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Album: They Might Be Giants - BOOK | reviews, news & interviews

Album: They Might Be Giants - BOOK

Album: They Might Be Giants - BOOK

'New' songs which consciously echo TMBG's 1980s hits

Quirkily intelligent alternative rock from TMBG

“We’ve always tossed in some super-dire, high-voltage, death-trip lyrics that offset the merriment of a melody,” John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants explained recently. And that, in essence, has been a substantial part of the band’s unchanging proposition ever since 1982 when Flansburgh and John Linnell, who had been high school friends in Lincoln, Massachusetts, started the band.

And so, all but 40 years on, we find a song that asks the question “Who ate the babies...?” To which the most cogent answer the listener is offered is “Doodly doodly doodly-doo”. Followed by “Doodly doo doo doo”.

In other words, the new album BOOK (Idlewild) inhabits a recognizable TMBG world of quirkily intelligent alternative rock. “I lost Thursday” (I had it somewhere / Don’t say it’s where I left it") has that particular eternal don’t-blame-me innocence, as, say, in the lyric “It’s supernatural how spaced out we can be”. The music here, as often, contains an invitation to post-punk pogoing, another standard trope with TMBG. It is as if the core audience still has its need to remember its carefree campus days, now long gone.

Flansburgh and Linnell were singing the words “Everybody dies frustrated and sad/ And that is beautiful” back in 1986 on their first eponymous album, when they were both in their mid-20’s. They have now entered their seventh decade… and they still sing them and often quote them. In a way, then, nothing has changed. The loyal fan base wouldn’t want it any other way.

The newer songs – BOOK contains 15 of them – often contain conscious echoes of the band’s most popular singles such as “Ana Ng” from the album Lincoln (1988), for example, or a pair of songs from their strongest album, the Clive Langer-produced Flood (1990): “Birdhouse In Your Soul” and “‎Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”, the latter a cover of a 1950s novelty song.

TMBG have also placed songs in other contexts, and these activities inform their new songs. A venture onto the TMBG kids channel unearths quaint curiosities such as “C is for Conifer” and “We’re the vowel family (and we’ve come to sing for you)"; the habit of finding entertaining ways to explain things to small children is perhaps more part of the offering than back in the band’s heyday. And it is curious to hear trumpeter Curt Ramm, capable of explosive funk outbursts or searing top notes in his long-term role as a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street band, playing a simple childlike melody like “Wait Actually Yeah No”, from a song which echoes TMBG in yet another context: "You’re Not the Boss of Me Now", the theme song for the TV series Malcolm in the Middle (2000-06).

The song I have found myself going back to the most frequently is “I Broke my Own Rule”. This one is a real musical curio. The topic of the song is timely: how rules and conventions no longer apply, while the melody is unusual, even other-worldly. It starts with two iterations of a rising whole tone scale starting on the tonic and ascending to the tenth. Curiously, it is a device heard more or less nowhere else – except that it is exactly the same melodic fragment which Stevie Wonder used in the instrumental intro to “You are the Sunshine of my Life”. However, whereas Stevie Wonder leaves it hanging and starts the song form after the rising scale, TMBG put words to the nine-syllable phrase ("Everything’s wrecked/ Everything is wrecked" and "Smashed up destroyed/ Smashed up and destroyed’", incorporate it into the song form, and then give a melodic response to it.

Maybe a kind of nerdishness is a prerequisite for enjoying this music. There is one song,  “I Can’t Remember the Dream (I had last night)", where TMBG take and extend the opening riff of the Troggs’ “Wild Thing”. Resist as I might, I must confess guiltily that I can only find enjoyment in it. As I do in the silliest, smiliest, most meaningless lyric on this sometimes annoying yet irresistibly earworm-ish album: “If Day is for Everyone /And not just for Winnipeg”.

  • BOOK is released on 12 November including a version with a 144-page hardback art book. Details at http://tmbgshop.com

@sebscotney

 

 

 

A sometimes annoying yet irresistibly earworm-ish album

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