“The Spine” Reviewed

They might be fanboys.

I am, admittedly, not a man who stays on top of what’s going on in the music world. A friend recently mentioned D12, to which I asked “Who?” His answer of ["Eminem's new band"][d12] was offered with that pure tone of “duh” that only can be given to one whom you truly feel is on another planet.

This is important, because in most music reviews you read, the author feels compelled to inform you that a song may evoke [Modest Mouse][mm] or that a band has shades of [Man or Astro-man?][astroman] I do not have the musical depth to draw from to make such sweeping comparisons. On the flip side, I am also much more pleasant to discuss music with, because I will not assault you with fifty bands you have never heard of. So you decide which you value more and whether you wish to read on.

So, to the point: _[The Spine][tmbg]_, They Might Be Giant’s tenth full-length album, has finally arrived. In itself, this is a pretty impressive feat. Even [Pearl Jam][pearljam] still aspires to such feats. It is the first adult album since their smash-hit release of _No!_ As such, I think a good number of people were girding themselves to see if TMBG could get it back with this one and launch out of the kiddie world. I think they have. That is not to say that _Spine_ is a throwback to the days of “Particle Man” or “Istanbul,” but it feels like another natural step in the growth of TMBG’s sound over the last two decades. The drum machines were gone long ago, and even the brassy sound that so prominent around the time of _John Henry_ has come and gone; _The Spine_ is about guitar, drums, and the Johns’ distinctive voices.

The album opens with “Experimental Film.” I know it’s been said elsewhere, but I do like to think of this song as an homage to Brendon Small’s character from ["Home Movies."][homemovies] TMBG made a guest appearance on the show and did a few songs before its unfortunate cancellation. The song is a great choice to open things up with, as it sucks you in with its catchy tune and even more catchy (to the point of engraving themselves irrevocably in your memory) lyrics.

Immediately following is “Spine,” one of two short theme songs to the album. There are precedents for these little blurbs in TMBG’s history, and like most of the others, “Spine” is pretty forgettable.

The next two songs, “Memo to Human Resources” and “Wearing a Raincoat,” are interesting to me because the chorus of the first song lyrically becomes part of the opening of the second. I can’t think of a single other instance in TMBG’s albums that does this. Beyond that minor point of note, both of these songs take a turn toward the morose. The themes brought up in these songs of disaffected loneliness and paranoia are echoed throughout the rest of the album. TMBG has always had shadows of those themes play out on their other albums, but it really feels like they’ve won out on this one, with peppier, upbeat tunes becoming the minority. If I were a better music reviewer, I could probably cite something about the band growing older and the world changing, but I’ll leave that for the professionals.

Fortunately, “Prevenge” picks the pace back up immediately afterward with its heavy guitar and driving lyrics. Who among us hasn’t dreamt of prevenge at least once or twice recently?

“Thunderbird” is a song that fits the classic TMBG mold: it’s catchy, has a great tune, and has lyrics that you feel like [you understand][thunderbird], but then again, maybe not. It’s sort of musical cotton candy; you probably really enjoyed it, and will have it again, but it’s ultimately unfulfilling.

I’ve heard it said that “Bastard Wants to Hit Me” reminds people a lot of “Man It’s So Loud In Here” from their previous album. I think this is only true if you think that any song with electronic effects sounds like any other song with electronic effects. This song is the poster child of the paranoia themes on the album, but it does it in such a damn good way you’ll find yourself walking down the street trying your best to make yourself sound like a vocoder to sing it to yourself.

Did I mention earlier that the band may be thinking about the changing world? Well, “The World Before Later On,” a slow lament about missing the future, would probably make that case for me. “Where’s my hovercraft? / where’s my jetpack?” I’ve been asking the same thing for years. _(Well, [somebody has](/03/0120.shtml), anyway — ed.)_

“Museum of Idiots” was a song I was a little concerned about, as I was not a big fan of the live version that had been available on [Clock Radio][clockradio]. However, I truly enjoy the album version. The song is, ultimately, a love song, or maybe an anti-love song. It lets you make that call for yourself, and isn’t that what a good song should do?

Editor-in-Chief Klimas had the best thoughts on “It’s Kickin’ In,” so I am going to steal them and print them right here: “Flans has this thing for kind of unengaging beginnings, as if to dare you to think the song is going to suck, and then he opens up into the song proper.” Okay, plagiarism complete. The song does indeed open up, into a fast-paced, driving verse that reminds you that the album isn’t done yet, and you’d best keep paying attention.

“Spines,” the second of the two theme songs, is slightly more engaging than the first, but just as forgettable in the grand scheme of things.

“Au Contraire” was the first song off this album I ever heard, way back in early 2003 when Linnell introduced it at a live concert as something off “an upcoming album.” I couldn’t really understand the lyrics at the time, nor could I really remember the tune afterward. That being said, the most interesting thing about the album version is the lyrics, and you will inevitably find yourself retorting “au contraire, mon frere!” to people for no reason.

The end of “Au Contraire,” with its “right on!” shouts, merges directly into “Damn Good Times,” which is one I’d been humming to myself for months after hearing on Clock Radio. It was nice to see it fully fleshed-out and put on this album, and it features a great guitar/drum segment at the end.

“Broke In Two” is the requisite John Linnell sweet love song on the album, though it leans less towards the sweet than previous installments. It is a little incongruous, however, that this track is immediately followed by “Stalk of Wheat,” probably the most old-school song on the album. If you want a throwback to the days of “Lincoln,” this is the song for you.

The album closes with “I Can’t Hide From My Mind,” which is probably my least favorite song on the album. I honestly can’t pinpoint what it is about the song, but it just doesn’t catch my ear. This is fine, though, because I don’t think I’ve ever found an album of any band from which I have been enamored with. You can’t win ‘em all, right?

Initially, my main complaint about the album was its length; it clocks in at a mere 35 minutes. While this seems quite short in comparison with most albums out these days, it occurred to me that TMBG more than makes up for it by providing almost constant free, new music to its fans through Dial-A-Song and Clock Radio. Not too many other bands offer services like that for their fans, so having a shorter album is a lesser sin.

Basically, if you are a TMBG fan already, go out and get this album; you will not be disappointed. If you are not a They Might Be Giants fan, I would suggest you go out and get this album anyway. They are not that old goofy band with the accordion you may remember, and you might find yourself pleasantly surprised. You may also find yourself mumbling about bastards wanting to hit you at inappropriate times, but it’s a small price to pay.

[d12]: http://www.d12online.com/
[mm]: http://www.modestmousemusic.com/
[astroman]: http://www.astroman.com/
[tmbg]: http://www.theymightbegiants.com/
[pearljam]: http://www.angelfire.com/sk/seattlebands/pjdisco.html
[homemovies]: http://www.soup2nuts.tv/html/shows/tv_home_movies.html
[thunderbird]: http://tmbw.net/cgi-bin/wiki.pl?Thunderbird/Interpretations
[clockradio]: http://tmbw.net/cgi-bin/wiki.pl?TMBG_Clock_Radio

Article © 2004 by Joel Haddock