Tag Archives: The Daily

Omnibus (week of Oct. 15, 2017)

It was more of an audiobook week than a podcast week, so once again we’ve got two non-podcast picks of the week.

15 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Jane Mayer: “The Danger of President Pence” — This satisfyingly lengthy feature details all the many wondrous failings and creepinesses of the Vice-President. You’ve probably seen bits of it excerpted on Twitter, but you owe it to yourself to read it in full. Pence would be a disastrous president, because he’s a more efficient political operative than the orangutan who employs him, but he also has no spine with which to stand up to the Kochs, and a truly terrifying case of Jesus freakiness. I’ll decline to quote anything because you should just go read it all.

Stephen King: It (audiobook) — I’m nine hours into this 45-hour behemoth, and I have no regrets. The primary advantage of hearing this as an audiobook rather than reading it is just that you can’t cheat and steal a glimpse at the next page. There’s no way out of the tension. Steven Weber is a marvellous narrator, with a wide range of character voices that don’t feel too over the top. His Pennyworth is more restrained than, for instance, Tim Curry’s (based on the clips I’ve seen). But it’s still creepy as hell. As a book, It is thrilling, and surprisingly ambitious. I shouldn’t make too many judgements yet, because I’ve got 80% of this left to go. But so far, it’s both a convincing picture of the unique horrors of childhood and an interesting exploration of the human tendency to repress trauma for the sake of our sanity. The way it tells two stories at a time — the story of a group of adults reuniting after years apart, and the much earlier story of the horror that haunts all of them subconsciously — works really well. The horror in this first part arises mostly from seeing our main characters through the eyes of others, who are forced to acknowledge that there’s something terrifying about their husband/wife/employee etc. that they’ve never seen before. The best and most frightening scene in the book so far is one in which the author William Denbrough (an obvious King self-insert) tries to communicate as much of his hidden past as he can to his wife without driving her completely insane. It’s the kind of scene in which the book validates its massive length. We’ll see if I still feel that way after 36 more hours of it.

Philip Pullman: The Golden Compass — I never thought we’d get another full novel that ties into His Dark Materials, let alone another whole trilogy. I am delighted on behalf of my inner child, and also young weirdos growing up today. I will be reading La Belle Sauvage with relish, but I need to brush up because I haven’t read the His Dark Materials trilogy since I was eleven. So far, The Golden Compass is as magical as I remember it being. Lyra is one of the great protagonists in children’s literature, and Pullman succeeds in making a university full of fusty old scholars seem like a wonderland in the early chapters. This is like encountering an old friend.

Movies

Blade Runner 2049 — Let’s take a few runs at this. Firstly, let’s look at it as a movie in itself. Blade Runner 2049 is the latest film from Denis Villeneuve, the director of at least two previous masterpieces. (This is the third film of his I’ve seen.) It is his first blockbuster franchise film (even if the box office figures suggest that the block has not been busted to the extent that the studio probably hoped), and the most lavish and ostentatious of his recent movies. It is shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose lack of an Oscar has at this point exceeded pre-2007 Martin Scorsese levels of ludicrousness. As a sensory experience, it is one of the best movies in recent memory. The way the camera hangs and drifts across the film’s beautiful production design invokes a sense of elegance that gets periodically blown away by the film’s shockingly aggressive, kickass score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. (See this in cinemas for the sound alone. It’s Zimmer’s best work.) It contains some specific sequences that deserve to go down in history, such as the construction of a dream of a birthday party, and a fistfight backed by a hologram of Elvis. It tells the story of a person who has to reckon with the notion that he may not be what he thinks he is, and it tells this story without any ostentatious philosophizing. It is a massively good movie. Next, let’s look at it as an expansion of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The original film is in my opinion a sublime masterpiece, and even a great film from one of the best directors of our time is going to have a hard time measuring up. That’s why this is step two in the process. Even though Blade Runner 2049 is not as good a film as Blade Runner, it is one of the best examples of respecting without replicating in this era of endless rehashes. It would have been simple to remake the original film beat for beat, like in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which Iike). But Blade Runner is a different kind of film from Star Wars and calls for a different kind of engagement in a sequel. Blade Runner is slow, thinky, painterly, and not culturally ubiquitous. In keeping with that, Blade Runner 2049 is a slow, thinky, painterly film that relies as much on its director’s unique vision as on the canon it inherits from its generative nostalgia object. This film’s exterior scenes take place in locations with three hues: it starts in a grey place, moves to a black place, and eventually carries us to a red place. Of these, the grey and red places are new. Maybe it seems absurd to suggest that this movie distinguishes itself from its predecessor by adding Two New Colours! But I’ve always thought of Blade Runner as a moving painting as much as a work of storytelling. So, introducing these two new locations with their vastly new aesthetics is a very substantial choice indeed. And right from the start, no less. Only once the story’s new protagonist has been properly introduced in the grey place are we allowed back into the theatrical, horizonless blackness that is the original film’s defining visual feature. Even the elements of the story that involve Rick Deckard, the first film’s protagonist, show facets of him that haven’t seen before. (This is by some margin Harrison Ford’s best role reprisal of recent years.) The new film has nothing to offer in place of Blade Runner’s one truly excellent character, Roy Batty. But it was wise of them not to try. Any attempt at “Rutger-Hauer-but-not” would have been doomed to ridiculousness. Jared Leto’s character flirts with it as it is. Also: the fact that the film reintroduces Philip K. Dick’s idea of non-robotic animals being sought-after items (largely excised from Scott’s film) is a fun touch. I haven’t read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by the way. But I have heard Terry Gilliam describe the plot, which I imagine is just as good. Now let’s look at it as a piece of fanservice. The most gratifying thing about this movie is that it is not primarily fanservice. But when they go that route, by god, they do it well. Gaff’s origami sheep is the best specific example. But the most satisfying element of fanservice in the movie is simply how beautifully recreated all of the environments from Scott’s original are. When we’re in the black heart of future Los Angeles, this movie looks almost exactly like the original, down to the huge Atari logo (a company which we now know will not have survived to 2049). Villeneuve is canny enough to realize that Blade Runner’s visuals are among the least dated of its time, and that its bleak cityscapes don’t require visual modernization to the same extent as, say, the starship Enterprise. The same goes for the hazy, gold-lit halls of power. The light’s a bit more liquid and a bit less gaseous these days, but it’s familiar enough. We also get a curiously lengthy sequence in which an image is enhanced on a screen. And best of all, we get a beautiful ending in which Zimmer and Wallfisch’s brilliant score dissolves into the music that inspired it: Vangelis’s original score for Roy’s death scene in the first film. As a fan of the original, I feel respected without being pandered to. Finally, let’s acknowledge that this film is maddeningly sexist. The original was no great feminist touchstone, but this one is maybe worse. It’s a huge blight on an otherwise excellent film, and it colours my impressions of it accordingly. Devon Maloney’s take in Wired is excellent. Still, I loved Blade Runner 2049, for the same primary reasons as I loved Blade Runner: it is an almost unimaginably beautiful thing to look at and listen to. Pick of the week.

Television

Downton Abbey: Season 6, episodes 4-9 — “You couldn’t be harder on those potatoes if you wanted them to confess to spying!” Mrs. Patmore, always and forever. This final run of Downton Abbey was engineered to be satisfying, and with a few exceptions, it is. For me the biggest exception is the plotline involving Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes’ marriage. Carson’s tendency to prioritize his responsibility to the Crawley family and their way of life over his responsibility to his wife is played for laughs, and he’s never adequately put in his place for it. He suffers a bit, sure, but I don’t feel like we really got to see him come to understand that there are more important things than the rigorous performance of his duties. He is a terrible husband, and this season paints him as a more ruthless and doctrinaire man than previous ones. Mrs. Hughes can’t help but be steamrolled. But most of the rest of the season is fine. We don’t really ever get to know the fellow Mary ends up with, which is too bad considering that her romantic travails made up the bulk of the tension in early seasons. But I do love that he gets a job as a used car salesman and she’s okay with it. Progress is hard to come by in this show, so we’d best take what we can get. On to the finale. Old Lady Grantham gets the two most apropos benedictions, the most relevant of which being “There’s a lot at risk, but with any luck they’ll be happy enough. Which is the English version of a happy ending.” At first glance, it may not seem like the show itself shares her view — nobody comes off especially badly in the end, and even those characters whose futures we don’t know get sent off with the suggestion of better things to come. Let’s nobody pretend like Tom isn’t going to end up married to that editor. But Lady Grantham is correct when she says “there’s a lot at risk.” If there’s one thing we should have learned by now about the world of Downton Abbey, it’s that present-day happiness does not imply everlasting happiness. It’s all well and good for the show to leave all of its characters in a good place at its close. In fact, it barely even seems cheap, because there’s every chance that Downton won’t make it into the next decade. Lady Grantham’s other benediction is the series’ proper final line. “Makes me smile,” she says, “the way every year we drink to the future, whatever it may bring.” Cousin Isobel responds: “Well, what else could we drink to? We’re going forward into the future, not backward into the past.” To which old Lady Grantham replies: “If only we had the choice.” It’s a joke, but Isobel’s face tells the rest of the story. She is looking at a woman who would gladly reverse a century of progress to regain the prestige she once knew. That’s what Downton Abbey is about, maybe as much for its creator as for its characters: the desire to live in a rose-tinted, imaginary version of a barbaric past. I have enjoyed this show immensely, but I have no idea whether I’ve been reading it against the grain this whole time or not. I suppose that’s the greatest demonstration of its virtues.

Comedy

Patton Oswalt: Annihilation — This has been a good year for sad comedy. Chris Gethard’s Career Suicide is barely comedy for much of its duration. Maria Bamford’s Old Baby finds her in better shape than previous specials, but she’s still playing emotional sudoku. Annihilation is Patton Oswalt’s public reckoning with the death of his wife. That’s not all it is — there’s some Trump material that’s relatively similar to Marc Maron’s Trump material from his special this year. (If ever there were a topic about which two comics were going to arrive independently at the same jokes, it’s Donald Trump.) There’s some outstanding crowdwork. And there’s a hysterical story about the best fight Oswalt ever witnessed. But the meat and potatoes of the set is Oswalt’s material about trying to help his daughter through the loss of her mother, while he himself wasn’t even close to finished grieving. The rawest emotional territory is often the most fruitful for comedy, and that’s clearly the case here. Grief has made Oswalt notice the tiny absurdities that interrupt his numbness very acutely, and he spins it into some great jokes, including a particularly excellent bit about a well-meaning Polish airport security officer who ruins his daughter’s day. This is draining stuff at times, but it’s very good.

Games

Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and the Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist — This 20-minute free game from one of the folks behind The Stanley Parable is delightful. I played it twice, once in the suggested 20-minute fashion, and once in a more luxurious 50 minutes. It’s worth playing twice, since the second time bequeaths you with a tape deck that allows you to play cassettes littered about, which contain voice work by Rick and Morty’s Justin Roiland. But even without him, the voice work is great. The narrator is Simon Amstell, in full-on panic mode. As a meta-comment on walking simulators and choice in games, it’s nowhere near as insightful as The Stanley Parable, but it’s free! And it’s funny! And it’ll take almost none of your time. And it’s more detailed than you might initially detect. What excuse do you have?

Music

Kendrick Lamar: DAMN. — It took a while, but I’ve come around to thinking this is one of the best albums of the year. “DUCKWORTH.” in particular blows my mind, but “FEAR.” is one of Kendrick’s best tracks too. “HUMBLE.” is super catchy, definitely this album’s “King Kunta.” It’s a grower.

The Tragically Hip: Day For Night — Look: those of you who think this band is undistinguished generic rock, I hear you. I think lots of their albums fit that description. But Gord Downie’s lyrics are the exact opposite of generic. They approach Kate Bush levels of specificity. And that is always the case. But here is an album where the music actually rises to the challenge of illustrating Downie’s poetry. It’s an album of moody sonic landscapes as much as it is an album of guitar shredding. I was actually surprised to find that it wasn’t produced by Daniel Lanois. It doesn’t have the same density of recognizable classics as Fully Completely, but it is for my money a much more satisfying start-to-finish listening experience. Tracks like “Thugs” and “Titanic Terrarium” are as good a demonstration of why the Hip are a good band as “Courage” and “Wheat Kings.” If you pay close attention to Gord on this album, I’ll wager there’s a lyric in every song that’ll lodge in your head. “I want a book that’ll make me drunk/full of freaks and disenfranchised punks,” he sings on “An Inch An Hour,” which is a song you’ll only hear if you’re listening to the record. Ditto for “Yawning or Snarling,” the chorus of which goes “Take a look at this photograph/clearly his teeth were bared/he could have been yawning or snarling/the story was never clear.” By most estimations, the classics from this disc are “Grace, Too,” “Nautical Disaster” and “Scared,” all of which are brilliant, the last of which is probably my favourite song by this band. I have no idea what it means. I just know I have a visceral response to it. Maybe because I’m scared of everything? Who can say. In any case, I humbly suggest if you’ve never heard the Hip that this is the album you should hear. I knew very little about them until this whole country went into a completely understandable fit of acute sadness over his cancer diagnosis. This was the album that made me understand why. I miss him already. Pick of the week.

The Rolling Stones: Goats Head Soup — Why stop at Exile? We’re on a roll, SO TO SPEAK. And besides, it looks like three of the next six albums in their catalogue are reasonably well regarded, so I may as well get at least up to Tattoo You. This album is nearly as unfocused as Exile, but without the sprawling length that makes it feel like a purposeful lack of focus. Still, it sounds like a band fully in control of their dynamic, and its best songs are outright classics that would have fared well on any previous album. The lead single, “Angie” is not one of those songs. Not that it’s bad, but it’s hard not to compare it to previous ballads like “Wild Horses” and “Shine A Light,” in which context it falls hugely flat. The best stuff here is “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker),” which is the most successfully funky the band has ever been (thank you, Billy Preston), and “Winter,” which is like “Moonlight Mile” having been brought back down to earth. I like this. I’ll listen to it again. I think I like it better than Beggars Banquet.

The Rolling Stones: It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll — The best thing on this album is the rim shot sound on “Time Waits For No One.” The way it’s recorded is so satisfying. It’s like snapping a particularly snug top back on a bottle. But there isn’t really much on this that I loved. “Till The Next Goodbye” is a pretty good ballad, but the rockers feel like pale imitations of earlier, better hits. So begins the fall, I suppose. Well, at least Some Girls is coming up soon.

Podcasts

The Daily: Oct. 18 & 19, 2017 — Two great instalments: especially the October 18 episode, which features a fantastic interview with Shannon Mulcahy, a steelworker who found great freedom in her job, until it was shipped to Mexico. President Trump hasn’t fixed the problem the way she hoped. This is an adaptation of a print story, but it’s told as a true radio story, with tape and everything. Thursday’s episode on the state of the Islamic State is a good summation of a topic I can’t keep track of.

Constellations: “miyuki jokiranta – no event” & “Is This an Exercise? By Julie Shapiro” — I’m noticing a pattern in the episodes of this sound art focussed podcast: the sort of experimental audio they favour is the lyrical, lugubrious sort. This is all well and good, but I’m looking forward to hearing something really propulsive at some point. Anyway, these are two great pieces, especially the one by Miyuki Jokiranta about a medical procedure and our perception of time. You should be listening to this.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Haunted Mansion” — Let’s just say it’s the second best horror-inclined, Disney-related podcast of the month. Not that I’m biased.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Impeachment” — I’ve decided I like this show. I particularly love how aware Roman Mars is that his audience wants to see the back of President Trump. I will keep listening.

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Omnibus (week of Oct. 1, 2017)

So, I know y’all are here to read my compulsive ramblings about stuff that other people make, but I’ve recently got off my ass and made something myself. It’s a horror-tinged comedy podcast about a fictionalized version of Mark Zuckerberg, as he traverses all 50 states of America, trying to prevent A VERY BAD THING from happening to Facebook. It is called Mark’s Great American Road Trip, and you can learn more about it here and subscribe to it here.

I’m making this show with Nick Zarzycki, the creator of the tech satire site Gawken and the guy I used to make the Syrup Trap Pod Cast with. He writes, I make sound nice. We have been working on one version of this show or another for a stupidly long time, and I am very happy that it now exists. We’ve got some crazy storylines on deck for the first chunk of this show’s existence, and I really think it’s going to turn out to be one of the strangest and most specific fiction podcasts made thus far. If you think that might be up your street, subscribe. There’s an introduction and a full episode waiting for you in the feed right now. And if does turn out to be up your street, you’d be doing us a huge favour by rating and reviewing it in Apple Podcasts, and also singing its praises wherever praises can be heard.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled babble. It’s one of those instalments where neither pick of the week is a podcast because there are two much more deserving non-podcast choices. Also, there is a surprising amount of Rolling Stones music. 

