Please Mr. Postman
Mail-Order Marvels from Joy Electric and Marc Byrd

I wrote a column for the newspaper this week praising the internet, and how it allows me to do all my Christmas shopping without dealing with anyone else’s holiday angst. Thanks to Amazon and other sites like it, I don’t have to hear one screaming baby or incessant Salvation Army bell if I don’t want to.

Well, here’s part two of my internet love fest, because the ‘net has allowed the smaller, unheralded bands and artists I love to distribute their music direct to my mailbox, and all it takes on my end is a couple of clicks. For me, this is the ideal manifestation of the ‘net revolution – I’m a packaging guy, and I’m not so much interested in context-free downloads, no matter how cool they are. But give me the opportunity to buy a CD, with art and liner notes, direct from the band, and I’m all over it. I get something I can listen to and file in my collection, and the artist gets 100% of the profits. It’s a win-win.

The internet has also enabled these independent-minded bands to release projects of smaller scope, intended for the faithful who seek them out online. Some of my favorite little records of the past five years have only been available direct from their authors, and the increasingly low cost of recording equipment and design work has contributed to these tiny projects looking and sounding just as good as their more widely disseminated brethren.

A guy who’s taken full advantage of the ‘net to reach his fanbase is Ronnie Martin, mastermind of Joy Electric. In between the full-lengths that Tooth and Nail releases, Martin has produced numerous EPs and web-only exclusives for his own labels. Pretty much every album he’s made has a corresponding EP, and although T&N distributed the first few, Martin’s been on his own with most of the others.

Thing is, the EPs are usually satisfying records in and of themselves. Last year’s Friend of Mannequin, the companion piece to the great Hello, Mannequin, included a bunch of new songs that could have been on the album, including “You’re Material,” which should have been. By and large, the EPs have provided Martin a chance to stretch out – see 2003’s The Tick Tock Companion – and experiment with styles that he probably wouldn’t get away with on a main Joy E release.

This year, Martin came out with perhaps his oddest and least accessible album in ages, The Ministry of Archers. I should explain what Joy E does, for newbies – Ronnie Martin writes catchy, melodic pop songs, tunes that would be hits if he handed them over to a rock band, and then records them using nothing but old-time analog synthesizers and his breathy whisper of a voice. It’s a bizarre thing on first encounter, since his work sounds like nothing in either the pop or electronic fields, and Archers was more bizarre than most, with its dissonant Moog wailings and almost oppressive tone. It took a while to warm up to, but once I did, I ranked it pretty highly in his catalog.

The companion EP to Archers is called Montgolfier and the Romantic Balloons, and you’d be forgiven for thinking from the title alone that it’s even weirder. It’s named after brothers Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier, inventors of the hot air balloon, and it begins with the titular suite, a five-part mini-historical opera. If you’re expecting off-the-wall complexity and strangeness from this thing, well, that’s perfectly understandable.

But guess what? Montgolfier turns out to be a celebration of the classic Joy Electric sound of years gone by. The five-part suite is really three songs and two interludes, and the songs are gloriously melodic, stripped of all the anger and darkness of Archers. “The Romantic Balloons” is positively dreamy, three minutes of bliss that all by itself restores the “Joy” to the band’s name. And “The Fifth Point of the Compass” is similarly wonderful, airy and optimistic. Taken as a whole, the five-part Montgolfier suite is the purest Joy E music Ronnie has made in years, a restatement of his vision.

What’s great about Montgolfier is the chance to hear Martin revisit these earlier styles, bringing to them all of the skills he has acquired in the darker places of his career. The minimalism is now a choice, and he arranges these lighter pieces with a master’s touch. If the EP is the second disc of Archers – and they are both roughly half an hour long – then it’s the sound of light breaking through after the storm of disc one. Listening back to back, you get the whole picture of Joy Electric, and really a good sense of just how much Martin can do with nothing but his synths.

Ah, but Montgolfier doesn’t end with the title suite. It’s really two EPs in one, the second called Other Archers, and here Martin lets others run riot with his later songs. It’s a jarring juxtaposition – we jump from a pure analog Joy Electric sound in the first half to clattering digital dance mixes in the second, from the likes of Travelogue and Freezepop. They’re not bad, certainly, and the Freezepop rendering of Archers highlight “Quite Quieter than Spiders” is fascinating. But as with all remixes of Ronnie’s work, something is lost in the translation to modernity. Archers, in its original form, sounds like nothing else on the shelves, but these mixes try to shoehorn it into the digital age, and it seems less special somehow.

I don’t mean to malign the remixers here – I think they did a decent job, and I’m not a purist by any stretch, so I don’t object to cut-and-splice manipulations like these. But Ronnie ends the EP with “Octuplet Down,” an outtake from the Archers sessions that appeared on the vinyl version, and when you get there, it’s instantly clear what’s missing in the remixes. The mixes were approached from a dance music point of view, with emphasis on the beats and the bass lines, whereas Joy Electric has never been about that – it’s all about the melody with Ronnie, and “Octuplet Down” is another winner on that score.

