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.