This is one of those wonderful albums that's simply bursting with creativity, with each idea successfully translated into a melodic, imaginative. The weirdness is neither a superficial embellishment nor an excuse for the band to neglect the melodies; it's suffused within the material, engendering a distinctive personality into the songs while never interfering with their catchiness.
The band's identity is instantly likeable and never overbearing, manifesting itself as a kind of bizarre, quirky, goofy geekiness. This leads to eccentric, often hilarious lyrics, and idiosyncratic genre experimentation that could only be attempted by a group that didn't care how they were perceived.
The album's synth dominated, with occasional guitar embellishment. The instrumentation is highly primitive and the production costs were negligible, but that simply adds to the album's offbeat charm.
With creativity at a fever pitch, even a song that should be a throwaway like Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head emerges as one of the catchiest songs of all time, with irresistible vocal melodies and a disarming vibe.
The opener, Everything Right Is Wrong Again, is a perfect introduction to the group, eminently catchy with their trademark contrast of bouncy music with bleak lyrics, along with one of the more creative fake endings imaginable. Number Three is a highly amusing sing-along, Don't Let's Start is a terrific and comparatively normal pop song, Hide Away Folk Family is soothing, ominous and even beautiful, 32 Footsteps is absolutely infectious while being completely bizarre, Toddler Hiway is a segue but a charming one, Rabid Child is weaker but still enjoyable, Nothing's Gonna Change My Clothes is another dose friendly insanity highlighted by a wonderful chorus, (She Was A) Hotel Detective is an entertaining foray into hard rock with a simple but effective riff, She Was An Angel is incredibly catchy and one of the more fleshed out songs, Youth Culture Killed My Dog is more good natured fun, Boat Of Car is a surreal experiment that actually works, Absolutely Bill's Mood has another killer vocal melody in the chorus, Chess Piece Face is utterly strange yet catchy, I Hope That I Get Old Before I Die is another fun sing-along, Alienation's For The Rich is another winner, The Day is a nice breather, and Rhythm Section Want Ad is yet another catchy tune and a good choice for the closer.
The obvious complaint would be that a lot of these tracks feel more like ideas than full fledged songs, and while that's a valid point they're all so well written, catchy and memorable that that can't really constitute an issue for me. The melodies are impeccable and the album makes for one of the most purely enjoyable listens in my 700 album plus collection. A lot of these songs are amongst my favorite to have in my mind's jukebox, and most are so catchy I'll likely never forget them until senility sets in.
Is this a slight album? Yes. Is it a serious artistic statement? No. But not every album has to be. Sometimes it's enough to simply be incredibly fresh, imaginative and enjoyable. This album is truly a magical listen, and one I'll never cease to enjoy.
More of the same, though not quite as strong. On their sophomore outing the band shows a degree of progression in making the tracks seem more like full fledged songs and less like fragments, and while this development is welcome it's marred by a dearth of instantly striking melodies when compared to the debut, which was simply overflowing with energetic and creative musical ideas.
That's not to say that the album lacks strong melodies by any other standards, however. This is another extremely strong, consistent offering from a musical standpoint, filled with clever and engaging melodies and myriad well defined hooks.
The album certainly opens up brilliantly, with my absolute favorite They Might Be Giants song Ana Ng, featuring an excellent riff and some of the greatest vocal melodies of all time. This song could never be branded as a fragment or a tossed off idea, and is the clearest sign of progression on the album.
They'll Need A Crane, a tale of a failing romance, sports more irresistible vocal melodies, Cowtown is incredibly charming with hilarious interludes of synths imitating cows mooing, and Mr. Me contains some exceptional vocal hooks. There're many, many more highlights, but as per the usual They Might Be Giants formula there's an immense quantity of songs (each short, of course), making it difficult to get to them all.
There're a few instances of weaker melodies (Piece Of Dirt, Pencil Rain) and tracks that are entertaining but undeniably throwaways (Shoehorn With Teeth), plus Santa's Beard comes far too close to sounding like a Weird Al song (far too obvious and predictable for the group), but these instances of lesser material are balanced by the sheer volume of excellent songs.
Overall another great album. The album feels a tad formulaic when compared to the freshness of its predecessor, but that's inevitable; the band had created its signature style, and for the most part they'd religiously adhere to it for the duration of their career. There are fewer ideas on here than on the debut, but that doesn't change the fact that there're infinitely more ideas than on nearly any other group's albums, and nearly all of these ideas work. Nearly every song boasts a strong melodies, and even those that don't have some traits to recommend them and ensure that they're enjoyable.
To call this their commercial breakthrough would be misleading, as that would imply that the success of the album translated into increased sales of their subsequent output as well. Rather, this is a statistical anomaly induced by a UK hit single (Birdhouse In Your Soul) and a rather troubling Tiny Toons cross-promotional tie-in. The album's success was an isolated incident, having no impact on the rest of their career; the album went platinum, a feat that no other They Might Be Giants album would even come close to duplicating.
It's ironic that this was their big hit, as it's easily their weakest offering. There's something innately enjoyable about the band's sound, which salvages much of the otherwise lackluster material, but the band's strength was always providing a plethora of exceptional pop melodies, and in this department the album falls short.
The songs certainly sound like typical They Might Be Giants songs, but without the musical substance they traditionally offer. Many of the melodies are bland, generic, uninspired or simply nonexistent. They're enjoyable while they're on, but they inevitably prove to be thoroughly unmemorable.
Of course, it could hardly be a They Might Be Giants album without at least a few classics to pump up the rating. Birdhouse In Your Soul is by far the strongest cut, with fantastic vocal melodies that make it a deserved staple of the band. Their notorious cover of the classic Istanbul (Not Constantinople) fits the band perfectly, and their clever treatment of it makes it a joy to listen to. Particle Man often gets a bad rap, as it's undeniably extremely primitive and stupid, but that doesn't change the fact that it's still hilarious and catchy, even if it amounts to little more than a novelty. We Want A Rock is a catchy, bouncy anthem with more memorable vocals.
The rest of the material is hardly bad, but it's certainly below the standards the band set on their previous two albums. It's always seemed that the band was largely tossing off whatever idea occurred to them, but in the past they always made sure that each idea was coupled with a clever, catchy melody. Here the quality control is lacking, and many of these ideas simply go nowhere. It's still enjoyable, but ultimately it's a rather forgettable listen after two unforgettable ones.