30 reviews.

Movies

The Thing — This is a great movie to watch in a group. I actually haven’t ever seen it any other way. The last time I watched The Thing was at a double feature in my high school’s theatre. I remember that it underwhelmed me, probably only because we’d watched The Shining immediately before. I liked it a whole lot more this time around. The gore effects are very of their time, but that somehow doesn’t make them any less visceral. Also, having watched both Alien and Blade Runner recently, it’s pretty clear that this owes a massive debt to the former, and is at least on the same wavelength as the latter, which came out the same year. From Alien, it gets its premise of “people are trapped in an incredibly isolated place with a terrifying monster.” But it adds to that a story mechanic that defines Blade Runner, which is uncertainty about who is human and who isn’t. The Thing’s use of this mechanic for suspense more so than theme prefigures another Blade Runner-adjacent franchise: the modern Battlestar Galactica. If you combine the existential questioning of Blade Runner’s Replicants with the uncanniness and subterfuge of the Thing, you’ve basically arrived at Cylons. Definitely a classic.

Blade Runner — This was the second time I’ve watched this in the past few months, because the last time I was super tired and spaced out and couldn’t follow the story. I watched it like a gorgeous moving painting. This time I focussed more, because I’m super excited about the sequel. And it dawned on me, two viewings later than one might expect, that Blade Runner is one of the best movies ever made. Its visual style and production design is the real star — it is maybe the most distinct and immersive visual style in any movie that isn’t made by Terry Gilliam (and I suspect that Brazil owes a conscious debt to this). But the final cut of Blade Runner (presumably the best one) is also a beautifully subtle and assured piece of storytelling. The way the movie twins the stories of Rick Deckard and Roy Batty is a thing of beauty — both of them are essentially the heroes of their own simultaneously-occurring movies. Both of them are searching for something and both are forced to ponder the nature of humanity for different reasons. And that’s what makes their final rooftop confrontation, and Roy’s death, so meaningful. (Well, that and a truly remarkable performance from Rutger Hauer, who makes Roy quite possibly my favourite movie villain. His only competition is Albert Spica from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. But Michael Gambon makes no attempt to humanize that motherfucker.) The subtlety with which this cut of the movie implies that Deckard is a replicant is also masterful — the fact that the unicorn dream is never explicitly discussed is of course necessary for the plot, but it’s also admirably trusting of the audience to put two and two together. And Vangelis’s music is one of the glories of film scoring. It should feel dated but it doesn’t, because it doesn’t sound like anything else from this period that we can associate it with. It is specific to the hazy, dreamlike world of this movie. A couple of much-needed rewatches in the past couple months have me rethinking the list of my top ten movies that I’ve been carrying around in my head for the last few years. This may yet make the cut. Pick of the week.

Napoleon Dynamite — I spent Thanksgiving with some lovely friends who were aghast at my having never seen this movie. Frankly I’m surprised I hadn’t seen it also. My friends in high school were not so much people as collections of references from this movie. Of course, I didn’t know that then. Napoleon Dynamite is an unlikely hybrid of the first two Wes Anderson movies, except dumb. It takes its lowbrow hucksters plotline from Bottle Rocket and its high school redemption story from Rushmore. Its listless performances and static framing are straight from Anderson’s playbook. So are the characters’ senses of loss and alienation. But the similarities end there. Napoleon Dynamite is a shaggy, deeply weird movie whose jokes all give the uncanny feeling that they’re funny because they’re referencing something, except they’re not. Maybe that’s because I’ve lived the past thirteen years in a world where “Tina, you fat lard, come get some dinner” is a thing people say, and I am only now learning it’s from something. Still, the humour of this movie is extremely difficult to pin down and I don’t know if I liked it or not. I laughed. I can’t tell if I laughed in spite of myself or not.

Television

The Blue Planet: Episodes 1-3 — Firstly. Now that we’ve got that out of the way: The Blue Planet is extraordinary and fascinating, but what’s really remarkable is how far camera technology has come since 2001. This precedes the first Planet Earth, let alone its astonishing 2016 follow-up. And while it is beautiful, it is markedly less beautiful than either of those. I am beyond excited for Blue Planet II, which will be arriving in the next couple of months. I have no doubt that it will be even more astonishing than this is. All that said, this is pretty damn astonishing, and the episode about the deep sea is particularly great. The farther you get from the sun, the more fucked up the lifeforms on this planet get. The anglerfish in particular seems like the creation of a mad god. Without David Attenborough’s authoritative voiceover, the deep sea episode of this series would seem like David Lynch adapting H.P. Lovecraft. It’s awesome.

Literature, etc.

Anna Weiner: “The Millennial Walt Disney” — This week in “things that made me scream into a pillow,” a story about a young entrepreneur who is opening locations of a strange institution called “The Museum of Ice Cream,” which is neither a museum not an ice cream shop but a place you can go to take good Instagram pictures of yourself. I hate this about people my age. I hate it I hate it I hate it I hate it I hate it I hate it. This is apocalyptic craziness and you’d be best advised to read it the way you’d read a story by Thomas Ligotti. These are bad, bad times.

Stephen King: The Waste Lands — Before I actually picked up my first Stephen King novel a couple of months ago, I didn’t understand the appeal. This, after all, was the author of the Haunted Car Book, and also the Haunted Dog Book. If these premises put me off before, they no longer do. Because the one truly terrifying monster in the Dark Tower series thus far is… a pink monorail. Here is a man who can frighten with any set of tools. The Waste Lands is far and away my favourite Dark Tower novel so far, and probably one of the best adventure page-turners I’ve ever read. Where The Drawing of the Three was essentially a break from the story begun in The Gunslinger — a semi-contrived set of hoops to jump through that introduces some crucial new pieces to the board but doesn’t actually move them anywhere — The Waste Lands really sets our characters off on a journey. It’s the first time in the series where the size of the story is really evident. The Dark Tower is no longer dreamlike and free-associative, but driving and purposeful. And it arrives at this point without sacrificing any of its Wonderland-esque uncanniness. In fact, this volume establishes that the gunslinger’s world, which has famously “moved on,” is several orders of magnitude stranger and more diverse than we could previously have suspected. We only got glimpses of this world before: a desert and a bizarre technological ruin in The Gunslinger; a beach full of monsters in The Drawing of the Three. This book serves us up our first real glimpse of society in this world: a small town of gentle elderly folk, and a raving mad city of brutal killers, haunted by the ghosts of dead machines. The weird wrongness of the world King establishes here reminds me of the deep sea creatures in the nature documentaries I’ve been watching — you get the sense that the place itself, let alone everybody in it, has lost its mind. Without spoiling too much, there’s a moment somewhere in the book’s outstanding final hundred pages where one of its characters contemplates the aforementioned monstrous pink monorail and realizes what a crazy story he’s in. “Welcome to the fantasy version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Even Stephen King thinks this book is nuts. I love it. I’ve never read anything like it. Pick of the week.

Music

The Rolling Stones: Some Girls — The consensus best post-Exile Stones album is in my view better than many pre-Exile Stones albums. I daresay I’d put it ahead of Beggars Banquet. Far from being the sound of the Stones catching up with the times, Some Girls is the sound of the Stones imposing themselves on the times. Nobody’s going to mistake “Miss You” for a track by an actual disco artist, or “Shattered” for a song by a punk band. Because if there’s one thing the Rolling Stones cannot do, it is not sound like the Rolling Stones. Even when they’re cribbing bits from other musical idioms, they still play loose rock and roll, and that’s what makes this album great. It’s the sound of a band challenging themselves to do new things and rediscovering their own identity in the distance between their own idiom and others. I like that Ronnie Wood at least got to play on one classic Stones album. Because he’s a good guitarist with a distinctive sound, and he meshes with Keith Richards better than Mick Taylor, a better instrumentalist, ever did. I particularly love his solos on “Beast of Burden” and the little fills between lines of the title track. Wood’s defining contributions to the band will always be as a live player, since the vast bulk of the band’s classic material predates his time in the band. But Some Girls gives him material that’s worthy of him for the only time on a studio record. (Maybe I shouldn’t say that, since I haven’t actually heard Tattoo You. But judging by other latter-day Stones music I’ve heard, it seems like a safe generalization.) Favourite tracks: “Beast of Burden,” “When the Whip Comes Down,” “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me).”

The Rolling Stones: The Rolling Stones — Ohhhh boy the 10-hour Rolling Stones mono box set is on Apple Music. We’re doing this. My enthusiasm for the Stones comes in waves. I’ve barely listened to them since my last period of intense obsession in grad school, and suddenly I want nothing more out of life than track after track of Mick yelping at me between squalls of loud guitar. I guess I just feel a real need for very analogue music in my life right now. I’m honestly not quite sure which among the pre-Aftermath Stones albums I’ve heard, but I’m certain I haven’t heard any of them more than once. Which is probably unfair to some of them, but this isn’t one. It’s the U.K. version of their debut record. (The U.S. version, titled England’s Newest Hit Makers, is not included in the mono box, presumably because it only contains one track that this doesn’t. “Not Fade Away” is thus relegated to a bonus disc at the end. Still, the box includes both versions of Aftermath, when the U.S. version of that also only has one unique track. Whatever the logic, what matters is that absolutely everything released in mono is here. My most compulsive self rejoices.) It’s amazing to think of how successful this was in its time, given that it has zero tracks that have become Rolling Stones classics. There’s an alternate history where they were also-rans. I imagine that as I progress through this set, it’ll become clear when specifically that alternate history became untenable. I suspect it’s somewhere around Out Of Our Heads, but it might be sooner. I think my favourite track is probably their rendition of “Route 66,” which features a close to fully-formed sounding Keith Richards, and which also emphasizes the interplay between him and Brian Jones that makes the early recordings so great, and that they wouldn’t attain again until Ronnie Wood joined the band. In general, it’s not a classic, but it’s good fun, and if it had one track as good as “Please Please Me” it might stand up to the Beatles debut. Also, it seems like a missed opportunity to put “Now I’ve Got A Witness” before “Can I Get a Witness” in the running order. A minor point.

The Rolling Stones: 12×5 — I don’t know if I think this is an improvement on the first album or not. It has more originals but at this point Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are not anywhere near as good at writing songs as the R&B songwriters they cover. That’s ultimately what separates early Beatles from early Stones: on the early Beatles albums, you kind of wait out the covers in anticipation of the next Lennon/McCartney track. The same can’t be said of Jagger/Richards. Not yet. I’ll keep you posted about when in my perusal of the Stones mono box set I first encounter a classic track. This one almost has one in “Time is on My Side,” but it isn’t the more familiar version. Soon. I’ll take “Under the Boardwalk” as my favourite track, because it cracks open the window to an alternate version of Mick Jagger who honed his voice around an ideal of sweetness rather than grit. His instrument contains both facets, but only one could emerge victorious.

The Rolling Stones: The Rolling Stones No. 2 — Ah! We have a classic track. It’s the second version of “Time is on My Side.” That guitar intro makes it. I’m not sure if it’s just that I’m really starting to get into this mid-sixties shuffley rock feel after three albums, but this sounds like the point where the band really starts to swagger. “Down the Road Apiece” is a fabulous boogie track with the fantastic Ian Stewart on piano. Probably my favourite deep cut so far in the catalogue. Also, hearing the band that hasn’t yet written “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” do a song called “I Can’t Be Satisfied” is delicious. I suppose this is bit of a rarity, given that 12×5 was the “second album” of choice for the CD releases. But this is superior (and, by and large, a totally different album) to its American counterpart, owing to songs that were recorded a few months after the latest track on 12×5, which was rushed out to the American market before the hometown crowd got their second LP. Okay. Now onto the American album that’s got most of these same songs. What a befuddling discography.

The Rolling Stones: The Rolling Stones, Now! — At some point during this marathon, we were always going to have to address Mick Jagger’s fake black blues singer voice. It is very distasteful and it comes out in more explicit form in these early recordings than it does in the late 60s and early 70s classics. The influence is still there at that point, but it’s just that: an influence, not an impression. The spoken intro to “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” is the second-most egregious example of this that I’ve taken note of, aside from in “Goin’ Home” from Aftermath. Anyway. This is basically The Rolling Stones No. 2, but a bit better because it’s got “Heart of Stone” and “Little Red Rooster.” By this time, the Jagger/Richards songwriting team is starting to seem like it might amount to something after all. It’s the first album to have two acknowledged Stones classics on it (those two). At this point, each successive release is becoming increasingly solid and consistent. This is very much a “we’re nearly there” album. Also, it’s hard not to do a double-take hearing Mick Jagger sing the line “here come old flat top” in 1965. (It’s a Chuck Berry song. There was a lawsuit. Berry and Lennon settled out of court.)

The Rolling Stones: Out of Our Heads (U.S. version) — Here we have the most gigantic leap forward in the Stones discography with the possible exception of Satanic Majesties to Beggars Banquet, which wasn’t so much a leap forward as a total refocus. At long last, the originals match the calibre of the covers — mostly because the covers can’t really reflect the changes in contemporary music of the time, whereas Jagger and Richards have definitely been listening to Dylan. The folk influence and the baroque pop of “Play With Fire” (my favourite song in the catalogue up to this point) point forward to Aftermath. And “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” spelled out the death knell for the skiffle-influenced lilting rock and roll that was once the British Invasion’s default feel. There’s not a hint of anything so effete as “swing” in “Satisfaction.” Four to the goddamn floor. I don’t actually like it very much, but when you hear it in the context of the Rolling Stones’ full early discography, there’s no denying it’s a watershed moment. There’ll be hints of that old shuffle feel straight through the catalogue, but “Satisfaction” is the moment when you can hear that this band will eventually do “Brown Sugar” and “Street Fighting Man.” This is such a good album that I’m actually super glad the next thing in this mono box is a different version of it.

The Rolling Stones: Out of Our Heads (U.K. version) — The American labels’ habit of putting more singles on the albums than the British ones didn’t do the Beatles any favours — it just demoted some of their great album cuts. But the American Stones albums up to this point are often better, if only because the inclusion of the singles amps up the ratio of originals to covers, which by this time is a good thing. This British version of Out of Our Heads starts and finishes stronger than its American counterpart, with a blistering cover of “She Said Yeah” and Mick Jagger’s thesis statement “I’m Free.” But it doesn’t have “Play With Fire,” “The Spider and the Fly” or “Satisfaction,” which makes it feel less like a transition to the Stones’ classic period than just more of the same. Also, I always get a kick out of that moment in “I’m Free” where Charlie Watts suddenly loses track of the beat. It’s such a weird moment to make it to record.

The Rolling Stones: December’s Children (And Everybody’s) — Wow, that’s a very 60s title. It’s almost shocking really, from a band who always presented as the slightly chilly, cynical gadflies who wouldn’t follow the hippie trends for the sake of it. (This notion will disintegrate when we get to Satanic Majesties, about which my feelings are complicated.) It’s a mixed bag, containing tracks from a span of two years, and it doesn’t even try to cohere. However, it does contain two hitherto unheard tracks that stand out: the slightly mawkish but irresistible “As Tears Go By,” and the tremendous bolt of energy that is “Get Off of My Cloud.” This latter track is in my view a new high bar for the band. I don’t see the appeal of “The Singer Not the Song,” frankly. A relatively inessential part of the Stones’ rise.

The Rolling Stones: Aftermath (U.K. version) — Here we fucking go. This is so astronomically better than any previous Stones album it’s almost hard to believe. Exile On Main Street is the Stones album that’s most famously exploratory and sprawling, but Aftermath almost feels like a very early rehearsal for that. It’s almost twice as long as Out Of Our Heads, and five times as diverse. Presumably, this is the album that earned Brian Jones his reputation as the band’s sonic explorer: his dulcimer, organ, and koto playing pulls the band at last into the mid-sixties. Plus, this is the first album with no covers. It is the album where the Rolling Stones cement themselves as creators of original music. Alas, it is also the album where they take up the mantle of “massively problematic cultural institution.” (It’s possible that these two phenomena are not unrelated.) Right off the bat, we get “Mother’s Little Helper,” which has a guitar sound the like of which hasn’t been heard from this band before, and a great riff too. Also, it is is both sexist and dismissive of mental illness. Next up is “Stupid Girl,” one of the album’s lesser tracks, so its misogyny isn’t quite so hard to reconcile. Then comes “Under My Thumb,” and we’re three for three in the “dodgy attitudes towards women” category. Even “Lady Jane” presents a shameless cad as a romantic figure — though this last example is richer and more complex than the others. Jagger often reads as a parody of lunkheaded chauvinism from a modern perspective. “Lady Jane” is an unlikely prototype for “Tumbling Dice” in this way. And while it seems unlikely that Jagger is in on his own joke, “Lady Jane” has a barely perceptible whiff of insincerity about it that shields it from being quite as retrograde as “Under My Thumb.” And it isn’t just sexism that rears its head on Aftermath: Jagger’s borderline minstrel show vocal performance in “Goin’ Home” is one of the most embarrassing moments on any classic album. But I’m going to stop this now. The problems on Aftermath should be obvious to anybody with half a brain, and they shouldn’t be glossed over. But they are large flaws on a wonderfully inventive near-masterpiece of a record that is essential listening for anybody remotely interested in 60s rock music. If “Out of Time” doesn’t give you a huge charge, I don’t think there’s any hope that you’ll ever like this band. This is also the point where I can finally comment knowledgeably about the quality of the mono remasters that I’ve been listening to so far, having spun the stereo iTunes master many times. In general, I prefer the mono mixes, as is the case with the Beatles and basically all other music from this period and prior. But there are certain instances where the stereo mixes’ very artificial separation of instruments between the two channels highlights details that fall by the wayside here. Specifically, I like the way the fuzz bass on “Flight 505” comes out in the stereo mix better. There are other minor examples, but I still think the mono is the way to hear these records. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the next few sound in this format.

