Ronnie Martin has always marched to the beat of a different drum machine. At the time of his debut with the Dance House Children, nothing could have been more out of fashion than an unabashedly ’80s style synth-pop band on an obscure Christian label. Yet the Orange County auteur stuck to his guns, seeming to ignore everything going on in the world around him as he worked to craft a highly personal and idiosyncratic brand of electronic pop. Perfecting that sound with Joy Electric, he became one of the few musicians — alongside Martin Rev, Magazine’s Dave Formula and Kraftwerk — to create a personal, instantly identifiable signature sound with synthesizers.
Several of Martin’s trademark elements are already in place on the Dance House Children’s 1991 debut, Songs and Stories: wispy, falsetto vocals; a lyrical fondness for fairy tale imagery; and sing-songy borderline-precious melodies. Otherwise, the music bears only a cursory resemblance to his later work with Joy Electric (and even less to the future work by Ronnie’s partner in DHC, his younger brother Jason). The galloping synths owe a debt to the Pet Shop Boys, Sparks and Janet Jackson’s “When I Think of You.” An uncomfortable majority of the songs are in the same tempo — stylistic sameness is the major flaw in Martin’s work, and it has dogged him his entire career. While nearly all of his ideas are charming and delightful, he doesn’t have a whole lot of them. Almost any song on each of his albums sounds pretty much like all the others. That said, the overall pep and good nature of Songs and Stories keeps it from becoming tedious.
Jesus, the second Dance House Children album, shows noticeable artistic growth. Ronnie mixes up the tempos and shows developing signs of a more distinctive instrumental style. The straightforward Pet Shop Boys disco sound recedes as idiosyncratic synthesizer bleeps and blips move into the mix. Jason, who had only one solo songwriting credit on the debut, delivers three tracks reflecting his interest in such then-current English bands as Ride, Lush and My Bloody Valentine. The noisy, ominous swirl of distortion, found sounds and buried vocals of those songs are highlights here, although they’re not typical of the album. Ronnie and Jason’s styles co-exist well enough, but it’s obvious they’re moving in completely different directions. Jason departed shortly thereafter to go shoegazing in Starflyer 59, while Ronnie continued to refine his synth-pop.
Martin’s next album, Beautiful Dazzling Music, is a transitional project that could just as easily be the third Dance House Children album as the first Rainbow Rider release. All of the disco elements are gone, the tempos are slower and Martin coaxes increasingly quirky noises out of his synths. Although the album received almost no distribution, it caught the ear of the newborn Tooth & Nail label, which offered Martin a contract, reportedly requesting “something like Rainbow Rider, but not as obnoxious.”
Martin’s answer was Joy Electric’s debut, Melody. Synthesizers burp, growl, warble and purr as he trills along like the world’s most blissful castrati, crooning about lily pads, forests, candy cane carriages and various and sundry other forms of toys and goodies. Melody suffers from Martin’s inability to write more than two or three actual songs per album, but the three here are enjoyable enough that hearing four or five variations on each isn’t at all bad. “Drum Machine Joy,” “Electric Joy Toy Company” and “Candy Cane Carriage” are all marvelous synth-pop confections which demonstrate that Martin chose his new band name wisely.
The Five Stars for Failure EP is the bitter center of Joy Electric’s fizz-pop. Clearly frustrated with pouring his heart into music which was not reaching a wide audience, Martin kvetches, complains and whines, reveling in a terrible case of self-pity. The unhappiness of his lyrics, while understandable, is hardly pleasing; fortunately, the music rises in joyous counterpoint. Best listened to with one ear, focusing on the music and ignoring the words as much as possible.
Martin regained his footing on We Are the Music Makers. Although effortlessly enjoyable to anyone except a complete sourpuss, there’s not a lot of variety to be had here. The lead-off track, “Burgundy Years,” points to a taste for medieval topics and Arthurian legend; whether this means Martin was reading a lot of Prince Valiant or just listening to a lot of Men Without Hats is unknown. The Old Wives Tales EP begins strong with “The Cobbler,” one of Martin’s perkiest fairy tales, and continues with remixes and re-recordings of past album tracks.