One can infer a great deal about a band from the caliber of their B-sides. Myriad groups are content to devote all of their efforts to fashioning a strong single, subsequently hastily tossing off its B-side, utterly neglecting it as if it's an extraneous, irrelevant byproduct of the A-side.
On the other hand, some groups are so dedicated to the quality of their work, so concerned with the caliber of every individual note they play that they commit themselves to only producing output that they can be proud of, no matter how little attention their more obscure releases receive.
On this broad spectrum, They Might Be Giants largely conform to the latter extreme; not all of their B-sides are forgotten masterpieces, but their work predominantly betrays a level of care and craftsmanship that's generally reserved for an artist's most important products.
Sadly enough many of these B-sides appeared to be consigned to irrevocable obscurity, destined to be forgotten or never even heard at all. Fortunately Linnell and Flansburgh recognized the injustice of this situation and rescued these lost gems by releasing an obscurities collection on which the preponderance of tracks were these very B-sides, salvaged from the nebulous limbo of demi-release that they had occupied for far too long.
While a plethora of these B-sides are well worth hearing, not all of them are of the highest quality; while they exhibit more effort than is customarily applied to composing a B-side, they're still noticeably lacking when compared to the band's more well known material. Nevertheless, tracks like the stellar Hey, Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had A Deal, a playful indictment of the record industry, the tribute to the legendary indie rock pioneers We're The Replacements and the catchy Nightgown Of The Sullen Moon certainly deserve far more attention than they've been the recipients of during their time of perpetual anonymity, making Miscellaneous T a far more attractive purchase than most B-side and rarities collections.
Needless to say given the album's 'rarities collection' status there are some egregious misfires; tracks like Mr. Klaw are little more than slight jokes, harmless and inoffensive but ultimately of no consequence, and an even worse instance of this phenomenon is the untitled track 13, a conversation featuring a woman puzzled by the Johns' Dial-A-Song system, that despite its initial hilarity can't be listened to more than a few times before growing grating and tedious.
Elsewhere, while the remake of The World's A Dress is actually rather intriguing, the remixes of Kiss Me, Son Of God, (She Was A) Hotel Detective and Don't Let's Start are wholly superfluous, interchangeable with their original versions. Accordingly they come across as little more than album padding, a dose of filler to compensate for the dearth of strong material.
Still, most of the tracks are at least interesting, if not amongst the band's more compelling outings. While hardly classics, numbers like the instrumental Lady Is A Tramp are at least moderately entertaining, making a strong case for the album's worth in spite of such musical nonentities as Hello Radio and such questionable oddities as I'll Sink Manhattan.
Thus Miscellaneous T is an erratic but worthwhile product, featuring just enough lost gems to earn a recommendation. Even when the group's B-sides aren't superior to those of other groups they're still far more unique and entertaining, not to mention the many that are indeed far more developed and well written than the standard for the medium.
Miscellaneous T, much like the flawed Severe Tire Damage, isn't up to the level of any of the band's real albums; however, just like that live album it still offers enough for They Might Be Giants fans to easily warrant a purchase. The group was above simply tossing off any of their efforts, no matter how obscure, and the quality of the album is a testament to the Johns' highly laudable dedication to their craft.
A huge improvement over Flood, and an advancement of sorts for the band. On this album, for the first time in the group's career each track feels like a fully fleshed out song rather than a thinly veiled fragment or a tossed off idea.
They seem to have compartmentalized the tendency to throw out fragments in the Fingertips suite, in which twenty tracks are shot off in five minutes, culled from myriad disparate genres. Obviously most of these are expendable throwaways, but a few feature genuinely decent melodies, and the others are at least good for a laugh. On the whole it's a successful experiment, and it certainly adds diversity to the album.
Whether the decision to focus on songs rather than the fragments of old is a good thing is debatable. The songs are certainly still weird, but somehow they seem more normal in a sense, and thus lose some of the charm of old. This change certainly conforms to the mainstream conception of progression, but They Might Be Giants are a unique group and shouldn't necessarily follow the typical paradigm for a group's development.
Regardless of that, however, the album succeeds because the melodies are strong. Dig My Grave starts the album with a kick, another foray into the world of hard rock. The fan favorite I Palindrome I is a cool pop song, while the classic The Statue Got Me High is more surreality with a deranged narrative and catchy vocal melodies. Spider is a hilarious joke, and The Guitar fuses a guitar fiesta with the vocal melody of The Lion Sleeps Tonight, a bizarre but extremely successful marriage. Dinner Bell is strange and catchy, and Turn Around has an irresistible sing-along chorus that will be irrevocably etched into your brain, causing you to have to restrain yourself from singing it for fear of being locked away.
The already mentioned Fingertips suite is more than a gimmick, actually becoming an excellent showcase for the genius of the band. Nearly any one of the snippets could have been transformed into a real song, and that they can generate that volume at that speed is truly impressive. The five minutes fly by in no time, and there'll never be a time you'll want to skip the suite; it's not a stunt that can only be tolerated once and never listened to again.
On the whole a return to form, albeit a somewhat new form, and another very good album from the group. The creativity and the quality of the songwriting have been restored, and while the comparatively normal sound may take time to get used to enough of the band's essence has been preserved to make it work. There are certainly lesser track, but nothing that could really be dismissed as utter filler. And it's certainly refreshing that the band is still willing to take chances like on the Fingertips suite.
This album irrevocably alienated a large portion of the group's fanbase with its shift to a full band sound. The group had finally signed on to a major label, enabling them to make full use of a real backing band and other assorted studio trickery. This change takes time to adjust to, and many fans were unwilling to accept this new sound.
What they're overlooking, of course, is that this album boasts a set of some of the band's strongest melodies, and in no way does the full band treatment compromise the group's vision. It's still unmistakably They Might Be Giants, and in no way did they metamorphose into some generic mainstream rock outfit. The new label agreement didn't castrate the group's creativity or individuality, and more often than not the full band treatment enhances the songs they're featured on.
