Podthoughts

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "The Vinyl Morpher Show"

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Nothing quite complements Thanksgiving like a marathon. No, not the challenging kind — a cultural marathon. Clunky holiday movies and such would be go-to marathon constituents, and some public radio stations have proven goodly enough to air This American Life marathons, but for this Podthinker, making Thanksgiving Thanksgiving meant going all the way to another country — to a country that doesn't even celebrate the holiday — for more than a little bit of that which really and truly merits thanks: old school.

In this context, the term "old school" carries a specific meaning. First, it refers to music. Second, it refers specifically to the "soul", "funk" and "R&B" fiefdoms on the great musical kingdom's map. Third, it refers more specifically to music released chiefly within the time period spanning from 1975 through 1985, as distinct from the "classic" soul of an earlier era or the "nu-soul" to follow. Fourth, it refers even more specifically to quite possibly the best music ever produced, which also happens to be the wheelhouse of Vinyl Morpher Dave, London club DJ and host of The Vinyl Morpher Show.

Since June, the Morpher has been regularly laying down two-hour mixes packed with old school, and it is these mixes — punctuated with his own enthusiastic commentary, which to the untrained American ear sounds almost exactly like the voice of Ricky Gervais' David Brent — that constituted the sonic background of your Podthinker's turkey-laden holiday. It was nonstop fat bass, smooth strings, electric keys, laid-back wah-wahing rhythm guitar and beats that don't come any more solid. Your Kashifs. Your Cheryl Lynns. Your The Times. And the experience couldn't have been replicated by merely firing up one of (rest assured, many) finely-calibrated Pandora old school stations, becase Morpher's presence is vital. He's nothing like the knowledge-free blowhards looking to chash their paychecks that litter the music radio spectrum; his love for old school is the real thing. When he declares that the track upon which he's about to drop the needle is an "absolute tune", as he very often does, he clearly means it from the bottom of his 808-beating heart. (This stuff delights not only Americans and Brits, but enthusiasts the world over, as is evidenced by the recorded messages from Germans and such woven into the program.)

But perhaps it's reductive to imply that The Vinyl Morpher Show is about the old school and the old school only. As much as that would suit your Podthinker, the Morpher diversifies, but he does so in a way that doesn't stray from his core mission of serving up a certain impressively dialed-in musical feel and flavor. Doing conscientious DJ duty, he's actually built sample mixes of every subgenre from which his program draws, including but not limited to Brit funk — no, seriously, it's really its own thing — 80s electro-funk and the soul of love. There's even some jazz tossed in the mix, though, of course, it's from the funkier corners of the realm: Herbie Hancock, Bob James, those types of guys.

This music, served straight up, would be more than enough, but the Morpher goes the extra mile with a couple regular features as well. In "Three from One", he spins three cuts from a single group or artist, often using the chance to put a spotlight on lesser-known acts. (Remember Central Line?) And the "Listener's Top Three" is pretty much self-explanatory. So here, Morpher, are Colin the Podthinker's top three old school cuts:

  1. The Whispers' "Keep on Lovin' Me"
  2. The Loose Ends' "Tell Me What You Want"
  3. Fonzi Thornton's "(Uh Oh) There Goes My Heart"

Let's hear 'em.

Vital stats:
Format: music
Running since: June 2008
Duration: 2h
Frequency: just about weekly
Archive available on iTunes: none (only available through a sluggish free filesharing service, alas)

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also listens to new jack swing, though it's a shame that Al B. Sure could never top In Effect Mode. Get him — Colin, not Al — at colinjmarshall at gmail or discuss Podthoughts on the forum here. Submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "This Way Up"

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Your Podthinker humbly submits that this is the best time to be alive, ever. The list of reasons why the 2000s rock stretches toward infinity, but surely the average consumer's ability to listen to radio from across the globe at their leisure rests nowhere near the bottom. As recently as the turn of the millennium, filling up an MP3 player with hours upon hours of a "programme" like Radio New Zealand's This Way Up [iTunes link] and then listening to it whenever and wherever would, especially as an American, have been unthinkable. No longer.

