They Might Be Giants

The Spine

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Arriving just a few months after their very enjoyable Indestructible Object EP, They Might Be Giants' The Spine is relatively disappointing, with fewer memorable moments spread out over its 16 songs. Perhaps tellingly, two of the album's best moments already appeared on Indestructible Object: "Memo to Human Resources" is a brief, bittersweet tune from John Flansburgh that, with witty lyrics like "then the people came to talk me down/but I don't need advice/I'm down" and gently weary harmonies, really captures the feeling of being a perpetual underdog. "Au Contraire," by contrast, finds a who's who of history and pop culture ranging from FDR to David Bowie getting a comeuppance. Unfortunately, most of The Spine's other songs just aren't as memorable or fully developed as these tracks; while "Prevenge" has a clever name and "Damn Good Times" is a fun, bouncy throwaway, they sound more like B-sides or more fully developed Dial-A-Songs than album tracks. Though the album has been touted as one of They Might Be Giants more rock-oriented albums, The Spine doesn't really rock out any more than previous releases such as Apollo 18. Indeed, the album has a few other similarities to Apollo 18: the short, snippet-like songs "Spine" and "Spines" (which finds the band subverting the tight, dry production style of contemporary R&B for their own warped purposes) feel a little bit like an update of Apollo 18's "Fingerprints" tracks. "Experimental Film," meanwhile, is one of John Linnell's typically circular riddle songs à la "I Palindrome I." The vaguely psychedelic "Wearing a Raincoat" is similarly loopy, both in its backwards guitars and brain-twisting turns of phrase like "Sleeping is a gateway drug to being awake again." But references to drugs and "Thunderbird"'s homage to dirt-cheap wine aside, a good portion of The Spine sounds like it was fueled by pop rocks and Kool-Aid, particularly the merry, brassy waltz of "Museum of Idiots" and "It's Kickin' In," one of the band's best rock songs in quite a while. Still, many of the album's high points are on the mellow side, such as Flansburgh's oddly poignant "The World Before Later On," a lament for the flying-car, food-pill future that we've been promised since the Jetsons and still hasn't arrived yet. Because many of The Spine's most interesting moments are also its quietest, the album has an off-kilter feel that goes beyond They Might Be Giants' usual quirkiness. The album's penultimate track, "Stalk of Wheat," is a song about being out of ideas, an idea they already covered on They Might Be Giants' "Number Three"; however, they've never written a song about a creative drought that's sounded so much like a creative drought before. Nevertheless,They Might Be Giants have bounced back from worse dry spells, and even if The Spine is decidedly uneven, it still has enough good songs to please diehard fans and keep them around for the next album.

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