Outside Reading — Mission Completed edition

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Inside Apollo mission control, from the eyes of the first woman on the job by Erin Blakemore

The fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 touching down on the moon has brought the expected cascade of articles and television news features. By and large, they’ve all been marvelous, especially those that take the extra effort to convey just how wildly improbable the mission was given the technology of the time and the relatively rapid rate at which the effort progressed. My favorite piece of the bunch is this profile of  Poppy Northcutt, the first woman to work as an engineer at NASA’s mission control. The article, published by National Geographic, is largely based around a recent interview writer Erin Blakemore’s conducted with Northcutt, but it’s also flavored nicely with telling archival details, such as the framing of condescending news coverage about Northcutt from back in the day.

 

An Unusual Gang of Idiots: The Joy of Working at MAD Magazine Past Its Heyday by Ryan Flanders

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This reminiscence, published by The Comics Journal, offers a fitting eulogy for Mad, the iconic humor magazine that’s been in critical condition for some time and recently took a turn for the worse. Ryan Flanders, who worked in the publication’s art department for many years, hits all the expected highlights of the magazine’s history and influence. More valuably, he provides a corrective to the romanticized notion that there was an anarchic methodology inherent to Mad‘s production. A magazine doesn’t last for over six decades if chaos rules behind the scenes, and Flanders is duly proud of the hard work undertaken by him and his colleagues, never missing a deadline. The article is warm-hearted and straightforwardly insightful, offering the timely reminder that the legacy of Mad belongs to the many, many professionals who put their hearts, minds, and funny bones into getting those boisterously insolent pages assembled.

 

 

 

This Week’s Model — The Mountain Goats with Stephen Colbert, “This Year”

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The brilliance of the extended performance piece that was The Colbert Report duly acknowledged, the portions of the program I most adored were those instances when the host’s disguise fell just enough for his inner fan to emerge. In crafting a nightly show partially dependent on the guests with some amount of celebrity, Stephen Colbert at some point figured out that the rundown could be shaped in part by his own personal predilections formed through a lifetime of obsessive attention to science fiction, fantasy novels, comics books, and other touchstones of Gen X geekery. I admired the way he lived out his pop culture dreams, beaming with joy to the camera as he did so.

The trend, of course, continues on The Late Show, boosted by Colbert’s liberation from play-acting a conservative commentator. My interest in watching late night talk shows, once ludicrously high, had dissipated almost completely. But I do believe a guarantee that every episode would deliver a segment along the lines of Colbert eagerly discussing vintage science fiction paperbacks with Paul Giamatti for several minutes of precious network airtime, with genuine disregard for whether or not the conversation was interesting to the audience, could entirely revive my bygone viewing habits.

Earlier this week, Colbert again demonstrated the pure joy that can be derived from presiding over a regularly airing television spectacle. The Mountain Goats were booked as a musical guest, presumably to promote their new album, In League with Dragons. Standard procedure is for the band to offer a live performance of one song from the new record and receive a chipper thanks from the host, probably coupled with a shouted good night and the closing of the show since network mathematics long ago determined that music acts chase away enough viewers that they need to be relegated to the point when they won’t compromise any of the precious, precious commercials.

With Mountain Goats on his stage, Colbert opted for a slightly different strategy. The band did give a whirl to the new song “Sicilian Crest,” but Colbert requested an addendum. And since it’s his name on the marquee, Colbert also got to join in, pogoing around in a style that I’ve seen plenty of times in the packed crowds of Mountain Goats shows and assisting on lead vocals, adapting his usual singing voice slightly, but noticeably, in a mirror of John Darnielle’s distinctive warble. Captured and broadcast, it is the bliss of a music fan reveling in a favorite song, the type that sends a feeling of freedom coursing through the soul.

Laughing Matters — Documentary Now!, “Cocaine Tonight”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

I am a latecomer to Documentary Now!, and for that I feel shame. Well, that might be too strong. I do admit it sheepishly, though. The co-creation of a cluster of Saturday Night Live pals, the series spoofs classic nonfiction films with an astounding level of specificity. And that precision leads to individual episodes simultaneously standing as expert comic explications of individual documentaries and the broader styles they represent. The series is unabashedly esoteric, funny enough without a working knowledge of the contextual references, I suppose, but also clearly comfortable with leaving huge portions of its potential audience blinking in uncomprehending silence.

