Tag Archives: Welcome to Night Vale

Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 6, 2016)

It was the kind of week where I took in large amounts of a small number of things. So, a mere 20 reviews, this time. Having finally caught up on my podcast subscriptions, I can at last binge on some other podcasts that I’ve been meaning to check out for a while. I started listening to two new ones this week that are both blowing my mind. But first, everything else.

Music

Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Tarkus — When I was a kid, I wanted to be Keith Emerson when I grew up. I listened to this album for the first time in ages when the news broke that he’d died. I’m eternally frustrated that the second side is so patchy when the first is so good. So, let’s just focus on what everybody comes to this album for: the 20-minute title track, which is simply a classic. And it’s almost entirely Emerson that makes it so good. Every one of his solos is a perfectly thought out little architectural marvel. This track, as much as anything, is the reason why I’ve never understood people who gripe about long solos. Actually, if “Tarkus” has a flaw, it’s that the organ solos are so good that you kind of find yourself waiting for the next one when Greg Lake starts singing or, bless him, playing guitar. And it all ends with the most gloriously silly synth riff ever written. This record is both a definitive period piece and a (half) masterpiece. RIP, Keith.

Glenn Gould & Toronto Symphony Orchestra: Beethoven PIano Concertos 1 & 2 — This is a scratchy, barely listenable old thing taken from a 1951 CBC broadcast. Gould was only 18, and had already been a regularly-featured soloist with the TSO for four years. CBC had caught on that this kid’s performances needed a national audience. It would be four more years before Columbia Records caught on, signed him and lifted him to international prominence with his debut recording of the Goldberg Variations. So, as a document, this is super cool. As an actual recording, the early 50s radio broadcastiness of it makes things difficult, but Gould is great here. People tend to be split on his Beethoven. It’s like, the Bach is beyond reproach, the Mozart is best forgotten, and the Beethoven is somewhere in between. I like Gould’s Beethoven. (And some of his Mozart, if we’re being honest.) And by age 18, he already had that unique tone that I love him for.

Kate Bush: The Sensual World — This is Kate Bush’s version of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous. Both were renowned for work that they did at very young ages, and both were increasingly ignored as their music approached increasingly adult subject matter. The Sensual World isn’t as consistent as Hounds of Love or as experimental as The Dreaming, but it has some of Bush’s most thoughtful songwriting. The title track, “The Fog,” “Heads We’re Dancing,” and obviously “This Woman’s Work” are all among the best music she ever made, and she couldn’t have made it as a less mature artist. Of course, many years later, she’d pull the same trick again on Aerial to even greater effect.

Movies

Where to Invade Next — Michael Moore’s gotten soft. Considering that he’s Michael Moore, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I enjoyed this very much, because I think that the United States needs as many reminders as it can get that the American experience is not the default human experience. But at the same time, I wanted to cry for most of its duration, because there are so many places that get such obvious things so right, and so many people who would doubtless call them wrong. Giving kids healthy, good meals in schools like they do in France shouldn’t sound revolutionary. Neither should Italy’s eight weeks of annual paid vacation, or Iceland’s policies on gender equality. It’s enough to make even us smug Canadians hang our heads in shame.

Television

Cucumber/Banana/Tofu: Episodes 1-5 (of all three) — This is Russell T Davies’ antidote for every austere, staid, Oscar-nominated movie about gay people you’ve ever suffered through. I didn’t see this on any year-end lists, and that is a travesty. Cucumber, Davies’s middle-aged spiritual sequel to Queer as Folk, is unbelievable television. It has more kinetic energy than anything I’ve seen in ages. If you’re not pulled in by the first episode, which, holy hell does that ever start in one place and end up in another, then you’re watching television wrong. And in case eight hours of drama about middle-aged gay dudes doesn’t appeal, there’s Banana, the nearly-as-brilliant companion piece which focuses on members of the younger supporting cast. Tofu, the series of 11-minute documentary shorts that rounds out the trilogy, is not very good. But that in no goddamn way should prevent you from watching the other two shows. Now I feel bad about some of the crap I’ve said to people about Davies’ Doctor Who scripts. He is a genius, and I hope he quits smoking so we get maximum years of prosperous creativity from him. Pick of the week.

