Podthoughts

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The SModcast

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No matter how prosperous, skilled or recognized we may become, we're inseparable from our contexts. Though we tend to think about this in geographical terms — young men going west and all that — it holds just as true for the chronological. There is a great podcaster by the name of Kevin Smith, born in 1980, who hit his early-mid-20s, that common personal era of do-or-die ambition in the early-mid-2000s, just when the medium emerged. Alas, he exists in an alternate universe. The Kevin Smith of our timeline was born ten years earlier, and thus entered his early-mid-20s a decade before the world had heard of podcasting. His early-mid-20s came in the early-mid-90s, and what would an ambitious cat like Smith (as he himself might put it) tap into then? Why, the era's nascent low-budget indie film boom. More specifically, he'd make Clerks, influenced as much by his cultural moment as his Jersey roots.

Though known primarily as a filmmaker, Smith nonetheless plays the podcast game on the side. But having spent many hours with SModcast [RSS] [iTunes], the project in the medium Smith began, with his producer partner Scott Mosier, in 2007, your Podthinker wonders if Smith isn't first and foremost a podcaster, spiritually speaking. You see, despite — or perhaps due to — being a lover of film, your Podthinker feels only bitter disappointment with Smith's filmography. (Nor is he the only one, a vein of response to which Smith sometimes responds nonsensically.) But every time Smith speaks so humorously and animatedly in public, it's hard not to think, "Man, if only this guy was better at making movies."

Perhaps this stands to reason, given that even Smith's most ardent cinematic defenders concede his films' zero (possibly negative) aesthetic value, summoning defenses no stronger than, "Yeah, but his characters say really funny stuff." Even the man himself has claimed to be more of a writer, not so much a director. Podcasting might thus be the One True Form for the creative mind of Kevin Smith, which has spawned three — count 'em — mega-selling DVDs containing only footage of his live talks.

Though zig-zaggy and discursive, the repartee between Smith-the-podcaster and Mosier, who usually mans the other mic, touches on hockey, filmmaking, the married life, Smith's weight and Batman universe continuity, but it mostly revolves around gay jokes. Oh, not hateful, "homophobic" gay jokes; mostly lines about how likely the hosts are to fall victim to endless permutations of forceful, anatomically varied man-on-man sex, how their heterosexual existences might suddenly, unexpectedly turn into bottomless vortices of such man-on-man sex and what situations in their everyday lives can be analogized, as it were, to such man-on-man sex. In episode 101 [MP3], Smith and Mosier spend an astonishing 54 minutes probing (ahem) the implications of hiring advanced technology to hold a threesome with one's wife and the past version of oneself, and whether or not it would count as gay to have sex with said past version of oneself.

This isn't to say that SModcast never strays from that subject matter. Certainly when other, non-Mosier co-hosts show up — usually Smith's friends and family members — the talk turns elsewhere. Take, for example, the epic two-parter [MP3 1] [MP3 2] where Smith's mom joins the party — in more senses than one. Though it's Smith's wont to enjoy da herb on-podcast, he gets the 64-year-old woman stoned as well, then proceeds to deliver rapid-fire monologues about how he hopes she'd will him any extant Super 8mm films of his parents gettin' it on.

Granted, he's got his hobbyhorses, but it simply can't be denied: whether by wit, mien or acuity of references, Smith's one funny dude. Friendly-sounding, too. Your Podthinker comes away from his podcast with a newfound respect for him. He's no longer just that jokester who makes those clunky movies with eerie submerged morals about the salvation of the skank; he's that jokester who makes those clunky movies with eerie submerged morals about the salvation of the skank and cranks out an unfailingly entertaining podcast even when it's on dick joke number 23,851. Kevin Smith may be the victim of one of the most egregious form-substance mismatches of all time, at least in his high-profile projects, but let us not weep for him; he no longer wants for an outlet.

Vital stats:
Format: Kevin Smith making dick jokes with pals, with vaguely related songs laid under the speech at all times
Duration: 25m-2h
Frequency: weekly, except in times of moviemaking
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Got a podcast to suggest for Podthoughts coverage or any other sort of question and/or comment for Podthinker Colin Marshall? colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: XO

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Some podcasts make their way to their Podthinker on recommendation from a friend. Others, readers specifically request reviews of via e-mail. Others still come from random walks through the iTunes directory. But there turns out to be a whole 'nother sort altogether: the kind found by punching the phrase "I have a ham radio" into Google.