The Rolling Stones: Aftermath (U.S. version) — I don’t know why this was even included in the mono box. The American version of Aftermath is confounding: eleven minutes shorter, and missing some of its British counterpart’s best tracks. (What is Aftermath without “Out of Time?”) The only track unique to this version is “Paint It, Black,” which is admittedly a much better opening than “Mother’s Little Helper.” I am always surprised at how effective that track is considering the extent of its overexposure. “Paint It, Black” is still haunting. It may be the Rolling Stones track that depends the least on whether you actually like the Rolling Stones. Certainly, I remember loving this song before I acquired the taste. “I see a red door and I want it painted black” is a line so far above Mick Jagger’s statistical average that I don’t even know what to think. This is one of those rare songs where he seems to have gotten outside of himself. It’s a relief to not be listening to him sing about his lack of respect for women. Plus, the arrangement is killer: the sitar is the obvious point of attention, but the seven-note guitar line that comes midway through each verse (e.g. after “I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes) is the touch that really makes it. Aside from “Paint It, Black,” though, this is a hatchet job of the British Aftermath. For one thing, eliminating “Out of Time,” “Take It Or Leave It,” “What to Do” and “Mother’s Little Helper” (a musically outstanding song, in spite of its problems) means that a greater percentage of the album’s running time is taken up by “Goin’ Home.” If you’re going to eliminate eleven minutes of Aftermath, it should be these eleven. On one hand, I admire the Stones and their record labels for committing to a track this long and this formless. It’s a statement of ambition. But listening to a group of not very distinguished musicians jamming on a half-baked blues tune is not fun. Anyway, this version of Aftermath is a weird experience I won’t partake in again.

The Rolling Stones: Between the Buttons (U.K. version) — I might actually like this better than Aftermath. It is less sprawling, less adventurous, and ultimately less important to the band’s development. But it’s charming in a way that other Stones records aren’t. This is the album where the band’s posh side comes out, and is immediately subjected to lacerating satire. “Cool, Calm & Collected” has a music hall element that is more familiar as part of the Beatles’ sound. But where Paul McCartney inhabits that music naturally, Mick Jagger creeps around its edges and only ironically sticks the occasional toe in. Same goes for “Something Happened to Me Yesterday,” a song I don’t entirely understand my own affection for. (Though it might have something to do with Keith Richards’ first lead vocal performance. He is my favourite Stone by a mile, so maybe it’s a Pavlovian response.) Here is a music hall song that is seemingly about a drug trip. What the hell is that about? Anyway, “She Smiled Sweetly” is one of my very favourite Rolling Stones songs, and this album is fantastic. I will say, this is the rare album that I actually prefer the American version of. “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together” are among the band’s best singles (and their singles during this art pop period are unassailable) and they fit in well on this album and give a hooky jolt. I miss “Back Street Girl” on that version of the album, but “Please Go Home” isn’t much of a loss. Still, should’ve been “Yesterday’s Papers” that got the chopping block. It’s the album’s least exciting song, and the fact that it opens the British version might be the primary strike against that version. Also, this is astronomically better in mono. The stereo mix of Between the Buttons is super hacky.

The Rolling Stones: Flowers — I’d never heard this collection of singles and oddments for the American market before. On one hand, it’s hard to understand the necessity of another American disc containing “Ruby Tuesday” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together” so soon after Between the Buttons brought those same two songs to the States. But that’s a bit moot, because I frankly like this collection of songs better than either of the primary albums associated with the Stones’ art pop phase. (Yes, even better than Aftermath.) If I were to recommend one album from prior to the Stones’ imperial phase, this might well be it. It has everything: gorgeous acoustic ballads (“Ruby Tuesday,” “Back Street Girl”), spirited rock and roll (“Let’s Spend the Night Together”), weird quasi-psychedelia (“Mother’s Little Helper,” and the marvellous single “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing In the Shadow?”), credible R&B (“Out of Time,” a half-decent cover of “My Girl”) and a pair of Aftermath outtakes that would have been album highlights (“Ride On, Baby” and “Sittin’ on a Fence”). These last two were both songs I’d never heard before, and “Sittin’ on a Fence” strikes me as one of the great hidden gems of the Stones catalogue. Flowers is the best collection of songs from my second-favourite phase in this band’s career (after the classic early 70s albums). If only it had “19th Nervous Breakdown.” A note on the mono: “Have You Seen Your Mother Baby” is one of the rare tracks that I prefer in stereo. The mono version is an indiscernible mass of noise. Stereo separation, even too much of it, does it good.

The Rolling Stones: Their Satanic Majesties Request — This is an album that I’d like to be able to mount a more spirited defence of than I’m actually going to. This is the moment in the Rolling Stones’ career where they did outright psychedelia for one album, then immediately reverted to gritty rock and roll. Frankly, I think psychedelia is a fundamentally better kind of music than gritty rock and roll, and I wish the Stones were better at it than they are. But I agree with this album’s harshest critics that this is a moment where it didn’t pay for the Stones to leave their lane. The incremental experimentation of the albums before this did wonders for them. Much later, their flirtation with modern styles on Some Girls would work as well. But this album finds the Stones fundamentally altering their way of doing things. This is a sound collage as much as an album of songs, and that is not something this band excels at. Still, I don’t understand the critics who see this as a post-Pepper bandwagon jump, because this album has as much to do with Sgt. Pepper as it does with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens. Where Pepper was meticulous, this is loose and jangly. I have a taxonomy of psychedelia that I personally find useful: psychedelic albums are either “Peppers” or “Pipers,” the latter category named for Pink Floyd’s debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Peppers are meticulous, fussy and colourful. Pipers are messy, experimental and spontaneous. This album is very much a Piper. Also, it has some classic songs on it. “She’s a Rainbow” is straight up one of my favourite Stones songs, and “The Lantern” features the arrival of the dirty, simplistic guitar fills that I love Keith Richards for. “2000 Man” is fun too. The rest of the album is deeply unconvincing, but worth a listen just because of what an anomaly it is.

John Congleton and the Nighty Nite: Until the Horror Goes — Turns out this is still awesome. I went so hot and cold on this last year that I remember having a small crisis about whether to put it on my year-end list at all. (I did, and placed it very high.) Sometimes I think it’s a bit adolescent in its worldview, i.e. nothing has meaning. But in a world as horrifying as the one we’re currently living in, it feels more comedic than it used to. I hereby renounce my reservations. This is one of the best albums of the decade.

Podcasts

Reply All: “Is That You, KD?” — After last week’s reported story, they deserve a Yes Yes No double-header. Hearing Alex Blumberg explain something to P.J. Vogt and Alex Goldman for a change is delightful.

On The Media: “After Vegas” & “More Human Than Human” — Brooke Gladstone’s post-crisis reality checks are always appreciated, and this week’s full episode touches on the Las Vegas shooting, country music, and Blade Runner. Terrible weeks are often good weeks to listen to On The Media.

The Daily: Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017 & Friday, Oct. 6, 2017 — I tuned in to catch up on Las Vegas and Harvey Weinstein. The world is bad.

The Outline World Dispatch: “Google’s algorithm & AI’s heritage” — This podcast is good for daily tech news. It’s also really wise not to try and compete with The Daily or NPR’s Up First (which I’ve never heard and don’t feel like I need to hear) by actually covering the major stories. I should listen more, and I may yet do so.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Battle of the Sexes and What’s Making Us Happy,” “The Princess Bride And Remembering Tom Petty” & “Blade Runner 2046” — Three fun episodes. I must say, the transition to a bi-weekly schedule has not at all blunted my love for this show, the dynamic of which is still the most amiable in the pop culture panel show space. The retrospective on The Princess Bride is especially strong.

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “Level Up” — This story about sound design in video games was something I wanted in my life at this specific moment, and it’s good fun. It’s particularly fun to hear the elements of a game’s soundscape isolated into foley, environments, voices and music.

The Gist: “Facebook’s Data Monopoly” — I will be reading Franklin Foer’s book as soon as I damn well can. This interview is a good companion to his piece in the Atlantic adapted from the book, because Mike Pesca asks challenging questions.

Radiolab: “Driverless Dilemma” — At the start of this episode, Jad apologizes for how over-the-top the sound design in the old episode they play is. I like that old version of Radiolab better, honestly. I wish they’d still do that sometimes. This is a quite terrifying update of a story about the trolley problem, in which it seems that self-driving cars will constantly be subjected to the trolley problem and will likely tend to sacrifice the life of the rider rather than the several potential victims outside of the car. Scary stuff, and good stuff too.

More Perfect: Season two, episodes 1-3 — I have consistently been enjoying More Perfect more than Radiolab for the last two years. This season’s opening salvo is powerful stuff, particularly in the second episode, which focusses on a terrible decision just before the Civil War that introduced legal language that continues to define the state of race relations in the United States to this day. Looking forward to more.

Fresh Air: “The Platinum Age of TV” — This interview with Fresh Air’s own TV critic David Bianculli is surprisingly personal, and very good. Bianculli has one of the great critic stories about why this medium means something to him. His mother died when he was very young, and in the worst stages of his illness, she took refuge in the rise of the Kennedys. When J.F.K. was assassinated, she was asleep. Bianculli’s father bade him to remove the TV from her room and take it into his. She couldn’t know the news until the whole family was there to help her deal with it. In the meantime, Bianculli watched news coverage of the Kennedy assassination in his room, alone. The power of this medium made itself clear very early in his life. This is lovely stuff.

Omnibus (week of Sept. 24, 2017)

Only 12 reviews, because again I watched half a season of Battlestar Galactica. I am now finished Battlestar Galactica. I have thoughts. Read on.

Movies

Pearl Jam: Let’s Play Two — I have a friend who’s really into Pearl Jam. You can read about that here. I am not a Pearl Jam fan, but to a certain extent I have cultivated the ability to appreciate other people’s obsessions by osmosis. What I jerk I’d be if I hadn’t! Many of my favourite musicians, filmmakers and writers are the sorts of artists who alienate general audiences while playing to a fervent cult of devotees (see Terry Gilliam, China Miéville, Rush). Far be it from me to judge my fellow anoraks. Devotion to these kinds of artists runs deeper than devotion to universally acclaimed artists. Other people not liking the thing you love makes that thing seem more specifically aimed at you. Pearl Jam doesn’t fit this category as comfortably as, say, Rush, who have had scorn heaped on them by critics and casual listeners alike. But they do strike me as a band that breeds obsession in a large few more so than casual enthusiasm in a small many. Being on the outside of this fandom, I would never have enjoyed this on my own. But with Sachi, I could possibly watch it the way I sometimes watch sports: cluelessly, but with a vicarious sense of somebody else’s enthusiasm. Sometimes that’s enough. Also, Sachi is the person responsible for my only recently abating obsession with Doctor Who. You never know. Pearl Jam might be the next thing. Probably not, I figured. I was basically right. My sports analogy above is less figurative than it might seem, seeing as how watching this concert documentary entails watching quite a lot of baseball, and moreover quite a lot of watching Eddie Vedder watch baseball. The premise of the film is that Pearl Jam’s 2016 concert at Wrigley Field was a major event in Chicago’s cultural life, given that it happened during the course of the Cubs’ first triumphant World Series in over a century. It interleaves footage from the concert with documentary footage about the Cubs’ miraculous year, Vedder’s longstanding devotion to the team, and the overlap between Pearl Jam’s Chicago-based fandom (who regard Vedder as a hometown hero) and Cubs fans. It’s a bit contrived. There’s a thesis statement in there somewhere about unconditional devotion, but it gets buried beneath a pile of tenuous connections and thematic leaps. On the other hand, the concert footage is beautifully shot, and finds the band giving a super-energized performance. I have no idea if this is just normal for them or if they really pulled out the stops for a show that was meant to be special (and that they knew would become a permanent document). I knew none of these songs going in (I’d heard a couple but that’s not the same) and I left with a couple of distinct favourites and a vague memory of bunch of other stuff that all blended together into a passionate, energetic rock ‘n’ roll blur. The distinct favourites were “Go,” a near-metal track with an infectious heavy riff and some serious shredding from Mike McCready, and “Better Man,” a ballad that begins with uncharacteristic delicacy and has a bittersweet chorus where the major-key openness of the music clashes with the sad resignation of the lyrics. These are good songs. So is “Corduroy,” with its wordless singalong outro. Love me a good wordless singalong outro. I have not been converted to the church of Pearl Jam. But I suppose I get it a little more now. Baseball, on the other hand, continues to befuddle me.

