Tag Archives: Terry Riley

Things I loved in 2015: Nos. 20-15

So far, we’ve celebrated gigantic-sounding candy pop, long takes of bear attacks, space eyebrows, journalistic integrity, and the quality of empathy as expressed through radio. We soldier on. Here’s more excellence in sound and screen, and also this list’s first instance of excellence in panels:

No. 20 — Kelly Sue DeConnick/Valentine De Landro: Bitch Planet, vol. 1

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This comic is badass feminism 101. If I could force everybody I know to read it, I would, because for most of them it would be validating and triumphant, and for the rest it might disavow them of some dodgy notions.

Kelly Sue DeConnick’s brand of dystopian satire is a wonderfully blunt instrument. Aside from the literal existence of a prison planet where non-compliant women are sent for various crimes against the patriarchy, the world of Bitch Planet is essentially no different from our own. Its power comes from the fact that most of its characters’ struggles are stories you might actually have heard somebody tell from personal experience.

But aside from being merely (ha) progressive, Bitch Planet is also exquisitely crafted and detailed, right down to the zine-inspired design and 90s comics-style joke classifieds in every issue. As a trade-waiter on principle, the wait for the next volume is going to drive me insane.

No. 19 — BoJack Horseman

Has there ever been a more compelling unsympathetic loser on television than BoJack Horseman? In its far-superior second season, BoJack becomes the cartoon animal version of Don Draper: attaining his dreams, alienating everybody he loves, gradually self-destructing, and trying and failing and trying and failing to put himself back together. And everybody around him seems to be coming apart at the seams for their own particular reasons, as well.

But the fact that these plotlines are embedded in a show that’s this joke-dense and whimsical allows BoJack Horseman to do what lots of these trendy shows full of terrible people fail at: it can take for granted that people are often horrible and don’t deserve their good fortune, while still being compulsively watchable.

And on top of everything, this season gave us “Hank After Dark,” one of the most visually dense, funniest and also most chilling episodes of television of the year. As a response to the Cosby spectacle, it’s as powerful as anything. If the season has one weakness, it’s that “Hank After Dark” thoroughly eclipses even the second-best episode.

No. 18 — Africa Express: In C Mali

Even as a confirmed minimalism devotee, I couldn’t get into Terry Riley’s classic In C until I heard it performed by West African musicians.

Africa Express is a project started by the distinctly non-African Damon Albarn, with the participation of a couple other notably non-African people including Brian Eno, who is required by British law to be involved in everything.

The idea behind Africa Express was to forge meaningful connections between European and African musicians. Given that, you may well wonder whether it’s a tad suspect that Albarn’s second recording with these musicians is entirely focussed on a piece of Western classical music. But, just listen to the record.

The thing that’s immediately clear is that In C Mali is more than just another recording of In C. The music on this recording does not belong to Terry Riley nearly as much as it belongs to Africa Express. In C is freely structured to the point where every performance is slightly different, but this performance is entirely its own thing. The musicians own this music. Riley fades into the background.

I doubt I’ll listen to any other recordings of this piece for several years, at least.

No. 17 — Better Call Saul

Sometimes you see critics say things like “it was better than it needed to be” when a show or movie has a built-in audience from a beloved related property.

Better Call Saul was massively better than it needed to be.

The important thing that Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould realized is that they couldn’t, shouldn’t, and were under no obligation to replicate the successes of Breaking Bad. So, they made a show that fans of Breaking Bad would be sure to enjoy — it’s got that signature dialogue and all the stunning sights of Albuquerque, N.M. — but that is a fundamentally different show in terms of content and pacing.

Better Call Saul lacks its predecessor’s explosive plotline, allowing it to luxuriate in its characters and themes the way that Mad Men does, and the way that Breaking Bad didn’t. The greatest side effect of this is that it gives Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks more space for multifaceted performances as Jimmy McGill and Mike Ehrmantraut, respectively.

This show didn’t just overcame the impossible expectations associated with being a Breaking Bad spinoff: it also staked out its own territory immediately. I suspect it’ll only get better.

No. 16 — The Hateful Eight

To some extent, Quentin Tarantino is a substance. Each of his movies is an additional quantity of that substance to be consumed. If you didn’t enjoy the last jar of Tarantino you ate, you’re not likely to enjoy any other ones either.

That said, there are things he does that I love, and things he does that I don’t. I could take or leave his action scenes and the more conspicuous exploitation movie tropes (I have zero time for Death Proof or Kill Bill: Vol. 1). But when he’s in talky mode, there’s nobody I like better.

The Hateful Eight is an entire movie’s worth of the Mexican standoff in Pulp Fiction, the barroom scene in Inglorious Basterds, or the final confrontation in Kill Bill: Vol. 2. It has an amazing cast full of people who clearly delight in saying the sorts of things that people say in Tarantino scripts. And, if you live in an opportune place, you can see it (as I did) in glorious 70mm projection, complete with the novelty of an overture and an intermission.

