Smalltown Poets – Under The New Sun

Today we’re going to talk about Christian music!

Now that most of you are gone, I feel that, to adequately describe my thoughts on today’s album, I really should reveal a little bit of history about myself with music in general. Hopefully, even if you don’t agree with me, you’ll at least see why I consider Smalltown Poets’ new EP, Under The New Sun, one of the most important things to happen to Christian Rock music since that most excellent of years for Christian Rock Music: 1997. Read on, won’t you?

In the year 1997, I turned 15, and I am pretty sure the only music I really listened to at that point was either Classical, from a video game, or a lot of Christian Rock. On top of the obvious explanation that I actually AM a Christian, my mom used to manage a Christian book store that had a great selection of music, most of which she was responsible for stocking. Naturally, when she would get demos and pre-releases, we’d wind up with a copy at home.

Thus, not only did I get to hear all the perennial favorites like DC Talk or Newsboys, who were HUGE at the time, but also super obscure stuff that, upon writing about it on this blog, I find that I’m literally the only source for (somewhat unreliable) information.

Looking back at that time, as I’ve said before, 1997 was a VERY good year for Christian music. While most of my favorite albums that came out that year have been long forgotten, it was a great year for original music that didn’t just seem like the Christian Rock alternative of Alternative Rock, you know? Two particular releases really set that year in the stone of my mind, both of which were put out by the once-great Forefront Records: The Waiting’s self-titled debut, and Smalltown Poets’ self-titled debut.

What this era in Christian music marked for me was not only a slew of original musical ideas and just generally great tunes, but it seemed like this general maturing of the genre. What The Waiting and Smalltown Poets (and some others) brought from their southern homes was a sense of poetry and meaning to these already great melodies and rhythms, and they did it with the most important element I think can be brought to music, Christian or otherwise: honesty.

Yesterday, neatly 15 years and some change since their debut album, Smalltown Poets released a recording of original music, for the first time since 2004, and the first to feature all 5 original members of the group since said debut. It’s an EP of 7 tracks, 5 of which are totally original, and a couple of which are hymns. I’d probably better talk about it!

Interestingly, the EP opens up with an instrumental track bearing the name of the album. I like this kind of move in music because it gives one the sense that this is a collection of songs that’s meant to be heard together (rare form in this age of digital singles), and this particular track is about a minute and a half of really good buildup. Indeed, the next song, “Turn Around“, benefits from having a nice buildup, since it has a rather minimalist intro that works best as a bridge between the full sound of the introduction and the awesome chorus to come. This is quality album construction, folks.

Once everything kicks in with “Turn Around”, the BPM’s are brought down ever so slightly for the mid-tempo “Charlie Brown’s Lament“, which is a stunningly catchy tune that, to me, most evokes the feel of the older SP recordings. The lyrics are definitely classic Smalltown Poets; a little moody and introspective, but also slightly cheeky and fun. I like how the references to the Peanuts world are so subtle; in fact I didn’t even think that any of it was a reference until I read the song title (I listened to the whole thing without even looking at it a couple of times, in my excitement), and once I did, it didn’t take anything away from the song, it just made the “Doctor is in” line funnier.

On another note, what a coincidence that they wrote a song in reference to Charlie Brown and I also made a reference when talking about their Christmas album. Crazy!

Still, I think that my favorite song has to be “Grace Is A Song“. From that guitar note that hits right after the downbeat, to the piano part that drives the whole thing, and especially that crazy good melody, everything sounds entirely new and unexplored. This is important, because it doesn’t make me reminisce about the Smalltown Poets of 1997 as much as it makes me really excited about the Smalltown Poets of 2012.

Bringing things back down into a slower, more echoey vibe, the Poets do a stunning arrangement of a classic hymn, “Jesus I Come“. Apart from the echoes, the song is actually fairly minimal and straightforward, with just enough flavoring to be easy to mistaken for an original tune, which I think is exactly how hymns should be covered by bands. Still, the best is yet to come in that regard…

The next song is “The Ballad of Time and Eternity“, and while it’s probably the most straightforward of the bunch as far as sound is concerned, what lies underneath is a really great allegorical poem set to music. I really recommend checking out the lyrics to this one; in fact I’m still trying to process it all myself.

The last song, and I’ve said this many times before while talking about the Christmas album, is entirely unfair.

