“The Commander Thinks Aloud”


One of the podcasts I listen to is 99% Invisible, which is about design and how it affects and influences our lives (it’s way more interesting than the summary makes it sound).  I am still making my way through a LARGE backlog of episodes, so I’m still years behind in my listening.  Every so often, podmaster Roman Mars will include an episode from one of Radiotopia’s other podcasts and it’s always fun to get a sample.  Song Exploder is one of the most frequent add-ons.  I like this one because it panders to the music geek in me.  An 99PI from a couple of years ago included a Song Exploder about a song by an artist called The Long Winters that was already a couple of years old when it originally aired.

Yeah, I could’ve been way more concise with how I worded that.  One of my creative writing teachers called it “shielding your nouns,” a phenomenon that stems from trying to write about something that is profoundly uncomfortable or emotional.  That’s what this song is.

“The Commander Thinks Aloud” is about the Columbia disaster.  It is almost as devastating as the explosion that destroyed the shuttle.  I downloaded the song today, but not after some soul-searching.  I don’t know that I ever want to hear this song again, but I cannot forget it.  It is a stunning piece of work, in the sense that you will feel a little bit like you got hit over the head with a two by four.  It is also a very good piece of art.  Do not listen to it if you are depressed.  Do not listen to it if you have not braced yourself sufficiently.  This is not an experience for the faint of heart.  But it is an experience worth having at least once.

“Stagger Lee”


Life has been interfering with blogging lately (nothing new there).  I’m not quitting; I’m just kind of busy right now, so I’ve been posting a little irregularly.

While I’ve been doing other things–cleaning, organizing, etc.–I’ve been listening to a newish podcast called Serial.  It’s a spinoff of sorts from NPR’s This American Life.  (The first episode actually aired on the radio as part of that series.)  The conceit is that they examine a real criminal case in which there may be some doubt.  The first series focuses on the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee, and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed for that crime.  They go back and talk to the people involved, as much as possible, providing recorded interviews and as many of the actual records of the case they can supply.  It’s kind of fascinating.

There’s always a he said/she said quality to criminal investigations (not that the main players are always men and women; I’m just using the phrase as illustration).  Things can get kind of murky sometimes.  Eyewitness testimony, memory, and circumstantial evidence can all be misleading, manipulated, faulty.  The “official” story–the one told by the courts and law enforcement–isn’t always the right story.  As we’ve seen with the Ferguson, MO case, what happened generally depends on your point of view.

There’s an old saying that there’s three sides to any story: yours, theirs, and the truth.  The sad part is, we’ll never really know exactly what happened between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson.  We already have dozens of versions told by everyone involved (with the tragically notable exception of Brown) and many told by people who had no involvement whatsoever.  As the story gets changed and twisted, written and rewritten, we get both closer to and further from why that cop shot that kid.  I know that what happened shouldn’t have happened, that’s about it.  Do I think Wilson is guilty of first degree murder?  No.  But he’s probably guilty of something like negligent or reckless manslaughter.  (That’s just my opinion; obviously, there’s no legal basis for what I just said.)  Was Brown totally innocent?  No.  But he was unarmed, and he was a kid.  And he was black.  This whole mess has brought the institutionalized racism of police departments across the country back into the spotlight, which is ultimately a good thing.  It’s not worth the price of a young man’s life, but at least we’re looking at the problem openly again.

How does “Stagger Lee” fit into all this mess?  Well, this song was based on a real murder case (click the link to read more details), and there’s been more versions of it than I can count.  The song itself has evolved and changed, although the basic facts of the case haven’t changed.  But a song isn’t really an accurate representation of reality.  What  happened between Stagger Lee and Billy isn’t really in doubt, but how it’s presented isn’t really the truth either.  And that’s what’s at the heart of any criminal investigation or trial: What is the truth?  Generally, there are enough facts and pieces of evidence that allow a relatively clear picture of the crime to emerge.  But not always.  And even when the truth is fairly evident, sometimes justice in this country belongs to whoever has the most power and money.  Mostly, we just want answers that make sense.

As a narrative, the song “Stagger Lee” makes sense, so we accept it as something like the truth.  But the few answers we have in Ferguson don’t make sense.  The stories don’t match up–not with each other, and not with the evidence.  That’s what makes it so frustrating.  There’s no closure, no resolution.  The anger that this case has stirred up is mostly justified, but the violence created from that anger has made things worse.  I don’t know what’s going to come of all this, but I do know that directionless anger aimed haphazardly won’t help solve the very real problems the case has illuminated.

