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Nonfiction Podcasts

Last time I ran through the gaming-related podcasts I listen to, so here are the other “nonfiction” podcasts in my feed.

Public radio podcasts

Many shows from public radio outlets are also released as podcasts. Some of these include bonus material, but they also come with reruns which may or may not be of interest. This is a great way to listen to shows that aren’t available in your area, or which are broadcast on a schedule that doesn’t match your own.

  • Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!: NPR’s weekly news quiz show, which has been running for over 20 years, hosted by Peter Sagal and Bill Kurtis, with a rotating panel and a weekly guest. Always entertaining, often informative, I probably started listening not long after it started and I’ve never stopped. I still hold out hope that Charlie Pierce will come back someday.
  • Ask Me Another: Hosted by Ophira Eisenberg with musician Jonathan Coulton, this is a trivia quiz show with one or more weekly guests. Not the laugh-fest that Wait! Wait! is, but a fun diversion.
  • Says You: A long-running panel game show revolving around language and wordplay, I often forgot to catch it because it airs here Sundays at 4 pm, and for a long time you had to pay to get the podcast feed. Now it’s freely available, and it’s very funny. Sometimes the games are fiendishly clever.
  • Serial: A podcast from This American Life which focuses on a single topic each season. I listened to season 2, on Bowe Bergdahl, which I found a bit overlong for its topic. The season 3 teaser just dropped a week or two ago.
  • S-Town: A spin-off from Serial, about a man in a small Alabama town who invites a reporter down to investigate a suspicious death, and then things take a disturbing turn. This 7-episode podcast is complete, and while there is some extraneous material, there’s also a lot going on, and since it’s reporting on true events, not everything gets tied up in a bow. However, I think the central mystery was given a perfectly satisfying conclusion at the end. Atmospheric, creepy, tragic, I found S-Town very compelling, and superior overall to Serial. (For a different opinion, see Wil Williams’ review.)

Scientific American podcasts

I listen to a couple of podcasts from Scientific American, which – along with Wait! Wait! – might be the ones I’ve been listening to the longest:

  • 60-Second Science: Despite the title, these are 2-to-4 minute reports on recent developments in science. Releases every weekday.
  • Science Talk: A longer-form usually-weekly podcast usually focusing on a single topic – an interview, a book, etc. – with special episodes each year when the science Nobel Prizes are announced. Both of these podcasts cover the full range of science, so unless you’re interested in everything in science there are bound to be some that won’t grab you. Nonetheless both are informative and engaging.

Political & legal podcasts

I’m not a big political wonk (my occasional Twitter rant aside), but in the last year I’ve added a couple of new podcasts in this area to my subscriptions:

  • Congress, Two Beers In: From the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. One of the hosts is Matt Glassman, who I discovered through Thinking Poker. What appealed to me about him is that he talks less about politics per se, but about government – how it works, how politics affects it, etc. – which is an angle not often reported on in the mainstream press. This is in this vein, and I find it very informative, especially given the current governmental clusterfuck we’re living with. Approximately bi-weekly.
  • Make No Law: By Ken White of Popehat, who is a popular figure on Twitter. This podcast focuses on developments in first amendment law throughout U.S. history, including Supreme Court rulings and the national scenario and individual actions which led to them. Releases approximately monthly.

Progressive rock podcasts

As you may know, I’m a big fan of progressive rock music. There are several streaming radio stations I’ve listened to, but not many podcasts that I’ve found – or at least not ones that hit my particular style that strongly. But I do listen to two:

  • Progtopia: A bi-weekly podcast that when I discovered it typically had a single interview with an artist or band each episode, including playing a few of their songs. Now it includes one or more shorter interviews, a roundtable with the main host and some other people involved in or covering prog, and an opinion essay. I think I liked the old format better as the newer content doesn’t add much for me.
  • NewEARS Prog Show: This is a radio show by the New England Art Rock Society which airs on WEMF in Boston. Each episode is 2 hours, and it seems to run in seasons, with season 4 having finished earlier this summer. As a radio show it plays a bunch of music and then has two or three interviews. I’ve discovered a few bands through it already, and I only found this show earlier this year. Plus, you can’t beat the Boston accents!