Seriously, putting together an album to be heard by southern-raised old-school church-goers like myself and ending it on one of the best hymns ever written, “I’ll Fly Away”. Seriously, where is the justice? Pretty much as soon as I saw that, I knew I had to grab a tissue for my first few listens to this EP, and sure enough, the arrangement is tear-jerking perfect.  The song is complemented by a nice southern-style slide guitar, vocal polyphony, and a lovely beat, but the melody is left entirely, beautifully intact, ringing out those infamous words denoting the greatest sentiment that the Christian life has to offer: being totally ok with the inevitability of death and the life afterward. There’s a reason this song is one of the most recorded hymns in history, despite being relatively new (as in, 1930’s new), and no matter how many times I hear it, it gets me every time.

So yeah, calling “no fair” on that one, but obviously I love it.

As an EP, this is certainly a stand-out release, but what it represents to me is a kind of resurgence of the Christian Music that I remember. In this age of the dying record industry and artists having to kind of make their own mark in the world, I’m noticing that a lot of the best bands of a decade or two ago who went away are actually coming back! I noticed the OC Supertones had a Kickstarter up for an album, Smalltown Poets are back in business, and even though I joked about The Waiting coming back next, it totally happened too!

Thus, while it may not be as important to you as it is to me, I’m actually excited about new Christian music in a way I haven’t been since literally half my life ago, but to all of you out there who just want some really great music, Under The New Sun comes with my highest recommendation, and I think we should all look forward to the next thing!

(Yay SP are back!)

Justin Bieber – Under The Mistletoe

Well, the first 5 words that you read on today’s entry should indicate to you that today we are going to talk about the BAD of Christmas. Yesterday we talked about the good, so you should understand that, no matter how bad things get in THIS entry, there is always the good.

Today though, things are going to get really bad:

A look that screams 'Hello teenage girls, I AM HERE FOR YOUR SOUL *HISS*'

Justin Bieber (or Justice Beaver, a crime-fighting beaver, if you prefer) is very popularly, VERY understandably, both a target of lust for women of all ages (no matter how creepily young or old) and absolute, deserved ridicule from just about everyone else.

Still, this isn’t about hating Justin Bieber himself, because come on, everyone does that and they will continue to do that and it’s a lot better than any insults a mere blogger like myself can throw. This will be about hating his music, as soon as I actually listen to it.

The thing is, I have only heard maybe the one song that he did on his last album, which some wealthy rappers produced for him for his 13th birthday (all I got was a Ninja Turtles action figure and Mega Man 3 on the Nintendo… in many ways I still win). Basically, I am the world’s expert at avoiding music I know I’m not going to like,  but in this seedy world of practically anonymous journalism, sometimes one have to make sacrifices, and I am no exception.

So, in the spirit of something I did before that was fun, I am going to listen to Justin Bieber’s dubious holiday classic, Under The Mistletoe, for the very first time while blogging about the experience. I have never read a review on the album, and I have only Wikipedia’s dubiously factual page about it for fact-checking.

And away we go!

(Author’s Note: it should be noted that, the very second I picked up my mp3 player to press “play”, I suddenly started choking on my own spit and have just finished a monster coughing fit, so yeah, looks like we’re getting into something heavy here)

Track 1: “Only Thing I Ever Get For Christmas”

Well, busting out of the gate is pretty much exactly what I was to expect from a modern teenage demographic pop song, it’s an auto-tuned disaster of this kid singing while simultaneously trying to sound “breathy”, complete with actual heavy breathing hiding in the percussion which is really creeping out this 29 year old blogger, let me assure you. I think about 5 choruses have passed by while I was busy writing that last sentence and attempting to extract that last bit of phlegm from my gullet, and now the song’s over! Praise the lord, at least that was short, only the rest of my short life to go!

Track 2: “Mistletoe”

The very instant that the acoustic guitar starts this plastic reggae piece of sterilized pop nonsense, I began vehemently cursing Jack Johnson, Jason Mraz, and just about any other douchey college bro who figured out that upstrokes are the easiest thing to play on an acoustic guitar while you’re drunkenly trying to hit on women, and thus made it the standard for modern romantic music, probably until the day I die, which may be today if this chorus doesn’t go away soon. Seriously, is he saying “shawty with you”? Is he even legally allowed to use the word “Shawty?” where are his parents through all this?

