Podcastination Nation

art

Thought it was about time for an update on what’s in the ‘casting playlist.

I just subscribed to The Missing Cryptoqueen (BBC), which was featured on this week’s Fortunately (also BBC). It’s the story of what appears to be a financial scam on a massive scale: a Ponzi scheme masquerading as a cryptocurrency. It’s a good listen, although, as ever, I’m absolutely bewildered that people ever fall for these things. I mean, if a relative came to me and said, “Oh, I found a fantastic investment opportunity. You need to get on board,” my immediate reaction is no thanks, I’ll leave my pension exactly where it is. And if they were to add, “It’s a Bulgarian cryptocurrency,” my first thought is Mafia. My tenth thought would probably be, oh, outside of any financial services regulatory framework, then? What could possibly go wrong?

And yet it seems that thousands of people have invested gambled millions of Euros like so many cartoon characters with fruit machine eyes.Other recent additions to my playlist include Backlisted (Unbound), a books podcast, which came to my attention when David Hepworth guested on an episode about Beatles books. Quite apart from that, it’s always good to listen to people enthuse about things they love. It’s a little blast of fresh, optimistic air in our fractious times. I prefer Backlisted to Simon Mayo’s Books of the Year (Ora et Labora), which is also on my list, as it’s less of a plug show and more about pulling out unjustly overlooked titles and authors. The most recent episode, about Elizabeth Taylor (who I’m convinced is overlooked because of her name, which is shared by someone more famous than her), is a perfect place to start.

Another podcast featuring someone (theoretically) enthusing about something they love is The Band: A History (independent), which ought to be right up my street, but unfortunately the presenter needs some voice training. His delivery is flat and monotonous, making a fascinating subject seem dull.

Heavyweight (Gimlet) is back, and presenter Jonathan Goldstein is here to show The Band guy how it’s done. Former This American Life reporter Goldstein can take the most mundane episode from an ordinary person’s life and make it dramatic and mysterious. What is Heavyweight about? It’s a little like the late lamented Mystery Show: people get in touch concerning unresolved incidents from their past, and Goldstein does his best to put people in the same room to have it out. I know it’s a good podcast because I have a flashbulb memory of picking up chestnuts in the garden in France while listening to an episode about someone who was kicked out of a sorority in college and never knew why. It’s episode #10, if you want to check it out. (I have a similar flashbulb memory of listening to an episode of Criminal about the theft of Pappy Van Winkle whiskey while riding my bike in France.)

I’ve started listening again to The Word podcast, which I had wrongly believed finished, or at least gone behind a paywall. This oversight can be rectified by downloading back episodes, of course. I love the content, but have to say that their audio quality is poor. Given that so many people manage to make podcasts with great audio, not all of them working for NPR or the BBC, then this seems a bit off.

Finally, a couple of complaints. I would never make a mean comment about a podcast on the iTunes review thing, but I have to get a couple of things off my chest.

There are a few people I kind of follow and listen to multiple podcasts they’re on, mainly because they’re enthusiastic/knowledgable about things that interest me. Merlin Mann, for example, is on a few podcasts, and I generally like his stuff. I love Roderick on the Line, and Reconcilable Differences (Relay) is still a favourite. On the other hand, I gave up on his Do By Friday because the constant giggling by one contributor and shilling for Patreon on the show got too much. I listen to a lot of Incomparable Network shows, many of which feature founder and former Macworld editor Jason Snell. But I can’t listen to Mr Snell’s podcast Upgrade (Relay), because his British co-host Myke Hurley is an idiot and a philistine ignoramus. I’m assuming his parents were idiots too, for giving him a nickname instead of a name and then misspelling it.

Talking of idiots. I like to listen to the thoughtful John Siracusa, who occasionally guests on The Incomparable and co-hosts Reconcilable Differences. But I cannot listen to his technology podcast Accidental Tech (ATP), because both of his co-hosts are whiny, entitled, car bores and one of them is also an idiot.