First, an apropos rule: smaller countries' national public media organizations will, for the most part, create more fascinating content than those of larger countries. (Call it the "Podthoughts Law of Inverse National Media Goodness". Just rolls off the tongue.) Note that the size referred to is of population rather than square mileage, so whereas Great Britain's BBC, serving a nation of 58 million, puts out some genuinely cool stuff but too often gets mired in its own tics, psychodramas and entrenchments, Canada's CBC, serving a nation of 34 million, plays it much more laid-back and experimentally, which is all to the good. And when populations reach, oh, 300 million, well, er...

In any case, New Zealand, a nation of fewer than five million, can get just about as quirky as it likes. Which is not to say that This Way Up is some sort of festival of eccentricities, but it does provide certain bits of content not made readily available by larger national broadcasters. While ostensibly a program about "the things we use and consume", it's really more in the get-out-there-in-the-world vein of public radio that could always use more mining. Host Simon Morton goes around to unusual places (at least by my Yank standards) and chats with the inhabitants. Recently, he's been to a toy swap meet [MP3] (those old dudes really love their die-cast cars), a bustling food market [MP3] and an old-school rubber plant [MP3]. The show seems to allot more time (and thus depth) to Morton's explorations than would be typical on other stations, resulting in a solid feel of engagement with the world.

But the title isn't Simon Morton's Peregrinations; there's more to it that simply the exploratory pieces. The show broadcasts for two hours each week, and each of the five-or-six-ish segments gets handily uploaded as a separate podcast. The best part about the non-excursion features is how eminently practical-minded they are, which is a quality decidedly lacking in the programs put out my some larger public media carriers one could name. When not buying food on the street or discussing Matchbox '69 Chargers, Morton's getting the downlow on which laptop to buy [MP3], figuring out how best to consume leftovers [MP3] or shopping for refrigerators [MP3]. Such pragmatism refreshes. (There's even an ongoing series on how to do one's own beekeeping.)

Naturally, This Way Up also cranks out a share of garden variety hey-would-ya-look-at-this public radio pieces, though smaller than its fair one. (Admittedly, some of them, like the one on the anarchic availability of medicine in Mexico City [MP3] and another on Japan's essentially vestigial legal defenses against the Yakuza [MP3], aren't bad.) Above all, the program makes your Podthinker want to visit New Zealand — so who's up for a Kiwi Max Fun meetup?

Vital stats:
Format: assorted public-radio culture pieces
Running since: Oh, a long time, surely
Duration: 2h per week of 3m-30m segments
Frequency: variable, typically weekly, though a new schedule is in the offing
Archive available on iTunes: ~10 weeks

[Remember the not-that-reverent book club podcast Podthinker Colin Marshall mentioned a few weeks back? It's now a thing. Get him at colinjmarshall at gmail or discuss Podthoughts on the forum here. Submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "Teknikal Diffikulties"

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There can be no discussion of Teknikal Diffikulties [iTunes link] without a discussion of the standard-bearers of the chattery, absurdist, sound effect-heavy radio comedy format; the creators of the likes of Peorgie Tirebiter, Nick Danger and Dead Cat Soap; the troupe that dared, in a turbulent time for America, to say, Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers. Your Podthinker refers, of course, to the Firesign Theatre, the crazed quartet of Silent Generationers that lured him into the inescapable labyrinth of unconventional radio. Though tougher to immediately appreciate without the aid of the stems-and-seeds mess their listeners smoked back in the early 70s, the Firesign boys nonetheless proved a gateway drug themselves, but to hundreds of hours of old-time radio broadcasts, the lavish radio dramas of ZBS', the predictably unpredictable vagaries of college radio and now, of course, the culmination, the apotheosis of creativity-intensive audio-only media: the podcast.

What a delight, then, that "Cayenne" Chris Conroy, the mastermind (and mastermouth) behind Teknikal Diffikulties, works in both the podcast format and the Firesign vein. His sprawling dramatis personæ inhabit both our world and those of the far reaches of their creator's imagination, free-associating in word, deed and existence while trafficking in hails of sudden switch-ups, double- and triple-entendres, zingers and groaners — all while frantically cutting off and shouting over one another. That last bit is particularly impressive given that Cayenne is not just the show's sole producer, but its sole voice actor. Your Podthinker has, in the process of working with these types, confirmed his suspicions that the "voicework" business is an awful, awful business to be in; C.C.C. has evidently built up so much steam about his line of work that he can only blow it off by recording, editing and voicing elaborate — and, undoubtedly, crushingly labor-intensive — comedy sketches.

