s such a preponderance of them, long before Hamilton. It’s that Hamilton still stands head and shoulders above them all. It’s not just that there are no other musicals that have engaged so thoroughly in the political process, it’s that there are barely any other works of art that have done that. Save a few by Aaron Sorkin.

99% Invisible: “The Shift” — I’ll listen to sports stories when they’re on 99pi. That said, this is really the same story as the earlier one about basketball: innovations in the game make it less exciting and provoke a backlash. Still, fun.

On the Media: “Debunking the AIDS ‘Patient Zero’ Myth” — A quick story about how horribly Gaëtan Dugas was treated by the media: he did not give the world AIDS. That’s the Coles Notes version.

StartUp: Season 4, episodes 4-6 — Dov Charney is a compelling character, but this isn’t popping out of the headphones for me. I appreciate the return to serialized storytelling (I remain one of the few staunch defenders of StartUp season two) but I can’t help but think that this show is now suffering by comparison to its more consistent Gimlet stablemates. (I have not been reviewing Heavyweight because of an upcoming thing I’m doing, but informally: it is one of my favourite new shows of the year.) We’ll see how this ends.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Doctor Strange and Moonlight” — I wish the rest of the panel had given Kat Chow a bit more space to say her piece on Doctor Strange. It does sound like a fun movie that I’d like to see, but the whitewashing is some serious bullshit. Moonlight on the other hand sounds like something I am going to love unreservedly. Can’t wait.

99% Invisible: “Reverb” — Ooh, this is some great 99pi. I was aware of Wallace Sabine before, because the story of his minuscule acoustic measurements is incredible, but I was unaware that his formula has become obsolete in our increasingly quiet world. There’s also apparently a technology that simulates different reverbs in the same sized room using microphones and speakers distributed around the walls and ceiling. I would love to experience that.

Reply All: “Hello?” — The premise “P.J. and Alex open their phone lines to anybody for 48 hours” was bound to result in something bonkers, but this is far longer and more bonkers than you could possibly expect. A meandering, borderline pointless, destined classic of this amazing podcast. Pick of the week.

Code Switch: “Want Some Gravy With Those Grievances?” — The Code Switch team plays phone messages from people who are dreading Thanksgiving dinner because they have family members who voted for Trump. It is what it is.

Theory of Everything: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” — Benjamen Walker’s speculative story behind the appalling image (which I missed on election day) of Trump spying on Melania’s vote is a brilliant way of working Trump into his surveillance season. I mean, there are other more obvious ways. But why go the obvious route? I love the approach Walker is taking right now, of just continuing to do his show and respond to current events, but through the lens of surveillance. This series is going to get awesome eventually. It’s already great.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “ Romantic Comedies With Kumail Nanjiani” — Nanjiani and Linda Holmes talking about rom coms is great. Throw in a markedly less enthusiastic Steven Thompson and a MUCH less enthusiastic Glen Weldon, and you’ve got… almost gold. Yellow-tinged silver.

99% Invisible — “Dollar Store Town” — Audibly a shorter version of a longer, more visual documentary. Still, the fact that there is a town in China where they manufacture  nearly all of the worthless tchotchkes sold in American dollar stores is amazing.

Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 30, 2016)

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

14 reviews.

Television

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

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

Movies

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

Music

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

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

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

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

Literature, etc.

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 9, 2016)

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

Television

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

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

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

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

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

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

Games

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

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

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

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

Music

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

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

Live events

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 2, 2016)

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

23 reviews.

Television

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

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

Movies

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

Games

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

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

Music

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

Literature, etc.

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

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

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnireviewer (week of Sept. 18, 2016)

22 reviews. A few tenuously related ones off the top.

