Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Jonathan Coulton

It can be tempting to brand material from a newer band or artist that is similar in style to a more established act as derivative or unoriginal. And sometimes such criticisms are valid. Anyone who knows my tastes in music is aware of my less than enthusiastic stance on Coldplay as a less-interesting version of Radiohead. But often, acts for whom a large portion of their sound is influenced by a certain predecessor, the outcome can be a fresh take on a well-worn approach, and add new spins and directions to it. This is the case with New York, N.Y.-based singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton and his They Might Be Giants (TMBG)-patterned veneer on his eighth studio recording, Artificial Heart, released independently by Coulton on November 8.  

The TMBG (NMT) influence should come as no surprise here, given that TMBG co-frontman John Flansbaugh produced the record. While Coulton previously released seven full-length albums, most were recorded without a band and in Coulton's home studios. Flansbaugh's involvement allowed Coulton to utilize studio musicians – many of whom have worked with TMBG and TMBG-related efforts in the past – in a professional space. The collection's whopping 18 tracks also include several guest vocal appearances, from John Roderick on "Nemesis," Suzanne Vega (of "Tom's Diner" fame) on "Now I Am an Arsonist" and Sara Quinn of the Canadian twin sister duo Tegan and Sara on "Still Alive." The added resources help bolster Coulton's already-stellar songwriting talents, and the studio band in particular provides some welcome punch across the record.

While Coulton bases his constructions largely around TMBG's trademark blend of clever and catchy – and his vocal phrasing is primarily a reflection of Flansbaugh's TMBG partner, John Linnell – he introduces outside flavors ranging from the smooth Americana polish of Jackson Browne to more punk-tinged crunch in a The Kinks or Ted Leo vein. These more diverse backgrounds broaden Coulton's work from only TMBG regurgitation to a more distinctive portfolio. Of course, you wouldn't not it immediately, as leadoff track "Sticking It to Myself" saunters in with the familiar saxophone root common in so many TMBG tracks over the years, and Linnell-style vocals from Coulton, although with a touch more power pop fuel than the Johns usually offer. Still, it's hooky and well-crafted – a great introduction for new listeners. At the same time, the following "Artificial Heart" is quirky and aloof at first, then bright and boastful at the chorus – another tried and true TMBG staple, although the keyboards are more straight-up piano sound than the farfisa organs preferred by Linnell.

"Nemesis" – featuring lead vocals from Roderick instead of Coulton – first introduces the more Americana tendencies cultivated by more classic rock forerunners like Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon. The acoustic and electric guitars form the track's core here, and while the song's title reads like a Star Trek reference, Coulton's lyrics are a bit more straightforward here. It sounds more like something you might expect off an early-era Barenaked Ladies record like Maybe You Should Drive, with Roderick and Coulton complementing each other like the Canadian popsters co-frontman duo of Ed Robertson and now-former member Steven Page (NMT). The distinctiveness continues on "The World Belongs to You" with its heavy mandolin foundation, akin to multiple NMT-profilees Farewell Drifters (NMT, NMT). The bluegrass ditty is unlike anything TMBG has ever attempted.

Following the somber, but coyly witty "Today With Your Wife" – which plays like a Ben Folds (NMT) meets Fountains of Wayne (NMT) ballad – "Sucker Punch" is the album's best, with its heavy power-pop crunch and catchy chorus blazing through the cut's short 1:44 run time, like TMBG's own "Can't Keep Johnny Down" off their recent album, Join Us (NMT). Sure, I'd like a bit more, but it's too fun to get hung up on the brevity.

Later on, "Alone at Home" is a minimalist punk-flavored cruncher – again, short like "Sucker Punch" – while the baroque-themed "Fraud" is sparse and plunky with just Coulton's acoustic guitar. Meanwhile, the humorous "Good Morning Tucson" recalls fellow NMT-profilee Butch Walker's similarly smart "Trash Day" and, after all, who can't chuckle at a verse like, "when I was coming up I got the donuts, which means I got the donuts that I wanted / There was no young punk to steal my jelly-glazed, and I am still sort of amazed that you can be born in the nineties."

Suzanne Vega's pleasant alto pairs well with Coulton on the retrained and earnest "Now I Am an Arsonist," while Sara Quinn brings welcome vocal brightness to the music box-like "Still Alive," although I'm not much of a fan of the track's nearly minute-long warbly intro.

Of course, over the course of 18 tracks, they can't all be can't misses. While the concept of "Je Suis Rick Springfield" is intriguing, the french lyrics don't convey the funny as effectively as his humor is deployed elsewhere. Likewise, "Nobody Loves You Like Me" is a decent musical idea, but is a little too droning for my taste. And elsewhere, you get the sense Coulton's instinct is to retreat to a solo singer-songwriter, which he's perfectly competent at on cuts like "Down Today" and "Want You Gone," but they're not as compelling as his work highlighted above. The same is true for numbers like "Glasses" and "Dissolve," more rocking variants of their guy-and-his-guitar counterparts. But "The Stache" does close the collection on a clever note, with its account of high-school age posturing, again pointing back to Flansbaugh's influence.

Come for: "Sucker Punch"
Stay for: "Good Morning Tucson"
You'll be surprised by: "Today With Your Wife"

P.S. Coulton appeared on the audiobook version of John Hodgman's, The Areas of My Expertise, a fantastic collection of interesting, odd and potentially fictional factoids from the actor best known as the PC Guy in Apple's ads earlier this decade. Coulton provided acoustic guitar backing and interludes, as well as a few off-the-cuff comments. Also, completing the Coulton-Hodgman-TMBG association triangle, Hodgman has appeared in a series of short videos for the band's Venue Songs collection.

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