kyma•tweaky . Connect . O20020213AlbumJeanLewis

The Thunderthief
Album: 13 Feb 2002
By: JpJones

There was a news report a few years ago about a raven in Japan that would perch by a playground every morning and watch the kids play. As soon as the kids would leave to go to school, the raven would fly over and play on the equipment all by himself; they even had a photograph of him going down the slide.

It makes me think that the cover art drawing of a raven dancing with a conductor’s baton on the cover of The Thunderthief is really supposed to be John Paul Jones. Like the raven in Japan, Jones’ approach to his second solo album is intelligent, surprising, playful, and not without a hint of darkness. Biding his time and observing carefully before swooping in for some clever play with an astonishing array of musical instruments, sounds, signal processing, recording techniques, and musical styles as if they were the toys in a children’s playground, he sounds as if he’s genuinely having fun. And the feeling is infectious.

One of the biggest surprises (at least in light of his former protestations) is that the multi-instrumentalist/arranger/composer also sings on this album. Not surprisingly, he uses his voice in a way that is similar to the way he plays his other instruments: directly and unpretentiously, as a tool for conveying the music without distracting attention from it. It’s a voice that sneaks up on you, seemingly quiet and simple but in fact rife with invisible little Velcro hooks that remain in your brain afterwards.

Discussion (Descriptions, reviews, discussion):

The songs are arranged as a journey: beginning where Zooma left off, venturing through territories of rage, melancholy, meditative resolution, infectious delight, humor, and ending with unassuming love. Stylistically it ranges (even within a single song) from Jones’ own brand of post-Zeppelin rock, to Stravinskian neo-classicism, to Reznoresque voice processing, to raga-ish classical Indian, to bluegrass, to singer/songwriter ballad, to acousmatic timbre-painting, to blues, to punk, to Irish folk. Even Ralph, the voice of the Macintosh computer, gets a turn.

Leafy Meadows —In Jones’ new post-Zeppelin rock tradition (and reminiscent of some of the tracks from Zooma andSporting Life), the obsessive repetitions, insane solos, and alternating 4/4, 5/4, 3/4 groupings will have you nodding your head and counting on your fingers while the infra sub bass + drum rocks every cell in your body. It stops abruptly and dissolves into a swirling synthetic reverb.

The Thunderthief —All the things we might have learned, All the points we might have earned, All the things we might have said, Are credited to him instead

Who is the "thunder thief"? Everyone knows the "thunder thief." He’s that guy with the really bad memory. You know, the one who goes around telling everyone about this great new idea he came up with, "forgetting" that you’re the one who told it to him originally. Or that woman who stepped in at the last minute and took over your just-finished project after you’d spent years laying the groundwork and "forgot" to share the accolades with you. I think you do know the "thunder thief" because he manages to get around a lot. Why? Because it’s hard to break into truly new territory, and it’s easy for lots of people to rush in once the hard work has been done. Sometimes he’s not even such an evil guy. He just happens to be thinking along the same lines you are and beats you to the solution before you’ve had a chance.

Anyone who has been around for any length of time is familiar with the "thunder thief." If he’s ever stolen your thunder, then take heart; The Thunderthief, the song, is your revenge. With pure crazy energy and abandon, JPJ exorcises the demonic "thunder thief" on behalf of every one of us!

Opening with a deliciously flanged sample of a distant thunderstorm, it quickly segues into a relentless 16th note drum pattern and thinly Reznorish bandpass-filtered vocals intoning Peter Blegvad’s catalog of the "thunder thief’s" sins. In each variation of the chorus, the voice and bass double each other in quarter notes in different octaves, interrupted by wild outbursts of neo-classical sounding octave doubled arpeggios on electric piano. Cracks us open like a bookReads us with a single look

Is the man in raven’s clothing depicted in the cover art supposed to be the "thunder thief?" In some Native American mythology, a bird is supposed to cause the thunder, not steal it. That’s why I think the raven-man is not the thunder thief but JPJ himself, doing battle with the "thunder thief," stealing back his own thunder, and unleashing it anew as a thunderous infra-audio sub bass line!

