Tag Archives: This American Life

Omnibus (week of May 28, 2018)

Greetings from exhaustion. I was on a road trip up to the Yukon and Alaska this week, which is a lot of driving (of which I did none) and it involved a certain amount of sleeping in uncomfortable circumstances. Also a lot of breathtaking scenery. I came back to immediately do two morning shifts this weekend starting at 5:00 am. I’m not complaining. My job is pretty cool. But oh my god do I ever need to sleep.

10 reviews.

Zzzzzzz.

Movies

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World — It is not as good as the comics, but it’s still one of the best adaptations ever made. It could have been so bad. It could have been a generic action comedy. Instead, it’s a weird fun house of a movie where rooms expand and contract, minor villains do Bollywood dance numbers, and the whole thing can momentarily turn into Seinfeld with nobody remarking on it. Michael Cera as Scott is a slightly counterintuitive casting choice, considering that Scott in the comics is, well, a cartoon. Not that he lacks depth, but he’s drawn to be very over-the-top expressive, which Cera is emphatically not. But he never forces a joke, and it’s that tendency that bridges the gap between Scott Pilgrim’s manifest cartooniness and its humanity. I like the ending of the comics better, particularly because this ending hinges on Scott learning self-respect, which is clearly not the issue. Scott needs to learn not to be shitty to everybody who isn’t him. Evidently the comics’ perfect ending had not been written yet when the film was in production. So these two endings are independent and both viable. It comes down to preference. Love this. Pick of the week. 

Solo: A Star Wars Story — Admittedly, I was very tired when I watched this and fell asleep at some crucial moments. But I mostly thought this was really dumb. The tone is set early on, when we have to sit through an explanation of why Han’s last name is Solo. It reaches an apex at a point where two characters urgently discuss whether Han is a “good guy” or not. There is altogether too much of this sort of scene setting in Solo. But fanservice is to be expected in these movies. What disappoints me most is that I didn’t even enjoy the minor elements I had hopes for, like Donald Glover as Lando and Phoebe Waller-Bridge as L3. Glover’s performance is charming enough, but he’s channelling Billy Dee Williams so hard that he can’t put his own stamp on the performance. And Waller-Bridge’s role is just too short to make an impact. (Or maybe I was asleep.) I think I’m done with these intermission featurettes between the main films. I just don’t like Star Wars enough. I do love that weird, green singing alien head though.

Podcasts

In Our Time: “Margaret of Anjou” — All I knew about Margaret I had gleaned from bits of chatter about Shakespeare plays that I have neither read nor seen. And even that turned out to be wrong! This is great. It’s a fun alternate way into the story of the Wars of the Roses.

Love and Radio: “Choir Boy” — I heard this guy’s story on 99% Invisible first, but I think I prefer this version, which is classic Love and Radio. A man starts robbing banks for fun, and things deteriorate from there. Tell me you don’t want to hear that story.

This American Life: “Heretics” & “LaDonna” — Nothing beats This American Life for a road trip. These are two episodes that each feature a single story based around a single character, both of whom suffer infuriating indignities in very different ways. “Heretics” is about a different kind of radical preacher — one who doesn’t believe in Hell. Turns out, that’s a belief with consequences. And “LaDonna” is about a woman who finds it much harder than she expected to change the toxic work culture of Allied Universal. It’s a bravura piece of journalism by Chana Joffe-Walt, who is brilliant at accountability interviews. Hear these.

Ear Hustle: “The Row” — It’s been a while since I listened to this, but I clearly need to catch up. This episode features interviews with three inmates who are on death row, a part of San Quentin that the other inmates have essentially no contact with at all. It’s a really interesting look into the cultures and routines of a place where nobody wants to be, and also a penetrating exploration of what gives people’s lives meaning when they’re running out the clock.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Prince and the Technician” — Damn, I love the Kitchen Sisters. This is about Susan Rogers, one of the few women engineers to become prominent in the 80s. Specifically, it’s about her work with Prince. This is the behind-the-curtain look at Prince’s process that you’ve always wanted. His work ethic was off the chain, and so is Rogers’. Pick of the week.

The Allusionist: “Survival part 1: Second Home” — The story of how Welsh came to flourish in a small region of Argentina. It’s super interesting but I kind of wish there’d been more jokes. In any other context that would be an incredibly weird thing to say about an episode like this. But there you are.

Hardcore History: “The Wrath of Khans” parts 1-3 — I don’t subscribe to this show, but I was on a long, long road trip recently with a friend who does. That is the only context in which I’ve heard it before, and I am never quite as attentive to it as I think you need to be. But I really enjoyed this, in spite of it being a completely crazy thing that adheres to none of the podcasting  conventions I hold dear. The host, Dan Carlin, just talks into a microphone for up to five hours at a time (less, in this case) about a very specific period in history. There are no production elements save for the opening theme and the sting that ends each episode. It’s bonkers, and it shouldn’t work. But Carlin is compelling to listen to, and he’s really good at structuring his episodes in a way that balances the story itself with analysis. For instance, he begins this series on Genghis Khan and the Mongols by asking us to consider what it would be like to read a book about the net benefits of Nazi Germany on technology and global geopolitics. Sometimes one wishes he’d be a bit more sensitive — this would likely be different if it were made in 2018 rather than 2012. But he’s not being provocative for the sake of it. As he explains, this very practice of revisionist history has been going on with respect to Genghis Khan for generations. And the story he goes on to tell makes no bones about the fact that he was an absolute monster. Anyway, there are two more parts of this that I almost want to listen to, but I just can’t see this fitting into my life in any context other than long drives, which is not a thing I do.

