If you think about it, one of the most amazing things about the career of They Might Be Giants is that they’ve never really “sold out”. Sure, they moved to a major label for a time (Elektra), and they won a Grammy for a television show theme song (Malcolm in the Middle‘s “Boss of Me”), and they produced a kids’ album (No!) and a kid’s book/CD combo (Bed, Bed, Bed—and how cool is that, anyway?), and, yeah, they’ve even been the subject of a documentary feature film (Gigantic)... heck, even when they sold a song to a car commercial, it was a cover of an old and mostly forgotten number from Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames (“Yeh Yeh”). They Might Be Giants is an illustration of the difference between “success” and “selling out”. They’ve never compromised on their blend of quirky artsiness and campily diverse musicality, they’ve never played into the hands of the corporate music industry—in fact, they’ve been back in the world of the independent labels since 1998—and yet, by sticking to their own identity they’ve become one of the most famous and productive “indie” bands in the last thirty years.
Even among the fans who’ve followed the band’s developments over the course of its 20-plus year history, there have been few who’ve questioned the Two Johns’ course from the basement shows of the New York underground art scene to becoming big, big stars. If anything, the one criticism of the act has to do with whether or not TMBG changed for the better (or lost their aesthetic) when Flansburgh and Linnell moved from being a studio cut-and-paste duo to making TMBG a full-fledged band with guitars and drums and the works. And that happened a decade ago. Beginning with John Henry, They Might Be Giants started recording albums as a full band (having added supporting musicians to the live line-up years prior), but it did little to constrain their trademark sound.
And yet, now, with the release of The Spine, TMBG’s 10th full-length album, and after more than 20 years, they’ve released what is undoubtedly the most traditional “rock” album in the band’s catalog. From start to finish, The Spine stands out as being… well, normal, at least in comparison to the rest of the indie rock and pop scene. For They Might Be Giants, this normality is its own kind of weirdness. The songs are more traditionally structured (though still mostly pop-short and pop-sweet), the guitars have come the foreground with more crunchy verve, and there’s nary a trace of the once-ubiquitous accordion. I realize that I’m on the verge of repeating myself, as these same things popped up here and there on their last “adult” release, Mink Car, but there’s something more completely realized here. Perhaps even more telling, where many bands who have come along since TMBG first made waves in the mid-‘80s have been said to have “hints of They Might Be Giants”, The Spine finds the band drawing comparisons to other contemporary acts. There are traces of the Shins and the Decembrists, healthy doses of the New Pornographers, and, lest the whole hipster garage rock thing gets overlooked, some shades of the Sights. All of which might leave the band’s faithful asking, “What’s going on here?” at first listen.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a total sea change for the band, and the disc still retains plenty of moments that seem like the TMBG of yore. “Thunderbird”, “Au Contraire” (previously released on the Indestructible Object teaser EP last month), “World Later On”, and “Stalk of Wheat” will be familiar-sounding to fans. But there’s something intangible, more or less indescribable, in the tone of this disc that makes it seem… different. It’s not somber, but it seems more serious somehow. With songs like “Wearing a Raincoat” it seems wrong to say that the lyrical content has become less surrealistic or less humorous, but there’s something less forcibly clever and artsy about these songs all the same. That doesn’t stop the Johns from doing a wry perspective flip of the Beach Boys’ “Fun, Fun, Fun” in the bridge of “Thunderbird”, but still
Maybe this seems like John Henry (and every successive album) all over again, and in a sense, that’s fair. Injecting the rock into TMBG the way that first “rock band” disc did has led to many more forays into big guitar pop in the intervening years, and the lead-off track and first single, “Experimental Film”, could have made its way onto any of those albums. The song is classic TMBG sound, but the track shows how much John and John have gone from being outsiders to being central figures in contemporary culture. Although the songs used for their appearance on Cartoon Network’s Home Movies didn’t make the cut for the album (they’ve also recorded two promo songs for the network), “Experimental Film” almost seems like it was tailor made for the show’s Brendan Small character. In addition, the upcoming video for the song is produced by the creative team behind Homestar Runner, one of the Internet’s most successful original animation sites.
In fact, while it’s probably reading into things too much and making meaning out of casual connections, the remainder of The Spine may reflect TMBG’s large Internet presence. Already credited with the Internet’s best-selling album in Long Tall Weekend (a full album only available through emusic.com), it might be possible to say that the musical impetus for this disc owes something to the medium where the musical fashion of the independent scene has been decided for the last decade, with bands like those previously mentioned having founded whole careers spreading their music through critical word-of-mouth and file sharing.
Still, the songs on The Spine don’t really fit the idea of a cheap grab for the current hip sound. Instead, it’s almost as though the scene has finally caught up to They Might Be Giants, and they’re having fun with it, sense of humor intact but tempered a bit by time. If there’s an over-arching style to this album, it’s mostly power pop, but it still manages to contain the wealth of variety listeners have come to expect from the band. For example, the two short-takes that give the album its title—“Spine” and “Spines”—are pure contrast. The first is a dramatically sleepy “na na na” pop song that sounds like a leftover clip from the old “Fingertips”, or maybe a short from the Dial-a-Song service. The second, while still a short clip, establishes a contemporary R&B groove with a slinky bassline and funkified vocals, only to be cut off just before you expect it to blossom into an urban raido funk fest. If there’s any meaning behind the two spine-related inclusions on the disc, it may be that
is truly a semi-ironic run-through of musical styles, but for their part TMBG remain characteristically obtuse.
As with Mink Car, it’s the songs that are plays on style that wind up standing out more than the songs that fit the usual TMBG mold. As Gary Glauber noted in his review of Indestructibel Object, “Memo to Human Resources” seems to benefit from TMBG’s past associations with Adam Schlessinger of Fountains of Wayne, while “Prevenge” nails the decidedly up-tempo power pop angle that makes the New Pornographers so much fun, even with the song’s middle break into a syrupy croon. While some listeners will hear a continuation of the dance-pop of “Man, It’s So Loud in Here” in “Bastard Wants to Hit Me”, the song’s vocoder vocals sound more like the computer pop efforts of Too Much Joy side-project Wonderlick than techno irony. Then there’s “It’s Kickin’ In”, a ‘60s psych-garage inflected guitar rave-up that may be TMBG’s most “rock” song to date.
But if you have any doubts that The Spine‘s increasingly straightforward musical take won’t leave you with the smiles you’re accustomed to with They Might Be Giants, the pairing of “Au Contraire” and “Damn Good Times” will settle your worries. While “Au Contraire” fits into the classic TMBG sound, it’s no less fun for it in its goofy run through of historical namedropping. But the laugh-out-loud moment occurs as the song fades into a jazz run, peppered by a chorus of voices over-enunciating calls of “Right on!” The track then bleeds straight into “Damn Good Times”, which, in my humble if biased opinion, is a contender for best power pop song of the year. Full of driving guitars, a racing bassline, and high-speed vocals, the song again recalls the New Pornographers, although this time infused with the cockeyed grin that Linnell has made a vocal trademark. If you don’t find yourself compelled to rock out, dance, or at least nod your head and smile along, you’re never going to like this band.
The Spine sets itself apart from recent work by They Might Be Giants in ways that you’ll just have to hear for yourself to understand. At the same time, it goes a long way in showing how the band continues to be relevant, even vital, in a scene that chews up and spits out bands with ferocious speed. Twenty odd years on, the Two Johns are as vibrant as ever, and after having carved their own niche in music history, The Spine is bold for playing in the sandbox with TMBG’s contemporaries rather than staying safely in the room they’ve created for themselves. Just don’t call it a sell out.