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"

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