Hey Hey, It’s Groundhog Day.
Today we learned that Winter is going to last for another few months, unless of course you’re an antipode, or live somewhere equatorial, or you simply don’t put credence in the belief that marmots have any meteorological prowess.
Whatever the case, this week we’ve got tons of great podcast recommendations and reviews below. Burrow in!
One has to acknowledge the gamble in simply making this podcast. It is no small task, bringing one of the most vaunted literary publications into the world of audio while simultaneously treating that medium as thoughtfully as it has the craft of writing. This very notion, it would seem, weighed on the minds of its production team, as The Paris Review podcast is a sumptuously produced, artful melange of readings by many of the magazine’s celebrity admirers. All of it has been given a lush coat of sonic filigree, courtesy of veteran sound designer John DeLore.
The effect is like attending a salon under the influence of some mildly psychotropic substance. There is no mistake that the literature is given its rightful place of prominence, but the world around it is being slowly painted in messy watercolor strokes. The podcast retains a magazine feel to it as well, with pieces having been chosen for their brevity, allowing for a broad range of writers and voices to be peppered in. There is only minimal hosting from interim Review editor Nicole Rudick, softly ferrying listeners between disparate pieces.
The program makes great use of archive audio as well. On this week’s episode, for instance, a 1986 recording of John Ashbery reading his poem “Soonest Mended” is infused with a gamboling guitar score, the notes dancing softly alongside the hiss of the tape. It doesn’t change the color of Ashbery’s poem, rather it helps to frame it within a soundscape, focusing the listener’s attention back to his words.
I thoroughly enjoyed this week’s episode, which featured David Sedaris reading Frank O’Hara, Dakota Johnson reading Roberto Bolaño, and Mary Louise Parker reading Joy Williams, in addition to the Ashbery archival. But I’d strongly recommend revisiting Episode 8 for its recreation of a 1956 Marion Capron interview of Dorothy Parker, as portrayed by Anna Sale (of the Death, Sex & Money podcast) and Stockard Channing.
(Full disclosure time here: Mark Chrisler is no stranger to me personally, though I may sometimes wish otherwise. We’ve known one another on and off some 25 years, but trust me when I say that way that I feel about The Constant is in no way influenced by that connection)
The Constant is a podcast that is here to remind us that we’re all wrong, nearly all of the time. Its mission is not a malicious one, though, just a Cartesian one. In a time of fake news, it has never been more important for us to take a doubting mindset and examine how we know what we know. Too often we go through life believing the world to operate on a set of ordered principles without ever investigating the reasons behind why we believe them to be so. And that thinking has for many years allowed us to put stake in some truly wild ideas that we have otherwise been relegated to the attic of history. But for The Constant, these incorrect beliefs are a playground to explore human fallibility, in a pretty joyful way. It is especially gleeful if you’re looking to take the mickey out of great thinkers of the past. Perhaps no one gets more shit than Aristotle, whose assumptions Chrisler skewers again and again to great comic effect.
Chrisler has achieved something rather remarkable through The Constant. The podcast is like a sort of wry history lesson from Spalding Gray, keenly blending careful research, storytelling, and humor while elucidating all of the wrongheaded beliefs that humanity has ever held true. But the effect is also a dreamy one, since the unknown world seemed to allow for far greater wonder than the one we currently inhabit. By allowing the audience to bathe in the poetic novelty of the ideas of the past—like the existence of vegetable sheep, or that all migratory birds spent their winters on the moon—before bringing down the hammer of present knowledge, we get a chance to feel as they may have at one time. The reason for many of our past errors and misbeliefs, Chrisler asserts, wasn’t about some endemic, collective stupidity, but rather a zealous optimism. In our present, where we’ve mapped our world down to a sub-atomic level, there exists so little that can make us believe in the infinite possibility of our universe the way our forebears did.
The show’s interest is impressively broad, investigating everything from the migratory patterns of birds, to Mersenne prime numbers, medicine, comets, and even ball-biting beavers. There is seemingly no source too deep, nor any topic too obscure for The Constant to explore.
The show just wrapped its first season this past week with the episode “Way To Go, Einstein!” and while I’d definitely suggest listening from the start, the episode acts as a perfect capstone for Chrisler’s mission. It roots all of the japery from the previous seven episodes in the lesson of how even Einstein, perhaps the world’s greatest genius, was still able to get it wrong on a massive scale. Laughing at history’s errors is all well and good, suggests Chrisler, but if we can’t own up to our ability to screw up, especially in the face of Einstein, then we’re no better than Aristotle.
I listen to so many different shows that sometimes their topics line up in unplanned ways. You may recall a few weeks back when the thematic resonance of Still Processing and Creative Tension helped to deepen the listening experience.
This week I again found myself enjoying a few podcasts in close succession and noticed that they seemed to be carrying on an unwitting conversation with one other.
First up was the excellent UK drug policy podcast Stop And Search. Host Jason Reed talked with Madame Ruth Dreifuss, the former president of Switzerland, about the shift toward destigmatization of drug use through global policies.
