Tuesday, July 26, 2011

They Might Be Giants

In the '90s, the term alternative was applied far more liberally than it ought have been. While the greater reliance of distortion pedals and an overindulgence of flannel was a bit different from the classic rock of the '60s and '70s, and a much-needed return to garage-based rock when compared to the '80s, most of the popular rock bands of the century's final decade were not all that great an alternative from the traditional basis of rock: guitar-bass-drums, with verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus song structures. The proliferation of the term also did disservice to groups and artists who were truly apart from the mainstream, whatever that happened to be at the time.

Few acts truly have earned the right to be labeled as alternative more than They Might Be Giants (TMBG). The clever duo of John Flansbaugh and John Linnell began churning out always deft and sometimes odd song snippets in 1982 in Brooklyn, N.Y. Now nearing the end of their third decade of work, the Johns return with another collection of sonic annomolies on their 15th studio record, Join Us – released on July 19 on the group's Idlewild Records.

While the pair has largely focused their recent work on delivering a series of albums designed for child audiences – which could also be enjoyed by their parental units – the whopping 18 tracks of Join Us serve as a return to basis approach of adult-oriented material. The project's collective sound spans the Johns' entire catalog, offering any new listeners a one-stop journey through their substantial range of concepts, production styles and songwriting talents. Needless to say, such a large selection of cuts yields a fairly even distribution of choice picks, alright ideas and a few flops. But where the Johns have always excelled has been in keeping things short, and if particular attempts are a bit too strange or quirky, there's not much time before the next one. Indeed, none of the 18 offerings here run more than four minutes, and a number of those are half that time. In spirit, the new work most closely resembles 1992's Apollo 18, which at the time featured a collection of song snippets designed to take advantage of the relatively new shuffle function found on CD players.

Join Us opens with the record's most poppy affair, lead-off single "Can't Keep Johnny Down." Linnell's bright keyboard sets the stage for his signature yawning vocals matched with Flansbaugh's clean guitars and background vocals. One can't help but assume the title – which builds the song's chorus – isn't at least a bit self-referential considering duo's multi-decade career. The track also serves as the foundation for a solid run through the album's first half dozen numbers.

"You Probably Get That A Lot" – also fronted by Linnell, who covers around 60 percent of the band's lead vocals, the remainder of which are claimed by Flansbaugh – is heavily synopated between Flansbaugh's stabbing guitars and Linnell's pulsating organ. It's here where the Johns' often-noted lyrical uniqueness first emerges on this record, as Linnell describes the "millions of Cephalophores that wander through this world" (Cephalophores are decapitated characters in Greek mythology who somehow manage to carry around their severed heads).

The easy trap which ensnares many new TMBG listeners is the tendency to over-analysis the lyrics due to their pervasive cleverness and frequent absurdity. After all, consider the following selections only from Join Us:

And like a chess piece, yes, I have rolled under your piano that you don't play a lot...
As the headless horseman said to his associate, "the bodiless baboon's been cradled in his arms"
In the overgrowth of the underbrush shone a fossil tooth which I must have dropped...
I'm sick of these second-story sleestaks, breathing on my dice, giving me back rubs
Without a written guarantee of perfect sailing,
can you crawl from under the porch without a helmet?
You like Bollywood, snowmachines, Daguerreotypes, beauty contests and cruise control...
You must honor and respect the older fellow, even as you suffocate him with his pillow
You hear the cataclysmic discharge of the optimist...
It's like I've got two extra pairs of hands: two to write, two to steer, one to scratch my head and one to cover my eyes

What does any of this really mean? Is there any overarching social commentary or moral underpinnings we're supposed to be picking up on here?

Not really. The trick with any TMBG material is grabbing a quick sample of the wit to avoid missing whatever comes next, which is just as likely to be crafty or amusing. Only after repeated listens does the listener develop the intellectual reflexes to anticipate and process these nuggets, like a trained goalie.

This trend continues on the Flansbaugh-led "Old Pine Box," which features some rare acoustic work from the guitarist co-frontman. It's a shame Flansbaugh doesn't break out the acoustic stuff more often, because he's one of the crispest players of the instrument you'll find. The track fits nicely with similar efforts on past recordings, such as "Letterbox" off 1990's breakout album, Flood, and "Number Three" from the Johns' 1986 self-titled debut record. Meanwhile, Linnell's "Canajoharie" – referencing the small Upstate New York community in the Mohawk Valley – links back with many of his major chord products from there more recent adult material, like "Till My Head Falls Off" (1996's Factory Showroom), "Man, It's So Loud In Here" (2001's Mink Car) and "The Mesopotamians" (2007's The Else).