Last Week Tonight: March 6, 2016 — “What sound does Ann Coulter make as she falls down the stairs?” is my new favourite line on this show. Well, second favourite. My new actual favourite is “Tonight we are talking about special taxing districts. So, hello people watching for the first time because of our Trump piece! And also, I presume, goodbye.”

Better Call Saul: “Gloves Off” — So far in this show, it’s been obvious that Jimmy McGill has a long way to go before he properly becomes Saul Goodman. But it hasn’t been that obvious that Mike Ehrmantraut is on a similarly lengthy journey. Jonathan Banks’s wonderful performance is outwardly the same in its mannerisms, regardless of whether he’s the ruthless “cleaner” of Breaking Bad or the regretful ex-cop in Better Call Saul. But this episode demonstrates that there’s a chasm between those two versions of the character.

QI: “Misconceptions” — The episode I watched last week was apparently Stephen Fry’s last episode filmed, but this is his last transmitted. Dear me. How will they get by without him.

Podcasts

Welcome to Night Vale: “Homecoming” + Bonus Episodes 1 & 2 — I like Night Vale best when the comedic horrors give way to a bit of humanity. I don’t necessarily mean that the show is best when it has long character arcs. I’m inclined to think the opposite. “Homecoming” does it right. It tells a typical Night Vale supernatural story, but one that has specific resonance for Cecil. And it’s basically self-contained, without depending too heavily on your knowledge of continuity for emotional investment. The bonus episodes are not written by Fink and Cranor, and both are excellent (the first is exceptional), indicating that a bit of new blood could really punch up the show. Come to think of it, I wonder what Night Vale would be like if it had a writers’ room the size of a sitcom? Would it lose what makes it singular? Or would it have the variety it sometimes lacks?

You Must Remember This: “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” Parts 1-4 — I confess that my first impression of this was “why is this a podcast and not a book?” It is essentially just Karina Longworth reading a script, with no tape save for a few quick movie clips, and the unexpected presence of Nate DiMeo in the role of Charles Manson. But then I just got lost in how good it is. This is the sort of cultural history that I am a complete sucker for. The first episode is Longworth’s summary of everything that was set to go rotten in American counterculture in the late 60s, and it’s enthralling. Manson is a lens by which Longworth examines the dark side of the hippie movement — and not just the extreme dark side that culminated in a cult and several murders, but the more mundane dark side that resulted in the mainstreaming of outlaw culture. There was a segment of Flower Power that never meant to stop at mere resistance: there would be open rebellion. And, as Ian Anderson once observed, there was something more than vaguely fascist about that segment of counterculture. That’s all baked into Longworth’s narrative, but seen through the lens of Los Angeles as opposed to the more familiar (to me) London narrative, and through the lens of psychedelic film as opposed to the more familiar (to probably most people) psychedelic music narrative. Which is not to say that Longworth ignores the musical connections in the story. The third episode, which I understand is widely regarded as the crown jewel of the 12-part series, is the heartbreaking story of how Charles Manson broke Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. If you only feel like committing to one episode of Manson brutality, make it that one. I’m sure there will be others that equal it for me, but that’s really good radio.

Limetown: Season 1 — Yeah, I binged the whole season. It’s short. Many thoughts. First off, choosing the title of the final episode of Serial season one as the title of the first episode of your fictional Serial riff is ballsy. But Limetown lives up to the affectation. This is as convincing an impression of actual radio as Night Vale isn’t. And, I know they don’t bear comparison. And, I know they probably get compared more than they should, simply by virtue of being two of the three most buzzy fictional podcasts out there. (I will never listen to The Message, by the way. I’m sure it’s fine, but I don’t want to live in a world where all of the successful podcasts are fucking branded.) But truthfully, if Night Vale had this level of aesthetic verisimilitude, it would be a better podcast. Anyway, this had me emotionally invested and in suspense from the first minute. And from the second episode on, it is terrifying. I’ve talked before about how horror games are scarier to me than horror movies because they implicate you in the story. I think the same goes for audio, which forces you to paint the picture in your head, while maintaining the pace and the sense of inevitability of a movie. Plus, there’s even a bit of subtle metafiction in here: listen through earbuds, and you’ll know what it’s like to have people talking directly into your head. I’m eagerly awaiting the second season. Orson Welles would be proud. Pick of the week.