The program's iTunes blurb credits its star with performing the voices of "over 400 characters", though that calls to mind those old unlicensed Genesis cartridges that held out the promise of 52 games in one, some of which were just minor variations of one another, and others of which one wouldn't want to experience in the first place. While Cayenne contains many more multitudes than does the average self-anointed man of a thousand voices, he's not fooling anyone about who's breathing into the mic. Then again, he's not trying to fool anyone; instead, he embraces a one-man-against-the-world D.I.Y. ethos, breaking in at the end of most of the show's pieces of adventure, comedy, comedic adventure or what have you to provide an update on his life, his podcast and the difficulties of both. Not that the man's simply venting; he'll chat about, say, his struggles with therapy or melanoma surgery, but then he'll actually record a slick, chuckleworthy skit about his experience in the next installment. Indeed, Cayenne displays an impressive wherewithal to convert everything — everything — into radio comedy.

Your Podthinker wrote recently that Hudson and Gaines is "one of the best-produced podcasts in existence". Teknikal Diffikulties easily lands in the same league, and in some ways it's even more of an achievement because Cayenne's flying solo (and he puts out material with surprising regularity). But like those street-corner "one-man bands" with harmonicas mounted on their heads and cymbals strapped to their knees, it has a hard time transcending the realm of the parlor trick. Listening, one can't help but think, "This is pretty good, but imagine what he could do if he had someone else talking too!" It's not that he can't successfully pull off homages to both radio's bygone days and the brothers Firesign — his Peter Bergman-y "female" and Dave Ossman-y "old man" voices are uncanny — and he certainly displays plenty of inventiveness of his own, but it feels like there's much untapped potential. On final analysis, though, it's simply fantastic to hear someone still putting out sketch comedy and sequential narrative in audio form at all.

But the Firesign Theatre — now they really need to do an original-material podcast.

Vital stats:
Format: one-man sketch comedy, essentially
Running since: February 2005
Duration: 10m-20m
Frequency: variable, typically weekly, though a new schedule is in the offing
Archive available on iTunes: vast majority

[Podthinker Colin Marshall wants to write up more narrative podcasts. Tell him your favorites either at colinjmarshall at gmail or on the forum here. Submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here. Shoes for industry.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "Start the Week"

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First, a declaration: your Podthinker is not one of those insufferable American Anglophiles who bows to the BBC as the apotheosis of all that is cultured, refined and respectable. Alas, the Beeb has become little more than a delivery vehicle for Graham Norton and EastEnders, but if one looks hard, one still finds some genuine diamonds in the rough. This is a much easier task with BBC radio than BBC television; even if the latter's rapidly drying into Newton Minow's vast wasteland, the former still has In Our Time (reviewed previously by esteemed predecessor Ian Brill), possibly the best thing ever indented, so civilization is safe. (For now.) It's also got Start the Week [iTunes link], which is no slouch itself.

Though "Andrew Marr" is, regrettably, not as cool a name as "Melvyn Bragg", Marr does just as good a job of moderating conversations. Each week he hosts a discussion between a handful of luminaries about the issues of the day — or at least they're sometimes about some of the issues of the day. While the program's mandate likely includes a nod toward topicality, whether one will hear anything to do with current happenings on Start the Week seems like an even bet; it sounds like a news program, but it's really not. Rather than slanting toward what's breaking, the show's talk slants toward what's interesting; whether what's interesting is of relevance to contemporary goings-on sometimes matters and sometimes doesn't. In an unhealthily news-fixated world, that kind of lassiez faire attitude is awfully respectable. And its subject range makes In Our Time's one-at-a-time focus look militarily rigid.

