Tag Archives: Strangers

Omnireviewer (week of May 28, 2017)

Ladies and gentlemen, we’re celebrating a milestone over here at the Parsonage. When I started doing Omnireviewer not quite two years ago, I wrote up the first instalment in a Google doc. The next week, I wrote up the second instalment in that same Google doc. Unexpectedly enough, I’ve just kept adding to that Google doc ever since, and I’ve come to regard it as a symbol of the gradual deterioration of my sanity. So, it is with great pleasure and a certain amount of nervous cackling and muttering to myself that I’d like to announce that as of this week, Omnireviewer has surpassed a quarter of a million words! My Google doc clocks in at 253,023 to be precise. I like to think of those 253,023 words as 253,023 marbles that I used to have. And frankly, good riddance to them.

Anyway, I watched all of Ridley Scott’s Alien movies this week, including the new one, and I’ve reviewed them as a sort of loose essay. So we’ll start with that. If you’d like to read it with paragraph breaks, here you go.

If you’re new here, you’ll quickly notice my aversion to paragraph breaks, which I don’t know if I’ve ever really explained. Basically, I feel like paragraph breaks are dishonest somehow. They imply that there’s some premeditated structure to these reviews, which it’ll be clear to regular readers that there isn’t. This blog is the only thing I’ve ever written where I’m basically content to start from the beginning, put one word in front of another, and just go with whatever results from that. It is something close to stream-of-consciousness. Nothing reflects that like just having every review be a huge, never-ending string of text. I’m gradually distancing myself from that rule over on Tumblr, where I cross-post these reviews for maximum exposure. A few more people see those posts, and given that, I’m willing to entertain the notion that it might not hurt to smooth over some of my more gratuitous tics. But for the time being, I’ll remain committed to them here. I didn’t get to 253,023 words by not sticking to my guns.

19 reviews.

Movies

Alien — So, what do we actually know about the alien in Alien? For one thing, we don’t know to call it a xenomorph, since that word first appears in James Cameron’s Aliens, and probably wasn’t intended as an act of appellation. If we can trust Wikipedia on this, it seems like “xenomorph” wasn’t officially accepted by the franchise until Alien: Covenant, in which the word appears in the credits — though not in the dialogue. So, we didn’t definitively know what to call this thing until series originator Ridley Scott reclaimed Cameron’s accidental nomenclature decades later and made it official. But we’re already ahead of ourselves. The most important thing we learn about the alien in this movie is its life cycle. It starts life as an egg, which unleashes a larval “facehugger” parasite when a live host is nearby, and subsequently births itself from the chest of that host after its parasitic form has finished its work and died. Then, it grows ludicrously quickly into its adult form. The life cycle of the alien is, for all intents and purposes, the plot of Alien. The alien’s growth from egg to adult is the thing that happens to the characters in this movie. There’s a line of thought about Alien which holds that it is a good movie because of its simplicity: it’s basically just a story of a bunch of people trying to survive in a confined space with a monster. This is true, but the life cycle of the alien… isn’t that simple. Even by the standards of the grossest parasitic spores and blind lizards you’ve ever seen in BBC nature documentaries, the alien is weird. And it’s journey to adulthood is byzantine. It doesn’t seem like something that ought to occur in nature. It seems designed — by a screenwriter, perhaps. Or a Swiss surrealist painter, or a vengeful robot. Odd, then, that a film so concerned with the mechanics of its antagonist’s life cycle should leave out the factor that would actually complete that cycle: where do the eggs come from? Are we to assume that the alien we meet in the film can lay eggs? How does it become pregnant? Is that even a relevant question? Interestingly, this question was apparently answered in a scene that didn’t make it into the movie (again, to trust Wikipedia). Evidently, there’s a scene on the cutting room floor that shows the alien’s dead victims being converted into the leathery eggs seen at the start of the film. Were this scene to have been included, it would have answered another question that Alien does not bother with: what does the alien want? The answer would have been simply, to reproduce. It kills because of a rather gruesome biological imperative. But without that detail in the film, the alien doesn’t actually have a motive for hunting the crew of the Nostromo. It is clearly not acting out of self-defence. Otherwise, poor Harry Dean Stanton might’ve survived the movie. This lack of motive gives added effect to the android Ash’s line, spoken with a tone of faint admiration that now feels like foreshadowing, “Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” In fact, we’ll get back to the alien, but let’s take stock of what we know about androids from Alien. Not much. We know that they exist, their differences from humans are virtually imperceptible, and that this particular model played by Ian Holm has both a mission to retrieve an alien and a distinct admiration for them. It seems like Ash almost sees himself in the alien: like him, the alien appears to have been designed. But this admiration is intensely disquieting, because it is predicated on a complete lack of concern for human life. Given the information we have, we can only assume that the alien in Alien is motivated by sheer hostility. It is a totemic evil in the same vein as Heath Ledger’s Joker. Later films may complicate this (it’s been too long since I’ve watched Aliens for me to say, but I seem to recall a protective mother alien), and they do certainly offer a new take on how the eggs come to be. But in the Ridley Scott-directed Alienverse, which for three decades encompassed only this one film, the alien is very simply the enemy of humanity, who kills for the sake of killing, and nothing more complicated than that. The alien is evil incarnate. The idea that you can give such a thing an origin story displays a profound, and kind of wonderful hubris. Which, of course, is lately Scott’s theme of choice.

