Tag Archives: Vulfpeck

Omnibus (week of Nov. 19, 2017)

A short instalment this week, because it includes a whole season of television. Also, I’m back into the audiobook of It, which continues to be awesome, but I won’t have anything much to say about it until I’m done, and that’s still going to be a while. Only one pick of the week, because two seems extravagant. 

9 reviews.

Music

Vulfpeck: Mr. Finish Line — I confess, Vulfpeck’s schtick is beginning to wear thin for me. But this third album is a lot better than the second. There’s nothing on it with the immediate appeal of something like “Animal Spirits,” or even some of the first album’s instrumentals like “Welcome to Vulf Records.” But “Running Away” is maybe their best ballad, and “Tee Time” is exactly what I want from Vulfpeck: a track so totally built around its electric piano riff that it is essentially a high concept song. This is fine. But I feel like Vulf is a band with one great album in them and they made it the first time.

Television

Stranger Things 2 — I absolutely loved this and have next to nothing to say about it. I think it’s about as good as the first season, with a few minor problems — namely Eleven’s dodgy standalone episode and the fact that they didn’t know what to do with Mike in her absence. But overall, this is charming and immersive in the same ways as the first season: it’s Stephen King-style horror with Steven Spielberg-style relationships and character arcs. I have no further insight into it than this, because I’m not sure there’s much insight to be had. It continues to be a great execution of a solid premise. That’s all. Also, I’m still making my way through the audiobook of It, and realizing gradually what a debt this show owes to that book specifically. But Stranger Things’ cadre of misfit children is a bit more convincing than King’s, maybe mostly because of the acting, but also because of the lessons learned from Spielberg. Like I said: it’s a solid premise, done well. Pick of the week.

Comedy

Andy Kaufman: HBO Young Comedians special — I’ve been told to watch the new documentary about Jim Carrey’s performance as Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon. That will require me to watch Man on the Moon. Also, I feel I should at least make myself passingly familiar with Kaufman’s comedy. This is pretty good, I guess. I do tend to prefer jokes to whatever the hell this is. But Kaufman’s a good enough performer that he can sustain a bit for a while, even when the novelty of the premise has worn off. Actually, the way he stretches premises long past their breaking point is probably the point. But I kind of can’t help thinking “I get it” partway through and wishing he’d stop. Also, the version of Tony Clifton here is not quite the one that I presume became famous later, with the pink suit and sweater vest. This version is quite obviously Andy Kaufman, and therefore only amounts to half the joke. I admire Kaufman, but I don’t think I like him.

Movies

Man on the Moon — Well, it’s a ‘90s biopic, isn’t it. The writing is utilitarian, the structure is a highlights reel, and the whole thing feels like a vessel for a virtuoso performance by the lead actor. Jim Carrey’s performance as Andy Kaufman is very committed, but he still plays the role with a sort of manic energy that I think is much more a part of his comedic persona than Kaufman’s. The morose version of Kaufman that turns up at the beginning of the HBO Young Comedians special, or on Letterman in October of 1980, is simply not encompassed within Carrey’s characterization. Odd, since any devoted student of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind should know he’s quite capable of being morose. Carrey’s performance of the “real” Kaufman, offstage, is either a bug-eyed naïf or a person who is nearly always performing the role of a bug-eyed naïf, even when he’s alone. This latter interpretation is the more interesting one, and the more redemptive reading of Carrey’s acting. And while I can’t quite accept that Kaufman could possibly have been like that in his private life, this fact that Kaufman is portrayed here as constantly performing makes Man on the Moon a more interesting movie, because it plainly indicates that the film is more interested in the myth of the man than the man himself. And that’s fine — especially if, like Bob Zmuda and Michael Stipe, you maintain that Kaufman’s performance is ongoing to this day in some hat shop in Hoboken. It’s satisfying somehow to think that with Man on the Moon, Hollywood itself is implicated in the fakery. It’s always engaged in fakery of some type, of course. But it’s hard to say whether anybody involved with Man on the Moon quite understood to what extent that was true in this case.

Literature

Jorge Luis Borges: “The End” — Mercifully, translator Andrew Hurley provides one of his relatively rare endnotes in this story to familiarize the English-speaking reader with the famous Argentine epic of Martín Fierro. This story is entirely contingent on knowledge of that story, at least in passing. Having read this without any prior knowledge of the story it’s inspired by, I feel like I understand it in concept, but I couldn’t really have the full experience of it because I have no prior investment in the characters. It’s like asking somebody who’s never seen Star Wars to read stories from the new anthology where various writers fill in its gaps from the perspective of minor characters. (I mean to read that, by the way.) Anyhow, this is good, but I regret that I can’t get the full effect of it.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Cult of the Phoenix” — The best of the three stories appended to the Artifices later on. It posits an international cult of people united only by a ritual, which may or may not be sex. OR, it might be specifically homosexual sex. Anyway, it’s probably about fucking. And even if it’s not, it’s still a fun little speculation about what a completely benign international cult might look like.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The South” — This is yet another Borges story you can read two ways: either the main character hurts himself in a stupid way and dies while imagining a better death, or he hurts himself in a stupid way, recovers, and goes on to die in a noble way. It’s a formula that’s been done many times since, and so it can be difficult to see the novelty. But the details make it: particularly the fact that the stupid death Borges came up was braining yourself on a beam because you were too eager to get upstairs to read the Arabian Nights. That is the most Borges thing I’ve ever seen. This is the last story in the Ficciones which I have now read in their entirety. In spite of my recent, slightly lukewarm responses to some of the later stories in the volume, I can safely say that in total it is one of the most astonishing books I’ve ever read. At least a dozen of its 17 stories are flat-out masterpieces that bent my brain into hitherto unseen shapes. I can see myself revisiting these stories for years to come. But I still have The Aleph, Dreamtigers and all the rest of his stories to get through first. And I will. Oh, I will.

Podcasts

Imaginary Worlds: “Fan Fiction (Don’t Judge)” & “On The Front Lines of Fantasy” — I like this podcast a lot, but I sometimes think I’m too nerdy for it. Only a little bit too nerdy, mind. An example: in the fanfic episode, Molinsky finds it difficult to accept that fan fiction can be good. I don’t find this difficult to accept at all, because I read blogs about fantasy that take fanfic seriously. But that’s not to say I’ve ever actually read any fanfic. See? Just slightly too nerdy. The other episode, about military SF, though, is quite enlightening.

You Must Remember This: “Boris and Roger Corman” — I now really want to watch some Boris Karloff movies. In this season, Karina Longworth has pitted Karloff against Bela Lugosi, the latter of whom comes off as the more interesting character. But her admiration for Karloff is clear, and contagious. I hope her hiatus isn’t too long.

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Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 16)

Dear me. Verbose, this week. Well, I’ve had some spare time, which will be mercifully less spare fairly soon. 32 reviews.

Games

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 3 — My favourite of the first three acts by miles. The sequence with the Xanadu computer is one of my all-time favourite scenes in a video game. The fact that Donald built this thing as a bitter memorial to his relationship with Lula and friendship with Joseph is even sadder when you know that the first adventure game ever was inspired by heartbreak as well. Xanadu is clearly based on Adventure, which was made by William Crowther (another Kentucky-based computer scientist and cave explorer) as an attempt to reconnect with his young daughter after he and his wife divorced. On this playthrough, I came across a section of the Xanadu scene that I hadn’t before, where Lula explains why cave paintings are so sad: somebody wanted to memorialize something — a person or relationship, maybe — and we can barely make out any detail. How like the ruined Xanadu computer, and the primitive parser interface of Adventure. There are other highlights, here. I’d love to see the full text of Donald’s Kentucky-set version of “Kubla Khan.” And, as the party of player characters grows, so does the range of responses to any given situation. Conway is reflective, Shannon practical, Ezra whimsical, and Junebug totally off-topic. Their responses represent different types of gaming. I’m the sort of player who likes to linger and mull things over, so I tend towards Conway’s dialogue options. But it’s nice to have Shannon around to progress the plot, and the other two to throw occasional monkey wrenches into conversations. Also, the moment in the final scene where the game momentarily takes over the mouse to express the inevitability of Conway’s return to drinking is absolutely chilling. I am actually a bit scared to see how that develops in the next episode. I’ve come to love all of these characters, but if things work out badly for Conway, it’s going to be crushing.

