Sunday, January 1, 2006

Records In Review: They Might Be Giants--The Spine

Album number ten from inventive weirdo power-pop miniaturists They Might Be Giants. Over-generalize? Moi?

The Spine (2004) is an enjoyable and incredibly easy listen. Compared to the last (non-kids) TMBG album that I'm substantially familiar with, the unkindly (and unfairly) remembered Factory Showroom from the mid-'90s, this one has better flow to it and a fuller utilization of the band sound that helps to level out the more jarring contrasts between John's and John's material. It's also, unfortunately, a little too easy a listen. Masters Linnell and Flansburgh aren't pushing themselves terribly hard here, and it shows in the dearth of really, really A-1 stuff. The second coming of Flood it ain't.

The songwriting is split pretty much down the middle as it usually is, but Linnell's tracks show more boldly (I tend toward his songs, generally speaking; he's off in his own little world, which appeals to me more than Flansburgh's messing about with antique genre expectations). I particularly like the foot-stomper "Thunderbird," which is reminiscent of "Til My Head Falls Off" from Factory Showroom and which contains the immortal lines: "Before you walk you have to learn to crawl/You can't see heaven when you're standing tall." "Wearing A Raincoat" is also really catchy, a string of word-associated similes that lead you back to the beginning, with a lilting melody, moderate tempo and hypnotic feel. But the weird comic classic is without a doubt "Bastard Wants To Hit Me." How else to describe a slick, electropop song with cheezy Cher vocoder and lyrics about being targeted by a random nutcase in a parking lot? Flansburgh's contributions include, as is the custom, a few guitar-hero rockers like the catchy "Prevenge," as well as the odd suave lounge ditty like "I Can't Hide From My Mind." My favorite of his, "Spine/Memo To Human Resources," tends toward the latter camp and has a really nice and relaxed melody.

I can't bitch about the rest of the tracks, 'cos there's not really anything wrong with them per se. In fact, the songcraft on display is impressive, and the respective lyrical styles have developed quite nicely and don't feature quite as much overt goofiness as in days gone by. As I said, it's just a general impression of some of it coming a little to easy to the band. A few of the tracks certainly have antecedents (for "Au Contraire" read "Turn Around"), which diminishes their impact.

If I was to describe The Spine in one sentence, I would call it a letter from an old friend telling you that everybody's doing just fine. And those are nice letters to receive, aren't they? Recommended, for fun and stress-reduction.

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