By the late ’90s, Joy Electric, the Faint, Ganymede, My Favorite and Freezepop formed the vanguard of a small new wave revival, an unexpected development which allowed him to found a techno-pop label, Plastiqmusiq, and release records by such likeminded acts as Soviet, Fine China, House of Wires and Travelogue.
Robot Rock is more traditional synth-pop than Martin’s prior releases; had the album been released in 1981, songs like “Sugar Rush” and “Monosynth” would likely now be beloved new wave classics. Robot Rock is among the best of the neo-new wave albums, and deserves a spot on the shelf next to albums like the Human League’s Dare, Depeche Mode’s Speak and Spell and Soft Cell’s Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret. The Land of Misfits is an EP of Robot Rock remixes and outtakes.
While most musicians working in the Christian marketplace long for secular credibility, Martin was more miffed that Christians hadn’t embraced his work as such. Like Starflyer 59, Ronnie’s lyrics tended to address faith indirectly, a habit he changed on CHRISTIANsongs. While the music continues in the more direct vein of Robot Rock, the lyrics are distinctly faith-based. The great heathen masses might still enjoy the music, but the words are so explicitly geared toward the evangelical audience that non-born again listeners will most likely find the whole thing impenetrable. Children of the Lord is CHRISTIANsongs‘ companion EP.
Unelectric consists of Joy Electric favorites redone without synthesizers. Surprisingly, the songs don’t sound all that different. Far from a typical unplugged album, the arrangements are lush and intricate, and show that Martin’s songs stand up well beyond their electronic settings.
The White Songbook launched the Legacy series, three concept albums about invention and visionaries. The music is more complicated and expansive than before, approaching prog rock, although the instrumentation is still minimal — Martin insists on using only a small number of almost antique synthesizers. Song structures approach progressive rock, which is an interesting development. The second Legacy volume — The Tick-Tock Treasury (which relates some sort of tale of magical clocks) — returns to the more traditional Joy Electric sound.
The third volume of Legacy, Hello Mannequin (and its attendant EP, Friend of Mannequin), rises above the déjà entendu to present almost an album’s worth of strong, memorable songs. Sure, Martin’s songs all sound the same, but when he’s on his game they rarely fail to leave the listener grinning like a monkey. One of Joy Electric’s best.
The Magic of Christmas, Joy Electric’s holiday album, is one of the most inspired pairings since chocolate met peanut butter. Are the songs traditional or original? It’s hard to imagine an artist more suited to the task. The Art and Craft of Popular Music is a two-disc collection, one a well-chosen best-of, the other a collection of rarities and remixes (by the likes of the Faint and Norway) that includes “Dance to Moroder,” one of Martin’s best songs.
On The Ministry of Archers, Martin belatedly discovers the percussion settings on his antique electronics. Beats boom and clang their way through the synth bloops, burbles and warbles like never before, most notably on the title track and “A Hatchet, a Hatchet.” It’s a welcome development that serves to give Joy Electric’s music some much needed backbone and muscle; a light and airy 3 Musketeers bar is always nice, sometimes you need a Snickers, dammit. The lyrics are standard Martin fairytale gobbledygook about archers and archery which doubtlessly impart some sort of spiritual lesson to anyone who bothers to figure it out, but The Ministry of Archers is more enjoyable if one pays them no mind at all and simply focuses on the music.
Shepherd is a non-electronic side project. Fronting a traditional guitar/bass/drums combo, Martin shows that his talent doesn’t depend entirely on quirky instrumentation and arrangements — he makes some pretty swell minimalist rock, too. It’s revealing to discover how closely Ronnie’s melodic sense matches brother Jason’s — removed from Joy Electric’s electronic trappings, Ronnie’s music is not far removed from Starflyer 59’s more stripped-down moments.