One of the things you learn if you know anything about technology and software is that, if you want an easy life, you shouldn’t be an early adopter. The early adopter mentality should be that you can be first to have something but should always expect it to be flaky and buggy. This is something both Casey Liss and Marco Arment seem not to understand. So when they get the new iPhone/Apple Watch on release day and then find it takes a few software updates before things are working properly, they act like spoiled 10 year olds who have been told they can’t have birthday cake until the candles have been blown out. Which is not to mention the shameful detail that one of them is such a self-entitled baby that he actually went down to the Apple Store to buy a new phone because the one he ordered online and which was out for delivery didn’t arrive quickly enough for him. I ask you. Can you imagine being married to that? To be the wife who phones up while he is queuing in the store to inform him that his new phone has been delivered? Meanwhile, the voice of reason, John Siracusa, points out that if you were going to bent out of shape by software bugs, you should wait a few months to buy. My personal philosophy is that if you’re buying a new iPhone, don’t order it till November.

Anyway, I had to switch off an unsubscribe because I could no longer listen to these people whining. And it feels good to get it off my chest.

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Autumnal Sounds

I used to have a theory about country music, which I don’t think holds up, but it went something like the following. There are off years and on years: every other year, there’s a raft of great records; every other year, not so much. If such a theory were to hold true, then this year feels very much like an on-year. Mind you, it took till summer’s end for most of the good stuff to kick in.

Terms of Surrender

Let’s start with the most recent release, out today: Terms of Surrender by Hiss Golden Messenger continues MC Taylor’s prolific run of releases (more or less an album a year for 10 years). Preview tracks included “I Need a Teacher” (which I think is objectively great, even though I am a teacher) and his personal “Happy Birthday, Baby” message to his daughter. If you listen to the words, this is intense stuff. As he admits in a Rolling Stone magazine interview, after his father’s heart attack and a bout of depression, he started to think about mortality and what he would want his final recorded words to be. These intense songs about love and personal crises have the distinctive sound of HGM, a unique vibe that is restful to the soul and beguiling to the ear. Nobody else quite sounds like Taylor: he’s almost a genre in himself.

Threads

I was there at the start of Sheryl Crow’s solo career, with Tuesday Night Music Club, which had its moment back in 1993. But it was only a moment, for me, and I lost interest in her output after that. Unlike MC Taylor, she does not sound particularly distinctive to my ears, and I couldn’t really pick her voice from a line-up. On Threads, her purported last record (why?), she pairs up with a variety of celebrity friends to perform songs across a number of genres. There’s something for everyone here, and there’s a lot of it, to the extent that you could pick a dozen or so of these songs and make yourself a great album. The pick of the bunch, for me, is “Prove You Wrong”, performed with Stevie Nicks and Maren Morris, a terrific, barnstorming, singalong country-rock track. Then there are numbers with Bonnie Raitt & Mavis Staples; Chris Stapleton; Eric Clapton, Sting, & Brandi Carlile; Jason Isbell; Keith Richards; and so on. It’s not a bad collection, and reminds me a bit of the Don Henley solo record of a few years ago.

Every Girl

Wow. Trisha Yearwood released her last proper album of new music, Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love in 2007. Two thousand and seven. And after a run of strong records in the 90s and early 00s, her productivity had slowed considerably before then. Her last really strong set was Inside Out in 2001, and then there were just two more before the Long Silence descended.

The silencing of Ms. Yearwood’s extraordinary voice coincided with the horrible descent of country radio into its current state of decay: a format that will play a record by literally anybody with testicles and a baseball cap, even if nobody knows who the fuck they are and only their mum and 70 high school friends bought their record; but will not play music by a woman, even if she’s selling out stadia (Carrie Underwood) or going platinum (Miranda Lambert) or objectively better at music than anybody else. Trisha Yearwood’s vocal technique rivals Sinatra’s.

So is it any wonder that Yearwood, Faith Hill, The Dixie Chicks, et al all stopped releasing records around the same time?

But here she is, back: and it’s a strong set. Fourteen tracks, killer vocals, terrific songs, everything we’ve been missing. The title track, “Every Girl in This Town” is an instant favourite, and there are whiskey songs, lonely songs, and duets with the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Garth Brooks, Patty Loveless and Don Henley. Welcome.

The Highwomen

All of which leads to this. Listening to the radio while she was on tour, Amanda Shires idly decided to determine the ratio of male to female voices on country radio stations. She knew it was bad: everybody knows it’s bad. She thought it might be as bad as 10 men to one woman; but as she took notes, she realised it was much, much worse. Nineteen. Nineteen tracks by men, followed by a lone female artist. And then the whole thing cycled around again. She phoned the radio station. “Why don’t y’all play more tracks by women?” Well, they have to be requested. And then voted up. On Facebook.