But then, what are the conversations about? Nearly anything. No Start the Week listener would be surprised to hear, on any given episode, a neuroscientist, a theater director, a television presenter (which we American blokes call a "host") and a philosopher. Nor would he consider a group comprising a politician, an historian (which we American blokes call "a historian"), a novelist and a mathematician at all unusual. But the best part isn't the sociological experiment that is putting them all in the same room; the best part is that each one actually reads — or watches, or hears, or eats or other applicable present-tense verb of choice — all the others' current work and comes prepared to discuss it. While this sometimes results in bland politenesses all around, it more often than not sparks ridiculously interesting back-and-forth on a rich variety of subjects from several distinct perspectives. Often, one guest will point out an angle in another's work that they'd overlooked, and minds will be blown all around.

Some guests are duds — one hesitates to name names, but anyone who can endure Susan Jacoby's sour demeanor for more than thirty seconds at a stretch is officially a better man than this Podthinker — but most are emphatically not. The BBC has such pull that it can draw intellectual and commentariat superstars like Niall Ferguson, Andrew O'Hagan and Fareed Zakaria as well those less-often heard from, especially in the States, such as scum-that-is-humanity filmmaker Neil LaBute, Hong Kong's last English governor Chris Patten and controversial former British Home Secretary David Blunkett. But in sum: thoughtful, stimulating interdisciplinary conversation about a wide variety of subjects? Truly, this Podthinker can imagine no better way to kick off Monday morning. Bacon and eggs is as nothing next to Start the Week. Pour some PG Tips to drink while listening, though — the Brits may be watching.

Vital stats:
Format: group cultural discussion
Running since: unclear, but probably a long time
Duration: ~40m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: only one episode at a time (or, "BBC-style")

[Podthinker Colin Marshall takes his PG Tips with soy milk, but then again, he lives in California. Get him at colinjmarshall at gmail, suggest podcasts for Podthoughts here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "The Math Factor"

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Given the number of them he hears on a weekly basis, your Podthinker is always delighted when a particular podcast is grounded in the geographic location of its recording. What cooler way to convey all the internet has allowed us than to play a variety of podcasts from all over the place, all displaying their own local color? Your podthinker is always delighted when he comes across math-centric podcasts, as well — or at least The Math Factor [iTunes link], the sole math-centric podcast he's ever found and one straight out of Arkansas at that, has done more than its fair share of Podthinker-delighting.

While it stands perfectly well alone as its own mini-program, the podcast is actually a weekly segment of Ozarks at Large, the local news magazine from KUAF. (Note to certain smugger Euro-Max Funsters: for the last time, yes, that part of the United States has electricity.) In it, regular host Kyle Kellams is joined in the studio by mathematician — specifically, geometer — Chaim Goodman-Strauss to work out a math puzzle, interview a math person or just marvel at some neato math concept.

Having picked one of the oldest disciplines in the book, Kellams and Goodman-Strauss are guaranteed never, ever, ever to run out of material. (And if by some quirk of fate they find themselves nearing the barrel's bottom, they could just start discussing infinity — word on the street says there are infinity kinds of infinity.) Some of mathematics' many corners they've already explored together include numbers you can't Google [MP3], math education in America [MP3], mathematical questions that can't be computed [MP3], the ultimate mathematician's toy [MP3] and, of course, Graham's number [MP3]. They've also sat down and chatted with a biographer of M.C. Escher [MP3], a math consultant on TV's Numb3rs MP3] and an actual "mathemagician" (yes, they exist) [MP3]. Truly, these guys come at math from a new angle every week — no pun intended. Sort of.

Unfortunately, many readers who might very much enjoy The Math Factor probably won't make it this far into the review. Why? Because, upon identifying the word "math", their brains immediately flashed back to the crushing tedium of mathematics as taught in, oh, grades one through twelve, roughly, and maybe into college and/or grad school. Alas, generations and generations of kids have grown up to associate math with laboriously ground-through worksheets, desperate flips to the back of the book for the answers and the crib sheets of formulae taped onto the underside of their baseball caps' bills. This is not how it should be, and Kellams and Goodman-Strauss appear to know it. On their show, math is broken down to its most basic, most fun elements: quantities and logic, approached with curiosity. Amazing how many amusing tricks, games and stumpers you can get from those.

(For a more eloquent treatment of the woeful state of schools' approach to math, see Paul Lockhart's "A Mathematician's Lament".)