Caliphate: “Mosul” — And with that, we’re abruptly following another story. This is good. The thing that was always going to make this series work was audio collected from within ISIS’s sphere of influence. That’s where the story happens, it’s where Rukmini Callimachi reports from, and it’s what we get here. This feels like it’s doing groundwork for the next episode, establishing the historical context of Mosul and explaining what life was like there under ISIS. But it’s revealing in its own way.

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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 March 11, 2018)

Another busy week, another paltry instalment of Omnibus. Still, some good stuff here.

Eight reviews.

Movies

Thor: Ragnarok — I don’t normally watch Marvel movies unless I’m seeing them in a theatre with friends. That’s what they’re for. They’re an outing. But I’d heard enough good things about this one that I made a point of actually sitting down and watching it myself. It is without a doubt one of the very top-tier Marvel movies. Black Panther, this, Civil War, and maybe the first Avengers. Those are the ones that really make the MCU concept worthwhile. In this particular case we have a movie directed by somebody with a distinctive comedic sensibility, Taika Waititi, packed with a cast of outstanding comic performers — some of whom haven’t gotten to do as much straight comedy in their Marvel roles as you’d like. Partially I’m thinking of Chris Hemsworth. But it applies even more to Mark Ruffalo, who is hysterically funny in this, as both Bruce Banner and a slightly more verbal incarnation of Hulk. But the scene stealers are all newcomers. Tessa Thompson is brilliant in the hitherto unconceived-of role of “drunk Valkyrie.” Waititi himself absolutely kills as the universe’s most ineffectual revolutionary. (My favourite line in the whole movie is “Piss off, ghost! … He’s freakin’ gone.”) Best of all, Jeff Goldblum is here, and he Jeffs as Goldblum as he’s ever Jeffed, all over this whole damn movie. (“Wow, I didn’t hear any thunder, but out of your fingers — was that, like, sp-sparkles?”) Also, let’s talk aesthetics. Firstly, the Marvel Symphonic Universe problem is solved at last by none other than Mark Mothersbaugh, who delivers an electronic score that kicks ass when it needs to, and is just as content to camp it up in the comic scenes. Also, this is the first Thor movie to really take advantage of the fact that a key element of Norse mythology is the RAINBOW BRIDGE. We have some colours going on. Thank god. Also — and I don’t want to overemphasize this, because ultimately Thor: Ragnarok is just a well-made, silly fantasy comedy — we have a sly anti-colonial narrative on our hands, here. We learn that Odin took the nine realms by force with Hela as his executioner, then covered the whole thing up because of, I dunno, public image troubles? The need to suppress revolution? This is how colonialism works. This movie isn’t Black Panther — it is not explicitly political. But for every couple dozen good gags, there’s one halfway decent insight. I’ll take it. Pick of the week.

