They Might Be Giants, The Else

Ira Robbins

By Ira Robbins

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

"There's only two songs in me and I just wrote the third/ Don't know where I got the inspiration or how I wrote the words/ Spent my whole life just digging up my music's shallow grave/ For the two songs in me and the third one I just made."

Pair of Johns keep the flood coming

On their first album, using a forum more commonly exploited for unmitigated optimism and boundless hubris, They Might Be Giants turned the greatest fear of musicians — that creativity is a natural resource all too easily depleted — into a genial blast of self-defeating whimsy. But more than a thousand compositions later, the two Johns show no sign of emptying the well of unpredictable originality that is their stock in trade. It's kind of frightening, actually, that — quite apart from the Bob Pollard school of fragment-spewing melodorrheic shovelers — anyone has so many songs in them, and that so many of them are worth hearing. True, there was a time in this adult's life when a combination of the slavish audience adulation and the unstoppable dada ingenuity of the Giants 'first flowering could induce witticism overload and sugary head pain, but if too much of a good thing is the strongest complaint one can mount against a gifted band, that's no worse than (to borrow a title from The Else) an "Upside Down Frown." And, as it turns out, time has been good to the Giants. They may not be aging at a pace found on any wall calendar, but the Giants of 2007 are definitely a little more mature and level-headed (but nowhere near stodgy or boring) than the Giants of the Reagan administration.

The Else

They Might Be Giants

If The Else is not as eclectic or compelling a collection as 2004's The Spine (the uber-prolific duo's last "proper" album, which means overlooking a couple of kids 'records, a brilliant set of joke songs for Dunkin 'Donuts commercials, an insane project in which they wrote and performed a specific song for each venue they played on a tour and who knows what else), its 13 songs don't skimp on melodic strength or lyrical imagination. A few of the ideas here are shockingly familiar ("Take Out the Trash" offers the same sort of dump-that-jerk suggestion as Fountains of Wayne's "Leave the Biker"; "Withered Hope" is a skeletal lovelorn story), but the rest emerge reassuringly from the seats out past third base: "Bee of the Bird of the Moth" (with a horn line that threatens to quote Manfred Mann's "Pretty Flamingo"), the sterling power-pop of "Feign Amnesia" and the grad-school vocabulary of "Contrecoup." (Limerent? Look it up!). "The Mesopotamians," which brings the album to a delightful conclusion, is the ingenious autobiography of a fictional (?) band.

"There's only two songs in me and I just wrote the third…" That John Linnell and John Flansburgh haven't written themselves up a tree, into a corner or simply out of ideas is a testament to just how wrong they were when they stopped counting at two. (Or three.) Where it all comes from, one can suppose, is The Else.