Music

The Mountain Goats: All Hail West Texas — The second album in my Mountain Goats journey after The Sunset Tree. This has some outstanding songs on it, particularly “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” which is one of those beautiful-fantasy-meets-unpleasant-reality stories that I seem to love so much. It’s the specificity that makes it: this song is about two very particular kids with a very particular dream for their future. This is what is good about these songs in general. The note on the front cover gives as accurate a sense of what the music is like as any prose description could: “fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys.” The songs in general are character songs and story songs in the vein of the Decemberists, but without that band’s whimsy and artifice. Where Colin Meloy’s lyrics caper and prance, John Darnielle’s simply tread quickly and frequently turn corners. This difference resonates with Darnielle’s choice of an aggressively D.I.Y. aesthetic: where the Decemberists’ story songs are clothed in elaborate arrangements full of bouzouki and accordion, Darnielle simply recorded this whole album (minus the cheap keyboard construction “Blues in Dallas”) with an acoustic guitar and a Panasonic boom box. It is probably the most aggressively lo-fi thing I have ever actually enjoyed. And that’s all because the songs themselves are so fussily constructed. It is both easier and more essential to focus on the lyrics of this album than it is on The Sunset Tree, because there is nothing else of note going on. Frankly I find that a bit exhausting and I need to listen again to register the four or five songs that just slipped past me altogether. But I liked this. I don’t think there’s anything on it that I like as much as “Up the Wolves” or “Dilaudid,” but it won me over in spite of being a type of album that I pathologically do not like, namely an unprofessional-sounding one.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: The Face of the Enemy, Season 4.5 and The Plan(A reminder that I don’t do paragraph breaks on this site, even though I should. Here is an alternative for you.) Let me say two things. Firstly, I think that the fourth season of Battlestar Galactica is on balance the weakest one. Secondly, this has nothing to do with the way that the story ended. (Spoilers ahoy, and do bear this in mind because you need to watch Battlestar Galactica. It is one of the best shows ever. And it is definitely something I think is best viewed unspoilt.) I really liked the ending of Battlestar Galactica, probably for many of the same reasons why others hate it. I’ll cop to a certain perversity that leads me to feel this way about virtually every controversial TV finale, from Lost to How I Met Your Mother. But before we get to everything I love about BSG’s final salvo, let’s touch on what sucks about season four. (I’ll deal with the whole season, though this week’s viewing only accounts for the latter half.) The biggest problem with season four is that it follows up the biggest pair of twists the show has ever dealt (Starbuck’s resurrection and the reveal of four of the final five Cylons) with a series of time-biding miniature story arcs that hinder the show’s forward momentum. BSG saunters, rather than hurtles towards its ending. The first offender is the Demitrius plotline, in which an increasingly crazed Starbuck searches for Earth in a sewage tanker with an increasingly mutinous crew. Mad prophet isn’t a good look for Starbuck. I don’t see why she couldn’t have been made to face her destiny with a leveller head and a continuing penchant for self-destruction. And this went on for eight, long episodes. And if spiritual enlightenment looks weird on Starbuck, it looks perversely terrible on Gaius Baltar — terrible to the point that I actually think it was a really interesting end state for the character. But the road to that point leads through some very rocky scenes of Baltar with a harem of extremely dumb female acolytes. I suppose that a large crew of unquestioningly devoted young women would be the sort of thing that would facilitate enlightenment for Baltar, but this development strains credulity in a way that certain more controversial reveals do not. Baltar’s ascension from loathed, treasonous turncoat to revered holy man seems like it happens by showrunner fiat sometime during the writing of the season three finale. We didn’t get to see how his followers came to worship him and find each other: by the time we meet them, they’re already organized enough to rescue and shelter Baltar after the trial. Without more background on who they are and why they feel the way they do, none of this makes any sense to me at all. It doesn’t help that Head Six vanishes for a long stretch of this plotline. Baltar’s not interesting without Head Six, regardless of what she is. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. And then there’s Gaeta’s uprising. Completionist that I am, I watched the Gaeta-focussed web series The Face of the Enemy in its proper place in the narrative. My heart bleeds for those who did not, since Felix Gaeta’s character arc is hard enough to sympathize with even having seen this essential bit of context. It’s hard to credit the transformation of one of the show’s most mild-mannered — compromising, even — characters into an extremist. I get that losing his leg took a serious toll. But this, as much as Baltar’s deification, strikes me as an example of BSG not remaining true to its characters. More than that, however, I object to Tom Zarek’s role in the uprising. This character has always been a bit troublesome, as he falls straight into the trope of idealistic revolutionaries being completely self-serving under the mask. This plot arc provides him with his most direct route to power yet — leveraging the fleet’s hate and resentment for their new Cylon allies. Any shred of principles that might have previously existed and made the character interesting are gone once Zarek allies with Gaeta. Speaking of that scene, it features some of the series’ most ham-fisted writing: “People know something has to be done. The world is frakked. It’s upside down and somebody’s gotta turn it right side up.” Do furtive revolutionary conversations like this ever actually rely on such overdramatic generalities, I wonder? You get the idea. It’s an uneven season. But at its best, it draws on all of the elements that made the first three seasons of the show great. (Yes, all three. I’m not sure season three isn’t my favourite.) Something I’ve always appreciated about Battlestar Galactica is that, for a show about a war with robots who are indistinguishable from humans, it does not really dive into the well of “what it means to be human.” (This is good because Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing has already had the last word on that subject in genre fiction.) The Cylons have never taunted the humans with the prospect that they are in some way “the same.” In fact, possibly the greatest broad masterstroke of this series has been making the Cylons explicitly distinct from humans: a separate culture, defined by their differences from the humans whose form they take. I can understand why most viewers prefer the first two seasons of this show, because it is governed by the tension implicit in not knowing who’s a Cylon. (And I confess, I thoroughly enjoyed the trips back to that era of the show offered in Razor and especially The Plan.) But the main thrust of the last two seasons is equally interesting for close to the opposite reason. Where the first two seasons rely on the uncanny similarity between Cylons and humans as its narrative engine, the latter two relies on establishing the unique culture, mythology and spirituality of the Cylons as a species unto themselves. Season four doubles down on this distinction in Saul Tigh’s storyline. Tigh has always strained credulity ever so slightly, because it’s hard to believe that somebody as competent as Bill Adama would place so much trust in somebody as incompetent as Tigh. Nonetheless, he’s always been one of my favourites because of his loyalty — which is presumably the one thing he’s got going for him. Tigh’s decision to continue living as what he’s always considered himself to be, a colonial officer, after learning he’s a Cylon emphasizes the show’s general feeling that you are what you think you are — the culture in which you find yourself has more bearing on your identity than any nebulous fundamental category like human or Cylon. And cylon culture is a foreign concept to Tigh. The other four of the final five don’t walk such a straight path, but there’s an argument to be made that the reason for that is less that they don’t feel human than simply that they feel unsafe in a way that Tigh doesn’t. Considering that this is the season that features an uneasy alliance between humans and cylons, it does a lot of work to maintain this fundamental cultural distinction between the two societies. Much of this comes down to the Galactica itself, and its contrast with the Cylon basestar that now travels with the fleet. There was never a moment in this show where I ceased to marvel at the set design of the basestar interior. While the deliberately disorienting editing of the early scenes in this setting gradually faded as we became familiar with it, the captivating strangeness of the liquid-based interface and the cascading projections of red characters never failed to make me feel uneasy. Of course, the thing that makes the Cylons unsettling is their uncanny organicism in spite of being machines. This follows through into their technology: think of the raiders that splat into messes of blood and meat when they’re hit, or the humanoid figure in a tub that powers the basestar. The Cylons’ tech is more “human” than the humans’ is, and that makes it uncanny and inhuman. This is why the plotline about Galactica breaking down and being repaired with organic Cylon goo is my favourite thing in the leadup to the finale. As a story idea, the notion of the end of Galactica as we know it is the only thing in the final episodes that really feels like a story that belongs in a series’ final stretch. From the very beginning, it was the Galactica’s resolutely analogue setup that kept it safe. The fact that it is a blunt, dumb chunk of metal, subject entirely to the whims of the people who control it made it a symbol of humanity, because it is beholden to humanity. The Cylons, by contrast, cannot even trust their basestar not to jump light years away unexpectedly, due to the unpredictable nature of the hybrid. Watching Galactica gradually turn into a semi-organic ship with living tissues holding its frame together and a hybridized Sam Anders plugged into the CIC is the most perverse thing the show has ever done. It feels like the end of an era for the characters, and that gives the last few episodes the gravity they need. It’s worth noting that the basestar, with its touch interfaces and unpredictable AI core in the form of the hybrid, feels much more like modern computer technology than Galactica does. 21st-century humans arguably have as much in common with the Cylons as we do with the humans of the fleet. And that is what makes the finale’s epilogue so convincing. Far more than when it aired in 2008, we are living in a world where BSG’s technology doesn’t seem farfetched. But it’s not because of the robots we build, like the ones shown in the final montage set to Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower.” It’s because we are living in a state of increasing symbiosis with machines that are increasingly artificially intelligent. We’re not building Cylons. We’re becoming them. It may prove to be a distinction without a difference. Okay, so we’ve come to it. The ever-contentious finale of Battlestar Galactica. The episode where the show’s primary remaining mysteries — the resurrection of Starbuck and the nature of Head Six and Head Baltar — are resolved by revealing that they are all angels. Truthfully, I don’t even feel like this development actually requires any justification. It is so totally in keeping with the show’s general attitude towards spirituality and esoteric beliefs that I actually find it genuinely shocking how many people think it’s a cop out. BSG has always traded on visions and premonitions as a key part of its story. And it has never made any effort to rationalize these away — there’s no tenable way to believe that, for instance, Roslin’s visions are mere drug hallucinations, when they inevitably come true. The presence of angels in the universe of this show is entirely in keeping with the rest of it. God is canon in Battlestar Galactica, and always has been. I can understand how fans of big, militaristic sci-fi shows might wish for a more rational explanation. Like maybe Baltar is insane with remorse for his treachery and Head Six is the hallucination he’s conjured to punish himself. To me that’s the province of more pedestrian shows, like Dexter. (By the way, if there’s one controversial finale I will not defend, it is Dexter’s. That was bullshit.) Also Fight Club. But more to the point, the show has firmly established that there’s a real supernatural element that lives alongside all of the classic SF trappings. Why resort to banal rationality to clue up a mystery? Surely if there’s ever been a narrative that justifies a deus ex machina ending — the most literal one since Ancient Greece — it’s Battlestar Galactica. In my view, the controversy surrounding this ending is the result of a misreading of the entire series that preceded it. Battlestar Galactica season four is the show in microcosm: flawed, weird, enormously ambitious, and dazzling. When all’s said and done, BSG is one of the crowning glories of its medium. Finally: “And you think there’s some kind of meaning in these musical notes,” says Adama. “I dunno,” replies Starbuck, “I’m just groping, mostly. Looking for patterns, trying to see what comes to me.” Remind me to make this the epigraph of the book about Rush I’m eventually going to write. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc.

Stephen King: The Waste Lands — I’m exactly halfway through. So far, it’s easily my favourite of the first three Dark Tower novels. The Gunslinger existed primarily to introduce Roland and his quest. The Drawing of the Three existed primarily to do the same for a small cast of supporting characters. (Though it told a damn good yarn along the way.) But The Waste Lands is the first novel in the series to really feel like it’s focussed on pushing the series’ larger narrative substantially forward. Structurally, this first half of the book has been less contrived than the first two, which are both organized into distinct set pieces, and which both wear their structures on their sleeves. There are no three doors in The Waste Lands — just a natural succession of strange and unpredictable story events. I will say this: my favourite sequence in The Dark Tower so far is still the bit of The Drawing of the Three that focusses on Eddie. This one hasn’t quite hit that standard yet, but if it keeps pace it’ll be better than the second novel on average. Will report back.

Podcasts

The Daily: Monday, Sept. 25, 2017 — This is a great summary of the background behind the N.F.L. protests, which is something I needed because as a non-sports person, I am missing most of the context.

This American Life: “White Haze” — Zoe Chace is maybe the best producer on this show right now. She is so good at talking to people who are obviously horrible and trying to actually understand them. Her look at the Proud Boys (even the name makes me shudder) in this episode is fascinating. Pick of the week.

Criminal: “The Gatekeeper” — Criminal’s true story about fictional crime stories. It’s an interview with the New York Times Book Review’s crime columnist about what attracts her to this genre. She’s fun.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Movie Roundup: The LEGO Ninjago Movie, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, And Mother!” — I’m with Linda Holmes on mother! Glen Weldon is frustrated by how Darren Aronofsky is explaining away all of the ambivalence in his weird movie. I sympathize, because as I said in my review, allegories are banal. But I do think there’s one layer of this movie that Weldon hasn’t gotten to, which is the incredibly arch layer that casts doubt on the validity of the allegory at all. I made an addendum to my review of mother! while I listened to this. The original review ended: “It’s entirely possible that I’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole in my attempts to justify the ways of Aronofsky to man. The real truth is just that I enjoyed the hell out of this movie, and I want it to be more than a banal Biblical allegory. In any case, mother! is completely bonkers crazy and you’ll probably feel a little cracked at the end. Good enough for me.” I added this, in response to Weldon’s remarks: “BTW when I used the phrase “justify the ways of Aronofsky to man” in the last paragraph of this I was paraphrasing Paradise Lost which draws a connection to Aronofsky’s own Biblical allusions and by explaining that here like this I am doing the same thing Aronofsky’s been doing when he for some reason explains all of the symbolism in his weird movie and I am doing it in the context of an ostensibly comedic rhetorical device which is what this movie is. God am I ever a genius.” I dunno what I was on about there. Maybe I’ve lost the plot.

On the Media: “OTM live at the Texas Tribune Festival” — Two interviews, one with a pair of journalists, one with a pair of politicians, both on the topic of how Trump’s lack of regard for the truth affects the way they do their job. Worth checking out.

Code Switch: “Befuddled by Babies, Love And Ice Pops? Ask Code Switch” — This show is doing an advice segment now, which is good because they are rather excellent at sorting through complex stuff. The segment about tensions between the families of a soon-to-be-married couple, over the cultural representation in the ceremony, has got some solid advice.

Mogul: “Mogul Live!” — Mogul’s victory lap has officially outstayed its welcome. It is one of the best shows of the year, but these bonus episodes are starting to feel thin. This live show is too long by half.

99% Invisible: “Ponte City Tower” — This is about the changing perception of one particular high rise in Johannesburg after apartheid. It’s nice. Also, I have to say, I quite admire the elegant way this show has started incorporating midroll ads (the kind of ads that happen in the middle of an episode as opposed to at the start or end — they are more profitable for podcasters). They air the story in one piece like always, then throw an extra bit after the ads. Clever, and unobtrusive.

Omnibus (week of Sept. 17, 2017)

Well hi. Here’s the link to the latest segment on CBC Radio, in which I discuss the slippery notion of “creative beginnings.” Also, if you listen really closely you can hear my quarter-life crisis humming in the background. Fun! I’m at 1:21:19.

23 reviews. The classic number of reviews. (I think there’s been 23 more than any other number of reviews.)

Games

Everything — Not long after I posted my last, very satisfied review of this, I finished the section of the game that apparently constitutes the tutorial. Well then. It’s a clever structural tactic, actually: once all of the game’s mechanics are introduced, Everything beckons you back to the place where you started: an oddly shaped golden gate that you can now actually enter into. It leads to an inescapable prison, where every object is miserable and solipsistic. But if you’ve been paying attention to Alan Watts’ proto-hippie voiceover lectures, you’ll know that they’ve all got the wrong idea. They don’t realize that everything is everything else. This is the one part of the game so far that presents a clear objective: escape. And of course, you can do so by using the mechanics you’ve learned already, in a neat bit of symmetry with the more abstract set of realizations the game takes for granted that you’ve internalized. Once you escape, you’re treated to a very late-90s cinematic that has the feel of an ending, but which culminates in the words “Welcome to Everything.” Because a game like Everything can’t have something so banal as an ending. The object of the game is to explore, and that’s not an objective that can be deemed complete by anybody save for the player. Another note: this game has a highly customizable autoplay mode that takes over when you stop playing, basically rendering it a deeply contemplative screensaver. This is far more satisfying than you might think. I let Everything play on its own while I made lunch today, and I saw more of it than I probably would had I been in control that whole time. So if you’re playing this, don’t discount that mode. Put it on while you’re reading, or something. If I had a television in addition to this damned laptop, Everything might make nice ambience for the apartment. I’ve never seen anything like Everything before. In a sense it’s staggeringly ambitious — a game that illustrates the whole of creation. But in another, it’s a pleasantly modest and quirky little confection that can take the edge off if you’re stressed out. I’ve come to like it a whole lot.

Television

Battlestar Galactica: Razor, Razor Flashbacks & Season 4.0 — BSG is not so much a show as a hole you fall down. This week I fell down the hole. For clarity: I watched the TV movie Razor, the series of short webisodes Razor Flashbacks and the first half of the fourth season, officially known as Season 4.0 (as opposed to 4.5, which is next week’s project). I understand I’m a season and a half into the part of the show that people think isn’t good. I only halfway understand that. Seasons two and three are in my view equally patchy, with the high points of season three being among the most staggering episodes in the series. So far, this is holding up that pattern. Razor and its largely redundant flashbacks are not among the show’s finest hours, but it’s fun to see the events of a fascinating moment in the show’s timeline through an unfamiliar perspective. I can imagine that it might have been frustrating on original transmission, seeing how it has very little to do with the enormous cliffhanger of the season three finale. But from a binge-watching perspective, it’s exactly what the show needs at this moment: a reprieve from the acceleration of the show towards its much-prophesied endpoint, and a trip back to the simpler times of mid-season two. As for the season itself, it feels creaky at times, but only to the same extent as the last two seasons. Occasionally there’ll be a joke that falls flat or a line that doesn’t make sense. “It’s time to take a stand. And that time is now,” Baltar says at one point. Half of that line shouldn’t have made it to the shooting script. But then, Baltar is getting to be the show’s biggest problem. He was fun at first, and I enormously enjoyed the arc that led him from the presidency to the trial of the century. But as a prophet, and an increasingly sincere one at that, he’s less fun. The spiritual element of Battlestar Galactica has always been my favourite thing about it. The collision of political power, military might and religious devotion that fuels this show’s large-scale conflicts are starting to feel increasingly like a far more interesting (and earlier) version of what Game of Thrones is at its best. But having Baltar at the centre of it strikes me as a bit arbitrary — just something new for him to do. (Also, where has Head Six been these last few episodes? She vanished like Lear’s fool as soon as Baltar took the lead of his cult. Will she be back? I sure hope so.) I don’t really have much more to say about this in general. Only specific gripes like the fact that I’m not especially happy to see Lampkin back. He was overbearing at best during the trial arc, and he’s even more tediously gothic in “Sine Qua Non,” a nonsense episode of television. I’ll resist the impulse to generalize until next week, by which time I’ll surely be done this.

Literature, etc.

