Saturday, October 28, 2006

Even My Henchmen Think I’m Crazy I’m Not Surprised That You Agree

One of the wonderful things about Teresa & Patrick Nielsen Hayden's blog Making Light (which I recently mentioned in another context) are the little links they have in the upper left-hand corner. Called "Particles" and "Sidelights", they are links selected respectively by Teresa & Patrick, and linked to with a single line. Often funny, sometimes moving or important or bizarre, they're one of the touches that turns Making Light from one among many good blogs to a must-visit site.

Well, a bit less than two weeks ago Teresa linked to a site with the cryptic but unquestionably intriguing words "All We Want to Do Is Eat Your Brains." Naturally I had to click through.

If you feel similarly, go ahead. I won't mind. You can come back here later. Or even just stay and explore that site. That's what I'm going to end up recommending, anyway. (Damn. Gave away my punch line.)

You're back? Funny, wasn't it? What, you just read the lyrics? No, you have to actually click the button and listen to the song. Right, that one; the one that says "play song". Okay, go try again.

Ah, now you get it, right?

Well, if the answer is no you might never do so. But I bet for a lot of you it'll be yes. Which is, as previously mentioned, the point of this post: to try and introduce a few of you into the wacky and wonderful world of the music of Jonathan Coulton.

I must admit I probably heard "Re: Your Brains" (the official title of the song whose chorus is "All We Want to Do is Eat Your Brains") at least a dozen times before it occurred to me that if I liked it so much I might like some of his other songs as well. Partly it's just that, in these internet days, I'm more used to finding one good song and just iPoding it, rather than using one song as a start to digging around a whole new artist's work. And partly it was simply that I was enjoying that song so much (in the slightly obsessive-compulsive way I have whenever I find a great new song, namely over and over) that I didn't get around to it.

But finally I clicked through to Jonathan Coulton's song page.

Man, but that guy is great.

I'm still getting into his music -- I've heard a couple of dozen songs, but have only listened to a dozen or so often enough that I feel that I really know them (I tend to like to hear a song a lot before I really feel like I fully know it) -- but here are some notes based on what I've heard thus far.

He's very much a humorous musician. I haven't heard one song yet that isn't deliberately comic or, at the very least, distinctly quirky. But I think that if he was merely funny I would have just laughed and kept going. He's also a very appealing songwriter; his songs are catchy and fun and just plain good to listen to, in addition to being funny.

Which also means that, while I'm going to be quoting his lyrics here, you should really click through and go hear his songs. (While he asks you to pay $1 for most -- although not all (some are free) -- of his songs if you actually download them, you can actually listen to them all for free on line.) So listen: they sound better than they read (and I think they actually often read well), and you might well go on listening to them just for their quality as songs, beyond the point where they are (as it were) active jokes for you.

(It's sort of like the music of Weird Al Yankovic: one of the things that Yankovic's lyrics did, I think, is allow people to enjoy genuinely enjoyable pop melodies without feeling too silly about the usually ridiculous lyrics; by making a joke of them, they were not only funny, but they released the fun in the melodies. Coulton writes his own music, but you enjoy them as good songs just as one does Yankovic's work, i.e. beyond the joke.)

Jonathan Coulton's sense of humor is very much in the wacky style -- a delighted celebration of absurdity, sometimes absurdity borrowed from areas such as SF, such as in the Zombies song (yeah, in case you didn't go listen to it, the "Re Your Brains" song is about a bunch of zombies). Another type of absurdity he likes is the bizarre juxtaposition -- to again stick with "Re: Your Brains", it's talking about Zombies in business (or office) jargon. As part of the latter, his songs vary a lot in style -- some are folksy, some are rock, some are Christmas carols, etc; often the absurd juxtaposition is between the lyrics and the song's genre.

One song which I like a lot which falls into both of those categories is "Chiron Beta Prime", a song which presents itself as a Christmas carol, in fact as one of those mass Christmas letters that some people send out saying what happened to their family in the year. But this is a set-up for absurdity, as you get from his opening lyrics:
This year has been a little crazy for the Andersons. You may recall we had some trouble last year. The robot council had us banished to an asteroid. That hasn’t undermined our holiday cheer. And we know it’s almost Christmas from the marks we make on the wall. And that’s our favorite time of year. Merry Christmas...
Again: either this is your sense of humor or it's not. It's definitely mine -- and if it's yours, then go and listen, because the tune is also incredibly catchy, and he has follow-up jokes in the latter verses: it's not one of those cases where after one joke the person writes the song and then has nothing else to offer.

A second example of the absurdity-through-genre style that Coulton has is "Stroller Town" which sounds (to me, anyway) like a Beach Boys song, one of those that are about cars and how good it is to be out on the town in a car... but here it's an infant in his stroller:
Early in the morning full belly clean bum
I got my cup of cheerios in case I want some
Jacket, hat, diaper bag, carried out the door
And I know where we’re going cause we’ve been there before
There’s a warm breeze blowing and it tickles my hair...
A third example, which in this case is mostly wacky just through its use of genre elements, is the song "Skullcrusher Mountain", which is clearly sung by some very James Bond-esque villain, although I don't believe it's any specific one: it's just a genre piece, funny and catchy. (The title of this post comes from the lyrics to that song.)

