For the last 15 years, Ronnie Martin has been obsessed with writing the perfect synth-pop song. Actually, it’s been longer than that, if you include his work in Dance House Children and other pre-Joy Electric projects. But ever since 1994’s Melody, the man’s obsession has become especially pronounced.
This is most clearly seen in his production methods. Throughout Joy Electric’s history, Martin has continually refined his craft, paring his music down to the barest, most necessary elements. The most recent Joy Electric albums, including The Ministry of Archers and The Otherly Opus, have used little more than Martin’s voice and a Moog.
This devotion is certainly laudable, but it’s easy to imagine how limiting such self-imposed restrictions could become. Which probably explains the numerous side-projects that Martin has become involved with in recent years: Shepherd, The Brothers Martin, The Foxglove Hunt, and now, Ronald of Orange. But unlike those other projects, Ronald Orange is essentially a one-man operation. But it’s still an attempt to explore new music avenues not allowed by Joy Electric’s particular aesthetic.
While all of the Ronnie Martin trademarks are readily apparent on Brush Away the Cobwebs, what’s most apparent is the expanded instrumental palette. Guitars, drums, piano, and maybe even a harpsichord or two all make an appearance. Which in and of itself is a surprising thing, especially given the hermetic sound we’ve come to expect from Martin.
The five-song EP starts off on a bit of weak note with the title track (and first single). Put simply, “Brush Away the Cobwebs” feels too small; it’s clearly a big, soaring pop number in its heart. It yearns for some orchestral arrangement but the one-man-band approach hinders it a bit. It ends up sounding like baby steps, the first tentative movement towards a different sound — one made, perhaps, with some anxiety as to whether or not success will be had.
“Potential,” on the other hand, is the EP’s finest moment, and much more assured. It’s closer to the “traditional” Joy Electric sound, with ebbing, pulsing synth melodies galore, but it still feels lighter and more effortless than a lot of Joy Electric. (Maybe it’s that stuttering beat, which sounds wonderfully sloppy when compared to Joy Electric’s scientific precision.)
Another difference with the EP is the lack of obtuse concepts and cryptic lyrics; in their stead is more straightforward songwriting. One almost detects a sense of humor and play throughout the EP. It’s hard to imagine lyrics like “Sit up and drink/Are you feeling better?/I called a shrink/Claims it’s not the weather/In half the time/That it took to help you/They’ll have our next/Locked and padded wagon” (“Things That Are Lost”) adorning any Joy Electric songs. In the end, however, that good ol’ Martin melancholy still shines through.
It’s tempting at times to label the songs on Brush Away the Cobwebs as Joy Electric toss-offs but what’s really happening here is Ronnie Martin tossing off his own burdens for a little while. And the result is something that is on the lighter, perhaps even more frivolous side, but by design. After all, we all need to come up for air from time to time, to put things on the backburner and try new things for a bit, if only to recharge batteries and regain perspective.
Of course, in the end, it’s still Ronnie Martin. If you’re not a Joy Electric fan already, than Brush Away the Cobwebs might be slim pickings — though I’ll put “Potential” up against any pop single released this year. Indeed, even if you are a fan, you might find yourself wanting a little more; I, for one, would love to hear more instruments and arrangements brought into the fold for the next release. But ultimately, Ronald of Orange reminds me of just why I enjoy Martin’s music so much, regardless of the moniker associated with it. In the end, we’re still listening to fine, bouncy, inimitably catchy pop music one of music’s most original, devoted voices. And that’s enough for me to sit down, give in, and press “Play” again and again.