TED 2023/PrometheusPrometheus is a profoundly ambitious film, so it probably seems like a dig to say that its themes are explored with nearly the same amount of nuance in TED 2023, a six-minute promotional short used in its viral marketing campaign. (This makes TED 2023 the first utterance of the Alien prequel series.) Taking the form of the most over-the-top TED talk ever delivered, it offers Scott and co. the opportunity to state some of their themes outright, through the mouth of Guy Pearce’s Elon Musk analogue, Peter Weyland (seen in terrible old-age makeup throughout Prometheus, but young here). It ties together two of Prometheus’s most ostentatious allusions: the titular titan of Greek myth, and the diplomat and fictionalized film hero T.E. Lawrence. This connection will resonate throughout Scott’s Alien prequels: the image of the great white European adventurer, mapped onto the image of mythology’s premier technology advocate: the man who was made to suffer for encouraging progress. This short is the first indication that Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien franchise would take a drastically different direction from the first film, focussing as much or more on his androids than his aliens. Though, in Prometheus, we don’t learn much more about either of them: the emergence of the aliens has something to do with a black pathogen, and androids are made by Weyland. That’s pretty much it, as far as I can tell. If Scott does in fact make two more Alien films, Prometheus will eventually seem like a prologue to the Alien prequel trilogy. (Which would make it analogous to Das Rheingold in Wagner’s Ring cycle, which makes it kind of maddening that Rheingold is so explicitly referenced in Covenant, but not here.) TED 2023 also plants the seed for what now appears to be the overarching story of the Alien prequels. That story in a nutshell is this: Humans arrogantly tried to create life, but being flawed, they created flawed life. And the flaws of the life they created led in turn to the creation of the alien nemesis that comes to plague humanity in Scott’s original film. At times, Scott’s story can seem familiar from Battlestar Galactica, but it’s far from the same thing. And besides, it’s a story as old as Prometheus.

