They Might Be Giants – The Spine

They Might Be Giants: The SpineI will admit this right off the bat: I am not one of those people who can claim to have followed TMBG from their beginnings. I came upon the talented duo of the two Johns (John Flansburgh and John Linnell) through college friends. It did not take long for them to become a favorite, however, and any new material from the group is eagerly anticipated.

The Spine is the latest album by TMBG since their children’s collection No!, and the first pop/rock recording since 2001’s Mink Car, with its most recognizable song “Yeah Yeah” featured in a car commercial. Good and bad are bad terms to use when describing any music, but even objective criticism is tricky for this group, as the music will continually change and morph from style to style over the course of an album. But after so many years TMBG have created a “TMBG” sound, in part due to the eccentric storytelling lyrics, distinctive vocal styles, and intriguing harmonic progressions. Despite the continual exploration of new and different styles and sounds, a TMBG song is still pretty identifiable.

Lets go through the songs, with some selected notes:

  • Experimental Film: The first track is a rocking, pop-style tune in the classic tradition of TMBG’s recent releases, such as “Bangs” from Mink Car or “Subliminal” from John Henry. The lyrics are on the par with other songs from the group, clearly written and amusingly clever. The structure of the song is clearly presented, but knocked out of symmetry. The second part of the refrain cycles along past where your ear is trained to expect the end, and it is this unbalanced writing that makes the song engaging. Not to mention the very catchy, hooky melody which also keeps you humming. In a very short time “Experimental Film” has become a favorite of mine from TMBG. For those of you familiar with the online animation Homestar Runner the band has been working with the sites creators, and the site features a video of this song in the inimitable style of Homestar Runner!
  • Spine: I have a theory that every album or so TMBG music will contain one of the following topics:
    • Historical minutae
    • Scientific tidbits
    • Making fun of people from Boston, and
    • Spinal injuries

    With the lyric “And I believe I’ll be leavin’ it behind/When I don’t need a spine”, I believe this streak continues. “Spine” is a very short snippet of song in the manner of other (mainly earlier) albums. Short, and a bit odd. (see below for samples of TMBG songs that fit this theory of mine).

  • Memo to Human Resources: Easy, relaxed song. The lyrics are the storytelling variety, though you could draw your own conclusions whether the lyrics tell a particular story. It’s nice writing, and suits the melody and feeling of the song well.
  • Wearing a Raincoat: I think there are two ways of songwriting: Writing words to set to music, or setting music to go with words. This song fits into this latter category. Although this type of writing is fine, it is the kind I personally am not comfortable with. In my opinion the music and structure tends to suffer from the inflexibility of the lyrics. The lyrics themselves make for terrific poetry, very surrealistic, and reminisient of John Lennon’s word painting (like “Lucy in the Sky” and “I Am the Walrus”). The music itself is very nice too, unexpected chord changes and rhythmic alterations that keep the listener listening. But when the two are together I seem to not be able to reconcile the two. It may just be me. On another note this song enjoys some interesting experimentation in studio.
  • Prevenge: Another pop styled song. The lyrics play nicely on the title, and mesh nicely to the feel of the song. Some studio enhancements add some character.
  • Thunderbird: Not any reference to Native American legend, its not about a creepy marionette-based action show, and its not based on the car. This song is about the much stereotyped cheap wine of the same name. Lyrics like “I know, I know I said that I would quit” are both amusing and tragic, and there is a nice play on a lyric about a T-Bird from the Beach Boys (“We like fun, me and my girl/We’ll have fun fun fun until/T-Bird takes her dad away”). A nice rocking tune.
  • Bastard Wants to Hit Me: Come on, with a title like this the lyrics are going to be great! The song shows some more of the toe-dipping into the house/hip-hop stylings seen in Mink Car with the overly-proceessed vocals heard too often in contemporary dance music.
  • The World Before Later On: A surprisingly simple, quiet, reflective little song. It muses on all those 21st century things that we were expecting with the change in the milenium.
  • Museum of Idiots: A liliting 6/8 and a nice mix of bright piercing brass and throaty saxophones give this song a nice feel. In some spots it recalls the brass passages from Blood Sweat and Tears’ “Spinning Wheel”. The lyrics are humorous and mesh with the music just right. A one measure offbeat rhythm will catch you unaware!
  • It’s Kickin In:Rocking tune, reminds me of Elvis Costello.
  • Spines: Another short tune with simple lyrics. Makes sense, not too much, but its a nice sound.
  • Au Contraire: A great tune in the best tradition of storytelling by TMBG. It recalls “Turn Around” from Apollo 18. The lyrics paint surreal images, but the striaghtforward narrative makes it work.
  • Damn Good Times: Almost sounds like a live rendition, with that kind of energy. Fun party tune!
  • Broke in Two: This is another of my favorites from this album. The most appealing part is the contrast from the straightforward, clean harmonic progressions of the verses, to the riffing, blues-tinged refrain. It goes together like a good sweet and sour sauce!
  • Stalk of Wheat: A rollicking tune. I haven’t heard much from the children’s album No!, but I wonder if this tune would not be out of place there. The bouncy backgrounds and singable melody are enjoyable.
  • I Can’t Hide from My Mind

Overall this album is right on the level of the other TMBG releases. If you are a fan it is a must get. If not, just be prepared for music of a different stripe. If you enjoy this kind of invention then try some of the other albums in the TMBG catalog.

As mentioned, here are some examples of the four recurring TMBG themes:

Historical Minutae: James K.Polk (Factory Showroom), Meet James Ensor (John Henry)

Scientific Tidbits: Mammal (Apollo 18), The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas

Making fun of people from Boston: A Self Called Nowhere (John Henry), Wicked Little Critta (Mink Car)

Spinal Injuries: Destination Moon (John Henry), My Man (Mink Car)

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