They Might Be Giants have always been great.
The longer they’re around, the more a statement like that means. I was eight years old when Johns Linnell and Flansburgh formed the band, and a wee lad of 12 when the video for “Don’t Let’s Start” captured my adolescent fancy. These guys were weird, no doubt, but even then, I knew a good melody when I heard one. I was 16 when “Birdhouse In Your Soul” and “Istanbul Not Constantinople” briefly made TMBG household names. I remember several sing-alongs to “Why Does the Sun Shine” my sophomore year of college. I was 30 when I named The Spine one of the ten best albums of 2004. I was 38 when I finally saw the band live for the first time.
I’m 40 now, and the band is 32. They Might Be Giants have been with me for almost all of my life, and I can count on one hand the times they’ve disappointed me. They have always been great. Even so, once in a while, they create something that I love even more than usual. Last time that happened, as I mentioned above, was with The Spine in 2004. And now they appear to have done it again with their 17th (!) album, Glean.
What makes me love a TMBG album more than other TMBG albums? For me, it’s when the Johns are able to harness their natural quirkiness into solid, catchy, grown-up pop music. There’s a tendency to write off TMBG as a novelty band, and while I would never want them to curb the inspirations that lead to things like “Fingertips” or “Insect Hospital” or “Wicked Little Critta,” I’m overjoyed when they put together a collection that shows unequivocally what great pop songwriters they are. One listen to the tight and consistent Glean and that fact is undeniable.
I was honestly expecting something a lot more haphazard. Glean is a collection of songs written for and debuted on TMBG’s resurrected Dial-a-Song service – a new song each week that you can hear by calling a phone number. (The modern innovation is a Dial-A-Song website that lets you scroll through previous tunes.) It’s surprising, then, how much Glean sounds like a focused full-band effort. Longtime cohorts Marty Beller (on drums), Danny Weinkauf (on bass) and Dan Miller (on guitars) are here, lighting fires under Linnell’s wonderfully distinctive voice, and there are horns and strings and clarinets aplenty.
But it’s the songs that count, and these 15 quick little numbers whoosh by in a flood (ha!) of hummable ideas. Nothing overstays its welcome – this is an album on which the epic “Music Jail Parts 1 and 2” finishes up in 3:10 – and everything works. Some of these songs are silly, like “I Can Help the Next in Line,” which is literally about assisting customers. But some of them, like the tough “End of the Rope” and the clever-sad “Answer,” are unique looks at adult relationships, and as serious as this band gets. “Answer” is fairly dark – “It may take an ocean of whiskey and time to wash all the letdown out of your mind, and this may not be the thing you requested but I am the answer to all your prayers…”
Nestled among these tracks are some of the catchiest pop songs you’ll hear all year. The crunchy opener “Erase” is one, exploring the benefits of wiping one’s mind of bad memories. “Button marked erase, when darlings must be murdered, when your heartbreak overrides the very thing you cannot face…” The hero of “Unpronounceable” cannot connect with the elusive object of his affection, her name “distorted and illegible.” I love the bridge that sounds like the CD is skipping, and I love this lyric: “Now I spend my days and nights looking at a depression on the sofa, and over time it flattens out, but I am still depressed…”
The lyrics to “Hate the Villanelle” are, of course, in that form: “Don’t hate the villain, hate the villanelle, with these picky rules and odd jigsaw rhymes, curses, these verses are my prison cell…” “Aaa” is simply yet aptly titled, its horror-movie hook a wordless cry of alarm. And “Let Me Tell You About My Operation” returns to the theme of removed memories over a Dixieland beat. Right up to the brief closing instrumental title track, They Might Be Giants never put a foot wrong here.
I want to be sure I’m clear. When I say that Glean is the best TMBG album in a decade, I don’t mean to imply that the others produced since 2004 aren’t worth your time. They absolutely are. (Nanobots in particular was excellent.) But this one rises above even their usual high standard. It wraps everything quirky and unique about They Might Be Giants into 39 minutes of sterling pop music, proving once again that they’re more than people think they are. This album is dynamite.
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Shall I admit that I was initially underwhelmed with the new Josh Garrels album?
Garrels is an Indiana songwriter with a powerful voice and an even more powerful talent. His new one, Home, is the follow-up to 2011’s Love and War and the Sea In Between, and to be fair, pretty much anything Garrels did after that would be underwhelming in comparison. Love and War was easily one of the best albums in a very good year, a tour de force that nimbly skipped between folk, rock, rap and orchestral grandeur. It even culminated in a six-song conceptual suite. It’s a remarkable, ambitious album, and I guess I was looking for something similar from this new one.
