Tag Archives: The World According to Sound

Omnibus (week of July 1, 2018)

It’s been a year light on instant favourites. There are a couple in here, though.

19 reviews.

Movies

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — Morgan Neville’s Mister Rogers documentary has already acquired a reputation for being a tearjerker. It is that. On the way home, I tried to figure out why. Nothing sad happens in it. True to its subject, nothing much happens in it at all. For me, it isn’t particularly nostalgic, either. I watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child, but I was so small that I barely remember it. My memory of television only extends back to Bill Nye the Science Guy, or thereabouts. So what is it about this nice movie about a nice man that hits me and everybody else so hard in the feels? For me, it might have something to do with my Pavlovian response to the music of Michael Nyman. But more broadly I think it’s basically this: Neville sets up the beatifically decent Fred Rogers as an alternative to the cynicism and mean-spiritedness that dominates public discourse today, and that periodically dominated it for the entire thirty-year run of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. There’s no mention of Donald Trump or contemporary politics in the movie, but there doesn’t have to be: celebrating Rogers’ big-heartedness is an implicit, gentle act of resistance to an administration that has of late been particularly cruel to children. The closest the movie comes to naming and shaming its target is in a sequence about the first episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, in which King Friday XIII tries to build a border wall. But even that is more amusing than preachy. The most moving moments of the film are the places where television intersects with history. Rogers dared to address the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in the forum of children’s television in his first season. And he stayed the course, casually delivering civil rights messages and folksy explications of intensely sad subjects. His rapport with children who have suffered trauma, be it the death of a pet or a serious medical condition, is a wonder to behold. As moving as any of this, though, is Rogers’ simple respect for children’s intelligence and curiosity. His show was famously slow, famously lo-fi, and famously concerned with, as Linda Holmes put it on Pop Culture Happy Hour, teaching kids how oboes are made. Obviously, all of this is catnip to me. Fred Rogers was a defining figure in the history of public broadcasting because he steadfastly refused to simply give the people what they want. He strove for the higher ideal of Making People Better, which is what public broadcasters are supposed to do. It’s just as instructive to look back on Mister Rogers in the era of Facebook as it is to look back on him in the era of Trump. That said, Rogers’ attitude (and by extension, the film’s) towards other approaches to television can be needlessly dismissive. There is an uncomfortably small distance between Fred Rogers’ distaste for conventionally entertaining television and Mary Whitehouse’s boneheaded attempts to censor the BBC. There’s an uncomfortable parallel between Rogers’ anxiety that children would watch superhero cartoons and think they could actually fly and Whitehouse’s media illiterate claim that children would see a cliffhanger where Doctor Who’s head was held underwater and think that he’d be held that way for the entire week until the next episode started. But ultimately, Rogers’ straightforward attempts to bring out the best in his young viewers overrides all of this. His is a philosophy that has vacated much of public discourse, including in the media, and we need it back. Fred Rogers believed in people, particularly children, and wanted to help them be better. That is why Won’t You Be My Neighbor is the year’s most beautiful film. See it while it’s in theatres if you can. It is best experienced collectively. Pick of the week.

Live events

Converge & Neurosis live at the Commodore — I don’t really do metal these days. But when invited, I don’t mind taking in a show. This triple bill (counting openers Amenra, who were not a major part of the advertising) featured exclusively bands that I had never heard. Amenra didn’t make much of an impression on me. I see what they’re doing, which is basically leaving as many elements out of their music as possible. That includes colour in their presentation, which consists of evocative, serene video projections in black and white. They build whole songs with almost no harmonic motion. They are admirably committed to their minimalism, but it’s not for me. In retrospect, Converge would appear to be the odd ones out on this bill — a hugely charismatic hardcore band sandwiched between two uncompromising metal behemoths. That charisma is largely the reason why Converge was the band that left the strongest impression on me. Where Amenra and Neurosis would never do anything so gauche as acknowledge the audience, Converge lives for the crowd. (The crowd lives for them, also: the mosh pit that formed during their set could almost be described as a ‘fight.’) Their frontman, Jacob Bannon, never stops moving. He greets the audience between songs, offering rousing encouragement to anybody in the crowd who may be a survivor of depression or family dysfunction, or who’s just learning how to be a parent. There is an odd warmth to Converge. I feel strangely compelled to draw a parallel to their polar opposite, Belle and Sebastian, who I saw last week. Like Bannon, B&S’s frontman Stuart Murdoch also wears his triumph over circumstances proudly. After such an unlikely charm offensive, what a shock to encounter Neurosis. They are the bill’s resident metal royalty, and they present themselves accordingly. Their songs stretch to ten or twelve minutes apiece, and when one of them ends, the lights go out. Spacey noises fill the venue. And we only catch another glimpse of these Old Gods when their performance begins anew. We don’t see them tuning up. We don’t see them moving equipment around (well, we do a little, but we pretend we don’t). We only see them when they are playing their instruments. They don’t wave or bow at the end of the set. They don’t do encores. They establish a stark and total divide between us and them. And in doing so, they make themselves terrifying. Heavy metal is inscribed on their faces. You pay attention. Loudness isn’t the half of it. In spite of this, and probably a little bit because of it, I spent the first three quarters or so of Neurosis’s set feeling distinctly that Converge had won the night. I surprised myself with that feeling, since Neurosis’s music is much more my style. There’s more transparency in it — enough variety in the texture that you can hear detail. In case anybody had any doubt that they’re musical iconoclasts, the keyboardist has even mounted a set of bass pedals to the top rack of his rig. Still, it wasn’t until the final two songs of the set that they totally won me over. “Reach” is from their latest album, and reminds me of what I loved about Opeth when I first discovered them: every minute of this long song is packed with as many musical ideas as most bands would put on a whole album. And the set ender, the title track from their apparently legendary 1996 album Through Silver In Blood was so mercilessly heavy that it left at least a portion of the crowd completely helpless as to how to respond. The atmosphere after Neurosis disappeared from the stage was of dumbfounded shock. None of these bands make the sort of music that I have space for in my life these days. I doubt that I’ll spend a lot of time listening to their albums. But the show was a thing to behold.

Music

Belle and Sebastian: Write About Love — Deeply underrated. A gem on par with Dear Catastrophe Waitress, featuring several of the band’s best tracks — especially “I Didn’t See It Coming,” which is a top five classic Belle and Sebastian song. Other standouts include “I Want the World to Stop,” “I Can See Your Future,” and the slightly Phil Spectory title track. Title aside, even “Calculating Bimbo” has a winning melody.

Belle and Sebastian: If You’re Feeling Sinister: Live at the Barbican — I feel weird saying this is better than the studio version. I came away from last week’s concert with a new appreciation for the early B&S material, and a general sense that it isn’t served well by the recordings it’s featured on. Ergo, this live album. It’s got a lot more energy than its studio counterpart, but Stuart still doesn’t quite sound like his energetic contemporary self. This is still 13 years ago, after all. People change. Anyway, I really like this. If You’re Feeling Sinister has been the hardest Belle and Sebastian album to get into for me, but this helps.

Comedy

Hannah Gadsby: Nanette — The premise of this is that Gadsby is leaving comedy and wrote this show to explain why. In practice, she effectively quits comedy halfway through the show. It is a deeply intelligent deconstruction of comedy. Gadsby points out the ways in which it differs from conventional storytelling, the way it prizes the release of tension over all other concerns, and the way it has been used as a tool of oppression as much as a vehicle for protest. There’s also a very resonant thread about art history in this, which ought to force anybody who has recently read E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, just for example, to reconsider some things.

Games

West of Loathing — For a brief time in high school, I was an enthusiastic player of a browser game called Kingdom of Loathing. Its intensely lo-fi aesthetic of stick figures moving through a world that looks like a 10-year-old’s Hilroy scribbler drew me in immediately, and the mercilessly consistent comic writing kept me there until I moved on to the next thing. It’s a type of gaming experience I wouldn’t have again until Fallen London, years later. Now, just like Fallen London has its one-player downloadable offshoot Sunless Sea, KoL has West of Loathing: a point-and-click adventure that takes its parent game’s pencil-drawn aesthetic and builds a Western out of it. It’s a total delight, and it’s been filling my free evenings for a couple weeks now. Here is a single moment that I think encapsulates the delightfulness of this game: at one point you find a pile of boards and nails, and you’re informed that you could probably build a crate out of these things. If you do, the game’s like “hey, it’s a crate!” And when you open it there are items inside. Brilliant. Aside from its wonderful comic writing, West of Loathing also plays well as a tribute to adventure games past and present. There’s a subplot involving alien technology where the puzzles play like something from Riven (but easier), and there is a culture of creepy clowns that could come straight from Sunless Sea. Both of these plot threads are semi-Lovecraftian in the way that all indie games are now. But that’s one genre among many that this game is juggling. I loved this. If you want to play a game that will make you smile, I highly recommend it.

Podcasts

Constellations catch-up — I’m all for sound art and experimental radio. I’m so for it that I’m frequently exhausted by mainstream podcasting. (Yes, there is such a thing as mainstream podcasting, for you terrestrial radio listeners out there.) But a lot of what I heard in the last spate of episodes from this podcast left me unmoved. They seemed to convey little except a cultivated aesthetic of artsiness. When the only thing to help you see the beauty in a piece is an interview with the artist after the fact, there’s a problem. But listening to this is worth it for exceptions like Meira Asher’s “refuse: military.01” which is a marvellous commentary on Israeli compulsory military service. It’s the perfect example of why it’s important to search outside the big podcast networks and public radio behemoths for good radio.

Bullseye: “George Clinton & Cristela Alonzo” — This is most worthwhile for the George Clinton interview, which is a real trip. He’s a genius that ought to be upheld more as one of the foundational figures in ‘70s popular music. He’s also very funny.

The Daily: “Assigning Blame in the Opioid Epidemic,” “How the Opioid Crisis Started” & “One Family’s Reunification Story” — The two opioid epidemic episodes are great and infuriating, particularly the first. The reunification story is very moving, and everybody involved is admirably committed to making it clear that this is the exception to the rule. It can be tempting to think of a story like this as the tail end of a narrative: children and parents were separated, and then because we heard the story of one reunification, it must be all over. You can’t listen to this story and feel that way, which makes it very responsible journalism, in my view.

In the Dark: “The End” — By necessity, this is an open ending. But it’s a good summation of a categorically effective investigation. I have nothing more to say about this season than I’ve already said. Suffice it to say it’s one of the best pieces of investigative journalism I’ve encountered all year.

The World According to Sound catch-up — The episode of this show that focuses on the first few minutes of the show that would become This American Life is fascinating. If there’s any takeaway from the “Sound Audio” season thus far, it’s that there are an infinite number of ways to make radio, and that shockingly few of them are represented in mainstream public radio and podcasting. TAL is where the aesthetic that has taken over those spheres came from, but it’s interesting to look back on how radical it was in its infancy.

You Must Remember This: “D.W. Griffith, the Gish Sisters and the origin of ‘Hollywood Babylon’” — I have been waiting for this for what feels like years, even though I didn’t know what I was waiting for. As it turns out, I think this season has the potential to be one of Karina Longworth’s best. The premise is outstanding: take one of the most influential books in the history of filmmaking, Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, and fact check it. In the process, we’ll inevitably cross paths with some of the most notable characters in Hollywood history. This first episode about D.W. Griffith and the Gish sisters offers proof-of-concept for that. It’s well known that Griffith was blithely racist, but this episode makes it clear that he was also a creep. Nice.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Mister Rogers Documentary ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor’” & “Ant-Man And The Wasp, Plus What’s Making Us Happy” — An accurate appraisal of Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and further permission to sit out the new Ant-Man.

