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TBTS Reviews: They Might Be Giants, Join Us

July 31, 2011

God bless They Might Be Giants — a band which first found its way onto the modern rock charts in 1988 with their second album Lincoln and has never left my side throughout my life since. Their follow-ups Flood, Apollo 18 and John Henry got me through high school and college, Mink Car and Factory Showroom ushered me through the paces as a young working adult, and their kids’ albums Here Come the ABCs, Here Come the 123s and Here Comes Science were there waiting for when I became a first-time father. Admittedly, it’s difficult for me to be objective about a band which has been so instrumental in so many specific “life periods” for me, but I can be. Or at least I can try. There were a handful of songs off their last two “adult” albums The Spine and The Else, for instance, which I felt weren’t their best outings.

By and large, the duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell has remained an immensely creative team for the past 25 years — from their humble beginnings with the Song-a-Day Hotline (the Brooklyn answering machine which played an original song from the band each day) to what’s arguably their strongest work (the eclectic Flood, which turned 20 in 2010) to their current efforts to educate our kids (the band plays a series of free concerts at US museums each year). And we all should have known it was only a matter of time before their hyper-literate sensibilities would figure out a way to go backward in time, which they’ve fairly effectively done with their latest release Join Us

Join Us is easily TMBG’s most engaging album in several years, and it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s currently being compared mightily to Flood and John Henry. After all, both of the latter albums found success in a series of small vignette-type songs, few of them topping even four minutes long, which ruminated on esoteric subjects ranging from the Longines Symphonette to Belgian expressionist James Endsor. Join Us sounds remarkably like it could have fit neatly between the two albums, recapturing a similar landscape to their early-to-mid-nineties oeuvre.

The album begins with the lyric line “All of the dicks in this town/can’t keep Johnny down,” which sets the pace for Join Us’ 18-track dive into oddly sincere snark, well-placed science facts and electro-snythesized play. “When Will You Die” is a throwback to very early TMBG, chronicling the celebrations which will occur when the narrator’s sociopathic ex finally bites the dust. “2082” describes the odd mysteries which will be unfolded when you encounter several versions of future  yous throughout the coming years; and depending on your translation, the anthemic “Canajoharie” either tells the story of an important evolutionary step or a strange creature in a swamp (likely, of course, it’s both).

Join Us is a fine return to form for They Might Be Giants, a nice throwback to the music many of us fell in love with and which first attracted us to the band. They seem to have not missed much of a beat — if they’re going through any grand personal or collective metamorphoses, they gladly either keep those metamorphoses separate from their music or (more likely) they slyly incorporate them into clever lyricism. Either way, and whether you enjoy the band’s music or not, it’s nice to know they’re out there, somewhere, still doing their thing. The difference they present from, 99% of today’s bands is worth the price of admission for Join Us — or any TMBG album — alone. Join them, indeed.

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