The promised episode that caused me to break the seal on Documentary Now was “Original Cast Album: Co-Op,” a loving tweak of a similarly titled 1970 D. A. Pennebaker documentary about the in-studio efforts to capture the Stephen Sondheim songs featured in the Broadway production Company. I will admit to only the barest knowledge of Sondheim’s work, but even I recognized the absolute brilliance in rendering his hyperverbal approach to lyrics as a racing admission of ingesting a heavy duty stimulant. “Cocaine Tonight,” written by Eli Bolin, John Mulaney, and Seth Meyers is a wonderful piece of apery, reasserting what’s deeply special about a work of art by embracing it with cheerful, brattish exaggeration.

And Alex Brightman and Renée Elise Goldsberry deserve some sort of gleaming award for their performances on the song. It’s one thing to write a song like this, it’s a whole other dizzying pirouette to sing it.

 

Top Ten Television, 2018-2019 season

As per tradition in this humble digital outpost, the day before the annual announcement of the Emmy nominations brings one of my compulsive attempts to condense my time wallowing in pop culture into a ranked list. And so I present my thoughts on the finest achievements in the exceedingly broad range of distribution methods that get corralled together and referred to, somewhat quaintly, as “television.”

Also following established patterns, I must note that there exists an insurmountable mountain of programs that remain outside my personal viewing experiences. I can’t claim my television consumption is comprehensive, but I’ve done my level best to make a respectable list. And there are just enough excellent shows missing the cut (if I could carve off the portion of Better Call Saul focused on Jimmy, Kim, and the characters in their direct orbit, the series might be in the upper half of this list) that I feel satisfied that the batch I’ve settled on are worth celebrating, even if some eventual catch-up viewing may leave me regretting an omission or two.

I’ve adhered to the calendar of Emmy eligibility. For ongoing series, the relevant season is noted for clarity.

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#1 — Fleabag, season 2 (Amazon). Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s creation glows with genius in its second season, lit up by the emotional exactitude of the writing and the delightfully playful deconstruction of the breaking-the-fourth-wall conceit employed regularly by the lead character. Sian Clifford, Olivia Colman, and Andrew Scott give sharp supporting performances (and Kristin Scott Thomas and Fiona Shaw are grand in quick, pointed guest star turns), but it’s Waller-Bridge who carries the whole show, making miracles with the fiendishly tricky lead role she’s written for herself. The second season of Fleabag is a wondrous achievement.

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#2 — Hannah Gadsby: Nanette (Netflix). In basic presentation, Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette is a simple stand-up act, but her edgy exploitation of the conventions of the form to deliver emotional haymakers and scathing, little-spoken truths of societal malfeasance puts her in the company of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and very few others. With expert craft and devastating vulnerability, she upends her own comedic mastery.

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#3 — Russian Doll, season 1 (Netflix). A delirious puzzle, a caustic comedy, and an existential treatise all at once, the co-creation of Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler dealt surprises freely from the bottom of the deck. Stylish in look and wry in outlook, Russian Doll was another instance of a television series drawing boundaries mostly for the joy that comes in excitedly smearing them away.

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#4 — Sharp Objects (HBO). This miniseries (and let’s hope lessons have been learned and there’s no attempt to wrench a needless continuation out of it) is an ideal realization of Gillian Flynn‘s novel: heavy with portent, swirling with anguished confusion, and often bleakly funny. Amy Adams, Patricia Clarkson, and newcomer Eliza Scanlen are all downright heroic in their bruised and bruising portrayals.

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#5 — Better Things, season 3 (FX). Better Things is all Pamela Adlon’s now, and it is the better for it. Slump shouldered and dogged in its pinpoint precise storytelling — about Hollywood, about motherhood, about existing as a woman in middle age — the series finds unexpected complexity everywhere it looks. Adlon directed every episode, and her endlessly inventive visual sense has becomes the show’s most formidable attribute.