The first hit from such a search is the feed of XO: An Internet Show by Keith McNally, in the Style of This American Life [RSS] [iTunes]. While your Podthinker would normally nod at this and promptly return to his business, two gleaming points caught his eye. One of the episodes [MP3] was listed as an audio adaptation of Photopia, a work of interactive fiction by Adam Cadre, one of your Podthinker's very favorite writers of stuff on the net. Also, McNally's domain, KeithCourage.com, is named after one of the top twenty best protagonists in the entire Turbografx-16 library.

Google's steady hand guided your Podthinker to this podcast because it grew from what appears to have been McNally's previous project in the medium, I Have a Ham Radio. That evidently started out as a music mix show with stream-of-consciousness commentary captured by McNally on a handheld recorder as he wandered the city streets. XO retains this type of talk, but it's now on at least equal footing with the music. McNally still seems to record portably, any time and anywhere, but now he interweaves his own voice with a cornucopia of music, sound effects and the voices of others.

Is this "the style of This American Life" to which the title refers? Yes and no. McNally, best known as a once-recurring figure on Keith and the Girl, does indeed harness what he calls the "crazy effectiveness" of music and speech carefully edited together — orchestrated, almost. But XO definitely lacks the manner and formality of Ira Glass' brainchild. This has produced a number of bitterly angry reviews on iTunes, penned by the kind of people who are just irresistibly fun to wind up. In an early episode of recorded conversations between he and his mom on a road trip [MP3], McNally talks about how he technically listens to a whole lot of talk radio, if one counts podcasts as talk radio. Podcasts, to his mind, are superior, even superior to public radio, because they're free from all the standard artifice, free to be creative, free to be improvisational, free to be personal.

And if you're looking for a showcase of the sort of creative, improvisational personality of which podcasts are capable, look no further. There is no way to exaggerate the joy your Podthinker felt, after hearing so many hours of slavish adherence to the usual imitation-radio and me-too-podcast conventions, listening to the first few episodes of XO and discovering something genuinely different, something honestly expressive of its creator's mind. McNally knows no fear of variety or of disclosure, meditating with impunity and without censorship on a range of subjects as broad as Alice in Chains, his middle school social struggles, Scott Pilgrim, long bus trips, his near-worshipful obsession with the Garden State trailer, booze, the layer of garbage that covers Brooklyn and the looming specter of death.

Were McNally simply yammering about this stuff in his basement, his show wouldn't be anything special, but it's got one big thing that the vast majority of yammering-in-basement podcasts lack: craftsmanship. He even put together a whole episode on the concept [MP3] and how it's exemplified by the likes of TAL, Radio Lab and A Life Well Wasted, his inspirations. He pulls freely from the world of media for his art, cutting and pasting from albums, videos, radio and even other podcasts, all with a concentration and deliberateness that says, "This is on purpose." Some might consider the whole affair self-indulgent, undisciplined, or even parasitic. Your Podthinker calls it the future of audio entertainment.

Vital stats:
Format: a "personal journal" (iTunes lingo) of speech and music
Duration: 35m-1h15m
Frequency: 2-4 per month
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Got a podcast to suggest for Podthoughts coverage or any other sort of question and/or comment for Podthinker Colin Marshall? colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Well-Rounded Radio

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As someone currently forging a few parallel careers in media and the sound arts, your Podthinker is wearier than just about anyone of hand-wringing about the future. Is there a future for writers? Is there a future for musicians? Is there a future for broadcasters? Is there a future for world-traveling ambient field recordists? While he has of course pondered these questions, he hasn't let them become mind-halting, confidence-destroying bêtes noires, unlike some high-profile commentators and outlets he could name.

While it at first appeared to be possibly consumed with this suite of issues, Well-Rounded Radio [iTunes] [RSS] more or less acquits itself on a few different fronts. Its most decisive victory comes in furthering that rare art, the genuine long-form interview. Host Charles McEnerney conducts 45-75 minute conversations, with music spliced in throughout, allowing him to dig substantially deeper than most pod-conversationalists ("podversatonalists"?), let alone most music pod-conversationalists. It's clear he's got a real enthusiasm for the nuts and bolts of his guests' careers.