Annihilation — I liked it, but I wanted to love it. It’s possible I was overhyped for it. I was told it was bonkers. I’d heard comparisons to 2001, which is always going to be hyperbole. But I was hoping at least for something with a layer of abstraction to it — something that would cause me to leave the theatre wondering what actually happened. This isn’t that kind of movie. It isn’t especially open to interpretation. It isn’t The Tree of Life. It isn’t The Fountain. It’s a movie I will inevitably like better on a second viewing, because I will be able to approach it on its own terms, rather than on the terms of the movie I hoped it would be. That said, there is much to love about it on a first viewing: the casting is good, with Natalie Portman giving a creditable lead performance bolstered by outstanding supporting performances from Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez and Tessa Thompson. And it really is a visual feast. Even its mundane shots are elegant. (It envisions the savage wilderness with more atmosphere than The Lost City of Z did, and that movie’s visuals were the one thing that lived up the the hype.) And when the monsters, mutant plants, and hallucinatory cosmic phenomena begin to crop up, it truly becomes a wonder. Annihilation is a good movie. Chalk it up to unreasonable expectations.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “When Fiction Lives in Fiction,” “A Defense of the Kabbalah” & the prologue to Bartleby the Scrivener — I waltzed into the Paper Hound the other day, a rather excellent small bookshop on Pender Street. “Just browse a little,” I said to myself. “Maybe pick up something light,” I said to myself. Six pounds of books later, I find myself leafing through the selected non-fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, whose essays read much like his fiction does — because so many of his stories are formatted as essays on books that simply don’t exist. My first casual flip through these characteristically miniature pieces includes three essays on topics I find particularly interesting these days: metafiction, the Kabbalah, and Herman Melville. The Bartleby prologue is primarily about Moby-Dick. It is the piece in which he refers to it as “the infinite novel,” an appraisal that many editions of Moby-Dick still trumpet on their back covers today. He should have said “the fathomless novel,” but this is a translation and I shouldn’t quibble. In any case, I should also probably actually read Bartleby the Scrivener, because I sort of have no idea what this is all about. “When Fiction Lives in Fiction” contains a suggestion that I find intensely seductive. Borges suggests that we find metafiction creepy because we look at a story within a story and feel as though we ourselves may only be part of an endless chain of fictions, subject to the wills of the storytellers beyond the veil. (I brought this up in my comics writing class today, and our instructor compared the idea to the distressingly popular Silicon Valley notion that we are all in a simulation, because simulations would exist within simulations, ergo there must be a long chain of simulations and it’s infinitesimally unlikely that we’re at the top of the chain. I thought that was quite clever. My instructor’s comparison, mind you — not the actual idea. The idea is nonsense.) I feel as though I’ve read Borges saying this in a more direct way, but it’s hinted at here. Maybe I’m just connecting the dots myself. Who can say. This essay also contains some favourable remarks on Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, one of my favourite novels, and a deeply Borgesian book — by design or not. The Kabbalah essay contains a contention that I find rather interesting: “every object whose end is unknown to us is provisionally monstrous.” He’s talking about God, whose endlessness isn’t necessarily something to be worshipped in Borges’s view, but rather something to be put off by. That idea that the things that extend beyond our field of vision — things we can only see in part, if at all — connects this essay with the metafiction essay. Borges is distressed by the notion of God for the same reason he’s distressed by stories within stories: both make him feel like he’s not in control of the strings. I sympathize. Again and again, reading Borges feels like talking to a really smart friend.

Elaine M. Will: Look Straight Ahead — A webcomic assigned in the comics writing class I’m taking. I was uncertain about it at first, because if anything it is a too accurate portrayal of the overwrought inner monologue of a high school student. But once the main thrust of the story gets underway, which deals with a psychotic break that goes far beyond standard adolescent alienation, it picks up steam. The visual presentation of the protagonist’s psychosis is deeply immersive and makes up for some lingering weaknesses in the dialogue and captioning. Fine.

Music

Gustav Mahler/Leonard Bernstein, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra & Helmut Wittek: Symphony No. 4 — Oftentimes when I’m writing these reviews, I’ll throw on a symphony. Usually it’s something I’ve reviewed before, or else I don’t get through the whole thing and it’s not worth remarking on, so I don’t. I’m not sure why I love symphonic music particularly for this kind of writing, but it’s increasingly what I fall back on. As I type this, I am listening to this particular recording over a glass of rather good Australian petite sirah. One must have these little rituals — even at the risk of becoming a caricature of one’s self. *sip* As for the recording, it’s one of two Mahler fours I return to, the other being the CanCon preference, Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s recording with Orchestre Métropolitain. I believe that was the second Mahler recording I ever bought, after a deeply dodgy Naxos recording of the eighth, which remains one of my least favourite Mahler symphonies, even in a good recording. (Chailly’s recording wins, BTW, and not only because it’s got Ben Heppner at his best. That does help, though.) Still, as much as I find nostalgic value in the YNS recording, I’m always going to go for Bernstein in a pinch. He’s a legendary Mahler conductor for a reason: he brings out all the music’s extremity and drama. There’s nobody who imbues this music with more energy than Bernstein, and energy is what’s called for. Mahler is not Bach. He is not one of those composers whose music seems to unveil natural laws. He is a composer who writes his own rules — his music is intensely human and requires a human interpretation. I’ll always prefer hearing an adult soprano (i.e. Karina Gauvin in YNS’s recording) to a boy soprano. But that aside, Bernstein’s rendition of this most light and pleasant Mahler symphonies is a treasure.