Vital stats:
Format: math talk
Running since: show since 2004, podcast since October 2005
Duration: 5m-15m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all since they started podcasting

[Podthinker Colin Marshall would've been a math major, but university bureaucracy got in his way, man. Get him at colinjmarshall at gmail, suggest podcasts for Podthoughts here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "I Love Movies"

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Some time ago on JJGO!, Jordan explained the distinction between "movie guys" and other enthusiastic filmgoers with a representative quote: "Films? I don't know about films. I like movies. And I love 'em!" The line perfectly encapsulates the mindset of the movie guy; none has ever or will ever render it more keenly or concisely. With his podcast I Love Movies [iTunes link], Doug Benson hybridizes two personas: he's first and foremost a comedian, but he's also a movie guy.

As the Hard 'N Phirm-performed opening theme states, Doug hates candy wrappers, screaming babies, sticky seats with fifty ads and popcorn kernels in his teeth, but there's still not one that he won't see. Why? Because Doug loves movies. A pleasing coincidence; your Podthinker, who has many times before made his film geek credentials clear and present, also loves movies. Unfortunately, I Love Movies' subject matter is not primarily to do with the legitimate cinema — this ain't no Battleship Pretension, in other words. As the guest list including the likes of Jimmy Pardo [MP3], Paul F. Tompkins [MP3], Patton Oswalt [MP3] and David Cross [MP3] should reveal, it's pretty much a pure comedy show. (The fact that it's recorded live at the UCB Theatre before the legendary Comedy Death-Ray is also something of a tip-off.)

While your Podthinker stumbled into the world of podcasting with the film geek thing already going, he has also, as would anyone who spends more than a few minutes in this neck of woods, accrued a considerable amount of comedy geekery purely by osmosis, and so finds plenty of recognizable personalities in I Love Movies' lineup of usual suspects. For anyone firmly entrenched in the realm of podcast comedy, the program is like a perpetual family reunion. Hey, it's Graham Ellwood! [MP3] Oh boy, Matt Besser! [MP3] Why, it's Jimmy Dore and Todd Glass of Comedy and Everything Else! [MP3]

And since the subject has been raised, there's no point in shying away from a confrontation with, after comedy and film, I Love Movies' third — or maybe first, but at least second — prong: weed. This is no surprise for anyone even casually acquainted with Benson's material or his documentary Super High Me. This is relevant to Dore and Glass' appearance on the show because it utterly decimates it. (At least one hopes they were high out of their minds at the time; that would be the charitable explanation. Then again, perhaps an altered consciousness prevented Dore from launching into a rant about how the mainstream media silences Noam Chomsky's voice, as he did on a recent episode of the aforementioned Battleship; for that I'm grateful.)

So the show's priorities are, roughly, as follows: (1) comedy, (2) Mary Jane and (3) movies. Brittle, whiny film weenies such as your Podthinker will have to get over the fact that The Dark Knight represents the pinnacle of filmic art on this podcast, but once that's gotten past, there are a number of kernels of rich, sweet hilarity to be found, and not the kind of kernels you've got to be past baked to enjoy, either. Listening to David Cross' riffs while bench pressing, for instance was almost certainly a bad idea. And even that Dore/Glass debacle contains a geniunely gut-busting joke from Benson about, yes, a talking dog. And even if one dislikes the comedy, the killer bud and the flicks, there's still the rousing rounds of "Leonard Maltin" Benson plays with his guests: someone whips out a Leonard Maltin Movie Guide, picks and entry and rattles off the names of cast members from bottom billing to top. Whoever guesses the title first wins. A stoner's game, to be sure, but one everybody can enjoy.

Vital stats:
Format: live movie-flavored comedy
Running since: unclear
Duration: ~3om
Frequency: was monthly, now twice monthly
Archive available on iTunes: most

[Podthinker Colin Marshall loves movies, but mostly Ozu movies. Get him at colinjmarshall at gmail, suggest podcasts for Podthoughts here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "The New York Review of Books Podcast"

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Under the monocle in this week's Podthoughts is not a long-established podcast but a brand new venture. There are perils to early examination — the format or aesthetic of the program might not yet be fully formed, for instance — but none can deny the excitement of approaching a show still working through its experimental stages. The interest is heightened when, like the podcast in question today, it's a product of a journalistic institution as august as the New York Review of Books.

