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They Might Be Giants: Glean
by George Graham
(Idlewild Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/6/2015)
Certain performers and groups have had long careers doing their own thing, usually off the commercial mainstream, making music that often reflects a unique sound. This week, we have an excellent example, the band They Might Be Giants, who have just released their 16th or so album called Glean.
For over 30 years, They Might Be Giants has basically been the duo of John Flansburgh on guitar and John Linell who often played accordion in the band’s early days. They met as teenagers in high school in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and played together in bands but they separated with each attending a different college. However, both moved to New York and ended up in the same Brooklyn apartment building, and inevitably, the musical bond was reignited. They played their first show in 1982 under a difference band name, and took their current name from a 1971 film that starred George C. Scott. They often performed just as a duo with the addition of a drum machine or cassette backing tracks. They Might Be Giants began to develop a local following for their clever, often lighthearted songs with quirky lyrics and wordplay.
After a couple of mishaps, including Linell breaking a wrist, which prevented them from performing for a while, they started putting their songs on an answering machine, they called “Dial-a-Song” on a local Brooklyn number, which became quite popular. Over the years, it has been said that the band created over 500 songs that have been on Dial-a-Song, which later became a website.
The two Johns often perform with additional members, and on their current album, they are joined by drummer Marty Beller, bassist Danny Weinkauf and guitarist Dan Miller.
Their quirky music has attracted a number of fans among film producers, so over the years, they have created a lot of songs for films and television shows, including what became the theme for the show “Malcolm in the Middle.” They did an album of children’s songs in 2002, and have subsequently released two additional children’s recordings, one of which Here Come the ABCs won a Grammy for children’s music in 2009. Their last studio album Nanobots was in 2013.
They Might Be Giants shows no signs of letting up in their prolific output. They recently resumed their telephone-based Dial-a-Song service and some of the songs ended up on the new CD Glean. Like most They Might Be Giants albums, their songs tend to be short – that was the way the original Dial-a-Song service worked, and pithy, clever, quirky and sometimes surprising for the subject matter they take up, often the mundane or things one would not normally expect a song to come out of. The new album has a number of little vignettes, telling condensed narratives in two minutes or so. There are 15 songs on the album that times in at under 40 minutes. But there are a couple of pieces that have more musical development than most typical They Might Be Giants tunes. This album also features a couple of tracks with more elaborate orchestration including a little string section, and a couple of tunes with horns, while there are several others with a very electric sound, out of the alternative rock movement.
The album opens with one of its rockier songs Erase which a poppish tune that could make it as a single. <<>>
Typical of the band’s quirkiness is Good to Be Alive which is a kind of easy-going song about parts of the body, leading up the the title of the song. <<>>
One of the more elaborate tracks on the album of generally quick songs is Music Jail Pt. 1 & 2. And there are indeed two distinct parts of the song, with the first one sounding theatrical and the latter part vaguely Beatles-influenced. <<>>
The song that is being promoted as the single from the album is Answer which is in the classic They Might Be Giants sound, including Linnell’s accordion. Lyrically, it’s a very offbeat love song. <<>>
They Might Be Giants wrote so many songs that they seem to draw inspiration from everyday events that normally would not be the object of a songwriter’s interest. A good example of that is I Can Help the Next in Line, but after that helpful phrase, the interaction with the customer in question takes off in an unexpected direction. <<>>
Probably not out of everyday life is the song Madam I Challenge You to a Duel. <<>>
Mixing metaphors is a clever song about a love-affair ended called End of the Rope. Musically it’s another of those songs in which They Might Be Giants can get a little theatrical. <<>>
On this album of ingenious songs, probably one of the cleverest is Let Me Tall You About My Operation. The band does a kind of mutant swing arrangement as the lyrics go look upon an ended love affair as something to be dealt with surgically. <<>>
The title track Glean is a short rather unusual instrumental such that when you hear it, the reason for the title becomes apparent. They gleaned the collection of found sounds used as the instrumentation. <<>>
They Might Be Ginats’ new release Glean is another entertaining record from the over 30-year-long association of John Flansburgh and John Linnell. The pair remains as clever as ever, with quirky arrangements and unexpected lyrics, often making their point quickly and then ending. Their sound runs from edgy alternative rock to a simulated jazz swing band. The group also maintains their succinctness with lots of short songs that make their impact and end before you realize it. I think it’s one of their best records.
Our grade for sound quality is about a “B.” There are a lot of studio effects, some betterthan others, so it’s not much of an audiophile recording and some of those sonic effects can get a tad irritating. But it’s generally above average for the genre.
They Might Be Giants have been staking out their own distinctive musical territory for over three decades, and in the process were unlikely winners of Grammy Awards and platinum album certifications. So originality can account for something once in a while in the commercial music world.Their new CD Glean shows that after all that time and perhaps 500 songs created over the years, They Might Be Giants are still at their peak.
(c) Copyright 2015 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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