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale (audiobook) — The genius of this, both in terms of the book itself and this audiobook adaptation, doesn’t become entirely clear until very near the end. Spoilers ahoy. In my view, the thing that makes the main body of The Handmaid’s Tale great is its worldbuilding and the beauty of its prose, more so than its story. The story is perfectly fine, and it’s cleverly parsed out in a smattering of recollections of times past among the present-day narrative. But in my head I can’t stop comparing it to later Atwood novels like Oryx and Crake and especially The Blind Assassin which just rocket along with one twist and turn after another, and this is a much less dense book than either of those. But the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale, which takes place at a conference years later, at which the text of the narrative you’ve just read is examined as a factual, in-universe document from a bygone time, kicks what was a good book up to near-masterpiece territory. Hearing a professor jocularly question the veracity of the whole narrative thus far — thereby failing to learn from the lessons of history in the way he explicitly deems necessary — is perverse in the extreme. As much of a narrative rug pull as this surely is in print (I’ve never read the book in its original form), it’s even cleverer in this audio adaptation, where the final chapter makes good on the ad copy’s promise of a “full cast.” These historians unearthed Offred’s narrative in the form of audio, which is precisely what we audiobook listeners have just experienced. The very limited sound design elements at the start of each part of the book are suddenly explained as the sound of Offred taping over what was once a mixtape. The producers of this audiobook managed to turn it into a (very minimalistic) radio play, without really needing to change anything. If you’ve been meaning to finally read this, or re-read it in light of recent events (Atwood’s afterword for this audiobook edition, written this year, details some of her thoughts on the book’s new relevance in the Trump era), you should consider the audiobook. Claire Danes’s reading of Offred’s story will ring in your head long after the credits roll. Pick of the week.

China Miéville: October — This was more of a slog than I’d expected. Miéville is one of the most virtuosic writers alive, but his mandate to tell the story of the Russian Revolution as straightforwardly as he can leaves him hog-tied, with none of his usual structural ingenuity to rely on. His clinical prose never quite gives the impression that we’re talking about a turning point in history, and his fascination with the minutia of party in-fighting causes whole chapters to pass by without much of interest. I understand why Miéville made some of the choices he did. If he’d written in more ornamented prose, he’d run the risk of producing something close to Soviet kitsch. And if he’d chosen to focus on the narratives of individuals, as many nonfiction writers do to lend a human dimension to cataclysmic events, he’d be implicitly denying the grassroots reality of the revolution. The only characters in this who really come alive on the page are Lenin and Kerensky, and I’d still like to have gotten into their heads a little more. It seems to me that Miéville set himself an impossible challenge with this book. I respect him for trying, but I don’t believe he produced the history that he intended to.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Emmy Awards 2017” & “Fall Movie Preview” — I missed this year’s Emmys. Doesn’t sound like much happened. The coverage of this makes me realize how much I need to watch Atlanta, which is seemingly the consensus pick for “thing that deserved better.” As for the fall movie preview, I can’t honestly say that any of this sounds especially interesting to me. The nearest movie that I’m super excited for is Isle of Dogs and that’s not out until March.

The Daily: Sept. 18 & 20, 2017 — The September 20th episode, breaking down Trump’s address to the U.N. is actually still worth a listen even this long after the fact. I actually feel regret that I can’t find time for this every day. It is an astonishing undertaking.

Fresh Air: “Hillary Rodham Clinton” — This is worth hearing even (especially?) if you are not fond of her. Terry Gross takes the opportunity to address her previous interview with Clinton, which was taken advantage of by right wing interests to undermine Clinton in the eyes of her base. This event, which predates the heat of the 2016 campaign, now seems like a prophecy.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix” Björk, Neil Young, Burial, Kelela, More” — I am so out of the loop about the year’s new music, and that is mostly because I haven’t been listening to this. Still, new music by Björk is reason to tune in. That’s a funny thing to say, isn’t it? Since I can hear that music in many other places that are also free. But I still like to hear new tracks on this show first, because I know it’ll also introduce me to stuff I wouldn’t have otherwise heard. Neil Young’s Hitchhiker was always something I was going to hear. (I am still technically planning to hear all of his albums in chronological order, but that project has been on a long hiatus because I’m not in the mood.) But having heard this gorgeous acoustic version of “Powderfinger,” which in defiance of Robin Hilton I will happily say is at least in my top three Neil Young songs, I clearly need to hear the album very soon.

The Gist: “The Frat Doesn’t Have Your Back” — As an alumnus of two Canadian universities, I have no idea why American students are so taken in by frats and sororities. This episode about racism in frats only surprised me during the bits where it outlined some of the reasons frats are not terrible.

The Heart: “Bodies: Goddess” — The “Bodies” mini-season concludes with an episode about the poet Maria R. Palacios, whose work deals with her body: she uses a wheelchair as a result of childhood polio. This mini-season has been a solid continuation of The Heart’s best year yet.

99% Invisible: “The Finnish Experiment” — Universal basic income from a design perspective. This is essential listening for anybody curious about how this whole thing might work. The short answer is that nobody knows. But this will tell you about the people who are trying to figure it out who you should be keeping tabs on.

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “Watergate” — It’s been ages since I listened to this show, but the idea of them doing a sound-focussed political story interested me. This is the story of how recording technology in the Nixon White House became so much a part of the scenery that it led to the president’s downfall. Fun stuff.

Longform: Reply All two-parter — These two interviews with the hosts of Reply All are among the most fascinating documents of the world of podcasting that I’ve heard. I’d argue that Reply All, more so than StartUp, is the show that made Gimlet Media an institution. It is an ongoing classic, and a thing that couldn’t really exist if not for podcasting. It is a seamless integration of This American Life-style reported storytelling with the sort of loose chatter that’s native to podcasting. These interviews highlight how both sides of that coin came together. They go into detail on the story development process of the show’s six-person team (I can hardly believe this show is made by only six people) and they also shed light on how Vogt and Goldman’s rapport developed. This is fascinating stuff. Reply All is eminently deserving of a two-hour peek behind the curtain.

Constellations: “adriene lilly – migraines & tsunamis” & “michelle macklem – ode to my last 10 years of dating” — Here is a new podcast dedicated to boundary pushing, sound art-adjacent radio. In other words, it may be the medium’s saviour. Time will tell. Of these first two I’ve heard, “migraines & tsunamis” is the standout. It is a marvellous collage that deals with two very distinct, but oddly analogous kinds of pain. I want more like this from the podcast space. I will be listening to this one closely.

Code Switch: “A Weed Boom, But For Whom?” — A fascinating look into how the oncoming post-legalization weed boom will likely mostly help white people. Also, a fascinating look at the pre-history of the drug war, which predates Nixon by decades.

Reply All: “At World’s End” — A two-story episode focussed on Newgrounds. Remember Newgrounds? What a cesspool. I recall it with fondness.

Theory of Everything: “Concrete and Respect (Wisconsin part I of II)” — This is so great. It’s co-produced by Mathilde, who is the episode announcer on the show, and Benjamen Walker’s wife. (I cannot find a reliable spelling of her last name on the internet, otherwise I’d give it.) The two of them and their young son Arthaud head off to Wisconsin for a family vacation to see some weird art and talk to people who aren’t politically aligned with them. They’re a family with an unorthodox idea of fun. But Mathilde brings a well-read thoughtfulness to this show that’s different from Walker’s trademark informed paranoia. She’s been reading Tocqueville lately, and it deeply influences her take on what she sees. I love this. It’s a great example of what makes this show totally different from anything else out there. Pick of the week.

Imaginary Worlds: “Worldbuilding With Music” — Weird episode. A guy from a band got in touch with Eric Molinsky to suggest an episode on concept albums, which is a great idea. But this focusses mostly on that band, which is yet to release their first EP. And by all indications here, it doesn’t sound that great. I would have loved to hear from Del the Funky Homosapien, Neil Peart, and maybe Tony Visconti, or somebody else who worked with Bowie on Ziggy Stardust. I guess they’re hard to get in touch with. But something like that would have been great.

StartUp: “An Announcement from StartUp and Introducing The Nod” — The announcement that StartUp will be devoted specifically to serialized seasons from here on out is EXTREMELY welcome. Guess I won’t drop this show after all. And the episode of The Nod that they play here is great: it’s a fashion-focussed episode and I still liked it, which means it must be very compelling storytelling. I should listen to this show more often.

Nocturne: “Shortboard” — I feel like I need some new podcasts in my life. This one has been coming up in the New York Times podcast club Facebook group, so I figured I’d give it a go. I’m a fan — though this particular episode could almost be Love and Radio. The premise of the show is just, stories that happen at night. That’s a promising premise, although I generally don’t listen to podcasts at night, so I might have trouble being in the mood for it. Still, always nice to find a new show that’s good.

Showcase from Radiotopia: “Ways of Hearing #6 – NOISE” — This final episode of Ways of Hearing is one of the strongest. It details how digital instruments are noiseless, and how layering them thus loses the noisy richness of analogue recording. It finishes with a slightly forced attempt to link the concepts of signal and noise to every other episode of the show, but prior to that, it’s good stuff. I had high hopes for this series, and it didn’t really even come close. But when it was at its most insightful, it was really good.

Radiolab: “Oliver Sipple” — This is an overall pretty good story about a guy who saved the president’s life and then had all of his privacy and his family taken away from him by the press, who seized on the fact that he was gay. The story has two weak points: one, nobody involved really tries that hard to litigate the central conflict in the story which is whether or not the public actually had a right to know about Sipple’s sexuality. This is the sort of conflict that Radiolab used to thrive on, and it comes and goes in about 30 seconds here. The other problem is that the story starts with original interview tape of the attempted assassin that Sipple stopped. She never reappears. I have no idea why this was necessary for the story, aside from to shock and titillate us with the notion that we’re hearing from that person. There’s some great archival tape in this, though.

On the Media: “Trust Issues” — A really good one. The highlights are a particularly persuasive argument that government deregulation of tech giants has led to us being “governed” by private companies, and another conversation on how a code of ethics might come into effect in Silicon Valley. It also contains a not too confrontational (but confrontational enough) conversation with the guy who runs Gab, the free speech absolutist, conservative dominated social platform. In their now infamous post-election day episode, the hosts of OTM talked about how they’d need to find a new paradigm for the show, the same way they had to when Obama was elected. I think the close examination of social media might be a viable new paradigm for this show. Certainly it’s the only one that seems to understand it at all.

Omnibus (week of Aug. 19, 2017)

A normal week once again. A bit smaller than usual, I guess. But I honestly quite enjoyed the media detox I went through in Newfoundland. Might try to cut back a bit. We’ll see if that sticks. 14 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Stephen King: The Drawing of the Three — You know, I didn’t realize how much I missed reading page-turners. I’ve been reading mostly nonfiction and “literature” (or at least ambitious genre fiction) for so long that I nearly forgot the pleasure of reading something where the prose and story structure is custom made so that the pages fly by. Two books in, it’s pretty clear to me why Stephen King is such a phenomenon, because I’ve read two books in two weeks, and I can’t remember the last time that happened. Which isn’t to say that there’s no ambition in King’s writing: The Dark Tower is, after all, an eight-volume epic genre mashup inspired by Robert Browning. But King manages this while also asking relatively little of the reader. Your mileage may vary, but you can get plenty out of this without really pondering things like structure or, heaven forfend, “themes.” This is refreshing. That said, let me tell you the weird thing I find most remarkable about The Dark Tower thus far. In both The Gunslinger and The Drawing of the Three, our protagonist Roland is moving through a series of unforeseen obstacles towards a goal, the Tower, that he doesn’t know why he’s seeking. Moreover, we as readers don’t even really know what prompted Roland to begin his quest in the first place. Contrast this with The Lord of the Rings, a confessed inspiration for The Dark Tower, in which copious exposition is employed to inform the reader of why Frodo and company are heading to Mordor. There’s no missing the whole Sauron/Mount Doom/one-ring-to-rule-them-all thing. This blank space where the exposition should be gives The Dark Tower a dreamlike quality: oftentimes Roland will find himself somewhere, and a thing will happen, and he’s faced with the consequences of that thing without really understanding any of the logic that underpins the story he’s in. I imagine this is partially the result of King’s somewhat improvisational approach to writing fiction — evidently, he didn’t know how it would all turn out either. (Fun fact: Damon Lindelof is a fan of The Dark Tower. Does Lost make more sense now?) But that’s turning out to be the real joy of this series. Much like the death of Laura Palmer was supposed to be in the original Twin Peaks, the Tower is just an excuse to take some characters and have weird shit happen to them while they’re searching for something. I expect the Tower itself will take on more of an active role in later books, but for now it’s a distant McGuffin exerting an uncertain influence over the more proximate narrative. In this book, the weird thing that happens to an unsuspecting Roland is that three doors open up into other people’s minds, all of whom are living at various points in time in New York City. (Why these people? Why New York City? By what mechanism do the doors appear? We don’t know, and our protagonist doesn’t care so we don’t either.) So basically, the story is split into three parts, involving Roland’s interactions with three different characters (well, four really, but I’d spoil it if I explained why). These three parts are not created equal, i.e. the first is far and away the most compelling. (Also, as a personal aside: I read the first few pages of the book in an airport. The plane started boarding just as I got to the moment where Roland steps through the first magic door, so I closed the book there. Moments later, I got on the plane and started reading again, only to realize that Roland, too had found himself on an airplane. I love these moments of synchronicity.) This part of the book works best because, added to the book’s usual aesthetics of fantasy and Western is a crime story, and a marvellously tense one at that. The second part is weighed down by a central character who is a deliberate, and perhaps not completely irredeemable racist caricature (or perhaps so), and that becomes tiring. Things pick up again towards the end, but in general the first half of thereabouts of The Drawing of the Three is much stronger than the second. This book also makes it clear why the relatively slight first volume, The Gunslinger, was necessary. That book has little in the way of plot, but it allows us to spend time with Roland and it establishes him as the centre of this narrative. The structure of The Drawing of the Three requires us to spend substantial amounts of time inside other characters’ heads (sometimes quite literally). Without The Gunslinger, Roland’s centrality wouldn’t be as clear. A final random note: it’s awfully amusing to see King referring to the camera work in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining for a descriptive passage, given how much he famously hates that movie. Always one for the Easter eggs. I enjoyed this enormously. I figure I should finish one or two of the dozen or so other books I’m reading before I move on to volume three, but I may not be able to resist. Pick of the week.

Robert Browning: “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” — This is of primarily academic interest to me at this time: mostly I wanted to read it for the sake of seeing how it inspired Stephen King. Still, it’s an awfully compelling yarn, especially when you hear it read aloud. Interestingly, the nature of the Tower and the route towards it is even more uncertain and dreamlike here than it is in King. I’ll read this again when I’m done King’s series, to appreciate it a bit more on its own merits.

Comedy

Hannibal Buress: Animal Furnace — This is by far my favourite Hannibal Buress special, and certainly one of the most densely-packed hours of standup I’ve seen. With the exception of a few bits that are a tad too “bitches be crazy” for my liking (including a bit about rape statistics that almost makes his later Bill Cosby bit seem like an apology), this is unimaginably original stuff. Buress’s ninja move is trying to rationalize inexplicable experiences with absurd hypotheticals: an airport security officer inexplicably swabs his hand with a cloth, and he speculates: “Good thing I didn’t have bomb juice on my hands. Was that the bomb juice test?” But what if he did have bomb juice on his hands? What if his friend offered him the rare opportunity to hold a bomb just before he went to the airport? (“I’m open to new experiences!”) Hannibal Buress’s mind is a place where extremely strange things happen on a very casual basis. And that is why he is one of the best comics working today. Plus, this has the classic Young Jeezy bit. Can’t go wrong.

Mitch Hedberg: Mitch All Together — Mitch Hedberg is comedy’s most brilliantly counterintuitive thinker. His jokes are like zen koans. I particularly love his bit about do not disturb signs. It should be “don’t disturb,” he argues. “‘Do not’ psyches you out. ‘Do!’ Alright, I get to disturb this guy. ‘Not!’ Shit! I need to read faster!” Marvellous.

Movies

Wind River — So I hated this when I walked out of the theatre, but the people I saw it with were smarter about it and talked me off the cliff. What I saw was a movie by a white, male writer/director, headlined by white actors, about the murder of a teenage girl on a Native American reservation. Moreover, it is a tense thriller in the vein of Sicario (written by the same guy), the thrills of which are motivated by the death of a native woman. This seemed exploitative to me, and the elongated depiction of the brutal crime itself did nothing to endear me to the film. But I am a white man, and my barometer isn’t always well calibrated in these situations. I’ve been partially brought around to the idea that this film is directed specifically at people like me, who have none of the life experience depicted in the film, and it is supposed to make me squirm. I’m one of the people who won’t be triggered by this, just disturbed. And I suspect that’s what Taylor Sheridan is up to: lure in the audiences who need to see this story the most with posters featuring two Avengers, and shake us out of our complacency with a ceaselessly fucking brutal depiction of a reality we don’t know. If we take this charitable view of the film, it still has a big problem in that the story is told through substantially through the perspective of Elizabeth Olsen’s outsider FBI agent. Realistically enough, one expects, this character shits the bed constantly, both in her social interactions with locals on the reservation and in her police work. This would be more effective, however, if the movie didn’t centralize the perspective of an outsider: if the movie were as concerned with the trauma of the community as it is with the personal growth of this interloper. Jeremy Renner’s character is more complex, given that he has family on the reservation and he works there. Still, it’s easy to regret the scenes in which he delivers hackneyed monologues about coping with grief while Gil Birmingham quietly gives a better performance, out of focus. I didn’t like this movie. I don’t know whether or not I admire it. I would be very careful about recommending it. I am open to being swayed further in either direction.