The Heart: “Ghost: Emily” — The best episode of the season so far. Several people discuss their animosity towards their partners’ exes. Of course, this being The Heart, it’s not played for laughs. It’s thoughtful and has plenty of that thing they do where half of the story is in the mix — things spoken aloud are separate in space from things left unsaid. Really good.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Sturgill Simpson, Beth Orton, Julianna Barwick, Damien Jurado, More” — Wasn’t feeling this quite as much as the last few, but hoo boy does that Heron Oblivion track ever hit that perfect 1967 sweet spot.

Theory of Everything: “Paris” — Benjamen Walker is really good at talking about the stuff that insufferable lefty arts people talk about without actually coming off as insufferable. Using that gift, he has become one of the great storytellers of the decline of modern cities — first by demolishing the sharing economy in “Instaserfs,” then by railing against the commodification of all space in “New York After Rent,” and now by exploring the chasm between the Paris of memory and the Paris of today.

99% Invisible: “The Giftschrank” — There are actual rooms in German libraries where they keep the dangerous literature. This is basically an account of what kinds of literature were considered dangerous at various points in time — courtesy of Sam Greenspan, who it is always good to hear from.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: American Crime” — Linda Holmes is in New York, talking to culture people! Danielle Henderson is great, and I would love to hear her on this show again. But I will not be watching American Crime.

The Memory Palace: “Homesteading” — DiMeo reigns it in, this week. A tight six minutes, and a tiny, charming story. It really is a bit too slight to be memorable, but I prefer this to the occasional bloat of recent episodes.

Reply All: “Milk Wanted” — Breast milk is apparently really expensive. Trust a Reply All producer (Phia Bennin, who is wonderful) to find out the internet repercussions of that.

All Songs Considered: “Iggy Pop & Josh Homme Talk ‘Post Pop Depression’” — Iggy Pop is one of the wittiest people in rock, and he and Josh Homme make a good double act. I intend to listen to the album, but I can’t have it be the first Iggy Pop album I listen to. Hell, I haven’t even heard Fun House.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr., Kanye, and Gilmore Girls” — Daoud Tyler-Ameen is a very clever interviewer and I would love to hear him do his own podcast. His interview with Leslie Odom Jr. really demonstrates that Lin-Manuel Miranda is not the only super smart person involved in Hamilton. I agree with Sean Rameswaram that all of the people who gave overwhelmingly positive reviews to The Life of Pablo the day after its release should be fired. And I’ve been told to watch Gilmore Girls by enough people, now including Daisy Rosario and Linda Holmes, that I probably will.

Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 20)

Merry Christmas! I’ve been compiling my favourite things of the year for a list that I’ll have up soon. But as usual, a lot of the stuff I spent my time on this year wasn’t from this year. I sometimes wonder what the major year-end top music lists would look like if they included everything that the critics were actually listening to, regardless of release date. It wouldn’t be an effective way to assess the year’s music, obviously. But it would make for a sort of index of continuing relevance. That could be fun.

Anyway, a couple of the major things I discovered this year that weren’t new are discussed here. Here are your 24 reviews for the week.

Television

Deadwood: Season 1, episodes 9-10 — “Mister Wu” is probably my favourite episode so far, which is inevitable, given that it focusses more on Al Swearengen’s machinations than any other episode, and when it comes down to it that’s sort of what I’m in it for. But it also has a great plotline for the increasingly ill and increasingly interesting Reverend Nickelback.

QI: “Middle Muddle” — Much ado about unfair medieval sports.

South Park: “Margaritaville” — I have trouble with South Park because of its tendency to pay too much respect to both sides of any given issue. But this is pretty brilliant, because for the most part it’s too caught up in the inherent bafflement of the crashing economy to take a side other than “how does this make sense?” It even manages to juggle two separate, unrelated ongoing analogies side-by-side without getting bogged down. I see why this is regarded as a classic, even if I don’t generally like this show.