Snail Shell is the deserved hit and highlight of the album, with venomous lyrics and an angry distorted guitar. The vocal melody is bitter and sarcastic while remaining extremely catchy and the song remains true to the group's spirit without being light or whimsical. Another highlight is the atypical A Self Called Nowhere, with its interchanging contrasting soft and hard sections, the latter being tempestuous and menacing.
Some songs could be construed as filler, but I find that even they have redeeming qualities. Unrelated Thing, while suffering from a dearth of hooks, is still amusing, and O, Do Not Forsake Me is at least different enough to break up any potential monotony the full band sound could bring.
On the whole I'd call this album a huge success. The band penned myriad clever, catchy melodies and adapted them to the full band sound without sacrificing their identity, actually using the shift in presentation to their advantage. The songs sound right this way, and never suggest that they'd benefit from the old synth/guitar treatment.
In many respects this album is a natural progression from its predecessors. With each album the group aspired to further normalize their sound while remaining as far from normal as possible, and this is another step in that direction. It seems the group wants to present their weirdness in as normal a way as possible.
Mono Puff was a John Flansburgh solo side project, largely composed of songs in a similar vein to his TMBG output. There's little to differentiate the tracks on Unsupervised from his material with Linnell, as the songwriting and production are carried over intact from his group efforts.
Unfortunately, the primary disparity between Unsupervised and conventional TMBG albums is that the former is vastly inferior to the latter. While the album contains many of the staples of Flansburgh's TMBG work (humor, diversity, eccentric charm), Unsupervised is far less consistent than fans of the group are accustomed to.
This isn't to say that the album is bad, however; the LP offers a vast array of styles (from rock to pop to instrumentals to ballads), and the overall atmosphere is quite charming, just as his TMBG work always had been.
Additionally, the album boasts a few Flansburgh classics, such as The Devil Went Down To Newport (Totally Rocking), a catchy tune with an infectious sing-along chorus that depicts a surfing competition between God and Satan.
Unfortunately this level of quality isn't sustained for long; while not bad by any means, most of the material sounds like TMBG-lite, cute and amusing but with little in the way of substance. While enjoyable while they're on, few of the songs are especially memorable, with a dearth of strong melodies to complement the typically charming atmosphere.
Ultimately, while enjoyable, the album is a disappointment for fans of Flansburgh. Whereas Linnell was able to translate his high level of songwriting onto his solo debut, Unsupervised suffers from sounding like a second rate collection of TMBG songs. The brevity of the album and impressive stylistic variety ensure that Unsupervised is an entertaining listen, with decent songwriting and a healthy helping of humor, but the LP could never be mistaken for a TMBG effort, not lacking the merits of one but simply containing them in lower doses.
The culmination of the group's gradual normalization. There're fewer songs than ever before, demanding that each be longer; that alone is a major disparity from their previous work and a violation of their old philosophy. Furthermore the strangeness if often toned down (most notably on New York City and Pet Name, not coincidentally the two weakest tracks) or at least confined to the lyrics so that the music can be normal and accessible.
This is not to say there are no odd tracks. Exquisite Dead Guy is as strange as ever, and nearly every track has something bizarre about it. The old They Might Be Giants vibe is preserved, it just bends a bit to accommodate the new sound.
It helps that nearly all the songs are good. The anthemic Spiraling Shape and the catchy Metal Detector stand out, but every track, save the two alluded to before and I Can Hear You and James K. Polk which are basically little more than jokes, has something to offer. The melodies are strong, and their relative normalcy doesn't dilute that fact.
The decision to make a more accessible album is understandably, but it does compromise the group's essence. By insisting on material that better conformed to the mainstream definition of the word 'song' the group is unable to simply toss off ideas like they used to. This may mean less misfires, but it also means diminished creative freedom and experimentation, and makes for less of the lovable insanity of old.
The group's genius was that they could make wonderful numbers that weren't necessarily conventional songs. Forcing the group to adhere to more rigid structures makes their material sound less fresh and organic, and inflating the track lengths is hardly conducive to success, as the band's conciseness is one of their greatest strengths and this makes the songs grow repetitious.
Still, with mostly great songs one can't complain too much. Fortunately on the subsequent album the group reverted to their old ways. This isn't a normal album by any means, but it has pretensions in that direction, and that's enough to cause trouble.
Translating classic They Might Be Giants fare into a live forum is a difficult proposition; it was simple enough to adapt the material from full-band efforts like John Henry and Factory Showroom onto the stage, but the band's early work, which generally consisted of the most simple, limited arrangements imaginable, was destined to lose some of its innate charm and personality when given the more instrumentally sophisticated treatment inherent to large concerts. When brought to a live setting the group's older material was hardly imbued with the complexity of a soundtrack for a progressive rock event, but the very presence of more musicians than simply Linnell and Flansburgh was sufficient to transfigure their performances into content far removed from the band's classic sound.
This posed a dilemma for the band; were they to attempt faithful recreations of their classic fare in this new context then much of the songs' appeal would undoubtedly be lost, while heavily reworking their material would risk alienating longtime fans. In this case the group opted to pursue the latter option, which was almost certainly the best possible course; for a group composed of largely unspectacular musicians much of the appeal of a live show is hearing how the band reinterprets their work, and this reimagining of old They Might Be Giants standards is what constitutes much of the album's charm.
The band also make the sagacious decision not to limit their reworkings to their older material, as nearly every song on the albums boasts a profound makeover. While there are occasional faithful renditions of the group's past glories, by and large the songs are dramatically altered, and this is the hook that makes Severe Tire Damage an attractive prospect for longtime They Might Be Giants fans.
Unfortunately, while a fundamentally intriguing concept, the execution of this series of makeovers can sometimes be lacking. None of the new interpretations are superior to the originals, rendering many of them diverting novelties at best. That doesn't mean they can't still hold interest for the listener, however, and myriad tracks are still quite enjoyable.
Thus They Got Lost rocks harder than the more subdued original, Why Does The Sun Shine? (The Sun Is A Mass Of Incandescent Gas) thrives as an accelerated, highly catchy pop rocker, and XTC Vs. Adam Ant is heavier than ever. Birdhouse In Your Soul adds little to the original, and Ana Ng is largely butchered, but by and large each song will hold at least a modicum of interest for hardcore They Might Be Giants fans, and while not ideal the tracks chosen for inclusion offer a decent reflection of the band's career to this point.