Alien: Covenant, plus promotional shorts — The release of Covenant was preceded by several viral marketing shorts in the vein of TED 2023. The most substantial of these was the two-part Alien: Covenant – Prologue. The first of its two parts, “Last Supper,” establishes the fact that the coming movie will be at least in part an homage to Alien. It introduces a motley crew of rough-hewn space cadets aboard a vessel in deep space, with a loveable Ripley-esque lead character. And it includes a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the famous John Hurt chestburster scene at the dinner table. So, for the first time in the prequels, we find ourselves with feet planted firmly in nostalgia. And indeed, Covenant gives us callbacks o’plenty including, satisfyingly, “I got you, you sonofabitch!” On the other hand, “The Crossing” continues the story of Prometheus, detailing the arrival of the android David and Elizabeth Shaw on the homeworld of the Engineers (the blue dudes who fly the crescent-shaped spaceships we’ve been seeing crashed the exact same way since the start of the franchise). The coexistence of these two threads will turn out to be one of the weirdest things about Alien: Covenant, which is a deeply, deeply strange big-budget film. (The other promo shorts are insubstantial. Having watched them after seeing Covenant, I can say that they feature at least two characters who I honestly couldn’t tell you whether they were in the actual film or not. That can’t be a good sign, but I digress.) The connection between the two sides of the Covenant coin also constitutes the prequels’ first real piece of new information, as opposed to speculation fodder, about the alien, which I suppose we can now call a “xenomorph” and have it be textually accurate. The connection is that the xenomorphs were created by David, fulfilling the retrofitted prophesy of Ash’s kinship with the alien in the first film. Covenant confirms that David, the stealth protagonist of Prometheus, is the true focus of the Alien prequels. That’s deeply unfortunate, because he’s also their biggest problem. I’m really not sure what I’m meant to think of this character. I get the sense that Scott actually quite admires David. But then, what filmmaker wouldn’t admire a figure who literally creates life? Covenant tips its hand about what tradition of villainy David is meant to emerge from with one of a handful of conspicuous references to iconic European high art. As he’s fighting Walter, his duty-bound, non-generative doppelganger, David paraphrases the most famous line spoken by Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” (I’ve just discovered that the working title for the film was Alien: Paradise Lost. So, there’s a thing.) Milton’s Satan is a legendary character in part because the Romantics (e.g. Byron and Shelley, also invoked by David, though he confuses the two for thematic reasons I don’t understand) considered him a peer. Satan is a charismatic rebel: an underdog spoiling to reshape the world in his own image, at least in part as an act of vengeance. That maps pretty neatly onto David: the great creator with an instinct equal parts destructive and generative. But nothing in Alien: Covenant gives the sense that anybody involved in making it knows that David isn’t Satan’s equal — least of all Michael Fassbender, who plays the character with immense self-regard and not a hint of doubt. He’s as confident in his ability to channel Milton’s Satan as he was in his ability to channel T.E. Lawrence in Prometheus. This is what makes David insufferable. If we were given an android who creates hostile, perfect organisms out of a sense of inadequacy in the face of his literary models, that would have been an interesting characterization. But we instead get a precocious teenager who thinks he’s a romantic anti-hero. The fact that he quotes “Ozymandias,” by now the most mothballed literary reference in genre fiction, doesn’t help. It was already a little overwrought when Alan Moore did it back in 1987, but it was at least original. It was fun to hear Bryan Cranston do it in character as Walter White but that’s a different kind of story altogether, and besides, it was only in a promo clip. But it’s becoming the default recitation for ostentatious villainy — particularly the sort of creative villainy that the Romantics identified in Milton’s Satan. (“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair” almost sounds like it could come from Paradise Lost.) I think it’s time to declare an Ozymoratorium. David makes another high-minded reference in Covenant that’s slightly — very slightly — less clichéd: his reference to Das Rheingold from Wagner’s Ring. The Ring is as a four-opera cycle about how the time of the gods comes to an end and the time of man, their creation, begins. (Pedant’s corner: David’s maker, Peter Weyland, requests that David play something by Wagner on the piano at the start of the movie and then complains when his choice selection sounds “anemic” without the orchestra. Well then, why the hell did you ask for Wagner?!?! The man did not do intimacy, and he wrote hardly anything for solo piano. Also, at the end of the movie, David says that the Valhalla music comes from act two of Das Rheingold, which only has one act. It comes from the fourth scene of Das Rheingold’s one act. But then, David also mixed up Byron and Shelley, so what does he know.) Wagner is an excellent choice in general for grandiose characters with god complexes (David and Weyland, both). But the extent to which the story of The Ring maps onto David’s vision for the future frankly just seems too on the nose. There was a certain point in this movie when I realized that it was just going to keep making references to big ambitious works of art, to suggest that it may itself have similar designs. Ridley Scott and his collaborators seem to be suffering from the same delusions of grandeur that David does. But unlike the xenomorph, Alien: Covenant is far from a perfect organism. And I cannot help but think, having watched all of Scott’s Alien movies in the course of a single week, that his entire project with these prequels is a bit superfluous. His purpose is established now: he’s telling the story of how humans, having been given life and free will by their own creators, did the same, and thus brought True Evil into the universe in the form of David’s xenomorphs. He’s telling the story of the origin of evil (Paradise Lost) by way of the story of human progress (the Prometheus myth). But this is all expressed, albeit implicitly, within the elementally simple storyline of Alien. Presuming you’ve seen the movie before and are aware in advance that Ash is an android, Alien is the story of a manmade man literally opening the door to True Evil, and allowing it to ride roughshod over his human companions due to his own innate lack of morals and ethics. Alien is already the story of how our attempts at playing god fuck us over. It is already the story of Prometheus, or the story of Paradise Lost, and there’s hardly a literary reference to be found. Given that interpretation, it’s hard to credit Ridley Scott’s burning need to make a series of Alien movies that explicitly detail these same themes. That’s not to say that they’re not interesting and occasionally good movies. But, like this meandering essay, they always seem to be grasping for something interesting, but they never quite manage to close their fist around it. Alien closes its fist around exactly what it wants to be, and it can also be an allegory for the fall of man if you really want it to be.

Literature, etc.

Rebecca Solnit: “The Loneliness of Donald Trump” — This is quite possibly the most beautiful thing written about Donald Trump since he was elected president. “Beauty” doesn’t tend to be in my roster of descriptors for good writing about Trump. “Angry,” sure. “Incredulous,” certainly. “Darkly funny,” even. But Solnit has empathy for Trump, and uses it to ascertain why he appears to have no empathy at all. The result is less an indictment of Trump himself than of an entire social structure that can create a man like him. Few writers can craft sentences as simultaneously beautiful and forceful as this: “The man in the white house sits, naked and obscene, a pustule of ego, in the harsh light, a man whose grasp exceeded his understanding, because his understanding was dulled by indulgence.”