Kentucky Route Zero: “Here and There Along The Echo” — I take back what I said about “The Entertainment” being my favourite of the KRZ mini-episodes. It’s a dead heat between that and this one. The notion of formatting a game as a telephone hotline menu is not only novel: it opens up a world of possibilities for interactive audio. (The only other example I’ve seen is Papa Sangre, which is essentially hide and seek in the dark, and I really don’t have much time for it.) Like so many other moments in this second playthrough of the pre-2016 portions of Kentucky Route Zero, I had intended for this to be a quick perusal, and then straight on to Act 4, which is new to me and super exciting. But, I ended up spending two hours going through the options, and listening to this fascinating character talk. It was worthwhile for the devs to briefly abandon the text-based aesthetic of this world to introduce spoken audio, if only because it allows a voice actor to give a convincing performance of what people might sound like in this universe. As a side note, anybody else who enjoyed his list of the different types of water as much as I did would do well to check out James Joyce’s list of water’s admirable attributes from Ulysses.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 4 — Well, it didn’t let me down. This is a quieter, slower, more deliberate Kentucky Route Zero than we’ve seen before. And it is the first one to be more concerned with the characters and their respective arcs than it is with exploring themes. Rather than presenting simulations within simulations, or posing high-minded questions about whether we’re inside or out, this act presents us with Shannon’s abiding anger over her parents’ death in the mine, Johnny’s yearning for a third person to ride with him and Junebug (he wants a child, essentially) and most devastatingly, the effects of Conway’s return to drinking. The subtlety with which Conway becomes a different character in this act is both masterful and sad. And the moment when he appears to literally become a different character is the most destabilizing thing in the game so far: the loss of that character and of his particular way of moving through the world seems likely to be more of a paradigm shift than the introduction of the Zero. In general, Act 4 encourages us to take a time-out from our obsessiveness about what everything means and how it connects, and just spend some time empathizing with these characters. But I’m still left with lots of thoughts about the various thematic moving parts and conspiracies at play, here. We know that the power company is evil. We know that they’re engaged in debt buying, because they acquired the pharmaceutical company that Conway owes. We also know that the distillery is evil. (How lovely to see a thriving business like the Rum Colony not pouring Hard Times, hey?) We know that the distillery is also involved in debt buying, since they bought the outstanding bar tabs from Harry at the Lower Depths pub. So, how are they connected? Are they connected? We know, at least, that Conway’s medical bills (owed, indirectly, to the power company) will be paid off by the distillery in exchange for work (though his labour was already an exchange for having drunk the top-shelf whiskey at the end of Act 3… I smell duplicity). And there’s definitely some significance to the fact that Conway’s descent into more and more abject debt is represented by his gradually turning into a creepy electricity skeleton. So, what are we going to find out about the connection between those two companies in the grand finale? It’s possible that the answer is nothing. I would be surprised if Conway doesn’t appear in some capacity in Act 5, but we probably won’t learn any specifics. Kentucky Route Zero has never been the type of game to do anything so vulgar as explain itself. It is working on the same level as the conceptual artworks it is so fond of displaying within itself. I’ve read some muted complaints about this act that criticize it for being less exploratory and interactive than its predecessors. And it’s true that you’re not allowed the agency to explore the Echo River at your leisure in the same way that you were with the Zero or overground Kentucky. But video game people sometimes need to be reminded of the fact that all art is interactive. The most important act of the movie is the one that happens in the car on the way home, when you talk about what it all meant. Paintings don’t live in galleries; they live in your brain. So, even if Act 4 of Kentucky Route Zero puts you on tracks in a way that previous acts didn’t, there still ought to be plenty for you to do as a player. End of review. But here are a few stray observations, A.V. Club-style. (And still, I refuse to employ a paragraph break. The nerve.) One. The airplane is back! When I first played Act 1, the thing that really stuck with me is a scene where you can’t do anything except for watch two men push a broken airplane down a road. I didn’t know what to make of it, and I still don’t quite, but that image of struggle left a big impact. And there’s a moment in this act, in the gas station scene, where the two men drift past on a barge with their airplane. You could almost miss it, and it’s never mentioned in the dialogue, nor is it witnessed by Conway, who was the only character to have seen it in the first place. It’s the little things. Two. This act really feels like it comes from 2016. The increasing preoccupation with oil in this reflects the same development in the real world during the two years since the last act of Kentucky Route Zero came out. Also, online dating is a thing in the KRZ world now, just as it’s been mainstreamed. Three. One of the small pleasures of this act is actually visiting the locales that were referred to in “Here and There Along the Echo.” I’m glad I spent as much time with that as I did, now, because I had a bit of advance knowledge of Sam and Ida’s, the Rum Colony, the Iron Pariah (what the hell is up with that!?) and the memorial to something that we can’t remember what it is, among other things. In spite of what I said above, if I could request a single expansion to this game, it would be a more open-world model of the Echo so I could actually be the drifter/pilgrim that the Bureau of Secret Tourism was courting. But then, I suppose that would more or less be Sunless Sea. Four. The flashiest, most formalist moment in this act is the one where the narrators are watching security footage of the events after the fact, but you’re controlling the characters on that security footage in real time. It’s pure Andrew Plotkin. It constitutes the most satisfying cognitive dissonance I’ve felt since I cheated my way through Spider and Web. Five. Again, it’s the little things: Sam and Ida remember their origin story a bit differently. She remembers that he was drinking malt liquor and doing a sudoku. He remembers coffee and a crossword. Six. I can only imagine that Shannon’s reunion with Weaver is going to be a bit awkward once she realizes that Weaver used her genius to (I think) invent a new kind of debt, as it was put in “The Entertainment.” Maybe she’s the missing link between the distillery and the power company. Who knows how long we’ll have to wait to find out? I’ve got to say, though, I honestly don’t mind because if it’s a long wait, it’ll give me an excuse to play through the whole game a third time. As it stands, I think I’ll do a second playthrough of Act 4 fairly soon, because it’s definitely more than two playthroughs worth of game. I shall report back. Pick of the week.

Literature

Magnus Hildebrandt: Kentucky Fried Zero — This is an indispensable primer on the sources for Kentucky Route Zero, ranging from dustbowl photography to Buckminster Fuller and on to the more expected reference points like computer science and Samuel Beckett. The three parts of this are quite short, and you get the sense that Hildebrandt could easily track down and elucidate many more references and influences. (He even says as much in the second-last paragraph of part three.) I hope that he will go back and expand these once the final act of the game is out and we know what we’re working with.  

William Blake: Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion — Look, I didn’t enjoy this. I just didn’t. I have very limited patience for this kind of inscrutable literature. I mean this kind as distinct from, say, Ulysses. At least Joyce’s obscurity seems to be motivated at least partially by a sense of fun: he’s laying out a trail of breadcrumbs, and trusts that you’ll arrive at some kind of understanding eventually. Blake doesn’t seem to know he’s being obscurantist. It appears to me, a deeply undereducated reader in these sorts of texts, that Blake isn’t trying to be obscure; he’s failing to be direct. And so, the proliferation of characters without fixed identities and the religious commentaries so idiosyncratic that I can barely relate them to what I know of a given religion are not endearing at all — they are massively frustrating. Blake’s canon, unexplained as it is, is like jargon. It’s like hearing Scientologists talk about thetans and SPs. I did enjoy doing a bit of reading about Blake, and what he’s apparently on about in this. But my actual time spent reading the poem, with its brilliant illuminated plates, was not fun. I suppose I have to accept that now that I’m a couple years out of grad school, I am effectively “the everyday reader” and so these kinds of texts that are not meant to be understood without rigorous study are simply no longer the kinds of things I’ll take pleasure in. And I’m totally okay with that. Anyway, now I feel prepared to tackle Alan Moore’s Jerusalem. I’ll get to it soon.

Karen Page: The Vegetarian Flavor Bible — I am not a vegetarian, nor am I likely to become one in the near future. But, as part of my ongoing mission to be more creative in the kitchen while eating a bit less meat, I have gone ahead and purchased this tome. It is basically an encyclopedia of flavour combinations, specifically for plant-based diets. I am well aware of the existence of the original Flavor Bible, with its lamb and its bacon, and I will almost surely purchase that as well if this one proves to be useful. But my first priority is getting a handle on creative cooking without meat. I confess that the introduction to this volume is a little bit depressing compared to the one in its meaty predecessor (I read the Kindle free sample) because it focusses almost entirely on nutrition. Maybe that’s predictable. I’m interested in nutrition, insofar as I want to be healthy. But my god, is it ever a boring topic to read about. Still, that’s hardly the point. I have already prepared some middling-to-good, but at least interesting vegetarian meals using this as my guide. One, with wilted spinach and nutmeg served on a grilled portabello mushroom with crumbled ricotta was actually pretty excellent. I shall keep you apprised.

