We approach the end of 2018 and I’ve yet to see a big pop culture site (that isn’t Polygon) post an article pertaining to podcasting that hasn’t brought down the fury of podcast fans. Like packs of ravenous wolves, tweets from TIME and the New Yorker alike are ratioed to death within hours. The harsh truth is these articles getting bombed isn’t the fault of the author. The real blame lies squarely on the editorial staff of said website. In this one rare instance, the fans are doing the good work. I’m here to point out what is going wrong in a lot of mainstream coverage of podcasting, why perfectly good writers are getting beef from Twitter, and how editors could not only fix these problems but generate a LOT more traffic.
Paying for healthcare in the United States is terrifying, and Dan Weissmann wants to help, at least a little bit, with a podcast about how scary/sucky it can be. An Arm and a Leg could’ve easily been a bog-standard bit of journalism with Weissmann interviewing a bunch of talking heads, arranging things so fun facts pop up at appropriate intervals to keep listeners hooked. Job done.
aAaaL (an abbreviation that also doubles as an onomatopoeia for the sound I make whenever I have to shop for healthcare plans) is as much about Weissmann experiencing this big, pointlessly obtuse industry from a user’s perspective as he tries to find good insurance that fits his own family’s needs.
You are not alone. We may be screwed, but we’re together. And if we want to get even a little bit less-screwed, we need each other. If nothing else, we can be good company to each other.Dan Weissmann, An Arm and a Legpromotional material
Each week Weissmann digs more into what healthcare is like these days, interviews experts (spoiler alert: you’re not alone in being super stressed about picking a bad plan), and interviews some astonishing people about what they’ve done to attain/keep good insurance.
Beautiful nerds who’ve devoured the 99% Invisible backlog multiple times in the past might remember Weissmann’s contributions to the show in the past, as well as his work for WBEZ. Well, now he’s self-employed and his really good health insurance from his last job is rapidly approaching the date when they will have to part ways.
It’s kind of like you live someplace, like a country where they have a really good national health plan. Someplace where you don’t have to worry about the cost of going to the doctor. Someplace like Sweden. Those are the kind of benefits my old job offered and that’s why we are paying them really high premiums this year, to stay on that insurance.Dan Weissman, aAaaL episode 1.
It’s not often I get to start a write-up with the phrase “a podcast made me go to the doctor” but, here we are: An Arm and a Leg made me get off my ass and go to the doctor, because healthcare sucks in this country and one can’t take anything for granted. And, in true fashion, even though I already have healthcare I ended up picking a primary care physician who, after five phone calls to various hospitals, I discovered doesn’t exist.
I got assigned a corporeal doctor, got a flu shot I’ve been not-getting out of pure laziness, they hit my knees with the rubber hammer thing, took some blood, then I got a scary letter from my insurance saying they’re discontinuing my coverage because I didn’t submit proof of income on time.
Except, I did. A week and a half early. Even the person I talked to on the phone was flabbergasted about why this mailer was even sent out. Bureaucracy is fun!
That said, I don’t want to give An Arm and a Leg a bad rap by selling it on the idea “it’ll scare you to be healthier.” I would even argue aAaaL skews more towards Justin McElroy’s The Empty Bowl as far as tone. The dark comedy of hearing just how fucked we all are brings on a relaxing cocktail of “oh so it’s not just me” feelings.
Weissmann isn’t producing this series to scare the shit out of people and get them riled up about healthcare. We’re all already riled up, aAaaL is a place where one can listen and get confirmation we’re all in this together. We’re all freaked out, some people have had to go through massive sacrifices, and the industry is absolutely bonkers. All of which is presented to the listener through Weissmann’s signature voice and seemingly limitless positive energy.
Oh, and Episode 3 is a joint project with 99% Invisible about the subject of “orphan drugs” which is, not a word of hyperbole, best-of-2018 material in my book.
Season one of the show runs through December 18th and given a certain tweet I’ve just stumbled across there’s already a good head of steam built up for a second season. I’ve just taken a peek at the descriptions of episodes coming up soon and all I can say is I’m quite excited.