Television

Game of Thrones: Season 7, episodes 5 & 6 — Man was it ever nice to have two episodes stacked up to watch. I am still incredulous about how much I like this season. “Eastwatch” seems uneventful in retrospect, but only because of what comes after and I still enjoyed it a lot. As for “Beyond The Wall,” say what you like about the stupidity of the characters’ plan in this episode, which is profound, this is still an episode where a group of characters including Jorah Mormont, Tormund, and the Hound go questing through majestic Icelandic wastes. I love it, and if you don’t you’re missing the point. The speed with which GoT is currently introducing hitherto unintroduced characters to each other is extremely satisfying this season. Also ice zombie dragon. Oh shit. Also this making-of featurette is incredible.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Parts 14 & 15 — Okay, so Lynch and Frost do know that the Dougie Jones thing is frustrating. The “look how many Douglas Joneses there are in the phonebook” thing is definitely trolling. If this show moved as fast as Game of Thrones, for instance, we’d learn that Janie E is Diane’s half-sister in one scene, and Dougie and Gordon would be face-to-face in the next. But this is Twin Peaks, so no such luck. Still, these are two incredible episodes: the most consequential since the two-part premiere, though the eighth part is still the clear standout. The sequence with Dark Cooper and Phillip Jeffries (voiced by somebody doing a good impression of David Bowie’s bad southern accent) is a satisfying descent into this show’s weird supernatural depths. But the following episode one-ups it with the sequence of the sheriff and deputies in the woods. I love how every consequential step towards this point was the result of Hawk and Bobby’s efforts, and it’s still Deputy Andy who gets to receive the epiphany. If you’d asked me to list the characters least likely to visit one of the lodges in the new Twin Peaks, Andy would have been close to the top of that list. That character in that place is a marvellous juxtaposition in itself. I love how he instantly loses his bewildered aspect upon arrival, just like Cooper loses his effusiveness. There is only listlessness and manic terror in the lodges. And jazz dancing. Also, I guess maybe that’s a wrap on Big Ed and Norma? This story has been intensely simple in a way that the rest of the show is not. I sure didn’t expect the primary function of the Nadine/Dr. Jacoby plot to be bringing Big Ed and Norma back together, but I’ll take it. I’ll take what gratification I can get. Still, there are weeks when this show is easy to love. These have been two of them.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women” — A lovely and warm conversation about NPR’s super awesome list of great albums by women. I’d quibble with some of the album placements, and with some of the ones chosen for discussion here, but it’s not really my place. Point is, this is a ton of awesome music, much of which I haven’t heard, and I will make the effort to do so now.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: Episodes 7-9 — The tail end of this first batch of Trump Con Law episodes is as informative as everything else, though I can’t claim to be preoccupyingly taken with any of it. I know more about American con law now, though.

The Daily: “Special Edition: The Fall of Steve Bannon” — I listened to this super late, and after having read the Timeslengthy article on Bannon’s departure the next morning, but it still helps somehow to get a sense of things to hear a reporter talking about them conversationally. That’s the genius of The Daily, and why it’s one of the most essential developments in podcasting.

This American Life: “Our Friend David” — I’d heard most of these stories from the late lamented David Rakoff before, but they bear repeating. He was one of the funniest and most articulate presences on the radio, and one of those defining This American Life figures, like David Sedaris, Sarah Koenig, and Starlee Kine. The tape of Rakoff reading from Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish while dying of cancer just kills me. The writing isn’t even his best: it’s clearly rushed because he was racing to the final deadline. But it’s shattering when he reads it, especially considering how sick he sounds. Pick of the week.

Radiolab: “Truth Warriors” & “Truth Trolls” — God is Radiolab out of touch. The second of this pair of episodes is one that they’ve now removed from their feed, but I could still listen to it after the fact because I downloaded it immediately. But let’s start with the first. The tape of Robert Krulwich’s conversation with Neil DeGrasse Tyson about how a conversation with his barista reflects the process of attaining scientific consensus is a good start. But the rest of the episode is a rerun of a story from 2012, which I would like to have been warned about. My time is too valuable to listen to Radiolab stories twice. (Though when I first heard this story, I wouldn’t have felt that way.) Interestingly, this rerun story, featuring documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, is from the same episode as the story that provoked Radiolab’s harshest backlash: the “yellow rain” story, in which the hosts insensitively accused a guest of trying to “monopolize” a story in which said guest’s family had suffered severe trauma. Appropriate, then, that the following episode, “Truth Trolls,” should find Radiolab once again lacking in judgement. Without any context, it might be easy to see how this story of a bunch of 4channers trolling Shia LaBeouf would read as a fun romp. But there is literally nobody in North America who does not have the context to realize that the people this episode treats basically as harmless scamps are hateful bigots. The context is everywhere. How did they miss this? Anyway, Radiolab’s not trying to answer the big questions anymore. They’re just throwing shit at the wall. It sticks just often enough to keep me listening. And that is the most enraging thing of all.  

The Memory Palace: “A Scavenger Hunt” — This is the least self-sufficient of Nate DiMeo’s episodes for the Metropolitan Museum, but in being that, it also made me really want to go to the Metropolitan Museum. That’s a pricey plane ticket, though.

Long Now: Seminars About Long-Term Thinking — “Nicky Case: Seeing Whole Systems” — I always love these talks. They’re satisfyingly complex, and Stewart Brand always asks great questions afterwards. But this one relies too much on visual aids to be a satisfying podcast. It sort of feels like an ad for the video cut that’s available to paying members of the Long Now Foundation, which is something I’ll certainly be when I’ve got the money for frivolous expenditures such as that. But there’s still a lot to be gained from just listening to Case, who is a clever game designer with a deep knowledge of game theory and feedback loops. I’m not sure about his sweeping applications of these concepts — sounds a bit like the sort of thinking that leads Mark Zuckerberg to try and treat hate as an engineering problem. Still, I’m compelled if not convinced.

Omnibus (week of Aug. 6, 2017)

Greetings from Clarenville, NFLD! I was on a red eye flight last night and I am delirious and I don’t know what time it is. Anyway, I anticipate next week’s instalment being substantially less well populated to this one.

23 reviews.

Movies

Big Trouble in Little China — Good lord, what a thing. I wrote last week in my Dunkirk review about my favourite experiences in a movie theatre, and how that list is distinct from my favourite movies. I think this now joins the ranks of Mad Max: Fury Road and Avatar in the former category. I saw it at the Rio with a friend who is, I would imagine, a bit more inclined toward schlocky action than I am — and definitely more inclined towards John Carpenter. And the crowd that gathered for this was thoroughly in the tank for this movie — I daresay it was impossible not to have fun in that theatre. I doubt it would have struck me as anywhere near as entertaining if I’d watched it at home, because its value is a sort of value that I don’t see by default — I need other people to help bolster my enthusiasm. I don’t mean to suggest here that the movie itself is anything other that brilliant. It’s just not brilliant in a way I would have noticed on my own. The basic premise of the movie is “cast one white dude as the supposed hero, then have him be a hilariously useless dolt throughout.” This is a wonderful thing to watch, because Kurt Russell’s performance is completely committed: he’s John Wayne, loudly blundering through somebody else’s movie. He trips over his own dick in deeply white American fashion at the very beginning of the climactic battle scene and never regains his poise, while the movie’s huge ensemble of Asian martial artists flies through the air all around him. That’s the juxtaposition that makes the movie so satisfying: the fights are genuinely fantastic and a ton of fun to watch, but the story, characters and dialogue feel no need to live up to the seriousness of the choreography. I loved the shit out of this, and will be liberally repurposing the line “Hey, I’m a reasonable guy, but I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things” to my own ends.

Music

Pink Floyd: The Early Years 1965-1972 — I’ve really enjoyed hearing legendary BBC DJ John Peel as a beloved supporting character in this box set’s story. The fifth volume features his best moment yet, where his announcement to a live audience that “This is Radio One” is met with a huge cheer, his continuation “on medium wave” is met with an even bigger cheer, and his tossed off self-introduction, “And this is John Peel…” is met with a positive torrent of appreciation. “Ah, you blew it,” he tells them. “You did it all wrong.” This guy was everything good about public broadcasting. This single disc collection from around the time of Meddle, arguably the first great Pink Floyd album (though I’m not arguing that) is dominated by the 1971 Peel session in front of a live crowd. It contains a surpassingly good “Fat Old Sun,” which has been extended to include not just the classic guitar solo, but also an uncharacteristically blazing feature for Rick Wright on organ. “One of These Days” is preceded by Peel reporting to the audience that Roger Waters considers this instrumental to be a “poignant appraisal of the current social situation,” which is exactly the sort of thing his detractors would think he means sincerely. But Peel clearly recognizes the game Waters is playing which is “let’s see if I can make John Peel say something dumb and look like a knob on his own show.” Peel doesn’t fall for it. “Make what you will of that,” he says, with a nearly audible roll of his eyes. He also announces that Pink Floyd were evidently dissatisfied with their label’s release of “Embryo” on the Picnic sampler, because it was basically a demo. But he doesn’t explain why they continue to make it a major part of their live set. It’s not a good song, in any version. The session culminates in a complete live “Echoes,” which pales in comparison to the earthshaking Pompei recording (I understand that’s included on the following volume) but it’s still a lot of fun to hear the track through the ears of an audience who likely hasn’t heard it before. (Meddle wasn’t released until a month later.) That’s what I’ve enjoyed about listening to this set, and I imagine that’s part of what more casual fans might not understand about why a huge set of outtakes and curios like this appeals to me: listening to The Early Years isn’t like listening to an album, or even a live album. It’s like listening to an enormous, comprehensive, narration-free documentary about the creative development of Pink Floyd, and the relationship they had with their audience prior to their enormous celebrity. That’s a really compelling story to me, and it’s part of why the Peel sessions are such consistent highlights of the set. The only track on the disc not to come from the Peel session is a segment from the jams that led to the composition of “Echoes,” titled “Nothing, Pt. 14.” It’s an amusing listen primarily because it finds the band toying with the section of the song that would eventually be the leadup to its climax, but they clearly haven’t devised that climax yet. So, in retrospect it’s almost hilariously dissatisfying. But it really emphasizes what’s so impressive about “Echoes,” which is that it clearly is a collection of several initially unrelated ideas that have been massaged together in a way that works as a singular journey. It’s the moment when the fact that three quarters of the band are former architecture students is most clear. The sixth volume (the final one to be available on Apple Music) is both the most musically satisfying and least narratively interesting of the set. These effects both arise for the same reason, which is that all of the music included has been officially released in some fashion before. It’s unclear to me why the compilers of this set decided to include Obscured by Clouds in its entirety, since surely the vast majority of people interested in buying this would have it already. But it has been newly remixed, and has never sounded better. The thing that feels like it’s missing from this set more than anything is live performances of the Obscured by Clouds material. At this point, we’ve gotten to hear music from all of their other albums as performance pieces, but we don’t get a picture of what this stuff sounded like in concert. Presumably, including that would have taken the compilers over their cutoff line of January 1, 1973, and at that point the absence of Dark Side of the Moon material would seem unnatural. So, I get it, mostly. It’s just another one of those things that makes me hope we get another box set like this for the years from 1973-2014 — a far vaster span of time, but with only one more album than this box’s span. There’s no better way that this set could have ended than with the first digital audio release of Live at Pompeii. Aside from being a magnificent performance, and one of the best things in the Pink Floyd catalogue, the documentary film that the audio comes from is the defining document of the tail end of Pink Floyd’s relative obscurity. It finds them performing material from the whole of the transitional period this set documents: from “A Saucerful of Secrets” to “Echoes.” And it also finds them in the process of recording The Dark Side of the Moon, which would make them one of the biggest bands in rock history. This is narratively rich territory, and it’s a damn good live record, too. It’s beyond me why it was apparently included in the box set as an afterthought, because it might be the best thing in it. The Early Years 1967-1972 has been a joy to listen to. Even with all of the repeated performances of the same track, the ephemeral nature of many of the recordings, and early Pink Floyd’s tendency towards obscurantism, I never once found it tedious. (Okay, maybe once: on the Atom Heart Mother-focussed disc.) It is maybe the most vital collection of rock curios ever released.

Olivia Chaney: The Longest River — In preparation for the Decemberists concert (which as I’m writing this will be happening tonight) I thought I’d check out their opener’s solo material. To recap: Chaney is the lead singer of the Decemberists’ side project Offa Rex, whose first album was released earlier this year, is brilliant, and is an explicit tribute to the British folk revival. I love that album, but it does what it says on the tin. Going into this one, I didn’t quite know what to expect. And that worked out to my advantage, because The Longest River consistently surprised me in all the best ways. It’s a mix of original songs, traditional songs, covers, and an anomalous Purcell aria. Chaney performs all of them with real attention paid to the detail in the arrangements, which are mostly just guitar and piano (and the occasional Kronos Quartet cameo) but they are all thoughtful and complex. And the songs themselves are complex, too. I’ve listened to the gorgeous “Loose Change” more than a half-dozen times at this point and I still can’t anticipate where the phrases start and stop. But it’s a good kind of disorientation, and in the end you find yourself deposited back in the part of the song with the gorgeous riff. I’m reminded of Gabriel Kahane, though none of Chaney’s lyrics make me gag. The more obvious point of comparison would be Joni Mitchell, a singer with a similar range, precision, and virtuosity in her arrangements. But there’s something paradoxically more modern about Chaney’s inclusion of traditional songs and covers. The Longest River is a curio cabinet as much as a personal opus. And I mean that in a good way. I’ll be living with this for a while. It’s less immediate than The Queen of Hearts but I can see it having more legs.

Live events

The Decemberists, with Olivia Chaney: Live at the Orpheum — Occasionally, you travel in time. I went to this concert with the very friend who introduced me to the Decemberists in the first place. They were the most important band among my high school’s contingent of weird theatre kids, and therefore one of the first relatively current bands to join Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and their ilk in my regular rotation. I remember the first time I heard “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” It wasn’t the studio recording — it was at an impromptu sing-along in the swimming pool at a summer improv camp, with one of the instructors playing guitar on the poolside. There were probably fifty people in that swimming pool, and I was the only one who didn’t know the Decemberists. This was rectified by my present-day concertmate, posthaste. Listening to them now, I can’t help but see in them the same quality I see in most of my passionate obsessions from those days (and now, in a more muted way): a sort of effusive muchness that’s bound to alienate aesthetes with carefully cultivated tastes, while enthralling anoraks like me and my weird teenage friends. (“Drama kids in three-button vests,” Pitchfork called us. I rather like that.) Many of Colin Meloy’s song titles contain exclamation points (“July, July!” “O Valencia!” “Revenge!” “All Arise!”), and there’s a sense in which his entire career is an exclamation, namely: “let’s put on a show!” In the Decemberists, we saw our own self-indulgence reflected back at us, and they offered confirmation that unabashed pretension was a perfectly valid way to find joy in the world. So, this concert with this friend brought us full circle. Honestly I’d say it might have been my ideal Decemberists setlist if I’d already seen them before, which I hadn’t. This was a show that was really light on iconic classics. We got none of Picaresque, and only one track from the either of the first two albums. There was no “Mariner’s Revenge Song,” no “Sixteen Military Wives,” no “I Was Born for the Stage.” We did get “Crane Wife 3” and “O Valencia!” But for the most part, this was a set devoted to the stranger corners of the Decemberists’ catalogue — and the proggier corners. We got “The Island,” in all its Tull-aping glory. We got “The Queen’s Rebuke,” which was by no means the part of The Hazards of Love that I expected to hear. And most remarkably of all, we got The Tain in its entirety: all 18-and-a-half prog-fed minutes of it. That was the highlight of the show, and I’ve been struggling since the concert to think of an analogue for the weirdness and excitement of that moment in some other artist’s discography. Maybe if Paul McCartney announced he was going to do all of Ram. We also got a bunch of new stuff, which was nice. I could have done with fewer tracks from Beautiful/Terrible, which is the only Decemberists album I don’t especially care for. But their new “State of the Union” song, “Everything is Awful” is a scorcher, and a cathartic one at that. Its lyrical simplicity is new territory for Colin Meloy. If even he is lost for words, we must be in a rough spot, indeed. There was also a set from the Offa Rex album, which I adore, and more on which below. So basically it was a super weird set, and if this band weren’t tied up with so much nostalgia for me, it might have been my ideal Decemberists experience. But I really wanted to hear the stuff I loved when I was 16. Can you blame me? So, I feel as though I need to see them again, and next time I want the other two parts of “The Crane Wife,” “Leslie Anne Levine” and at least half of Picaresque. Finally, a word on Olivia Chaney. We wandered in about one minute into her opening set. I’ve been listening to The Longest River semi-obsessively over the past week, so I was basically just as excited for her as for the Decemberists. And she did not disappoint. She drifted between the harmonium, the keyboard and a hollow-body electric guitar, performing a set with the same far-flung variety as her album in the space of 30 minutes. Highlights included her gorgeous original “Loose Change,” which is a perfect song, and a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” which she is one of only a handful of people I would trust to sing. I was delighted to find that she’s also performing alongside the Decemberists during their set, doing a few tracks from The Queen of Hearts, which is one of the best albums of the year so far. Evidently this was the first show not to be explicitly billed as Offa Rex to include a set like this. I feel very privileged. I feel like I need to see the Decemberists again because we have unfinished business. I feel like I need to see Olivia Chaney again because she is a staggering musician and I think she’s on the verge of something. Occasionally, you travel in time. But it isn’t always easy to tell which direction you went in.