Wow that was bad, I may have made a terrible mistake…

Track 3: “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire) feat. Usher”

Oh man, that sprinkly bell thing that all pop songs have had since the 90’s. I don’t even care that that last sentence is a fragment, it says more about this song than I needed to know. The only thing more predictable than this song appearing on this album, besides the almost obscene amount of singing “around” the notes, Mariah-Carey-style, is that it features Usher. Yeah, well, so do my nightmares, and you don’t seem me making millions off of them, just an ill-advised blog entry. Wow, Justin Bieber cranks out a pretty mean guitar solo half-way through this using his speak-and-spell, not too bad at all.

Track 4: “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”

JUST when I was about to remark on how this track appears to be spitting on the grave of the Jackson 5 (if all 5 Jacksons were replaced with robots), Bieber comes in with this “SANTA CLAUS IS COMING GURL, WOO” and I had to stop the recording to sit here and HATE THAT with all my concentration. Otherwise, yeah this song is pretty much spitting on SOMEONE’S grave, because I can’t imagine who would do this to anyone in the name of love, though I guess that guy that shot John Lennon thinks he was doing a good thing? Anyway, this song also features one of those horrible R&B talk-downs half-way through, and I am pretty sure I’m losing the vision in my left eye.

My fingers are now poised over the phone, having dialed 9 and 1, and if this next track doesn’t pick things up I am going to have to put this review on hold and hit that other 1.

Track 5: “Fa La La feat. Boyz 2 Men”

Speaking of things that killed Motown, Boyz 2 Men make an appearance on this complete mess of random syllables (which makes sense since “Fa La La” aren’t technically words) making Bieber sound like a eunuch version of the Decepticon Soundwave. Understand, however, as someone who was watching Transformers at the age in which Bieber made his first billion dollars, that the actual Soundwave is all man.

Track 6: “All I Want For Christmas Is You (SuperFestive!)” feat. Mariah Carey

Well! Speak of the devil and the washed up singer he stole his vocal vamping and upper octave range from, Bieber does a duet with Mariah Carey here about how much they want to bone each other (no surprise there, that’s what every single other song in this album has been so far), and I shouldn’t have to point out that he is 17 and she’s 41 and that’s really creepy, so instead I will point out something even better: Mariah Carey’s own best-selling Christmas album called Merry Christmas was released November 1st, 1994, the year Justin Bieber was born. In fact, THIS VERY ALBUM was released on 11/1, the 17th year anniversary of her album, which might be considered creepy and sinister, but in fact most Christmas albums come out around that time so yeah. I just really needed something to distract me from the rest of this song because this is truly awful.

Track 7: “Drummer Boy feat. Busta Rhymes”

Now, being a bit of a Christmas music hater, so I don’t have any special attachment to “The Little Drummer Boy”, especially since it’s not really a hymn, despite what people may think. Thus, I am not mad that Bieber does his stupid auto-tune vocal scale warmup on the traditionally staccato “Parumpa pum pum” (which is supposed to emulate a drum, you idiot, drums don’t do scales!), nor am I even upset at the inclusion of a rapper doing some truly awful things to the institution of rhyming and shouting in between lines pretending the other vocal track can hear him, as I have always theorized that Justin Bieber is a tool that the R&B/Rap community are using in order to get revenge on white people. No, what upsets me about this song is that it’s supposed to be about a kid who drums because he’s too poor to do anything else for Jesus, and so Bieber doing this song implies that, having a similar background, the original drummer boy must have struck it big on Youtube and become an evil prepubescent millionaire for the his act of percussive generosity, when really he probably just remained poor for the rest of his life and had to tell that Jesus-smiling-at-him story to his disinterested grandchildren as the only thing interesting that ever happened to him. It just makes me mad that it couldn’t have been the reverse, is all.

Track 7: “Christmas Eve”

Now that we’re done hearing Bieber rap about how great he is at the drums and how he should be canonized into the damn Bible, we’re back to a confusing mess of notes about how much he wants to get laid on Christmas. I’m sure you can work that into your schedule of featuring formerly popular musicians and appearing in court for Paternity suits, kid, so buck up! I love the line “I don’t need no presents, gurl, you’re everything I need”, as if Justin Bieber would otherwise require presents. What would you even get a 17 year old kid who’s been given a free ride to the top? An abortion of the illegitimate fetus of his choice?

Wow I’m getting mean; that means the album must almost be over!