J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child — I was never not going to read it, and I liked it a lot more than the fan consensus. It’s flawed, but it’s a decent afternoon’s-worth of nostalgia. And it is openly nostalgic for the first seven books, in the way that Jason Segal’s Muppet movies are for the original Muppet Show, or that certain modern Doctor Who stories are for the classic series. The story of Harry Potter’s time at Hogwarts is as important and formative a narrative for the characters in this story as it is for the people who grew up reading Harry Potter books, and thus the younger characters are effectively surrogates for us. Or at least, Scorpius Malfoy is. Albus Potter is a touch too resentful. It’s fitting, then, that the key plotline should involve time travel, and specifically time travel back to the days of the beloved Goblet of Fire. Because, The Cursed Child is more of a time capsule than it is a modern Harry Potter story. It’s a way to go back, and see familiar things from a slightly different vantage point. (This happens literally in the play’s final act, which takes place largely [spoiler] in Godric’s Hollow.) Its canonicity, as much as such things matter, will always be slightly compromised by the fact that it’s a play and not a novel, and that it mostly wasn’t written by J.K. Rowling. But that’s not the real issue: the real issue is that reading a script is a very incomplete experience. Without actors to bring the characters to life, their emotional arcs seem a bit rushed. Think of it as the opposite of the languidly-paced Order of the Phoenix. The biggest flaws really do come down to the difficulty of representing a stage play on the page — which isn’t even what this purports to do; it’s a script from which staged productions are meant to be extrapolated. I think most of the extremely negative critiques fail to take this into account. Jack Thorne comports himself fairly well, even if his dialogue never made me laugh. (Rowling doesn’t get enough credit for her wit.) Still, I’m left somewhat unsure of whether my beloved His Dark Materials is in good hands or not when Thorne adapts it for the BBC. Because that’s happening. There are really only two substantial problems with this in terms of story. One involves the play’s breakout character, Scorpius Malfoy, who is by a series of machinations briefly transformed from a school outcast to an immensely popular teenager. We’re meant to believe that, under a certain set of circumstances, there’s a part of Scorpius that could allow this to happen. And yet, he immediately casts off his good fortune for the greater good, with virtually no inner conflict at all. I found that a bit of a let down, and it certainly wouldn’t have played out that way in a novel, where the narrative need not be so collapsed. And the other issue is time travel. You have to completely ignore the time travel mechanics if you want to have a good time reading this. It’s not so much the divergence from the mechanic in The Prisoner of Azkaban that chafes: it’s a scene in which people in the present talk about a person who has gone to the past and tried to change it as if that hasn’t already happened — which, by definition, it has. And even this contradicts the way the time turner was seen to work earlier in the play. But the authors don’t let a thing like that get in the way of a good story. And the positives outweigh the negatives, even if the most satisfying moments are basically fan service. It’s immensely gratifying to see Hermione as the Minister for Magic (ergo, Harry’s boss). Too bad she got saddled with such a schlub of a husband. Ron seems to have shed what little charisma he had with age. But he wears his schlubbiness well. Possibly the deftest touch of all is the way that the acrimony between Harry and Malfoy is maintained into adulthood without Malfoy seeming like an overgrown schoolyard bully. They’re just two adults, living adult lives, who don’t get along. And, as star moments for fan favourites go, the sweepstakes are easily taken by Severus Snape, who gets to make his heroic sacrifice a second time. But there’s an impressive showing from Professor McGonagall as well, who offers a stirring rebuke to basically all of the other characters in the play for treating a peaceful world recklessly in spite of all that’s been sacrificed to bring it to bear. This is well worth reading. If you’re a fan and you’re on the fence, just do it now. You know you will eventually, anyhow.

Television

Last Week Tonight: October 16, 2016 — A strong episode containing very little of what I don’t like about this show. Oliver’s segment on Gary Johnson and Jill Stein will likely be the most widely seen piece on either of them during this election, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it actually affected their polling numbers.

Charlie Brooker’s 2015 Wipe — I’ve decided to go down a Charlie Brooker wormhole. It starts here, with him speaking direct to camera about what he thinks, and it will continue with Nathan Barley and the first two seasons of Black Mirror, in preparation for the new one. I’ve seen Brass Eye, but it was a long time ago, and that’s mostly Chris Morris anyway. This is worthwhile for Philomena Cunk alone, but Brooker himself gets some great lines as well. It’s also actually a good New Years’ program, which is as far as I know, unique on television.

How Videogames Changed the World — I like Charlie Brooker. I kind of want to be him. This special on video games (in my world, it’s two words) is limited, as an under two-hour documentary has to be. And, it focusses on the really gamey kinds of games that kind of don’t do much for me. (The history of the kind of games I like starts with Adventure, not Pong.) But it still has time to bring up stuff like Papers, Please, which remains one of the most powerful interactive experiences I’ve ever had. And this show’s real virtue is that it manages to cover the major moments and conflicts that video games stirred up in real life: moral panics, feminist critiques, the staggeringly gradual mainstreaming of the medium, etc. Brooker’s list of the most important games is self-evidently selected for ease of narrative rather than actual quality or influence, but that’s the only way to make a show like this, and it would have been profoundly boring if it were just a bunch of people talking about why a bunch of games that I probably mostly don’t care about are really good. (And that sight gag with the Braid mechanic is really clever.)

Black Mirror: “The National Anthem” — First, the shit. Naturally, the one female reporter in this episode with lines sends a nude pic to a government staffer for a scoop. This is a trope so depressingly common that it has the air of tragic inevitability whenever a female journalist is introduced into a show. The rest of the episode is astonishing. It doesn’t even matter if you already know the premise and the ending, which you inevitably do given this episode’s renewed relevance after David Cameron’s alleged porcine indiscretions. The remarkable thing is how straight it’s played. It’s wrenching human drama on a national scale. Everybody is cheapened by having watched what they watched. If it weren’t for that one lazy and harmful bit of misogyny, it would be a masterpiece.

Movies

Requiem for the American Dream — Chomsky is somebody who I’ve been aware of for years, but he falls just far enough outside the scope of my education that I never actually read him. This documentary, which is built entirely on original interviews with Chomsky, seems like a good primer for the most germane points of his philosophy. It focusses specifically on the process by which wealth and power are acquired by a smaller and smaller segment of the population: namely, the reduction of democracy. It’s brilliantly argued, and makes modern America make a sad sort of sense.

Music

Isabelle Faust, Claudio Abbado & Orchestra Mozart: Berg & Beethoven Violin Concertos — I realized after recommending this recording in last week’s VSO review that, firstly, I haven’t heard it in a really long time, and secondly, I have in fact never listened to the Beethoven that fills the disc. First the Berg, though. It’s flat-out one of my favourite recordings. I love this piece. I love its expressiveness and the way that it develops its melodic material. I love the way that it throws torrents at you, only to back away gradually and leave you breathless at the end. I love the Bach quotation in the winds in the second movement, and how the violin solo line plays against it. It’s a masterpiece. And of the handful of recordings I’ve heard, this is definitely my favourite. Faust plays with elegance, even when the melodies start to take on the rougher topography of Berg’s Second Viennese School compatriots. And Abbado will probably always be my favourite conductor of Berg, because he realizes that Berg is the true heir to Mahler. His approach to the orchestra in this concerto has the same lushness that he applies to Mahler 9 (a work that he absolutely owns, for me), and it is just as much of a study in contrasts. Everybody should hear this. Now, the Beethoven. The violin concerto is not one of my favourite pieces by Beethoven. The first movement has a nasty habit of going into a minor key right when I want to hear a triumphant reiteration of the theme in major. The third is one of those mid-tempo dance finales that usually doesn’t work for me. I do like the second movement, but compared to some of the slow movements from Beethoven’s middle period symphonies, even that falls a bit short. So, this recording has more labour to do with the Beethoven than with the Berg, because it has to sell a piece I like a lot less. And it doesn’t really. That’s about all there is to say.

Vulfpeck: The Beautiful Game — Difficult second album. On one hand, it’s got “Animal Spirits” (and heartfelt lyrics) which is one of their best and catchiest ever. Very much this album’s “Christmas in L.A.” Also, The Beautiful Game expands the palate to include house-reminiscent beats, which as far as I can remember, is new for Vulfpeck. But it certainly doesn’t have as many jump-out-of-the-headphones moments as Thrill of the Arts did. I might pick “Animal Spirits,” “1 for 1, Dimaggio” and “Dean Town” as highlights here. (And I do love that Klezmer clarinet intro, but it’s basically not a song.) And it’s notable that the former two are both transparent Jackson 5 pastiches (“Animal Spirits” is “I Want You Back” and “1 for 1” is clearly “ABC”) Think back to how many great tracks there were on Thrill, though: “Welcome to Vulf Records,” “Back Pocket,” “Funky Duck,” “Rango II,” “Christmas in L.A”… I will almost certainly warm to this, but there’s no way I will come to love that many of its tracks.

Tangerine Dream: Phaedra — I don’t know what possessed me to listen to this just now. I’d never heard it, and the only other Tangerine Dream I knew was Force Majeure. This is far more abstract than that, and it strikes me as an album that has more historical importance than modern-day interest. It’s like the electronic music equivalent of plainchant. Mostly it just made me wish I were listening to Tim Hecker, which I think I will now do. (And I did. My feelings about Love Streams are the same as when I reviewed it before. It’s some of the best music of the year.)

A Winged Victory for the Sullen: Atomos — That is a very overwrought band name, sure. But this is decent ambient music. I’ve been listening to stuff as I read, this week, and this is great for that. I’m not so sure it would stand on its own. That’s a key distinction in this milieu of modern classical music. John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, for instance, is profound and beautiful, and in spite of some superficial similarities to Atomos, it can sustain attention. Same goes for Max Richter — and he wrote music for sleeping. Still, this did the trick. I dunno if I’ll listen again.

