Brooklyn-based duo, They Might Be Giants (John Linnell and John Flansburgh) have been at it since 1983, charming the ears of the alternative audeince (and now their young offspring) with witty pop songs laced with catchy hooks. Join Us, their 15th album (but really 11th if you disregard the kids albums and that MP3-only collection), was released in the July of 2011. It’s the second recent TMBG album to have been offered on vinyl – and this time it came with a free digital download!
[Note: Yes, I broke my own rules on this one. Being a longtime listener of the band, I got this in the mail and wanted to hear it without waiting for its number to come up.]
Since TMBG’s 1992 tour in support of Apollo 18, the former duo became a full band, dividing fans. Before that, they made due with drum machines, looped samples and whatever they could find to form their unique sound. With the full band in tow, TMBG albums have less experimentation and more traditional instruments. And although Join Us does delve a little bit into their roots, incorporating sounds and styles atypical of an everyday rock song, it’s still far removed from their younger days.
The album’s opening track, and apparent single is “Can’t Keep Johnny Down”, an enjoyable, upbeat pop song. It moves fast and Linnell’s trademark nasally vocals sound instantly familiar. There was a contest for fans to submit homemade videos to this track (the band doesn’t cotton to making traditional videos anymore, it seems). The winner’s submission was actually quite good, despite the glaring continuity errors. Take a look; have a listen:
The other 17 tracks I found to be ‘hit or miss’, which has been typical of the ‘later year’ TMBG albums. That’s not to say there are “bad” songs – even the worst song is lyrically amusing and deserves at least one listen. But those are also the ones that just rattle around your head for two minutes and is promptly overwritten by other random stimuli.
Still, there’s a lot to enjoy on this disc. “Celebration” is interesting when the chorus breaks into a confetti-exploding faux disco beat. “Protagonist” is stylistically amusing the way one John is singing an inner-monologue while the other sings the stage directions. “Cloisonné” is a nice callback to their pre-full band days, with a rhythm machine, saxophone and bizarre lyrics (“Keep you window-shakin’ godforsaken voice down, I’m sick of this beexwax, I’m sick of these second-story Sleestaks.”) In that same vein is the closing track, “You Don’t Like Me” with warping, staccato guitar and random bits of pop-culture referenced (“You like shadow puppets, Woody Harrelson, reading in the bath, Nirvana and baseball caps”.) These songs would have fit nicely in their earlier sets.
I must make note of the song “When Will You Die”. They Might Be Giants are no stranger to covering dark topics (even when the music is the exact polar opposite), but this song may be their darkest yet. The Johns must really, really hate someone to come up with lyrics like, “We’ll be lining up and buying tickets and then we’ll be jumping up and down on your grave.” And of course, it’s sung over the cheeriest bunch of pop you’ll ever hear. This is probably a good example as to why I still continue to listen to this band.
Join Us is definitely one of TMBG’s stronger album and definitely superior to their last few efforts. But is it better than their most popular record, Flood? No. This album is still uneven and there are far too many tracks I find myself skipping. I sometimes wonder if these songs would be better off had it just been John and John concentrating on the catchy hooks and brilliant wordplay they did so well when it was just the two of them instead of over-polishing these tracks, having to find something for the extra band members to play. As has been the case since 1994’s John Henry and continues to this day, too many ideas get lost in the full band noise.