At this moment, it is my second-favourite jar of Tarantino.

Tomorrow, we’ll pick up from no. 15, with our most whiplash-inducing set of five yet: an album, a movie, a comic, a show and a podcast. 

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Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 6)

A week full of lovely things, really. 22 lovely things.

Music

The year-end lists are coming out, so I was going to spend the week going through the stuff I missed. But then I got waaay more obsessed with this first one than I’d anticipated. It’s nearly embarrassing, but actually no it isn’t at all.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: Hamilton, An American Musical — They made a hip hop musical about the establishment of America’s national bank. Just when you thought Broadway was all superfluous Disney adaptations. This is incredible for so many reasons. It shifts seamlessly from convincing hip hop to straight-ahead showtunes about arcane political processes. And that’s not the only tonal shift it manoeuvres: it’s incredible how this flits back and forth between funny and tragic, arch and sincere, and from straight-ahead storytelling to meta-commentary. It is totally self-aware about its own unlikely subject matter, but it doesn’t let that self-awareness get in the way of its story, which you can get lost in to an extent that you seldom see in works of musical narrative. Unlike most cast albums, this works brilliantly as a bespoke object. As a concept album, it has a narrative thrust that keeps you listening to the words, even when the music threatens to beguile you away from the piece’s themes. And it’s bewilderingly allusive: it’s well worth listening to this with the Genius annotations (some of which come straight from Lin-Manuel Miranda himself) within arm’s reach. Miranda has everything. It’s not just that he can rap and sing and write a catchy hook and verses that lodge in your head, he also has something interesting to say about Alexander Hamilton as a historical figure and about how who tells the stories from history affects how we think about it. There are nothing but good things to say about this. I don’t care if you like musicals or not, listen to Hamilton. Pick of the week.

Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly — If it seems perverse to give pick of the week to a musical rather than what looks increasingly like the consensus best album of 2015, know that it’s only because I’m totally obsessed with Hamilton right now. To Pimp a Butterfly is as good as everybody says it is, and I would imagine that out of the two, it’s what I’ll be coming back to more frequently in 2016. If only to figure out what he’s on about. This is some seriously challenging stuff.

Africa Express/Terry Riley: In C Mali — I’m a huge fan of California minimalism in general, and Terry Riley specifically. But, his most famous piece, In C, was never one that I found myself listening to very much. Until I heard it played on African instruments when this thing came out earlier this year. Then I listened and I listened and I listened. Nice to revisit again after a few months.

CHVRCHES: Every Open Eye — Here’s something I’m not seeing on nearly enough year-end lists. CHVRCHES’ music is pure catharsis and people who don’t like it hate joy. This album is significantly better (or at least more consistent) than their first, which critics were all about. What gives? “Make Them Gold” is a clunker of a single, if we’re being honest, but the rest of the album is perfect pop.

Television

Deadwood: “Reconnoitering the Rim” — I don’t know where this show is going, but damn, Ian McShane can act.

QI: “Marriage and Mating” — Why am I reviewing an episode of QI? Tell you what, I’m not.

BoJack Horseman: “Hank After Dark” — According to my own rules, I’m not technically obligated to review this, since it’s my second time watching it in the course of this blog — and, in fact, in a fairly short span of time. I just felt obligated to pop back in and reiterate that this is one of the best episodes of comedy television I’ve ever seen. Okay? Okay.

Lost: “White Rabbit” — Reasons I don’t understand people who like the first season of Lost best: (1) Shannon and Boone are unwatchable; (2) Sawyer is a prick — and not in a way that any reasonable person should find charming, although the show sure seems to sell him like that; (3) it’s galling to see Jack take such a large role in the story when you know he was supposed to die in the first episode in what would have been the most brilliant bait-and-switch in television history, had the writers followed through. Jack’s story has more “it’s so hard to be a handsome rich hero dude” than I’d like. We wouldn’t have had to sit through that if they’d just done the right thing and killed the handsome rich hero dude. And that cliff dangle is ridiculous. I still basically like this, though. The hallucinatory manifestation of Jack’s daddy issues is properly creepy.

Literature, etc.

Alejandro Jodorowsky/Moebius: The Incal — A very thoughtful birthday present from some wonderful friends. I think I’m going to enjoy this. So far, Moebius is impressing more than Jodorowsky, whose writing has a lot of sci-fi clichés, and the juxtaposition of text and image sometimes seems arbitrary and lacks clarity. But this is a good yarn with some damn pretty pictures.

China Miéville: “Dreaded Outcome” — Here’s a narrator that Miéville can really sink into: a jargon-dropping therapist. I put this story down right at the point where a massive twist happens, then when I picked it back up, I didn’t even recognize it. This is good.