Hoediddle —A continuous musical style-morph from live computer-processed Indian classical, to off-the-beat prog rock rhythmic trickery, to bluegrass, to Irish folk, to a lovely delicate outtro on solo mandolin (and autoharp?). During the intro, the haunting forward/backward echoes give the plucked strings a reedy quality and the ornamentation suggests an Indian raga.

Ice Fishing at Night —A quietly mournful watery wash of granular synthesis containing hundreds of tiny dolphin-like cries sets the tone for a ballad sad enough to put you right off eating seafood ever again until you realize it’s probably an allegorical tale of illusory hope of renewal in the face of ultimate death. Then you really have a reason to feel melancholy. Apart from the delicate computer-generated intro and outtro, this song is straight-ahead composer/songwriter at the piano (oh, and one swipe of a bell tree). Lovely and sad, it gives you a chance to catch your breath between Hoediddle and Daphne. I hope he might be considering the possibility of doing some additional, alternate arrangements of this one for future recordings or performances. There’s a lot going on in the inner voices of the piano chords that might be interesting to hear in an orchestral or synthesized arrangement, and additional processing on the voice could lend the song an even bleaker, colder feel to match the meaning of the words.

Daphne —Bouncy, energetic and fun, replete with vinyl surface noise, analog-synthy parallel 5ths with portamento and a shuffle-my-feet drum beat. Ralph the talking computer makes a cameo appearance during Jones’ infra-sonic sub-bass solo with rhythmic interjections like "Yes!", "Hello?", "Why are you talking to me? I’m a computer" and other unspeakable items.

Angry Angry —This one had me laughing out loud. An unsubtle jab at the self-absorbed, self-pitying, self-indulgent, self-righteously angry and obnoxious. One of the things that makes it so hilarious is the contradiction between the sentiment and the vocabulary ("I’m so irate!"). In a voice that sounds like it might burst out laughing at any moment, Jones throws a parody of a childish tantrum, threatening to stamp his foot, be obnoxious, commit road rage, etc, and then run to hide before someone calls his bluff, all to a rapid-fire punkish beat. It’s almost as if someone encouraged him to do a song that expressed all of his deepest rage and he just couldn’t manage to do so with a straight face. For all those who have ever lost control of their tempers and then suddenly burst out laughing at themselves, you’ll love this one. The next time I feel like I might be about to lose my temper, I think I’ll sing Angry Angry instead of counting to ten. Better to laugh at myself than to cut someone off in traffic.

Down to the River to Pray —Live multitracking to build layer upon layer upon layer played on Jones’ new Manson-built tripleneck mandolin, charmingly amplifying every breathlike finger noise, and building to a climax that sounds like it’s played on a room-sized, wire-strung harp. Each phrase plays out like a single breath followed by a silent intake of air before being repeated mantra-like with new layers, louder and more elaborated on each succeeding breath: A meditative resolution to all the previous angst.

Shibuya Bop —Kotos rock!

Freedom Song —Something about the way this song is sung and recorded brings to mind one of those Folkways historical documentary recordings. After hiking for several days in the Appalachians, we found the last known survivor of a rich oral tradition extending as far back as the earliest Irish immigrations sitting with his home-made ukulele on the porch of the wood frame house his grandfather built in the 1800s. Sing something for us in that nasal Appalachian traditional historical curiosity folk music kind of voice you have, old-timer.

Incongruously, though the timbre and miking style speak of autodidactic folk music, the words speak of popping over to visit the Whitney Museum and escaping from interactive television, faxes, and taxes. It has a sweetly genuine feel to it. One can almost imagine Jones playing this one for his executive producer who, laughingly assenting says, yes ok, let’s call this one finished and take a little break before starting on the next album.

What next?

Where Zooma felt a little like JPJ was announcing, "Hey, here I am!" The Thunderthief seems to be saying, "Now that I have your attention, allow me to introduce myself." More varied, more surprising, more playful, more experimental, demonstrating a greater mastery of recording/mixing techniques, more relaxed and confident than the first album, it leaves the listener intrigued enough to eagerly await the next installment and inspired enough to do battle with their own private thunder thieves.

----- Revision r1.3 - 03 Aug 2004 - 20:43 GMT - JeanLewis
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