Its second is indicated right there in the name: there's some decent variety going on here. If we're just talking musicians, Well-Rounded offers experimental electronic pop pixie Yoko K [MP3], inexplicably-still-obscure Rick Berlin [MP3], CBGB veterans The Fleshtones [MP3] and "slowcore" stalwarts [MP3], all of whom are creating, distributing, or promoting their music in some creative, 2000s-y way. McEnerney also talks to those who think about, write about and work to develop a few of those 2000s-y ways, including social media dude Scott Kirsner [MP3] and publicist Ariel Hyatt [MP3]. The name still rings a tad misleading given that it manners a show that's still pretty strictly to do with music, but within the realm of music podcasts, it's spherical indeed.

This isn't to say, alas, that the program goes untainted by the disease that plagues so much of musicians' discourse these days. It's that amorphous wet blanket of anxiety that breeds in its crevices the ceaseless chatter about "changing models" with which we have all, at some time or another, been battered. How musicians can extract money from stuff seems to have become the show's dominant theme in recent months, sometimes — it must be said — to the detriment of focus on the music itself. True, today's creators of organized sound are doing all manner of squirrely-seeming things for money: cobbling together 15,000 micropayments, giving concerts fans' bathrooms, boiling stones for soup, etc. But that's not what music is about — isn't it?

A perhaps unhealthy fixation on this sort of thing is hardly unique to Well-Rounded Radio, or even more present than average in it; it just happens to be the 'cast in your Podthinker's crosshairs at the time this frustration has mounted. And it must be said that, during its conversations, many intriguing ideas are dropped about how best to sieze the minty new musical opportunities of the 21st century. That these fall between vague yet insistent implications that the musicians of tomorrow want to start spending seven hours of the day on Facebook remains troubling, but perhaps that's just projection. With interviews of this depth, things tend to wind their way back to what really matters sooner or later.

Vital stats:
Format: "music + conversation"
Duration: 45m-1h15m
Frequency: monthly, if you're quite lucky
Archive available on iTunes: last 25

[Got a podcast to suggest for Podthoughts coverage or any other sort of question and/or comment for Podthinker Colin Marshall? colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Chatterbox Audio Theater

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Given that the medium of podcasting is even now resurrecting so many types of audio entertainment previously missing and presumed dead, your Podthinker is surprised how little new radio drama it's given rise to. Oh, sure, there's stuff out there, but 90 percent of the time, there's something wrong with it: uncomfortably earnest, has a thinly-veiled Ayn Rand-y agenda, every voice is recorded by one dude, that sort of thing. It's not difficult to find podcast radio drama; it's difficult to find podcast radio drama that won't weird you out.

Chatterbox Audio Theater [RSS] [iTunes] circumvents that weird-outiness somewhat by taking what you might call the "community theater" angle. This comes straight from their about page, which calls Chatterbox "a non-profit web-based community theater that advances the exchange of ideas by channeling creativity and artistic collaboration into recorded audio works that enlighten, entertain, and inspire." Pretty bold statement — also pretty broad, when you think about it, but still, it has a certain nobility.

The show really does nail the community theater sensibility. That's not to say that you can hear the scenery collapsing onstage as the ironic prima donnas argue behind it, but the proceedings do have a certain flavor of — how to put it? — easygoing goofiness. It's a good-natured sort of casualness, though not an unprofessional one, and it combines with the physicality lent by recording live with manual sound effects and not much in the way of editing. Chatterbox's shows aren't miracles of audio engineering or processing, but they're competently recorded, ably performed and built upon a wide range of (usually) solid source material.

This material includes dramatizations of such universally-known stories — you might even say "classics" — as Kafka's "In the Penal Colony" [MP3], Rudyard Kipling's "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" [MP3] and Herman Melville's always eerie yet chuckleworthy "Bartleby the Scrivener" [MP3 part one] [MP3 part two]. (Speaking of eerieness, if you by now suspect that this is the sort of outfit that really does it up on Halloween, you are right. [MP3])

The Chatterbox crew (and its surprisingly enormous cast) also bring a fair amount of original material to life. As weak writing tends to be the Achilles' heel of so much podcast radio drama — hell, of so much radio drama, period — it pleases your Podthinker to report that, here, it's pretty sound. (No pun intended.) Though the events of "King Me" [MP3], one of those games of repeated table-turning deception, are fairly standard, they're well-rendered. Even better are the slightly more experimental ventures, like the same author's Fearless-like "The Separate Self" [MP3], which break from the dramatic forms you'd see on a physical stage to get creative with perspective-shifting setups only possible on radio.

