Back in 1993, when I was writing a comic book called Tapestry, I had the thrill of meeting a lot of the creators I have admired for years. Those times saw a huge influx of black-and-white, creator-owned projects, some written and drawn by veteran artists taking a stab at self-publishing their own dreams. And while many of them (like the one I wrote) tried to fit in with the mainstream, the best of the bunch took their own paths.
No one took the idea of self-publishing their dreams quite as literally as did Rick Veitch. His comic, Rare Bit Fiends, took the form of a dream journal, in which Veitch would illustrate his own subconscious narratives, and often he would invite some of comics’ leading lights to submit their own dreams for him to draw. Dreams most often follow their own internally consistent logic – there’s no reason why all the dogs in one’s dream would have chocolate cupcakes for heads, for instance, but if that’s the rule, then you wouldn’t see a dog in that dream who didn’t have a chocolate cupcake for a head.
Veitch named his second Rare Bit Fiends collection Pocket Universe, and that term works well for me as a description of the little worlds artists invent. Like dreams, the work of the best artists in any given field creates its own pocket universe, one which doesn’t follow the rules of the world around it but adheres to its own idiosyncratic boundaries. Sometimes the universe as a whole is daunting and difficult to grasp, but once the self-imprinted rules become clear, even something as massive as the catalog of Frank Zappa becomes digestible.
Pocket universes are often fairly impenetrable to the uninitiated, because they sound or look or read like nothing else around. The standard comfort level that people enjoy, particularly with music, is either absent or hidden in most of these cases. It makes sense – the closer a given artist gets to capturing the music that is in his or her head, the less it will sound like the music that’s in the listener’s head. Acclimating to an artist’s singular vision is one of the most dizzying thrills a music fan can experience, though, and given enough immersion, the best of those visions can make “normal” music just sound… off.
Because these pocket universes take a tremendous amount of commitment and adventurous spirit to appreciate, they’re quite rare in our trendy, cash-driven music biz. Artists are understandably not encouraged by their record companies to burrow down their individual rabbit holes, but rather to emulate proven formulas. It’s the rarest of things to find an extensive catalog by an artist who sounds like no one else, because that means that the vision, the direction and the money have all synchronized. Off the top of my head, I can only name a few.
And one of them is Joy Electric.
Much like Veitch’s comic, Joy Electric is the work of a single creator – Ronnie Martin writes, plays, sings, produces and designs everything. Here are the rules of his pocket universe: Martin writes hooky, melodic pop-punk songs, and then he records them on nothing but analog synthesizers. Everything you associate with modern electronic music is missing: the thudding beats, the endless repetition, the trance-y vibe. Martin relies on none of that. Even the cool digital sound of influences like New Order is absent – Martin utilizes warm tones, quivering beats and snaky lines reminiscent of Kraftwerk and early Gary Numan.
The best Joy Electric material sounds like Larry Fast covering a punkier Split Enz, but even that obscure analogy doesn’t quite do it. His stuff is too melodic, too song-oriented, to be techno, and too electronic, too bleeping and burbling, to be alternative pop. Martin doesn’t write dance songs. The songs he does write could easily be played with guitars and real drums, and they’d probably be hits. Martin insists on arranging these hook-filled wonders for vintage synths and singing them in his breathy shiver of a voice, and he’s been doing it this way for 10 years.
It’s that kind of relentless pursuit of vision that usually results in abbreviated careers, so Martin’s longevity is a small wonder. It’s due largely to his fortunate association with Brandon Ebel, head of Washington’s Tooth and Nail Records. Ebel believes in Martin’s vision – there’s just no other explanation for it. Despite abysmal sales, Tooth and Nail has released eight full-length albums, five E.P.s and one box set full of Joy Electric music, and they seem intent on sticking with Martin for as long as he wants to do this. (Brandon Ebel has shown this level of commitment to the whole Martin family, actually – Ronnie’s brother Jason is the leader of Starflyer 59, another long-running Tooth and Nail act.)