Television

Game of Thrones: “The Spoils of War” — Sure helps to clarify your loyalties, doesn’t it? I would have been entirely content to see Jaime and Bronn both perish in the flames of Daenerys’s new world order. Wonder how that’ll shake up. Anyway, this is more consequential than last week’s talky episode, and it’s definitely great to see some dragons roast some Lannisters. I’ll always prefer the talky episodes, but it wouldn’t be GoT without scenes like that. It strikes me that Game of Thrones and Twin Peaks are the perfect series to be watching in tandem right now, since GoT is offering satisfaction in such heavy doses, where Twin Peaks maintains its steadfast perversity. One or the other of them might drive me over the edge if not for the other. Maisie Williams is this week’s performance highlight. Arya has this wonderful way of saying something incredibly grave and then conjuring her most childlike side whenever somebody finds that amusing. It’s incredibly unsettling. The look of absolute glee when she uses her dagger to best Brienne in combat training is basically what I like about this show. “Who taught you to do that?” “No one.” Marvellous. I’m liking the way that the Daenerys/Jon partnership is shaping up. This episode finds Jon Snow offering the sort of advice to Daenarys that indicates how he and she need each other. That’s the plotline I’m most excited about right now. Also, just want to point out that last week I branded Littlefinger a chaos theorist, only to have Bran reiterate his prior thesis that “chaos is a ladder” this week. It’s the little things that make us feel like geniuses, isn’t it?

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 13 — Another frustrating instalment that I enjoyed in spite of myself. I love the music in the opening scene: it’s just alienating enough. The clear highlight here is Mr. C’s armwrestling match, but it is cold comfort given the fact that those detectives have completely failed to acknowledge the connection between Dougie Jones and Dale Cooper. He’s not waking up is he.

QI: “Next” — Well, Sandi Toksvig is delightful. I haven’t watched this since Stephen Fry left, only because I haven’t been in the mood, but it’s lovely to see it in good hands. And having both Ross Noble and Frankie Boyle is frankly a surfeit of wit.

Literature, etc.

Chris Ware: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth — This is one of the most emotionally exhausting works of fiction I have ever experienced. It’s a cathartic kind of exhaustion, but Chris Ware drives his protagonist (and his protagonist’s forebears in the long flashback sequences) to psychological places where not every reader will want to follow. There’s something extra effective about personal, heartfelt stories like this when they’re told in an aggressively formalist way. Christopher Nolan, to pick the other example who’s come up recently, has always made movies I like because he shows you human experience through the prism of complex story structures. This isn’t just cleverness: it changes the way you watch his movies by adding a layer of distance between you and the content of the story. You’re expected to fill that distance with your own ability to identify with the characters, and that makes a movie like Dunkirk especially devastating. Chris Ware takes that distancing technique to a level unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. His art is detailed in the way that a blueprint is detailed: everything you’d see if you were looking at a building or person in real life is accounted for in his drawing, but left cartoonish in its realization. And he’s not one to amplify the emotional impact of key moments with dynamic page layouts. His visual language is solidly rectangular. That in itself contributes a sort of austerity to the storytelling. Even splash pages are a bit of a indulgence for Ware, and he uses them very sparingly — including once at the book’s most shattering moment, when something truly awful happens to Jimmy’s grandfather as a child. There’s also a moment where a major plot twist near the end is communicated wordlessly through, basically, a flow chart. You get the point. Ware is extremely restrained and fussy. At first, the book’s general aesthetic of “Sunday funnies meets 19th-century carnival advertisements” just seems like a symptom of this formalism. But when the shattering moment I mentioned above happened, you realize that in fact, the event that precipitated the Corrigan family’s trend of worthless fathers (and thus Jimmy’s bad state throughout the story) took place at the Chicago World’s Fair. So, the fact that the story plays out in the garb of that event’s promotional materials takes on a new resonance. This is simultaneously one of the most affecting and most ingenious comics I’ve ever read. It’s a masterpiece. Now I’m gonna go lie down for a while. Pick of the week.

Franklin Foer: “When Silicon Valley Took Over Journalism” — Possibly the single most concise and effective expression of the devil’s bargain that the journalism industry made when they went to Facebook for an audience. Evidently Foer has a book coming out on this. Can’t wait. Do you know an editor with a Chartbeat addiction? Make them read this, then lock them in the basement.

John Lanchester: “You Are The Product” — Foer’s piece may be the most concise one about the perils of Facebook for the media, but this review of three recent books on the subject in the London Review of Books is the most complete feature-length discussion of how Facebook’s lack of a moral compass is affecting its users. I plan to read all of these books.

Thomas Ligotti: “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story” — This magnificent essay-that-is-not-an-essay reveals Thomas Ligotti to be several things I knew he was, as well as a few things I didn’t know he was. It reveals him to be a very good horror writer, which I knew he was. It reveals him to be completely crazy, which I suspected he was. But it also reveals him to have a sense of humour, which I didn’t know he had, and to have a facility for metafiction, which hasn’t been part of the stories I’ve read by him. That last observation makes this story scarier than many of his others for me, simply because there is nothing scarier to me than a story that transgresses its own boundaries. As for the essayistic element of this, there is much to learn from Ligotti’s straightforward discussion of the types of horror stories. As a producer of an occasionally horror-adjacent podcast, I have found myself in positions where I’ve butted up against my own insistence on what Ligotti calls the “realistic” model of horror writing, where an uncanny thing is found to exist in contrast to a fundamentally “real” and “normal” world. Having read this, I now understand why this doesn’t always work for me — because in stories like Ligotti’s the world is fundamentally skewed and unreal. And those are the kinds of stories that I like. Also, it’s hilarious to me that Ligotti has to literally reimagine himself as a passionate Italian from a bygone century to contemplate writing Gothically. This is very, very good.

Stephen King: The Gunslinger — As I’m writing this, I just got off a plane. On that plane, I read nearly this whole book. That is not something I normally do — my general ponderousness and tendency to get distracted makes me an abnormally slow reader. But now I think I know why people like Stephen King, at least in part: the pages fly by. This is the first thing I’ve read by King. I feel like I’ve always been just about to get into him, but I’ve always backed off before pulling the trigger, so to speak. I decided to dive right into the Dark Tower series because I’ve been reading reviews of the movie, which almost uniformly make the movie sound like hackneyed drivel, while also emphasizing that the books are as wonderfully strange as the movie fails to be. Fine, I’m in. This first instalment manages to simultaneously be incredibly thrilling and also feel like it’s mere setup. The book’s story is basically summed up by its first sentence: “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” And then when the gunslinger catches up with the man in black, they talk, and more questions are raised than answered. The basic idea of this is a lot of fun: put Clint Eastwood in a fantasy story. What I’m most looking forward to in this series is the opportunity for genre fusions. Already we’ve got Jake, who is a secondary character from an entirely different kind of story — and I suspect we haven’t seen the last of him. Good fun.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Atomic Blonde,” “Insecure,” “Detroit,” & “A Guide to Stephen King” — Two weeks worth of this! Honestly, the Stephen King episode is the only one that I’m finding of practical value, but it’s just nice to listen to them talk.

Love and Radio: “Suitcase of Love and Shame” — Another absurdly intimate episode of Love and Radio. We get to listen in on an affair in real time. It’s a beautiful thing in which nobody comes out looking very good.

The Turnaround: “Katie Couric,” “Ray Suarez,” “Werner Herzog” & “Terry Gross” — The last four episodes of this show have all been interesting, although the climactic (what a concept) Terry Gross interview has a lot of overlap with the more comprehensive Longform interview. This has been a thoroughly enjoyable series, though I’ve cooled on it over time. I wouldn’t stand by my initial impression that it’s among the best radio of the year.

Planet Money: “Google is Big. Is That Bad?” — Yes.

A Piece of Work: “Samantha Gets High on Light” — I’m really impressed by how well the host and guests on this show manage to describe the experience of visual art in an invisible medium. This is a great new show; I’ve been totally enjoying it. Makes me want more podcasts about visual art. Pick of the week.

The Daily: Wednesday, August 9 — Nice to hear Carl Zimmer on this! Love that guy. And also it’s always a good way to get the latest Trump horrors put into context.

On the Media: “Shmashmortion” — A history of the politics of abortion from Brooke Gladstone. How can you go wrong? This is great stuff, and really emphasizes how artificial a debate it is.

Imaginary Worlds: “Evil Plans” & “Scott Snyder” — Been awhile since I’ve heard this. The Scott Snyder interview is fun, even though I had no idea who he was. It’s about how his own anxieties factor into the Batman stories he’s written.

Code Switch: “The U.S. Census And Our Sense Of Us” & “Who’s Your Great-Great-Great-Great Granddaddy?” — Two episodes that explore notions of identity and the labels we put on them. The one about genealogy is especially interesting.

Theory of Everything: “Illicit Objects” — A marvellous compendium of bite-sized stories about objects that people aren’t supposed to have. For having been produced by people who aren’t Benjamen Walker, it feels very ToE.

Mogul: “Cameo: Russell Simmons and Sophia Chang” — It’s a bit awkward to hear Russell Simmons proclaiming that he doesn’t think Chris Lighty committed suicide after the final full episode of this basically concluded that he did, and that the only reason people don’t want to believe that is the stigma against mental illness in the hip hop community. But at least Simmons seems to think that taboo is harmful.

Omnibus (week of July 24, 2017)

This was one of those weeks where I watched a whole season of TV. It happens. But I still managed to get a bunch of podcasts in and some truly wonderful music. 25 reviews.

Movies

Blade Runner — The only other time I’ve watched Blade Runner was when I was probably 16. I’m not sure which cut I watched at the time, but it couldn’t have been the Final Cut, which I watched this time, because that didn’t come out until the next year. Regardless, I remembered liking it a lot, but that’s kind of all I remembered. This week, I watched the Final Cut with a friend, in a state of distraction and fatigue. Truthfully, a lot of the story and many of the themes slipped past me, given how little attention I was paying. But the result of this was a unique sort of viewing experience: I feel as though I watched Blade Runner as a painting. Without following the story or attempting to parse the characters’ motivations and identities, Blade Runner becomes a mystifying, entrancing procession of sensations and impressions. If it were possible to photoshop out all of the main characters from Blade Runner and mute all of the dialogue, I daresay it would still be a compelling art film. It would still be a fever dream of a future city: we would still see the magnificent towers occupied by the very privileged, the sweaty masses of pedestrians in the Tokyo-inspired lower quarters, the vast modernist step pyramids where authority lives, and the total dominance of advertising from the street level straight up to the rarified air of the police aircrafts. We would still have Vangelis’s abstract, improvisational score imparting a feel of creeping malaise. We would still see rooms filled with grotesque semi-sentient toys, and beams of golden light enrobing the figure of an owl with a curiously reflective iris. When my friend and I first tried to start the movie, we were disappointed to discover that her HDMI cable had reached the end of its lifespan. (“It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?”) We rushed to London Drugs for a replacement, and since the store was just about to close, one of the employees in the home electronics section was indulging himself by playing Philip Glass’s score to Koyaanisqatsi over the speakers. A small moment of serendipity, this was. Koyaanisqatsi is an experimental film by Godfrey Reggio that was released the same year Blade Runner was. Inevitably, the music conjured up the film’s narrative-free imagery of late 20th-century cities in my mind, and it remained lodged there throughout the duration of Blade Runner. Maybe that’s part of why I saw it the way I did. Contained within Blade Runner is both a science fiction thriller about human identity and a sort of speculative Koyaanisqatsi. Where Reggio’s film is a study of then-contemporary urban malaise, conveyed through images and evocative music, Ridley Scott’s is the same thing for an imagined near future. The two films never struck me as being of a piece with each other before, but I doubt the connection will ever leave me now. I might watch Blade Runner again next week. I love this movie and I still don’t really know what it’s about.

Television

Twin Peaks: The Return: Part 11 — Okay, so Shelly has abruptly become much less admirable in the show’s estimation. First, she jumps onto the windshield of a moving car, something no reasonably intelligent person would do, regardless of the circumstance. Then, she instantaneously forgets the moment of family crisis she’s trying to negotiate when her latest criminal boyfriend drops by. I mean, it’s not like she didn’t always have a thing for criminals, but that scene is super weird. One second she’s crying, embracing her off-the-rails daughter, and the next, she’s scampering away from that same daughter as fast as she can to go make out with Balthazar Getty. I am trying hard to maintain my view that Twin Peaks is intrinsically worthwhile by virtue of being unlike anything else on television, but it’s not making it easy. Mind you, if it were making it easy, it wouldn’t be unlike anything else on television.

Game of Thrones: “Stormborn” — Wow, this must be blazingly good for me to not hate it. I always hate the beginnings of GoT seasons. Now I’m actually looking forward to this show’s next episode. I don’t think that’s happened for about three seasons. That’s my highest possible praise for this show, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Downton Abbey: Season 5 — Once you start a season of Downton it is impossible not to finish it that week. I defy anybody to try. Here is the season where everybody’s moral clarity, however misbegotten, gets shot to hell. The situation with Edith’s illegitimate daughter is an absolute minefield. While the constant scenes of her getting turned away by the unknowing foster mother of her illegitimate child get trying, the denouement of that plotline makes everybody a victim. Edith herself is the victim of the social strictures of her time that would see her scandalized if her pregnancy had been revealed, and the foster mother is deprived of the child that she raised because of her inferior class. When Cora finds out, even she is unable to maintain her usual consistency of ethics: she’s deeply offended that Violet and Rosamund kept the secret from her, but once she knows she claims it’s “not their secret to tell,’ even to Robert who by rights has an equal claim to the knowledge as Cora. But of course she’s right to feel he can’t know. Because he’s an ass-backwards jerk. That ought to be the reasoning Cora offers. And he is awfully insufferable this season. One of Downton’s perverse delights is watching as Robert’s way of life is eroded gradually in ways he finds unacceptable and unjust. His misplaced anxiety about his wife’s fidelity is a clever way for the show to demonstrate the extent to which his grip is slipping. But it’s also a clear indication of how much he takes Cora for granted. Elizabeth McGovern walks a fine line in scenes with her would-be illicit lover Simon Bricker: never once implying that she actually wants to have an affair, but happy to be appreciated for once. Meanwhile, Mary maintains her steadfast code of self-interest and remains basically sympathetic due to the extent to which her being that way flies in the face of convention. I’m quite the fan of how this season makes it even clearer that she’s the second coming of her grandmother, with all of the wit and imperiousness that entails. As for her suitor Lord Gillingham, holy smokes what a dolt. I never tire of scenes in which he steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that he is no longer involved with Mary. I have no particular wishes for how the relationships on this show are to turn out, but I’m very happy to see that guy get thrown over. And on the note of Mary’s similarity to Violet: Maggie Smith continues to be the best part of this show, if only because her total insincerity offers a comment on the proceedings that’s in line with those of us who find ourselves watching Downton half in spite of ourselves. Her storyline with Cousin Isabel, and their mutually unexpected reinvigorated romantic prospects is probably the most consistently amusing thing in this season. As for historical context, the first Labour government gives rise to hopes and fears alike among the servants. For Carson, whose identity and what prestige he has is based entirely on the continuing prosperity of the aristocracy, it seems catastrophic. But for Daisy, who still has her life ahead of her, it seems like an opportunity to do something more with her life. It’s an interesting exploration of the double bind that the serving staff are in: reliant upon the class structure for their livelihoods, but held back by it in larger measure. Also, now that we’re well into the inter-war period, I suppose there need to be some anti-Semites in the show. Clever of Fellowes to have Rose fall for Atticus before she knows of his Jewish heritage. That prevents the unpleasant sense that she’s fetishizing his otherness the way she did with her previous suitor, who was black. Altogether, I think this is one of the stronger seasons of the show, if only because it focusses in on its characters and their lives more than contriving schemes and implausible happenstances to elicit drama. But I honestly would have been pretty much satisfied even if it were just nine hours of Lord Grantham getting called “Donk” by a small child.