Flansbaugh's following "Cloisonne" likewise harks back to earlier ideas, with its oddball tale of a rain drop made of pain and Linnell's zany saxamaphone background signaling "Lie Still, Little Bottle" (1998's Lincoln) or "She's Actual Size" (previously-referenced Apollo 18). Similarly, the "Let Your Hair Hang Down" is brisk and punchy, like another Apollo 18 cut, "Mammal."

But we soon encounter some notable detours. "Celebration" is a bit too lightweight with its wah pedals and disco party chorus. But it might be more fun in a live setting. "Protagonist" is flush with the comical voices so common in the Johns' older material, but the lyrics – designed to mimic notes from an audition – are far more interesting to read on paper than hear through speakers. "The Lady and The Tiger" is just weird – like Apollo 18's "Spider" – and "Dog Walker" is hard to take seriously with Flansbaugh's warbled studio wizardry.

Nonetheless, there's a handful of gems elsewhere. "When Will You Die?" is just classic TMBG. Linnell is joyously depraved here in anticipating the demise of an arch-nemesis and recalls the cellblock conspiracy of "No One Knows My Plan" (1994's John Henry) and the haunting humor of "Turn Around" (Apollo 18). He assures the listeners that the band's full compliment – including guitarist Dan Miller, bassist Danny Weinkauf and drummer Marty Beller, along with Flansbaugh – join him in awaiting his opponent's death. The bouncy horns only add to the disturbing – but completely enjoyable – vibe.

Likewise, the very short "Judy Is Your Viet Nam" is the record's heaviest product, and plays like an elongated cut from Apollo 18's "Fingertips" shuffle section. Flansbaugh's track seems to fully recognize the idea had little more to offer beyond its 1:26 of run time and smartly ends it there. And Linnell's futuristic space oddity in "2082" is precisely the type of stuff anyone who knows even just a little about TMBG would expect – discussions of space helmets, merciful murder of elders, that sort of stuff.

Come for: "Can't Keep Johnny Down"
Stay for: "When Will You Die?"
You'll be surprised by: "Canajoharie"

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


A couple of months ago, we profiled the stellar sophomore effort of Seattle-based power-pop trio, Telekinesis on 12 Desperate Straight Lines. If you thought Telekinesis hit a home run with that effort, this week's profilees might be more reasonably classified as a stand-up double, a perfectly solid rookie outing by the New York, N.Y.-stationed quartet, Pursesnatchers on A Pattern Language – out today on the indie label, Uninhabitable Mansions. (The entire album can be previewed here)

Although not quite the same level of spirited, hooky brilliance of their counterparts from the Pacific Northwest, the four-piece fronted by former Dirty on Purpose captain Doug Marvin excels at a handful of shimmering lo-fi gems that are both easy to absorb and substantive enough for reflection. After the slinky, muted guitar that introduces "Forever Overhead," Marvin and his mates – along with his wife, keyboardist Annie Hart, formerly of Au Rivoir Simone – dive-in head-first into a sparkling dedication to journeys afar. It's here at the outset the ensemble most resembles Michael Benjamin Lerner's sound through Telekinesis, with bright, dancing electric guitar riffs traversing a field of sludgy bass lines and eager drumming. It's more than enough to start the collection on the right foot.

The following "Mechanical Rabbits" ups the ante, first with a summoning prelude and an absolutely sparkling lead guitar part even before the first chorus. The guitar work here – largely supplied by Marvin – is record's defining element. The piece – long for indie pop at nearly five and a half minutes – wisely pauses for a break just past its midpoint, else it might have expended its fuel, but not for long before the brisk pace resumes, propelled by bassist Jared Barron and drummer Harold Liu, and it's minute-long zenith is among the most rewarding moments on the collection.

First single, "Wet Cement," only marginally eases off on the adrenaline, with a more staying verve and more airy vocals from Marvin, more in the gentler model of former Rilo Kiley co-frontman Blake Sennett. Hart's keyboards and organ are also moreso at the forefront here, offering a welcome change of tone from the guitar-driven opening pair of tracks. As a strong counterpoint, "A Parting Prayer" is decidedly heavier, emphasizing a growling bass part from Barron and more pronounced beats from Liu, but largely contains the same liveliness as its predecessors, and features an absolutely beautiful – and unexpected – acoustic guitar figure at its core that enlightens the whole composition.

A duo of less enthusiastic cuts follow in "Kissena Park" and "Lost in Los Angeles." They're perfectly fine numbers on their own, but following the vitality of the lead-off quartet, they hover with less direction and intention. The former wouldn't have seemed out of place on former Weezer bassist Matt Sharp's The Rentals project, and the latter benefits with a bit more spine, again fostered by Marvin's spectral guitar concepts.