Music

Björk: Vulnicura — I’ve already nailed my colours to the mast by putting this in my top five albums of the year. But I don’t think there’s any understating this: Vulnicura is not just a return to form for Björk, it’s as good an album as she’s ever made. I’d take this over Homogenic, and it would be a legitimately difficult choice between this and Vespertine. It’s less immediate than either of those. There’s no “Jöga” or “Pagan Poetry” to offer respite from the album’s more out-there moments. (“Stonemilker” comes close, but it’s the first track of the album, so…) But in all of its lugubriousness, Vulnicura still manages to be an impressively kaleidoscopic musical response to the end of a relationship. As breakup albums go, this is as good as In The Wee Small Hours and within shouting distance of Blood on the Tracks. Though naturally, it sounds no more like either of those than they sound like each other.

Brian Eno: Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) — Before 2015, I knew and loved Another Green World, and to a lesser extent (No Pussyfooting), and much of Eno’s work as a producer. But this was the year when I listened to the rest of his gigantic discography. All of it is interesting, most of it is good; but the albums I keep coming back to are the four rock records he made before dedicating himself to ambient music. Of those, Another Green World is still my favourite, and one of the best albums of the ‘70s. But there’s a sense in which that album’s flawlessness keeps it at arm’s length. Think about this: what would be the point of hearing Another Green World performed live? It’s a bespoke object: those songs aren’t things that can or should exist elsewhere in the world. They are the recordings that were made of them. (In a sense, literally: Eno wrote almost nothing ahead of time for the Another Green World sessions. It’s all just what happened in the studio.) Everything that is good about “Spirits Drifting” is good because of the way it turned out on the album. Performing it would be beside the point. The two records that precede Another Green World, on the other hand, are totally different. (So is Before And After Science, but it just isn’t quite as good.) When I listen to Taking Tiger Mountain or Here Come the Warm Jets, I can imagine myself playing that music, which sometimes makes those albums more enjoyable. I tend to prefer whichever of the two I’ve listened to most recently, but they really are totally different albums. Here Come the Warm Jets is a record like Robert Fripp’s Exposure or the first Peter Gabriel album: a rotating drum of disparate sounds and personalities, guided into some semblance of cohesiveness by a strong central creative sensibility. Taking Tiger Mountain is a band record. It’s mostly the same people playing on each track, so cohesiveness arises naturally (as on the second Peter Gabriel album). This is not my pick of the week, but along with the rest of Eno’s catalogue, it’s probably my discovery of the year.

Literature, etc.

China Miéville: “After the Festival” — Well, that was gross. This is a story about a person whose best friend starts acting strangely. The interesting part is that rather than being confident that she’s the one person who can get through to him, as would often be the case in a narrative like this, she knows him well enough and sees the situation clearly enough to realize how unlikely that actually is. It’s a really good story, and also totally disgusting.

David Cavanagh: Good Night and Good Riddance — Picked this up again. I’m into the early ‘90s now, at which point Peel was playing Nirvana in England over a year before they broke into mainstream American success and recognizing the brilliance of Aphex Twin well into his 50s. This guy.

Games

Undertale — I warmed to this immensely. About halfway into the game, the fight sequences start getting esoteric and character-driven and start telling stories in themselves. The writing is patchy, but there are great moments, and the whole thing has a lot of heart. No masterpiece, but I’m certainly glad I played this.

80 Days — This, on the other hand is a masterpiece. I’ve played it about six times through, and I’ve seldom seen any of the same stories twice. This would have been my favourite game (and probably my single favourite thing) of last year, if I’d actually played it that year. There’s so much to admire, but the real clincher is that it takes on the task of adapting Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days as a game and ends up being a far superior work than its source. Meg Jayanth’s prose is superior to Verne’s in translation, and she even goes out of her way to challenge the notions of colonialism that Verne’s original novel propped up. She pushes the fantastical elements of the original even further, so that there are armies of automata to contend with, and cities atop giant walking machines. This offers what’s probably a more emotionally true perception of what the 19th century’s technological marvels must have felt like at the time than Verne’s novel would to contemporary readers. And, of course, there’s the fact that Jayanth’s rendition is a gigantic branching narrative with a 750,000 word script that you see about three percent of on any given playthrough. So, there’s just more of it. I’m actually struggling to be adequately effusive about this truly magnificent marvel of modern storytelling, so here’s this: 80 Days is easily in my top three games ever, and it is the only game that I would comfortably recommend to anybody, regardless of their interests. It is magic and wonder incarnated as an iOS app. I just dipped in for a quick jaunt this time, so this isn’t my pick of the week. But, as with Eno, you may rest assured that it is one of my most treasured discoveries of the year.