Others

  • The Geekbox: A weekly podcast about geek hobbies. This used to be a roundtable with several people who worked in or around the videogame industry, plus the guy who owns the comic shop I go to. Life developments have recently reduced it to just two hosts, which has not grabbed me as much. Plus, the non-videogame content has been reduced, and since I don’t play many videogames – and no console games – that limits its appeal for me. So after listening to it for almost 8 years, I’ve recently dropped it.
  • Retropod: A short several-times-per-week podcast about historical events, especially ones which have been in the news recently, e.g. because some new information about them has come to light. I just started listening recently.
  • Fiat Lex: All about dictionaries and how they work, by two people who have each worked in the business for years. (Did you know dictionaries are a business? They are!) Approximately bi-weekly.
  • Query: A bi-weekly podcast answering tech questions from listeners, with an emphasis on Apple products. Some useful stuff in here that you might not easily find out about unless you obsessively follow the tech press (and really, who has time for that?). Recently had a co-host switch as one of the original hosts was hired by Apple.
  • Nobody Listens to Paula Poundstone: Paula Poundstone and Adam Felber are both hilarious on Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me!, and this is their second stab at a podcast after last year’s Live From the Poundstone Institute. Both shows have struggled a bit to make their conceit feel natural, with the new show being based around interviewing experts in a couple of subjects and then having Paula offer (humorous) advice on what they’ve learned. The first two episodes were really rough, and although it seems they have an audience, it’s not as evident as in the last show. It’s gotten better since then, but it feels like it could use some editing to get down to the best stuff. Releases weekly.

Next time I’ll dive into my latest hobby: Audio dramas.

Martin Orford Retired

I recently downloaded Martin Orford‘s two solo albums, Popular Music and Classical Songs and The Old Road, having enjoyed his work with IQ and Jadis in the past. Listening to them recently, I wondered when he might have a new one coming out, as I knew he’d left both bands.

A quick Web search reveals that he won’t have a new one coming out, because he’s retired:

This is the story of an artist who did something extraordinary and rather unique in the rock business: he retired.

In 2009, Martin Orford, one of Britain’s most respected keyboard players and founding member of IQ, decided to end his career in music. A few short months after he left the band, he played his final solo concert, making it very clear that he never would return to either studio or stage.

It was not the lack of new ideas or fading love for music that forced Orford to leave it all behind, but an enemy he couldnt beat: the Internet.

According to him, illegal downloading was the ‘beginning of the end’ for the music scene so he decided to make his stand – If people wouldn’t pay for music anymore, there would be just one way to teach them: don’t produce the music.

Quite a pity. I suspect we’ll see an upheaval in artists of all sorts who aren’t willing to put up with the changes in the marketplace (both legal and illegal) and retire – or, more quietly, never start their careers to begin with. For myself, I’m just sad that it means artists I enjoy (or might enjoy) will stop producing work.

By the way, I have no guilt over downloading Orford’s two albums: I downloaded them from iTunes, so I legitimately paid to get them.

You should, too. They’re quite good.

Edit: Here’s an interview with Orford about leaving the music business. One quote: “But I absolutely refuse to work with the Internet; as far as I am concerned it’s the worst invention in the history of mankind, and I consider it to be my natural enemy.”

Laser’s Edge Christmas Sale

Progressive rock retailer The Laser’s Edge is having a Christmas sale, running from now through the end of the day tomorrow, Christmas day. (The Laser’s Edge is in New Jersey, so that’s probably midnight EST.) If progressive rock is your thing, I recommend running right over and buying some stuff.

I don’t write about my progressive rock interests as much as I’d hoped, but if you’re interested in checking out some of my favorites, I think you can’t go wrong with any of the following:

I’ve bought dozens of CDs from them over the years and have always been happy with their selection, prices, service and friendliness.

Modern Prog on iTunes

Huh. The iTunes Music Store has some introductory playlists for modern progressive rock that you can buy and download.

It’s a little strange that the lists contain no Spock’s Beard (which the iTMS does have) or Flower Kings (which it doesn’t). It seems like it focuses mainly on progressive metal. They may just be at the mercy of what’s available on the store, but it might also be the result of biases of whoever composed the list. Although to be fair there are a number of band listed with whom I’m unfamiliar, so maybe I shouldn’t talk.