Live events

Del the Funky Homosapien: Live at the Alexander — This guy is a genius. There was a moment in this show right after he did “If You Must,” a song about the necessity of personal hygiene, when Del’s DJ/manager Domino started playing a track from the second Deltron 3030 record. Del was either caught off guard or experienced a moment of sublime inspiration, because instead of doing the standard lyrics of that track, he just started freestyling about hygiene some more. But — and this is what blew my mind — he still managed to work the freestyle into the fictional narrative of the Deltron records. I was previously aware of Del’s ability to freestyle in-universe, but the idea that he can synthesize two completely unrelated pre-existing elements from his catalogue at a moment’s notice is staggering. All the same, I must confess that there is limited appeal in a show that starts at midnight on a Monday, with a very Monday-seeming crowd. I listened to Deltron 3030 on the way home and I kind of enjoyed it more than the show. Mind you, this is not uncommon for me. I saw Roger Waters do The Wall with its full theatrical production, and I’m sure it was one of the best live shows anybody has ever put on. Still wasn’t as good as listening to the record. I think I just have to accept that this is an idiosyncrasy of my engagement with music. The added value that other people get from the spontaneity and communal feel of a live show adds distance for me. When it’s just me and the record, I can get lost. At a show, the obligation to be present in the moment for the whole experience keeps me from sinking into the music like I normally do. Of course, none of this reflects poorly on Del. I’d love to see him again, in fact, if only for those transcendent freestyles.

Shameful illegalities

Hamilton, bootlegged on video — Oh, I know. Don’t condescend to me. I don’t have a million dollars. Anyway. Hamilton is a marvel. The staging is brilliant, and never overbearing or too devoted to spectacle. The cast is uniformly outstanding, every one of them reaching the heights of their cast album performances live as well. Particularly outstanding were Renée Elise Goldsberry, flawlessly rapping the show’s most technically and psychologically complicated verses in “Satisfied,” and Leslie Odom Jr., who possesses the best singing voice in a cast full of them. But to continue our discussion of whether music is better experienced through one-on-one record spins or in more social settings, I watched this with a couple of mutually Hamilton-obsessed friends. And while I always relish the opportunity to trawl through a big, dense thing like Hamilton with others who have thoughts about it, there is also the possibility that the presence of others will disabuse me of deeply-held notions and precious illusions. I’ve always been on the fence about the moment in the show’s final number where Eliza sings about the orphanage she founded in her husband’s memory. With the chorus singing “the orphanage” in the background, it has always bordered on saccharine. But I’ve always put it under the category of “earned” sentimentality. I can usually just ride the tide of emotions from Hamilton’s death through the end of the show without being bothered by a bit of treacle. But this time, a rather unsentimental friend piped up at that point: “that’s kind of silly.” And she’s right. It is kind of silly. And it does detract from the finale of a show that has not misstepped like that at any prior point in its running time. And now I’m going to have to acknowledge that every time I hear it. Ah, well. Hamilton still gets a 99 average.

Literature, etc.

Lin-Manuel Miranda & Jeremy McCarter: Hamilton: The Revolution — As a book, it’s merely fine. The Hamiltome, as it is exclusively to be called, tells the story of Hamilton’s production and workshopping prior to its Broadway premiere, from the perspective of Jeremy McCarter, who was intimately involved in the process himself. It has a tendency to allow its chapters to become prose poems in praise of the various geniuses involved with the musical’s production — all of whom are eminently deserving of praise, to be clear. The issue is just that McCarter’s priorities don’t always seem to be what’s going to interest the reader, so much as a self-imposed obligation to extol every single person in the cast and crew. On the other hand, there are glorious moments. It is fascinating to read about Chris Jackson’s attempt to reconcile his character (George Washington) as a slave owner and a liberator alike, and having to give up. All the same, we shall eagerly await a less authorized critical history of Hamilton. But in the meantime, the Hamiltome is the single most essential element of the Hamilton paratext. Simply having access to excellent photographs from the production, alongside an authoritative full libretto and Miranda’s annotations (in a beautifully designed package, I should add) is worth the price of admission. I tore through this in the two days prior to watching the bootleg, listening to the cast album as I went, and it’s the most satisfying cultural experience I’ve had since the first time I listened to the Hamilton cast album. If you love the show, you should own this book.