The New York Times Magazine: New York Stories — This is fantastic. The New York Times Magazine’s latest issue is all comics, each one an adaptation of a story from the Times metro desk, which covers the ins and outs of New York City itself. It’s easy to forget, given that the Times is the de facto paper of record for the entire North American continent, that it is a New York paper that covers local news in New York City. But these stories are generally small, localized and poetic. They’re the perfect kinds of stories to adapt into comics. In this day of “graphic novel” being the preferred term to legitimize the medium, the suitedness of comics for short-form stories has become obscured. But newspaper comic strips and three-to-five page strips in anthology books like The Dandy and 2000 AD — not to mention the ostentatiously literary short-form work of Adrian Tomine — are a huge part of comics history. These quick impressions based on reported stories are something I’d like to see a lot more of. I daresay there’s space in the media ecosystem for a whole publication that just does this — the immediate issue with that idea being that to hold up the standard, you need several decades worth of work from one of the best metro desks in the world. It’s worth scanning through the stories that these comics are based on, because they’re really great in their own right, and they’re conveniently linked. One or two of these adaptations seem like they could have tried a bit harder, but the best ones actually add depth to their subject matter. I’m particularly fond of Tillie Walden’s comic about a man who spent $700,000 dollars on a fortune teller who told him she could make the woman of his dreams fall in love with him, Tim Gauld and Andy Newman’s story of a man who was ordered to brick up a window so he replaced it with a camera and a screen, and — especially — Andrew Rae’s take on the story of the Queens residents who smuggle finches into the country from South America for birdsong competitions. I love this.

Television

American Gods: “Lemon Scented You” — “Oh, you’re an asshole, dead wife. You’re a fucking asshole, dead wife.” What a wonderful idea to have Laura and Mad Sweeney in a scene together. It’s fun to see Mad Sweeney get the piss ripped out of him any time. But this gives us the added bonus of Laura being delighted about it. Also, it’s amazing how they keep teasing the return of Mr. Nancy without it actually happening. The makers of this show clearly know what an electrifying impact his brief first appearance would have. But I’m desperately hoping he turns up next time. Gillian Anderson has finally gotten the character reinvention she deserves, as Media shows up as Marilyn Monroe and a spot-on “Life On Mars” era David Bowie. I love a good scene constructed from song lyrics. (“There’s a terror to knowing what Mr. World is about.”) And I’m wondering if Crispin Glover’s Mr. World, conspicuously not the same person that Shadow shared a cell with in prison, might constitute the biggest plot change to the book so far. Will he turn out to be Loki? I’m not sure that’s a given at this point. What we know is that his face-changing effect is even more gloriously unsettling than the effects related to the Technical Boy. Now the important stuff. What I really love about this episode is it drives home a key point of how this show is changing the book on a thematic level. The book was a rejoinder to crass commercialism and the worst impulses of American society. The line about cheap, sleazy roadside attractions being infinitely preferable to shopping malls basically gets to the heart of American Gods, the novel. But American Gods the show is a product of 2017, so it has to be about something different. And with the increased prevalence of Media and the reimagining of the Technical Boy as a shitsack YouTuber, it’s starting to seem like a rejoinder to the way that people today attempt to disguise their emptiness with a sheen of vapid self-branding. This is without a doubt my least favourite thing about the world today. Or at least, my least favourite new thing about the world. Everything is fake. You don’t have to be good at something to be recognized. Being recognized is considered a talent in itself. So, when Wednesday turns down the Technical Boy’s offer to help him really hone his brand, I got even more on board with this show. At this point, I feel like it’s being made specifically for me. “That’s all you do,” says Wednesday to Technical and Media. “Occupy their time. We gave back. We gave them meaning.” Long live the fucking old gods.

Doctor Who: “The Lie of the Land” — Ah boy. This pretty much lost me the first time the phrase “memory crime” was invoked. It’s so close to “thoughtcrime” that it immediately made me suspicious that this episode would have no original ideas at all. And it kind of doesn’t. Worse than that, the dialogue isn’t up to the usual standard. The first scene in the vault is particularly cringeworthy, with Missy’s variants on “getting warmer” and “getting colder” as the Doctor tries to figure out what’s going on being especially hard to take. But what all of this emphasizes is the caliber of performances being given by Peter Capaldi, Michelle Gomez and, in particular this week, Pearl Mackie. Bill’s rebuke to the Doctor in the show’s central scene isn’t a particularly inspiring piece of writing, but Mackie manages to make it into one of her character’s best moments. This isn’t one of the good ones, unfortunately. But, one more week until we get two straight episodes of Moffat/Talalay, and I’m definitely excited about that.