Brian Eno: Another Green World — This is in my all-time top five, and as with all things that I love passionately, I try not to overexpose myself to it. But I was on a long bus commute recently, and it just seemed like the right thing. Incredibly, I had been listening to this semi-regularly for years before it struck me that it’s more than merely excellent and is in fact perfect. I can’t think rationally about this album anymore. Listening to some of these songs I feel like I could walk into traffic and it would pass right through me. Eno is strangely averse to the idea of love songs, but there are several ravishing ones on here, most notably “St. Elmo’s Fire”: the finest song with lyrics that Eno ever made. Without ever using the word “love,” Eno perfectly conjures that feeling of ecstasy that so many songwriters fail to describe. He does it by allowing the music to do the bulk of the heavy lifting, and especially Robert Fripp’s guitar solo which is the most beautiful guitar solo ever recorded. In spite of being fast and technical, it also feels human and brittle — the way it cracks and stammers at the ends of phrases just kills me. And the other ninja move that this album employs is the most ingenious track sequencing maybe ever. Rather than trying to balance out the energy throughout the record, it allows itself to gradually sink into a reverie at the end. The way that “Zawinul/Lava” builds and falls, and ejects us into “Everything Merges With The Night” (more ravishing guitar from Fripp), and then finally into the comparative uncertainty of “Spirits Drifting” is one of the greatest closing sequences on any record ever. At this point, you’d expect me to make it my pick of the week, but I feel a strange pressure to play against type, this time. Everybody who’s ever read anything I’ve written or been in the same room with me knows how much I love Brian Eno. KRZ takes it.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Lupita Nyong’o, Cameron Esposito & Rhea Butcher, and the Best of TV” — Nice that PCHH  can manage so often to cobble together a show even when they have no panelists. These interviews are great, specifically the one with Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher, because they are very funny people. But it’s also nice to hear Linda Holmes’ much-discussed friend Alan Sepinwall make his PCHH debut. TV: The Book sounds like something that would frustrate me immensely in its format: ranking the top 100 shows? Really? But I expect that these two authors would have something interesting to say, at least. Given that they’re basically already advertizing the second edition, I may sit this one out and wait for it to be updated. (But I’ll probably flip through it in the bookstore next time I’m browsing.)

Fresh Air: “How Free Web Content Traps Us In An Abyss Of Ads & Clickbait” — Nothing like a good bit of #content-related #content. Tim Wu’s new book, The Attention Merchants, sounds incredible and depressing. He talks about how advertising on major web platforms has cheapened web publishing and made the internet worse. I think I’m going to have to read this.

Love and Radio: “The Enemy Within” — Part of the appeal of Love and Radio is just purely listening to someone tell you a story with no interruptions. So, when Glenn Loury tells his story of womanizing and drug abuse while teaching economics at Harvard, you want to listen. But, being Love and Radio, it’s also more complicated than that and addresses not only the discrepancy between his own conduct and his socially conservative politics, but it also problematizes the very notion that a person’s actions can invalidate their arguments.

In The Dark: “What’s Going On Down There?” — This has become a truly excellent podcast in the late phase of its run. And I’m only partially saying that because this features an actual police investigation where a man was told by (clearly awful) police officers that his missing son may have been eaten by turtles. I laughed out loud at that and subsequently felt a little bad. Anyway, last week’s survey of wide-ranging police incompetence in the town where Jacob Wetterling was abducted started the train towards this episode’s staggering finish, which posits that the way America handles policing is deeply and inherently flawed. Local police departments are not held to any kind of standard by the federal government, which just seems wrong. If I were the Stearns County sheriff, I’d be huddling in a corner right about now. This would have been a powerful finale, but I’m looking forward to the one episode that they’ve decided to add to this.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Previewing The Final Debate” — I’M NOT WATCHING THIS DEBATE! LA LA LA LA LA! Because they’re not going to talk about policy, they’re just going to talk about Clinton’s leaked emails (actually worth talking about, if only it wasn’t an orangutan doing the talking) and Trump’s temperamental unfitness to be president (EMINENTLY CLEAR). The fact that the panelists on this show are willing to entertain the fact that policy may enter into this is frankly adorable. I do love them.

99% Invisible: “Half a House” — A lovely complement to the previous episode about Chile. 99pi can lapse into design boosterism at times, but really it’s just boosterism for human ingenuity. Like, you have a problem: an earthquake levelled a city and there’s not enough public money for the necessary subsidized housing. And, you have a solution: build people half a house. It sounds ridiculous, but people can build the other half for themselves when they’re back on their feet. It seems to be working. There’s a moment in this where Roman Mars confirms that the reason this sort of thing doesn’t happen in the U.S. isn’t lack of money or lack of necessity, but simply a difference of values. Which is why I have very little respect for American values. This is 99pi doing what it does best. I haven’t enjoyed it this much in a long time.

All Songs Considered: “Pusha T and Rivers Cuomo Join Zeds Dead, Amber Coffman, TOY, More” — Whole lotta meh. I liked the Agnes Obel track well enough, but I haven’t heard much on this show that I want to check out for a while. Not their fault. I’m probably just not in music discovery mode.

Radiolab: “Seneca, Nebraska” — This story is just begging to be told in a not public radio way. The Radiolab crew obviously knows that in the story of a small town that voted to unincorporate because their 20 residents couldn’t get along, they have a parable. So, why not tell it that way? Where’s Nate DiMeo when you need him? Hell, even Scott Carrier would suffice.

On the Media: “Race to the Bottom” — Gladstone’s poverty myths series has moved from debunking myths about impoverished people to debunking the myths that America tells itself about how it approaches poverty. In this one, it’s the bootstrap myth. That is a sad narrative to turn out to be a myth, because it means that there isn’t actually much of a chance that a person can better their lot — not without an astronomical amount of luck. It’s also interesting to hear about the origins of the phrase “pulling oneself up by their bootstraps,” which actually started off as a metaphor for impossibility before it started representing the American Dream. And then, in a demonstration of the profound power of metaphors and ideas to shape society, the American Dream became impossible to attain.

The Gist: “Rapid Response: Cirque du Debate” — Okay, so I did end up watching the debate. And I’m happy I did, if only to have context for Mike Pesca’s latest round of spin room misadventures. It is so obvious listening to Trump’s surrogates talk that they just do not have anything under control. Ben Carson straight up brushing Pesca off is the highlight, but the whole thing is chaos. The best that a non-American such as myself can hope for in this election, given that I am not one of the millions of unauthorized voters that Trump predicts will swarm the polls in November, is to be nearly as entertained as you are bewildered, and I confess to having been that while listening to this.

NPR Politics Podcast: “The Third Presidential Debate” — The fact that this debate is being praised as the most substantive of the three is both accurate and still really depressing. The panel is right to assert that the most notable thing about this phase of Trump’s campaign is his insistence that whenever he doesn’t win something, it’s rigged. I’ve known people like this. People who believe that “unfairness” is coextensive with “bad things happening to them, specifically.” I think that it’s a kind of logic that underpins much of what’s wrong with the world. The notion of having a president of the U.S.A. that thinks like this without a shred of self-awareness is void-screamingly, cliff-jumpingly frightening. Fortunately, it won’t happen because he’s also too dumb to know when he’s shooting himself in the foot.

A Point of View: “In Praise of Difficulty” — Why must every critic who has the bravery to stick up for difficult art and educated audiences also have a stick up their ass about pop culture? This is a pretty good vindication from Howard Jacobson of the kind of art that gets the shaft from the shitty kind of populists — but then it nosedives into jabbing at the kind of art that appeals to the good kind of populists. There is an emerging kind of intellectual for whom the phenomena and iconography associated with boy bands and thrillers (Jacobson’s examples, not mine) are fodder for a rather exciting sort of criticism, in much the same way that Shakespeare was for many prior generations. Can’t we acknowledge that fact while also shitting on people who don’t understand Shakespeare? I really think it ought to be easy to have it both ways. Additional thoughts: I would generally stick up for the rights of the reader over the rights of the writer, in opposition to Jacobson, but I’ll provide here that the reader has to earn that right by being an interesting reader. (Read as: critic.) That is why, in my review for the staggeringly difficult work by William Blake that I’ve just slogged through, I blamed myself for having nothing to say.

Fresh Air: “‘Black Mirror’ Creator Dramatizes Our Nightmares About Technology” — Charlie Brooker is a less-than-scintillating interview, and I’m not totally convinced that Black Mirror is as smart as all these old people think it is. I’m one episode in, and I did like that episode, but it seems like the more explicitly it engages with modern media, the more vapid its critiques become. That’s sad to see, because I’m also watching Nathan Barley right now (review to come when it’s done; it’s useless to critique in part) and that is remarkably prescient for having been made in 2005.

StartUp: “Shadowed Qualities” — This is such enrapturing radio. The bulk of it is taken from a single conversation — virtually a therapy session — between Alex Blumberg (holy moly is he having a rough month) and an executive coach who we heard from in season two. And while I am usually quick to dismiss such people as snake oil salesmen, this fellow gets to the heart of Blumberg’s reluctance to step up and command his company as opposed to focussing on story edits really, really efficiently. And hearing Blumberg work through that in real time is fascinating. Traditional radio has moments that they call “driveway moments,” where you stay in your car to hear the end of the story even when you’ve already gotten home. Podcasts don’t have that, obviously. But at several moments during this episode, I forgot that I was eating breakfast. That seems like a logical equivalent. Pick of the week.

