Every week when it’s time to put together my staff pick, I think about what media I have consumed lately. This week, there’s no question about what dominated my listening: the Bandsplain podcast on Spotify. I’m reluctant to recommend something only available on Spotify, but that’s where this podcast lives, and I’m sure a ton of you are already on Spotify anyway, so I might as well go with it. Hopefully this isn’t a slippery slope, because I don’t want to be recommending fucking Mypillow or the new Subaru Outback in my staff pick. Thankfully, the other sections of the newsletter remain focused on underground punk and hardcore.
Back to Bandsplain. I was hanging out at a friend’s house the other weekend and when the subject of podcasts came up, Rich told me about this one. (Yes, the same Rich who isn’t actually on the SSR staff so we can’t fault him for not having written a staff pick in a long time, but we still wish he would.) Rich, characteristically, insisted that the podcast sucked but he listened to it anyway, so I made a note to check it out. Once I did, it took over my car stereo.
We’ve been talking about doing a Sorry State podcast for years, but aside from having no time to put together a podcast, I think everyone on the staff has a different vision for what an SSR podcast would be. I always said my vision for a great music podcast would be an approximate ratio of 75% talk to 25% percent music. The majority of the running time would be spent introducing, discussing, and contextualizing whatever music we’re discussion, then you would play a a full song (or maybe a few if they’re short) so the listener could make up their own mind, or just have a deeper and more engaged listening experience thanks to their newfound knowledge. This is Bandsplain’s formula to a T.
In each episode, host Yasi Salek invites an expert on a particular band to take a walk through that group’s history and discography. The focus is on artists with a cult following, with a mix of dyed-in-the-wool indie artists (like the Cocteau Twins and the Misfits) and more widely known artists who have dedicated, cult-like followings (like Steely Dan and Metallica). The guests are a mix of music journalists and the kinds of people who might appear as talking heads in a music doc, and on the episodes I’ve listened to so far, they’re well chosen. Riki Rachtman is the guest for the Guns N Roses episode, and while he pushes hard against the speculation and interpretation that is music journalists’ stock in trade, his close relationship with the band through their formative and peak periods makes him a perfect guest (even if he is, as he’s always been, kind of annoying). Salek herself is also great. I know nothing about her background, but she’s knowledgeable (it helps that she’s the same as me, so we have similar points of reference), has great rapport with the guests, and regularly drops hilarious zingers (my favorite is when she calls Elizabeth Fraser’s vocal approach for Cocteau Twins “ethereal scatting”).
The interview segments are as well-researched and informative as you would expect from a good music podcast, but the magic happens when they play the full songs. After hearing the background information and analysis, I’m primed to hear how that plays out in the actual music, and I find myself listening to the tracks with an open and curious ear. While I often listen to an artist’s work after listening to a podcast or reading a book about them, the seamlessness of the Bandsplain listening experience allows me to hold the episode’s conversational threads in my brain while I’m listening. And one full song is the perfect amount to hear at a time. While most of the artists they examine on Bandsplain are “album artists,” a song on an album is like a paragraph in a long text: one complete, fleshed-out thought. Then it’s on to the next interview segment, where the conversation moves forward, requiring another example track a few minutes later. Just like I imagined for my own unmade podcast, the proportions are perfect.
So far I’ve listened to the episodes on Guns N Roses, Steely Dan, the Lemonheads, and the first half of the two-episode series on Metallica (part one covered up through the black album, and I’m not sure I can take going any further than that). I’ve enjoyed every episode, and my only gripe with Bandsplain (and it’s a minor one) is that they’re a little too free with the value judgments. While it doesn’t grate against my ear when they’re praising things, they’re sometimes dismissive when they don’t like something. They pretty much write off the early Taang!-era Lemonheads material, and Ben Deily’s songs in particular. I always liked Deily’s songs, and I’ve always thought his songs are stronger than Evan Dando’s on those early records.
All in all, though, Bandsplain is one of the best music podcasts I’ve heard in a while. I’m looking forward to making my way through the other episodes and seeing what artists they cover next.