Track 8: “All I Want Is You”

We’re now at the 3rd song (or is it 4th? or All Of The Above?) about how all Bieber wants for Christmas is YOU, person who purchased his album. Seriously, remember that line I quoted above? Here’s the first line from this chorus: “Any I don’t care if I don’t get anything; all I need is you here right now”, exactly how much do you need to pound that point in Bieber? I had to check Wikipedia to make sure that this album wasn’t written by Rick Derringer and they just replaced all the references to America with Christmas and Gurl.

Track 9: “Home This Christmas feat. The Band Perry”

I don’t know who The Band Perry is, but they really should win a Grammy for “band that somehow managed to completely un-change a Bieber song”. About the only thing I can tell that separates this song from the previous 8 is that there’s a live drum set being played flaccidly by a drummer who will probably do nothing else in life except tell his disinterested grandchildren about how he drummed once for Justin Bieber… for a smile.

Track 10: “Silent Night”

I am starting this track up and hearing a sedated Bieber singing what seems like a straight version of this song (except he does an intentional pause after the word “virgin” and I don’t know what to make of that). I am expecting there to be some kind of rap segment or auto-tuned background singers singing about how he’s totally going to get some on this silent night yo gurl.

COME ON SONG, how could you fail in your task this fantastically? Well, at least each line ends abruptly so Bieber can try and pronounce the next word on the page and let the echoey bits trail off and remind all of us that this is still part of a terrible pop album and not some random, displaced bit of sincerity in this monster of an album.

AND IT’S FINISHED! PRAISE THE LORD (no I didn’t get the special edition, I’m no fool!)

Now that I’ve made it through to the other side of that train-wreck, I am now able to confirm a suspicion I’ve had ever since this Bieber kid and Lady Gaga and all them became the biggest economic forces in music:

Basically, the world as we know it is ending.

Oh, we’ve heard about it for a while, but with the world economy treading thin ice, the music industry collapsing, the world of retail cannibalizing its own limbs in an effort to stay alive for just one more holiday season, we’re staring straight into the face of an entire world of entertainment that was meant to  provide us with a good, general distraction from our daily lives, panicking and flailing under the pressure of today’s internet-based culture, where we can be entertained by anything we want, whether it was recorded in the past or in the present at the great expense of some rappers who are on their way out anyway.

In the face of that, the entertainment industry is trying its hardest to manufacture anything that will sell, and can no longer take any risks or do anything interesting that might be less popular than the last thing. Thus, we have “safe” Justin Bieber crooning his thinly veiled songs about getting laid, we have “safe” Lady Gaga who rakes in millions by cultivating a shock image without actually doing anything shocking, we’ve got retail stores and Starbucks hanging up their Christmas decorations/shopping reminders on Oct. 1st, and we’ve got all the soul and sincerity and warmth of what’s supposed to be a single day of loving your family, thinking of Jesus (if that’s what you do), and eating a lot of food and giving/getting gifts, completely stripped away and set aside until the world feels comfortable with celebrating love instead of money. When that day comes, maybe someone who sings about Christmas and really means it will go to the top, but until then, we get to either laugh, cry, or hate on artists like Bieber until they too get swept under the rug.

Or alternatively, we can just forget about all that and have a kickass party, so stay tuned for TOMORROW’s entry when we leave this depressing ghost of Christmas Presents and bring the hope back to Christmas. Stay tuned, and happy holidays!

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Smalltown Poets – Christmas

In lieu of updating this thing 12 times with 12 different Christmas albums in a theme I like to call “Chris is starting to show OCD tendencies”, I decided to update 3 times this week with 3 different Christmas albums. They will represent the Good, the Bad, and the Twisted*, and believe me, there is nothing I’ve needed more this year than something Good in Christmas music, which is why today’s entry is about an album that I still can’t believe exists, Smalltown Poets Christmas:

I get it now! Smalltown Poets was his SLED

Why would a Smalltown Poets album about Christmas be such a surprise? Well, as I might have mentioned before, the band has been on hiatus for 7 years. That’s longer than I’ve even been in bands (well, good ones anyway), so it’s like being visited by the ghost of Christian Rock past.

Still, the thing that finally brought them all back together after so long was making a Christmas album, so it stands to reason that it wound up being a pretty good Christmas album, right?

Yeah, try the best Christmas album ever.

