They Might Be Giants
t’s nowhere neeeeeeeeear as good as Lincoln”; “Where’s the “Boat of Car?” I can’t listen to a TMBG album without annoying novelties and five songs too many!”; “This is like, their worst album since that nightmare of conciseness, Factory Showroom.”
Shut up, bitches. Can’t you hear them now? Quibbling about the good old days of “Purple Toupee” and President Drops and whatever else while still feasting on this group’s every live show and web-only EP like hungry little magpies. The fact is, half-songs like “Minimum Wage” and whine-romps like “They’ll Need a Crane” kept They Might Be Giants’ early days winningly inconsistent rather than Replacements-legendary. 2002’s godsend Dial-A-Song anthology nailed as many good ones as a big-enough fan could ask, even throwing in goddamn “Spy,” and “Boat of Car,” plus a couple of true annoyances like “Boss of Me” to keep up the appearance of an actual They Might Be Giants album.
Wiseguy in-jokes and bizarre existentialist koans are fine and all, but these ears want tank-solid hooks, which John and John have always been great for. And so I disclaim: the much-derided Factory Showroom is this reviewer’s favorite whole TMBG album, because it plays like a goddamn collection of tunes, and The Else is their best whole album since, because it’s also the most melodic. It’s devoid of the charming/annoying snippets described above (and I like plenty of those, btw…viva la “Fingertips!”), and the haters can always throw on Mink Car if they really, really miss, like, “Wicked Little Critta.”
It’s also only sporadically funny. Unless you think “when I’m with you the landscape goes all weird” is a totem of cleverness, the bent wordplay and sarcasm here is limited to the educational barbershop ditty “The Mesopotamians,” which puts Hammurabi and Gilgamesh in Econoline vans, and the blowhard narrator of “The Cap’m,” (“Did you say… what I think you just said / My hat looks good on me? I agree!”). “Bee of the Bird of the Moth” is actually pretty funny, just for being one of those TMBG dada constructions like “I Palindrome I,” that you don’t even know where to begin: its punchy-horns and phlegm-synth burps are catchy enough that you’ll accept singing along about crying to the title creature’s “dread hypnotic flying,” or its buddy Manhouse, who “lives within himself with thoughtful human brains.”
That leaves us with the music. Now I’m free to slobber over the presiding Dust Brothers’ delightful tinkering, like the Postal Service-style intro to “Careful What You Pack,” complete with Thom Yorke’s beloved spinning plates, or the stuttering drum ‘n bass loop that propels the gorgeous “Upside Down Frown,” which brings to mind, of all things, the frenetic jangle of the Dismemberment Plan’s “Following Through.” “With the Dark” is weird in a way this group hasn’t tackled yet, the mini-epic. Starting as a cutely lo-fi “she’s in love with her broken heart” ballad, it goes widescreen quickly with majestic horns and (hello Mike and John) clanging industrial percussion, before Flansburgh honks in with his old-guy voice and mutters some stuff about peg legs and taxidermy. Which still leaves time to speed up for a double-time funk ending before the three-minute mark.
Per usual, the only misstep is a political tune. Musically fine, “Contrecoup” chides phrenology rather toothlessly and, uh, late. Though I’ll appreciate the “Cap’m” even more than I already do if it’s about the president, which with these MoveOn benefit curators is a totally reasonable guess.
So while the tough-guy parody “Take Out the Trash” could be wittier, it sure beats the Strokes’ “Juicebox” when it comes to chest-puffing anthems with fuzz bass. This one promises to “get the crooked straight” like McGruff the Crime Dog’s on the case. That could be The Else’s motto, straightening out one idiosyncratic group’s weirdnesses into one exceptionally linear (and outdated) alt-pop jewel. It doesn’t matter who the non-boat-piloting “Cap’m,” is or why they’d want to “Feign Amnesia,” it’s about the glorious nerd-harmonies on those tunes that continue to joyously push the pet project of two wacky Brooklynites into its 25th year. Sometimes that project wields great one-offs for the iPod, like the wondrous “Au Contraire,” from The Spine, or Mink Car’s deadpan organ-jam “I’ve Got a Fang,” and sometimes it makes the straight–up alt-rock album of the year.
Reviewed by: Dan Weiss
Reviewed on: 2007-07-06