They Might Be Giants – The Else

I was kinda saving this album for a little later, but to be honest, there’s no real reason for it. We’re nearly at the end of the year now, and there are at least 3 other albums from this band that I can talk about, but since this is They Might Be Giants’ current adult album, I guess I was thinking the event of writing about it would be something special or something. Why would I think that anything I write here is special? Enough of that noise, let’s talk about the band’s latest adult-oriented album, and my current favorite:

The annual meeting of the royal society for pretentious people pretending to be snow owls will now commence.Now that I think about it, writing about this album is kind of timely, because I just got through talking about the Smashing Pumpkins’ Zeitgeist album. See, the two were released on the same week (Zeitgeist on July 6th, The Else on July 10th), and remember when I remarked upon the situation with Zeitgeist being given 5 exclusive retail releases? And each one contained one (possibly two) exclusive songs? Yeah, while I was still reeling about that, I noticed that They Might Be Giants took a different approach. In the initial pressings of The Else, regardless of retail outlet, there was a disc called Cast Your Pod To The Wind, a 23-song bonus disc of re-recorded songs from the band’s popular series of podcasts. That brings the total song count of this regular-priced album to a staggering 36 songs (eat THAT, Billy Corgan), and the ones on Cast Your Pod To The Wind are brilliant. Still, we’re only here to talk about the initial 13 songs on the album proper.

Recorded hot on the heels of The Spine, which is kind of a lie because the two albums are actually something like 3 years apart, The Else takes the group in a different direction, stopping by the ambitious and collaboration-heavy Mink Car and making a stop somewhere around Apollo 18‘s genre-bending and somehow really dark neighborhood.

Perhaps it’s the wintery album cover that painted my attitude about the album, or maybe it’s song titles like “With The Dark”, “The Shadow Government”, and “Withered Hope” that make me feel as if this album is more bleak than anything that’s come out from the band in a decade. Maybe the return from the grade-school crowd made the band anxious to get into the heads of cynical, angst-ridden intellectuals with aplomb, I don’t know. Either way, there are two reasons why The Else sticks out as a favorite: One, because I am a cynical, angst-ridden intellectual, and this album sticks in my head like no other, and two, because everyone else hates this album.

I can’t explain why, whenever I read about others’ opinions on They Might Be Giants, it’s always baffling. I guess because they’re a band that, aside from the occasional irritating tune (one of which is on this very album), can do no wrong with me. Maybe because I’m a cynical, angst-ridden intellectual who still somehow feels that everything I liked when I was 17 is still cool (seriously you gotta try Final Fantasy 9), or maybe because I just have that sensibility that falls for the more esoteric side of music every time, but I believe that this product is consistently good, and has the added bonus of more rhythmic, bassy fun than its predecessors.

Indeed, the album starts off with a distorted, almost trashcan-like rumbling of the drums as the song “I’m Impressed” launches immediately into one of John Linnell’s strongest melodies of this decade. Throwing against that some nice distorted guitar and ploddy bass (wish some squishy synthesizers, lovely), to even a toy piano, this is a song that I have heard dozens of times without tiring. The lyrics are that wonderful blend of straightforwardness with such an obviously hidden message that it fails to surprise me that nobody seems to have picked up on the double meaning:
I’m impressed, I’m impressed
When that gorilla beats his chest
I fall to bits, I confess
I admit I’m impressed
When the torpedo in the vest barks his orders
I’m impressed

And I find that my head’s nodding yes
Though my legs are not following
I’m inspired by events
To remember the exits in back of me

On the one hand he’ll
Give you five good reasons to follow him
On the other hand
You see nobody leaving the stadium

Those seem like odd things to be impressed about, in fact the gorilla, torpedo, and the whole stanza about someone forcing you to follow him (the “five good reasons” of course means a fist full of fingers that will hit you), and since there’s an entire stadium of said people, the word “Impress” is not the verb meaning to be wowed, but in fact the act of Impressment, which is the strong-arming of naval prisoners into the enemy’s navy. Though I haven’t heard any other theories supporting this, I’m almost sure this is what the song is actually about, but I do think some of the lines follow along the more classic definition of “impressed”, such as the name-dropping of Godzilla. Godzilla is my childhood hero, so just name-dropping him is enough to make me love this song and album more than all others.

Where was I? Oh yes, there are other songs on this album. The rest of the album’s first half is fairly easy-going. We’ve got the fuzz-bass-tastic “Take Out The Trash”, which is a female-empowering breakup song sung by Flansburgh, and “Upside-Down Frown”, which makes use of a beat the Dust Brothers sent over to the band, and is possibly the only conventionally interesting thing about the song. I do love the song, however, so don’t let that throw you.

