Those of you who know me well know that I’m a diehard They Might Be Giants fan. I’ve been to more than 10 of their concerts. I own all their albums, plus whatever EPs I could get my hands on, plus all their DVDs, and a few assorted t-shirts and a hat. (I also used to have John Linnell’s bottled water, but threw it out because it was probably gross.)
So of course, when I heard that TMBG’s new album, more than a year in production, was coming out on iTunes a month before the CD, I had to download it as soon as Apple would let me. I was worried since I haven’t been impressed with their last two non-kid albums. The Spine and Mink Car both had tracks that I really enjoyed, but a number of turkeys that meant I didn’t listen to the albums in their entirety after a few times through. I’ve listened to the album a few times through now.
What follows is a review of the album from the standpoint of a TMBG fan. If you aren’t a TMBG fan, I probably won’t win you over, and if you’re a casual TMBG fan, you might not get all the references. With all that out of the way, what do we have?
The Else is 13 tracks long, and clocks in at a little over 38 minutes. The album was produced by a combination of Pat Dillett (their long time producer), the Giants themselves, and the Dust Brothers. The Dust Brothers have worked on a number of albums, most notably the Fight Club soundtrack, Tenacious D, and Odelay. The Dust Brothers definitely bring a distinct techno/loop sensibility to this album, with the Giant’s distinctive vocals overlaid.
The first song on the album serves as an intro to the sort of song to expect on the album (though the Dust Brothers did not work on this track.) A heavy, rich background beat with Linnel’s voice fighting to be heard over the strong tones.
Take Out the Trash
Cowbell! Some heavy guitar and percussion (with some twists) make this a pretty funky track, with lyrics trying to convince someone to leave a deadbeat boyfriend.
Upside Down Frown
A more subdued track without a lot of the techno-additions. The song sounds a lot like a previous TMBG song, “Save Your Life” . Nothing particularly special, but not a bad background song.
Climbing the Walls
More rock-like than a lot of the tracks on the album. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was one of the tracks off the albums that gets a lot of concert play.
Careful What You Pack
It begins with an extended loop that sounds very “video-gamey” then moves into a smooth song accentuated by xylophone. This track was apparently originally intended for a movie soundtrack, and it sounds like it- it could easily slip into the background of a scene.
Another track destined for concert-hood, and will probably sound better there.
With the Dark
One of the best tracks from the album. A few lines of expected off-kilter TMBG lyrics placed under some kind of distortion filter, joined by some awesome instrumentation. The whole song builds and builds, moving in between different ways of doing the same beat, and then sharply drops off at the end. Oh, and PIRATES.
The Shadow Government
It seems to be becoming a new staple of every TMBG album: a Flansburgh ballad, with a clever concept, but not terribly interesting music. Think of “I Can’t Hide from My Mind” or “Working Undercover for the Man”. The narrator laments that the Shadow Government doesn’t protect him, even though they’re supposed to be running everything.
Bee of the Bird of the Moth
Lyrically, a chain song like “House at the Top of a Tree” that ends up overlapping with another track. It starts slow, but when the trumpets come in, it gets a lot better, and ends up really enjoyable.
Probably my favorite track of the whole album. It sounds like the DJ mix of an existing song, but it’s original. A really interesting blend of music that picks up during the chorus and several other times, and where Linnell’s singing blends really well to the song.
The song written on a bet, according to the TMBW page. Sort of reminds me of “Finished with Lies”, which in turn came from The Beatles’ “Getting Better” with some guitar loops. It uses a number of outdated words in the lyrics, so at least those are pretty interesting.
Quick guitar riffs and solid drums- classic TMBG right here, plus some solid advice for life. Reminiscent of “Prevenge.”
“Road Movie to Berlin” meets The Monkees meets The History Channel? No, that doesn’t work at all. Anyway, a song about a fictional unheard-of band called The Mesoptamians that does remind me of The Monkees theme song in terms of content. TMBG sure do like singing about small-time bands and tours!
The verdict: a very hard album to judge. If I had to compare it to any of their previous albums, it’s most like Factory Showroom. A lot of very enjoyable tracks to listen to, but most of them don’t stand out. In fact, that’s what surprised me the most about this album: a lack of clear “single” that jumps above the rest into the ranks of the Giant song elite. There are a number of songs that I enjoy, but nothing completely catchy or hardcore rocking so as to make the immediate jump into my top playlist (which every other album has managed to make at least one jump into.) I can’t say that only the hardcore TMBG fans should buy it; it actually is a solid album. But it’s very unlike their other albums (it’s very much a Dust Brothers album too), and I can’t say to just download one track that stands out. It really is worth listening to as a whole, so borrow it from a friend or check out the iTunes previews before deciding on it.
The album is out on iTunes now, and the full CD will be released in stores on July 10th. The CD will contain an extra bonus disc of content, which will probably include a lot of songs that I expected to be on the main album, and are more in line with what the fans are used to.
(Thanks to This Might Be a Wiki for lyrics and info.)