Friday, February 17, 2017

The Wiseacre Duos: They Might Be Giants, Part IV (CONCLUSION)

2004 brought The Spine, an agreeable but somewhat bland entry in the They Might Be Giants catalogue.  The creative highs heard on No! and Mink Car were not repeated here.  The album, two of its tracks heard on a preceding EP called Indestructible Object, seemed to be phoned in.  The Johns firing on merely a few cylinders.  So tired.  "Au Contraire" name drops Jodie Foster and Mahatma Gandhi to little fanfare.  "Stalk of Wheat" sounds like drunken merry go round music.  Yes, the lyrics were still witty, particularly on "Prevenge" and " I Can't Hide From My Mind", but everything has some sort of malaise.  The production is competent but without surprises.  Many songs have traditional rock arrangements.  That is, however, used to amusing effect in the middle of "It's Kickin' In".  The most interesting song for me is "The World Before Later On" which describes a sort of limbo in which the imagined, anticipated future has sorta happened, but without flying cars and space faces.

I think my main problem with The Spine is the association I've made with its release.  It came out right as grad school was becoming grueling and unpleasant.  Hearing it brings back a certain nausea.  It's not the guys' fault.  At that time, I was also really getting into another wiseacre duos' output - 10cc, and TMBGs were beginning to suffer in comparison.

There were three more children's albums in the oughts: Here Come the ABCs, Here Come the 123s, and Here Comes Science.  I have not absorbed them as thoroughly as No!, but they are as inspired as ever.  You needn't have kids to appreciate them.

In between was another so-so album, The Else (2007) which does sport a funny cover.  "Bee of the Bird of the Moth" grabbed me on first listen, but I plateaued early with the rest.  I actually found more enjoyment from the bonus disc, Cast Your Pod to the Wind, which is filled with the kind of short and sweet novelties that TMBGs do best.  The Else, I bet, deserves re-assessment.  Maybe I'll report later.

In 2011, They Might Be Giants returned with an obvious bid for the glory days with Join Us.  So many poppy hooks and good old fashioned weirdness.  For me, it was an immediate winner.  From the strangely poignant "Old Pine Box" to the oddly relaxing "Let Your Hair Hang Down", and a lot of distorted voices and whack time signatures in between, this is just flat out fun stuff.  I guarantee that "Dog Walker" will stay in your auditory cortex for some time.

Nanobots followed a year later and many were comparing its abundance of short (some very short) tracks to the "Fingertips" suite from 1992's Apollo 18.   Some are only a few seconds.  Do they tie together? Not like they do on the earlier album.  But the hit and run aspect of them creates a weird, almost hypertensive feeling if you listen to this album straight through.  The rest of the batch are catchy and as erudite in that great Linnell/Flansburgh tradition.  "Icky" should have dominated the charts with its infectious phrasing and arrangement.  "Black Ops" could've easily fit on 1989's Lincoln, so the retro longing continued.

There are more albums, including 2015's Glean and Why?, and 2016's Phone Power, all consisting of material from an update of the Dial-A-Song project.  I haven't heard a note of any of them, but plan a delve soon.

They Might Be Giants will always occupy that happy space in my brain for smart and silly music making.  The boys switch genres with ease, and their ambitions have taken them to both good and fair places.  Never awful.  I prefer their stripped down music.  As much as I appreciate the full band, especially live, I yearn for the low budget sound of two guys from Massachusetts, who would make Brooklyn their home.

And there you have it, invisible audience, "The Wiseacre Duos" series comes to a belated close.  What was intended to last a few months has stretched into what, nine years?! Albeit with some long gaps.  If you hung on, God bless you. 

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