Another thing he clearly likes to do is formal experimentation. It was through one of those, in fact, that I realized that I had in fact heard one of his songs before: one of his songs -- or, rather, the video version of it, because (as he says on its page) this is really a song which needs to be seen as a video rather than simply listened to -- had made the email or blog rounds at some point and I'd watched it, liked it but (unlike in the case of "Re Your Brains") hadn't pressed the matter. The song I'm referring to here is "Flickr", where Coulton writes a set of lyrics describing various photos he found on Flickr. The sound is sweet and nostalgic, as if he were describing a photo album -- but he very much isn't, hence the humor.

Other examples of his formal experimentation include "W's Duty", where the lyrics are all sound clips from our Boy King's speeches in which he invokes duty, edited into new meanings -- surprisingly effective and catchy. There are others in this category too -- mash-ups (such as this mash-up of "When I'm 64" and "25 or 6 to 5"; or a song with lyrics which were, in Coulton's words, "taken verbatim from a text message that a friend of mine received from their boss, and spoken by my Mac." There are a lot of strange little songs like that. Another example of his experimental tendency was the fact that, fairly recently, he spent a year producing one song a week -- 52 songs in 52 weeks -- as sort of an endurance test, finishing just about a month ago. (Many of my favorites come from that year, by the way.)

And then there are a lot of his songs which are plain and simple funny fun, which I can't categorize -- but they include some of my favorites. So here are some of my other favorite Coulton songs so far:

• "Mandelbrot Set": a marvelous, catchy song which not only includes the formula:
Take a point called Z in the complex plane
Let Z1 be Z squared plus C
And Z2 is Z1 squared plus C
And Z3 is Z2 squared plus C and so on
If the series of Z’s should always stay
Close to Z and never trend away
That point is in the Mandelbrot Set...
but which also includes these incredibly wonderful lines:
Mandelbrot’s in heaven, at least he will be when he’s dead
Right now he’s still alive and teaching math at Yale...
I can't help but wonder what Mandelbrot thought of those lines when he heard them (or would think if he did, although I presume that he did at some point). (Coulton himself went to Yale, incidentally.) "Mandelbrot Set" is one of about half a dozen of his songs (along with "Re Your Brains", "The Presidents", "Code Monkey" and "Chiron Beta Prime"... maybe one or two others, maybe not) which has, at some point in the past two weeks, been my absolute favorite Coulton song, as opposed to the others here, which have only been among my favorites.

• "The Presidents" -- one line per president, rather randomly selected although mostly accurate facts (although there's one historical mistake (about Garfield), as Coulton notes on his lyrics page). For some reason LBJ's line always makes me feel sorry for him, although of course it really should make me feel sorry for its other subjects. It's just that he wasn't that much worse compared to other presidents -- and was very good on (some) other issues. Great song.

• "Code Monkey" -- this was, I believe, Coulton's first big "hit", a song which was slashdotted at some point -- not surprisingly, given that 'Code Monkey' is slang for a computer programmer doing dull work. This one I heard a few times before I really listened to the lyrics... which, let me just say, you should not do for the first time behind the wheel of a moving car.

• "Ikea" -- yeah, about the store. Incredibly catchy. Bonus points for referencing Thor.

• "Podsafe Christmas song" -- Another Christmas carol, this one sung by a group of characters who sound like the Chipmunks, but with a rather pugnacious attitude. And I just gotta love any song which includes these lyrics:
We want a podsafe Christmas song
We want a song that’s safe to play
Don’t think us rude
We don’t want to get sued
By the thugs at the RIAA...
Unlike the others, this one took a few hearings to grow on me. But it's really great.

• "Kenesaw Mountain Landis" -- This is a really weird one, a sort of tall tale about Shoeless Joe Jackson that has only a tenuous connection to the historical facts, and includes as well the (wholly fictional, I believe historically real (if rather different than Coulton's version)) eponymous character.

• "First of May", which is a "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" for the 21st century (and whose lyrics are NSFW, by the way).

Those are the dozen or so that I've gotten most into so far -- as you'll note if you click through, I've heavily favored the free ones for the obvious reason. But Coulton's song page has more than fifty songs on it, and I expect I'll be finding new favorites for a while now.

But one new favorite -- Jonathan Coulton -- is clearly here to stay for me. I hope you'll give him a try.

And watch out for Zombies. Reasonable as they may be.

1 comment:

Robert said...

You're right about Re:Your Brains -either you get it or you don't. I love the line - "I’m not a monster Tom, well, technically I am" - I think I have been in a meeting before like that.

Great in-depth piece.