They Might Be Giants | The Else (Idlewild/Zoe/Universal)

cd_tmbgThe biggest detriment to The Else is that it merely settles for being clever, instead of aspiring for that heady ingenuity that has kept TMBG relevant for so long.

 

 

 

 

 

When John Linnell and John Flansburgh first broke through on MTV in 1986, manically hopping along to their art-fried pop song "Don't Let's Start," no one in his right mind would have tabbed these two professional weirdoes as the musicians to sing his daughter to sleep, or sell him Dunkin' Donuts coffee, or soundtrack his nightly news program. But through an insidious, almost glacial creep, the music of They Might Be Giants has infiltrated practically every niche of our pop culture landscape. Many would agree that pop culture is better for it. Combining a prolific creativity, restless spirit of adventure, and winning sense of the absurd, TMBG stands as one of the most adaptable artists in the history of rock 'n' roll.

So by now, to see the two Johns doing a traditional album of two-to-three minute pop songs seems almost quaint. Yes, they brought funny costumes for the album photo shoot and a bulky dictionary to fill the lyrics sheet, but many longtime fans might be surprised to hear how straightforward the duo sounds this time around. However, if we jettison the 25 years of musical history that the pair has recorded so far and judge the record on its own, traditionalist terms, The Else doesn't sound half bad.

The album kicks off on a deliciously dark note with "I'm Impressed," which could have worked as Stanley Milgram's personal theme song. With a pulsing, electronic drone chugging eerily behind him, Linnell flatly remarks about his unconscious obedience to some anonymous authority figure. "On the one hand he'll give you five good reasons to follow him," sings Linnell. "On the other hand you see nobody leaving the stadium." It's one of those subtly disturbing lines that the Giants have perfected over decades of obfuscating lyrical choices.

Whether playful or just plain cryptic, the rest of The Else displays the polish of a veteran act. Incidentally, the Johns brought in another famous duo – the Dust Brothers – to help on production. But none of the music here sounds like something that TMBG wouldn't have done if left to its own devices. The pair still hops around genres like they're burning coals, but keeps things in a standard rock vein throughout. Songs like "The Cap'm," "The Shadow Government" and "Feign Amnesia" wear their hooks on their sleeves, without any radical musical u-turns muddying things up. "With the Dark" takes a more interesting route, assuming the form of a miniature suite as it leaps from a gentle acoustic lament to a stomping, horn-driven rocker to a straight rave-up. Only the Johns know what the lyrics are about, but rest assured that broken hearts, pirates and taxidermy are all included.

As the Monkees-aping closer "The Mesopotamians" comes to a triumphant finish, one has to wonder at the lack of risks that The Else takes. It's hard to complain when the tunes are this solid, but given the talents involved here it wouldn't have been unreasonable to expect something more varied. The biggest detriment to The Else is that it merely settles for being clever, instead of aspiring for that heady ingenuity that has kept TMBG relevant for so long. Given that they've excelled in non-traditional musical projects like Dial-a-Song and have made better use of the Internet than just about any other major recording act, perhaps it's time for the Giants to consider abandoning the standard album format for good. They're in a position where they don't need its self-imposed boundaries any more. If anyone's going to lead the music industry into the future of product distribution, it'll probably be these two. C | Jeremy Goldmeier

RIYL: If you're not down with TMBG already, you probably never will be.

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