Jonathan Coulton – Jonathan Coulton’s Greatest Hit (Plus 13 Other Songs) (2012)

Hi everyone. Sorry about last week, really sorry. I went to a horror movie festival (The Rocky Horror Picture Show screening was amazing, in spite of the bitter cold outside), and my laptop threw a fit, so I was lacking the means to write the second post for last week. Got it fixed though, since it’s such a hero (been with me since 2006, still going strong). Anyway, today’s post is a bit of an exception, although I still consider it a proper album review and not the “quirky” post of the week.

Why an exception? Because it’s a “best of” kind of record, as I’m sure you’ll astutely deduce based on its title. I wouldn’t normally consider talking about such a release, but in Jonathan Coulton’s case I think it’s appropriate to do so, considering his unusual rise to fame and preferred method of distribution. You see, Jonathan Coulton is one of those rare musicians who the weird blend of humanity and technology called “the Internet” almost instantly took a liking to, so much so that, in a career spanning almost ten years now and eight studio albums, he has never needed a record company or a publishing contract, almost completely dodging all of the methods of the “traditional” music industry. He releases his songs on a Creative Commons license (which means it’s okay to share them on YouTube without fear of The Consequences, amongst many other wonderful things, such as the freedom to create your own videos, as seen in the samples below), he writes geeky songs with candid double entendres and two of his songs played over the ending credits for Valve’s illustrious Portal and Portal 2 games.

This is turning out to be a pretty information-heavy post, so I’ll keep it going on the same lines, because more than Jonathan Coulton’s quirky music, what I love about this album is the journey that brought me to it and I think it’s a type of trek which most music lovers enjoy in one form or another. The first time I heard one of his songs was on the delightfully random music website TheSixtyOne. It was “Re: Your Brains”, which is on this compilation, and it’s a mix between a meeting with the type of manager who learned his entire communication skill set from manuals and a zombie outbreak (which only seems like a juxtaposition of opposites, doesn’t it?), and I loved it to bits, but it was probably followed by something even more amazing so I think I sort-of forgot all about Jonathan Coulton until I finished Portal. He wrote “Still alive”, the song at the end of that game, and I had to learn to play it, right there and then. It was a perfect match-up and a sort-of narrative “cherry on top” for the game (which is amazing, by the way, go play it if you’ve ever wondered what all the fuss about <gaming as art> is supposed to mean). Later, he came back with the ending credits song for Portal 2, and now, this best of album was part of the Humble Indie Bundle, a facet of the Humble Bundle initiative, where you can pay whatever you want for a bunch of (normally) indie games and (recently) digital albums by musicians associated with geek culture. So you see, getting to know about Jonathan Coulton meant learning about all of these repositories of fun for me, and I’m glad I get to share this stuff with you guys now.

As you’d expect of a compilation album, the songs are very eclectic, showing off the rather large range of styles Jonathan Coulton is capable of playing with; from speedy, Green Day-ish pop-punk to bitter-sweet folk, this music is comfortable and radio-friendly, always showing an unmistakable spark of refinement when it comes to songwriting, which turns a song from the simple application of a tried-and-true formula to a remarkable variation which sticks with you all day. As for the lyrics – they’re tremendous fun, pure and simple, either as geeky metaphors for easily recognizable situations, or as oddly meditative musings masquerading as happy-clappy anthems. You’ll see what I mean, I picked the two songs for this post especially to illustrate these two facets oh his songwriting.

One more thing – Jonathan Coulton did something which I think is truly inspirational. He took an entire year and decided to write a song every week, without fail. Which he did. Many of the songs on this compilation come from that creative marathon. I think that’s amazing. Well, anyway, see you soon guys! Until then, enjoy these tunes!

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Alice in Chains – Sap EP (1992)

Today marks the passing of a decade since Layne Staley… moved on, shall we say. Or “broke free” might be another way of putting it, since his constant struggle with drug addiction might very well be regarded as imprisonment. In any case, I don’t feel this is a sad day, or at least I don’t see it as anything but a day to celebrate the great music that Layne graced us with. And what better way to celebrate it than to recommend the Sap EP, released on the 21st of March 1992.

I like these sort of axis kind of things. 1992 produced two of Alice in Chains’ greatest records – this acoustic, tonic, bright little five-track record, and the formidable Dirt album, about which I wrote a while ago. It’s nice to listen to this folk-ish, relaxed, earthy music, denoting so much joy, such a smooth feeling of ease and simplicity, as it puts things into perspective – it took a mere ten years for things to become so irreparable for Layne that he simply couldn’t survive any longer. But this record offers only a slight hint of that path, a subtle suggestion of darkness in an otherwise open, crystal clear emotional/musical gem.

As the story goes, Alice in Chains’ drummer, Sean Kinney had a dream about releasing an EP titled Sap, so the band decided to do just that, in the off chance it was, you know, destiny knocking. The band were joined by Ann Wilson, singer for the band Heart, bringing a very welcome female voice addition to the laid-back sound the EP was going for. Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell and Mudhoney’s own Mark Arm collaborated on the Right Turn song, which ended up being credited Alice Mudgarden because of this – a typical display of the form of humor floating around the grunge scene at the time. And just to drive the pairing of sarcasm and absurdity home, the officially four-track EP has an unlisted track, which is little more than the band goofing off in the studio in a Rocky Horror Picture Show-esque breakdown involving a Spaghetti Western-sounding piano and a lot of funny noises. Perhaps this is why I feel there’s such an air of childlike glee surrounding this EP…

In any case, I think this record works very well as a mood setter for an early spring evening, and as a soundtrack for celebrating Layne Staley’s unique, unforgettable voice. I leave you with all the tracks on Sap, as a special treat. See you soon!