Podcasts

This American Life: “20 Acts in 60 Minutes” — A classic of the genre. Ira Glass once told Chris Gethard that his favourite episodes of This American Life are the ones where they break the format. This episode from 15 years ago is one of the most explicit of those. It features no fewer than 20 stories, many of them from producers who have gone on to become icons. Jonathan Goldstein tells the story of the time the Penguin (the Batman villain) meets Mary Poppins, and they find they have little in common save for airborne umbrella travel. Starlee Kine talks to an actor about the most mortifying moment his quasi-celebrity has ever brought him. Scott Carrier falls in love. Davids Sedaris and Rakoff do their respective things. Chuck Klosterman compares things to other things. But the best stories come from incarcerated youths. A pair of newly-minted investigative reporters in a juvenile delinquency centre look into the possibility that the kitchen staff has been urinating in the pudding. And a troupe of teenage girls in another facility apologize to their families — in song. Outstanding. The sort of thing that makes people want to become radio producers. Pick of the week.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Courtney Barnett, Exitmusic, Okkervil River, More,” “Margaret Glaspy Writes A Bookend to ‘Emotions And Math,’” “Guest DJ: Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats Hop Across An Eclectic Playlist” & “SXSW 2018 Preview” — I have decided that All Songs needs to be a bigger part of my life this year, because it is a legitimately excellent way to get turned on to music that might be part of the critical conversation — but also weird stuff that’s going to get overlooked. In these episodes, I heard music I loved by Courtney Barnett (whose debut I still need to hear in full), Margaret Glaspy, Les McCann (thank you, Guest D.J. Nathaniel Rateliff), Chloe Foy & Skyway Man. Who’s to say if I’ll ever dig in further, but their names are now on my blog, and I’ll know if I ever look back here that these are musicians I once enjoyed, and should maybe have a listen again. I intend to listen to their complete SXSW coverage this coming week. Should be enlightening.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Atlanta” & “Talk Show Talk” — I have to watch Atlanta. I’ve been told by many many people, and by one person many many times, that I have to watch Atlanta. Soon. But this week’s standout PCHH is the talk show episode, featuring Guy Branum, host of Pop Rocket, a ruder and less insightful PCHH on which he is the bright light. They even momentarily made me understand Jimmy Fallon. Also, there’s a particularly nice moment here where Linda Holmes rediscovers why she’s friends with Glen Weldon by way of Cole Porter. This show almost never gets my pick of the week, nor will it this week. And it doesn’t show up on my year-end lists, because it’s a really weird thing to stack up against, I dunno, The Heart. Or even Code Switch, which does get out of the studio from time to time to make something a bit more ambitious than your standard panel chat. But I routinely enjoy Pop Culture Happy Hour more than anything else on my subscription list, and I love when I’ve got a backlog of episodes to listen to, because it’s so much fun.

Omnibus (week of Sept. 24, 2017)

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

Movies

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

Music

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

Television

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

Literature, etc.

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnibus (week of Aug. 19, 2017)

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

Literature, etc.

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

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

Comedy

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

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

Movies

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

Television

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnibus (week of July 24, 2017)

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

Movies

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

Television

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

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

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

Music

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

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

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

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

Literature, etc.

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

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

Podcasts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omnibus (week of June 18, 2017)

Yeah, I changed the name. I never liked the old name. Onwards.

The second instalment of the NXNW segment aired yesterday on Radio 1, and it is a whole level weirder than the first. Basically, I tried to convince Sheryl MacKay that the central tenets of medieval alchemy are still alive and well and living in pop culture. Every so often I make something I’m really proud of. This second segment is for sure one of those. I’m at 1:22:34 in this podcast of the show.

Ran a 5K this morning. Boy oh boy were there a lot of people in that. You’ll see more podcasts here than there have been in weeks, because I figured even a 5K shouldn’t be approached with a totally cavalier attitude. Many kilometers were run, and many hours of audio accompanied them. If you’re new to this, this instalment is a bit closer to my usual approach than recent weeks have been: lots of podcasts, shorter reviews. 38 of them, to be precise.

Television

American Gods: “Come To Jesus” — After last time, I didn’t actually expect Jesus to be played for laughs. But there is honestly nothing funnier than seeing a whole herd of diverse Jesuses just milling about. Except for the bit where Wednesday refers to them collectively as “these assholes.” That’s funnier. This season finale is actually my least favourite episode of American Gods so far, but that’s a very relative thing to say. Mostly, I’m just mildly peeved that the story hasn’t gotten to a point where the supporting deities like Nancy and Czernobog are relevant to the story on a consistent basis. I’m as happy as I thought I’d be to see Nancy again, but it would have been nice to see him do more than offer exposition for another character. (I miss the story about tiger balls from the book.) Also, the somewhat overwrought segment where Wednesday reveals his real name to Shadow is the first sequence in the show that hasn’t worked for me. Partially it’s just the Michael-Bay-spinning-cameraness of it all, but mostly I just find it hard to accept that Shadow, or any portion of the audience, would be surprised to learn that a one-eyed god who goes by “Wednesday” would actually be Odin. (This is a problem the show inherits from the book.) On the other hand, this episode makes two substantial improvements on the book. One is in the relationship between Bilquis and the Technical Boy. I suppose it’s still possible that Technical will kill Bilquis at some point, but that moment was one of the most jarring parts of the book, and I’m very glad that she’s survived their first meeting. The other improvement is Kristin Chenoweth’s Easter, who is angrier, funnier and altogether more ruthless than her book analogue. I especially love the way she listens to her adorable messenger bunnies, only to invariably respond “oh, shit!” I realize that throughout these American Gods reviews, I’ve focussed an awful lot on the relationship between show and book. Probably that’ll subside next season, at which point I will have read the book substantially less recently. But I still think that American Gods is as compelling an act of adaptation as a show to be taken on its own merits. Between this and Hannibal, I think Bryan Fuller has confirmed himself as the master of the modern television adaptation. Benioff and Weiss wish they were this good. Season one of American Gods has been some of the best television of recent years. I can’t wait for the next season. Hope it’s longer.