Movies

The Danish Girl — I’m mixed on this. Both lead performances are good, though Alicia Vikander manages to steal the movie from Eddie Redmayne’s stunt performance. The story is worth knowing, but it’s badly served by the movie’s script, which is laden with obvious metaphors and clunky dialogue. It’s got some nicely composed shots, but Tom Hooper is still basically a purveyor of blandness, to me. At least The King’s Speech had a great screenplay.

Inside Llewyn Davis — Not one of the Coens’ best, but it’s got lots of those wonderful understated comedic moments like they’re so good at. Plus, excellent performances by Oscar Isaac, John Goodman and Carey Mulligan.

Carol — This is as obsessive a throwback to an earlier style of cinema as The Artist was. But, like The Artist, it is very much a contemporary film dressed in the trappings of the era in which it is set: everything from the beautifully grainy 16mm filmstock to Cate Blanchett’s exceptionally mannered performance is from another era, but the narrative sensibility is from our own. I adored this as much as I knew I would, Todd Haynes being probably one of my top three directors. (Now that I’ve written that, I really ought to go watch all the stuff he’s done that I haven’t seen.) There’s a line near the beginning of this that rings especially true, something like: “I have a friend who says I should take more of an interest in humans.” Haynes’s movies have always been as much about the film conventions that they employ as they are about the stories they tell and the people in them. Velvet Goldmine is about glam rock and David Bowie, but it’s just as much about what happens when you nick the frame narrative of Citizen Kane in the service of a totally different story. Carol is about an affair between two interesting women, but it’s just as much about those flawlessly decorated period-accurate sets, and about how you can’t quite make out the details behind a fogged-up car window when it’s shot on 16mm. Haynes is a stylist. You can imagine that his brain is basically a movie camera, and that movies work as his interface with the real world around him. He’s a filmmaker for people who marinate themselves in pop culture and assay their own lives primarily in relation to what they consume. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Frank Sinatra with Sonari Glinton” — 14 minutes really isn’t long enough for a Sinatra primer, and as engaging as Glinton is, Stephen Thompson doesn’t sound that convinced. Eminently skippable.

StartUp: “Diversity Report” — The white boss of a super white company talks to the few employees he has who aren’t white about what he’s doing wrong. This is a great listen.

Slate’s Culture Gabfest: “The Room Where it Happens Edition” — This is to me a lesser podcast than NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour because it sounds so distinctly like a bunch of people who are in the same room together because it’s their job to say smart things into microphones, rather than a group of people who would and probably do have those conversations anyway. But this was about Hamilton, so I just had to. Stephen Metcalf’s analysis of why the musical is great is basically the same as my own. But, I do wish somebody had dove in a little more when the point “I’m 40 and white and don’t like hip hop and even I loved this hip hop musical” came up. On the face of it, that sounds like a way into a legitimate critique of Hamilton, which is otherwise being rightly marvelled at by all and sundry. On the other hand, I do appreciate that this podcast will discuss people like Judith Butler, who wouldn’t necessarily fit with the general tone of PCHH.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Movie Merchandise” — OKAY FOR GOD’S SAKE I’LL GO SEE STAR WARS. (I was always going to see Star Wars.) My opinion about Star Wars is roughly coextensive with Stephen Thompson’s, so this may be instructive to those of you who are curious about my opinions on things. (…) Also, this is 100% worth a (spoiler-free) listen JUST to hear about Thompson’s insane collection of whimsical movie merchandise.

This American Life: “Sinatra’s 100th Birthday” — You wouldn’t especially expect This American Life to dedicate a full hour to the Chairman of the Board, but who better to assess what he means as part of American culture? The critique of “My Way” as Sinatra’s funeral song in act two is genuinely brilliant music criticism.