Twin Peaks: Season 2, episodes 1-9 — Ah, dear. This does go off the rails sooner than I remembered. This first batch of episodes in season two are worth a watch and contain explorations of some of the show’s most compelling lore. But it also introduces the plotlines that will end up tanking the show around the season’s halfway point. Piper Laurie in yellowface is a particular low. But we also get the agoraphobic botanist, Dick Tremayne, and teenage Nadine with super-strength. That last one is probably the weirdest of them, though it isn’t distractingly bad just yet. I’m actually really admiring the way that Wendy Robie commits to the gag. And Everett McGill’s stoic terror at the fucked up plotline he’s found himself in is even funnier. Dick Tremayne has all the hallmarks of a character who should appear once, maybe twice, and then never again. If he actually vanished from the show when Lucy told him to leave the sheriff’s department and never come back, the show would have been better for it. But there are other things that used to strike me as bad notes in the show that now seem more knowing: the James/Donna/Maddie love triangle sing-along made more sense to me this time around, once I realized that David Lynch directed that episode. And in general, the two episodes at the start of this season that are directed by Lynch are truly awesome television. There’s nothing better than that amazingly long sequence of a senile room service waiter not realizing that Coop is bleeding out on the floor. The other standout in this run of episodes is the one that Lynch returns to direct, “Lonely Souls,” in which Leland is revealed as Laura’s killer (in some abstract sense). One of the things Lynch brought to the television toolkit that is still rare even today is a willingness to take his time with important or interesting scenes. The scene with the room service waiter is one side of that, but another side is the truly distressing, and quite long scene in which BOB/Leland kills Maddy. The way Lynch chooses to direct this as a sort of grotesque dance that cuts between Leland acting oddly tender towards his victim and BOB being truly cruel is extremely perverse. It’s one of the most difficult sequences in the show to watch, in spite of how little is actually shown. It feels violent in a way that modern television violence doesn’t. And crucially, unlike a lot of today’s TV violence, it feels wrong. It feels like something that you’re supposed to recoil from. And the way that it’s bookended with scenes of the giant (and, wonderfully, that same room service waiter) warning Coop what’s happening in a way that he can’t understand makes it really heartbreaking. “Lonely Souls” is a really good episode, even if it’s central reveal did ruin the show. And the next two episodes, which tie up an almost uncomfortable number of loose ends — the way that Coop and co. just straight up explain what happened the night Laura was murdered really strikes me as pat, and a betrayal of the original spirit of the show — really rely almost entirely on the extraordinary performance of Ray Wise to paper over their comparative lack of inspiration. And Ray Wise really is incredible here. Kyle MacLaughlan might have given the most memorable performance in Twin Peaks, but Wise gives the best of the heightened, alienating, kabuki-esque performances that are so crucial to the feel of the show. In general, the notion that the first half of season two is on the same level as season one seems wrong. But it’s hard to tell if my mounting discomfort is actually because of what’s happening in the series right now, or because I’m starting to see the seeds of the truly awful half-season that’s quickly approaching. I’m following the New York Times’ advice and watching up to episode 11, then skipping to episode 21, but I’m not looking forward to these next couple of episodes. On the other hand, Leo being comatose makes for a fine application of Eric Da Re’s acting abilities.

Music

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Deluxe Edition) — It was 50 years ago today etc. It’s June 1 as I’m writing this, and I’ve listened to Sgt. Pepper three times today. First, I checked out Giles Martin’s new stereo remix of the album, then my old faithful 2009 mono remaster, and finally, the “alternate” Pepper of rough sessions on disc two of the deluxe edition. Mostly, it just reminded me how much I love Sgt. Pepper. But that won’t come as a surprise, so I’ll focus on my thoughts on the deluxe edition. I came to Giles Martin’s remix with the requisite puritanical scepticism. The original mono mix of Sgt. Pepper, particularly in its remastered edition, is a perfectly fine sounding album. But I do buy Giles Martin’s argument that the album needs a new stereo mix, because nobody listens to the mono except nerds like me, and the original stereo mix is terrible. It’s full of that horrible thing where all the instruments are on one side. Awful. So I figured the new mix would be worth hearing, if only to hear Sgt. Pepper in decent stereo for once. But this turned out to be a way different experience from that. Martin went right back to the original tapes, which for the original album’s mix had to be subjected to a certain amount of degradation because it was mixed on four-track. No such problem exists today, so the original tapes can be heard in all their glory, in a way that’s actually purer than what was on the first issue of the record. The result is a Sgt. Pepper that is clearer, cleaner, and more impactful than any previous version. Of course, it’s also subtly different than either of the versions I’m used to. (I grew up on the terrible 1987 stereo CD release, and have been devoted to the mono since 2009.) You might think that’s a stumbling block. Sure was when they remixed the Genesis albums. But honestly, the major impression I got throughout my listening was simply that this was Sgt. Pepper, except with better sound. That’s the highest possible praise Giles Martin could get for this. There are tiny exceptions, where a change to the mix gave me a different impression than the original. “Within You Without You” has always finished with a muted laugh from a crowd of imaginary onlookers. In the remix, they’re a lot more prevalent. Originally, George Harrison’s message of universal togetherness accompanied by ersatz Indian classical music was met with a knowing chuckle by a gaggle of hip sophisticates. Now it’s undermined by derisive laughter from a roomful of cynics. It’s a subtle sonic change with a substantial impact. But I can’t help but think Harrison, perverse weirdo that he was, would’ve appreciated the new version  — in which nobody recognizes how right he is. The other track in which the new mix makes a really ostentatious impression is Lennon’s “Good Morning, Good Morning.” As a song, it’s a relative weak point on the album, but as a sonic construction, it’s one of the weirdest, most fascinatingly cacophonous things in the Beatles catalogue. The new mix kicks that cacophony up a level — the bass drum sounds thunderous, and it all feels louder. Suddenly it makes sense in its context near the end of the album. It escalates the energy up to the level required for the borderline hard rock of “Sgt. Pepper (Reprise),” and makes the moment when the bottom falls out and the acoustic intro of “A Day in the Life” begins even more effective. The moral of the story in both of these cases is that sounds mean things. Infinitesimally small adjustments make big differences if you’re listening closely. But Giles Martin’s got the Beatles in his blood, so none of the changes jar. Not a single one. They don’t even feel like changes. I’ve heard a lot of reissues, and I think this might well be a new high standard. I’ll probably mostly listen to this instead of the mono now. A few words on the second disc: it’s a lot of fun. Basically, Martin and co. have assembled an alternative Pepper with the same running order out of rough takes without overdubs. And then some “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” at the end for good measure. Hearing just one take of each song before moving onto the next one doesn’t quite give the sense of process that I crave from these types of releases — I want to hear how the songs evolve. But for that I’ll need to splurge on the six-disc set, which I might do. In the meantime, hearing Sgt. Pepper rough takes at all is fascinating. This is one of those albums that’s so meticulous in its construction that it sometimes feels like it isn’t actually being performed by humans. Listening to the sessions re-establishes Sgt. Pepper’s connection to Earth, and makes it identifiably something performed by the same people who recorded the rough-and-ready fare on Please Please Me. I’m especially fond of the “When I’m Sixty-Four” rough take with no clarinets and, more crucially, no Varispeed. On the album, the vocal track is sped up so Paul sounds like he’s singing higher than he actually did. It’s a solid musical decision, but there’s something wonderfully human in the discrepancy between the session and the final mix. One of my personal maxims is that great craftsmanship doesn’t age. That’s why Sgt. Pepper is still great music 50 years later. And this two-disc set is the best commemorative edition we could have asked for. Except, I’m assuming, for the six-disc set. But this is on streaming services. So for god’s sake, go listen. Pick of the week.

