After a successful run of kids’ albums, the band returns to darker alt-rock — but maintains the all-ages catchiness
In 1982, They Might Be Giants came out of the gate with a hilarious combination of social commentary and absurdism called “Youth Culture Killed My Dog.” Nearly three decades later, some fans might wonder if youth culture killed the act, or at least stifled it.
Extreme youth culture, that is. During the last decade, TMBG recorded three children’s albums — the success of which threatened to redefine them as the world’s gnarliest tot-rockers.
They might be grown-up, though, again. TMBG has reemerged from the ghetto of twee pre-tween pop with “Join Us,” a terrific 18-song set of deceptively perky middle-aged parables.
The truth is, if you have kids who loved the children’s albums from mainstay singer/songwriters John Flansburgh and John Linnell, they’ll probably like this one, too — even if song titles like “Canajoharie,” “Cloisonne” and “Judy is Your Vietnam” prove harder to twist their young tongues around than “No!” The folksy burnout anthem "Old Pine Box" will prove an education unto itself about the ennui they'll face someday, just like ma and pa.
You probably won’t want to expose the young ‘uns to “When Will You Die?,” though, since it’s not the kind of tune you'd want teens turning into a taunting sing-along behind your back. “You’re running out the clock," the band sing, bitterly – but also sweetly, as is their disarming custom — to an unspecified enemy. “On that promised morning, we will wake and meet the dawn/Knowing that your wicked life is over and that we will carry on/We'll exhale, we'll high-five…”
With its hyperactive horns and typically ironic jauntiness, it's the album’s show-stopper, and proof Flansburgh and Linnell should swiftly take on musical theater as their next extracurricular challenge.
The tracks that don't sound like wry extracts from a non-existent musical-comedy tend to be perfectly formed literary conceits. “2082” is a science-fiction short story in just under two minutes, with a protagonist who travels into the future, finds himself hobbled but still unhappily alive all the way into the next millennium, and travels back to the title year to smother himself with a pillow in a mercy killing.
Did we say protagonist? One of the songs actually bears that title, and “Protagonist” should prove popular among screenwriters, as it interrupts the singer’s musical monologue about a triangle gone violently wrong with stage directions provided by backup singers (“Exterior: Man on lawn, alone at dawn … Woman enters and they embrace; he packs up tape, rope”).
Unreliable narrators abound, like the fellow in the opening rocker, “Can’t Keep Johnny Down,” whose amusingly misguided self-esteem recalls the braggart in Randy Newman’s classic “I’m Special.”
Occasionally, there's the feeling of a droll joke you have to work a little too hard to be in on. Maybe you have to live near the New York region that “Canajoharie” is named after to get that song, or maybe the two Johns just relished the challenge of transforming so farcically unwieldy a title into the album’s catchiest refrain.
One thing everyone is sure to get – young and old, intelligentsia and hoi polloi – is the constant sense of delight engendered by always unpredictable, always extremely pop-friendy arrangements. In contrast to the live rock & roll band sound TMBG went after on their previous grown-up album, 2007’s “The Else,” the instrumental eccentricity is back in full bloom here, from crazed trumpet and sax intros and outros to funk riffs to the pounding ‘60s-rock revivalism of “Judy is Your Vietnam.”
It’s good to have these two dark-skewing wise guys back in the adult-themes fold. It might sound ageist to say, but TMBG might be – nay, are – pearls too good to be thrown to romper-room swine.
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