Now, you may have heard from somewhere that I am decidedly NOT a fan of Christmas music. Without going back into all the nasty opinions I have about the institution (I’m saving that for tomorrow), I will re-iterate that  Christmas music has a habit of being very cheeseball and almost incoherent in the face of the rather broad cultural changes that occurred between the 50’s and today. I am almost sure that at least 3 generations grew up wondering why Jingle Bell Rock doesn’t actually rock (because that’s what they HAD for “rock” back in the 50’s).

In the glut of overdone Bing Crosby hits, hideous novelty songs, and the rank odor of popular artists “cashing in” on the holiday with their own take on Christmas, one may begin to crave, even ache for, some piece of genuine Christmas love that touches the soul and reminds us, as a TV special once did, what the true meaning of Christmas is. Luckily for you, Dear Reader, I am about to tell you about an album that does just that!

Christmas opens up with guitar feedback, which may seem unsettling, but don’t worry, they’ve got this under control. You then hear church bells (how I love church bells in music), and just as this seemingly epic song starts to swell, it all simply goes away, and in its place, a piano starts playing “The Carol of the Bells”, but immediately after that, a voice starts singing “O Come O Come Emmanuelover the tune to Carol of the Bells. It almost seems unfair that a Christmas song can be that awesome, but that floored me about this recording, and we’re not even a minute into the song.

As if that wasn’t enough, all the OTHER instruments burst into the song and give it a full rock band sound for like a second, and then mostly disappear for another verse, comes back in again, and then disappears entirely so that Michael Johnston’s amazing voice (which sounds just as good if not better than it did in 1997) takes a chorus entirely unaccompanied, then suddenly the song becomes a verse of “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”, which gave this old Calvinist chills.

In listening to this album, expect amazing moments like this to pop up with absolutely no warning. On top of these smooth and introspective interpretations of classic hymns, Smalltown Poets took it upon themselves to refer to other songs within the songs, and you’ll find yourself wishing that these parts were actually longer, which is surely the sign of a good recording.

Speaking of good, the second track of the album is “In The Bleak Midwinter“, which, while listening to the album without looking at the CD liner notes, I was SURE was a Smalltown Poets original, as it’s a beautiful poem contained in this heart-breaking melody, but no! It’s totally a hymn (based on a 19th century poem, no less!) from 1906! How did they find an awesome Christmas hymn that I have somehow never heard before?

Still, there is no shortage of well-known hymns given the modern rock treatment. In particular, “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” and “The First Noel” (the latter featuring a really cool drum part from Byron Goggins) are given the full rock band treatment, but certainly not to their detriment; in fact, the backing parts doing an amazing job reminding one that these old familiar melodies are actually still really strong, and nothing is going to get in their way.

I will say this, however, the backing parts and re-arrangements (many of which are credited to Danny Stephens, SP’s errant keyboardist, boy am I glad he’s back) actually help some of the hymns that I feel don’t really stand on their own otherwise. I’ve never been a big fan of “Good Christian Men Rejoice” with its traditionally bouncy 2/4 brashness, but Smalltown Poets slow it down, add some tasty Kevin Breuner guitar goodness and a cool groove from bassist Miguel DeJesus and drummer Byron Goggins, and then throw in an almost secret taste of “Silent Night” to make this song a real stand-out on the album. My heart grew 3 sizes that day.

In fact, speaking of the “Silent Night” interval, one of the most interesting things about this album is how satisfied it seems with simply reminding us of certain songs without actually playing them all the way through. “We Three Kings“, “Angels We Have Heard On High“, and others are only introduced briefly before giving way to something else. I am fascinated by this, because it seems to me that, instead of being this showcase of the band saying “Look what we can do!” by making a huge production out of every song, the album is just this kind of fluid journey through these beautiful yuletide melodies, and even without singing the words, you understand what is being said here. Then the band gets back into the full-form songs and they just become  all that much better.

Possibly my favorite hymn to receive a much-needed rearrangement is “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” (especially after Dylan’s version, yeesh). I am not kidding when I say I may have been cutting onions during the first 4 or 5 listens of this song, but the lyrics to the song are incredible, and the Poets even include my favorite verse that seems to go unnoticed in other versions, so kudos to the boys for that one.