Tool: 10,000 Days — I’m going to see Tool! And I need to study up. This is actually the album that I’m probably least in need of a quick study on, since it is for me the ‘period’ Tool album: the one they made when I got into them. I’ve listened to it a fair bit over the years, and I do like it a lot, though it has peaks and troughs. It never quite reaches the heights of its opening one-two punch of “Vicarious” and “Jambi” afterwards, though I do love the relatively low-key “Wings for Marie” and the title track. This is the one I revisit for nostalgia. But I think Lateralus, I think maybe the only other Tool album I’ve heard, is a better album. We shall soon see.

Podcasts

Theory of Everything: “Protest” — I like that there’s just one guy who can produce segments for TOE. Walker has a stable of one freelancer. Andrew Calloway’s segment on the Pepes rallying in New York is solid stuff with some good characters who I didn’t viscerally hate.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Master of None and Snatched” — I hate that moment when you hear about a show that got really good after being sort of ‘meh’ for a while. Because now I feel like I have to watch Master of None. Snatched sounds like a fiasco.

All Songs Considered: “Why Remix ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’? Giles Martin, The Man Behind The Project, Explains” — This is well worth hearing for the A/B comparisons of the remastered original stereo mix of Pepper with the new one. It’s also nice to hear Giles Martin sing the praises of the original mono mix, which, in spite of my real love for the remix, is still something that deserves to be listened to. What’s even clearer from this, though, is how terrible the original stereo mix was. And to think, I grew up on that mix on a CD released in 1987. You know music’s good when it can rise above that.

Theory of Everything: “Emergency” — Not a hugely memorable episode, he writes, having listened to this like a lifetime ago. But I do think the image of Benjamen Walker getting paranoid in a spa is a good one worth returning to.

Love and Radio: “The Pandrogyne” — A classic. This is a beautifully mixed interview with one of England’s great musical eccentrics, Genesis P-Orridge. I’ve always meant to get into Throbbing Gristle, but that is not at all what this is about. This is about P-Orridge’s relationship with their late partner, with whom they consider themselves one being. It’s warm, funny and sad. And it features the story of the time they stayed in a house that used to belong to Houdini. It burned down while they were staying there, but they escaped. *grins* It’s nice to hear somebody straightforwardly sympathetic on Love and Radio from time to time. Pick of the week.

Strangers: “Lea in Trumpland: Alicia” — This is… ugh, I don’t know what to think of this. This is that thing where a liberal reporter goes and talks to a Trump supporter. To be fair, Lea Thau seems entirely aware of the pitfalls of that. But this still falls into that genre, and I can’t help but feel that Alicia, a perfectly sympathetic person in many respects, has a worldview that just doesn’t really deserve the airtime. Maybe that sounds ruthless, but she really lost me at the moment when Thau asks her about racism and she responds by saying that she doesn’t really care about people’s feelings getting hurt. Never mind that it’s as much or more about people’s safety than their feelings — I just can’t get behind a person who thinks like that. I know that’s kind of the point, and I’m totally aware of the fact that I’m holding this to a different standard than I’ve held comparable episodes of Love and Radio. But I just feel like I don’t have the mental energy to grapple with this right now. Get back to me in ten years, and maybe I’ll have enough distance to know what to think.