You can find more about An Arm and a Leg at https://armandalegshow.com
One of the ways I offset some of my podcasting overhead is by freelance reviewing music for a small publication. Since I’ve had this job for over a year now I have a hearty backlog of reviews from my listening to at least four new albums per month. Let’s dive into the backlog and look at the worst examples, be they downright offensive or just bland wasted potential.
It’s difficult to review a solo album from a giant on thes houlders of which the majority of pop music today stands on. On the one hand, it’s unfair to compare Paul McCartney’s 2018 music to anything The Beatles did. On the other, I’ve only heard three not-Beatles songs of his, so I’m more likely to pull from that as a reference point. In the end I didn’t have that problem because Egypt Station isn’t really an album. It’s an astronomically rich old man noodling around for the fun of it.
Egypt Station is an unashamed playlist-padder of an album. Nothing particularly offensive with a couple of toe-tappers that you might suddenly recall in a few years and not remember who wrote the song. The music video for McCartney’s Dance Tonight, featuring Mackenzie Crook and Natalie Portman is more musically engaging and memorable than this entire album.
McCartney’s not saying much or trying to do anything musically, preferring to run cloyingly sweet with occasional sparks of that McCartney/Lennon era creativity. There’s also the one song about certain massively unpopular politicians that tries to both be critical and keep it vague in that coy 1960s way. With today’s level of political discourse in music it feels like McCartney playing things too safe. If you want a good stretch of songs that nobody in the car will particularly hate, Egypt Station has got you covered.
Origins – Imagine Dragons
Imagine Dragons is the Burger King of bands. The sales numbers show they’re incredibly popular yet for the life of me I can’t figure out why, and I’ve yet to meet a single person who prefers them over a similar competitor.
Origins is a monument to how being a titan in the streaming music world doesn’t necessarily mean you have to bring anything particularly impactful or talented to the music world. Dan Reynolds seems to have been keeping up his lessons at Eminem School of Shouting. He’s of the unfortunate impression shouting a lyric Chester Bennington-style will be powerful no matter what situation.
Spoiler alert: the late great Bennington shouted lyrics that needed shouting. Between the shouting and a lot of bush-league mixing techniques (including an egregious abuse of layering two tracks of Reynolds’ vocals over each other to give the illusion his voice is fuller and he has good pipes) it feels like if music were a videogame he dumped all of Imagine Dragon’s skill points into leveling up beats and mastering, leaving the rest of the band woefully weak. There are a few cool punchy beats and a throwaway song for Wreck It Ralph 2, that’s about it for this album.
Cinematic – Owl City
Cinematic is the audio version of eating a ton of one’s favorite candy in a short amount of time. Perhaps fun-sounding on paper, cloyingly sweet and regrettable in its execution. Cinematic feels like it’s trying to trade on pre-existing ideas at every turn. The album art looks someone with three hours of Photoshop under their belt decided to make fan-art of Owl City in the style of Drew Struzan’s “a bunch of head shovering over the title” poster style made famous by Star Wars and Indiana Jones. The top songs are so saccharine they feel like someone was hired to parody an early Owl City single.
I’ve heard soundtracks from made-for-television Disney movies that have more complexity and variety than Cinematic. I’ve not checked in on Owl City since Ocean Eyes when it was physically impossible to escape the monolithic figure that was Fireflies, and I gotta say this is sorely disappointing. It feels like Young has spent the last decade doing nothing to expand creatively. Cinematic’s songs are so similar to Ocean Eyes the two albums are interchangeable. The sad truth is there are people out there who would rather an artist stayed exactly the same, and I’m here to tell them Cinematic is just what they’ve been looking for.
I get a strong album-by-committee vibe from this as an overall package. The most interesting thing about Liberation is the detailed Wikipedia breakdown of who worked on which songs. In addition to the usual handful of celebrity musicians guesting on tracks there’s a laundry list of producers and behind-the-scenes folk attached. Some individual songs have more people involved than most artists need to produce an entire album. Kanye West produced a couple, the excellent Anderson Paak worked on two of the better songs of the album, 2Chainz shows up at some point for some reason.
Too many moving parts come together to create a monumentally meh album. I accidentally left my Spotify stream on album repeat and didn’t notice I was re-listening to songs until I’d looped through the first half again. Aguilera isn’t a bad singer, far from it, but there’s nothing particularly exciting going on here. For all the narrative of this being her big come-back album that’s just “her truth” put into music… there’s a hell of a lot of other people working on said truth.Too many cooks in the kitchen creates a middling-quality album, in the end.