It’s not like Martin has made it easy for Ebel, either. The first Joy Electric album, 1994’s Melody, ran 70 minutes and introduced the silly-yet-satisfying sound over a heaping helping of 18 songs. Its simple tunes about fairies and candy canes barely hinted at the sophistication to come, and while it remains a beloved record among the Joy E cult, it’s a difficult one for newbies to get through. It’s far better to start with 1997’s Robot Rock, ten short, spunky songs that defined the electro-punk-pop style Martin would later perfect. If openly faith-filled lyrics don’t bother you, try the pulsing follow-up, Christiansongs – it’s a whirlwind.
He really took hold of his sound on 2001’s Legacy Volume One: The White Songbook. A 65-minute tour de force, this album incorporated prog-rock influences and featured winding epics and a densely layered production. It remains Martin’s finest work – he stepped back the ambition for 2002’s follow-up, The Tick Tock Treasury, and stripped down to acoustic guitars for last year’s Shepherd album Committed to Tape. His work is always more exciting when it’s huge and almost overpowering.
Or rather, it has always been that way, but with his new one, Hello, Mannequin, Martin has finally made that terrific, nimble, minimalist Joy E album that evaded him for the first half of his career. Perhaps it’s that he confines himself to more traditional beat structures here, but Mannequin brings a danceability I have always dreaded hearing in Martin’s work, but maintains the melody and inexplicable Joy E-ness that I love.
I don’t want to give the impression that Martin has gone mainstream dance here – most of Mannequin still sounds like it’s from another planet. It opens with two minutes of retro-futuristic synth bleeps and icily spoken words, and then crashes headlong into “Disloyalist Party,” one of Joy E’s most propulsive songs. From there he moves into joyous pop-punk territory on “The Singing Arc” and the blazingly fast “From Mount Chorus,” and builds slower journeys like the closer, “A Page of Life,” into feasts for the ears.
What’s impressive about Mannequin is that Martin has managed to peel away the progressive tendencies – no song here breaks the five minute mark – and has simplified the arrangements, but the album sounds no less monumental in his catalog. In fact, where Tick Tock Treasury dragged in places, this album moves like a bullet through its 55 minutes. Martin has also improved the major deficiency of Treasury, his vocals – that album saw Martin trying to get away with one vocal track per song, and his voice couldn’t carry it off. Here the voice is layered and punched up in all the right places.
Of course, it helps that Martin’s gift for memorable melodies has once again not failed him. Many of the songs here, if played on guitars, would put tuneful rockers like Guided By Voices to shame. Martin has aimed for a more pop-punk feel on a few cuts, especially “From Mount Chorus” and “Post Calendar,” but even the Numan-esque “Who Are Friends” and the quirky “Nikola Tesla” will stick in your head. He even makes room here for a couple of blistering synth solos, most notably on the dirty, angry “Wolf in the Bend.”
The “Joy” in Joy Electric has been ironic for some time now, but Hello, Mannequin is Martin’s darkest record yet, full of allusions to betrayal and abandonment. “Barbed wire and swinging whips on the backs of those you once called friends,” he spits on “Disloyalist Party,” a song whose refrain is “misery ever after.” Martin also seems to address his own status as a forgotten artist on “The Works of Unknowns,” and on “I Am a Pioneer,” he sings, “All my labor will be lost with time.” “Nikola Tesla” addresses the same issue by asking who remembers the inventor of the radio, and I almost emailed Martin to remind him about the band Tesla and their odd fascination with Nikola, but decided not to.
Despite moments of exuberance, this record is surprisingly depressing, and it’s to Martin’s credit that you may not realize that without reading the lyric sheet. His gurgling analog synth sound has always disguised the deep emotional undercurrent of his words – even Melody was quite a sad album beneath its sheen, and since then, Martin has learned how to use his traditionally cold instrument of choice in surprisingly warm ways.
There are very few artists doing what Ronnie Martin is doing, and none who are doing it quite the way he is. For a decade now, he’s been living the dream – he’s found a way to do exactly the kind of music he wants, on his schedule, with faithful label support. His particular pocket universe is a tough one to enter, initially, but once you breach the atmosphere, it’s a dazzling place to discover. Ten years from now, I’m certain the Joy Electric catalog will be just as singular and engrossing as it is now, only it will be twice as large. Better to get on board now, isn’t it?
Next week, brotherly love.
See you in line Tuesday morning.