Blessings of the podcast: Weekly sex advice, fortnightly language discussions, fashion tips from the streets of New York, New York. And movies, they talk about movies.
In no particular order,
but some folks pop to mind first:
Savage Love by Dan Savage
On his weekly podcast Savage begins the show with a brilliant rant, usually on the hypocrisy of politicians over sexual morals. The show deals love and sex advice to callers — extremely straight talk about bent subjects, though vanilla relationship breakups are as likely to come up as partner-swapping. In any case, highly entertaining and surprisingly informative; you get to hear how various are human desires and how complicated normal really is. The perfectly named host also writes a love and sex advice column, plus contributes political commentary, in Seattle’s Stranger, and created the life-changer project It Gets Better.
Lexicon Valley by Bob Garfield and Mike Vuolo
A podcast all about language — they have the light touch for some recondite offerings. Couple of recent episode titles: “How Jews Grew Horns”, “Lord Grantham, Don Draper’s on Hold”. The latter uncovers anachronisms in the dialogue of period shows; the former, also titled “Death to Potatoes”, is about mistranslations and how that can and does personally affect every thing you do. They deal a lot in idiom, but even if it does emanate from Wash DC its purview is global. Half an hour’s enlightenment and delight every two weeks.
The Culture Gabfast with Stephen Metcalf, Julie Turner and Dana Stevens
The host of this Slate offering, Stephen Metcalf, is the reason to listen. He is rebarbative, deliciously eloquent, contrary and amusingly self-deprecating. His readings of pop culture with his crew are fun, and fun to argue with.
On the Street : Street fashion by Bill Cunningham
A regular vlog fron the NYT by their longtime fashion spotter, who is 83. A touching and fascinating doco shows Cunningham bicycling around the metropolis in his trademark French blue coat snapping passers by and interacting with the fashion world of which he is a part, but not embedded in. His ethics are trad — at openings he declines drink or food: “I say I’m working.” His reports from the kerb are essential, cutting edge fashion.
The Modern Art Notes Podcast hosted by Tyler Green
I’ve struggled to find an art podcast to enjoy, and this sort of fits the bill. Each week the very American MAN podcast rounds up curators and historians and writers and artists to talk about a topical subject, quite often a big show of a big name, like Manet, or a show by an artist that’s making a splash (or not). But, but the thing is, the delivery is somewhat flat. You can get quite a bit out of it but best to have a strong coffee to hand.
Movies, various: Filmspotting … The /Filmcast … The Parallax Podcast
These podcasts are a bit like the movies — you have to like the cast, their voices. If you happen to like, say, Scarlett Johansson, you’ll watch anything she’s in; if not, not.
Filmspotting, since 2005 (Chicago), is the daddy here — currently presented by original founder Adam Kempenaar, and Josh Larsen. Suoperbly produced, catholic in taste, expertly paced and passionately argued.
The /Filmcast is David Chen, Devindra Hardawar, and Adam Quigley, who have been broadcasting since 2008. Lively pontifications all round, and having three voices is a useful dynamic.
The Parallax Podcast is the baby of the bunch, hosted by Crikey’s film critic Luke Buckmaster, and Rich Haridy. Young Turks kicking at the pricks, is one possible description; unbridled opinions and highly engaged. Check their views on Argo for a taste.
Most missed podcast: The Philosopher’s Zone
By the late great Alan Saunders. But we can still listen to his beautiful voice and mind in the archives.
It’s been over a week since a friend texted to ask ‘Have you seen that Alan Saunders.’ In her unsettled haste she neglected to add “… has died.” That’s Alan Saunders, the longtime ABC broadcaster. Like her message, my feelings of disconsolation are still unresolved. I had no idea you could so simply, so shockingly die of pneumonia, at a mere 58, in this country in this day. And though, to answer my friend’s not quite question, I had never “seen that Alan Saunders,” he still mattered to me, and evidently mattered very much to a lot of people.