Another great thing about this album is that there actually are original songs to be heard. They’re given almost no spotlight (and, in fact, you may mistaken them for the traditional songs like I did), but are nonetheless excellent. “On Christmas Day” is kind of a reworking of Ave Maria (which I’m not too familiar with, being Protestant, but it’s a good tune) that has some great lyrics, and the penultimate track is “His Delight“, which is a great kind of folky song that I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

Speaking of wrapping one’s head around something, there is an almost uncharacteristically bouncy track close to the middle of the album called “St. Nick Is Alright” which evokes both memories of SP’s second album (which I need to get on here soon) and The Beatles during that magical mystery era (at least at the end). It’s a sweet song, and it’s always interesting to hear a Christian group essentially singing about Santa Claus, but they handle it so gracefully that it then becomes something to ponder further, which is something I’ve almost never done with a Christmas song, much less one about St. Nick. As impressive as this album is, I am not surprised in the least to find myself hearing the songs multiple times to find some more hidden ideas and meaning, until I think of it as a Christmas album again and notice that Christmas will be over next week.

Thus, Smalltown Poets have performed what I can only describe as a Christmas Miracle; they recorded a Christmas album that I am going to sorely miss when the season is over. From beginning to end, this is a superior album by any standard, and is a bright spot in anyone’s existence, especially if they find themselves brought down by what Christmas has become thanks to modern culture, which I will get to soon enough, but for now, thank you, Smalltown Poets, for bringing Christmas its soul back.

I seriously can’t wait for these guys to record another album of originals, and if this recording is an indication, they may be able to outdo even their earliest work, which would be awesome. Until then, please check out Christmas and give it a purchase or two, and make it part of your Christmas antidote for yet another rendition of “White Christmas” or “Rudolph The Red Nose-I can’t even finish that title”. Merry Christmas, everyone!

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*Note: I never did write this third entry. There’s always Christmas 2012 I guess! 

They Might Be Giants – Join Us

Hello everyone! Well, let’s go for a blog-time.

I wracked my brain trying to figure out what album would make a good re-entry into the world of making updates, and as I sorted through all the various comeback or re-entry albums I have in my possession, it soon became clear that I already wrote about most of the ones I could think of, so I decided to heck with it and did my usual thing: write about an album I have been listening to lately that’s not really connected to anything! Here it is, They Might Be Giants’ kinda-newest album: Join Us!

It's SPANISH rice, I don't care if it's not made in Spain, that's what it says on the Rice-A-Roni box!

A Tonka hearse, oh Johns, you never disappoint.

If, like me, you didn’t concern your daily life with albums for a couple of years, you may not know that 2011 has been an interesting year for albums. I’d hate to spoil future entries, but Radiohead came out with an album that sucks, Johnny Cash came out with an album that more or less proves he didn’t record any more hits, Sia went all dance-clubby, and Warren Zevon, unfortunately, remains deceased.

It hasn’t been looking all that good for my musical heroes, which makes it all the more fortunate that They Might Be Giants released an album that can best be described as a catharsis of musical ideas and probably the best album that’s come out of this decade so far. Too glowing? Well it HAS been a long time, hasn’t it.

What separates Join Us from about 2 full decades’ worth of TMBG material is pretty evident from the first track, the wonderfully egotistical and dickish “Can’t Keep Johnny Down” (with a video featuring Rip Torn in one of the best “WTF” associations TMBG has ever made). Though the joyous guitar/keyboard/something arpeggios that open the track have that oh-so warm and inviting pop music sheen, you soon realize that the song contains no more sound than a 5 piece band can make. The sound is clean, dry, and devoid of electronic filling that most bands, even the Johns themselves, have been pumping into the mix for at least 2 presidential administrations.

Yes, “minimalism” is the key to Join Us, a stripping of all extraneous musical ooze that would otherwise cloud the extraordinary ideas behind the songs.

Of course, musical ooze is something we have grown to accept and even love about modern music, and honestly there are some recordings where I would have it no other way, but when approached by the unhindered ideas behind a They Might Be Giants’ song, suddenly the world becomes this animated place where anything can happen and probably should, and I have to say that I’m hooked. The last album I can think of that has that effect, indeed, would be TMBG’s Flood, from 1990.

Now, this being a TMBG album, most of the songs that come the closest to sounding like radio hits (in an ideal world where music is played on the radio based on the quality of its melody, but we’ll end that parenthetical diatribe here) are right in front of the album, but the amazing wordplay surrounding those brilliant “Why didn’t *I* think of that” ideas come right on through the solid, elegant melodies.

