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They Might Be Giants
The Else
Idlewild Recordings/ Zoe Records
www.theymightbegiants.com


When a middle-school friend dropped a They Might Be Giants tape into my backpack, just before the band released John Henry in 1994, my evolution as a music fan shifted irreversibly. At the time, They Might Be Giants' music was exactly what I needed to hear. And, based on the message boards and websites I've read since then, I'm one of many who gravitated towards the band for the same reasons. John Flansburgh and John Linnell were brainy, literate songwriters who seemed to sympathize with my position on the fringes of the school social hierarchy. They wrote stunning, intuitive melodies, in which they shrouded poetry that was often dark, bitter, and cynical - ultimately, though, their songs offered the kind of insight into the human psyche that I needed in my adolescent search for meaning. As my musical preferences evolved, I eventually grew apart from the band, but for the past half-dozen years my attachment to their songs has been renewed. I've greeted new studio albums enthusiastically, despite the fact that the band hasn't been truly transcendent since its peak in the 1980s and the early 1990s.

That said, the task of writing my first published They Might Be Giants review is particularly difficult considering the album in question. For their latest record, the ambitious The Else, the band worked with venerable producers The Dust Brothers (their lengthy resume includes lauded records by The Beastie Boys and Beck), but it is sadly their least engaging release since the Internet-only Long Tall Weekend in 1999. Barring that lackluster record, which depending on your perspective isn't a proper They Might Be Giants album to begin with, the two Johns have never offered a set of songs so lacking in invention and so reliant on existing ideas. True, all of their other major releases have ranged from brilliant to worthwhile, so it is remarkable that the worst album of the lot has this many moments of greatness. But that doesn't make The Else any less of a disappointment.

Linnell has always been at the helm of the best They Might Be Giants songs. Classic tracks like "I Palindrome I" and "Ana Ng" are sufficient proof that he is a remarkable lyricist. In addition to his wordplay and wry sense of humor, many of his songs manage to sketch out complex characters that are alternately absurd, deluded, embittered, and sadistic. John Flansburgh has always played the role of Linnell's foil, offering endearing, catchy pop-rock and sounding comfortable in any genre he tries. And, his contributions on record aside, anyone who has seen a They Might Be Giants concert knows that Flansburgh's spirited on-stage showmanship is what makes their shows such a spectacle.

So, sadly, the contributions of both bandleaders fall short of the standards they've set on previous albums. Linnell has contributed a number of solid songs to The Else, among them the haunting lead single "I'm Impressed"," which features the kind of counterintuitive melody that no one else could have written, with a detached, disquieting vocal performance and an insular arrangement that renders the song's propulsive beat inert. He offers a vintage Linnell character sketch of a deluded would-be ship captain on "The Cap'm." The lyrics are Linnell at his most lighthearted and absurd: "Look me over, I'm the Cap'm / Go ahead and mess with me / You'll find out what will happ'm." "The Mesopotamians" is a clever travelogue of a band comprised of Sargon, Hammurabi, Ashurbanipal, and Gilgamesh - actual historical Mesopotamians, of course. "Contrecoup" is another song that will please trivia buffs, a narrative from the point of a view of a sufferer of a traumatic brain injury - and, somehow, a skewed love song - that boasts the ridiculously obscure words 'contrecoup,' 'craniosophic,' and 'limerent.' Linnell's lyrics on the song are among his wittiest on the record: "Contrecoup, on the rebound / Contrecoup hurt me again / And the second was worse by far than the first / 'Cause the first one woke my feelings for you / But the contrecoup made my words untrue / And it left me limerent."

Unfortunately, Linnell falls uncharacteristically short with the album's third and fourth tracks. "Upside Down Frown" is similar in theme and mood to the excellent "Broke In Two" from the band's 2004 release, The Spine. "Climbing The Walls" is a thick, guitar-driven song that echoes the bolder and better "Wearing A Raincoat" from the same album. "Withered Hope" is the most obvious example of The Dust Brothers' influence (it was actually co-written with the storied production duo), but it's a mediocre composition concealed in dense beats and samples, so it hardly rises above the rest of the album.

With his partner running unusually low on strong material, Flansburgh is unfortunately not well-equipped to ease his burden. The only exceptional song he offers is the atmospheric "Careful What You Pack," a surprisingly contemporary-sounding track that might fit in on a Death Cab For Cutie album. Elsewhere, he is too ambitious on the multi-part mini-epic "With The Dark," which starts as a subdued acoustic track and builds into a series of theatrical song fragments. Unfortunately, that ambition is nowhere to be heard on Flansburgh's other three contributions, the goofball, throwaway pop of "Take Out The Trash" and "Feign Amnesia," and the slightly more clever and listenable goofball pop of "The Shadow Government."

As much as I'd love to shower praise on the latest record by a band I feel such a sentimental attachment to, The Else is simply too underwhelming to establish it as any more than - at best - one of the band's most forgettable albums. For a band that has made a career on combining inspired melodies, complex lyrics, and bizarre musical flourishes and non-sequitars, this is simply too dull and too uninteresting to recommend. True, no doubt due in part to the Dust Brothers association, the album sounds impressive on a pair of headphones. But, more than anything else, it's a well-made product rather than a classic set of They Might Be Giants songs. For a band that formed roughly a quarter-century ago, it's hard to demand more. But as an introduction to a vital and storied artist, its hard not to point to the other ten albums that are better showcases of what makes They Might Be Giants so unique.

-Dan Warren


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