Music

Buffy Sainte-Marie: Illuminations — One of the great underrecognized classics of the era. This is the album where Buffy Sainte-Marie leaves folkiedom behind in favour of a very idiosyncratic and not-to-be-pigeonholed rendition of psychedelia. She’s cited Morton Subotnick as an influence in the past, probably the only songwriter I’ve ever seen that remark from. And the electronic filigree that links this album’s songs together has Silver Apples of the Moon’s influence all over it. Except it never outstays its welcome. One of the best things about the rock music of the late 60s and early 70s is the fact that all of these musicians were listening to avant-garde classical music, but had the impulse to fold its aesthetic into their music rather than its spirit, which didn’t necessarily always prioritize sounding good. I have no problem with that, but it’s nice to hear the legacy of Subotnick colliding with something I actually love. And the songs themselves are outstanding. “God is Alive, Magic is Afoot” is fun because it’s not a Leonard Cohen cover, but rather a setting of a poem that he himself did not set to music. How lovely it is that we have in the world a song that can be credited to Cohen/Sainte-Marie. The music is pleasingly simplistic: Sainte-Marie has cottoned onto the chant-like character of the text and made that the central inspiration for her music. Among the originals, my favourites are “Better to Find Out for Yourself,” “The Dream Tree,” “Keeper of the Fire” and “Poppies.” The first and third of these feature some of Sainte-Marie’s most aggressive singing. One reason I love her early records so much is because she offers such a compelling alternative to more conventionally pretty folk voices of the time, like Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. She has that sweet, lyrical character in her voice as well, and it comes out gorgeously on “The Dream Tree.” but that’s only one facet of the voice. “Better to Find Out for Yourself” finds her folding wolf calls into the ends of her phrases and “Keeper of the Fire” is a flat-out hard rock vocal performance with an imitation guitar solo in the voice as well. This is a classic, visionary, haunting album and I am constantly appalled by its overlookedness.

Pink Floyd: The Early Years 1965-72 — Oh man, the audio portion of this box set is on Apple Music now! (Except for the last volume, because they still have to entice me to buy the set somehow. As if the hours of video footage weren’t enough.) This is astonishingly entertaining for a vast set of outtakes and rarities. I’ve gotten through the first two volumes, and I am having a Grand Old Time. Let us go into detail, shall we? Volume one, focussing on the period from 1965 through 67, is the only one in the bunch to entirely predate Syd Barrett’s replacement with David Gilmour. It runs the gamut from bracing to boring, but there’s less of the latter than you might think. It’s in four sections. The first is a set of recordings from 1965, while the band was still calling itself the Tea Set, and had a second guitarist. The sound is excellent, but the same can’t be said of the songs, which find Syd Barrett in the throes of a rhythm and blues obsession that will have long abated by the time Pink Floyd actually releases a record. The performances are surprisingly good, though. Already, this is a band that’s more concerned with how they play than what they play. The second part is a collection of the band’s singles, B-sides, and a few unreleased tracks. Of these, the singles and B-sides are familiar but welcome here as part of the broader picture of this band at this time. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn proves to be a very narrow window through which to view these artists. The unreleased tracks include a few new mixes of familiar tracks, including a “Matilda Mother” with different, funnier lyrics. “There was a boy whose name was Jim / His friends they were very good to him / They gave him tea and cakes and jam / And slices of delicious ham.” God, I love that. But probably the highlight of the volume is the new stereo mixes of the famous unreleased tracks “In the Beechwoods” and especially “Vegetable Man” and “Scream Thy Last Scream.” These last two are in fact among Syd Barrett’s finest songs and in a just world would have become two sides of a single, or maybe showed up on A Saucerful of Secrets in place of, I dunno, “Corporal Clegg” and “See-Saw.” It seems they’ve been regarded as unfortunate symptoms of Barrett’s decline over the years. But with these new mixes, they stand revealed as two of the best early Pink Floyd songs. The second disc of volume one, consisting of the other two parts, is a less triumphant affair. It does feature the archeological diamond of a full live set with Syd Barrett, though the vocals are missing from the mix and only audible through distant mics. Still, it sounds like Syd was having a bad night vocally, so maybe that’s not such a bad thing. It’s weird to hear him sing “Set the Controls” to begin with — let alone so out of tune. And the instrumentals like “Interstellar Overdrive” and the unrecorded “Reaction in G” are as compelling as the band’s early fans would have you think. Volume one finishes with an unused free improvisational film score made for the experimental filmmaker John Latham. This is not great. It’s one of those things that it’s nice to have, just because we’ve all known that it exists for so long. I imagine it’s kind of like finally getting to see the pyramids in person. Except, if the pyramids were shitty. Because this is Pink Floyd doing a sort of free improvisation that they were a bit out of their depth to attempt. Their best semi-improvisational pieces, “Interstellar Overdrive” and especially the sublime “A Saucerful of Secrets” are based around concrete structures, as opposed to just noodling. AMM could make noodling sound good. So could King Crimson. Not Pink Floyd. Still, it’s a pleasure to experience. Volume two is simultaneously worse than volume one and more narratively compelling. It focusses on 1968, a rough year for the band in many ways, though it did see the release of one of my idiosyncratic faves in their catalogue, A Saucerful of Secrets. But for all of their success as an albums band that year, the first section of this disc proves they were creatively spent as a singles band. If Barrett’s “Apples and Oranges” had proven a disappointing follow-up to “See Emily Play,” then Wright’s “It Would Be So Nice” and especially Waters’ “Point Me At The Sky” prove completely unworthy. Their engine of ingenious psychedelic pop was irreparably broken. It now seems obvious that the only feasible direction was towards the very avant-garde. The BBC sessions that close out volume two (one of which delightfully comes with John Peel’s intros and extros intact) finds the band seemingly in denial of this, as they focus on performing their singles. We do, mercifully, get a rather good live “Saucerful of Secrets,” though it is inexplicably retitled “The Massed Gadgets of Hercules.” I say “inexplicably” because the album had already come out when the session was recorded — it can’t have been an early title. Am I wrong? In any case, volume two of this box is endlessly fascinating from an anthropological perspective, in large part because of how bad it is. Can’t wait to hear the rest.

Tom Waits: Frank’s Wild Years — My favourite Tom Waits album. To me, it strikes a perfect balance between the freaky cabaret music on Rain Dogs just before it and the crunchy aggro of Bone Machine shortly after. “Innocent When You Dream” is one of the most heartbreaking songs ever, made moreso by its comedic drunken ugliness. This is a man who hit bottom and smashed through into a dark, parody underworld where nothing seems real but everybody’s still behaving like nothing’s wrong. The same goes for the demented Kander and Ebb pastiche “I’ll Take New York,” which finds Waits at his most openly parodic and nightmarish. The best thing about it is that there’s nothing dark in the lyric. It’s a pitch perfect impression of Kander and Ebb’s civic boosterism. But it’s refracted through the lens of the demented calliope music that is one of Waits’ most profitable standbys. And even when Waits is working on a slightly less heightened level, like on “Temptation” or “Cold Cold Ground,” both among his best songs, he still sounds like he’s living in a pocket universe where the rules of reality are a bit different from our own. This is one of those rare albums that suspends reality. I love it.

Tom Waits: Small Change — I am generally more of a fan of Tom Waits’s post-Swordfishtrombones albums than his 70s material. I like the complex irony of those later albums. It’s like there’s a dark mirror planted somewhere near the year 1980, and Waits stepped through and became a gurning, grotesque reflection of what he was before. But there’s a time and a place for Waits’s more sincere early music. The time is 2:00am and the place is staggering home drunk. Or, in the absence of these conditions, you can simply imagine yourself in that state and it still kind of works. I had previously only known Waits’s earlier music through my longtime favourite Heartattack and Vine and a scattering of tracks from before it. This is my first listen to Small Change, and it is a heck of a lot better than Heartattack. There’s not a single song on this that I didn’t love immediately. While Waits is lacking his later derangement here, he still has the unique wit of a self-romanticizing drunk hobo. “Step Right Up” is a distillation of all of the most familiar slogans in cheap advertising and straightforward swindling into a song. It is substantially virtuosic, and it helps to clarify the difference between Waits’s early novelty songs and his later ones like “Cemetery Polka.” In “Step Right Up” (and also “The Piano Has Been Drinking”) Waits is letting the audience in on a joke he’s come up with. He’s performing a routine. In “Cemetery Polka,” there’s a joke somewhere, but it’s hard to parse and we feel alienated because of it. It’s entirely possible that we’re the brunt of the joke. But most of the album is made up of the sad, lovelorn ballads that Waits is so good at during this period. “Tom Traubert’s Blues” is the clear highlight, with its ripped-off chorus (from “Waltzing Matilda”) taking on more heft in this context than in its original one. It is one of Waits’ great pictures of modern despair and displacement, and one of his very best songs. The same goes for “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” and “Invitation to the Blues.” This immediately struck me as a brilliant album. I expect to be back to it as frequently as its ultra-specific mood will permit. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc.

Chris Onstad: Achewood — I have read up to April of 2002 in this wonderful, absurd, very funny and often poignant web comic. Evidently I am still a long way off from the good stuff, but I am already very into this world. Ray and Roast Beef are yet to become the central characters (I know enough to know that they eventually will) and Philippe is the current highlight. He is so adorable that it can only be hilarious to see him subjected to the capricious whims of the Achewood universe. Great stuff.

John Errington: Centuries of Sound — I’m trying to catch up with this blog, which includes mixes for every year of recorded sound. It’s a great premise, and the very early years are super interesting, though the mixes are understandably short and abstract. The first of them features a few reconstructed recordings of Édouard-Léon Scott, who made a machine that could record indications of sound in soot. They were never meant to be played back, because Scott couldn’t conceive of such a thing, but of course we’ve found a way. Errington’s mix includes a documentary by Studio 360 about how that came to be. It’s actually crazy to hear, however scrappily, the sound of a voice from 1860 — the voice of a person who might not have thought that such a thing was possible.

Podcasts

The Nod: “Greetings, My Brothas” — Okay, now this is good. There’s something about hearing people laugh at a funny thing that makes it funnier, and these two laughing at a YouTube conspiracy theory about the Jay-Z/Solange elevator incident is start-to-finish hysterical.

Mogul: “How Heavy It Was,” “August 30, 2012” & Uncle Murda cameo — Mogul is a beautiful thing. These last two episodes (I’m not going to deal too much with the cameo, fun though it is) just clinch the whole thing. What I love about this is that the show subtly frames its narrative as a low-key true crime story that culminates in a contested suicide ruling. But the narrative proceeds inexorably to the conclusion that Chris Lighty’s death probably was what it seemed like. The chief contribution of Mogul to the story of Chris Lighty is bringing the mental illness he suffered to light. That’s part of what makes it so vital: it addresses a death that’s regarded as a mystery by framing it in terms of the evidence that nobody wants to talk about. This is so good, and I have become very fond of Reggie Ossé. I don’t know how an Ivy League educated lawyer can be so warm and likeable. The Combat Jack Show has a new subscriber.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Dunkirk,” “Girls Trip” & “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” — I’m liking the new format. Of these episodes, the only one that convinced me to see something was the Dunkirk one, because I was genuinely on the fence prior to this. The other two amount to a “not for me” and a “this sounds awful.”

The Turnaround: “Anna Sale” & “Reggie Ossé (Combat Jack)” — I really admire Jesse Thorn for not cutting the moments in these interviews when his guests don’t know what his question means. Because I can absolutely relate to that. Anna Sale’s interview is a bit rough, since it was the first for this show, but it’s still edifying enough. The Combat Jack episode is a series highlight, though. I’m happy Thorn included him, since there aren’t likely to be any other specialists in a subject area on this show. (Unless you count Brooke Gladstone, but “media” isn’t really a niche.) Since Mogul’s been coming out, I’ve been amazed at how easy it seems for Combat to talk with huge hip hop stars. Turns out, there’s value in being a bit of an insider. He’s a known enough quantity that these artists are comfortable talking to him. But that’s not to say that craftsmanship and intent don’t enter into what Reggie Ossé does. He’s always thinking in broader terms to what just about any generalist interviewing a rapper would be thinking. He’s interested in hearing their take on life in general, rather than just about their art. That’s valuable. Have I done a complete about-face on my opinion of interviewing artists since I started listening to this show? Yes? I dunno. I’m very confused about my own value system. But I know I enjoyed these shows.

Code Switch: “What’s So Wrong With African Americans Wearing African Clothing?” & “What’s Good? Talking Hip-Hop and Race With Stretch and Bobbito” — A pair of preview for shows I’m not super interested in. The Stoop covers interesting territory, but I’m not sold on the hosts. And I’m suspicious of the extent to which NPR is getting in on the personality-driven podcast bandwagon with the Stretch and Bobbito show. Probably I’m wrong.

Theory of Everything: “Private Ear” — I can’t help but feel like the guy this story is about — an aural reconstructor of secret spaces who uses the memories of prisoners as his guide — is a bit dodgy. But it’s very much like this show to introduce me to an artist (because this is what he is, mostly) who works so far outside of the expected arenas.

99% Invisible: “The Trials of Dan and Dave” — ESPN is getting into podcasting, and they’ve already got the Roman Mars bump. Imagine. This is a fun story that’s not really all about the sports, which as far as I know is the 30 For 30 trademark. Nice stuff.

This American Life: “Break-Up” — It’s pretty rare for me to listen to anything from a show’s back catalogue these days. But this is the episode that made Starlee Kine’s career. As a steadfast mourner of Mystery Show, I felt it was necessary to finally hear the famous story where Kine works through her bad breakup with the assistance of one Phil Collins. As a Genesis fan, it’s doubly interesting to hear Collins tell the story of how his first divorce precipitated his transition from being a jazz fusion drummer in his non-Genesis career to an international pop star on the back of several heartrending ballads. This all strikes a personal chord for me, because I went through a shit breakup that was scored by the music of Phil Collins’s one-time bandmate, Peter Gabriel. There was a while there where I obsessed over Gabriel’s Us album for very similar reasons to the ones Kine cites for her love for “Against All Odds.” I am Starlee Kine in the Upside-Down. T’was ever thus.

99% Invisible: “El Gordo” — Ah yes, a story in which only one person in a town does not win the lottery. The world is quite marvellous, you know that?

The Memory Palace: “Elmer McCurdy Rides Again and Again” — It was only a matter time before our greatest author of historical prose poems attempted a rhyming couplet story. It is a mixed affair. Mostly I like it, but I halfway feel that the gimmick gets in the way of a genuinely marvellous story, in which an embalmed human body is mistaken for a wax sculpture and ends up on the set of The Six Million Dollar Man. Still good.

Criminal: “A Bump In The Night” — A terrifying story of a woman who hears sounds in the night that turn out to be something. It ends unsatisfyingly, but so do most things in life.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “The Emoluments Clauses” — The most interesting thing about this is the fact that the emoluments clauses of the constitution have been considered so obscure that they’re not even in textbooks, and Trump is the first president so unconventional that he requires them to be taken into consideration. Everything is bad.

The Daily: July 24-28 — My first full week of listening to The Daily reveals it to be a genuinely excellent way to keep on top of the biggest stories, at least as they pertain to American federal politics. I have generally preferred this show when it contains at least one segment that takes place outside of the U.S.A. But there are some genuinely confusing and terrifying things happening in the White House on a week by week basis, so what are they to do? Regardless, this is one of the best shows to launch in recent years, and a genuine innovation.

Reply All: “Long Distance” — The best episode of Reply All for some time. And it’s not like it’s been in a slump. Some schlub who didn’t know what he was getting into tried to scam Alex Goldman and ended up the subject of a piece of playful yet ruthless investigative journalism. Goldman’s imperiousness is hysterical here, and the fact that he doesn’t reveal the consequence of the story at the start is much appreciated. I feel compelled to be coy about this and not spoil it. Listen to it. It is magnificent. Pick of the week.

Song by Song: “Tom Traubert’s Blues (Four Sheets to the Wind in Copenhagen), Small Change, Tom Waits” — I came across this Tom Waits song randomly at work, having never listened to Small Change. (You’ll note from above that I have since listened to the full album and had quite the response.) It is a beautiful thing, and I figured I’d take the opportunity to sample this podcast that’s going through his songs in order, one by one. It could do to be longer, honestly. It feels a bit slim. Fun that they’ve got Jeffrey Cranor, though. Not sure I’ll be back to this.