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#6 — Glow, season 2 (Netflix). The second season of Glow wisely compensated for the diminished novelty is building drama out the nineteen-eighties upstart entertainment of all-women professional wrestling by deepening the characters and the relationships. Alison Brie continues to shine as Ruth Wilder (and maybe even more as Zoya the Destroya), but it was the potent acting of Betty Gilpin that gave the season its heft.

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#7 — Broad City, season 5 (Comedy Central). Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson brought Broad City to a close with enviable timing, whether prefaced by the term comic or narrative. Their namesake characters fitfully begin to grow up and move on just as the shenanigans of youth are wearing thin. Jacobson was especially strong in a season that found Abbi belatedly developing a stronger sense of self.

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#8 — Barry, season 2 (HBO). The co-creation of Bill Hader and Alec grew darker and more experimental in its sophomore season. The animating gimmick of the overarching plot started to feel — intentionally, I believe — like a joke turned grim, the high concept drifting lower and lower as the vessel took on more bloodshed.

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#9 — Homecoming, season 1 (Amazon). Based on a podcast, Homecoming has a slender premise and few real surprises in its plot. It is, however, awash in visual creativity, thanks to the restless, relentless showmanship of director Sam Esmail. Sterling performances by Julia Roberts, Stephan James, and Shea Whigham add substance to the style.

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#10 — The Little Drummer Girl (AMC). Immediately earning a place among the best John le Carré adaptations, The Little Drummer Girl features acting by Florence Pugh, in the lead role, that is honed to the sharpness of a brand new diamond needle. That would be enough, but her accomplishment is surrounded by exemplary work by every last collaborator, especially director Park Chan-wook.

Previously…

2017-2018 season
— 2016-2017 season
— 2015-2016 season
— 2014-2015 season
— 2013-2014 season
— 2012-2013 season
— 2011-2012 season

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #688 to #685

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688. The Clash, Black Market Clash (1980)

For U.S. audiences, new material from the Clash arrived at a dizzying rate across the final months of 1979 and through 1980. The band’s 1977 self-titled debut, originally deemed too rough for the U.S, market by the executives at CBS Records, finally hit stores in the summer of 1979, its track listing scrambled with different material added. Then the double album masterpiece London Calling arrived in the final weeks of that year. Before 1980 was up, the Clash issued a yet more ambitious effort: the triple album Sandinista! In between those two studio albums, the band’s label kept the engine stoked in the U.S. by stitching together a collection largely comprised on tracks that had been excised in transport as the earlier albums journeyed across the Atlantic. Issued as a 10-inch record, Black Market Clash was best described as a mini-album.

Black Market Clash leads with the ragged fist fight of “Capital Radio One,” a track that was one of the band’s most coveted rarities at the time, otherwise only available on Capital Radio EP that was offered, in 1977, as a premium giveaway to NME readers. “Pressure Drop” first appeared as a U.K. B-side, but the sweetly ambling version included here is a slightly different take, and the melded “Bankrobber/Robber Dub,” which is the clearest example of the band’s reggae influence, includes material that hadn’t seen previous release.

Cataloging the more unique offerings on Black Market Clash is fine, but the mini-album isn’t special because of the way it might have appealed to collectors at the time. Instead, it’s a valuable popping flashbulb illuminating some of the work of one of the best bands of all time when they were in their undefeated prime. The blistering “Cheat” and the snaky, irresistible “Armagideon Time” are astonishments, then and now, no matter what record holds them. Like practically everything bearing the band’s name at the time, Black Market Clash is a gift.

 

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687. Various Artists, Concerts for the People of Kampuchea (1981)

The live event billed as Concerts for the People of Kampuchea began as an attempt to orchestrate that impossible dream of the nineteen-seventies: a reunion of the Beatles. Seeking a splashy way to raise money to help starving refugees fleeing the brutal state formed when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, Kurt Waldheim, then the secretary-general of the United Nations, approached Paul McCartney and pitched a benefit concert putting him onstage again with George Harrison, John Lennon, and Ringo Starr. Three-quarters of the band expressed willingness to participate, but Lennon balked. A clear all-or-nothing proposition, Harrison and Starr followed Lennon’s lead and dropped out. McCartney still wanted to help, so he offered Wings and, as a more commensurate compensation, a lineup of the Rockestra collaborators of British rock icons he’d assembled in 1978.