Marillion: This Strange Engine

This is the album that set me on my current vector of progressive rock fandom.

I’d been a fan of Marillion in the 80s, having enjoyed the albums with Fish as the vocalist, but I felt they’d kind of lost their way with Brave. Meanwhile, I’d become less interested in popular music during the 1990s, and by the late 90s most of my music purchases were jazz. But all that changed when I found This Strange Engine in the used bin.

This album is widely disliked by Marillion fans, which I don’t understand at all since it seems more like the much-revered Fish-era albums than any other album produced during Steve Hogarth’s tenure as vocalist. Its arrangements and performances are tight and strong, with clear melodies and a great sound texture. The main complaint I hear is that it’s somehow more pop and less prog than earlier albums, yet it certainly seems no more pop to me than Misplaced Childhood or Clutching at Straws (both great albums). Neo-progressive groups like Marillion are all about fusing pop and prog anyway, and This Strange Engine is neo-prog at its best.

The album is bookended by two longer songs, which are also the standout tracks of the album: “Man of the Thousand Faces” is a really cool song whose first half is primarily acoustic – driven by guitar, piano and Hogarth’s vocals – and then segues into a loud, electric section, which chugs along to the sound of Pete Trewevas’ bass guitar. I’m not the biggest fan of Hogarth’s vocal style, but he has a strength and clarity on this track that really carries the song.

The title track closes the album. It’s reminiscent of Marillion’s earliest albums when keyboardist Mark Kelly would from time to time just be turned loose on his synthesizer, and he has a great solo here, as well as some of his more distinctive work mixed into the arrangement. I don’t think he’s ever sounded as good on the albums after this one. It opens with Hogarth speaking quietly over the opening notes before opening up into the initial melody, but it’s one of those prog tracks which cascades from one movement to the next across brief transitional moments, a common structure for a prog track but one which I know many people used to standard pop music structures find jarring or even pointless. Me, I love it, as it gives the band space for more ideas and more freedom to express those ideas. It ends with a repetitive melody which starts quietly and builds to the song’s climax, in much the same manner as the first track.

If “This Strange Engine” – the track – has a flaw, it’s that the last 15 minutes is dead air followed by a brief, pointless bit of laughter. I edited that part out when I loaded it into my MP3 library.

(I am, in general, not very attentive to lyrics when I listen to music. To me, the vocals are simply another instrument, and a lyric needs to have some je-ne-sais-quoi to grab my attention. Although the lyrics – generally by Hogarth or by lyricist John Helmer – are interesting at times, usually I just register that they seem evocative, which underscores the imaginative and often epic quality which I appreciate in progressive rock. So don’t look for insightful comments on the lyrics here – it’s the music that I enjoy.)

I tend to think of the other tracks as being shorter pieces sandwiched between these two monsters, but some of them are nearly as long as the 7-1/2 minute running time of “Man of a Thousand Faces”.

The up-tempo songs are a lot of fun: “80 Days” is a pretty straightforward song which maybe explains the pop leanings that some fans don’t like about this album. On the other hand, “An Accidental Man” is a nifty, up-tempo track with droning vocals over a neat guitar riff. The lyrics have a sharp feel which give the track an additional edge. “Hope For the Future” has a vaguely caribbean sound and some punchy horn backing, and is just fun to hear.

“One Fine Day” is a slower, melancholy track with some nice melodies – including a solid guitar solo – which I enjoy when the mood strikes me. “Memory of Water” is the other slow track, almost a cappella, which doesn’t have much in the way of melody and isn’t really my cup of tea. “Estonia” seems to be the best-loved track on the album by many other fans. I think it’s pretty good, very atmospheric, with moody synth work by Kelly and some nifty (what sounds like) Mandolin backing as well.

I never get tired of listening to this album. It may not be perfect, but its high are very high, and most of it is quite strong. If you know me and ever wonder what I enjoy about progressive rock, a lot of it is right here: Long tracks that develop one or more musical ideas at length and in depth, and complex, engaging arrangements.

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