Instead, Garrels has stripped back and made a slighter, prettier collection, one that stays moored to a few touchstones. It took a few listens to figure out that I do indeed like it, and to understand why. Where Love and War is a battle cry, the work of a man in turmoil, Home is an often deliriously contented record – there are songs of confusion bordering on despair, but they’re early on, and they’re surrounded by so much love and peace and joy that they feel like temporary backslides, quick stumbles. Home shines its light brightly, and it chases out what darkness is there.
I don’t want to discount that darkness, because it fuels some of this record’s best tunes. “A Long Way” is a song of farewell – it’s almost certainly about death – and “Leviathan” is a Jewish hymn of pride falling before the might of God. Best is “The Arrow,” with its acrobatic falsetto and splendid dirty groove. “How on Earth did it all go down like this, I’ve got no words to make sense of it, my shield, my fight for righteousness could not protect me from myself…”
But that’s it. For the rest of its running time, Home – a deeply religious record – is about love, both heavenly and earthly. Most of it sounds like a Ray Lamontagne album to me, with its soulful grooves and horns buoying Garrels’ arresting voice. “Colors” even dips into that Motown sound. And once you’re past “The Arrow,” the album turns fragile, acoustic and pretty until the end. “Morning Light” is about opening the windows and letting the joy in, “Always Be” drops the record’s one electronic beat over a gorgeous harmonized mantra about “singing for thee,” “Home at Last” is a jazz-inflected lullaby about coming back to the Lord’s house, and “At the Table” continues the theme of children returning home to their father.
The album ends with “Benediction,” a quiet and contented blessing. “When the way is rough and steep, love will make your days complete,” Garrels sings, completing a cycle of his most peaceful compositions – this is music for lying out in the sun, for drinking in life, for being thankful. Garrels has traded in the ambitions of his last record for a stillness that sounds well and truly earned. I can’t fault him for that, even if the resulting record is not quite as striking. Home is pretty and bright and joyful, though, and while it’s playing, that’s enough.
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Seeing the Eels live has become something of a tradition.
My good friend Jeff Elbel is an Eels superfan, and whenever the band plays Chicago, we make the trek to see them. We’ve done it three times now, most recently last year on the Cautionary Tales of Mark Oliver Everett tour. That show was a delight – a low-key chamber-pop stroll through some of Everett’s slowest and loneliest songs, the band buttoned up in suits and ties. I love Everett in disheveled rocker mode, but I also love him in lonesome troubadour mode, and this show was an extended visit with that guy.
What a treat, then, to pick up the new Eels live album and DVD, Royal Albert Hall, and find very nearly the exact same show preserved for posterity. Eels songs are generally simple things, and usually either about Everett watching his life fall apart or starting to put it back together. The songs he strings together for Royal Albert Hall are an even mix of both, performed on piano or nimble acoustic guitar with strings, horns and pedal steel. Everett jokes throughout about the downbeat set – “This one’s another bummer” – but no one seems to mind.
I certainly don’t. Taken as a whole, this live record is Eels at their most transcendent. The new songs (“Parallels,” “Lockdown Hurricane”) sit nicely next to songs I am coming to think of as classics, like “Fresh Feeling” and “It’s a Motherfucker.” Things do pick up by the end, with the sprightly “I Like Birds” and “My Beloved Monster” livening up the proceedings, but the encores return to the spare and the quiet. The second encore is a particular treasure, Everett turning in swell versions of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and Nilsson’s immortal “Turn On Your Radio.”
My favorite moment might be right at the end, though, when Everett finally gets to play that massive Royal Albert Hall pipe organ. He jams out the riffs to “Flyswatter” and “The Sound of Fear,” and even on the CD, you can hear him grinning like a little kid. If Eels albums and tours are essentially cycles, taking Everett through his mania and his depression, then he’s on his way back up. I’m looking forward to a louder album, a louder tour, and another great night with Jeff and the Eels.
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Next week, probably Built to Spill and Passion Pit. I’ll be posting that one from Montreal, where I will be for my first Marillion Weekend. Three nights, three shows, thousands of fellow fans. I’m rather looking forward to it, and I’ll be sure to report back here. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.
See you in line Tuesday morning.