But don't be misled by the word "experimental" in that last paragraph; Chatterbox Audio Theater is many things, but avant-garde is definitely not one of them. While your Podthinker would not dream of asking them to abandon the community theater vibe in favor of, say, that of a SoHo black box mdash; much of its strength lies in its pragmatic, tried-and-true stage roots — it wouldn't hurt to move, oh, five degrees or so toward the sort of sensibility offered on Ubuweb's sound archive. Just sayin'.

Vital stats:
Format: live-to-tape "radio" drama
Duration: 10m-1h
Frequency: erratic, but probably averages one per month
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Got a podcast to suggest for Podthoughts coverage or any other sort of question and/or comment for Podthinker Colin Marshall? colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The World in Words

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FULL DISCLOSURE: As the astute among you have already realized, The World in Words [RSS] [iTunes] is a program from Public Radio International. The Sound of Young America is, of course, also a program from Public Radio International. While your Podthinker has not, in any way, been "strongarmed" into forcing his critical eye to describe a wide arc around other PRI podcasts, he would rather not go stirring up trouble by publicly slagging off one PRI show on the web site of another's. If he didn't have anything nice to say about a PRI podcast up for review, he'd simply not say anything at all.

Which means that this one must be good. It certainly takes on a more-than-suitable mission for podcasts, or for audio media of any kind, since they're made up of little else but words. Plus, issues of language make for demonstrably successful subject matter: witness, for instance, the implausible popularity of Grammar Girl. But that show would seem to play more to listeners' linguistic insecurity, where The World in Words aims squarely at their linguistic curiosity. Having sprouted off the surface of PRI's megabehemoth news program The World, which contributors refer to as "the big show," the podcast takes its sense of observant globalism and applies it to the variations and various strangenesses in how certain chunks of humanity talk to certain other chunks of humanity.

While language itself may strike some as an odd topic on which to spend half an hour a week, the show seems to impose no limits on its mandate within the realm of the spoken word. Host Patrick Cox presents segments on chop suey, Windows in obscure African languages, cockney ATMs, wine labels in Liverpudlian, which letters one can be jailed for using in Turkey and, naturally, the glory and pathos (mostly pathos) of Esperanto. These bites of verbal fascination are presented in what your Podthinker has come to call "High Public Radio" style, with its panoply of multiethnic and multinational voices, its chronological compressedness, its "sound-richness" and its mannered presenter. But being a podcast, it's seemingly allowed a tad more breathing room for the unusual, such as when Cox plays a 1/8" cassette from 1990 which contains an old college radio piece of his on the inexplicable plague of American Anglophilia. (Hint: it's got to do with the way those lovable Brits — such as Cox himself! — talk.)

The show thus fulfills its mission of dishing out a bit of interestingness for everyone — if, indeed, it took up such a mission in the first place — but, like many podcasts spawned from mainstream public radio, it goes down a bit too smoothly for comfort. There's room for more experimentalism, more risks taken, more time spent, a chance yet for the program to go, as the kids say, nxtlvl. But that aside, its certainly racks up more than enough points in the charm department, many of which are scored by the regular "Eating Sideways" segment, where Cox discusses the unusual phrases for normal things you find in seeming every language but English. Without this feature, I probably still wouldn't know that the Danish refer to hangovers as, quite literally and appropriately, a bunch of lumberlacks sawing away inside one's head. And without the main content of The World in Words, nor would I ever have heard Chinese teenagers phonetically reciting Obama's acceptance speech, either.

Vital stats:
Format: neat language stuff
Duration: ~30m
Frequency: weekly, or just about
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Got a podcast to suggest for Podthoughts coverage or any other sort of question and/or comment for Podthinker Colin Marshall? colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Mustache Rangers

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Since the medium of podcasting has opened up wide new channels for both improvisational comedy and old time serial radio drama, it's only natural that the two would cross. While some old time radio podcasts make attempts to be funny — typically landing square in the realm of what, around here, we call "dad humor" — and some comedy podcasts bust out the occasional adventure serial parody, The Mustache Rangers [iTunes] [RSS] combines full-time improv comedy with full-time rough-and-tumble OTR pastiche.

