I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but the Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. Media Empire is back up and running.
Right now, you can head to Facebook and like my new page. It’s been up for a week, and already about 150 of you have clicked that like button, for which I am very grateful. You can also head to Twitter – it’s safe to start following me again. I’ve been tweeting every day, sometimes about music, sometimes about other art forms, sometimes about whatever crosses my mind.
And you can check out my blog. When I started this thing three years ago, it was intended as a supplemental outlet for all the music news and reviews I don’t have the space and time to post here. That’s how I’ve been using it since reigniting it a week ago, but probably the most significant thing you can read there is my Frank Zappa Buyer’s Guide. Yes, I’ve really started writing this thing. I plan to update it weekly with chronological reviews of all 90-some Zappa records, which should take me about two years. But I’ve been writing this here column for 12 years, so that seems like a pretty reasonable goal.
So yeah, more of my babbling awaits you behind each of those links. Hopefully I can keep up this pace, and hopefully it’ll all be worth your while. Thanks for clicking, following and reading.
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So here it is, only the second column of the year, and already I’m bringing up Kickstarter.
Apologies if you’re sick of hearing about my love affair with the site, and what a genuine gift it is to those of us who love off-the-beaten-path music. Google tells me I mentioned Kickstarter in 12 columns last year, which is definitely a lot. But given that the Kickstarter model is the future of independent music writ large, I feel like I’m going to be singing its praises even more in the coming years. I mentioned this before, but four of my top 10 albums of last year were funded through fan pledges, and I expect that figure will only grow.
So, what has Kickstarter done to earn my adoration this time? It’s given the Brothers Martin the means to keep on making music. And that is a very fine thing indeed.
Longtime readers will know who I’m talking about. Jason and Ronnie Martin are brothers from southern California. For nearly 20 years, each Martin brother has headed his own project – Jason fronts Starflyer 59, while Ronnie toils away under the name Joy Electric. Jason plays deep, groovy guitar pop, soaked in reverb and full of emotion, while Ronnie creates shivery pop symphonies using nothing but analog synthesizers. What unites them is a tremendous sense of melody, a way with deceptively complex arrangements and a knack for glorious hooks.
Oh, and one other thing: since 1994, both Starflyer 59 and Joy Electric have been on Tooth and Nail Records, an arrangement that came to an end in 2011. Sales had been pretty low for both bands for a while, and Jason and Ronnie must have known they were living on borrowed time. Tooth and Nail released a dozen albums from both bands, plus numerous EPs and a box set for each. I’m grateful for the support the Martins received for so long – without Tooth and Nail, I never would have heard of either one of them, and they likely wouldn’t have been able to build up the audience necessary to take their next steps.
In what must have been a fun family discussion, the Martins both decided to turn to Kickstarter to pay for their next projects. As you probably know, Kickstarter asks artists to set a fundraising goal, and a time limit. If they meet that goal within the allotted time, they get the cash. If not, they get nothing. And if they go over their goal, they get to keep the extra as well.
I’m betting it was probably a surprise to Jason and Ronnie – two very humble guys – but they both blew their goals out of the water. Jason asked for $10,000 to make a new Starflyer record. He got $24,301. Ronnie asked for $6,000 to finance his new one, and received $12,701. I was overjoyed to see how well both projects made out – this was their fans thanking them for two decades of idiosyncratic, splendid music, and announcing without a doubt that their audience is still here, and still wants more. That must be a great feeling.
At the end of last year, within weeks of each other, Jason and Ronnie released their fan-funded projects. Ronnie chose to put out Dwarf Mountain Alphabet (love that title) on CD, housing it in a simple, elegant, single-color package. The austere artwork belies the fact that this is one of the most surprising stylistic leaps in Joy Electric’s long career. While previous Joy E records felt constructed, built up brick by brick according to some dense blueprint, this one is minimalist, bouncy, zippy fun. It’s almost – dare I say it? – dance music.
For this record, Ronnie pulled out the polyphonic synths for the first time in ages, meaning we get oodles of big, fat chords. The songs are built around four-on-the-floor beats, pulsing bass burbles, and only one or two synthesizer lines. There’s so much space in these songs you could walk through them, but the airy quality adds a lightness that’s been missing from Joy E for a while. Dwarf Mountain opens with an instrumental, the very ‘80s “And This No More,” and there ain’t much to it aside from those wonderful, warm chords, but it’s a delight.