Music

Deltron 3030: Deltron 3030 — I stand by my original assessment that this record is a magical incantation. Everywhere you turn, Del is equating rap with computer code, and he relates technology to magic in the very first verse on the record (following from Arthur C. Clarke, one might observe). The notion that rap is magic, and can exert a force of will on the world is pervasive on Deltron 3030. It’s so obviously an incantation that it almost seems a banal observation to me now. What’s more interesting is trying to determine what specific change Del is hoping will take place. Let’s look first at what his character, Deltron Zero, is trying to do. (One of the key axioms of alchemy is “as below, so above,” so we can conjecture that there might be some relation between the aims of Del’s fictional self and his real-world self.) Deltron Zero is trying to topple huge, shady corporations. This is as tall an order in the Deltron universe as it is in modern America. And judging by the current state of things, this particular occult aim wasn’t wholly successful for Del. However, eleven years into the album’s mounting cult popularity, Occupy Wall Street happened. Let’s call it a weak and deferred magical consequence. (Perhaps if Event 2 had been a stronger sequel, we’d be watching Trump vs. Sanders right now.) Also, if bringing down the government is on the table as an objective, it took eight years and, um, the process of democratically electing a new president, but the leadership of America did in fact change to be more congruent with Del’s worldview once his album had become a classic. So, yeah. Deltron 3030 is a successful magic spell, designed to establish the Obama presidency. Now you know.

L.A. Salami: Dancing With Bad Grammar — Really on the fence about this. On one hand, Salami’s obviously super talented, considering that he only started writing songs a couple years ago. On the other, he maintains a welcome sense of irony throughout most of this, but occasionally nosedives into cringeworthy sincerity of the “nothing’s any good anymore!” persuasion. It’s sonically diverse, but without being especially adventurous in musical terms. And it’s just such a damn slog. God it’s long. My goodwill was running low by the time I got to the end of it, three days after I started. I guess we can chalk it up to a promising debut. Don’t know that I’ll return to it much, except for “Going Mad as the Street Bins,” which is awesome. So is “My Thoughts, They Too Will Tire,” actually. Really reminds me a lot of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” — not least because both feature many variations of their respective titles at the ends of verses, but never actually do a proper title drop. He’s clever. I have high hopes for his next album.

A Tribe Called Red: We Are The Halluci Nation — Oh man, this is good. I haven’t heard either of the first two Tribe Called Red albums, but this seemed like the time to jump onboard. There’s no need to point out how well powwow music and EDM work together. That’s been ascertained o’plenty. The thing I love about this is just how much sonic variety there is in it. Lack of same is oftentimes what alienates me from dance music. There’s some powerful rapping on here, especially from Leonard Sumner, but also from Shad. There’s Tanya Tagaq, doing her thing. Putting her in an EDM context limits her ability to show expressive range in her throat singing, but it also highlights her ability to use her voice as a rhythmic instrument. There are drum machines, but there are also whole tracks where the percussion has a beautifully acoustic feel. “Maima Koopi” has some seriously powerful drums. I could go on. Love this. A Tribe Called Red has been one of the most talked about acts in Canada for a while, but this makes it clear that they’re also one of the best. Pick of the week.

Ghost: Popestar — This EP from the delightfully playful Swedish metal band is really a stealth single. The original that starts it off, “Square Hammer,” is one of the most addictive metal tracks I’ve heard. It’s just a solid pop single played by a solid metal band. And the video is an instant classic. The rest of the EP is composed of covers, which are always going to feel less substantial. But, first off, the songs they selected for this are just a great bunch of songs. I hadn’t heard any of them, so I listened to the originals first and I had a grand old time. “Missionary Man” by Eurythmics is especially wonderful (again, the video is incredible). Ghost’s performances of these tracks honour the originals. This EP is really just “Square Hammer” and company, but it’s a fun listen. And it’s got great cover art that reminds me of Roger Dean at his best in terms of visual style, and Storm Thorgerson at his best in terms of concept. Two cathedrals play chess. Amazing.

Vulfpeck: Live at Bonnaroo — There are rough moments in this set, but it mostly only serves to demonstrate what champs these guys are. Theo Katzman is the MVP in a live setting. Shit, can that guy sing. Also, live, you realize that Jack Stratton, in spite of being the guy with the vision, is definitely the least accomplished musician in the band (a parallel to Lin-Manuel Miranda, perhaps). He’s also probably the most important, but it’s more a matter of big thinking than great playing. Can’t wait for the new album; dying to see them live.

Podcasts

The Memory Palace: “Haunting” — There’s a trend happening on this show, of Nate DiMeo relying more on archival tape to aid his storytelling. It’s a welcome addition. There was never anything wrong with the narration/mood music format of The Memory Palace, but it makes sense that if DiMeo is going to plunder history for stories, he should plunder it for raw material as well. The story itself is typically lovely, and notable for being discursive off the top. The main character doesn’t come around until halfway through. Really great.