This is a rich vein indeed for twentysomethings equipped with microphones and audio filters, the perfect setup in which to lampoon such barbarically outmoded concepts as "truth," "America" and "unironic advertising." The show follows the exploits of the titular Rangers, a pair of facially-follicled space explorers who drift to and fro, stumbling their way into adventures. Actually, more often, they stumble their way into discussions about adventures, discussions about discussions of adventures, psychotherapy sessions about discussions about discussions of adventures and other vortices of unproductive chatter. Sometimes the onboard computer gets involved. Sometimes a communiqué drifts in from the far reaches of known space (or cellphone here on 21st-century Earth), which renders our protagonists, Commander Major Alastair Q. Bastidious and First Lieutenant Rutuger G. Phooneybaum, even more confused and ineffectual.

Not that they don't produce a lot of the bluster needed to compensate. Bravado, of course, is what sustained the well-groomed, red-white-and-blue intergalactic radio heroes of old — bravado and little else. While the Rangers' creators understand this — a reasonably decent grounding in OTR comes across — something abstract but important would seem to be missing. There's a hesitancy, an unsureness of verbal footing, to Bastidious and Phooneybaum's lines; it's as if they're only ever 75% sure what to say or do next, and brother, that was never a problem for Captain Midnight. But of course, these two aren't really space heroes from 1950 — they're deadpan podcasters.

This reveals a yawning but hopefully not unbridgeable gulf between the form The Mustache Rangers satirizes and the form it actually takes. What makes those old adventure serials so distinctive — and, to modern ears, so amusing — is their iron confidence, their driving, unstoppable sense of purpose. By its very nature, this sensibility is difficult to transpose into, if not absolutely unsuited to, the unscripted, unpredictable world of improv. Some liken the art of making up comedy as one goes to a dance: you've got to decisively give, decisively take and say out of your partners' way. The worst improv feels like heinously uncoordinated dancers violently writhing in a ball of tangled limbs. This show is not like that, but a lot of toes do get scuffed.

Make no mistake, the sheer mismatch between no-nonsense midcentury American broadcasting and the "uhh"-riddled, bloopers-at-the-end podcasting of 2010 can be funny in itself, though maybe not for 139 episodes and counting. But hey, read that last sentence again — 139 episodes. They've been at it since the dawn of '07. Whatever quibbles your Podthinker might make with their not quite having their rhythms worked out, these guys are definitely in for the long haul. Whatever isn't polished now will get polished in time, and certain shining moments — one thinks specifically of the speech-impeded ship computer's performance, especially when demanding of the Rangers, "Keep saying things that I am!" — indicate real laugh potential. And Captain Midnight's show ran for eleven years, so hey.

Vital stats:
Format: improv OTR pastiche
Duration: 9m-15m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Got a podcast to suggest for Podthoughts coverage or any other sort of question and/or comment for Podthinker Colin Marshall? colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Popdose Podcast

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This is the heyday of pop culture discussion, perhaps in quality but most definitely in quantity. For this we have the media of blogging and podcasting to thank, which provide nearly ready-made outlets for pop-cultural commentary to damn near everyone, since damn near everyone possesses both (a) a computer and (b) strong opinions on whatever happens to float through the zeitgeist. Some take up this gauntlet in a relaxed fashion, casually tossing words out via their keyboard or microphone whenever the spirit moves them. Some take the enterprise more seriously, almost to the point of fixation. Popdose.com is one of those operations.

Not that Popdose's contributors are dour types given to proclamations about which flashes in the pan "speak volumes," have proven "epochal" or, worst of all, are "important." On the contrary; they're actually a lot more interested in making jokes about one another's moms. At least that's the image put forth by The Popdose Podcast [RSS] [iTunes]. These Popdose fellows clearly don't solemnly regard themselves as the anointed arbiters of entertainment quality; they're just out to hang out and make a few cracks about Richard Marx.

