The music business has changed so much in the past few years that there is a huge gap between what was thought of as the studio album being replaced by lyric videos and viral sensations. What happens when you’re a former programmer that wants to create music instead of being a cubical code monkey in this environment?
You get the uncanny Jonathan Coulton, a man who’s career was quite literally forged by riding the crest of the internet wave like oh-so-many primates on the cover of the original T&C Surf Designs NES cartridge.
JoCo infamously indulged in a year long quest to make a “Thing a Week” in 2005, creating memorable geek singalong numbers “Shop Vac”, “Chiron Beta Prime”, “Tom Cruise Crazy” and of course “Mr. Fancy Pants”. Alright, you might not know these songs yet, but you can listen to them for free on his site along with the unofficial “Ikea” theme song (‘plywood, brushed steel; meatballs, tasty’).
Bridging the gap between synth pop, guitar rock and geek culture is his specialty, and while certainly not a household name, he’s name checked on your favorite podcasts and his annual JoCo Cruise is like a Comic Con on the high seas, bringing together the the bi-mon-sci-fi-con mentality to international waters. Crusie guests tend to include fellow geek royalty John Hodgman and hi-minded and whimsical nerd musical guests like Paul and Storm and The Doubleclicks. Does this sound like something you read in a comic somewhere? Much of Chelsea Cain’s much too short Mockingbird (Marvel) comic took place on the cruise. Go read that book. 8 issues of the best stuff Marvel has done since…Hawkeye by Matt Fraction.
Which brings us full circle to Solid State, the 2017 release from JoCo that is accompanied by a graphic novel — that is to say the whole piece, album and volume is called Solid State. Fraction writes, filling in the gaps between songs with a story about interconnected men, AI and their lives swirling about in the great expanse.
We were offered a sneak peak at some pages but not the whole story, that will come when the album is released.
JoCo’s basic concept was to say, “The Internet sucks now”, but he explains in his introduction how his groups of songs started to speak to him in surprising ways before jumping up and biting his ass to become a full blown sci-fi concept album.
The songwriting feels like what Wes Anderson is to film. Familiarity by being familial but always surprising you by a funny joke or simply trying to work out the symmetry of the way the story is framed by the way it is shot. Fraction has taken us on some journeys in the recent past as well with ODY-C, Satellite Sam and the inspiration for this collaboration, Sex Criminals. The clean and funny cartooning of Albert Monteys of Panel Syndicate’s Universe! gives the book what some call a European feel, and nothing wrong with comparing him to the Old World, Monteys hails from Spain!
We’re first introduced to Solid State by the “Lyric Video” teaser for “All This Time”. It’s not a lyric video at all, there’s just a bunch of text scrolling by as you watch the main character take on a text based game of Zork. What does one get from processing widgets all day? Credits, apparently. Is it worth it?
Stylistically, JoCo stays on theme with the music and this music has great production, writing and instrumentation. I imagine he’s responsible for most of the playing. The title track “Solid State” (reprised later in the track listing) is about our future but has a twangy, folky country feel, with some gospel backups and steel guitar.
Track six is a somber track number, as far as track numbers go. Its deep enough into the record to deserve the title “Pictures of Cats”. The ballad will make you snicker or make you crawl into your blanket.
A deep dive into the album might have you pointing at such diverse influences as rock and roll jazz band Steely Dan (see “Ball and Chain”), The Beatles, Pink Floyd, over to Devo and Kraftwork and around the bend to Neil Young and Livingston Taylor. He is after all, a folk musician at heart. He just so happens to be a folk musician tapping into the ethernet of our collective geek consciousness.
JoCo is on tour now with Aimee Mann, no word on Fraction making an appearance but I have a feeling watching a comic book writer yell in to his coffee mug and crumple paper doesn’t make for much of a stage show (…or does it?, Matt, call me, baby, I have an idea!).
Regardless, I am looking forward to hearing some of, if not all of these songs in concert and to flip the pages of Solid State the companion graphic novel. All four quadrants of my pleasure centers are activated so far! Now, if I can tear myself away from the cats on my feed to make it to the show by door time.
For more details, visit solidstate.jonathancoulton.com
Follow Jonathan Coulton at @jonathancoulton