Better Call Saul: “Lantern” — Sometimes I start to write these reviews before I’m finished watching the episode. Here is a brief passage from what I’d written before I watched through to the end. “Chuck. Is. Noxious. The writers of this show, and Michael McKean, should pat themselves on the back for creating such a convincing yet completely insufferable character. The thing that makes him so hard to take is a simple juxtaposition of two traits: he has no compassion at all, and he always perceives himself to have the moral high ground. This episode features one of the most painful scenes in the show so far, in which Chuck intentionally tries to hurt Jimmy, and feels entirely justified in doing so because Jimmy colours outside the lines. He feels no complicity in the rift between the two of them. This is the worst kind of person, and this is a kind of person who exists. I know these people and so do you. Chuck is scum. Chuck is irredeemable.” At the end of the episode, I softened my view rather dramatically. In his more loathsome moments, Chuck makes it easy to forget that he is not at the peak of mental wellness. In retrospect, he might be the highlight of this season, because of the way both McKean and the story emphasize his uncompromising cruelty and his struggle with mental illness at the same time. The show even gives us a handy yardstick by which to assess the reasonableness of our hatred for Chuck: Howard Hamlin. Since the season one reveal that he actually isn’t that bad, Howard has been one of the most sympathetic characters on Better Call Saul.  And even he would rather part with millions of his own hard-earned dollars than work with Chuck any longer. He has become genuinely impossible, and well and truly cruel. He was also in a lot of trouble. And he completely alienated his one-man support system, who to be fair, is a person with no small amount of flaws himself. I expected this episode to be all about Kim after last week’s cliffhanger. And while it is bittersweet to see her finally realizing that she needs to take time to breathe, her season arc basically ended with her car crash. This episode belongs to Chuck. But its subtext belongs to Jimmy. It’s easy to read Chuck’s suicide as a final “fuck you” to his brother. This is only a small part of an inevitably complex equation, but think about this: their last conversation consisted of Chuck telling Jimmy that he would always hurt people and he might as well embrace it. Then he kills himself. Meanwhile, Jimmy has alienated himself from the elder law practice that could have been his saving grace. (I’m delighted that Mrs. Landry is okay.) The path to Saul Goodman has never been clearer than it is now. Pick of the week.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Parts 3-7 — Okay, the internet was right. This Dougie Jones business needs to stop. At first, I was amused — not so much by Kyle McGlaughlin’s performance, which finds him working substantially below his pay grade, but by the constant way that everybody around him basically fails to acknowledge that there’s something really wrong. Particularly wonderful is Naomi Watts as his wife. The fact that she’s not more concerned really makes you wonder what kind of shit-for-brains asshole the real Dougie Jones was. I love the idea that this might not actually be that out of the ordinary. Suppose that’s what you get for marrying a homunculus. But after four episodes of this, I’m ready to have Coop back. I don’t even need to hear him talk about coffee and pie. I don’t even need a thumbs up. I just want him to be here so that the show has a central intelligence in it again who can start to put together the disparate threads that are remaining maddeningly allusive without him. In general though, I’ve really been enjoying this. I don’t have that much to say about it because it’s still got its cards super close to its chest. I’m definitely hoping that we’re not done with David Lynch’s modernized, expanded take on the Black Lodge. The sequences that take place there are truly terrifying, and among the most compelling television I’ve seen in recent times.

Doctor Who: “World Enough and Time” — Okay, now we’re cooking. This is classic Steven Moffat, operating in “hey here’s a fun idea” mode. In this case, the idea is that there’s a huge spaceship right by a black hole, so time works differently at one end of it and the other. The real storytelling masterstroke, though, is stranding the Doctor at the slow end of the ship, so that the situation seriously escalates before he’s able to formulate a plan. Aside from that, this is notable as a real return to Moffat’s signature horror. You could say that the monks constituted horror, as did the notion in “Extremis” that the entire universe is a projection and you cease to exist if you step outside of the beam. But nothing since “Listen” has really gone whole hog into horror territory the way that this does. The scene with the volume dials is one of the most disturbing things Moffat has ever written. And the patients in general, all on their way to becoming Cybermen, are terrifying in that existential way that the Cybermen manage to be when they’ve got a good writer behind them. (Unless that good writer is Neil Gaiman, in which case they still don’t work.) And all that good stuff happens even before we get the big reveal of John Simm. Which, I mean, we all knew he was going to be in this, but am I stupid for being INCREDIBLY FUCKING SURPRISED that character was him? Am I? Come on, be honest. This was an amazing episode: straightforwardly the best of the season. Can’t wait to see what comes next.