Code Switch: “Code Switch’s Summer Vacation” — A light episode, for once, but a good one.

Fresh Air: “The State Of The Supreme Court” — It is not a happy state.

Out of the Blocks: “A Conversation with Mayor Catherine Pugh” — This is weird. The mayor of Baltimore is a fan of this podcast, so she interviewed the host in public. The result is a conversation between a journalist and a politician where it feels like the politician is not taking a risk. I know that’s not the point of this interview, and Out of the Blocks isn’t that kind of show, but that power dynamic implicitly makes me uneasy. Anyway, the mayor is correct to observe that Out of the Blocks is excellent.

Trump Con Law: “Justice Kennedy” — A good breakdown of why Kennedy’s retirement has thrown everything into disarray — but it’s also a bit less useful than most other episodes of this show, because everybody else is covering this too.

The Memory Palace: “Patience” — Nate DiMeo is very good at finding stories from history that resonate with the news cycle. This one is about a slave who was separated from her child by ruthless slave traders. It is devastating, and it does not resolve neatly. Listen to it. Pick of the week.

99% Invisible: “Roman Mars on ZigZag” — This is the fourth episode of a serialized story, but it’s the first to appear on a show that I listen to regularly. It reminds me of StartUp season one, because it is straightforwardly similar to that — both are stories of people trying to start podcasting companies. I think I’ll listen from the beginning, though I’m not 100% sure I’m sold. It depends on how much talking about blockchain there is.

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Omnibus (week of May 20, 2018)

A number of people at my workplace and otherwise have occasionally identified a phenomenon they call “peak Parsons.” I have become adept at recognizing this phenomenon myself, and I daresay my review of Julie Taymor’s film of The Tempest is a prime example. So is my most recent NXNW column, in which I recommend geometry as a form of self-care. Enjoy.

19 reviews.

Movies

The Tempest — When this came out in 2010, I was bonkers excited. I watched the trailer over and over. Opening weekend was a scheduling no-go, but one week later I was there. Alas, the movie no longer was. This actually happened. I went to the movie theatre to see Julie Taymor’s The Tempest — starring Helen Mirren as the now-genderswapped Prospera and a bizarre assemblage of personalities from Alan Cumming to Russell Brand in supporting roles — and the movie theatre was no longer showing it. None of them were. Not in Edmonton. Guess I’m waiting for the DVD I said to myself, in those shockingly recent, pre-Netflix times. Eight years later, I still hadn’t seen it. But now I have, and all is right in the world. Except for the fact that the movie itself is… uneven. Much of it is bad; still more is baffling. Elliot Goldenthal’s score is deeply ostentatious. Ferdinand sings a song from Twelfth Night for no reason. Russell Brand is kind of a lot. The CG, and overreliance thereupon, is very 2010. (Though, I do think this is a valid and intentional choice, though not necessarily a fruitful one. I’ll get to it.) And even the one universally acclaimed aspect of the film, Helen Mirren’s performance, is undercut by some deeply bizarre editing, including her introduction with a very Ken Russell quick push into her screaming face. What keeps The Tempest from being a complete trainwreck is the sense that Taymor’s decisions, however crazy, are all deliberate and pointing in the same direction. There are little choices here and there that make you go, ah yes, here we have a good filmmaker. Take Ben Whishaw’s air spirit Ariel. He spends most of the movie morphing proteanly through various computer-generated forms. (This is not the good choice; some of these bits are a little embarrassing.) But his most important scene with Prospera works differently. I’m talking about the scene where Prospera ponders what to do with her prisoners, and Ariel suggests mercy. In one of the play’s biggest gut punches, Ariel reminds Prospera that he is not human, and therefore implicitly that she is. And thus, she must act humanely. Done right, it’s one of the best parts of The Tempest. Ariel doesn’t earn his freedom by doing Prospera’s bidding, like she says he will. He earns his freedom here by giving unexpectedly good, unexpectedly human, counsel. This is the turning point in their relationship. If this scene works, the moment Prospera frees him from their contract later on will work too. In Taymor’s rendition, this scene is the only one where Ben Whishaw appears opaque. He’s right there, in frame with Helen Mirren, which has almost never happened before in the film. It’s marvellous. But even if every single decision Taymor made throughout the film was as pitch-perfect as this one, it still might not work. Making a film out of The Tempest is a bit of a mug’s game to begin with. (I am about to get perverse. Be warned.) The Tempest is ostentatiously theatrical. More than any other Shakespeare play save possibly Hamlet, it is explicitly about the act of performance. The fourth wall is paper-thin in this play, with Prospero/Prospera threatening to break it several times during the “such stuff as dreams are made on” speech, and ripping through it completely in the final monologue, when they explicitly solicit the audience’s applause. That last speech is impossible in film, and Taymor wisely cuts it. Penetrating though her gaze may be, Helen Mirren cannot literally see us through the screen. But the broader challenge is simply that film is a more naturalistic medium than theatre. Its grammar (editing, camera motion, etc.) is usually intended to be invisible. On the other hand, I dare say that the word “theatricality” can almost be defined as the opposite of that: benign yet obvious artificiality. And indeed, Taymor almost manages to conjure the spirit of a staged Tempest in her film by making much of it appear deliberately fake. But our relationship to theatrical fakeness is different from our relationship to CGI fakeness, in that we can intuitively understand how the fakery is done on stage. In some cases, we can literally see the strings. CGI, on the other hand is inexplicable to most of us. It might as well be actual magic — magic that is well beyond our grasp. And this is where any film adaptation of The Tempest is bound to relate to its audience differently than a stage production: when we watch The Tempest on stage, we all become sorcerers. We marvel at the magic we see, but we also understand how it has come into being. This makes us coextensive with Prospero/Prospera for the play’s duration. And once they’ve broken their staff and drowned their book, relinquishing their powers, they demand release from a spell of their own making from us. By applauding their final speech, we magically free them from our plane to go off and be the Duke/Duchess in another, fictional one. They are to us as Ariel is to them. This is what Taymor cannot accomplish. And her replacement of the final speech with a visual image — the shattering of Prospera’s staff — reads as a tacit acknowledgement of that. (But the fact that the speech remains in place as the end credits song feels like a half measure. Do it or don’t. By the final lines of the song, the demand for applause, most of the crowd will have filed out of the theatre. Why bother?) So basically, this movie is not successful, and this was inevitable from the start. But in spite of that, I enjoyed a lot of it for its sheer weirdness and willingness to take one big swing after another. Really, the best and worst qualities of this movie are both defined by the fact that it has Russell Brand in it. You don’t cast that guy in Shakespeare if you don’t have a really specific vision. I almost recommend this. As for me, I think I’ll watch Titus again.

Literature, etc.

Alison Bechdel: Are You My Mother? — Bechdel’s second family-related memoir is consciously designed as a companion piece to Fun Home. Where Fun Home was a book about Bechdel’s relationship with her father, Are You My Mother? is (ostensibly) a book about her relationship with her mother. Where Fun Home was drawn in black, white and teal, Are You My Mother? is drawn in black, white and… I want to say magenta? (I’m not great at colours.) Where Fun Home was a book about reading, Are You My Mother? is much more a book about writing. And where Fun Home is a book about the impact of literature on Bechdel’s thinking about her own life, Are You My Mother? is about the impact that therapy and psychology texts had on her. If that makes it sound a bit abstruse, well yes. Bechdel’s graphic novels are essentially essays told in prose accompanied by narratives told in pictures. The essayistic portion of Are You My Mother? requires the reader to keep track of an armful of psychoanalytic concepts that build on each other and intertwine with the story such that you’ll get lost if you lose focus. This is by no means a problem, lest anybody misunderstand. Artists of Alison Bechdel’s calibre have every right to demand our full attention. But with all the focus on these psychoanalytic concepts, the story gets short shrift. I’ve mentioned a lot of differences between Fun Home and Are You My Mother? But perhaps the main one is that Fun Home’s main subject was deceased, whereas this book’s was very much alive at the time of writing. It’s very clear that Bechdel felt a certain awkwardness about mining her mother’s life for literature that she did not feel about her father, who would never see the end result. As a result, we get a far less fulsome picture of Helen Fontana Bechdel than we did of Bruce Bechdel: less biographical detail, less insight into her relationships with those around her — in short, less story. What we get instead is a great deal of friction and outright conflict between Bechdel and her mother about the writing of the book itself. While writing the book, Bechdel meticulously transcribed her phone calls with her mother. Much of the characterization we get comes from those conversations, which are wonderful but limited to a certain time frame and set of circumstances. Still, this is worth a read for many of the same reasons that Fun Home is remarkable. It weaves together Bechdel’s thoughts on not just psychoanalysis (and particularly Donald Winnicott) but also Virginia Woolf, Winnie the Pooh and Dr. Seuss. Even in this somewhat lesser masterpiece, Bechdel is still very best artist out there at building a sophisticated understanding of human behaviour through living, reading, and linking those two practices together.

Matt Taibbi: “Can We Be Saved From Facebook?” — Seemingly, we cannot. Taibbi is a famously forceful writer, and this is a good summation of the case against Facebook. It doesn’t contain much that is new on the subject, nor is the solution Taibbi suggests (an antitrust action) a new one. But if you don’t read a lot on this subject, this is the second-best magazine feature on it, next to John Lanchester’s essay in the London Review of Books, which predates Zuck’s congressional hearings and the whole Cambridge Analytica thing and therefore doesn’t cover that.

