Following the release in 2007 of their studio album The Else, the Brooklyn-based group They Might Be Giants – headed by duo John Linnell and John Flansburgh – got underway on producing the third and fourth in their series of educational musical works for children: Here Come The 123s (2008) and Here Comes Science (2009).
Working together since 1982 and gaining somewhat of a cult following with their songs like ‘Birdhouse In Your Soul’, and 1990’s breakout album Flood, the Johns made a smart move by catering towards a newer, far younger and – therefore – a potential longterm audience, by producing stuff for kids. For grown-ups who already knew and loved the group, it was an easy sell to get their children to listen; for everyone else, the educational albums delivered a level of respectability, cachet and mainstream attention to this niche band.
Having not only had the Here Come… album series released, but also been performing live shows aimed chiefly at kids, in addition to still serving their ardent core following too, They Might Be Giants had the best of both worlds here, as well as a tremendous amount of fun in the process. When it was time for their next project, John and John decided not only to go back to their adult audience, but also to try and recapture the more stripped-down, rawer sound of their early ‘80s period, when they ran a Dial-A-Song service, using a regular phone answering machine.
Having thrown everything at the production of the last three albums, the Johns felt they needed to return to a simpler way of working, partly as a way of getting over all the strains and stresses associated with putting out a trio of new releases at a rate of one per year, in addition to continuing to tour at the same time – one eye may have been on the fact that in doing far less fancy production on their tracks, it would be easier to translate these over to their live performances, and not have to compromise on their sound, meaning greater faithfulness to what was on the record.
The outcome of it – Join Us – is a more pared-down sound overall than on their preceding albums, but the end product is in no way either less engaging or creative than their other endeavours; in fact, Join Us is as fun and vibrant as virtually anything else in their back catalogue, and as well as having at least a couple of instant TMBG classics in there, the whole project neatly encapsulates the group’s trademark brand of nerd rock, which includes the sort of vocabulary-stretching lyrical antics which make their songs so rewarding, and sets them apart from many other musical acts.
One thing you can say for the Johns is that their work always has such a wonderful sense of economy and efficiency, with the longest track on here only lasting 3:48, the shortest just a tiny 1:26, and all the others erring on the side of brevity, in most cases falling shy of three minutes. It means that Join Us packs in a mighty 18 tracks across its running time, with the album coming in at a shade over 47 minutes, so it really feels like even greater value for money, with TMBG giving us so much material. None of the tracks outstay their welcome, and if one should not be to the listener’s taste, it does mean there will always be another along momentarily.
Join Us certainly gets off to a strong start, with ‘Can’t Keep Johnny Down’, destined to be a guaranteed crowd pleaser at their live shows. The Johnny of the title is neither Linnell nor Flansburgh, so there is no semi-autobiographical element; instead, it revolves around a confrontational character who has a grudge against the world, and an overinflated sense of his own self. In fact, his entire worldview is encapsulated by his reductive take on Apollo astronaut Alan Shepard’s Moon landing in 1971 being seen as just playing golf and urinating inside his spacesuit.
From the bright, shining chimes at the start of this song, we shift to a relentless beat during the chorus of ‘You Probably Get That A Lot’, reminiscent of The Clash’s ‘London Calling’. The track tells the story of a potential suitor who approaches a woman, but instead of trying to woo her, he simply cannot stop his stream of incessant flattery; however, the big twist here is that the object of this ardent affection happens to be a cephalophore, which – after reaching for your dictionary – you realise is someone who walks around carrying their own severed head.
One of the regular, recurrent themes in TMBG’s work tends to be death and mortality, but rarely in a morbid or morose sense; this crops up in the title of ‘Old Pine Box’, which does bring to mind the image of a coffin, yet the song – despite some disturbing imagery – is light and frothy throughout. ‘Canajoharie’ – named after a town located in upstate New York where both of the Johns have summer homes – gives us a glimpse of a lost world, with traces of it to be found within the overgrown underbrush, including fossils and some very unusual evolutionary turns.
‘Cloisonné’ – named after a traditional technique of creating decoration on metal objects with enamelling – opens with the four-count into rather a discordant sound, before then settling into a minimally-arranged tale which is narrated by someone who is rather full of their own self-importance, but seems to be slowly realising they are behind the times, and not as ‘with it’ as they believed; this is reflected by their not knowing what a Sleestak is – these are reptilian creatures in the 1970s US TV series Land Of The Lost, and this reference was inspired by Flansburgh not having a clue what they were when his wife brought them up.
