(Image from theymightbegiants.com)
It’s always nice to hear from They Might Be Giants. For nearly thirty years now, the quirky duo of Brooklyn Johns have been putting out the highest quality music that you’re embarrassed to tell your friends that you listen to. Yeah, they’ve heard “Particle Man” and a more than a few people will confess a fondness for “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”, but if only they knew “Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love” or “Lie Still, Little Bottle”. If only they had been there to share your outrage when they ‘sold out’, dropped the drum machine and acquired a real band on John Henry.If only they noticed that copy of Gigantic (A Tale of Two Johns) you have sitting on your shelf.
I’ve been a fan of TMBG after picking up Apollo 18 on a whim and loving the hell out of every quirky track (particularly “The Statue Got Me High”), including the enigmatic “Fingertips”, which comprises 20 tracks of the album, with each track only lasting about 5-10 seconds. It gave the effect, at the time, of flipping down the dial on a radio and each station being equally goofy as the last. This is the most evident touchstone for their 2013 effort, Nanobots. With 9 tracks lasting under a minute and a couple only a few seconds long, the rush to get the hook and the meaning in in that time gives a little thrill and so rears the ugly head of the realization that they are attempting to recreate/recapture the feeling of x album (as opposed to the idea that a band working constantly over a span of thirty years is bound to sound like itself at some point). Fingertips, however, was more of a structured experiment. The short tracks (in this case, I reject the term ‘throwaway’) on Nanobots is simply the band playing its game of chicken with the listener and losing. TMBG have always been a band willing to and almost needing to experiment on just about every release that they make. On this album, for the first time, there is a sense of not what will work and what will not, but for how long it will work for.
On “Sleep” (my favourite of the sub-minute tracks), the song is interrupted every line by a wordless, harmonized “ahhhh” (as in every other instrument stops to allow this to happen). If this were to go on for three minutes, the charm would be lost – but at a svelte 43 seconds, it’s memorable, hilarious and even a little bit catchy. Similarly, the 16-second “Destroy the Past” paints a fantastic and horrifying picture with its sole lyrics comprised of the couplet “Let’s go backwards and destroy the past/How long will your oxygen last?” Any more information would ruin the story. The closer “Didn’t Kill Me” with John Flansbergh singing acapella I found reminiscent of “Her Majesty”, the unexpected closer for the Beatles’ Abbey Road.
The album doesn’t float on its gimmick, however. Excise all of the short songs, and you would still have a solid collection of quirky and, at times, complex tunes. The Johns have always been solid songwriters, belied quite hard by their funny lyrics or instrumental tricks. Their palette feels like it’s expanding even more in recent years, with John Linnell’s surprisingly deft turn on the bass clarinet on Join Us’ “Cloisonne”, or the layered saxes on the same album’s “The Lady and the Tiger” (my favourite track of 2011). The brass and winds are sprinkled liberally throughout Nanobots, but the blowaway moment is the entrancing “The Darlings of Lumberland”. Fuzzed out percussion lays the bed for a rip-roaring interlocking melange of flutes, saxes and clarinets (and accordion) that fits together with shocking precision, each instrument a staircase in Escher’s Relativity. This sits in stark contrast to the incredibly hip drum and bass (not Drum n Bass) verses. A beautifully cut jewel that serves as a stark reminder of the power TMBG can unleash is they keep their faces a little sterner.
Even the knowing way they deliver their lines can change the shape of a song entirely. On the title track, the backing vocals delivered with a monotony (and a blocky harmony) that somehow gives it a slightly reggae flavour nails the feel of the song as it waves from straight-laced to exuberant. The sound of John Linnell’s tongue wrapping around the line “what is that certain je ne sais QUOI?” on “Stone Cold Coup d’Etat” with such glee moves the song that much more to get the grin plastered onto your own face.
Check this album out. This is a couple of mature songwriters writing fun as hell music that is funny if you listen to the lyrics or satisfying musically if you don’t. They have yet to rest on their laurels.
In addition to my review, I had a conversation with longtime friend, fellow blogger and TMBG enthusiast Nick Zacharewicz about the band and about Nanobots:
MCJ: So Nick, you’re an avowed, nearly lifelong TMBG fan. What keeps you coming back to the fold?
NZ: My love of everything strange and wonderful, certainly. Though I must admit that Nanobots completely slipped under my radar. I guess because I though the band was too busy touring in the States.
MCJ: Yes. In the States exclusively, I might add. When you did come around it, what did you find strange and wonderful in Nanobots?
NZ: Well, as you mentioned in your review, “Sleep” is definitely a standout track because of what it does with sampling. But overall, the whole album really reminds me of their early stuff. It’s a collection of songs from various musical styles that all tell a story. Plus, I’d never thought that I’d hear TMBG do a song with the sort of surf sound that “Call You Mom” has.