The Moth: “Eve Plumb and the Pittsburgh StorySLAM” — Eve Plumb is a former child actress known for her role on The Brady Bunch. The story she tells here is barely a story at all, actually. It’s basically a summary of her whole relationship with her mother. This is uncharacteristically unfocused for The Moth. Maybe it’s like Celebrity Jeopardy: expectations are just lower for famous people.

On The Media: “Politically Correct” — Gladstone and Garfield tackle a bunch of rage-making topics, from the GOP’s war on political correctness to the (lack of) reporting on the Paris climate summit. This podcast keeps me sane.

Radiolab: “The Cold War” — Two ice cream vendors go to war and the joy returns to Radiolab. Pick of the week.

The Heart: “Mr. Claus+Mrs. Claus” — Nope.

All Songs Considered: “Holiday Spectacular, 2015” — Apparently, every year All Songs breaks from their roundtable format and makes a grandiose radio drama with musical guests for Christmas. I can hardly believe I made it through this. You’d think that no amount of Amy Mann can make me stomach a half-hour of Christmas music. But it’s a wonderful production, and more than anything I just love that they do this. Bob Boilen is a totally convincing Scrooge, and the amount of sheer joy that Stephen Thompson brings to his cameo makes this worthwhile in itself. (Two out of three for Thompson, this week. Not bad.)

WTF with Marc Maron: “Gloria Steinem/Kliph Nesteroff” — Maron talks too much in the conversation with Gloria Steinem. It had good moments, but Terry Gross is the place to go to hear Steinem on this particular book. On the other hand, the segment with Nesteroff is gold. He knows every story in the history of showbiz and his book sounds amazing and I will probably read it.

Welcome to Night Vale: “The University Of What It Is” — This has a couple of familiar-seeming jokes, but also a really good story and some interesting background on Carlos, who is my favourite non-Cecil character. Lovely.

Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 29)

I realize I’m usually pretty effusive in these things, but this was such an effusive week that I’ve elected to award three picks of the week, rather than the usual two. This will be a rare occurrence, I promise. But this week, it was honestly difficult to give only three. I honestly could have given about six.

Literature, etc.

Reza Aslan: No God But God — If I could force everybody I knew to read one book, I’d have to think hard about which one. This would make the shortlist in any given year, but in 2015 I expect it might find its way to the top. This is a riveting, brilliantly argued history of Islam. Aslan’s prologue to the latest edition does a fantastic job articulating the extent to which Islam is misunderstood and misrepresented in Western media, and the extent to which the distrust and hate levelled at Muslims just keeps getting worse. So basically, we need Aslan’s expertise to offer context. Pick of the week.

Karen Weise: “The CEO paying everyone $70,000 salaries has something to hide” — This Bloomberg feature feels like the first rumblings of a gigantic storm.

Movies

Inside Out — Watching a Pixar movie at home isn’t a thing I would normally do, but I’ve got a monstrous cold that I just cannot handle right now and I’m marooned at home wearing pyjamas and eating mostly cereal. So, basically reverting to childhood. What better time to see this massively acclaimed movie that I didn’t make it to in theatres? I expected it to be brilliant; I’m not sure I expected it to be so dark. I mean, it’s basically watching a young girl’s personality gradually disintegrate through symbols. But it might well be the most inventive, and one of the most moving coming of age stories I’ve ever seen.

Music

The Smiths: RankPitchfork thinks this live album is filler in the complete edition of the Smiths. Pitchfork is very hip and modern and therefore doesn’t understand live albums. This is a lot of fun, and should be in anybody’s Smiths collection who actually has a Smiths collection.

The Smiths: Every non-album track by the Smiths — All of the tracks that aren’t on any of the proper studio albums or Hatful of Hollow are distributed between a number of compilations of varying degrees of redundancy. So, I just set all of the distinct tracks up and listened through. It’s not an ideal approach, and there’s plenty that isn’t great. Still, listeners who stop at the four key albums are missing out.