The first song to really nail that point is the second song on the album, “You Probably Get That A Lot“, which, just reading that title, seems like it’s going to be a ho-hum pop song. However, just a cursory glance at the lyrics reveals that familiar yet always exciting John Linnell lyrical twist:

Do you mind, excuse me?
I saw you over there, can I just tell you,

Although there are millions of cephalophores
That wander through this world
You’ve got something extra going on
I think you probably know

That is correct, ol’ J.L. built an entire catchy pop song around the idea that a cephalophore (go ahead and pretend you didn’t have to look that up) would be such a common thing that a special one would have to deal with constant praise from skeezy strangers. I could have turned the CD off there and declared this my favorite album ever, but there are 16 more songs where that came from. If there’s one thing the Johns have kept since day one, it’s the almost overwhelming amount of songs on their albums, which is one of the bigger reasons why I keep buying them.

John Flansburgh, not to be outdone, has some amazing contributions to the album, and even (I think) matches the otherwise unmatchable John Linnell in cleverness, especially in a song called “Protagonist” which goes something like this:

She stole my day dreams
She stole my air guitar

(Exterior, man on lawn, alone at dawn)

Packed the typewriter
And drove off in her car

(A battered automobile drives past state line sign)

And now I know that I’ll rue the day
I let her get away
I need a haircut, I’ve got myself to blame

(A gloved hand spins a combination dial, quickly opening a large wall safe)

The first part of the verse is Flans singing in a kind of weak, poetic falsetto (with this one melodic move in the line “I let her get away” that just kills me), and the parenthetical lines are kind of barked out by what sounds like a chorus of stage hands, and indeed the whole song is constructed to look like a “spec script”, which you’ll need to look up and then hear the song to fully appreciate what’s going on with the song. It also helps that the tune is reminiscent of the kind of acoustic-y sentimental jazz that forms the core of “Reprehensible”, one of my old favorites of theirs. The fact that the “real” story is told in the narration lines rather than by the protagonist is such an awesome idea, I really can’t describe how golden this song is.

Still, as with any TMBG song, the strongest and best stuff features both Johns carrying out these amazing ideas; my two favorites being right next to each other toward the end of the album.

The first is “The Lady And The Tiger“, a song that immediately sailed right to the top of my “Favorite TMBG songs EVER” list. Starting with a very bored-sounding tuneless rap (man do I love when the guys incorporate ennui into their humor), it becomes this funky minor-chord arrangement of horns, guitars, and beats that sounds so very synthesized, yet a closer listen reveals that they are simply that good at arranging real instruments. The lyrics are a bizarre retelling of an old short story that incorporates some really tight rhyming schemes, but like all my absolute favorite TMBG songs, what pushes this one to the top is just the overall *sound* of it. This song hits every musical pleasure center in my brain, and yeah it might not be YOUR favorite, but I’ll be damned if I don’t dedicate the entire paragraph to how much I love it.

The other song is based on an idea that is so insanely clever that I had to stop everything to give it a second, third, and however many more listens before being able to move on. The song is called “Spoiler Alert“, and it’s basically 2 songs in one. Each John is in a different side of the mix (take out one ear of the headphone or turn your speaker mix entirely to the left or right to hear what I’m talking about), and they are both telling stories about driving and being distracted that are independently different and alarming, all leading up to a climax that reveals that… well… I’ll let you figure it out for yourself, but I urge that you do so while enjoying the smooth, smooth sounds of the backing band.

Honestly, I can’t dedicate an entire paragraph to each of the 18 songs on the album, so instead I will tell you that the Johns came out of a period of making somewhat awkward recordings (though still amazing) and have really come home to a sound that, while rather familiar to old fans, is also a unique entity unto itself. On top of all that, Join Us shines with a philosophy that music doesn’t have to be tethered to a style or central idea, and that a great album doesn’t even have to be cohesive, but rather music has to be free to roam and say whatever it has to say, and if it’s done honestly, people will connect to it with their hearts. Bravo, Johns, this album is a modern masterpiece.

Go buy it, you fools!

Hey folks, Chris here, thanks so much for coming back to Album Du Jour or discovering it for the first time. If you didn’t know, you can now like the blog on Facebook and be kept up-to-date with all the happenings on this blog, plus it’s a great place to interact. Come be the first on board this exciting internet experience!