Stuff We’re Into: Robot Nuance, Fictional Serial and the Soundtrack to Your Next Joy Ride

Stuff We’re Into is Revels’ staff recommendations for the weekend, so you have something to think about and we don’t have to think about anything but Netflix, mimosas, and our next karaoke song. 

Eryn: The Black Tapes Podcast / Tanis

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What it is: Two fiction podcasts blending conspiracy theory, urban legend, and horror. The Black Tapes and Tanis masquerade as podcast spinoffs of a fake public radio show called Pacific Northwest Stories, in the vein of This American Life’s famous podcast baby, Serial. Black Tapes features a pitch-perfect mimic of Sarah Koenig’s now-iconic reporting style from Serial, as host Alex Reagan delves into the life and work of surly paranormal researcher/skeptic Dr. Richard Strand, and his collection of unsolved paranormal cases. Alex’s producer Nic Silver later creates a sister podcast called Tanis, in which Nic explores a mystical concept called “Tanis” and its tangled web of connections to religion, classic weird fiction, secret societies, and a number of mysterious events in the Pacific Northwest.

Why you should listen: Really great fiction podcasts feel hard to come by–they can’t all be Welcome to Night Vale–but The Black Tapes and Tanis are a wonderful exception. Inventive, creepy, and often quite funny as well, these two podcasts demonstrate the amazing creative work that can be done through the serialized storytelling of indie podcasting. The voice acting isn’t always first-rate, but Alex and Nic have a delightful chemistry with both each other and their main supporting actors. Listening to Dr. Strand slowly open up to Alex over the course of The Black Tapes’ first season is endlessly charming, his cold and scornful cynicism melting just the tiniest bit under her relentless attempts to be friendly. Meanwhile, much of Nic’s information for Tanis comes from a hacker who goes by the handle Meerkatnip, whom he pays in bitcoin for data off the dark web. Meerkatnip (I know, right? I know) is hilarious, channeling April Ludgate as she audibly rolls her eyes through every conversation with Nic while also growing increasingly invested in the mystery he’s paying her to help uncover.

Above all, these two shows reward the re-listen, something I always love to see. I’ve listened to The Black Tapes’ first season three times now, and each time I noticed more connections among Strand’s cases, and came up with more theories to explain them. I haven’t re-listened to Tanis yet, but only because when I do I’m gonna need a freakin’ corkboard and a bunch of red string like some conspiracy nut to track how everything fits together. Worth noting: you don’t need any background knowledge to enjoy Black Tapes and Tanis, but both shows are FULL of easter eggs for anyone who follows the worlds of paranormal investigation and conspiracy theory–many of the ideas and people mentioned in them are either real or pastiches of real people and events. (Also worth noting: both shows feature disturbing imagery, general spookiness, and absurd violations of journalistic ethics, so maybe avoid if you’re not into that.) They are now in the middle of their second seasons, but you will want to start from the beginning!

Alex:  Dark Matter (on Netflix)

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What it is:  A slick little Canadian sci-fi show (based on a comic) imported to SyFy and streaming on Netflix.  Six people and an android wake up from cryo-sleep with absolutely no memories on a ship drifting through deep space.  They work together (or sometimes not) to figure out who they are and what happened to them.  This turns out to be a brilliant driving mechanism for a tight 13-episode season, as the seven characters get to know themselves at basically the same pace as the viewers, and each regained memory threatens the new bonds of the amnesiac crew.  

Why you should watch:  If you can get past the slight, low-budget sheen of this show (and I’m betting you can) you will be rewarded with a classic sci-fi set-up with a diverse cast that is perfect for that Firefly-shaped hole in your life.  And unlike Firefly, it’s getting a second season!  Binge the first 13 episodes and get ready for Dark Matter Season 2 beginning July 1st on SyFy.  Finally, a special shout-out to Zoie Palmer, who plays the helpful android, for giving one of the best and most nuanced robot performances I’ve ever seen.

Nora: Early Bruce Springsteen

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Young Bruce Springsteen is also a total fox, even with limited beard capabilities.

What it is: A while ago I was working for a group of artists who *love* rock n’ roll. Occasionally (two songs into the first side of an AC/DC album) I struggle with this, but more often I learn to love artists I’ve always written off, because my “Dad Rock” phase started and ended with Fleetwood Mac, at which point it became a “Mom Rock” phase and I started a lifetime obsession with Van Morrison and Elvis Costello. Anyway, I was sitting listening to a strangely familiar voice sliding easily from energetic rock into moments of raw energy spouting these narrative lyrics that made me feel…really…oh my…so…Americ…USA! USA! USA!

It was Greetings from Asbury Park, and the older men were astonished I had to ask. Of course, before this I only associated him with one drive down the San Francisco Peninsula with only this really scratched mix CD that would only play Born in the USA. I’d always gotten a showboat-y impression from his greatest hits, lyrics simple and contrived, like too many Donald Trump campaign slogans set to aggressive guitar music.

Why You Should Listen: I was way wrong, people! Not only does Springsteen make public stands for transgender rights, not all of his lyrics would make the best campaign slogans:

“I’ve broken all your windows/And I’ve rammed through all your doors/Who am I to ask you to fight my wars.”

USA! US…hey…

Musically there’s more variation than I expected, some are a bit jazzy and catchy, whereas others are closer to the rocking Bruce I always knew, but the slow soul of the bare-bones driven tracks convinced me to listen more closely to the other tracks. It seems very much like an artist not entirely sure what direction to go throwing out his best and seeing what sticks. He capitalizes on bluesy aspects of rock and roll in The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, which is total Nora bait.

Also, it’s summer, and if Dylan was birthed from folk (if; I know that’s incredibly simplistic) Springsteen seems to have sprung from the well of country-rock. He probably dug the well. With bare hands and a blue collar. Either way, I know I’m not going to convince anyone that Sam Hunt’s new single is totally fun, because listening to country-pop as loud as possible is definitely an acquired taste. So when you take the truck (read: 2001 Hyundai Accent) out for a spin, roll those windows down, and put on some early Bruce. It’ll cheer you up.

“And some kid comes blastin’ ’round the corner, but a cop puts him right away/He lays on the street holding his leg, screaming something in Spanish, still breathing when I walked away.”

In all seriousness, this growly dive into the grime of working-class America is a reminder that we’ve have always had troubles and some good always rises. Much of the most meaningful cultural contributions come from hard times, so let’s not stop creating, celebrating or sharing what makes us happy.

USA! (In a critically aware, authority-questioning and ethical way)

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Have a good weekend.

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