In ‘Let Your Hair Hang Down’ – which rather curiously has a chord progression spelling out D-E-A-D, going back to that death motif – it has the singer imploring someone to let go of their worries, and try just living in the moment, literally letting their hair down. Some eclectic cultural references in ‘Celebration’ – Banksy, protest movement Anonymous, and Heironymous Bosch – show how TMBG’s subject matter just sets them far apart from most mainstream acts; the Giants’ drummer Marty Beller pays tribute to Phil Collins – who had announced his retirement during the recording of Join Us – by using Collins’ drum fill from ‘In The Air Tonight’.
‘In Fact’ features a subject who freely describes themselves repeatedly as being a mess, and yet all of the inner turmoil contrasts against the tune, which has a country feel, whilst also incorporating some Tijuana Brass-type stylings; again putting clear air between them and other groups, the video is clips of the 1926 Dadaist short Anémic Cinéma by Marcel Duchamp. Following this, ‘When Will You Die?’ is maybe the most poppy, uplifting and catchy piece of hateful invective you are ever likely to hear; the upbeat tune is a counterpoint to the lyrics, in which the singer expresses just how much the focus of their ire is hated, and wants them to expire.
Curiously, the Johns namecheck themselves in the song, as well as the rest of the band, while wishing ill on the subject. Musically, this sounds like archetypal TMBG, and they even play with the listener, by having pre-recorded the backing track and then speeding it up for playback, making it sound rather frenetic. ‘Protagonist’ experiments with lyrical form, by writing it from the perspective of an aspiring Hollywood scribe penning a spec script, incorporating stage directions for which Flansburgh adopts a markedly different vocal style compared to the main lyrics.
The shortest track, ‘Judy Is Your Viet Nam’, sees the group in full-on rock mode, a song which was originally intended as a Christmas tune (some elements of which can still be picked up on in the backing vocals), and acts as a warning about the destructive influence of the titular Judy. ‘Never Knew Love’ is so wonderfully hopeful, full of optimism about a blossoming relationship; Linnell originally wrote the whole song himself, but being unhappy with the verses, he asked Flansburgh to write those parts, giving the track a duality which very much brings to mind the split writing responsibilities and stylistic shift of Lennon and McCartney on ‘We Can Work It Out’.
Another odd choice of subject matter comes with ‘The Lady And the Tiger’, which is based on Frank R. Stockton’s 1882 short story, ‘The Lady, Or The Tiger?’, in which a protagonist has the unenviable position of choosing between two closed doors – behind one is a beautiful woman, the other a deadly tiger; as with the short story, the fate of the character is left unresolved (although a big difference is that the lady of the title lacked the laser beam eyes she has here). ‘Spoiler Alert’ has two overlapping sets of lyrics, split across left and right audio channels, with each telling the story of two characters whose fates end up intersecting in a potentially lethal way; this is most probably the jauntiest song about a road traffic accident ever written.
‘Dog Walker’ – in which someone walking a dog in New York City’s Battery Park gets caught in a children’s snowball fight showdown – has Flansburgh’s vocal pitch shifted, giving it a disconcerting effect. Both Zager and Evans’ tune ‘In The Year 2525’ and Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey are brought to mind by ‘2082’, a somewhat dark tale delivered in a rather whimsical way, where a person travels through time into the far future, and finds them confronted with an older version, before smothering that aged self with a pillow, only to realise that they will have to go through this all over again, only as the victim.
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The group’s playfulness is clearly in evidence on penultimate track ‘Three Might Be Duende’, riffing on their name, as well as the use of numbers in songs as being something powerful or significant; in addition to using lots of nonsense character names, the ‘duende’ mentioned in the title is a mythological creature which lends its name to a Spanish notion of having a heightened state of emotion in artistic expression. Finally, in ‘You Don’t Like Me’, it gives us a partner to ‘You Probably Get That A Lot’, where the singer sees someone across a crowded room, but does not approach them as – being psychic – they already know the other person does not share their romantic feelings.
In Join Us – the working title of which was ‘Necropolis’ – we get a sort of repositioning of They Might Be Giants for a new decade, stepping back from the recent kid-centric work they had been very much focused on, and finding a new technical simplicity in their recordings, while still maintaining just the same pioneering, experimental spirit. Its title acts almost as an invitation, not just to all of their faithful stalwarts, but to a whole new adult audience as well, so in that spirit, Join Us rolled out that welcome mat with great style.
Join Us was released on 19th July 2011.