Puttin’ the Backbone Back
They Might Be Giants Rock Out on The Spine

Sweet, sweet internet!

It’s amazing to me that eight or nine years ago, I only had the most basic understanding of just what the hell this thing called “internet” was. I would have laughed at my future self for the shaky withdrawal symptoms I’ve undergone in the past two weeks. Ten days without the internet and I feel like I’ve lost a limb. It’s unreal.

For those of you interested in the minutia of my life, I have moved again, this time across town to a cozy little third-floor apartment. As moves go, this one was pretty painless, except for one significant snag – getting my slam-bang high speed internet hooked up. The first guy Comcast sent over told me my brand new computer’s brand new access card was broken. The fine folks at Dell assured me that it was not, so Comcast sent another chap over, and this one laughed at the stupidity of the first guy and had me rolling inside of an hour.

It could have been much worse, but I swear, those ten days were oddly awful. Confined to the account I have at work, I could receive emails, but could only reply to them in terse sentences, lest the watchdogs sniff out my “personal use of the company resources.” I missed more than a week of Sluggy Freelance, Newsarama, Pitchfork and all the other sites that have become like daily friends. I almost felt like, given a few more days of disconnection, I could join healthy society, maybe go for a walk or have a picnic or something.

Thank God Comcast came through in time.

On the archive page, you will find the column that was ready to go last week, before the Great Disconnect. It discusses my thoughts on new albums by the Cure and Phish, and also the bizarre reign of Ken Jennings, Jeopardy champ. Since I wrote that one, Jennings has broken every record the game show has ever recorded, and he massacred his opponents in the season finale, ensuring his return in the fall. And he’s become just a little bit smug and annoying, too, but he’s still fun to watch.

So it’s a short one this week, which is fitting, since it’s a short record I have to review. We’ll be back on track with longer columns and more in-depth analysis next time. Thanks for your patience, and for worrying about me, if you did. This is my first column from the new place, and my new office has a bright window and a pretty nice view, and I think it will be a creative space for me. Let’s see if I’m right.

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I’m not going to make the same argument I always make in regards to They Might Be Giants.

I know, I know, every time I mention John and John and the Band of Dans, I find myself defending them against charges of nonsensical novelty. And really, we should be past that by now. They Might Be Giants have been making witty, clever, melodically satisfying pop music for nearly 20 years now, and if people still think of them as a Bob Rivers or Weird Al style comedy act, well, tough. They’re missing out.

But we know, don’t we, that TMBG is one of the most inventive pop bands on the market, and that time after time, album after album, they deliver the goods. Case in point – The Spine, the just-released tenth album from Johns Linnell and Flansburgh, a brief yet sublime platter that is perhaps the group’s best album since John Henry. It’s weird, it’s wonderful, and yes, it’s wacky, but it’s also superbly written and surprisingly rockin’.

This record had a couple of strikes against it from the outset for me. First, it’s short – only 36 minutes, the latest in a string of tiny releases from TMBG. Second, two of its 16 songs were released earlier this year, on the EP Indestructible Object, a decision that is even stranger when you consider that seven unreleased songs from the same sessions have been shuffled onto another EP, The Spine Surfs Alone. It seems as though the whole lot would have made one swell 26-song record, instead of spreading the songs out and bilking us for extra cash.

But then we might have ended up with another Mink Car, and although I love that album, it does suffer from a slapdash, mix CD quality that prevents it from gelling. The Spine is its polar opposite, a record that glides from one end to the other, gently pulling you along and never stopping short. You can zip through The Spine twice before you even notice, so well-sequenced is it, and there isn’t a song here you’ll want to skip. It’s exactly long enough, with exactly the right songs in all the right places.

And really, that’s all that’s been missing from TMBG records since the aforementioned John Henry. The songs have maintained their high standard, but they’ve been all over the map. On The Spine, they all seem to come from the same place, and it sounds like a fun place to be from. The Band of Dans (who have sullied their name by replacing Drummer Dan with some guy named Marty) is in full effect, Flansburgh rips it up on guitar like he hasn’t done in years, and Linnell’s melodies shift and spin in perfectly off directions. This record is an intelligent, nerdy, rip-snorting hoot.

Highlights are beside the point, but some standouts include the Vocoder-fueled “Bastard Wants to Hit Me,” the loopy “Thunderbird” (which includes a classic inversion of a famous lyric, “We’ll have fun fun fun until T-Bird takes her daddy away”), and the brassy jaunt “Museum of Idiots.” Both the moody “Memo to Human Resources” and the delightful “Au Contraire” (the EP tracks) fit in here like they belong. The guitar lick on “Broke in Two” is a winner, and the early Elvis Costello vibe of “It’s Kickin’ In” is perfect. The album begins with a funny riddle (“Experimental Film,” about spinning art out of ambition and little else) and ends with a sad one (“I Can’t Hide From My Mind,” in which Linnell threatens himself – “I have my house surrounded, I know I’m in there, and don’t make me come in and get me…”).

There’s just too much goodness here to expound upon succinctly, and I know how you all hate it when I gush. The Spine is TMBG’s first serious contender for the Year-End Top 10 List in nearly a decade, because it synthesizes everything great about them into one quick and dirty package. The quirk remains, the sweet songcraft still shines, but the focus is back, and that makes all the difference. Buy this album, see Gigantic (the documentary on John and John) and you’ll know why this band has been around since 1986 and is still going strong.

And for the record, they are so not a novelty band.

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Next week, a few surprises that have ranked among the best records of the year. Coming soon, new ones from the Finn Brothers, the Robinson brothers (Chris and Rich of the Black Crowes), Bjork, Matthew Sweet and Tears for Fears.

See you in line Tuesday morning.