In order to lure in listeners skeptical about a They Might Be Giants live album the group also include a pair of fan-bait studio recordings. Of these the single Doctor Worm is inarguably the superior of the two, a highly catchy, entertaining and humorous burst of creative eccentricity, sounding no less bizarre for its full-band treatment. On the other hand About Me is relatively worthless, a song fragment bereft of the ingenious songwriting and idiosyncratic personality that typify the band's better work. While not meriting the cost of a full album by itself, Doctor Worm is still undoubtedly the best reason to own Severe Tire Damage, and it's a pity that many fans will never hear it thanks to its questionable placement as a special attraction on an unspectacular live album.
The nadir of Severe Tire Damage, however, is its series of hidden bonus tracks that end the album on a less than auspicious note. The CD closes with an improvisational Planet Of The Apes-related medley, and while it might warrant a couple of listens for diehard fans of the Johns the group hardly boast the instrumental chops of King Crimson, and their musical adlibs aren't quite as technically immaculate as the material found on The ProjeKcts. One can derive at least some small measure of enjoyment from the Ape-oriented compositions once or twice, but afterwards most listeners will be apt to press the stop button after the album proper ends, abstaining from another round of amateurish and uninspired musical improvisation.
Thus Severe Tire Damage is a highly flawed but still enjoyable experience, weaker than any They Might Be Giants full studio album but still offering a good time for loyal followers of the band. Doctor Worm is a stellar addition to the group's catalogue, many of the tweaks made to past fare help make for a less predictable listen and aside from seemingly arbitrary inclusions like First Kiss the set-list is quite solid, and these factors alone make for a fun time for most fans of the unorthodox rock outfit. It's true that none of the numbers can match the quality of the originals, occasionally even marring tracks beyond recognition, and the Planet Of The Apes suite is certainly an albatross around the album's neck, but by and large the songs are entertaining and there are few egregious lapses of taste in the vein of the improvisations or bastardization of Ana Ng. Severe Tire Damage is by no means an essential listen for either casual or hardcore They Might Be Giants lovers, but it's also not a waste of time, and for those who own the group's complete studio discography and want more from the Johns I would heartily recommend the album to sate their musical appetites.
Mono Puff's second outing is a dramatic improvement over their first, reaching the heights of some of TMBG's greatest achievements. The songwriting has drastically evolved from its predecessor, and the band has even begun to establish their own identity independent of TMBG's legacy.
The album is just as eclectic as its predecessor, engaging in countless genre exercises. Catchy riffs and strong melodies abound, with it no longer seeming that Flansburgh reserves his best efforts for TMBG releases.
Humor is, as is always the case for TMBG alumni, ubiquitous, but it's never used to compensate for the lack of a strong melody. As per the best efforts of TMBG, clever jokes are married to unforgettable tunes, generating products overflowing with catchiness, hilarity and personality.
Flansburgh's Mono Puff band-mates take a more active roll in the proceedings this time around, with DJ***** providing somewhat incongruous but nonetheless effective scratching while Mauro Refrosco adds some exotic percussion to the mix. Rather than detracting from it, these flourishes help realize Flansburgh's vision, with the direction of the album never being hijacked, usurped or compromised by ambitious fellow members.
Ultimately It's Fun To Steal is a resounding success; while Unsupervised did little to justify its role as a solo effort, coming across as sub par TMBG outtakes that could just as easily have come from a group LP, this album sounds sufficiently different from TMBG releases that it's understandable why it was necessary to form a separate enterprise to produce it. No longer coming across as TMBG-lite, It's Fun To Steal depicts Mono Puff at a stage where they've begun to cultivate their own identity, thus justifying their existence independent of the TMBG canon. This is music that, while still reminiscent of TMBG, has its own unique sound to it, making Mono Puff a necessary creation for Flansburgh.
To help appease fans during the group's interminable sabbatical, Linnell released this, his first solo venture. While Flansburgh had already entered this realm with his side-project Mono Puff, Linnell had abstained from straying from the safety of the stable duo, making it a wonder that his first solo outing is such a self-assured project.
Though perhaps its self-assured tone should be quite expected, as Linnell doesn't really explore any new territory in the course of this album, rather adhering to the formula established in his TMBG material. Any song could easily be mistaken as being the product of a group venture, and it's natural that Linnell would feel comfortable producing music in such a similar style.
That's not to say that the faithfulness to his group's stylistics is a liability. On the contrary, it makes for an extremely entertaining listen, an album that features all the strengths that make TMBG a great band. The album is hyper catchy, incredibly diverse with hilarious lyrics, all the staples of the group. The bifurcation of the Johns may cause some concern for the fans, but by no means does Linnell tarnish the good name of his group with a sloppy imitation; the album has the right feel, with a quality level that any fan should be comfortable with.
State Songs is a concept album, loosely structured around a travelogue of the fifty states (though he only makes it through fifteen of them, if it can actually be said that he makes it through any of them). This is an interesting decision, as TMBG never delivered an actual concept album, so in this department at least Linnell can be said to be breaking new ground.
The concept may sound odd, but it makes for some consummately funny moments; Linnell has a gift for penning lyrics that achieve hilarity almost effortlessly, where groups like Ween often pump out an endless barrage of forced crude and profane verbal pyrotechnics to no avail. Linnell has never needed profanity, and he's never needed to try too hard to elicit a smile or a laugh.
The songwriting may not be at peak TMBG level, but it's certainly highly impressive by most groups' standards, featuring the expected dose of catchy vocal hooks and ultra primitive but endearing instrumentation. Linnell has returned to the days of a negligible budget and the orchestration suffers accordingly, but this only adds to the charm, and makes for a nostalgic feel for old school TMBG fans.
As always with the group diversity is an integral factor in the success of the album, and Linnell doesn't disappoint. Every state receives a different style, one that presumably is meant to be a reflection of said state on some deep level that's beyond our ken. Each style is accompanied by a well written melody that's appropriate to it while not being too obvious.
State Songs is a huge success, and one that more than demonstrates Linnell's importance to the group's sound. That such a brilliant songwriter could be only half of the creative department of a group truly illustrates the brilliance of TMBG.
