Monday, March 27, 2006

XPN is your friend; Radio Avant-Gardism reconsidered

In the past few months I've gotten hooked on the University of Pennsylvania's radio station, WXPN.

I listen to it all the time driving up to Bethlehem, between 4 and 6 hours a week. They describe the format as "a colorful patchwork of contemporary rock, folk, alternative country, rhythm and blues, world beat and reggae music genres." I have to admit that there is a little too much folk and for my tastes. But in amidst a fair amount Son Volt and Emmylou Harris are new bands (the Arctic Monkeys, this year's Franz Ferdinand) and some surprises (as in, the Maytals' amazing collaboration with No Doubt on a remake of "Monkey Man").

The most triumphant set list I can remember was last Monday morning:

Francis Dunnery - Too Much Saturn - Tall Blonde Helicopter
Augustana - Boston - All The Stars And Boulevards
The Cars - All Mixed Up - The Cars

The Redwalls - Build A Bridge - De Nova
Cat Power - Living Proof - The Greatest
The Yardbirds - Over Under Sideways Down - Var-Constantine Rarities
World Party - What Does It Mean Now? - Dumbing Up
Creedence Clearwater Revival/John Fogerty - Who'll Stop The Rain - Cosmo's Factory
Gorillaz - Feel Good Inc - Demon Days

The reason it stood out to me so much was, first of all, the remarkable first song, which grabbed me immediately. Francis Dunnery is a British folk singer who I'd never heard about. But given the course I'm teaching this spring, I was stunned to hear these lyrics to "Too Much Saturn":

I always believed that if I ran off to India
Wore sandals and shaved my head
And used Body shop conditioner, and incense like crazy
I could call myself a spirit head
But I only went to India to look on top
I wore sandals cause I’d smoked all my money
And I shaved off all my hair cause I had the fleas
I’d been sleeping all over
And the Body shop conditioner was a present from a friend
And the incense used to hide the smell
Of the drug den that I lay in

And so I ask myself what my motives are
For this lying need to look so free
And if I tell myself real honestly
What more can I admit to, open up a door
He said I’m gonna find out what I’m here for
He said I’d find out soon
I got too much Saturn and not enough Moon (link)

I'm not thrilled by the astrology-oriented chorus (too much Saturn, etc.), but I'm a sucker for sober demystification. (Incidentally, the song is available on Itunes. Download it if you like catchy British folk pop. You can read the rest of the lyrics at this yoga blog)

Following "Too Much Saturn," every song on the list was interesting in one way or another -- even Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Who'll stop the rain" (which benefits somewhat from being pulled out of its classic rock ghetto... and joins the canon of killer "Katrina" songs...)

* * * *
Why XPN isn't really college radio, but I don't care:

While I might have resented XPN's quasi-corporate approach a few years ago, now I actually enjoy the fact that the DJs are professionals and the playlists are somewhat focused (but not so focused that you don't get the occasional, deliciously schizophrenic pop/rap song from a group like Gorillaz). I DJed at WXDU at Duke for three years, and while I loved my three hour weekly gig, the station as a whole didn't really have a clear sense of focus. The programming staff worked very hard to listen to and review dozens of new CDs every week, but the crush of new music simply overwhelmed us -- and probably most of our listeners. (Here are just some of the CDs I reviewed for WXDU in the spring of 2001.)

It's helpful to play some songs that listeners will be somewhat familiar with along with newer or more obscure music (like Francis Dunnery). It's also helpful that XPN tends to put certain new albums on a rotation for a week -- and then retire them before they get too tiresome. I got to hear plenty of Matisyahu a couple of weeks ago (enough to know that I don't really need a copy of Youth; Live at Stubb's is good enough), but now the station has moved on to another "album of the week."

The stronger emphasis on new music you hear on 'real' college radio helps get exposure for a broader ranger of musicians, but it also means that listeners don't really know what to expect when they tune in. German Electroclash... Javanese throat singers... Twee... Sun Ra... the wild jumps might occasionally please people with very esoteric tastes, but they bore or alienate the majority of listeners. In most college towns I've lived in, I've had the sense that not many people really bother with the more avant-garde sounding college radio. XPN is more user-friendly, and as a result, it has a huge audience and a lively, energizing presence in the Philly music scene.


Bookboojum said...

'XPN certainly isn't perfect, but for now it's probably your best bet as far as Philly-area radio goes. I've lived in the area my entire life, and have watched (listened to?) over the past 15 years the gradual dessication of the Philadelphia area radio landscape. Almost every station now plays either "oldies" (WMMR and WMGK included -- 'MMR is poised to become the oldies station for those of us who came of age in the early to mid '90s), corporate hip-hop/dance music, or soft rock. If the situation is comparable in other US metro areas, then I think now would be a good time to buy some stock in one of those digital radio providers.

4:31 PM  
Amardeep said...


Thanks for the reinforcement. If you aren't looking for hip hop, Philly radio is generally a bit dismal.

But I actually subscribed to XM Radio a year ago (blogged about it here), and I haven't been thrilled with the programming. The content is filtered very well into coherent channels, but they don't really seem to decide what songs to include based on quality. My experience is, it's almost impossible to hear three good songs in a row on any XM channel. It's always possible to find something good on the dial somewhere, but in 10 minutes you'll be looking for another station.

I'm not sure whether I'm so bullish on satellite radio anymore.

4:50 PM  
Amrit said...

I haven't listened to radio for years fact now that I think of it, I don't even have a radio. The one I had in the car stopped working I don't remember when, and at home I think ever since we broke our radion in the early 90s we never got a new one. wife calls me a gadget freak sometimes, and I don't have a radio :-).


6:30 AM  
Anonymous said...

Xpn is pretty decent. But I get tired of its predictability, given its declared objectives--they have a playlist, it's aimed at a demographic. I'm still waiting for the truly eclectic station that shakes things up with every single song, that sounds like the never-ended iPod playlist of someone interesting.

7:06 PM  
Geffel said...

Francis used to be in It Bites, a prog rock band (yes they released some much edited cut down versions of their more accissible tunes which led to people thinking they were just another 1980s soft-rock pop group, but that was the fault of their misguided record company's attempts to categorise them)that made three good albums, although Once Around the World stands out as the best of the bunch.
Francis quit for a solo career and has made eight solo albums that range from rocky to (as you suggested) folky.
The albums are:
Welcome to the WIld Country
Tall Blonde Helicopter
Lets Go Do What Happens
Gulley Flats Boys
Hometown 2001(live)
Once night in Sauchiehall Street (live)
He has also appeared on several albums as a guest musician, given that he is a multi-instrumentalist, but is especially gifted as a guitarist. In my opinion he is one of the top five guitarist of all time.
You will hear him playing with Robert Plant, Lauryn Hill, Ian Brown and santana to name but a few.

5:48 PM  
Anonymous said...

I can't say anything about the XPN, since I live in Austin, TX. But if you get a chance, listen to, the University of Texas at Austin radio station. It's the best radio station in town for its eclectic mix of music. John Aielli, the host of the 4-hour weekday program called Eklektikos, is the most versatile host I have heard in live radio ever. His interviews and his knowledge of music is without parallel in my opinion. Many times I have seen him take a little piece of NPR news that precedes his program and he will go on and on in playing music that is related to the news in some way or the other. His program is from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST.

11:53 AM  
wellwisher said...

Free More Sperm Pills Increase Your Sperm by 500%

2:19 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home