A kind of bodhisattva
I’ve been listening to the tribute program they’ve made for him — it popped up on the Philosopher’s Zone podcast. A man of diverse enthusiasms — food and design, film and philosophy (see some of his shorter writing) — the Zone was Alan Saunders’ last project, in his official field of study. Fully informed, Dr Saunders would frame the program with such lucid directness his guest philosophers would often exclaim in admiration.
Beyond academia, philosophy is mostly dumbed into pop simplicities or remain in ivory abstruseness. Intent on comprehension, Saunders still refrained from coarsening the discussion, and never condescended to his listeners — which meant that if one did not pay attention the discussion would lift like a flock of birds, dense, flickering, and over one’s head. I occasionally wished he would do the whole show himself as some of his guests were rather less gifted at explication, and lacked his warm, unhurried voice. He was like an intellectual optometrist, presenting each week a different lens that we might try on to see the world clearer, to read the secret letters.
I can’t recall that he was ever pompous, or self-regarding — how rare! In that way he was a kind of bodhisattva, an already enlightened being who elected to stay on this plane to help others find their way. To make a weekly offering of possible meanings in our shattering, uncentred and materialistic time seems to me an act of faith, a work of unusual generosity of energy. As Joseph Brodsky, the exiled Russian poet, once remarked, ‘Life is not about life. Life is about the meaning of life.’ That is, the moral meaning, the justification, the search for the elusive point of it all.
Alan Saunders. How wicked, how viciously random that you have been taken.
If I had fiction fatigue this year, (see book mulchings) I also suffered from melody fatigue. My favourite new CDs featured kinds of rap; there was also a bunch of old stuff which is definitionally classic.
And there’s all the other sonic offerings too, given away free, made by people who love to do it. What an extraordinary thing is the podcast. (I heard my first in 2006 when the Slate politics Gabfest began.)
My year’s very short list of sonic standouts:
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Homeland by Laurie Anderson
Ah Laurie. Her stunning Big Science from 1982 opened up a whole other channel with a sonic poetry augmented by bespoke audio tech. The tape-bow violin. The voice filter that provides her “audio drag.” Drumming on her miked-up torso.
Her conceptual panache: ‘… you don’t always realize it, but you’re always falling. With each step, you fall forward slightly. And then catch yourself falling. Over and over you’re falling …’
Her latest is Homeland. Nearly thirty years on, her work no longer sounds audacious. But she can still generate a frisson, is still capable of the oblique perception unobtainable in conventional song.
She began writing the set on the road, she says, ‘making [a] … series of stories, songs and songs about America.’ The first track is Transitory Life, which begins with great shuddering wails, like the muezzin call to prayer … ‘It’s a good time for bankers and winners and sailors / With their stories of jackpots and islands of pleasure.‘
And the pleasure of the wailing reminds us that it’s become a world music cliche: Islamic, middle-eastern ornamentation — and then you remember the CD is titled Homeland, as in American security … and by then you’re already in Laurieland. This track includes one of my favourie lines: ‘It takes a long time for a mouse to realize he’s in a trap / But once he does something inside him never stops trembling.‘
The centrepiece is an 11.5 minute epic micro-story collection, Another Day in America, where Anderson in “audio drag” intones with Olympian weariness over ominous ambient music, laced with the middle-eastern leitmotif, on a slow wash of low, noodling organ notes. She recites the chorus: ‘What are days for? To wake us up. / To put between the endless night.’ Unexpectedly, she is riffing on Philip Larkin, a long way from USA2010.
Larkin: ‘What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.’
‘I like to keep moving,’ she writes in the liner notes. Anderson is not standing still. She’s a good person to journey with — fluidly undogmatic, and frankly sardonic when it counts. The sonics are understated on Homeland, but all the better to play over and again, to catch the acid drops:
‘In America we like solutions to problems … [and] only an expert can see there’s a problem. / … And other experts say: Just because all your friends were fired / And your family’s broke and we didn’t see it coming / Doesn’t mean we were wrong.’