The album regains some footing through "Baseball on the Radio," which finds its way to a more timeless sound, not surprising considering its title, and a smidgen of heartland rock pedigree through its more straightforward guitar riffs. But here's where a bit more vocal gravitas from Marvin is in order, as his phrasing and delivery comes across in a shrugged-off manner, when the underlying song structure nearly demands something more forceful. Perhaps he should have begun to share the vocal duties with Hart one track earlier, as her presence out front on the following "Third Body Problem" is most welcome. Her tone is crystalline while also forceful enough to rise above the instrumental material. Although its understandable that Marvin, as the outfit's chief songwriter, wants to present the material exactly as he intended it, Hart's performance demonstrates she can as aptly deliver her husband's vision as effectively as him. Besides, A.C. Newman seems to have little trouble distributing his output to an even larger number of co-vocalists and still retain his identity as primary composer amongst his audience. Lets hope Marvin takes the same risk on future recordings.

The final offerings are less aggressive and, accordingly, less interesting. "The Transubstantiationalist" is as heady and ethereal as is name implies, while "Waxwings" hovers above some quivering electric guitar lines, but never really transitions beyond it. Nonetheless, the 10-track collection is a more than respectable first step for a talented group capable of much more.

Come for: "Wet Cement"
Stay for: "Mechanical Rabbits"
You'll be surprised by: "Third Body Problem"

Monday, July 11, 2011


Across the arch of history in the rock era, most ensembles have trended towards the smaller side – three- and four-person groups, largely avoiding the risk of bringing too many cooks into the kitchen. Sure, there are the obvious exceptions – the Grateful Dead, the Eagles, Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band – of outfits sporting six and seven members. And, in recent years, the popularity of larger bands has been growing, with a cohort of units from the U.S. northern tier and Canada recording and touring with five-plus members, increasingly in a coed formats. The string of acts such as The Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, New Pornographers, Broken Social Scene, Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeroes and The Polyphonic Spree all boasting significant numbers of performers, more than token representation from the other gender, and occasionally, collective approaches to their recorded sound and stage acts (the first trio of this list were profiled here, and the first two achieved #1 album status on their most recent releases). A quick tour through the previous reviews of this site will show a preponderance of groups of at least five musicians, although perhaps just demonstrating the preference of this reviewer for more substantially-sized bands.

So, unsurprisingly, this week's profile features another relatively beefy roster, in the form of the seven-piece, Portland, Ore.-based Agesandages. Boasting the communal vibe of previous profilees such as Hey, Rosetta!, Lost in the Trees and Seryn, along with the more kinetic energy of acts like the Rural Alberta Advantage and Ra Ra Riot, the group's debut, Alright You Restless – released February 15 on Knitting Factory Records – takes advantage of the inherent spirit contained in their numbers through well-crafted and accessible folk-rock ensemble pieces.

With their production largely channeled through guitarist and frontman Tim Perry, the record is stocked with full-throated chorus numbers strung across rhythm-heavy, rustic compositions. Leadoff track "No Nostalgia" is certainly reflective of that vision from its dawning strands, with a relentlessly affirming message. Stripped from their instrumental foundation and authenticity in performance, the lyrics might read like the bulletpoints from a motivational speaker or a credo of some rural commune. But their delivery here is more sincere, and the electric guitar riff laid down by lead guitarist John McDonald overcomes the blatant peppiness with some needed edge, while the easy stroll supplied by the rhythm section of drummer Daniel Hunt and bassist Rob Oberdorfer guards against too much group think. Strains of the Arcade Fire collective style also stream through here with the jaunty "hey!"s.

Though it's title might suggest otherwise, "Under a Cloud Shaped Like a Tomb" is less headstrong. Perry is a bit more out front here, more indicative of Ra Ra Riot's Wes Miles than Arcade Fire's Win Butler, as the cut spins about with less focus than it's predecessor. Conversely, the collection's title track is more formulaic, with a stomp-stomp-clap beat underlying the proceedings while also serving as its most recognizable ingredient, although McDonald's acoustic lead part here is worth noting.

The most interesting and meaty selection is positioned in the clean-up spot. "So So Freely" effective parrots the carefree nature – interestingly of Frightened Rabbit's "Old, Old Fashioned"– with just a hint of The Who's meaty choruses. It's easily the record's most formidable offering, demonstrating the combined strength of the larger ensemble. It's a trait I wish was extended across more of the album. Despite their large numbers, only on a few occasions is the listener wowed by the force of the band as a whole. With that much collective input, the result should be an equivalent of output, which is achieved too infrequently, aside from the aforementioned number.

Which certainly isn't to suggest the songwriting or authenticity is lacking, just the next level of execution. The following "The Peaks" speaks to contrast of promise and perspective. While slow and, at times, plodding, Kate O'Brien-Clark's lilting piano imbues a measure of melody to the track, and the outfit would be best served to make fuller use of her talents in future releases (she also contributes string parts throughout the effort). Similarly, the slow-starting "Navy Parade (Escape from the Black River Bluffs)" sounds nearly lifted from a early-70's Neil Young track, with Perry encapsulating the venerable rocker's vinegary, nasal mewl. But, fortunately, the contributions of the full outfit stiffen the work, even through a full half minute of "la la las,"which only enliven the mood.