To summarize the format of the show, it's one of those affairs where three guys get together on Skype and joke about whatever they feel like talking about in pop culture and oh lord this sentence is just too disheartening to write. And that's no knock on this particular podcast; it's simply chosen an awfully steep hill to climb, though its pedigree as an offshoot of an existing site with its own fanbase gives it something of a rocket boost. (Heaven help those that lack it.) Certain anonymous respondents who have gotten on your Podthinker about his use of the TTWGBAC genre designation will be happy to learn that the Popdosers skew older, and that at least one of the them seems to be in his forties, thus invalidating the second T in that abbreviation and technically — if not in spirit — disqualifying the show from that crowded category.

The Popdose Podcast's most obvious distinguishing characteristics include its hosts' recurring focus on their childhood memories — this is more entertaining than it sounds — and its use of slickly humorous custom-made jingles composed by a man who allegedly spent the previous thousand hours listening to nothing but David Foster music. (The influence shows itself.) There are also certain regularities, like a Slate Culture Gabfest-style endorsements of select works or events. And those mom jokes clearly count for something.

But any and all podcasts of this type stand or fall on one-ish quality: the likability and familiarity of the hosts. Dave, Jason and Jeff seem like sharp guys, though your Podthinker dares say that, even after hearing all of the current material available, he doesn't know them very well. No matter where one starts, picking up this podcast is like dropping in on a conversation between friends that's been in progress for a while already: stuff gets referenced, name-checked and remembered that you've got no hope of recognizing, unless maybe you're already a Popdose reader. (It's unclear what extent of Popdose knowledge is assumed on the listener's part.) But they've got a solid rapport and are pretty funny together, crafting more than the occasional moment of laugh-out-loud humor. Perhaps they undercut the effect somewhat by laughing a bit too hard and a bit too long at one another's jokes, but it's all in good fun.

And of course, "pop culture" is not some undifferentiated subject glob but a wide field of various sub-terrains. "What kind of pop culture?" is always a question worth asking. Here, in The Popdose Podcast's case, is the answer: John Oates' mustache. Guiding Light. That Christmas album by John Denver and the Muppets. Guggenheim Grotto. Phil Spector. Mellow gold. Macaulay Culkin. Ben & Jerry. A surprising amount about Mariah Carey. Bourbon. Your Podthinker now trusts he has endowed pop culture-fan readers with enough information to make the informed decision about whether to spend time in Dave, Jason and Jeff's audio company. Just don't let them near your mom.

Vital stats:
Format: pop culture jibes, japes (with mom jokes)
Duration: ~1h
Frequency: monthly
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Got a podcast to suggest for Podthoughts coverage or any other sort of question and/or comment for Podthinker Colin Marshall? colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Amateur Scientist Podcast

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(image posted twice to compensate for smallness)


The Amateur Scientist Podcast [RSS] [iTunes] is about the amateur practice of science in the same sense that the Museum of Jurassic Technology is about the technology of the Jurassic period. That is, it isn't particularly about in, nor could it really be about it, but boy, it's definitely one of the most interesting places in all of Los Angeles. That last part is where the analogy breaks down, but surely you get the drift.

A great many podcasts are too constrained by their formats, but this ain't one of them. In fact, your Podthinker is having considerable trouble simply figuring out how to accurately describe it. The program has real interviews, including ones with the likes of The Mountain Goats/John Darnielle [MP3], The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe ringleader Dr. Steven Novella [MP3] and a certain Jesse Thorn [MP3], but it's not an interview show, exactly. It also has faux interviews, such as one on being a net meme with Caroline "Scandalishious" [MP3] — well, that one might actually be real, though others, like the one with labial surgeon Chip Dipson, are totally faux, probably — but it's not a parodic interview show. It might have 1950s radio drama pastiches [MP3], but it's not a 1950s radio drama pastiche show.

The podcast offers a lot of that sort of variety material, to be sure, but it all seems to constitute a sideshow to the main event, the main event being host host Brian Thompson reading off silly things in a serious tone. This, for those of you playing the Podthoughts Home Edition, is a gleaming example of Ridiculousness Uttered Flatly, a flavor of humor not invented but certainly power-bearhugged by many comedy podcasters. Thompson takes this sensibility just about as far as it can go, firing globs of often striking silliness like a straight-faced tennis ball machine. A few examples, picked at random, follow:
  • "What's all this about [gay marriage's] 'violence against the institution of marriage?' Surely [Mormon church higher-up Michael] Otterson wasn't referencing the fact that these new laws prohibit people from barging into suburban homes during family dinners and mercilessly slaughtering married men and women in front of their catatonically horrified children."