In the end, the most important thing is that it captures the magical sense of fun that defines TMBG as a group. It's an album that's nearly impossible not to enjoy, and that's always been what the group's about.
Just do yourself a favor and press stop after the sung portion of Nevada is done. There is no sane reason to subject yourself to anything that comes beyond that point barring masochism or a perverse fascination with the sound of a parade gradually fading out.
In the tradition of the best They Might Be Giants, Mink Car is overflowing with creative ideas, catchy melodies and energetic diversity. After the noncommittal flirtation with normalcy on the previous album, the group returns to their specialty, pumping out track after track of their patented brand of cheerful insanity.
Genre experimentations abound, ranging from hard rock to rap to disco to lounge to techno to goth, with each area tackled being successfully adapted to their signature style.
The melodies are uniformly top notch, as the five year sabbatical provided ample time to generate an armada of tunes and carefully select the best ones, after toying with fans by distributing some of them online.
Bangs is classic They Might Be Giants pop, Cyclops Rock is a metallic horror flick spoof with a catchy chorus, Man, It's So Loud In Here blends disco motives with another infectious refrain, Mr. Xcitement is a hilarious rap send-up, Another First Kiss is a sweet pop song, I've Got A Fang is just bizarre (though still very catchy), Hovering Sombrero is more first rate pop, Yeh Yeh is a cool fifties cover, Hopeless Bleak Despair has another catchy chorus and amusing lyrics, Drink! is an enjoyable tune that manages to ascertain that nothing rhymes with 'buried alive,' My Man is bouncy, Older is a classic primitive catchy track that could easily have come from their debut, Mink Car is beautiful in a strange way, Wicked Little Critta is strange but fun, Finished With Lies is by the numbers TMBG but still good, She Thinks She's Edith Head is funny and catchy and Working Undercover For The Man is a strong closer.
In all this is an excellent comeback from an album that was actually quite good to begin with, meaning that all that happened was a brief dip into merely 'very good' territory followed by a rebound to top form. The fear was probably that the descent into normalcy would continue and the band's identity would slowly evaporate, but thankfully that's not the case, as we have this album that's up there with the band's best material. Seventeen tracks, all of them good, with enough diversity to ensure that it never grows old.
Ostensibly a children's album, though I'd imagine it would cause irreparable psychological damage to any child subjected to it. Given that most likely no children bought it, the sole purpose of the album seems to be to piss off hardcore TMBG fans with the knowledge that they're devoted to a group that's produced a children's album. TMBG were already branded with the geek stigma, but this likely infinitely exacerbated that problem, unless the album's so obscure that no one's aware of its existence. What you're left with is an album that alienates both its target audience (children) and the only people likely to buy a TMBG album (hardcore fans), thus ensuring that no one will ever listen to it.
Which is a pity, as it's really quite good. Its role as a children's album imposes some rather strict limitations on it, and the Johns certainly weren't trying their hardest from a songwriting standpoint, but it's a cute, likeable and enjoyable listen that retains many aspects of the They Might Be Giants persona despite its different intended audience.
Those aspects include their offbeat, quirky charm, their eccentric and often hilarious humor and a number of strong melodies. By and large the melodies here are far more rudimentary and conventional than those featured on their real albums, and some songs lack any discernable hooks at all, but for the most part they're satisfactory and fit the mood very well.
The main component that renders the album unsuitable for children is the sheer weirdness factor. Violin features lyrics that cycle through random objects in the room and sing them in a way that's presumably meant to reflect their essence ('Mop! Mop!' 'One quarter of George Washington's head. One half of George Washington's head. Three quarters… etc.'), while John Lee Supertaster depicts the wondrous exploits of those endowed with powers of taste that exceed our own. These are but a few examples of the album's dementia, which really prohibits all but the most neurotic of children from enjoying the album.
On the whole this is a fun novelty, but it can't really be compared with their real output. It doesn't contain anything that could be called a TMBG classic and, while it preserves their vibe, it does it in a very toned down form. The fact that they could make a children's album enjoyable for an adult listener is a commendable feat, but in the end the most it can do is tide fans over until their next real album comes out.
Generally designed to tide the public over until their next substantial release, by and large EPs aren't intended to provide cohesive, satisfying experiences; at most they offer one or two fan-bait gems submerged in a sea of filler. Stronger material is predominantly reserved for full LPs, leaving most EPs with but a modicum of worth, rendering them more ads for future full-fledged albums that independently existing entities.
This status attaches quite a stigma to them, relegating them to the role of hardcore-fan-exploiters, attracting the sort of fanatic who feels compelled to buy anything that could be remotely construed as pertaining to his favorite group.
This could account for the skepticism with which one is apt to approach Indestructible Object, an EP that just happens to be arriving just in time to build anticipation for their next full length outing due out later this year.
IO is not only an EP, but an especially diminutive one at that, providing only five tracks (one of them being a cover). Resultantly there's precious little substance to the record; any disc with such an abridged running time would need every track to be a classic to justify its existence, and IO simply can't deliver in that department.
It tries, though, and that truly is admirable. None of the originals are half-hearted efforts or toss-offs; it's evident that genuine effort went into crafting and recording each song, with a level of attention that in no way betrays the fact that their destination was an obscure EP.
Each of the originals are, to varying degrees, enjoyable (especially the opener Am I Awake?), depicting the band in a comparatively serious, straight-faced mode (emphasizing comparatively, given the psychotic name-dropping of Au Contraire and the presidential aspirations of the title insect in Ant; the seriousness applies more to the tone, delivery and music than the lyrics). They make for an entertaining enough, if not very memorable, listen, and are certainly sufficiently strong that any diehard fan of the group should check the EP out.
The cover is of the Beach Boys' infamous Pet Sounds closer Caroline, No; what inspired the group to cover this particular song is beyond me, but they do a decent enough job and, on some level, seem to take the performance seriously, even if it's hard not to see the existence of this cover as a joke. They don't attempt to adapt the song to their image or style like Frank Black did with Hang On To Your Ego; this is more akin to something like Gryphon's rendition of Mother Nature's Son. Even though the song is fun there's absolutely no reason for it to exist, as the group doesn't really add anything whatsoever to the original, and don't really reveal any unsuspected versatility through the performance.