Beautiful Life – Rick Astley
Processed over-pasturized cheese is to actual cheese as Beautiful Life is to a good Rick Astley album. This is the musical version of a bad big-budget movie: A studio threw money and a big name at a half-assed product and expected it to succeed of its own merit. Astley’s pipes are wasted on bland, boring lyrics and beats that sound like they slipped Maroon 5 a $50 Subway gift card in exchange for any backing tracks they ended up not using on Songs for Jane.
There are glimpses of quality in the album. All tired memes aside, one of the reasons Never Gonna Give You Up has remained such a powerhouse internet gag is Astley’s talent as a singer. The guy is a snapshot of 80s pop and this album could have been that: a 2018 take on Astley’s 1980s music. Songs like Every Corner are a treat to listen to, but they’re buried beneath bland fluff like the titular Beautiful Life. Hell, Every Corner could have been the title track and the album might have been better off. As it stands it opens weak, the only reason I finished the album was this review.Wasted potential.
Every Third Thought
I was surprised to find out The X-Files’ David Duchovny had recently released a rock album, let alone to find out it’s his sophomore effort. Then I learned the album came not from a long-time desire to make music, but from him simply picking up a guitar and learning it a few years ago.
Every Third Thought feels like a first draft, something placeholder. It reminds me of whenever a movie has a father figure character who also has a band “with the guys” that performs every now and then to pad out time. The songs are simplistic, easy to remember,and are dangerously close to William Shatner-styled talk-singing for fear of hurting the actor’s voice during long recording sessions.
To call what Duchovny is doing “singing” is to stretch the definition of the art. He’s rhythmically talking over music. Considering the fact this album doesn’t even have a cursory Wikipedia page and it’s published under a boutique label created by Duchovny himself (named after his son Kyd), it’s quickly apparent Every Third Thought is the musical equivalent of a self-published novel: it’s more for the person who created it than for public consumption.
Man of the Woods
Justin Timberlake may have brought sexy back, but he’s not bringing much to the table with Man of the Woods. Pulling from a childhood spent growing up in Tennessee, this album seeks to be Timberlake’s more southern-influenced work. With no real breakout popular singles or celebrity guests beyond Alicia Keys, this album is more focused on becoming greater than the sum of its parts.
My main issue with Man of the Woods is the same issue that comes up with a lot of big-name artists: a good chunk of the songs are just blah Justin Timberlake songs. One could randomly insert them into any other album of his career and they wouldn’t sound out of place, even with Timberlake’s supposed southern thesis that spans the whole album.
The music does show some nice influence from classic county and R&B, but in the end it’s an album of Timberlake bein’ Timberlake but with occasional mention of rural things. Simply talking about being outside a lot and plopping Chris Stapleton onto a song does not a compelling “southern” album make.
Ember – Breaking Benjamin
Breaking Benjamin has always been “that one band with the song in Halo 2” to me. They exist,people seem to buy their albums, yet I can’t name a single song they’ve produced besides that one song they wrote for Halo 2 back in 2004 (A cursory Google search informs me it was Blow Me Away). The band has been on ice for a few years and is back with, if I’m not mistaken, an entirely new band except for the titular Benjamin Burnley.
Now the band has three guitars instead of two.
Tone-wise Ember feels like that same 2004 BB but for the high school freshman wearing a heavy metal t-shirt who wishes they were a little more “metal.” Take an old album of theirs, dip it in cheesy early-90s heavy metal tropes (heavy on the drums,screaming every couple of lines, light intros followed by heavy drops) you’ve got this weird assemblage of music that’s scarily easy to tune out to. If one was a fan of the band in their formative years and wanted a new album that leans a smidge darker… Ember is a serviceable album.
The Rick and Morty Soundtrack
Rick and Morty
For all of the goofy memes and songs the show created, what really elevated Rick and Morty among its Adult Swim peers was a talented writing staff, talented in-house composer Ryan Elder, and strategic use of licensed music.
