They Might Be Giants: The Else

I wanted to like The Else, even as I braced myself for the worst. You can't go home again.

They Might Be Giants

The Else

Label: Universal
US Release Date: 2007-07-10
UK Release Date: Available as import

I freely admit that I gave up on They Might Be Giants a long time ago. This may seem like an odd admission with which to begin a review, but bear with me.

Somewhere around the turn of the century I turned away. After well over a decade of committed fandom, I found myself singularly unmoved by the band's direction, uninspired by new tracks and simply ready to let go. Fandom is not, as the noted jurist may have noted had he the inclination, a suicide pact. I opted out somewhere between the release of the perfunctory live album Severe Tire Damage and the tragedy-shadowed Mink Car (released on 9/11/01), somewhere in the middle of a pile of internet-only releases that seemed for all the world like exercises in closet-cleaning. During the '90s, the group had released a string of gradually darker and more mature albums that reflected a slight shift from the gimmick-laden pop experimentalism of their early, still-brilliant independent releases. The fanbase split appropriately enough, and shifts in management at their label (Elektra) undercut their support at just the point where their albums stood the most immediate chance of penetrating the mainstream.

After the surprise novelty success of Flood in 1990, the musical climate changed considerably. Formerly niche "alternative" bands from across the spectrum had crashed the national spotlight. True, They Might Be Giants were about as diametrically different in tone and execution from the likes of Nirvana and R.E.M. as conceivably possible, but if you scratched the surface you'd find the same influences -- the Pixies, Elvis Costello, the Meat Puppets -- albeit utilized quite differently. John Henry should have been one of the '90s great alternative rock albums, but now it's merely a brief footnote, victim of label attrition and shoddy promotion.

I can't speak for the band's motivations, only the results: after their major-label adventures, They Might Be Giants retrenched and began paying more attention to their strident fanbase. The downbeat tone of the later Elektra albums disappeared and was replaced by a return to the kind of consciously silly ditty-based songwriting that had dominated their early material. But there was, for me at least, a crucial difference: the early albums, Lincoln in particular, had also benefited from a compelling emotional intensity, a froth of adolescent and young adult existential anxiety borne atop waves of pop-culture savvy obfuscation and nerdy self-deprecation. Albums like John Henry and Factory Showroom had brought those undercurrents more fully to the fore, leavened by gradually dawning maturity; subsequent albums seemed comparatively sterile, possessed by a strong sense of professionalism and sterling musicianship, but lacking something vital all the same.

The opportunity to review The Else seemed like as good an opportunity to catch up with some old friends as I was likely to find. Thankfully, an uncharacteristically long lead-in time for this review meant that I had much longer than usual to deliver my write up. In my experience, first impressions of TMBG albums are often notoriously faulty. I wanted the chance to overcome any native resistance I might have possessed and appreciate the album on its own terms. I owed the band nothing less, given how many years they'd been at or near the top of my playlist. I wanted to like The Else, even as I braced myself for the worst. You can't go home again, as they say.

I needn't have worried. It's actually quite uncanny, considering how many years have passed and how much water has passed under the bridge, but TMBG sound remarkably unchanged from their early '90s heyday. In some groups this kind of consistency might be considered a sinful indulgence, but in this case I believe the results speak for themselves. Consistently fine songwriting and inventive musicianship are virtues that never really go out of style. Perhaps the general musical climate has also changed significantly enough that TMBG seem far less anomalous in context than they once did. The critical success of willfully leftfield groups such as Of Montreal and the Decemberists -- groups whose DNA surely contains more than a trace of TMBG -- may have also inoculated the group from the accusations of obscurantism to which they had once fallen victim.

Ultimately, however, TMBG's great appeal lies in their effortlessly catchy approach to pop songwriting. Listening to The Else over the course of a few weeks, it was remarkable to me just how easy it became to love the album. Power-pop is the group's default mode, and we have been in the midst of a mini-power-pop renaissance for quite some time: a song like "Feign Amnesia", with its overt references to the Electric Light Orchestra, could easily have wandered in off the new New Pornographers LP -- substitute John Flansburgh's backup vocals for Neko Case and John Linnell isn't that far off from AC Newman's adenoidal tenor.

It's a blessedly concise album, just under forty minutes for thirteen tracks, none longer than three and a half minutes. The Dust Brothers' production is clear and crisp, spotlighting in most cases the strength of the bare arrangements, guitar, bass and drums with occasional harmonies. There is surprisingly not much in the way of keyboard or samples added throughout, but when they do appear, they are are used to great strategic affect -- as during the moody intro to "Careful What You Pack" and the frenetic breakbeat of "Withered Hope". Mostly, however, the album is surprisingly bare, the strength of the songwriting making the arrangements seem far more complicated than they actually are. Longtime fans might be more surprised by the album's most notable absence: the accordion. Considering how integral that instrument has always been with the group's profile, it's a notable exclusion, but it's also significant that I didn't even notice the absence until about my 20th listen.

If anything, the album's guitar-heavy vibe hearkens back to John Henry: the exotic weirdness of their early and recent catalog is almost totally gone, replaced by an occasional heaviness that brings to mind that album's "A Self Called Nowhere" and "Snail Shell". ("Climbing the Walls" and "Contrecoup" seem specifically to recall the former, with the retro feel of "Take Out the Trash" bringing the latter to mind.) What was more surprising to me than any lack of accordion, however, was the not-so-subtle political bent of many of the album's lyrics. Although TMBG has never exactly shied away from politics (their first two albums are fairly political in their abstruse fashion), I was nonetheless taken aback by a track like "Careful What You Pack", with its evocation of Donald Rumsfeld ("The known, the unknown and the under-known"), and the continual references to blundering into trouble without thinking ("Careful what you pack / There's no going back"). "The Cap'm" is at least ostensibly about an authority figure of dubious capacity ("Look me over, I'm the Cap'm / Go ahead and mess with me you'll find out what will happen"), more concerned with vanity than responsibility ("My hat looks good on me? / I agree").

The album closes with "The Mesopotamians", a rousing sing-along that seems to be about, alternately, a band called the Mesopotamians and the actual long-dead monarchs of Mesopotamia who secretly rule the desert, or perhaps a rock band composed of the ghosts of Sargon, Hammurabi, et al. Yeah, it's a bit odd, but it also manages the neat trick of eliding current events while still sneaking a subtle dig at contemporary politics: Mesopotamia is modern-day Iraq, and is also home to some of the oldest civilizations on the planet. In a very real way the Mesopotamian desert is still ruled by the lords of antiquity, in that geography is defined by history and cultural memory is long indeed. But in the end it's hard to focus on any supposed political commentary when the song itself is just so damn catchy.

So despite my natural skepticism, it's hard not to be impressed with The Else. Regardless of how much I may want to downplay or downgrade the nostalgic satisfaction of hearing a great TMBG album, I really can't: this is a great TMBG album, and a great TMBG album is pretty damn good by any yardstick. Appropriately, it's a modest statement -- concise, understated, almost raw in places, but with a studied professionalism that cannot be discounted. There are none of the indulgences or digressions which characterized the band's early albums. Every note is in precisely the right place. It may not be full of surprises -- the pleasures here are no less satisfying for their familiarity -- but for a band looking at two and a half decades of continuous output, The Else is far more sprightly than it has any right to be.


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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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