When we were kids, we always heard or spoke of the mysterious `else.’ Whether it was aimed toward or taken from a bully who had done us wrong or we happened to face the term squarely from a parent, `the else’ was always what was waiting at the end of a threat, as in, `you’d better…or else!’ But what did `the else’ mean? Was it punishment, some sort of thrashing beyond our descriptive comprehension? Was it a new afterlife program between purgatory and hell? Was it some kind of unspoken demerit system from which we are still trying to recover and erase a former debt of sins? No, we actually all know what `the else’ was. It was a hollow threat, a boogeyman that never came to fruition. It was only said because the speaker never had a real threat to bargain with, and in the absence of real danger, we get `the else.’ It’s fitting that the New York duo of They Might Be Giants chose The Else as the title of their twelfth proper full-length album. For one, TMBG has always brought its listeners back to a more innocent time, a time of playground taunts and vast realms of imagination. They provide the twisted nursery rhymes we wish we had when we were younger. But also, more disappointingly, their latest album, an attempt to get back their core audience, falls somewhat short, making their album’s title a self-fulfilling prophecy of an empty threat.
The Else, a collaboration between the two Johns and the Dust Brothers, is a decent comeback of sorts for Giants fans. Let’s face it, we’ve been waiting for something stronger than Apollo 18 for over 15 years. Kids albums and efforts with only a few memorable tracks haven’t been cutting it for the hardcore fans. Twenty-five years is a long time for any band to be together and only a select few have gotten it done. This feat is impressive, that is until you realize that REO Speedwagon and Styx are still together and playing casinos. In other words, perish the thought that quality is the only ingredient to longevity. They Might Be Giants aren’t in danger of going the casino route quite yet, but several low attendance crowds, when once they could pack mid-level city venues, could be portentous. They do, thankfully, have one thing they can rely on: the fact that nerd culture is stronger than ever and there will never be a shortage of awkward teenagers desperate for silly and literate music that speaks to them. But, realistically, haven’t you been expecting something drastically different from a TMBG album produced by the Dust Brothers? I mean, we could have had Johns’ Boutique!
First of all, maybe the voices of Linnell and Flansburgh are just too precious to be backed by processed beats that seem to add a false sense of breakneck speed. The first few songs on the album, one about the power of those in charge to compel, one an urge to a girl to get rid of her current beau, and one about the curse of happiness, traipse along in exactly this manner, shuffling along to what seems like a Casio keyboard primer to geek rock. And then, four songs in, we’re treated to a near likeness to Nirvana’s “On a Plain!” Luckily, things then start to get better. “Careful What You Pack” is one of the richer sounding tracks on the album, showcasing Flansburgh’s froggy falsetto over thick rhythms. “The Cap’m,” a Linnell tune, is probably the closest thing, lyrically, to songs circa Flood. Lines such as “I’m the cap’m. Go ahead and mess with me – you’ll find out what will hap’m” will put a smile on your face just as it did for the `blue canary in the outlet by the light switch.’ Flansburgh provides another highlight in “With the Dark,” a schizophrenic song with the memorable line, “Bustin’ my pirate hump / Rockin’ my peg-leg stump.” It stands as one of the better-orchestrated songs on the album with blazing horns.
“Withered Hope” owns the distinction of being the only co-written song on the album. Sure, TMBG has performed covers in the past, even making popular a `Stump the Band’ portion of their live show. But the two Johns don’t often share writing credit. The Dust Brothers, their writing partners on this track, actually do transform this song into something beyond TMBG, which is, I suppose, the point. Linnell sends the younger geek patrol headed straight for their OED’s in the song “Contrecoup,” not only to find out what the title means, but also the definition of the word `limerent.’ As of right now, my computer’s dictionary can’t recognize these words, so maybe they’re like ` embiggen’ and `cromulent.’ And yet again on another track, the bassline resembles a well-known Nirvana track. “The Mesopotamians” rounds out the album, about a band consisting of Sargon, Hammurabi, Ashurbanipal and Gilgamesh. The best part? Where Linnell sings about the Mesopotamish sun. Basically, TMBG saved the best song until last, sounding like a Fountains of Wayne / Beatlesque version of “Istanbul.” Fantastic.
So, yes, The Else gets better as it goes along, ending far stronger than it begins. And isn’t that just how threats are? They really aren’t made good on until you’re driven to the nth degree. Still, all in all, the latest album from They Might Be Giants is somewhat a disappointment. When I think back on my favorite tracks from the duo, there seems to be an underlying theme of literary wit and quirky instrumentation. “Don’t Lets Start,” “Ana Ng,” “The World’s Address,” “Kiss Me Son of God,” “Dinner Bell,” “Particle Man” and “Birdhouse in Your Soul” are all perfect examples. With the processed production of the Dust Brothers, which on paper seemed a perfect and interesting match, the songs lose a little bit of organic charm that comes from an electric guitar and an accordion…and maybe even a triangle. (Thank you, “Shoehorn with Teeth!”) It’s not horrible, just not what hardcore TMBG fans like myself have been waiting a long time for. So, the next time someone threatens you with The Else, just say, “No thanks, I’ll just wait for the next Flood.”