Bryan Lee O’Malley: Scott Pilgrim — I just read all six volumes of Scott Pilgrim in less than 48 hours. That in itself ought to tell you something about it. This is a deeply immersive comic that is far more relatable than I’m comfortable with. The relatability is in the broad strokes, i.e. our hero’s propensity to withdraw from all social contact in the aftermath of heartbreak. But much of the delight is in the details, such as: (1) We see Scott wearing a shirt of a (real) album called Mass Teen Fainting shortly before a mass teen fainting transpires. (2) Fully half of the band at Scott’s high school consists of Girls Who Play The Flute. (3) Knives Chau discovers heartbreak and immediately starts quoting Blood on the Tracks, possibly never having heard it. (4) A sequence in the last volume, where Scott descends to a basement and hence to his final confrontation is a mashup of Brazil and Daft Punk’s pyramid shows. There’s a satisfying experience to be had just reading Scott Pilgrim looking out for these sorts of details. But the real triumph of this series is the fact that as you progress through it you always sympathize with every member of its cast, even though they are frequently terrible people and many of them are consistently at odds with each other. Knives Chau, for instance, is extremely stupid for the bulk of the series’ duration. But, as we are constantly reminded, she is also 17 years old. Bearing that in mind, her bad decisions are just how everybody is at that age. And the moment when she ceases to be that way comes shortly after the book informs us that she’s turned 18. There’s nothing magical about that number; it’s just the book’s first indication that she’s growing up — and she immediately begins acting the part. There are complaints to be had, and there are rejoinders to those complaints. Firstly, Scott Pilgrim is a loser. He spends most of his time playing video games and sleeping in until noon, he is enormously reluctant to get a job, and the band he’s in is crap. One of the book’s more amusing heightenings of reality is the fact that this feckless bastard is also a staggeringly good fighter. But the other side of that coin is — why valorize a dude who never worked at anything? (Related: does the art rock band have to be evil?) Do we really need more illustrations of the fact that men don’t have to work that hard to succeed in the world? On that note: given that I’ve also been reading Alison Bechdel this week, we may as well observe that nearly every scene involving two women involves them talking about or literally fighting over boys. The women in Scott Pilgrim are mostly defined in relation to Scott. We have an object of obsession, a traumatizing ex, an obsessive hanger-on, the one that got away, and the taken-for-granted friend. None of these characters are particularly well defined outside of these relationships. However, I’m tempted to read this redemptively by looking at the entire series as a parody of a (specifically male) limited perspective on the world. Throughout the final chapters, we’re treated to various men’s “memory cams” of their past relationships, which are always hilariously inaccurate. We also see a recap of a previous fight scene that implies that the first iteration of that scene may have been sensationalized — opening up the possibility that most of what we’ve read may be unreliable. Basically, we spend the entire series tethered to Scott Pilgrim’s way of thinking about the world, which is as limited as any single person’s will inevitably be — and is limited further still by the fact that he possesses very little empathy. Naturally the book will fail the Bechdel test, because as far as its narrator is concerned, if a woman isn’t thinking or talking about him, what they’re saying can’t possibly be important. This is illustrated by a bit where two women are having a conversation about something Scott doesn’t perceive to be important, so it’s rendered in “blah blah blahs.” I believe that we’re meant to take careful note of all of this. Scott Pilgrim is acutely aware of the tropes it employs — even the sexist ones. That’s part of why it’s so satisfying when Scott defeats the comic’s “final boss” Gideon. It feels like he’s defeating the worst part of himself: the part that sees women solely as potential partners, devoid of potential in themselves. What you should take from all this is that Scott Pilgrim is complicated. But the fact remains that I cared more about this comic for a whole weekend than I did about anything else. The periodic reversals of fortune that it puts its characters through twisted me around for two days. I loved it. I’ll probably read it again. Pick of the week.

Music

Talking Heads: Remain in Light — One of these days I’ll move on to another Talking Heads album. Seriously, I think I may have heard Fear of Music once. I’ve seen/heard Stop Making Sense a bunch of times. And I’ve heard a smattering of stuff from their first couple of albums. But for the most part my interface with Talking Heads has been entirely through Remain in Light, which has oddly been one of my favourite albums for years, in spite of having failed to inspire me to dig into this catalogue any further. “Once in a Lifetime” is a rare case of the hit being my favourite track, because it is flawless. It is the perfect evocation of a familiar feeling: that your life is happening to you in spite of your own actions rather than because of them. I could listen to “The Great Curve” over and over. It’s the purest distillation of this album’s guiding principle of building everything from one-chord vamps. There is a huge amount of unique musical material on parade in “The Great Curve,” and nary a chord change to be found. This is Brian Eno’s doing, I suspect. In much the same way as he did with his early solo albums (especially Another Green World), Eno encouraged the band to come to the studio with as little prepared as possible. And nothing encourages spontaneity like a song with no chords to keep track of. It’s one of those limitations that Eno loves so much, and that always turn out to be so freeing in practice. “Crosseyed and Painless” is painfully relevant in the Trump era. Setlist.fm tells me he hasn’t been playing it on his current tour. Too on the nose? Anyway, this is a classic. I love it and I really regret missing Byrne at the Queen E the other night.

Podcasts

In Our Time: “The Almoravid Empire” & “The Mabinogion” — The second of these is the highlight, about a collection of 12th- and 13th-century British stories of women made of flowers and magicians with weird senses of humour. Some of the stories from The Mabinogion were familiar to me, but I did not know where they came from, so that was cool. The Almoravid Empire kind of evaporated upon contact, honestly. I was busy cooking.

Radiolab catch-up — This last batch of Radiolab episodes has some stuff I’d heard before and elected not to listen to again, some stuff I’d heard before and elected to hear it anyway, and some new stuff that left me a bit cold. I liked the conclusion to the border trilogy, but not as much as the first two parts. It’s just so brutal.

Sandra: “Hope is a Mistake” — Okay, time at last to check out the new offerings from Gimlet. First up, their latest fiction podcast, which is very dull and occasionally cringeworthy, i.e. the comedic in-universe ads. The first episode is almost pure setup, and while there’s a possibly interesting concept in here — an A.I. that’s actually driven by a bunch of humans in a building rather than machine learning or anything like that — this introduction fails to do the most crucial thing to do when you’re starting up a science fiction story, which is hint at the various directions that your cool premise might go. This only gets around to letting us in on the premise at the end. So, I’m out. Thanks for playing. I’ll always give a new Gimlet show one episode, but that’s all this one’s getting.

The Habitat: “This Is the Way Up” — Another of Gimlet’s new offerings, this is essentially Big Brother, but for actual science as well as for our entertainment. The characters in this show will be spending a year in isolation, with only each other for company. They’re doing this to emulate the psychological conditions of a hypothetical mission to Mars. But that doesn’t make the experience of listening in on it any more edifying or noble than standard issue reality television. Hard pass.

We Came To Win: “How the 1990 World Cup Saved English Soccer” — Shock; horror; the one podcast in the latest slate of Gimlet releases that I actually like is the sports one. The brilliance of this concept is in the limits it has set for itself: it’s just about the World Cup. By the standards of the sports podcasting world, that is by no means a narrow focus. But I feel like it would have been completely unsurprising if Gimlet’s first sports show had been about sports in the same way that 99% Invisible is about design. Instead, it is about the World Cup in the same way that 99% Invisible is about design, which is so much more promising. This particular episode is structured around the fall and rise of English soccer. We get a gut-churning retelling of the Hillsborough disaster, where 96 people died because too many people were packed into a section of a stadium. (The organizational stupidity it takes for this to happen boggles the mind. This episode tells the story in excruciating detail and I still don’t understand how a disaster like this could happen.) We hear about the culture of football fandom in the wake of that disaster. But that’s all context for the meat of the story, which is about the 1990 English World Cup team. The reason that story is fun is because the producers have really taken the time to establish the stakes with their retelling of the Hillsborough disaster and its aftermath. Also it involves New Order. This is really good. I’ll probably listen to more of this.

In the Dark: “Privilege” — A whole episode on the story of the prosecution’s key witness in the Curtis Flowers case: Odell Hallmon. The long and the short of it is, he kept testifying that Flowers confessed to him in trial after trial, and also seems to constantly be able to evade prison time for horrible crimes. Being good journalists, the In the Dark team does not come right out and say what it sounds like. But if there is some connection between Hallmon’s propensity to get out of jail free and his role in the Flowers case, that complicates matters for the prosecution, because Hallmon ended up confessing to a triple murder himself in the years following the trials. This is troubling, captivating radio. Every week I look forward to hearing new evidence.

Lend Me Your Ears: “Reading Julius Caesar in Modern Context” — A minor extra, intended to plug Slate Plus. But I’m enjoying this show enough that I’ll listen to whatever comes through the feed.

The World According to Sound: “Sound Audio: Father Cares” — Here we have something I need to remember to listen to in its entirety. The host throws a bit of shade on contemporary NPR for not being as adventurous as the producers of this documentary, which is semi-fictional, though the tape it uses is all real. And he’s right to throw that shade: Benjamen Walker is the only person I know of who’s still doing that, and it’s an enormously effective way to explore the space of possibility that exists just outside of actual reality — things that didn’t happen but could have.

The Daily: “Putting ‘Fake News’ on Trial” — This is about the Alex Jones lawsuit. It’s crazy making, but you should hear it if you are unaware of how batshit the world has become.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Solo: A Star Wars Story and What’s Making Us Happy” — I will likely see Solo in spite of it probably being kind of bad. At least there is Donald Glover.

Caliphate: “Paper Trail” — The best episode so far. Turns out their source was unreliable (not a surprise). So this episode traces the process of verifying what is and isn’t true in the story we’ve already heard. Caliphate is becoming not just a disturbing look inside ISIS recruitment, but also a revealing look inside the process of doing journalism for the world’s best newspaper. Pick of the week.

On the Media: “Glenn Beck Reverses His Reversal” — This is mostly a rebroadcast of Bob Garfield’s interview with Glenn Beck from 2016. It’s worth hearing again in the wake of Beck’s recent pledge of support for Donald Trump — a thing which, let’s remember, he did not do in 2016, in spite of being completely horrible in every way.

The Media Show: “The Evolution of Radio” — An extremely weird conversation about podcasts that is clearly meant for people who heard this on the radio rather than as a podcast. I say that because it assumes almost no knowledge about podcasts. This is the first time I’ve experienced a podcast that assumes that. It is disorienting and made me lose faith in this show, which I have often enjoyed.

Reply All: “Pain Funnel” — A Sruthi Pinnamaneni-produced episode about fraudulent rehab centres. It’s not a laugh riot, but it’s worth your time.  

Omnibus (week of May 13, 2018)

Let’s see, what have we got here. We’ve got a movie I should have seen a long time ago, a great season of TV, a couple albums, and a broad assortment of journalism in written, audible and even visual form. There’s some stuff I’ve got on the go right now that’s not accounted for here that you will hear about next week. This particular omnibus may lead you to wonder about my seemingly arbitrary use of links. I link the things I review when they are both linkable and urgently worth your time. Other that that, links are for reference. That is all.

Oh, also, I had a review column on NXNW for the first time in a while this morning. But to hold you over until it’s online, here is a thing I made about how I don’t like Gilbert and Sullivan so I went to find some people who really really do in the hope that they can make me see what I’m missing. (They didn’t. But they were lovely.)

20 reviews.

Movies, etc.

This is Spinal Tap — Possibly the most frequently referenced movie that I had not actually seen until yesterday, This is Spinal Tap is also a remarkably durable parody that has aged pretty much impeccably. As an avid fan of quite a lot of music that sounds a bit like “Stonehenge” and quite a lot more music that sounds like “Jazz Odyssey,” I can attest to the calibre of the style parodies themselves. But this movie’s greatest success is the fact that its jokes don’t rely specifically on recognition to succeed. Certainly, if you’ve heard your share of Led Zeppelin, Queen, Scorpion, Motley Crüe, the Zombies, Yes, King Crimson, Lonnie Donegan, and any number of other artists of variable consequence throughout the history of rock and roll, you will get something out of this that those without that context will not. But fundamentally, This is Spinal Tap is character-based comedy, with the jokes coming from the same place that the stakes of the story do, which is relationships. Michael McKean and Christopher Guest do the heavy lifting here, but there’s comedy even in the occasional shot of actual prog rocker David Kaff playing keyboards, at an almost complete remove from the story at large. Parody is hard. This is the benchmark.

Lindsay Ellis: The Hobbit: A Long-Expected Autopsy, etc. — Lindsay Ellis’s justifiably three-part video essay on the un-justifiably three-part Hobbit trilogy is some of the best media criticism I’ve seen in a while. The first and second parts tackle the low-hanging fruit: namely the myriad ways in which the movies themselves are narrative failures driven more by studio fiat than creative control. But the third part is a work of honest-to-god journalism, telling the story of the labour disputes that nearly sundered the production of The Hobbit and the laws that were passed to exploit the New Zealand-based actors who took part. It’s worth a watch as much to learn about all of that as to remind yourself why the original Lord of the Rings trilogy is a masterpiece worth revisiting.