Lucas Adams: “An Illustrated Account of the Great Maple Syrup Heist” — This short comic about a thing that honest to god actually happened will make you very excited about the Jason Segal movie that Sony Pictures is honest to god going to make about it.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “A Conversation with Trevor Noah” — I haven’t gotten around to watching any of Trevor Noah’s Daily Show, but I think I will now. In this interview with Linda Holmes (who should really do more hour-long podcast interviews; she’s fantastic) he proves to be refreshingly circumspect. There’s an awkward moment near the end when he’s talking about “things you’re not supposed to say,” but at least he’s willing to own up to his mistakes and learn as he goes.

Imaginary Worlds: “Origin Stories” — The superhero origin story imagined as a psychological necessity. Excellent.

Song Exploder: “Wilco – Magnetized” — This is my favourite song on the new Wilco album by a fair margin, so it’s great to hear it exploded. I love that Glenn Kotche’s drum part was inspired by Jeff Tweedy’s son’s drumming. But I still kind of think he’s just imitating Ringo.

On The Media: “Lies, Lies, Lies” — No tragedy this time, except for Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. On The Media is a really dark show, sometimes. Throughout this episode, you realize gradually that the demonstrable truthfulness of a statement doesn’t really have that much to do with whether or not people are swayed by it. Let us all collectively shudder.

Serial: “DUSTWUN” — Back into the weeds we go. Look, I love Serial, and I love Sarah Koenig’s journalism. But this is one of those situations where it can be difficult to keep the thing itself separate from the phenomenon of the thing. The response to season one of Serial was huge and weird and bad. I remember it being compared to True Detective which is just wrong. Serial is not a fictional detective show; it’s real journalism about people who exist out in the world. The widespread disappointment in the ending of the season was naive and ruthless — you can’t just end a true story however you want. And while I’m a devoted listener to a great many non-fiction podcasts, some of which tell serialized stories, it’s distressing to me that the story of Adnan Syed ended up being fetishized by people in the same way that I fetishize, say, Doctor Who. So, Serial: the breakout podcast phenomenon is a thing I have very mixed feelings about. BUT, Serial: the longform non-fiction storytelling project is a thing I really love. So, this new season is properly exciting — especially given that it’s about a story that got international TV news coverage, and now we’ll get a totally new lens on it. Instead of people filing stories in a day, we’ll get one of the most ruthlessly detail-oriented journalists in the world, plus her team of producers, PLUS screenwriter Mark Boal (of Hurt Locker fame and Zero Dark Thirty infamy) all on the case and making no compromises to time. And if that last line is any indication, the next episode is going to be a corker. Let’s all keep our heads, though. This is actually happening. Pick of the week.

Reply All: “I Love You, I Loathe You” — Reply All is that rare podcast that focuses on fussy, meticulous, reported stories but can also pull off just having its hosts banter with each other for a whole episode. In that sense, it may be the “most podcast” of all podcasts: it combines the pre-taped public radio approach of shows like This American Life and On The Media (where both hosts once worked) with the podcast-native approach of people talking to each other into microphones with little adornment (à la Stop Podcasting Yourself, etc). There’s no reported story in this episode of Reply All, but it was still fantastic and still Reply All. This is Gimlet’s best podcast and it would take something staggering for them to top it. (Jonathan Goldstein, perhaps.)

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Creed, Men Crying At Movies, and Visceral Responses” — I find I seldom have much to say about regular episodes of PCHH, but don’t be fooled: I love this show. It will likely take a slot on my year-end roundup of best podcasts for its sheer reliability in delivering insight and joy. And Gene Demby sounds so happy to be back.

The Moth: “Amir Baghdadchi & Dameon Wilburn: StorySLAM Favourites” — Two outstanding, riotously funny stories about travel, both distinguished more for the quality of the telling than by the story itself.

99% Invisible: “Pagodas and Dragon Gates” — These days, there are good episodes of 99pi, and “fine” episodes of 99pi. This is one of the good ones. It’s about why San Francisco’s Chinatown looks like it does architecturally, in spite of the fact that pagodas and dragon gates were long out of fashion in China when those structures were built in Chinatown. It’s more of a story than you might anticipate.

StartUp: “Pitch Perfect 2” — Alex Blumberg is absolutely pathological about playing that tape of him bombing a pitch over and over. This is super interesting, and I’m so happy that Gimlet has a new partner who shares Blumberg and Matt Lieber’s vision. I can’t wait to hear their new shows — especially Jonathan Goldstein’s. That guy is a master.

Fresh Air: “Historian Mary Beard Tackles Myths about Ancient Rome” — Research about antiquity is catnip to me. This interview (with Dave Davies, filling in ably for Terry Gross) contains such wonderful tidbits as Caligula hating being called Caligula, because it was a diminutive nickname from his childhood — “Bootikins,” essentially.