Martin took a different tack from his usual full length/companion disc pattern with the Montgolfier and the Romantic Balloons EP. Usually the companion EP bears some resemblance to the full-length, but this one goes off on a completely unrelated tangent, spinning a yarn about the inventor of hot air ballooning before launching into remixes (by the likes of Goodnight Star and Freezepop) of material from The Ministry of Archers. The new music is more baroque than usual, not unlike the sound Momus achieved on The Little Red Songbook.
Martin finds another new wrinkle to explore within the narrow strictures of Joy Electric style on The Otherly Opus, which goes nuts with vocal arranging. He constructs choruses and choirs of himself chirping, trilling and chanting while his synthesizers burble and blip along as always. It’s an intriguing development, but not an entirely advisable one. (Bless his heart, one Martin is dorky enough. An army of him borders on nerd overload.) Still, the album is impressive in spite of itself, and while Ronnie Martin will likely never reach the same level of acclaim as his little brother, in some ways his career is even more admirable. He’s set himself a much more difficult task, but somehow he keeps finding new ways to keep his very restrictive formula fresh.
Like the earlier “Dance to Moroder,” a couple of songs on the brief Workmanship EP appear to pay tribute to Martin’s forebears. “Sheffield Youth” seems to be a nod to the Human League, while “Wireless, From London” obliquely references Thomas Dolby.
Martin adopts an even more fragile and vulnerable vocal style than usual on the excellent My Grandfather the Cubist, giving the album an elegiac tone despite the fact that it contains some of the brightest pop hooks he’s ever composed. There’s a pervasive sense of longing and nostalgia — Martin’s use of once futuristic but now antiquated instruments (vintage analog synths circa 1980 or so) evokes a feeling of wistfulness for a one-time brighter tomorrow that never quite happened. Tributes to past visionaries like M.C. Escher and the Cubists, as well as technologies whose times have passed (the telephone booth, for example), place Martin firmly in the company of John Foxx, a die-hard romantic aching for a future that now exists only in the past.
For his next side project, Martin apparently sat down to choose a name that could paint him as an even bigger dweeb than was already apparent and settled on Ronald of Orange. (The man seems determined to goad the rest of the music industry into stuffing him into a locker.) Musically, it’s difficult to discern anything on Brush Away the Cobwebs that couldn’t have been released under the Joy Electric name — unlike Shepherd’s guitar-based approach, this is much closer to Martin’s usual synth-pop, although lacking the croaks and chirps and gargles that fill up the margins of most Joy Electric albums. A couple of the songs toss guitar strums into the mix, but that’s splitting a mighty fine hair. Still, all in all, it’s much better than the name Ronald of Orange promises and does pop a bit more than the previous few Joy Electric albums.
Martin deputized his wife Melissa as a band member for the all-covers Favorites at Play, but whether she actually contributed anything musically or was just there so the artwork could feature photos of a reasonably photogenic young thing is unclear. The album itself is a frustrating curiosity — given the idiosyncrasies of Martin’s music, it would’ve been illuminating if he’d covered the artists who influenced him, but instead it’s a celebration of the previous half-decade in modern MOR pop. The artists covered here include Coldplay, Nelly Furtado, Paramore, the All-American Rejects and other favorites of your high school age niece. Fine for him if Martin actually likes these songs, but it plays more like a late-career sell-out. (Of course Martin’s music remains odd enough to make it unlikely any chart music fans are buying.) Whatever the case, the album is definitely hit-or-miss. Blink-182’s “I Miss You” makes a surprisingly good Joy Electric tune, as does the Killers’ “When You Were Young”; Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” is a near-miss. On the other hand, Feist’s “1-2-3-4,” Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know” and the Swell Season’s “Falling Slowly” are washouts. Non-essential.