“Never Be Famous”


I came to grips with my lack of public recognition many years ago.  I know I will never be famous.  I’m not even ever going to be infamous, or notorious.  Heck, I’m lucky if the people in my family remember my birthday.

As I’ve mentioned before, Welcome to Night Vale has become a great source of new (or newish) music for me.  Catching up a week or so ago, I heard this little ditty by Hussalonia.  I think they’re a band.

It seems pretty odd to wonder about how this smart, catchy Pop-Rock is created by, but that seems to be their intention.  Visit their website and you will find nothing that seems real.  Hussalonia is a created identity for either one or several musicians, who seem to play together and alone–sometimes at the same time.  They describe themselves as a cult.  There’s a definite satire of commercialism and corporate control over musicians in their descriptions of themselves and their place in the world.  But Hussalonia has managed to avoid a lot of the damage that the business end of music can do to artists by taking control of their product themselves.  Their considerable discography is available for streaming and downloading on the site.  There are set prices for any hard copies of their music (cassettes seem to be popular with these guys), but digital downloads are “name your price.”

I remember a few years ago Radiohead made the news by originally releasing In Rainbows as a name your price digital download.  Everyone seemed to think it was a terrible business model, since most people would just take it for free.  But their fans paid.  And then they paid again when it was released in hard copy.  I think it’s an awesome way to sell music, and if you can reach an audience this way without having to sell your soul to the corporate machine, then it’s all for the better.

So go check out Hussalonia.  They’re pretty damn cool.  And spread the word.  These guys probably should be a little more famous.

“Neptune’s Jewels”


One of the best things about Welcome to Night Vale, the creepy and creepily funny podcast I touted here a couple of weeks ago, is that the weather segment of each episode is actually a song, generally by artists I’ve never heard of before.  That’s how I discovered Mystic.

While I’m not a huge Rap/Hip-Hop fan, I am always interested in finding out about quality artists.  Mystic is fierce and smart, with a soulful, genre-hopping style.  I don’t know if she’s still active as a recording artist; her one album, Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom, apparently came out in 2001–even though the music sounds brand new.  (Of course, it might seem brand new to me because I’ve never heard it before.  I am not up on current trends in Hip-Hop.)  I bought this one on itunes, and I hope that some of you jukebox listeners will be intrigued enough to shell out a few cents for her (or bucks; the whole album is pretty darn good).  I think a voice this good needs all the support she can get.

“Season of the Witch”


Okay, I’ll be honest.  The choice of song today doesn’t really matter; it just had to creepy.  I could’ve gone with the classic Mike Oldfield tune “Tubular Bells”, which was used as the theme for The Exorcist (and still gives me the chills every time I hear it).  I also thought about using “Haunted House Blues” by Bessie Smith.  But those didn’t have quite the same resonance as Donovan’s “Season of the Witch.”  This one builds up nicely to a sufficient level of uneasy paranoia.  It never used to freak me out, until it was used over the end cards and credits of Zodiac (a great film about the journalistic search for one of the most deeply unsettling serial killer cases ever).  Now I can barely listen to it.

But like I said, today’s song isn’t as important as the reason I wanted a creepy tune.  I want to pimp out a podcast to y’all.  If you have itunes (and, really, who doesn’t these days?), then you have easy access to hundreds of podcasts, which are fantastic free entertainment.  You don’t have to pay a penny to subscribe to most podcasts, and you can find something on virtually any subject you’re interested in.  While trying to catch up on Pop Culture Happy Hour* episodes (I’ve fallen behind again since Daddy died), Glen Weldon recommended a podcast that was making him happy a few weeks ago.  I’m glad I checked it out, because it’s making me very, very happy indeed.

Welcome to Night Vale is a weird little show that has bimonthly episodes that run between 20 and 30 minutes, on average.  Night Vale is a decidedly disturbing little place that makes Twin Peaks look like downtown Normal-ville.  There are hooded figures, creatures of indefinite shape and size, and glowing lights in the sky.  You hear all about Night Vale from the soothing voice of the local radio announcer.  (The conceit of each episode is that it’s a broadcast delivered on the local radio station; they seem to be losing a disturbing number of interns.)  It is by turns funny and creepy, and just perfect for a little late night listening.  The podcast seems to be based in part on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, picking up on themes and imagery that frequented his work.  I admit that I’ve only listened to about 5 of the 25 episodes available, but I am giving it an unequivocal thumbs up.  You can find Welcome to Night Vale through itunes, or visit the Commonplace Books site (where they also have t-shirts for sale).  I promise, you won’t be sorry.