Since its June debut, The New York Review of Books Podcast [iTunes link] has provided a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Things started out strong with two early conversational 'casts on exquisitely fascinating subjects: Edmund White on the life of filmmaker Marguerite Duras [MP3] (nicely connected with his recent NYRB piece, "In Love with Duras") and the delightfully-voiced Times Literary Supplement classics editor Mary Beard on Roman jokes [MP3]. Ultra-solid stuff, especially for a program then only two or three episodes old, which makes it all the more a shame that the conversations are so short. Only twenty minutes spent on the life and work of Duras? Really? Really, now?

Length issues aside, there's been a reasonable serving of tasty meat on the NYRB Podcast's bones these last four months. True, it's difficult to make a conversation with Oliver Sacks uninteresting, so it's no surprise that his appearance [MP3] discussing his newly-paperbacked Musicophilia is a lot of fun. And as far as Edward Mendelson talking about [MP3] and reading from [MP3] the poetry of Frank O'Hara, I'm buyin' what he's sellin'. If he could report that this podcast delivers material of this caliber each and every week, your Podthinker would be a happy Podthinker indeed.

Alas, he cannot. There is a problem with the NYRB Podcast; unsurprisingly, it's the same problem the New York Review of Books has in print, writ small and much more aurally. Evidently, the editorial board of the magazine will not rest until a certain number of otherwise pleasing articles are dragged into the unseemly muck of political territory. Your podthinker has, in other venues, repeatedly reached the conclusion that when it comes to the place of politics in art, it doesn't have one. The Review believes differently; in fact, it appears convinced that, even when grand political speculation is inappropriate — which, roughly 99.9% of the time, it is — well, by gum, they're going to hold the upper lips stiff and engage in it anyway.

This ethos engenders such groan-inducing installments of the podcast as Darryl Pickney on the loathsome proposition of someone voting for John McCain [MP3], something about Iraq [MP3] and Michael Chabon phoning in from the Democratic national convention (yes, really) [MP3]. This tendency gives a sour aftertaste to what's otherwise a lively, fascinating cultural podcast. (Side note: the political episodes tend to be hosted by one Hugh Eakin, who sounds eerily like a slightly more weenieish Ira Glass. Separation at birth cannot be ruled out.)

Nevertheless, this Podthinker's official verdict is, thus far, a cautiously favorable one. Assuming it can beat down its own political tics, the NYRB Podcast — and, let's face it, the NYRB — could really make something more of itself. The conversation about reading between Pico Iyer, Daniel Mendelsohn and the inimitable James Wood [MP3], for instance, is one of the best hours of podcasting in years. Stay tuned.

Vital stats:
Format: cultural/political variety
Running since: June 2008
Duration: 10m-1h15m
Frequency: erratic
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Podthinker Colin Marshall keeps his art in this jar, and his politics in this one. Get him at colinjmarshall at gmail, suggest podcasts for Podthoughts here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "Movies You Should See"

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Podcasting, for whatever reason, has turned out to be a predominantly American (and sometimes Canadian) medium. Scrolling through the podcasts currently stored on one's iPod, one generally finds hours upon hours of yammering American accents. Being American, that's not something this Podthinker would normally notice — without, that is, having spent the previous week listening to the English film podcast Movies You Should See [iTunes link].

MYSS is a weekly conversation about film between Richard Smith, Allison Downing, Craig Bevan, Will Tristram, and Tristan Ofield — or at least most of them, given the normal absences — six English filmgoers with English accents, English sensibilities, English cursing vocabularies and what I assume are English preternatural cricket abilities, English stiff upper lipps and English senses of fair play. For the Yank, this requires some linguistic adaptation, since in England:

  • "Shit" and "balls" function as adjectives as well as nouns, and are employed often
  • The Carry On films are a thing
  • "Mate" has a different meaning
  • Rotten Tomatoes is pronounced hilariously

But this is nothing insurmountable for the U.S. listener willing to put in the hours. After the first few, Richard, Allison and the gang sound almost normal. What's somewhat more difficult is distinguishing one voice from another. That's always a problem with any newly-adopted group-discussion podcast, but the men here — Allison's, the crew's sole distaff element, is obviously easy to identify — sounds unusually similar.

