Friday, March 21, 2014

NOW HEAR THIS! JONATHAN COULTON (2009)




Note: Originally published in The Cauldron (2009). Friend of The Cauldron JoCo was really surging in popularity among the geek set at this time, due to the popularity of Valve's quirky puzzle game, Portal, which turned out to be A Whole Thing. 

This, along with The Nightwatchman, was one of the few times where an artist was profiled due to massive request. It's still strange to think that my college newspaper column had massive requests, but there you have it.

Now Hear This!
Music You May Have Missed
By Jonathan “Killstring” Herzberger
The Cauldron Arts & Entertainment Editor

The Cake is a Lie.

There. Now that we have that particular bit of business out of the way, let’s have a chat, shall we? Jonathan Coulton is certainly no stranger to these pages – in fact, he’s been interviewed in them. But that was years ago, that is to say, more than one year ago – and we here at the Now Hear This institute for a better life are absolutely fine with your crippling, debilitating ADD.

Robots!

Still with us? Great. Jonathan Coulton: self-proclaimed code monkey turned singer-songwriter turned internet sensation. Don’t believe us? Ye of little faith. Go ahead, google him – we’ll wait.

You back? Cool. Now let’s talk music.

Doing various comedy and spoof tunes while working as a computer programmer at software company Cluen, Coulten put out a little record called Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow – a five-song gem of a record that includes a gentle ballad about being a horrible monster at the bottom of the sea (“I Crush Everything”), a love song from a mad scientist to his hapless captive (“Skullcrusher Mountain”) cyborg love vengeance (“The Future Soon”) and the Mandelbrot Set (Somewhat unsurprisingly, “Mandelbrot Set”.) Coulton recorded the songs himself, playing all the instruments, and generally being a one-man show – much as he had with his first record Smoking Monkey – a modest, but charming affair.

It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, rather well-received in the nerd community – math nerds, and computer nerds alike got into the quirky folky tunes, landing him the peculiar position of ‘Contributing Troubadour’ with Popular Science magazine, and resulting in the creation of the EP Ourselves, Our Bodies, Our Cybernetic Arms – which, while hardly revolutionizing the face of modern music, certainly showed that Coulton – or JoCo as his expanding fanbase was wont to call him – had more going for him than a simple Internet comedy folk act.

He was a really good Internet comedy folk act.

Good enough to quit his job, and try to make a living as a musician. Good enough to try a sort of experiment – the ambitious task of writing and recording one track per week, and posting them to his website, iTunes, and maybe making a compilation CD when all was said and done.

The ambitious project was called Thing A Week – which might not have been the most innovative of titles, but it at least got the point across. And it was here – nestled within the web 2.0, instant-access blogger culture, that Coulton really began to shine.

Fans offered suggestions. Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” was rendered as a touching, heartfelt ballad, complete with banjo, and Ben Folds-esque vocal harmonies. Then-President George W. Bush got remixed, as did Sir Paul McCartney, in “W’s Duty” and “When I’m 25 or 64”, respectively.

And a funny thing happened – Coulton was finding that it was in fact, feasible to be a professional musician with no record label, no big-name band you used to be a part of, no advertising campaign, and not so much as a sniff of radio. Really, nothing but a glorified blog, and a lot of word-of-mouth.

Well, word-of-text, anyway. This was the Internet, after all.

So where are we today? The Thing A Week projects reached up to four installments – and while they yielded their fair share of duds, there’s more than a lion’s share of gems here.

And this brings us to the point – yes, there is a point, I promise. Yes, some of the songs are silly fluff, good for a laugh, and little more. Don’t download those.

But for much of his body of work, there’s a genuine, earnest quality to the performance that simply does not exist in most comedy acts. Sure, “Re: your brains” is a song about Zombies in an office setting. You might not want to hear it every day. But tracks like “I’m Your Moon,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” and Coulton’s signature “Code Monkey” have bits of humor to them, but more importantly, they’re genuinely well-crafted songs, full of wit, crafted with a deft, gentle touch, haunting melodies, and a clear, earnest voice.

Pretty much everything you’d want in your folk-tinged indie pop, regardless of the subject matter. And this is what sets him apart from say, a Stephen Lynch, who’s (debatably) funny once, but subsequent listens reveal how bloody funny the singer thinks they are.

Maybe that’s the key to JoCo’s unlikely success. The songs never tell you when you should laugh – you get to decide that for yourself. You can buy them in records if you like – or you can pick and choose the MP3’s you like, it’s all the same price. Music on the terms of the listener, without pretense, or demands. The rest of the music industry would do well to follow his example – we the people want our music on our terms.

Oh. Before I forget – that opening line? If you haven’t pieced it together yet, Coulton also penned the theme song “Still Alive” for a little video game called “Portal.” It got kind of popular.

Though I never did get any cake. Ah well. Can’t have everything on your terms.