Television

Atlanta: Season 2 — Donald Glover is the pre-eminent creative person right now. Atlanta is farther out than anything else on TV, and its experiments didn’t let it down all season. In “Teddy Perkins” we got a horror movie with a monster as simultaneously ghastly and tragic as Frankenstein’s. In “FUBU” we got a coming-of-age story that takes place over barely more than a single day. In “Champagne Papi” we got Waiting for Godot with(out) Drake. In “North of the Border” we get a road movie that isn’t insufferable. And those are only the best episodes. I always have trouble finding things to say about shows I watch quickly, and this one contains such multitudes that I feel this review was doomed from the start. Watch Atlanta. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc,

Tad Friend: “Donald Glover Can’t Save You” — The profile is not a genre I am always fond of. Too often, they are excuses for a writer to show off their own character in relation to their subject’s rather than simply focussing on the ostensible task at hand. But this one’s really good. Friend focuses on simply recounting what Glover did and, more to the point, said while they spent time together. Witness this paragraph: “Do you look up to anyone? ‘I don’t see anyone out there who’s better,’ he said. ‘Maybe Elon Musk. But I don’t know yet if he’s a supervillain. Elon is working on ways for storytelling not to be the best way of spreading information.’ Musk’s new company, Neuralink, intends to merge human consciousness with computers, allowing us to download others’ thoughts. ‘It will turn us into a connected macroorganism, but it will make our individual desires seem trivial,’ Glover went on. ‘Sometimes I get mad at him—”You think people are insignificant!” But we probably are at the end of the storytelling age. It’s my job to compress the last bits of information for people before it passes.’ He sighed. ‘The thing I imagine myself being in the future doesn’t exist yet. I wish it was just “Oh, I’ll be Oprah,” or “I’ll be Dave Chappelle.” But it’s not that. It’s something different and more, something involving fairness and restoring a sense of honor. Sometimes I dream of it, but how do you explain a dream where you never see your father, but you know that that’s him over your shoulder?’ It was very quiet. ‘It’d be nice to feel less lonely.’” Go read.

Robert Silverman: “My dad painted the iconic cover for Jethro Tull’s ‘Aqualung,’ and it’s haunted him ever since” — Not to be confused with the Canadian pianist of the same name who is celebrating his 80th birthday this week, Robert Silverman is a writer whose father is the painter Burton Silverman. This feature tells the story of how Silverman Sr. painted the cover of one of my least favourite albums by one of my favourite bands, and how he received no royalties for it. Robert Silverman does a great job of emphasizing how shitty this is. It’s not clear that he was actually stiffed out of any money — nobody did anything illegal, it seems. Burton Silverman simply had no way of predicting that the album he was working on would turn out to be iconic and that his cover would become Jethro Tull’s most merchandisable image. He had no reason to think that he should request royalties, or the continuing ownership of his intellectual property. He caught a bad break, and he’s mad about it. Who can blame him? But what’s to be done? All the same, Ian Anderson comes off as a complete shit in this, even refusing to be interviewed at the last minute. I always knew that Ian Anderson didn’t like the cover. But it now seems even shittier for him to have said that so freely when the artist was so poorly compensated. Insult to injury. Also, given Anderson’s own efforts to maintain copyright over his work, there’s irony here.

Jennifer Egan: “Children of the Opioid Epidemic” — Jennifer Egan’s portrait of several different mothers and their struggles to do right by their children while suffering from addictions is a thing that not only exhibits empathy, but manages also to explain the lack of empathy these women receive in a way that makes it seem ludicrous. It is heartrending journalism without the barest hint of voyeurism. Read it.

John Luther Adams: “Becoming Desert” — I was shocked to learn that my favourite living composer, John Luther Adams, had left Alaska. It’s a place he’s identified with as much as Prince is identified with Minnesota. But at least he lives in a desert now. I don’t need to reconsider my image of him as a man of extremes. I haven’t heard his new piece Become Desert yet, because it hasn’t been recorded. But I’m told it’s spectacular and worthy of the legacy of its predecessor, Become Ocean, which is my favourite orchestral work of the past decade. Can’t wait.

Music

Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats: Tearing at the Seams — My experience with prior Night Sweats albums has been primarily in cars paying little attention, save for their amazing single “S.O.B.” So, Tearing at the Seams is in a sense my introduction to them as an albums band. And it’s great! It’s a lot of fun. It’s primarily made up of soul and R&B music with a full horn section and plenty of Hammond B-3. But every so often, as with “I’ll Be Damned” and “You Worry Me,” it sticks a toe into piano pop territory. Nice to know they’re not purists. “Intro” is the track I can’t stop listening to, though if it has ever been an intro to something, that context is lost on this album. All the same, whenever somebody asks me about a thing I am proud of, I shall henceforth reply “Ahhh-aaaahhh-HEEEY-Yeah!”

The Flaming Lips: Zaireeka — The first Flaming Lips album I haven’t entirely enjoyed. These days, the 0.0 Pitchfork review of this is arguably more famous than the album itself. It’s an interesting read if you haven’t seen it — not because it’s good criticism, because it isn’t. But it does probably read more sympathetically today than it did at the time. If you’re unfamiliar, Zaireeka is a bonkers piece of concept art that consists of four CDs to be played simultaneously in four separate CD players. This concept was born of some genuinely interesting live experiments that Wayne Coyne and co. had done where they put their audience in control of car stereos and boomboxes and made genuinely participatory performance pieces. But as a commercial product for home consumption, Zaireeka made itself inaccessible to the vast majority of its potential audience, who likely wouldn’t have four CD players just lying around. This is the crux of the Pitchfork reviewer’s complaint. In a post-Occupy world, this seems entirely reasonable. In 1997, I imagine it was scandalous. But lest I seem like I’m needlessly extolling a piece of writing that was merely ahead of its time, let me clarify that Jason Josephes, who wrote the review, appears not to have bothered with any sort of aesthetic appraisal of the record. And while I can get on board with the notion that mere aesthetics may be secondary to the basic fact of accessibility for audiences of all income brackets, if you are being paid to assess a work of art, you have to clear a higher bar than just being pissed off about how you can’t listen to this record because you’re broke. Call me old-fashioned. It’s just how I feel. The irony of all this is that the way I chose to hear Zaireeka was through a YouTube video that mixes down the four CDs into a single stereo signal that I can listen to through a single pair of headphones. And what makes this doubly ironic is the fact that the four CDs taken together actually sound like four separate things happening simultaneously, having little to do with each other. It’s entirely possible that Josephes, listening to the record in piecemeal fashion, had a more aesthetically pleasing experience than I did. Pity he couldn’t be bothered to say anything about it.

Podcasts

In the Dark: “The Confessions” — It continues to be a convincing argument for the prosecution’s shoddiness in the case of Curtis Flowers, and it continues to introduce compelling voices that will ring in my head long after the season’s over. In The Dark has officially proven itself to be a more durable investigative operation than its blockbuster big sibling Serial.

The World According to Sound: “Sound Audio: Edward R. Murrow” — Stunning. Those of us who only listen to podcasts, and are too young to remember a world where terrestrial radio was king would do well to pay attention to this series, which highlights recent and long-past audio alike. This time around, the wartime bulletins of Edward R. Murrow, complete with an explanation of how he strung together mic cables to reach the roof of the BBC, so he could report on a proper aerial view of the London blitz. It’s tempting to say they don’t make them like this anymore, though of course they do. (Witness Caliphate.) But Murrow was an original, and I’ll be seeking out more of his work, out of professional interest.

Out of the Blocks: “200 W Read St.” parts 2 and 3 — Any show whose mandate is simply to tell “everybody’s story” is going to get saccharine at some point. And I do bristle a bit at the forced pathos of some of the stories here. But ultimately that’s secondary to my appetite for simply hearing people talk about their lives. I don’t care what the stakes are; ultimately I’m fine with just listening to people — mostly, people don’t talk about themselves, so it’s fun to hear how they respond when they’re asked to. This is a great show. You should hear it.

Caliphate: “The Heart” — The most disturbing episode so far details an incredibly garish murder, perpetrated by the main interview subject of the series thus far. It is a hard listen, but a worthwhile reality check. I am confident that what’s coming up in this series will problematize the content of this interview to no end. If it doesn’t, that would be a problem.

Judge John Hodgman: “Wedding Clashers” — It’s been a while since I listened to this, and I had nearly forgotten how satisfying it is. The premise here is that Hodgman must decide whether a couple will have a traditional wedding, like the dude wants to, or go off and elope, like the lady wants to. His decision is not straightforward, which is in itself a demonstration of how seriously Hodgman takes the ludicrous task he’s set out for himself within the context of a comedy podcast. I love that he’s never dismissive of the decisions that people have to make in their lives. It takes a show that could so easily be mean spirited and makes it the opposite.

Theory of Everything: “S-Coin” — Benjamen Walker’s continuing exploration of fakery forays into cryptocurrency. It’s everything you ever wanted from Benjamen Walker. This mini-season has been a lot to process so far, but I’m finding it rewarding — even just to puzzle out what’s real and what isn’t.

On the Media: “Africatown” — This episode, focussing on a town formed by the last slaves to be brought to America from Africa (illegally) on the Clothilde, gets into so much more than just the story of that town. I won’t go into it, just listen to it. It’s a Brooke Gladstone solo episode (in the sense that there’s no Bob Garfield; Alana Casanova-Burgess is here in full force), which means it’s going to be complicated and it’s going to take the long view. Listen.

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — I did not watch the royal wedding. I will likely not watch Deadpool 2. And while Vida sounds great, if I’m being honest with myself I will not get to that either. My ability/willingness to keep up with pop culture has waned enormously over the past year, and listening to this show has made it clear just to what extent that is the case. I am okay with that, and I’ve still got this podcast to at least let me know what I’m missing.

The Memory Palace: “Snakes!” & “The 8th Story” — Two episodes of The Memory Palace that reinvigorated my love for the show — a love that never goes away entirely. “Snakes!” is an outright laugh riot, which is a rarity for Nate DiMeo. And even though it gets all of its milage out of the absurdity of cobras being released in a Missouri town, it does contain one genuinely affecting line: “In the absence of laws, and in the absence of shame, you can just lie and lie and lie.” The next episode, “The 8th Story,” features a formal trick I’ve never heard before on this show, namely DiMeo’s narration being interrupted by SFX. Given how much of an anomaly it is, it works really well. It’s also a great story, but it doesn’t involve cobras being loose in Missouri. Pick of the week.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Melissa McCarthy” — She’s funny. No surprises there. It’s a fun conversation, but nothing earthshaking.

All Songs Considered: “New Music Friday: May 18” — Some nice stuff here. Many albums I should check out but likely won’t, due to my general sense that I’d rather fill gaps in my existing knowledge than keep up on what’s new — thereby forming new gaps in my knowledge. But I may actually listen to the Remember Sports and Courtney Barnett records.

Omnibus (week of May 6, 2018)

Hi!

17 reviews.

