New Podcast Love: Song Exploder

After listening to Hrishi Hirway (and Josh Malina) on The West Wing Weekly podcast (which is just getting up to one of the best episodes in the series, so catch up now!), I finally listened to Hrishi’s other podcast, Song Exploder.

Man, it’s good.

Right now, while we’re in Peak Podcast[1], I’m finding myself gravitating to podcasts that are either less than 30 minutes, or are in the 45 minute range done by people that I can reasonably understand when I play the podcast at 1.5x speed[2].

Song Exploder is a music podcast, is almost always between 12 and 20 minutes, and is about one song per episode. There’s no continuity to worry about, so if I don’t like the song, I just skip the episode.

Frequently, though, it’s a song or band I’m already a fan of, or at least curious about. And listening to how a song gets created—either the incredible work that goes into it, layer by layer; or the random ebbs and flows of the universe—is pretty fantastic listening.

On top of that, you often hear the stems and tracks of a song as it was created. It’s pretty remarkable at times. For example, the Solange episode, where you can hear her voice isolated or the CHVRCHES episode when you hear the initial jibberish track and then the real vocal track.

Anyway. I’m late to the game, but you can catch up on this podcast over the course of a few hours, and you get to listen to some great music while doing it.

  1. ™ me.  ↩

  2. I know, I’m a heathen and a horrible person. But, most people talk far too slowly for me in real life already (I am working on my bad habit of jumping to the end of your sentence so that I can speed you up). When they talk on a podcast, they enunciate and drag things out. It’s interminable. There are few podcasts (music podcasts, This American Life, Harmontown) where I find the normal cadence required for the enjoyment of the show. Everybody else gets the 1.5x treatment. Sorry.  ↩

“Peak Podcast?”

There’s been a good bit of conversation around John Landgraf’s “Peak TV” quote:

“My sense is that 2015 or 2016 will represent peak TV in America and that we’ll begin to see decline coming the year after that and beyond,” John Landgraf, the president of FX Networks

The idea, of course, is that there are so many channels and so many talented creators that there’s almost too much good TV to watch. Anecdotally, that rings true for me. I’ve not watched The Americans. I’m only a couple of episodes into Mr. Robot. I’m a season behind on Halt and Catch Fire. There’s an entire cohort of Comedy Central shows that are acclaimed that I’ve not seen a lick of (other than Review, which everyone should watch).

I wonder if we’re also approaching “Peak Podcast”. There’s an overwhelming number of podcasts out there, with every major media entity adding their own podcasts to the already overflowing amateur, semi-pro, and newly professional podcaster ranks.

Looking at my podcast app, I’m subscribed to 38 podcasts. Most of which produce at podcast weekly, if not multiple times per week. And there’s a bunch of podcasts that I’ve never added to my list purely because I know I’ll never have a chance to listen to them. Most of my podcast listening is done during my commutes (let’s say 5 hours a week), at bed time (maybe another hour or two), and then doing errands on weekends. The podcasts in my queue tend to already overrun the time I have to give them.

Given that, much like I’d do with television, I’m taking a close look at the podcasts that I’d think about dropping from my subscriptions to free up time for some of the better ones (or maybe to watch The Americans.)

On the chopping block …

  • This Week in Tech: The venerable tech podcast recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. And, in doing so, I think highlighted what may have gone wrong with the show. It continually runs past 2 hours, which is a long time for a movie or sporting event, let alone a tech podcast. Looking back at the early episodes, it normally ran somewhere between an hour and hour and a half, a much more palatable runtime. In the early days, this was the tech podcast. They got guests that didn’t go on ten other podcasts, and it really felt like it was a bunch of nerds talking tech. These days it’s tech pundits, a lot of bloviating, and rehashing of things that were often covered in depth by the rest of the tech news media. Really, this is just a sign of how far the tech media has come. TWiT used to be the place you’d hear the tech news discussed. 10 years later, it feels like the dated weekly news shows that can’t keep up with the 24 hour news cycle. Dropping back to the hour to 90 minute length would likely keep it on my list. As it stands, I’ll probably be moving this to the “only listen when something really interesting comes on” bucket (or dump it all together).