On The Media: “The United States of Anxiety: America’s Allergy to Intellectualism” — I appreciated this, but similarly to the episode of Strangers I just reviewed, I’m just really not as much in the mood for anxiety-making radio about contemporary politics as I thought I was when I put this on. I’m sure The United States of Anxiety is a great show, but I’m probably going to pass on it for now.

Fresh Air: “‘Sgt. Pepper’ At 50” — First off, the A/B comparisons here were less valuable to me than their All Songs Considered counterparts, because this podcast is in mono. When comparing stereo mixes, that’s kind of not acceptable. I guess the broadcast edit was stereo? Never mind. This is still worthwhile for the interview with Giles Martin, which is more in-depth than the one on All Songs. But if you’re only picking one, go with All Songs, for the stereo.

Fresh Air: “Paul McCartney/Ringo Starr” — It speaks to the quality of The Beatles Anthology that I’m never surprised by Beatles interviews anymore. Why do I even bother?

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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.

Omnireviewer (week of May 29)

16 reviews. It’s been busy.

Music

Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial — I won’t say I love all of it. But I will say that “Vincent,” and “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” are up there with “Blackstar,” “Freedom” and ‘Animal Rites” as my favourite tracks of the year. This is guaranteed to grow on me in a big way. I can already recognize that it’s something really special. I may have my own idiosyncratic faves of the year so far — including John Congleton, Tim Hecker and David Bowie (atypical to the extent that I’m probably in the minority in thinking that Blackstar is one of his best albums) — but I’m happy to predict that for years to come, we’ll still be talking about Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Car Seat Headrest’s Teens of DenialPick of the week.

Jethro Tull: Nightcap: The Unreleased Masters — I can’t believe I’ve never listened to this. The first disc of this collection contains the music from the Chateau D’Herouville (nicknamed Chateau D’Horrible by the band) that predates A Passion Play but was never released. I won’t pretend it’s excellent — the best cuts made it onto A Passion Play, and the rest is mostly marginal. I suspect that these sessions are regarded more highly by people who don’t like A Passion Play as much as I do. Still, it’s got some worthwhile snippets and is absolutely fascinating as a document for geeks like me. The second disc contains some stuff I’d heard as bonus tracks on the second-most recent re-releases of the studio albums, and a bunch of stuff I hadn’t. The outtakes from the ‘70s are so close to album-calibre it’s almost painful. Some of the ‘80s stuff has its appeal too, but by the time we’re getting to Rock Island castoffs, things are getting dire.

Jethro Tull: Roots to Branches — Another album I can’t believe I’ve never heard. This is known among Tull fans, specifically those of us with an affinity for their proggier stuff, as the one really worthwhile ‘90s Tull album. Naturally, I really like it. There are problems: the digital keyboards are corny, and Anderson’s lyrics are not what they once were — in fact, they’re appallingly self-serious in places. But it’s definitely one of the good ones. It isn’t in the league of Songs From the Wood, for instance, but I’d put it about even with The Broadsword and the Beast.

Television

Game of Thrones: “Blood Of My Blood” — Well, Arya’s plotline has gone well off the rails. King’s Landing isn’t as fun when Cersei’s not in most of the scenes. And Sam’s father is introduced as yet another intransigent fuckhead without a shred of self-knowledge. Basically, this feels like all of the plotlines that weren’t good enough for last week’s awesome episode stuck together. It’s still not actually bad, though, and I remain thoroughly turned-around on this season.

Archer: “Deadly Velvet, Part 1” — Huh, I’m actually excited to see the end of this story, as opposed to just hearing the rest of the jokes. Archer is good, but I would like to see these writers do a different show soon.

Games

HyperBound — I’ll confess, a major part of why I wanted to play EarthBound in the first place is because I wanted to play this hack of it. I first heard about HyperBound in Anna Anthropy’s awesome games manifesto The Rise of the Videogame Zinesters. Essentially, it is a game that’s very unlike EarthBound, but which uses EarthBound as its building blocks. In HyperBound, Ness is not Ness, but rather a nameless amnesiac (ah, amnesia — always the most useful adventure game trope) who must travel through a number of towns gathering evidence about his former life. The principal new mechanic is quite ingenious: early in the game, you meet a doctor who will allow you to undertake a procedure to regain your memories. (The gameplay during the procedure feels like reverse Eternal Sunshine, but made of EarthBound sprites.) You can undergo the procedure whenever and however many times you like, but it has a slim chance of working. The more you’ve explored, the more likely it is to work. When it doesn’t work, it causes brain damage, which manifests as glitches in the game. (Much as EarthBound is a very reflexive game, HyperBound is a very reflexive hack.) For me, there are two problems with this. One is simply that I enjoyed EarthBound far more than I expected to, so playing this kind of makes me wish I was just playing EarthBound. (I had half expected to like it more than EarthBound, crazy as that sounds.) HyperBound eliminates the element of EarthBound that I found occasionally trying, the combat, and maintains the exploratory element that I enjoyed the most. But by the end of EarthBound, I had begun to appreciate the challenge of the combat, and it helped to break up gameplay. Now I miss it. But comparing the two games in this way is kind of moot: HyperBound’s goal isn’t to modify EarthBound, it’s to tell a substantial interactive story using the materials of another. Which leads me to my second issue: HyperBound doesn’t do as much to subvert EarthBound as I’d personally like. It’s not uncommon to encounter characters who speak the same dialogue as they did in the original version, and the tone of the original is replicated almost obsessively. There’s an opportunity here, given that this is effectively a mashup, to use the systems of meaning established in EarthBound for different purposes, thereby explicitly undermining them. The fact that HyperBound is so reluctant to take this approach is a bit disappointing to me. But, all of this is me refusing to take HyperBound on its own terms, which is terribly rude. It is spectacularly accomplished as a hack, and the intentional use of glitches is properly clever. Now that I’m done with this, I think it’s time for my second playthrough of Undertale. Now there’s a game that undermines EarthBound.

