If you've never heard "The Sound of Young America," then "The Sound of Young America" is the greatest radio show you've never heard. The weekly, hourlong show comes out of Santa Cruz, Calif., where it broadcasts on KZSC, and has been picked up by KSFS in San Francisco and by WUSM at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. Thankfully, it is also available by podcast, and iTunes, which offers the show on its subscription service, and bills it as "public radio's meeting point between Conan O'Brien and Terry Gross." Such proclamations rarely hold much truth, but in this case it's a fair description. Jesse "America's Radio Sweetheart" Thorn, the 22-year-old host of the show, interviews his guests -- authors, artists, musicians, scholars and an abundance of comedians -- with the civility and preparedness of Gross leavened with the good humor of O'Brien.
On a show (1:03:23, MP3) from last month, Thorn spoke with rock writer Peter Guralnick for the entire hour about "Dream Boogie," his new biography of soul legend Sam Cooke. (To read Charles Taylor's review in Salon, click here.) Complemented by cuts of Cooke's music, Guralnick shares bits from his vast knowledge of the singer's life and breaks down the ingredients of his unmistakable sound.
On a more recent, and more typical, broadcast (1 hour, MP3), Thorn splits the hour between three guests. First Matt Walsh -- creator of the indie comedy "Martin and Orloff" about a depressed man and the world's worst psychiatrist -- outlines his progress from anarchic comedy troupes in Chicago (think Horatio Sanz being arrested on Thanksgiving Day) to the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York (think fake wedding proposal and a dildo on the "Today" show) to a "shameless attempt to become a millionaire" in Hollywood (think hardware commercials). Then New York comic artist Art Spiegelman describes the slow process of coming to believe in the possibility of tomorrow in the wake of Sept. 11 -- a belief that eventually allowed him to create his acclaimed graphic novel "In the Shadow of No Towers." (Read the Salon review here.) Finally, Chris Elliott talks about his unorthodox career -- from antagonizing David Letterman on late-night TV to the short-lived sitcom "Get a Life" to the box office flop "Cabin Boy" to his new novel "The Shroud of the Thwacker" -- always playing some version of his "semi-retarded, man-child, arrogant for no reason, hot and cold" persona (as Thorn describes it).
Lastly, check out this show (58:44, MP3) from early October. Thorn talks to a University of California at Santa Cruz professor about the town's famous "Mystery Spot" and to Robert Weide, the executive producer of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm." The interviews are both interesting, but the real highlights of the show are the musical interludes from Van Morrison's "contractual obligation album." In 1967, after he had scored a hit with "Brown Eyed Girl" but before the landmark album "Astral Weeks," Morrison wanted out of his contract with Bang records but was obligated to another studio session, so he recorded 31 absurd solo tracks with a poorly tuned guitar. The songs -- intended as a flip of the bird to the label -- include "Ring Worm," "You Say France and I Whistle," and "Here Comes Dumb George." They must be heard to be believed. All 31 are available here at WFMU Jersey City's music blog.
-- Ira Boudway