It takes a lot to freak out They Might Be Giants fans. These are people who sing along to songs about Belgian painters, forgettable American presidents, and the four-chambered hearts of mammals, for god’s sake. Still, the band managed to shake things up with 2007’s The Else, their first album with big name producers (Dust Brothers), no accordion, and no songs shorter than two minutes in length. It was almost as if the Johns (Linnell and Flansburgh) had outgrown their own band.
While I wouldn’t call the new album a “return to form” (a label that is applied to releases by nearly all aging alternative bands), one can’t help but feel that They Might Be Giants kept an eye on their creative rearview mirror during the writing and recording of Join Us. Rather than sounding like a rehash of their classic material, it’s more like a Whitman’s Sampler of They Might Be Giants various styles. Unfortunately, the genre-hopping becomes almost maddening at times and makes it difficult to establish any momentum.
Of course, it would be almost unforgivable if the material wasn’t so damn catchy. Songs like “Judy Is Your Vietnam” and “Canajoharie” are power pop at its best, while songs like “Cloisonné” and “Protagonist” have John Flansburgh assuming the role of a folk-rock crooner of sorts. Experimenting with different genres doesn’t always work, though. “Celebration,” one of only two songs longer than three minutes, is a disco number that doesn’t seem to go anywhere while randomly name-checking Banksy and Dutch painter Hironymous Bosch.
With the exception of “Celebration,” the first two-thirds of the album stay pretty true to the post-2000 They Might Be Giants sound. Something changes right around “The Lady and the Tiger,” as the album closes with a handful of delightfully bizarre songs that wouldn’t sound too out of place on their early albums like Lincoln or Apollo 18. “Spoiler Alert” has both Johns singing different songs over the same music, while “The Lady and the Tiger” almost strays into hip-hop territory. Two of the final tracks,“2082” and “Three Might Be Duende,” sound more like classic TMBG than anything else they’ve put out in years.
In addition to the strong material, the band is in fine form. John Flansburgh’s vocals are the star of this album, particularly his well-aged falsetto on songs like “Never Knew Love” and “Protagonist.” The non-John members also deliver a fine performance, proving that this lineup (unchanged since 2004) might be “the one.” I got a major kick out of the cute reference to the current lineup in the last verse of “When Will You Die.” Linnell lazily sings, “This is Dan and that’s Dan/Then there’s Marty on the drums to complete the band/I’m John and he is also John.”
On Join Us, They Might Giants have managed to give a nod to the past without coming across as desperate for approval. They’ve learned how to write for and record with a full band, which contributes to the album’s sonic cohesiveness (despite the weak sequencing). While the band might not gain any new fans from this album, it’s definitely going to please the fan base that has been clamoring for shorter, accordion-based songs about death over the past decade or so.
There. I did it. I wrote a They Might Be Giants review without using critics’ favorite TMBG buzzwords: “quirky,” “wacky,” or any variation of “nerd.” Now, if you’ll please excuse me, I have to go pat myself on the back.
They Might Be Giants Join Us Tracklist:
- “You Can’t Keep Johnny Down”
- “You Probably Get That A Lot”
- “Old Pine Box”
- “Let Your Hair Hang Down”
- “In Fact”
- “When Will You Die”
- “Judy Is Your Vietnam”
- “Never Knew Love”
- “The Lady and the Tiger”
- “Spoiler Alert”
- “Dog Walker”
- “Three Might Be Duende”
- “You Don’t Like Me”