Or maybe you will.  Goodnight, dear listeners.  Goodnight.


*Another fine podcast that everyone should be listening to.


“Water Night”


A few days ago, I was listening to an old episode of the TED Radio Hour, which is a show on NPR that excerpts TED talks along particular themes and interviews the speaker about the topic.  (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design; it’s a nonprofit group “devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading.”)  I recently subscribed to their podcast, and I’ve been catching up on the episodes I missed.  The podcast from May 18th, 2012 was about “The Power of Crowds” and introduced me to Eric Whitacre and the Virtual Choir.

Okay, to be fair, I’d heard about the Virtual Choir before, but I’d pretty much forgotten about it until I listened to this podcast.  Eric Whitacre, a composer and conductor, came up with the idea (listen to the podcast to hear his quite funny recounting of the “aha!” moment) of creating a choir of ordinary people in the electronic ether of the Internet, all singing one of his compositions.  Here’s how it happens: Whitacre makes the music of one of his pieces available for free download on the Internet.  Folks who want to join the choir get the music, learn the appropriate vocal part (if I were to take part, for example, I would learn the alto part), and upload a video of themselves singing to the site.  Finally, some very nice technical folks edit the videos together–synching the sound and all that stuff–and it gets posted for everyone to enjoy.  Last year’s Virtual Choir performance was turned into a short film, a little more than half of which is the credits (each singer is identified by name, which must be unbelievably cool for all of them).  The result is singularly stunning.

I recommend watching this one on full screen to get an idea of the scale.  There are 3,746 performers in “Water Night.”  The lyrics are from a poem by Octavio Paz.  It is one of the loveliest musical moments I’ve ever discovered.  And it makes it clear just how powerful the Internet really is, how it can be used to create art and beauty and community.  How it is helping to make the world just a little bit smaller, one voice at a time.

Want to join the Virtual Choir?  You can sign up for Virtual Choir 4 here.

Introducing . . . The Mountain Goats


Okay, The Mountain Goats are really just one guy, John Darnielle, and whoever he has playing with him at any given time.  And they’re not exactly a new artist.  Darnielle has been recording as The Mountain Goats since the mid-90s.  But I just discovered them, and I am sort of in love.

I feel I must give credit where credit is due, and hopefully turn a few people on to something that has been making me very happy lately (you’ll get that reference in a moment).  A few months ago, I was trolling the itunes podcast section for something new to listen to.  I don’t always want to listen to music (shocking, I know), and podcasts are free.  (This trolling is how I discovered the great podcast/NPR show To the Best of Our Knowledge, so I’ve had good experiences before.)  this is how I discovered the delightful and charming Pop Culture Happy Hour.  The conceit of the podcast, as explained in the episode I most recently listened to, is a roundtable of NPR folks talking about the popular culture and entertainment topics that interest them.  Linda, Stephen, Trey, and Glen are intelligent, literate, and funny as hell (they regularly dissolve each other into giggles, which is infectious).  They all have different specialties and interests, and full-time day jobs with NPR, so the podcast is kind of like icing on the cake.  One of the regular segments is at the end, when they go around the table and tell listeners one thing that’s making them happy that week (“one thing” is often interpreted rather loosely, but that’s just another thing I like about these people).

Because of all the chaos in my life lately, I’ve once again fallen behind on my podcast listening, so I’m catching up with episodes from a month ago.  The 2/1/13 episode is the last one I heard.  That week, Stephen (the music guy) chose a Mountain Goats song as the thing that was making him happy.  It was from an EP that I haven’t heard yet, and while it wasn’t the greatest song I’d ever heard, I was intrigued enough to look them up on itunes.  I was a little daunted by the sheer number of results, so I chose the most recent album, Transcendental Youth, as my starting point.

I will concede right off that Darnielle’s voice can be a little grating; it’s just on the wrong side of nasally.  But that might be the only complaint I have.  There’s something compelling in the desperation and disconnect he’s singing about.  I don’t have a lot of analysis about them yet.  I just know my jaw fell open in astonishment listening to the samples.  I’ve been listening to the album as I’ve been writing this post, and I’d like to say that it’s been living up to my expectations.  I’m not sure I’ll end up with their whole oeuvre, or if I’ll even want to hear them all the time (while it’s great and compelling, that much raw emotion can be hard to handle).  But I’m really loving this right now.

So thanks Stephen, and PCHH!  You made me very happy this weekend, and I’m sure you’ll continue doing so.