But how are people going to request/vote for something they’ve never heard?

Catch 22.

Country radio is full of excuses as to why they don’t play women. There’s no demand (see above); listeners, particularly women, complain (um, fuck ‘em); they’re not really proper country, it’s more, you know, Americana. Etc. Furthermore, the problem of only one woman at a time being allowed onto the playlist encourages female artists to act as if they’re in competition with each other.

Enter the Highwomen: Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, and Maren Morris. It’s hard to underestimate how powerful that lineup is. Brandi Carlile was nominated for 6 awards at the 2019 Grammy’s, and won in three categories. Her last three albums were #1 in the US Folk chart, and the most recent two were also #1 on the US Rock chart. Meanwhile, Maren Morris has a huge hit album on her hands, following her previous hit album, and unlike the others, has even had a #1 single on the Country Airplay chart. For her to align with the others is a powerful show of solidarity. Amanda Shires has won Americana and Grammy awards and rocked the Americana scene with her 2018 album To the Sunset. The fourth member, Natalie Hemby is less known for her own recordings (although I have her record and love it), but has written many songs for other artists, including no less than 5 #1 Billboard singles.

And here they all are, with this terrific, knock-down, take no prisoners, collection of brilliant country music, which is already both #1 on the US Country chart and #10 in the mainstream album chart.

The highlights for me are the title track, a reworking of Jimmy Webb’s original “The Highwayman”; “If She Ever Leaves Me”, a drop dead gorgeous lesbian love song; “My Only Child”, a heartbreaking song about not being able to have more children; and “Loose Change”, a classic I’m-too-good-for-you number. It’s an unapologetic set of songs by women and about women in the great, long tradition of country music — a genre that Ken Burns’ new documentary series will show has always given equal status to female artists.

Needless to say: highly recommended. This needs to happen.

Eels

John Roderick, of several podcasts, has a term for subscriptions. These ongoing payments suck money out of your bank account on a regular basis in return for [services] and if you’re not careful, they’ll suck you dry. Roderick calls them eels. They’re attached to your major arteries and sucking blood. Picture yourself as an Ood from Doctor Who.

I currently subscribe to:

  • The BBC (£150 per year, £12.50 a month)
  • Amazon Prime (£7.99 a month)
  • Netflix* (£8.99 a month)
  • Apple Music† (£14.99 a month for a family plan)
  • NowTV‡ (£99 per year, £8.25 a month)

That’s a grand total of £52.72 a month, £633 a year, for entertainment and free one-day delivery. Which is before we get to the other eels: broadband, phone contract etc.

It’s a lot.

*I thought I’d be smart and do a 6-months-on, 6-months-off thing with Amazon and Netflix. The truth is, as I’ve said recently, that a lot of Netflix’s Original programming is utter shite (especially their films), and I don’t really want to be paying £8.99 a month all year round. So I recently cancelled the subscription and said to the family that we’d go back on when there was a list of 10 things worth watching.

Well, I lasted less than a month, because the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Revue documentary appeared, and there was no way I was going to wait 6 months to watch it. I considered it the equivalent of paying £8.99 for a one-off iTunes rental, or a cinema ticket, whatever. So I am currently back on Netflix, but not for long. I actually checked out the new Black Mirror and was confirmed in my view that most of what Netflix produces is mediocre at best, and, no, I don’t want to watch no Jennifer Aniston movies, thanks.

†Bob Dylan is also to blame for my temporary subscription to Apple Music. I have no intention of paying the £14.99, which is ridiculously steep for what is essentially an annoyance. I’ve written before about how I was immediately irritated and turned off by Apple Music. You spend ages telling it what you prefer, and then it does nothing but recommend shite. I mean, take a look at this screenshot:

It’s as if someone’s Uncle Jack died and you’re looking through all the CDs he bought from that advert at the back of his Saga magazine.

