PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

They Might Be Giants: Phone Power (take two)

They Might Be Giants’s 19th studio album is a reminder to the world that if they aren’t indie rock’s answer to Lennon and McCartney, they could at the very least be geek rock’s heirs to Difford and Tilbrook.

They Might Be Giants

Phone Power

Label: Idlewild
US Release Date: 2016-06-10
UK Release Date: 2016-03-18

November 2016 marks the 30th anniversary of They Might Be Giants’s self-titled debut album. Let that sink in for a minute. Sure, that jarring factoid is bound to elicit more than one “feel old yet?” comment, particularly for middle-aged fans like myself. But more than anything, it’s a reminder of the seemingly endless supply of hooks, melodies, absurd lyrics and general hair-brained schemes that John Flansburgh and John Linnell have foisted on us since the Reagan administration, and how awe-inspiring it is that they continue to crank out album after album with virtually no sign of slowing down.

Phone Power, the band’s latest (and 19th) studio album, shows the duo in fine form. While they’ve taken the odd detour over the years -- a few well-received children’s albums, an album available only as a digital download (in 1999, making it a positively futuristic enterprise), soundtrack work, semi-live albums -- Phone Power is fairly standard in its execution. It’s actually the third in their series of albums featuring songs that debuted as part of their Dial-a-Song service (the first two being Glean and Why?, both released in 2015). Dial-a-Song was an early, innovative TMBG service whereby they would write and record songs on an answering machine to the delight of fans calling into a Brooklyn phone number (advertised in album liner notes alongside slogans like “Free When You Call From Work!” and “Always Busy, Often Broken”). Dial-a-Song was revived in 2015 and its rebirth likely spawned this series of album releases.

But it doesn’t matter if the songs originated on answering machines, a state-of-the-art studio, or a soundcheck -- it’s going to have that specific TMBG sound. You can’t mistake these guys for anyone else. While the songs often have a novelty edge (in the lyrics as well as the arranging style), what has remained unchanged over the past three decades is that Flansburgh and Linnell have a knack for killer hooks and melody. That sense of sophisticated pop song craft has seen them through all phases of their career. Their first two albums were low-key indie releases, followed by a high-profile jump to the majors. During their time on Elektra Records, the two Johns brought in a rhythm section to flesh out their sound, and while they eventually parted ways with Elektra, they continue to record as a “full band” to this day. Personally, I like the duo in lo-fi mode -- real drums and bass tend to water down their sound a bit -- but these are minor gripes.

The album’s opener, “Apophenia,” is a pretty standard pop shuffle with a loose feel, but as the title indicates, the lyrics refer to finding patterns within random data: “How could the street light blink on and off and tell me all your thoughts?” Along the same lines, the following song, “I Love You For Psychological Reasons” (sung by Linnell) marries catchy melodies with knotty lyrics. It’s a reminder to the world that if They Might Be Giants aren’t indie rock’s answer to Lennon and McCartney, they could at the very least be the geek-rock heirs to Difford and Tilbrook. They’re that good.

Songs sung by Flansburgh this time around include the beautiful “Impossibly New”, a wonderful example of fusing the weirdness with pop sensibilities (and it's probably the only time I’ve ever heard a rock song mention sodium pentathol) and the down-tempo “Daylight”, which includes pained vocals that bring to mind an anguished sci-fi slow jam.

More than 20 years after incorporating a full band into its sonic structure, Flansburgh and Linnell have managed to figure out the right balance between the lo-fi oddities and the fleshed out rockers: “Sold My Mind to the Kremlin” is all futuristic synths and drum machines, sounding like an outtake from their 1988 album, Lincoln. It’s oddly comforting to hear these ‘80s stalwarts making references to Cold War paranoia -- “With no place in the processional / And no seat in the convention hall / I sold my mind to the Kremlin / On the Fourth of July”. But the Linnell-sung “I’ll Be Haunting You” includes Danny Weinkauf’s elastic bass lines that elevate the song to a dark, sinewy funk workout. Additionally, “ECNALUBMA” features nicely arranged horns that may not be same as the baritone sax squonks Linnell was known for in the band’s earlier days, but is perhaps a knowing wink to that era.

In addition to their presence in the Dial-a-Song repertoire, a number of the songs on Phone Power made earlier debuts elsewhere. “Got Getting Up So Down”, a funky, robotic recitation of the morning routine (“Left sock, right sock / T-shirt, wrist watch / Bus pass, laptop”) was written for a Dunkin’ Donuts TV commercial. The crunchy, guitar-heavy power punk of “Black Ops Alt” is actually a sped-up remake of a song the band recorded on their 2013 album, Nanobots, where the song debuted as a loungey jazz number. And the album’s lone cover, a spirited take on Destiny’s Child’s “Bills Bills Bills”, made its first appearance as part of the AV Club’s “Undercover” series (this was TMBG’s second participation in the project; a few years ago, they recorded a killer version of Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping”). As with most of rock’s best covers, They Might Be Giants manage to retain the spirit of the original, while still putting their unique stamp on it. “Bills Bills Bills” suddenly becomes a high-energy stomper, once again making ideal use of the full-band sound. Also, one of the album’s best moments is hearing Flansburgh sing the word “baller.”

If you’re a rabid They Might Be Giants fan (and trust me, a lot of them are out there), there’s a good chance you’ve heard these songs in some other format, but having them all collected in this volume is a worthwhile addition to the band’s catalog. If you’re new to the band, this is a welcome introduction to a group that has made their mark and remains in top form to this day.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.