Thursday, May 5, 2011

Joy Electric - The Otherly Opus (2007)

It's often funny how life throws curve balls at you.  We find inspiration in the most unlikely of places sometimes, and when we reflect on the source of that inspiration, we often are left to wonder just what happened or why such inspiration was triggered.  No matter the reason or source, inspiration is a key ingredient in all art, and something we all need in our daily lives as we strive to make our way in the world.  Inspiration helps us see and endgame to the goals we are struggling to achieve, and gives us hope in times where we feel helpless in changing whatever it is in our lives we wish to change.

Being a long-time Joy Electric fan, I have purchased nearly the entire CD discography.  There are a couple pieces missing, but I consider myself to be a fairly devoted fan.  Having listened to all the releases, I can kind of see a course charted from "Melody" through to the various other albums, Ronnie Martin always sort of pushing himself from album to album to do new things, never content to rest on his laurels.  I have seen this as a good thing, even when the results of that artistic exploration have left us with an album or two that are a bit less listenable, or perhaps something that requires a bit more studied listen.  But listening to a Joy Electric release is nearly always an enjoyable experience, with a couple possible exceptions.

So what does inspiration have to do with Joy Electric, and more specifically, this review?  I had listened to and enjoyed "The Otherly Opus" several times, but hadn't yet regarded it as highly as other JE fans until recently.  Earlier this year, my wife and I took in a couple kids via foster care. In the process, I introduced one of them to Joy Electric when they were looking for new music.  Because I had recently listened to it I pulled out "The Otherly Opus" and played it.  The kid was hooked from the first few bars, and suddenly all I heard around the house over the next few weeks was this kid singing along to songs on the album.  I knew it was a strong JE release, but this sudden addiction gave me pause and encouraged me to get back to the album and dig deeper.  So I did.

Over the next several weeks, I listened to "The Otherly Opus" almost non-stop in the van and at various other times.  I marveled at how fresh it sounded at that point, despite having played it a lot earlier.  It also reminded me of just how balanced it was.  Early JE releases focused on pure pop songcraft, while some later releases were a bit more "artsy", expanding upon the JE sound palette and exploring various other textures and sonic elements.  But starting with "Hello, Mannequin" the focus shifted again back toward more traditional pop structure.  After the experimental (and excellent) "The Ministry of Archers", this album takes the experimentation of mid-period JE and tempers it quite well with the pure pop of the early material.  This includes both the bouncy fun "Melody" or "Robot Rock" stuff, and the more somber "We Are the Music Makers" type of material.  Nothing here is as upbeat as "CHRISTIANsongs", but there are plenty of songs with a more major chord feel than the previous release.

For those uninitiated to the JE sound, think 80's video game music on steroids with vocals that are at once emotionally affected and also disaffected.  That's an overly simplified explanation and I'm sure I'll get email from a couple dozen JE devotees who loathe that description.  But as much as that's a less than accurate description, it's accurate enough a touchstone for those unfamiliar with the sound.  But really the answer is, in this day and age of the internet, go listen to some tracks on any website that will stream them.  It's 80's styled synthpop mixed with sort of a laid back euro-dance feel at times, but it's so much more complex and layered than that - I can't do justice to the sound with mere words.  While Ronnie isn't exploring as many sound effects and sonic palettes here as on some previous releases, he does interesting things with what he uses here.  I find this semi-retro approach with a slightly more minimalistic "instrument" set to be quite effective.  It hearkens back to the beginnings of JE without sacrificing the progress he's made as a composer or arranger, nor does it bely the improvements he has made in the overall JE sound construction in that time.  Some of Ronnie's trademark sounds are here, and the lightly thumping bass lines underneath are indicative of a JE record.

The other thing that stands out with this release is just how much variation there is in Ronnie's vocals.  Not as much as on some of the more experimental releases, but he uses a lot of varying effects and techniques here.  You have quiet, tender moments like on "Write Your Last Paragraph", and outright yells on "Red Will Dye These Snows Of Silver".  There are other interesting vocal things going on here, though nothing as unique or different as what he does on this album's follow-up, "My Grandfather, The Cubist".  But it all works, none of it sounds out of place or "weird" (at least not in the Joy Electric sense), and contextually within the various tracks it makes sense.  There's also some interesting layering going on, as well as a couple spots where Ronnie uses a nice "tunnel" effect.

Ultimately, what I think I'm trying to say here is that this album is so well constructed you have to hear it for yourself.  If you're a Joy Electric fan, you most likely already have this album and it's likely already a favorite.  If you're a JE fan and don't have it yet, you're doing yourself a disservice, because it's one of Ronnie's finest outings.  I still believe my personal favorite JE album is "We Are the Music Makers", but that's partially because it has stuck with me for so long.  But in terms of sheer balance, songwriting, and all the various elements of Joy Electric that Ronnie has cultivated over the years, this may well be his most well rounded and complete album.  If you like synthpop, electronic music, pop music, or just really good music of any kind, you owe it yourself to at least hear this record.  I can't recommend this album enough.


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