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist,” parts 12-13 — Elia Kazan is one of my new favourite characters in this series. Looks like he’ll be back soon, too.

Omnireviewer (week of Sept. 18, 2016)

22 reviews. A few tenuously related ones off the top.

Live events

Del the Funky Homosapien: Live at the Alexander — This guy is a genius. There was a moment in this show right after he did “If You Must,” a song about the necessity of personal hygiene, when Del’s DJ/manager Domino started playing a track from the second Deltron 3030 record. Del was either caught off guard or experienced a moment of sublime inspiration, because instead of doing the standard lyrics of that track, he just started freestyling about hygiene some more. But — and this is what blew my mind — he still managed to work the freestyle into the fictional narrative of the Deltron records. I was previously aware of Del’s ability to freestyle in-universe, but the idea that he can synthesize two completely unrelated pre-existing elements from his catalogue at a moment’s notice is staggering. All the same, I must confess that there is limited appeal in a show that starts at midnight on a Monday, with a very Monday-seeming crowd. I listened to Deltron 3030 on the way home and I kind of enjoyed it more than the show. Mind you, this is not uncommon for me. I saw Roger Waters do The Wall with its full theatrical production, and I’m sure it was one of the best live shows anybody has ever put on. Still wasn’t as good as listening to the record. I think I just have to accept that this is an idiosyncrasy of my engagement with music. The added value that other people get from the spontaneity and communal feel of a live show adds distance for me. When it’s just me and the record, I can get lost. At a show, the obligation to be present in the moment for the whole experience keeps me from sinking into the music like I normally do. Of course, none of this reflects poorly on Del. I’d love to see him again, in fact, if only for those transcendent freestyles.

Shameful illegalities

Hamilton, bootlegged on video — Oh, I know. Don’t condescend to me. I don’t have a million dollars. Anyway. Hamilton is a marvel. The staging is brilliant, and never overbearing or too devoted to spectacle. The cast is uniformly outstanding, every one of them reaching the heights of their cast album performances live as well. Particularly outstanding were Renée Elise Goldsberry, flawlessly rapping the show’s most technically and psychologically complicated verses in “Satisfied,” and Leslie Odom Jr., who possesses the best singing voice in a cast full of them. But to continue our discussion of whether music is better experienced through one-on-one record spins or in more social settings, I watched this with a couple of mutually Hamilton-obsessed friends. And while I always relish the opportunity to trawl through a big, dense thing like Hamilton with others who have thoughts about it, there is also the possibility that the presence of others will disabuse me of deeply-held notions and precious illusions. I’ve always been on the fence about the moment in the show’s final number where Eliza sings about the orphanage she founded in her husband’s memory. With the chorus singing “the orphanage” in the background, it has always bordered on saccharine. But I’ve always put it under the category of “earned” sentimentality. I can usually just ride the tide of emotions from Hamilton’s death through the end of the show without being bothered by a bit of treacle. But this time, a rather unsentimental friend piped up at that point: “that’s kind of silly.” And she’s right. It is kind of silly. And it does detract from the finale of a show that has not misstepped like that at any prior point in its running time. And now I’m going to have to acknowledge that every time I hear it. Ah, well. Hamilton still gets a 99 average.

Literature, etc.

Lin-Manuel Miranda & Jeremy McCarter: Hamilton: The Revolution — As a book, it’s merely fine. The Hamiltome, as it is exclusively to be called, tells the story of Hamilton’s production and workshopping prior to its Broadway premiere, from the perspective of Jeremy McCarter, who was intimately involved in the process himself. It has a tendency to allow its chapters to become prose poems in praise of the various geniuses involved with the musical’s production — all of whom are eminently deserving of praise, to be clear. The issue is just that McCarter’s priorities don’t always seem to be what’s going to interest the reader, so much as a self-imposed obligation to extol every single person in the cast and crew. On the other hand, there are glorious moments. It is fascinating to read about Chris Jackson’s attempt to reconcile his character (George Washington) as a slave owner and a liberator alike, and having to give up. All the same, we shall eagerly await a less authorized critical history of Hamilton. But in the meantime, the Hamiltome is the single most essential element of the Hamilton paratext. Simply having access to excellent photographs from the production, alongside an authoritative full libretto and Miranda’s annotations (in a beautifully designed package, I should add) is worth the price of admission. I tore through this in the two days prior to watching the bootleg, listening to the cast album as I went, and it’s the most satisfying cultural experience I’ve had since the first time I listened to the Hamilton cast album. If you love the show, you should own this book.

Music

Deltron 3030: Deltron 3030 — I stand by my original assessment that this record is a magical incantation. Everywhere you turn, Del is equating rap with computer code, and he relates technology to magic in the very first verse on the record (following from Arthur C. Clarke, one might observe). The notion that rap is magic, and can exert a force of will on the world is pervasive on Deltron 3030. It’s so obviously an incantation that it almost seems a banal observation to me now. What’s more interesting is trying to determine what specific change Del is hoping will take place. Let’s look first at what his character, Deltron Zero, is trying to do. (One of the key axioms of alchemy is “as below, so above,” so we can conjecture that there might be some relation between the aims of Del’s fictional self and his real-world self.) Deltron Zero is trying to topple huge, shady corporations. This is as tall an order in the Deltron universe as it is in modern America. And judging by the current state of things, this particular occult aim wasn’t wholly successful for Del. However, eleven years into the album’s mounting cult popularity, Occupy Wall Street happened. Let’s call it a weak and deferred magical consequence. (Perhaps if Event 2 had been a stronger sequel, we’d be watching Trump vs. Sanders right now.) Also, if bringing down the government is on the table as an objective, it took eight years and, um, the process of democratically electing a new president, but the leadership of America did in fact change to be more congruent with Del’s worldview once his album had become a classic. So, yeah. Deltron 3030 is a successful magic spell, designed to establish the Obama presidency. Now you know.

L.A. Salami: Dancing With Bad Grammar — Really on the fence about this. On one hand, Salami’s obviously super talented, considering that he only started writing songs a couple years ago. On the other, he maintains a welcome sense of irony throughout most of this, but occasionally nosedives into cringeworthy sincerity of the “nothing’s any good anymore!” persuasion. It’s sonically diverse, but without being especially adventurous in musical terms. And it’s just such a damn slog. God it’s long. My goodwill was running low by the time I got to the end of it, three days after I started. I guess we can chalk it up to a promising debut. Don’t know that I’ll return to it much, except for “Going Mad as the Street Bins,” which is awesome. So is “My Thoughts, They Too Will Tire,” actually. Really reminds me a lot of “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” — not least because both feature many variations of their respective titles at the ends of verses, but never actually do a proper title drop. He’s clever. I have high hopes for his next album.

A Tribe Called Red: We Are The Halluci Nation — Oh man, this is good. I haven’t heard either of the first two Tribe Called Red albums, but this seemed like the time to jump onboard. There’s no need to point out how well powwow music and EDM work together. That’s been ascertained o’plenty. The thing I love about this is just how much sonic variety there is in it. Lack of same is oftentimes what alienates me from dance music. There’s some powerful rapping on here, especially from Leonard Sumner, but also from Shad. There’s Tanya Tagaq, doing her thing. Putting her in an EDM context limits her ability to show expressive range in her throat singing, but it also highlights her ability to use her voice as a rhythmic instrument. There are drum machines, but there are also whole tracks where the percussion has a beautifully acoustic feel. “Maima Koopi” has some seriously powerful drums. I could go on. Love this. A Tribe Called Red has been one of the most talked about acts in Canada for a while, but this makes it clear that they’re also one of the best. Pick of the week.

Ghost: Popestar — This EP from the delightfully playful Swedish metal band is really a stealth single. The original that starts it off, “Square Hammer,” is one of the most addictive metal tracks I’ve heard. It’s just a solid pop single played by a solid metal band. And the video is an instant classic. The rest of the EP is composed of covers, which are always going to feel less substantial. But, first off, the songs they selected for this are just a great bunch of songs. I hadn’t heard any of them, so I listened to the originals first and I had a grand old time. “Missionary Man” by Eurythmics is especially wonderful (again, the video is incredible). Ghost’s performances of these tracks honour the originals. This EP is really just “Square Hammer” and company, but it’s a fun listen. And it’s got great cover art that reminds me of Roger Dean at his best in terms of visual style, and Storm Thorgerson at his best in terms of concept. Two cathedrals play chess. Amazing.

Vulfpeck: Live at Bonnaroo — There are rough moments in this set, but it mostly only serves to demonstrate what champs these guys are. Theo Katzman is the MVP in a live setting. Shit, can that guy sing. Also, live, you realize that Jack Stratton, in spite of being the guy with the vision, is definitely the least accomplished musician in the band (a parallel to Lin-Manuel Miranda, perhaps). He’s also probably the most important, but it’s more a matter of big thinking than great playing. Can’t wait for the new album; dying to see them live.

