Ersatz Ticker

I hate it when people ask about the music I listen to. The short answer is along the lines of “I guess I like a little bit of everything”, but that just sounds kind of shallow, doesn’t it? It makes me sound like one of those people who just turn on a Top 40 station and proceed to ignore it, or (God forbid) one of those “happy, uplifting and inspiring” stations. The bumpers alone are enough to make me contemplate The Van Gogh Option.

Judging from my Facebook news feed, most of the people in my age group are still listening to the things we listened to in High School, which for the most part means hair bands, power ballads, and classic rock. I’m not sure where I lost that group, to be honest. I suspect that it’s because I worked in radio for a few years on an ‘album rock’ station, so I had that stuff drummed into my brain on a daily basis. I just can’t deal with it now.

Of course, a few of those bands have held up pretty well. AC/DC still holds a prominent position on my playlist, for example. A little Def Leppard here and there is OK. The one that surprises me the most is Guns N’ Roses. I was a huge G&R fan for a few years, but I can’t listen to them at all now. I put it on and 2 minutes later I’m thinking “Holy crap. Was I ever this angry?”

On a side note, I have to admit that it amuses me when I hear people say that Nirvana killed hair bands. The truth is that hair metal died the day Guns N’ Roses released Welcome to the Jungle. One look at Axl Rose and Slash was enough to know that these were people who had knifed somebody in the back for heroin money. Everyone in teased hair, eyeliner and spandex instantly looked absurd.

With the joys of my youth now largely excluded, I ended up with some pretty odd taste in music.

I’m fascinated by creativity. The creative process. I’m fascinated by where it comes from, how it works through people, and what they do with it. Thomas Edison referred to it as “Holy Fire” – the divine spark, I guess. Some people are just burning up with it, and that’s what tends to grab me about certain music. I told Vicki once that “I like music that sounds like the artists were leaning forward when they recorded it.” I think you can tell when the musicians are excited by what they are doing, and excited about getting it out to people.

If you looked through my playlist right now you’d see old stuff and new stuff, punk, rap, techno, rock, country and even bluegrass. The genre just doesn’t interest me that much. I’ve heard a snatch of music in a movie soundtrack that grabbed me. I discovered Petra Haden and Robert Randolph from TV commercials. Ben Harper was playing on the restaurant sound system during dinner one night. I found Guy Clark when Terry Gross interviewed him on Fresh Air. Just a little snip is often enough to recognize the spark, and then I start Googling. What was that? Who recorded it? What else have they done?

It drives Vicki up a wall sometimes, because when I stumble across something new (new to me, anyway) I can listen to it over and over for weeks. Absorbing that fire. Reveling in it. I can understand how that could get pretty irritating, but Vicki will listen to the same audiobook over and over again – which I find completely unfathomable, so I guess we’re even.

What’s got me thinking about all this right now is that Jonathan Coulton released his new album Artificial Heart over the weekend.

Like most people, I found Jonathan Coulton when someone sent me a link to a YouTube video, and he’s been a favorite for 3 or 4 years now. If you aren’t familiar with Coulton (often called JoCo by fans) he’s a hard guy to explain. He gets stuck with the ‘Geek Rock’ label a lot, and while I think that’s accurate, it’s also an oversimplification. He makes music for bright people, and tech-literate people. Some of that can get pretty geeky, but a lot of it is just common experience – transcending the geek thing and just talking about what it’s like to be an arguably non-stupid person in 2011.

The content of his songs was kind of a precision-guided warhead for an internet generation, but it wasn’t the songs alone that turned him into a sensation. Back in 2003 Coulton started releasing music through his website, with a Creative Commons license attached to each song that allowed people to freely use each one in a non-commercial project of their own. The whole thing snowballed and spread like wildfire, with people making their own videos, recording their own versions, you name it. Using the web, he established a succesful career for himself completely outside of the usual record industry channels. He’s a viral dude.

Artificial Heart is the first full album of original music that JoCo has released in 5 years, which also means it’s the first new thing he’s done since I became a fan. He was so creative and so prolific in the past that I was curious about how the delay and the intervening years would influence him, but it doesn’t seem to have dimmed his spark any. It seems like a more mature and less goofy effort, but I suppose that’s natural. Ain’t none of us gettin’ any younger, after all.

I think the biggest difference with the new material is just the fact that he’s playing with a band. For most of his career Coulton performed solo with an acoustic guitar, and did all his recording in a home studio. This time out he used a real band and a real producer, and you can tell that dynamic is where the creativity is coming from this time around. It’s both a good and a bad thing. Working on your own you can spend as much time as you want on your goofiest ideas. When you’re working with a group, some restraint is imposed by the simple fact that you have to explain to somebody else just where the hell you’re trying to go with this.

Also on the ‘mixed blessings’ page would be the fact that the album was produced by They Might Be Giants co-founder John Flansburgh, and a lot of the tracks have a definite TMBG feel to them. I’m cool with that. There’s a big overlap in the fan base, and if you’re not the kind of person who likes They Might Be Giants, then you probably wouldn’t like JoCo either.

Vicki and Marshall and I saw Coulton live at the The Orange Peel back in March or April (he’s coming back, opening for TMBG in September – so we’ll probably see him again) and he played several songs from the new album during that show. It’s been surprisingly cool to finally have recorded versions of songs I first heard live – especially Good Morning Tucson, Sticking it to Myself, and Glasses, all 3 of which have been stuck in my head for 7 months now.

Boy, this is an odd post, isn’t it? It started with meandering observations about music, took a little diversion into creativity, and ended up sounding like an album review. But let’s be honest – reviewing Artificial Heart would be kind of stupid. It’s new JoCo tunage, and it’s very good, and what else matters, when you get right down to it? If this is the sort of thing you like, then the odds are good that you’re already liking it. If you aren’t, then you should be.

- Ken

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