Given the show’s history of good music and Adult Swim regularly associating the IP with popular artists (including producing an R&M music video for Run the Jewels) this soundtrack was primed to be a wonderful mix of indie pop, hip-hop, and a handful of goofy songs that have been memed to death ten times over. Unfortunately this album is mostly the latter.
Of the 21 songs only three are by not R&M voice actors/Elder (and of the three one uses R&M samples and one is a Chaos Chaos song that isn’t Terryfolds or Do You Feel It). It’s mainly Justin Roiland singing intentionally stupid songs that break any sense of mood from the licensed music and show composer Ryan Elder’s amazing original pieces.
One could almost sue Adult Swim from the whiplash that occurs going from the powerful electronica of Unity Says Goodbye to friggin’ Get Schwifty. This isn’t an album, it’s a garbage playlist Adult Swim published because they know fans will buy it. The fact that natural resources are being used to print physical copies of this saddens me deeply.
One of the ways I offset some of my podcasting overhead is by freelance reviewing music for a small publication. Since I’ve had this job for over a year now I have a hearty backlog of reviews from my listening to at least four new albums per month. Let’s dive into the backlog and look at the best of the best! Presented in no particular order.
To put the oddity of Diablo Swing Orchestra into context: Pacifisticuffs is the first commercially-released album I have ever seen have zero annotations on Genius. Thousands upon thousands of units sold and not a single super-fan can assign meaning or context to the lyrics of this album. One song can start as an angry metal assault before giving the listener whiplash transitioning into a Latin-inspired pseudo-tango bridge. So many elements are blended by this Swedish avant-garde metal band it boggles the mind.
Jazz, bluegrass, gospel, metal, swing, classical, rock, metal, these things can be found in Pacifisticuffs. In the hand of a less talented musician this recipe has far too many ingredients to make anything coherent. Therein lies the beauty: This album isn’t trying to be coherent, its one goal is to be enjoyable. My recurring gripe with big-name albums is this fanatical devotion to the school of thought that a coherent album must be a homogeneous blob of 10 samey songs with two or three stand-out singles. Diablo Swing Orchestra somehow has made an album that is coherent because none of the songs sound the same.
This is the kind of debut album that leaves one shocked the singer hasn’t done four or five albums already. So much so I double-checked the claim on Wikipedia that this is her debut studio effort. Love Monster comes out of the gate swinging and never backs down, Shark’s brutally real lyrics touching on love, loss, relationships (bad and good) scratch an alt-pop musical itch that I’ve not had scratched in a while. If you’ve been looking for someone who’s capable of dealing with the topics thousands of people make fun of Taylor Swift for not really achieving, Amy Shark’s the person to pay attention to.
Middle of the Night is a rare instance of a breakup song that openly acknowledges the feelings the singer is expressing aren’ t necessarily healthy. It addresses how bad the breakup was, how it needed to happen, yet the chorus touches on an all-too-familiar pang of regret. One could be reductive and say “it‘s a song about drunk texting your ex.” It’s about hurt, it’s about the human need to feel like everything is alright, about wanting to know things are going smoothly. This may not be the best single of the year but it shows its receipts. Shark’s been through a hell of a lot more blood and tears into her work than dating a celebrity for two months then writing country-pop diss tracks.
It’s impossible to listen to a Louie Zong album and not find oneself smiling by the end. dawgz has a tall order to fill after Levels, Zong’s delightfully authentic-sounding soundtrack to a fictional Gameboy Color game.
Not to disappoint, the first track of dawgz – Here Comes a Good Boy – feels like the theme song to an animated series about dogs. Bouncy horns backed by a funky bass line and piano with a sprinkling of sampled dog barks for good measure. The rest of the songs feature some sort of dog-themed title (Always Curious, Cone of Shame, Happy You’re Home) that all work both as songs on their own and in my headcanon that, like Levels, dawgz is constructed to be the soundtrack for a non-existent sitcom starring dogs.
Regardless of my fan theories, dawgz brings out a good mood and fun times purely as an instrumental album. It’s hard to make something inherently bouncy, cute, and fun as these sounds work without veering dangerously close to being too twee. It’s possible these same songs would do just that if they had sitcom-quality lyrics attached to them, but in this reality I can safely say Zong knocked this one out of the dog park.