Live events

James Rolfe: The Overcoat (Vancouver Opera Festival) — It’s a new piece, and a thing of beauty. The piece itself is based on Gogol’s story of the same name, about a lowly clerk who is the butt of everybody’s jokes until he buys a stunning new coat that makes him the talk of the town. Subsequently, the coat is stolen, causing the clerk to spiral into madness. It’s all very Russian. Morris Panych’s libretto evokes Robert Wilson’s numerical preoccupations in Einstein on the Beach, except with a story. Rolfe’s music slingshots between quoting Beethoven and Bach and channeling Gershwin. And while the sophistication of the score — particularly some really great trio writing for a chorus of narrators — belongs in the opera tradition, the feel of the music belongs just as much to the tradition of Stephen Sondheim. But the music accounts for only a percentage of what makes The Overcoat so much fun. The production started life as movement theatre, with Rolfe’s score added later. And that lineage is entirely clear in the beautiful, imaginative, and never overbearing staging. It’s amazing how much life you can inject into a production simply by putting everything on wheels. Some of the standouts in the cast don’t sing at all, but simply marshall the set pieces and props across the stage in dancelike fashion. Dunno where it’ll end up next, but it’s worth seeing if you can.

Television

Atlanta: Season 1 — It’s about time I got around to this. Atlanta is one of those things that I absolutely love but cannot find anything to say about that hasn’t already been said. We are at the moment sitting in the wake of the “This is America” video and the season two finale, and Donald Glover is rightly the only thing anybody wants to talk about. So I’ll just do that thing where I list off bits that I love. I love the black Justin Bieber. I love the relationship between Earn and Van. I love every reaction shot involving Brian Tyree Henry. (Some actors have very specific skills. Brian Tyree Henry is particularly good at reacting to things.) I love every single second involving Darius, and particularly the bit where he takes a dog-shaped target to a gun range. I love the way the on-location approach of the show makes it look. I love the way the show zooms back and forth between realism and farce, e.g. the club with a false wall. I love the show’s understanding of social media as being fundamentally empty. I love the comedy of manners that ensues every time class becomes an issue on this show. And let me just go back and reiterate how much I love the relationship between Earn and Van. Much of what makes Earn tick isn’t quite clear, because this show eschews backstory to an almost unprecedented degree. (What the hell happened to Earn at Princeton???) But his relationship with Van makes perfect sense, right down to his refusal to stay the night with her at the end of the season, because he can’t bring himself to keep leeching off her. These two want to be together, but they both know Earn has to get his shit together before that can happen. Zazie Beetz is amazing, and her feature episode is one of the season’s highlights. The dinner scene at the top of that episode is maybe the best comedy of manners this show has conjured thus far. I love it. Pick of the week.

Literature, etc.

Rebecca Watts: “The Cult of the Noble Amateur” — First off, this polemic against the works of popular poets like Rupi Kaur and Hollie McNish is my first exposure to either of them. Part of me wonders if their work wouldn’t seem so stupid to me if I’d encountered it in a more positive context. But another part of me thinks, no, I’m an intelligent person who’s used to reading with a critical eye, so I should trust my instincts when they tell me that Watts is exactly right. There is nothing I hate more than mere simplicity masquerading as wisdom. And while these poets may not be up to any deliberate trickery — I’m entirely willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and believe that they are simply bad at writing poems — surely their publishers are aware that this is substandard work. Surely they’ve got dollar signs in their eyes. Watts compares Kaur, McNish and Kate Tempest (who I must admit I don’t mind, though I know her as a performing poet and not so much on the page) to Donald Trump, which will strike many as ludicrous. But the anti-intellectualism of their work is part of the same phenomenon that led to Trump’s rise: we live in a world that shuns complexity and nuance in favour of easily digestible narratives. Clearly these new poets’ narratives are not openly hateful and racist — seemingly the opposite. But the means of communication is troublingly similar. And neither phenomenon would exist if not for social media, with its constant appeals to our worst and dumbest instincts. I don’t agree with some of Watts’ premises. She quotes Ezra Pound’s aphorism that “literature is news which stays news,” an idea that eschews the value of timeliness in art — and I do think that is a value. I’ve never bought into the idea that a work of art is only good if it looks poised to stand the test of time. The only yardstick we have to measure that in the present is how much it resembles previous works of art that have managed to do that. And that’s useless, obviously, because things change. But this is a passing point in a larger argument about social media’s dumbing effect on culture, which I agree with. She moves from Pound’s quote directly onto one of the most powerful bits of her argument: “Of all the literary forms, we might have predicted that poetry had the best chance of escaping social media’s dumbing effect; its project, after all, has typically been to rid language of cliché. Yet in the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened. The reader is dead: long live consumer-driven content and the ‘instant gratification’ this affords.” Do read this. More than any calculated attempt to rid poetry of its supposed “elitism,” this essay has made me want to go read good poems.

Music

The Flaming Lips: Clouds Taste Metallic — Another week, another acclaimed pair of Flaming Lips albums. We’ll begin with the later of the two, and more one album back in the discography after. Clouds Taste Metallic is a brilliant record in the way that Radiohead’s The Bends is a brilliant record. It works within a particular musical idiom, stretches the boundaries of that idiom in keeping with the specific aesthetic of the artist, but doesn’t actually venture outside of that idiom. That would happen for Radiohead on OK Computer and for the Flaming Lips on The Soft Bulletin (and presumably even more so on the intervening Zaireeka, which I haven’t heard). But here on Clouds, the Lips are totally in control of their increasingly bonkers brand of alt rock. Highlights for me include the opening pair: “The Abandoned Hospital Ship,” with its gorgeous piano line that transforms into a kickass guitar lead, and “Psychiatric Explorations of the Fetus With Needles,” which sounds remarkably like a Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd bootleg. This is at least in part thanks to Ronald Jones, whose guitar playing is as inventive as Barrett’s but with actual technique to fall back on. If there’s a better comparison to be made, it’s with Adrian Belew. The other musical standout is Steven Drozd, one of the most elegant drummers ever to play really fucking loud. The other songs I can’t get enough of are “They Punctured My Yolk,” “Lightning Strikes the Postman,” “Christmas at the Zoo” and especially the finale, “Bad Days,” which sounds like something from the Stones’ Between the Buttons. Specifically “Something Happened to Me Yesterday.” Except this arrangement is better — the novelty song it begins as eventually finds its way into rock territory by way of a two-stage descent into heaviness: first Drozd’s drums come in, then come the heavy guitars. I love this. There are melodies here that quicken my pulse just to think about. It isn’t Soft Bulletin, but it’s a step in the right direction.

The Flaming Lips: Transmissions from the Satellite Heart — This seems like pretty standard alt rock compared with what came after — but only compared with what came after. Actually, Transmissions from the Satellite Heart is pretty consistently surprising in ways both subtle and blatant. On the subtler side, there are details like the quiet incursion of muted strings into the lo-fi country of “Plastic Jesus.” More obviously, there’s the consistent tendency for messy sludge rock to coagulate into euphoric Beatlesque melodies. “She Don’t Use Jelly” features the clearest Beatles influence — its vaguely suggestive nonsense lyrics, catchy chorus and offbeat riff would feel at home on Abbey Road. But my favourite is probably “Moth in the Incubator,” which doesn’t give away the plot right away, preferring to build up to a revelation. This will probably grow on me. My investigation into the Flaming Lips now constitutes two very different pairs of albums, separated by a weird anomaly. Next week: the weird anomaly.

Podcasts

On the Media: “Dark Twisted Fantasy” — Worth a listen specifically for the breakdown of the various ugly internet subcultures of the “manosphere.”

Caliphate: “The Arrival” & “Us vs. Them” — I like that they’re splitting up one interview over many episodes to give it the context it requires. I wonder if this will continue once the story from that interview ends, though? I’m learning a ton from this, but I wonder what its endgame is.

Lend Me Your Ears: “Julius Caesar” — There is a Shakespeare podcast called Lend Me Your Ears. That in itself is wonderful. But the approach is marvellous. Each episode of this mini-series will deal with a specific Shakespeare play and how it resonates with contemporary politics. Julius Caesar is maybe the most obvious one, simply because of the high-profile production that portrayed Caesar as an obvious Trump analogue. But more than that, the play has a lot to say about demagoguery. The one wrinkle I wish had been addressed is the fact that our modern demagogues tend not to succeed on the basis of eloquence the way that Shakespeare’s do. Shakespeare’s most eminent demagogue, Marc Antony, is intensely eloquent, and thus intensely seductive. Brutus is the plainspoken one — that’s where demagoguery registers, these days. We get the worst of both worlds: ineloquent and empty. So why does it work? I dunno, I’m busy reading Shakespeare and listening to podcasts. This is great. I can’t wait for the episode on Richard II. That’ll be an interesting contrast with Caesar, since it also features opposing figures with different approaches to language: Henry Bolingbroke, who is enormously effective in spite (or because) of his ploddingly prosaic speeches, and Richard II, who is too busy soliloquizing brilliantly to be a good king.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Beach House, Tank And The Bangas, Stevie Wolf, More” “At 70, Smithsonian Folkways Is An Antidote To Music Algorithms” & “New Mix: Childish Gambino, Mike Lindsay And Laura Marling As LUMP, More” — Couple good mixes, including a great track from the tiny desk contest winner, and a really fun retrospective on Smithsonian Folkways, which I need to explore further. Go back through the feed and check these all out.

Pop Culture Happy Hour catch-up — I cannot BELIEVE they liked A Quiet Place. They are WRONG. Ahem. I will watch Killing Eve and probably also Tully. Leslie Odom Jr. is a lovely man, but his book sounds corny.

The Daily: “The Breakdown of the Iran Nuclear Deal” — I am glad that The Daily is around to explain complicated things to me. It doesn’t take long for me to forget the whole context for things, so it’s good to have them conveniently reiterated.

Song by Song catch-up — I’m always a bit confused about why these guys choose not to like a song. “Blow Wind Blow” is clearly not a masterpiece on the level of “Innocent When You Dream,” but why complain? Just because it’s not a song you single out to listen to in isolation doesn’t mean it isn’t good in context. On the other hand, the episodes on “Innocent” and “Temptation” are reminding me exactly why I love Frank’s Wild Years so much, and particularly why I like it so much more than Rain Dogs: these songs have a sense of ostentatious theatricality that I love, and which I think is more prevalent in Waits’ post-Rain Dogs material.

The World According to Sound catch-up — This “Sound Audio” series is great. I’ve actually heard a couple of the pieces they’ve featured on here, including Tony Schwartz’s time-lapse recording of his niece growing up and the famous Hindenburg tape, which is actually impossible to listen to in public without having a small private breakdown. Still, I feel like this could serve as a crash course in the classic audio we’ve forgotten about in the podcast age. Also, there’s Sleep With Me, which is the weirdest shit ever.

