Leave It To The RJ

On my long commute to and from work, I’m often faced with a dilemma: what do I listen to? Sometimes it’s not hard to find an answer. A new album could be out and I’d give it a spin on the iPod or on the car stereo. Or I’d be obsessed with a new band that I’d discovered and go through everything on their back catalogue, listening to every album they’d released. This has happened with a few bands that I just couldn’t get out of my head for weeks. Some bands have that effect on you. Early this year, The National did that to me—I couldn’t stop listening to them–as did Broken Social Scene, the Canadian collective that makes great orchestrated, experimental music. But, at other times choosing a playlist for a commute that is at its best an hour long and at its worst nearly double that can be quite difficult.

At times like that I lean on other people. That is to say I choose a music podcast that is put out by someone whose choice of music I can count on.

The best ones are from America’s National Public Radio (NPR), which, besides having great radio jockeys who point you in the direction of brilliant music by new, as well as, established bands (the All Songs Considered podcast), has a regular podcast of live shows (the Live Concerts from All Songs Considered podcast) and even ones devoted to interviews with musicians (the Music Interviews podcast) and new songs (the Discover Songs podcasts).

I’ve discovered scores of new bands on NPR just as I have on KCRW, a radio station based in a college in California, which has an excellent programme named Morning Becomes Eclectic whose podcast version can be accessed for free anywhere in the world. Just as NPR’s immensely knowledgeable Bob Boilen hosts some of the All Songs Considered programmes, Morning Become Eclectic has RJs (sadly, the best of them all, Nic Harcourt, is no longer on the show) who introduce you to new bands every week.

Of Montreal’s music has a melodic aspect to it

On Morning Becomes Eclectic, KCRW invites bands to their studio in Los Angeles and to play live, interspersing the gigs with quick interviews with band members. It is on one such back in 2007 that I heard Of Montreal, the indie-rockers from Athens, Georgia. Of Montreal had just launched their (then) new album, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? and on the programme they played some of their new tracks. I was struck by how easily they melded experimentation with what was basically melody-driven pop music. Many experimental bands make music that is difficult to access. Not so, Of Montreal’s. Their music may be influenced by psychedelic rock and funk but also has a hum-along-melodic aspect to it.

Of Montreal aren’t a new band. Their first album, Cherry Peel, came out in 1997, and their latest, False Priest, has just been released. In between, there have been at least eight releases and, if you listen to these chronologically, you see how the band’s sound has evolved—from lo-fi, minimalist to full-bodied, experimental. Their live shows are said to be spectacular, with many costume changes and dancing and their frontman Kevin Barnes is a bundle of energy.

On tour to mark the launch of False Priest, Of Montreal played a gig at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC, recently. And NPR has a podcast of the entire show. You can feel the energy on that gig even without being there and on one of my metro rides into work, it helped keep my mind off my immediate circumstances—stuck as I was between a sweaty armpit and a greasy head belonging, respectively, to two fellow commuters.

Sometimes podcasts can bring with them surprises too. SCI Fidelity Records, a label I like because of the artists it has on its roster, put out a freely downloadable sampler of 14 tracks. Among some really good stuff (tracks by bands such as the American electronic instrumentalists, Lotus, hard rocking avant garde band, Ali Baba’s Tahini, and the jamband, The Contribution) was a great cover version of Amy Winehouse’s Rehab by none other than multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter, Keller Williams.

Singer Keller Williams plays eclectic music from his personal collection on his podcast

Williams plays interesting music. His live shows—often one-man affairs—see him looping back the music he makes with a delay system, which allows him to record and playback the stuff he creates while he is also playing live. So even though he’s alone on the stage, he sounds like a full band. But Williams has something other than his own music to offer. He does a podcast called, Keller Williams’ Somewhat Rule-less Radio, an hour-long narrated programme of eclectic music that he picks out from his huge and growing personal collection. Williams is witty with his comments, which are as inspiring as the music he plays.

Most of the podcasts I listen to on my daily commute are about an hour long—fitting perfectly with the duration of the journey most days—but for really long hauls, including inter-city flights, you could go for extended podcasts, of which I have discovered quite a few. If you like progressive rock (think King Crimson, Yes or more recent acts such as Porcupine Tree and American Hollow), you could download the Prog’opolis podcast, hosted by a couple who chatter a bit but play music for at least two hours but very often three or even five hours at a go.

If, on the other hand, you like the blues, there are several good podcasts (including weekly ones such as the Roadhouse podcast, now nearly 300 episodes old). Likewise, if jazz is your thing, there are podcasts for that as well (try the monthly Bending Corners podcast, a mélange of jazz and groove). As I said, podcasts can be a commuter’s best friend, no matter what the genre is.

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