Staged at London’s Hammersmith Odeon over four nights in December 1979, the concerts featured different band lineups for each show, encompassing both well-established rock headliners and new wave upstarts. The veterans are given the most real estate on the accompanying double album, released around two years later. The Who take up the whole first side, and McCartney and his various collaborators cover the entire of side four. The choice is wholly understandable, but it makes for a fairly lopsided listening experience. The Who, performing just over three weeks after eleven concertgoers died in the crush of people rushing the stage at their show in Cincinnati, sound detached as they run through their most familiar hits. Only the more novel selection “Sister Disco,” taken from the more recent album Who Are You, is consistently engaging, its peppering of keyboard freak-outs providing jolts of energy. McCartney, carrying no burden of recent concert tragedy, sounds similarly sedate.

The only other act given more than than a single track (not counting the two afforded to Rockpile, since one, “Little Sister,” is more of a showcase for Robert Plant with the band receding to studio player anonymity) is the Pretenders, on stage one day after the U.K. release of their debut LP. Their trio of songs — “The Wait,” “Precious,” and “Tattooed Love Boys” — demonstrate exactly how much Chrissie Hynde could accomplish with pure, unadulterated attitude, especially when backed by the exceptional musicianship of the original roster. The tracks also make the implicit argument that the album would have benefited from a more robust showing by the other artists still in the early and eager part of their respective careers. The Clash, Elvis Costello, and the Specials represented by one track apiece is a heartbreaking missed opportunity.

Oddly, the existence of the album took at least one performer by surprise. McCartney reportedly heard a track from it from it on the radio and promptly called the station to chastise them for playing a Wings bootleg. It was only then that he discovered his earlier charitable act had extended to permanent preservation on record.

 

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686. The Call, Modern Romans (1983)

Formed in Santa Cruz, California, the Call were first signed to Mercury Records, which felt they had secured a major act destined to immediately hit it big. The label insisted the group work with a name producer on their debut album, which led to the hiring of Hugh Padgham, coming off of Phil Collins’s Face Value, Genesis’s Abacab, and the Police’s Ghost in the Machine. The Call’s self-titled debut was released in 1982 and barely registered.

“They spent a fortune on the first one and got almost no sales,” Scott Musick, drummer for the Call, told Musician.

When it came time for the follow-up, the Call were basically on their own, which was probably their preference anyway. The resulting album, Modern Romans, is booming, earnest, politicized rock music. “Back from the Front,” all booming melody and simplistic activist sentiment (“Now the truth about war/ It’s a total waste/ It’s the ultimate drug/ It’s the ultimate taste”) demonstrates how close the band could get to the anthemic sanctimony U2 was just starting to perfect. The overly ponderous “Violent Times” provides reinforcing evidence.

The Call could also be commanding and sharply inventive. Those qualities are found across Modern Romans. Single “The Walls Came Down” is splendid, methodical and genuinely soaring in its rock fervor. “Turn a Blind Eye” sounds like New Model Army with an overt Joy Division influence, and the pogo stride of the title cut is difficult to resist. Modern Romans is a mixed bag, imperfect in a way that seems utterly fair for a band still finding its way. They weren’t copying U2 — who were only on their third album at the time Modern Romans was released — they were developing a similar sound concurrently. Looking back, it’s hard not to wonder what might have happened if the Call had another fortunate turn or two.

 

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685. Pat Benatar, Get Nervous (1982)

Pat Benatar approached the recording of her fourth album, Get Nervous, from a place of contentment and success. The rare — at the time — revered rock performer without a Y chromosome, Benatar was coming off a pair of multiplatinum albums, including the more recent Precious Time, her first to top the Billboard chart. During the layoff from recording and touring the hit album had earned her, Benatar got married to Neil Giraldo, her longtime love, guitarist, and creative collaborator. According to Benatar, she and her cohorts had the luxury of going back to the studio when they were ready to instead of when the label was pressing for more product.

“We wanted to be together, to work together again,” said Benatar. “We had new ideas, a new player, and, with Neil and I married, the atmosphere during recording was a joy. Everyone was relaxed and happy to be with each other.”