MCJ: It sort of beggars belief, the amount of styles they’ve co-opted over the years and felt comfortable enough to turn into their own brand of amusing little song.
NZ: Definitely. I think that’s really their best quality. And, really Nanobots has just about every style they’ve ever played with covered: from Reggae to Jazz. I don’t think they’ve done much with Funk, though.
MCJ: They’ve switched to using a lot of horns, but nah, I don’t think they’ve ever gone quite funky. It’s got to only be a matter of time, though. How did you react to the presence of the ‘short’ songs on this album?
NZ: Oh, the short songs. After hearing about all of the theories for “Fingertips” on Apollo 18, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was any meaning to them here.
MCJ: As far as I know, it was simply a matter of the band stopping when they didn’t see anymore to write of the song. Though I’d be interested to see how people attempt to weave “There” into any sort of narrative.
NZ: It’s disappointing that the band hasn’t come out and said that there’s any meaning to them, but that’s never stopped fans before. I think there’s something about them, though, even “There,” which is suspiciously placed after “Nouns.”
MCJ: I think they [the band] just get a kernel of an idea, and then run with it, leaving the fans to fill in all the gaps, which they do quite amply. Has a favourite track emerged for you?
NZ: The fans definitely do, myself included. On my first batch of listenings “Circular Karate Chop” really stood out for me. I liked its fun pace, and the goofy spoken bit in the middle of the song sounds like something from ‘They Might Be Giants’ or ‘Lincoln.’ But then, I started to get into the second half of the album, since I can’t help but hear a break after the clump of short songs running from tracks 13-16. So, now the standout track for me is the jazzier “Replicant.”
MCJ: Yeah, there is definitely a sort of side break – a musical sorbet of short little songs that get you over to the material on the other side and make you question how invested you should get into each song.
MCJ: “Replicant” is an excellent song, and probably one of the best genre switches on the whole album. The “do do do dos” really sell the mellow swinging jazzy feel. Also, I believe it’s the forebear to “The Darlings of Lumberland”, which is a track that, correct me if I’m wrong, doesn’t sound like anything they’ve done before. Those tracks usually end up being my favourites.
NZ: Yes, “Replicant” comes in before “Darlings,” making for a curious transition. “Darlings of Lumberland” is a weird song. It doesn’t sound like anything they’ve done before (it has the same sort of ghoulish atmosphere as “The Edison Museum” from ‘Long Tall Weekend’), but it definitely sounds like TMBG.
NZ: And, even though they’ve never really done much with swing/jazz, it’s like they ventured from unfamiliar territory into an absolutely uncharted place moving from “Replicant” to “Darlings.”
MCJ: Diving off the edge of the world, so to speak.
NZ: Can you describe what you like about it?
MCJ: It’s crazy – coming at you from every angle. You have a bunch of different woodwind instruments, each playing fairly complex passages but layering over each other and interlocking perfectly. Not what you would assume of the writers of “Particle Man”.
NZ: That’s very true. A lot of their songs have gotten more complex since their drum machine days, but it’s good to see that they haven’t lost their quirkiness.
NZ: Actually, you mentioned in your review that they’ve experimented with their own playing before (Linnel on the bass clarinet on “Cloisonne”), do you think that they’d be making the same sort of music if they’d never added a band to their line up?
MCJ: Nope. A band offers a completely different angle. I’m sure there are a few tracks that came from a groove the band made or whathaveyou. I can’t say which tracks, and the Johns are certainly leading the charge, but they would not have been able to be nearly as versatile, genre-wise, if they didn’t have the band.
NZ: Maybe they would have gone into seclusion for a while, but I wonder if they would’ve just come out with fully digital stuff along the same lines of what they’re putting out now. There must be some high fidelity Garage Band-like program available to musicians of their calibre.
MCJ: There’s no telling what they would have come up with. They’ve certainly been paving their own way ever since the technology barely existed for them to be able to do so. But we never would have gotten “Marty Beller Mask”.
NZ: (laughs) Good point!
MCJ: Nick, where can we find you on the internet?
NZ: You can find me at my video game and book review blog Going Box by Box (at http://goboxbox.blogspot.ca) and my dead language translation blog Tongues in Jars (http://tonguejar.blogspot.ca). Or you can follow me on Twitter, I’m @the_penmin.
MCJ: I will remind any readers reading that Going Box by Box is updated twice DAILY. Thanks for the chat, Nick!
NZ: Thanks for inviting me onto your blog, Malachi! I’m always happy to talk about TMBG.
And there you have it. Be sure to check out Nick’s tireless blog efforts!