  • ESPN Fantasy Focus Baseball: A daily podcast covering fantasy baseball. This year is the first year with new hosts (Tristan Cockroft and Eric Karabell). Cockroft and Karabell are good, but they just lack the dynamic that the former hosts Matthew Berry and Nate Ravitz had. The running gags that the original crew created don’t fit the new team, and when they’re used, it’s often just frustrating to hear them. With the offseason coming up, I’m hoping the current crew will think about retooling the show around their dynamic: being incredibly sharp analytically.

  • The Ihnatko Almanac: A sort of general purpose tech podcast that features the genial tech industry expert Andy Ihnatko. It’s really not a bad podcast, and it’s something that, when I listen to it, I mostly enjoy it. But it feels so terribly inessential. Rather than unsubscribing, this feels like a podcast that heads into a bucket that I peek into once in a while to see if there’s a really interesting topic to explore (like the recent episode covering Project Runway.)

Must listens …

  • Harmontown: A podcast I’ve mentioned before that you must be listening to is Harmontown. It runs nearly 2 hours each week, but it’s worth it. The last few weeks have been amazing listening, with one week talking about the absurdity of the movie Boat Trip, to having Horatio Sanz on to discuss it the next week. Recently, they accidentally had Bobcat Goldthwait and Curtis Armstrong on, not realizing they’d starred in One Crazy Summer together. It lead to a long discussion of the exploits making that movie. It’s occasionally offensive, occasionally hard to listen to, but almost always incredibly funny and though-provoking.

  • The Incomparable Network: What started with the namesake podcast, a nerd-leaning pop culture podcast, has expanded to a number. The one that I think is, surprisingly, my favorite: Game Show, a podcast of people playing odd game show-type games. Balderdash, 70s Family Feud, Trivial Pursuit. It’s oddly entertaining, especially once you understand the personality of the various participants.

Revisiting Harmontown on the Nature of Art

Back in September, I mentioned a Harmontown podcast that delved into the nature of art. It’s a pretty great, moving conversation between Dan Harmon, Kumail Nanjiani, and Jeff Davis on art (and what art is), emotions, inspiration, and a variety of other topics.

Thankfully, someone snipped about 12 great minutes of the conversation and put it on SoundCloud. I’ve embedded it below.

There’s a great moment right at the beginning with Kumail talking about seeing Michelangelo’s David, realizing that he did that at the age of 29, and immediately going online and canceling his pre-order for GTA5. Such a razor-sharp modern reaction to seeing someone’s amazing art and realizing that many of us just piss away our time.

Also, to quote:

I saw the David and I was like “everyone can have one great day, what else you got?”, and you see the Sistine Chapel and you’re like “oh, ok, also this. Also this.”

Really, give these 12 minutes a listen. If you like it, track down the full podcast and listen to the next 20 minutes, which are also just great.

For me, it has served as a much needed spirit lifter at the end of a couple of hard weeks (much like my first keytar bear sighting yesterday).

Light, in the midst of a generally awful week …

In the middle of what has been a week from hell, I’ve at least stumbled upon a very entertaining podcast, Wits.

Wits is a sort of adorably goofy variety show, an SNL– or Daily Show-lite, with a celebrity guest, skits (involving said celebrity guest), and a musical act. It’s not the funniest show, or the most daring. It’s just two parts clever, one part “aww shucks”, with a little bit of edge tossed in.

There are moments when you wince at the forced humor, or, if you listen to a few shows in a row, when they go back to the well for a repeated joke.

But, mostly, you just kind of grin at their goofiness of the “Pop Song Correspondence”, when they act out the other side of a famous song. The best, and what hooked me on the show, is Kristen Schaal as the Horse from Horse With No Name. I don’t want to ruin it. It’s good.

Take a gander through their episodes, grab a couple that have guests or artists you like, and give a listen.

Come on down to Harmontown

A few weeks back, I started listening to the Harmontown podcast. Now I’m somewhat obssessed. I don’t know how to describe it. An often-hilarious, ridiculously filthy, sometimes brilliantly insightful podcast from Dan Harmon (of Community fame) and friends.

You need to go in with no expectations. No matter what you’re expecting, it’s not that.

The most recent episode has a shower/bath debate that is hilariously insane.

An episode from Salt Lake City has a long discussion on religion.

Listen to it by yourself. You need to figure out whether or not you’re ok with other people hearing the show without context.