One More Night Live is difficult to review. Live albums usually exist in this nebulous void with their crap audio quality and not-great vocal performances, marketed primarily to completionists of the band who wants every second of their content ever recorded. Then, even moreso challenging, this album is the final recording of Linkin Park before Chester Bennington committed suicide. Linkin Park hasn’t ever been the cheeriest act in the world but adding this new layer of melancholy shifts one’s interpretation of the music. It truly is a live recording, for better or worse. Notes fly off into the night air, never to be recorded because someone turned their head away from the mic for a split second, Bennington is trying to conserve his voice so certain choruses that should contain his iconic gravelly scream-singing feel empty. Some synth-heavy songs feel like the band that’s physically on stage are looking at their watches waiting for their cue to start performing again.
Linkin Park was a band that hit its stride just as the internet became truly popular. To some their music was an outlet, a way to express pent-up emotions. To others the band became shorthand for swaths of internet jokes about “edgy” people, mocking the rising trends of dumb teens doing dumb teen stuff but funneling it onto the web instead of real life. To this day a cadre of YouTubers who make a living talking shit about decades-old video games or mocking “cringe-worthy” videos they find use clips if Crawling as a shorthand for “isn’t this stupid, how emotional this person is being?” And, of course, a metric ton of self-harm and suicide jokes.
Linkin Park was never a perfect band, and as one of the millions who grew up with their music being omnipresent I don’t think many of people in the US ages 25 – 35 who listened to top 40 music could honestly review their big albums from an outsider perspective. That said, mulling this album over after everything that’s changed in the world… I’m glad it got released. One More Night Live is an accidental swan song , blemishes and all, that shows use Linkin Park wasn’t just a walking meme, it was a collection of real people doing their best to entertain their fans.
In a world where there are thousands of memes making fun of people using airhorns to seem cool, it takes a hell of a rapper to use an airhorn unironically in a beat. Cardi B not only pulls this off, said airhorn is in the first song. One fair point of warning for anyone coming into Invasion of Privacy blind, this isn’t safe-for-work mainstream Eminem rap. This is the kind of rap that terrified the stuffy conservatives I was hearing on talk radio as a kid, the kind of people claiming “there will never be rap oldies stations.” I dare anyone to make a radio-safe edit of GetUp 10.
The song list for this album on Wikipedia is ridiculously long due to each song has as few as four and as many as 17 credited writers. Every line feels intentional, perfectly slotted in with everything else. The fact that this managed to dodge feeling like an album-by-committee is a musical miracle and, I assume, a testament to Cardi B’s creative control over its direction. Overall it’s a great album but there are some choice moments where the flow hits a perfect string of syllables that flow so perfectly I have to rewind to hear it again. Few albums I review actually stay downloaded to my phone, Invasion of Privacy will stay for quite some time.
It’s not often one finds a comedy band built from genuinely good musicians. Ninja Sex Party is one of those diamonds in the rough of the insufferable glut of YouTubers re-writing existing songs to be about an in-joke or creating whole personas to flood Spotify with shitty raps about video games and memes. NSP’s dynamic duo of undersexed bumbling superhero Danny Sexbang and his murderous silent keyboardist Ninja Brian are back and delivering some of the best work NSP has ever published, all backed with amazing instrument work from opening-act-turned-backup-band TWRP. With this extra dose of real instruments supplementing Brian Wecht’s talents on synth keyboard Cool Patrol is a hell of a solid album even divorced from the usual lenience I usually give comedy music acts.
From into to outro the listener is treated to a wonderful collection of songs, some spotlighting Sexbang’s predilection to missing important details or straight up just talking out of his ass half the time (same hat, Danny, same hat), some telling self-contained stories that will earworm their way into your skull and refuse to pay rent. Oh, did I mention their excellent 80s hair metal aesthetic has done nothing but improve over the years?
Danny Don’t You Know is a strong contender for my favorite individual song of 2018. Both in the music video (co-starring fan of the band and Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard) and song itself Danny sings to a younger version of himself about how growing up is hard as fuck, but things can get better.
There is only one real failing point of Cool Patrol that stands out after multiple re-listens and it’s the inclusion of two older songs in an already sizeable album. Without even a remaster they stand out among polished new songs like Release the Kraken and First Date. It feels like if They Might Be Giants dropped an album titled Ana Ng with a not-remastered version of Ana Ng as the star single. Slipping two old songs in unchanged feels dangerously close to fan service AND padding.