National Brass Ensemble: Gabrieli — Generally, I think that Gabrieli’s music needs to be played on period instruments to be satisfying. I tend not to like the bombast that modern brass instruments (and modern brass players) bring to this 16th-century music, which predates the invention of all of those instruments. It was written for the slight reediness of an ensemble of cornetts and sackbuts — a totally different texture to symphonic brass. And, while I have no fundamental objection to great musicians taking literally any music at all and playing it literally however they want, it’s always a risk. All of which is a giant throat-clear before I say that I actually really enjoyed this. It’s a tribute to an earlier modern brass recording of Gabrieli, featuring members of three great American orchestras. I never really warmed to that album, despite its classic status among brass players. (I played the trumpet, once upon a time.) But this new one, boasting modern recording fidelity and a generally higher standard of playing has won me over. It’s a big steamroller of a thing, where period instrument recordings are smart cars, but hey. Don’t fault an envelope for not being a treehouse, right?

Television

BoJack Horseman: Season 2, episodes 7-12 — “Hank After Dark” is a classic episode. It’s got an entire plotline that takes place mostly in the news tickers at the bottom of the screen. The density of visual jokes approaches Terry Gilliam territory. Also, many excellent puns and a Bill Cosby riff with teeth. And fantastic character beats for all of the main cast. And the line “That woman can knock a drink back like a Kennedy at a wake for one of the other Kennedys, but damn if she doesn’t get shit done!” And a great kicker at the end. It almost doesn’t matter that the last five episodes of the season (the second-last in particular) are also fantastic, because this one eclipses the entire series.

Deadwood: Season 1, episodes 1 & 2 — It was time I watched Deadwood. The black sheep of HBO’s trinity of David-helmed prestige shows, it might be the most acclaimed show of its time that I haven’t seen. These first two episodes are pretty damn good — I’m especially enjoying any scene with Ian McShane in it. I’m pretty sure I’ll love this eventually, but it might take a while for me to acclimate.

Doctor Who: “Hell Bent” — What “Heaven Sent” was for experimental, minimalist, self-contained Doctor Who, this is for sprawling, continuity-heavy, epic fantasy Doctor Who. And while I’ll generally take the former approach (Blink and Listen come to mind) over the latter (The End of Time and Day of the Doctor), there are times when I’m happy to see Doctor Who go really, really big. Taken together, the astonishing two-parter of “Heaven Sent/Hell Bent” is basically an inversion of my other favourite game-changing season finale: “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang.” Where that one started with an hour of threats from every bad guy in Doctor Who and closed with a personal story about Amy Pond’s wedding, this one opens with a chamber piece about the Doctor alone with his darkest thoughts and closes with an hour that includes Gallifrey and Rassilon and the Sisterhood of Karn and the diner from “The Impossible Astronaut” and Maisie Williams and a proper send-off for a major character. And taken together, they work brilliantly. On first viewing, I’m tempted to say that this is just as good as the end of Season 5. Pick of the week. (Happy, Sachi?)

Podcast

Oh man, when I get over this cold, I’m totally going to start running again. Because I’m so behind on my podcast listening. Seriously, I have 20 unlistened episodes on my phone right now. Sad state of affairs.

Mortified: “Jason: King of Scotland” — I don’t listen to Mortified very much, but the premise of this one, where a teenage misfit imagines himself as a Shakespearean Scottish king in his diary, was too good to pass up. It basically lived up to expectations, except that the guy consistently mispronounces the word “exeunt.”

Imaginary Worlds: “1977” — This has shot straight onto my “Religious Listens” playlist. (Those are the podcasts where I listen to every episode.) Imaginary Worlds tells well-written, well-produced stories about the cultural impact of geeky fiction. So… made for me. This is the first of a five-part series about Star Wars. I’ve always found that people talking about Star Wars is more interesting than Star Wars itself, so I’ll be listening to all five parts, for sure. Pick of the week.

Welcome to Night Vale: “A Carnival Comes to Town” — I wonder if I’ll get more invested in this show once I catch up and hear episodes the same time as everybody else? The ending of this is great, though. The thought of normal people stumbling on Night Vale and being totally baffled is wonderful.

