Three days ago, Jonathan Coulton announced that he will be releasing a new “live album with band.” I got very excited, but expected to have to wait a few weeks to get a hold of it. But today, he released the album digitally and is accepting pre-orders of the physical CDs over on JoCoLive.com. So naturally I bought it as soon as I saw it. (I considered getting the CD, but figured that the CD comes with a download link anyway, and all I would do is put it on my shelf as I consume all of my music on my iPod Classic.) Now that I’ve listened to it I’ve decided to give you a track-by-track review (from the order listed on JoCoLive.com/terms as my download put them in alphabetical order. This review also doesn’t count the tracks that are only cheering and talking.). Here’s what I thought:
Track One: Artificial Heart
I’ll admit, I was a little disappointed with this track. When I saw Artificial Heart on the track-list I was looking forward to a professionally-recorded live version of this song, but unfortunately ’tis but an instrumental. Starting with only drums and then having bass kick in and then the keyboard playing the role of Jonathan it is in itself a good instrumental arrangement for the song, if a little short. It ends with echoing samples of Jonathan Coulton’s other songs. A solid introduction to the album itself, it’s just a shame it’s not the whole track.
Track Two: Code Monkey
This live-version of the track is superb, with the same energy and power as the studio version, but being live it adds far more to it. You can feel the power even moreso as Jonathan croons for his secret love as the Code Monkey. The guitar sound is loud and distorted, the drums are being smashed. This song makes you want to jump around, while loudly singing the lyrics. This song feels as punk rock as JoCo can ever get. (Unlike the rather heartfelt version of Code Monkey from his other live album “Best. Concert. Ever.”)
Track Three: Sticking It To Myself
Being one of my favourite songs from Artificial Heart I was delighted to see this track on the album. The song itself is played with power and gusto. But unfortunately it sounds much thinner than the album track without that saxophone in the mix. But of course, when one is playing live you can’t have everything. So aside from the saxophone, this song is well performed and arranged well for a live set.
Track Four: Big Bad World One
Unlike the previous track, this track feels very full, in the sense of there’s nothing missing. This track is masterfully played by Jonathan Coulton and his band, well sung and generally good. The differences in dynamics between the verses and choruses adds a lot of power to the track. Very similar to the actual album track, which is something that not many artists achieve live.
Track Five: Shop Vac
Much like the previous track, this is a very faithful live version of the original album track. The sound is a little thin, and the “oh for heaven’s sake it’s really loud when the shop vac’s on” background vocals is omitted, but the important lead guitar licks and the brilliant solo remain. This is a great live version, and the song itself is one of my all-time favourite JoCo songs. I was singing along throughout this song (and the rest of the album) and loving every minute.
Track Six: Want You Gone
Jonathan Coulton may be no GLaDOS, but he sure knows how to belt out her songs. Okay, so maybe he wrote them. But admittedly not for himself. Despite that, this is a wonderful performance of it, based on the arrangement seen on Artificial Heart. It’s lead by effect-driven guitar and a reverb-heavy Coulton it shows the two sides of Coulton: Loud, angry verses and more smooth, folky choruses. This song packs a bitter punch, especially when the rest of the band kicks in half way through the verses, you can almost feel the floor vibrating. The performance is wonderful, and is making me crave Portal.
Track Seven: Je Suis Rick Springfield
A song sang entirely in “bad French”, this song is a masterpiece of composition from Artificial Heart with a beautiful harmonic riff played on an acoustic guitar. Here we get a heavier electric guitar version, there is a driving drum beat and fast guitar. As in Big Bad World One the difference between the dynamic difference between the verses and and the chorus very much make this song. I think it works very well as a song for electric guitar, and considering how much multitracking there is in the album version, this is a very well performed live performance.
Track Eight: A Talk With George
A quiet middle to what is mostly a loud album, it starts with only one guitar and Jonathan Coulton’s smooth voice. It’s soft, welcoming, even moreso when the other guitar joins in, thickening the tone, but remaining mellow and comforting. Then the chorus starts and the band kicks in, with backup vocals, a mandolin and drums. Still remaining soft, but with a punch. Like a plushy Rocky. The live arrangement of this song is very much similar to the recorded version, which is brilliant because both make wonderful, beautiful songs.