The Bugle: “A Bugle update” — I confess that it’s probably an odd time to jump onboard with The Bugle, given that it has so recently imploded. But I’ve heard just enough of the old Bugle to know that Andy Zaltzman is the MVP, and the now-absent John Oliver was mostly there to laugh and groan at him. It’s not impossible that the new version of the show, with a rotating second chair of people like Wyatt Cenac and Helen Zaltzman will actually excel the original. We shall see.

Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!: “Chris Thile” — Wow, this is shlock. I came for Chris Thile (who doesn’t even play), and because this show has been advertised at me on who knows how many other NPR properties. It’s basically QI for dads. It is missing nearly 100% of QI’s wit, and rather than having the questions be absurdly hard ones that occasionally somebody will know, which is fun, they make them easy enough that people are unlikely to lose. Not listening again.

Welcome to Night Vale: Episodes 61 & 62 — “BRINY DEPTHS” is the perfect median Night Vale episode, in the sense that it mostly just hits the same familiar beats as every other episode, but then it provides a sublime moment near the end that makes you want to keep listening. That moment involves the whole of Night Vale being revealed as sleeper cell agents placed in the city to spy on each other. But the good bit is that after they’re activated, Cecil observes that they can no longer be secret agents. Now, they can only be themselves. Lovely. “Hatchets” expands one of the early series’ best jokes — a newspaper’s new media strategy is to kill bloggers with hatchets — farther than it needed to be expanded. It’s not bad, though. It offers a combination that I love, of horror and comedy both focussing their energy on technology. See this, and oh I guess also this.

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist” episodes 1-4, plus Bogart rerun — This is maybe even better than the Charles Manson season. God, is it ever dense, but it does that thing that Karina Longworth is so good at, where it demonstrates how the movies weren’t just shaped by the society that birthed them, they shaped that society right back. The story of the blacklist and the Hollywood Ten is enough to make even a centrist boil over with anger, and Longworth is delighting in the telling of it. I can’t wait to get further into this, though I don’t know how she’ll beat the story of Dorothy Parker (who is, incidentally, one syllable and about half the political spectrum away from being my mother).

Theory of Everything: “You are so Pretentious” — Dan Fox is trying to reclaim the word “pretentious,” which sounds like a public service specifically for me. He has a book out about this. I think I might read that.

The Allusionist: “The Key part II: Vestiges” — A nice capper for what’s been a lovely two-parter. The first episode focussed on how languages are preserved. This one focusses on how they’re lost — and how they’re recovered. Great stuff. Also, it’s got original music that’s quite good.

The Heart: “Mortified” — Leave it to The Heart to select an excerpt from my least-favourite Radiotopia show that makes it look great. This is hysterical, and the only reason I’m not seeking out the full episode is that I’ve listened to enough Mortified to know that the other segments won’t live up to this. Still. Long live The Heart.

Code Switch: “Warning! This Episode May Trigger Debate” — The topic of trigger warnings is almost guaranteed to lead to shitty debate. This is far and away the most useful discussion of the topic I’ve heard — topping even On The Media, who did a decent job as well.

The Gist: “How Filmmakers Faked the Moon Landing Inside Real NASA” — Pesca can be abrasive, but I love him for it. The segment at the end of this where he delivers a straightforwardly Gen-X entreaty to millennials to for God’s sake choke back their principles and vote Clinton — and he’s accompanied by a hard leftist millennial who translates his rant for younger ears — is as definitive of this show as you’re going to get. The feature interview is amazing — Operation Avalanche has been recommended to me before. Now that I know it was filmed inside NASA with only the barest hint of authorization, I will certainly see it.

Imaginary Worlds: “Fantasy Maps” — The great thing about this episode doubles as the great thing about this podcast, which is that it helps us to see how nerd culture helps to define and symbolize larger issues in society. The maps published with fantasy novels are apparently becoming so thoughtful that they take into consideration the notion that maps are drawn in accordance with biases. Any map drawn within a xenophobic culture, for instance, is sure to place that culture’s geographic home as its centre. This is a thing that happens in real life, and it is now apparently being reflected in fantasy. Interesting.

