Sounds Heard: The Venture Bros.—The Music of JG Thirlwell
You can be forgiven if you’ve never seen an episode of The Venture Bros.; its midnight-on-Sundays timeslot on the Adult Swim network is probably mostly the province of stoners, insomniacs, and the unemployed. Like many of the most successful adult-oriented cartoons, it mixes a sort of violent absurdity with clever and obscure references that are usually pretty funny even if you don’t “get it”. But regardless of whether the show’s particular brand of humor matches up with your own, you can’t help but notice how good the music is.
JG Thirlwell comes from the John Zorn school of unfathomable prolificacy. (Zorn, in fact, contributes half of the liner notes.) After getting his start collaborating with the experimental Londoner Nurse with Wound, he has gone on to release dozens of recordings under many different monikers, from the industrial weirdness of Foetus to the big band stylings of Steroid Maximus, et al. including concert music—he was previously interviewed in this magazine for his success with the Bang on a Can People’s Commissioning Fund. It would be a stretch to say that cartoon music—or anything else for that matter—is playing against type.
Like the show itself, Thirlwell’s music for The Venture Bros. is replete with cheeky references: the disc opens with the 30-second Morricone-inspired “Brock at Graveside” before the Mancini-on-Steroids (Maximus) “Tuff” (actually the music for the closing credits) really hits it off. Indeed Thirlwell’s multifarious sound worlds suit him well throughout the whole disc, as he is extremely adept at turning these styles around on a dime—a useful trait for scoring an animated series. Within these styles, Thirlwell uses dozens of different colors and effects to create something that is at once cartoonish and yet formidable.
Soundtracks can grow several different directions: they can be purely complimentary to the visuals and/or story; they can act almost as a character themselves. Think of the famous Jaws theme, which has way more personality than the shark. But as opposed to the stricter dynamics that are more usual to director-composer relationships in cinema, with a television show the relationship can be more symbiotic.
And it’s worth mentioning just how well Thirlwell’s music fits with the show. In fact, according to the liner notes, series creator Jackson Publick credits his exposure to Thirlwell’s Steroid Maximus with providing the inspiration to even make the show. You see, The Venture Bros. is, by the creators own admission, about failure. The only reason the super villains in the show cannot triumph over the bungling heroes is because they are equally incompetent, overcome by the same trivialities as all the other characters. E.g., one of the main villains is finally apprehended by the police after he’s caught imbibing and micturating on the lawn of his ex-girlfriend. So a big part of what Thirlwell’s music brings to the show is an actual atmosphere of adventure built around these hapless Jonny Quest knockoffs. Were Thirlwell to play it straight, the show would risk losing part of the satirical edge that’s so intrinsically a part of it; instead, with polymorphic bombast, we have music that seems to generate the scenes themselves.
But of course one of the primary questions with regard to the standalone release of a soundtrack is whether it works disunited from the rest of the production. And, well, here the answer is yes and no. Thirlwell’s music is exciting, and in short doses works quite well. But to pretend that it’s not missing a big part of its effect—the actual reason for its being, really—is a bit pointless. Removed from its complimentary televisual images, the brawn exhibited by the music sounds like it’s overcompensating—which it is, intentionally so, but context is needed to understand why it’s doing so. The album itself doesn’t amalgamate into something grander during a sit-down listen. Just as the show would feel extremely hollow without Thirlwell’s music, Thirlwell’s music for The Venture Bros. without the Venture bros. themselves on screen lacks a defining sense of structure and reason. But it does make you want to watch a few episodes.