In the Dark: Season 2, episodes 1-3 — I liked the first season of In the Dark once it got going with its larger implications, but I’m loving this one from the start. It’s the story of Curtis Flowers, who has been tried six times for the same crime in the town of Winona, Mississippi. There is so much going on here, and the writing is super sharp. The tape’s incredible too. Sometimes when investigative podcasts get into the weeds, I start to wonder whether they shouldn’t be shorter. But in this one, every blind alley they take leads them to another compelling individual with ties to the Flowers case: the witnesses who professed to have seen Flowers along the route the prosecution outlined at trial, the guy who owned the gun that’s ostensibly the murder weapon, the father of one of the victims, and even the expert ballistics sceptic who casts doubt on the study of the bullets. These are all really compelling people. And speaking of ballistics, the dude who did the initial ballistics report makes me so angry. He tries to shrug off scepticism about his work by saying crap like “it’s always been called an art.” No it hasn’t! It’s been called “forensic science!” And also, “a fact in somebody’s head might not be a fact in somebody else’s head.” Get outta here! That’s not how facts work! So many people in this story are so certain about things they clearly shouldn’t be certain about. That’s what’s making me mad about this: it’s not 100% clear that they got the wrong guy. By no means. But the cavalier attitude with which some people dismiss any doubt at all is completely enraging. Pick of the week.

Reply All: “No More Safe Harbour” & “INVCEL” — Two episodes of P.J. Vogt doing serious journalism. I like when that happens. He’s always a great sounding board for Alex Goldman, but it’s nice to hear him take the lead on stories like this. The episode about the surprisingly benign origins of the incel community is particularly worth hearing.

Fresh Air: “The Pope Who Would Be King” — When Terry Gross interviews a scholar who has written a book, it kind of listens like In Our Time, except that In Our Time doesn’t wait for somebody to have written a book. This is why I love In Our Time: it just does what’s interesting, contemporary hooks be damned. Anyway, that’s not relevant to what this episode actually is, which is a fascinating conversation about Pope Pius IX, a figure about whom I knew very little, but who factors into Italian reunification in some really interesting ways. I do wish Gross had touched more on the specific theological justifications for some of Pius’s more draconian proclamations, like the notion that free speech and Catholicism are mutually exclusive. But it’s a good listen.

Retronauts: “Tetris” — This is a weird show. They take so much of gaming history and experience as read, but they feel it necessary to explain things like the Beatles and the Cold War. Also, of course they’re Rush fans. Of COURSE. Anyway, Tetris has a fascinating history that is explored at length here, though I’m not convinced that roundtable discussion is the best way to approach historical storytelling. There you go.

Omnibus (week of April 8, 2018)

Oh, hey! Thanks for dropping by. May I recommend a podcast that is not in the long list of reviews posted below? That podcast is the North by Northwest podcast from CBC Radio. It is the show that I work on for actual money, and we are trying some new stuff on there. For example, this week I made an alternate version of a radio story I did about a guy who designs yachts, which is more than twice the length of the radio version. In addition to things like that, you will get a whole raft of Sheryl MacKay’s interviews with interesting people in the B.C. arts world, many of whom you won’t have heard of. That’s the fun of it. And occasionally you’ll get me, just talking nonsense about pop culture and spinning weird theories. If any of this sounds interesting to you, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, or wherever else you’re accustomed to listening.

We return you now to your regularly scheduled tedious blather, complete with no fewer than ten podcast episodes pertaining to the Mark Zuckerberg hearings. Brace yourself.

20 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Oliver Byrne: The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid — I’ve never been a math person. I have traumatic high school memories of standardized tests and interminable homework assignments that haunt me to this day. Now that I’m out of school and making a living, I find myself interested in learning about all sorts of things I wasn’t previously interested in, but mathematics has never been one of them. Nonetheless, I was browsing through a bookstore earlier this week and I found myself unexpectedly transfixed by this volume. It is a facsimile of a 19th-century illustrated publication of Euclid’s Elements: the foundational text of geometry. The printer, Oliver Byrne, has rendered Euclid’s proofs and problems in a remarkable, easy-to-grasp illustrated format made up of blue, yellow, red and black lines and shapes. (The publisher’s jacket blurb points out that Byrne’s colour choices inadvertently prefigure Mondrian’s famous geometric paintings, and thus a great deal of Northern European and Scandinavian design. Accordingly, I’ve shelved Byrne alongside my Mondrian-inspired yellow-red-blue boxed set of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books.) With everything laid out visually, I found myself able to follow along with Euclid’s reasoning — and to see the elegance of his methods. Everything he does in the Elements can be proven with nothing more than a straight-edge and a compass for drawing lines and circles. No protractor. You can’t measure angles. Think about that for a second: say you want to draw an equilateral triangle, but you don’t have a protractor. You draw a line that’s 10cm long. You draw another line connected to it that’s also 10cm long. All that’s left is to draw a third 10cm line that connects the two — but since you couldn’t measure the angle between your first two lines, how likely do you think it is that your third line actually will turn out to be 10cm? Not very. Never fear: Euclid found a way. And that’s his first proof. It’s simple, elegant, and it makes you go “huh,” and maybe turn the page. I did turn the page. And then I bought the book. I’ve been reading it in bed, a few proofs a night before I go to sleep. I cannot tell you how calming it has been. If you, like me, associate math with stress and pressure, that is likely because you have never encountered it in a zero-stakes situation. When you read Euclid — and especially when you read Byrne’s illustrated Euclid — you don’t have to solve anything. You’re not expected to come up with an answer to a question. You’re really just watching somebody else do math. Euclid’s got it all laid out for you, and all you have to do is follow along. And if you don’t understand a step, who cares? There’s no exam. This has been a revelation for me. Its complete lack of what we normally think of as narrative or thematic content makes Euclid the best bedtime reading I’ve ever encountered. It is math as self-care. And I feel like I can’t be the only person who would experience this: surely in these times, the most therapeutic thing you can experience is a person saying to you “here are some things that are definitely true, and here is why.” Pick of the week.

Games

Stories Untold — My feelings on this game are complicated by two kinds of negative responses: technical concerns and story concerns. I’d rather not even write about the technical concerns because they’re boring, but they also defined my experience of this game, so I have to. I’ll save them for last, though. Let’s start with the story. Spoilers, ahoy. Evidently “The House Abandon,” the first of the four episodes that comprise Stories Untold, was released in some form as a standalone entity previously to this. Taken as a thing in itself, “The House Abandon” is a marvel. It presents the player with a game within a game — specifically a text game within a graphical game — and then reveals that the two layers of reality it depicts are linked. The moment when the penny drops is masterful horror: essentially, there’s a point where you realize that what you are typing into the text game is actually happening in another part of the house you’re in. The power goes out at your computer desk; you make your character in the text game turn on the generator; the power comes back on. You make your character open a door; you hear a door open. It’s immediately obvious that the episode will end when you encounter yourself. And far from curtailing the suspense, that grim certitude only makes the game more agonizing as it draws relentlessly to the chapter’s conclusion. “The House Abandon” gave me gooseflesh in the middle of a sunny Saturday afternoon. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. But here’s the thing. None of what is good about it has anything to do with the actual content of the story your character lives through. It’s a story that’s mysterious and vague, and that in no way calls out for clarification. The horror and fascination arise purely from the central conceit: that there’s somebody else in the house, and they’re doing everything you type into your computer. I don’t really care about what happened to this character’s sister or why that door is boarded up. It seems largely beside the point, and anyway I’m content to wonder. So, imagine my disappointment when the final episode of Stories Untold explains away all that ambiguity with the most banal reason imaginable: the entire game up to that point has been a series of psychotic episodes in the mind of a guilt-ridden man who killed his sister and an off-duty cop while driving drunk. This reveal causes a number of things from episodes previous to make sense in a way that completely robs them of their strange imaginativeness. It reduces a fascinating formal experiment to a Very Special Episode. It treats its own narrative as a puzzle to be solved and shelved tidily away, taking for granted that the most important element of storytelling is THE ANSWER. It seems custom-made for people whose brains fell out at the end of Night in the Woods. To sum up: the first episode of Stories Untold is a self-contained near-masterpiece, the middle two are fine, and the final one is a huge disappointment that will appeal only to those with no appreciation for ambiguity or nuance. Which, to be fair, is a large group of people. Let’s move on to my boring technical concerns. Firstly and most my fault-ly, I tried to run Stories Untold well below the minimum graphics card specs (it’s a text game, I thought, how much graphics power could I possibly need?) and by the final episode the main source of tension was not the story but whether or not the game would crash. THREE TIMES I had to restart the chapter because of freezing or crashing. And while I realize it’s petulant to complain about a game’s performance when you’re trying to run it on an old MacBook, a simple autosave feature could have saved me the trouble of having to play through the entire episode from the beginning four times. Stories Untold has no saving mechanism at all, presumably in an attempt to make you play each of its episodes in one sitting. I get that. It’s definitely best that way. But should anything go wrong, tech-wise, you can be set back by as much as an hour’s worth of progress. That sucked. And crap graphics card or no, it needn’t have sucked so bad. Secondly, there are some seriously annoying design choices throughout. At one point you are obliged to read text on a microfilm reader (making this the third game I’ve played this year to feature microfilm, after Night in the Woods and Virginia) and you have to meticulously zoom and focus in on it. This is needless. Also, at a few points you are made to turn a dial until a display shows the correct number. In some cases, the only way (obvious to me) to manipulate this dial is to click and drag for minutes at a time until you hit the correct number. A simple numerical entry would suffice, thanks. No need to make it feel that analogue. Finally, in the first episode, the game insists on teletyping large amounts of text one character at a time. This is valuable for suspense in many cases, but sometimes you have to revisit text you’ve seen before, and surely there’s no suspense in teletyping that. These details make the game actively annoying to play. It’s almost too bad that “The House Abandon” is so brilliant. Because that’s the only thing that could make me waver while advising my fellow horror game enthusiasts to pass this one by.

Podcasts

The Gist: “Zuck Everlasting,” “It’s Regulation Time,” “Tax Cut Conundrum” & “I Never Said That” — Mark Zuckerberg is appearing before congress. That’ll be fun. This chat between Mike Pesca and April Glaser is a good primer on what to expect. If you’re reading/listening after the fact, one expects this will be less relevant for you. Greetings, readers, it’s me: Matthew from a day later than the previous sentence. It has now become clear that Mike Pesca is doing a “Zuck trilogy” this week, the second part of which is an interview with Brooke Gladstone about the history of us blaming media for things. All the same, she’s under no illusions about the fact that social media works differently. It’s good and it’s less time-hooked than the previous instalment. Greetings once again, from yet a third point in time. In the third and presumably final instalment of Pesca’s Zuckerberg hearings coverage, he strings together a bunch of dumb questions from senators. Fun. OH SHIT, here’s number four, because we’ve got to have the coverage of the COVERAGE of the Zuckerberg hearings. Anyway, this has been good. The Gist doesn’t get enough credit for presaging the emergence of daily news podcasts. That’s not what it is, but it’s closer than any other show of its vintage.

The Daily: “Wednesday, Apr. 11, 2018” “Thursday, Apr. 12, 2018” — Here’s what you listen to if you want to know what happened at the Zuckerberg hearings. Michael Barbaro breaks it down with tech reporter Kevin Roose, one day at a time. Key takeaways: I know more about how Facebook works than most senators, and the House smarter than the Senate.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Zuckerberg Faces Congress And FBI Raids Properties of Trump Lawyer” & “More On Mueller, Zuckerberg And Landscape for 2018 Elections” — I came for Zuckerberg, but they couldn’t compete with The Daily on that count. The breakdown of the Mueller investigation developments is great, though. I should listen to this more. This always makes me feel like I know what’s going on. Something about listening to people talk about current events conversationally gives that effect more than a news reporting tone does.