Reply All: “The Grand Tapestry of Pepe” — The most entertaining listen of the week. I’m going to put it out there that it’s important for anybody interested in contemporary politics to be aware of the alt-right, even if they thrive on exposure. And this is a better (and more vague) introduction than the extremely bizarre explainer on Hillary Clinton’s website is. Within the course of a single Yes Yes No, Alexes Blumberg and Goldman and P.J. Vogt plumb the shallows of the right-wing internet’s id. And Alex Blumberg, in his bumbling way, hits on a really fundamental truth of the internet, which is that ironic hate is almost congruent with real hate. (He comes close to independently coining Poe’s Law.) This is funny and great. Pick of the week.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Emmy Awards, Hari Kondabolu and Alan Moore” — Worth hearing for the Alan Moore interview alone. For a magician with skulls on his mantelpiece, he is a very warm person. Also, the fact that Grease beat Lemonade at the Emmys is a travesty. Where’s Kanye when you need him?

Science Vs.: “Hypnosis” — The most notable thing about this is that Jonathan Goldstein stops by to read a CIA report, and goes out of character with no explanation. His very presence puts strain on verisimilitude.

Omnireviewer (week of Aug. 28, 2016)

27 reviews, featuring the point where I finally caught up with my podcast subscriptions. Always a moment of joy and satisfaction.

Literature, etc.

Thomas Ligotti: “Gas Station Carnivals” — Another corker. Ligotti likes to make his narrators into straightforward authorial inserts: in this, “Sideshow” and “Teatro Grottesco,” the authors are writers of grim prose. It isn’t self-aggrandizement; it lends a terrifying verisimilitude to the stories, because you start to feel like these things could have actually happened to Ligotti. Cleverly, this entire story proceeds nearly to the end without anything unsettling specifically happening, but rather, a series of unsettling things being described to our incredulous narrator by a third party. I’ve found time and again that Ligotti is as impressive for his structural cleverness as for the specific details of the horrors he conjures.

Thomas Ligotti: “The Bungalow House” — I don’t know if it’s just the effect of taking a bit of a break from this short, but extremely intense book. But, I’m finding this final run of stories especially fantastic. This story is sort of built around a twist, and it’s a twist you can see coming for a mile. But that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the story at all. It’s about a person who finds a kindred spirit in a series of tape recordings. (Does this resonate with me? To a point.) That premise, and the prose descriptions of the recordings in question make this another of the best stories in Teatro Grottesco.

Steven Pearlstein: “Meet the parents who won’t let their children study literature” — Pearlstein’s a bit condescending to accountants, I’d suggest. But then, how can you not be? While the broad sweep of his (admittedly familiar) argument is intensely sympathetic, the real reason I’m reviewing this is that shitty headline. This is an opinion piece, and a somewhat re-cooked one. There are almost no actual quotes from the reluctant parents the headline promises to introduce. I wanted a hate-read and I got a bland editorial. Screw you, WashPo.

Television

Stranger Things: Episodes 1-3 — I see why this is striking a chord. There’s more to it than just the ‘80s homages, which are great in themselves, though none of these reference points are especially meaningful to me, I must say. It’s just so fun. It’s a great yarn, strewn across familiar character and plot beats, with some truly great performances by many people, some of whom are barely teenagers, and some of whom are Winona Ryder. I feel like this is the sort of show I’ll have gotten the gist of before the story actually ends, but let’s not pre-judge that.

Music

Paul Simon: Surprise — This past Wednesday, a colleague casually mentioned loving the album that Paul Simon and Brian Eno made together, and I was thinking “why have I not heard that?” The answer, naturally, is a general prejudice against late works by legacy artists. We all have that prejudice, don’t we? But Simon’s poetic gifts had not waned substantially by 2006 (if the track I’ve heard from his most recent album is any indication, they still haven’t), and Eno remains a restless innovator. There are a few needlessly on-the-nose couplets here and there (It’s outrageous, the food they try to serve in a public school/Outrageous, the way they talk to you like you’re some kind of clinical fool”), but by and large this is one of the better pop albums made by a person over 60. Faint praise? Maybe. Here’s this though: the best track on this record is as good as the best stuff on Graceland. “Another Galaxy” is a marvel. It tells a simple story with astonishing economy (two verses and a chorus), it matches the peaks and troughs of the melody with the emotional highs and lows of the lines, and it offers a glimpse inside of its central character’s head with really simple language. This, from a guy who’s known to pack 20 words into a line when he can. Simon’s voice slips beautifully between the notes, and Eno’s electronics are perfectly complementary to the acoustic ballad that this is at its core. If there’s one problem with it, it’s that the broad strokes of the lyrics recall “Life On Mars” a bit, which is a comparison that does no song any favours. Both are about young women in difficult situations, romanticizing outer space as a place to escape. But where Bowie offers a generalized sort of discontentment, Simon’s is ultra-specific. There are other songs on this album that are nearly as good, which ought to demonstrate that, though this isn’t a masterpiece, it’s a really great album. Pick of the week.

