They Might Be Giants create a kids' album about science. Could there be a better pairing of band and topic?
They Might Be Giants first turned their always-catchy genre-hopping songwriting skills towards children on 2002's No! To the band's surprise, the album was wildly successful. This led to a (presumably lucrative) deal with kids' music juggernaut Disney Sound, which got them better distribution and more exposure in the right places, particularly Playhouse Disney. They even won a Grammy for Best Musical Album for Children for 2008's Here Comes the 123's. But despite the accolades, 123's and its predecessor, Here Comes the ABC's, were frustrating listens for longtime adult fans of the band. The subject matter of both albums seemed to be a bit too limiting, setting their sights on the very young three-to-six age group. Great for small children, but not necessarily great for kids of all ages.
Which brings us to Here Comes Science. Listening to this album is something like consuming auditory candy for your brain. They Might Be Giants have always done songs about science, from their cover of '60s educational record "Why Does the Sun Shine" to 1992's "Mammal" to several songs written for ABC's 1999 summer science series Brave New World. Plus science is a broad enough subject to give the band leeway to do pretty much whatever they want while still hitting the major elementary school topics. The result is that the album allows the band's considerable songcraft to combine with their geeky tendencies in a way that feels perfectly natural.
The album runs through 19 songs in just under 40 minutes, and covers topics ranging from the elements ("Meet the Elements") to "Computer-Assisted Design" to "Photosynthesis". A couple of songs have appeared previously, such as "The Bloodmobile" and the group's punked-up version of "Why Does the Sun Shine?" But guitarist John Flansburgh isn't about to let the science content from the '60s stand on its own, so the song is immediately followed by "Why Does the Sun Really Shine?", a laid-back, low-key song that contains much more current information about the sun. Other songs here sound like follow-ups to previous TMBG tracks. Keyboardist John Linnell's "My Brother the Ape" covers similar lyrical territory to "Mammal", only with more detail about why humans, apes, and all life on the planet are genetically related. "What Is a Shooting Star?" employs sparse instrumentation and a canon form, making it sound quite a bit similar to the band's fugue-like "Older".
But it's the fresh material that makes the most impact. "Electric Car" features a lovely lead vocal from Robin Goldwasser and is one of the most joyous pop songs of year. Everything in the song sounds incredibly happy, from the harmony vocals in the chorus to the delicate glockenspiel accompaniment in the verses to the bouncy horn section to the perfectly placed bongos. "Roy G. Biv" is, of course, about the colors of the rainbow and the song itself bounces between minor-key verses and a great big power-pop chorus. Little touches like disco-style hi-hat and falsetto backing vocals give the track that extra something that transforms the song from merely good to straight-up great. "Cells" is a classic-style John Linnell song with a shuffling beat and an irresistible melody that throws in a reference to "Dwight David Eisenhower" among its simplified explanations of DNA and mitosis. While founders Flansburgh and Linnell still write the bulk of the songs, they give the other band members a chance to shine here, too. Bassist Danny Weinkauf seizes the opportunity with the speedy and buoyant "I Am a Paleontologist", which has one of the most irresistible hooks on an album filled with great hooks.
The DVD portion of the album is a cute addendum to the audio disc. It features videos for every song on the album, plus several introductory sequences from a pair of bantering, sketched-out-looking animated Johns. The videos are varied in style and form, but all are energetic and brightly colored. The actual three-year-old girl I watched it with was mesmerized for most of the running time. She was especially a fan of the clips for "The Bloodmobile", the animal-filled "Electric Car", and the cute insects of "Photosynthesis". I particularly enjoyed the eight-bit video game style of the scientific method song "Put It to the Test".
The excitement and enthusiasm of the Johns and the rest of the band is palpable here. It's telling that the group took three years to produce Here Comes the ABC's and another three to come out with 123's, yet Here Comes Science arrives just over a year after that. The contrast from those two previous kids' albums to this one is like hearing the band go from enjoying themselves to flat-out having a blast. It helps that this album is smack-dab in They Might Be Giants' wheelhouse, which lends it an aura of effortlessness. This is the kind of record that parents won't get sick of their kids playing nonstop. It's also something worth hearing for lapsed fans who haven't been keeping up with TMBG in recent years or for anyone who loves well-written power-pop with a side of nerdiness.