WHY: There was a time when my friends and I were obsessed with They Might Be Giants. This was roughly around the time of Factory Showroom (1996). Every album was on constant rotation, and arguments a-plenty ensured over which John (Linnell or Flansburgh) was the better Giant. We called Dial-A-Song constantly, checked the website daily, and bought all the solo stuff (how many people can cop to owning Linnell's State Songs? Sing it with me, "Montana is a leg!")
In the 21st century TMBG have divided their time between records geared specifically for children (NO!, Here Come the ABC's) and adult fare, with the adult stuff being mostly uneven. Last year they teamed up with The Dust Brothers to record The Else, released digitally about 2 months prior to the CD release. I promptly purchased it via iTunes and forgot about it completely until this morning when "She's An Angel" came on during the morning commute.
So have at it:
1. I'm Impressed - Mid-paced rocker that sounds a little washed out. You can immediately hear the difference in production. The song's okay, but I hope the whole album doesn't sound like this. A lot of people have turned off TMBG when they abandoned the duo format and got a full band - I wasn't one of them, but I admit to being nostalgic for those days, especially when you can't count on an opening track to knock you off your feet like it used to. Even The Spine had "Experimental Film".
2. Take Out the Trash - Flansburgh takes a turn and this is a swanky, tongue-in-cheek 60's throwback done Giant-style. A huge improvement, and the production works much better for this type of song. Drums are great, there's some funk riffing going on over organs and a rude bass sound. Lots of fun.
3. Upside Down Frown - Is Linnell going to strike out twice? No. This is what he does best: innocent quirky lyrics that somehow manage to fit inside the melody line. The only other person who can consistently squeeze that many words into a line and make it work is Elvis Costello. This feels like vintage Linnell - very sweet and catchy.
4. Climbing the Walls - The keyboards stand out nicely. Decent song, I can take it or leave it right now, but this could be one that sneaks up on you later. The great strength of TMBG best stuff is that it compels you to sing along. This has got the hook to do it.
5. Careful What You Pack - The chorus stands out more than the verses. This is just okay. The song structures are all very solid, maybe it's the overall sameness that's hurting this record. After five tracks I should have heard at least two kick-ass songs, and that hasn't happened. Damn, this was short.
6. The Cap'm - Rock it, baby. The harmonies are back. My friend Steve used to try and sing every single TMBG song in harmony as we drove around our small dirt town when we were younger. He failed more often than not, but it was still fun to do. I find myself doing it sometimes when I'm driving. There's clapping in the background, and the mix feels very live. Fun song.
7. With the Dark - Softly sung, this is sitting in your rocking chair listening to AM radio until the horns kick in and things get rowdy. Styles change at least four times here, and the whole things almost comes off as completely silly, but it's a silly I'm enjoying. "No more sunlight, please".
8. The Shadow Government - Another Linnell rocker that manages to sound like all his other rockers without standing out in any way. Not even much of a unique hook to grab onto. I hope it's not that I'm starting to grow out of TMBG, I usually love Linnell's stuff, but this isn't standing out at all.
9. Bee of the Bird of the Moth - Well, he's going to try again, and the lyrics are better, the lines are more interesting, and overall this what I like to think of as the old reliable Linnell. "Subatomic waves to the underwater caves..." A distant cousin of "Particle Man" and "Which Describes How You're Feeling" without the kiddie element.
10. Withered Hope - Things are looking up now. There's lot of different sounds clashing together here, funk and electronics and classic TMBG mashed up a la "Mr. Xcitement" which was another song that grew and grew to be a favorite. This is ranking as one of my favorites songs on the album.
11. Contrecoup - Question for John Linnell: Why are you finally showing us your good stuff so late in the record? This isn't anything special, but it's friendly and inviting and makes you all the more aware of the biting lyrics. This is what I want when I hear a Linnell song.
12. Feign Amnesia - Flansburgh has been very consistent on this album. Usually I can take or leave his stuff, especially in the early days, but he's been getting stronger and stronger with each album, and this is a lot of fun, geek-driven rock.
13. The Mesopotamians - Closing song. I love it. This is classic, essential TMBG. I should have known better than think I wouldn't get at least one great song. This would fit right alongside anything from Flood or Apollo 18. This is how an album should end...epic and contagious in its fun.
BOTTOM LINE: B- Although there are a few good songs (and one great one), there's nothing here to lift The Else over other, better records. I would probably place this side by side with The Spine and just under John Henry and Factory Showroom in terms of discography.