IQ: The Wake — I had an inexplicable urge to listen to Marillion’s Misplaced Childhood yesterday. It’s an album I loved in high school, but has since grown insufferable to me for its preening self-pity and overwrought, empty bombast. Still there are memories in it, and I managed to get about ten minutes in before I began shuddering so hard I had to turn it off. I remembered my recent survey of The Seventh House by IQ, Marillion’s erstwhile neo-prog rivals, and how much better I liked it than the bulk of the Marillion catalogue, which is completely inaccessible to me now, save occasionally for Clutching at Straws and Brave. I figured perhaps it was time to give their most relevant period piece a listen. This is almost exactly concurrent with Misplaced Childhood, so unlike some of IQ’s later, more beloved albums, it actually belongs to the neo-prog moment that they are perpetually and anachronistically attached to. It’s a conflicting listening experience. On one hand, there are occasionally moments where a melodic snippet or solo leaps out of the headphones in the way that the best classic prog does. On the other hand, this is very much of its time. It sounds more ‘80s than Marillion ever did, and the recording fidelity is pretty dodgy, even by that era’s standards. Musically, it sounds a bit like what it is: a younger generation attempting to revive a lost art. The members of IQ are ‘80s prog’s hipster woodworkers. It’s like they’ve got a list of things that the old masters did, and they check as many boxes as they can while still sounding like a band that isn’t Genesis. At least Marillion had a distinctive personality fronting them. Fish’s vocals and lyrics frequently grate, but there’s nothing like his intensely introspective, confessional style in prog prior to Script for a Jester’s Tear, with the very notable exception of The Wall. (I just learned that Script and The Final Cut came out within a week of each other. Who poured self-pity into England’s water supply?) On The Wake, singer Peter Nicholls is clearly trying, but his performances and lyrics remain fairly generic. He would improve drastically, along with the rest of the band, by the time of The Seventh House. The closest they come to something as distinctive as “The Wrong Side of Weird” here is “Headlong,” which is also the one track on this album I could see myself returning to. I came to this expecting an interesting period piece, and I found a slightly dull one. But it never made me shudder the way that “Lavender” does.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Pete’s Dragon & Kids and Their Monsters” — Wow, they’re rough on Pete’s Dragon. I was half-inclined to see that movie after reading the reviews. But… we’ll see. Also, Stephen Thompson mentioned the Hip! I love that, even though the Hip will never be a thing in the States, the story of their denouement is making the rounds down there.

On The Media: “Define ‘Normal’” — Lots of good stuff, here. The opening segment on therapists doubling as specious pundits (specious therapists doubling as pundits?) is of particular interest, but the discussion of sexism in the Olympics, as it relates to gendered physical/physiological traits is also worth sticking around for.

Criminal: “The Editor” — One of the best prison correspondence stories I’ve heard. A man who was never taught to read (shame on American public schools) teaches himself to read in prison, reads 600 books, and starts finding errors in the Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia. So, he contacts the editor, and they become lifelong pals. Brilliant. And brilliantly told.

The Memory Palace: “Numbers” — One of the good ones. DiMeo cedes the spotlight to archival audio from newscasts in this episode. His writing and delivery are still first rate, but they’re bolstered by the incredibly matter-of-fact reading of the Vietnam draft lottery. The archival audio highlights the way that DiMeo is able to weave plausible fictions around his historical material. Probably in my top five episodes of this show. Profoundly moving. Pick of the week.

Code Switch: “‘Southside’ and Black Love at the Movies” — Karen Grigsby Bates is a relatively recent introduction to this podcast, but I’m definitely a fan. It could just be that this is about movies, and I’m always all about the pop culture-focussed episodes of this show. But this conversation with Bob Mondello is good listening.