On the Media: “Who’s In Charge Here?” — It’s a decent week for a Bob Garfield solo episode. Lots going on. The Zuckerberg-centric segment goes in a different direction from other more straightforward news and current events shows, focussing on anti-trust legislation and how that may or may not factor into regulation of Facebook. But the best segment is about how corporations have been gaining civil rights since long before Citizens United. Good stuff.

The Media Show: “The Age of Zuckerberg” — And now for some Brits. I haven’t listened to The Media Show enough to have a handle on the format, but this is less a discussion of Mark Zuckerberg as it is a discussion of the various projects that the guest panelists have on the go. I was interested to hear from the new editor of Cosmopolitan about her new strategy, though that’s not necessarily what I came for. I should listen to this more.

The West Wing Weekly: “Hamilton Special (with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail)” — My white-hot Hamilton obsession is long since past, but listening to Miranda and Kail talk about The West Wing brought a fraction of it back. This is a great chat, and it’s fun to hear about what a foundational text The West Wing was for Hamilton’s creators. It’s also fun to hear about their actual encounters with West Wingers both real and fictional. Kail’s story of the original cast’s performance at the White House is worth the listen in itself.

Constellations: “bonnie jones – and if i live a thousand lives i hope to remember one” — Last week’s commentary on this show’s preciousness stands. But Jones’ piece is far more intuitively likeable than some of the other sound art on the show — it’s musical. It’s fun. You should check it out.

This American Life: “The Impossible Dream” — I listened to this as soon as it hit my feed. I knew it was coming, thanks to Zoe Chace’s interview on Longform, but it evidently had a troubled gestation. The episode begins with Chace and Ira Glass talking about why it almost stopped being a story: namely that its protagonist, senator Jeff Flake, resigned before the story reached its logical conclusion. And it’s true that this doesn’t have a conventionally satisfying ending, but that didn’t stop me from listening past the caveat-laden intro, nor did it stop me from enjoying the hell out of this. I realized at some point during this episode that The Story Of Jeff Flake was not actually what I wanted from this, nor was the broader story of Why Congress Is So Ineffective. What I wanted was the Zoe Chace Capitol Hill Story. We’ve heard her on the campaign trail and it was brilliant. It was different from everybody else’s reporting on the Trump campaign. This is the logical next thing. And it is accordingly different from everybody else’s palace intrigue stories about the madness that has taken hold of Congress during the Trump administration. It is well worth hearing.

In Our Time: “Euclid’s Elements” & “Four Quartets” — I recently purchased a rather handsome volume of Oliver Byrne’s 19th-century illustrated edition of Euclid’s Elements. It isn’t normally the sort of thing I would read, but I found myself captivated by it in the bookstore and I’ve been looking through its various, completely understandable proofs before bed at night. In this day and age, it can be therapeutic to sit down with a book that tells you “here are some things that are definitely true and here is why.” Immediately after buying it I realized that this was a thing there was probably an In Our Time episode about, and I wasn’t wrong. The episode is outright fantastic, with all members of the panel expositing enthusiastically on not only the relevance but the joy of reading Euclid. Having heard it will make my reading experience better, and that is all you can ask of a show like this. T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets is a thing I have not read in its entirety, though I’ve read the bit of “The Dry Salvages” that talks about “music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all/but you are the music while the music lasts” more times than I can count. (It’s a beautiful line, albeit one that he undercuts immediately. That doesn’t make it less beautiful or perceptive, though.) The conversation on it is good, but there’s a pervading sense throughout that Melvyn Bragg’s enthusiasm for the poems is such that he barely needs his panel of experts. Fortunately for all of us, he doesn’t bother resisting the urge to speak his mind.

StartUp: Re-runs for Alex, Inc. — I contend that Alex, Inc.’s promotional materials are so awful that I cannot be blamed for assuming it is terrible without watching it. Still, it’s a big moment for Gimlet and for Alex Blumberg, and it makes sense that they’re taking advantage of the potential audience crossover from the terrible sitcom they accidentally begat. For the rest of us, this is an opportunity to revisit the early days of StartUp: a groundbreaking podcast that felt at the time like lightning in a bottle, and that now feels a bit quaint in light of the (relative) behemoth that Gimlet has become. I remember listening to StartUp when it first come out. I remember waiting on bated breath for new episodes in a way I’d never done for a podcast — or any non-fiction narrative — before. That was in 2014: podcasting’s watershed year — the year that also brought us season one of Serial, which I loved, but not as much as StartUp. (I joked in my first-ever year-end wrap that Serial “wasn’t even my favourite serialized podcast, created by a This American Life producer, that starts with the letter ‘S.’”) Since that time, podcasting and my taste in podcasts have both become enormously more diverse. And the early StartUp episodes that hit the feed once again this week seem accordingly less gutsy and revolutionary than they once did. But it’s still incredible to look back to four short years ago and see a version of Gimlet where Matt Lieber expressed transparent disappointment in the equity he was offered, whereas now he’s a beloved trope in Reply All’s end credits and a figure who Jonathan Goldstein is openly scared of. It’s fun to look back at a Gimlet where four stressed out producers were gathered around a computer trying to figure out how to upload the first Reply All episode to what was then still called the iTunes store, whereas now that show is an institution that justifies two full episodes of the Longform podcast being dedicated to it. It’s edifying to think back to the fact that when I first encountered StartUp there was no such thing as Gimlet Media, whereas now I associate the word Gimlet with podcasts far more than I do with alcoholic beverages. Crap sitcom or not, the story of Gimlet is the story of the rise of a medium. And it’s all on tape.

The World According to Sound: “Sound Audio: Year in Food” — Here we have a man listing everything he ate in a year, in alphabetical order, sped up. “Beef sandwich, beef sandwich, beef sandwich, beef sandwich, beef sandwich, beef sandwich. Beetroot salad, beetroot salad, beetroot salad… *deep breath* Bun! Bun! Bun! Bun! Bun! …” This is something else.  

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Barry” & “Antiques Roadshow and What’s Making Us Happy” — Barry is an aspirational watch, should I ever find the time. Antiques Roadshow is an ambient pleasure at best — however, the PCHH episode on that topic is a minor classic of the catalogue, due to the contributions of the very antique proprietor of the Maximum Fun network, Jesse Thorn. He is funny and insightful here, just like everywhere else.

Out of the Blocks: “200 W Read St, part 1: The Greenwich Village of Baltimore” — This is the best new podcast I’ve listened to in I don’t know how long. It’s made by an NPR affiliate station in Baltimore, and it’s based on a delightfully simple premise: each episode is devoted to a single city block in Baltimore. The host visits people who live and work on that block, and hears their stories of the past and present of the neighbourhood where they live. It’s all set to a marvellous original score, and it feels warm like you wouldn’t believe. Most of my favourite podcasts these days are rather thinky affairs: stuff about big ideas and abstract notions. But this is straightforward, out-in-the-world radio in the tradition of the Kitchen Sisters and Studs Terkel, and it’s absolutely marvellous. This episode on “the Greenwich Village of Baltimore” was a good starting point for me, so it likely will be for you too. Two more episodes to go on this block, apparently, and I can’t wait. Pick of the week. 

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Ólafur Arnalds, Khruangbin, Whyte Horses, Ari Roar, More” & “New Music Friday: April 13” — Nothing much appeals in this week’s New Music Friday, alas. But I really love that Ólafur Arnalds track in the main episode. I’m still waiting for this year’s Let’s Eat Grandma moment on this show. Nothing has bowled me over. I guess there’s a new Let’s Eat Grandma album on the way, though. There’s always that.

Arts and Ideas: “British New Wave Films of the ‘60s” — A fun discussion of British kitchen sink dramas, i.e. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, both of which I saw in a film studies class and never thought about again. Frankly it’s not my speed. But I recognize its importance as a movement. Also, we get a wonderful segment on the bizarre, bad literary contributions of infamous dictators. God save the BBC.

99% Invisible: “Lessons from Las Vegas” — A good, old-fashioned Avery Trufelman architecture episode. This show is on a hot streak right now, and I’m inclined to think it’s because of a return to first principles. This story is primarily about a well-known architecture textbook and the relationship that begat it. It takes twists and turns you wouldn’t expect, and it explicates some big ideas you may not ever have had to consider before. Lovely stuff.

Song by Song: “Straight to the Top (Rhumba)” — A brief and perfunctory episode on a song I like a lot more than this show’s hosts, who have been guestless for two episodes. Wonder what guests they’ve got lined up. I feel like guests would be nice.

Code Switch: “Location! Location! Location!” — Code Switch tackles housing segregation, and it’s as complicated as you would think. If you do not listen to this regularly, begin.

Omnibus (week of April 1, 2018)

“Get it together, Parsons,” I said to myself. “Clean your damn apartment and get your 5K back under a non-embarrassing time.” That is why I listened to 34 podcast episodes this week. (That’s a conservative number — there are a few shows I don’t review, and I frankly can’t remember which of those I listened to this week.) Below, you’ll find them nicely compressed into a manageable 21 reviews, plus an additional three for the things I got through this week that aren’t podcasts.

Also, if you would like to hear me blindside Sheryl MacKay with a whack-a-doo theory that even I don’t completely subscribe to, you’ll find that at 1:21:58.

24 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Scott McCloud: Making Comics — I just turned in my final assignment in that comics class I’ve been taking, and I figured I may as well finish the course reading. Better late than never. We weren’t obliged to read Making Comics in its entirety, but I did because why the hell not. Scott McCloud is not only a good teacher and a perceptive analyst of the medium in which he works. He’s also one of the funnest media critics out there. In case you’re unfamiliar: this is a guy who makes works of serious, penetrating comics criticism — that are themselves comics. His ability to demonstrate concepts by example is unmatched, and his books of comics criticism are themselves among the most formally innovative comics I’ve encountered. Understanding Comics remains his masterpiece, because its focus is broad enough that it doesn’t really age. Making Comics contains some stuff about webcomics that feels ancient now. But when he sticks to the basics of the comics form, regardless of medium, McCloud is a fountain of practical advice here. If you’ve ever wondered what fundamentals you should keep in mind when working simultaneously with words and pictures, this is the book for you. Pick of the week.

Music

John Luther Adams/JACK Quartet: Everything That Rises — John Luther Adams either captivates me or leaves me cold. (No Alaska pun intended.) This did the latter. It is one of his more high-concept works, based on just intonation. It is also one of his more dissonant pieces, which isn’t something I look to him for. Don’t get me wrong, he can do what he wants: but I’ve always enjoyed the side of JLA that puts you in a trance, then takes you somewhere. This piece definitely takes you somewhere — up, in keeping with the title. But it foregoes the trance in favour of a calculating raised eyebrow. Not for me, I’m afraid.

Kyle Craft: Full Circle Nightmare — I loved Dolls of Highland. I had some concerns about its consistent portrayal of women as evil magic temptresses, but there was enough self-effacing humour throughout that I could give him the benefit of a doubt. It also helps that Kyle Craft’s music scratches a huge itch for me: huge sounding rock with bombastic vocals and a turn of phrase you can sink your teeth into. And that itch is almost equally scratched on this new record. But at this point I’m thinking he needs to find something new to sing about. This whole “women: can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em” thing is not sustainable. Still, when it’s good it’s good. I’m particularly fond of the new direction on the semi-psychedelic “Belmont (One Trick Pony).” This feels like one of those albums that may or may not be the second-last one by its artist that I ever hear. Stay tuned.