Now, I have a fair amount of modern country music in my Library, but Apple Music’s “For You” section is stuffed with this crap and I have no more interest in it than I have in, say, Cliff Richard, Max Bygraves, or Nana Miskouri. It’s all stuff you’d flick past while casually browsing at a car boot or a charity shop. Apart from it all being of no interest whatsoever, the list of recommendations is also overwhelmingly based around male vocalists, compounding the industry-wide marginalisation of women artists. Country radio already refuses to play contemporary country by women, but as far as Apple is concerned, it doesn’t even exist. The only thing that might tempt me to subscribe to Apple Music full time is if they had a recommendation engine that would throw up current artists, the likes of Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Lori McKenna, talented women who are producing incredible songs. In the absence of a robust music press, the world is crying out for a good music recommendation engine. But no, Music scrapes the barrel of music that was already in the remainder bin 40 years ago.

So, in reality, no, I’m not paying £14.99. I’m on a free trial, and that only because I wanted to hear (just once) the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Revue boxed set. Except, thwarted: they only offer a 10-track sampler on the streaming side, so bollocks to that.

‡Compared to all the others, NowTV is the best value. Who’d have thought I’d say that? Better value than the BBC, for me, because I watch almost nothing on BBC TV, and listen solely to radio stuff on the iPlayer Radio (definitely not on Sounds). I get both Entertainment and Movies from NowTV for £99. I got it once, for a year. And then when I went to cancel, they offered it to me again. I’ve almost zero interest in watching any movies, but it’s part of the deal. The Entertainment pass gives me stuff like GoT (not full-time, but long enough to watch it) and Westworld, Bob’s Burgers, and various other Sky Atlantic stuff. But it’s touch and go. GoT is definitely worth the money, but Westworld’s second season was shonky, and while I enjoy The Rookie, it’s not worth £8.25 a month. So come renewal time, I’ll have to seriously consider whether this eel will stay attached to my neck.

Which leaves Amazon and the BBC. I can tell you that Amazon’s days are numbered. I spend too much when I’m on Prime. Also, Prime Video has very little stuff I want to watch. When it comes to it, I can’t even be arsed to look at Season 2 of American Gods. I watched Good Omens, but persevered only because it was just 6 episodes. I love Bosch, which is very underrated by critics. And Patriot is good. But once I’m done with those, I mainly use it to watch Seinfeld, which I’ve seen multiple times and even own on DVD. So 6 months-on/off it will be.

I have no choice about the BBC. I’d gladly pay a bit for the (mostly archive!) radio I listen to, but I no longer value it as I once did. The Tories and the right wing press have done for it, and while I’m sad that happened, it happened. I obviously blame the voting public, who, like the proverbial turkeys, have allowed this government of corrupt incompetents to destroy our most valued cultural institution. BBC News is unwatchable, the Today programme is unlistenable, they allowed Simon Mayo and Eddie Mair to walk away, and the only current output I value consists of In Our Time and Fortunately with Garvey and Glover. You can point to odd gems like Killing Eve and Ghosts, and even bought-in stuff like What We Do in the Shadows, but in reality they’re doing no better than Netflix and Amazon when it comes to quality control.

I was about to joke that I’d happily pay £2.50 a month for an iPlayer Radio licence, but having done the actual maths, it turns out that the BBC does spend about 20% of its budget on all its radio services, including local radio etc., so £2.50 as a proportion of that £12.50 is exactly right.

Anyway, my plan is to cut down the eels to a mere £356 per year, and we’ll see how much Apple wants to charge for its forthcoming TV streaming service. As they’re currently gouging people for £14.99 just for music, I don’t hold out much hope in terms of value for money.

Peak TV is hard work.

BBC Sounds: Error 404

Now, I know I’m not the target market so my opinions are irrelevant, but christ: have you heard the state of Forest 404 on the iPlayer? (Yes, you can get it on the BBC Radio iPlayer, so you don’t need to suffer the Sounds interface. Yet. But they’re coming for you.)

The BBC. Who the fuck is in charge these days? Clearly there’s a little bit of existential panic going on. The core audience is dying off and the replenishers aren’t arriving in sufficient numbers. There’s a proper demographic dip in the numbers of 18-24 year olds at the moment, I’m given to understand. Because if these people don’t start making use of the BBC, they’ll shrug their shoulders when the Murdochs and the Mails come for it. And how do you persuade a generation who have easy access to digitised versions of almost everything all of the time to listen to the radio?

Forest 404 is somebody’s idea of how to do that. And it’s worth unpacking to understand what a complete shitshow it is. But again: I’m not the target market, so emoji shrug or something.