For the full picture of Joy Electric in 2005, I’d recommend getting both Archers and Montgolfier, of course, but I’m biased – I’ve been a fan of Ronnie’s work for years. Newcomers might want to start earlier and work up – Robot Rock is a good jumping-on point, as is Hello, Mannequin. About half of Joy E’s output is available elsewhere, but you can get pretty much everything you need here. Be warned, though – Ronnie is incredibly prolific, and once you get hooked, you’ll want everything. He has two projects for next year: a full-length Joy E album entitled The Memory of Alpha and a record with his brother Jason (of Starflyer 59) called – what else – The Brothers Martin. Both should be worth getting.

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Speaking of prolific, I think 2005 was Marc Byrd’s most productive year ever.

Not only did Byrd join with the Choir this year to add his magic to their best album since 1990, he’s also just released his third project of ’05 on his new label, Hammock Music. Byrd is one of the most extraordinary ambient guitar players around these days, influenced by the likes of Robert Fripp and Henry Frayne, but much more emotional in his playing. Some people consider what he does shoegazer music, but I have no idea what that really means. I just call it beautiful – slowly coalescing waves of pretty, unearthly guitar and keys, designed to transport the listener.

I mentioned Byrd’s Hammock project near the end of my massive Cornerstone column this summer, but I don’t think I emphasized nearly enough how fantastic Hammock is. A collaboration between Byrd and keyboardist Andrew Thompson, Hammock makes some of the most gorgeous noise I’ve heard in years. Their full-length debut, Kenotic, is a 70-minute glorious drift, soothing and menacing at the same time. In places, it reminded me of the Autumns, and the Moon Seven Times, and other like-minded bands few have ever heard. But Byrd and Thompson brought their own styles to it, incorporating melodies and samples and wrapping it all in a dream-like cocoon.

Their subsequent EP, Stranded Under Endless Sky, was more of the same, and just as terrific. And now here’s the first volume in what Byrd has titled The Sleep-Over Series, a collection of more formless pieces that keep the same oceans-of-sound style of Hammock. Its six songs run for nearly an hour, with Byrd handling the lion’s share of the duties this time. Two songs are Byrd by himself, three are Byrd with additional input from Thompson, and only one (“Empty Page/Blue Sky”) is credited to Hammock. But worry not, Kenotic lovers – this is very similar stuff.

The main difference, I think, is while Hammock’s albums can be listened to under any circumstances, The Sleep-Over Series sounds meant for dark rooms and motionless absorption. It is more droning than the Hammock discs, and it envelops a room more fully, in a way. Parts of it reminded me of the Autumns EP Winter in a Silver Box, but partially because I can’t think of any other CD in my collection except that one that’s even similar. This is music for deep sleeping, for interstellar hibernation, and it sounds even more unearthly than Byrd normally does.

The highlights of this album are the longer tracks. The 15-minute “Dropping Off” is a shifting drone, if that makes sense – it’s one long tunnel with flickering shafts of light. The 24-minute “Still Point” is lighter, more like traveling underwater than underground, although the intermittent bird noises put lie to that. “Still Point” is less bass-heavy, though, giving it a dreamier feel. It seems as though the longer songs were selected at random for extended running times – there’s no reason they couldn’t have been five minutes each, or that any of the four other tracks couldn’t have been 20 minutes each.

Still, The Sleep-Over Series plays like one long, hazy song, so it hardly matters where one track ends and another begins. Some of Byrd’s most ethereal tones and textures are here, and some of his most alien. The three Hammock Music CDs he’s released this year sound like Byrd finally making the kind of music he most wants to make, and although it will not be as successful as his more pop-oriented work with GlassByrd and Common Children, or even the Choir, you can’t deny the love that went into this. It’s pure, uncompromising beauty, stretching out forever.

Naturally, Hammock Music’s releases are not available in your local record store, but you can get them online here. Byrd has promised a new Hammock album next year, and I really hope he sticks with this. He’s a singular talent – what he has brought to my favorite band, the Choir, is immeasurable, and what he is doing with Hammock and The Sleep-Over Series is rare and extraordinary.

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A quick look ahead to 2006 before I go.

The first big week of the year is the 24th of January, with new ones from Duncan Sheik (about damn time), Ester Drang (this sounds amazing – check it out) and Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis. January ends with the new one from Brazilian metal innovators Sepultura, entitled Dante XXI. There’s also a rumor that Richard Julian will check in with a major-label album, though I have no details on that one. But a new Richard Julian is always cause for celebration.

February kicks off with a huge Tuesday the 7th, with new things from Belle and Sebastian, Ray Davies, Beth Orton, William Orbit and a box set detailing Richard Thompson’s terrific career. The Eels document their recent tour with an orchestra by releasing Eels With Strings Live at Town Hall on February 21, and Elvis Costello does the same (meaning releases an orchestral live album) on the 28th with My Flame Turns Blue.

March and April release dates are too sketchy to confidently state, but we should see new things from Live, South, Ministry and Pearl Jam. Oh, yeah, and a little thing called Operation: Mindcrime II from Queensryche – perhaps their triumphant resurgence, perhaps their laughable last gasp. We shall see…

I’m still a vegetarian, and I have developed kind of a taste for the Morningstar Farms veggie chicken patties. They’re pretty good. I am very sick of carrot sticks, though.

Next week, Beck and/or Julian Cope. The week after that, the top 10 list.

See you in line Tuesday morning.