Criminal: “American Dream” — I love stories of bank robberies. I absolutely see the romance in it. So, I had a certain amount of sympathy for the protagonist of this story from the start. Phoebe Judge doesn’t let you totally side with him, because that would be ridiculous. But, listening to this, you can imagine the thrill of standing in the queue for the tellers, knowing what you’re about to do — and knowing that nobody’s going to get hurt. This guy’s bank robberies were fairly mundane, as these things go. But when get to hear the stories as they play out in his head, it’s a rush.

Imaginary Worlds: “Empire vs Rebels” — An exploration of Star Wars’ central conflict as a sports and politics metaphor. It’s as good as that sounds, but the previous episode about the context for the first movie’s release is better.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Shonda Rhimes on her ‘Year of Yes’” — I’ve never seen anything that Shonda Rhimes has ever been responsible for, and this is kind of a “meh” interview anyway.

Surprisingly Awesome: “Concrete” — Look, I already knew that concrete was interesting thanks to… guess which podcast… 99% Invisible. I don’t think I like Surprisingly Awesome. The exclamations of breathless wonder from whoever isn’t hosting on a given week are so unnecessary and so irksome. I expect I’ll listen to this again sometime, but I’m dropping it for now. Oh well, Gimlet. Three out of four ain’t bad.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Missy Elliot, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, PWR BTTM and more” — My list of artists I heard on All Songs that I need to check out properly is getting really long. This week’s key addition is the arty-rocky band Public Service Broadcasting. But for me, All Songs isn’t just useful for introducing me to music I’ll like; it’s equally worthwhile for playing stuff that I don’t like, but that I do find interesting. The kind of music that I don’t really ever want to hear again, but that I’m glad I at least heard once. (Urm, Macklemore.) In 2015, that’s kind of the ideal function of a music programme, I’d argue.

99% Invisible: “Worst Smell in the World” — This is fine. Not a standout episode, but fine. I have nothing to say about this perfectly fine episode.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Canon” — I seriously love this podcast. This is an early episode about the concept of SC/fantasy “canons:” the stories that are acknowledged to have happened “in-universe.” Eric Molinsky talks to a rabbi about how fandom’s relationship to canons are similar to religious scholars’ interpretations of sacred texts. It’s a genius approach. I wish I’d come up with it.

Reply All: “Quit Already!” — A collaboration between Reply All and Radio Ambulante. I love when my favourite English language shows collaborate with Radio Ambulante. It always makes me wish I spoke Spanish, so I could listen to Radio Ambulante.

All Songs Considered: “The Year In Music 2015” — If, like me, you spent a lot of the year continuing to obsess over old obsessions and missed a lot of the new music, just listen to this. Everything played on here is fantastic and will set you on track to hear the rest of 2015’s really great music. I can feel an obsession with the Hamilton cast album coming on. Watch this space.

The Moth: “The Moth StorySLAM” — These StorySLAM episodes can be dodgy, since literally anybody can get up onstage at a StorySLAM event. But they do tend to broadcast the best of them, and some of these stories are really fun.

On The Media: “On San Bernadino” — Another instalment in my recent trend of listening to On The Media after a crisis. The segment on gun control research being hamstrung by legislation alone is worth the time.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Good Dinosaur, Pixar and Second Thoughts” — Well, now I will certainly not be seeing The Good Dinosaur. Especially not after Inside Out left me with such tremendous goodwill towards Pixar. But I likely would not have seen The Good Dinosaur anyway.

Imaginary Worlds: “Slave Leia” — I’m not sure I buy the redemptive readings of Leia’s plotline in Return of the Jedi. I’m more inclined to side with the critic in this podcast who feels that Leia is just really badly served in this movie, compared with the previous two. But it’s interesting to hear counter-arguments, and I’ll definitely be bearing them in mind when I re-watch Jedi before the new one comes out.

Surprisingly Awesome: “Tubthumping” — Okay, I’m dropping it after this one. I had to see how this episode came together in the end, after hearing the drafts of it on StartUp. Look: the topic of this episode is so obviously not boring that even Adam Davison — whose role it is here to act bored — can’t entirely sell it. I could definitely see these two guys making a great podcast together, but the seams of this format are showing already. Which is not to say that the content of this is bad; I’m inclined to think it’s the best episode they’ve made so far. But I’m still done with Surprisingly Awesome for now.

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.