Of course the title and inclusion of two old songs doesn’t detract from the overall quality of the fantastic new content NSP has put out, I just hope the next full album has the confidence to stand on its own legs and not hedge it bets with a previous viral hit.
I’m late to the Janelle Monáe party, as Dirty Computer serves as the bookend to a three-album project with multimedia components including a 40 minute short film for one single. Usually there’s a certain level of pretentious air to albums that are part of overall multi-media experiences, like a rabid Doctor Who fan who doesn’t consider anyone a “real fan” unless they’ve seen every single episode (and read the novels made of scripts that were never actually produced). Dirty Computer throws all of that pretension out the door by being a damn good album that can stand on its own two legs.
Theact of listening to Dirty Computer is fun if only for how fresh it stays throughout. There’s some pop, there’s some funk, R&B, hip-hop, even a little soul, all sung by Monáe’s fantastic voice. This is exactly the kind of album one wants in their car for trips around town with friends. If Screwed or Dirty Computer come on I am willing to bet good money no friend with good taste will complain. It’s bright, it’s well-made, I’m blown away.
As someone whose experience with Paul Simon as a solo artist equates to “wow You Can Call Me Al sure does pop up on 80s playlists a lot” this album was a slap to the face. I’ve been sleeping on Paul Simon and it’s time to change that. In the Blue Light is Simon’s final solo album and is built entirely of lesser-known songs from throughout his career that have been tweaked and re-recorded. This is to say, Blue Light is nothing but creative songs that are damned good but in that creativity doomed themselves to never be hit singles.
What’s truly shocking about Blue Light is, although the ten songs span nine albums and 39 years, my complete lack of Simon knowledge meant I spent a week listening to it without realizing they weren’t all written to be on this album. If anything it feels like these songs have been in a old, worn notebook that he finally decided to finalize into songs. If you want a slow pop album that rewards your paying attention, In the Blue Light is the best technically modern example I can point to.
Pray forthe Wicked is neither sin, nor tragedy.
Panic! At the Disco returns with a bang after frontman Brendon Urie’s stint on Broadway acting in Kinky Boots. While there aren’t any specific songs I can point to and definitively say Urie wrote it while in a Broadway musical frame of mind, there is still an air of big production musical to Pray. It’s a bigger, brighter album. If there was in existence a musical play with score provided entirely by Panic! At the Disco, Pray for the Wicked leans distinctly more towards the hypothetical than to their usual works.
Not to say there’s much wrong with their usual works, but this time around it forms a wonderfully cohesive piece that grabs the listener by the lapels and demands they continue listening. Unlike certain other albums I’ve reviewed, I never found myself asking if I’d accidentally kept listening into a loop. The music is distinctive of what I’ve come to expect from the band while also pushing boundaries and trying new things enough that each song on the album feels like its own individual piece.
Universal Studios has set this movie up for failure by launching a marketing campaign that feels like they had a bunch of slogans for a second wave of Grumpy Cat ads that never came to be and just slapped the Grinch’s face on it. Yesterday I enjoyed a stack of green pancakes while sitting in the shade of an Ihop window vinyl with the words “I’m not impressed” next to that smarmy looking green fuck.
The next day I was crying over a nice thing that smarmy green fuck did in his movie, so there’s that. Continue reading “The Grinch (2018): The marketing sucks, I still cried.”
There’s a slight chance very few people will actually read this review in full. If you’re anything like me just hearing the mere premise of this show will cause you to lose focus in your scramble to subscribe and start listening to this delightful show.
Mount Olympus University is an audio fiction series set on a peculiar college campus where the student body and faculty all have unique abilities. That is, except for Pandora, who is there on a full ride scholarship (that she didn’t apply for). The show begins with Pandora stumbling across an abandoned student radio station deep within the ever-changing hallways of MOU.
For the two of you who haven’t seen me running around hat in hand on Twitter, I’ve started a monthly newsletter! All the other cool kids are putting out newsletters, it felt like just the kind of thing to motivate me to get some writing done on a regular basis. What follows is a fun section from last month’s publication! Continue reading “Three Awesome Episodes: A Newsletter Excerpt”