Games

King of Dragon Pass — So, the Steam summer sale is on, but I realized that I’m not actually even close to finishing the games I bought during the Steam winter sale. Because *some of us* like to go outside sometimes, amirite? At this point I think the Half-Life series is a lost cause for me. I was so terrible at the first one, and the story is so minimal, that I’m forced to conclude it is literally the opposite of what I appreciate in a video game. Moving on to King of Dragon Pass, then: another classic of an entirely different sort. This is dated, and its high fantasy aesthetic isn’t really my thing, but I’m compelled regardless. Basically, it’s a text-based resource management game with elements of choose-your-own-adventure. So, it’s kind of Sunless Sea before its time. Except that the writing isn’t anywhere close to that level. It has its moments, mind you. I quite like this: “Your men whooped with Orlanth and drank the Eight Known Drinks, so that your heads would hurt during the ceremony.” Also unlike Sunless Sea, its representation of women oscillates between fairly progressive and a bit, erm, medieval. But there’s enough in this to compel me. I’m particularly fond of the way that your progress is compiled into a document called “the Saga,” which actually reads a bit like an Icelandic saga, given that those stories basically are just lists of accomplishments. So far, this seems like the sort of thing I’ll probably play until I manage to beat it on the easiest setting and then I might put it aside. Still, it’ll probably grow on me.

Literature

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Lottery in Babylon” — A substantially simpler and more direct story than some of the others I’ve read recently. Still brilliant, and the way that Borges casually drops details into the framework of ideas that makes up the narrative reminds me once again of how much Neil Gaiman owes to him. Look at this bit: “A slave stole a crimson ticket; the drawing determined that the ticket entitled the bearer to have his tongue burned out.” This comes at a point in the story where it’s been established that owning tickets can result in terrible things happening to you as well as good things, but the specifics have been vague. Borges just drops this punishment into a sentence that’s actually a rumination on what’s supposed to happen in the case of the theft of a ticket. His narrator doesn’t make a big deal of it. That, more than anything in this story, gives the sense of a fully-formed world with defined parameters that are simply taken for granted. I continue to be astonished by this writer.

Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine, Volume 4: “Imperial Phase, Part One” — I don’t know how anybody reads this issue-by-issue. When the trade collections come out, I wolf them down in one sitting and I still feel like I need more. This is probably the most exciting collection so far from this perpetually exciting comic. The real showstopper is the the first issue in the collection, formatted as a (beautifully designed) fan magazine in which members of the Pantheon are interviewed by actual journalists (with Gillen filling the role of each god at the other end of a chat window). The best of them is Laurie Penny’s piece on Woden, who is self-evidently the shittiest god. Having read Penny’s piece on Milo Yiannopoulos, it just felt right. My favourite part of the story in this issue is the way that the Pantheon is forced to reorganize and rally behind their logical leaders, Baal and Urdr, in the absence of Ananke. The dynamics between all of these characters just keep getting more interesting. Persephone in particular is the best thing going on in this book right now. Love it.

Kelefa Sanneh: “The Persistence of Prog Rock” — An excellent piece on the contemporary reception of 1970s prog, with reference to David Wiegel’s recent book on the subject. I’m reminded that I need to eventually finish the books cited by Edward Macan, Bill Martin and Will Romano, though I think all of them (especially Romano’s) are quite bad. The most interesting idea raised here is that progressive rock was parochial. This is something that I struggle with. It definitely was parochial — the most recognized bands in the genre were such idiomatically British eccentrics that albums like Selling England by the Pound almost seem a bit Brexity in retrospect. On the other hand, that means that prog largely avoided the garish spectacle of cultural appropriation that a lot of other British rock proffered. The Rolling Stones and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers seem a hell of a lot more retrograde in retrospect than ELP does. And ELP, lest anybody forget, was the band whose use of classical music in their performances was meant to get the kids listening to “music that has more quality.” The mind reels. I sympathize with Lester Bangs’ distaste for this sentiment. But I’m not sure he ever really saw the other side of the coin. I’ll be reading Wiegel’s book very soon.

Music

Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner & James McAlister: Planetarium — Well, it doesn’t make it easy for us. Planetarium is enormously ambitious and enormously long. Every song on this gave me the sense that I’d definitely like it a lot more next time I listen to it. Honestly, that’s one of my favourite reactions to have to a piece of music, but this does meander a bit. I’m curious to know more about the process of this: I’m familiar enough with Stevens, Muhly and Dessner’s work (the latter only as a composer, admittedly — I’ve never liked the National) that I feel like it should be easier than it is to isolate their particular contributions. They seem to have genuinely merged into a many-headed beast. My personal highlights here are “Jupiter” and especially “Mercury,” which has a melody worthy of Carrie & Lowell. But I’ve now heard “Saturn” a few times and it has grown on me from the point of initially leaving me cold to the point where now I actually bring up Apple Music to listen to it specifically. And the 15-minute “Earth” hits my prog rock structural pleasure centres, but there’s too much in it to take in for me to assess it yet. I think this is really good. I’ll probably check back in about it when I listen to it a bit more.

Neil Young: Live at the Riverboat 1969 — Like the Canterbury House instalment of Neil’s archives series, this is most notable for his amusingly awkward, stoned audience banter. I wish I’d been at one of these early acoustic shows, but I wasn’t born until 21 years later. Anyway, I’m actually pretty happy to be moving past the pre-Crazy Horse segment of my quest to hear the Complete Neil Young. Solo acoustic guitar music gets tiresome.