Podcasts

The Memory Palace: “Haunting” — There’s a trend happening on this show, of Nate DiMeo relying more on archival tape to aid his storytelling. It’s a welcome addition. There was never anything wrong with the narration/mood music format of The Memory Palace, but it makes sense that if DiMeo is going to plunder history for stories, he should plunder it for raw material as well. The story itself is typically lovely, and notable for being discursive off the top. The main character doesn’t come around until halfway through. Really great.

The Bugle: “A Bugle update” — I confess that it’s probably an odd time to jump onboard with The Bugle, given that it has so recently imploded. But I’ve heard just enough of the old Bugle to know that Andy Zaltzman is the MVP, and the now-absent John Oliver was mostly there to laugh and groan at him. It’s not impossible that the new version of the show, with a rotating second chair of people like Wyatt Cenac and Helen Zaltzman will actually excel the original. We shall see.

Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!: “Chris Thile” — Wow, this is shlock. I came for Chris Thile (who doesn’t even play), and because this show has been advertised at me on who knows how many other NPR properties. It’s basically QI for dads. It is missing nearly 100% of QI’s wit, and rather than having the questions be absurdly hard ones that occasionally somebody will know, which is fun, they make them easy enough that people are unlikely to lose. Not listening again.

Welcome to Night Vale: Episodes 61 & 62 — “BRINY DEPTHS” is the perfect median Night Vale episode, in the sense that it mostly just hits the same familiar beats as every other episode, but then it provides a sublime moment near the end that makes you want to keep listening. That moment involves the whole of Night Vale being revealed as sleeper cell agents placed in the city to spy on each other. But the good bit is that after they’re activated, Cecil observes that they can no longer be secret agents. Now, they can only be themselves. Lovely. “Hatchets” expands one of the early series’ best jokes — a newspaper’s new media strategy is to kill bloggers with hatchets — farther than it needed to be expanded. It’s not bad, though. It offers a combination that I love, of horror and comedy both focussing their energy on technology. See this, and oh I guess also this.

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist” episodes 1-4, plus Bogart rerun — This is maybe even better than the Charles Manson season. God, is it ever dense, but it does that thing that Karina Longworth is so good at, where it demonstrates how the movies weren’t just shaped by the society that birthed them, they shaped that society right back. The story of the blacklist and the Hollywood Ten is enough to make even a centrist boil over with anger, and Longworth is delighting in the telling of it. I can’t wait to get further into this, though I don’t know how she’ll beat the story of Dorothy Parker (who is, incidentally, one syllable and about half the political spectrum away from being my mother).

Theory of Everything: “You are so Pretentious” — Dan Fox is trying to reclaim the word “pretentious,” which sounds like a public service specifically for me. He has a book out about this. I think I might read that.

The Allusionist: “The Key part II: Vestiges” — A nice capper for what’s been a lovely two-parter. The first episode focussed on how languages are preserved. This one focusses on how they’re lost — and how they’re recovered. Great stuff. Also, it’s got original music that’s quite good.

The Heart: “Mortified” — Leave it to The Heart to select an excerpt from my least-favourite Radiotopia show that makes it look great. This is hysterical, and the only reason I’m not seeking out the full episode is that I’ve listened to enough Mortified to know that the other segments won’t live up to this. Still. Long live The Heart.

Code Switch: “Warning! This Episode May Trigger Debate” — The topic of trigger warnings is almost guaranteed to lead to shitty debate. This is far and away the most useful discussion of the topic I’ve heard — topping even On The Media, who did a decent job as well.

The Gist: “How Filmmakers Faked the Moon Landing Inside Real NASA” — Pesca can be abrasive, but I love him for it. The segment at the end of this where he delivers a straightforwardly Gen-X entreaty to millennials to for God’s sake choke back their principles and vote Clinton — and he’s accompanied by a hard leftist millennial who translates his rant for younger ears — is as definitive of this show as you’re going to get. The feature interview is amazing — Operation Avalanche has been recommended to me before. Now that I know it was filmed inside NASA with only the barest hint of authorization, I will certainly see it.

Imaginary Worlds: “Fantasy Maps” — The great thing about this episode doubles as the great thing about this podcast, which is that it helps us to see how nerd culture helps to define and symbolize larger issues in society. The maps published with fantasy novels are apparently becoming so thoughtful that they take into consideration the notion that maps are drawn in accordance with biases. Any map drawn within a xenophobic culture, for instance, is sure to place that culture’s geographic home as its centre. This is a thing that happens in real life, and it is now apparently being reflected in fantasy. Interesting.

Reply All: “The Grand Tapestry of Pepe” — The most entertaining listen of the week. I’m going to put it out there that it’s important for anybody interested in contemporary politics to be aware of the alt-right, even if they thrive on exposure. And this is a better (and more vague) introduction than the extremely bizarre explainer on Hillary Clinton’s website is. Within the course of a single Yes Yes No, Alexes Blumberg and Goldman and P.J. Vogt plumb the shallows of the right-wing internet’s id. And Alex Blumberg, in his bumbling way, hits on a really fundamental truth of the internet, which is that ironic hate is almost congruent with real hate. (He comes close to independently coining Poe’s Law.) This is funny and great. Pick of the week.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Emmy Awards, Hari Kondabolu and Alan Moore” — Worth hearing for the Alan Moore interview alone. For a magician with skulls on his mantelpiece, he is a very warm person. Also, the fact that Grease beat Lemonade at the Emmys is a travesty. Where’s Kanye when you need him?

Science Vs.: “Hypnosis” — The most notable thing about this is that Jonathan Goldstein stops by to read a CIA report, and goes out of character with no explanation. His very presence puts strain on verisimilitude.

Things I loved in 2015: Nos. 10-6

After four days winding our way through the thick jungles of culture with nothing but the dull pocketknife of my wit to cut through the overgrown foliage, we have at last cracked the top ten. Suffice it to say that everything from this point forth completely blew my mind.

No. 10 — Carol

The key line in Carol is spoken by Rooney Mara’s character, Therese: “I have a friend who says I should take more of an interest in humans.”

Critics have been saying that Todd Haynes should take more of an interest in humans since the beginning of his career. Even the simplest of his films are so meticulous and skillful that he’s open to accusations of “inauthenticity.” If you’re not paying close enough attention, you could easily mistake him for an artist who’s solely concerned with abstract matters like beauty, style and form, at the expense of the characters in his stories.

But like Therese (a photographer, notice), Haynes is not just a chilly aesthete. He has that tendency, but when presented with the fully-alive characters of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt (and Phyllis Nagy’s wonderful screenplay), Haynes becomes deeply interested in humans.

Carol is beautiful, and not just from a distance.

No. 9 — China Miéville: Three Moments of an Explosion

china mieville

Bob Dylan once said that every line of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is the first line of a different song that he was never going to have time to write. China Miéville is primarily known as a novelist, and when you’re reading this collection of short stories, you get the sense that each one is the first chapter of a novel he’ll never have time to finish.

The stories in Three Moments of an Explosion differ wildly in theme and length, but they all share the tendency to state their premise in however many words are necessary, and then stop. Miéville can spin a yarn as well as anybody. But, in most of these stories he’s more interested in taking an unlikely notion he’s had, turning it around a few times to see it from different angles, and putting it away.

Most writers couldn’t pull that off for a whole book. But Miéville has a gift for coming up with incredibly specific and uncanny premises that you want to read about the implications of. One of these stories is about a disease that causes circular trenches to form around people when they stand still for too long. Lots of writers would be able to take that and turn it into a parable on the compulsion to keep moving, or whatever. Miéville thinks: “What happens if they’re in a car?”

Three Moments of an Explosion is a flagrant display of profound virtuosity. Nothing else this year gave me so many separate reasons to be in awe.

No. 8 — Vulfpeck: Thrill of the Arts

When I first heard this album, I described it as “one of those unexpected pleasures.” Since then I have realized that doesn’t begin to cover it. Vulfpeck is not just a band. Vulfpeck is a self-contained world of madness with a Wes Andersonian level of internal consistency. There are no half-measures in Vulfpeck. Their commitment to maintaining a uniform aesthetic doesn’t just extend to their music, but also to their videos and every bit of peripheral material they issue. Vulfpeck is as much about fake film grain and pictures of dogs as they are about sexy basslines and Rhodes piano. This is the band that raised $20,000 dollars in Spotify royalties by issuing a silent album and asking people to put it on repeat overnight. It’s not just about the music. Vulfpeck is a zaniness factory.

Their first full-length is their most controlled release yet. It’s funk, like all of their music, and they still sound like talented slacker dudes from a commercial music program at some community college. But more than on any of their EPs, the music on Thrill of the Arts sounds like it was recorded in an airless room. They are truly earning their German affectation here: this is Parliament by way of Kraftwerk.

And it has some of the most technically astonishing performances I’ve heard this year. Antwaun Stanley’s amazing vocal on “Funky Duck” is probably in my top ten favourite committed performances of stupid lyrics. (The other nine are all Rush.) And Blake Mills’ guitar on “Rango II” (a sequel to a previous song, because that’s a thing they do) is one of those moments where you don’t actually know how he’s even doing that.