And, as is inevitable with an EP, that's all IO amounts to; the sum of its parts. In this case that constitutes four originals, ranging from decent to good, but none essential, and one cover that, while entertaining, can't be regarded as more than a novelty. While a fun diversion until the next album comes out, IO has little lasting value; in no way does it transcend one's innate conception of what to expect from an EP, bearing every single vice inherent to the medium. It hardly disgraces the band, but it doesn't really add much to their legacy either.
For a group whose greatest assets are a seemingly limitless supply of creativity and energy, nothing can be a greater liability than an album that basically goes through the motions in a lethargic parade of all too familiar derivative tracks.
Spine simply seems to lack inspiration, with a dearth of new ideas and hooks to animate the retreads. Borrowing Au Contraire and Memo To Human Resources from Indestructible Object (but thankfully not Am I Awake, as that would render the EP completely superfluous), the album provides a stream of decent enough tracks in the group's usual style, but lacking that creativity and charm that generally suffused the group's songs and without the craftsmanship to create truly memorable, engaging experiences.
The album starts off well enough with the offbeat anthem Experimental Film, but even at that point signs of deterioration were evident, as the song lacked the striking hooks necessary to make the track a true classic for the group. From there, it's the products of the cannibalization of their EP that fare the best, never a good sign for the prospects of the album.
None of the songs are bad per se, they simply lack the imagination and clever songwriting necessary to reach the heights of their previous work, leaving the listener with little but pleasant filler in search of better songs to wrap themselves around.
Hopefully this will be little more than a brief slump for the group, or else one of the erstwhile freshest and most creative bands are steadily approaching the insurmountable rut of untimely stagnation.
As perturbing a realization as it is, I find this album a great deal more enjoyable than Spine; it's a bewildering situation when a CD geared toward children surpasses a true TMBG release, but such is the situation here.
Apparently the success of No! was sufficient to merit yet another foray into the world of children's music, this time manifesting itself in the form of a playful guide through the alphabet.
Like with No!, however, the album is far too bizarre to actually approximate anything that could be deemed educational, resulting once again in an LP that's more likely to attract hardcore fans than armadas of children seeking alphabetic enlightenment.
The album's main strength lies in its abundance of tracks, a necessity when the melodies are somewhat rudimentary, thus ensuring that no simplistic tune drags on for too long.
The melodies, while not peak Giants' output, are surprisingly strong and serve their purpose quite effectively. Likewise the sense of humor is quite welcome, and between the album's catchiness and whimsy the listener is drawn far deeper into a kiddie album than one would ever imagine possible.
Ultimately the album is a must for TMBG fans, a worthy successor to No! and a sign that the group still has what it takes after the disappointing Spine. A highly enjoyable and often hilarious experience, Here Come The ABCs proves that the group's innate talent will show through in any context.
Rarities collections have become ubiquitous in this epoch of rock music; through this process bands have found a way to educe currency from their fans while expending only a modicum of effort on these releases. Most groups have a plethora of unreleased tracks in their vaults, and rarities have proven to be rather potent fan-bait, so rock bands can exploit fanboys and make some quick cash while barely lifting a finger.
Unfortunately these rarities collections can be rather erratic; for every compilation of previously lost gems, such as Ween's Shinola Vol. 1, there'll be an album worth of outtakes that went unreleased for good reason. Thankfully They Got Lost is a case of the former.
Diverse, hilarious and melodic, They Got Lost is filled with tracks that would have been right at home on any They Might Be Giants album. From the hyper catchy pop of Rest Awhile to the wah-wah guitar driven title track to the eccentric charm of I Am A Human Head, nearly every song contains an unforgettable melody every bit as strong as the material on a regular studio release.
While many of the twenty-one tracks are somewhat less developed than the full fledged songs, even these fragments are imbued with care and craftsmanship, from soft balladry of Truth In Your Words to the infectious Down To The Bottom Of The Sea.
While They Got Lost spans many years and presents the band at many stages of their career it still feels like a cohesive album, largely because They Might Be Giants were always known for their diversity. The album has a good flow and never feels like a hastily cobbled together product.
Ultimately They Got Lost is a must-have for any fan of the group, sounding more like a great lost album than a cheap scheme to extort money from loyal fans. They Might Be Giants devote a great deal of care and effort into every song they write, and this is made apparent by the quality of even their discarded leftovers. They Got Lost is endemic of a band that always infuses a certain magic into their work, never content to simply churn out half-hearted, generic songs to make a quick buck. There's no doubt that the band released this album for some extra cash, but there's also no doubt that they made sure it would be worth the money.
While a far cry from stagnation, They Might Be Giants' recent output betrayed little of the marriage between whimsical magic and brilliant songwriting that typified their better work; the albums were by no means bad, but they lacked the band's usual boundless imagination, resulting in comparatively weaker efforts like the solid but disappointing The Spine and the cute and disarmingly charming yet woefully insubstantial Here Come The ABC's.
Thus it seemed as if the group were in a creative rut, in dire need of some true inspiration to help extricate themselves from their current predicament. Fortunately, rather than wait ages for some epiphanic experience to transfigure their competent but unextraordinary work into top tier material or idly await the intervention of some decidedly neurotic muse to reinvigorate their efforts the band managed to effect this creative renewal all by themselves, proving that they needed no assistance to return to their prior level of quality.
Thus The Else is a stunning return to form for the band, an immensely entertaining and well crafted listening experience that provides everything one would wish for from a They Might Be Giants album. The melodies are uniformly strong, the humor is offbeat and rewarding and all of the staples of a great They Might Be Giants album are firmly in place.
The album opens on a high note with the infectious rocker I'm Impressed, a deceptively simple song with a plethora of unforgettable pop hooks. The track can be viewed as a microcosm of the band's work, a song that appears simple and straightforward yet contains far greater musical depth and complexity than one would initially surmise.
While not quite on the same level, Take Out The Trash also conforms to this dynamic, a defiantly basic yet catchy tune, while Upside Down Frown would, in any other hands, be a saccharine children's song, but after receiving the They Might Be Giants treatment becomes an irresistible, eccentric pop gem.
