If you look up the word “quirky” in your Oxford dictionary, you’ll find a picture of John Flansburgh and John Linnell of the long-standing alternative rock group They Might Be Giants. OK, OK, OK, so you won’t – but in a fair world that picture would be there. Since 1982 – almost a full-on 30 years – Flansburgh and Linnell have been the architects of out there skewed Grammy Award-winning rock with songs like “Birdhouse in Your Soul”, “Particle Man” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” – and, yes, I realize the latter was a cover, but the duo pretty much put their own stamp on it and made it their own. In recent years, however, Flansburgh and Linnell have turned their attention towards either penning movie or TV theme songs – like the cloying “Boss of Me” from the even more cloying Malcolm in the Middle – or writing and recording music for children, with such albums as Here Come the ABCs, Here Come the 123s and Here Comes Science. Well, the group has finally taken a break from writing kids’ songs and in the form of Join Us have created an album for the parents – their first “adult” record since 2007’s The Else.
With Join Us, you get 18 songs that veer wildly all over the map, but still carry They Might Be Giants’ stylistic hiccups and oddball lyrics. In short, what you get is yet another album from the group that could have been probably made with great ease near the start of its long and storied career, albeit one that doesn’t reach the delicious heights as their left-field MTV hit “Birdhouse in Your Soul”, though a few songs come close. Thus, Join Us isn’t probably going to yield anything that could be included on the next Greatest Hits-type record, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun, enjoyable and engaging. It just seems that Join Us – with its one-foot-in-the-grave image of a Hearse jacked up as a monster truck on the cover – is They Might Be Giants going through the motions and crafting kooky rock songs that are best enjoyed by grown men with an Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis. Join Us is the type of record, despite its titular invitation, that will be best enjoyed by the faithful, as opposed to those who are curious about the group and want a starting point to delve into.
That’s not to say that there’s stuff here that you can really sink your teeth into. “Old Pine Box” is an acoustic jangle-pop song that could have penned by a mid-‘60s British Invasion group, notwithstanding its use of a talk-box guitar in its midsection. “Canajoharie” – one of only two songs that eclipse the three-minute mark – is full-on ‘70s-style power-pop that wouldn’t be too far outside of the canon of Big Star. “Let Your Hair Hang Down” reminds me of an early ‘90s track ripped from the songbook of Redd Kross. “Celebration” is a groovy bass-driven cut that is a kind of counterpoint to the Dismemberment Plan’s “You Are Invited” on Prozac. There’s also an attempt to rewrite “Ana Ng”, at least thematically, in the form of “Judy is Your Viet Nam” – it’s a great rock number, but is alas only less than 90 seconds long.
Then there are some turns into way out there territory. “Cloissoné” – which is in part narrated from the perspective of a raindrop – is a stab at Dixieland jazz with keyboard overtones. It’s a kind of a catchy tune on its own terms, but seems a bit out of place in its position in the ordering of the album, coming directly after the rollicking “Canajoharie”. There’s another jazzy moment with the jaunty “In Fact”, which opens with a loud muted trumpet. “Never Knew Love” is a squiggly pop gem that would snuggle nicely with the band’s Disney material. “The Lady and the Tiger” is almost an attempt at writing hip-hop, at least in the beginning, just filtered through the lens of “Weird Al” Yankovic. Then there’s “Spoiler Alert” – I’m not sure what exactly is being spoiled as the song appears to be about a truck with a mind of its own (unless the band is referencing the truck’s spoiler, hmmm) – which is a duet that is call-and-response fitting the very definition of “quirky”, notwithstanding its flute-led final passage. Lyrically, things are somewhat a bit on the obtuse side, particularly in the opening cut “Can’t Keep Johnny Down” as it boasts the following stream-of-thought witticisms: “Some dude / Hitting golf balls on the moon / Bathroom in his pants / And he thinks he’s better than me.”
Being 18 songs long, there is bound to be a bit of filler – the majority of which comes right smack-dab in the middle of the record or later on in the album’s running order. “When Will You Die” is a bright, bouncy song that you get the sense Flansburgh and Linnell could have written in their sleep. “Protagonist” is a by-the-numbers attempt to be weird. “Dog Walker”, which comes a little later, is sung as though the vocalist has just inhaled air from a helium balloon. “2082” is just a kooky slab of science-fiction that could be incidental music for Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Still, when all is said and done, Join Us is just a fun record with no further aspiration than to be party music for geeks. There’s good and there’s not so good, though I don’t think there’s a particularly embarrassing track to really be found. True, it does peter out by the time the latter third of the record comes upon the listener, and yet, overall, there’s a sense of giddiness that prevails through the album that makes it a delightful listen throughout much of its running order. Join Us might be the sound of a band treading water, but that’s probably what the long suffering fans of the duo’s grown-up records might be in a fix for. The curious should still probably go back in the catalogue to Flood, but for the rest, Join Us is a serviceable, albeit inconsistent, stab at shooting for the moon in sheer zaniness.