Last week, Jonathan Coulton released his latest album, Artificial Heart, his first with a full backing band, produced by They Might Be Giants member John Flansburgh. The album’s the first major album since 2006’s Thing A Week Four, and with a couple of songs in here and there, it’s a welcome addition to the Geek Music field. As such this week, we’re taking a look at Coulton’s career and music this week.
Coulton’s probably one of the more recent influential members within Geek Music, gaining an incredible amount of fame for someone who’s never worked with a major record label, working extensively on the grassroots level: viral marketing at its finest, as he sang about a whole, awesome range of geeky things, from computers to monkeys to robots. Hailing from Colchester CT, (a town who’s motto inspired the name of his second album), where he played music throughout school before being hired in the software industry.
Coulton’s first album was 2003’s Smoking Monkey, which didn’t go as well initially, as he wasn’t as well known at the time of its release. One of my favorite songs off of the album is “Ikea”:
Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow was Coulton’s 2004 album that really captured my attention in college, and included my the first song that I listened to, “Skullcrusher Mountain”. This song, for me, remains one of the greatest songs that he’s done thus far: it captures the geekiness, in an ernest way. It’s one of the songs that really got me listening to geek music, demonstrating that music could be a good route for stories, just as much as television, movies, and novels:
The album also included “The Future Soon”, which I like for all the same reasons as “Skullcrusher Mountain”: it’s geeky, fantastic, and it tells a story.
2005 brought us a short EP, Our Bodies, Ourselves, Our Cybernetic Arms, was released as a soundtrack for the September issue of Popular Science. In the same year, Coulton left his full time job working with software to pursue a career in music.
With his departure from the corporate world, 2006 marked an experiment from Coulton: could he write and record a song, once a week, for an entire year, resulting in four Thing A Week albums. The experiment was crazy: the music industry was (and still is) going through major issues with the rise of the internet, filesharing and widespread piracy. Despite it all, he was able to ammass a following with his continual output of songs.
I really dig a lot of the songs that came out during this period: “Re: Your Brains” is a fantastic song, and “Code Monkey” is one of the more well known songs that he’s released, especially after being linked on Slashdot and Penny Arcade. The Thing A Week project that he embarked on was ambitious, gathered quite a bit of attention, and seems to be a time of a lot of experimentation: innovation that’s certainly helped propell him into geek stardom, and influenced how he goes about doing things now:
NPR recently interviewed Coulton this past May, looking at his rise to internet fame. It’s a worthwhile listen, one that sheds a bit of light on the business end of how Coulton’s managed to stay successful: a key element in any musician’s career.
One of the best videos that I’ve seen of a Coulton song is the one for “Shop Vac”, Kinetic Typography, which is a fantastic example of where the video and song can both support one another and still be quite a bit of fun to watch.
All in all, I found the Thing A Week Songs to be a mixed bag. There’s some gems there, but there’s others that really fill space, and aren’t all that memorable. I suppose this is to be expected with such a project, given the scale of it. But, it clearly marks a period of growth: it feels like there’s a lot being worked out in 2006.
As we talked about a couple weeks ago with Songs About Games, Coulton’s done a bit of work with the Portal games, releasing two songs for the end credits, one in 2007 and one in 2011: “Still Alive” and “Want You Gone”. They’re fun songs, and two that really capture Coulton’s unique style, but also a bit of growing refinement:
The recently released album, Artificial Heart, features the type of growth that I always hope to see in a musician: dramatic changes from one album to another. Coulton doesn’t sacrifice any of his wimsy with this album, but the sound and style is lightyears beyond his older works: the introduction of a full band and dedicated, professional work shines through, and the result is an album that’s polished, tight and all around fantastic. I’ve been bopping along to Nemeses ever since I got an e-mail about it (it’s already up there with one of my absolute favorites from him), but just about every other song on the album is excellent. It’s not a perfect album, to be sure, with some songs that didn’t quite catch me, but it’s by far his strongest collection to date:
I’m off to see Jonathan and They Might Be Giants as they swing up to Vermont this weekend. It should be a fun show, and I’ve been looking forward to it for months. More thoughts after that happens, hopefully. Next week, though, we’ll revisit at least one Coulton song with Songs About Zombies.