“Climbing The Walls”, which may sound familiar to Radiohead fans, is actually a complex party of guitar chords and saxophone that reminds me more of “The Statue Got Me High” without the polyphony. I do like the song a lot because of the character Linnell is singing in, which seems a very neurotic character, which John L. does very well for reasons that might be kind of obvious to people who have met him.

“Careful What You Pack” is a song about a girl that doesn’t seem to make much sense (it’s still pretty rockin’ though), but basically it was a song that was going to be used in a movie, but was handed back to the band. One might say that including it in a feature release was a lazy idea on the Johns’ part, but in fact the song serves as a brilliant segue from the “straight” rock we’ve heard so far into the insanity that follows.

First off, we’ve got “The Cap’m”, which is another brilliant character piece about an arrogant eccentric who thinks wearing a captain’s hat and hitting on ladies is success waiting to happen. The whole thing is set to a marvelously thick, pounding rhythm that brings together everything from heavy drums to distorted bass to hand-claps to something in there with slap-echo attached, to a solo featuring one of those devices the Beatles used in that one song:

Did you say… what I think you just said?
“My hat looks good on me”? I agree
I agree

Look me over, I’m the Cap’m
You act like it’s a joke, but I don’t see you laughing
People seem to think you can’t be called “The Cap’m”
Unless you drive a boat
Well I don’t

I don’t

Brilliant. The song that follows is something that also brought me back to Apollo 18, in that it’s a song made up of miniature, seemingly disconnected songs. “With The Dark” is quite possibly the most bass-heavy of They Might Be Giants’ songs (besides one very obscure cover of “Lady Is A Tramp” that comes to mind), and it’s just a ton of fun to follow the song and its bassiness through some strange places, from a girl “in love with the dark” to a world-weary pirate, to some kind of futuristic rebellion, and finally, to a simple plea “No more sunlight please”. I feel like, if Douglas Adams had decided to give up on writing the best book ever and did music instead, this song would be a cover instead of an original.

“The Shadow Government” took a while for me to get used to. It’s a playful and compelling punk rock number told from the paranoid junkie’s perspective, and for some reason I used to hate it. Maybe it’s just because the next song is one of my absolute favorites, and I just couldn’t wait, in my first few dozen listens to this album, to get to it.

Yes, “Bird Of The Bee Of The Moth” is John Linnell’s “circular” song, like “Wearing A Raincoat” before it, but mixed with the piano-driven melodic drive that made up my previous favorite TMBG song, “Certain People I Could Name”. That, then throwing in more of that obscure Beatles instrument, a majestic horn break, a smooth beat, and then John L.’s vocals layering on top of each other in different parts of the beat (kind of a “Row Row Row Your Boat” thing), makes this song impossible for me to not love.

The Dust Brothers’ second contribution to the album comes in the form of “Withered Hope”, which tells a sad tale indeed of misplaced, unrequited love between characters given nothing but names of random ideas like “Withered Hope”, “Sad Sack”, “Picture Of A Crook”, and so on. The song is compelling lyrically, but none of that matters, because the chorus with its amazing beat and horn section, recalling all the strength of the best moments of John Henry, is going to blow the unready listener away, and the song’s even better live, so there’s that.

“Contrecoup” is one of the very few songs that predates The Else by any margin. The story of the song is awesome: apparently a journalist challenged John Linnell, who is known for being not only a great songwriter, but a fairly quick one, to write a song utilizing the following archaic, obselete words: “Phrenology”, “Contrecoup”, and “Limerent”. What came out of Linnell’s pen was an acoustic guitar-driven  (somewhat reminiscent of “Hovering Sombrero”) tune about someone suffering a head injury and falling in love (or limerence, rather, which is like love only more based in one person’s obsession with the chance of never, ever winning the love of the object of their desire). All words are used deftly, and we have this winning tune to show for it.

“Feign Amnesia” is the tune that I said earlier was irritating. Honestly, I’d rather just leave it at that, every album is allowed one weak track, even among the best ones.

Finally, we have “The Mesopotamians”, a nice little play on “Hey Hey We’re The Monkees”, only set in ancient times, with some nice anachronistic moves like talking about “Sargon, Hammurabi, Ashurbanipal and Gilgamesh” being in a rock band and driving an Econoline van. The whole thing has a very British Invasion vibe to the tune, especially with its 3-part harmony in the chorus. In fact, the song even has lines about the bassist being supposedly dead, and if that isn’t a reference, I don’t know what is.

Anyhoots, don’t listen to the reviews, The Else is a dark, hopeless album that is a lot of fun, which was pretty much They Might Be Giants’ mission statement from day 1.

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One Response

  1. Hell yeah, I agree. This was a great album, “The Mesopotamians” and “The Cap’m” are two of their best songs, I think. Good review!

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