But I like it best when she is gnomic: ‘And you, you who can be silent in four languages.’
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I’m New Here by Gil Scott-Heron
Godfather of Rap. Scott-Heron of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. (Embedded in the Mulcher’s first post, pointing to Iran’s failed revolution.) It came out in 1970 when Scott-Heron was only 21; hoisted by his own hard act to follow. Since 2001 he has been sentenced to 1–3 and 2–4 years jail for cocaine possession. He played live in between stir, and was arrested again for possession in 2007. Which is why his new CD I’m New Here is so remarkable.
The sixty-year-old Scott-Heron’s voice is rubbled and pitted and grooved with the tracks of tears, no longer the smooth, taut instrument of his youth. But the rare conviction of his speaking style is profoundly rooted. Scott-Heron doesn’t sing anything he doesn’t believe, so he alters the lyrics on Robert Johnson’s Me and the Devil to suit. (Though, evidently he may not live as ethically as he sings.) The sonics of the album are the work of a British hiphop producer, Richard Russell, who initiated the project. Scott-Heron says, ‘…why not? All the dreams you show up in are not your own.’ It’s a brilliant pairing, Russell’s relevant-to-the-minute percussive moves and aural stylings designed to showcase that voice.
The longest track, Me and the Devil, is 3:34. Spoken interludes might slip in for 17 seconds. There are fifteen tracks — at just under 30 minutes, this is a brief outing, but it feels as inevitable as the sound of a train rumbling and then screaming into a tunnel. Poet though he is, I found I didn’t need to know or read Scott-Heron’s lyrics (there’s no lyric sheet) — the vocalmusicscape presents a perfectly satisfying, intimate, sonic poem about a life in New York. I’m New Here is a trip, and I’m riding that subway again.
The music videos are excellent, in fact, wonderful integrations of movie-music-voice. The track remix, bottom, is by the video genius Chris Cunningham (though I think the video above is even better). Scott-Heron has earned himself a bunch of fine collaborators.
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J.S. Bach cello suites by Piere Fournier
Bought Fournier instead of the Casals. Rich, deep, penetrating warmth. Perhaps longer-lasting than a shot of single-malt or Dencorub. (A friend says, what about the Rostropovich?)
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Beethoven piano sonatas Opp. 109, 110 and 111 by Mitsuko Uchida
The late, later, last piano sonatas seem inexhaustible, if exhausting for the pianist — they’re the ones which can seem gimcrack to a passing ear, the ones which seem to break into honky tonk jazz fingerings. They are past quirky, nearer strange, zeroing in on a place only Ludwig’s deaf ears could locate. Mitsuko Uchida’s reading is impassioned, but with a light, tender touch. There is a, how to say, lightfooted dancer’s quality about the playing, always ready to lift. Plus, I love that cover — she’s wearing signature Issey Miyake pleats but the face! the hair! that Munchian Scream clutching of the head! What could she have been thinking?
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Beethoven, The Complete Quartets by The Lindsays
Bought this set, The Complete String Quartets, maybe three years ago and I’m still picking my way through the eight CDs. It takes in String Quartet No. 1 in F, Op. 18 No. 1–3 (1798/1880) to SQ No. 16 in F, Op. 135 (1826). For me the highlight was always going to be No. 13 in B flat, Op. 130 (1825-26), which I was turned on to by Alex Ross in the New Yorker. Say, if No. 10 and 12 have charm, and the long No. 14 puts the me and elan and holy into melancholy (Ludwig’s own choice as his greatest), then No. 13 is ferocious. Implacable. Unassuageable.
I’ve heard No. 13 live and they just don’t play it loud enough. Try it volume up, esp. the Gross Fugue segment, barrelling down a long straight road through the countryside.