Distinct voices, though, are less important in this type of enterprise than are distinct opinions. This is where MYSS really comes through. The panelists often refer to themselves as comprising an even representation of the full "spectrum" of cinema fandom, and nowhere in recent months has this been cast into greater relief than during their discussion of Bergman's Hour of the Wolf [MP3]. Allison, Craig and Will seem to have settled on "magnificent" as an appropriate descriptor for the film, but then, out of his 45-minute silence, emerges Richard, asserting that the movie is actually pretentious, elitist and likely to alienate the majority of those who approach it. A scintillating discussion of the validity of the whole "art"-"entertainment" continuum ensues.

While not every talk is at the same level as the Hour of the Wolf exchange, it's worth noting how nice it is that the vast majority of the episodes are solid discussions of similar lengths about individual pictures. Too many cultural podcasts don't get it right in this department, opting instead to jump around from work to work. That's not to impugn the very idea of jumping from work to work — the podcasters who do it well do it very well indeed — but it usually doesn't create as substantial a listening experience as when the depth is cranked up and the breadth is cranked down.

The MYSS selection process keeps it varied: they dissect the movies everyone "knows" but not everyone has watched (like Costner's Field of Dreams [MP3] and Wilder's Some Like it Hot [MP3]), the gems one might not otherwise hear about (like Jun-Hwan Jang's Save the Green Planet [MP3], which this Podthinker happens to have championed elsewhere) and the stuff everyone's seen thrice (like The Matrix [MP3] and This is Spinal Tap [MP3]). Good on ya, mates. (That might be an Australian expression, but never mind.)

Vital stats:
Format: group film discussion
Running since: August 2005
Duration: 40m-1h30m
Frequency: weeklyish
Archive available on iTunes: roughly 1/3, and you have to pay for the rest

[Podthinker Colin Marshall is also against poor, ganged-up-on Richard when it comes to Hour of the Wolf; agree with him at colinjmarshall at gmail. Suggest a podcast for Podthoughts here, or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "The Lebowski Podcast"

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Readers often ask your Podthinker if, one day, the podcast well will run dry. It's a frightening thought, being left with nothing in the barrel except a few learn-French shows and Keith and the Girl, but it's not a realistic one. Podcasting technology is so accessible, so democratic that anyone can — and does — record and distribute podcasts about anything. No matter what it is, there will be a podcast about it. This week's recpient of Podthought is a case in point: it's about The Big Lebowski — and nothing else.

Of course, that's to be expected from a program entitled The Lebowski Podcast [iTunes link]. Given this Podthinker's previously noted background in film geekery, he'd presumably hand an automatic A+ to any show dedicated solely to discussion of such a respected "cult classic," would he not? Alas, the issue is more complicated, as the Lebowski Podcasters' film geekery is of a different stripe altogether, a stripe whose touchstones include the likes of Clerks, Pulp Fiction and Napoleon Dynamite. (Is there a name for this fandom?) But none of those, naturally, could ever hold a candle to The Big Lebowski, or as they simply call it, "The Movie".

This podcast seems like the source a casual filmgoer — even one already possessed of much enthusiasm for the Coen brothers' other works — would check out first for answers about why, exactly, The Big Lebowski is so intensely worshiped. The Movie has inspired a book [MP3], a 10th-anniversary DVD [MP3], annual festivals [MP3] and even a religion [MP3], none of which, as those links indicate, fly under the Lebowski crew's radar. If it's Big Lebowski-related, they discuss it; perhaps not in the best audio quality or in the most polished mic manner, but with the kind of zeal you'd expect from a group that got its start as a bunch of college floormates who just really, really liked The Dude and his surrealistic quest to replace a urine-soaked rug.

The crew leaves almost no inquiry unaddressed and no speculation unspeculated: where The Movie fits into the film noir tradition [MP3], how The Movie holds up to a feminist critique [MP3] and what song The Dude would have liked to have been included in The Movie's soundtrack [MP3]. They even touch on some only-tangentially-related-to-Lebowski filmic matters, such as Jeff Briges' then-latest film The Amateurs [MP3], or the Coens' then-latest, No Country for Old Men [MP3].

