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.
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