The new player was keyboardist Charlie Giordano, and, with his help, the album bears some of the new wave influence that was a regular feature on rock albums of the day. “Anxiety (Get Nervous)” has a sprightly agitation reflective of the musical trend and also nicely in line with the title, and hit single “Shadows of the Night” traverses the narrow border between nineteen-seventies rock and nineteen-eighties glossy pop with aplomb. The by-the-numbers rock of “Little Too Late” and power ballad “Fight It Out” are suitable examples of their respective styles, neither inspired nor trite. Album closer “Silent Partner” sounds like the opening salvo to a grand rock saga that Benatar would never get around to — or maybe be pretentious enough to stoop to — recording.

Get Nervous was another success for Benatar. It was her third straight to make the Top 10 of the Billboard album chart and yielded three Top 40 singles. Her popularity started to soften shortly after this, every subsequent album hitting its chart peak a little lower. Get Nervous wasn’t Benatar’s last success, but it arguably closed out her time as one of the dominant figures in rock music.

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

Outside Reading — Right Track, Wrong Track edition

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BEDTIME SONGS by Kiese Laymon

Published in Oxford American, this essay by Kiese Laymon is lovely and moving in its purity. She writes evocatively about the experience of driving at night — with no particular geographic destination, just circling through town — and listening to personally meaningful music. It is poignant and quietly powerful, less about music than the feeling of listening to music when it is needed the most. As someone who has taken to a vehicle while the rest of my small town is sleeping, finding comfort in Sinéad O’Connor’s “You Made Me the Thief of Your Heart” played repeatedly at top volume, I can relate.

 

Unlike Any Other by Nick Paumgarten

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I’m perpetually behind on print issues of The New Yorker, so as long as I keep doing this “Outside Reading” thing, I will occasionally share articles from that distinguished magazine that have at least a month’s worth of dust on them. Nick Paumgarten’s evaluation of golf’s stuffiest tournament, based largely on on-site reporting from its most recent staging, is an expert takedown of the sort of grotesque ritualized privilege that often poses unconvincingly as classiness in the U.S. The details are lined up like damning evidence, straight recounting of the experience and all the trappings of Augusta National Golf Club more than enough to make the whole endeavor come across as unbearably ridiculous. (I opt for the headline used in the magazine, but it’s worth noting that the article was published online as Inside the Cultish Dreamworld of Augusta National, which is a fine encapsulation of its thesis.) Paumgarten also had the good fortune to write this article in a year notable for an unlikely win by Tiger Woods, who, within the world of professional golf, epitomizes the lack of true accountability for people in this country if they carry enough fame and wealth. His victory provides a forceful underline to the article’s depiction of outdated tradition preserved in rotting amber.

 

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Why Would Anyone Defend Jeffrey Epstein? by Jessica Valenti

As Jessica Valenti points out, writing for GEN on the Medium platform, the inarguable villainy of convicted sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein is already prompting an insidious manipulation of rhetoric, mostly in a long game to protect other powerful men who’ve routinely engaged in criminal predatory behavior. Valenti shares a particularly repugnant quote attributed to Robert Trivers, a famed evolutionary biologist funded by Epstein to provide shady, quasi-scientific justification for the rape of children, but the assault on basic decency through language finessing is more likely to be slow and stealthy. I think this tweet from The Good Place writer Megan Amram is a useful reminder about the need to push back against attempts to soften the narrative:

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This Week’s Model — Anna Meredith, “Paramour”

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Merging orchestral music with modern pop stylings often results in a sonic mess, tilting toward either the pure cheese of the disco classical that burbled up in the nineteen-seventies and -righties or the unbearable pretension of rock acts trying to expand their artistry into more revered forms. The degree of difficulty, verging on near impossibility, puts a glowing halo around the miracles delivered by British composer Anna Meredith.

Likely best known in the U.S. for her sterling score for Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, Meredith has issued “Paramour,” the first single from the forthcoming album Fibs. Racing at breakneck speed, the track is clearly structured like an orchestral work, right down to the dialogues between brass and reeds. And yet it wears the glittering jumpsuit of an electronic dance workout, jolting helpless bodies in the vicinity to movement. “Paramour” isn’t a hybrid, nor an amalgamation. Instead, it feels like its own wondrous invention, designed for a better, more joyful cultural future.