Climbing The Walls is They Might Be Giants by the numbers but none the weaker for it, Careful What You Pack is a dose of slight yet ominous beauty, The Cap'm is filled with clever hooks, With The Dark is alternately haunting and beautiful, The Shadow Government is a catchy rocker, Bee Of The Bird Of The Moth may very well be one of the band's best tracks ever with stellar vocal melodies and the group's usual charmingly basic arrangements, Withered Hope is refreshing in its deviations from the album's usual sound, Contrecoup offers an array of unforgettable vocal hooks, Feign Amnesia is more of the same but not in a bad way and The Mesopotamians is a brilliant closer with an absurd but lovable sing-along refrain that elevates the track to anthemic levels.
While this helping of exceptional They Might Be Giants material easily merits a purchase in and of itself, the band elected to add more to make for a truly phenomenal value. The package also contains Cast Your Pod To The Wind, a collection of glorious rarities culled from the group's innovative podcast service. A veritable treasure trove of inspired quirkiness and imaginative melodies, the disc is indispensable to any They Might Be Giants fan, and its status as a free bonus makes the package all the more appealing.
Thanks to the episodic nature of its creation, Cast Your Pod To The Wind also adds a far greater degree of diversity to the experience, a melting pot of sorts for the band's seemingly limitless supply of creative ideas, thus featuring everything from compact rockers like Vestibule to mock emotional ballads like Microphone to the idiosyncratic absurdism of Why'd You Have To Grow A Beard.
Whereas most bands would sell the CD separately with a hefty price tag, They Might Be Giants reward their fans' dedication and loyalty with a wholly remarkable and unexpected bonus.
Thus the band rebound from some of their weaker offerings through pure effort and talent; no stunts or gimmicks were needed to restore the group to their prior level, simply skill and craftsmanship. They Might Be Giants' creative faculties had never atrophied, casting albums like The Spine as the inevitable occasional misfire. The Else depicts the band in full flight, a topnotch product that reaffirms one's faith in the group's considerable abilities.
They Might Be Giants' oeuvre has often been erroneously classified as children's music; this egregious miscategorization can be attributed to the band's playful, humorous and insubstantial nature and is thus understandable, but while it may be understandable this doesn't change the fact that to regard the group in that light is a ridiculous misconception that fails to take many of the band's characteristics into account, conveying entirely the wrong impression of the Johns and their idiosyncratic brand of rock music.
Ergo one would assume that They Might Be Giants would do everything in their power to distance themselves from this irrational and wrongheaded 'children's music' stigma, but as is often the case with the band they opted to take a far less predictable course, electing instead to embrace this incorrect assessment by releasing educational kids' albums amidst their more conventional products.
As was evidenced by the highly enjoyable No! and Here Come The ABCs, this decision proved to be a fruitful one; while they obviously can't compare to the band's 'real' output, these albums still demonstrate that They Might Be Giants have a flair for this kind of genial children's fare, effectively pulling off the kind of work that had been wrongly ascribed to them in the past.
Here Come The 123s, the band's latest children's album, continues this trend of lighthearted quality releases, this time around, as the title suggests, tackling basic mathematics.
As has been the case with the group's prior children's music, the album can be enjoyed by both adults and youths alike; as has also been the case in the past, the CD's educational merit is dubious at best, given the sheer strangeness and eccentricity of the material.
Thus while it may not be ideal for learning, it's certainly ideal for entertainment. Mixing humor, catchiness and an eclectic array of musical styles, Here Come The 123s is simply fun, if predictably slight; it certainly doesn't measure up to far more accomplished recent They Might Be Giants fare like The Else, but nonetheless its sheer charm and affability is sure to disarm even the most jaded listener.
The album's main tracks are uniformly strong, boasting memorable moments like the hyper catchy vocal hooks in the refrain of One Everything (that subsequently becomes the basis for the simple yet still irresistible guitar solo) to the nursery rhyme style of Seven Days Of The Week.
The bonus content, however, doesn't fare quite as well; the Disney covers succumb to precisely the perils that the album proper manages to dexterously evade, namely rudimentary melodies and saccharine lyrics, wholly bereft of the adult sensibilities and intelligence that inform the Johns-scribed material.
Elsewhere the bonus track One Two Three Four is too short and bland to amount to much, while the live cut of Bed, Bed, Bed doesn't do enough to differentiate itself from its original studio incarnation.
Better, however, is the live rendition of John Lee Supertaster; while it similarly remains faithful to its source, it rocks considerably harder than the original, sporting frenetic distorted solos and a crunchy, driving beat. It's hardly indispensable, but it's still a far more attractive extra than the others offered in the package (though I have yet to partake of the DVD, given my inherent aversion to actual children's material).
Thus while hardly a classic, Here Come The 123s remains a highly entertaining album, featuring all of the Johns strengths applied to a unique and different forum. The album compares favorably with the group's previous forays into the realms of children's music, and that's certainly high praise given the caliber of those outings.
As was the case with No! and Here Come The ABCs, a They Might Be Giants fan would be doing a grave disservice to himself by skipping the album due to its 'children's music' label. The CD can be enjoyed by virtually any demographic, and each would doubtless find something different to laud about the content. There's plenty of adult oriented humor and musical diversity to arrest the intention of an older crowd, while the material remains accessible and appropriate for a younger crowd as well.
Ever since the inception of the band, an erroneous notion has circulated that They Might Be Giants are a children's group. One would surmise that when confronted with such an egregious misconception the group would do anything in their power to dispel this off-base image. In a curious twist, however, the Johns have embraced this misinterpretation, launching a series of albums intended for children and even going so far as to collaborate with the quintessential kid-friendly conglomerate, Disney.
Thus They Might Be Giants have compartmentalized their output, alternating between their traditional fare and kid-oriented educational albums. Furthermore, it's readily apparent that the band invest just as much care and craftsmanship in their children's albums as they do in their more mature content, obviously taking this educational role seriously (or as seriously as a group as inherently eccentric and whimsical as They Might Be Giants can take anything).
Needless to say, the older audience that will gravitate toward albums like Here Comes Science won't be drawn in by the educational character of the material. Rather, these longtime They Might Be Giants fans will be attracted by the prospect of more solid melodies and the quirky charm that the band imbue in all their work, be it a more ambitious album like The Else or a kid-friendly release like No!