Alas, they never quite get around to directly answering that burning question: why The Big Lebowski? Why love it to the core of one's being rather than simply like it a lot? The Movie's transcendent greatness is axiomatic here, and perhaps that makes sense; it's clearly for hardcore Lebowski fans, after all, and indeed they'll love every minute. But one still wonders how they got that way.

Vital stats:
Format: group film discussion
Running since: January 2007
Duration: 10m-1h
Frequency: monthly, at least
Archive available on iTunes: all

[The Podthinker Colin Marshall abides. Get him at colinjmarshall at gmail, suggest podcasts for Podthoughts here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "Slate's Audio Book Club"

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For those not 63 and widowed, book clubs simply aren't a part of life. The journalistic impulse is to call them a tragically fading institution, but fabulous new media like our friend the podcast have, after a fashion, revived many pursuits that had fallen into disuse and disrepute. Those who bemoan the absence of book clubs need only subscribe to Slate's Audio Book Club [iTunes link], a monthlyish roundtable covering the old and the new, the fiction and the non, to know they're still a thing.

Three of five regular panelists (and a handful of one and two-timers) talk about each book. Stephen Metcalf, also known as the leader of the Slate Culture Gabfest pack, usually heads these conversations too. He frequently stands accused — once by this Podthinker — of capitulating to furrow-browed weenieism, but he's always excited about discussing whatever book's up. Even if thinking hard about them isn't always his first priority, he does a good job of acting as if it is. He knows you gotta bring the passion or stay away from the table. (Plus, he took the wind out of Eat, Pray, Love [MP3].)

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's literary editor and sometimes the podcast's host. According to Gawker, some people hate her. This Podthinker does not, although it is, admittedly, a little difficult to take her seriously when (a) one can't help but think back to this other Gawker post about her college "hookup" days every time she speaks and, more importantly, (b) she uses the word "admixture".

Katie Roiphe speaks well and holds herself, for the most part, in an I-can't-believe-she's-not-an academic way, except that the is an academic, a professor at NYU. She brings a valuable knowledge base and explanatory attitude to the table, which makes it all the weirder when she breaks into one of her fits of inexplicable petulance, the kind of enervated stonewalling one sees in writing workshop students who've been told their 750-page semiautobiographical magic realist novel about the pain of divorce doesn't work.

Troy Patterson's voice and manner make him a distinctive presence. He speaks clearly and concisely enough, but he does it with an icky, literary-lounge-lizard demeanor that sounds affected even if it isn't. Though he makes funny, sharp observations with some frequency, the first impluse after hearing him make them is to deplete one's stash of Q-Tips. Fortunately, the impulse fades with time.

Julia Turner is a hard person to write about. It's not as if she's The Woman Without Qualities, but none of her comments stick out as particularly memorable: she doesn't say much that's blindingly incisive, sure, but she doesn't say anything thuddingly stupid either. It might be appropriate to call her presence the neutral fluid through which her co-panelists' opinions float. That's not to call her non-judgmental, but even when she judges, it doesn't feel like she's judging.

So they've all got their quirks, then, but who doesn't? What matters is that they're all good at discussing books. The selections themselves are the show's next most important quality, and they don't typically disappoint. There's classic stuff listeners have almost certainly already read (All the King's Men [MP3], Brideshead Revisited [MP3]), new stuff that's big in The Literary ConversationTM (Netherland [MP3], Tree of Smoke [MP3]) and stuff tied into issues of the day (The Omnivore's Dilemma [MP3], The Audacity of Hope [MP3]). Yes, they lapse into moments of laugable insularity — as when they congratulate Joseph O'Neill on acknowledging even the non-Manhattan boroughs — but it's nonetheless fascinating every time to hear what Slate's Book Clubbers have to say.

Vital stats:
Format: group book discussion
Running since: May 2006
Duration: 45m-1h10m
Frequency: pretty solidly monthly, at this point
Archive available on iTunes: all

[By the way, podthinker Colin Marshall happens to be developing a marginally less reverent version of this format. Book enthusiasts can find out about that here or via e-mail at colinjmarshall at gmail. Suggest podcasts for Podthoughts here or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

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