Coming from UK musician/podcaster Scroobius Pip’s Distraction Pieces Network, Stop And Search is a podcast centered on changing the way that drugs and drug policy are viewed. Host Jason Reed is a board member of LEAP UK, or Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a body whose focus is on the destigmatization of drug use in society, both as a means to protect those who use or are addicted to narcotics, as well as curb the violence that results from the illicit drug trade (In a random podcast-related connection, LEAP UK Chairman Neil Woods appeared recently on Showcase From Radiotopia‘s Secrets program, which I wrote about here).
All of this is to say that the podcast adopts a very thoughtful approach to the topic, often engaging in panel discussions with leading experts on the topic, often scientists, journalists, and policymakers. It’s fair to say though that Stop And Search has never had a guest as distinguished as this week’s episode, where Reed is joined by former president of Switzerland, Madame Ruth Dreifuss, who currently serves as Chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy. The pair discuss the Commission’s latest report, which opines for a shift in the “war on drugs” to instead combat the perception of these substances and people who use them. Their conversation is eye opening on a number of levels, not least of which is the candor with which Dreifuss speaks on the subject.
It is a very empathetic, rational discussion of a topic that is usually treated with much more emotion and fear. There is undoubtedly a long way to go, but it feels like the tide is turning to provide helpful outlets to those in need.
From thoughtful drug policy discussions to artful depictions of drug enforcement, next up was The Wire: Stripped, a podcast recapping the landmark HBO series in a totally thoughtful and unique manner.
It is a somewhat standard complaint about podcasts, that there’s just too many shows recapping movies and TV shows, filling the landscape of the medium with inelegant audio that doesn’t deserve the same notice of more thoughtfully created programs.
I would generally say that it’s not an untrue assertion, but then there are programs like The Wire: Stripped that step outside of the boundaries of that convention, producing instead a show that feels like a vital compendia that exists outside of the program its documenting. Hosted by Kobi Omenaka and Dave Corkery, these two UK Wire fans go the extra mile, interviewing members of the show’s cast, famous fans of the series, as well as people from Baltimore and around the world to get a full sense of the program.
The resulting show is a real treat, displaying heaps of skill and audiocraft that one simply doesn’t associate with programs of this nature. There is a great deal of discussion of individual episodes, but it’s done in a manner that isn’t mere recapitulation of the plot. Omenaka and Corkery have a nice, easy rapport and a deep well of knowledge on the series which helps to engage listeners as well.
The real revelation of The Wire: Stripped is its confident display of follow-through, paying as much attention to production details as the content of their discussion. Episodes begin with a newly recorded version of Tom Waits’ “Down In The Hole” (from Martin Austwick and Sam Pay, hosts of the Tom Waits discussion podcast Song By Song), and the discussions are recorded out on the streets of London, as though Omenaka and Corkery are staking out the action. It’s through these flourishes that the show really steps out ahead of the pack, making a case for the television recap podcast, provided they follow in its image.
For all of its nuance and factuality, a show like The Wire can’t help but do wrong by the city of Baltimore. It is a narrowly-focused representation of a city, distilled through the points of view of the show’s writers in order to tell as story. Unfortunately for many, their only perception of the city will come from The Wire, and will be invariably skewed as a result.
Luckily there exist shows like Out Of The Blocks, whose very mission is to help flesh out what life is like within the Charm City, one block at a time. Produced by Aaron Henkin and Wendel Patrick, the show picks a different city block every few weeks, spending time on the street getting to know a number of its residents, and recording their stories. The resulting podcast is a beautifully crafted documentary work, focused on telling the stories that often evade notice, featuring a burbling original score from Patrick that actively intertwines with the tape, commenting upon and bolstering every story.
The current run of episodes—“100 S Broadway, Part 1” and “100 S Broadway, Part 2”—dive into the Urban Indian experience, speaking with members of the Lumbee tribe who have come to call Baltimore home, as well as the different ways people on this block find employment and happiness. It is the kind of patient, humane audio that feels like a revelation. The stories of a city’s citizens and their everyday experiences are so important to hear, for residents and outsiders alike, and Out Of The Blocks is doing a remarkable job of representing them.
Podcasts are easily the modern era’s most ambulatory art form. Free from visual distraction, they lend themselves to being enjoyed on the go. There hasn’t yet been a series in which movement itself is a vital part of the listening experience—that is, until last week’s debut of The Walk from Panoply, an immersive podcast that is meant to be listened to while walking. It might sound like a bit of a gimmick (and in truth it is), but it makes for an interesting and novel exercise. The program is a second-person narrative adventure, with the listener assuming the lead role. Its story revolves around a mysterious domestic terrorist group in Scotland that detonates an electromagnetic pulse device at a train station, from which the listener must escape. The sound design is top-notch, providing a richly colored world to help sell the you-are-there experience of it all. Certain elements of the narrative are a bit clumsy, keeping it just outside of being a total success, but later installments might fare better. However, it is rare for podcasts to take this kind of high-stakes artistic gamble, and that is definitely something worth championing.
This piece, along with many other great recommendations, originally appeared on The A.V. Club here.