Let’s start with the killer irony of how I heard about it. The only two BBC podcasts I listen to are In Our Time, hosted by the 108-year-old Melvyn Bragg; and Fortunately, co-hosted by Jane Garvey and Fi Glover, who are 108 years old collectively. So the BBC is promoting this patronising radio dreck at 108 year old listeners like myself. Which raises the question: are they really trying to attract a younger audience, or do they just want to be seen to be trying to do so? Is it, in other words, a box-ticking exercise? The answer to that question, reader, will probably not surprise you.

So what is Forest 404? Welp. It’s a “soundscape”, it’s a “drama”, it’s a “documentary”. It caters for the short attention span by having short episodes (the first is 25 minutes, the second 22, the third 19, so it goes); and it caters to the assumed/perceived ignorance of its listeners by interspersing episodes with exposition (designated with a T, which presumably stands for Thickoes), which patronisingly explain the background/premise and with “uninterrupted” sounds from the episodes (designated S for Seriously?). These mini-documentaries and soundscape excerpts are short (5-10 minutes) and remind me of the bits of filler at the end of David Attenborough documentaries, where they explain how they faked captured footage of snakes giving birth to polar bears or whatever.

I put scare quotes around “uninterrupted” above because, seriously? Because of course each chunk of audio gives the BBC a chance to put in some branding, “BBC Sounds…” and a patronising voice over explaining what it is you’re about to hear. 

Even more hilariously, the voice for “BBC Sounds” is different to the one you hear at the beginning of everything else from BBC Radio these days. It’s hard to explain how fucking stupid this is, but here goes. When you start an episode of, say, In Our Time, you hear an obviously young, female voice, which says, “BBC Sounds. Music, radio, podcasts.” Clearly the voice of a Bright Young Thing, probably someone younger than me would know who it is. Anyway, this is BBC Marketing at its best worst, because of course it’s just sonic wallpaper, and I literally just now had to start an episode of Fortunately so I could hear the exact words she says. Because although I’ve already heard it and been irritated by it 150 times, I couldn’t have told you the actual content of the message. Noise.

So that’s stupid level number one, the typical kind of thing you’d expect from the marketing monkeys. But. Forest 404 is meant to be “dark” and “edgy”, and so they use a different, young, female voice to say those exact same words. If the first voice sounds like a nice girl from the Home Counties who went to Oxford and that, the Forest voice sounds, ahem, more “urban”, and most definitely sounds actually fucking bored with the words she’s saying. So, um, like, yah, we know this is shit, yah, and completely cheese on toast, but, like, hey, we’ve got to do it, right, so we do it, but we’re really, like, yah, subversive about it, and make it obvious, yah, that we know it’s, like, complete shit.

Fuck.

So then you get into the actual, you know, content, and what is it? It’s another one of those, excuse me, *emoji yawn*, dark dystopian visions of, ya know, how horrible the world might be if the horrible world we live in got a little bit worse than it is now, as if that were even possible. So it’s an all-urban, high-rise, “fast times” future in which knowledge of the world as it used to be (“Slow times”) has been deliberately forgotten in order to keep the population anaesthetised and compliant.

Honestly, the doublethink going on here. (Talking of dystopias.) Because the marketing monkeys are all about “fast times” aren’t they? With their unironic rebranding of the slow times “Radio” as “Sounds”, and the insistence of repeating the anodyne, meaningless, marketing message at the beginning and end of every fucking programme. And then you’re trying to sell me on a terrifying future vision of dystopian Britain where people have their minds wiped if they display curiosity? All the while ignoring the real threat we face, which is that if there are no rain forests left, there are no people to left to live in an urban dystopia.

And behind all this, behind all this wank, is the true commitment of the BBC to this kind of youth marketing. It’s a box-ticker, sure enough. Because the edgy dystopian drama has a cast of precisely two. And all the other characters are merely referred to using reported speech. So you’ve got a little bit of sound mixing going on, and two voices telling a story. And then the whole lot gets padded out with explainers because – and you may have to back up here, possibly go up into orbit so you can see the size of it from space – the contempt for the target audience is so huge that they feel the need to offer a commentary after every episode because they don’t think we have the intelligence to understand what’s going on.

An absolute triumph. You can hear them, in the future, when the licence fee is being abolished: “Well, we tried.”