Monday, July 30, 2007

Euterpeos: They Might Be Giants' The Else

I am Euterpeos, friend and associate of Cinematographicus. We roomed together in college, where we would sit on our porch and look down our noses at unfortunate passers-by as we discussed Art in an ultra-modern context. I have been invited to compose the occasional music review for We might be windmills.

They Might Be Giants has been evading genre definitions since 1982, only barely snagging itself in the catch-all nets of indie and alternative rock. While their music can be considered both indie and alternative, those labels don’t really do justice to the diversity of John and John’s work. Analysis of 25 years of music reveals influences from 60s rock & roll, 80s electronic pop, 90s alternative, folk, jazz, blues, show tunes, punk, ska, et cetera. You can’t really pin a sound or a label on the music of They Might Be Giants. The same statement applies to their new album: The Else.

If I were going to try to call The Else something, I’d call it electropunk. The plurality of the tracks (“I’m Impressed,” “Take Out the Trash,” “Climbing the Walls,” “The Cap’m,” “The Shadow Government,” “Feign Amnesia”) seem to call on that genre as influence, though admittedly some are more electro and others more punk. Two of the tracks (“Careful What You Pack,” “Withered Hope”) have an eerie, Sufjan Stevens-esque sound. The rest (“Upside Down Frown,” “With the Dark,” “The Bee of the Bird of the Moth,” “Contrecoup,” “The Mesopotamians”) stubbornly refuse to be lumped in with any of the others.

Electropunk is a fairly new and different sound for TMBG. Adopting it for their latest album shows the band’s continuing ability to adapt itself and successfully innovate. The Sufjan Stevens influence demonstrates TMBG’s ability to stay current with musical trends while maintaining a style of their own.

The Else also succeeds in demonstrating TMBG’s other quality that has helped the band’s staying power: the ability to compose songs on subjects that nobody else would consider musical. “The Shadow Government” talks about a corrupt municipality; the lyrical voice yearns for an overthrow that will allow him to run his meth lab without local, invasive surveillance tracking him. “The Bee of the Bird of the Moth” describes the actions of the hummingbird moth, which acts “like a bird that thinks it’s a bee.” “Contrecoup” advocates the use of phrenology to examine a concussion. “With the Dark” was hard to understand at first, but after watching the music video of it on YouTube, I determined that the song is about a girl and her love for a giant squid, whom she abandoned to take over the world with her little friend that she spontaneously generated.

“The Mesopotamians,” in my opinion, deserves special mention. When I first saw this track listing, I assumed that it would be one of the band’s quasi-educational songs, in the same vein as “Why Does the Sun Shine?” or “James K. Polk.” The song, whose tune and composition recall something from The Turtles’ greatest hits, is actually about a band named The Mesopotamians. The members of the band are Sargon, Hammurabi, Ashurbanipal, and Gilgamesh. No one’s ever seen them, and no one’s ever heard of their band, but they drive around in an Econoline van and scratch their lyrics down in the clay in case someone one day gives a damn about them. Ingenious. And by ingenious, I mean who in the world would have thought to write such a song?

Overall, The Else is an enjoyable album. It’s exactly what you would expect from TMBG (quirky, original lyrics and music), augmented by the band’s continuing ability to reinvent their sound and adapt to modern musical tastes. And they do it all without selling out. Bravo John, John.

1 comment:

JKC said...

Oh, man, I need to buy this album. I have to say that "With the Dark" contains a my current favorite TMBG lyric: "I'm growing tired of all my nautical dreams, I'm growing tired of all my nautical themes."