Track Nine: Good Morning Tuscon
My favourite track from his last album, I had high hopes for this version and it did not disappoint. It is well performed, well arranged and remains a brilliant song even when performed live. This song moves along at a steady pace and almost forces you to tap your toe to it. Despite all of this, again, as it’s a live version it does not have the piano or keyboard part. Which is the shame because it’s the piano that I really love during the “while they do the weather” part. It’s also interesting to note that the solo has been given entirely to the bass rather than rely on the acoustic guitar. A different choice, but I do like it.
Track Ten: Glasses
There are of course a lot of songs from Artificial Heart on this album, but this is definitely the best live version of any of those. It has all of the things that makes the album track brilliant. The distorted guitar, the repetitive riff, the driving bassline. There is nothing to say about this track except that it’s an EXCELLENT live version, which holds up just as well as the album track.
Track Eleven: Blue Sunny Day
In surprising news, I had not actually heard this song before finding it on this live album. And I must say, I think I have a new favourite on my hands. A delightedly upbeat song about a sad vampire. It almost feels like a Michael Bublé song. It’s very easy to dance to and is just very nice to listen to. Having now listened to the original, I find this is also a very good version of the song too. A lot of the things that he obviously couldn’t pull off live (like the amount of voices in the studio version) are not here, but the arrangement is faithful and it keeps that same happy (but it really shouldn’t be!) tone. I love it.
Track Twelve: Mandelbrot Set
A fan singalong classic, Mandelbrot Set is Jonathan Coulton at his nerdy best. Everything in this track is tight and well placed. All the instruments are played excellently and both Jonathan and the backup vocals are on tip top form. He of course leaves out the “at least he will be when he’s dead” lines in not singing anything, almost like a silent respect: with rocking guitar! The arrangement itself sounds pretty similar to the album version, sans the pitch-shifting synthesizer in the background of the riff. Though I can live without that, as it can get annoying after a while. C’mon everybody, sing along! Just take a point called Z in the complex plane…
Track Thirteen: You Ruined Everything
Lead by light drums, this is a very heartfelt and beautiful rendition of Jonathan Coulton’s song for his daughter. The background vocals add a nice dynamic to the chorus and and the bass keeps the song from being top-heavy. However, I think I prefer the Best. Concert. Ever. version for its stripped down simplicity. Despite that, this remains a nice, quiet break from the loud (like A Talk With George) and a very good performance of the song.
Track Fourteen: RE Your Brains
If Mandelbrot Set is a singalong classic, then this song is a singalong legend. One of Coulton’s all-time best songs, this live version is a wonderful collaboration between the crowd and the band. Lead only by Jonathan and his guitar up until the second verse, this song starts pretty subdued but builds to a zombie-tastic finish with the full band and loud guitars. Feeling like a 90s rock-ballad when the drums join in, we are treated to one of the best recorded-versions of this song. The crowd is a little quiet in the mix too, which is a good thing in my book, as it allows you to loudly fill in your own zombie-singing, which is what this song begs for. It’s also nice to hear this song with the solo included, rather than left out due to being played acousticly. This track is one of the highlights of this album, as it is on any album it features.
Track Fifteen: Still Alive
I’ve already craved Portal while listening to Want You Gone but now I really, really want cake. This song is a classic. One of Coulton’s most catchy songs, sung from the point of view of an annoyed supercomputer. Being the second to last track, it begins with “It was a triumph” which it certainly was. Up until this point, this has been a wonderful live album and it has this brilliant version of Still Alive to start to bring it to a close. Again, it is just Coulton and his guitar until the choruses, and when the band joins in the sound fills up and makes this song a brilliant song to sway and bob your head to. This version is absolutely wonderful.
Track Sixteen: I Feel Fantastic
Well this is how you end a set: the fastest song you’ve written. And OH BOY is this version fast. Fast beating drums begin the track underneath Jonathan thanking the band and the crowd and then the song kicks into a rush of words and instruments. This very well may be my favourite version of this song. It’s so fast and energetic and it suits the subject matter perfectly. It also sums up my feelings towards this album very well: Fantastic.
Have you listened to Jonathan Coulton’s new live album? Were you there at the gig? Do you wish you could actually see him live rather than have to rely on recordings (*cries*)? Tell me in the comments or over on twitter! (@24hoursayear)