CD Review: The Venture Brothers – The Music Of J.G. Thirlwell

By • July 20, 2009

Composer: J.G. Thirlwell
Label: Williams Street
Suggested Retail Price: $13.98
Grade: B

The Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” block has prided itself on such ultra-hip programming as AQUA TEAM HUNGER FORCE, SQUIDBILLIES and ROBOT CHICKEN. But perhaps no show in the networks’ dual mission of extolling “classic” re-runs while thumbing its nose at everything kitschy about them has been as inspired, or as mercilessly satiric as THE VENTURE BROTHERS. This hit creation by Jackson Publick (aka the TICK’s cartoon writer Christopher McCulloch) succeeds by roasting Hanna-Barbera’s 1964-premiering show JOHNNY QUEST, where the titular Aryan whiz kid, his scientist dad Benton, their Indian pal Hadji and the adorable dog Bandit would take on scientific and supernatural villains. And in the end, it would always be the group’s white imperialist protector Race Bannon who’d save their asses.

The corpse-filled, culturally contemptuous QUEST was actually damn cool for Hanna-Barbera, especially for a studio that produced such insipid shows as YOGI BEAR and HUCKLEBERRY HOUND shows (ok, I’ll give THE FLINTSTONES and SCOOBY DOO a pass). Forty years after this adventure team first showed up on ABC, THE VENTURE BROTHERS would turn these archetypes into the ultra-violent horndog Brock Sampson, the pathetic grown-up wunderkind Dr. Venture, and his clueless clone “sons” Dean and Hank. Facing off against such villains as the butterfly-suited Monarch, The Phantom Limb and Girl Hitler, THE VENTURE BROTHERS was an inspired razzberry to the cartoons that are TV animation’s answer to Velveeta.

Though THE VENTURE BROTHERS has stumbled a bit over the ongoing course of three plus seasons (especially with way too many Monarch-themed shows), one of its continually cool “hip” factors has been the scoring of techno artist / dj / music tech scientist extraordinaire J.G. Thirlwell. Under the guise of such bands as Foetus, Manorexia and Steroid Maximus (monikers that VENTURE’s incompetent villains would surely love to have), Thirlwell has taken the straight-laced scoring of the original QUEST show and dumped it into a rave music vat- given it a glowstick and eighty doses of ecstasy, and then throwing the resultant goo into a mercenary’s bachelor pad so it could make beautiful music. What’s come out isn’t so much beautiful as it is inspired, mashing together goofy retro stylings with the latest club scene grooves. It’s a sound that’s made THE VENTURE BROTHERS reach way beyond JOHNY QUEST’s listening demographic ever could, creating the perfect mood for the show’s instant, and continuing cult status.

Thirlwell’s music has been in demand since its bachelor-spy-thrash debuted. And if there was a good side to his music’s absence on any format, then it was that VENTURE fans would seek out Thirlwell’s other ingenious work. Three years later, the best of his VENTURE music finally first appeared as an MP3 download, as well as on that new vinyl format. Yet few fans knew about the album. But that will hopefully change now that THE VENTURE BROTHERS has finally arrived on proper CD through Amazon.

If anything, a VENTURE listen to the uninitiated will probably show that Thirlwell’s batshit stylings are definitely best suited to go with the show, even if they’re certainly appreciable outside of it. Just be prepared to go into a spastic fit if you try to get your hipped-up QUEST mojo to go with Thirlwell’s, shall we say, irregular rhythms. For like the best super-intellectual, and deceivingly dumb satires, THE VENTURE BROTHERS quickly reached a level of psychedelic plotting and non-endings that were part of the Dada-ist joke. And in its most inspired episodes, THE VENTURE BROTHERS was about everything than what was happening in the actual show. The same could mostly be said about Thirlwell’s music, as it jammed in with completely impromptu, and absolutely incongruous music that played against picture to a hilarious fault. So I can’t even pretend to know what most of this album’s stuff goes to, which might be the point. But the telegraphing percussion and overhyped brass of the show’s main and end themes in “Tuff” and “No Vacancy” are keys to understanding Thirlwell’s over-the-top style- music that gives the sense that you are watching the greatest cartoon show ever.

But instead of conveying this vibe with orchestral bombast, Thirlwell does it with jazz and groove beats, with smaller strings getting across the big-ass cinematic feeling. And he gets to expand on his themes here, creating a feeling that’s as energetic as it can sometimes be tiring in such rambunctious action tracks as “Tenssacts,” the fire alarms shrieks and new wave beat of “Assclamp!” and swerving techno synths of “Gawker.”

But while a bunch of THE VENTURE BROTHERS is better suited for a freaking Sampson, a pissed-off Monarch, or an out-of-control pet robot, there’s definitely more than enough equally inspired, and “easier” listening to be had here. “Brock Graveside” has a cool Morricone whistle and trumpet, a western vibe that becomes gunfight harmonica and guitar suspense in “Spag.” Thirlwell dips into SHAFT-style funk for “Node Wrestling,” while “Damion” has fun with creepy magical music (maybe for the film’s ersatz Dr. Strange if I’m beginning to guess right). A broken down banjo player and player piano lead into the acid Dixieland jazz of “Mississippi Noir,” complete with chorus. Oompa circus music of “Warped Carousel” could be played by the house band of Arkham Asylum, while neo-erotic space age music makes itself at home in “Sexy Sultry.”

But if there’s one favorite cue for me, then it’s “Warped Span,” the cool, low-key jazz that accompanies the VENTURE “coming soon” stills. It’s a melodically minimal groove that defines Thirlwell’s winning ability to mix everything that was swinging and 60’s from the time of QUEST with the ultra-hip production values of our new millennia, where everything goofy is made brilliant again with a wash of techno gadgetry. In the music of THE VENTURE BROTHERS, everything old is new again- musical camp as ultimate cool as done for the hippest adult animation on the block.

Go Team Thirlwell here


By Less Lee Moore on July 27th, 2009 at 9:09 am

Please note that it is spelled ThirLwell, not Thirwell.

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