Podcasts

It’s Been A Minute: “Momofuku Chef David Chang’s ‘Ugly Delicious’ Food” & “Zach Braff and Alex Blumberg on ‘Alex, Inc.’” — I’m finding that I get a lot more out of this show’s Tuesday edition, where Sam Sanders talks with an interesting person, than I do out of its Friday wraps. Maybe it’s just that I don’t feel the need for any more “making sense of the news” in my life, because that is a thing that the entire media is trying to do now. But the Tuesday shows are really good, because Sanders is fun to listen to and seemingly fun to talk to as well. The David Chang interview is great fun, as they usually are. Sanders is good at talking about intersections of race and culture, and Chang is a thoughtful guy on that subject. The episode focussing on Alex, Inc. is really something — mostly because it’s great fun hearing Alex Blumberg pretend that he likes the milquetoast sitcom that ABC made out of his game-changing podcast. To Sanders’ credit, he manages to have an interesting conversation with Blumberg and Zach Braff that touches on both of their wheelhouses without the whole thing coming off the rails.  

Code Switch catch-up — Of the last four episodes, the two most recent are the most essential. “The Road to the Promised Land, 50 Years Later” is a bit jarring because it consists largely of news reports for actual NPR — like the radio. You don’t realize how different that tone is from NPR podcasts until you hear it on an NPR podcast. But the story of how Martin Luther King’s assassination reverberates half a century later is fascinating and well told here. For something a bit more podcast-native, the Amara La Negra interview is an energetic discussion of Afro-Latinx identity

Reply All: “A Pirate In Search of a Judge” — A lesser instalment of “Super Tech Support,” which nonetheless includes some amusing banter. Also: has anybody compiled the Breakmaster Cylinder bits into a supercut? Please somebody do that. I think there’s an argument to be made that whoever they are, they’re doing the most innovative audio storytelling in the podcast space — and they’re doing it in the last two minutes of somebody else’s show. (Unless, of course, P.J. Vogt is Breakmaster Cylinder, which I find quite plausible.)

In Our Time: “Augustine’s Confessions,” “Hildegard of Bingen” & Roman Slavery” — Melvyn Bragg is in his glory when he gets to talk about Christianity. The Augustine episode is accordingly excellent. The episode on Roman slavery is a good summation of a thing that you probably don’t think about very much. But it’s the repeat episode about Hildegard that’s the real standout in this run. Being a music person, I have always mostly thought of her as the composer of the most beautiful music from the Middle Ages. And I’ve always been passingly aware of her status as a great polymath, contributing to theology, literature, medical research and brewing techniques. (She penned the earliest surviving writings on the use of hops in beer. She didn’t like them. Fair enough.) But this episode focuses on her role in the church of her time: a woman who was respected not so much because she was a genius, though she clearly was, as because she claimed to receive visions from God. It’s tempting for us now to look at Hildegard as a woman who overcame the social stigmas of her time by being exceptional and working hard, but really even that wasn’t enough. She was allowed to give sermons not because she was a good sermonizer, but because the church saw her as a direct channel to God, so they made an exception. A sad thing. That’s a great episode. You should listen to it.

Fresh Air: “The Evolution of Artificial Intelligence” & “Madeleine Albright” — Two interviews about big important things, one of which features a big important person. Listen to the Madeleine Albright one. When she talks about the problems with Trump’s foreign policy, it’s probably worth considering what she has to say.

Radiolab: “Rippin’ the Rainbow an Even Newer One,” “Border Trilogy” parts 1 & 2 — The update to the mantis shrimp story is good for my sense of nostalgia about the old Radiolab, but the first two instalments of their series on the border are both challenging my general sense that this show’s best days are behind it. Every so often they pull out a classic, and so far this is one. Basically, it poses the question of how well-meaning policies can result in migrants dying in the desert, possibly by the thousands. It is the new Radiolab — the au current, political Radiolab — at its best.

The Gist: “Clinging to Guns Is Our Religion” — This is a gun control debate between a moderate liberal and a moderate conservative. It is as scintillating as that sounds.

Bullseye: “Andrew W.K. & Bill Hader” — Here are two people I’m not super interested in, having conversations I enormously enjoyed. Andrew W.K. in particular is a person who you just know will have a good chat with Jesse Thorn. And he did. Note that this is also the episode with Thorn’s review of It’s Too Late to Stop Now by Van Morrison, which led me to make one of the weirdest pieces of radio that I personally have ever made. (See top of page.)

Desert Island Discs: “David Byrne” — Wow, he’s in a good mood. Like, a suspiciously good mood. But as we all know, he’s got great taste in music and he’s an interesting guy. I really need to read his book. Good listening.

The Daily: “Wednesday, Apr. 4, 2018” & “Friday, Apr. 6, 2018” — Oddly, I find myself more inclined to listen to news shows when they are meta-stories about the media. These are two episodes of The Daily that examine TV news in different ways. One demonstrates how Fox News played a role in the revitalization of Trump’s anti-immigration policies, and the other examines how the takeover of local media by larger corporations leads to a lack of editorial freedom. Both are great, the latter is likely the one that will remain relevant by the time you read this. Damn, the world is cray.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Love, Simon” & “Roseanne and What’s Making Us Happy” — I will watch neither of these things, but I did enjoy the chats. Linda Holmes and Stephen Thompson had an interesting exchange about Roseanne. That is my review of this week’s Pop Culture Happy Hour episodes; I hope you have enjoyed it.

The World According to Sound: “Idea of North” — I intend to go back and hear this show’s full archives at some point, which shouldn’t be hard since the episodes are a minute and a half long. But for now I will follow their series on great radio they think I should hear. I have never heard Glenn Gould’s “The Idea of North,” which is a travesty because I work at CBC Radio and I am literally looking at a three-CD set of Gould’s radio work right now. It’s right there on my shelf. Maybe this is the week.

Song by Song: “Hang On St. Christopher” — I’m looking forward to hearing these two give their take on Frank’s Wild Years, because I know from previously that it isn’t either of their favourite. On the other hand, it has always been my favourite. I think it is a masterpiece that stands head and shoulders above its two immediate predecessors. It is simultaneously weirder and more polished than Rain Dogs, and it contains Waits’ most theatrical music. That’s the mode I like him best in. This episode gives a good summation of why it’s so theatrical and why it’s necessary nonetheless to consider it as an album rather than the soundtrack to a misbegotten live show.

Imaginary Worlds: “Visions of Philip K. Dick” — I actually didn’t know that Philip K. Dick spent his final years having either religious experiences or a form of paranoid psychosis. That is interesting. This is interesting. The audio of Dick talking in Paris during that time is captivating. Listen at least for that. It’s right at the start.

Constellations: “anna friz – air can break your heart” — Okay, time to get frank about this show. The thing that’s good about it is that it highlights audio makers who are working largely outside the confines of what’s considered “radio.” Much of what’s featured here falls more easily under the category of “sound art.” This is good. I want this sort of thing to find its way into my podcast feed, between all the NPR and roundtable chat shows. But the fact is that a lot of this material is fairly obscure and alienating, and in presenting it without comment at the start of the episode, and only offering a bare minimum of context from the artist afterwards (the audio equivalent of a brief “artist’s statement” on a website or brochure) doesn’t necessarily present it in its best light. As a listener, I want to hear work like this week’s piece — an abstract mix of ambient sound and muted speech — addressed in a way that’s slightly more playful. Because however much I enjoy it on its aesthetic merits, it still leaves me with questions like “what?” and “why?” And I’d like to hear those questions answered conversationally, with frankness and humour. I want to hear the hosts engage these artists on the level that their listeners are coming into this at: with respect and curiosity, but also occasional good-natured bewilderment. I want a proxy — somebody to step in and have a human conversation in this art world’s rarified air. The fact that this show doesn’t do this strikes me as a missed opportunity. TL;DR: Constellations is doing good work, but I wish it were less precious about the good work it’s doing.

99% Invisible: “Airships and the Future that Never Was” & “Making it Rain” — 99pi is 300 episodes old. (Well, 301, actually. But I’m only just getting to both of those episodes.) It seems appropriate to me that in spite of the show’s substantial growth in terms of both audience and staff, the 300th episode should be a return to the early days, when it was just Roman Mars making elegant, miniature stories about design. Even the subject matter, airships, is nostalgic. It’s a good episode. “Making it Rain” is good too, but less singular. While I have come to really enjoy all of the producers on this show, their presence has the effect of making 99pi sound more like public radio and less like the trailblazing independent podcast that it started off as. That’s how I’d summarize the trajectory of this show: as it’s gotten bigger, it has become less distinctive — even as its stories have become more ambitious. I’m not likely to stop listening anytime soon, not when this show pulls off stuff like the recent two-parter about the Bijlmer. But ultimately, I think Roman Mars’s greatest accomplishment hasn’t been 99pi itself, but leveraging its success into the formation of Radiotopia, which remains the most consistent, satisfying and surprising podcast collective out there. Quite a throne to maintain in these times. On that note, here are the rest of the Radiotopia shows I listened to this week. This next one is something I never would have heard if not for 99pi, which would be unconscionable.  

Theory of Everything: “This Is Not A Drill (False Alarm! part i)” — This new mini-season from Benjamen Walker is justly receiving heavy promotion across the Radiotopia stable of podcasts, and if you haven’t checked it out yet, you must. It begins with a straightforward account of what it was like to be in Hawaii during the cruise missile false alarm, then continues into a scrambled retelling of both “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Then it gets straight into the question at the heart of the series: how can Benjamen Walker continue making a show that’s neither fully fact nor fully fiction in the era of Fake News? I know people who have been vexed by this show’s blend of real and fake. I’ve never been one of them. I tend to think that the people who are the angriest about stuff like this, the Onion and so forth, are actually mostly angry at themselves for their own credulousness. For my part, I am delighted that podcasting’s most protean paranoiac is about to dive into the nature of reality itself in 2018. Hear this. Pick of the week.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti — Celebrating 99 Years” — This story about the great counterculture icon and champion of the Beat poets, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, seems like it’ll be a good warmup for the Kitchen Sisters’ “The Keepers” series about archivists. I’m really looking forward to that. This is nice, though I confess that Ferlinghetti’s own poetry doesn’t do much for me.

This is Love: “A Private Life” & “What Are We Going To Do” — This is Love is proving to be a lovely show, though rather cute. These have thus far been rather positive stories. Even when they flirt with heartbreak, each episode manages to spin the story into something uplifting. That’s fine, but I hope (he says, realizing what a sadist he sounds like) that this show finds its way to the darker side of its subject matter at some point as well.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Deadly Force” — This is a slighter but more direct exploration of a topic that Radiolab went in depth about a few months back. I think I prefer this version.

The Memory Palace: “Junk Room” — This feels like a throwback to the episodes Nate DiMeo made for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I really enjoyed in spite of not having been to any of those exhibits. This episode is about one of the weirdest collections of art in Washington D.C.: a room where the states all sent statues of two of their greatest figures. That’s subject matter that allows DiMeo to do what he’s great at: writing beautifully about figures who have been left out of popular history, and asking why Confederate leaders keep getting included instead.