When I first started making this list I was sure that The White Songbook by Joy Electric would be my number one. I've always considered that album to be the pinnacle of the JE discography, with it's beyond intricate programming and old world sentiment. There are a few songs on there that are as close to perfection as any synthesizer song has ever been: Unicornicopia, The Boy Who Never Forgot, Shepherds of the Northern Pasture, The Heritage Bough and the title track. I've listened to The White Songbook while driving through the countryside in Switzerland and perhaps had my first glimpse of Heaven on Earth. Indeed --even now I'm second guessing my decision.
I recall Ronnie saying that the process of recording The White songbook was not enjoyable. And truth be told, it doesn't sound like it was an enjoyable process. It can be daunting even to listen to. The sounds are intricate to the extent that they demand your constant attention and the subject matter is equally heavy. There are no care-free vibes to be found. It's all remorse and longing. Ronnie has a history of making EPs that are somewhat reactionary to their proceeding albums. The Art and Craft of Popular Music could be considered that reactionary EP to The White Songbook.
According to David Barnhart's extensive notes:
"The White Songbook was multitracked to four Tascam DA-78's. The entire thing was done on the System 100 and it was sequenced with the 104 sequencer module on the System 100 and with the built-in sequencer on Roland's SH-101."
A Roland RE-201 Space Echo was also used. I would assume that The Art and Craft of Popular Music was made similarly since it was made so soon after, except that there is quite a bit of polyphony. I believe that a Roland RS-202 was responsible for this. Which would make sense as it was released in the closest proximity (1976) to the System 100 (produced between 1975-1979) of all the Roland string machines.
[Joy Electric concert Anchorage, Alaska 1997. feat. Roland Juno-106]
The Art and Craft of Popular Music had a lightness about it that The White Songbook didn't. TWSB was a marvel of synthesizer ingenuity but The Art and Craft... was listenable. Don't get me wrong, it still had fascinating sounds; the heavily delayed introduction to Such a Beautiful Thought is still a constant source of inspiration to me. Simplicity and subtle mystery abound!
Songs like Ringing Bells, Mistletoe and Molasses, Farmhouse Fables, Come In Brother, Weep In the Sunshine, and the aforementioned Such a Beautiful Thought make up the core of the album and it would be hard to skip over any of them.
It's old fashion and wistful and there's a vaguely Christmasy feeling to the whole thing. How could I resist?
There was also a wonderful remake of the Rainbow Rider (Ronnie's previous band) song We'll Last So Long. The Rainbow Rider version is great but this was a little cleaner and simplified. It certainly gave me a renewed appreciation for the song.
It would be impossible to write about Joy Electric without mentioning Juan Gomez. Juan and his followers provided live theatrics for the band for years. His outrageous costumes and movements confounded many a non-suspecting concert goer. In this picture he looks like a mixture of a Dr. Seuss character and a member of the Ku Klux Klan. I was much smaller at the time, but if memory serves correct, Juan was about 6'5". When he was all done up and in constant motion he was intimidating to say the least. My older brother and I toured with Joy Electric for a few years at the beginning of the last decade; him playing drums and me synthesizers. During that time we got to know Juan and he is a top notch fellow!
I'll leave you with the only song I could find and a personal favorite from The Art and Craft..., Mistletoe and Molasses.
And from the honorably mentioned White Songbook, Unicornicopia.
*I suppose it should be mentioned that The Art and Craft of Popular Music wasn't a proper album. It was a double disc set that included a retrospective of the first decade of Joy Electric's career. The first disc (the one I've been going on about) was B-sides and rarities, but they were all re-recorded at once for this release.