Vulfpeck is the kind of band I would hope to be in if I were in a band. What higher praise can any music geek offer?

No. 7 — Mad Men

TV’s not made for endings. I’m not the first to observe this. The whole idea of a TV show is to have an central concept that can sustain years-worth of stories. It’s not about having a complete narrative worked out from day one. That’s why people who say “the ending ruined the whole thing” or, “they didn’t have a plan” are missing the entire point of the medium.

But I don’t think it’s even possible to say those things about the ending of Mad Men, which was perfect in every way. Like everything else about the show, it’s impossible to know quite where it sits on the spectrum of sincere to cynical, and there was no ham-handed attempt to try and tie off every storyline in a neat bow. Mad Men ended in a way that it can continue to be a thing rich with multiple meanings, many of which even Matt Weiner probably never thought of.

If you tell me it’s the best show ever, I won’t argue.

No. 6 — Reply All

There are two kinds of podcasts: the kind that could (or do) air on public radio and the kind that couldn’t. There is no value judgement implicit in that taxonomy. Before public radio caught on that it was a possible future, an aesthetic had developed around podcasting. And, that aesthetic was basically two or more people talking, without a huge amount of craft or artifice.

Reply All, the brightest jewel in Gimlet Media’s increasingly dazzling crown, is the first public radio-ready podcast where the hosts seem aware of that legacy. P.J. Vogt and Alex Goldman’s personalities can carry the show a long way. Consider their recurring segment “Yes Yes No,” where they explain various convoluted internet things to their boss. That’s some good podcasting, right there. And that dynamic informs every episode of the show.

But this is still a Gimlet show, and they are On The Media alumni. So, these episodes are still finely-crafted, thoughtful, borderline fussy radio. Plus, they’ve got a premise (“a show about the internet”) that allows them to do anything. If you don’t know this show, listen to the episode above, then start from the first one and listen to all of them. They’re remarkably consistent in their brilliance.

Be sure to come back for the thrilling conclusion, wherein several eternal questions shall be answered: What’s the number one album going to be? Did Matthew play any games this year? And, will anybody have actually heard of the thing that tops the list???

Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 1, 2015)

If for some reason you make a habit of reading these, you’ll quickly realize that I like everything. You’re unlikely to see any real hatchet jobs here. I just like to enthuse about things, mostly. Here are your 32 reviews for the week:

Music

Vulfpeck: Thrill of the Arts — It’s funk produced with the minimalist precision of Krautrock. The arrangements are one unconventional decision after another. The choice to minimize the role of the drum kit at times is a weirdly good one. And the lyrics are brilliantly nonsensical. One of those unexpected pleasures.

David Bowie: Young Americans — In his book on John Peel, David Cavanagh refers to this as “the sound of [Bowie] cruising through black America in a limousine, occasionally slowing down to shed a few more parts of himself by the roadside.” I can’t do any better than that.

David Bowie: Station to StationYoung Americans was an only-half-successful experiment, but if it led to the insight that produced Station to Station, it was entirely worthwhile. This is my favourite Bowie album save for Low, and some days Hunky Dory. On the other hand, after listening to this and Young Americans in direct succession, my headphones are now coughing out thick clouds of cocaine. So, that’s inconvenient.

The Beatles: Rubber Soul — I just realized that my listening today has included soul of both plastic and rubber persuasions. Aside from that, what’s there to say about this? For years, it was the earliest Beatles album I cared to listen to. I’ve since developed a taste for the early stuff. But I still think this marks the point where they went from being a good little band to being the Best Band Ever. Not my favourite band, mind. But if you want to say to me that the Beatles are objectively the greatest band in history, I’ll tend not to argue with you.

Ted Hearne: The Source — First off, the track “We called for illumination at 1630” is one of the most staggering things I’ve heard recently. It’s an instant classic that everybody should hear. Most of the rest of this deeply unorthodox oratorio is less excellent than that. I sure respect Hearne’s political engagement (the oratorio’s text is drawn from the Manning leaks, among other primary sources). But it all feels a bit earnest to me: a bit austere and serious, as if to say, “This is important! DO NOT SMILE.” Still, it feels wrong to dismiss this on one listen. Accusing a work that deals with Chelsea Manning and the war in Afghanistan of being overly serious is admittedly somewhat perverse. I do wish more composers would try stuff like this. And that one track. Holy smokes. Listen to it now.

Eve Egoyan/Linda Catlin Smith: Thought and Desire — This is the first I’ve heard of Linda Catlin Smith’s music. It’s quite static, and at times there isn’t much to latch onto as a listener. Each of the nocturnes, chorales and miscellaneous compositions on this disc of piano music is essentially a sequence of slow moving but very rich chords without melodies stringing them together. Shades of Satie and Brian Eno. I listened while I worked, and eventually found myself really getting into it. I find the last twenty minutes boring, but the first forty are lovely. Egoyan’s releases are always worth hearing, because she plays music that nobody else does, and plays it well. Even if this isn’t quite as enthralling as some of her previous discs, these are still world premiere recordings and I value that inherently.

Mr. McFall’s Chamber: Solitudes — Who knew there was such a thing as Finnish tango? In any case, this is an album that takes that style as its jumping off point, and proceeds to do my favourite thing for contemporary classical albums to do: be completely enthralling while containing music written almost entirely by people I’ve never heard of. There’s nearly an hour of music by composers I don’t know, compared with less than ten minutes of music by composers I do. That seems about the right ratio. Olli Mustonen’s Toccata and Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Dedication are particular highlights. And the playing!

The Chemical Brothers: Further — I’ve already written at length about how happy this album makes me on Two Matts, the blog I co-write with Matt Meuse. It was one he assigned me, knowing full well I’d be into it. But he might not have guessed that I’d still be listening to it semi-obsessively several weeks later.

Live events

Hey Rosetta! Live at the Vogue — I’ve only done this a couple of times: that thing where you go to a concert by an artist you’ve barely heard of. But the friend I went with has seen them eight or nine times, so he was well-prepared to give me the lowdown on these folks beforehand. Plus, the concert turned out to be a good way in. Hey Rosetta! is a great live band for a couple of reasons. First, they play and sing brilliantly. Not a given, as we know. It’s the bands whose execution is solid that you want to see live. Secondly, their songs can get a bit anthemic. You want to be in a crowd of people, listening to some of those songs. I’m especially glad to have been at this specific show because Yukon Blonde was the opening act, and the two bands did their 2015 election anthem “Land You Love” for the first time live as an encore. Lovely moment, there. Plus, the lighting design was clever: twenty-or-so incandescent bulbs were distributed across the stage on stands. At times, the stage lights would go off completely, leaving the band lit solely by those bulbs. Wonderful. Time to listen to some Hey Rosetta! albums.

Movies

The Zero Theorem — You know you’re truly in love with an artist when you even enjoy the works of theirs that you can objectively identify as bad. This is how I am with Terry Gilliam. I’m on record stating that my favourite movie is Brazil, and that remains true on all the days when it is not Mulholland Drive or Velvet Goldmine. Then there are the Gilliam movies that are basically accepted as good, which I believe are masterpieces: 12 Monkeys, The Fisher King, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. There are the misunderstood gems, Tideland and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, both brilliant. And so it goes, on down to Brothers Grimm and Jabberwocky, neither of them any good at all, both of which I like in spite of myself. The question with The Zero Theorem was never “will I like it,” but rather “which of those categories will it fit into?” Turns out, it’s the one with Tideland and Parnassus. Nobody likes this, but it’s great. Gilliam’s satire continues to be a hilariously blunt instrument, and his gender politics are extremely suspect, but this is an enthralling movie. It probably helps that it’s the most similar thing he’s done to Brazil. It’s full of signs and boxes and advertisements you should read but can’t, because everything goes by too fast. It’s got David Thewlis as a cut-rate Michael Palin and Christoph Waltz as a big-budget Jonathan Pryce. It’s got women wearing outlandish things on their heads. I was never not going to like this.

Television

Doctor Who: “The Zygon Invasion/Inversion” — Well, the season got off to a slow start, but we’re sure as hell into the thick of it now. This two-parter was completely magnificent. Still not quite as good as last season’s high points (which were, incidentally, also written by the two writers credited here), but damn good. Between his Doctor Who work and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, Peter Harness is quickly becoming my second-favourite writer associated with Doctor Who. And if “space ISIS” isn’t quite as good a premise as “the moon’s an egg,” at least we got Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman both giving their best-ever performances on the show.

Last Week Tonight: November 1, 2015 — Nothing here that will set the world ablaze. No dingo babysitters. But it’s always nice to hear somebody say “hey, maybe we should focus on actual present-day news instead of talking about an election that’s a year away” and then doing that thing.

Literature, etc.