Love and Radio: “An Old Lion or a Lover’s Lute, Special Extended Cut” — I listened to the additional conversation tacked on the end of this, because I remember the original clearly enough. It’s a classic episode of Love and Radio in that it defines the show’s central ethos, which is the notion that it’s better to listen to people than not to. Jerome, the cat-calling man of dubious gender politics who is the subject of this episode, is too complicated to write off completely. So are most people. This show recognizes that. Hearing the producer Ana Adlerstein talk to Jerome once again about people’s responses to the episode only makes it explicit that this is what she and the show’s regular producers are trying for. It’s a profound approach that challenges listeners to engage empathetically, even as it realizes that many of its protagonists (I’m thinking especially of the sex offender in “A Red Dot”) will not win the audience’s sympathies.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: MTV’s Video Music Awards 2016” — Stephen Thompson wants fights at the VMAs. And who can blame him? Still, I’m yet to watch that 15-minute Beyoncé performance, so I likely shouldn’t judge.

On The Media: “Bob’s Grill #5: Former CNN President Jon Klein” — AKA “Brooke’s Grill.” This is a nice reminder that Gladstone can summon Garfieldesque umbrage when need be. If there’s one thing I hate in a smarmy interview subject, it’s that thing where they say to an established journalist, “if you were only listening to me…” Shut up. There’s no way that Brooke Gladstone’s not listening to you. If her questions don’t line up with what you’ve told her, it’s because you’re not making sense, or you’re bullshitting. In this case, the latter.

Radiolab: “The Girl Who Doesn’t Exist” — The story of how it’s possible to be born in the United States and not have a birth certificate — and of how some assholes think that this is okay. Honest to god, that sovereignty bullshit makes me go out of my mind. But this is mostly the story of a girl escaping from a family who has that ideology and finding herself, perhaps ironically but perhaps not, more free.

The Memory Palace: “O, How We Danced” — A small thing. A tiny word painting of a dancing marathon that got shut down by the police for obviously specious reasons. Nice, but I listened to it mostly because the below showed up in my feed.

The Memory Palace: “Remixx: (o how we danced with miley) — It’s just the above episode, with Miley thrown in. Not an especially clever remix, and you get the feeling that it’s something that the three people who work on this show thought was funny when somebody brought it up, and then somebody actually made it as a joke, and then they released it. Which is a thing that I like, when it happens. Fine.

All Songs Considered: “Breaking Up With Your Favourite Bands” — It seems that Bob Boilen and I have some similar reference points. We are both baby boomers, see. However, when Boilen is discussing why he doesn’t listen to ELP anymore (something I definitely do not begrudge him for), he does not seem to have the facts at the tip of his tongue. Carl Palmer never played with the Nice; he was with Atomic Rooster and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown prior to ELP. Also, when Robin Hilton comments on the guitar sound, Boilen seems not to be aware that it’s a synth. Tut, tut. Also, he’s the only person in the room who’s heard of Cockney Rebel… but I have too! They’re so glammy that they even made the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack. All nitpicking aside, this is a really fun conversation. The notion of breaking up with bands you once loved doesn’t hit me quite so hard as many, I’d imagine, since most of my favourite bands did their best work 20 or more years before I was born. I never had a whole lot of interest in what Jethro Tull was up to in the ‘00s. We were preemptively broken up. I suppose there’s Opeth, though. Time was, I’d look forward to everything they put out. But then nostalgia took over, and even an openly nostalgic music fan such as myself couldn’t handle the constant reiterations of tired prog tropes. I haven’t cared since Heritage, and probably won’t listen to any of their new albums going forward.

Fresh Air: “Remembering Gene Wilder” — Amazing that this 2005 interview doesn’t even touch on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Still, Wilder was a gentleman, and a fabulous comic actor. This is a lovely remembrance, and Wilder’s story about how Richard Pryor fixed a racist scene in Silver Streak at a moment’s notice is fabulous.

Code Switch: “What’s So Funny About The Indian Accent?” — I’m curious about how many Indians and Indian-Americans will listen to this conversation, in which a panel of Indian and Indian-American people claim not to be that offended by stereotyped Indian accents à la Apu, and think, hey wait. Obviously, I haven’t the slightest clue about this, but it strikes me that people could pretty justifiably get upset about Apu’s accent, given that it’s actually spoken by a Greek American man with no ear towards accuracy. I’m surprised it didn’t come under more intense scrutiny, here.