  • "[An XBox-based Bible application's] players will be treated to a deluxe animated intro that leads to a fully searchable Holman Christian Standard version bible, which is a new translation in 'modern youthful English' that includes all the most extreme words, like 'first-born' and 'slaughter' and 'LOL.' Though if they really want some crossover success, the designers should really find a way to include a multiplayer component that encourages children to teabag their fallen foes while calling each other faggots."

  • "Homepaths believe that by diluting a substance in water, the water's magically imbued with the properties of that substance. Scientific testing, of course, says that this is all bunk, but, really, who listens to scientists? Especially since they all tell me my Pixy Stix-powered jetpack will never work. We'll see who has the last laugh when I leave them in my delicious, delicious dust."

  • "I know Christmas is a few days away, but I'm going to be talking a couple weeks off to spend some time with my family this holiday season, and by 'family,' of course, I mean my 'vodka and tears.'"
As you can see, Thompson's gags lean toward the evergreen politico-religio-scientific regions of the subject map. (Don't worry — he periodically visits the realm of the politico-religio-scientifico-sexual as well.) Whether you'll groan or guffaw at them depends entirely on the point of the Ridiculousness Uttered Flatly spectrum on which you reside. One side of this spectrum is labeled "super-subtle"; this podcast occupies the opposite side.

Giving a listen to the show's back pages, your Podthinker can't help but notice that The Amateur Scientist Podcast seems, over two-ish years, to have drifted somewhat from its original mandate of comedy'd-up skepticism. But it still does a job — albeit a strangely nuanced, hard-to-describe one with lots of pointy, irregular borders, which is not necessarily a bad thing — and does it well, often with surprisingly high podcast production value. Maybe it's goofy, but hey, most skeptics are too dour anyway.

Vital stats:
Format: Ridiculous Uttered Flatly comedy with occasional interviews and stunty stuff
Duration: 20m-45m
Frequency: weekly, on average
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Got a podcast to suggest for Podthoughts coverage or any other sort of question and/or comment for Podthinker Colin Marshall? colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Music That Matters

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Though now a bona fide Southern Californian, your Podthinker did most of his growing up around Seattle, Washington. Despite having avoided the twin local scourges of flannel and Gore-TexTM, he nonetheless experienced a few direct collisions with such Seattle icons as Rachel the Pig, the Space Needle's slowly-revolving restaurant and, of course, KEXP.

Though memories have grown dim, your Podthinker recalls his relationship to the Emerald City's heppest radio station as something less than that which exists between a culture-starved youngster and his sole beacon of hope for tapped-in coolness. It was actually more one of near-active hostility, pushed to the boiling point by one too many chopped-up, rapped-over Steely Dan tracks spewing forth from his clock radio at 6:00 a.m. But having mellowed much since those heady high school days, your Podthinker is ready to give KEXP a shot again.

Naturally, he's made the return trip via podcasting. KEXP's Music That Matters [iTunes] [RSS] delivers full-song mixes hosted and assembled by the station's very own DJs, including John Richards, Kevin Cole, Cheryl Waters and others. Those names probably mean a lot more to you Seattleite readers.

A commenter on last week's Podthought on Sound Opinions requested as follows:
I love Sound Opinions and its NPR cousin podcast All Songs Considered, but I'm tired on having my new music curated by middle aged NPR dudes. Any recommendations of podcasts showcasing good new indie rock and hip-hop that include both music and discussion?
Anonymous dude, this may well be the podcast you want. While any given KEXP DJ may or may not currently reside in middle age — and, be prepared, some do — they certainly don't put out the "NPR guy" vibe. Track selections do come mainly from the sprawling realms of rock and hip-hop — and all over the place within them — but they often get deep, specific and rare in the ways that the Sound Opinions of the world don't. You tune into those shows to hear a levelheaded evaluation of a song you've heard or at least about; you tune into Music That Matters to hear something you might not have ever heard otherwise, especially since the playlists lean toward Pacific Northwest artists.