But, I promise, if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself cracking up (and freaking out the people around you on the train) on a regular basis.

Instacast: A Quick Review

A good number of folks have been pimping Instacast lately, as a replacement to iOS’ built-in podcast management.

Why would you need to replace iOS’ built-in podcast management? There’s only one reason, really: if I want to get new podcasts on my device, I have to physically sync it (or go through a ridiculous process of finding that podcast in the iTunes store and downloading it or syncing it). That’s annoying.

So, what does Instacaster having going for it?

  • It’s got the basic functionality you need (stream, download, play, pause, double-speed)
  • It’s got OPML support (as of version 1.2) to let you easily (not quickly, but easily) add your podcast subscriptions
  • It let’s you pseudo-automatically download new podcasts right on your phone, without having to sync it

That last bullet is pretty much the big one. You can refresh your list of podcasts (on 3G or wifi) and pull down any new episodes, reasonably quickly. So, if you’re away from your computer and need something new to listen to, there’s always something available, and it’s easier than the iTunes phone interface.

What’s not so hot?

  • The interface isn’t the most straightforward thing ever. Expect a good bit of “oh, that’s what that button does” and “wait, why isn’t this thing cached on my phone” until you figure it out. It’ll only take you a few tries.
  • It’s hindered by a fundamental limitation: the iOS APIs won’t let you add songs into the device’s music library. That means that I have to listen to these tracks inside of the application. That’s fine, but it makes it much harder to listen to stuff through my car’s iPhone interface. I have to keep track of where I was at for when I get to work and switch to using my computer and headphones (whereas podcasts in the iPod player simply sync their location and you’re good to go.)

The app is $2, so regardless of the limitations, it’s worth it to me to have the convenience, but if you’re on the fence, wait until you see iOS 5. It wouldn’t shock me to see the podcast interface overhauled, rendering the app obsolete.

Simmons vs. Klosterman IV

I’m actually not sure how many Simmons/Klosterman podcasts there have actually been, but Bill Simmons may want to think twice about having another one. Each time he has a podcast with Klosterman, he comes off like your local sports bar yokel, spouting off random ridiculous theories, and having the calm, knowledgeable friend talk him back down off the ledge.

If Simmons wasn’t so influential, it’d almost be funny.

As it was, this most recent podcast was incredibly sad. At times, it bordered on unlistenable due to how intellectually obstinate Simmons was, and how Chuck Klosterman had to keep backing off basically calling him an idiot.

A few of the stellar moments:

  • Simmons insisting that Maya Moore 2.0 could play in the NBA, as a 15th man, to draw fans. Klosterman comparing that to Eddie Gaedel (which is actually a pretty apt comparison), and Simmons simply either not getting it or, quite frankly, just being obstinate.
  • Simmons trying to come up with a way to keep college kids from jumping to the NBA, with Klosterman simply derailing each one with a single sentence.
  • Simmons challenging Klosterman to describe how he would turn around a downtrodden NBA team, to which Klosterman replies (paraphrasing) “I would build a competitive team, since that’s all that matters in the long run”, leading Simmons to reply that he wouldn’t hire him, that he would bottom out and build a team the way Sam Presti did (i.e. exactly what Klosterman was saying), but while doing it, he would do something for the fans. Apparently, like hiring a token woman to ride the end of the bench.

I could go on, but I really don’t want to. There are a bunch of other people who’ve captured some good moments.

Don’t get me wrong, I actually really enjoy reading Bill Simmons (for the most part). But, over the past few months, he has obviously been spread way too thin, and that has lead to some pretty poor columns (when he bothers to write them), some poor podcasts (though the quality of guests he gets makes them still required listening), and a seeming erosion of his talent.

Hopefully, his new sports site will allow him to do a little bit less of the heavy lifting for his brand, letting him be a curator of good stuff (something he is truly good at), and maybe letting him get his head back into his writing.

(As an aside, it took everything I had to not end that last sentence “get his head back into his writing and out of his own ass,” because he seems to have bought into his own hype a bit. I really enjoyed parts of his last book, The Big Book of Basketball, especially when you pulled out all of the complete douchebaggery about “the secret,” and his constant namedropping. But, I guess now I’ve written it here, so I probably just should have ended my sentence with it.)