Neil Young: Live at Fillmore East 1970 — Ah, now we’re talking. What’s most notable about this is how much it sounds like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Crazy Horse has always sounded really live in the studio. All the same, the presence of an audience makes “Cowgirl in the Sand” pop a bit more, with the band really trying to ratchet up the tension to keep them into it. I suspect 1970 is the year when things really get interesting. I’ve enjoyed my exploration of Buffalo Springfield and the late-60s limbo state from which the self-titled album emerged. But it’s with the foundation of Crazy Horse and Neil’s induction into CSNY that the phase of his career we know him for really began.

Podcasts

Ear Hustle: “Cellies” — This podcast is a beautiful idea. It’s also staggeringly ambitious. I can only imagine the logistical nightmare it must be to produce a podcast in prison. But these are stories that don’t get told. And when they do, they sure aren’t told by the inmates themselves. This premiere episode introduces some fun characters, including two brothers who ended up as cellmates and nearly drove each other out of their minds. I’m also rather endeared by Earlonne Woods’ resistance to his non-incarcerated co-host’s attempts to apply relationship metaphors to cellmates. He ought to know what metaphors are and aren’t apt. This is the most promising addition to Radiotopia since Song Exploder.

The Pitch: “Babyscripts” — Not for me. This has a solid premise that’s basically guaranteed to yield drama: it’s basically Dragons’ Den. But I’m just not interested enough in business to be interested in these kinds of conversations. Worth a shot if you are.

StartUp: “Life After Startup” — A catch-up session with some of the people in previous StartUp episodes. Most notably, we revisit Dating Ring, the company followed in the show’s underrated second season. I really found the ending of that season heartbreaking, so it’s good to know that even though the business didn’t pan out, the founders are living happy lives these days.

Imaginary Worlds: “Imagining the Internet” — It’s a common refrain among science fiction critics that the internet is the modern technology that the genre failed most egregiously to predict. But this provides a corollary to that view by, in part, bringing Mark Twain into the fold. One highlight of this is hearing the actor who does the readings adopt the personas of their respective authors. I’m especially struck by how similar his Twain is to the genius voice actor that I brought in to do Twain at the end of the last episode of the Syrup Trap Pod Cast. I guess he’s just a voice that people have a sense of.

In Our Time: “The American Populists” — A pleasingly contentious conversation about the short-lived party that briefly promised to offer a real alternative to the Democrats and the Republicans. So no, it’s not about Donald Trump. Trust In Our Time to remind you that history is worth knowing about, and it doesn’t always have to be covered with explicit reference to current events to be relevant.

Love and Radio: “Relevant Questions” — A middling episode of one of the best shows around, so quite good. It’s about the first polygraph operator to speak out against its use. But he’s not straightforwardly heroic, even if he sees himself that way. It’s got a twist that’s done cleverly, in a similar way to the twist in “A Girl of Ivory,” but that’s not a comparison that does this any favours because that episode was a classic. Still, pretty great.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Wonder Woman And The Tony Awards” — Okay, I’ll see Wonder Woman. I was kind of going to anyway, in spite of my serious superhero fatigue. This is different. Man, the Tonys seem to have nothing for me this time around.

Radiolab: “The Gondolier” — This is a good story by the standards of recent Radiolab episodes, but I can’t help but hear the Love and Radio episode that could have been. It’s a story about a person who was touted internationally as “Venice’s first female gondolier,” which turned out to be super wrong because he’s a trans man. That last sentence is almost a spoiler, because this episode actually treats Alex, the main character, as a woman for a portion of its duration, in accordance with the reporters’ misunderstanding of his gender identity. The media has traditionally been Alex’s enemy, and this is supposed to provide an antidote to that. I’m not at all the person to judge how it succeeds at that, but I do feel like this is a case where the Love and Radio approach of cutting out the reporter’s voice altogether would be useful. I’d love to hear the version of this story that’s just Alex telling his own story. But Radiolab’s gonna Radiolab, so we have to have a certain amount of ponderous processing and deconstruction. It’s fine.

Home of the Brave: “The Continental Divide” — One of the things I really like about Home of the Brave is that Scott Carrier will sometimes release one of these brief missives in between proper radio projects. I sympathize with his inability to talk to people who disagree with him right now, but I admire his decision to give it another go.

Fresh Air: “Jay Z” — An old interview, from just after the release of Decoded. Terry Gross sounds slightly uncomfortable interviewing Jay Z because she kind of thinks he’s sexist. But Jay is charming and indulgent, even if he does get super defensive when Gross actually brings up sexism. Mostly a very good interview.

This American Life: “Say Anything” — The bulk of this is taken up by a tape that a guy made for his suicidal friend, without ever intending for it to end up on radio. It’s very affecting. But the real highlight is a list of fears written by a developmentally disabled man. It is both funny and insightful. A cameo from Jonathan Goldstein is always appreciated as well.