To estabish a little context, here are some of the nationally recognizable artist names peppered among the lesser-knowns:
  • Animal Collective
  • Vivian Girls
  • Moby
  • Raekwon
  • The Hold Steady
  • Michael Franti (and Spearhead!)
Where the program doesn't quite live up to these specifications is the "discussion" element. This is a pretty freeform operation, leaving what sounds like near-total control up to the individual DJ. Some DJs do the discussion thing after every song or two, and some let like eleven go by before they deign to say a few words. Though lengthy analysis rarely finds its way into the show, you'll sometimes get a nice, if unpredictable, chunk of history, explication, or pure enthusiasm. Just don't count on it.

Like the KEXP your Podthinker remembers, Music That Matters doesn't have a huge amount of rhyme or reason to it, beyond any given episode's theme. But also like the KEXP your Podthinker remembers, it'll almost certainly throw a few interesting pieces of music you're way if you're chilled out and willing to listen. Maybe just avoid it first thing in the morning in high school. Then you're good.

Vital stats:
Format: full-song mixes with occasional commentary
Duration: 50m-1h
Frequency: allegedly "bi-weekly," but seems to come out weekly
Archive available on iTunes: from #25 on

[Got a podcast to suggest for Podthoughts coverage or any other sort of question and/or comment for Podthinker Colin Marshall? colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Sound Opinions

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Sound Opinions [iTunes] [RSS] is like a particularly enjoyable Girl Talk album: you're happy indeed that it exists so prominently, yet unsure sure why the copyright squirrels haven't nibbled it down to nothing. It's so cool that it feels somehow wrong, like a secret that just happens to be carried by a major public radio distributor. And speaking of, it also doesn't come off as particularly public radio-y, or at least not given to public radio's common biases. What gives?

It's also like a show that doesn't exist anymore, some artifact out of a past where passionate, deeply knowledgeable DJs argued about the merits of albums past and current between spins. The hosts certainly bear critical cred: Jim DeRogatis holds the position at the Chicago Sun-Times, Greg Kot at the Chicago Tribune. But they're not the sort of pedants one normally associates with the title "rock critic." Their in-show personas evince only abiding enthusiasm for music, with a touch of desperation at the impossible task of hearing and evaluating the title wave of tracks released on a daily basis.

The pair, who by now have surely tired of reading themselves likened to a pop-rock-R&B Siskel and Ebert, get a lot of information across in each episode in the form of reviews, interviews or news discussion. But their most important message remains implicit: music today is really interesting. Amid rampant whining about the effects of vapid celebrity, failing business models, the decline of western culture and "kids today," it's all too easy for anyone not currently fourteen to settle into a jaded haze of smugness and boredom. Kot and DeRogatis, two guys in their forties, don't just yammer about how inferior every release is to their high school favorites. Whatever comes down the pike, they take seriously.

This includes, say, the new Rihanna disc, with which the boys were pleasantly surprised — and the new Chris Brown, which they, uh, weren't. Even Susan Boyle's schlockfest gets something of the sharp, reasonable Kot-'n-DeRogatis treatment. But the program isn't solely to do with the mainstream-of-the-mainstream; things take an occasional turn for the semi-esoteric or half-forgotten and thus balance out neatly. That said, hardcore music nerds shoundn't expect many deep, intensive dives into the sort of minutia and/or esoterica to which they've grown accustomed. For the rest of us, this works just fine.

But the serious weenies — and your Podthinker intends that term's kindest usage — might well enjoy the themed episodes better, as they explore individual (usually hald-buried) subgenres, interview and host live performances from pretty damn credible rock types like Grizzly Bear [MP3] and The Dodos [MP3], round up the most disappointing releases in recent memory or take annual tours through the strangest, most unreleased Christmas tracks ever.

And the best part? They illustrate this music chat with clips. Actual clips. Long ones, too. Sometimes whole songs. Your Podthinker has come to expect this sort of thing only from the shadier side of podcasting, a realm of surreptitious, fly-by-night productions where iTunes pages are absolutely out of the question and even functional RSS feeds are an iffy proposition. So Sound Opinions is expertly produced, satisfyingly varied, driven with genuine interest, hosted by non-repellent rock experts and prepared to include the music discussed? Hurry up and download while you can — The Man will surely spring forth and shut this thing down in no time. It makes too much sense to live.

Vital stats:
Format: new music discussion
Duration: ~1h
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: last ten

[Got a podcast to suggest for Podthoughts coverage or any other sort of question and/or comment for Podthinker Colin Marshall? colinjmarshall at gmail.]
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