More enjoyable is "These Elbows," which lightheartedly sounds like a sampling from Sloan's mid-90's catalog, something near "Lines You Amend." O'Brien-Clark's piano – coupled with McDonald's acoustic guitar again – once more keep things uptempo, despite the repeated refrain of "keep you, incarcerated." Few other groups – perhaps aside from the aforementioned Sloan – could have delivered such a line with such mirth.

"Tap On Your Windowpane" is baroque at its outset, and increases in resolve and gravity as it builds. And, pleasantly, the closing tracks are among the production's finest. Although "When I Was Idle" again starts as middling, but rounds about to a full-on Rivers Cuomo-style round refrain by its midpoint. The hook here is so decidedly catchy you'll have thoroughly forgotten Perry's somber preface. Finally, "Souvenir" is befitting it's moniker – a delightful sample to take away with you at the end of your journey. Perhaps its been the lack of much electric guitar aside from the opener, but McDonald's part again cuts through across the drums-and-acoustic bedrock. When paired with it's mirror at the dawn of the record, the first and last tracks serve well as bookends for the collection.

Come for: "No Nostalgia"
Stay for: "So So Freely"
You'll be surprised by: "When I Was Idle"

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Farewell Drifters – Echo Boom

We've arrived at another repeat profilee, who bring not as much a new sound or direction as steady productivity and a subtle refinement of their approach. After reviewing multiple releases from The Gaslight Anthem, The Rural Alberta Advantage and Southeast Engine, we return to the harmonic roots music of The Farewell Drifters and their sophomore effort, Echo Boom, which was released June 7 on Squeeze Records, a short 355 days following the arrival of their debut (see NMT review for more background on the band). The quick turn-around demonstrates the quintet's prolific nature – appropriate for a group of guys in their mid-20s looking to make it big.

Of course, that same proliferation of new material also suggests that epic shifts in tone or style are not likely, and such is the case on the new record's dozen tracks. In fact, the group is hardly wanting of a new sound, as they aptly left the listener wanting more by the end of Yellow Tag Mondays. There's too few groups that can deftly unite crafty, melodic songwriting in the Brian Wilson tradition with rootsy, mountain music that brushes the boundary of bluegrass and country. So, the Drifters might as well keep at it for our sakes.

The same bright harmonies, hooky choruses and fine display of pickin' that defined their debut album is largely transited intact to the new collection. The opening "Punchline" is sufficiently driving for a lead-off track and easily allows the listener to happily forget the group's permanent lack of a percussionist. Singer and guitarist Zach Bevill once again channels his vocals through the filter of Better Than Ezra's Kevin Griffin's mid-range baritone (let the line, "I just wanna shine the light that's trying to get out" recall Griffin's similar tone on "A Lifetime.") And, as before, mandolin and fiddle work of Joshua Britt and Christian Sedlemeyer, respectively, is sunny and expertly delivered. Similarly, "Tip of the Iceberg" is jaunty and energetic, with hand claps and Dean Marold's upright bass foundation setting an easy pace for Britt and Sedlemeyer to mosey about, yielding nothing but a carefree, summer afternoon vibe.

"Little Boy" presents the first new, slightly varied trajectory from the debut's approach. The tune's classic yarn of fatherly advice isn't too heady – maybe a bit rote – but also belies Bevill's relative youth in dispensing such sagacity. It's also decidedly down-tempo from the band's standard clip, a trend that will return later in the record. But, first – in the cleanup slot – is the album's finest number, "Heart of a Slave." Marking an ideal fusion of sturdy lyrics and melody from Bevill and full utilization of the group's instrumental and vocal talents, the musicianship doesn't distract from the narrative and the words do not overpower the performance.

At the same time, "We Go Together" highlights the important Celtic influences that were always the foundation of authentic bluegrass and mountain music. In fact, the track's chord progression – largely driven by lead guitarist Clayton Britt – sits nicely alongside the lesser-known cut from previous New Music Tuesdays profilees Great Big Sea, "Demasduit Dream." The two outfits found form an enjoyable pairing on an outdoor concert stage somewhere.

The relatively sparse and quick "I've Had Enough" is good for a quick breather before "A Bed of My Own" returns to the previous course, again with Celtic strains as its signature. "Words" and then later "You Were There" link more closely with the slow and solemn vein of "Little Boy," but even more intentionally ballady. It's not my favorite use of the group's talents, but they're perfectly acceptable. Better are the jangly "Roses" and the brisk "Common Ties," while a sold, if unexceptional cover of Paul Simon's "The Only Living Boy in New York" is a nice parting shot.

Come for: "Punchline"
Stay for: "Heart of a Slave"
You'll be surprised by: "We Go Together"