They Might Be Giants - Join Us
Here in the 21st century, irreverent indie pop duo They Might Be Giants have segued from being a quirky band for oddball adults to becoming a smart children's music act who still occasionally create albums for the parents of the pint-sized Montessori crowd. For every two CDs aimed at the kids, we grown-ups get one. Okay, fine, we'll take as much adult pop from Johns Linnell and Flansbourgh as we can get. With a record as sharp and sproingy as 2007's The Edge, who could complain?
The answer to that question is embodied in They Might Be Giants' latest album, Join Us. This is their first non-tots release in four years. During the interval in between, they issued two discs of children's music, highlighted by 2009's fun and informative Here Comes Science. Unfortunately, there's an overly safe quality throughout Join Us, suggesting that perhaps TMBG hadn't switched their mental gears out of kids mode before heading to the recording studio for this batch of tunes.
That isn't to say that the songs themselves are directed at the wee ones. In fact, in order to at all appreciate "Canajoharie," it helps to know that it's a town in New York, and that the subject is youth nostalgia. The problem is that this track - and many others on the record - simply feels flat and tepid. Sure, the song offers pulsating synths and Beach Boys-esque sunny harmonies, but the lead vocals lack enthusiasm, the production is sterile, and the tone of the distorted guitar has been buffed and shined into impotency. Obviously, we don't expect They Might Be Giants to bring out the Sonic Youth-style noise rock, but at least The Edge had some, well, edge. A bit of a bite, if you will. A caustic resonance underlying its buoyant pop.
Such is not the case with Join Us. The preceding song critique applies almost universally to the album. Fortunately, there are a handful of songs here that are good enough to transcend the record's general limitations. If you manage to slog through its first half, a track like "When Will You Die" offers some redemption. Its rhythm bounces along on a pogo stick, while a deliriously happy melody belies the lyrics' dark, seething theme. The following cut, "Protagonist," is another keeper. Though considerably more laid back, the lightly swinging ditty has a lovely feel and tells a funny story about a man caught in a movie plot.
Join Us is weirdly back-loaded with its best material, as if They Might Be Giants have either misjudged the taste of their core audience or are chasing a wider market and want to make a cautiously good first impression. Otherwise, why kick off the record with "Can't Keep Johnny Down"? The music is catchy enough, sure, but is also sounds canned and bland. Meanwhile the vocals come across as half-hearted. The next few numbers share similar pitfalls, although they do get incrementally more vibrant. It's almost as if the guys recorded the tracks in the order that they're sequenced, picking up steam as they went along. You have to wait until the fifth song, "Cloisonné," before the band latches onto any of its classic quirkiness: an oom-pah rhythm, references to Sleestaks (from '70s TV show "Land of the Lost"), and some nice, skronky horn playing in the outro.
However, even the latter half's good songs are at least slightly marred by the overall sterility of the album. The whole record sounds as flat and dry as a blank sheet of paper. The dynamics are compressed, there's very little use of reverb, and too many synth and drum machine parts suggest the dull complacency of presets. The most intriguing and quixotic cuts here manage to achieve some three-dimensionality and color, but they're battling hard to overcome the overarching torpor and blandness of Join Us. We can only hope They Might Be Giants are reserving their enthusiasm for the kids.
Recommended Tracks: "When Will You Die," "Protagonist," "Cloisonné"