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This is Happening by LCD Soundsystem
I’m a fan of James Murphy though I can’t love this album. But All I Want is my favourite pop song this year. A friend of mine describes it as Bowie sung by Stephin Merritt; it sounds like that with its Heroes intro but the feeling is a romantic lament by J Murphy. ‘Yeah all I want is your pity, or at least all I want are your bitter tears.’ He crosshairs that tricky juncture between desire and sorrow, longing and dancing. As far as pop goes, twinned with his earlier All My Friends, it’s a perfect type of a perfect pleasure. As Oscar Wilde said of cigarettes: It is exquisite and it leaves you unsatisfied. What more could you want?
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Terry Gross is simply one of the best interviewers. She has received the super-prestigious Peabody Award, the Gracie Award and the Edward R. Murrow Award. But you wouldn’t know, she’s right down to earth, her voice crisp and dry as toast. She’s interviewed famous and obscure, Philip Roth, Dolly Parton, war correspondents on Afghanistan, professors on toxic assets et al, and has the happy knack of asking the very question you want to hear answered, and manages to ask the hard ones without sounding pushy. Fresh Air downloads daily, though not always with a Gross segment, but what a perfect way to keep discovering America.
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Philosopher’s Zone — an ABC podcast by Alan Saunders
A beautiful mind. Saunders often seems as au fait on the subject as the expert he is interviewing. PZone is a splendid source of talk about ideas: unforced, and nearly always comprehensible, Saunder’s mellow tones guides us through metaphysics ancient and cutting edge, and struggles with Hegel on our behalf.
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The Indicast Show — an Indicast podcast by Aditya Mhatre and Abhishek Kumar
The Indicast Show is proudly India’s longest running podcast — currently in its 130+ weekly episode. Aditya Mhatre and Abhishek Kumar are talkers and their English is perfectly fluent; whether their powerful accents charm or distract depends on how spicy you like your ear candy. I’m mostly enjoying it; all the subject matter and angles are truly foreign, and it does feel like you’re in another place. It’s a little disconcerting to tune back into the comparatively flat tones of the ABC.
Their spiel: ‘Whenever friends ask us what Indicast is all about? In just one sentence, we say, it’s everything from Sonia to Sania.’
All you have to know is that Sonia is Rajiv Gansdhi’s widow, and that Sania is Sania Mirza, India’s 25-year-old tennis sweetheart. And if you don’t know, a few episodes will get you into an Indian state of mind. If some of the chatter is as esoteric as the Philosopher’s Zone, some of it is delightfully exotic. ‘How do you measure spicy food — is there a unit?’ asks one (can’t tell which is who). Replies the other, ‘I think it’s the amount of time you have to hold the water spray on your backside.’ Aunty’s switchboard would be melting.
They’ve name-checked Oz too: ‘30,000 Indian students have left Australia. Apparent reasons are spates of attacks … and denial of permanent residency.’ ‘Oh boy! We can ask Kritika, she is in Melbourne at the moment.’ ‘The bad thing about all these things is that the UN Development Program has ranked Australia second best place to live in the world after Norway.’ ‘Oh, ho!’ ‘That’s right! That’s why these 30,000 students are shattered to come back to India.’
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World Book Club — a BBC podcast by Harriett Gilbert
Harriett Gilbert has sexy headmistress voice. And every month she records her talk with a global-profile author in front of a live audience and also asks questions sent in from around the world. She’s recently done David Mitchell (modest), Barbara Kingsolver (lively), Carlos Ruiz Zafon (cuddly), 2008 Nobel Laureate JMG LeClezio (earnest). It’s a swell job and Gilbert is expert, prodding gently and sincerely.
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My favourite live performance this year. (See Mulcher report.) Choir director Andrew Raiskums writes in the program that ‘it’s the only piece I’ve ever conducted where a chorister has been so overcome with emotion as to be unable to sing.’
Thrillingly modern in conception, it aims straight for the heart. When the choir comes to ‘over the gate, and wept,’ they repeat ‘my son’ as an escalating phrase — an angelic grieving. It is sublime, simultaneously heart-rending and hair-raising. And they sing it loud.