Reply All: “Boy Wonder” — “Can you solve this?” “Yeah, you’re a Yeti.” I dunno, Reply All has done this story before. Down to the same online diagnosis community, the same New York Times columnist, and the same references to House. Like House, it is frustrating for its repetition of things past. But it does have a great central character. If you do tune in, stick around until he starts reading self-coined platitudes.

Millennial: episodes 1 & 2 — I caught up with my subscriptions! I can finally start listening to new shows! But at this point, I’m committed to listening to every episode of so many podcasts that I need to be judicious about which ones get added to the pile. This show has its merits. The host, Megan Tan is very self-aware about the fact that making a podcast about being a millennial is extremely #millennial of her. And she’s a good storyteller with an engaging presence. But… I’m not sure how badly I need to hear the story of a person graduating journalism school and then struggling in a tricky job market when… well, this story bears a certain resemblance to EVERYBODY’S LIFE WHO I KNOW. I imagine it’s more interesting to people who are in less similar situations to Tan than I am. Also, I don’t relish the part of this story where her podcast gets picked up by Radiotopia like, three months in. I mean, really. But the primary reason why I don’t think I’ll listen to more Millennial is just that I’m more than 20 episodes behind, and I am not super willing to commit to a serialized podcast of that length with everything else I’ve got to listen to. Especially since I’m hoping to get back to my beloved You Must Remember This, which does tend to come in large chunks. It’s a shame, though. This is a good show. If I could stop time, I’d definitely listen to this.

Science Vs: “The G-spot” — This is a departure for the show, in that it doesn’t do its standard bullet-point interrogations of the major questions regarding a topic. Instead, it tells the story of public awareness of the G-spot since the 80s, with much giggling. Wendy Zukerman also takes an interesting detour into the history of anatomists suppressing the knowledge that the clitoris exists. This is definitely becoming, if not one of my favourite Gimlet shows, at least one of the good ones.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “You’re The Worst & Mixing Comedy and Drama” — You’re The Worst doesn’t sound like my kind of thing, but Glen Weldon explaining how stories work always is. This reminded me that I really need to listen to the audiobook of his Batman book.

On The Media: “Kids These Days” — Some great segments here. The one on millennials in the media is mostly satisfying for correctly identifying that Strauss and Howe’s generational theory is completely loopy. The one on music in presidential campaigns is fantastic, and pointed me towards this crazy art film of an attack ad for Nixon’s 1968 campaign, of all things.

Seminars About Long-term Thinking: “Neil Gaiman: How Stories Last” — I’m more interested in commenting on the form of this than the content, which is a perfectly good bit of Neil Gaiman in Neil Gaiman mode. This is a podcast provided by the Long Now Foundation, a fascinating organization co-founded by this program’s host, Stewart Brand, and best known for the very large, very slow clock they are constructing as a symbol for how much more long-term humanity should be thinking. It is also well known for including Brian Eno among its board members. This is a particular kind of podcast offering that doesn’t get included in lists of recommended listening. It fits alongside BBC Radio 4’s annual podcast of the John Peel Lectures, and other such things. Seminars About Long-term Thinking is simply an audio series made from the foundation’s lecture series of the same name. It is unedited, as far as I can tell. Very much in keeping with the philosophy of the Long Now, Gaiman is allowed to stretch his talk out for a substantial time, repeating himself at will, and allowing for long, pregnant pauses. The full episode is 103 minutes long. Brand is an occasionally bungling host, without an ear for when Gaiman says something interesting and worth picking up on, but that’s not really the point. This is a way to immerse yourself in a new way of thinking. The lecture series has a broad enough focus — long-term thinking — that its individual episodes can be about anything. But it is always framed by the fascinating philosophy of the organization that produces it. I can’t say for sure whether I’ll listen to any more of this. But I do admire it.

Code Switch: “ Singer Juan Gabriel’s Sexuality Was ‘Open Secret’” — This is a nice 20-minute primer on why Mexico is going all Canada over Gabriel’s death. (The parallels between Juan Gabriel and Gord Downie are extremely few, it would seem. But we can sympathize with the feeling of losing, or being about to lose, an icon who was uniquely of your home country.) It occurs to me that this episode may not be of much value to people who already know who Gabriel was — which is to say, apparently every Spanish-speaking person living within a hemisphere of Mexico. But Code Switch shouldn’t be held to that standard. I’ve learned something from every episode I’ve heard.