They Might Be Giants are simply incapable of producing albums wholly devoid of value for adults, regardless of what demographic they profess to be aiming their material at. Be it through offbeat humor that will go unnoticed by youths or catchy melodies that are just as apt to thrill the old as the young, the band consistently attempt to appease an older audience. The group are clearly loath to wholly alienate their devoted listeners, and this has been reflected in each of the group's 'children's' releases.
Here Comes Science is no exception to this rule, and in fact represents the zenith of the group's endeavors in the realm of 'ostensibly-kid-oriented' music. Once again the band's zany charm has been translated into the children's-education arena fully intact, and better still the album features the best and most consistent array of melodies to be found in this sub-genre.
While albums like No! and Here Come The ABC's sported a solid set of hooks, many tracks emphasized lyrics at the expense of music, resulting in primitive sonic backdrops and repetitive, simple tunes. By forcing their melodies to accommodate their 'lessons,' the band often treated their music in a workmanlike fashion, regarding their tunes as mere vessels for their more important educational purposes. Even many of the band's best melodies on these albums were far more simple and basic than what one's come to expect from the group.
There were a plethora of exceptions, as They Might Be Giants' children's-albums ultimately proved to be highly entertaining, accomplished affairs, but nevertheless the problem persisted and prevented these releases from reaching the level of their more adult-centric CDs.
While Here Comes Science by no means matches any of They Might Be Giants' classic works, the band has still made great strides toward creating a children's album that consistently boasts high-quality melodies that are allowed to grow and develop instead of simply functioning as inert backgrounds for humorous educational antics. Nearly each track features an assortment of creative and memorable hooks, as even diminutive throwaway numbers like Computer Assisted Design offer catchy vocal melodies.
Highlights abound on the album, from the Stereolab-esque opening of Electric Car that segues into a bouncy sing-along refrain, to the pop splendor of Roy G. Biv to the stellar, if somewhat basic, rocker Speed And Velocity. The old live staple Why Does The Sun Shine? resurfaces predictably enough, albeit with a subsequent track correcting its scientific inaccuracies, while My Brother The Ape is yet another endearing poppy anthem from a band that excels at that form.
While it's true that the only notable respect in which Here Comes Science differs from its predecessors is in the consistency department, this is enough to elevate the album to another level. Out of 19 tracks there are very few letdowns when it comes to the caliber of the music, and this makes for a listening experience unsurpassed in the children's-music genre. While there are musical concessions to both the form and intended audience at times, this usually just results in a relative simplification of the melody as opposed to a total melodic vacancy.
Thus Here Comes Science can be recommended to any fan of They Might Be Giants indiscriminate of age, and fans of the band's previous forays into children's-music territory are especially in for a big treat. Here Comes Science is simply superior to anything that most would have imagined the genre capable of, a testament to the band's skill and dedication. Where most would have strung some basic chord-progressions together and blandly expounding on rudimentary science, They Might Be Giants have created a minor masterpiece filled with clever humor, a disarming sensibility and superb music.
In the years since No!, They Might Be Giants' first foray into the realm of children's educational CDs, the Johns have truly mastered the art of 'kid's music.' The band have reached a point where they can deftly blend textbook lessons, age appropriate humor and plentiful pop hooks. As if to validate this accomplishment, Disney itself has teamed with the group. Thus it's only natural that They Might Be Giants have come to be associated with this brand of children's educational music.
Here Comes Science, the band's latest kids' endeavor, marks the zenith of the Johns' evolution in this area. The album is so strong in the melody department that it's easy to imagine that children's music is truly the group's forte. Listening to songs like Roy G. Biv, one can forget past glories like Lincoln and The Else.
Then along comes an album like Join Us to remind They Might Be Giants fans that no matter how charming an album like Here Comes Science is, it still fails to capture an entire side of the band. Nowhere on an album such as No! or Here Comes The 123's will the listener encounter the likes of the darkly hilarious When Will You Die or the effortlessly entrancing minimalism of The Lady And The Tiger. They Might Be Giants' children's albums may have broader appeal, but this comes at the expense of some of the very elements that make the band who they are.
Some may be dismissive of the black comedy of When Will You Die, saying that it brings nothing new to the table. After all, juxtaposing dark lyrics and cheery music is a trick that dates all the way back to track one on the band's debut, the classic Everything Right Is Wrong Again. This argument is not without merit, but the band's cleverness will invariably make any song sound fresh, even if it doesn't exactly explore new territory.
Were Join Us a children's album, it would doubtlessly lack the eccentric humor of the incredibly catchy You Probably Get That A Lot, while Judy Is Your Viet Nam would have been omitted on the basis of its title alone. Cloisonne would surely have been deemed too strange for inclusion, and The Lady And The Tiger would probably give small children nightmares.
It's not simply the more adult aspects of Join Us that make it superior to the band's child-oriented works. It's become clear that 'real' They Might Be Giants albums, like Lincoln and The Else, will almost always surpass their kid-centric counterparts when it comes to both melodies and diversity. The group are willing to take more risks when they don't have to worry about sheltering a younger audience, and this results in more dynamic and compelling material.
This isn't a rule that's set in stone. The Spine, despite its status as a 'true' They Might Be Giants album, is a good deal weaker than Here Comes Science in the melody department. When the band are in top form, however, their adult work easily eclipses their educational products, and such is the case with Join Us.
Much like the brilliant The Else, Join Us is an extremely consistent album that delivers the eccentric humor and catchy hooks that They Might Be Giants are known for. Tracks like the opener Can't Keep Johnny Down and its follow-up You Probably Get That A Lot are infectious pop-rock tunes that rank with the band's best work. Such can also be said of When Will You Die, a diabolical good time that merges the homicidal bluntness of Dylan's Masters Of War with the character-assassination of his classic Positively Fourth Street.
Join Us serves as a reminder that no matter how strong They Might Be Giants' kids-albums are, they'll never reach the level of the band's top adult works. This isn't meant to denigrate albums like No! and Here Comes Science, but rather to praise CDs like John Henry and Mink Car. After fifteen albums They Might Be Giants are as fresh and exciting as ever, particularly when they deliver material that Disney would have very, very strong reservations about releasing to the public.