David Cavanagh: Good Night and Good Riddance — This continues to be fantastic, and really lent some clarity to the rise of punk rock. While I’ve become considerably more amenable to punk in recent years, I still have some lingering skepticism. But, when you see on a show-for-show basis how boring music was in 1975-76 (LOTS of Eagles and other Eaglesy bands on the radio), you begin to understand. Also, Cavanagh cleverly notes how many of the artists on certain Peel shows from this period were living in tax exile. Sort of puts a nice fine point on things, doesn’t it?

China Miéville: “The Buzzard’s Egg” — This is one of the best stories I’ve gotten to in this collection so far. Miéville’s stories live and die on the novelty of their premises, and this premise is really something: an army of ruthless imperialists conquer peoples and take their land by stealing their idols, thus rendering their prayers useless. Piquant, no? And Miéville’s chosen just the right narrator to offer a window into that world.

Alex Bilmes: Noel Gallagher interview for Esquire — I don’t really like Oasis. I’ve never listened to a full Oasis album. But I love interviews with Noel Gallagher. And this one is gigantic. Bilmes has the restraint to say his piece at the beginning, and then just give the people what they want, which is 6,500 words of Noel being garrulous and abrasive. Sample: “Hard work and a fucking filthy tongue, that’s what I inherited from my mum. She taught the Nineties how to swear. And what’s the word, stoicism? Yeah, she was hardcore. She didn’t give a fuck.”

Ben Grossblatt/Alex Fine: How to Speak Klingon — A few friends and I have been going to pub trivia around Vancouver for a year or so. There’s a nerd bar here called the Storm Crow that’s becoming a favourite for its fairly challenging questions and its Cthulhu altar. This was a first place prize, and it is frankly ridiculous that I’m even reviewing it. It is a children’s board book with buttons that make sounds. It is not a serious thing. That said, it is better than it needs to be. Wookiepedia tells me that in addition to this most minor of Star Trek credits, Grossblatt has also written peripheral fiction pertaining to Star Wars. And the illustrator, Alex Fine, did covers for Newsweek when Newsweek still had covers. So, they’re not hacks. This provides useful phrases for various contexts in Klingon society. Like, on public transportation, it teaches you the phrase for “I don’t have exact change and await my just and devastating punishment.” Or, at the office: “There are no bad ideas, only ideas meriting death.” Or, at karaoke: “Hold me closer, tiny dancer.”

Games

Stasis: Howlongtobeat.com tells me it should take me about five hours to beat this game. Reviewers imply that they played it in an afternoon. I’ve played for nine hours over the course of two weeks, and I don’t feel like I’m nearly done. I’m really bad at this, aren’t I?

Podcasts

The Allusionist: “Criminallusionist” — Radiotopia cross-promotion continues. I’m beginning to wonder if this is a straightforwardly good thing or not. The bulk of this is just a full episode of Criminal, and while that’s nothing to complain about, I did actually tune in for The Allusionist. Maybe this is how Marvel Comics fans feel when they complain about big crossover events?

This American Life: “The Heart Wants What It Wants” — The major highlight of this is Shankar Vedantum’s story about men who were conned into paying for love letters from fictional women. The key takeaway is that I should probably start listening to Vedantum’s Hidden Brain, although do I really have time for another podcast? (Evidently yes, as we shall see.)

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “A Conversation with Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)” — I will likely not read Career of Evil, but the structural gimmick sounds fun (much of the novel is narrated by the murderer, but you don’t actually know which of the suspects is doing the narrating). This is one of my favourite things about listening to tons of podcasts: it helps me keep track of what’s going on in the cultural world without my having to actually take in ALL of it. (Though you can see I’m trying.)

Surprisingly Awesome: “Mold” — I’ve expressed ambivalence towards “wonder surrogacy” before, in other media. That’s where there’s a person in the text itself whose role it is to express wonder, interest or enthusiasm in the hopes that the audience will join in. This new podcast has wonder surrogacy baked into its premise. Provided that the topics covered continue to have the same hidden depths as they find in mold, there will always be one host whose job boils down to saying “isn’t that interesting?” At the worst of times, this approach strikes me as desperate. Surely it’s better to just say interesting things and get on with it than to be constantly trumpeting your own appeal. In this premiere episode, it’s fine. But I will remain vigilant.

In Our Time: “Utilitarianism” — This is BBC Radio 4. This is a very austere production with no music, no tape, seemingly no editing, and no obvious enthusiasm. This is a man mumbling disinterestedly into a microphone, trying to coax the history of a major branch of philosophy from a panel of sleepy professors. This condescends not a whit to its audience, and makes no compromises. In fact, it seems to be ignoring its audience altogether. I will probably listen to more of this.

Reply All: “Shine On You Crazy Goldman” — P.J. Vogt drops acid at work. P.J. Vogt is quickly becoming the most interesting podcast host. Matt Lieber is a Pink Floyd reference.

The Memory Palace: “no. 116,842” — The Memory Palace always makes me get all watery at inopportune moments. DiMeo has this uncanny ability to wrest meaning out of a phrase by repeating it: in this case, “let her mind wander.” See also, “Mary Walker would wear what she wanted.”

The Memory Palace: “Craning” — Every time I hear a really good episode of The Memory Palace, it makes me want to go back and listen to this one again. I must have heard it ten or twelve times, now. It is my favourite nine minutes of audio I’ve heard this year. It’s a landscape of Cape Canaveral on the morning Apollo 11 launched, wrought with incredibly fine brushstrokes — right down to the spectators camping out in station wagons, overnight, with the tailgates open for the feet of tall children in sleeping bags. There are more perfect turns of phrase here than I’ve ever heard in a radio piece. Throw in some meditative music, and this is a total sucker punch. I can’t account for why this has such an effect on me. That’s probably why I love it so much.

99% Invisible: “Butterfly Effects” — An original, Sam Greenspan-produced story about how bad design might have decided a federal election. This is what this podcast is for. 99pi is a continuous act of validation for Roman’s “beautiful nerds.” Because, when everything in the world is so inherently interesting, how can you not want to learn everything about it? How can you not be a nerd? In a sense, the premise of 99pi is the opposite of the premise for the new Gimlet podcast, Surprisingly Awesome. Where the latter takes for granted that some things are boring, 99pi is interested in everything, and trusts that you are too. No wonder surrogacy, here.

The Moth: “Hand Transplant, DNA, and a Backwards Heart” — And, we’re back. Janna Levin’s story of love and astrophysics is structurally a thing of beauty. I’m a sucker for recurring motifs that develop thematically through the course of a narrative. (See: The Memory Palace, and also most everything by Beethoven.) The other two stories are less interesting, but not by much.

The Heart: “Kaitlyn+Mitra” — This two-parter about the intimate business partnership of The Heart’s two founders could have been a little inside baseball, but they invited their audience in by literally inviting the audience to a big event — a wedding, of sorts. The Heart is so good. For one thing, it’s one of the best-sounding podcasts on Radiotopia, along with The Truth and 99pi. For another, it cares not a whit about taboos. And was that Brian Eno’s slowed-down Pachelbel I heard in there? Clever.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ and Things We Meant to Do” — And now, a proper episode of PCHH. Pop culture panel shows are a dime a dozen, but this is far and away the best of the major ones. Every episode sounds like what it hopefully actually is, which is four people who really like talking to each other talking about stuff they like. I generally find this panel more insightful than Slate’s, and it’s actually funnier than the less structured and less censored Pop Rocket from Maximum Fun. This episode is a pretty standard instalment. And that is just fine. This is a podcast I almost always listen to the day it comes out, because I can rely on it to be good company on a commute or a run, even when the topics at hand aren’t that interesting to me.

Radiolab: “Staph Retreat” — You know you listen to too many podcasts when you hear two separate accounts of Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in the same week, entirely by coincidence. This is the better one, by the way. As you’d expect. Honestly, Radiolab lost me for a while. Between the reduced presence of Robert Krulwich, the less ambitious sound design and the increased focus on the sort of current affairs stories that other shows like This American Life already do, I felt like this show had somewhat lost its distinctiveness. But between this and “The Rhino Hunter” from September, it looks like they’re back on top.

Surprisingly Awesome: “Free Throws” — More wonder surrogacy, but this time, Adam Davidson is essentially a perfect surrogate for me, because this is a sports story, and neither he nor I could care less about sports. But, even given this optimal situation, in which both Davidson and I come around to the interest of free throws in the end, they cap it off with an ending in which Davidson’s wonder far exceeds my own, and the perfect surrogacy is broken. This is the key risk of this kind of storytelling: if the audience isn’t completely analogous to the surrogate, they need to engage their empathy in order to feel the intended effect. And people are (or at least, I am) bad at engaging their empathy when the stakes are zero. I’ll keep tuning in to this, because it really is entertaining on a moment-for-moment basis. But I distrust this structure.

Welcome to Night Vale: “The September Monologues” — I do like it when Night Vale plays with the format. I suppose some of what I said last week might make it sound like I don’t. But the real problem is when there’s too much focus on long-term storytelling and worldbuilding, and not enough on just making the episode at hand work. This is one of the best episodes I’ve heard, if only for the brilliant monologue by Steve Carlsburg. I always figured Cecil was just being a jerk about him. And that weather gag is genius.