Fresh Air: “Roxane Gay” — A marvellous interview about Gay’s new book, which sounds like a deeply insightful, really rough read. She’s one of those articulate people you’ve just got to be thankful for.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin” — To some extent, this is shameless self-promotion for GLOW, the new show he’s in. But it sounds like a really great show, and I’m always in for an Alison Brie interview. She is completely charming. I didn’t realize that I knew Betty Gilpin, but her American Gods performance is really hilarious and the way she describes it as a wilful misunderstanding of the tone of the whole show is amazing. A good listen.

It’s Been A Minute: “Hey Y’all” — I’m reservedly excited about this. I love Sam Sanders. He’s always been one of my favourite guests on Pop Culture Happy Hour and I miss him on the NPR Politics Podcast. I just hope it doesn’t keep explaining ordinary idioms like “it’s been a minute” to me.

Sampler: “Introducing The Nod!” — Thank god Gimlet found something for Brittany Luse to do. She’s brilliant, and she was always above Sampler. Looking forward.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Sofia Coppola” — This has its moments, and Maron clearly admires and understands Coppola’s filmmaking. But did he have to talk about her dad so much? Surely she’s sick of that. In any case, Sofia Coppola is a genius and I can’t wait to see The Beguiled.

99% Invisible: “You Should Do A Story” — A roundup of miscellaneous stories that didn’t become full episodes. It’s worth hearing for a few simple descriptions of household design solutions from specific places.

The Heart: “Doing Time” — I heard an interview with Kaitlin Prest on a great podcast I don’t review called The Imposter where she said that the launch of Ear Hustle and the themed episodes Radiotopia did for its launch resulted in a hurried finish to the “No” season, which doesn’t actually come off in the last episode, but it sucks. In any case, this brushed-up episode from the back catalogue is perfectly fine.

Code Switch: “What To Make Of Philando Castile’s Death, One Year Later” — This won’t help you process the acquittal of Philando Castile’s killer, but it does feature an interview with a friend of Castile’s that is heartbreaking.  

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Pardon Power” — Is this presidency really so unprecedented that we’re entertaining the notion that a sitting president could pardon himself? Guys this is not normal.

The Gist: “Scaachi Koul on Surviving the Trolls” — Scaachi Koul is one of the funniest and best writers about sexism and racism. If you don’t read her on Buzzfeed, what are you even doing. I’m really looking forward to reading her book. This interview isn’t one of Mike Pesca’s best moments, but it is plenty good on Koul’s part. He gets all tone policey and she doesn’t let him get away with it. Satisfying in a way.

StartUp: “How To Invent A New Sport” — This is about a guy who made a new version of basketball. The best part is the story of a pitch meeting in China. Listen for that alone.

The Gist: “Do Radicals Change the World?” — Jeremy McCarter is familiar to me from the Hamiltome, but this new book doesn’t sound like something I’ll especially enjoy. I’ll take China Mieville’s 1917 book, thanks. He’s got no doubts that radicals change the world.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “GLOW And Lena Waithe” — Hmm, here are two shows that make me wish there was more time in a day. I’m finding it hard to commit to the idea of watching GLOW and Master of None. The former has a bunch of people I love involved, but I’m not sold on the hype. And Master of None sounds like it’s got a slow first season and a killer second. That’s a stumbling block. You’d never think it from reading this blog sometimes, but I’ve got to be judicious in my choices. Even I only have so much time to allot to this stuff.

It’s Been A Minute: “Likes Don’t Matter” — I don’t know how to feel about this. Part of me wants to think that it’ll find its legs, but it’s also totally clear that this has been given dry run after dry run, so it’s already got a fair bit of mileage behind it. Sam Sanders is one of the cleverest, most magnetic people at NPR. But this feels kind of forcedly colloquial to me. I liked Sanders a lot on the NPR Politics Podcast, where they had a mandate to really get into the grains of it, because Sanders was the guy who could inject a bit of air into the proceedings. He was as good at talking politics as the rest of the panel, but also funnier. In a less explicitly focussed situation, I’m not sure what to make of him anymore. I’ll keep listening, because I really do think he’s great. But I have reservations.

Beef And Dairy Network: “Gareth Belge” — Ahh, I like this. I like this show a lot. This features a hilarious segment about how cows act as body doubles for actors more than you’d know. That’s this show in a nutshell. Beautiful.

Mogul: Episodes 1 & 2 — I resisted this at first because it came out initially on Spotify, and I’m dead set against windowing in the podcast world. But I had to hear this story. It is magical. It is the story of Chris Lighty, the powerful hip hop executive: how he rose to prominence and how he died. Combat Jack hosts (going by his birth name here, Reggie Ossé), and he brings a level of expertise on this topic that probably nobody else in the world could top. The joy of listening to this is not just in the character-driven story of Lighty, nor is it even in the brilliantly rendered history of hip hop’s evolution. It’s in Ossé’s intense engagement with the material. I’ve always known somebody would make a podcast like this sometime — a show that deals with the history of music in a story-driven, audio rich way. Song Exploder isn’t quite it. This is it. I’ve been waiting for this. If you have any interest at all in hip hop or in knowing something about the music of the last forty years, check this out. It’s a beautiful thing. Pick of the week.