They Might Be Giants' third album of the past year contains some real gems. It also has a lot of material that doesn't quite make the grade, making it feel like a leftovers record.
In 2015, They Might Be Giants revived their old Dial-A-Song service with a 21st century flavor. Back in the early ‘80s, the duo had a phone line hooked up to an answering machine that would play a song for anyone who called it. The song would change frequently and as the band established themselves, it became a place fans could call to hear demos, outtakes, and other weird musical stuff that usually didn’t make it onto the band’s main albums. For 2015, the project returned with a new, toll free phone number, a weekly song update, and the simultaneous posting of each song to YouTube.
Phone Power is They Might Be Giants’ third album of the past year and the third album comprised mostly of songs culled from the new Dial-A-Song. There are some great songs here that demonstrate once again how skilled John Linnell and John Flansburgh are at finding catchy melodies and interesting sonic ideas. But Phone Power is the thinnest of the three Dial-A-Song albums, showing the strain that writing and recording roughly 80 new songs puts on even these prolific songwriters. A few of the songs here have fascinating lyrical ideas that aren’t supported by interesting music. The reverse also holds true, with a couple of really exciting musical pieces let down by boring lyrics.
At their best, They Might Be Giants combine hooks, off-kilter musical choices, and oddball lyrics into great songs, and the album’s opener “Apophenia” does this. Apophenia is the tendency to seek patterns in random information, and the song’s protagonist (a mentally unbalanced unreliable narrator, as is found in many of John Linnell’s songs) begins the song by stating “How could the streetlight / Blink on and off and spell out all your thoughts?” He gets more frantic as the song goes on, concluding at the end that “Next thing you will say I’ve been hallucinating you all along.” This fractured viewpoint is backed up by deceptively tricky music, where most of the band plays steady 4/4 quarter notes while drummer Marty Beller glides along in 6/8, playing three notes to every one by the rest of the band. They keep this up throughout the verses, only coming together for the chorus, which unites the band in a strong sense of forward motion.
Flansburgh’s “Sold My Mind to the Kremlin” also hits this sweet spot, combining a recurring heavy four on the floor drumbeat in the chorus with Moog-y synths on the high and low end and unusual vocal harmonies that rely on the interval of a fourth instead of the more typical third or fifth. The lyrics are simultaneously specific, with references to a “Yoda mask”, “Talking like Lou Ferrigno”, “Patty Hearst, Skeletor, and Charles Manson”, and “Reagan closed the hospitals for the mentally ill", and vague, as Flansburgh never explains exactly what selling his mind to the Kremlin entails. “Shape Shifter” is one of the brightest-sounding songs on the album. Synth filters assisting the vocal harmonies push the track into a spiral of meta, where the song resembles a They Might Be Giants take on Weird Al Yankovic’s 1996 song “Everything You Know is Wrong”, which was itself a “style parody” of They Might Be Giants. It’s one of the album’s catchiest songs, with a grin-inducing chorus complaining “I’ve got a big ol’ problem / Shape shifters all around.” Linnell goes on to explain the various problems the alien shape shifters have caused on Earth, and for once, this seems to be a straightforward story. There’s no indication that this protagonist is unreliable or mentally unbalanced, so we’re inclined to take what he says as, indeed, a big ol’ problem.
Flansburgh and Linnell, as the founders and principal songwriters of TMBG, get the lion’s share of attention when discussing their music. But drummer Beller, guitarist Dan Hickey, and bassist Danny Weinkauf have all been part of the band for over a decade at this point, and they are ace musicians. “I’ll Be Haunting You”, a tasty slice of ‘70s-style disco-pop, gives the whole band a spotlight. Weinkauf gets to play a melodic, constantly shifting bassline throughout the whole song, while Miller gets to flit in and out with his own carefully picked counterpoint to the bass. Beller’s rhythm is steady and relatively simple but he drops beats and throws in skillful fills throughout the track to enhance Linnell’s easygoing melody and chord progression. The full band also shines on the group’s cover of Destiny Child’s 1999 hit, “Bills, Bills, Bills.” They drop the spare, mid-tempo R&B of the original song and turn it into a high-speed rock rave-up. Flansburgh and Linnell aren’t ever going to be the vocal equals of Beyoncé and company, so they push the tempo and throw as much energy as possible into their version and it pays off handsomely for them.
Those are the highlights. The rest of Phone Power is filled out with everything from good songs that don’t quite reach greatness all the way down to a couple of outright missteps. Linnell’s twisted folk song “Trouble Awful Devil Evil” has a catchy sing along chorus and some nice bongo and clarinet work, but doesn’t fully come together lyrically in the verses. Flansburgh’s lush ballad “Daylight” is soaked in synth-y atmosphere with an interesting melody. But it ends before the two-minute mark, seemingly right before taking off into a full chorus, which leaves it feeling unfinished. Linnell’s “I Love You for Psychological Reasons” has a great hook in the refrain but lyrically feels like it’s trying too hard to make a point without ever actually getting to the point.
“To a Forest” finds Flansburgh breaking out the acoustic guitar for a laid-back song with a nice pseudo-Farfisa organ accompaniment from Linnell and a super-distorted guitar solo from Miller. But it doesn’t have a real chorus, which once again leaves it feeling like a song that wasn’t quite finished before it was recorded. “It Said Something” demonstrates how tightly Linnell’s unreliable narrator conceit treads the line between entertaining and insufferable. Because this unreliable narrator definitely falls on the insufferable side of the line, and the music, while catchy, is not strong enough to make up for the annoyingness of the protagonist. Then there’s “Black Ops Alt”, which removes nearly all of what made the original “Black Ops”, from 2013’s Nanobots album, special. The original song married dark lyrics from the point of view of a titular black ops team with slow, sparse music built around a simple but catchy drum loop. It defied expectations for what a song about a black ops operation would sound like. It wasn’t intense rock, and it wasn’t spy movie style music. “Black Ops Alt” just finds the band turning up the amps and the distortion and rocking out on the song. This worked for “Bills, Bills, Bills”, but for “Black Ops” it feels particularly uninspired and perfunctory.
Phone Power seems more like a B-side compilation than a proper album. They Might Be Giants completists know that the band has often hidden some real gems away as B-sides, so that isn’t necessarily a warning to stay away. But the quality level varies a lot from song to song and it doesn’t flow like a typical studio album. So after the strong Glean and the fun kids-oriented Why?, Phone Power definitely feels like the leftovers. But there’s enough good stuff on the record to make it worth a recommendation, especially for established fans of They Might Be Giants.