Ronnie’s shaky voice remains his weak link, particularly when he stretches himself on the first single, “Whose Voice Will Not Be Heard.” It’s never been a fatal flaw, however, and the glittering, immersive music more than makes up for it. Check out “Stark Obscurity,” my favorite thing here. It crashes to life with a very Michael Jackson beat and bass line, before the Blade Runner synths come in, and it builds up and up, matching menace with catchiness, and culminating in a wonderfully old-school keyboard solo. By the end of this song, Ronnie will have sold you on his new sound.
As always, though, it’s his songs that rule the day. The 10 tracks on Dwarf Mountain are as well-crafted as ever, from the infectious “Let the Past Go,” to the Yaz-tastic “Further Into Light,” to the melancholy closer “Notes From a Chapter.” “Sing Once for Me” is a remake of a song from 2001’s The White Songbook, and it illustrates the leap Ronnie’s made here – the original was a puzzle box of interlocking moving parts, while this new one is so feather-light it’s almost effervescent.
I have no idea if this style shift is permanent, or just another Joy Electric experiment in a long line of them. I do know that Dwarf Mountain Alphabet is one of Ronnie Martin’s most fun records, and if he wants to keep making these, I’ll keep paying for them. Joy E is a singular experience even when Ronnie isn’t flipping his own script, as he has here. Check out the whole new album here, and buy it here.
Jason Martin, meanwhile, has given the first independent Starflyer 59 album a much cheekier title: IAMACEO. He’s decided to forego CDs for the first time, and put this one out on vinyl and download. So for perhaps the third or fourth time in my life, I paid for music without packaging. There are only a few artists I’d do that for, and Jason Martin is one of them. And he didn’t let me down.
Starflyer fans are used to Jason’s stylistic leapfrogging – everything he’s done sounds like Starflyer, but over 13 records he’s moved from molasses-thick guitar noise to skipping Cure-esque pop to stripped-down stomp-rock. 2010’s The Changing of the Guard found him embracing acoustic guitars, with lovely clean electric flourishes, and IAMACEO expands on that palette. But this isn’t strummy folk melancholy – this is dark acoustic pop, with thundering drums and propulsive bass. And when Martin cranks up the electrics, as he does near the end of the opening title track, it’s loud and proud.
Jason’s low, penetrating voice is in fine form, and his songs here are just awesome. “Bicycle Rider” sounds like the greatest tune Echo and the Bunnymen never wrote, while single “Open Hands” rides in on a tidal wave of guitars, dissipating during the verses only to come crashing back in during the forceful choruses. “No one gives you nothing without open hands,” Martin sings, hitting his record’s bleakest moment. The darkness continues with the dusty piano lullaby “Father John,” one of Jason’s most epic creations. This one’s about moving on when everything falls apart.
And as Martin walks through the simpler, yet no less terrific songs on his record’s second side, it becomes clear that’s what he and his brother have done. They’ve dusted themselves off, picked up the pieces, asked their friends for help, and carried on making the best music they know how to make. IAMACEO is a classic – it’s the obvious next Starflyer album, but it’s also 10 more testaments to Jason Martin’s undeniable skill as a songwriter and record maker. I’m glad and grateful to have it. Listen to “Open Hands” and buy the record here.
Hearing both of these great albums back to back, I’m left with two thoughts. First, Kickstarter is amazing. And second, I hope the Brothers Martin continue making music like this for decades to come. The next chapter of their careers is off to a superb start.
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One slightly sad note before I go. The Click Five, one of my favorite power pop bands in recent years, announced their breakup on Monday. They leave behind three albums of increasing quality, culminating in TCV, last year’s unjustly ignored gem. They were one of those guilty pleasure bands that I never, not once, not for a second, felt guilty for liking. I wish more people had paid attention, but as they once sang, that’s just the way that it goes. Take one last listen to this fantastic tune, and bid the Click Five adieu.
See you in line Tuesday morning.