Podcasts

The Heart: “Ten Foot Pole” — Okay, this is getting great. On one hand, there’s the always-present discomfort about being entertained by somebody else’s real-life horror story, but this continuing series about a woman coming to terms with her childhood sexual abuse is the most gripping thing I’ve heard in awhile. In this episode, she actually talks to the man who abused her, though she doesn’t tell him who she is or bring up the abuse. Nonetheless, the conversation turns out to be shocking in its resonance. The Heart is a fantastic podcast, always, but I think this might be the most meaningful thing it’s ever done. And of course, it sounds amazing. These folks are the best audio editors at Radiotopia. (Alongside The Truth, maybe, but when have they had a story this good?)

StartUp: “Kitchen Confidential” — I’m starting to get sick of hearing the same story, week after week. Which is an ironic thing to say, given that this is the first season of StartUp to feature a different story every week, as opposed to one serialized narrative. But in focussing on the same moment in each of their subject companies’ developments — the “make or break” moment, to use the parlance of a superior podcast — they’re retreading the same narrative ground, again and again. A return to serialized seasons would be much appreciated at this point.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Live at Vulture Festival” — Okay, so their topical link to Vulture is pretty tenuous, but this is a fun listen. Linda and Glen are at their funniest in a live setting, and Stephen Thompson and Audie Cornish are both very thoughtful here. Cornish on pop culture and politics makes this worthwhile in itself.

Reply All: “On The Inside, Part III” — This is getting really awesome. The fact that Reply All is a show about the internet that employs a journalist with Sruthi Pinamaneni’s investigative chops ought to make every other internet-focussed media enterprise cower with shame.

On The Media: “Kidnapped” — A marvellous hour devoted to journalists who have been kidnapped reporting in war zones, especially in Syria. There are some extraordinary stories here. What’s particularly enraging is the fact that the systemic breakdown of journalism as an industry that hires reporters full-time can be linked to the problem: if you’re a freelancer, you’re incentivized to behave in really risky ways, like sneaking over borders and such. That, and many other aspects of this story make me want to throw things.

Love and Radio: “Another Planet” — Unlike most episodes of this show, this features a number of different characters, all telling the story of a single place: an abandoned gas station that was turned into an unofficial shelter and cultural centre for a community of (mostly) homeless people. But, like most episodes of this show, it doesn’t start out telling you that’s the story you’re hearing. The lede is always buried in Love and Radio, and that is why I love it so much. Also, Tim Robbins is in this for some reason.

Theory of Everything: “Analogue Time” — I think I prefer the 99pi version of the cassette tape story, but this pairs it with two other stories about technological change, including an account of why Benjamen Walker’s Radiotopia Live segment won’t work on the radio, and a reflection on David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Part of what I love about this show is its ability to find thematic resonances between little bits and pieces of things. It sort of scratches the itch that I’ve had since Radiolab changed format and started devoting whole episodes to single stories.  

Strangers: “The Son, The Goddess, and Leopoldo” — Here’s a good yarn. A boy born into a coven of lesbian witches travels America with his radical leftist mother and helplessly witnesses her abuse by a man who seemed to define everything she believed in. (So much abuse, this week.) It’s told in first-person by the son himself, and it twists and it turns and it twists. It’s appalling at times, but it’s one of those stories that’s so good you don’t pause it to do something else. I don’t listen to Strangers enough. Pick of the week.

Code Switch: “Can We Talk About Whiteness?” — Speaking as a really, really white person, it’s great to hear some smart people actually tackle the concept of whiteness head-on. It’s also a bit strange that the first episode of a podcast about race hosted by people of colour is about white people, but they lampshade that from the outset and who am I to say, anyway. This is really promising. I’m really looking forward to hearing more of this.

All Songs Considered: “The Worst Songs Of All Time?” — This is a lot of fun. Hearing Carrie Brownstein talk about music she hates is just great. “No Rain” by Blind Melon is “sitting on a couch with bad posture.” Talking about music doesn’t get any better than that.